Travis Hedge Coke
I can get genuinely incensed at the way certain occupations are handled in entertainment. Comics, in particular, can be overwhelmingly poor in their portrayal of, for example, anyone in the military who isn’t a white man with a good chin, and especially with the whole rank thing. Sex work gets a cockeyed look much of the time, though the word “whore” or statements about the general worthlessness of women will inevitably show up in a conversation about Sin City more than they ever will in a Frank Miller comic. Pilots are dismissed as glorified cab drivers. What really burns me up, though, is the almost deliberate ignorance that can go into journalism in comics.
I romanticize journalism, but I know what journalism can be, at its best, and I know what great things journalists have done in the world. When I was a kid, I didn’t think about how newspaperman Clark Kent was secretly not that loser but dun DUN DDDUUUUUNN Superman. Superman was a journalist. Superman can juggle elephants and push the Earth back into orbit; that’s cool, but anyone with Superman’s powers ought to be able to do those things. Superman didn’t work out to be super strong. He didn’t study to fly. He’s not honing his skills all the time. Supermanning is mostly easily within his biological reach. Anyone with Superman’s inheritance can change the course of mighty rivers, but changing the tides of public awareness, of public opinion? There is effort, there is agenda and agency that has to be striven for.
Superman can use x-ray vision to look through walls and super-hearing to listen in on secrets. Clark Kent, when he sees crime hidden behind walls, when he hears lies obfuscated by business and red tape, shows it to all of us. At his best, anyway. I haven’t yet forgiven anyone involved – fictional or real – for how long a lid was clamped tight on the whole President Luthor debacle. (Because, clearly, it’s important enough I should still be holding a grudge that Lex Luthor was the US President and everyone tiptoed around him, instead of just tearing apart the White House, dragging him out on the lawn, and explaining in detail every horrible thing he ever did. “Bow to your evil psychotic President while he’s in power, because he has power and it keeps things stable” is a sick lesson and I’m glad my nieces and nephews never caught much interest in that era of DC.)
The hell with objective reportage. Journalism should ethically subjective. Superman, is ethically subjective. You don’t see Superman pretending he isn’t hurt by something, that he isn’t bothered or doesn’t find something pleasurable or disgusting. It is our valuation that gives agency to reportage, and fair judgment has to be subjective to be honest. It’s a post-gonzo world. Post-Schrodinger. We affect the world by recording it, by judging or analyzing. Journalists cannot be any kind of prime mover standing apart from the world, but turning it. When journalism turns the planet, just as when Superman pushes it back into its proper orbit, there are handprints left in the dirt.
Fictional journalists are great for handling this transformative element, because the affect can be condensed or made immediate, but also because we see with them what can be left off the page, we see ethical (or unethical) erasure in action, we see the potency of a spin, the delicacy of implicit threats, we can see immediate examples of clear and present danger and how they are utilized or subverted. Whether a journalist outs a superhero’s secret identity opens a cornucopia of politics for us to consider, the least of which is the mythological supremacy of the secret identity in the worlds of those stories. Are they protecting more people, holding the secret, or endangering more? Is a journalist’s role to protect or to endanger for the greater ethical good? How to gauge the keeping of a secret or the indulgence of questioning because one lacks solid answers?
I like the lead in Abnett and Kordey’s Conspiracy and Paul Jenkins’ Sally Floyd, because they’re driven messes. Sally Floyd gets a lot of grief from fans, because she’s reflexively critical. She asks unfair questions, sometimes, in the hopes the answer is important, to see what is revealed besides the answer, alongside it. But, some fans don’t see questions as tools to facilitate answers, they see questions as implicit insults or attacks. She, by asking Captain America or Jubilee a question, is threatening them. And, yeah, sometimes her questions are specious. But she’s not threatening Captain America. She can’t threaten Captain America. She can’t steer his answers.
Why the fear of questions?
“Is Matt Murdock Daredevil?” was the headline used in Fall from Grace, the story that finally blew up Murdock’s secret identity. It’s posed as a question because they have no concrete evidence, and we’re meant to hate them for even asking. Money-hungry tabloid weasels. The really ethical and serious journalist buried it, because one of the most successful attorneys in New York City dressing in leather and beating the shit out of people every night isn’t news. That’s his private life, which he just happens to visit, unlicensed, on citizens he deems worthy of hitting really hard.
“Is Matt Murdock Daredevil?” can feel invasive.
“Captain America, when was the last time you did anything like mainstream Americans?” can feel invasive.
“Did anyone say why [the ambulances] didn’t come?” can feel invasive.
But where does not asking get us? None of those are a judgment. They are subjective questions, yes, but they are there to facilitate answers that we can judge, the questions are not leading us to a moral conclusion. The answers may.