Saturday, July 18, 2015

Different Views: Diversity + Change (Mullings on Comics)

Excerpted eyeballs culled from 2015 "Up With Art" exhibition.

Recently I was asked for my supposedly informed opinion on - yet another - kerfluffle in in comics on the depiction (ie objectification) of women. The resultant pushback is analogous to a bout of acid reflux disease, or perhaps a better analogy would be simply predictable last gasp/faux outrage from a dying contingent of the threatened old guard in the industry, if not society-at-large.

In this instance the portrayal of a character on a comic book cover (see here for details) was the culprit, but to be honest, it really doesn't matter to me about the particular specifics, as it's all tiresome and predictable. However acknowledgement of the issues is always well worth re-examining, whether its a critical analysis, or in many cases, simply holding up a mirror - this especially since I am coming from such a privileged position.

Here's a full, unedited response to the initial query, followed at length by some more ruminations that deviated significantly and have much more to deal with the topic at hand.
As a creator of your own comic, how would you feel if another artist used your characters in a way that wasn’t true to the characters?

If they’re using “my” characters ie specific drawings it wouldn’t matter if they were “true” to the characters or not, as it would be violation of copyright/infringement regardless of intent. But say for example someone starts drawing funny beavers, there’s nothing preventing that, even if it’s in my style.

Should artists be aware of what other creators want when using their characters?

Usually the terms of usage and limitations would be clearly spelled out in any contract/licensing agreement so as to avoid any problems, so the lines are pretty well drawn when it comes to using the work of other artists. Plus it’s assumable the material will subject to review and approval of an editorial staff and/or publisher, who bears the ultimate responsibility. Legitimate allowances for parody aside, creator-owned characters are covered under basic copyright provisions. Corporate entities like Marvel/DC/Disney etc. are notoriously hypersensitive and overprotective – even abusive - of their properties. Artists should be aware of their legal rights with regards to their work, and respect those of others.

Have you ever had problems creating a piece of art that wasn’t well received for a sociological reason? If so, what was the situation and how did you handle it?

I’ve had friction mostly over some infamous editorial cartoons (especially when it comes to guns, God and the GOP), which by their nature as a subset of cartooning aren’t intended to be loved by all, and are supposed to “afflict the comfortable” and push some buttons in readers. Most grown-ups just simply ignore offensive material, turn the page or click the window closed, but that doesn’t happen much on-line in most comment threads. Occasionally with the weekly single-panel gag cartoon there will be the very rare email, letter-to-the-editor or phonecall to complain, but that’s usually when it comes to what in their opinion is objectionable, tasteless jokes.

Humor is a notoriously tricky minefield to negotiate: it’s pretty much a given that your work will offend somebody at some point. The responsibilities and roles of an artist are to some degree voluntary and open to debate when it comes to issues such as the self-censorship of potentially offensive material. I question my own motives, and consider that aspect when critiquing the controversial work of others, for example relating to current criticism of the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and corresponding counterblowback. And as always, along with the underlying factor of personal conviction and taste, there is usually a buffer zone of editorial review between the creators and the viewing public – though not so much anymore when it comes to the internet.

Personally I feel it’s important to be at least aware of cultural and societal considerations – especially with regards to things that I have no understanding about or business making fun of. Thus the majority of my published work deals with subject matters that I’m familiar with: regional humor, animals etc. I tread with caution when it wades into other territories that the opinion of a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male isn’t really wanted and/or worth a damn. If I catch myself second-guessing the content of a cartoon, I go with the gut and just move on to another topic (there’s no shortage of material), and - very rarely - bounce it off someone else who’s perspective is more objective so it’s vetted.

Cartoonists are ostensibly members of the media, which in itself plays a part in the promotion of stereotypes, as does the medium. The term “punching up” is getting used a lot these days, and I think that’s a fair metric to apply when it comes to judging a work. That said, breaking the rules is often the only rule especially when it comes to comedy, and by extension, cartooning.

DC does it again...

So while that excerpted response is tangentially related it still didn't get to the main point - "Diversity + Change" in comics - which is what, and why, I wanted to address the issue over here on Ink & Snow.

For context, my own personal background was an upbringing in some of the most vile, disgusting works ever published in comics - or more accurately, comix - mainly as a result of a coming of artistic age during the 70's outbreak of the underground scene. Steeped in drugs, sex and violence these definitely had a corrosive influence on my warped sense of humor. Other media, such as television and fantasy and science fiction novels, surreptitiously reinforced an underlying worldview that is distinctly at odds with contemporary society. But hell, if I can make it, ie adapt and evolve, than anybody else can undergo the same gradual expansion of awareness and subsequent change in behavior. That said, a caveat in that "growing up" is certainly to be distinguished from "maturing" - maintaining and cultivating a juvenile sense of joy and even infantile humor is a crucial underpinning whether it's cartooning or comedy. And more often than not, therein lies the rub.

Sometimes you can only Marvel at it.

I suppose it seems that every damn day there's another unfortunate example of work to do as far as combating - at least discussing amongst one's peers, if not an internal review - the pervasive misogyny in comics. Pervasive sexual harassment at conventions has come under considerable scrutiny from multiple perspectives, as has the the practices of the film industry which has overlapped considerably with comics culture what with the flood of fandom running over into the deluge of superhero movies.

