We Wear the Red and Black Spandex: An Introduction to Anarchism Through Comics

Freedom is a strange word. It’s held up as the patriotic ideal of what modern democratic societies should foster, but pretty much any modern nation has a litany of horrible things done in its name. As far as words go, it has more power than most. It’s a word some people take for granted. Millions throughout history have died for it. Far too many people in too many political landscapes seem to wake up in the morning for no other reason than to stamp it out. It’s also a mysterious word, mostly because people can’t seem to agree exactly what it means. Does freedom mean that things like healthcare and a basic income should be guaranteed to free people from want and worry? Does freedom mean the government relaxes regulations, letting people conduct their business any way they choose? Does freedom mean abolishing the income tax and allowing every bearded nutcase to walk into a Chipotle with as many as weapons as can fit on their perfectly round frame?

In 1964, the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography when deliberating an obscenity charge that “I know it when I see it,” despite being unable to strictly define ‘pornography’ in a legal sense. The word ‘freedom’ is similarly nebulous in this way. Everyone is into it (secretly or not) but few people have a definite way to describe it. This is one of the main reasons why anarchism as a political philosophy has appealed to me. Anarchism has the most satisfactory definition of freedom I’ve ever seen. Essentially, most versions of anarchism define freedom as some manner of existence where you live life the way you choose, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others. Cooperation is welcome and even encouraged, provided people have the choice to opt in or out of the system.

Anarchism in many ways is a reaction to injustice in society, be it political or otherwise. Some anarchists hate the government, some hate capitalism, some hate gender hierarchy, still others blow up oil pipelines to defend the environment. In practice, anarchists resist these forces in every way from Gandhi-esque nonviolent demonstration to open warfare in the streets with fascists. Anarchism is a broad political tradition wherein its participants fight for their version of a more just society. History might bend towards injustice, but anarchists try with all their might to resist this bend.

Sadly, anarchists have gotten a bad rap in fiction. They make bombs, don’t bathe, want to blow stuff up for the sheer heck of it. Writers from Conrad to Dostoevsky have made anarchists the villains of their novels, while the most well-known version of an anarchist in modern film is Heath Ledger’s pencil wielding, cop-killing turn as the Joker. Anarchism is a school of thought more noble than many people give it credit for. In a small effort to reform this idea about political anarchism, below is a short list of some stories, in the form of comic books, that paint anarchism in a more positive light. In keeping with this blog’s tradition of living a kick-ass life on a budget, all of these books were purchased either used or on sale. Enjoy!

No Gods, No Masters: Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

One of the central themes that runs through all the schools of Anarchism is a refusal to accept hierarchy, no matter what form it takes and no matter how established in society it may be. Gender norms, patriarchy, economic servitude, government programs and even organized religion have at one time or another faced criticism at the hands of Anarchist thinkers. Quite simply, if you’re forcing someone to do something then you’re doing it wrong.

Preacher, over the course of 66 issues bound into six trade paperbacks, skewers all these institutions through the adventures of its characters. Preacher tells the story of small-town Texas preacher Jesse Custer who is possessed by a spirit that has the potential to rival that of God. Tough not a traditional superhero, Jesse has the fighting skills of any hard drinking action hero and the unique entity inside him allows him to speak with the “Voice of God” which allows him to force anyone he meets to do literally whatever he says, be it counting all the grains of sand on a beach or literally dying there on the spot. Using this power, and the help of his gun-toting girlfriend Tulip and an Irish vampire named Cassidy, Jesse embarks on a nation-spanning mission to kill God, a figure he deems responsible for the injustice in the world by creating it and not helping to fix it.

It speaks to Jesse’s character that he rarely uses this power, and repeatedly references the fact that he doesn’t view it as a thing to abuse. Jesse reserves his power (and his ire) for institutions that oppress people for material gain. His opponents range from abusive family members, to secret religious organizations, to Klansmen, neo-Nazis and small-town business tyrants, each in their own way guilty of oppression on physical, emotional, financial or racial lines.

Jesse himself is no saint, he drinks, curses and is overall a fairly violent dude. His heroes are Bill Hicks and John Wayne, and they’re particular brand of American individualism makes itself known in his view of the world and in his sense of humor. His tendency to act like an iconoclast in regards to one-eyed Catholic Nazis and capitalist slaughter house owners that spend their off hours constructing homunculi out of meat (both of which are actual villains in this book) comes from his intense individual sense of right and wrong. His hyper-masculine bearing may be at odds with some people he meets on the surface, but Jesse is willing to defend any decent person he meets no matter how different from him they may be. It’s only when you try to force your will on others that Jesse brings the full force of the Lord down on you. Jesse’s commitment to individual freedom and his distrust of formal institutions make him a decent example of an anarchist with a moral compass. You get the sense that even if he didn’t have the power of a literal God, he’d still do everything in his power to make the world a better and freer place for those around him.

