A new kind of comics criticism

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.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I’m always wary about people being overly supportive of causes that already have the support of everybody sane and the wholesale embrace of Charlie Hebdo and the right to draw cartoons offensive to religious nutters fits this to a t. It’s not just the War on Muslims terror fetishists like Nick “glug glug” Cohen who come crawling out of the woodwork whenever some atrocity happens close enough at home, but also all the earnest decent people on the news and out on the streets showing their disapproval for murdering cartoonists. What do you want to achieve with this, or with having Je Suis Charlie graphics on Facebook or Twitter? Especially if you don’t live in France? The murderers don’t give a shit and your government will only use your abhorrence as another excuse for more “security measures”.

I do understand the impulse to do something in the face of atrocity; it’s the same impulse when a particularly well liked celebrity dies a horrible death, that objectively has nothing to do with you perhaps but because you know so much about them, it still hurts you and you want to show that you sympathise with their friends and family. It’s a very human impulse and while we may often sneer at it, it is heartening to see those waves of sympathy cross the globe in the wake of tragedy (or even good news, as in every time an American state legalises equal marriage).

And on some level, the attack on Charlie Hebdo does touch me, not because it’s an attack on my freedom of speech, but rather because they are part of my tribe, of the great global comics family. Those were people I’ve heard of, have read strips by, knew about before the news broke about the attack. I knew of Charlie Hebdo and its irreverant humour even before their first Mohammed cartoons controversy, knew their history of kicking over any sacred cow they come across.

But I still don’t feel comfortable saying “Je suis Charlie”.

For two reasons. First, the murders are not actually a threat to our freedom of speech in Europe. Though it may seem strange or even callous to say this, it’s not actually that brave to make fun of Mohammed here. There isn’t the need to show you approve of the right to make fun of Islam because that’s already a given. Governments won’t prosecute you for it, newspapers won’t censor you, your neighbours won’t shun you, even with the threat of nutjobs coming after you. Yes, Salman Rushdie, yes there’s the murder of Theo van Gogh, yes, there are the Charlie Hebdo murders and there are always other headbangers wanting to martyr the next high profile cartoonist, but doesn’t actually challenge anything to joke about Mohammed or Islam here, in secular Europe. The vast majority of threats to free speech on this subject happens in countries like Egypt or Malaysia, countries our governments are happy to support, and comes in the form of state repression: fines, blasphemy trials, censorship. You don’t face that kind of everyday oppression here for being mean to Muslims, indeed your career can thrive on it if some government official does get shirty with you about it, as in the case of Gregorius Nekschot.

The second is, as I said in my first post, that I didn’t necessarily like what Charlie Hebdo did before the shootings and I don’t believe their murder should change that opinion.

Charlie Hebdo

Latuff cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

The news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices has hit close to home. Cartoonists are always one of the first targets for repressive regimes and other psychopaths and Charlie Hebdo has not been shy about taunting authoritarian assholes; they already had their office firebombed by the same kind of idiot who got offended enough this time to kill. As Ted Rall put it:

Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.

Scholars and analysts of the form have tried to articulate exactly what it is about comics that make them so effective at drawing an emotional response, but I think it’s the fact that such a deceptively simple art form can pack such a wallop. Particularly in the political cartoon format, nothing more than workaday artistic chops and a few snide sentences can be enough to cause a reader to question his long-held political beliefs, national loyalties, even his faith in God.

That drives some people nuts.

Twelve people killed so far, five of whom were cartoonists, some of the most famous in France and beyond: Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski. It’s a tragedy like no other that has happened to the comics community. Cartoonists have been threatened, assaulted and even killed for their cartoons, but on this scale?

And what may be the worst thing about this massacre (apart from, you know, the people murdered) is that the cartoons may just have been used as an excuse for some fuckwitted jihadist publicity stunt to heighten the tensions, wanting to rile up islamophobia by attacking a well known target in the worst possible way. The attackers know and count on innocent Muslims getting caught in the crossfire, but don’t care. All that matters is that they showed how big and scarey they are to be able to kill people only armed with pen and ink.

The danger is of course that the response to this attack will travel through the well worn tracks of outrage and Islamophobia, of uncritcally making Charlie Hebdo into free speech martyrs to rally people for another spot of Muslim bashing, as Geertje Wilders was already busy doing while the bodies were still warm.