It's within that modern social context that comics have expanded from fringe into pop culture, and with it a corresponding shift in societal norms, such as issues of equality and tolerance, and the calling out of bigotry, racism and sexism. Hence we see a spillover from everything to Gamergate and convention harassment (update: see Calgary Expo shenanigans) to the recent contamination of the Hugo Awards. Controversies relating to bigotry and general stupidity certainly aren't unique or new to the medium, but the relative visibility of the comics culture above and beyond traditional nerdism or geekdom shines a spotlight on the continual need for disinfectant. And the 500lb gorilla in the corner of the room would be basic economic factors which any nominally competent business will realize alienating approximately half of a potential market is rather shortsighted, if not just basically stupid.

This dovetails quite nicely with the attention paid to the "shirtstorm" controversy of last year, which thrust many of the underlying issues into the forefront, much to the consternation of those who would prefer ignoring them and hence perpetuate the status quo. It's uncomfortable having to confront one's own systemic entitlement and privilege, especially when coming from the myopic perspective and experience of someone who has been a perpetual loser and outcast as a comic-book geek and/or cartoonist.

Basically I come at it with a dual perspective: that of both a fan and as a creator. Also there's another component with teaching, which is obviously predicated upon ensuring a safe and supportive educational environment in the classroom. First and foremost, as a fan, whether it was underground comix or traditional superhero comics, you eventually work through it: even if your aesthetic tastes doesn't ever evolve (to be sure, arrested development is no doubt what lies beneath much of the infantile squalling from the many instances of reactionary bullshit) you basically get bored of the same old stupid shit that was entertaining when you were growing up. Nostalgia aside, plateauing on a style or even a specific artist or character and never, ever reaching out for something new and different is truly sad. Even though the odds are slim for discovering quality works, take for example within genres like Westerns, sci-fi and horror movies which has an overwhelming ratio of utter crap versus genuine classics, and you will lose countless hours wading through complete wastes of time in order to suss out something meaningful and satisfactory, it's always journey worth taking. Comics is big enough, and far better for it.

Update: After writing this essay a couple other events occurred which are useful to compare + contrast: as alluded in the opening line, these speed bumps - and shining examples to the contrary - happen fairly frequently. At one extreme would be the baffling case of a mens-only roster hosting a "Women in Comics" panel at the Denver ComicCon. At the other, is the phenomenal, historic (and equally baffling how overdue and still comparatively lopsided) accomplishment at this year's Reubens:
"...for only the third time in the event’s six-decade-plus history, a woman — the New Yorker’s Roz Chast — received the group’s big honor, the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. And her trophy capped what may well be the event’s winningest night ever for female writers and artists, as six women won in the 16 competitive categories." - Michael Cavna, Washington Post
To put all this another way, as a fan I am so damn excited to have been around long enough to see this blossoming of new talents, a renaissance in the field... it's enough to motivate me back into monthly sorties into the local comic shop to peruse the racks and pick up another armload of outstanding and interesting releases. How so very lucky are the folks who are just now getting turned onto the world of contemporary comics - there is simply so much great stuff out there, from pure entertainment to nuanced and sophisticated narratives - to pick from it's utterly amazing and delightful. Just to take my last foray as an example: awesome artwork by Fiona Staples ("Saga") and Jen Wang ("In Real Life") and G. Willow Wilson's "Ms. Marvel," and Emily Carroll's "Through The Woods" to highlight just a brief handful of titles that now adorn my shelves. The list of prominent women creators in comics is exponentially growing as is enthusiastic support from readers and critical reviewers alike. So against this resurgence of quality material these little outcroppings of controversy signify sound + fury from an increasingly irrelevant paradigm.

Another point of view I've experienced is from the other side of the drawing table, as a teacher, which is of equal importance in the triumvirate of being a fan + creator. Here my anecdotal observations bear out the position of inexorable change and evolution towards a more welcoming and inclusive comics culture. Specifically the gender ratio in my own Cartoon & Comic Arts class over the past eight years has averaged out to approximately 60/40 split with the majority being women (Update: this ninth year saw men comprise only two out of the fifteen folks enrolled). An informal review of the work ethic from these former students also reveals an corresponding disproportionate degree of diligence and discipline that is borne out in surveying not only the quality of craftsmanship but who is left standing: the vast majority of successful students who are still active and producing quality works also happen to be women. As mentioned earlier, I might personally be in a privileged position myself, but at the very least I consider it a far better privilege to do what I can: on paper, in the paper and in the classroom, especially if it's for once just shutting up (and when appropriate, speaking up), listening, and maybe after helping open the door try getting the hell out of the way. By far and away there are many more female artists - not just cartoons + comics - in our own creative community, which in turn will continue to ripple out and influence future aficionados and makers alike.

Update (9/28):A most excellent read from Marcy Cook over at The Mary Sue titled "Harassment in the Comics Industry and How to End It: An Investigation" has some definitive points and presents a sobering perspective.

No comments:

Post a Comment