Fair Warning: This book is foul. It’s crass, full of curse words, sexual references and is explicitly blasphemous. That being said, it’s hilarious, gory and full of invincible zombie cowboys. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Millennial Punisher: Kill or be Killed by Ed Brubaker, Sean Philips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser

By far the most interesting character Marvel comics has created in the last fifty years is Frank Castle, more commonly known as “The Punisher.” The Punisher is the archetypal vigilante hero in that he has no super powers to speak of and wails on criminals with only the skills he brings to the table as a regular (if terrifying) human male.

Initially, Frank Castle was a hero in the style of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or whoever Charles Bronson played in the Deathwish film series. His appeal came from the single-minded desire he had to murder criminals with his personal military hardware collection, something that was not at all common among superhero comics when he debuted in the seventies. This style of remorseless, unquestioning hero that was willing to straight-up put villains in the ground ruled in the 80’s but has grown rapidly stale in an era of American culture dominated by school shootings. Watch his introductory scene in the Netflix series Daredevil, wherein he fires dozens of live rounds in a hospital full of people, and you’ll see that Castle is less a true hero and more a stereotypical mass shooter with only a slightly more refined sense of who it’s ok to murder.

This tendency of The Punisher to act as judge, jury and executioner is inherently fascistic. Only a fascist responds to minor crimes with overwhelming force. I once read an issue of The Punisher: War Zone where he tortures a small-time drug dealer before shooting him in the head. I was too young to read that and I still think about that scene more than most books I’ve read. That wasn’t justice. That punishment didn’t fit that crime. That’s not what a hero does. Castle forced his own violent version of the world on a guy that would have been put in jail as a non-violent offender. Castle’s lack of remorse and unwavering sense of who does and doesn’t deserve a bullet makes him a monster. Overtime humans develop. They change, grow and learn compassion. The only thing about Frank Castle that’s grown in the forty-five years he’s been around is his body count.

Most damning however, is the fact that Frank Castle is a hero without a sense of justice. He doesn’t care about making the world better, he doesn’t really care about helping people and he only barely cares about not killing innocent people in the crossfire. His desire to fight crime comes solely from a deep well of anger that came from the loss of his family. Bruce Wayne has basically the same origin story, but he created a new generation of sidekicks turned superheroes and actively fights to make Gotham a better place. The Punisher doesn’t give a good goddamn about anything like that. He uses his vigilante status as a thinly veiled excuse to fill the hole in his personality with human blood. He imposes his own brand of authority on others, whether they truly deserve death or not. The Punisher is a fascinating character, but a terrible excuse for a hero.

Kill or be Killed by Ed Brubaker offers a take on the vigilante anti-hero that takes the Punisher’s deadly form of justice and gives it a little moral balance. The main character, a New York City based graduate student named Dylan, inadvertently sells his soul to a demon mid-suicide attempt when he realizes he doesn’t want to actually die as he’s falling off a building. In order to keep the demon from claiming his soul, Dylan is tasked with hunting down and killing one person a month as the interest to the loan he took to save his own life. Unlike Frank Castle, who in most versions of the Punisher has the emotional depth of the metal parts of Robocop, Dylan agonizes over his burden. He obsessively researches targets to kill and takes great pains to ensure as few people as possible are in danger. Dylan almost exclusively targets the corrupt and the powerful. Drug lords, mafia dons, morally disgusting politicians and child molesters. Basically, he goes the people who are in charge of making the decisions that ruin the world. Even with these as his targets, Dylan deals with remorse. He feels guilt and fear. He looks for any opportunity to escape his burden because to him, killing never loses it’s emotional toll, no matter how good he gets at it. Throughout the book, Dylan’s moral compass is clear through his inner monologues and choice of victims. The book is full of Dylan’s diatribes about environmentalism, income inequality and the injustice that comes from the few forcing their will on the many. Dylan’s story is a more human take on the vigilante, and he’s a vigilante that retains his humanity despite the forces beyond his control that try and crush him.

Anarcho-Commie Batman: Renato Jones by Kaare Kyle Andrews

I said some nice things about Batman in the previous entry, but Batman’s philosophy was always confusing to me. Batman refuses to kill, but that has allowed his costumed villains to murder thousands of people throughout the years. Batman is one of the richest people in his comic universe, but spends a gross amount of his fortune funding his one man war against costumed criminals who are strongly implied only to exist because HE exists to fight them. The thing about Batman I find most distressing is his blind spot to certain crimes. Gotham is shown to be full of corrupt police and politicians. The only two decent members of the government shown in the comics are Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent before an acid attack made him into Two-Face. Batman uses a fortune to fight crime while ignoring the systemic problems that allow that crime to continue. What’s the point of jailing the Joker if he always eventually escapes. Batman works to preserve a system that doesn’t work rather than fight for change that could actually improve the lives of the people of Gotham. His Sisyphean task isn’t only a waste of his time, it’s actually ended the lives of thousands of Gotham citizens.