For me personally, Charlie Hebdo’s satire about the Islam felt too much like punching down to be enjoyable or interesting; this tragedy doesn’t change that.

Ross Campbell: truly outrageous

I’ve loved Ross Campbell’s character designs and bodyshapes ever since I discovered his artwork through Glory and it’s nowhere better shown off than in this cover concept for the new Jem & the Holograms comic from IDW. Because apparantly we need new comics for all half remembered eighties cartoon now. Not that I mind much, as I’ve always had a fondness for Jem. And if there’s anybody able to update their look and make them look great, it’s Campbell, as his design sketches at io9 show.

What I love about it is the soft, chunky, almost squat look of these bodies, sexy without pandering, updating Jem’s look without making it generic. Brilliant stuff.

The real shock is having Fanta publish it

Greg Hunter reviews Fukitor for The Comics Journal:

Intentionality becomes a consideration while reading comics like this. Here are two ways to consider “Operation Cockblock!”: 1) Karns uses satire as a pretext to include content that’s upsetting by design; 2) Karns’s ambitions as a satirist outstretch his gift for satire to such a degree that the story is a near-total failure. Not all art has a social intent, and not all art is best viewed in these terms, but we can certainly judge ostensible social comment by its follow-through. Fukitor manages little with respect to race except the visual parroting of hateful tropes.

It’s possible Karns doesn’t consider the reactions of readers while drafting his work. Not likely, but possible. If he does consider reactions, we can posit that shock is not merely expected but desired. So criticizing Fukitor because of its harsh content feels uncomfortably like playing a game that Karns has arranged. But Fukitor can also be critiqued on the grounds of its eventual boringness. By the end, viscera fall with plodding monotony.

As I’ve said before, there’s nothing shocking about Fukitor, satirical or otherwise. It just draws on the same wellsprings of racism, sexism and bullying as everything it’s “inspired” by. It’s the alternative comix version of Identity Crisis, a deeply cynical attempt to exploit aging fanboys’ confusion of maturity and adult material with asshole behaviour. Are we sure, in fact, that Jason Karns isn’t a Mark Millar pseudonym, because the trolling style is the same.

And if Fukitor is just a giant troll attempt, it’s overshadowed by that of its new publisher. The first book in Fantagraphics new F. U. imprint (and I see what you did there), it’s a clear statement of intent, and a giant troll to pretend that this book, out of all the interesting work being done, is good enough to launch this new imprint. One of the great things about Fantagraphics is that it has always been in the forefront in the fight for artistic freedom in comix, but it does lead them sometimes into tedious épater le bourgeois territory, like it seems to have done here. You can, if you squint, draw a line from certain of Crumb’s racist fantasies and Bagge’s more outrageous libertarian strips to what Karns does here, but it doesn’t make it more interesting, here in 2014, to again see yet more racist, sexist power fantasies get preferable treatment just because it offers the illusion of transgression, when in actuality it does nothing but riff on the same tired old stereotypes already all over mainstream media offerings.

Kitty jailbait

Kitty and Courtney enjoying some birthday cake

This post by Sigrid Ellis, about Chris Claremont, the X-Men, Kitty Pryde, hiding in hindsight pretty blatant lesbian flirting from the Comics Code Authority and telling Rogue you think you might be gay is adorable in its dorkiness:

I re-read this scene over and over again. I knew, now, in 1992, what this looked like. This looked like Spin-the-Bottle or Truth-or-Dare, it looked like the drunk and stoned random kissing games people played in the dorms on a weekend night. It looked like a challenge thrown down and accepted. I stared at the art. Courtney or Sat-Yr-9 or whoever was seducing Kitty Pryde. And Kitty was saying yes.


Davis knew something about Claremont’s intentions that I did not know, and drew what he thought a lesbian relationship, with willing participation from both parties, would look like. Kudos to him, it looked rather a lot like the same-sex flirting I saw monthly at the GLBUnion dances – licking of the fingers, et cetera. What I did not know is that Claremont included this sort of girl-on-girl sensuality in all of his comics, hiding it from the CCA as heterosexual female friendship. It wasn’t until 1992 and Davis’s fairly blatant art that I got the hint; actual straight women maybe don’t feel this way about their friends. It was entirely possible, I realized slowly, that finger sucking and licking was not a strictly heterosexual activity among friends. [...]

