Saturday, May 1, 2021

Western Comics, 5/2021

Western Comics: Capsule Reviews

Marvel

Captain America #28

Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Artist: Leonard Kirk


This comic quickly became infamous on social media for its gratuitous - and not at all disguised - swipe at one of the writer’s prominent philosophical opponents, but I’m not going to use this space to comment on that bit of controversy (other than to state the obvious: it was bad writing). Instead, I’m going to focus on what this comic gets wrong when it comes to the personality and motivations of Steve Rogers. As I wrote in a longer blog post on this particular issue, Steve didn't embrace service to his country because he was weak and lacking in purpose. His desire to enlist was a function of his greatest strength: his steadfast morality. Yes, he was shrimpy before the serum. But he's Captain America because he recognized evil and cruelty in the world and desperately wanted to confront it head on — not because he was some pathetic character seeking to fill a spiritual hole. Furthermore, the premise that Steve would be fundamentally humiliated if he were rescued by a woman completely ignores the female Avengers under whose leadership he’s happily served — and the multiple times they’ve saved his bacon without prompting Steve’s objection. In other words: the villains’ plan here is dumb. Indeed, it diminishes said villains and Steve to reduce the former to disgruntled vloggers. Even beyond the ridiculous caricature of Jordan Peterson, this book is definitely not one I would recommend. ★


Way of X #1

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Artist: Bob Quinn


The most recent crop of X-Men books are, to put it mildly, polarizing. In one camp, we have the intrigued: comic book fans who generally trust the overall creative vision of Jonathan Hickman and expect this different take on mutantkind to lead to some sort of revelation that will ultimately redeem their current behavior. In the other, we have the angry: fans who believe their lifelong favorites have now become supremacist villains for no discernible, salutary reason. To be honest with you, I lean more toward the second position than the first — which is why the 40-page first issue of Way of X caught me so completely by surprise. I picked it up to see how exactly Marvel was planning to screw up Nightcrawler and, in particular, his established Catholic Christian faith. I put it down feeling hopeful (maybe foolishly) that someone at the leading, oh-so-frequently-misguided American comic book publisher actually has some brains — and a chest to match.


Which is not to say that this book is perfect. There are times when Kurt’s dialogue doesn’t quite sound like Kurt. At one point, for example, he states that he “can see no moral flaw” in how the mutants of Krakoa are currently behaving, which certainly doesn’t line up with the explicit horror he displays while witnessing his fellows’ casual disregard for the sanctity of life. As I wrote in the comments of one YouTube review, I think this line should’ve been “I can articulate no moral flaw” rather than “I can see no moral flaw.” I can buy that Kurt is having trouble reconciling his religious traditions - and their associated moral instincts - with the fact of effective mutant immortality. But he quite obviously does see - and is just as clearly bothered - that killing mutants in gladiatorial arenas so that they may theoretically be resurrected with all their powers intact has made many mutants careless and cruel.


Still, it is so, so promising that this comic actually acknowledges the darkness beneath the surface of Krakoan society. This is only the first chapter of this story, so there is still time to utterly flub the landing. But for me, this opening did what no X book has done for years: earned a digital subscription. ★★★1/2

DC

Superman #30

Writer: Phillip K. Johnson

Artists: Sami Basri & Scott Godlewski


It’s only been a couple months, but I’ve been liking Johnson’s work on the Superman titles so far. He’s shown signs that he does understand the true source of Superman’s heroism. Even more importantly, he’s addressing the relationship between Clark and Jon in a very earnest, very heartfelt manner. As some readers of Tightbeam may know, when Jon was aged up (via time/dimensional travel shenanigans), many fans of Superman who enjoyed the dynamics of the Kent family were upset. Well, in issue 30 in particular, Johnson wisely acknowledges those reader complaints in the narrative itself, allowing Clark to express regret that he missed an enormous chunk of his son’s boyhood. If Johnson can continue dipping into this well of genuine human emotion, I think what will result is a fine-to-great run. ★★★1/2 


Batman: Urban Legends

(Anthology) 


And speaking of genuine human emotion: I can’t recommend the above anthology as a whole. Most of the stories are, for me, eminently forgettable. But if you have the money to spare, you may want to pick this up just for Chip Zdarsky’s Red Hood story, which explores Jason Todd’s troubled past - and his equally strained relationship with Batman - as he tries to do the right thing for a boy he’s quite possibly orphaned through his own rash (though understandable) actions. Said story really is a master class in establishing character motivation - specifically, in driving Jason Todd to murder despite his promise to Batman that he would refrain from killing - and, like Three Jokers (which I reviewed in this column a while back), really tries to get at the core of Todd’s trauma. I only wish Zdarsky had been given his own book! 


