I. Coleman has a point, comparing the hero of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One with Peter Parker:
If you want a geek hero, look at Peter Parker. He likes Star Wars and obsesses over superheroes. He’s a nerd. He gets bullied for being a nerd. But his fondness for LEGOs isn’t what makes him a hero – that would be his heroism. His goodness. The fact that he’ll go out of his way to help an old lady cross the street. He knows what it’s like to get picked on, and instead of picking on others in turn, he chooses to stand up for the little guy no matter how hard it is. Peter Parker is what geek culture needs to strive to be every day. When we write an article or a videogame or a book, we should think “Would Peter Parker write this? Would he agree with what we’re saying?”
And conversely, I propose we should also ask “would Wade Watts like this?” And if the answer is yes, you should delete your draft, burn your script, drown the thing in white-out and start over. And it’s this test, more than anything else, that Ready Player One so catastrophically fails. Yes, it’s boring, poorly-written, and literally contains a ten-page list of titles of things the author likes. But it also fails the basic test of humanity, creating a character and a world so repugnant that I feel more than justified in saying it represents the absolute worst of nerd culture.
But there’s another way in which Peter Parker and Wade Watts differ, one that’s just as important as the one Coleman points out: what kind of nerd they are. It’s this difference that at least partially explains their moral differences as well. As we all know, Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider that turned him into Spider-Man, but the reason he was bitten by that spider was because he went to a scientific exhibition, because Peter Parker was the kind of nerd who was really into science, who was studying to become a scientist. That’s why he was bullied, at a time when being a brainiac was not a good thing. There’s more than a hint of classism in the bullying, what with his principal tormentor being the popular, rich jock who could afford to tool around in a sports car, while Parker wore handme down clothes and thick nerd glasses. And that’s why he was bullied: he looked poor, he was a brainiac, he didn’t share the interests of the cool people nor felt the need to imitate them.
Wade Watts on the other hand is the worst possible sort of nerd, the one that thinks his (excessive) love of Star Wars and knowledge of eighties nerd trivia makes him special, gets him persecuted. He doesn’t create, he just consumes, never does anything original. He has a persecution complex but nobody’s persecuting him. His type is widespread among fandom, usually white men who’ve never had much hardship in their lives, but who’ve convinced themselves that a light spot of bullying during high school means the entire world is against them because of their brilliance. These are usually the same people who want to exclude anybody not like them — LGBT, women, PoC — from fandom, that only they are true fans though they never contribute anything. That’s the kind of fan who eat up flattering trash like Ready Player One.
One of Lucy Bellwood’s cartoons went viral a while ago, being shared by Boing Boing, Chris Hadfield, the Atlas Obscuria, George Takei and others. So what does this exposure mean in terms of cold, hard cash?
SO: To date, including the money I was paid to produce the artwork, I have made $1,761.50 from this image. Not bad! Notably: $814 of that came after Boing Boing decided to feature the art with a proper link pointing people to my shop. There are a bunch of factors to consider here.
But I also think it’s important to share these numbers as a reminder that just because you’ve seen someone’s work shared on a popular platform (or by a popular person), doesn’t mean they’re automatically set for life. It does, however, mean they might be making a couple hundred bucks more than they usually do in a given month, and when you’re trying to make it as a freelancer that makes all the difference in the world.
I’ve shared one of her sailing cartoons before, on Metafilter, but I’m not sure I’d buy a print myself, if only because it’s usually such a hassle to get that sort of stuff shipped from the US. Bellwood’s essay is a good reminder of the financial realities of “going viral” and what that means for an artist or cartoonist and why proper attribution is so important. Something I’m not always practising myself, I’ve realised. Not often we get such a honest, open look into what large scale exposure means for an independent artist like Bellwood.
Spinning is Tillie Walden’s autobiographical story of growing up as a gay teenage ice skater in Texas. It’s told with remarkably little drama or fuzz, just a few years out of the life of a girl who has already known she’s gay for years before the story starts. Most of the conflict in the story is about Tillie’s growing disinterest in skating, even as she becomes more proficient in it. There’s no great rebellion, just Tillie continuing to skate because that’s what she’s used to doing, until finally one day she stops. And inbetween her skating we get glimpses of how she finds out she’s gay, her crushes, first love and coming out. It’s a very ordinary story, but that ordinariness is its strength.
The art and colour scheme relentlessly reinforce that ordinariness. Everything is muted, mostly black and white, but with the occassional harsh yellow highlight. This palette fits the early morning grayness of Walden’s skate practise well. The occassional use of a slightly warmer colour, like above, helps to distinguish more important moments from the day to day drabness.
