Fireworks and Fiery Works

Like many of you in America, I had Friday off because of the Fourth of July AKA Independence Day. During that day, I was able to take my books to the beach and get quite a few read in relative peace (before my friend’s kids realized I was the perfect interactive jungle gym). After a particularly good session, I realized that I had kinda created a theme with my books — has that ever happened to you, when you read a bunch of books and realized that they were all kinda related (other than featuring folks who like to wear underwear outside of their normal clothes)? Well, it happened to me and I’m gonna write about it.

My theme, oddly enough, seemed to rotate around the United States, about its mythology, ideals, hypocrisy, crimes and disillusion. I started off with finishing off the second trade of Scalped, then went onto DMZ, then to Mythos: Captain America. A few weeks ago, I considered an article that would focus on whether or not we are learning anything from reading all these comics, and all of sudden, I was.

First off, I know I am late to the game for Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s amazing work on Scalped. I admit, while I was growing up in San Francisco, my only real exposure to Native American culture was “Indian Summer” and “Indian Clay”, which was this dark, kinda thick mud that we would dig for when we were kids — no idea if it was ever used as clay. (I’m still not sure when Indian Summer is.) Oh, sure, we had PBS specials about Native Americans and I knew that many lived on reservations, and, as I got older, that those reservations could be pretty down and out. Of course, Scalped has provided us with a story that takes place in a deeply poor and violent reservation, and although I assume some of it is amped up for story-telling purposes, I am sure that the conflicts and characters echo a sad and infuriating reality.

Then I hung out with DMZ, a book that is, in a way, not all that different than Scalped. It’s the story of a community fighting to be free in the face of corruption and fascism, all taking place on Manhattan — “Manahata” by the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Here we have corporate and governmental bullies vying for power as the residents of the island struggle to live with each other, going so far as to trying to elect a new leader that will speak for the residents of the DMZ.

By the time I got to Mythos: Captain America, I was almost looking forward to a saccharine discourse on patriotism, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it was much more textured and measured than I expected. Captain America, just as a general story, was interesting because my impulse was to think about it as not as realistic as Scalped and DMZ, but then I realized how shortsighted I was being. Sure, Captain America is a fictional character, but the war he fought in was certainly real. The struggle that the US and its allies went through to beat Hitler did not produce a shield carrying superhero named Captain America, but did indeed produce a generation of real heroes, whose sacrifice and, indeed, patriotism are perhaps too easy to dismiss in these more cynical times.

And then, last night, I read The Boys and that capped things off: arrogant superheroes being used by ruthless corporations and cynical, corrupt governments struggling to remain basically in power against these forces. Whoo-hoo! Good times!

It sounds hokey, I know, but reading these books did make me really happy that I live in a place where artists can tell honest stories about their country without pulling any punches. I like the fact that we can look at these situations and realize that, “Hey, this stuff is closer to reality than is comfortable.” Read these books and you can’t help but look at the US in a more skeptical light, that we learn to question the motivations of our corporations and intentions of our politicians. But what’s great is that no matter how bad things get, the heroes (or anti-heroes, depending) are doing what they can to address the bullies, to redress those wrongs, to defend the helpless — I mean, even in the DMZ they are trying to have a real democratic election, right? Even Bad Horse in Scalped upholds the law in his own particular way — you don’t want to be a wife-beater if Dash is on duty, you know? Same thing with The Boys and Captain America, both the Mythos book and the current book (again, battling crooked eeevil corporations trying to run the government). Matty in DMZ and Dash Bad Horse are very much modern American heroes, while Cap is the ideal that we hope as a society we can be worthy of.

As neat and tidy as this all is, there’s a flip side about this. The books I am talking about tend to take place in the US (I know, The Boys originate from London, but recently they have been spending a lot of time in New York dealing with US-centric issues) — even the DC books, while taking place in fictional cities, usually have heroes that live in the US. I have always wondered, is this kind of annoying for non native US readers? Does it get tiring that so many of the Marvel heroes live, work and battle evil in Manhattan? Flip it around again — given the fact that so many of these books take place in the US, are you learning something about the US from these books? Or does the location even matter, really, given how universal the American image is, especially New York, around the world, that because the conflicts and problems happen here, the themes and stories are relevant everywhere?

