If you like, you can see the emergence of a united trolldom in the comics fanbase, now apparently called Comicsgate [retching noise] as laterally related to Gamergate (which it apes), and to the Sad Puppies dickheads who tried to get eighth-tier hack sci-fi writer Ted Beale a Hugo Award because he was a white guy (Beale has founded a publishing imprint actually called Comicsgate).
And it’s understandable to want to dismiss these dudes as fake geek boys, who don’t get the most basic tenets of superhero comicdom, namely diversity, inclusion, selfless heroism, and sacrifice. What else are Superman and the X-Men supposed to stand for? They’re the original social justice warriors.
But doing the former ignores the actual comics, and doing the latter commits one of the more annoying fallacies of contemporary mainstream comics criticism, which is certainly not above reproach though it is at least non-Nazi, which is apparently the subterranean state of the bar these days: It resists marrying the work performed on comics to the actual people who perform it and instead weds it to the characters themselves, who are not much more than corporate glyphs at this point. Roughly the same amount of moral goodness suffuses Batman as does the Pepsi logo. Perhaps this wasn’t always this way but it certainly is now.
With each new act in this regrettable bullshit circus I hope more and more fervently that some kind of intelligent analysis of the actual people who help create comics will get written by someone capable of writing it: Chuck Dixon, for example, is one of the most prolific comics writers ever to pick up a pen, having made his mark particularly on wildly popular characters like The Punisher and Batman. Dixon has never been shy about his right-wing politics and now, predictably, he’s thrown in with Beale, writing a comic called “Alt-Hero.” Mike Baron, writer of beloved superhero series Nexus was for a while slated to write a comic about the heroic exploits of Kyle Chapman, the fascist activist who attended rallies calling himself Based Stickman, wearing a mask and wielding a club that the criminal complaint sworn out against him refers to as a “leaded stick.” (Baron dropped out, which is nice to hear. I like a lot of his work.) Obviously, it’s not hard to see the connection between Chapman and the mask-wearing, batarang-wielding four-color heroes who thump thugs every week in the comics.
There are more besides these examples, less egregious but just as noteworthy: Bill Willingham, who devoted most of an issue of his wildly popular book Fables to explicitly comparing the Palestinian people to the subhuman goblin villains of his series, which kind of ruined it for me; and who can forget Dave Sim, the prodigiously gifted writer-artist whose 300-issue long self-published epic Cerebus devolves into a misogynist screed written mostly in tiny serial-killer-font captions and lengthy back-and-forth letter-column discussions with more progressive writers like Alan Moore.
I’m going to take the odd position of declining to insult the workmanship of these guys’ comics; a lot of them are very good. Failing to take into account the world as it is, whether by misrepresenting women or refusing to understand gay people or deploring entire races, is a serious error of imagination and impedes the basic aesthetic goal of communing more deeply with people who aren’t you. But that error, particularly in fantasy fiction where quality depends so much on constructing an entire world as thoroughly as you can (and where a lot of the legacy audience is white and conservative), is not always fatal to the larger project. And these mistakes are very easy for artists who aren’t hooked in to political culture to make, because if they’re any good, they’re thinking about what kind of brush to use or whether the gesso is drying correctly, rather than the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s an essential conservatism to quite a bit of art, probably because you simply have to accept the status quo, however shitty, for long enough to competently produce it: A lot happens to art between conception and publication. That’s probably why artists get so frustrated with criticism that neglects the actual process of creation in favor of some moralistic superstructure that best serves the critic’s list of political grievances. Criticism is political, sure, but if it’s exclusively political and not at least partly an examination of how art works, it gets hard to call it “criticism” with a straight face.
The trouble is in some ways the medium of comics itself, just as Gamergate was, at least partly, about the culture of games. Media don’t exist independently of their histories: Comics and indeed most figural art are built in significant part on a foundation of straight men’s lurid fantasies. Some of those fantasies are beautiful and moving and even aspire to revelation, but they are still the products of cultures that denigrate women, that enslave black people, that persecute gay people and shun nonchristians. Comics are most interesting when they transgress those norms and because of their disreputability, transgression is comics’ stock in trade, more often than not. Transgression isn’t *necessarily* good but it is *often* good or can be made good: Tijuana bibles are gross little porn comics but perhaps they’re also liberating for people constrained by the public hypocrisies about sex during the thirties and forties when they were published. Robert Crumb’s vision of the world is horrifyingly bleak and corrupted but maybe it’s some part of an antidote to smothering capitalism. I don’t know. Defending the morality of art is a trap; that’s something the Comicsgate chuds instinctually understand and that’s why they’re so eager to talk in completely invented terms about the comics economy and the numbers of books sold, or which series were canceled early and how those metrics prove that this or that book was a grievous business error by people who rose to positions of authority by being diversity hires or something.
