The new DC Comics reboot has given me a lot to think about, but this is NOT a blog post about comic book superheroes, so please, stick around. I promise not to waste your time making you read about obscure fictional characters you probably don’t care about. It does make a good jumping off point though.
Recently, there’s been a kerfluffle over the rather dreadful Red Hood and the Outlaws title that featured Starfire, an alien superwarrior from the Teen Titans. You have probably never heard of her. Or if you have, it’s probably from the Teen Titans animated series that aired on Cartoon Network. The cartoon was aimed at a younger audience and featured a version of Starfire that was cute and sweet, kind of naive, certainly an outsider from another culture.
The comic book version is apparently a sex robot who has repeated sexual encounters with no emotional attachment.
Now, I’ll admit that I really don’t know much about Starfire, so I can’t judge whether this characterization is consistent with past versions of the character. That’s not what I’m interested in writing about anyway. Instead, I’d like to wonder why this was included in the comic book at all?
I’m not asking this in a judgmental way. I’m just curious.
As a writer myself, I often struggle with what to include in my stories. There’s no way to avoid controversy, but I’ll take controversies I intended versus accidental ones anyway. For example, if someone doesn’t like Gil’s All Fright Diner because of Earl’s copious amounts of swearing, I’m pretty okay with that. I knew that would turn away many readers. But if they are upset because Duke wears a No Fat Chicks T-shirt in the first chapter (and some people were) then I find myself frustrated because the shirt wasn’t meant to offend anyone.
This isn’t to say that people are wrong to be offended by it. It’s to say that it annoys me that I offended people unintentionally. It’s not even an issue of respect. I have no problem with the many fat jokes made at Loretta’s expense in the book. Those, I knew would be trouble. But the T-shirt . . . that was a complete accident.
Because I write standalone novels, I often ask myself what to add or take away in each story. Gil’s has adult language, sexual situations, and, yes, fat jokes in it. Too Many Curses has none of that. Chasing the Moon sits somewhere in-between. Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain, due out next year, has no language and no sex. Meanwhile, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, my current project, has some mild language and some mild sexuality (though not much really). Each book requires its own set of standards, that’s true, but my ultimate goal is still to sell as many books as I can.
It’s not “selling out” to decide NOT to include something for the sake of a broader audience. One of the things that genuinely annoys me about DC’s new reboot is that it seems as if no one, not the writers, not the artists, not the editors, seems to ever say “Maybe that shouldn’t be included.”
I don’t need to see a Starfire who is soulless sexual being. I don’t need to see a full page spread of softcore Catwoman / Batman porn. And I don’t need to read a Green Lantern comic where people are dismembered. And I’m not sure anyone else needs to either. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure what these elements add to these comics.
DC’s stated reason for the reboot was to draw in new readers, but what’s the point of drawing in new readers if you’re going to turn them away. Like it or not, Starfire is probably best known to the general public as a quirky alien from a cartoon show. Making her a sexbot seems counter-productive to me. And while Catwoman has always been an anti-hero, there are more tasteful ways of exhibiting sexuality than drawing her straddling Batman.
To some degree, I think this is a dilemma common to all media. Comic book superheroes, in particular, haven’t been for kids in a long, long time, and the fans and writers have been conditioned to throw in adult content, often more for reflex than any other reason. It’s the same reason I can’t get into so many HBO series. I don’t mind nudity and gore, but after a while, it just seems so indulgent, so risque for its own sake.
It makes me wonder if it isn’t intentional. “Oh, the average person thinks of Starfire as a cute cartoon character. Let’s sex her up a bit to correct them of that notion.”
But it’s not just the sexuality that confuses me. Nor is it the violence. Neither of these are new elements to comic books. It’s the presentation, overt and shocking, that confuses me. If you want to suggest that Starfire has sex, that’s cool. But you can do it in subtler ways than they’ve chosen. Same for the violence.
Okay, so I promised this wouldn’t be specifically about comics. Whoops. Sorry about that.
In my own stories, I find myself less interested in elements that can end up forming a barrier to the audience. Especially easily avoided things. I know that if I write about an alien space squid supervillain that many people are going to be uninterested from the get go, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. But what would be the point in giving that same space squid a dirty mouth other than to possibly turn away readers? Maybe that’s selling out, but it seems to me that it’s merely avoiding a pitfall.
At least, I’m writing my own characters and universes. If I want to muck it up, who really cares? But we’re talking about characters with some mainstream appeal, with some access to the public consciousness. Even if the writer wants to add mature content, why do the editors allow them to? Maybe a writer doesn’t care, but shouldn’t an editor?
In my first draft of Monster, our hero was a real jerk. My editor and I bumped heads over just how much of a jerk he should be. It was annoying at first, but she had valid concerns about the likability of the character. There are still elements from the original draft I miss, scenes that didn’t make the cut, but at the end of the day, she was probably right. Even if she wasn’t, the stuff that was cut doesn’t actually hurt the novel for its absence. And if it allows even one reader to enjoy the book more by lessening Monster’s unpleasant qualities then I see it as a success.
Believe it or not, that’s part of an editor’s job. Maybe the biggest part. To save we writers from ourselves. Or at least to get us to think about stuff like that. It’s not that I always agree with my editors, but they always come at it from a good angle. Sometimes, it’s a simple question like “If we lose this element, does the story really suffer?” Surprisingly often, the answer is no.
This is why I avoided the latest Transformers film. I just wasn’t interested in watching robots begging for their lives, getting popped execution style when all I wanted to see was a cool space robot adventure. It’s why I stopped watching HBO’s Rome because, really, how many Roman wangs do I need to see in an hour? And it’s why I haven’t picked up any of DC’s new comics because if I wanted to see dismemberment and casual sex, I’d rent Saw and porno flick instead of buying superhero comic books.
It’s okay to NOT do something if it makes your story accessible. It’s not always easy to know what to cut and what not to cut, when it’s worth it to use a naughty word, an innuendo. But when in doubt, it’s usually wiser to play it safe. That’s my current philosophy. Maybe it’ll change later. But for now, it’s where I stand.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,