Can DC Comic’s new comic book series make the U.N. look cool -- or at least effective?
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
How life imitates art — or graphic art, at least. In DC Comics’ new series, Justice League International, governments are going bankrupt, the masses are out in the street protesting, terrorists are blowing up state institutions, and the United Nations’ credibility is in tatters.
Sound familiar? It’s only natural that comic strips reflect the real world, or at least our worst fears about it. This comic version of life at Turtle Bay provides a glimpse of a future where the world’s declining superpower, the United States, appears to have lost its seat on the Security Council and a triumvirate headed by Britain, China, and Russia are calling the shots — but the rest of the world isn’t listening.
Even the superheroes follow a moral compass that routinely swerves off course. "People have lost faith in their own governments, and by extension, us," Andre Briggs, the comic strip head of U.N. intelligence, tells the Global Security group — a three-person Security Council headed by Chinese, Russian, and British officials.
"Confidence in every level of authority is at an all-time low. Every government, and by extension, every law enforcement agency and security forces, is woefully under-funded and lacking resources," says Briggs. "We believe it’s time for the United Nations to assemble its own team, representing select nations, uniquely equipped to overcome those issues."
The United Nations has had a long, though intermittent, history in the world of action heroes, providing comic book artists with a symbol for breaking with the propagandistic and nationalist themes that marked the Golden Age of war comics during World War II, says Laura Hudson, the editor in chief of ComicsAlliance, a major online magazine on comic culture. "Modern comic book writers tend to be a progressive lot, and less inclined to infuse superhero books with the idea of American exceptionalism."
The U.N. formed a backdrop for many of the themes of nuclear holocaust at the height of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the post-Cold War proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the late 1980s, the Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, acquired a nuclear weapon and sold it to Arab terrorists. He then established contact with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who appointed him as his U.N. envoy, granting him diplomatic immunity for his crimes. "He subsequently gives a speech to the General Assembly about how the world fails to show enough respect for Iran while filling the room with toxic laughing gas," said Hudson. "His plan is foiled by Superman and Batman, and he later disappears. I am making none of this up."
But it was The Justice League International, which got its start in the late 1980s as an offshoot of the Justice League — the latter led by All-American superheroes like Superman (though he was born on Krypton), Batman, and Wonder Woman — that placed the U.N. at the center of the action. Acting under the auspices of the United Nations, a new multinational corps of superheroes tapped into the possibilities for international cooperation unleashed by the demise of the Soviet Union. It even included a Soviet superhero, Rocket Red.
"Once upon a time there was the Justice League of America," read the mission statement to the comic’s launch in late 1987. "But that was another era, when the world could afford borders and boundaries, when heroes could claim national loyalties and feel justified in their claims. But in today’s world there’s no longer room for borders and boundaries. The walls between nations have to fall if our planet is to survive."
That might have been a bit ahead of its time — "globalism" didn’t even enter the Oxford English Dictionary until 1986. So Justice League International was shelved in 1994, after a stop-start run of only 36 issues. But it was re-launched in September 2011, tapping into the global crisis of confidence in the ability of governments to solve the world’s financial and security troubles. It’s release — part of a re-launch of 52 comic strips introduced by DC Comics — comes at a time when comic superheroes have been distancing themselves from the United States.
In April 2011, Superman — fretting that his close association with the United States had undercut his ability to defend anti-government demonstrators in Iran — went to the United Nations to renounce his American citizenship. "Truth, justice and the American way — it’s not enough anymore. The world’s too small. Too connected," Superman tells the U.S. president’s national security adviser. "I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy," he adds. Superman may not be a fan of American exceptionalism, but he’s still inclined to go it alone.
The somewhat second-tier stars of Justice League International, however, form a motley crew of multinational superheroes, who have been hired by the United Nations to confront threats to mankind that conventional armies and law enforcement agencies can’t handle.
They include an updated version of the Russian superhero, Gavril Ivanovich, or Rocket Red; a Chinese action figure, Zhifu Fang, or August General in Iron; a British super-heroine, Dora Leigh Godiva, who uses her superhuman hair to attract potential mates and to foil villains; Vixen, or Mari Jiwe McaCabe, from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; Norway’s Tora Olfsdotter, or Ice; and the Brazil’s Beatriz Bonilla Da Costa, better known as Fire. Led by an American — Booster Gold, a coiffed, self-centered shill for corporations that sell beer and other products — the superheroes quickly stumble into a losing battle with extraterrestrial robots bent on the destruction of the planet. Briggs has selected Booster because his expertise in public relations will help sell a weary and skeptical public on the superhero force.