For the anthology: ★★1/2; for Zdarsky’s story alone: ★★★★

Independent/Crowdfunded Comics

The Underfoot, vol. 2

Writers: Ben Fisher & Emily Whitten

Artist: Michelle Nguyen

(Caracal, Fantasy, Young Adult)


The protagonists of this terrific - and sadly underrated - series are intelligent hamsters — descendants of uplifted lab animals who survived some as-of-now mysterious environmental cataclysm that resulted in the disappearance of their former (presumably human) masters. In this volume, we are introduced to a lizard antagonist who deeply resents that his kind were left behind when the mammals escaped their cages and is therefore determined to visit revenge upon the “furs” once and for all. It's a basic plot — but nonetheless well-crafted. The writers elegantly solve the world-building vs. satisfying progression problem by adding explanatory notes between “chapters,” thereby allowing the story itself to move at a brisk, enjoyable pace. And as with the first volume, the characters are all distinct and lovingly rendered. I definitely recommend this series to any fan of the Redwall or Green Ember books. I myself am eager to pick up volume 3! ★★★1/2


Soulfinder: Black Tide (Book 2)

Writer: Douglas Ernst

Artist: Matthew Weldon

(Iconic Comics, Christian Fantasy)


This series stars a Catholic priest, exorcist, and combat veteran who’s learned he’s especially suited to fight the demonic. Ernst is a very new writer, but he knows how to pick good artists to complement his work. Further, I think his writing reaps the benefits of his real-world experience, his Catholic tradition, and his additional reading in history and philosophy. Impressively, he manages to invent an entirely plausible (but still fictional) saint story to round out the background for the relic that drives the plot for the current volume. And I have always appreciated that the protagonist's abilities here are rooted in his acquaintance with suffering. It’s a solid showing, to say the least — one that manages to convey a religious worldview without necessarily putting off readers with more secular mindsets. Ernst is coming from a clear perspective, but he focuses first on his storytelling and doesn’t preach. ★★★1/2

Reader Requests/Suggestions

Batman: Shadow of the Bat

The Last Arkham

Writer: Alan Grant

Artist: Norm Breyfogle


One of my regular correspondents found the first issue of this story in a bargain bin at his local shop, and on his recommendation, I immediately decided to check out the entire story for myself. The premise? There’s a serial killer on the loose in Gotham whose MO quite closely resembles that of a criminal who’s presumed to be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Suspecting that said criminal has found an escape route within the asylum’s walls, Batman arranges to be imprisoned there — and is immediately abused and tormented by Arkham’s newest lead psychiatrist. What I like about this several issue arc is that it shows there is more than one way to be a villain. On one side, you have the maniac who cuts tally marks into his skin for every murder he perpetrates. On the other, you have Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, who exudes a coldly intellectual, calculating evil that is driven by totalizing ideology rather than a pure lust for mayhem. Speaking for myself, I found the latter a more frightening foe. His absolute certainty that he can modify anyone’s anti-social behavior is creepy in the extreme — as is his (eerily familiar) conviction that the past is worthless and ripe for erasure. If you pick this up, be sure to look out for the B. F. Skinner easter egg! ★★★1/2


Yes, I take requests and suggestions! If there’s a particular review you’d like to see, please contact me at hobsonphile@gmail.com and tell me the title, creators, and - most importantly - point of sale. Assuming the comic in question is available for immediate purchase, I will respond in the following issue!

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Video: Is Star Trek Communist? (Short Answer? No.)

For what it's worth, I do believe the intent behind Trek is secular-humanist and progressive at the very least; we're not exactly lacking when it comes to first-person sources on this subject. But in execution, the show speaks to universal values that fans across the political spectrum can appreciate -- and DS9 in particular often gives alternate points of view a voice because its writers were talented and just couldn't help but craft nuanced stories with multiple layers.

For more of my thoughts on the political orientation and appeal of Star Trek, check out the post here.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

From Last Year: Politics in Comics

(4/17 Note: Resurrecting this post because folks are still writing politicized trash.)

I'm sure you've heard this one a million times before: "Comics have always been political. Don't you remember that time Captain America punched Hitler in the face?"

