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Friday, May 05, 2006


One Fan's Opinions Are Like...

Erik Larsen typically ends his column One Fan's Opinion at Comic Book Resources with the following:
But that's just one fan's opinion -- I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.
This is a good practice, especially this week when I'm equally willing to assert that's he's tremendously, crashingly, thunderously wrong about a host of things that no one in 2006 has any excuse to be wrong about. (He's also quite right, near the end, but I have my suspicions.)

Erik is shreikingly wrong about what constitutes censorship, claiming that a handful of Internet "whiners" are trying to "censor" cheesecake art:
But things have relaxed somewhat. And the Phantom Lady is back in all her glory.

Or so you'd think.

Because whenever things start to push the envelope once more, the censors rear their ugly heads. This time as vocal critics on the Internet. But they're not going after the horror books this time -- no, not yet.

It's the ladies.

The Phantom Lady's only distinguishing characteristics are her ample cans. That's pretty much all she has going for her. Ditto Power Girl. To tone them down is to strip them of their identities. And frankly, that's what they're supposed to look like! It's not a situation where an artist took Catwoman and distorted her to fit his fetishes -- these characters started out busty as all hell -- drawing them that way is drawing them right.

If you don't want the Barbi twins to look like the Barbi twins, don't use the Barbi twins.

Self-censorship is still censorship. Drawing a comic about the Barbi twins and having them have chests like Little Lulu because of a few balkers on the Internet strikes me as pretty cowardly.
Luckily there remain a few brave artists with the political courage to face down their would-be authoritarian oppressors by drawing women with no ribs and DDD tits bending over in radioactive thongs— a.k.a. "pushing the enevelope". Jesus, the comics industry attracts some winners. A real bunch of Lenny Bruce provacateurs. I feel like I'm typing "remove cardboard box before placing in oven'" on the side of a TV dinner, but pressure and complaint, not to mention basic editing and decency are not censorship. Censorship is when the government yanks the power cord on your printing press, or redacts your story before you publish it. (Or, in the case of the Comics Code, essentially puts a gun to your head and tells you to pull the trigger.) But if a fan implores you to stop acting like an sexist asshole, and you find yourself acting like less of a sexist asshole, you haven't been censored. You've been done a favor. If, as Erik openly admits, there are characters who exist only to lug around cartoonishly large breasts for the sad pseudo-titilation of man-boys, that's not a topic fit even for discussion? An argument that such a character is inherently sexist, and as such serves no good purpose, has no merit? No one should be bothered by that as long as we make sure there's a flat-chested character somewhere?

Q: What's next in the litany of things Erik is wrong about?

A: The internet! He's thuddingly, boringly wrong about the internet. What does the medium of the internet have to do with the actual content of this or any criticism Erik mentions? As far as I can tell, nothing whatsoever...aside from the fact that it enables critics to easily share their thoughts with the artist and each other. Yet Larsen throws the word out as shorthand, as if it obviously invalidates the concerns of people who find gross sexism in comics reprehensible--just because they voiced those concerns online. See, they're nuts! Cranks! (See Cohen, Richard; blogging)

It's self-evident that the mainstream comics industry always has been, and still is to a large extent a white boys club, with attitudes about as well developed as those of Tubby's gang. (see Quesada, Joe.) Larsen's justifications and rationalizations merely underscore it. A modern artist isn't doing anything wrong by drawing Power Girl that way, he says, he's merely perpetuating (and really, grossly exaggerating) Wally Wood's sexist fetishes from 1976! No foul!

Larsen, apparently trying to create a repository for every lame defense of every knuckle-dragging tendency in comics, brings up old the old saw about male and female figures in comics being equally "impossible". If he thinks that the context is the same, then he's not simply wrong, he's also either a liar or dim. That line of argument was effectively killed just last month. Washboard abs and hyperinflated boobs are simply not comparable--given in the manner in which they are typically portrayed, and the general composition of both the creative community and the audience. That, and abs are not a sex organ.

Finally, Larsen is wrong about the way nonwhite races are drawn in comics. I don't know what comics Larsen is reading, but just from the superhero books in my pull list there are a Mr. Terrific, JJ Thunder, Amanda Waller, Cyborg and others who look pretty damn African-American without verging into cariacture. (Too bad about that bizarre blackface mask on Mr. Terrific, though.) I admit that there are quite a few artists today who can't draw anything well, let alone racial characteristics, because they apparently learned to draw mostly from 1980s superhero comic books starring white people. But that's a broader problem.

Look, I realize exaggeration is what a cartoonist does. But exploitative crap is exploitative crap, and I have to assume that one of the founders of Image Comics knows exactly what they founded their company on, why it sold, and to whom. Frankly, I find the segue from portrayal of women to portrayal of race to be a non sequitor and a dodge on Larsen's part. You simply can't hide Power Girl's breasts behind Black Lightning's head.

Literally or figuratively.