The series Renato Jones begs the question: What if Batman was actually capable of creating lasting, positive change in society? The character known as “Renato Jones” has a backstory very similar to Bruce Wayne: billionaire orphan playboy by day, professional masked crazy person by night. The key difference being their choice of target. Renato Jones uses his masked alter-ego to exclusively target the mega-rich. Those who have the money to legitimately make the world a better place and choose instead to hurt people for their own ends. Millionaire businessmen that abuse women, billionaires that crash economies, “job creators” that buy and sell governments to further their own business interests, all are targets of Renato Jones. Renato as a character subscribes to the belief that society cannot exist in its ideal form as long as there exists a class of people that can use wealth to force their beliefs on everyone around them.

For the record, we’re not talking about people that are self-made millionaires (for those readers that are all libertarian and crap), but generational wealth that puts one in the global 1%. Jones enemies are the recipients of inherited wealth, American versions of the Hapsburg dynasty that are so twisted by avarice, inbreeding and rampant capitalism that they only know how to use their wealth to cause pain. Renato Jones treats them and their money like a cancer, and excises them with a pistol with a knife strapped to it. As the wealth gap in America increases, as the cartoonishly rich grow more cartoonishly evil, this comic reads less as satire and more as prophecy.

Fear and Loathing in a Sci-Fi Dystopia: Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Hunter S. Thompson was in many ways a progressive leftist if not outright libertarian anarchist. His love of drugs, firearms and disdain for career politicians earns him major right-wing libertarian props, while his love of drugs, literature and hatred for Republicans and cops earns him equal props with modern leftists. There’s something about Hunter’s work for everybody!

Read any of Hunter’s work and the thing that is always at the front is a hatred for entrenched modes of authority. His first major article was literally about how twisted he thought the wealthy attendees of the Kentucky Derby were. Whether it’s his uncontrollable desire to piss off cops in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or the entire book he wrote taking a dump on the likes of George Wallace, Richard Nixon and George McGovern (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72), Hunter never missed a chance to spit in the eye of tradition in a way that made irresistible reading.

Transmetropolitan reincarnates Hunter into a future straight out of Blade Runner as the Gonzo Journalist of the 23rd century, Spider Jerusalem. Though the connection is never explicitly stated, Jersusalem’s addiction to guns, drugs and vaguely anarchic rambling are vintage Thompson. The series as a whole revolves around Spider working as a journalist in a dystopian vision of future New York. This world is grimy, everyone’s weird looking, and all the politicians are corrupt. The more things change, right?

Spider uses the Gonzo journalist tactic of inserting himself in the stories he covers in this world, revealing how human life has changed in the centuries between our time and whatever time this book takes place in. What hasn’t changed, is that politicians use their power to increase their wealth and do as they please at the expense of the freedom of others. The main arch of Transmetropolitan involves Spider trying to unseat a tyrannical bureaucrat of a president through his journalistic work. The book is full of gross-out humor, slapstick violence and plenty of death, but it shows the power that a free press can have in uniting people against their oppressors.

One Against the World: Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller

I’ve been torn about Frank Miller for years. I like a lot of his work (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, most of the Sin City series) and a lot of it is hot garbage (300, Holy Terror). His views on politics and Muslim people have been terrible for years, but one work of his that is undeniably brilliant is his first volume of the Sin City series: The Hard Goodbye. This story takes place in the fictional southwestern American city of Basin City, known as ‘Sin City’ do the corruption and crime rampant within it. The main character is Marv, an ugly concrete slab of a man unremarkable in every way aside from the fact that he’s built like a tank, ugly as your mom, and has the moral compass of film noir gumshoe. After the murder of his favorite prostitute, Marv goes on a campaign of revenge to find her murder, on the way assaulting scumbags, cops and every sort of dirtball that appears in noir detective stories. Marv crosses paths with all manner of corruption, from the cops to the aristocratic family that controls the city’s government, and in a stunning example of life imitating art, a member of the Catholic Church covering up a scandal that should rightfully end with someone being executed.

Marv’s path is violent, without compassion and hopeless. Marv knows from the beginning that he can’t win. That he can’t beat the system. That sooner or later the people that turns the gears of Sin city will grind him to powder. But that doesn’t stop him for a second. Marv obsessively seeks justice in a world where justice is almost a joke. In a world without morality, Marv acts with a sense of integrity that in a small way, makes Sin City a better place, at least for little while.

Anarchists have historically been underdogs in the struggles they engage in. Fighting established systems of government and power will do that to you. Marv’s one-man assault on the people that destroyed his city and a person he cared for is as equally hopeless as it is endearing. Marv represents a revolutionary spirit that is at the heart of anarchist philosophy. Rebel against an unjust world. Rebel in any way you can. Hopeless or not, it’s better to fight for freedom than submit to life as it is.

When assembling this list, I gathered a larger list of works from my collection than originally intended. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon!

– Jeff

P.S.: If you are interested in seeing the list of all of our blog posts please click here

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