Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Need to Be Super: Queers in comics, Zizek, and the Petition to Fire Orson Scott Card

All Out has started a petition to have DC comics to drop Orson Scott Card from writing one of their new digital Superman titles.  Apparently it's a couple of issues and not the entire series, although the petition implies otherwise.  Card, most famous for his science fiction novel Ender's Game,  is notoriously anti-gay, has written about it prominently, and has ties to the National Organization for Marriage, a anti-same-sex marriage political organization.  He is, to be fair, a class-A straight and cisgender supremist who has advocated the overthrow of the government if same-sex marriage becomes legal.

The comments on the petition are strident and strongly worded:
You hire him, you've lost an avid fan of your company and I will never buy any of your products again. I will actually go out of my way to ensure no one buys your products. Ever!
Don't take us back to the 1950's! Get rid of this guy!
The petition itself states:
By hiring Orson Scott Card despite his anti-gay efforts you are giving him a new platform and supporting his hate.
This matter has risen to the attention of even the Guardian, and I want to know why.  I'm curious about the investment people--the large portion of which I'm confident do not read comics regularly--have in this matter?  Why has this particular instance so captivated peoples' attention when far worse is done against LGBT people and far worse has been done to LGBT characters in comics?

First, why the focus on a medium that, while it's characters are gaining in popularity thanks to some entertaining films, is still not particularly embraced in America?  It's not like DC or comic books in America have ever been particularly progressive, generally speaking.  Certainly some notable examples can be found, several published by DC or one of its imprints such as Vertigo, but comic books in the US still continue to be largely geared towards straight, white, cisgender men.  Interestingly, a segment of the conversation on one particular blog involves Marvel's supposed more gay-friendly stance.  Although Marvel did give Northstar a wedding, and has included the past few years popular gay young adult couple Hulkling and Wiccan, Marvel has had its own share of questionable decisions concerning LGBT characters and plots.  And, it's not like Marvel (owned now by notoriously liberal company Disney) is making some political stand; it's trying to sell comics. And, Card has worked for Marvel Comics in the past.  He wrote an alternate universe (i.e,. the Ultimate line) version of Iron Man and Marvel published adaptions of Card's novel.  Although similar concerns were raised at the time, they were primarily (and, as far as I remember, only) from the comics reader community. A Google search for these citations reveals pages and pages of solicitations for the issues of he wrote for them, and nothing immediately about the controversy.  Again, in short, neither company is particularly great in the LGBT arena.  So, being disappointed in either company hiring somebody who is anti-gay rights seems a bit like being disappointed that ABC hired someone who doesn't believe in women's equality for The Bachelor.  And, the outrage seems a bit disingenuous given the lack of attention to his more prolific profile at Marvel.  Not that people aren't truly upset, but where was the concern then and now about his work with Marvel?

Also, Card isn't the first--he's just the latest in any number of possibly anti-gay writers.  Chuck Dixon, long-time well-respected and established comics writer, has been accused of being anti-gay for his comments, and actually wrote gay characters.  Bill Willingham, a popular author (and one who writes some very good books) and noted conservative, ended up using a gay character to make a joke about a "gay cure" that is tone-deaf at BEST.  Frank Miller, ubermensch of sequential art, created the most evil Joker of all time--partially through queering him--an interpretation that informs most versions of the character today.  And 300 (published at Dark Horse) is all kinds of homophobic.  Even our allies can't get it right; famed straight-friend-to-Pedro-Zamora Judd Winick used the gay bashing of a character to further the straight protagonist's story (i.e., Terry Berg was "stuffed in a fridge").  And the list goes on and on--we just don't have the names of every writer who has done a violence or disservice to a LGBT character.  And, here, while Card's politics and personal beliefs are odious, he's writing the straightest hero there ever was.  You can't get straighter in any sense than Superman.  So it's likely that no gay characters will be harmed in the making of the couple or so issues he writes.  Where was the outrage from many of these same people about truly damaging representations of LGBT people in comics for years and years (not to mention women, non-white people, etc.)?

Of course it's Card's politics they care most about, not really the comic book, although why don't they protest Willingham too? Or his work at Marvel?  I'm not suggesting that one can't object to a particular unless one has objected to all instances, but what's the motivation here?  Why single out only Card when there are others as bad if not worse, depending on one's perspective? (Dixon, for instance, is not as political, but is far more ingrained in the industry, has had access to gay characters, and has more access to a range of titles and readership.)  How concerned must we be with the political activities and personal perspectives of all comic writers and artists?  And what is the logic in advocating for having them fired or not hired because of their politics?