The latest purveyor of this canard is Kurt Busiek, who took to Twitter this week to lecture #Comicsgaters for our supposed failure to understand this fact. But bruh -- as much as I loved your 1998 runs on Iron Man and the Avengers, you're revealing your ignorance about our true position.

No one is actually saying comics should be completely apolitical. First of all, that's impossible. We can't help but inject our worldviews into our creative work. Secondly, that would be boring. The reason why we human beings get exercised over politics is that we're fighting over things that actually matter. And stories? Yes, they need to talk about things that matter -- which means, at times, they need to address politics.

But there are good ways and bad ways to incorporate politics into comics -- and here's where we get to the meat of what #Comicgaters are really saying. When we bitch about Current Year comics being "too political," we are are complaining about the following:
  • an excessive reliance on political themes.
  • a lack of subtlety in addressing those themes.
  • a boring uniformity of perspective.
  • the warping of established characters to serve political ends.
Let's discuss each of these in turn.

An excessive reliance on political themes.

Comics in earlier eras sometimes got political. But most of the time, our heroes battled archetypes -- such as the lowlife thug or the megalomaniac with ambitions to dominate the world. Tony Stark, Light of My Life - just to pick one example - was most often pitted against organized crime, unscrupulous business competitors, and - oh, yes - a dude wielding ten alien rings. And that's when he wasn't battling his own psychological maladies! Indeed, the very best Iron Man comic in history, in my view, is one in which the only villain is Tony's own alcoholism.

Today, however, creators seem hell bent on injecting their political views into everything. As I observe in a video I uploaded to YouTube yesterday (which will be linked here in this Sunday's post), this very tendency is what ruins last week's Rescue 2020. What could've been a fascinating reflection on the feasibility of scientific resurrection is disrupted by annoying, off-topic feminist twaddle. And this is not an isolated case. This kind of storytelling failure can now be found everywhere.

A lack of subtlety in addressing political themes.

Sometimes, earlier comics would be on the nose -- particularly during wartime when the demand for patriotic propaganda was high. But be honest: are those the comics that truly endured? Or are they just looked upon as amusing historical curiosities -- or as convenient examples to deploy when you want to justify your own bad writing?

No: comics that last universalize. The X-Men absolutely were an allegory for the marginalized. But that's the point: they were an allegory. They allowed writers in earlier eras to tackle themes of prejudice and discrimination from a timeless distance. The upside to this approach? Those comics don't have an expiration date. They're always accessible.

Writers these days, on the other hand, seem to have no patience for subterfuge. Instead, they slap you right across the face with their so-called "resistance." Thus, their comics are both dated and extremely parochial. Like the Hitler-punching comics of World War II, they will not be endlessly re-read.

A boring uniformity of perspective.

Yes: the comics industry has always had a leftward lean. But in earlier eras, there was still an observable diversity of thought among writers and artists. Steve Ditko, the Objectivist, was allowed a place at the table. And more recently, so was Chuck Dixon.

In Current Year, meanwhile, the left is doing everything it can to purge the comics industry of even vaguely contrary voices. Hell: regardless of your own views, if you even so much as talk to a known dissenter, you're now a prime target for cancellation. See also: Blake Northcott, who's being stalked right now by a bitchy comic book Karen who imagines herself to be a legitimate political commissar. The result of campaigns like this? A monoculture. If you work at one or more of the major publishers, you can only be out and proud if you're an adherent of the D.I.E. religion and agree that Orange Man Bad.

And the more strict and picayune the enforcement of the aforementioned monoculture becomes, the more radical - and more predictable - the books become. When political topics are addressed, they're almost always addressed in the exact same way -- to the point that we all make jokes now about the ubiquity of the straight, white male villain; the female character who wuvs da science; or the butch, black lesbian.

For Christ's sake, do something else.

The warping of established characters to serve political ends.

It's fair to say that the comics of earlier eras, for the most part, expressed a broadly liberal worldview. But what did that mean exactly?

Well, for one thing, it meant that Captain America went on record defending free speech for bigots:

Click to embiggen.