So, what are we learning, as a global community of comic book fans, about each other from comic books? The comics I discussed above definitely reveal an inherent distrust of the US government, US military, and of US corporations — obviously informed (at least to me) by the challenges that this nation (and, in turn, the world). However, books like Captain America are more about a US that focuses more on protecting the world from evil forces both real (Hitler) and imagined (Skrulls!!). Of course, America does not “own” the concept of heroism. Again, I wonder if non-American readers see certain themes surrounding heroism recurring in American comic books. What, now, truly is “the American Way” that Supermans of old were protecting? It’s obviously changed — you never see that phrase these days–is there even such a thing?

Comics remind me very much of my experience doing Off-Off Broadway theater. Just like walking past the garage theaters through the Lower East Side, comic book shelves feature all of these disparate voices telling stories with the intent of doing what Shakespeare suggested actors do best: “holding a mirror up to nature” and showing us who we are. Comics can do this very well; I don’t think they necessarily do it as overtly as staging Julius Caesar in the White House (nor should they, really), but I think the the writers and artists definitely interpret stories and characters through the lens of the world around them. I think books like Brian Woods’ DMZ and Channel Zero are basically massive billboards shouting for us to pay more attention to the world around us.

Perhaps I am being short-sighted, again, by trying to point out what people might be learning about America (though it fits nicely with the Independence Day theme). As we are reminded daily, we are in a global economy, communicating on a global network, and, in many ways, working on global issues together. It is frustrating to me that comics are not released around the world at the same time, like movies, but that will probably change as comics, like every other medium, become more digital in nature (I’ll be fighting that tooth and nail, by the way–we’ll talk about this at another time). It would be so interesting to see how we react to the monthly books as a global community, to see how it changes the nature of our discussions and the nature of the stories being told. I guess time will tell.

Given that most of the media I consume is more immediate in nature (comics, magazines, news), perhaps it is not surprising that I notice myself finding connections that reflect more about what’s going on in the present day. Perhaps it is my frustration with various aspects of modern society that I gravitate to books like DMZ, cautionary tales that remind me that things can always get worse if we let them. 

How about you? Are you finding that your books tend to share certain themes and ideas?  Have you been noticing trends in modern books as of late?


Mike Romo is an actor in Los Angeles. He grew up in San Francisco and was basically raised a feminist anarchist idealist. He is surprised he’s not in therapy. He can be reached at


  1. I have seen a lot of bleakness and despair in the books I’ve been reading lately, actually. Lots of "who can you trust? No one!" and "ack! Crisis!" The forces of evil are plotting against us in my Fables trade; open presidential coup in Resurrection; and then there’s Fear Agent where, Jesus, every time I think things can’t get any worse….

    And I still have my Walking Dead hardcovers to look forward to.

    I think there’s something in the zeitgeist; America is not Up With People at the moment. I look forward to seeing how it changes after oh, say, January 21st or so. 

  2. I think the only common thread in the books I’ve been reading is that have nothing to do with the Big 2. And I think that may be due to the fact that Indy books often aren’t as constrained by corporate influence and dizzying continuity.

  3. You had me until "I took my books to the beach…" WHAT? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? Won’t you get sand and seawater on them and ruin them? Sand is never gonna come out of that bag and board! And didn’t Flex Mentallo come over and kick sand in the face of the comic-nerd?

    Joking aside, great article Mike! The new iFanboy writers continue to fire on all cylinders. I think your stack could only have been even more enhanced by more paranoia a la Secret Invasion and Final Crisis…evil winning seems to be the feel good movie of the summer…. 

  4. As an Aussie, I can say that most characters being American doesn’t bother me, most of the time. I do find it weird that 90% or more of superheroes are all from one country in these fictional universes, but I guess it’s because the companies producing the comics are all American.

