We need to defend negative reviews now?

So the Nerds of a Feathers site held a blog table on the positive value of negative reviews, because apparantly negative reviews are a problem now:

I have a real problem with the online review culture of ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ that seems to have emerged from some of the review/rating websites. It’s a disservice to the reader, and I think to the writer as well. It’s hard to make a judgement about a book without at least the possibility of dissenting reviews existing, while I’d argue that a writer should at least be aware that not everyone loves everything they do, even if they actually don’t read the reviews themselves. A world in which everyone agrees about everything, and every book is a five-star read and the best thing ever, is a world which is bland and in which there is no incentive to do better or to do something different.

I think a lot of fan coteries miss the fact, as they rally round their authors and go after the so-called bullies, that we all exercise critical judgements every day. Something as mundane as ‘I prefer apples to oranges’ is a critical judgement, but I’ve never noticed orange-lovers hounding apple-lovers because of it. There is a clear understanding that a preference for one fruit is not a judgement about the people who prefer another kind of fruit. And yet, these days even a slightly less than totally stellar review can have people behaving very oddly, trying to suppress reviews or silence an errant reviewer.

This whole review culture is strange to me. I’ve been keeping a bookblog since January 2001 and the only time somebody objected to a slightly negative review was when a relative of Theodore Cogswell disagreed with what I wrote about one of his short story collections. I blame Goodreads and that whole reviewing as social activity scene for that idea that reviewers should just be unpaid publicity agents for mediocre writers in return for free books.

It’s a common fandom fallacy, not just in book reviewing or science fiction, to be an enthusiast first and critical second, because we’re all in our fandom together and it’s rude to point somebody else’s flaws. The strange thing is, it’s rarely the good writers who get snippy about bad reviews: it’s the self promoters and Funky Flashmans who take offense. Or the deranged, like Anne Rice a few years ago. Most professionals know getting bad reviews is part of the job, that even if you write a good book, not everybody will necessarily like it. Or that it’s even desirable for everybody to like your novel.

Fans are different. If a novel or a series or a tv show is important enough for us, we can get really, really angry if somebody disparages it. The most poisoneous form of that is of course GamersGate, where a particularly obnoxious subset of gamers led themselves be used in a vendetta by notorious sleazeball Eron Gjoni to get back at his ex-girlfriend, all because they get really, really angry at any suggestion of sexism in videogames and the videogaming industry.

So in conclusion, objecting to negative reviews in general is insane and we should be careful in stamping that attitude out in science fiction.

#MetalGate: you’re joking, right?

I saw some brief references to #MetalGate on Twitter before the weekend and assumed it was GamersGate loons trying to stir shit. I was right:

Similar to how “#Gamergate” was coined by Adam Baldwin while linking to videos about Zoe Quinn’s sex life, then famously retconned to actually be about ethics in journalism, the origins of #Metalgate seem to be unimportant. #Gamergate has established a template. Throw a hash in front of a word and a “-gate” behind it, and you send out a veritable Bat-Signal to thousands of angry people on the internet: “Social Justice Warriors are doing… something. We may not be clear on what they’re actually saying or doing, but they must be stopped.”

Proof once more, if any was needed, that GamersGate is just another rightwing kulturclash project, just another attempt by “South Park Republicans” and professional culture warriors to seem even vaguely relevant and use the fears and prejudices of unthinking white men to get some sort of rightwing cultural backlash going, gain some foothold in youth culture. Yes, it’s all sound and fury and rape threats that accomplishes nothing except the harassment of more women but hey, it beats working for a living.

“A literary trick”

In the New Yorker Junot Diaz talks about MFA vs POC.

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

One way how this works was described by Anne Ursu talking about the way mainstream literary criticism has anointed John Green as the saviour of Young Adult fiction:

So the peculiar canonization of John Green and this string of bizarre articles that anoint him as the vanguard of a post-sparkly-vampire seriousness in YA isn’t simply about taking a white male more seriously than everyone else. It’s also about privileging a certain narrative structure—the dominant narrative’s dominant narrative. It’s not only that Green is a straight white man, it’s that he writes in the way that generations of straight white men have deemed important and Literary. And in art, the remaking of form has historically made the establishment very uncomfortable.

Apart from his own writing, Juan Diaz is perhaps best known for the following quote:

Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.