It also meant a rejection of retaliatory, supremacist attitudes, as we see here with Machine Man:


The comics of earlier eras were generally pro-Civil Rights, pro-worker, and skeptical of war. Tony Stark - to once again dip into the lore I know the most about - eventually left the weapons business for more idealistic pursuits, was very generous with his employees, and always demanded ethical conduct from his corporate board. But to suggest that you can draw a straight line from this sort of classical progressivism to today's radicals is to pull a fast one. No: SJW writers have more in common with an Iron Man villain like Firebrand - the guy who wanted to start riots and tear down the system - than with the legacy heroes.

And because a bunch of Firebrands are now in charge of the comics sold in the direct market, said legacy heroes? They're being absolutely butchered. The most recent simulacrum of Tony Stark is dead now (sorry about that spoiler), but before his demise, he was leading a terrorist movement. Steve Rogers has been deconstructed and consequently robbed of his agency. She Hulk has apparently become a violent feminist vigilante. The X-Men are now segregationist mutant supremacists. Need I go on?

TL;DR: There's no continuity between early canon and the present. On the contrary, there's been a fundamental rupture.

Conclusion:

To be sure, none of the above commentary is meant to suggest that there are no readable comics coming out of the mainstream industry. There are -- but they're getting increasingly harder to find amongst all the dreck. And yes: we contend this is because comics have become "too political" in all the ways described in this post.

If you're going to argue against this charge, at least take the time to accurately comprehend what we mean.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Hail Lobster!

"Clean your room." - Adolph Hitler (Supposedly)


Many other people have been rightfully mocking Ta Nehisi Coates' latest issue of Captain America for its risible - and not at all camouflaged - take on Jordan Peterson (including Peterson himself). But I'm going to jump in too in the hopes that, at the very least, some of my remarks will entertain my regular readers (and any newcomers who happen by).

Coates can write opinion pieces with some felicity of expression. But he is neither a deep thinker nor - more importantly for the subject of this post - a good storyteller. A good storyteller approaches the world and the people in it with a fundamental humility and a desire to understand. He realizes that his subjects are complex (because they are human subjects), seeks to dig up and display the contradictions and oddities that make his individual characters who they are, and leaves himself open to surprise. He doesn't regard our earthly existence with the airs of a know-it-all. And if he has a message, he certainly doesn't insult the reader's intelligence by stacking the deck in his own favor or by making his designs so blindingly and obtrusively clear that no thinking (on the part of the reader) is necessary.

The best Marvel comics of earlier eras were written by good storytellers. Said creators dreamed up disabled heroes like Iron Man (in his earliest iteration) and Daredevil -- and then proceeded to think about their likes & dislikes/their foibles/their deepest desires/etc. instead of seeking congratulations for being "inclusive." Moreover, they tackled real-world issues with at least some subtlety. Yes, older X-Men comics did highlight the evils of prejudice -- but they did so with universal depictions that the marginalized of all stripes could recognize and appreciate. (For more of my commentary on the "political" comics of yesteryear, please see this post in particular.)

Coates, on the other hand, doesn't have the talent - or the desire either, probably - required to craft an ingenious, suggestive allegory. Instead, he smacks us in the face with his opinions in the clumsiest way possible, thereby leaving himself open to deserved criticism:  






So let's beat this down, shall we?

1. Steve didn't embrace service to his country because he was weak and looking for purpose. His desire to enlist was a function of his greatest strength: his steadfast morality. Yes, he was shrimpy before the serum, but that had no bearing on his motivations. He's Captain America because he recognized evil and cruelty in the world and desperately wanted to confront it head on. And actually, if you really think about it, the whole story of Steve's transformation and proceeding commitment to upholding liberal values in every corner of the world is pretty damned Petersonian. Steve had to become dangerous (i.e. take the serum) before he was fit to do good.

2. "He tells them what they've always longed to hear. That they're secretly great." No: Peterson says the opposite -- repeatedly. Though he believes that each person has a capacity for greatness, he also stresses - in all of his books - that each person has a coequal capacity for malevolence that must be acknowledged and controlled. And he further argues that such dueling with the Adversary (a.k.a. our evil inclinations) is a laborious and often painful endeavor. Peterson, in short, doesn't puff people up with phony praise; to be heroic in the Petersonian frame is to work towards genuine goodness and competence.

3. "That the whole world is against them. That if they're truly men, they'll fight back." No: Peterson says the world is against everybody -- in the sense that life for every human being is unavoidably difficult and tragic. And then, crucially, he adds that our response to this misery should not be resentment but gratitude for what we do have and a firm determination to better our own little corners of the cosmos by focused work on our own flaws. He would absolutely condemn Red Skull's followers for indulging in their anger and sowing mayhem.

