Fans of George Bush pulled an unusual weapon from their political arsenals in the 1988 campaign—comic books. Delegates and hangers-on at the Democratic Party National Convention in Atlanta reportedly were upset when handed copies of a cartoon magazine ridiculing the public record of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The appearance of the “attack” comic book, entitled Magical Mike, was indicative of a trend—funny books are no longer produced or read simply for entertainment.

Magical Mike was created by Dick Hafer, who bills himself as the “Comics Commando.” Hafer has built a reputation within conservative American political circles for his featurelength editorial cartoon satires about liberal causes. Quoting heavily from both liberal and conservative newspapers, Hafer lampooned Dukakis. He also urged readers to “make this book a collector’s item,” by “getting Mike to autograph your copy when he comes to your area to perform his quickchange act. Just ask him . . . he’ll be happy to oblige.”

Dukakis supporters struck back, drawing on the talents of mainstream fantasy comic book writers and illustrators working for the third largest producer of such magazines in the United States, Eclipse Comics. Their comic book, Brought to Light, was available in time for the November elections. According to an employee at Village Comics in New York, who had seen advance copies of the 72-page magazine, it publicized “the incredible record of the Reagan administration’s involvement in the Central American drug trade, and the CIA-contra war against Nicaragua.” Specifically, he said, “it would target the relationship between Vice President George Bush and Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega,” who has been indicted by a Florida court on charges of drug trafficking.

The appearance of comic books in the presidential campaign reflects a growing tendency within the realm of comic bookdom to link the multitude of superheroes to current political, social, and environmental issues. The mainstream comics have progressed steadily and profitably along political lines in recent years. Their readers are exposed to increasingly liberal views of global sociopolitical issues.

The comic book firms would not respond to my requests for interviews with comic book writers and editors. However, a fairly interesting profile of an assistant editor appears in the September 1988 issue of Marvel’s G.I. Joe. Bobbie Chase writes that her hobbies include “making fun of politicians.” Her list of pet peeves is headed by “Ronald Reagan” and “television evangelists,” and “the Moral Majority and other fascist organizations.”

Several mass-market superheroes aligned themselves with detente in the heady first two years of the Soviet regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. As the words glasnost and perestroika became commonplace in the US press, comics were quick to respond. In late 1986, DCs Green Lantern Corps (GLC)—a squad of controversial extraterrestrials—suffered a serious split between advocates of Gorbachev’s restructuring, and those aliens who thought earthly politics should be left alone. The “dumbest” of the green aliens had been befriended by an American Communist while attending a baseball game in California. The man invited the alien to visit his “friends” in the Soviet Union. They turned out to be Mikhail Gorbachev and his senior advisers at the Kremlin.

GLC set off on its four-volume series keyed to detente after DC pencil artist Joe Staton returned from a trip to the Soviet Union with a pile of photographs and a wealth of personal impressions. GLC editor Andy Heifer wrote a landmark editor’s note in the January 1987 issue of the corps’ comic, in which he described his reaction to Staton’s snapshots and experience: “The picture [Staton] painted wasn’t exactly a pretty one . . . but from it emerged an image of Soviet Russian society that seemed to strike ye old editor as being poor, rather than oppressed.”

That issue of the corps’ comic had as cover art one of the Green Lanterns boldly leading the armed masses forward. Drawn in the style of the giant billboards so prevalent in socialist nations, the superhero held aloft a red banner that proclaimed: “Forward, Proletarian Superhero!”

No, the series did not go on to praise the Communist heartland—the Soviets used the powers of the GLC members who visited that nation to clone a “Red” superhero—but it did raise the idea of moral equivalence to new heights. Each issue of the series, say comic book distributors in New York City, sold out very quickly.

Stressing the new link between comics and politics even more forcefully, the February 1987 issue of DC’s Blue Beetle had President Reagan outlawing superheroes, because dastardly villains had begun impersonating the superior good guys and committing crimes in their disguises.

Reagan and Gorbachev were joined—literally—in the persona of yet another superhero. This neurotic creation talked to himself His two personalities were named Ronnie and Mikhail.

At the end of one issue of Marvel Comics’ Merc, the star-mercenary, Mark Hazard, who has just thwarted an attempt on the life of an Israeli diplomat by Arab terrorists, goes to a movie—Rambo. Despite the fact that he is a mercenary, and despite the fact that Hazard has (cynically) fought alongside freedom fighters in Central America, he says to himself: “First I shoot the projectionist. Then I burn the prints. Stallone must be found before he kills again.”

There was a time when comic book superheroes fought either for the United States and against totalitarian nations, for the people of one city against archcriminals, or for Earth against alien invaders. Now they fight among themselves, with their own troubled “darker” sides, or against such targets as toxic waste dumpers, religious cults, drug traffickers, and self-appointed urban crime patrols.

Though juveniles have traditionally been the prime readers—and purchasers— of comic books, these days most are clearly aimed at an older audience. In a note attached to Word Warriors, an independently produced special issue magazine about illiteracy, DC Comics’ senior editor/director of development Mike Gold says: “Comic book storytelling has matured at a time when the average novel, movie and television show has devolved to meet the desires of a less sophisticated audience.”

The push into the world of adult fantasy reading (setting aside the satirical monthlies Mad and Cracked) of the comic book genre came in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when “hippy” illustrators such as R. Crumb and Ralph Bakshi penned the drug-and-sex adventures of, respectively, Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat. Bakshi today is responsible for CBS-TV’s The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. Episodes of that Saturday morning “kids” show have attacked capitalism, veered close to pornography, and allegedly sympathized with cocaine use.

Another significant change in the genre has been the appearance in America of book-length comics on a single theme. Though such illustrated books have been popular in countries such as France and Japan for decades, the release of Art Spiegelman’s full-length cartoon novel, Maus, just two years ago vaulted American comics into a new dimension. More than 100,000 copies of this book about the Holocaust, where the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice, have been sold, and Maus was nominated for an award from the National Book Critics Circle.

Though most American kids have grown up reading some kind of comic book, reading them now has become an adult pastime, and clearly less innocent. As DC Comics’ Gold put it in 1987, comic books “are on the cutting edge of sophisticated storytelling. . . . A great many comics test out at higher reading levels than many novels. The grand joke is that, today, reading comic books is a true sign of literacy.”