Which may be the most visible way in which the tension between literary values and writers of colour Diaz talks about in his essay plays out. For example in a Strange Horizons review of the science fiction anthology The Long Hidden where the reviewer was critical about the use of dialect in one story:

Troy L. Wiggins’s “A Score of Roses” features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the “chil’ren”s and “yo’self”s is charming.

Which sparked a mini debate about dialect, first on Twitter with Daniel José Older (one of the editors of The Long Hidden) and Rose Lemberg criticising the assumptions made in the review.

Troy L. Wiggins himself wrote his own response about dialect being called a “literay trick”:

And, to be honest, I’m still not angry at the reviewer for not understanding before that review went to print exactly why her statement would be problematic. That she was essentially claiming that the voice I used to tell my story wasn’t sufficient, because it was a trick–and hackneyed to boot. That maybe this suggestion crossed the line from “i didn’t like this story” to “this story’s quality is invalid because of this THING.” Another friend of mine, another fantastic creator, recently gave me this advice: “Tell it true.” Sure, I could have used a style of dialogue that was less–whatever, I don’t know what would have been appropriate for the reviewer–but it wouldn’t have been true.

He also linked to Junot Diaz’s MFA vs POC essay and talked about his own experiences in writing workshops:

In my first year workshop, there was a young dreadlocked black woman who wrote in the tradition of Hurston, Walker, and Wright. Homegirl took big steps. She wrote in a powerful voice that mixed Wright’s sensibilities with Hurston’s down-home universes. Her stories examined the unique kinship of women who love each other in all the ways that humans should. They were powerful and poignant. She wove images in her work that captured the sorrow and joy of being in love.

But her dialogue. Oh! A tragedy.

She used AAVE. Vernacular. Dialect. American black folks’ speak. That specter of language, that literary trick that made the folks in our workshop cringe in their boots with actual physical discomfort because they didn’t get it, because it was alien and they didn’t understand, or because they didn’t think it had an appropriate use in the type of high-minded literature that undergraduate students in a first year writing workshop like to think that they are producing.

Responding to this were the editors of Abyss and Apex, a speculative fiction magazine you may know from wikihistory. They had their own struggles with finding a balance between using dialect and keeping a story accesible for readings who don’t speak said dialect:

We wanted our readers, who span the English-speaking world, to feel as if they were transported to the Caribbean – but without constantly feeling like they needed to stop for directions. We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers. The St. Thomas-born, US-residing author of “Name Calling” worked with our Canadian-born, Trinidad-raised editor Tonya Liburd to make this happen.

To further illustrate their point, they published both the edited and unedited versions of Celeste Rita Baker’s Name Calling. reading both versions, Amal El-Mohtar summed it up as “One reading took me to an island. The other brought the island to me”.

Tobias Buckell, cited in the editorial as somebody who had gotten that balance right, had his own response:

Please do not hold me up in this way. For one, it is dangerous to other writers seeking to find their voices. It’s dangerous to me, as you sell me out as a brick in the wall. And it adds to a potentially dangerous view that there is a proper way to do dialect at all. I’m one way, and I’m always flattered and humbled when I’m held up as an example. But only that. *An* example.

Strange Horizons, which has always championed more diversity in science fiction, was quick to apologise in the comments to the review (and also rounded up the various responses to the review on their blog):

I think our editorial failure here was in not encouraging Katherine to consider those nuances when developing her argument — for which we apologise to her as well as to our readers. In the context of a review of a collection with Long Hidden’s stated mission, it was inappropriate to frame writing dialect as a “literary trick” and to pass over the whole topic so briefly.

Reclaiming Heinlein

Natalie Luhrs is unhappy about John Wright’s invocation of Robert Heinlein to bolster claims of witch hunts against rightwing science fiction writers:

So when someone like John C. Wright holds up Heinlein as the best SF writer ever, I have to wonder what world they’re living in. An important writer in the genre, absolutely. The best ever? Really? Way to declare the race over before everyone’s even gotten to the starting line, buddy.

Because that’s what he’s doing, right? He’s trying to draw a line around SF. In Wright’s world, there’s no room in SF for people who aren’t like him and, furthermore, no one’s work can ever come close to that of a man who died in 1988. That’s just. No. I don’t want to read that kind of SF anymore. I did my time there and it’s well past time to move on.

