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In the flooded streets of Boston, Aquaman defeats his villainous half-brother Orm Marius, the Ocean Master, in combat. Members of the Justice League watch as Aquaman claims the throne of Atlantis and proclaims to his brother’s legions:
“I AM YOUR KING!”
Why were Aquaman and his brother fighting? During the eight-issue story arc “Throne of Atlantis” from 2012, Ocean Master — who has always hated the surface dwellers who pollute the oceans —wages war on the “drymouths” of the surface world, flooding coastal cities across the United States. The story ends with Aquaman defeating and imprisoning his brother before claiming the Atlantean throne.
Wielding his mighty trident as the Atlanteans kneel around him, Aquaman yells out at the end of battle, “The surface world is not a threat!”
But it might be tough to convince someone who lived in the ocean that surface-dwellers aren’t a threat: Sea levels continue to rise up to 3.6mm a year, higher heat levels threaten worse reef bleaching across the world, and plastic is so pervasive in the ocean that a diver found plastic bags 11 kilometres deep on a record-breaking sub dive in the Mariana Trench.
“Throne of Atlantis” was published in November 2012, the same month the United States Department of Justice was settling federal criminal charges with the British energy company BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which devasted ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean Master’s long-standing hate of us surface-dwellers doesn’t seem so far fetched.
Was the release of “Throne of Atlantis” coordinated to try and change the public’s view on certain environmental disasters or those who cause them? No, probably not, but “Throne of Atlantis” represents another point in the long and strange relationship between comics, superheroes, and environmentalism. Since superheroes first took to the skies, they have been used to spread messages of truth and justice to their reader.
Comics have an incredible power to engage with readers on the issues of their time. Superheroes have the power to touch the hearts and minds of those who pick up a comic book. But when it comes to talking to readers about environmental issues — possibly the most significant threat we face as a species — our superheroes are only beginning to use their powers to their full potential.
Heroes Through History
Since kids first flipped through the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, superheroes have had social commentary at their core. In 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, sons of Jewish immigrants, debuted Captain America on the cover of his titular series punching Hitler in the face at a time when there was no guarantee of the United States’ opposition to Nazi Germany. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman as a representation of the unconventional, liberated woman – embodying the characteristics of his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and their polyamorous life partner, Olive Byrne.
As they emerged before World War II, superheroes inspired strength and bravery in the face of danger. Wonder Woman’s alter ego was part of the Women’s Army Corps, and you can still find photos of Batman firing a machine gun, encouraging readers to buy war bonds.
For decades comics have been used as vehicles of propaganda. During World War II, the Writers’ War Board, the main propaganda organization in the United States during World War II, used comic publishers to spread anti-Japanese and anti-Nazi messages across the globe. In his book Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, Paul W. Hirsch says the United States government pushed comic books because they were cheap, durable, and easily hidden. “Board members simply assumed that any medium as popular as the comic book doubtless exerted influence on its audience.” American policy-makers believed the messaging behind comics could be understood by anyone, of any education level, in any country. Hirsch also notes that “because comic books […] were categorized as lowbrow entertainment, they seemed an unlikely source of government propaganda.”
In the post-war world, fears changed. Nuclear power, atomic radiation, and the fear of unknown weapons capable of destroying life grew as the Cold War raged. In comics, this saw the rise of strange, radiated heroes like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. These heroes spread a message to readers that it wasn’t the power that should be feared but who wielded it.
During this period, communism became the real enemy in many North American superhero comics . In Fantastic Four #1 (1961), Sue Storm makes the case that their flight into space, which would ultimately change their lives forever, is worth any risks to beat the “commies” there. Captain America emerged again for a short period as “Captain America… Commie Smasher!” Issue #1 saw Cap and his sidekick leave a communist spy to die in a burning house. It comes as no shock that Marvel later retconned this period, making the commie-busting Cap an unhinged doppelgänger obsessed with the original star-spangled man.
