Whether in comics or films, on television or in video games, most contemporary superheroes maintain a uniform moral code: freedom within clearly defined limits, outside of which punishment is necessary and justified. In 2020, superheroes are less interested in making the world a better place than they are in defending the status quo by tailoring them closely to the right-wing politicians that executives and board members donate to and the toothless corporate liberalism that their companies advocate.
Judging by the current landscape, it is easy to assume that superheroes have never been more than supercops owned by corporations, reactionary power fantasies wrapped in liberal signifiers. But this generalization obscures the truth: superheroes used to be about helping and protecting people, not the systems and hierarchies that hold them down.
Although this radical, anarchic burden has been heavily hidden through the generations, it has been part of the superhero genre from its inception when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938. As originally thought, the character was a far cry from the shiny piece of intellectual property we know today. Superman was a populist champion who fought against predatory criminals, corrupt politicians, and greedy landowners.
Like all superheroes, Superman was from and for his time. The character’s creators had lived through the Great Depression and witnessed firsthand the catastrophic failure of America’s economic and political systems. Siegel and Shuster had watched workers – like their Jewish immigrant parents – bear the brunt of these failures while the country’s robber barons remained as rich and powerful as ever. As significant as children, they had seen a possible alternative to a nation ruled by the rich: the successful revolution of the socialist workers that led to the founding of the Soviet Union in 1923.
This was the cultural milieu from which not only Superman but also the rest of the first wave of superheroes emerged. Competing with Superman in popularity was CC Beck and Bill Parker’s Captain Marvel (now Shazam), who combined the populist appeal of the original superhero with a fantastic childish whim. Meanwhile, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peters Wonder Woman were a deeply radical figure, a Marston – a polyamorous psychologist and self-help writer – who explored feminist ideas that did not become mainstream until decades later.
For all the egalitarian populism of the working class, the early superheroes also displayed a reactionary impulse that was most clearly expressed in Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman. The powerful benefactor, who uses his wealth to save the poor from himself, became one of the most enduring archetypes of the genre, such as the weapon maker Iron Man and the monarch Black Panther.
This conflict between populism and authoritarianism runs through the entire superhero canon. Most of the time when superheroes fight each other, the fight is about that. But as contradicting as these impulses may seem, they share something crucial: Superman and Batman both acted outside of established hierarchies to bring about the change they wanted to see. Whether populist or authoritarian, superheroes were still largely anti-hierarchical. That changed, however, in the 1960s with the significant collaboration between Marvel Comics editor and figurehead Stan Lee and one of the medium’s main creators, cartoonist Jack Kirby.
The difference between Kirby and Lee was strong. Kirby grew up in the harsh apartment buildings on the Lower East Side of New York City, a neighborhood recently inhabited by Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked in factories owned by wealthier Jewish families on the Upper West Side, where Lee grew up. In comics, Kirby continued to experience the difficulties of the working class, grinding up myriad characters and stories that he had no possession of. Meanwhile, Lee was the management; At the tender age of 19, he became editor of Marvel’s forerunner Timely Comics, which owned Lee’s father-in-law, Martin Goodman.
For Kirby, life was a struggle to rise as he was plagued on all sides by oppressive and exploitative systems. In the 1970s, his populist, egalitarian leanings were freely expressed in his Magnum Opus, the interlocking DC series that includes his “Fourth World” story. But for Lee the system worked as intended, a meri tocracy that not only resulted in him editing a slew of comics, but wrote many of them and took out a ton of credit that is still hotly debated to this day.
The coexistence of Kirby and Lee resulted in a staggering number of superheroes: the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and many others. Marvel superheroes have been described as “feet made of clay” and should be more human and relatable than the god-like characters that populate other comics. In practice, this meant that instead of arguing against systems of oppression, Marvel superheroes began operating within them. Many were even created by business, government, academic, and academic hierarchies. With the triumph of post-war liberalism, Kirby’s position on the working class was subjugated to Lee’s sensitivity to the post-war middle class. There was no longer any room for radical, populist heroes.
