Can’t Keep Politics Out Of Comics: Review of Politics In The Gutters by Christina M. Knopf
Politics in the Gutters. Christina M. Knopf. University Press of Mississippi, July 2021.
What do comics and American politicians have in common? Many would reply that both belong in the gutters, being either a trashy medium sold to kids or often considered corrupt and self-interested. However, between “the gutters”, i.e. the spaces dividing the panels of a comic book, we also find a rich history of spandex-clad American presidents saving the world or being revealed as supervillains. Despite recurring cries from segments of comics fan communities to “keep politics out of comics”, most of us are aware that comics – just like any piece of entertainment – are inherently political. Yet often when comics are described as “too political”, it merely means that such works feature diverse representations of marginalized social groups. At the same time, despite the ever-growing popularity of comics-based franchises such as the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, the mainstream assumption that comics are childish, mindless entertainment is still widespread.
Christina M. Knopf’s Politics In The Gutters offers an extensive and comprehensive overview of the role of American politicians and electoral politics in comic books that is both timely and needed. Knopf, an associate professor of communication and media studies, demonstrates her expertise in the field of comics studies by giving a very thorough account of political content in comics spanning several decades and genres, often drawing from her own previous scholarly work.
As Knopf argues, not only are “popular culture icons [used] as political and protest symbols”, but pop culture also shapes our “understandings of civic responsibility, leaderships, communal history, and present concerns”– hence, it is instructive to look at the way politicians, key political events, civic responsibilities, and electoral processes are represented in the popular medium of comic books. The book is comprised of eleven chapters, covering eleven different eras and moments in American politics, ranging from the Cold War and 9/11 to the recent presidency of Donald Trump. It covers a wide range of texts: not only traditional superhero comics but also campaign comics, graphic biographies, and comics journalism. Due to the dense nature of its chapters, readers should be prepared to take their time when reading and be ready to go back to information on a given comic book or political era from earlier parts of a chapter.
The book’s main aim is to convince us that comics are a political medium worth paying attention to. As the introduction reminds us, “US politics is not merely intertwined with popular culture; it is popular culture” and comics have a “significant capacity […] to present ideologies and […] garner mass media attention and a broad audience”. Knopf’s goal is to show “how comics reflect and shape our political knowledge and attitudes” while “including as many genres, characters, creators, politicians, and decades as possible”. She employs a multifaceted, qualitative approach, using critical discourse analysis, image function analysis, and more, and she draws from different disciplines including political science, media studies, history, and psychology. Each chapter presents not only a different dimension of politics in comics, but also a different approach to studying them.
The first three chapters introduce a wide variety of texts such as campaign comics, graphic biographies, and superhero comics, featuring political figures from Truman to Obama. They introduce us to the concept of presidents as archetypal and often hyper-masculine “model leaders”, embodying American values, as well as the idea of the “American monomyth” in which “an extraordinary individual . . . emerges to vanquish evil adversaries” , marrying the leader figure to the idea of the superhero. Knopf also considers the impact of communism and the moral panics of the Comics Code era on such narratives, and argues that while the voters may “want a superhero”, the vigilante fighters for justice portrayed as comic anti-heroes are not actually good presidential material. Voters holding out for a hero, Knopf suggests, may find similar aspects of the so-called “Dark Triad” personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) attractive in Green Arrow or Donald Trump.
The subsequent chapters cover important political events such as the Voting Rights Act, the Watergate scandal, and 9/11, and expand the discussion beyond traditional superhero comics to genres such as the political parody in which Ronald Reagan battles terrorist cyborgs, or the 9/11 graphic commission report which serves as an example of comics journalism. These chapters ask us to consider how such comics may mock political candidates or offer “multimodal, multivocal, multiplatform accessibility” to topics the public might otherwise find hard to engage with. A consistent theme in many of these examples is a certain disillusionment with political leaders: when comics feature trickster gods and demons running for presidency, Knopf argues that they illustrate an underlying cynical belief that political processes might be “beyond the control of average citizens”, which makes for a comfortable read as it “[relieves] audiences of responsibility rather than motivating them to take action against such corruption”.
Further chapters cover representations of political leaders diverging from the norm of the heroic white man, either because they are female and fall into different tropes than men which “belittle women’s political contributions”, because their race leads them to be represented as the “savage Other”, or because they share similarities with villains—Donald Trump, for instance, who like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom embodies “the very real dynamics in toxic leadership”. At the same time, many works envision a different past featuring American presidents. Such alternate histories suggest that we need certain “key players to shape history”, such as iconic presidents. Even more so, certain events, such as President Kennedy dying—be it because of time travel in The Umbrella Academy or conspiracies in X-Files—are represented as unchangeable and thus, Knopf argues, these stories suggest that ultimately history played out the way it was supposed to.
For anyone interested in the intersection between politics and popular culture, Politics in the Gutters is a great resource, examining its topics along several dimensions and drawing from many fields. Because its chapters are short, dense, and can be read individually—they focus on one topic at a time, and don’t rely on previous chapters to make their points—it also lends itself to use in the classroom. It could serve as a great inspiration for educators looking for ways to discuss political issues through the accessible and student-appealing medium of comic books.
Walking away from Politics In The Gutters, I was left with a clear sense that comics have always been political, and that they offer profound insights and predictions about political processes. While it is written in an accessible manner, explaining jargon where needed, it is nevertheless not a quick read: it covers hundreds of comics, political events, and analytic concepts quite intensely, packing many issues and perspectives into each of its short chapters. Overall, Politics In The Gutters is an impressive, fast-paced, and highly-informative study of how politics and comics are, will continue to be, and have for a long time been intertwined.
Christina Wurst is a PhD candidate in American Studies. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics, popular culture, and fandom. In her PhD thesis she looks at ideological negotiations in fan conflicts, examining the political connotations of such debates as whether Star Wars’ Rey is a Mary Sue. She has also published on pop cultural memes concerning presidential elections, Disney fans’ engagement with representations of race, and fanfiction engaging with Covid-19. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned in April 2021 by editor Sabrina Mittermeier; it was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the University Press of Mississippi.