Reappropriating Symbols

By | Friday, May 17, 2013 Leave a Comment
I took an arcitecture course in college, and had to do a report on a local building. I opted for a local church, primarily because it was literally across the street from the apartment I was in at the time. The pastor there was friendly, and provided a tour. I quickly noticed, though, a number of swastikas embedded in the tile floor near the alter. Probably seeing my gaze, he proactively responded that, historically, the swastika was an icon with very positive connotations and can be found in religious texts and artifacts dating back thousands of years. "Being with higher self" is sometimes given as the literal translation of the word "swastika." It was perfectly normal and appropriate to use swastikas in churches built before the 1900s.

Adolf Hitler developed a specific version of the swastika for use with the Nazi party. It's black and on a 45° angle, set in a white circle which is then set on a red field. Despite the specific usage, though, swastikas of any sort have come to symbolize Nazism and white supremacy. In part, this is due to the attrocities committed under the Nazi regime, but it's also partly because Hitler was an expert propagandist and used his swastika EVERYWHERE. Not only were the banners and flags all about at the rallies, but it was clearly on the bicep of evey, single Nazi soldier. Sure, many countries incorporate their flag as part of their uniform, but Hitler's swastika was exceptionally easy to read and very distinctive. It didn't take long for Nazi ideals to seep over into other forms of the swastika as well.

This is the notion of symbol reappropriation. That an individual or group is able to take an existing symbol and bring enough identity to it, that the symbol's original meaning is subsumed. It's of course not limited to visual icons like the swastika; it can happen with textual icons (i.e. words*) and broader icons like Superman and Batman. The question becomes: when does it make sense to do that with regards to characters?

Batman's a good example. The character, as he was known in the 1950s and early '60s was very banal. A generic superhero who was pretty interchangeable with any other DC superhero. The only real difference was the costume; they all saved the planet from kooky aliens and used strained logic to solve crimes. And they did so for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. Batman essentially represented everything bad that happened to the comic industry in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent. Despite the "New Look" Batman introduced in 1964, the 1966 television's popularity took hold of the character's image. It was then in 1969 when Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams deliberately tried to re-image the character into more of a dark detective.

Not that sales shot up (they didn't) but what I'm talking about isn't necessarily related to sales. What I'm saying is simply that they weren't happy with what the icon of Batman represented, and deliberately went about trying to change that. The problem O'Neil/Adams ran into relative to that was that Detective Comics got the barest fraction of an audience that the TV show did, so their work wasn't seen by everyone who "needed" to see it. Which is why we got "Bif! Pow! Wham!" headlines in newspaper articles about comics for YEARS afterwards.

Of course, that's OFFICIAL reappropriation. It's entirely possible to do the same thing more surreptiously for older characters that are more in the realm of public domain. How many times has Dracula been reappropriated over the years? Or, for a more complex version, how has Mr. Sulu's image changed since George Takai took up a more flamboyant public image for himself?

Just because an symbol -- whether it's a chracter like Batman, an icon like the skull and crossbones, or a word like "otaku" -- means something to you right now, that doesn't mean that it has to continue to mean that same thing.

* The notion of "Big Brother" is one of the more innocuous ideas to come out of George Orwell's 1984. Read the book, if you haven't -- he spends a good amount of time talking about how words get deliberately redefined to mean the opposite of what they used to me. See also: Fox News and Republicans.
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