“I don’t put personal politics in my work,” comics creator Chuck Dixon says, citing the fact that he wrote an anti-gun Batman despite being an NRA member himself. “But, back in 2000, there were a lot of political cliques going on in comics. Once your reputation is soiled for leaning to the right, it’s hard to get it back.”
In 2000, the year Dixon points to, he was nearing the end of a record-breaking tenure on Batman. He had spent the ‘90s as Batman’s most prolific writer, co-creating super-villains Bane and Spoiler, launching solo series for Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl, and even authoring the first Birds of Prey standalone series. He was a big name in an increasingly big world, but Dixon says his career took a hit when publishers began leaning left and his conservative values came to light. “I’m not a victim, though,” he added.
He’s certainly bad at playing one. Last week, he published a graphic novel adaptation of Peter Schweizer’s controversial take down Clinton Cash with Brett R. Smith. Schweizer, who gets his name in bold on the cover, runs the conservative Government Accountability Institute with Steve Bannon, the conservative firebrand currently running Trump for President. Dixon and Smith describe their anti-Clinton book as “radioactive,” but it’s already finding a bigger audience than some of their previous work. It’s just a very different audience – which is where things get a bit confusing.
Dixon and Smith are pleased with the sales and what they say those sales represent. They claim that superhero comic book readers remain liberal and conservative in equal numbers, but that comics publishers and critics are overwhelmingly liberal. Dixon said he wants to “keep making comics for the right.” This is surely a political and aesthetic choice, but also a business decision.
Clinton Cash debuted at number one on the NY Times Bestsellers List, knocking Batman: The Killing Joke down to the second spot. Killing Joke, notably, has been on the Bestsellers List for more than four years.
Dixon and Smith believe Clinton Cash: The Graphic Novel’s commercial success is evidence of an underserved conservative readership in comics, but that’s a difficult argument to prove. Accusing Marvel of an attempt to alienate its conservative readers isn’t a novel thought, and even Marvel executives have responded to the criticism by countering that their book sales tell another story. Despite redefining some of its historically white, male heroes being lauded as a “liberal” move, Marvel says it’s simply following the capitalist bottom line, selling titles that are most in demand. However, Dixon says he still feels ostracized by the industry for identifying as a conservative. He declines to play nice.
On the subject of his Birds of Prey comic, Dixon told Fanzing in 2000, “I don’t believe all the ultra-feminist nonsense but I do believe that women are a civilizing influence on man.” By 2014, Dixon had ceased to be elliptical in his critiques, publishing an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming liberalism had poisoned contemporary comics. His stance hasn’t changed since then.
Both Dixon and Smith say superhero comics should strive to be an apolitical as possible, and they both only seem to have a problem with what they call “social justice warrior” changes to superhero canon. An “apolitical” publisher, they seem to agree, would keep all of its primary heroes defined as they originally were: That means a lot of white, straight, male heroes.
“Publishers like DC and Marvel,” Nixon says, “want to get media coverage outside of the comics realm, so they do these cynical, political moves, changing the race or gender or sexual persuasion of an existing character.” When asked what they meant by “cynical,” both Smith and Dixon compared the creation of new female or non-white characters like Ironheart or Miles Morales or Thor: Goddess of Thunder to cheap tactics used in 80s and 90s superhero comics, like killing off Superman with no intention to keep him dead. Storylines in superhero comics have always been temporary, and even gender flipping isn’t new; DC debuted Earth 11, a reverse-gender universe, in 2005.
“They’ll switch it all back,” Dixon says. “If you want a diverse group of characters, write new ones and stop altering characters who already exist.”
“They like to make Thor a chick or make this person transgender, and it creates a story within the media, which is why people buy the book,” says Smith. “But those changes have nothing to do with writing a good story.”
As for superheroes they still admire, Dixon and Smith both point to DC’s Batman as their favorite, though Smith adds he likes Iron Man as well. Batman and Iron Man are both self-made heroes who choose vigilantism, instead of being given superhuman powers by a freak accident. “Also, they both have money, and that’s fun to think about,” Smith says. “If I had that much money, what would I be able to do?”
The Marvel comics featuring a female Thor vastly outsold original, male Thor comics at the time, but Smith believes this as a temporary bump in sales, inspired by the larger media story that erupted around the publisher’s change. It’s also worth noting that none of the existing gender-swapped heroes, or superheroes of ethnicities and backgrounds other than caucasian, have replaced the original, male, white heroes on shelves. In some cases, as with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man and Miles Morales’s Spider-Man, the two work in tandem, and in others — like Ironheart — the original Iron Man acts as a Bruce Wayne or Oracle, advising from the sidelines.
But Dixon does have a point. While President Bush made several appearances in Marvel Comics, appearing silly in some, and like a straight-forward POTUS prop in others (he’s saved by the X-Men), President Obama appears in Marvel Comics as an active character, with agency. In Siege #4, Obama abolishes the Superhuman Registration Act and restores Captain America to a place of power. He’s also friends with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man.
Marvel and Dixon appear to agree on one thing: Politics can lead to better sales. “To me, the paradigm shift started for us when we brought in the female Thor, because that horrified and supposedly alienated the people you’re talking about, but it also certainly rejuvenated that character and that book and made it one of our bestselling books,” Marvel’s Senior Vice President David Gabriel recently told ICV2. The issue that preceded the debut of female Thor ranked at number 43 in comic book sales. When female Thor made her debut, her first issue ranked immediately at number 3, behind only Death of Wolverine, a stunt, and Walking Dead, a publishing juggernaut.
Letting a non-white or non-male character (Thor’s longtime partner Jane Foster) wield Mjölnir temporarily wasn’t a completely new idea — Miles Morales, for example, first appeared in 2011 — and no profit-focused publisher could be blamed for attempting to repeat successes. Perhaps Dixon is giving Marvel too much credit by assuming the publishing company’s motivations are political at all.
The argument that Clinton Cash’s success suggests anything related to superheroes also doesn’t hold water. The book’s high sales may be proof that the comics medium, divorced from any particular subject matter, has a larger potential audience than publishers had realized, but the only thing that might prove Smith and Dixon’s point would be a popular, conservative superhero. Hillary Clinton isn’t that.
In truth, this is nothing new. This is how non-comics publishing has worked for decades. It’s not uncommon for large publishing houses to have conservative wings because those books sell. Penguin Random House’s imprint Sentinel, for example, specifically caters to a conservative “right-of-center” readership. Comics publishers don’t have these subdivisions, which is why Dixon and Smith went with Regnery, an independent conservative publisher. But their success could prove to Marvel or DC that the traditional two-faced approach makes sense in every medium. You can borrow from Peter to pay Paul even if Peter and Paul disagree on everything.
Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like Dixon and Smith really resent publishers. After all, there have been popular comics up their alley. The Punisher series, starring a hero beloved by most conservative readers and occasionally written by Dixon himself, continues to kill. What Dixon and Smith seem to dislike is the cultural dialogue around comics as a means of social change. They are the antithesis of “social justice warriors.” They fight for the status quo and maybe even for a status quo that ceased to be quo a while back. Who are their enemies? The people who buy Miles Morales Spider-Man comics. It’s a readership they have come to both rely on and resent.
Fortunately for the two of them, they have a new readership. Judging by how Clinton Cash has sold, they can succeed on their own terms. They just can’t take their heroes with them.