Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Phantom Mommy: When Retcons Spoil Your Fanboy Escapism

There was a time when hoping for a comic book-turned-movie project to fail would be treasonous. Now the noxious far-right in comics openly disparages any creative alteration to an established property they disagree with, hoping for the downfall – and calling for boycotts – of whatever latest blockbuster. The ideology of this fringe is incoherent and confusing – and entirely selective. Impenetrable and completely irrational to outsiders, their world view makes perfect sense to them, however; everything they don’t happen to like in comics and pop culture at any given time can be blamed on some Phantom Mommy who wants to ruin their naughty-boy fun.

Virtually on a whim, it seems, they pick on certain properties that, in their view, have been inappropriately retconned – changed from some imagined, sacred ideal that never was. And yet the retconning they happen to be most vocal about always concerns the intrusion of real-world identity issues into their entertainments they attribute to mythical “social justice warriors.” Curiously, they don’t seem to object to female or black characters, per se, as long as they are of a certain vintage – the Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Lando Calrissian – grandfathered, as it were, from prior canon. But they strenuously object to Captain Marvel (a character that was famously killed off by Jim Starlin) becoming a woman (actually, just the logo passing onto Ms. Marvel – a silly character with no reason for ever being except as a trademark placeholder), or Thor being a woman, or Red Sonja – believe it or not – wearing clothes (!).

And all of these changes, as noted, are attributed by the Far-Right to nefarious “SJWs” who only desire to adulterate and ruin “their” escapist fantasies. How the classic formula for escapism came to be historically restricted to straight, white, and male protagonists with colored sidekicks and female sex objects is unclear; even more unclear is how certain extenuators of a given tradition – Roy Thomas in the case of Red Sonja, but not the latest contract writer on the property – come to be deemed acceptable. It all comes down, it seems, to the haters’ personal biases and peccadilloes (if you can imagine such haters having peccadilloes).

Their argument, as near as it can be cobble together, seems to be that if a character is changed beyond recognition, creators should just come up with their own creations – and presumably self-publish them in obscurity or forfeit all rights outright to corporations. Now, this is not an argument or rationale that is entirely alien to independent and alternative comics – Image Comics being the most visible and successful example of creators transferring their popularity from Marvel properties to their own trademarks. But it is unclear as to why no one can recognize Captain America just because his chin – the only exposed part of his body, is black – or why a featured character in Star Wars can’t be Asian.

It is a testament to how far Image Comics and other notable projects have blurred the distinction between the “mainstream” and “independent” or “alternative” labels that obtained a quarter of a century ago when I was still active in the field. Back then, one was either doing superheroes for Marvel and DC, or doing some kind of post-Underground Comix cartooning for Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, or Kitchen Sink. The big companies have been coopting indy drawing styles and subject matter for years – Bizarro World, a DC project I participated in, was an express attempt to capture some of the “alternative” mojo, as editor Joey Cavalieri expressed to me. Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design series of graphic novels would have been unthinkable in the 1980s; today, the only who has grumbled about it has been old-school, dyed-in-the-wool anti-superhero publisher Gary Groth.

"Batman Upgrade 5.0" from Bizarro World (DC Comics, 2005).

It is even more significant that the political lines have moved from a simple mainstream-alternative dichotomy to a more ephemeral, invisible, and toxic fault line of perceived politic leanings and ideology. Nowadays if a creative choice for a long-standing character meets with fan displeasure, the first place to look (and lay blame) is to find out who the creators voted for in the last presidential election (that is, if it isn’t obvious from the narrative that the character was changed from a rightfully straight, white male incarnation to a queer woman of color). This kind of suspicion and hatred may have always lain under the surface of the mainstream-alternative dynamic, but it has certainly become overt and explicit in the last year or so.

The question then is if there really is a Left-Right “culture war” going on here. The evidence suggests that the changes made to long-standing entertainment properties in recent years are no more substantial than the cosmetic changes trademark owners have always periodically made in the past – Women’s Lib and pants-suits for Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, long hair and sideburns for Superman, and a TV newsroom instead of the Daily Planet newspaper in the 70s; Vietnam replacing World War II for certain character backstories in the 80s and 90s; smartphones instead of payphones in the twenty-first century, etc.

Some of these updates have worked, more or less; most have been inorganic and ham-handed. Nearly all have reflected nothing deeper than some vague notion of inevitable “progress” and modernity that proved only momentarily fashionable and fleeting. Very few were instigated by writers or artists who were anything other than middle-of-the-road or completely apolitical in their ideological leanings, and none were foisted upon fans by companies with any other goal in mind but to widen the audience slightly, keep sales from declining more precipitously, or simply making a buck.

The hysteria, the boycotts, and the bullying emanating from the extreme right-wing of fandom – and the targeting of the innocent and vulnerable office workers and freelancers who are, after all, only doing their jobs on behalf of shareholders – is new, and utterly appalling. That such vile antics masquerade as a serious “culture war” – let alone a serious critique of the artistic merits of popular entertain – would be laughable were it not even more frightening.

The sick, injured, disturbed individuals who are perpetrating this behavior are to be pitied, and when applicable, punished; the big names who are cynically encouraging this “movement” are to be despised. In every sense and on every level this combination of paranoid conspiracy theory in under the guise of fan zealotry must be rejected, and called out for what it is.

More: The Lies of Comics Gash! | Hate Erupts in the Superhero Mainstream! | How Much Hate Do You Need?

1 comment:

  1. I have to love this. All the fuss about how the "PC" limp wrists are taking over is just weird. Every time I read rants from these guys it's like watching those Maga hat wearing folk who take issue with EVERYTHING as if being a nice person is a personal assault on their lifestyle. I read about as many comics per month as I have for the last 30 years. Jane Foster as Thor? It was good. It was very well done. But we're back to Thor as a white guy (I also loved the Unworthy Thor series). Wonder Woman's always been pretty kick ass. Black Panther was always in need of more comic time. The film was wonderful, if a bit too effects laden -like every other comic movie. I'm just not seeing what the complaining is about. And I NEVER cared for Sonja of the magic iron bikini. It's just stupid. BWS introduced her in shorts and mail shirt. That made a lot more sense. Esteban Moroto's a hell of an artist but his design for Sonja, that stuck, is pure, absurd, fantasy. I also never cared for her being raped angle, that later gave her magical "no guy can have me until I say-so" powers. So Conan can have all the sex he wants but she's encouraged to be chaste until a guy beats her in combat? Lame. That's a guy angle if ever there was one. One Robert Howard NEVER suggested in "The Shadow of the Vulture" where she premiered as an ass kicking merc who drank men under the table and flirted outwardly to an end that left nothing to the imagination. In short, she was a gal like Conan. Captain Marvel in her current concept is powerful, complex and still wears spandex. Sexy, smart and tough? Well, that scares some of the white boys. Poor kids. The good news, most of us LOVE that about her.
    Women in general gaining the role of equality is a good thing. It only seems emasculating to those who need to see women as helpless. These man boys can't cope with equality because it means they have to compete when they thought they had it in the bag. When you're just another guy who's a loser in real life who will have to WORK to compete, you miss the days when you were favored over any women even if you missed bath day. Well, those days are fast approaching their expiration date. Good thing too. Just in time for those same men to have to up their game and join humanity. They haven't figured it out yet, but that's a win for them. No one should skate to prominence over something as weird looking as a ball sack. There's a reason we don't stare at 'em. They're kind of our Achille's heel, visually.