Friday, 14 April 2017

The Difference Between Bullying and Poor Taste

You would think there'd be nothing to hate about this team.
Oh boy.

This month saw the release of Marvel's new RessurXion (is that spelt right? I mean, it's not exactly a word, but...). With it, came X-Men Gold #1, a new team starring favourites like Colossus and Old Man Logan. The issue, to be honest, is quite good- we get a X-Men team that feels more like the well-received Astonishing X-Men than it does Uncanny X-Men.

Sounds great? So what's the issue?

The offending panel
Well, it turns out the issue's writer, Ardian Sayaf, brought in a few too many personal politics. See, X-Men Gold #1 he included a reference to a verse in the Qur'an that, according to some translations, forbids believers from making Jews and Christians their leaders.
Sayaf is Indonesian and right now, the Christian governor (or former governer, not sure), a man known as Ahok, was tried for blasphemy for a misstated comment on the Qur'an. Ahok's comments enraged the Indonesia's 85% Muslim population. Sayaf was obviously upset about this as well, because in

My first thought when seeing this was "how did anyone know to notice the verse here?"  My second thought was "this is possibly the worst comic to include this in."

See, X-Men Gold features a team lead by Kitty Pride; a Jewish woman who has been nothing but upfront about her heritage for many, many years. Let me make  it clear; she is the team leader in a book where the art suggests that people like her should not be leaders. For that reason, and that reason alone, Sayaf should be pretty embarrassed about his artistic faux pas.

In all likelihood, the verse was intended to criticise Ahok, suggesting that Christian was not the best choice for a Muslim nation, and if Sayaf had tweeted the verse with a #Ahok at the end, I 'm certain he would not have faced the same backlash (although, really, if you get political on the internet, don't expect people to leave you alone). The message would have been clear: Ahok should not be, or should never have been Jakarta's governor. In the context of the comic, however, it came off as "I resent contributing to a book about Jewish people". Before anyone jumps down my throat and tells me that I'm making assumptions; I know I am. That's part of what reading entails. But I don't imagine myself to be some great genius and if I'm a total idiot, then I'm hardly alone. If I can take that message out of the book, chances are a few others have as well.

She's Jewish. The verse was a bad idea.
In a past article, I spoke about Marvel's habit of bullying some of their readers into accepting a new status quo or ideology. I don't think that's what is happening here. Bullying has to be targeted and continuous. Someone calling you stupid once is not, for example, bullying. Someone calling stupid over an extended period is. This is the first, and likely the last time Marvel has done something like this. Moreover, Marvel's bullying tactics came from strawmanning an ideology that undesirable, but harmless, into something villainous and idiotic. It was something they did not once, but over and over again and it was certainly more overt than this. It was also unconnected to recent events, but more to a particular "out-group". Sayaf's art bears just about no similarity.

It was, however, in incredibly poor taste; not just because the issue's lead was Jewish, but because recent events (though sparked by the west) have likely put a lot of people who don't know better on edge regarding Islam; well, more so than they were before. The verse could be interpreted as inflammatory; particularly towards a predominately Judeo-Christian country like America.

This poor timing, poor taste and poor use of two letters, three numbers and a colon reflect poorly on Marvel. I feel sorry for him; his intended message seemed a lot more tame than media attention would make it seem. It was a dumb mistake and once he's felt the expected amount of embarrassment, I hope he continues to draw for the comics industry because honestly, his art is good. Marvel have since dismissed him. I think that was the wrong move for a silly mistake that editors should have picked up on. Lets just say that, with the kerfuffles of the last month, my opinion of Marvel as a business is fairly low.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Diversity isn't killing Marvel- bullying is.

All-New insults, All-Different standards

In a recent interview with ICv2, Marvel's Senior Vice President, David Gabriel, addressed the massive slide in company sales. And to be honest, he really had to. As of the most recent figures in February this year, Marvel only had two books in the top ten comics. Both of them were Star Wars books. To find a Marvel superhero book, you need to get to number 13, where Spider-Man #24 sits. By contrast, DC takes seven of those top ten spots.

So why are Marvel so far behind? It's not like the company's presence isn't felt everywhere you look. Marvel characters are more popular than they've ever been. Regardless, Gabriel's answer has left many unsatisfied, to say the least. According to;

Essentially Gabriel said that, according to retailers he talked to and sales data, Marvel's push towards diversity was the reason for the sales drop. "What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They didn't want female characters out there. That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don't know that that's really true, but that's what we saw in sales." Gabriel later elaborated on those comments in an interview with ICv2. There he said, "We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked."