The superheroes’ standard operating procedures were turned into liberal ideals by fascist means, enacted within and in defense of established structures. However, in the 1970s, superheroes became more skeptical of hierarchies, reflecting overall skepticism across the US as the country grappled with the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Then, in the 1980s, superheroes saw another massive change in the White House with President Ronald Reagan.
With their anarchic populist burden removed and their idealistic trust in hierarchies of business and government shattered, there was nothing left to animate superheroes but rules, rules and the violence required to enforce those rules. Nowhere is this more evident than in two groundbreaking works: Frank Miller’s The dark knight returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Guardian. The comics are shockingly different; While Miller indulged in the fascist elements of the superhero, Moore & Gibbons issued an anarchic broadside against the authoritarianism of the genre. Both works, however, reflect Reagan’s anti-labor, crime-fighting, austerity policies, and most importantly, the nihilism that comes with recognizing that the only truly inviolable law is power.
In the nineties, a happy fatalism was added to this nihilism. When Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party took over neoliberal politics from Reagan, superheroes like much of the country recognized that there was no option but the way things are. The sheer potential for transformative, revolutionary, populist politics has been pushed out of the genre as superheroes became meaner, more violent, and more authoritarian to defend the status quo.
This trend has continued to this day. While many Marvel and DC superheroes have ditched the outward signifiers of violent, fatalistic nihilism in favor of optimism and hope, it’s nothing more than a costume. Superheroes, their stories and the assumptions on which they are based are rooted in authoritarian impulses and almost fascist logic. Contemporary superheroes are dedicated to protecting oppressive hierarchies from people, not the other way around. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as Marvel and DC are owned by two of America’s largest media conglomerates, Disney and AT&T.
The political evolution of the superheroes formed the background of Tyrell Cannon and my first discussions about cooperation. When we talk about our complicated relationship with superheroes – who revere genre trappings and idioms but creep politics, love aesthetics but hate ethos – we wanted to take away everything we love about those genres and media and the ugly and remove the hateful. and bring the superhero comic back to its original intent and evoke the working class populism of Superman, the whim of Captain Marvel and the radicalism of Wonder Woman.
From this desire Tyrell and I came ambitious, left-wing superhero comic BEEF BROS. Our bodybuilding heroes, Huey and Ajax Beef, base their actions not on the mandates of oppressive government and business hierarchies, but on a simple, fundamental truth many of us learned as children: If you can help someone, do it. But as undisputed as this maxim appears, when taken to extremes – as Huey and Ajax take it all – it brings the Beef Bros into conflict with all of modern capitalist society, from cruel cops and greedy landlords to corrupt governments and almighty company.
The world is dark. We are in the middle of a global pandemic with a climate catastrophe that is taking our breath away. Income inequality is rife and a militarized police force is ready to defend the hierarchies that have failed us all. At this terrible moment we need something ambitious; We need superheroes who believe that a better world is possible, who recognize that the natural state of humanity is not competition but cooperation. We hope so BEEF BROS is a righteous comic book to read that announces in a loud and clear voice what we think is good and true. In addition, we hope that by drawing on and drawing inspiration from the origins of superheroes, we will find a new path forward.
The comics industry is a deeply exploitative place dominated by two of the largest media conglomerates in the world, exactly the kind of hierarchies of repression that the Beef Bros are proud of. Marvel and DC pay freelance workers a relative amount and then turn their creations into hugely successful movies, television shows, video games, and merchandise that, rather than being useful to the creators themselves, continue to fill the pockets of wealthy executives and shareholders.
In contrast, BEEF BROS is wholly owned by the creator, and any money raised beyond our funding goal will be fairly shared among the creative team and used to start the next issue. There are no corporate units or unscrupulous bosses to skim the top. We don’t have to be alone here: the hope is also to inspire other comic book creators and show that there is a way to ethically produce books without falling under the spell of glorified intellectual property farms. As always, any kind of meaningful, permanent change will come, not with permission from bosses and companies, but from the communities we ourselves are building. Comics can be about it.