It all started when Wright flounced out of the SFWA claiming to have been subjected to harassment, though refusing to provide evidence of this. Wright went on to further clarify his motivation and the situation science fiction was in through a long post at the Intercollegiate Review, claiming that Robert Heinlein could not win a Hugo Award today:

At one time, science fiction was an oasis of intellectual liberty, a place where no idea was sacrosanct and no idea was unwelcome. Now speculative fiction makes speculative thinkers so unwelcome that, after a decade of support, I resigned my membership in SFWA in disgust. SFWA bears no blame for all these witch-hunts, or even most; but SFWA spreads the moral atmosphere congenial to the witch-hunters, hence not congenial to my dues money.

In his article Wright provides several examples of people supposedly chased out of sf fandom or otherwise punished for their opinions, a veritable who’s who of rightwing jackasses confusing criticism for harassment, including Vox Day, Larry Correia, Orson Scott Card and Elizabeth Moon. (The truth is of course rather different than how Wright presents it.)

In her own response to Wright’s article, Rachael Acks wonders why Wright’s so sure a modern Heinlein would’ve been held the same opinions as people like Day or Orson Scott Card in he first place:

I’m also forced to wonder at the implied assumption that, had Robert Heinlein been born in 1977 (or 1967) instead of 1907, he would be writing the exact same stuff in 2014 that he wrote in 1954 (The Star Beast) or 1964 (Farnham’s Freehold–holy shit, I hope not!). Feels kind of insulting to him that if he’d grown up in a different time he wouldn’t have maybe had some different opinions, but I guess that shouldn’t be surprising coming as it is from someone who has attitudes about gender roles that might have been more at home in the Victorian era.

In his article Wright also talked about law and custom and the differences between them, which annoyed somebody who actually makes her living as a lawyer enough to strike back with Heinlein references of her own:

As an aside? I don’t think Dr. Harshaw would agree with your superficial assessment of law versus custom. (Nor with your extensive ramblings on morals, given his comment on “Customs, morals – what’s the difference?” followed by his description of what you consider moral absolutes as “the psychotic taboos of our tribe.” In fact? You’re a textbook example of Harshaw’s definition of a prude: a person who believes “his own rules of propriety are natural laws.” Dr. Harshaw could admit that his own tastes were not the arbiters of what is correct for all people. You cannot.) Yeah, people who think like you don’t have a lock on allusions to Heinlein’s body of work, any more than you have exclusive license to make 1984 references. You will, as they say, deal.

Heinlein died in 1988 so it’s been easy for rightwingers like Wright to hijack his image and twist it into a caricature of the man, into somebody who of course would agree with them and by on their side in their culture wars. But the truth is that Heinlein was always much more complex than that, willing and able to change his views when he needed to and more likely to have laughed at Wright’s pretensions than agreed with them. He may have been rightwing, but he was never the small minded hobgoblin his “fans” want to make him into.

Heinlein after all was the man who went from “homosexuality is a disease” in Stranger in a Strange Land to having his characters not bothered about the gender of the people they slept with in Time Enough for Love and sequels. He’s the man who saw reds under the bed and argued for continued nuclear tests to keep America strong, but who also made the hero of Starship Troopers Filipino, the protagonist of Tunnel in the Sky black.

You cannot reduce Heinlein to a one dimensional “greatest science fiction writer ever”, you have to take his influence warts and all. He was wrong often, but he wasn’t wrong always and he was willing to learn when he was wrong. Science fiction is richer for his contributions, but not if we hold him up as a model to slavishly follow; he himself would be the first to know that would be pointless.

And now they know

Once you see it, it’s obvious you can read Frozen‘s Elsa as a trans symbol, as Aoife does here:

Let me first say that, as I propose to offer a trans reading of Elsa, I’m not claiming there is any intrinsic connection between my analysis and the Disney creators. Far from it. I’m also not implying the appeal of Elsa as a trans symbol is universal: my spouse, who is also trans, informed me that she hated Frozen decidedly.

However, when many of us reflect on the stressed, condensed condition of gender dysphoria, of being encased in a fraught awareness internally and a false presentation outwardly, Elsa suggests to our collective spirit of survival the joy of release. We always wanted to believe our lives would get better, that the empowerment of freedom comes from the beautiful truth of becoming. Yes, there are many costs associated with this act to “turn away and slam the [closet] door”, and Elsa must confront in the isolation of liberation. But the slow motion suicide of “conceal, don’t feel” attests to what is truly frozen — the state of denial that rejects the possibility of living free.

