Subtext is Everything (Everything is Subtext)

Well. Here we are at the finish line.

There were times during the last year or so when it seemed like the day would never come, but one way or another it will all be over soon. After months of buildup and strategy and leaks and squabbling and badmouthing and comparing the relative merits of both sides, it will all finally, blessedly be coming to an end. No more nervous anticipation or rooting for your favorite; we will soon know whose money was mouth-adjacent, and we will get to see who had what it took to win in the end.

Eventually. I guess we do still have a little bit longer before we find out. Final Crisis still has a few more issues coming out, and Secret Invasion‘s going to be late. In the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to busy ourselves with the election.

When you read Secret Invasion, do you really ask yourself, “Is this better or worse than Final Crisis?” Online, it looks like this is all anyone thinks about. You never see people do this with, say, two TV shows that have nothing to do with one another… wait! That’s not true. You see it with Lost vs. Heroes. And guess which subculture makes up a huge part of their fanbases. (Check your mirror for clues.)

I used to get rankled when I’d see one company’s event pitted against another’s just because they were both being published at the same time, until I realized there were far more legitimately rankling things going on in the world outside the comic shop. (Still, weighing Bendis against Morrison is like comparing apples and mescaline, isn’t it?) I’ve been accused of bias before — comics bias, of course — but nonetheless with each passing year I find it ever weirder that people who like reading stories about flying men would choose to love one publisher’s flying men and hate — campaign against, even — another publisher’s flying men, even as the people behind the scenes writing their adventures freely crossed from one side to the other at will, depending on whose money was greenest at contract negotiation time. Look at these books, these candidates for your dollar: does liking one set really have to mean hating the other? But then, I suppose drawing battle lines between Good and Bad and squaring them off against each other is pretty central to the whole genre. Partisanship is practically mixed into the ink. Whose side are you on?, my comics have been asking me. Who do you trust?

I could try to pretend that I was thinking about something other than the Race for the White House right now, or that I had thought about anything else for days, but that would get old faster than World War Hulk. The truth is, politics have tinted/tainted everything I’ve looked at for weeks, and with a day left I have transcended hope or excitement or worry; all day long, my brain is screaming that scream that Miss Piggy screams before she busts out the karate. I’m not kidding. Frank Oz’s falsetto, all day long. And I’m far from the only one. I have friends in both political parties who get together often, and in recent weeks as the dinner table debates have grown so animated that waiters began subtly gathering up the knives from our table I’ve given a lot of thought to how intelligent, reasonable people can look at the same world and see it so differently.

Naturally, with all this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I look at things personally. For example: has reading comics for all these years shaped my outlook, or has my outlook just made me more inclined to read all these comics? A quick glance at my bookshelf suggests that I am a man of extremes; everything I read seems to be either straight-ahead, black and white nonfiction prose or illustrated Technicolor stories of men who shoot laser beams from their eyes. There are very few novels on those shelves. I guess I like either clear-eyed reality or wildly daft flights of fancy. When that’s all that’s in your diet, though, you start to see the real world in every comic and start to see comics everywhere in the real world.

I canceled my Newsweek subscription a year ago, just when things were supposed to be getting interesting, back when there were (as I recall) 412 candidates for president in each party. There were debates every couple of days, and the stage always looked like a production of A Chorus Line with podiums. (Podia? Podiae?) Newsweek was dutifully offering in-depth profiles of all the candidates that were still in the running, and I was dutifully trying to stay informed by reading all of them. Suddenly one afternoon, in the middle of an anecdote about what Mike Huckabee was like in junior high, it hit me: This is a thorough waste of my time. By the time there is a primary in my state and I actually have the opportunity to vote for anyone, half of these people won’t even be in the race anymore. These characters and what they’re doing will play no part in the main story. My God, it’s Civil War: Runaways all over again. I’m dropping this title until the next event; I can catch up on anything important I missed with Wikipedia. I didn’t realize I was treating the “news” like it was Countdown until months later.

Right around the same time that Newsweek started seeming like a fill-in issue, I started reading way too much reality into the aforementioned World War Hulk. Maybe it was just that the miniseries contained so little story that I started writing my own, but somewhere early in my descent towards politicizing everything I looked at (similar to the way everything became a Tootsie Roll in that old commercial, but with yard signs) I got it into my head that World War Hulk had subtext bulging between every panel. The way I read it, the Illuminati thought The Hulk had the potential to become a huge problem, so the self-appointed policemen of the world decided to act unilaterally and deal with the Hulk threat preemptively. They thought they had a plan to address the problem once and for all in the most peaceful way possible, but they failed to account for a number of variables and their well-meaning efforts blew up in their faces, making everything worse. The problem they had tried so hard to prevent was now hurtling back to Earth to bite them in the ass harder than ever; they had wanted to liberate The Hulk from his “smash smash” cycle, but The Hulk would not be treating them as liberators. It was all about unintended consequences.

Granted, this is what I was thinking before the Sentry showed up and it turned out The Bug Did It. The Sentry really does have a way of ruining everything. He’s like Midas, but with headaches instead of gold.

