Comic Books for Grown-Ups
Like many adolescent boys, I spent way too much of my time between the ages of 10 and 13 reading comic books. I followed Spider Man (in his Amazing, Spectacular, and adjectiveless manifestations), the X-Men, X-Force, Batman, Spawn, anything I could find featuring Dr. Doom, and a whole bevy of other muscular persons in brightly hued longjohns. But eventually, as happens with most young comics fans, the cartoonish storylines and risible dialogue began to dull my enjoyment of the medium, and I moved on to angsty teen authors like William Burroughs, Ayn Rand, and Herman Hesse. For a while. A few years later, though, I was surprised and delighted to discover that, unlike Trix, comic books were not just for kids. My point of entry was Neil Gaiman’s brilliant, justly renowned, and heavily Joseph Campbell-influenced series Sandman, which stood in the same relation to ordinary superhero comics that Joyce’s Ulysses does to See Spot Run. I soon discovered that there was, in fact, a rich universe of comic books (or “graphic novels,” to those afficionados who still wince at the c-word) geared towards an audience which has outgrown Nietzchean wish-fullfilment in tights. For reasons I won’t bother deliving into here, an astonishing number of the best of these feature strongly libertarian themes — and since my esteemed colleague Dave Brooks recently devoted a column to the art of haiku, I feel entitled to share with y’all my own quirky obsession.
The grand-don of grown-up comics is Alan Moore, whose massive From Hell recently made the jump to the big screen. His name was made with V for Vendetta, the tale of an anarchist revolutionary in a fascist parallel London, and especially with his magnum opus Watchmen, which cleverly deconstructs the entire superhero genre. The title for Watchmen is taken from an old libertarian catchphrase found in the Roman author Juvenal: “Who watches the watchmen?” Who, in other words, checks those in a position of authority? One of the most interesting characters in the series (along with the near-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan) is the enigmatic Rorschach, whom Moore modeled on Objectivist and Spider Man co-creator Steve Ditko’s “Mr. A” (as in “A is A”). Though the left-leaning Moore started out with satirical intent, Rorshach, despite seeming quite mad at the start, ultimately comes off as the hero possessed of the greatest moral strength and integrity. Without spoiling the ending, which is a doozy, I’ll just note that the villain of Watchmen — revealed only late in the game — is full of Good Intentions, and ever so sorry that he has to kill a few (million) people in pursuit of the Common Good.
Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is my new favorite series: it’s being slowly collected and anthologized, but right now the only way to get the full story is to hunt down the individual comics, at least for volume three and the end of volume two. Inspired in equal parts by Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy and the psychedelic spy games of The Prisoner, The Invisibles follows the titular group of conspiratorial anarchist freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending who you ask) in a protracted battle against the extradimensional Archons. The Archons, you see, want to make the world like a Michel Foucault book, eliminating all relations and values beyond control and obedience… it’s up to the Invisibles to head off the apocalypse at the pass, with a mindbending melange of sex, magick, time travel, alien technology, and good old fashioned shooting people. What the X-Files might have been like if it had been done by British rock stars with encyclopedic knowledge of both occult lore and amateur pharmaceutical science.
Even the mainstream has been bitten by the liberty bug. One of Batman’s more interesting adversaries over the years has been a young vigilante named Anarky, who starts out as a garden variety socialist-anarchist, but soon evolves into a hardcore libertarian, spouting what sure look like Objectivist lines left and right. He proved popular enough that he was given several stand-alone miniseries, and a trade paperback collection of some of his early appearances was released a few years back.
Batman himself comes off as quite the libertarian in Frank Miller’s recent sequel to his now-legendary The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. There, we find Superman has become little more than a lapdog for president Lex Luthor, and most of the well known D.C. superheroes have gone underground or been put to work for the new police state. Bruce Wayne, long thought dead, comes out of retirement to lead an insurrection. Comics god Miller, though, has done plenty of libertarian stuff outside the Batman oeuvre for which he’s most famous. His beautiful and biting Martha Washington trilogy is an over-the-top parody of government malevolence and ineptitude: the psychotic Surgeon General who’s obsessed with purging America of the “morally sick” is worth the price of admission all by himself. Rand fans may want to take a peek at the second book of the trilogy in particular: Martha Washington Goes to War is a loose retelling of Atlas Shrugged.
If you think comics are exclusively for pimply-faced teenagers, take a chance, pick up one of these (or the not-really-libertarian but still brilliant Cerebus, for example) and give an old medium a second chance. If people give you funny looks on the subway (or, as I’m now learning to call it “Metro”), just tell ‘em you’re reading political philosophy. With pictures.