By Gabriel Bayarri Toscano and Concepción Fernández-Villanueva
Emergent Conversation 17
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Aesthetics and Politics of Far Right Movements
The massive industry and pop culture phenomenon of the comic book superhero was initiated by a cohort of primarily Jewish immigrants in New York City as a response to twentieth century fascism in Europe. As renowned comics writer and illustrator Art Spiegelman (2019) notes, during the Golden Age of comics that began in the 1940s, comic book heroes such as Captain America combatted European fascism (including Adolf Hitler himself) through few words and otherworldly force. Comic book producers also created these characters as a defense of the American cultural hegemony of the New Deal and sought to represent the possibility of salvation for “Western civilization” amidst the destruction of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Paradoxically, it is the global far-right of today for whom the image of the comic book superhero is particularly resonant (Bayarri 2022). In this article we show a series of memetic images, constructed anonymously and circulated online, in which far-right leaders including Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India are aesthetically represented as embodying the heroism typified in the productions of Marvel Worldwide, Inc. (known as “Marvel Comics”) and DC Comics (part of Warner Brothers, a subsidiary of Warner Media). Through indirect yet highly effective communication (Shifman 2014), these memes draw on fundamental aesthetic tropes of the superhero genre as contemporary folklore made globally popular through mass media to depict the righteousness of the superhero and the far-right leader as indistinguishable (for more in-depth analysis, see Fernández-Villanueva and Bayarri 2021a; 2021b; 2022). These include the duality of good and evil, masculinist strength as necessary for confronting one’s enemies, militarism as a constitutive element of the hero’s ethos, the hero’s divine abilities and duties to fulfill a salvationist function in society, and the presence of playful and humorous prowess.
However, rather than fight fascism, these political figures cum superheroes wield their powers in the service of what scholars such as Mudde (2007, 2019) identify as core ideological features of far-right movements, such as nativism (a fusion of nationalism and xenophobia) or revanchism—the idea that a section of a country’s population must reclaim absolute power amidst shifts in the normative regulation of gender and sexuality or demands for rights by those they view as ethnic, national, and racial others. The prevalence of these memes underscores a need to interrogate the seeming ease with which these massive popular culture icons can be made into alluring symbols of heteropatriarchal domination at the heart of far-right ideology.
The Far-Right Hero
Above (Images 1-4) is a sample of the images we extracted from two prominent websites that allow users to produce, share, and distribute memes: Pinterest and Memedroid (Bayarri and Fernández-Villanueva 2022). Our methodology takes as a reference the hypersignification of memes and their linguistic, denotative and connotative dimensions described by Barthes (1995). A denotative message refers to the explicit content of the image, which can also condense several meanings. Connotative message describes the cultural meanings that are hidden but suggested by association or displacement.
By recasting far-right leaders as Marvel/DC protagonists, these memes symbolically endow them with those heroes’ capacities: the ability to control elements such as fire or gravity and the political legitimacy to exercise social and physical control with and because of their divine attributes. Much like Captain America’s vibranium steel shield, these far-right leader superheroes are depicted as indestructible. These two aesthetic qualities, divine power and indestructibility, reinforce the interplay of benevolence and coercion that is central to authoritarianism, whereby the survival of the masses depends on the supreme power of the strongman to dictate life and death.
The godlike attributions of comic heroes lend themselves to far-right leaders’ efforts to embody the position of political outsider even while firmly implanted in state institutions. Superheroes rise above the shortcomings of humanity through their capabilities and their moral purity, which is why they are often detested by a corrupt police force and political class. The aesthetics of the superhero as morally pure and nonpartisan pairs well with authoritarians who cultivate an image of themselves as uncontaminated by formal politics, especially given Marvel Comics has reportedly been pressuring its creators to remain “apolitical” in their storytelling (Spiegelman 2019).
Such divine attributions are also emphasized by a specific aesthetic trait present in all the images: shine. While shine is evoked through use of a simple, basic painting technique, it creates a veneer or aura of divinity—a vernacular of religious paintings in which messianic figures are depicted as having a singular light shining on them, or with a halo floating above their head. While wielding Iron Man’s robotic fists, Thor’s hammer, and Captain America’s shield, these leaders accept through shine the divine call to enact the punitive fantasies for which they advocate (Leidig and Bayarri 2022). Most importantly, meme makers conceal right-wing violence through these shiny aesthetics that are part of a narrative universe in which the hero’s violence is always noble and administered in defense of the greater good.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of far-right leaders and comic book heroes gives them glamor: an eccentric charm and playfulness that justifies their actions and rhetoric in emotional registers. Political leaders are presented as hyperkinetic figures with hypertrophied muscles in excess of human anatomic capacities. The montages of photographs with various facial expressions of the leaders provoke in the superimposition distorted effects with respect to the original humourlessness and inexpressiveness of the Marvel and DC heroes. The bodies are obviously different from those of real people, and the leaders’ often-joyful facial expressions are inconsistent with the heroes’ serious demeanors concealed in these memes. The absurd artificial montage of the political leader and the super-hero can thus facilitate or reinforce an ideological connection between the leader and his or her followers through humor.