Walden’s art is understated here, she doesn’t use grand gestures because the story wouldn’t fit them. Instead, she relies on small, subtle gestures and meaningful looks. I like her faces especially, a nice mix of realism with just enough cartoonist exagerration. Her skating scenes fittingly verge on the mundane, as they’re mostly training scenes, but even the occasional competition skating is shown from the perspective of the skaters, for whom it’s all familiar rather than exciting.
Perhaps the most bizarre, shocking thing about this autobiography for an old fart like me is that Walden shows her younger self and her friends reading and talking about the Twilight novels, the first of which came out only in 2005. it shows how young Walden is; she most be in her mid-twenties at most. It’s rare to start an autobiography this young; usually you have more distance between the narrator and their younger self. Perhaps this is why there’s so little drama, so little attempt to fit her memories into a “proper story”. All of which I like in this undramatic story of coming out and stopping being an ice skater.
Supporting small business is important, but Amazon won’t ask you if you’re buying X-Men for your boyfriend every week. I’ve lost count of the women I know who stopped going to comic shops after being hit on or patronized too many times.
That small aside from a story about online harassment in video gaming perfectly illustrates the challenge the socalled mainstream comics industry has created for itself. Like videogaming, comics culture is steeped in rightwing victim culture, where you convince yourself both that you and your hobby are horribly oppressed and bullied by the jocks, the popular clique, riajuu and that your particular brand of pop culture is superior to what the brainless masses consume because they don’t spent their Wednesday evenings waiting for the new issue of whatever The Avengers is called this week. So you get a culture and industry that bemoans the fact that nobody loves comics anymore, but resents any step made to make people feel welcome. In fact, people seem to feel personally insulted if others enjoy the wrong sort of comics, as this fortuitous tweet demonstrates.
Buying comics online, either digital or in trades, is so much nicer than having to make that weekly trek to some dingy hole to spent anywhere from three to five bucks (usually converted 1 on 1 or even worse into euros) for something that won’t even take you a decent bout on the crapper to read.
Howard Chaykin is the best example this side of Steve Brust of the nominally leftist guy who keeps showing his ass in public:
For the record, the cover depicts the horrific wish dream of some 45% of their fellow Americans. Perhaps if they spent a bit more time paying attention to the fact that the world they were born into is on the brink of serious disaster, they might have less time to get worked up about an image of genuine horror that depicts an aspect of that impeding disaster.
And of course, that left has evolved into a culture and community that feels that a white, cisgendered male has no right to tell stories of characters who are not white cisgendered males. Beyond its obvious and ridiculous limitations, this is just one more variety of fascism with a sympathetic and friendly face–from a left that still hasn’t figured out a cohesive way to save itself, the country and the world from the crushing monster that my country has become.
The mistake Chaykin makes here is thinking it’s still 1987 and you could pretend comics are read only by white male nerds. Chakyin wants to pretend he’s the voice of the voiceless enlightening an audience somehow ignorant of the plight of trans women or Muslims in Trump’s America, that just depicting atrocities is a courageous stand against injustice. And perhaps in 1987, what Chakyin is doing in The Divided States of Hysteria, when you compare it to e.g. Chris Claremont’s hamfisted lynching analogies in X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, where “muties” stand in for Black people. But it’s 2017, not 1987 and you have to do better than that.
Because biff, pow, zap comics are not just for well meaning white dudes anymore.
Not that they ever were.
There’s a huge, diversive audience out there, some of which actually have first hand experience with the issues Chaykin writes about. So the bar is higher than if you are writing for a well intentioned, but largely clueless white nerd audience. Get things wrong and you will be criticised, even if you’re a Big Name Leftist cartoonist like Chaykin. And he fails at the first hurdle by falling right into the victim trap. Got a gay or lesbian character in your story? The victim trap has him dying of aids, her getting raped and all of it is oh so inspiring for their straight friends and the straight audience watching. Same of course goes for trans characters, whether or not they “power up” from their rape or abuse trauma and become angels of vengeance. Given that Chaykin has previous with regards to trans characters in Black Kiss — which wasn’t the most subtle of characterisations — it’s not suprising people won’t cut him slack with a new series that opens with the rape and assault of a trans protagonist.
It’s not that you don’t have the right to write characters other than white, cisgendered males — and didn’t John Byrne already complained about not being allowed to create anything other than white villains back in 1992 — it’s that you have to get it right. Don’t fall into the same victim narratives white male cis writers always fall in when writing about characters unlike themselves. And perhaps listen when people criticise your writing, rather than brag that you didn’t read it?