Now, the IGN article in the link above goes on to say that it isn't diversity that is hurting Marvel's bottom line, but bad business practices; namely, putting out 5USD per issue for series' that have absolutely zero traction (see Red Wolf- what? You forgot who that was? Exactly!). That's a fair point, but Marvel have been pricing themselves out of the market for months before trying the Red Wolf Schtick. Others have pointed to event fatigue, but that's a pretty old chestnut for Marvel and again, it never hurt them before.

I suggest that Marvel's problem is on a creative level, not a business one. No, I'm not saying that making characters diverse is the problem. DC have plenty of books featuring people of colour, women and LGBT+. The problem is more perverse than that.

It's bullying.

Let me demonstrate. In the early stages of the Mighty Thor, we saw this moment:

And here I am, at the height of "punch a Nazi", posting this.
I must have a death wish.

To some, this was where Marvel  made it very clear that having unfavourable opinions on feminism was worse than an actual, literal felony. I'll admit, I was on board for the new Thor until this happened. Once it did, I wasn't so sure. I have no problem with feminism (though I find it unsettling that the face of pop culture feminism is Anita Sarkeesian- it really should be Liana Kerzner), but this felt mean-spirited and petty. Like it was the author acting out their own fantasies and shaming people who felt uncomfortable with what passed for Feminism in pop-culture.

Last year, we got this from All-New Captain America;
Quick, put them in shadows or we won't know they're evil!

 In case you're not sure, that's the Serpent Society in the background, who have now become anti-immigrant. You can be sure, though, that Sam Wilson dispatched them with extreme prejudice. Again, I am actually pro-immigration (I am Australian, however, and immigration here looks different to what it does on the US border), but even I could see the unfair strawmanning of an opinion that the writer clearly didn't like.

And least you assume that I'm saying that comics need to "be more conservative", this moment from Captain America: Sam Wilson was equally concerning:

Someone actually wrote this as dialogue... and an editor approved it.
On the other hand, it means you can probably achieve anything!
And these panels are only a small sample of some of the more talked-about moments in Marvel comics.

As I said, the problem isn't that Marvel leans left- they and nearly every mass media company in the world has done so for the last fifty-or-so years to relatively little blowback. The problem is that the writers have been given license to routinely mock others and then be praised for doing so. I'm a teacher in a high school as my day job, so I find  myself dealing with reports of bullying from students. For something to be considered bullying, it has to be regular and targeted. Sadly, Marvel seem to be meeting both criteria.

And before people start telling me "objectivity doesn't mean treating all opinions as valid"- let me make it very clear that I'm not saying that it does. What I am saying, very loudly, is that it also doesn't mean giving page space to mocking those ideas. The opinion being put forth by these writers- at least, the one common theme amongst the above examples- is "people I don't like deserve relentless ridicule" followed, according to Marvel, by "and I expect those people to pay me to do so".

Says who?

In my job, we also teach students who are being bullied to leave the situation; that getting away is far better than being violent. How does this relate? Well, readers have been leaving Marvel. And why shouldn't they? Why should readers stay for material that makes them feel like dirt. That's not why we read superhero comics?

I miss these two so much!
So the next question becomes one of alternatives. How do we put forth a political opinion without putting down the other side? Well, there's no simple answer to that and I think pop culture, if they give a damn about their audience, will always struggle with finding the balance and nuance needed to communicate these ideas in a world were 140-word tweets make international headlines. That said, one good example to look at in Christopher Yost's Scarlet Spider. The Kain Parker-lead Spider-Man spinoff was deeply involved with the complexities of the immigration argument. It was unafraid to deal with the risks these immigrants took to care for their families, the challenges faced by illegal immigrants and the horrible situations from which many of them run. But it did so by highlighting those issues- not by making Kain put a stinger through the eye of every white person he ran into. The
X-Men, traditionally, have also been a great way to showcase the struggles of minorities to those who, without the assistance of the superhero genre, have found it hard to sympathise otherwise.

Please note; I have only mentioned Marvel books in the above paragraphs because in the past, Marvel have been excellent at dealing with a range of social issues. Hopefully, the books I've mentioned above are proof that they can be again.

Most comic fans are familiar with Stan Lee's slogan; "Excelsior!" The word is Latin. It means "ever upward". If that's truly the direction in which Marvel wish to travel, they have no space to stoop to lower levels.