Dr Jason Dittmer, a Reader of Human Geography, University College London talks to us about comic books and alternative views of geopolitics
Dr Jason Dittmer is a Reader in Human Geography at University College London. His research interests centre on geopolitics, critical approaches to diplomacy and the geographies of media, in particular, comic books. He is the author of the book ‘Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics’. We talked to him about comic books and how they represent key ideas within geopolitics.
The ‘superpower’ is really an outgrowth of the previous notion of Great Powers, the gold standard of status before World War Two. On the one hand you have the decline of some of the ‘Great Powers’ as a result of that war, and on the other hand you have the advent of atomic weapons, which seemed to elevate the USA and the USSR to a new category. It is interesting to lay the rise of these superpowers alongside the new pop culture phenomenon of the superhero, which occupies a similarly elevated category with regard to regular people. But the superhero predates World War Two and atomic weapons, so we should be careful in drawing parallels.
Yes and no. Of course, a lot of what you see on TV or in the movies about Russia and North Korea is devoid of merit. But what is the alternative? Almost everything we know about places comes from media of various sorts because it would be so expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to personally travel everywhere in the world. So we rely on what others tell us. To flip the question, what would we know of the world without popular culture and media? What we should work for, I think, is trying to make sure that for every Jerry Bruckheimer film (such as Black Hawk Down or Top Gun) there are two or three more sophisticated – but still entertaining – options out there that speak to our shared humanity with distant others.
Wartime comic ‘Spy Smasher’ used common geopolitical messages of the time. (Source Flickr: Paul Pod)
The key period for this was World War Two. Superheroes signed up to fight for the Allies in droves, and Hitler called Superman pro-Jewish propaganda. A general pattern was that the ‘weaker’ superheroes (like Captain America and Wonder Woman) went overseas and fought in the war effort, while the stronger superheroes like Superman stayed at home. This was because Superman could, theoretically, win the whole war himself. All the superheroes were involved in jingoistic flag-waving though of one kind or another. After World War Two it became much harder to do this kind of thing un-ironically, and over time the link between superheroes and the government has become much more strained.
I think it is more useful to dissolve the boundary between fiction and fact: comic books exist in the world, and therefore the stories told in them are real and can inspire all sorts of political effects. So for instance, we can think about changes in the American (and to a certain extent, British) way of fighting wars that emphasise Special Forces and highly technological weapons systems as being prefigured by several decades’ worth of superhero stories. Similarly, the notion of the United States as an exceptional state that can contravene international law to provide vigilante justice did not originate with superheroes, but certainly has been buttressed by them.
There are efforts to engage with issues like climate change in comic books, but they often founder for the same reasons they fail to gain purchase elsewhere. I thought it was quite good, and quite refreshing, but it did not last long. Superhero comics tend to think in terms of good and evil, which is why people like them: people connect to stories that end up reinforcing their sense of self. That is why we worry about terrorism so much more than social inequality, despite terrorism being so minor in comparison in terms of the damage it causes. Terrorism as a story lets us think of ourselves as heroic freedom-fighters, while social inequality asks us tough questions about who we are as a society.
Comic books are like any kind of art form: they are simply a mode of expression. They can entertain, inform, evoke, provoke, shock, propagandise, and do anything else that music, literature, movies, poetry, and dance can do. Because when most people think of comics they think of superheroes, or Beano and Dandy, they think comics are uniquely a children’s medium. But there has always been a parallel array of comics intended for adults. This is even more developed in other parts of the world, especially the Franco-Belgian and East Asian traditions, where comics are mostly understood as an adult medium. So I would not want to limit comics to being simply either pedagogical or simple entertainment.
‘Indian Spiderman’ – Comic books tend to overrepresent white male power (Source: Flickr raj)
Superhero comics, although read by diverse people, have been one of the last bastions of white, male privilege – both in terms of the creators and the fan culture. There has always been an undercurrent within the larger world of comics addressing these issues, but what is interesting now is how critics organising on the internet have focused attention on the white, male dominance of the superhero world. Currently we are seeing Marvel Comics introducing a whole array of diverse characters – right now Thor is a woman, Spider-man is half-black, half-Hispanic, and so on. We will see whether these changes have staying power but the momentum today is pretty impressive.
Finally… if you could create your own geographical superhero, who and what would they be?
My family lives in Florida, so I think I’d like to see a Captain Florida who can fend off hurricanes and lower insurance premiums.
The study of the effects of geography on international politics and international relations.
Increasing interconnectedness between people and processes in different countries.
A powerful and influential nation that holds a dominant position within international politics.
Searching online for images of comics produced during the Second World War, students can print out a copy of one and stick it on a blank page, before annotating it with the perceived geopolitical statements the imagery is trying to make. This can then open into a wider discussion about whether the comic were right to portry certain nationalities in a certain way.
Students can try and draw their own comic book front cover (complete with a superhero of their own design) which represent messages from today’s environmental challenges. They might like to cover topics such as land grabbing, climate change and ocean acidification. Students should consider how different countries are perceived (as wrongdoer or victim) and how they could get their message across in a visual way.
Choosing an alternative medium (such as newspapers or Hollywood films) students can make a list of adjectives that represent how certain countries are represented. How are our imagined visions of Africa (for example) influenced by what we read and see? Are all countries evenly represented in the press and film industries?
Jason Dittmer’s Book, ‘Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics’
The Geography of Conflict KS3
Jason was interviewed in July 2015
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