I have chosen not to buy comics written by Chuck Dixon and I cannot stomach Frank Miller any longer. Although I'm not currently buying a Willingham title, I would if it interested me.  He's an excellent writer and nothing in his comics writing has offended me (the ex-gay joke was tacky, but not overly offensive) as yet.  If I were to happen to find out that a writer or artist I followed gay large sums of money to anti-gay organizations (and presumably Card, being a member of NOM, gives money to them), I would probably not purchase titles written/drawn by them.  Therefore, I understand the impulse of those who don't want to buy his books.  Purchasing can certainly be a political statement, although: a) boycotts can hurt people not politically involved and who need the money; b) it's difficult in this world to be ideologically pure in one's purchases.  We're all assuredly buying from people and companies that spend their money in ways that we would consider unethical or antithetical to our own well-being.  Nonetheless, Zizek offers an explanation on how we "buy our redemption" in cultural capitalism.

To summarize one aspect of Zizek's argument: modern altruism is completely bound up in captialism and consumerism such that the engines of private charity contribute to the destruction, or at least fail to address the underlying problems, of the causes, issues, and people they seek to help.  We, as consumers, try to consume in ways that alleviate our guilt in the complicity of that destruction/failure to alleviate problems.  In our particular situation, the application of Zizek is a bit different--here, people buy their redemption by boycotting.  However, most of them don't purchase comics, so they must buy it through the only consumer option--advocating for his firing.  This is a form of slacktivism, which isn't to say it's inherently bad or wrong, or ineffective, but doesn't, as Zizek points out, address the root problems.  In this case, the root problem relative to the LGBT community is how we are portrayed or represented in comics, as well as comic's conservative bias towards straight, cis-, white men that produces some very bothersome storytelling and characters (and renderings of characters).

Certainly, too, the visibility of DC currently and Superman as a general cultural icon lends attention to this matter.  And it makes for very good rhetoric to be able to say things like:
Superman stands for truth, justice and the American way. Orson Scott Card does not stand for any idea of truth, justice or the American way that I can subscribe to. 
Of course, it's a well worn joke among comic fans that Superman is an ass, but fine, most people don't think of him that way. (Although they should if they ever saw creepy, stalker Superman in Superman Returns.)  And Iron Man as a symbol of corporate affluence isn't particularly compelling.  We also get to trot out the race-analogy, in addition to further trivializing the Holocaust:
If this was a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist, there would be no question. Hiring that writer would be an embarrassment to your company. Well, Card is an embarrassment to your company, DC  
I'm not going to engage in a discussion of the limits of the race-analogy here (and so many have done it much better than me already), but this kind of discourse being trotted out is curious to me.  It seems to assume that many people with many objectionable beliefs and activities aren't employed by DC, or any company for that matter.  It seems to suggest that if we only knew about the proclivities of any number of employees at any number of companies, we would quit purchasing from them, or call them out for hiring people who oppose us.  Of course, this is a completely unsustainable strategy, and, we already know this, we just intentionally forget it and try to find redemption in other ways, as Zizek points out.

There is another interesting aspect to this that I can't begin to fully explore here.  There is much emotion invested in the ethics of this tactic, as evidenced by the words being thrown around.  Those who suggest that advocating for his firing morally equals conservatives trying to unseat LGBT people from their jobs are met with accusations of spinelessness, weakness, sarcasm, and often elision of the concern with this tactic.  Of course, it's par for the course for many modern gays to trample those who fall outside party lines.  Much of the pro-firing group seems, in my estimation, to fail to address these concerns.  Most of the rebuttal is tantamount to: they do it to us, we should do it back and to not retaliate is to show weakness.  Some suggest that to even question the tactic is to demonstrate a lack of resolve, willpower, or self-respect even.  Yet, I think it's worthwhile to engage this question: are the tactics of the oppressor the tactics we wish to engage in order to gain liberation? Do such tactics lead to more liberation? To better lives for LGBT folk?  I'm inclined to say they aren't and they don't.  It makes it very difficult to hold the moral ground against those who attack our community, and this strategy, not unlike a boycott, may not even be effective.  Perhaps, modern gay politics is like Superman: we have the need to be super, even if it makes asses out of us.

In total, it's a bit amazing to me that this issue takes hold of many people in ways seemingly more pressing issues do not.  Partially I think it's because it's an expression of current LGB politics--we must appear strong, we must appear politically powerful, and we must control the image.  We must appear normal and good American citizens at all costs (as per the quote invoking timeless American values above), and anyone of note who calls us any of those things we are quite familiar with already must be seen as cast down from their pulpit.  Personally, I'd much rather energies in this area be spend on supporting LGBT-friendly comics and pushing against the ingrained misogyny, racism, and homo- and transphobia of the comics industry.

Some suggested comics from which to purchase redemption:
No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
Cavalcade of Boys V1, V2, V3 tri-pack
7 Miles a Second
Stuck Rubber Baby (New Edition)
Maggie the Mechanic (Love & Rockets)
The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You
Kevin Keller (Archie) (I have not personally read the Kevin Keller books, but reviews are almost unanimously positive about his depiction as Riverdale's first openly gay character.)

(Full disclosure: These books are linked to through my Amazon associates account. I get a small--very small--residual if you make a purchase once you've entered Amazon through the link.)

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