Off-the-page perspective: Expert talks ‘Four-Color Reality’ and the impact of comic books in America

The X-Men are actually just a symbolic representation of civil rights when you really think about it.

That is, if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that kind of thing.

T. Andrew Wahl is the kind of person who thinks about that kind of thing a lot — and lately he has had a lot to think about.

These are strange times we’re living in. “The Seduction of the Innocent” has become fun for the whole family; characters once passionately obsessed over by only the most awkward social outcasts and reality-ducking adolescents are cultural icons in this, the latest dramatic development in the ongoing saga that is the story of comic books and their effect on culture in America, the history of which Wahl, a reporter and journalism professor by trade, is a dedicated keeper.

Since the modern origin of the form way back in 1933 — and especially the debut of Superman in Action Comics in 1938 — the U.S. has had a storied and mercurial relationship with comic books. They’ve been beloved, despised, ignored, censored, and are now big blockbuster business in Tinseltown. Barely a season goes by in which we don’t see a new offering from Marvel or DC (or, technically, from the Walt Disney Company or Warner Brothers) and at the same time creators are putting more heterogeneous visions on the page (or e-Reader screen) than ever before.

“You’ve definitely seen a growing sense of diversity,” Wahl said. “When I was a kid, if you went to a comic book convention … it was probably 95 percent white men in the room. If a woman walked in the room it was actually like a unicorn coming in, we’d all kind of stop and stare. And now if you go to Emerald City [Comic Con] in Seattle it’s about 50-50 in terms of the gender mix; people from all walks of life, all different kinds of sexual identity backgrounds, race and ethnicity backgrounds. It’s just a much more encompassing community now and all of that has been reflected in the stories themselves.”

Wahl is a journalist, editor and comic book historian. He’s a lifelong aficionado of the medium, and actually studied comic books as a part of his master of arts degree in the humanities at Fort Hays State University. He currently teaches journalism at Everett Community College, when he’s not traveling as a Humanities Washington speaker to talk about his true love.

He is going to visit the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art as part of the ongoing Momentum Festival offerings at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 27 to give an interactive presentation, “Four-Color Reality: How Comic Books and the Real World Shape Each Other,” exploring how everything from social movements to business concerns to changing demographics have shaped the reality seen in the pages of comics — and how those seemingly simple superhero stories have changed the real world in turn.

Admission is free with RSVP; visit to learn more and reserve a ticket.

“When I pick up a comic book it is a gateway to being 10 years old again. But from the perspective of somebody who works in academia I also see comic books as a wonderful lens for exploring American history,” Wahl said. “You can track anything from social movements to political uprisings to changes in social mores, all of that can be see in any of pop culture — movies, science fiction, all of it — but it’s only since the 1970s that we’ve really started to use comic books to do the same kind of work.”

Superhero stories especially, Wahl said, are an excellent yardstick for measuring the concerns of a given time.

Captain America? Obviously.

“Look at the creation of Captain America: Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Marvel Universe, was the child of Jewish immigrants. And Captain America, in his first issue you’ve got Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the nose. There’s no subtly in the message he was sending.”

Wonder Woman? Duh.

“Wonder Woman was created by … a radical feminist, a whole level of feminism that you see in today’s society back in the 1940s. So Wonder Woman was intentionally started as a character to promote a different ideology of peace, love, adjustment, that you weren’t seeing in pop culture at the time.”

Even the X-Men? Please, especially the X-Men.

“The X-Men have been around since the early ’60s and were initially created as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, but you look at the original membership and there could not be black members of the team because that would have been way too risky from a sales perspective,” Wahl said. “Then, when the new X-Men were launched in the 1970s you had characters from all over the world. Storm was there, she was actually from Africa. Now, if you look at the X-Men, every type of creature on the planet is a member of the X-Men at this point because the climate has changed.”

Wahl believes it is the immediacy of comic books — that they are written, drawn and printed so quickly and so often — that makes them especially valuable as cultural time capsules.

“The thing about comic books and pop culture is because they are a business item first — companies aren’t publishing them because they’re trying to make artistic statements, they’re trying to sell product — they’ve got to tap into the zeitgeist, they’ve got to tap into that spirit of the time in order to sell product,” he said. “That’s what makes them such fascinating relics to explore a particular time in history, how a particular time in history is looking at the world around them.”

What does the superhero guru make of our current infatuation with costumed saviors on screen? Are we a nation that feels we need to be rescued?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s a more familiar response.

“The last time superheroes where this popular in American culture was in the 1940s and we were at war,” Wahl said. “As we were in this period of war, superheroes became a huge part of our pop cultural landscape. We’ve been at war now for nearly two decades. Incoming students in my college classes, we’ve been at war for their entire lives … I can’t draw a direct correlation there, but it seems that kind of culture, of being at war, definitely could be part of the rebirth of superheroes in popular culture.”

Perhaps even as a common enemy can make petty differences quickly irrelevant, so too can a common fandom?

“It’s a very divisive time in the United States; every year we think we’ve kind of hit the bottom in terms of divisiveness, but we seem to find new lows to get to,” Wahl said.

“So having superheroes, having this common thing we can rally around, seems to be awfully appealing. Even moving comic books out of the individual reading experience, where we’re alone, and moving it into the movie theaters where we have this communal space where we can come together, I think that’s part of it, too.”

It’s not so far fetched. According to Wahl, once upon a time comic books were the great pop culture unifier in America.

“During the 1940s, up until the ’50s when you had the backlash with the Comics Code [Authority] coming in and the book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ being published, which made the accusation that comic books were causing juvenile delinquency, prior to that — in the 1940s — 70 million Americans read comic books,” Wahl said. “More than 80 percent of all Americans read comic books. One of the most popular demographics for comic book readers was military men on the front line. So in the 1940s nobody was thinking comic books were anything but wholesome entertainment.”

That all changed in the years after Victory over Japan Day. In the peace that followed the second war to end all wars, America seemingly just couldn’t stand having no enemy — so we turned inward: the Hollywood Blacklist, the Red Scare and McCarthysim, and the censorship of the Comics Code Authority.

“It always cracks me up when you look at the Comics Code [Authority] period,” Wahl said. “The United States created this art form that actually engaged young people in reading, they were willing to spend their own money to buy things to read, and what did we try to do? We tried to immediately put comic books out of business.

“Meanwhile, at that time period, we were exporting comic books around the world and in Japan manga is taking off, in Europe in the 1950s comics are starting to be published in hardcover library edition albums, but here in the United States we’re trying to crush that fledgling industry in its crib.”

Mission, obviously, not accomplished.