Responsibility in Emphasis
Travis Hedge Coke
Comics are made by people. We forget that. Every element of any comic you have ever enjoyed was the choice of one, if not many human beings. Accidents happen, or strange confluences, but if these arrive to the audience, it means that human beings, editors, marketing, printers, that human beings chose to allow those accidents to remain intact in the comic you received.
When exploitative objectification happens, we can count on someone to deflect responsibility onto “tradition” and not the individuals who made or released the comic. Unfortunate real-world correlations by using fantasy proxies for race, gender, or political relations? “It’s not reality. It’s just a comic.” Retrogressive representations? Orientalist representations based in precedent fictions and not any form of reality? “It’s a comic about comics, not about real life.” Poor art or barely serviceable lettering? “It does its job.” Peter is possessed by Doctor Octopus and Ock does villainous things? “WHERE’S THE GODDAMMED EDITOR RIGHT THE GODDAMN NOW? WHO SIGNED OFF ON THIS SHIT! BRING ME FUCKING HEADS!”
Whatever the circumstances, those human beings are responsible for the comic that the audience ultimately receives. As a collaborative media (once commerce is involved, all media are collaborative), commercial comics are no single individual’s responsibility, and “corporate responsibility” only works when we think corporations are autonomous sentient entities and not something made up of people and their interests. A writer may be given a plot as fait accompli, an artist may be ordered to draw in a particular style, a coloring aspect may be genuinely accidental yet not corrected as such by editors. Changes in the rolls of paper have affected the shape and quality of comic books and newspaper serialization.
This is not the article I set out to write, which was about Marjorie Liu and Dan Slott and really good control of phrasing in dialogue, jabbing the reader a little to keep them awake, and how I wish Astonishing X-Men covers looked more like Dirk and Steele covers. The shift is Ben Smith’s fault. He can figure out why, but I owe him a thanks for both inadvertently reminding me both of some negative things and to balance myself between passion and playing fair. Ben doesn’t get enough credit for keeping perspective, both in his work here, and as a commenter elsewhere, publicly and privately. And, I’ve seen him own up when he fucks up, which is more than I can say for too many people. (Duy also recently made me think of things and get angry. Fucking bastards.)
We all love a clown. We love a shit-talker. We love the hubris of a guy with a knife just stabbing the air and making people back up, long as he doesn’t cut into us. This is the problem with a lot of self-proclaimed “transgressive” entertainment, or guys who warn you ahead of time that their work will contain “balls” or “intelligence.” And, yeah, “guys,” because on the whole, in comics and other media, women tend to be a lot more sensible about this shit (as do men of varying disenfranchised statuses, to be fair). And we love when someone says something we feel comfortable with, especially if it rankles people who disagree with us, because someone putting our understanding of the world into fiction feels like vindication.
I love hubris. I am not saying everyone has to know what they’re doing at the moment they do it. You do not need to foresee all the consequences or connections. You cannot. But you should have a vague idea of what you’re wading into, and even if you don’t, take responsibility once you are in a situation. That goes for everyone putting work out, it goes for all of the audience, from readers who simply internalize their understanding to those who leap to a computer to comment on forums. We all like to throw mad shit out sometimes, every human being does this, and some do it publicly. C’est la and selah. Ain’t no sin. But once you’ve said the mad shit, you have to own up to it, and you should be able to do something with it. I’m not asking you to be Lenny Bruce or Malcolm X, here, just be responsible and own your statements, be they written, visual, contextual, live or on the reprinted page.
I was not thinking of Rick Remender, when I started this article. He’s not anywhere in my notes. Marjorie Liu was. Because I can talk ages about Liu’s work and what I like, what I don’t care for, what I wish was whatever I wish it was, but I stay interested. I forget Remender’s work or his online persona. I like some of his work, I’m cold on some, but Remender wrote the infamous “don’t call us mutants” speech in an X-Men comic, a comic where he also compares a man who’s family suffered an atomic bomb attack to, well, an atomic bomb. In the speech, Havok talks about how terms to divide people into groups are “divisive,” and sure, that’s true enough, but they’re also applied, usually, by outside groups when not nationalist, and especially with a disenfranchised group, they’re often unifying in a way that promotes safety and an ability to see others like you where it’s very much needed.
But, Remender could have a very good point there. He’s right on the money in a way, and it’s a ballsy statement to make. It’s a moment that would inevitably get attention and it did, with readers, with the comics press. But X-Men has a history of standing in for oppressed and disenfranchised groups in the real world. It’s been used often as metaphor for disenfranchised groups and individuals. And now Rick Remender appears to be saying we can’t let our freak flag fly, so to speak. No more X hats. No more Some People Are Gay shirts.
Remender’s responses to the annoyance some felt with this part of the comic included, “it [this comic] really upset you, it’s time to drown yourself in hobo piss.”
The last time I was with my grandpa, who’s in his nineties, someone told him, on the street, to take off his Native Pride hat, because “post-racial America” and “politically correct” blahblah. They were wearing, swear on a stack of comics, a Braves shirt and had a Confederate flag on their truck. (I could talk more about that flag, but I won’t.)
I cannot explain how important Tommy Lee Jones; “Not bad for a little Indian boy,” and “It’s not a tribe. It’s a nation,” are to me. Seeing Danny Trejo get up and out there like a badass, or even all the community work he does, you know? Because if you aren’t proud of that, you’re ashamed of it, you’re made to feel ashamed of it or that you should let it go, surrender it to the more important world of the majority. Women are men with tits added and maybe bows in the hair. Black men are men colored in with a fro slapped on. We default straight white dude’s from a small set of nations as the default, in the English-speaking global community.
Havok’s words would work a little better if the majority weren’t actively excluding them all the time. Any time there’s a significant population who will spraypaint a name for you and your kind over your windows? You get to claim that name and shove it back at them. But, see? That’s my bias he’s challenging. I didn’t flip when Grant Morrison pulled his “I’m not a white man, I’m a Scot,” though I did raise an eyebrow, because, hey, Scotland’s disenfranchised, too, he’s got a point about colonization and othering, and he sounds like a lot of us sound when we talk about Pine Ridge.
And, none of us knew where that speech was coming from or where it might lead to in the story. What if Remender’s point was that Havok was wrong? What if, as some speculated, he was mind-controlled? What if if if if if…
We don’t wait. Audiences do not wait. We react. You cannot tell someone “before I say this, promise you won’t get mad” and expect it to work out. They are going to get mad if they are going to get mad. They might clamp it down and not show the anger straight away, but it is there.
When David Liss and Francesco Francavilla designed American Panther for their Black Panther run, and the design was released, they let it lay as if it could be completely as it seemed. People were pissed off. I kind of freaked out, but I tried to keep mine internal. But I was completely suckered and it was awhile before I even touched the comic to see that they were baiting us. They set it up to seem the former king of a small African nation with better tech than the rest of the planet had gone hardcore pro-America and stars and striped his costume. Nationalist, jingoistic stuff. Was not the case at all.
But, I never saw either of them, when people complained about the design, the apparent idea, telling readers to drown in hobo piss or suck a fictional dick.