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Hitting a Wall: Modern comics’ bigly problem in portraying Donald Trump

Trump is ultimate comics fodder, but the Big Two can’t can’t cut loose. Sad!

It’s not enough that Donald Trump is simply terrible – he’s crude and racist and the worst kind of ignorant, a boil on the face of American politics. It’s also that he’s everywhere, as he’s cast his awkward shadow on everything from late-night talk shows and linguistics to fast food and Christmas celebrations. Then again, if you were engulfed in flames at all times, we’d just have to excuse all that wailing.

Still, there’s one area of the world where Trump’s presence is neither absent nor all-consuming: comic books. Since his inauguration, the big two of DC and Marvel have had troubles contending with how to best portray Trump’s antics (if at all). The end results help us better understand comics’ role in the perpetuation of modern politics, and what that says about us as a whole. Plus, it’s another chance to mock ol’ Orange Boy, and that’s totally a right worth expressing.

Trump is no stranger to both Marvel and DC prior to his election in 2016. There was that fleeting cameo in The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, in which he tries to get Kryptonians to rebuild a ravaged Gotham City. (At least he’s consistent.) Or, that one time he got punked out hardcore by Luke Cage in the comics – and again in Cage’s Netflix series. And for the most part, his presence remains just as minimalist now that he’s the big cheese.

DC utilized Trump’s obsession with The Wall as the means for underhanded satire in Suicide Squad #39. Plus, a few random references to Trump via Aquaman and Penguin. Meanwhile, Marvel transformed Trump into M.O.D.A.A.K. in late 2017. While these instances are funny enough, they’re distinctly safe. Half-cocked pot-shots meant to drum up attention without having to commit to making a stand. But then again, doing just that isn’t always easy.

In the case of Marvel Entertainment, it doesn’t help that their CEO, Ike Perlmutter, is an ardent Trump supporter, who even had a steak dinner with the commander-in-chief. That’s had real-world consequences for the Marvel editorial line: that relationship was seen as a contributing factor for a Trump joke being cut from Marvel Two-in-One #1. Censorship is generally a despicable act, but in this case, you can’t ignore the many business variables at play (even if they are based on Perlmutter’s bro-mance with D.T.). Speaking out against the president can prove to be the wrong sort of optics, and Marvel is aware of just how harmful the wrong perception can be to their bottom line. Especially after DC’s Twitter was hacked to display nasty insults against the president just a few months back. Now, the publisher apologized, and deleted the tweets, but it was still a case of damage done. In a business where message is everything, the wrong one can be detrimental to courting and keeping an increasingly divided audience.

One could make the argument that DC seizing on any opportunity to rail against Trump would actually be better business in the long-term.  Perhaps cast the company as rebels, the anti-corporate heroes (who are still a sizable corporation). However, DC’s approach bolsters the argument that the Big Two are trying to be extra savvy in dealing with Trump. Not just in wanting to keep making money, or kiss the large backsides of powerful friends and advertisers. Inverse made a solid argument about why Trump isn’t featured more prominently in comics (especially Marvel): he’s just too much. Which is to say, Trump’s leap onto the comics pages would result in overly ridiculous events (tapping The Punisher as new secretary of defense?!) that’d distract from the stories.

Yet that Inverse argument doesn’t go further enough: Trump is clearly representative of being a bridge way too far. Not only are people generally sick of him, as noted above, but it’s really hard to talk about him in any sort of meaningful way. He’s just this huge troll who, in roughly two years, has caged children, banned transgender people from serving in the armed forces, rolled back protections on another devastating financial crisis, contributed to the rise of white nationalism, and halted the minute progress made in the war on climate change.

There’s a reason comics have always had villains that use death rays and shrink guns: the medium and its creators are often ill-prepared for large-scale politics. That shouldn’t be seen as an indictment against certain creators – comics certainly has a rich history of tackling politics. Rather, past efforts have always embraced a certain level of camp and silliness, and it’s hard to keep those afloat in the face of such a unique candidate as Trump. (Read: awful.) Because this time there isn’t an Other – it’s our friends and family and lovers we’re battling against for the sake of our national spirit. It made perfect sense when Captain America punched Hitler, but it would be truly disheartening if he KOed Steve King. (OK, it’d still be awesome).

Despite some hesitation and misfires by the two, both DC and Marvel are still finding ways to work through all this collective Trump drama. The formula, it seems, is to focus less on satirizing or poking fun at the cheeseball himself and instead address some of the ideas his presidency represents.

