Friday, August 22, 2014

On gender, race and sexism in comics.

It's really difficult to figure out where to begin with the topic(s) of sexism and diversity in comics (they go together).

Why is it so difficult?

Because I'm a white male who created a white male character at a time when the culture is calling for diversity in ethnicity, gender and even sexual orientation.

Let's just get this part out of the way, when I look at people, I don't see "ethnicity." I just don't. It's not how I was raised; it's not how I am wired. I look at people and I see different cultures, I see different religions, but I see one common and undeniable trait in all of us: We are all human.

We all have different experiences that shape us and mold us, but at the end of the day we are human. That's why I don't see racial lines. We are all equal in my eyes. Some of us are more fortunate, some of us are less fortunate, some of us are in the middle. But at the end of the day, I see us all as human.

Unfortunately, and as evidenced by Ferguson and the response, the racial divide is still a major issue in America. And that's sad. It's depressingly sad.

And that’s also what sparks the debate in our comics and our movies based on comics. Most recently, it was Guardians of the Galaxy. There was some uproar over the fact that Star-Lord was a white male, and that all of the Marvel movies (in particular) are populated and led by white males. That is very true. And it’s also true that Star-Lord, created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan in 1976’s Marvel Preview #4, is a white male. He’s also half Spartoi (in the comics) and something else in the movies. Could he have been a different ethnicity? Sure. But there does exist a contingent of fandom that would cry foul at changing that aspect of the character. Does it really matter? No, it doesn’t in this case. But Chris Pratt was beyond perfect for the role.

In fact, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has been perfectly cast. And the second Marvel casts a non-white actor in a role that is based on a white character the “diversity for the sake of diversity” argument erupts.

There are two obvious changes in a character's ethnicity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First is Nick Fury. In the comics, an older white guy who ages slowly thanks to the Infinity Formula (or as recently retconned – endless Life Model Decoys). In Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, artist Bryan Hitch modeled his Nick Fury as a younger black man modeled after Sam Jackson. This change was well-received by fans and has mostly translated across all media. It worked and continues to work because everyone could and can picture Jackson as Fury.

The second is Heimdall. Played by Idris Elba in Thor and Thor 2, some fans did cry foul that a black man was cast as a white, hulking, Norse being. But here’s the thing about Idris Elba. He’s electric. He has so much gravitas and ability that he mystifies and steals every one of his scenes in both Thor and Thor 2. You want Heimdall to do that. He sees everything. He feels the weight of the nine realms, and Elba crushes that role.

Kind of a side note, but speaking of Elba, there’s this brilliant interview he did about playing James Bond and why he doesn’t want to do it. And he’s not wrong.
For example, let's say Moon Knight, one of my all-time favorite characters, is cast and it's not me. Let's say a black actor, or a latino actor or whoever is cast as Marc Spector. Do I care? No. I don't care. What I care about it said actor's talent. Is said actor going to do the character justice? That's what matters. That's really what should matter.

Of course, the real talk – and I think what people really want – are a Black Panther, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) and Black Widow solo film. I personally believe the Black Widow movie will happen after the lovely lady that portrays the character has her child and is ready to go. And I also think that adapting the two story-arcs by Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson – the one where the other Black Widow tries to kill the one we love – would be the perfect story. It needs to happen and soon, and I’ll be there when it does.

In terms of both Black Panther and Captain Marvel, a character I adore, I’m more inclined to let Marvel’s plan play out. I think Age of Ultron will be the bridge to Wakanda and Black Panther, and I believe Agents of SHIELD and Guardians of the Galaxy is the bridge to Captain Marvel. Both have been set up, and I’m really hoping there’s a huge payoff for both of them.  But Marvel has had a deliberate plan in their cinematic universe and it has yet to fail me.

And I have heard “you're a white male well-represented in those movies!” And I don’t like that, because that’s a) not why I see the movies and b) no, I actually enjoy the movies to see my favorite characters brought to life. I’m a big Captain America fan. And Cap has been done pretty well on the big screen. As I've said, I don’t care who plays who or whatever, if the movie is good and the character is true to who they are, I’m in.