Instances of Americans and their ‘enemies’ working together, like the Teen Titans meeting and working with the young Soviet hero, Starfire, to capture a jewel thief, weren’t uncommon. Although most of these stories ended with the Soviet heroes realizing their American counterparts weren’t so bad after all, and maybe they had something to learn from them. The American heroes often didn’t have to change much of their belief system.
All this is to say that superhero comics have a long history of reflecting their society’s beliefs (usually the beliefs of Americans). When North America went to war, superheroes talked about wars. When we feared other nations, our heroes defeated or showed the other countries a ‘better way’ forward. Governments have recognized this influence and attempted to use it to spread their messages (to varying degrees of success). If the early comics were about the war and the mid-1950s onward were about Cold War fears, what was the 1970s all about?
In 1970, President Nixon stresses the importance of environmental issues in his State of the Union Address. General Motors promises pollution-free cars by 1980. The energy crisis fuels funding for alternate energy. In short, people were talking green across the country.
The late-1960s and early 70s brought on a new wave of fear as Americans faced a series of environmental disasters. Pollution in Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River fire, and the Santa Barbra oil spill were among the many tragedies that pushed people to get more involved in the conservation movement. April 22, 1970, was the first-ever Earth Day, a peaceful demonstration across the United States led by grassroots groups and organized labour campaigning for environmental reform.
Across the world, citizens became more aware of the impacts they were having on the environment locally, nationally, and internationally. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were established in 1970. The Clean Water Act followed in 1972, all marking the major shift occurring in public opinion on environmental protection.
At the same time, comics were having a resurgence. In 1971 there was a relaxation of regulations that the Comics Code Authority had brought in during the 1950s to regulate content due to public concern about the medium’s graphic nature. Social issues were once again front and centre of this new wave, much as they had been decades earlier. Iron Man dealt with alcoholism, the X-Men resurged as a metaphor for the struggles of minorities in the U.S., and Roy Harper (Green Arrow’s sidekick) dealt with drug addiction. Social commentary wasn’t just a feature of comics anymore. It was a selling point — which makes the lack of environmentalism messaging stand out.
In the popular superhero stories during this Bronze Age of comics (roughly 1970–1985), there wasn’t a wide range of superhero stories talking about their environment the same way they were about other social issues.
Aquaman, who people today might think would’ve been leading the charge on environmentally related stories, was more of a joke to general audiences, heavily tied to his reputation as a wholesome supporting member of the Super Friends show.
Poison Ivy, who in the modern era is more of an eco-warrior, was a femme-fatale whose plots involved her brainwashing men by kissing them. Her ties to environmentalism wouldn’t truly emerge until Neil Gaiman wrote the 1988 story “Pavane” in Secret Origins #36.
It’s important to note the lack of Canadian comics during this time. Canada has a long and interesting history with comic book publishing, including the fact that Superman’s original co-creator was born in Toronto. However, the long and short of it is that in 1940, the War Exchange Conservation Act passed, restricting the import of all non-essential goods, including American comic books, which were dominating the superhero scene at the time. This led to an influx of Canadian comic publishers and the birth of the Canadian Whites (these books had colour covers and black and white interiors).
Heroes like Nelvana of the Northern Lights, one of the first female superheroes, fought Hitler and his allies across the great white north throughout the war. However, when the war ended the Canadian Whites faced harsh competition as American superheroes returned to Canadian shelves. By 1947, almost all the publishers who had appeared during the war folded. American comics rapidly became North American comics.
But in 1972, Canadian children in the Maritimes did meet an environmentally-focused hero. Dressed like a sanitation worker and wielding his trusty pollutant-free Eco-Belt, kids read as Captain Enviro battled the alien Pollutians to save kids across the country from their evil pollution.
Captain Enviro appeared in three self-titled comics produced by Comic Book World for the Committee of Environment Minister, a subcommittee under the Council of Maritime Premiers. These comics were part of broader educational programming meant to help educate people on dangers to the environment.
However, Captain Enviro’s story proposes a more conservative view on protecting the environment. The Captain Enviro books put a lot of ownership on the individual to make changes to help protect the environment rather than the industries and government regulations causing most of the damage.
