Jul 2, 2017

Why Integrity Matters When We’re Talking Comics in Public

“Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built your schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?”
- Randy Newman, Kingfish

Who Built the Highway to Baton Rouge:
Why Integrity Matters When We’re Talking Comics in Public
Travis Hedge Coke

What we say matters, especially when it comes to comics, which is a small field in anglophone circles, and any one of us who cares enough to say anything at all, is likely to be treated as an expert by somebody. Journalism, criticism, explanatory writing need standards and conviction, earnest desire to communicate truths, sure, but shooting the breeze on message boards, tweeting after the Wednesday new issues have been read, busting out anecdotes at a party because you suddenly have a chance to talk comics in a public place, there, too, it behooves us to be honest, sensible, and fair. And, when we are deliberately not being fair, just say so. We can cop to. People understand hypocritical venting or excited hyperbole. Nobody will hang you for calling someone you’re angry with, “a son of a bitch,” without having papers to prove his pedigree.

If you are venting about Joe Kelly and you call him, “Joe Casey,” for Crom’s sake, say something when you notice! Don’t leave it out there. People will, in ignorance and through trust, believe it, and it then can grow, can attach to other rumors, other instances and statements, and become who knows what shitstorm or dirty, dank anecdote that mars a good guy’s reputation. (For the record, Joes Casey and Kelly could be Carlos Pacheco and two or three other Spanish comics luminaries who get weirdly conflated sometimes, or Carl Burgos and Carl Barks, Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Gail Simone and Louise Simonson. I’m not criticizing any pro with the example, but certainly, other people have and do.

I have gotten this and that talent confused, before, myself, while criticizing or lauding someone. I used Andy Kubert’s recent work to defend John Romita Jr in an argument, recently, and only realized a day or two later that, naturally, Kubert’s work is his and not JR Jr’s. I made a hasty retraction and amended my overall position, but I possibly embarrassed someone else, if they’d passed on that defense, before I could make good on my realization.

Be careful. Don’t be chicken, but take care. Make some effort.

Comics are worth it. Presumably, your conversations are. And, too, the folks you’re talking to or with.

I know better than to put stock in anything Nigel Mitchell writes, because he seems to think Magneto threatening the entire globe but deciding not to personally murder a thirteen year old girl makes him a good person, but also uses blatantly satiric artwork from Walt Simonson and posits it as a straight representation. He’s dishonest and he’s writing to a general audience who won’t know no better.

I would have a lot of time for the journalist, Michael Harriot, based on his general politics and his strong authorial voice, but he’s got a tendency to turn woman and woman with a funny name and waitress into the worst insults he can come up with. So, forget him. If you can write about a racist murderer and the worst thing you can say about them is that they have a funny “ethnic” name that sounds like a waffle house waitress, you’ve lost me. Because, I know better.

And, many of you would follow me in that, because you know better.

Comics are more specialized, though, far far more niche.

A casual audience lacks enough general, much less comprehensive awareness, to identify a stretched truth or an agreeable but untrue proposition.

There is truth out there, but even amongst the knowledgable it is choked out by obfuscating jokes, clickbait lies, misremembered factoids, and the field is too small for the truths to show big enough to shine through that muck.

It’s not all malicious or only about greed. We misremember. We misremember with conviction. Carol (the current Captain Marvel) Danvers had shorter hair twenty-five years ago, yet go to a message board right now, and where you find discussion of her, you find angry people, deeply enraged by how her “new” short hair is indicative of our lowering social standards and makes her look like a boy (because nobody says you have to be able to pass high school biology to talk about comics). There are so many self-proclaimed lifelong comics fans who are bewildered and distressed at a villain altering reality or brainwashing a hero into a villain, that it makes me wonder if a supervillain has altered our reality at some point.

The comics conversation cannot be left to lazy assertions and drab exaggerations. We can’t get witty beyond the spectators, because we aren’t enough without them. The comics conversation, to quote the Randy Newman song up above, is “gonna be run by little folks like me and you.” We do set the pace; we are the referees in this game. If the lies are agreeable in tone or sentiment, people will accept them, and they will be repeated and thereby strengthened. By playing to this, when we know better, we are doing the world a disservice and our own appreciation.

Walt Simonson knows how satire works. If he’s done something that smells, quacks, and lights its cigars like satire, it’s the safer bet to assume he was being satirical.

Steve Ditko seems like an odd guy, but his philosophy does not prohibit him from taking jobs. He’s not being hypocritical, choosing to not draw more Spider-Man, but accepting a Phantom gig or publishing his own, personally-owned comics.

Frank Miller has never written or drawn a comic where women were punished for having sex or sexual thoughts. The “whores whores whores” that gets tossed around is based in dialogue from a cannibal religious leader who is the villain of that particular comic.

We couldn’t do this, say, with James Cameron. Assert that something the Terminator did is indicative of Cameron’s personal and general philosophy, because nobody expects the Terminator to be the author’s voice, and we all know who the Terminator is. We all know what the Terminator is.

Comics is smaller. Frank Miller, big as he may appear inside the fishbowl, is small potatoes in the world. So, when this stuff, or the heroin abuse accusations of a few years ago, get bandied about in joke posts on Facebook or as spiteful venting in an article or its comments section, it transfigures from obvious untruth to something easily plausible or God’s own truth.

Even within comics, few of us are universal about the field. We keep to our small castle or pirate diorama inside the fishbowl. We publish articles and talk on message boards about firsts, and the firsts all end up being in manga, for manga fans, in horror comics for horror fans, in European albums or superhero books.

The first gay characters in comics were not in superhero comics. The first female main characters, were not in superhero comics. The first painted cover. The first 3-D. The first graphic sex. The first comic owned by the author and not the publisher. The first death in comics. None of these are in a superhero comic or involve superhero characters.

But, if you say the firsts all came from superhero comics, the vast majority of both general audience and comics fans will believe.

And, sometimes, it comes close. One of the first 3-D comics, for instance, is a superhero book. Captain 3-D, about a superhero who springs forth from a book, was Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s contribution to the first anaglyph 3-D wave of comics, in 1953. It is, as far as I know, the only example in that wave, which is a superhero book of any stripe.

It’s easier to talk about Kirby, because of his in-house fame and because you can attach to the name a list of characters recognizable to outsiders. It’s probably even easier to remember Kirby doing a 3-D book than whoever handled the Three Stooges one or the absolutely insane adventure anthology that Harvey put out at the same time. (Adventures in 3-D for those keeping score.)

This isn’t Donald Trump talking manners or Don King working the hype machine, where we can all pretty much cotton which way the wind is blowing and see the bs clearly for what it is. Comics talk takes on that weird mysticism that news articles on physics or clickbait anecdotes about “old Hollywood” has. Everything seems real, and true, or at least possible, and if you’re a little bit outside it, or just not paying a great deal of attention, it’s hard to even separate possible and true. They just become one. They become acceptable. Then, they get repeated by us.

“Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built your schools?”

Whoever we say enough times. That’s who.

And, that’s why we’ve got to be careful.

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