“Everybody dies someday – At least I saw Provence first”

extract from Don't let fear stop you from traveling

There’s nothing I don’t like about Natalie Nourigat’s Don’t let fear stop you from traveling. The story, the message, done without preaching, the cute characters, the artwork. What I especially found impressive is how well it looks even on the small screen of my mobile phone, still easily readable (and loaded relatively quickly as well).

It’s interesting how text heavy this strip is. Nourigat makes full uses of captions, thought balloons and all the other comics paraphernalia the modern superhero strip has rejected as not serious enough. Yet here Nourigat tells the story mainly through captions, only occasionally talking directly through the reader, transitioning seamlessly between the two, as above. It’s a technique you see a lot in diary and non-fiction comics (Joe Sacco’s work e.g.). Done wrong, it can be stilted, unnatural and dull, but Nourigat makes it work, knowing when to use normal dialogue instead. You don’t normally notice lettering in comics, but there are a lot of regular comics that could use Nourigat’s lettering here as an example of how to do it well.

use of colour by Nourigat

Nourigat’s artwork is clean with crisp, clear lines and an excellent use of colour, especially background colour. Whenever she’s able, Nourigat drops any background details from her panels, using single slabs of colour instead. this of course helps to make them more easily readable in a smaller format, making the foreground characters “pop” out even on a mobile phone. It also helps to distinguish “story” panels from “commentary” panels; everytime she herselfs appears to talk directly to the reader, it’s against a solid single colour background. She also uses these colours to indicate moods, as above, where the colour slowly changes from light to dark.

What I only really noticed once I started going over this story again for this post is the way she simplifies her drawings where needed. Her characters have, big, expressive eyes in the larger, closeup panels and just dots in smaller and action orientated scenes. Mouths become simple lines or ovals,figures are reduced to a few lines. Sometimes she does it even in the same panel, with the viewpoint character having normal eyes etc and background figures sketched in. Again, it makes it easier to read on smaller screens and makes the story less busy in general, helping to guide the reader to what’s important, rather than overwhelming them with unnecessary detail.

In short, this is an incredible showcase for how to draw comics for the modern internet and it’s impressive enough I bought a couple of her books online.

who chooses our required reading? We do

Ever since I read S. L. Huang’ post on who chooses sf classics I’ve been thinking about this:

I don’t understand how we can have a genre where “You haven’t read HEINLEIN (/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Dick/etc.)??” are common and accepted refrains, and “You haven’t read BUTLER??” is almost unheard. Why aren’t we saying it? Why isn’t Octavia Butler considered “required reading” of the classics in order to consider oneself a True SF Fan? Why don’t people feel left out and incomplete if they haven’t read her?

I don’t really know what defines a classic, or who should get to say what one is. But I do know I find myself feeling deeply uncomfortable with any popular mentality that shames people for not reading influential white men while giving a pass to those who skip the influential black women.

Now ideally, as Damon Knight put it, “science fiction is that what we say it is when we point at it”, meaning that it’s an ongoing debate between writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers and fans that determines what the core of the genre is. Put simply, books that are written as science fiction, accepted by publishers as part of a science fiction line, reviewed as such and talked about as science fiction, are science fiction. And vice versa; The Handmaid’s Tale clearly is science fiction, but because Margaret Atwood has taken pains to deny this, it was published by a mainstream publisher and treated by critics as literature rather than sci-fi, it’s not part of science fiction in the same way “If This Goes On…” is.

Clearly if there is such a thing as a science fiction canon, a core group of novels, stories and writers that you should’ve read to be knowledgeable about science fiction, it should be determined in the same way, ever changing and evolving as science fiction changes and evolves, and yet it hasn’t much evolved beyond the holy “Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov” trinity and their fellow mostly male, mostly white, mostly dead Golden Age collegues. Why?

I blame it on the seventies.

