Posted by: Doc Comics | September 19, 2011

Ideology Superstructure and Hegemony: Week 4


Superheroes are corporate-owned commodities, lest we forget…


This week introduces superhero comics as ideology, so let’s clarify a few big-word college concepts that will help guide discussion. “Ideology” has long been used to conceptualize a dominant system of ideas or beliefs that coalesce into a more-or-less unified and unifying “worldview” (i.e. political, religious, ethnic, national, etc.), but the term takes on connotations as “false consciousness” within the influential class critique of Karl Marx. As most know, Marx is formulating a critique of Capitalism (the Gilded Age variety). Crudely put, Marxism posits how the dominant economic overclass and their middle-management Bourgeois keeps their worker-serf Proletariat underclasses subservient and docile by controlling the “superstructures” of economic production, meanings, and ‘common sense’ beliefs that prevent solidarity and revolution against economic exploitation. (One of my favorite definitions of Ideology is an “asymmetrical interdependence” of “common sense meanings in the service of power”). An example might be how big business Hollywood blockbusters tend to shape audience expectations and imitators with formulaic narrative commodities that ‘naturalize‘ a misogynist hero journeyracial stereotypes, and patriarchal power. This is the “Rich White DudeBros own everything and reproduce what they like” argument that often misses Marx’s more crushing insight that these practices become institutionalized into a structure of commodity reproduction that continues despite the intentions of producers and workers (i.e. less by mustache-twisting supervillains than cinematic conventions of the Male Gaze). For a smackdown, see the comments for a breakdown of Eco’s infamous “Myth of Superman” critique.


Even briefer still is Philosophy Bro’s profanity-laced breakdown of Marx‘s central beefs during the Gilded Age, the ideological implications of such commodity production (“It’s the structure, stupid!”) illustrated with our New Gilded Age‘s terrifying “5 ugly lessons in every Superhero Movie,” which pretty much explains Lincoln’s insistence that “Myth is ideology in narrative form.” Holy Hollywood Hegemony!

In an attempt to overcome weaknesses and shortcomings of hackneyed extrapolations of ‘vulgar’ Marxist critique, Antonio Gramsci develops the notion of Hegemony to explain why the exploited underclass willfully participates in and reproduces the dominant ideology of the overclass even when it goes against their own material and economic interests (and thus “participate in the conditions of their unhappiness“). That is, a ruling ideology doesn’t reproduce illusory “false consciousness” only through coercion and domination, but this ‘historical materialism’ also operates through socialized values and consensual participation that operates as “common sense” that’s-how-things-really-are (think about the voluntary Comics Code here and reasons we often ‘go along’ with dominant ideas). Heck, as I write this off-the-clock for class while enjoying a cold beverage outside, I want to shake my fist at the sky and cry “Darn you Hegemony!!! Is there no escape?”  But more on these topics later as we synthesize some of the contradictions and debates over myth, genre, and the payoff & price of Counterhegemony or Utopianism in superhero stories. And where better to start than the OG of comic books’ crusading masked vigilantes, the Bat-Man!?

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is Frank Miller’s deconstruction of the Batman mythos that offered an Elseworld’s story that almost single-handedly changed comics storytelling and markets (discussion items are here). Also especially interesting for class purposes is how TDKR gives ammunition to Jenkin’s “Men in Tights” argument contra-Coogan for superhero comics as fostering multiplicity over continuity, and thus illustrates the dynamics of Gramscian hegemony and the politics of cultural representation. Or, as Grant Morrison puts it, it’s a telling difference that “Bruce has a butler, Clark has a boss” (but if you’re into class warfare, check out Iron Man’s union-busting past and Spider-Man as working-class Proletarian superhero).

UPDATE: Ideology-Hegemony dust-up of the week includes “The Big Sexy Problem of Superheroines” in DC’s new 52 and reactions from creators and past criticisms of sexist ideology in superhero comics.


  1. Umberto Eco’s 1972 “The Myth of Superman” critique is a bit more biting than it seems at first blush.

    First, as a Marxist structuralist, Eco is calling attention to the tension and contradictions of a corporate-controlled ‘commodified myth‘; as serial commodity that has to come out month after month, Superman can never achieve mythic resolution or meaningful ‘death’ like the myths of Achilles, King Arthur, or Robin Hood. Rather than community heroes whose life trajectories offer moral lessons, Superman is a corporate-owned profit-driven commodity “frozen in time” like SPAM or a Twinkee… no expiration date and without any ‘deep’ moral-nutritional value. Because he is outside history, he is also outside any real historical and political consciousness.

    Second, this narrative (and econonomic) superstructure prevents love, lessons, or growth beyond eternal adolescent fantasies so it’s ‘juvenile’ and morally-stunted in the worst sense of the term as a power fantasy. THIS is why the only ‘evil’ he fights are threats to private property, and the only ‘good’ he achieves is small-scale, local or individual “charity” which never threatens status quo power or social order… conservative values completely in-line with the status quo of exploitative Capitalism. Power structures and arrangements of economic inequality are never seriously questioned or challenged, but are instead defended (from supervillain threats to property, banks, oligarchy, etc). Of course, the history of the infamous Comics Code gives ironclad support to Eco’s criticisms, as does the ‘sequel’ by Andrae on Superman’s transition “From Menace to Messiah.” If Superman began as a class-warrior for social justice, then it wasn’t long before he ‘sold-out’ as pitch-man for war bonds, insurance, and Duracell batteries.

    Finally, the big kicker in the critique, is that this commodified narrative structure (not just Superman but perhaps ALL mass commodity entertainments) perpetuates the Myth of Capitalism by creating an audience who consumes and is temporally *consumed by* these “harmless entertainments.” That is, *we* are conditioned by such stories as passive spectators and consumers rather than active citizens or critics; we crave the magic of “Disney endings” and superhuman salvation that thus constitutes us as a “spectator democracy” without class consciousness or a sense of historical causalities, seduced by the “false consciousness” of commodity fetishism. This struggle is a never-ending battle of psycho-social projections, displacement, and misdirection. Thus, American history and politics, Eco suggests, are thus similarly conditioned by a childishly simplistic or naïve “false consciousness” that keeps us dependent, docile spectators.

    The Myth of Superman for Eco *is* the self-effacing Myth of Capitalism; he is a media property owned by megacorporations who does not exist but shapes very real perceptions of our own expectations and conditions of existence, does real things to real people left waiting for a superman [or a dark knight] to save us. Blackmore’s “Dark Knight of Democracy” chases down some of the implications for our ‘charismatic’ superhero-worship.

    One look at what happened to creators like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby further illustrates Eco’s larger point. However, dystopian ‘Elseworlds’ may indeed potentially offer exceptions that merely prove the rule, but that’s an/Other story altogether (literally).

  2. Holy Hegemony SuperStructure! The Hollywood “formula” for movie blockbusters revealed!


  4. Who owns our contemporary Myths?

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