Saturday, November 17, 2018

Comics Conundrum

I was invited (hat-tip to Cody!) to sit in on a recent panel at PopCon #8 for the topic of "Comicsgate." While this toxic movement that's spreading throughout the comics industry hasn't touched me directly (*see below), the root cause of it has most definitely influenced my students, and thus indirectly affecting everybody. And so the experience which I brought to the discussion was from being on both sides of the table: as a creator for thirty years, and as an educator who has taught hundreds of students in my comics classes. Also critiquing thousands of comic pages over the years, plus being a former comics editor, has afforded me a unique perspective on the issue(s).

*All that being said, there is also the fact that I am, by default, the benefactor of occupying a privileged position, which the awareness of still continues to trip me up, personally and professionally. Besides using the podium in the classroom, I look at rare opportunities such as this panel as a chance to counter the pervasive ripples of bigotry in my own field.
“Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?” - The Onion
Of the few times I spoke at the panel, the one thing that I shared about was a telling moment that has really stuck with me that happened this past summer during a cartooning class for the Visual Art Academy. After lecturing about the growing diversity within the field of comics, I turned to the funny pages in our own local newspaper as a segue into strips and syndication. But then I realized then just how much undeniable evidence there still was of a systemic and pervasive bias - not so much with the individual editors per say - but in the industry as a whole, indeed in the arts in general - specifically with regards to representation.
“Unless comics creators adopt a zero tolerance approach to racism and misogyny, this abuse of power by ‘fans’ will never end” - The Guardian
Case in point is the ratio of both female and minority creators whose work runs in newspapers (via syndication), and how poorly this reflects the general makeup of the population. If you ever wonder why the comics industry is withering on the vine (sales tactics aside), you need look no further than how irrelevant and out of touch comics are, especially when there is little to none for content that connects with anybody aside from the stereotypes of geekdom. Which is to say straight, white, and male. Indeed what we are seeing with Comicsgate is an echo of the drama being similarly played out on the political stage: the last, desperate gasps of a dying, insular subculture that is reacting to the threat of inexorable change.
“It’s them seeing types of people they don’t like being successful, seeing superhero comics catering to other demographics and types of readers that aren’t them, and they’re throwing a tantrum,” Campbell said. “We just need to stick together and keep doing comics.”
So this was an awkward insight to realize especially when lecturing a class on how slowly the industry is supposedly evolving. When even Hollywood has caught on with the recent success of superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, it adds insult to injury to not see this maturation of diversity reflected in the pages of the very same comics that these movies were literally drawn from.

Right before the panel presentation I dropped by the periodicals section of our campus library and double-checked for some recent, relevant data. I looked at a current issue from each of the three largest newspapers in Alaska to gauge the ratio of syndicated, published works specifically by women and minority creators:

The Juneau Empire had 17 strips in the comics section of its daily edition: of these none were by a minority, and half of one by a woman (the legacy zombie strip "Shoe" written by Susie MacNelly).

The Anchorage Daily News boasted a total of 31 strips in the comics section of its daily edition, but also had none by a minority creator, and only one by a woman ("For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston - which is retired and has been in reruns for the past decade).

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, with 20 strips, had not only had two and a half strips by women creators ("The Pajama Diaries" by Terri Libenson, "Arctic Circle" by Alex Hallatt, and "Shoe") but but also had one by a minority ("Macanudo," by Latin-American Liniers).

This is embarrassing and indefensible to try and justify - especially awkward before a classroom that is largely comprised of young women. Can you imagine how artistically impoverished we would be if there were no women writers, musicians, actors etc? How incredibly stupid and short-sighted to ignore half of the population, to say nothing about the (potentially) growing readership of a non-white/non-male audience.

And here's the rub: what is especially glaring is the gender ratio of my own students in my comics classes as compared to their prevalence in publication. For example: overall my rosters have been approximately two-thirds to three-quarters female, but on the shelves of the comics section it's almost flipped around in reverse. Reminds me of another observation from my many years spent in the food-service industry: male waiters are comparatively rare in diners, but begin to show up in numbers as soon as there is serious money to be made in finer dining establishments. The same could be said for educators when looking at the numbers of women who are grade-school teachers versus college professors.

To finish on a note of hope: Over the years I have curated a little table of comics off to the side in my classroom just for showcasing the published efforts of alumni, and it boasts a much better 50/50 gender split for creators. So change, like any evolution, is slow, but it's inexorable and inevitable. Like an oil tanker trying to about-face, there are grudging signs of growth + acknowledgement from the industry... which is good because time's up for the old guard in the comics.

PS: After writing this post I searched Ink & Snow for the term "gender ratio" and discovered that I had essentially already paraphrased this entire argument a few years earlier. On one hand that's another example of my repeating myself to the point that this blog is essentially a skipping record (and will soon enough be retired), but then again, this sort of stuff - unfortunately enough - bears repeating.
“What you’re each promoting individually is not some divine creative dispensation; it’s just you being an asshole.”- Bill Sienkiewicz 
Also while researching this topic I came across a great post from last year by big-name DC writer Mark Waid, who stepped up and publicly spoke out against the growing problem of harassment. His solution is essentially this:

1) Show Support: call out and reject bigotry, misogyny and racism
2) Champion positivity not hate: talk about what you love

My own solutions dovetail with this in that education is crucial, but there’s so much gray area: there's a time for teaching (ie "teachable moments" in the classroom) and then there's a time for Title IX. Like the debate over defending free speech versus the whole punching nazis thing, it’s on a continuum, and everybody has their own personal comfort level when it comes to dealing with conflict depending on each situation.

Also the bridging power of humor is a potent tool – it’s getting harder in this current climate of conflict and division, but it’s still a way to connect. Like most of the material in the funny pages, readers don't want to be lectured, they just want a laugh. I usually reserve my out-of-left-field sucker punches for promoting literacy and defending the environment. But this topic merits mention, as it's a responsibility to simply speak up. Do something. Say something. Regardless of how uncomfortable I was as another white, middle-age, middle-class, heterosexual male offering up yet another vaunted opinion... there's a time + place to listen and learn, and a time + a place to step up.

(from: Action Comics No. 1, 1938)

On that note, can't think of a better closing than this handout I passed around the room during our discussion so as to literally illustrate the conundrum in contemporary comics. Much to the consternation of the Comicsgate folks, it's rather hard to argue against the Social Justice Warrior origins of the quintessential American superhero as he was originally drawn and written by Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel.

But today we also have the insight + awareness that maybe answering violence with violence isn't the most successful way to effect change. It might mean instant gratification and be cathartic (or, as in the comics industry in particular, marketed as entertaining) but as far as effecting long-term and societal-wide change, it isn't the only, or even best way. Also, the above strip reinforces the idea that women are weak and defenseless, which is about as outdated as the stereotype of a superhero.
Make that a superHERo.


  1. Repeating things that need to be said, to keep them on the top of the pile of social awareness, is no more redundant and a skipping record than having your next breath follow your last one. You -- we -- keep pointing things out and pushing toward improvements until those improvements get made. If you're still having thoughts on the same theme, it means that the work is not done yet. It shows that your work, your words, are still needed. I run into the same thing in my own writing, but I see that what I observe remains true. Same goes for you. Write on.

    1. Hey thanks - appreciate the reinforcement... means much coming from a cartoon compatriot.

  2. Thanks back! It means a lot to be considered a cartoon compatriot.

  3. Thanks for the insightful blog post, and for the links to the readings. You continue to inspire, my friend.

    1. Right back atcha - thanks. I learn a lot from listening to you and the examples you set as well.