Stray Thoughts 9/16 — A Real American Hero

I’ve gone pretty far afield on here from comics, which are this blog’s stated purpose. It’s not for want of trying: I’ve taken a couple of not especially successful swings at larger essays, which make me tired to think about—someday, hopefully, they’ll see the light of day—and I’ve also written quite a bit about politics at my current port of call. I’ve also profiled Chris Ware, the remarkable cartoonist behind Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, and a few other truly brilliant comics, notably Lint, which I think is probably a landmark of the kind we will look back on in 20 years as critically important to the development of comics as a form. The profile isn’t out yet—probably in the next week or so—but it was a tremendous pleasure to report. I’ll drop the link in here when it goes up.

  • Of course, comics can be political. Here’s Aubrey Sitterson, who writes GI Joe for IDW Comics:

And here he is again, after he gets ratioed:

Then a staggering number of people flooded his mentions and the mentions of his publisher, IDW, demanding that he be fired, proclaiming his tweets to contravene the spirit of the property he works on, and demanding apologies.

I’ve avoided writing about this for a couple of days partly because I wanted to get my thoughts in order but also because I didn’t want to be intemperate, which I think often has the effect of alienating people who might otherwise listen to your argument. GI Joe is an important touchstone for a lot of men in their thirties, and they perceive the comics series in particular as a zone outside of politics where they can comfortably read a good story without having to worry that they’re being judged, an increasing worry among white conservatives who feel that the walls are closing in on them, culturally speaking. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the toys and of course the old cartoon we all watched as kids; most of these people are probably about my age and probably look like me, and when they see Sitterson, they don’t just see a random guy on Twitter, they see someone who is steering a narrative with which they have a deep connection that reaches all the way back into grade school.

The first comic I ever got that was my very own and not my dad’s was a copy of GI Joe #50, and I have a pretty solid collection of the toys. So I definitely understand the appeal of the franchise.

Anyway, those people can all go fuck themselves. Go watch some goddamn drone strike videos, you gaggle of unbelievable little assholes, and think about how in less than two years the people who were born on 9/11/2001 will be eligible for service in a war that we will almost certainly still be fighting because in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, people were so filled with respect and remembrance of the fallen and national grief that they allowed themselves to be goaded into blowing up mosques and hospitals in Afghanistan for the length of an entire childhood. This guy lived in lower Manhattan during the attacks, his feelings about them are more valid than yours by quite a bit.

But beyond that, aren’t these the same shrill children who think Milo Yiannopoulos’s fans shooting people at his rallies is free speech? Aren’t these the people throwing enraged tantrums at the prospect of video game characters without erect nipples? If you make a Venn diagram of people shit-talking Chelsea Manning on Twitter and people who are offended that the GI Joe guy thinks 9/11 remembrance on social media is self-involved bullshit, it just looks like a circle.

What depresses me most is that this same crew was defending Frank Cho and Howard Chaykin and all the other middle-aged guys whose politics are out of fashion and whose work now offends a sizable portion of the readership. Everybody has a right to offend someone else’s sensibilities, apparently—just not yours. As someone who had the Tout Est Pardonné issue of Charlie Hebdo shipped to him from France and donated enough to the Mike Diana documentary Kickstarter to get a drawing, I often wish we lived in a grownup country where someone could see a cartoon that offended him and then go about his day without trying to burn all the copies of the cartoon or make the artist homeless, and not this artistically desiccated Puritan hellscape.

One thing that’s particularly dangerous about this is that the superhero and, by extension, GI Joe audience actually is pretty right-wing. A boycott by these people might actually have an effect. It’s all adolescent male fantasy that complements feelings of powerlessness; there are sizable minority readerships—women, black people, actual children—but the comics industry really does cater to guys about my age, mostly by nostalgizing every product in the worst possible way. That’s the most effective way to appeal to a huge swath of America, I think: remind them of a time that never was, when things were better than they are now. That way they can keep their precious grudges and lash out at anybody actually trying to tell them about the world they live in today.

Do you ever think about how genuinely brave the great American artists must be, to be able to carefully examine a culture to such a degree that you can’t escape the fact that it hates you for simply existing, and then hold up a mirror to it? Kara Walker, we are not good enough for you.