In the 1970s, rivers burned, beaches were coated black, and you had major oil companies already predicting the current climate crisis. Where once Captain America led stories in support of defeating enemies across seas, and the Fantastic Four sent a message of exploring the unknown sciences and powers, heroes were noticeably quiet.
Instead of heroes, monsters emerged.
Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, two hulking, monstrous masses of earth and dirt, first appeared in 1971, their stories much more Creature from the Black Lagoon than they were Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
There were some hints at a more direct environmental messaging with both characters. During the 1970s, Man-Thing had to stop F.A. Schist, who wanted to build an airport on the swamp. However, Man-Thing isn’t exactly a traditional superhero. He appeared in titles named Adventures in Fear and Savage Tales. Man-Thing was really about the macabre and the weird.
The 1980s relaunched both major superhero publishers. Marvel launched a significant crossover event title, Secret Wars, which saw a new status quo emerge in their universe. The same year, DC released Crisis on Infinite Earths, which also saw the DCU emerge with a new origin. Publishing companies use these relaunches to help make things a little more streamlined, introduce new characters, and allow new readers to get on board.
In the DCU, this relaunch was an opportunity to reimagine Swamp Thing, who up until this point was starring in a poor-selling monster comic. In 1984, DC hired Alan Moore to write Saga of the Swamp Thing, which became an acclaimed run for the character.
The story saw the character ponder his nature. Was he a man, a monster, or a god? The opening pages see Swamp Thing on the run from the Sunderland Corporation, an evil mega business. As Swamp Thing wanders through the brush of some Louisiana swamps, he ponders the world’s changes.
“It’s a… new world, Arcane. It’s full of… shopping malls and striplights and software. The dark corners are being pushed back… a little more every day. […] Maybe the world has run out of room…for monsters.” the thought bubbles above Swamp Thing read as he passes by a military truck.
Alan Moore spoke about how his approach to Swamp Thing was to ground the horror of the series in readers’ expectations. It’s not hard to imagine why readers might fear a creature representing nature coming to life, possibly to take revenge on humanity. While the story can hold many meanings, Swamp Thing appeared to be a representation of nature, fearful and wondering where it has left to grow in the ever-changing world.
Saga of the Swamp Thing is famous for the first mention of The Green, the DCU’s spiritual elemental force which connects all plant life on earth. It’s a beautiful story questioning what it means to be human and full of subtext about our relationship with nature. It also isn’t a superhero story in a traditional sense. Even though Swamp Thing exists in the world of Batman and Superman, his stories don’t feature many capes or cowls. Which could possibly explain its lack of mass appeal, and why the series was number 54 on the list of comics sold in October of 1984.
Part of the problem is even if some comics are telling a nuanced story, they are often buried by the exciting spectacle of more traditional superhero stories. The top-selling comic of October 1984 was Secret Wars, a series Marvel launched to sell toys. It isn’t to say that sales determine a comic’s value, but to illustrate that even while some stories with themes on environmentalism were published, they might not have had the same reach as other stories. As the old saying goes, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
All is (Not) Lost
The early Modern Age of comics (1985–present) was a roller coaster. Popularity grew thanks to storylines like “Secret Wars” and “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” as well as the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman. This led to a rise in collectors hoping to get their hands on a comic that might someday be worth millions, like Action Comics #1. Publishers started making dozens of variant covers for each comic to entice these new collectors into spending more money. In the end, no one won as this speculator boom burst big time, leading to dozens of publishers closing and Marvel declaring bankruptcy.
Fans with empty pockets had more glow-in-the-dark limited edition covers than they could count. The late ‘90s and into the early 2000s was a time of rebuilding.
DC relaunched its entire canon with The New 52 in 2011. Marvel has grown into a multimedia behemoth due to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indie superhero comics like Invincible and The Boys have steadily grown in popularity thanks to successful adaptations, furthering superheroes’ reach and impact.
So where are we now?
2010 to 2019 was the hottest decade in history, with 2020 being the hottest year on record. While there is some public desire for more aggressive policy changes when it comes to climate change, things are moving slowly, and it may already be too late to avoid an climate ‘apocalypse’.
