How Did Comics Become a Social and Political Battleground?
My brother asked me if I liked writing about comics on LitReactor.
“Not really,” I said.
He was surprised because in my day-to-day, I talk about comics a lot. Too much. You know how you have a friend who compares every real-life event to The Simpsons? I can be like that, but with comics. Even when it’s extremely inappropriate, like the comparison of juggling a cup of coffee and spilling it to Spider-Man kinda, sorta killing Gwen Stacy, who was perhaps the love of his life.
I like comics, and I think about them a lot, but when it comes to writing about them there’s something you have to accept: someone will hate you no matter what you say. You say something bad about Ms. Marvel and people flip, or you say something good about Ms. Marvel and a different set of people flip. Or you say something fairly neutral, and both sides hate you for not wanting Ms. Marvel to die screaming/not demanding that Ms. Marvel replace Lincoln on the fiver.
This never happens when I write about traditional books or Demolition Man or exercise or Stephen King or hemorrhoids or movies or music or any of the other things I’ve written about on this site. It’s very comics-specific.
The other problem with writing about comics is that it exposes you to a terrifying tier of risk/reward. Whatever your opinion, the best you can hope for is that people will just subtly say that the world would be better if you spontaneously combusted. This is the best you can hope for because spontaneous combustion would be quick and painless. The average opinion on a comics column usually involves a stated preference that you die a very slow, very painful death that involves a red hot implement puncturing your scrotum.
Because I’m a slow learner, I’m giving it a last shot. And this time, taking it head-on.
Why is the world of comics fandom like this? How did it become a hotbed of social and political battling, and how did it get so ugly?
Go ahead and read. These are just some opinions and theories. If you disagree, comment below with the way in which you hope I’ll die.
We Read ABOUT Comics More Than We Read Comics
Let’s start right there. By me discouraging you from reading this column and encouraging you to pick up a comic book instead. Not smart on my part, from a self-preservation standpoint, but who said I was smart? Seriously, who? I’ll kick his ass!
Besides, I’m not worried you’ll put this down and pick up a comic. I wouldn’t. I read a good number of comics, and I still end up reading more ABOUT comics than I read comics themselves. I’ll spend an hour skimming reader reviews of a trade paperback, which is more time than it would take to just read the damn thing myself. That’s how ridiculous I am.
On a personal level, I’m starting to question the amount of reading I do ABOUT comics compared to the amount of reading I’m doing OF comics, and with good reason. Comic Book Resources, likely the most popular comics website, pulled in 373,000 visitors in July of 2016. The estimated monthly value of their traffic at that time was $670,000. 1.7 million people follow their Facebook page.
That doesn’t sound like a ton, but consider this is ONE comic book website. One of many. And consider that loads of mainstream entertainment and news sites also cover comics. And consider that the best-selling comic of July 2016, Justice League #1, sold just a hair over 200,000 copies to retailers that month.
Consider: In the same month, a single comic book news site had almost double the readers of the top selling comic.
It’s not difficult to see that, in all likelihood, we’re doing more reading ABOUT comics than we are reading OF comics. The question: Is this bad? Is this a problem?
Yes, I’m going to say it’s bad.
To be a good writer, you read books. Not "How To Write" books. If you want to be a novelist, read good novels. Sure, we all get suckered by a good how-to once in awhile, but most writers will tell you the answers aren't in the how-to's. They're in finding books you love and figuring out what you love about them.
To be someone who enjoys comics, the answer might be as simple as "read more comics."
There's a balance here, a good amount of time to spend reading comics themselves and reading about comics. I wonder if it's time for us to be more thoughtful about where that balance sits.
Negative, Dramatic Stuff Entices Us All
There was this story/non-story a bit back about a dude ripping up a comic that he thought was trash. It’s a long story, but it became this big piece of news that folks were pointing to and writing about and commenting on and so on.
The ripped-up book was written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, and at some point she felt obligated to jump in and say something, just because things were getting out of hand.
Here’s Kelly Sue DeConnick’s version of the story. It’s shortened here, and her complete version is a lot funnier:
So, when the email came in [informing me of the incident], I laughed. Can’t please everybody. And hey, we had a hell of a Wednesday.
