Saturday, December 1, 2018

Comics Bait: Why Hate Has Erupted in the Superhero Mainstream

Certainly one of the most unwelcome developments in the world of cartooning in 2018 has been the emergence of a fascistic Far-Right Wing among comic book creators – calling for not only that certain well-known corporate-own trademarks be “restored” to their original straight-white-male secret identity orientation (this will surely make America great again – but don’t call me Shirley) – but also for boycotts and even acts of violence against those they see as corrupting their “hobby” by fighting for social justice (usually hapless editors and publishers with the thankless task of trying to widen comics readership in a dwindling digital age).

Elsewhere I have discussed the many ways the Comics Haters’ “reasoning” makes little sense, and how their political attributions are merely misplaced frustration at having been through the mainstream fuck mill and dumped out, obsolete and useless, on the other side.

What has gone unremarked, as far as I can tell – and perhaps isn’t even all that remarkable – is that these reactionary hate-mongers (one hesitates to use the term “creators”) were all work-for-hire labor (again, one hesitates to use the term “talent”) employed by big mainstream superhero publishers in the 90s and 2000s.

When you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that a Far-Right Comics Hate movement would emerge among work-for-hire superhero has-beens. After all, as freelancers, their minds have necessarily been preoccupied with decades of continuity in the two major superhero universes – not to mention pockets of comics and pop-culture history like Fiction House's Jungle Comics, Lev Gleason-Charles Biro Crime Does Not Pay comics, hardboiled detective fiction, pulps, and the like – leaving little room for nuanced thought.

Comics Haters who decry mainstream comicssudden lurch to the Left appear blithely ignorant of the rich Leftist orientation of mainstream comics, including this masterpiece: Bernie Krigstein and Al Feldstein’s Master Race,” from Impact #1 (EC Comics, April 1955).

Much of this material may be viewed as socially regressive (Ive long maintained it requires a generous sense of humor if not a bit of Philip José Farmer-esque schizophrenia to properly enjoy it), but that’s not my point. Rather, these freelancers have had no choice but to study this material religiously, since making pitches to the Big Publishers for new spins over well-trod ground depends on being knowledgeable about which kinds of soles belong on which boots in which multiverse.

Being immersed in such continuity trivia means these Comics Haters have had little time to read The Nation or The New York Review of Books, let alone listen to NPR or watch the PBS Newshour. By the same token, their lucrative employment allows them to subscribe to cable, and mainstream creators can be forgiven for confusing leggy blondes on Roger Ailes’ Fox News with actual journalists. (Alternative cartoonists, as I can attest, can only afford free, and therefore liberal, broadcast media.)

It also goes without saying that none of the Comics Haters seems to have come from the ranks of alternative comics. The comic book Left – if I can employ such an over-simplified term – traces its lineage back to EC Comics (perhaps the most left-leaning, socially progressive comic book imprint in the history of newsstand comics) and blatantly counter-cultural1960s Undergrounds.

Significantly, neither EC nor the Undergrounds ever generated much in the way of identifiable trademarks to rival the major corporate-owned superhero properties, or for that matter ongoing comic book series or continuing characters. Rather, the Left has always seemed to specialize in one-off short stories (particularly in the case of EC, Harvey Kurtzman's anti-war Frontline Combat and irreverent Mad, and Ray Bradbury adaptations and proto-Rod Serling Twilight Zone black-outs in Shock SuspenStories), and only sporadically-recurring characters such as Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural or Frank Stack’s New Adventures of Jesus. The most notable exception would be Mad Magazine itself, which has since devolved into more of a brand than a property, and Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the closest thing the Underground ever came to launching a licensable commodity.

[Crumb himself, so paranoid about selling out and so revolted by Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation, famously killed off Fritz the Cat, just as the character was on the brink of becoming a household word.]

That’s not to say that Comics Haters are completely ignorant of EC or the UGs; it just that this rich tradition of Leftist comics and comix material has never been on the mainstream freelancer’s required reading list. That’s because the bread and butter of your average hapless freelancer consists of putting together pitches to revamp forgotten Silver Age superheroes and hoping to convince Big Company editors to hire them for the script and art chores. Who would you pitch a spin-off to Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race to, anyway?

As I’ve said before, the “social justice warriors” that Comics Haters see as having taken over mainstream comics have always existed; indeed, nearly all of the characters that are the subject of contention and condemnation for being rebooted as female, LGBTQ, African-American, or asexual by Comics Hate were created by a generation of Left-leaning, socially conscious, and – mostly – Jewish creators, who, if alive today and aware of the controversy, would steadfastly condemn the Comics Haters as the regressive, white-supremacist, Apartheid-mongering pigs that they are.

If the Far Right Comics Hate is more or less ignorant of or willfully oblivious to the Leftist origins of the American comic book and the history of the frankly Leftist EC-UG-Alternative comix lineage, Leftists often display an equivalent ignorance and/or bias against the superhero genre. Those who work in the Leftist tradition tend to have an innate abhorrence for mainstream superheroes (one thinks of Daniel Clowes’ Dan Pussey stories, the constant use of pejoratives like “muscle-boy comics” by Alternative cartoonists, or the bias comics scholars demonstrate for autobiographical, nominally “realist” memoir comics over other genres). Too often, this has resulted in drawing that appears completely ignorant of human anatomy and art history and writing that seldom if ever rises above Beatnik nihilism.

Whether the superhero genre is latently conservative, regressive, or fascistic – as Leftist cartoonists have always feared – even in its most liberal manifestations (one thinks of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams “finding America” riff on Stirling Silliphant’s Route 66 in Green Lantern-Green Arrow), it is curious that mainstream comics have tended to favor continuing series and marketable trademarks while the Left has tended to concentrate on self-contained short stories (come to think of it, Route 66 – in which Buz Murdock and and Tod Stiles tooled across the country in a silver Corvette – has been described as an anthology TV series masquerading as an episodic continuity). Perhaps there is something fractured and discontuous in the Leftist worldview that mitigates against serialized (and therefore capitalist) entertainment.

To finish this essay by making it all about myself – and to place myself as morally superior to all sides in the current controversy – let me just point out that I have always occupied a no-man’s land, thanks to Megaton Man. Ostensibly a parody of Silver Age superhero clichés but initially published by a legacy Underground publisher (Kitchen Sink Press), Megaton Man was neither a mainstream success nor a critical darling; both the Left and the Right found something to hate in it. For the Fantagraphics snobs (for whom I would later make a tidy sum of money with King Kong and the Anton Drek Eros Comix), Megaton Man was obviously a “muscle-boy” comic; for the mainstream, or at least a large swath of those employed by the Big Companies in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a frontal assault on the precious trademarks that represented their livelihoods.

No doubt this is why raising a child out of wedlock, a female-and-black incarnation of the title character (Ms. Megaton Man), an obviously-but-never-outed gay character (Preston Percy), and other “Social Justice Warrior” transgressions in my 1980s storylines flew under the radar.

Neither tribe was paying particular attention.

1 comment:

  1. I can see how you managed to play both sides and offend both sides simultaneously with Megaton Man. Well played.