Posted by: Doc Comics | February 7, 2012

Comics as Capitalism

jackkirby_portaitdcMake no mistake, comic books are a business and in Capitalism the point is profit uber alles. When considering the status of comic book superheroes as “commodified myth,” a historical view of these copyrighted characters as corporate commodities casts problematic light upon issues of “creators rights” within a “work-for-hire” context. The announcement by DC Comics that they will be publishing prequels to The Watchmen raises thorny issues from a troubled past (and Alan Moore’s ire), and then there is the impassioned stance of a longtime Marvel fan and acclaimed cartoonist to ban The Avengers movie because of how Jack Kirby was exploited and cheated of royalties from characters he created.

“What makes this situation especially hard to stomach is that Marvel’s media empire was built on the backs of characters whose defining trait as superheroes is the willingness to fight for what is right. It takes a lot of corporate moxie to put Thor and Captain America on the big screen and have them battle for honor and justice when behind the scenes the parent company acts like a cold-blooded supervillain. As Stan Lee famously wrote, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

An interesting counter-proposal surfaces, yet these recurring issues of ownership, exploitation, and economic justice are indeed older than even Superman himself. Follow the comments for a breakdown of Umberto Eco’s famous critique of “The Myth of Superman” for more!!


  1. “And this life activity [the worker] sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. … He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another.”

    Marx – Wage Labour and Capital (p. 1847)

  2. I’ve also seen some posts about a squabble between Marvel and the creator of Ghost Rider…

  3. Umberto Eco’s “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.

    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 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).

    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.

    The Myth of Superman *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.
    One look at what happened to creators like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby just 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).

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