4. If I recall correctly (it's been a while since I've read Maps of Meaning), Peterson originally became interested in archetypes and stories because he was horrified by the evils of Nazism and Communism and wanted to explore the mental architecture that led to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Holodomor, and other such atrocities. As he tells it, confronting those 20th century horrors disturbed him so profoundly that he decided to embark on a life-long project to examine and comprehend them. So: maybe you think all that talk about rescuing our fathers from the underworld is weird. Maybe you take issue with his use of Jung and Nietzsche. Maybe you think he's wrong when it comes to feminism or novel pronouns or other controversial issues. Or maybe you simply think his Kermit voice is annoying. Whatever: I'm not some starry-eyed idol-worshipper who thinks no one has a right to dislike the man. But to insinuate that Peterson's thought has anything in common with the Nazi ideology of the Red Skull is to utterly invert his intentions. He pleads constantly for moderation and balance and decries extremism on the left and the right (though his criticisms of the radical left are more visible because, quite frankly, it's the left that's presented the biggest threat to our liberal order in recent years).

In sum, what the incurious Coates has done here - besides revealing his utter inability to write a story worth reading or to grok Cap's essence (see point 1) - is attack Straw Peterson and his purple-monkey-dishwasher remarks.* (Straw Peterson may be even more diabolical than Straw Larry Correia, International Lord of Hate. Damn that monster!) Oh: and he's engaging in IMAX levels of projection too -- because what is his leftist ideology but a worldview that insists the entire world's arrayed against you (if your "identity" puts you near the top of the progressive stack) and that you should rise up and overturn the "system" that keeps you down? Peterson has actually helped people**; it's critical social justice that's a refuge for the weak and incompetent. It's critical social justice that's stoking the lion's share of our present-day hate.

But here's the good news: at least the memes are fire -- and so is the merch. Hail Lobster, indeed! 


**The most appalling thing about Peterson's detractors is their open disgust that Peterson would dare care about men or seek to inspire them. (He actually cares about human beings in general and has inspired people of all genders -- but that's neither here nor there.) How heartless and depraved must these people be that they 1.) deny that men could ever have challenges deserving of our sympathy and 2.) howl down anyone who looks at a guy in trouble and decides to lift him up?  It just goes to show that Peterson's right about ideology at the very least: it really does twist your soul.  

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Western Comics, 4/2021

Kamen America, vol. 3
Writer: Mark Pellegrini
Artist: Timothy Lim
(Iconic Comics, Superhero)

The young ladies who make up the Kamen Corps are just as adorable - and layered! - as ever in this, the third entry in the crowdfunded Kamen America series. Once again, Pellegrini and Lim demonstrate that they are consummate pros when it comes to delivering a product that is both entertaining and of high quality. I didn’t feel quite the same emotional punch with this book as I did with volume 2 (see my first column for Tightbeam), but there is still much here to inspire my happy recommendation, including a twist in the final pages that will make you want to read the first three volumes again — and an on-point-yet-subtle commentary on the chaos envy can wreak in many female relationships. PS: My own prediction regarding Carly’s rival turned out to be 100% accurate. Go me! ★★★★

Flying Sparks, vol. 1
Writer: Jon Del Arroz
Artist: Jethro Morales
(Amazon, Superhero)

Yes, I know: I’m incredibly late on this one — and I regret that because the concept that animates this book is a super fun spin on a classic trope. I’ve always been a big fan of what some on the net term “identity porn.” I love, for example, all those scenes in my classic Marvel comics in which some other Avenger openly praises or longs for Tony Stark’s engineering expertise while Iron Man is standing right there. Well, in Flying Sparks, Del Arroz takes the identity porn to a whole new - and delicious - level. You see, in their ordinary lives, Johnny and Chloe are boyfriend and girlfriend — but in their secret lives, they are, respectively, a budding supervillain and a budding superhero. The irony this sets up as we jump between competing narratives definitely makes for an excellent read. ★★★★

Stillwater, vol. 1
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Artist: Ramon Perez
(Image Comics, Fantasy — Real World Setting)

