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 journey, racial 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).