I can blame Claremont – and I do – for my not coming out earlier than I did. But I also have to credit him for slipping queers into my comics when the CCA forbade it. When I did finally come out to myself, the X-Men didn’t judge me. They accepted this new form of oddball difference the same way they’d always accepted me; with open hands and an invitation to be a hero once more.

The flirting and licking of fingers all happened in Excalibur #24, which was in hindsight quite blatant about it, but which went completely over my head when I first read it back in 1992 or so as an out of context back issue. I just thought it was a fun wish fullfillment story, but with the subtext, well, text visible behind it, i’ts slightly creepy as well?

Not for the not so hidden lesbianism of course, but because you have an adult woman seducing a fifteen year old girl. As the very first page points out this is Kity’s fifteenth birthday, so Courtney Ross, clearly an older woman, getting all flirty with her is a bit dodgy. Though not as dodgy as Kitty’s previous relationship with Collossus, when she was thirteen and had just joined the X-Men and he was at least eighteen. The inappropriateness of that relationship was never brought up in the books as far as I know, certainly not when I was still reading them. The only time people were upset with Pyotr was when he broke off the relationship.

Of course, reading The X-Men as a teenager all this passed you by. Kitty may have nominally been thirteen or fifteen but since she was thirteen for years it was easy to lose sight of it, especially as she was usually drawn slightly more mature than that, though she never suffered from/enjoyed the most common super power as much as her team mates…

Free speech isn’t consequence free

Bill Purcell is a volunteer at Comic Con International, apparantly on the committee for San Diego Comic Con, which as you know Bob, is the largest comic con in the English language area and possibly the world. He’s also a racist asshole who’s been aggressively tweeting about the Ferguson verdict ever since the grand jury reached its decision not to prosecute yesterday. It’s the standard entitle white man obnoxiousness coming out in public, a reflex action he can’t help, with of course the usual threats against people taking offence at him. Bigot gotta bigot.

Disappointing but not unexpected is some of the response he’s had. Rich Johnson is jealous:

We don’t have the same freedom of speech laws like the US does, and I wish we did. Part of defending free speech tends to be defending the speech of people you find abhorrent – otherwise what value does it have? I’m reminded of the ridiculous attempt from Lawrence O’Donnell to censor the free speech of Comic-Con organiser Jackie Estrada‘s husband, Batton Lash.

While Mark Waid and Tom Spurgeon argue people shouldn’t call for Purcell to be fired:

The whole thing sounds dumb, right? It is! But this is also an interesting thing. I agree with Mark Waid when he suggests here that calling for Purcell’s position or volunteer job or whatever based on expressions of stomach-turning dumbassery isn’t something that communities should do as a general rule. One hundred percent. But there’s a growing element in comics culture that feels differently, and I think most institutions have to account for that in some way. I also think there’s a line to be drawn between staking out a position, no matter how loathsome or stupid, and engaging with your customer base in a way that’s carries even a hint of threat, or is simply so unpleasant and bothersome so as to disrupt and distract someone from the business of their day.

Now I do understand where they’re coming from; the US comics field has had a great many traumatic experiences with censorship, from the original Comics Code Authority to the Friendly Franks prosecutions in the eighties and the first reflex is always to defend the right to free speech, no matter the content. But free speech isn’t consequence free speech and it’s not censorship to point out that somebody like Purcell isn’t helping the San Diego Comic Con more friendly toward people of colour.

And lord knows comics don’t need more problems with white male entitlement and hostility towards people of colour; it’s history in this regard is just as troubling as its censorship troubles have been, but self imposed. To have somebody who has been quite open in his ties to San Diego be able to spout more of this hatred without consequences just reinforces the idea that people of colour are unwelcome in comix. It makes the convention that less safe to visit, knowing such an outspoken bigot is involved, somebody who has actually been threatening people with violence as well. And those are not idle threats in a country where lynching as a white people’s passtime is still within living memory, while on average two black people are killed by cops each week.

There’s a choice here that we have to make. Either we make it clear by deeds as well as words that hatred and threats like Purcell’s have no place in comix, or we sacrifice the safety of people of colour, of women, on the altar of free speech, which always seems to favour the incrowd, the already connected, the white. Because of what he said and the way he said it, Purcell should be removed from any involvement with the Comic Con unless the con thinks the rights of a bigot to have his free speech be consequence free outweights the rights of people of colour to be safe at their convention.