Saturday, January 24, 2009

January Storms

This has been a big month for controversies in the comics blogosphere. One came after the other and no sooner would I decide to write on a given topic than another would grab the headlines. So here are my thoughts on them all, at least to date, in chronological order.

The first storm hit on January 6th when Josh Tyler, of, wrote a column called We Don’t Need More Female Superheroes. The result was a lot more internet exposure than the man had ever dreamed possible. His basic argument was that men like action, women like romance. Live with it. Have I simplified it? Yeah, but not very much. How did fangirls take his advice to the film industry? Not well. No surprise, really. The whole purpose of the piece was to tell them they shouldn’t get what they really, really want.

I come down on the side of the fangirls. No surprise. When Hollywood is making films about characters like Ghost Rider, I really can’t think of a good reason not to pour money into films about any number of super heroines, all of which are as ‘iconic’ as he is. The Black Widow, Batgirl (either one), Catwoman (hey, they remade the Hulk!). They could match the Wolverine movie with a Rogue movie. I could go on and on.

I actually polled some women I work with and asked them if they liked superhero movies, what would draw them to one, and whether it was important that the lead character be a woman. Some answers were all over the board, others were pretty consistent. Joss Whedon’s name came up a couple times, including in the only reference to Wonder Woman. Some liked movies based on shows they watched as a kid, such as the X-Men cartoon, but others wanted something new. What they did want to see were good movies, whatever the genre. They didn’t care if the lead was a superhero or a superheroine, but they wanted a movie that was centered on the story and not the CGI. This may not have been the call for female heroes some want, but neither was it the polarized girl-boy movie world Tyler describes. Only one of the women I spoke with said that she isn’t interested in superhero movies herself, but she admitted to enjoying them when her friends took her. So let’s have some good movies with good stories about women in unitards beating people up!

The second storm hit only three days later. On January 9th writer-creator Bill Willingham logged onto the right wing site Big Hollywood to call for an end to superhero ‘decadence.’ While conceding that he had been a part of the problem, the creator of Fables argued that over the past thirty years superhero comics have been pushing an edgier, grittier tone and that’s not good. Heroes should be heroes! And patriots! And they shouldn’t just have values, they should have American values, and you don’t have to read all the way to the Rush Limbaugh quote to realize just what Willingham meant by that.

I am a big fan of Fables and Jack of Fables, but you don’t have to be a very astute reader to realize the Virginia born author is more than a few steps to the right of the political spectrum and that he often, if implicitly, endorses what some would call simplistic views of events. I was thinking about this recently while rereading the Fables story ‘The Last Castle.’ In it the enemy, known as the Adversary, has a general named Aucassin de Beaucaire. Aucassin has his origin in French romantic literature. He’s a good guy. So why is he working for the enemy? Because he’s French! Remember World War Two and the French surrender? Actually, the French were defeated by a superior military force, just like the British, who were sent fleeing home from the beaches of Dunkirk. For some reason that part was transformed into an heroic rescue. Some stories are simpler when the details are kept to a minimum.

The truth is that the moral code he is calling for a return to was created for children. And the change didn’t happen because it was cool, or because people had run out of ideas. It happened because of stories like the Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which elevated the medium to a level of maturity its audience, no longer children, could appreciate. I am not saying there hasn’t been some hack writing, or even a lot of it, but that wasn’t the cause of the change, nor is it the reason the publishers haven’t turned back the clock and returned us to the days of the Comics Code. An adult reader isn’t going to see the world in the simplistic fantasies of a child, nor is he going to be interested in only reading stories that reflect those ideals. I am no saying there is no market for these stories, but if they were to become the norm, comics would not survive long.

(I was going to leave this topic at that, but then I got to thinking, you know, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we can have a more optimistic take on superheroes. This is the yes-we-can era, after all. Maybe the whole Obama message of hope thing will make its way to the funny pages and the sun would shine on the Big Hollywood site's comic discussion. Wouldn’t that be ironic! I'll believe when I see it.)

On January 19th the biggest storm hit. Diamond announced it would no longer carry titles that did not consistently get at least $2500 dollars worth of orders. That's $2500 wholesale, not the cover price. Some have described this as the end of the direct market system. I doubt it. Direct market hangs on the sales of DC and Marvel and they won’t be affected by this. Who will be? Most of the small and self publishers. The monthly format may soon become a thing of the past for non superhero titles. The next year or so is going to see a lot of changes, both in terms of innovation and in publishers going under.

Many people share the blame here, including retailers unwilling to look beyond Previews and publishers who stop pushing their title once Diamond picks it up. I work at a non-comics bookstore. We deal with lots of distributors. Did you know that most distributors don’t advertise at all? That’s the publisher’s responsibility. Given Diamond’s control over who gets in the shops and who doesn’t, however, I don’t think you can gainsay their responsibility in this entirely. What we need is transparency. If people knew just what expenses are being met, or failing to be met, Diamond would be in a much better position to defend this decision. Not that they need to defend it. When you’re as big as they are, nobody has to like you. The business will keep coming anyway. Who knows? That may be one of the things we see change.

Another storm hit the following day, when award winning cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim denounced the casting of the new Avatar film, which filled the roles of the show's all Asian cast with white actors. Reactions ranged from he's being overly sensitive to studios need to cast people who will bring in an audience to constant references to indifference. There is another way of characterizing his reaction: he's right. It is racist. No one likes to hear the 'r' word. Given how common it remains, we're surprisingly sensitive to it. In America race is a largely black and white issue, meaning black people and white people. Latinos are beginning to gain some respect, but the US is a country in which a major sports franchise can still call itself the 'Redskins' and nobody cares. I can live with inventive casting. Eartha Kitt and Michael Clarke Duncan won wide praise for playing characters that, in their original form, were white. And I wholly support racially mixed actors being given the chance to play characters reflecting either of their backgrounds. But the entire cast of Avatar is made up of Asians. I understand there are a few Inuit characters, but historically they have been grouped together with Asians. They certainly aren't white. And as for the studios’ need to cast big name actors? Have you heard of any of these kids before? No you haven't. I hadn't really made any plans to see this film, but now I am going to make it a point to avoid it.

There you have it. Maybe another controversy will surface between now and the end of the month, I don't know, but the new year seems to have come in with a bang. Here's looking to a calmer February!


Robert said...

I find it a little bit amusing that the casting of Avatar is considered racist because it casts Caucasians in roles formerly played by Asians and yet the director of the film (the person that ultimately signs off on casting) is not Caucasian, but is actually Asian (M. Night Shyamalan).

Westside Goth said...

i dislike the casting for Avatar quite a bit. i scratched my head and searched IMDB afterwards. doesn't make me feel interested in the film.

on some level, i agree with willingham. i've been shrinking my superhero list so much and while i still love superheroes with an edge, i also like optimism and hope. coupled with the lack of killing supporting cast members and romantic interests for shock value. or a false dramatic value.

David Bird said...

I can understand where Willingham is coming from, but he has a specific idea of where he wants to go and I don't think its the solution.

Westside Goth said...

maybe not. but his interviews and that "superhero decadence" talk makes me hopeful for his upcoming co-writer gig on justice society. i like that book and was thinking of dropping it after geoff johns.