Been a while since I’ve blogged. Been busy, but I figured I’d drop by and share some thoughts.
So recently Ian Sattler of DC Comics, when confronted with the possibility of racial insentitivity, was quoted as saying something along the lines of: “Well, I just don’t get it because it’s not our intention.” He also added that DC Comics have a very diverse cast of characters, including green, blue, and orange characters.
Okay, the “blue, green, and orange” response completely misses the point. You can’t fake diversity by using fake ethnicities. Heck, I love robots and aliens and monsters, but even I don’t buy that argument. I’d be perfectly happy if the Justice League was filled with monsterish characters, but it wouldn’t solve the problem we’re talking about. But I think the alien diversity argument is a red herring, a distraction from the real point.
Whether or not DC Comics intends to be insensitive or is irrelevent to whether or not they are being insensitivy. Intent just isn’t important.
If I shoot a gun outside of my window in a random direction, and it accidently hits someone, I’m still guilty of being careless. If it kills someone, I’m still guilty of a crime. It might not be as bad as cold-blooded murder, but it’s still my fault. I’m still responsible. If that bullet flies through the air, hits a speeding car’s tire, causes that car to fly off the street into a tanker truck, and the resulting explosion causes mayhem, I am the cause of that mayhem. When the police come to my door and place me under arrest, I can’t throw up my hands and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to do it.” That’s just not going to cut it.
Granted, this is not the same thing as reckless endangerment of lives. Nor is it as utterly ridiculous as the pointless, purely hypothetical discharge of a gun for no apparent reason. But it still stands to reason that intent, while important, is not the be all and end all of these situations.
I fully believe that BP Oil didn’t intend to unleash a corrupting black sludge into the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t imagine that they sat around like a shadowy group of Captain Planet villains and laughed maniacally while plotting to despoil our precious waters, source of all life. Even if they were largely indifferent to the ecological effects, they clearly wanted that oil because it’s a valuable commodity. It does them absolutely no good in the gulf. In fact, it costs them money.
No, they didn’t want the accident to happen (hence the term “accident”), but it did. And they’re responsible for it. They can say, “Well, we didn’t mean for it to happen”, but meaning is irrelevant. That’s what the senator from Texas (sorry about that, non-Texans) missed. He sees BP as a victim, a hapless bumbler who is as clueless and annoyed by this occurance as the rest of us. And they are. Except that the rest of us didn’t do it. BP did. And whether or not BP intended to do it, they have to be responsible for the mess. Your mess. Your responsibility.
Going back to DC Comics (and comics in general), we fans continually hear how we are wrong for saying that the writers and editors don’t seem to care what we have to say. Every time anyone brings up the specter of racism or sexism in comics, it suddenly turns into a debate as to whether or not the creators themselves are racist or sexist. Suddenly, it’s personal. Suddenly, instead of talking about the content of the comics (which is what this is about) we’re talking about people. And suddenly everyone is defensive.
Nobody likes being called racist. Even when they are racist.
Yet I firmly believe that this is not an issue of racism, but of intent (or lack thereof). Intent is particularly relevent to being an artist because there’s the art you intend and there’s the interpretation of the audience. These can be two different things. And while it’s not the artist’s job to always play it safe, it’s also a mistake as an artist to dismiss the audience just because you don’t agree with them, just because their interpretation is not what you intended.
The obvious example for myself is how I don’t consider myself a comic fantasy writer and how pretty much everyone else in the universe does. My intent, believe it or not, is not to write funny stories. It’s to write cool stories with robots, gods, and giant eyeball monsters. It’s to try and do something a little bit different, and while I use humor, humor is rarely my goal. But my goal is irrelevant. If people like my books because they’re funny, then I accept this. I am a funny writer. Everybody says so. Well, not everybody, but most of my fans.
A more obvious example though is found in the pages of Gil’s All Fright Diner. I call it The No Fat Chicks mistake. When we first meet Duke and Earl, our heroes, Duke is described as wearing a T-shirt with this written on it. My intent on that choice was to just show that Duke had a cheap, commonly available T-shirt to fit his cheap jeans and on the go lifestyle. It wasn’t meant as a statement on fat chicks and / or their availability.
Doesn’t matter. I have taken quite a bit of heat, here and there, for that shirt, and I can’t blame overweight and heavy people, especially women, for being upset by it. We are rarely presented with non-beautiful people, especially women, in fiction that aren’t the target of often mean-spirited humor. And, yes, later we meet Loretta who is fat and who gets made fun of for it, but not any more than Earl gets made fun of for being bald and scrawny or Chad gets made a caricature of the horny, one-dimensional teen boy. Loretta is a good character, a heroic character. She has a lot of great things about her, but yes, she’s fat, and yes, I make jokes about it. Those jokes I will take the heat for because I knew, even as I wrote them, that some people wouldn’t like them.
But the T-shirt . . . that was an accident. It puts certain people in a bad mood, alienates a certain group of readers, and considering it’s not in there to be controversial or polarizing, it’s a mistake. My intent was irrelevant. All that matters are the results.
So, for the record, I apologize for the T-shirt to all those who were offended by it. I’ll say the T-shirt was wrong. I’ll take my lumps. End of story.
There. See, DC? That’s not so hard, is it? Just admit that you’ve made a mistake, many of them, and maybe we can see some progress. Maybe instead of shrugging and saying, “Whoops. Didn’t mean to” it’s time to take some responsibility.
