Note: A few people have been kind enough to engage with me on social media and over email and I’m trying to write a follow-up incorporating their valuable perspectives.
There are a lot of interesting people on Twitter.
The other day I told the world I thought fans – I meant a particular kind of comics fans who write this odd new strain of fan-criticism, but I just said fandom, so there’s a quick lesson on precision in language for you – were “fundamentally anti-art and uninterested in things like craft and aesthetics,” which as you might imagine, didn’t go over particularly well.
The conversations attached to that remark by people who retweeted it and responded to it were very enlightening, although they ranged pretty far afield from what I wanted to talk about, but it’s hard work to redirect a conversation on Twitter and people who are laudably advocating publicly for more sensitive cultural representations of black female bodies* are already having a hard enough time pushing a very heavy boulder up a very steep hill without my demanding they engage with me.
But I still think today what I thought last week. The thorny inquiry around whether or not an artist’s drawing of a particular corporate comics character marketed to children and young adults is acceptable for public consumption does not raise aesthetic questions, it raises branding questions. Multibillion-dollar corporate entertainment branding, generally speaking, offends me. In comics it particularly offends me because it is built on decades of theft, and that theft is ignored and reinforced by fans and their vast, Talmudic discussions of “who these characters are” that elide questions of creation and stewardship and are openly hostile to artistic innovation in ways that can’t possibly be anything but thrilling to C-suite executives. In a word, it privileges the imagined rights of fictional people over the very real and material rights of humans who exist in a world that discriminates against them based on race, sex and class and could use the dollars you refuse to spend on their work unless they are working for a publicly traded company with a market cap of at least $149bn.
It’s particularly awful when these conversations of “appropriateness” (what a scummy word) immediately rebound on the artists themselves, who, as a profession, are people I find completely fascinating and even a little heroic in their attempts to inject some invention and individuality into inexpensively distributed corporate art.
There’s a lot of discussion of censorship in the talk about contemporary comics criticism (I really offended a friend by tweeting a picture of the Comics Code seal at her when she suggested an artist clean up his style to be less sexy or abandon jobs at the Big Two). Fan writers tend to scoff at accusations of censorship; well they might, given that they don’t comprise a single body of authority. But they do often write in favor of censorship, which I would say is very bad arts criticism of the kind that people who have thought about art for ten minutes ought to know better than to write.
Censorship is not the exclusive purview of governments; corporate censors control our intake of ideas arguably more effectively than governments and with greater efficiency. Corporations are also very blase about how and when to apply standards of decency and what those standards ought to be; anyone who’s been threatened on Twitter knows that. At companies whose primary product is art, public perception is very important, and so 0n the advice of hecklers, contracts are canceled, books are pulled and pulped, artists lose high-profile gigs, and when this happens a creepily large sector of comics fandom high-fives itself for having scored one off The Man; never mind that the benefits to humankind from having less art are at best debatable and the fiscal harm done to actual artists is extremely real.
If you think Disney and Time Warner are interested in public morality, I dare you to demand a change from them that would cost them actual money.
Milo Manara, J Scott Campbell, Frank Cho – these guys are all contract workers, taking their gigs in the hopes of making inroads to get further gigs. None of them have big-ticket movie deals to their names or New York Times bestsellers from which they can perpetually harvest royalties; they have to keep working, preferably for Disney money. If they don’t, they have to switch to commercial illustration or advertising, which would be a great loss to the form, to say nothing of how unfair it would be to the artists themselves. I had the incredible pleasure of meeting Steve Dillon at New York Comic Con about two weeks before his untimely death at the age of 54; he was sketching at the table for the Hero Initiative, a depressingly necessary charity that tries to make sure old comics artists have health insurance.
A brief tangent: Dillon is probably the artist most directly responsible for the current look and feel of Marvel’s character the Punisher. The company draws heavily on his work for its newest season of Daredevil, which features the Punisher prominently – if Dillon received remuneration for this, it wasn’t because he was owed it contractually, it was because Marvel wanted to stay on good terms with him and his fans. If the fans abandon you and you don’t want to work for corporate comics any more, DC and Marvel can tell you to go fuck yourself and turn every line of your work into a $120m-budget movie with nothing in it for you except a small fee. If you don’t believe that, talk to Alan Moore about Watchmen.
Another opinion: Advocacy against particular kinds of art, especially on grounds that such art inflames prurience, ought not to come so naturally to people writing about a form with such a rich and storied history of actual non-figurative censorship. The MPAA rating system has nothing on the Comics Code, a body of censors that could cost a publisher its spot at the newsstand – until the 1980’s, its most valuable distribution channel – if it decided that Betty and Veronica were too scantily clad that month. Then there are the cases of arrest and even imprisonment of cartoonists and consumers of cartoons, and the brutal murder of cartoonists – vivid examples of all these trespasses on free society are disturbingly, horrifyingly recent. The Comics Code approved books at the “Big Two” superhero companies into this century; DC stopped using it a mere five years ago.