As you may have noticed, Zdarsky is a writer I trust and like, so when I saw this series up for sale, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. The eponymous town in this book is one in which, thanks to a mysterious event years ago, no one ever ages and no one ever dies. To protect the secret of Stillwater, the town judge has locked the place down and barred any of its residents from leaving — or communicating with outside friends and family. But not everyone is happy with this state of affairs; some are chafing under the judge’s tyrannical rule and are assembling to challenge his authority so that they may live ordinary lives. It’s an interesting premise - particularly in this day and age - because it highlights the tension that always exists between a population’s security and its liberty. The first issues here haven’t really gotten to the meat of the story just yet, but I absolutely see its potential and will be following this series in the future. ★★★ 1/2

Wrath, #1-2
Writer: Scott Kysh
Artists: Emi Utrera & Drew Smith
(Wikid Publishing, Fantasy — Real World Setting)

The main character of this new crowdfunded comic is a survivor of childhood abuse who learns that his anger at his biological father can escape his body and take physical form in the real world. The story has only just begun, so I don’t know yet where the author intends to take this idea. However, I’m intrigued already that the protagonist does not have perfect control over his spirit monster — and that he seems to get a possibly corrupting rush from using his new ability. This could be a really strong exploration of the negative impacts of unprocessed trauma depending on what happens next. As with Stillwater above, there is potential here, and I’m genuinely eager to buy the next issue. I just hope I don’t have too long to wait! ★★★ 1/2 .


And while you're here, click below to listen to my latest Iron Man-focused stream!

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Handling Racism in Comics

One better-than-average modern example -- and one that is execrably bad.

The "representation" crusade that has taken over the mainstream comic book industry is, in my view, a blundering, incompetent attempt to "fix" a "problem" that wasn't especially pressing (and probably would've resolved itself organically given enough time if publishers continued to hire people on merit). Strong non-majority heroes have existed for decades -- and they've existed in enormously popular books (like the X-Men series) at that. If anything, what today's writers and artists have done is strip said non-majority characters of their dimension by excessively hammering present-day politics and forgetting about the fun. Got a comic featuring a black character? Inevitably, it has to bring up police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Got a comic featuring a Hispanic character? Nine times out of ten, it'll be about illegal immigration. Got a comic featuring a LGBT+ character? Well, is he/she/they even queer if it isn't mentioned in some awkward and ham-fisted way? It's boring and predictable, this relentless no-escapism, and in many cases, it trashes the visions of these characters' original creators, who sought to create inspiring and complex role-models for their diverse audience.

Once upon a time, characters like Nubia, Static, and T'Challa were written as intelligent, powerful, and emotionally rich. They weren't forced to serve as constant avatars of racial grievance. (Click to embiggen.)

Now, having said all that, I do think it's possible to, every once in a while, write an okay - or even good - comic that tackles a controversial social issue. As a matter of fact, I read just such a book earlier this week: Superman Smashes the Klan, an all-ages graphic novel by Gene Leun Yang and Gurihiru. 

The message of Superman Smashes the Klan is not especially subtle -- but unlike most other books in its niche, it avoids Manichaean demonization - or sacralization - of entire subgroups of people in favor of treating its characters as individuals. Roberta, the lead, resents the pressure she feels to assimilate -- but her older brother Tommy is more easy-going and willing to joke about his Chinese heritage, and her father (also eager to fit in) repeatedly demands her mother refrain from speaking her native Cantonese. I strongly suspect the author favors Roberta's point of view -- yet at no point are Tommy and Dr. Lee portrayed as anything but sympathetic. In other words, Yang reveals that Chinese-American views on assimilation are not monolithic, and he does so without unfairly vilifying approaches with which he does not agree. 

"But what about Yang's white characters?" you may ask next. Well, they too vary in their beliefs. The clergymen who founded the Unity House are clearly racially progressive, and the white kids who hang out there are also well-meaning (if occasionally insensitive). And then you have Chuck; his family members are mixed up in the activities of the local Klan, but even he is depicted as a confused, misguided boy who fundamentally wants to do the right thing. The upshot? Yes, there are over-the-top Klansmen here, but they are definitely outnumbered by the white characters who are principled, moral, and/or capable of redeeming themselves. 

In every way, Superman Smashes the Klan outclasses the recently released Nubia: Real One, another graphic novel targeted to young audiences that attempts to address racism in the US. Yang's work allows for layers and nuance; L.L. McKinney's hateful book, on the other hand, does not. 