Something like this upcoming Fantastic Four movie, there’s a lot of uproar because the characters won’t be true to their roots and that “diversity for the sake of diversity” is at play. Michael B. Jordan, a fine actor, was cast as Human Torch. Kate Mara, a fine actress, was cast as Sue Storm. The problem people have with the casting? One is white and one is black. In the comics, Johnny and Sue Storm are brother and sister, it adds to the dynamic and family aspect of the Fantastic Four. Apparently in this new film, they are adopted. I’ll admit, it does take away from the dynamic of the Fantastic Four a little bit. Why not just make them both black? Seriously? Meagan Good would be a solid Sue Storm.

Is it diversity for the sake of diversity? To use the controversy as PR? I don’t know maybe, but the same thing happens in comics.

There was some uproar over Thor becoming a lady and Falcon becoming Cap. To which I simply said, “Well, if you’ve been reading either title, this is pretty much the direction they’ve been going in for a couple years.” Both provide for interesting stories. Of course, my only argument against Falcon becoming Cap is the same as it was when Bucky became Cap. The mantle of Captain America doesn’t work without Steve Rogers. It’s that whole greatest generation thing… and this isn’t the first time Falcon has assumed the shield. I also don’t want it to take away from Falcon, who is a great character with his own identity. But nevertheless, as much as I am not a huge fan of Rick Remender’s Cap run, I’m interested to see where it goes and the Batman Beyond-ish dynamic they’ve set up.

Speaking of Remender's run... I'm not even going to get into the #FireRickRemender nonsense. Because that's what it was... nonsense.

Now, there’s still a continued push for comics to be more inclusive. For more female creators like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick, both of whom are amongst my “oh she’s the writer, I’ll give it a try.”  And I am 100% for that. Not everything Simone and DeConnick do are my cup of tea – as with every writer — but, frankly, if the story is good, if the characters are developed well and all that… then who cares if the writer or creative team is white, black, male, female, gay, straight… who cares. I want stories that are engaging, in service to the character and their evolution, and don’t feel like a chore to read before I drop the titles. I wish more fans shared that sentiment and that this was the norm in the industry.

There have been major improvements on the female characters in comics front. Batwoman, Ms. Marvel becoming Captain Marvel, the NEW Ms. Marvel, the new look Batgirl that everyone loved… we need to see more of it sure. Hell, I want more Captain Marvel merch aimed at girls so that my daughter can A) have a really awesome superhero to follow and b) so I can dress her up as Captain Marvel to match her twin brother dressed up as Captain America.

The way Kelly Sue DeConnick has been going with the character, I may not have to wait much longer. And it's not because DeConnick is a female creator that makes Captain Marvel such an enjoyable read, it's because she's a hell of a good writer.

Need a classic example of a female creator being a hell of a writer and creating really enjoyable stories? Look no further than Louise Simonson. Especially her work on Superman.

My point is, yes PLEASE hire more female creators. We might get another Johns or Bendis. We may even get another Chuck Austen. Comics isn't just a man's game. Comics are for everyone.

But of course, things can get rather ugly.

I'm not going to really go into that Milo Manara cover of Spider-Woman all that much. Should editorial maybe been a little more mindful of the cover given the current state and scrutiny of the comics industry? Maybe, sure. But a best-selling and valuable variant cover has just been born. And let's be honest, the bloggers and commentors going off about how "Milo Manara can't draw" obviously have no idea what they are talking about. Manara is a very specific type of artist who has been around for years and has drawn many a Marvel covers. After all, at the end of the day if you don't like the cover, you don't have to buy it.