    My one beef has always been the JLA. They protect the whole world (and universe sometimes) so it was always weird to me why they were called the Justice League of AMERICA … especially when the majority of the team arn’t American. Look at the "Big Seven" line up — Superman isn’t evn from earth, Aquaman is from Atlantis, Wonder Woman is from Themyscira, Martian Manhunter is from Mars, so that leaves Batman, The Flash & Green Lantern as American.

    So, three outta seven members are American … they should just be called the Justice League if ya ask me, but … no one did. 

    Nice article, Mike Romo! Props for agknowledging the international iFanbase! 🙂

  5. Mike, this is a really interesting article, and an idea that I had been thinking about just last night.  I watched "Persepolis" last night with my family, and having not read the graphic novel for some time, I was reminded of just how lucky we Americans have it sometimes.  Seeing Satrapi’s struggles in life makes my minor bitching at SI and what not somewhat ridiculous.  I mean, at least I get to read comics, right?

    It’s interesting to me that we don’t focus more on a worldwide scale with the heroes that we read, but I often wonder if I would read something that came from China.  It would have to be written well and have some sort of cultural appeal, which would be difficult seeing as our cultures vary.  I think since Marvel and DC are American companies, we’re probably not going to see them shift from an American focus and while their characters are timeless and cross barriers, we’re probably never going to see these characters spend any time away internationally (for more than one story).

    I think a lot of the trends that we see in our media today is the struggles of economy and the struggles that people have with the government.  I wouldn’t really say that struggling with the government is a new concept, but in these times it may be more relevant than ever, which is maybe why it’s more noticable.  But that’s ok because there’s nothing more American than distrusting the government.  It’s what our whole country is based on.

  6. Makes me think, I miss good Alpha Flight books.

    How come DC has never had a Canadian team?  Or have they?

    And Captain Canuck, though I can’t remember ever reading a good Captain Canuck book.  I wonder if they exist…(bad ones certainly do).

  7. DC for awhile played up the international heroes scene with Justice League Europe and International and earlier with Global Guardians. The thing I find laughable is how sterotypic international heroes are depicted, Marvel included. What with your Captain Britains and Union Jacks, Jack o’Lantern being irish, the Japanese heroes all having very nationalisitic costumes, Russian Rocket Reds….Why? Once again, an American slant on nationalisitic heroes. The logic SHOULD be (and don’t get me wrong because I know they are not all that way) that other nations have their share of heroes without the sterotypes. Alpha Flight is a prime example: Guardian wore the canadian flag, Puck is there because we Americans think that the only Canadian sport is hockey, NorthStar, Sasqwatch… it’s funny if you really think about it!

  8. hey guys!

     I’m so happy we are getting a chance to discuss the nationalizatin of comics. So interesting, right? Wade, your comment about JLA really cracked me up–I mean, you are so right! That’s really funny. And target242, I must admit, I never caught the "puck" and hockey reference. Awesome. 

     Of course, we have seen other culture’s comics come over big time into America, at least. I dunno about Europe, but wow, Manga is crazy popular over here. Not only are the books and characters popular, but the whole style has made a big impact on a new generation of comic book readers and artists. And while I think we have seen some prominent Chinese comic book artists tackle American heroes, I am not aware of any Chinese comic characters really cross over.  

     Target242, your comment about how laughably nationalistic the heroes tend to be struck me as well. Union Jack, etc–what the hell?  Surely there are some heroes from England that have nothing to do with a flag or a landmass. What I wonder, I just don’t know, were Captain Britain others created by Marvel US or Marvel Europe?  Or did they exist before Marvel?  there must be comic book publishers in Europe with their own heroes that we know nothing about here in America…right? Are there?  

     I wish there was a publisher that would reprint comics from different parts of the world once in awhile so we could see what’s hot in other countries.  Hmm…maybe just easier if the publshers would do it on their websites…

     Wade, are there comicbooks that are specific to Australian readers?

     good stuff, guys!