In 2016, Nick Spencer took over writing Captain America, and with it tackled Trump-ian politics in a big way. In Civil War II: The Oath and Captain America: Steve Rogers #10, specifically, Spencer touches not on Trump but the larger crisis he presents. As the Hydra-loyal Cap ascends to the top of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s hard not to think of life under Trump, from notions of treason-as-perpetrated-by-foreign-powers to the rampant warmongering and self-destructive nihilism. Without whispering his name, these books show us a world where Trump’s politics win in the most extreme ways imaginable.

Meanwhile, DC facilitated a similar discussion with two of its books. Also in 2016, Benjamin Percy used his run on Green Arrow to introduce Nate Domini, a spot-on Trump caricature. Given the timing – Trump won the election a month or so after Domini’s debut in the “Emerald Outlaw” story – one could call that nigh prophetic. But perhaps Percy recognized the need to move beyond such base humor, and with #33 (October 2017), made a most promising mandate to touch on social politics with each new issue. For one, it’s in keeping with the character’s long political history, but it’s done in a way to address our current situation, not just the actions of a single, fallible cretin. To explore politics and decency in a world gone 14 kinds of bonkers.

While it’s far more of throwaway gag, there was talk of fake news in last year’s Shade The Changing Woman #3. Trump won’t last (thankfully), but the cracks he’s opened certainly will. Meaningful satire strikes at the heart of something bigger than us all, to something we can’t always articulate but unites us all, for better and much worse.

What’s especially interesting and confounding about Trump’s comics portrayal is that he isn’t the first president to exist in in the medium. And DC and Marvel’s past choices only further highlight the importance of this debate.

Given their commitment to realism and a sliding timeline, Marvel has always featured real presidents (including Truman, Eisenhower, and, um, Deadpool obliterating 31 zombified presidents). More recently, though, the publisher has had an interesting relationship with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The former was originally portrayed as a bumbling idiot (accurate), but subsequent appearances saw him as far more sagely and sophisticated. The latter, meanwhile, was generally given the sort of praise reserved for God in the Bible or your new father-in-law.  These portrayals together demonstrate a few issues.

Why was Bush, an incompetent war criminal, given such a shine job? Was this another form of internal bias, or maybe just a chance to rework history through art? Either way, it shows that, at some point, Marvel wasn’t afraid to step in and adjust coverage, something they struggle with regarding Trump.  Meanwhile, Obama’s presence shows another form of bias, a clear cut disconnect from the political conversation to heap bundles of praise on a beloved president. As if it’s only alright to get political when everything’s going swimmingly. (Though Obama’s glittering portrayal does cast some doubt on Perlmutter’s editorial influence given his deeply conservative leanings).

Whereas Marvel has always tackled presidents, DC has a spotty track record. Both Clinton and Obama appeared in years past: the former was nearly assassinated by Deathstroke, while the latter, um, made a speech. But more interesting is their treatment of George W. Bush, who was basically ignored for the entirety of his presidency. (Both Obama and Bush were presidents in the DC Universe, just not in real-time). Instead of Dubya for eight actual years, DC’s America was led by, among others, Jonathan Horne and Lex Luthor.

On one hand, this confusing continuity is slightly cowardice, and at least Marvel had the gumption to use presidents in a sense that felt real (or, real enough for editorial sake). At the same time, DC’s approach is moderately refreshing. The use of Luthor, especially, let the publisher work out all sorts of political and social happenings and trends in a way that’s utterly disconnected from reality. Which not only prevents nasty backlash but also gives creators a certain freedom.

That much-coveted ability to create the sort of world leaders who perpetuate stories while also expanding characters within the universe. DC recognized its dedication to overt fantasy, and built a world where it could maximize that in a way Marvel’s authenticity doesn’t always allow. DC didn’t exactly win the satire wars, but it played the game as to better its chances of maintaining that perfect balance between the real and the utterly fantastical.

While DC and Marvel are still grappling with how to best engage all things Trump, the rest of the comics world has a much more firm grasp on the Orange One. Like, this successfully-funded Space Force comic, or Pia Guerrera’s awesome Me the People collection. That doesn’t mean DC or Marvel should throw business and good sense out the window and turn their titles into an exercise in Trump bashing (might help sales to a small extent, though).

Instead, it’s important to recognize what these two cultural pillars are doing (or not, for that matter). What messages they’re sending, and how and why. And the way you might feel about those approaches. Engagement is a crucial part of comics and politics alike, and you won’t get the most out of both experiences if you don’t recognize how you’re being courted. You may already have Trump Indigestion, but there’s actually far worst fates.

Seriously.

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