In short, these memes underscore the role of pleasure, entertainment, and playfulness, however cynical, in energizing right-wing movements. It is this playfulness that distinguishes these right-wing memes from icons such as the Punisher skull—an overt symbol of hypermasculine grievance politics and violent retribution—which has been circulated among right-wing factions of U.S. police forces, the U.S. and Israeli militaries, and extremist vigilante groups (Lorber 2021; Steinmetz 2021). Unlike the forces that actually carry out right-wing violence, right-wing leaders and their meme makers are typically more careful to uphold these leaders’ image as benevolent strongmen.
The Dark Side of Heroism
Heroism often has a dark side, consisting basically of two features: 1) the excessive valuation, divinization or idealization of far-right extremist leaders, and 2) the simultaneous concealment and glorification of violence as a legitimate and desirable mechanism of political action against collective enemies. While this article shows the various elements that characterize the comic book heroes of the far-right, it is worth asking why these traits are massively appealing.
As we have seen, superheroes are highly individualistic, usually alien to official politics, superhuman, and noble in their use of violence. This hyper-individualism partly explains why many recent grassroots protest movements across the globe have favored the aesthetics of comic book villains and anti-heroes, such as the Joker or Guy Fawkes, whose politics are more explicitly collectivist (Ussakli 2021). For subscribers to far-right ideology, the fascist aesthetics and tendencies of protagonist superheroes are alluring (Phillips 2010). To this point, Paxton’s (2007) definition of fascism is instructive:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion (218).
If an individualistic and victimized community needs salvationist and redemptive violence, who better than a supremely gifted superhero to provide it?
Through the representation of a war metaphor, in a polarized struggle between “good” and “evil,” the far-right co-opts the narrative universe of these heroes. The aesthetic elements of Marvel and DC comics and movies reinforce the construction of this metaphor and camouflage a kind of violence that, under the traits of heroes many have known since childhood, seem harmless, amusing, and even divinely ordained to save us from cumulating crises. The far-right is diluted in a new imaginary through the symbols of this Westernist, and more specifically, Americanist heroism. We cannot underestimate the power of the aesthetic dimension in the process of domination by the far-right, which presents its leaders in the costume of these heroes. Who could be afraid of Superman, Ironman, Batman or Captain America? After all, the only people who should fear these figures are the villains of the world.
Dr. Gabriel Bayarri Toscano is a Newton International Fellow at the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. In his research, he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in physical and virtual spaces where the discourses of Latin American right-wing populism operate. His current project as a NIF is called: “Discourse Polarisation: The Memetic Violence of the Latin American Right-Wing Populisms”.https://research.sas.ac.uk/institute-imlr/fellow/1748/dr-gabriel-bayarri/ . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Concepción Fernández Villanueva is a Full Professor of Social Psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid and also serves as the Director of the “Psychosociology of Social Violence and Gender” research team. She has led numerous research projects focusing on youth violence, gender-based violence, and violence in social media. Recently, she has published several articles on the topics of legitimation, identification, and emotional responses to factual violence in social media. https://www.ucm.es/dep-psicologia-social/cv-concepcion-fernandez-villanueva. Email: email@example.com.
Full article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/17/art-spiegelman-golden-age-superheroes-were-shaped-by-the-rise-of-fascism
According to illustrator Alex Ross (2016), DC Comics has maintained the iconic purity of historical characters while Marvel Comics has delved into science fiction archetypes that can be adapted to different moments in history. The heroic model of both publishers is intertwined in the new artistic productions of the far- right, mixing characters and elements of their bodies in a fluid way, and showing the enormous cultural hegemony that these characters enjoy in the construction of political identities and moral values that fall on a binary of good and evil. Full interview available at: https://www.denofgeek.com/comics/the-soaring-superhero-art-of-alex-ross/
Spiegelman (2019) explains how the Chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, billionaire Isaac Perlmutter, is a close friend and supporter of Donald Trump.
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