The truth is, I hope obviously, none of these things. Art is valuable neither for its didactic lessons nor for its impressive quarterly margins. The best art has no simple moral message by definition and very often leaves its creator no better off financially than she was when she started drawing or painting or writing.
There are big problems of professionalism and cliquishness in comics long before we get to Comicsgate. When big tranches of verified Twitter tell an untried writer that their new book looks amaaaaaaazing despite astonishingly ugly promo art, it smacks of a kind of clubby boosterism that feels designed to pick readers’ pockets from the outside. On the inside, there is a feeling among progressive artists that they must have each other’s backs in uncertain times and if so-and-so’s debut is a little rough and overpraised, it’s just three dollars they’re asking readers to spend, so what’s the harm? Much of the comics-critic world either has one foot in professional comics-making or wants to, and so they tend to be obsequious and ingratiating about this tendency when it suits them and to gin up immaculate political objections to the work of people they dislike when it doesn’t; the notion that criticism might possibly be a form intended to serve a general public readership seems to have vanished almost entirely.
It’s also true that the unwashed hordes who bought every issue of every X-Men book from puberty onwards are a powerful, consistent, and not especially progressive market force. Richard Meyer, an occasional comics writer who runs a hilariously underinformed and horrifyingly popular Youtube vlog called Diversity & Comix*, launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new comic called Jawbreakers; he made half a million dollars. Ethan Van Sciver, a very gifted right-wing artist who contributed work to hit stories starring the X-Men, Green Lantern, and any number of others, made hundreds of thousands from his own Kickstarter for his comic Cyberfrog. I saw someone on Twitter proclaim that these campaigns were successful because they attracted a few wealthy donors; that is absolutely untrue. The donor pages for both projects are almost entirely small-dollar donations from happy fans.
The problem is not that Jawbreakers is a monetary failure or even an expression of moral turpitude. It’s that it’s shit. It’s fucking awful. The dialogue in Jawbreakers is such painful tough-guy bullshit that it’s funny, except when it’s trying to be. The art looks like it went to the colorist before the inker had finished. Cyberfrog is at least nicely drawn.
There are terrible comics from progressive writers, too; Marguerite Bennett, a very popular writer, once gave one of the X-Men a bromide-filled monologue about why racist jokes are bad that’s so long it takes up an entire page so that there’s only room for a little drawing of the characters in the lower right-hand corner. I can feel myself needing to qualify this by saying Bennett is actually an okay writer because I like her politics but I don’t really think she is. She’s fine for superhero books, and there has always been a subcategory of superhero comics that feel like reading a benefit book from which the proceeds go to orphanages for especially nice children.
This is a thing Comicsgate has always gotten wrong, and in a particularly annoying way: The Denny O’Neill Green Lantern-Green Arrow comics, classics though they may be on the strength of Neal Adams’s art, are terribly written in exactly this way. Lame, socially aware superhero comics are as old as the genre; they’re just misremembered as good by people who haven’t read them because, to quote John Huston’s villain in Chinatown, politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respect if they last long enough. There are also *good* socially aware comics: Sex Criminals, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the Lee-Kirby FF, any number of others.
Radiating like a bad smell off the other kind of work, which is to say, comics writing that engages directly with the culture wars, is a kind of panic, a sense that we have to sacrifice aesthetics in order to give necessary voice to the ideals that have driven us to create art because time is running out. And I think on the right, too, there is a similar animating force, a desire to define oneself in opposition to the misperceived status quo of insincere, clannish progressives who are eroding the very fabric of our society. It’s absolutely not true that these positions are morally equivalent—the people on the left are correct and the people on the right are incorrect—but it is true that both are using art to demonstrate the application contemporary political ethics. And that project is doomed to failure, because that is not what art does.
“It is disgraceful for a philosopher to say: the good and the beautiful are one; if he adds ‘also the true’, one ought to beat him,” Nietzsche reminds us. “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.”
*Disclosure: Meyer did an episode about my Guardian profile of Frank Miller earlier this year, in which he said he hated the article because I had obviously never read Holy Terror (Richard: My Holy Terror, which I’ve read several times, is signed by Frank) and that it had moved him to tears.