Friday Funnies: Lighten Up

panel from Ronald Wimberlys Lighten Up

“Lighten Up” is a comic Ronald Wimberly created about his feelings when an editor asked him to lighten the skin tone of a character in a Wolverine comic. As told, it’s one of those incidents you could call micro aggressions, one of those moments where the (unconsciously) racist assumptions underpinning (American) society come to the fore. If you’re not subject to them they can be easily overlooked or dismissed, but as seen here, they do resonate.

What got me thinking is when Wimberly aks whether a black editor would’ve asked him to change that skin colour only to note that he’s never had a black editor in twelve years working in comics. Because Marvel has had black editors in the past; Christopher Priest and Dwayne McDuffie frex. But they’re still rare to non-existent enough at the big comics companies for somebody to be able to work for over a decade without ever encountering one. And that’s a worry, because without people of colour, black people in positions of power within comics, the concerns of their readers and creators of colour will always come second.

Apart from its message, I just like the comic itself. It can be hard not to make a non-fiction comic into a succession of talking heads and static shots with most information carried through the text but Wimberly succeeded admirably. If you just had the text to read you’d miss so much; the continuous juxtaposition with html colour codes frex, or his use of Manet’s Olympia, or that “pin the tail on the racist” panel, a great example of text and drawing contradicting each other.

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.

Actual black nerd problems

Privilege is also, not having to worry about shit like this when going to conventions:

How the fuck is it that my Friday night Comic Con experience is hijacked by me doing the math on if I could get to my car with a giant, cartoonish sword strapped across my back? Why is this something that concerns me at all? It sure as hell didn’t concern the cool white dude who showed me his Levi-blade earlier. If I ran into him again and if he asked me if I picked one up myself, I wouldn’t know how to tell him about my reluctance to open myself up to possible harm. I wouldn’t know how to engage him on a level that says, “I’m glad we met and share an affinity for this same piece of art, but because I’m black and aware of the world around me, I don’t feel comfortable indulging myself at the same level you do.” It’s a tough conversation to have. It’s a tougher situation to articulate. It’s toughest though, just trying to live with that doubt in your head.

Hipster racism

Ironic racism, Lester Bangs nailed more than three decades ago:

Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them, you can’t say them without risking misinterpretation by some other bigoted asshole; your irony just might be his cup of hate. Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mindlessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool. “I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!”

Africa is a country — special SF edition

What struck me about Mike Resnick’s defence of being guaranteed a place in a proposed anthology about “alien encounters” that boasted about its dedication to diversity…

For the record, I have been to Africa 6 times on prolonged trips, I have won 4 Hugos for stories about Africa and have been nominated for 8 more, and my knowledge of the Kikuyu and Maasai peoples has been praised by Kenyan office holders. Are you suggesting that I -shouldn’t- write about Africa, or perhaps that no right-thinking editor should buy them?

… is the idea that having won Hugo awards for stories set in Africa is evidence that said stories treated Africa with respect and weren’t stereotyped, reductive or orientalist. I mean these are the same awards as voted on by American fans so unwilling to travel outside their own country they hold a special con on the rare occassions Worldcon moves outside the US, aren’t they? What makes these people knowledgeable about Africa?

Also, the idea that visiting a continent a couple of times makes you an expert, or that a (presumed) expertise on two Kenyan peoples makes you an expert on Africa as a whole or even the simple fact that Resnick’s stories about these peoples are labeled as “African” and discussed as such? Not helping his case.

Now personally I would prefer it if Resnick wouldn’t write at all, as he’s dull as dishwater and a godawful writer regardless of whether or not he gets “Africa” (sic) right, but nobody has actually been arguing he shouldn’t write about Africa or not get his stories published, just that, you know, to privilege an American writer over actual African science fiction writers like say, Nnedi Okorafor (who has just written a whole novel about alien encounters set in Lagos) isn’t actually being that committed to finding a greater diversity.

(For a more indepth look at why this anthology is problematic, Charles Tan and Natalie Luhrs have all the gory details.)