In Nubia: Real One, every white character is racist and evil -- and every black character is a saintly victim. According to McKinney, white society would largely reject a young black woman with superhuman abilities -- even though, once again, Storm (just to take one example) has been a central X-Man since Claremont (who, by the way, is white -- as was Jack Kirby, who created T'Challa). According to McKinney, BLM-associated riots are the fault of white outside agitators -- even though plenty of real-world cases demonstrate that this is not wholly the truth. According to McKinney, a black girl would obviously be blamed for a convenience store robbery regardless of the surveillance footage or the many witnesses who could provide evidence in her defense -- a contention even black reviewers have challenged as patently ridiculous. According to McKinney, there's nothing a black girl needs to do to develop herself and become a better person -- even though wise people would say that self-improvement is an obligation for every human being.

Advice like this is bound to breed terrible people who are simultaneously helpless and narcissistic. Even if you are "oppressed," you still have moral responsibilities. Victimhood does not make you infallible, and rejecting personal responsibility until the entire world has been perfected in your eyes is unconscionably lazy. By all means, agitate for justice where it's needed and achievable -- but in the end, God helps those who help themselves. (Click to embiggen.)

In short, Nubia: Real One insults the reader's intelligence with flat caricatures and nonsense premises that fail the test of verisimilitude, whereas Superman Smashes the Klan gives us, for the most part, actual human beings. Moreover, while Superman Smashes the Klan is blessed with visually appealing art, Nubia: Real One assaults our eyes with atrocious Tumblr-style drawings that make Diana Prince look like a pug-nosed hag and similarly rob Nubia of her beauty and femininity. No one should be satisfied with such a deliberate destruction of the heroic. The entire point of a superhero comic is to give the reader something to aspire to -- not to wallow in the base and prosaic.

As long as comics like Nubia: Real One continue to be churned out by open racists and segregationists, people will continue to chafe at the idea that we should talk about race in our comic books. It's an infinitely better choice to produce books like Superman Smashes the Klan. It's an infinitely better choice to hire people with actual talent and hold everyone to the same exacting editorial standards. 

Edited to add a related video:

Yeah, I imagine that is how they be. No-escapism infests all media.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Don't Destroy Cultural Artifacts. Contextualize. - Round II

Or: Dr. Seuss and the Hygiene Hypothesis.

I know I'm late to the party when it comes to commenting upon the Dr. Seuss brouhaha. Forgive me, but it took me this long to track down some of the forbidden books so that I might revisit the so-called "offensive content" - and its context - for myself. Unlike The Very Smart Set, I'm not inclined to follow, sheep-like, whenever the clerisy declare that some popular American writer or artist is "problematic." No: our blue check twits are currently encouraging a moral panic that outpaces the Red Scare in its cultural destructiveness -- and its detachment from anything resembling reality. I'm not going believe that the books that taught my brother and me how to read are racist simply on these commentators' say-so.

So I read four of those books again (I couldn't find the other two): McElligot's Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and Scrambled Eggs Super. My conclusion? Some of the content would never pass muster today because it's dated at best and - yes, in a few cases - racist at worst. If I Ran the Zoo is the biggest offender on this score (for relative values of "big"). But in none of these books - not even Zoo - were the questionable bits so omnipresent that they completely overshadowed the benign elements of the text in which they were embedded. In fact, in three out of the four books, I could only find one page that featured words or art that would offend the politically correct. Why pull a book out of print for one controversial page out of 20-30? Why not simply add an introductory disclaimer (if you absolutely must)?

And yes, before some Very Smart Person says it, I know this was the choice of the Seuss estate, I know they have the right not to publish certain works if they choose, blah blah blah. It's still overkill driven by a craven and eminently critique-worthy fear of sociopathic bullies -- and I think it's only going to do more damage in the long run to the people our censors say they're trying to protect. According to the hygiene hypothesis, asthma, allergies, and autoimmune conditions may be more common in the developed world because, given our public sanitation and almost obsessive personal cleanliness, we no longer train our developing, antifragile immune systems to fire on the right targets. Similarly, purging our cultural space of anything deemed offensive seems to be making people more upset and uncomfortable, not less. Granted, some SJW's claim to be traumatized by, say, simple mentions of the n-word because they know the victim card confers the power to intimidate -- but I also think the younger folks who've been swept up in this are dead serious. Because they have not been taught how to confront less egregious instantiations of cultural insensitivity in a measured, confident way, they sincerely process every such "microaggression" as a Thanos-level threat. This is not good for them; it locks them into a state of permanent anxiety that prevents real empowerment and productive activity. Better, I think, to allow kids to encounter the questionable in the relatively safe context of old picture books than to bubble them up and deny them the chance to build their resilience.

