"I prefer the job description of social justice warrior": so proclaims the vigilante Green Arrow in his latest issue, Green Arrow: Rebirth #1. Announced by a superhero, it doesn't sound all that different to hyperbole like "Man of Steel" or "Dark Knight Detective" - but out here in our world, it carries another meaning. Social Justice Warrior (or SJW) is a pejorative term splashed across the internet for a kind of self-righteous commentator, usually found online, who's accused of lecturing others on issues like identity politics and political correctness.
By this logic, the battle lines are drawn: nerdy true fans on one side, and SJW fake-fans trying to ruin everything on the other.
It's not such a surprise that Green Arrow laid claim to the title; it might surprise viewers of his straight-laced Arrow TV show, but he's been portrayed as a left-wing firebrand since the 1970s. Back then he was teamed with the more conservative cosmic cop Green Lantern - no relation - and was always preaching on behalf of the downtrodden. Green Arrow even got Godwin on his crime-fighting partner, calling him a "Nazi". More recently, the Guardian noted "Batman confronts police racism in latest comic book"; a depowered Superman fought police brutality, too, rocking a T-shirt and jeans instead of his usual tights.
But are superheroes just super-hypocrites? In Green Arrow: Rebirth, Black Canary accuses the wealthy Green Arrow of being a "sanctimonious jerk". "Always loud-mouthing your moral outrage, complaining about elitism, racism, cronyism, conservatism, any -ism, all the -isms. You call yourself a social justice warrior... but look at this apartment. Look at this life." She concludes, "To be honest, I think you're a bit of a hypocrite."
There's a reason why the old joke about Batman being "a rich man who beats up the mentally ill" won't die. Heat vision and batarangs don't exactly address society's systemic problems, do they?
As comics commentator Chris Sims says, however, this is "a criticism rooted in the idea that trying to end all crime by dressing up in a cape and punching muggers would never work in the real world, which is something that everyone already knows. It’s like getting mad at Knight Rider because cars don’t talk".
Say what you will about the real-world utility of these methods, you can't deny that they're rooted in action. (Cue the old Batman TV show sound effects: ZAP! KAPOW!) Superhero comics transmute everything, from social issues to psychic battles, into action and spectacle. One of the main criticisms of so-called Social Justice Warriors is how their civil rights advocacy is limited to showing off in online spaces, but superheroes always risk life and limb in their never-ending battles.
Green Arrow defends his wealth, saying: "Making a difference costs money". Green Arrow: Rebirth points out how much he gives to charity as well as showing him fight the expected amount of crime; even Bruce Wayne is now presented as a committed charity advocate and not just an empty-headed playboy. We want the action-packed fights against injustice - but now it seems we also expect a hero to put his money where his mouth is, not just his fists.
Green Arrow: Rebirth #1, written by Benjamin Percy, art by Otto Schmidt, is out now.
Martyn Pedler is a PhD candidate, writer, critic and screenwriter from Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in jmag, Time Out, and The Bookslut, among others, and he has presented at San Diego Comic Con, MIT, and ACMI.