The seventies was a watershed moment for (English language) science fiction. The genre as a genre was roughly half a century old and those who had grown up with it in the thirties, forties and fifties were now old enough to be nostalgic about it. Science fiction had grown up from paraliterature only found in cheap pulps into something halfway into respectability, for the first time getting sustained critical attention from outside of fandom. It was popular, but would only truly become mainstream in the wake of Star Wars and it was still barely possible in the early to mid seventies to read every science fiction book published in a given year. The seventies were also the decade where the centre of the genre switched from the magazines to the novel, with novels getting longer as they no longer needed to take into account serialisation.

Finally, there was also the backlash against the upheavals science fiction went through in the sixties and seventies. First there was the British New Wave, where writers like Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock imported literary techniques into science fiction, which was exported by Judith Merril to the US leading to the American version, more explicitly taboo breaking and political, through Delany, Dick, Russ and LeGuin, to name but a few, which resulted in a new revelance in science fiction, a willingness to engage with the political, sociological and ecological issues of the day. For a lot of science fiction professionals and fans alike, these were not welcome developments and there was a strong, nostalgic backlash against it.

It’s in this climate that the science fiction “canon” got established, through a flood of popular histories and coffee table books, like Brian Ash’ The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or David Kyle’s A Pictoral History of Science Fiction, as well as through publishing programmes like Ballantines/Del Rey’s The Best of… series, reprinting short stories by the best science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The rough consensus therefore that emerged was conservative and nostalgic in nature, created by people who’d themselves been around science fiction for decades, well read and knowledgeable about it, but perhaps somewhat blinkered to everything that falls outside it.

We’re still living with that consensus, that canon, forty years later; it’s high time we re-evaluate it.

Self promotion: threat or menace?

Adam Roberts doesn’t like the modern science fiction writer’s habit of self promotion. John Scalzi gets a bit defensive about it and explains why a little bit of self promotion is cool, but it shouldn’t be too much. Enter Amal El-Mohtar, who gets annoyed by both of them and explains why these attitudes about self promotion hinder writers coming from marginalised groups:

No hand-wringing or tut-tutting about reading widely or behaving with dignity or integrity or what have you is going to end the practice of brash, confident people telling other people, often and obnoxiously, to vote for them. But, crucially, the hand-wringing and tut-tutting does have an effect: it discourages the people who already feel silenced and uncomfortable from ever talking about or taking pride in their achievements.

You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.

To be honest the self promotion of writers like John Scalzi has always annoyed me, all that relentless hyping and huckstering doesn’t fit the fandom I grew up with. Yet Amal El-Mohtar has a point here. Not everybody’s voice is equal in fandom and some people need to shout twice as loud to get their voice heard. And if nobody else does it, you have to do it yourself. Mohtar’s post is where it clicked for me how complaining about self promotion and crass commercialism can be privilege talking, especially in the context of the Hugo Awards.

The truth is that science fiction fandom, certainly that part of it that is defined by e.g. the Hugo Awards, still isn’t as welcoming and diverse as it should be, while the world of science fiction as a whole is much much larger than encompassed by the Worldcon/Hugo Award tradition. I’ve long held that the Hugos have lost much of their relevancy because they’re stuck with a voting audience no longer representative of science fiction as a whole. If left alone, these will keep voting for the same sort of writers they always vote for. Efforts to promote new and underrepresented writers therefore should be lauded, not scoffed at.

Fukitor, transgression and willful misunderstandings

Right. I talked about Jason Karns’ Fukitor before, one of a new breed of independent comics that wallows in the dumb sexism, violence and racism of an earlier generation of comics; a 21st century Gun Fury, if that comic had gotten loving writeups in The Comics Journal. Charles Reece took exception to what I wrote, saying that he wasn’t “the least bit symathetic, for example, to Matthew Wisse’s [sic] view on transgression”, reducing my argument to:

In another words, something is transgressive (and “daring”) only when it violates another’s expectations, not his own committed leftism. Transgression is pissing off some imagined conservative, never the leftist who wants to understand why the other hates us so.

Which really missed the point. It’s not that Karns violates my own “committed leftism”, it’s that nothing he has done is actually all that dangerous; his work is about as trangressive as a Rambo movie, only with more gore and tits. If you use racist, ooga boga stereotypes “ironically”, you better use them to dish stronger fare than “American ninjas versus terrorists”.

To be honest, a lot of people confuse the use of racism, misogyny, torture or sexual violence with transgression, but popular culture is already drenched in these, so how could it be transgressive? All Karns has done is make it more blatant and gory. That really isn’t enough to make it interesting.