The question isn’t whether or not you meant to offend anyone. The question is…what do you have to gain if you did? I can argue, for example, that the fat jokes at Loretta’s expense fit with the narrative style of Gil’s. I could argue that, bottom line, she’s a rare example of an overweight woman in fiction who isn’t obsessed with food, who isn’t conventionally attractive, but who can still hold her own against zombies and ghouls. I can make a pretty good excuse for why I like Loretta and why I wouldn’t change that aspect of the book.
But I can’t think of a damn reason why I wouldn’t change that T-shirt if I could. Even if I don’t find it offensive. Even if I didn’t think it would be. Because I have nothing to gain, as an artist, by leaving it in there. It adds nothing to the story and only annoys some people. If it was gone or changed, nobody would miss it. And that ’s a good thing. Because I want to sell books. That’s right. I want to sell books and that means doing my best not to alienate people, especially by accident.
But in the world of comics, there seems to be a surprisingly firm stand against listening to fans who complain about the treatment and portrayal of female and minority characters. Part of it stems from “Well, I’m not racist so nothing I could’ve created could’ve been racist”, which is a mistake. Part of it stems from an old school dismissal of any part of the audience that isn’t white and male (or, more honestly, the caricature of what a white male reader wants), which is where the creators tend to aim their stories. And part of it is just old-fashioned pig-headed stubbornness, a refusal to just admit when you’re wrong, even by accident.
First of all, you can be racist by accident. It happens all the time. To assume that you can’t be is absolutely ridiculous. Superman isn’t intended to be racist, and he isn’t. But he’s a strong white male, surrounded by an equally white supporting cast. He’s not racist, but he isn’t exactly a model of diversity either. Batman is white as is every one of his rogue’s gallery. Well, Poison Ivy is green and Joker is chalk white, but both are caucasians underneath it all. I’m not so sure about Killer Croc, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t ethnic in the slightest when you get down to it. The one girl Robin was greenlit just to have her die a horrible death. Sure, they retconned it, but it doesn’t change the fact that, up until that point, the only female members of the Batman family were Barbara Gordon (shot, paralyzed) and Stephanie Brown (tortured to death). And while it’s true that Batman characters can have a hard time of it, it’s hard to not see a problem.
Do you know what, DC? I agree with you. Fans can be hypersensitive sometimes. And there’s no doubt that they were hypersensitive about Barbara and Stephanie. Can you really be surprised by that? There just aren’t enough female and minority characters around that fans can relate to. So when you dispose of one of them to further the story of yet another white male hero, you have to expect some backlash. When the day comes that there are enough female and minority characters populating your universe in noteworthy and important roles, maybe fans won’t be quite so upset to see them mistreated. Or maybe not.
Fans can be pretty demanding. That’s just part of the biz. If it’s okay for the white guys to whine about there being too many minorities and women on the Justice League, then it should be okay for the women / minorities to complain when you maim one of their favorites. The door should really swing both ways.
As for the white males you continually aim for, I have bad news for you. You’ve got to get over that. Increasingly, we live in a more diverse and open culture. If you want to get anywhere, you have to aim your net a little wider than you used to. Just as Rush Limbaugh is wrong to suggest that Republicans ignore Hispanics (because it makes perfect sense to ignore a group of growing population and influence), you have to realize that if comics are continue to be a viable storytelling medium, they have to reach out to people they ignored.
I know, I know. Girls don’t buy superhero comics. Except they do. Maybe not as many as the guys, but they do. And if you want to keep producing successful superhero comics, you have to get more of them. Just as Lois Lane started out as an intrepid, but mostly clueless, reporter obsessed with marrying Superman but became something else as time went on, so too you have to get with the times. Things change. You either change with them, or get left behind.
And don’t start saying, “We do offer female-friendly superhero comics” as if you go out of your way to do so. Most of these female friendly titles are just dull. Just as many female friendly video games are like games with all the fun stuff taken out of them. Women can like shooting zombies in video games and they can like reading about superheroines kicking ass. I’ll say that Gotham City Sirens is a fairly solid comic about female characters beating up bad guys and having adventures. You do a better job than Marvel at least, DC, so I’ll give you that. Still, you could do better.
Let’s just get down to it, comic book creators (in general). You’re wrong. You’re wrong when you tell fans to get over it. You’re wrong when you say you aren’t guilty of making mistakes. And you’re most especially wrong when you dismiss the tide of concern from people who really, really want to like your stories if you’d just give them a chance. Denying them that chance isn’t fair to them. More importantly, it doesn’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t help you sell comics.
And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,
PS: To all the white males out there, I want to apologize for lumping you into a category that can come across as insulting. I don’t believe that most white men are sexist or racist, and I don’t believe that the pandering done by comic book companies is even necessary. So when I use the term white male, I’m really referring to a stereotype that is ultimately as outdated and ridiculous as any other. And for that, I apologize.
PPS: Please, DC Comics, please, please, give Blue Beetle a new ongoing series. I’ll take back everything I said in this blog post and even post about how awesome you are and how everyone is wrong about you (including me) if you do this. Or, if you aren’t going to do that, can you at least promise me you won’t kill BB just for dramatic shock value? Really. If I saw a drawing of Superman cradling the dead body of Jaime Reyes, I think I would go to a cave, abandon hope, and wait to die.