“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.)
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.
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:
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.
While it is my personal feeling that the hateful, harmful, dehumanizing views expressed by Beale on his blog (about women, about religious and ethnic groups to which he does not belong, about queer people) would be “good and sufficient cause” enough to not share an organisation with him, I understand that enforcing expulsion on those grounds is problematic in the absence of an expansive organization-wide Code of Conduct.
This last reads to me very much like a threat, especially coming from a white man to a black woman in a country where public lynchings are a matter of living memory.
I urge you to please represent my views to the rest of the officers and vote to expel a man who has behaved so execrably from our organization.
Folks, we have to grin and bear it in an organization where 48 people voted for an organizational president who wanted to disenfranchise half the electorate. Women’s right to vote. In my own industry. In the one that pays me to write books. 48 people who were happy to publicly endorse turning me into a non-human. How many more were sympathetic to this? How many that I don’t know about?
In my opinion these people need to be expelled as well. You can’t have an inclusive organisation if it includes people who think women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or out and out racists. The SFWA need to take a leaf out of the Australian Army’s book and get serious about ending sexism and racism in its organisation.
One fine evening, journalist Jamelle Bouie decides to sell his old tv to a friend and sets out to bring it over to them there and then, when considers what this would look like:
As I was getting ready to go, it occurred to me that this would be a terrible idea. Not because I would have been carrying a TV at 10pm down a quiet city street—I actually feel pretty safe doing that. But because I would have been a black dude—in a hoodie, no less!—carrying a nice-looking TV down a quiet city street at 10pm.
Had he been white, would he have thought about this? Jamelle himself thinks not, and I think he’s right. For myself, while I do occassionally wonder when doing something that could look dodgy, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been stopped by police because what I was doing looked suspicious. In fact, police officers here and abroad have always been respectful and polite to me, whenever I had to interact with them. The same really goes for any sort of interaction with authority; I’ve always been treated respectfully even when in the wrong, have more often than not been believed on my word when there was no real reason to do so, always gotten the benefit of the doubt when I needed it. In short, I’ve never had to worry about people judging me negatively just of how I look.
That’s something that’s incredibly powerful, in which I’m very lucky as I’ve done nothing to earn this respect, but which from the inside feels like the normal way the world should work; it doesn’t feel like I’m priviledged. This dichotomy, where it’s easier for those without these privileges to see how privileged those with them truly are, is I think responsible for much of the heat around internet debates about privilege.
On the one hand, people like me who enjoy these privileges need to make an effort to see them for what they are, while on the other hand they have never or rarely experienced the sort of harassement people without them encounter regularly. It makes it hard for us to believe them, even when everybody is arguing in good faith and it’s even harder to transform this intellectual understanding in an emotional one, to understand what it is really like to live without this privilege we take for granted.
That’s why simple, to the point and most importantly, unjudgmental post like Jamelle Bouie’s one here are so important, as they provide a way in which we can understand something of how other people live.
Anti-racism campaigners praised Boateng’s decision to walk off. Piara Powar, the executive director of the European anti-discrimination group Fare, said: “We salute Kevin-Prince Boateng for his actions and his team-mates for their support. This is the not the first time a player has walked off in Italy – if the situation continues it may not be the last. Italy, as much as any country in Europe, has a serious problem of racism to deal with. Football infrastructure is in need of renewal and at serious odds with the changing nature of Italian society. We look forward to strong action by the FIGC [Italian FA].”
Racism in football all over Europe is still an underreported problem. In many countries it’s much less than it used to be in the seventies and eighties, but it’s still present and needs to be dealt much more firmly with.
Why do I write about race? Partly because other people are so terrible or inept at recognizing the impact of race on their life, let alone actually talking about it. When I first started, it was a lark. Then I thought I could convince Marvel and DC to do something other than pander to their audience. Then I realized that was stupid, and I’d be better off just talking about this stuff. I’ll spit hollowpoints at them them when they miss, praise them when they hit, and hopefully someone who reads me will look and go, “Oh, this makes sense” and tomorrow will be a little better.
It took me forever to come to that point, though. I figure it’s obvious if you read my posts from that first Black History salvo on through today. Maybe not. Maybe I’m the only one that pays that much attention to what I do. But I have changed and grown as a result of talking about race and comics.