"That's easy for you to say, RG." Is it, though? Do you think I've never had the experience of being the only X in the room? Because I have bad news for you: as a conservative-leaning Catholic Christian, I get "hit" all the time in fannish spaces - and in many of the books and comics I read - with casual, unthinking misconceptions about my political and religious beliefs. Do I complain about it? Yes. Do I wish writers and my fellow fans would actually do some research instead of embracing cheap stereotypes? Of course. Does the "hitting" inspire me to lift up people and works that actually get my worldview right? You bet. But I while I hope that fandom one day learns to respect the conservative minority in its midst and will continue to write posts that challenge fandom's endemic bigotry, I will never ask that any book that contains a problematic representation of conservatives and/or Christians be pulped for the sake of my feelings because, over time, I've learned to attribute such nonsense to ignorance -- and I've learned not to take them as intentional, malicious attacks on me as an individual. (At least, not without very good evidence.)

What's more, I have a couple intellectual questions about the assumptions beneath these censorship efforts that I think deserve real answers. First, have we actually demonstrated that pop culture has a significant impact on our behavior or beliefs? Or is this something we merely assume because it appeals to our common sense? Do our books/movies/television shows/etc. actually shape us as a people, or do they merely reflect a cultural reality that already exists? I don't think this is an idle line of inquiry. After all, I've been told repeatedly that there's no reliable evidence that violent video games lead to increased aggression in children. And those historical figures who've launched campaigns warning the world about the corrupting influence of novels/games/comic books/etc. are - in fandom at least - universal targets of ridicule. So what's the logic here? How can pop culture make us racist -- yet not make us violent, antisocial, or sexually promiscuous?

Secondly, how exactly does a drawing of a Chinese man wearing a conical hat and eating with chopsticks cause harm? What is the mechanism? And is this result truly inevitable? Traditionally, many Chinese did wear conical hats -- and even today, many Chinese do eat with chopsticks. What's the harm in observing something that, in certain times and places, is trueMere acknowledgement of cultural differences in dress and eating style need not lead to disparagement of those differences (fortunately for any school that's held a multicultural fair). It certainly didn't in the context of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The boy in said book added the Chinese man because he thought such a person was more interesting than one of his American neighbors. "Orientalism!" cry the activists. "It's objectifying the so-called 'exotic'!" Or, if you would permit me to blow your minds, maybe this depicts a spark of child-like curiosity that could be fanned into a fire of genuine cultural appreciation and - just maybe - friendship and peace. Yes, the visual shorthand in that Mulberry Street illustration would not be used by an artist in current year -- but a child growing up today is not going to look upon such a picture and conclude that the Chinese are rightful targets of prejudice unless he is told by idiot adults that this is what the picture means by default. Or, to put it another way: we as teachers, parents and mentors can, through careful guidance, absolutely change how the young folks in our charge interpret a book like Mulberry Street and thereby squelch any bigotry before it takes root. The Wokerati seem to regard pictures and words as magic charms that instantly re-wire our brains at the moment we encounter them, but that's not what happens at all. Top-down processing exists -- and it can be molded.  

Ultimately, am I saying suck it up and deal? When it comes to openly prejudicial actions perpetrated with malice aforethought, no. When it comes to lingering inequalities that should be tackled with smart public policy, no. But when it comes to art? Yes, especially if you have to pull out an electron microscope (or take a class in critical theory) to see what's offensive -- or if you have to yank the troubling thing out of its exculpatory context in order to argue that it's beyond the pale. By all means, do what I do and - within reason - argue for more accuracy and more sensitivity in our current books.  But it's crossing a bright line to say, for instance, that a historical work like McElligot's Pool deserves to be unpublished because on one page, the point-of-view character imagines a school of "Eskimo fish." No, we don't use the word "Eskimo" anymore. Yes, we now perceive it as derogatory. But lots of innocent people didn't see it that way at mid-century. All a teacher or a parent need do is point out that we don't use that word anymore because we wish to respect the Inuit people -- and then move on to enjoying the beautifully illustrated story about a boy with a sense of wonder who doesn't judge a pond by its outward appearance.


And ICYMI, here's the second stream in my dystopian fiction series. Here, we discuss The Giver and its relationship to the worship of perfect order, the rise of safetyism, the tension between rationalism and romanticism, and many other topics!