Then… the internet exploded. I keep not-commenting hoping it’ll just go away, but every ten minutes somebody new decides to run the “story,” folks are saying I said things I not only never said, I never THOUGHT… it’s just… WTF?
Look, I’ve got a hide like a rhino, I can take it. And I know a lot of folks who are perpetuating this are doing so out of love, wanting to come to our defense. And I love them for it, I do. But every outraged post magically puts words in my mouth I never said and makes that one dude THE story.
THAT IS NOT THE STORY. THAT ONE DUDE IS NOT THE STORY.
THIS is the story: You know what we thought this book would do? 9-12K. A couple of our more experienced friends at Image said that they thought it might do as well as 20K — we guffawed. When I saw the initial orders I was in Brisbane — Fraction will tell you, I got light-headed. My hearing went out. As of right now, we have blown through our print run of 57K and are going to a second printing. Do the math. With the second printing we’re going to be at THREE TIMES our DREAM NUMBER. How is that even possible?
That is the story.
DeConnick is right. On a lot of levels. We tend to take the negative shit, blow it up to the point that it obscures the real story, and then we debate it while mostly not discussing a book’s contents at all. We talk about this one man's action and its problematic nature, but in the course of doing so, we ignore the book, and we ignore the overwhelming positive fact that the book sold much better than expected.
We’ve always been like this, right? We crave drama. Is Moby Dick about some guy’s general curiosity about a whale? Hell, no. He wants to kill that bastard for taking his leg. The negative is exciting. It’s dramatic. It’s popcorn-worthy.
The positive is boring. A book sold beyond creator expectations? Wow. Not exactly material that makes for a good hour-long drama starring a hip-hop artist from the past (we’ve had Ice-T and LL Cool J. I think it’s Petey Pablo’s turn).
I don’t know what the answer is here, but I think it’s got something to do with recognizing that negative internet drama is a lot more appealing to us in the short term. It has an immediacy that’s undeniable, and unfortunately, the act of reading good comics doesn’t make for an exciting back and forth, or a shouting match, or a one-hour drama where Petey Pablo is partnered with Mariska Hargitay (seriously, can someone make this happen?).
It's hard to say where we go from here. My opinion, however, is that comics fandom is the long game. The marathon, not the sprint. The negative, combative stuff is very tempting, but in the long run I suspect most of us will be happier having spent our time in the less dramatic but more pleasing act of reading good comics. Just a little something to ponder.
Battling Straw Men
Here’s the straw man we’ve created of the old-school comics fan:
I’m an old white guy who lives in my mom’s basement and I hate seeing any superheroes other than those I can fantasize about being or sleeping with. Any discussion of relevant social issues sends me spinning off into a world of anger and confusion. Not only do I have no ability to empathize with others, but I actively choose not to. Anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and I’ll hurl a slur and death threat their way to make my point. I want everything to stay exactly the same for all time.
And here’s the straw man we’ve created to represent the other side:
I’m a college student with no real understanding of the world outside of the university setting. I spend my time looking for things to be angry about, and today I’ve chosen to campaign that ALL superheroes be changed in some way, even though I don’t particularly care about comics, buy them, or read them. Anyone who disagrees with me is a Nazi and should be fired from their job.
Whew, writing those was cathartic. You should try it.
I’m of the opinion that we’ve lost our way in spending a ton of energy battling one of these two straw men. It's a bad look, it doesn't get us anywhere, and it's time better spent in other ways.
I’ll give you two in-comic examples.
One comes from the book Princeless, a comic with a diverse cast of characters and girlpower galore. In reading the first volume, I felt like the book was written more to send a message to the book’s detractors than it was for the enjoyment of readers who were looking forward to a book where the princess saves herself. The mocking was pretty gentle, nothing that would set off any reasonably-adjusted person. It just felt like the book wasted an opportunity to do something good, spending way more energy mocking tropes than it did creating new ones, slaying dragons and empowering its audience.
The other example is Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson Captain America #17. In it, Spencer creates a group of villains who throw out social justice taglines and attempt to kill an Ann Coulter stand-in:
Again, this feels written as a jab towards the folks it’s mocking. And again, I don’t have a problem with the mocking, but the whole thing feels like it’s written to anger people who don’t like Spencer and his work rather than existing for the enjoyment of people who do.