I will admit I cast too large a net when I lit into “fandom” – there are lots of fandoms, of course. As communities, fandoms have a lot to recommend them; they often provide marginalized or simply lonely people with safe and fun places to make friends, share enthusiasms and experiment tentatively with their own artistic and literary endeavors. Often the friendships in fandom extend beyond cultural and racial borders in ways that few other social constructs can; often people fall in love with one another, after falling in love with TV shows and movies. Star Trek is both a show about a future in which tolerance is the norm and humanity can move on to greater things and the touchstone for people of all classes, races and gender identities who think of that future as utopian.
I hope I’m not being too cruel when I say that the wonderful high-mindedness that informs most fandoms is complicated perhaps beyond repair by the nature of people who create art.
Artists, to use broad generalizations, tend to disdain criticism from people without direct and specific knowledge of form; form is, after all, the only thing an artist controls. And outside their chosen medium of expression, they tend to be articulate about social and political ideas, if at all, only under duress. When criticized, their reflexes tend to be defensive, because their craft is both livelihood and persona. Attacking it is extremely personal, doubly so when the criticism is warranted. If, as an artist, you give priority to the way your work fits into the plastic and shifting social framework of public conversation and only undertake your own personal project of improvement after you’ve figured out its politics, then you will probably find that your individual project, which is ultimately far more closely keyed to your personal creative vitality, isn’t very complex or interesting.
This is why fans who prize works of art for their levels of immersion are always going to have extremely disappointing conversations with artists. Artists are concerned with the material nature of the world in front of them; with where to find some gesso or the right brush and how they’re going to pay the rent. When fans come at them over issues of political importance, artists tend to think in personal terms: If we’re all progressive, why do you support companies that give their janitors better health benefits than me? If you think comics should include the perspectives of people of color, why does it matter more to you that my project is sexy paintings than that I’m a first-generation immigrant? Does my project not count toward your quota because you don’t personally like it? Fans tend to insist on seeing politics on a continuum of progressivism, but the progressive values in question are never up for discussion.
And while I’m digging this hole I suppose I ought to admit that I find most of the criticism directed at cartoonists to be utterly, contemptibly entitled and shallow. Not all criticisms of comics art are criticisms of sexuality in any form, but a lot of them are. So few of the people attempting cultural criticism can actually be bothered to seek out and consume culture; if Warren Ellis could sell his and Declan Shalvey’s Injection for as much money as he did his year’s worth of The Astonishing X-Men, you can bet your ass he would never write the latter again. Comics creators take corporate jobs that pay flat fees and chintzy royalties because they cannot make a living off supposed fans of the medium with stories they own outright.
Thus it doesn’t strike me as coincidence that the most furious uproars in the comics community in the last two or three years have been over incredibly rare or even single-retailer variant covers that no one would ever have seen had they not been cynically posted to thirsty fan-critic websites in the name of rallying the soldiers of decency. If you are concerned about particular portrayals of protected classes of people but decline to no-platform those portrayals, I am deeply suspicious of your motivations. In some ways it’s hard to blame those sites – writers enslaved to digital popularity have to get today’s viewer traffic, not clicks generated by time-travelers from a utopian future where everyone has the right opinions about art – but at the moment there’s either an inverse relationship between enthusiasm and knowledge, or the same old boring relationship between prudishness and prurience you can find in the pages of a Murdoch tabloid.
The comics-world crusades against “sexualization” have a great deal in common with the protests outside the Manhattan Theater Club during the world premiere of gay playwright Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi, or outside movie theaters during Martin Scorsese’s film of The Last Temptation of Christ. The objectionable content was sexual in nature there, too: in the former, Jesus had been portrayed as a sexually active gay man; in the latter, as romantically involved with Mary Magdalene. I hope no one believes that his or her beliefs about cultural sensitivity and sexual mores are more deeply held than a fervent evangelical Christian’s on the same topics; if that is the case than there are some awful surprises in store for that person. The question of whose standards are better is beside the point, and anyway, the answer always seems to be consensus opinion.
I would put to you that consensus makes for shitty, shitty art.
* In this case an artist famous for his pin-uppy drawings of Disney characters and superheroines, J Scott Campbell, produced a variant cover for a retailer featuring a 15-year-old black girl named Riri Williams whose alter ego, Iron Heart, will be a major player in Marvel’s Iron Man series. It’s actually a variant of a variant; the Campbell cover in wider release features Riri in full armor; the cover fans objected to, with Riri wearing street clothes – in this case a crop top and leggings, which is the way she’s been drawn by other artists, as well – was a variant distributed by a single New York retailer called Midtown Comics. The main objection seems to have been that she looked too mature to be 15.