Larsen is surprisingly, refreshingly right when he says:
In the real world people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some of them are beautiful and some aren't, but there's an incredible variety there. I'd like to see more diversity in comics and less cowardice. Everybody doesn't have to look like the same boy and girl with slightly different heads. Women can be fat and skinny and busty and not so busty and everything in between. Men can look any number of ways. It's okay for white characters to look white and black characters to look black and Asian characters to look Asian and Latino characters to look Latino and every possible variation.
Had this been the actual theme of Larsen's column, I'd be throwing daisys at his feet. But just a few paragraphs earlier, he was gleefully torching this straw man:
...should I feel justified in calling for more heroes with spare tires, double chins and thinning hair? Should all women in comics be plain or homely because some real women find attractive comic book characters threatening or offensive?
It could be that this is just another example of the widespread disease known as "gotta write a column" which leads to puffed-up arguments against misrepresented or even phantom enemies and often results in inconsistent logic. Alternately, perhaps a cabal of online whiners censored Erik into grafting a PC ending onto his piece. I go with the former.

But I'm willing concede that my opinion has no merit whatsoever--because, of course, I typed it on the internet, which makes me crazy.

One argument I can see making to what I'm saying is a sort of latter-day Jules Feiffer position: that superhero comics are junk, they are purile, they are designed for 12-year-old boys of all ages, and anyone who doesn't like it shouldn't be reading them; that their naughty, transgressive (or, if you prefer, white male panic) qualities define their appeal. In this formulation, superhero comics are positioned as a holiday from the white, heterosexual adult male superego with its attendant responsibilities. Like half of all other pop culture. That falls apart for me because, while it certainly explained the allure of comics for actual kids of decades past, the audience for superhero comics is today down to only those people who are old enough to know better. (Besides, the blatant turn toward soft-porn in superhero books confuses me, when there are actual photos of actual women completely naked just a click away.) The honorable choices then, as I seem them, are for the comics to simply fold up shop, or to change. I simply can't rationalize the acceptance of systems that reinforce, and make excuses for such horrible stereotypes. Especially when we have proof that good superhero comics don't need them--or in the case of Bulleteer, are smart enough to totally subvert them.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Not working

No, the title is not a comment on the fact that I am writing this while my employer pays me to do something else.

It's really about this:
Sometimes I see or hear an advertisement that makes me wonder how anyone ever could think the ad is going to help sales of the product. I'm sure there's some ridiculous rationale, but in the case of this ad, I'm actually scared to watch it again:



Bending Over To Prove Colbert Right

The media reaction to Stephen Colbert's devastating routine (transcript here) at the White House Correspondent's Dinner on Saturday has been almost as entertaining as Colbert's performance. All of the offended anchors, reporters and pundits have unintentionally confirmed everything Colbert implied about their craven servility and abdication of their journalistic responsibilities. The same pompous insiders he eviscerated first tried to ignore it away, then as the blog firestorm ensued, fell all over themselves to explain why Colbert failed: he simply wasn't funny, he misread the room, he was disrespectful, he was rude, he didn't know his place, "singe don't burn", on and on. Anything to rationalize ignoring the substance of the critique behind Colbert's satire.

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen claims the ultimate prize/shame for clueless toadyism, with a column that is every bit as funny--and just as condemnatory, in its own unintentional way--as Colbert's speech. Really, just read the first paragraph in Colbert's voice and try not to laugh--or throw up in your mouth a little. Whatever feels right.
First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to "say something funny" -- as if the deed could be done on demand. This, anyway, is my standing for stating that Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. All the rest is commentary.
With material like this to work with, it must be like shooting fish in a barrel for Colbert. cohen goes on to declare Colbert's material "lame", call speaking truth to power a cliche that doesn't even apply here because Colbert was in no danger of being killed or thrown in a dungeon (America! The highest standards in the world!) and that one of Colbert's funniest lines, "This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!" fails to amuse because it's a mixed metaphor. Yeah, I can see why Cohen's grade school teacher thought he was such a cut-up.

One thing that has been impossible not to notice is the press's continued avoidance of Colbert's criticism of them. The Chris Matthews and Richard Cohens have embarrassed themselves with hyperventilating, chivalrous defenses of the helpless President's honor, but I have yet to see any of them really tackle the most stinging section of Colbert's routine:
But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
If only our Washington news media could muster the same level of indignation they've directed at Colbert for a president who routinely declares his right to ignore the law, who has launched a distastrous war, and who has devoted himself to remaking American government into a defacto dictatorship. But perhaps that would be too "rude" of them. If nothing else, Cohen and his ilk know how to "play the room" of Washington. They do so at the expense of the truth, their personal dignity and their responsibility as reporters. One thing is clear; it's desperately important for them to maintain the pathetic illusion that they are chums with the politicians who disdain them at least as much as Colbert does.

The press secretary bit did go on too long, though.

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