If you hear about comic books in the news today, chances are it's because a comic has made a progressive step. Comics make headlines not because another famous character has died, but because major publishers take surprisingly inclusive or forward-thinking steps, tackling social issues or increasing the diversity of flagship titles.
You might not believe it, but there was a time when being socially progressive in the pages of comics was considered controversial, a time when standing up for a cause or even portraying a female or person of color character in a position of authority was a big no-no. Even then, though, comic books were progressive. These are instances when comic books were ahead of their time, addressing serious issues - racism, for example, including real-life figures who embodied it - in subversive and inspirational ways.
When Northstar Came Out In 1992Photo: Marvel Comics
Progress can be clumsy. When the character Northstar first came out of the closet in the pages of Alpha Flight back in 1992, he became one of the first openly gay superheroes in mainstream comics. The story itself was a bit of a mess: Northstar endured heat from a retired Canadian super soldier because of his concern over a baby infected with HIV.The issue was also the last featuring the regular writer, thus stoking conspiracy theories over why he left. But it was 1992, a time when gay representation in media - let alone comics - was almost nil. Clumsy? Maybe. Progressive? Certainly.
When Wonder Woman Was CreatedPhoto: DC Comics
The creation of Wonder Woman was planned to be a subversive attack on what her creator called the "blood-curdling masculinity" of male-dominated comic book industry. Her creators were a renowned psychologist and his wife who based the look of the character on their shared mistress. Her entire mythology was based on the idea of inverting masculine tropes and trying to covertly influence kids to see women as equal or superior to men. Sprinkle in a bit of kink and you've got a truly progressive superhero.
When Captain Marvel Was A Black WomanPhoto: Marvel Comics
There have been a lot of Captain Marvels floating around the Marvel Universe. The history of the Captain Marvel name is pretty convoluted, so let's not get too deep into that. What you need to know is that in 2012, Marvel launched a new Captain Marvel comic starring the old Ms Marvel, Carol Danvers. There was a lot of back-patting over Carol choosing to go by "Captain" instead of "Ms" (even though the phrase "Ms" was itself a reference to the feminist movement of the '70s.)
But this overlooked the fact that there had already been a female Captain Marvel back in the '80s. And she was Black. And she led the Avengers, a team of otherwise white, lantern-jawed men. Imagine that, a giant corporation overlooking the founding work of a woman of color and "Columbusing" all of her accomplishments decades later.
When Green Arrow And Green Lantern Got SeriousPhoto: DC Comics
The 1960s were a tough time for America. Riots in the streets, an unpopular war, a president assassinated, and civil rights leaders being murdered left and right. Real life was darker and grittier than any movie, and many comics remained more or less a four-color distractions for children. That is until Green Arrow and Green Lantern teamed up and helped the whole medium grow up.
Tackling issues like addiction, racial inequality, and social injustice of every kind, the billionaire rabble-rouser Oliver Queen - better known as Green Arrow - and his new partner Green Lantern upped the ante in the content department and opened the door to politically conscious comic books.