After a bungled start, Booster Gold pulls the team together and with the help of Guy Gardner; the Green Lantern, who initially refuses to serve under the Booster; and Batman, who is barred from joining Justice League International, they prevail over the space-born Samarai, Peraxxus, who is seeking to harness the robots to suck out all of earth’s resources for resale to other alien conglomerates.
Booster’s motives are "pure," says Dan Jurgens, the comic book’s chief author, but the character is also drawn by the celebrity and the endorsement deals that come with being a superhero. "He’s the kind of guy who says ‘’I’ll do what’s good and what’s right but if I can pick up an endorsement for a particular brand of macaroni that’s great, ’cause that’s how I make my living,’ says Jurgens, Booster’s creator. "I think we’ve all grown a bit distrustful. And that’s what this book is all about."
Jurgens says that while he, personally, has been favorably disposed to the United Nations he sought to portray the world organization as morally ambiguous, neither intrinsically good nor bad, and a target of intense affection and revulsion, much as it is in the real world. Protesters ring the Washington, D.C.-based Hall of Justice, which has been leased to the United Nations, with placards denouncing the organization and criticizing the superheroes for joining forces with it. "Heroes following the U.N.’s marching orders? Bunch of sell outs," says one protester.
"We came here cuz the U.N. took over the Hall of Justice," says another, before conspiring with a group of anti-U.N. terrorists who blow up the Hall of Justice. "It’s ours. A symbol! If we can’t have it, no one should."
The decision to place the United States in the background was also intentional. "Within this country we’re probably arrogant enough to think that the U.N. should be an American-controlled institution. I don’t have that thought," says Jurgens.
But the U.N.’s foreign leaders are hardly heroic. In selling his plan for a superhero brigade to the U.N. big-wigs, Briggs cynically assures them that any benefit of enlisting the support of these hired guns will outweigh the risks. If they succeed in their mission, they will hopefully restore luster to the tarnished reputation of the organization. "If they fail," Briggs notes, "We blame them."
Yes, it’s just a comic book, but the story finds many real world parallels — from the decision to place a U.N. triumvirate at the head of the organization (the Soviets pressed for that in the 1940s) to the risks of sending an ill-prepared, poorly resourced peacekeeping mission on an assignment. Indeed, the very idea of assembling a nimble force of internationals do-gooders to confront the global threats has deep roots at the United Nations.
President Harry Truman floated the idea of placing international forces at the disposal of the United Nations to confront threats to global peace. Ever since, the U.N. has flirted with the establishment of a lean, rapid reaction force that could spring into action when a crisis first emerges. But the U.N. membership has ultimately refused to allow the U.N. secretariat to create its own independent force out of fear it could not be controlled. And the U.N. comic book leadership seems to share those concerns. "I remain skeptical. This might well blow up in our face," China’s representative on the global steering committee, Chairwoman Bao, tells Briggs. "We have flirted with this notion before. We keep saying no."
Like her real world counterparts in the Chinese mission to the United Nations — which joined Russia in vetoing a resolution on Syria and blocked the reappointment of a German arms expert who discovered illicit Chinese ammunition in Darfur — Chairman Bao has little qualms about saying no. She vetoes the selection of the Justice League International’s most able superhero, Batman, on the grounds that he would be impossible to manage. "I thought the idea was a team we could control," Bao says. "No."
Not to be outdone, the security group’s Russian delegate blocks the nomination of Plastic Man — "too whacko" and the Blue Beetle. "Nyet. No rookies." In classic U.N. fashion, their objections to authorizing the force are overcome by securing jobs for Chinese and Russian superheroes on the new Justice League.
"As long as Russian sinew and glory are represented I vote yes. Da!" The British rep also hints at the trade off when she welcomes the selection of the British superheroine Godiva. "Trying to buy my vote with a Brit, are we?"
Yes, it seems they are, and it seems to be working. So where do the Americans figure in all this? In this truly post-American century comic book, it seems they just don’t get a say.