Many people are looking for a better tomorrow that might already be out of our grasp. We are in the “all is lost” moment.
As a planet, we are at that make-or-break moment that comes in any great story where the future hangs in the balance. Our heroes are beaten, and the city around us is burning. The villain’s plan has worked, and we are all at his mercy. There is no escape for those just trying to live their lives. The sun is setting on our fair city, and we are helpless to stop the coming terror. When all hope is extinguished in these moments, we need our heroes to come to our rescue.
Where are they? Where is Superman?
In issue #2 of Superman: Son of Kal-El, Clark Kent and his son Jon sit on the moon, overlooking Earth, a big marble with all its flaws. Jon asks his father, “Why don’t you do more?”
“Oceans struggling to breathe. Forests disappearing. Ice melting. Inaction due to selfishness and fear. Division and tribalism. And stupid borders,” Jon says as the Earth reflects in his eyes.
It’s a direct question, not just from a son to a father or from a writer to their reader, but from one generation to another. The writer, Tom Taylor, isn’t having Jon ask these questions for some in-universe drama, he is asking why people didn’t do more in the past and why we don’t do more now.
Jon is realizing the same thing we all eventually realize: our parents aren’t superheroes. They’re just people trying to do their best. Jon sees his father, with all his earth-shaking powers to save people, as a man, flawed like any other person who failed to stop the systems that are leading to our climate changing.
Generations before us have been misinformed, misled, and in some cases intentionally ignorant about the damage humanity is causing to the environment. We often look to those who came before us as if they hold all the answers, and it can be hard to reckon with the reality that they don’t.
Jon’s conversation with his dad feels like a representation of a generational shift in comics. Like so many of us out outside the panels, Jon is coming to terms with the reality that it is time for a change. Those before us, our heroes, didn’t get the job done, and it’s time to take the reins and put on the capes.
Superheroes, and comics in general, hold up a mirror to the world around us and show us a reflection of our time. Throughout history, comics have been there to help readers interpret and get through difficult periods of change in our world.
So, do superhero comics solve these problems? No. Of course not.
Comic books don’t solve problems in the real world. No superhero will fly down from the sky to stop a war or cool the ocean. They aren’t meant to. But superheroes and their stories can create an ideal for us to aspire to. They can help us tap into our own power.
Like a folktale or a myth, superheroes are stories intended to help us understand the world around us and our place in it. Spider-Man isn’t the story of a kid who got bit by a radioactive bug; it’s the story of a kid struggling with the responsibility that we all must do what is right, no matter how hard. Superman isn’t the story of an alien with laser eyes; it’s the story of how a good person can make a real change.
In 2022’s Poison Ivy series, the titular character is on a cross-country road trip attempting to kill off humanity by spreading deadly spores wherever she goes. Poison Ivy struggles with the reality of killing off humanity as she knows the power of love shared between people.
At the end of the first story arc, covered in a decaying fungus causing her a slow death, the possible death of The Green, and the world she loves, a young boy reaches his hand out toward Poison Ivy, asking if she needs help.
“When I look at this child, I see more than just one single individual,” she writes to her love, Harley Quinn. “We exhale. The trees inhale.”
She takes the boy’s hand. Humanity and nature aren’t separate. We are one single organism.
“We are The Green,” she says. The boy watches as Poison Ivy rises, zipping up her gardening coveralls as the fungus on her skin begins to fade away. Poison Ivy is reborn.
In the final pages of issue #6, Poison Ivy sees the errors of her former quest. Ivy isn’t a monster battling humanity on behalf of nature, rather nature and humanity are on the same side battling against those responsible for killing the planet. This revelation is accompanied by a panel of a businesswoman in a yellow hard hat standing in front of a refinery.
“Because evil is real,” Ivy says as the businesswoman smiles.
Unlike her previous self of five issues before, Ivy hopes for the future. She hopes her actions will inspire others — whether superhuman or not — to rise up and do the same.
Poison Ivy’s final pages are why superheroes, or in some cases supervillains, are so important.
These characters don’t change the world around us, but maybe they can inspire the people reading them to take the action needed for change.