In the latest Hot Button feature at Newsarama, Vaneta Rogers discusses social commentary in superhero comics with writers Denny O'Neil (notable in this particular context for his classic run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow), Judd Winick (controversial runs dealing with hate crimes and AIDS in Green Lantern and, uh, Green Arrow), and Greg Rucka (celebrated for redefining The Question and Batwoman as complex, nonstereotypical, and ethnically diverse lesbian characters). The article as a whole is a very good read, but this part stood out in particular:
Greg Rucka, who recently co-wrote with O'Neil a modern issue of his once-socially-relevant The Question, said the decision to make Green Arrow markedly liberal in O'Neil's comics was one that worked at the time, but he understands why publishers shy away from introducing political motivations to other characters.
"I think publishers are more frightened of political backlash than they are of issue backlash," Rucka said. "I do think that yeah, if you introduce political stances for your major characters, you have opened up a can of worms there. If you're telling stories in a shared universe about heroism, you don’t want to imply that X hero is only a hero for the Republican party, and is therefore not going to be doing heroic and noble things for everybody else. You never what to establish a risk of status quo that makes them less heroic.
Let me say first that I feel that defining political orientations for 2nd-tier (or lower) characters is fine, especially when they're set in opposition to each other: Hal and Ollie during O'Neil's run, Ollie and Carter Hall (Hawkman) in more recent comics, Hawk and Dove in their various incarnations, etc. But the thing that scared the bejeebies out of me when the DC Universe Decisions miniseries was announced (and luckily quickly forgotten soon after its release) was that they were going to define political stances for the top tier characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman--especially Superman.
Why did this concern me so? Contrary to what Mr. Rucka says, I don't think defining a superhero as liberal or conservative would imply that he or she would help some people and not others in an emergency (though examples do exist, such as Ollie early in O'Neil's run), but making a hero's politics explicit does reduce the appeal of that character to a significant portion of the fanbase.
Furthermore, it contributes to the perception that our political affiliations define us. If Superhero A is conservative and Superhero B is liberal, many people will take those facts to determine much more about their characters than seems appropriate. There's a lot of room for widely different types of liberals and conservatives in this world (not to mention all the people who reject both labels). And I like to believe that most liberals and conservatives (excluding the ones on the extreme fringe of each group) have more in common than not.
So even though Mr. O'Neill "defines" Hal as an authoritarian (conservative) and Ollie as a progressive activist (liberal), they were still both heroes who fought evil--just in slightly different ways with slightly different emphases, styles, and tactics. But compared to the villains they confronted (super- or not), they were still heroes first and foremost. Liberal and conservative heroes may fight evil in slightly different ways, which can be interesting to see (as with Hal and Ollie, or Ollie and Carter), but can also be distracting if not handled delicately and sensitively (at which Decisions almost failed, but ultimately didn't, as I remember--whew).
That said, there are some heroes that should never be defined politically, and instead should represent the best of both (all?) political orientations, values that unite us all (though we disagree on their implementation), such as justice and equality. These heroes can stand as the moral (and political) centers of their respective comics universes, and if the other characters are defined more to the left or right relative to them, then the center will hold them together.
Superman, of course, is that character in the DCU, though his role as such has not been emphasized very much, though sometimes he functions this way as part of the Trinity, with Batman to his "left" and Wonder Woman to his "right," such as in the build-up to--and, literally, in the first issue of--Infinite Crisis. More clearly, as we all saw after Civil War and through Dark Reign and Siege, Captain America is that character for the Marvel Universe. The two are, as Mr. Rucka said, heroes for us all, but not because they don't exclude anyone from their heroism, but rather because they represent all of us in their characters. Let the other characters orbit Supes and Cap in their own unique ways--some a little to the left, others a little to the right--but I would hope the companies would retain balance overall, and focusing on their centers is, I think, the best way to do this.