And again, it isn’t brave to indulge in the same racism that you can get anywhere already, just by smearing a thin layer of irony on top of it, nor is it cool to pat yourself on the back for enjoying this sort of thing because you are sure you can enjoy ironically and all the racism isn’t real; even though Karns said it was.

Fukitor can feck off

page from Fukitor

Jason Karns, the creator of Fukitor, the comic shown above, wants you to know that these are not lazy Muslim/Arab terrorist stereotypes you see, they are CARTOONS:

First off, the word “muslim” is never implied. Second, the terrorists aren’t real. They are cartoons based loosely on the fact that there are people on this planet who will kill you because you don’t believe in their imaginary god. Again, they are CARTOONS. It’s complete fantasy.

The fact that the villians here are all brown skinned, bearded and wearing what certainly looks like stereotypical Middle Eastern clothing and come from “Ufukistan” — sheer coincidence. Also, you shouldn’t complain about these images because in the same issue Martians are also treated badly.

panelsfrom Fukitor 9

But anyway, even fantasy CARTOONS should be realistic says Jason:

I mean…are YOU serious?? Are you suggesting that cartoon terrorists shouldn’t be depicted as something that’s relatively close to reality? You do realize it’s not a stretch, right? Maybe you don’t.

So it’s not real, but it is realistic. Gotcha. Jason Karns’ defence so far has hit most of the expected points: it’s only a story, it’s not real, actually, it’s taken from real life, pointing out racism is the real crime, criticism is censhorship, what about the Martians, but it doesn’t excuse the Planet of the Arabs imagery:

So why do sensible people like this comic? Jim Rugg explains and doesn’t ignor its flaws:

It’s even more insanely racist than it looks, and also it is insanely misogynistic, exploitative, misanthropic, nihilistic, antisocial, funny, engaging, shocking, dynamic, beautiful, inspiring, scary, and well-designed!

It’s the kind of comics that scared a generation into burning comics in the 50s.

These comics feel genuinely dangerous and entertaining like slasher movies and cheap, violent 80s action vehicles. I’ve never seen any other comics like these. I was happy to see comments that mentioned Crumb, Johnny Ryan, and Vigil’s Faust. This is divisive, complex work. It’s not for everyone. But it’s a reminder, like other great comics, of why I love the comics form. Images and drawings can be powerful. I think many cartoonists do not focus on that aspect of the form.

To be honest though, there was a lot of shitty comics being burned in the fifties as well. The grossout horror and real crime stories could actually be transgressive back then because comics were about the only medium not censored into pablum, largely beneath the notice of the censors, until Wertham found a way to sell more books. Karns’ work takes place in a completely different media environment, one in which anything goes and there’s nothing transgressive or radical about blood and gore, especially not when done by white dudes to brown villains.

Rugg’s comparison to “slasher movies and cheap, violent 80s action vehicles” is telling, because under the gore, violence and the occasional bare titties, these were some of the most conservative movies in the world. Slasher movies always killed off the girl who actually enjoyed sex first (but not after the topless shot, natch) for being a slutty slut who sluttily enjoys slutty sex, while eighties action movies were all about re-establishing American dominance over all the world villains, be they Russians, Cubans, East Germans, Arabs, Vietnamese, or, in Chuck Norris flick Invasion U.S.A., all of them. There’s nothing “dangerous” about imitating them, nothing of Karns I’ve seen so far that looks any more interesting than what Barry Blair did in the eighties black and white boom.

Even without the racism Karns work looks dull, a thirtysomething’s idea of what a thirteen year old would like; with the racism it just leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. It may have struck Tom Spurgeon as weird that you’d “dismiss the transgressive nature of something at the same time you’re trying to shout it down in some fashion“, but just because it annoys people it’s not transgressive, or all muzak ever would be. Nor are people necessarily trying to shout it down in the first place: criticism, even harsh out of hand dismissals, are not censorship. Karns has the right to make the comics he wants to; the rest of us have the right to think less of him for what he created.

If he really wants to shock and be radical and trangressive, why not have the same comic, but with the heroic defenders of Fukistani values defeating the evil forces of the godless west? Show some gleeful, lovingly dismemberment of US soldiers while Osama Bin Laden quips one liners? That would still be dull, but slightly more brave than just putting the boot into your country’s official enemies once again.