On the few occasions when I’ve tried to give people this reading of World War Hulk, they have always looked at me like I could shout, “We’re through the looking glass here, people!” and rip off my face revealing myself to be Oliver Stone in a mask at any moment. Anyone who mines for subtext hears the same refrain: none of that was intentional. The author wasn’t thinking about any of those things. That may be true, but I can never help thinking that the writer always writes with the real world on his mind somewhere, no matter how mindless the fun is supposed to be. Maybe that’s why almost nothing irritates me more, as someone who tries to write thoughtfully, than hearing someone say, “Does everything have to have a message? Can’t I just turn off my brain every once in a while and have a little mindless entertainment?” Is that really a problem you think the world around you is having right now? Everyone’s thinking too hard in front of the TV? Do the brains around you every day really seem like they’re the victims of overuse?

Maybe everyone else is right; maybe I’ve just driven myself crazy by looking for all these intersections of reality and superheroism. Still, in my more cynical moments I can’t help seeing this November’s election like so many of the big crossover events before it. Everywhere I turn, people are saying, “This is it, the one that wipes out the status quo and changes everything! Nothing will be the same after this,” and all I can think is, “Yeah. I’ve heard that one before.”


Jim Mroczkowski tried to avoid a political discussion by telling his dad he was still undecided. Judging from the contents of his inbox since then, this was a tactical misstep. He would love to hear about almost anything else via Twitter or



  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    What are you really saying?  

  2. Great post Jim

    It does feel like the election is a comic book doesnt it? It feels like a status quo changer, and it’s young vs old type of story. Usually the newcomer always teams up with the grizzled veteran but this is different….Like Kyle Rayner forcefully joining forces with Sinestro, he’s forced to stay on a side and not talk about his actual views. Sad really. (talking about McCain if you didnt know).

    On a side note, I’ve tried to read WWH but everytime I sweat a little and my hands start to burn. That a problem?

  3. Oddly enough, I found a whole ‘nother batch of subtext out of World War Hulk. 

    On the one hand, I saw it was manning up to your actions and taking responsibility for what you’ve done, even in the best of intentions.  Tony knows what he did was shady, even if he did it for good reasons.  Never does in it does he or Reed or Strange ever deny they did what they did.  They don’t hide (well, maybe Strange did, I forget) but they go out and face the Hulk head on.  Tony even tells the assembled not to get involved unless he goes down and Reed was somewhat firm about facing the Hulk without the rest of the Four (plus two) being there before relenting.  To me, it was about owning up to your mistakes and taking responsibility like an adult for your actions.  I think, in the political real, there’s a handful of people on both sides of the aisle who could learn from that.

    On the other, I saw in issue four specifically how people will tend to accept a little fascism even when they condemn another party for the same thing.  Both in the book itself and the fan reactions, I saw a lot of "Yeeeeah!!!!  Kill the fascist Iron Man and Reed Richards!  Kill ’em!  Kiiiiilll ’em!!!!"  There was a lot of people that seemed to be drooling at the fact that Reed and Tony– whom many saw as fascists during Civil War– were now going to be flung into a gladiatorial arena and were going to be forced to kill each other without so much as a trial or an investigation over what really happened.  as far as Miek goes, I think that was kind of the point, that people were so ready to lynch the Illuminati that they never stopped to think about how truly guilty they actually were.  At the time, I thought it was really ironic that people were so angry over Tony and Reed that they’d totally accept an equally draconian method, execution without trial, without much thought to it.  I know I see that rear itself in a lot of political blogs, forums, etc on both sides of any issue.

  4. But it’s understandible – the police force in the Marvel universe is probably not very liked by the residents. You can see it as a mafia/police thing. If the police can’t stop the superheroes maybe Dr. Doom can…

    I doubt residents of the Marvel universe have much trust in the police and the justice courts. They’re probably all carry guns since there are villains and heroes wrecking havoc on their city. Any time MODOK can break through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man. I’d be buying tons of weapons from Dr. Doom…

    Every man for himself!

  5. Nice article.

    If you want Canadian political subtext in your comics, then you have to read Scott Pilgrim.

  6. I read WWH the exact same way, and I got the same looks.  Let’s ride bikes!

  7. Tork has hit the nail on the head exactly.

    Besides, the thing that Hulk-lovers forget is that he freakin’ destroyed Las Vegas. The fucker ruins lives everywhere he goes.


  8. If I weren’t so tired from my day and the incessant political phone calls ringing my phone off the hook (I knew I should have signed up for that no call list), I’d try to think of something smart and clever to add.  The only thing that comes to mind is:  nice piece of writing 

  9. DCs flying men are socialists.

  10. Your anecdote about Newsweek will weigh heavily on my mind as I buy my comics tomorrow.  Is Final Crisis: Resist the Mike Huckabee of comics?

  11. geez, i never even knew canada had politics

  12. I’m all for having fun with subtext but, then, I spent too much of my life in academia so I’m pretty sure that nothing I think or say counts in the real America. 

    And I swear I’ve heard/read the phrase "World War Hulk is about blowback in Iraq" somewhere before — though I can’t swear it wasn’t from you, on this site. 

    I think the biggest pitfall about relying on subtext is that it can get (generic) you in trouble if you end up arguing with somebody who read the subtext in the same story differently.  I’ve gotten in fierce arguments about fictional politics with people whose real world politics were basically identical to mine.  Weird stuff.