By Paul Abbott. Follow Paul on
A comic book is – normally – a single forceful idea writ
large. It is a hardened view of
society, dramatised. A political battle-cry which gives impetus to the hero and drives the plot.
Thus, the entire Batman franchise can be summarised: “if
only we refrain from taxing
billionaires, they will fight crime at night”. (Wealthy Bruce Wayne doesn't have to pay mansion taxes in Gotham,
and is therefore free to invest in
The message of Superman is as follows: “skilled immigration
is good, if newcomers will adopt
Western values.” (Superman becomes a flag-waver
for liberal democracy, and is weakened only when he is reminded of his alien home-world in the form of Kryptonite.)
The theme of Judge Dredd: “The state's first duty is
defence, especially of minorities
and the vulnerable." (As social order
disintegrates in the future, Judge Dredd must dole out harsher and harsher “fixed penalty notices” in
Mega City One, to protect ordinary people
from thugs, corrupt local bureaucrats, and technological pressures.)
Clearly there is much in these comics that Conservatives
might welcome: free market economics
with a social conscience; an internationalist
outlook, but rooted in values; and championing the cause of the downtrodden through the rule of law. If Margaret Thatcher once said that “the facts of
life are Conservative” – well, so are
the pages of most mass-market comic books.
But comics succeed where Conservatives often don’t – in
terms of popularity and cut-through.
I admit, I've shown up at a few London comic
book conventions over the years (with a press pass, I swear) and it’s nothing like Tory conference. The
demographics are different, for one
thing. Our Party faithful have never (?) turned up to hear Francis Maude while dressed as their favourite Star Trek
character, for example.
But the experiences of going to these expos have made me
ask: how do comic books do it? What
can we learn from their success?
The best answer that I've seen so far is from William Empson
– a weirdy-beardy academic and poet
from the early 20th century – in an essay
Structure of Complex Words. Conservatives would do well to read it because it outlines a useful theory about how words are weapons, and political
rhetoric can win arguments.
Specifically, Empson says that words can slowly become “compacted doctrines”, like ideologies in miniature.
For example, the word “racist” implies not just a person who has prejudicial
views about race, but also implies a
person who is flawed in their judgement.
Nobody uses the word “racist” in a positive sense: so, it has become a compacted doctrine, a label of
contempt. A slur.
In the same vein, comic book characters are – normally – a
sort of compacted doctrine: a
colourful, gripping shorthand for a particular view of human nature. Superman is the asylum-seeker made good;
Judge Dredd is the State's monopoly
on just violence.
George W. Bush's political team were masters at this. They
understood very keenly that the
media do not have time to explain the detailed, mad complexity of the modern world. Instead, journalists need
simple labels for things. If you can
define the name of something in your favour,
there is very little else that you need to do. Hence, the US was not distributing potato chips in
Iraq, but “freedom fries” – and what
reasonable person could object to that? And so on.
The point is that comic books win by capturing the terms of
debate. Ideas are crystalised as
characters, so there is no rhetorical ground
left for your opponents to stand on. The three comic franchises that I started with – Batman,
Superman, Judge Dredd – all take a kernel
of Conservate philosophy and weld it relentlessly into a compacted doctrine. The meaning of those characters is unspoken; hiding in plain sight. Audiences do
not even realise it, perhaps. But the
fact remains that the Batman series has done more to defend free market economics and the concept of “the
good rich man”, in the popular mind,
than all the think-tank pamphlets of the last 30 years.
So why does this matter? Let me frame it as another
question: what is the Conservative
Party's catchy, memorable, concrete name for the reforms that Labour have been calling the “bedroom tax”? Or the “mummy tax”? Or the “granny tax”? Labour may
be wrong about the facts, but we are
in dangerous territory when they are allowed too easily to define the terms of debate. Their language is
full of compacted doctrines, smuggled
in under the radar. We need our own substitutes. Comic books teach us how we can fight back.