David Brothers has just published a post on Comics&Cola, which talks about his frustrations with addressing racism and the like in comics and how there should be a place for a new sort of criticism in comics:
But the new criticism, the criticism that is largely coming from black and brown and Asian and Muslim and gay and trans and feminist circles and even more besides, doesn’t have an established place in comics yet. The culture is not used to it. The culture doesn’t know how to react to it, because it often comes from a deeply personal place and is accompanied by emotion instead of rote facts about first appearances and career milestones. The result is a constant diminishing of the concerns of the essayist and mocking of their context.
We talk about outrage culture and never stop to ask ourselves why someone saying “This hurt me, here’s why” is offensive, but a white man creating a comic where women are raped and non-whites are racially stereotyped is not. We scream “Free speech!” in the face of people who say “This is messed up.” We never examine why someone is angry before dismissing them for their anger. We demand perfection and eloquence from someone who has just been confronted with the unbridled contempt someone else has for them and everything they represent.
Much of what Brothers is talking about is of course the well known Tone argument: “I’m not going to listen to you as long as you’re shouting at me”. Another part comes from what Laurie Penney calls a href=”http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire”>nerd entitlement, a toxic mix of historic victimhood and elitism that makes comics, perhaps more so than any other nerdy pursuit, hostile to everybody “not like us”, women and people of colour especially; the stereotypical nerd being portrayed as white and male even though women and people of colour have always been present.
That’s where comics particular history reinforces those already existing tendency. Because it’s been used so often as a scapegoat for all sorts of social problems like juvenile delinquency, has been the victim of official opprobium, has had retailers prosecuted for selling material “not suitable for kids” or artists put in jail for what they put on paper, any criticism based on larger societal concerns is immediately met with hostility. And it isn’t so much the fanboys that are the problem, attached though they are to certain questionable superheroine outfits.
No, rather it’s the critical press and the socalled art comix community that’s the problem. Unlike what’s been happening in related nerd fields like science fiction fandom, there’s very little attention within serious comics circles for issues of representation, diversity and the systemic effects of racism, transphobia, sexism or homophobia. Most of the serious commentary still seems to believe in art in a vacuum, without much attention for how it reflects or even encourages racism or sexism. There’s this very baby boomerish idea of the freedom of the artist to do what he wants, without much curiosity about why it is always he doing it. It’s why you get glitzy thrash like Fukitor published by Fantagraphics, something that’s supposed to be transgressive but only deals in the same tired stereotypes you could’ve found in an eighties Chuck Norris action movie.
What critical tradition (American) comics has had, has largely come around through the efforts of The Comics Journal: no other critical magazine has had its longevity and influence. Yet that influence isn’t always benign; molded after the personalities of its founders, Kim Thompson and especially Gary Groth, it’s always been macho, aggressive and sometime disdainful of concerns outside of pure art. So you get this sort of sneering too often, a defensive response without any attempt to understand what it is sneering at.
What comics needs is the equivalent of Racefail in science fiction fandom, when long simmering issues of representation and diversity came to a head and all the underlying racism & sexism boiled over. Science fiction finally had to come to terms with the idea that fans of colour weren’t rare, weren’t hidden and owned science fiction as much as anybody else. Comics still hasn’t woken up to this.