Comics to Read (and Teach) in the Trump-Era

In addition to being a huge nerd, I’m also a college literature instructor. I teach students how to analyze literature and media in various forms, though my specialty as a medievalist usually relegates me to introductory-level English courses. For fun (and to bolster my job application portfolio), I sometimes design syllabi for future courses I’d like to teach. Go ahead and judge me, but it’s a legitimate way to procrastinate and be productive at the same time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of comics I’d assign to a class were I given the freedom to do what I want. Given our current political landscape (and the massive amounts of reading lists out there, like this one, that do the same thing), I thought about comics that would be fruitful for analysis during the Trump era. I’ve included a list with a brief description of the comic and why I think it would be appropriate, and hopefully (if I never get to teach it), it’ll at least be of some use to you, my readers.

In no particular order, here they are. I’ve provided 15 entries to reflect the 15 weeks that I teach during the semester.

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson

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By now, if you’re a comics fan, you’ve heard of this character. Kamala Khan exploded onto the scene in 2014 when, after a brief appearance in Captain Marvel #14, she headlined her own run that later won a Hugo Award. Kamala’s story is one of identity: she struggles with balancing her Pakistani heritage and her typical American teenage life, often torn between her family’s traditionalism and her desire to fit in. What makes Kamala unique is her Muslim faith – as one of the few Marvel Muslim superheroes that explicitly draws strength from her religion, she’s a figure made to fight Islamophobia and showcase the everyday heroism of teenage girls (even if Kamala gets a little extra help with her powers).

I’ve taught the first volume of Ms. Marvel before, and it has had profound impacts on my students. We have deep, nuanced conversations about Islam as well as about women of color, particularly in the context of superhero media. If you’re looking to fight back against things like Trump’s travel bans and the rise of Islamophobia, Ms. Marvel is a great place in comics to start.

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar

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Red Son is one of DC’s so-called Elseworlds titles which re-imagines classic characters in alternate realities. Sometimes those realities are simple “what if” scenarios that aren’t so different from their main continuity, but other times (like this one), their characters are placed at different points in history. In Red Son, Millar explores what the world would have been like if Superman’s pod landed in Ukraine in 1938 and Superman were raised believing in Stalin’s communist ideals.

This comic requires some background knowledge of Superman and DC’s larger cast of characters, but even so, it provokes some particularly relevant questions about politics. For example, is it right to force everyone into a system of government (in this case, socialism) or have one, all-powerful leader if that system/leader creates a literal utopia? On the flip side, the comic presents us with Lex Luthor as the leader of the pro-capitalist United States that resists Superman’s power, yet the US struggles with poverty and crime until Lex takes up a position similar to that of Superman in Russia.

Lex Luthor: the Unauthorized Biography by James Hudnall

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In 1989, DC put out this one-shot about Lex Luthor’s backstory, including the character’s childhood cruelty (especially misogyny) and the orchestration of his parents’ deaths in pursuit of their insurance money.

While short, this issue offers opportunities for comparisons between Trump and one of DC’s most famous antagonists. While Trump had never killed anyone (at least, that we know of), Luthor can be a useful sounding board for conversations about narcissism and xenophobia. Even the cover art can spark some pointed conversations: artist Eric Peterson deliberately mimics the cover to Trump’s own biography, The Art of the Deal.

Civil War by Mark Millar

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Marvel’s big crossover event from 2006-2007 tends to be either celebrated or despised by comics fans, but nevertheless, the main volume explores themes that resonate with our political climate. The main storyline follows the passing of the Super Hero Registration Act, a law that requires all costumed heroes to disclose their identities with the government. Marvel’s heroes split into two sides: those pro-registration (led by Iron Man) and those anti-registration (led by Captain America). Fighting ensues.

Regardless of your feelings towards this comics event, the main volume does ask readers to address registration. Trump has stated numerous times that he wants to create a Muslim registry, and while it is obviously very different from the kind of registration in Civil War, the core concept is still the same. Civil War provides the opportunity to talk about the pros and cons of registration, but also the idea of humans as weapons.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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Persepolis is the 2000 autobiography of a girl coming of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. With the war between Iran and Iraq looming in the background (and sometimes the foreground), Satrapi details her ambitions and desires to fight for her beliefs, even when they oppose the status quo and dominant political power.

While Persepolis has become something of a comics-staple, I still think it’s important for readers whose knowledge of the Middle East and its history is almost nonexistent. Not only does this autobiography give a first-hand account of life in Iran, but it also inspires people to fight oppressive regimes and view refugees and immigrants more sympathetically.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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Another comics-staple, Fun Home is a memoir that addresses the themes of sexual orientation. Bechdel describes her childhood in a rural Pennsylvania town while also reflecting on the relationship with her father, a closeted gay man during the 70s and 80s. Bechdel herself struggles with and comes to terms with her sexual identity as a lesbian, and the comic gives readers a look at both closeted and open homosexuality.

While most students (I’d like to think) are accepting of LGBT+ people and support LGBT+ rights, many do not have a sense of LGBT+ history and knowledge. Sexual identity isn’t really delved into in detail unless you’re a student focusing on gender studies or modern queer theory. Reading Fun Home gives straight audiences insight into LGBT+ identity not just as it exists today, but as it was experienced in generations before.

V for Vendetta/Watchmen by Alan Moore

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I lump the two of these together because they’re often cited together as some of Moore’s greatest works. V for Vendetta is a dystopian comic set in a post-apocalyptic Britain where a fascist political party has seized power. The main character, Evey, encounters a mysterious figure wearing a Guy Fawkes mask whose mission is to destabilize the government’s tight hold on British citizens. Watchmen is a graphic novel set in an alternate history where superheroes helped the US win the Vietnam War and Watergate was never exposed. The concept of the superhero is the main focus of the text, but it can also be read for its politics and panic over imminent nuclear war.

