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Paul Abbott: What Conservatives can learn from comic books

By Paul Abbott. Follow Paul on Twitter.

 A comic book is – normally – a single forceful idea writ large. It is a hardened view of society, dramatised. A political battle-cry which gives impetus to the hero and drives the plot.

Thus, the entire Batman franchise can be summarised: “if only we refrain from taxing billionaires, they will fight crime at night”. (Wealthy Bruce Wayne doesn't have to pay mansion taxes in Gotham, and is therefore free to invest in his Batmobile.)

The message of Superman is as follows: “skilled immigration is good, if newcomers will adopt Western values.” (Superman becomes a flag-waver for liberal democracy, and is weakened only when he is reminded of his alien home-world in the form of Kryptonite.)

The theme of Judge Dredd: “The state's first duty is defence, especially of minorities and the vulnerable." (As social order disintegrates in the future, Judge Dredd must dole out harsher and harsher “fixed penalty notices” in Mega City One, to protect ordinary people from thugs, corrupt local bureaucrats, and technological pressures.)

Clearly there is much in these comics that Conservatives might welcome: free market economics with a social conscience; an internationalist outlook, but rooted in values; and championing the cause of the downtrodden through the rule of law. If Margaret Thatcher once said that “the facts of life are Conservative” – well, so are the pages of most mass-market comic books.

But comics succeed where Conservatives often don’t – in terms of popularity and cut-through. I admit, I've shown up at a few London comic book conventions over the years (with a press pass, I swear) and it’s nothing like Tory conference. The demographics are different, for one thing. Our Party faithful have never (?) turned up to hear Francis Maude while dressed as their favourite Star Trek character, for example.

But the experiences of going to these expos have made me ask: how do comic books do it? What can we learn from their success?

The best answer that I've seen so far is from William Empson – a weirdy-beardy academic and poet from the early 20th century – in an essay titled The Structure of Complex Words. Conservatives would do well to read it because it outlines a useful theory about how words are weapons, and political rhetoric can win arguments.

Specifically, Empson says that words can slowly become “compacted doctrines”, like ideologies in miniature. For example, the word “racist” implies not just a person who has prejudicial views about race, but also implies a person who is flawed in their judgement. Nobody uses the word “racist” in a positive sense: so, it has become a compacted doctrine, a label of contempt. A slur.

In the same vein, comic book characters are – normally – a sort of compacted doctrine: a colourful, gripping shorthand for a particular view of human nature. Superman is the asylum-seeker made good; Judge Dredd is the State's monopoly on just violence.

George W. Bush's political team were masters at this. They understood very keenly that the media do not have time to explain the detailed, mad complexity of the modern world. Instead, journalists need simple labels for things. If you can define the name of something in your favour, there is very little else that you need to do. Hence, the US was not distributing potato chips in Iraq, but “freedom fries” – and what reasonable person could object to that? And so on.

The point is that comic books win by capturing the terms of debate. Ideas are crystalised as characters, so there is no rhetorical ground left for your opponents to stand on. The three comic franchises that I started with – Batman, Superman, Judge Dredd – all take a kernel of Conservate philosophy and weld it relentlessly into a compacted doctrine. The meaning of those characters is unspoken; hiding in plain sight. Audiences do not even realise it, perhaps. But the fact remains that the Batman series has done more to defend free market economics and the concept of “the good rich man”, in the popular mind, than all the think-tank pamphlets of the last 30 years.

So why does this matter? Let me frame it as another question: what is the Conservative Party's catchy, memorable, concrete name for the reforms that Labour have been calling the “bedroom tax”? Or the “mummy tax”? Or the “granny tax”? Labour may be wrong about the facts, but we are in dangerous territory when they are allowed too easily to define the terms of debate. Their language is full of compacted doctrines, smuggled in under the radar. We need our own substitutes. Comic books teach us how we can fight back.


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