Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsLike any other cultural product, especially targeted at children, comics have attracted attention from critics regarding their ideological orientation. By ideology we mean the system of beliefs, fears, values, etc., that form the basis for a given type of political power, with economic, social and cultural ramifications. Of course, there’s nothing inherently bad about that - when we say something is ideological, we don’t necessarily mean it’s propaganda, just that it implicitly or, sometimes, explicitly, supports one particular type of political organisation over others. American comics have been especially studied from this perspective.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsIn a famous essay published in the 1970s, How to Read Donald Duck, Chilean scholars Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart argued that the famous comics by the Disney corporation actively partook in the global spread of American capitalism as dominant ideology. They said that the comics normalised such behaviours as amassment of wealth, colonisation, the gendered division of labour, and the enjoyment of material goods. DC/ Marvel comics, meanwhile, have been studied by many scholars as creating what might be called a kind of American mythology, with its pantheon of gods and demigods, aspirational and fearsome figures who restore order to a chaotic world. Academics have mapped those figures onto archetypes, namely characters who are typical of ancient legends or tales.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 secondsThe theory could be that superhero comics emerged in the United States as a way to endow it with a gallery of mythical figures and their founding narratives. The nation-building dimension of superhero comics in the US is a fascinating field of study. Of course, there is nothing about comic art intrinsically that makes it more likely to support any particular ideology; but the fact that a number of hugely influential comics such as Disney or DC/ Marvel are cheaply produced, mass-marketed and read globally, makes the academic endeavour to explore their ideological alignments particularly legitimate.

American comics and the spectre of imperialism

Had you ever thought of superhero comics or Disney comics from that perspective?

How well-founded are those accusations, do you think?

Can you think of other types of children’s media that could also be accused of cultural imperialism?

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This video is from the free online course:

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

University of York