| Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's... just plain, weird. |
Writing about Reagan's Raiders in Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), Frederik Strömberg , observed,
The funny thing about this comic book is that it’s quite hard to work out whether the creators were trying to make the then-president look silly, or macho.
So, is it a parody? Certainly! Is it satire? Definitely! But is it propaganda, one way or the other?
Well... that answer was less clear.
Similarly, when I finished reading the first issue of Lady Freedom from Second Sight Publishing, I couldn't decide what I had just read: A conservative backlash to the perceived pandering encroachment of liberal identity politics in superhero comics? A liberal commentary on such nonsensical fears? A satire of the whole politics in comics debate? Or just a confusing story?
The comic, and its larger "Freedomverse" line, began as a Kickstarter, where the creators explained,
The Freedomverse is comprised of stories we wanted to tell using familiar but different hereos. They are our own versions of some classes [sic] main stream heroes but, with our own flair. For instance, Lady Freedom is my take on Captain America.
Freedomverse is a reimagined batch of public domain heroes such as Death Rider, Miss Masque, Spy Smasher, Ben Dunn’s Tomorrow Girl, the characters of Lady Freedom—Camille, Scarlett, Villainess Black Valkyrie and the big bad known only as Eschelon.
Lady Freedom, written by Art Bellfeild, penciled by Larry Spike Jarrell, and inked by Bill Marimon, is the story of Native American Natalie Cloudrider and her freedom fighting team. Cloudrider is a sergeant in the army inspired to join the "Freedom Fighting Program" (like Cap's Super Soldier program) because she wants to do more to serve her country. She is transformed into the masked superhero Lady Freedom and, joined by friend Sgt. Camille Abhorghast and sidekick Scarlett, fights the Villainous Black Valkyrie in a battle of good versus evil under the watchful eyes of the Statue of Liberty.
If the premise alone isn't a little heavy-handed with the patriotic Americana, the dialogue is didactic. Black Valkyrie is introduced with a monologue to the Statue of Liberty, wherein the villain expounds,
Some would call you a symbol of universal freedom and democracy. However I was raised to destroy symbols!
Clearly, she is an evil enemy of America if she wants to destroy Lady Liberty!
Because symbols are meant to entrap you within a false belief system, forcing you to ignore your own.
Symbols only have the meanings that we give them and the Statue of Liberty is polyvalent symbol. Scholars have repeatedly noted that Liberty is one of the most widely replicated and manipulated symbols in American history, and it has been used in thousands of political cartoons (see Adam Hjorthen's "The Past is a Present" in Making Cultural History: New Perspectives on Western Heritage, 2013, or Roger A. Fischer's "Oddity, Icon, Challenge: The Statue of Liberty in American Cartoon Art, 1879-1986" in Journal of American Culture, Winter 1986). Its meaning has changed over time, each new era supplanting its interpretation over the ones of the past. Politically, it has stood for international cooperation between France and the United States, as a monument to the end of slavery, as a symbol of national unity, as a sign of immigration and opportunity, as an emblem of freedom, and as an icon to the resilience of the United States and, more specifically, of New York City (see David Glassberg's "Rethinking the Statue of Liberty: Old Meanings, New Contexts.")
The image of Liberty, like the word “liberty,” is what Michael C. McGee calls an “ideograph” – a culturally-grounded, summative, and authoritative term whose meaning adapts with the evolution in cultural ideals and experiences. Liberty or [liberty] lacks fixed meaning, but instead depends on particular historical moments and serves as an argumentative warrant regarding the necessity or appropriateness of political action. Thus, Liberty has been both symbol and synonym for “patriotism,” “America,” “military vigilance,” and more, as the moment demanded (see John Louis Lucaites & Maurice Charland's “The Legacy of [Liberty]: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Aesthetics in the Postmodern Condition” in Canadian Journal of Critical & Social Theory 13/3).
What belief system, exactly, is Black Valkyrie opposing? Blind patriotism? Nationalism? Immigration? Unity? International cooperation? Freedom? Individualism? The United States itself? Government?... Depending on the reader's own interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, Black Valkyrie might be the hero of this piece.
Her self-revealed origin story, which echoes that of Wonder Woman (a variation of the Lady Liberty imagery herself), doesn't clear things up any.
Wonder Woman and Lady Liberty/Columbia
Black Valkyrie reveals,
I was raised by a group of warrior women who saved me from a fate worse than the final death.
They remade me within the image of one who takes the souls of the dead to Valhalla. They made me their Black Valkyrie.
And now that I'm done dealing with my former employers who fed off prejudice and xenophobia to terrorize the world - - I can finally bring this country to its knees.
So... the villain is opposed to xenophobia and prejudice?
And the indigenous hero wants to defeat someone who fights prejudice?
But the villain also wants to destroy the country, starting with a statue that represents, among other things, a safe haven for all peoples?
Olly MacNamee posed similar questions on Sunday Service, asking,
Like they say, someone who is seen as a terrorist by many can also be seen as a freedom fighter to others, and in Black Valkyrie’s words there are revoked core values we can all relate to. [...] Surely she can’t be all that bad, right? So, why blow up the Statue of Liberty and all it symbolises?
Will this be a story of redemption, I wonder? Or, will Black Valkyrie open up Lady Freedom’s eyes to the realities of the world? How will our Native American female lead deal with a villain who fights against the very same things Lady Freedom does; xenophobia, prejudice and racism.
MacNamee seems to suggest this may be a case like that of the X-Men versus the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants - both sides seeking equality but from different moral codes. He concludes of Lady Freedom and Black Valkyrie,
They’re both pursuing the American dream, but with very different ideologies and very different methods.
That is one possibility and one that might help to untangle the ideological and narrative knots created in issue #1. But it won't change the clumsy politicking of the comic.
In recent years, more and more attention has been given to politics in comics. Critics claim that comics used to be less political, but there was nothing apolitical about Captain America punching Hitler, Superman breaking up mob rings, Wonder Woman advocating peace through submission, Batman fighting city corruption, or the X-Men being "children of the atom." Crime, war, peace, corruption, nuclear power... these are all political issues. (The only thing that has really changed is that more of these fights are being taken up by women and non-binary persons, people of color, openly queer persons, disabled persons, etc. The comics have acknowledged that American society is not exclusively the domain of White masculinity. Such recognition looks "political" to people who were comfortable with existing American mythology, unaware that others were not.)
But the politics of Lady Freedom are something different. The book is clearly trying to make a statement about American politics currently, rather than just reflecting them in the story line. And the book also seems to be trying to make a statement about politics in comics, but it may be one that is only comprehensible to readers who share the same unspoken assumptions about symbols and belief systems that the writer possesses.
~Christina M. Knopf
6 June 2021