It’s the certainty in the backlash to Sitterson that gets to me, I think—there’s barely any discussion of the content of the tweets, it’s just “disrespectful.” Nobody interrogates whether people deserve respect for having died in a particular way or what the expressions of that respect look like and whether that is the same thing as what they ought to look like. There’s just this inchoate grievance, prowling the digital world in search of prey. I wish it was an exclusive function of the online right but it isn’t.

At any rate, if you really think the liberalizing culture is attacking you, maybe you could think about changing. Is your deeply held conviction that Muslims are evil something that affects the way you live your daily life? How about your dislike of abortion? Your suspicion of the gay agenda? Are they really things that make you a braver, better, more generous person or are they just ways of itemizing the various times you’ve felt wronged, you’ve been denied something important, and are you personalizing them because you’re angry and don’t know why?

Perhaps you could quietly stop talking about those things and see what happens. Maybe you’ll find some friends who aren’t 3.75 inches tall and still packed in their original plastic blister cards so the rubber bands holding their torsos together don’t degrade.

It’s hard to imagine what the response to all this outrage and the threat of boycotts will be. I hope Sitterson doesn’t get fired. The line of argument from the trolls seems to be that they don’t get enough comics anyway because of all the SJWs at Marvel and DC ruining things and why does IDW have to make some PC hipster the writer of GI Joe.

And the answer is that war-loving tragedy respecters can’t spell, let alone write compellingly, because compelling writing requires the ability or at least the inclination to understand other people, and further that there’s nowhere written the obligation to publish one thundering dickhead for every reasonable person in order to be fair to thundering dickheads. There is no need to scrupulously represent their beliefs, that is why they are dickheads.

Here endeth the lesson.

  • An editor whose name I’ll spare the association with mine published a list of the ten best American comic book artists ever, and I liked it so much I had to publish one of my own disagreeing with his. Please note that they are AMERICAN comic BOOK artists, so Herge, George Herriman, etc are not eligible.

    Robert Crumb
    Jack Kirby
    Harvey Kurtzman
    Jaime Hernandez
    Daniel Clowes
    Wally Wood
    Frank Miller
    Walt Kelly
    Will Eisner
    Jack Cole

    And for the record, for comic strips:

    George Herriman
    Winsor McCay
    Charles Schulz
    Kate Beaton
    Bill Watterson
    Gary Larson
    E. C. Segar
    Berkeley Breathed
    Frank King
    Walt Kelly again

  • I’ve been meaning to do this for a few months: In the almost exactly two years I worked for the business section of The Guardian, my wonderful editor, Dom Rushe, was kind enough to let me wander off the biz beat to the arts desk and write about comics, more or less whenever I got an itch to do so, and so I took a great deal of pleasure in abusing my Guardian email address to book interviews with all my heroes. The arts section guys, Alex Needham, Lanre Bakare and later Ben Lee, were amenable to this and occasionally used me to do entertainment stories they actually wanted, too—I’d worked for Variety and Adweek before I joined the paper—which was fun and a good use of muscles I didn’t, and don’t, want to let atrophy. Anyway, the work below was way off the reservation but I remain grateful to my bosses for letting me do it. For better or for worse, of the 561 pieces I wrote while I worked there, the 15 below felt the least like work. There’s stuff I wrote for the business section that I think remains my best writing and reporting, including articles that had a direct effect on the issues I was writing about, hopefully in a positive way. These pieces, though, were personally very important to me before I even picked up the phone to make the first call, and they form a discrete body of writing I’m very proud of.

Criticism:

An essay on Charles Schulz, Peanuts and the movies, which is probably my favorite piece of my own critical writing

Feature stories:

Gary Panter and Songy of Paradise

Dan Clowes and Patience

Daily news:

An obituary for Jack Chick

An story about Robert Sikoryak’s adaptation of the iTunes Terms and Conditions on Tumblr, which he has since published as a graphic novel

Q&As:

Dan Clowes

Emil Ferris

Dash Shaw

Al Jaffee

Ben Katchor

Matt Furie

Mike Mignola

Adrian Tomine

Kate Beaton

Dan Clowes (yes, again. Would you interview Alfred Hitchcock more than once if you got the chance?)

Lists:

My best of 2016

My beginner’s guide for grownups reading comics

 

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