Both of these graphic novels have the capacity to inspire panic. Some of the things in V for Vendetta’s dystopia, for example, are eerily familiar, and anyone who is anxious about Trump’s nuclear plans will have quite a time with Watchmen. However, both comics also inspire hope in the midst off all the grit. V for Vendetta places faith in revolutions, while Watchmen finds it in individual people and the aftermath of tragedy.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

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Palestine recounts Sacco’s experiences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during December 1991 and January 1992. It’s often praised for its focus on Palestinians both as a group and as individuals, focusing on the events of everyday life in the occupied territories.

As with Perseopolis, Palestine offers insight into the conflict in the Middle East. With many students only having vague knowledge, this text has the potential to make more human connections while also presenting Sacco as a point of reference (as a Westerner, his experience of Palestine is as an outsider, just as students’ general experiences of non-Western knowledge).

March by John Lewis

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March is a three volume graphic novel about the American Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of Congressman John Lewis. It covers the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954, and other monumental moments in both activism and law.

In January, Trump attacked John Lewis on Twitter, accusing him of being “all talk” and no action. As a result, March saw a sharp increase in sales and popularity. This trilogy not only provides a first-hand account of the Civil Rights Movement (thereby equipping students with knowledge of black history), but it also has direct ties to our current government. With Lewis still acting in a governmental capacity and Trump specifically targeting him, it’s not hard to see how this text can be beneficial in a class or as an item on a comics reading list.

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick

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Bitch Planet is an ongoing comic series set in a dystopian future where women are sent to a prison-planet for any act of “non-compliance.” Most of the characters are women of color and the narrative explores their backstories, including what caused them to be sent to the prison in the first place.

Given Trump’s misogyny and Republicans’ desire to set the clocks back to the 1950s, Bitch Planet is a feminist middle finger to anyone who tries to cram women into boxes based on looks or behavior. “Non-compliance” in the comic is associated with docility and submissiveness, but it also applies to women who don’t adhere to white standards of beauty. Given today’s conflicts within feminism and resurgences of racism, Bitch Planet is a perfect accompaniment to the general sentiments of the Women’s March, pushing for intersectional in-your-face feminism.

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis

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Although Transmetropolitan was published in the 1990s, it has plenty to say about journalism and free press in addition to technology’s affect on the world. The comic follows journalist Spider Jerusalem as he returns from retirement and attacks the injustices he sees in his 23rd-century world (covering things like consumerism, sex, violence, drugs and even cannibalism and child prostitution).

While Ellis’ comic may be too intense for some – it’s gross and brutal, and the protagonist isn’t a feel-good hero. It’s also quite masculine, as far as the “feel” of comics goes. But despite all that, it does give readers a satire of the political/social elite and the authoritarian politician known as the Beast bears some striking similarity to Donald Trump.

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through Science by Phillipe Squarzoni

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Climate Changed is a French graphic novel that is part documentary and part crash-course on all the science we didn’t pay attention to in high school. It checks in at a whopping 480 pages, so it’s not something that can be covered in a mere week. I’ve actually not read this one yet, but it seems like a great tool for understanding climate change in all its meticulous detail in graphic-novel format.

Snowpiercer by Jaques Lob

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Another French graphic novel (and also a 2013 film starring Chris Evans), Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has fallen into a new ice age. The survivors live on a train, which we learn is divided into social hierarchies, with the poorest living destitute in the back and the richest living in comfort near the front.

Personally, I’d pair this graphic novel with the movie to look at social hierarchies and anti-capitalism.

God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont

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The X-Men have always been stand-ins for any oppressed minority in modern society, and God Loves, Man Kills is probably one of the best stories that showcase discrimination and fear of the Other. In the graphic novel, Reverend William Stryker advocates for the extermination of all mutants after Magneto murders the children of a henchman. Stryker and Professor X engage in a televised debate about the issue, but Stryker kidnaps him, forcing the X-men to team up with Magneto to get him back.

In general, the X-Men are productive metaphors for talking about discrimination, but this volume also asks readers to think about violence, genocide, and a kind of xenophobia (the X-Men aren’t exactly foreigners or aliens, but they’re treated as such). Magneto and Professor X are also interesting characters for discussing reactions to discrimination, as they famously represent two different ideals for saving mutantkind.

Alias by Brian Michael Bendis/The Killing Joke by Alan Moore

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It might seem odd to pair these two together, but hear me out. Alias tells the story of Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned private investigator following a traumatic event. The Killing Joke is one of the most famous Batman stories in which the Joker attempts to drive moral cop Jim Gordon insane (while Batman tries to stop him, of course).

In addition to pairing Alias with some episodes from the Netflix show, Jessica Jones, I would teach these comics together as part of a larger conversation about rape culture. Jessica Jones tackles rape culture head on, both by giving readers a villain whose abilities are akin to rape (as well as having the capacity to subject people to literal rape) and by showing the aftermath (psychological trauma). The Killing Joke and the culture surrounding it is rape culture in a nutshell. Praised as one of the best Batman comics of all time, it does a horrible disservice to Barbara Gordon by treating her as a pawn to destabilize her father. Barbara’s sexual assault is a tool to disturb a man, and we’re never given insight into Barbara’s psyche after it.

Concluding Thoughts

My list isn’t perfect, and I know there are comics on here that I probably don’t remember as clearly as I’d like. But even so, I think it’s a place to start. If you have your own recommendations, I’d love to hear about them!

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