  9. @Mike~  If I wasn’t so lazy, I would look this up for you, but I’m pretty sure there are some international books that are being brought over.  Virgin puts out their Indian line of book, which features characters primarily from India.  Marvel is also reprinting some European comics (one of them is this brightly lit girl, another is a sci-fi thing, and the third is a samurai book).  I forget all of their names, but it’s something to look into…

  10. Mike, there is nothing really major specifically to Aussie readers, if you go into a comic shop here, it’s mostly US books.

    The Phantom is published here and it’s the first comic book I collected regularly. When I was young there was no comic shops anywhere near where I lived, so I could only get books from magazine/newspaper shops. You could get regular issues of The Phantom from there, but the DC/Marel comics came in as random issues & books, which made it impossible to follow stories. Phantom comics were also about half the price of the US books, because they were black & white & published here.  I couldn’t afford to get the US comics all the time, but anytime I saw Batman comics I got them by any means necessary … lol.

    It wasn’t until I was about 12 & could travel a bit further by public transport that I found a specialty comic shop. You gotta understand, I was a kid who loved comics, but I had never seen a comic shop, I didn’t even know they existed. So, walking in and seeing wall to wall DC, Marvel & everything else …. dude, I thought I had died & gone to heaven. So, once I found a shop like that, I collected the DC comics I could afford monthly & The Phantom slowly fell off my list of reading.

    Wow, sorry, I got off topic, & tell my life story of comics, lol. But, back on topic — if you wanna talk about offensive stereotypes — just look at Captain Boomerang! lol. Just kidding, he’s not offensive, just … pretty sad they only Aussie in comics had to have an Aussie gimmick, but … now he’s dead & his son isn’t even an Aussie but he still rocks the boomerangs, because of course, everyone uses them all the time here …

  11. I think Morrison is starting to play with the notions of nationalized heroes, with the Great Ten in 52 and the recent reincarnation of the New Gods across nationalities in Final Crises. mentioned. The Great Mother who is birthing super powered babies for Mother in Tomasi’s Nightwing..

    I think your Scalped comments’ are spot on, Mike. One gets the sense that the material is dramatized for the sake of the story. I’m not certain how realistic the reservation life is, as Aaron portrays it. Love the story though, it’s damn good comics. To be fair to Jason, the American cowboy figure as he is classically represented is no more or less realistic than Dashell. 

    The whole underlying issue here is the age old notion of  The Other.  There’s always a danger of projecting that external attributes onto other cultures as a way of separating ourselves from "them". Golden Age, wartime comics did this frequently and I wonder if vestiges of this  practice are still current in comics today. My understanding of The Other leads me to believe that we often portray other cultures, especially in art, as our exotic counterparts who we desperately want to become.  . That’s another topic though

    There are a few comics that make reflect the American spirit for me, each for different reasons. Stories like the Plain Janes, Local, resonate with the vagabond   The American soul is a wanders, always seeking new places to call home,  and new people to call friend   

    Ex Machina (which I started at issue 36 (and have since tried to catch up on in trades) is the perfect example of the American Spirit. For better or for worse, America has longed to maintain its status as the beacon of hope, ready to spread light to the rest of the world. We desire to foster greatness and success. Mayor Hundred perfectly reflects the American consciousness insofar as he desires not to reduce evil and hardships but to eliminate them. The tragedy is that we cannot hope to achieve this lofty goal, yet we are equally incapable of pursuing improbable solutions to impossible problems. Deus ex machine, indeed.



  12. Wow. I must admit i thoroughly enjoy such intelligent discussion and conversation on this *gasp* comic-book forum. DaveCarr: spot on with the Ex Machina analogy. Someone mentioned Canadian comics: what little I know about them once again plays to the stereotypes: Capt. Cannuck, Fleur De Lis, etc. I also do appreciate what Morrison is trying to do with The Great Ten and the recent Japanese SuperHeroGoTeam! ideas, heck Checkmate is a better example of how super heroes and the government might work if they existed here on Earth Prime. (For more of the same modern sensibility and politicks, see also The Boys.)

    Curse you iFanboy for making me think!