The reason I bring up examples of this happening in the comics is to say we all do it. Even comics creators themselves fall into the straw man trap, even when they have good intentions. Whether it’s on Reddit or in the pages of a comic, we all end up fighting the straw man here and there.
I can’t stop anyone from going back at a group or individual they don’t like, and I can’t stop anyone from doing it in their preferred fashion. But when you do so, I want there to be a voice in your head, asking whether you’re missing out on an opportunity to do something good for another group of people.
As a favorite farming analogy of mine goes, it’s important to fight the weeds. But if all you do is fight the weeds, if you don’t take the time to nurture the plants, you’ll starve.
Say It With Me: People Don’t Like Everything I Like, And That’s Okay
Just a few days ago I went and saw my all-time favorite band. This is a band I love on a deep level. A couple weeks ago I stepped out of the house wearing 3 pieces of their merch at the same time, and this was not intentional. I’ve seen them 25 times live, maybe more.
When I went to last week’s show, there was an opener, a great performer, and after he finished, some people up and left. Yes, before the best band in the world hit the stage, people fucking left!
There are ways people can attack the things we love that are more hurtful than others. Watching people leave the venue wasn’t a dagger in the heart for me. It was just baffling. But I wasn’t about to stand at the exit and say, “Excuse me, but I think you owe me an explanation as to why you’re leaving before the greatest band of all time hits the stage.”
Someone disliking Lucero, the pride of Memphis, TN, is not a personal insult. I have to accept that. It feels personal sometimes, it’s difficult to comprehend, but someone’s dislike of music that means a lot to me is not about them saying I’m stupid or bad or unworthy. It’s not about me at all. It’s about them disliking something. It’s a matter of taste.
I could spend time railing about it. Or I could spend more time listening to the music I love.
We could spend time arguing that the taste of others is wrong. Or we could spend that same time engaging with things we love.
It's hard, it sucks, and it can be devastating to hear someone tear down something you love and identify with on a deep level. We all find ourselves in that position from time to time.
But there's good news.
The first piece of good news is that reading comics you enjoy can provide a great refuge, a comfort to return to when someone badmouths your taste in comics.
The second piece of good news is that your enjoyment of something doesn't require the permission or agreement of anyone else. You do you.
We Should Talk About This More In Person
An office work technique I learned was that if you’re having a bad relationship with someone at work, try changing up the communication method. If things aren’t working through email, try calling the person instead, or just stopping by to chat for a moment when you need something (if you work with me and are reading this, and if we’re having trouble communicating, I’ve found that someone dropping off a bag of Wendy’s is my “preferred communication style”). Sometimes the problem is that the medium doesn’t suit the message.
Are your in-person interactions anywhere near as combative as your online chats? When you chat with people in person about comics, do you find it boils your blood the same way?
Probably not. And my guess is because it just doesn’t feel the same to dunk on someone in real life. There’s no audience, and hurting people in real life feels shitty, even if you’ve made a really good point. And when you hurt people in real life, they aren’t going to want to talk to you anymore. The internet is an endless supply of people you can slam, argue with, be mean to and absorb meanness from.
I know comics and the internet have been bosom buddies forever. But I wonder if the online space devoted to comics is helping us enjoy comics more or if it’s just become another outlet for us to be jerks.
You May Have Noticed A Theme
Most of this column encourages you to read more comics.
I can’t say definitively what caused the state of comics fandom, but I can say that I think reading more comics is the way to improve it.
Comics fans have it great right now. There is SO MUCH out there, and so much of it is available in a lot more places and formats than ever before. Publishers are collecting older titles, limited runs, works by great creators, and they’re putting out new and different stuff all the time. I defy anyone to hit the comics shop, look at the wall of new books and find nothing of interest.
Perhaps that’s the problem. There's no scarcity in comics, no inability to read something, no hunt for a book you could never get your hands on. Perhaps it’s the need for something more exciting outside the books, and perhaps all of our arguing is what we’ve found.
If that’s your thing? Cool. Let's check in with each other in five years.
In the meantime, I've got a pile of comics to read.
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