What warrants real mention, however, is treatment of women in the culture. When I first starting making comics and doing shows, I would set up a table, usually with my friend and editor Keith Dallas and we'd just chat about comics, sell our comics, get annoyed with other sellers around us, take turns walking the floor and just take it all in. Recently, I did my first show in a long time. It was my first show with Patriot-1 and my first con being a dad. It wasn't a great convention - bad venue, non-buying crowd - and as much as I felt back in my element... I just wanted to go home to my wife and kids. I mean I'm at these cons to do business. I'll mingle, network and make/see friends in the industry... but at the end of the day, I'm there to sell my books.
Now I like conventions. I love cosplayers. I love when guys and gals put a ton of thought into their outfits. Whether authentic, gory, homemade, sexy or whatever... I love it. What I don't love is the way some dudes act.

At this show, the table next to us had a "booth babe" for lack of a better term, one of the days. Nice girl, making some money being there... attracting customers to table. Now she had a pair of short, short tights on that showed off a little bit of her backside. Okay, fine, whatever. Good for you. Confident women are the best. What isn't the best is the real creepers that wouldn't just take pictures WITH her, they would take pictures of her. You know, when she's not looking, when they are behind her and with their cameras blatantly pointed at her ass. 

I face-palmed a few times. I felt gross. As a man, I just felt dirty. I mean I hear all these stories about sexual harassment of cosplayers and women at these cons and I just get grossed out. And when you see it first-hand like that... I mean it's like you are witnessing the creepy neighbor videotape the girl across the street without her knowledge. Whenever I caught someone in front of my table doing it (quite a few times they were on the other side of the aisle or walking away) I would try and distract them by going into my sales pitch. It worked a few times, other times it worked in the sense that these guys didn't want to be sold anything so they ran.

I don't feel like some kind of upstanding citizen or anything. I just like to think I'm a decent man and human being. I've done dumb shit my life like everyone else, but as a 30-year old father of three and a man who loves the comics industry and culture, I'm just not going to put up with it.

And I come home, and then the Yale Stewart thing erupts. I just... my mind was blown. But sadly, given the general idiocy of some men today, I wasn't totally surprised.

In a nutshell, Yale Stewart is an acclaimed creator of the JL8 webcomic and works on some DC Kids books. Eisner-nominated. He does stuff aimed at kids.

Except one thing in particular. He got into a public spat with artist Ulises Farinas, who was upset that every time there was a national tragedy or incident, Stewart was quick to make charity wallpapers and such. Farinas was basically accusing Stewart of being an ambulance chaser.

Then came the real bombshell. That "one thing in particular" I mentioned. Yale Stewart has a real thing for sending pictures of his genitalia to women in the comics industry.


Like... dude. You are now, as Rich Johnston called you, the Anthony Wiener of comics. 

It's just mind-numbing. And this isn't just Yale Stewart. It's everyone... every man. Don't take dick pics. Ladies... don't text nude photos. They do nothing but cause trouble. Seriously. Even if they are welcome... they might bite you in the ass. Plus, the NSA gets them too. And that's fun.

But what's worse is Yale Stewart's "apologies" and all the idiots that have come to his defense. My favorite comics blogger Valerie D'Orazio has a nice collection of comments in defense of Stewart here:

I read these and I cringe. I literally feel sick. You people that come out in defense of this ass clown are the reason the industry has these issues. I mean come on. 

Since when do "mixed signals" mean you get a dick pic? I mean I was never that great at reading women - most guys aren't - but really? You're not sure if she's interested so you just... ugh. 

And you do kids books. And charity work. You sir, are an asshole. Because of you we take a nice big step backwards.

Maybe I'm just lucky. I've been with my wife for almost 10 years, married for 4 and I've never looked at another woman. We've been together since college - before I got into the comics industry. My wife is funny, beautiful, smart, a fantastic mom... and the best part, she could care less about comics and this culture I'm part of. That really might be the best thing ever. She supports me and everything I do... but she doesn't have any interest in it and every time I hear one of these stories, I'm glad she's not a part of this nonsense. 

I guess what this all stems from is where I fall in the industry and a weird feeling that somehow I'm the bad guy.

I'm white. I'm a male and I'm currently hocking Patriot-1 starring a white, male lead. I love comics, I want to change the industry, I want to be a big part of the industry and leave a mark on the culture and maybe make humanity a little better in the process.

Yet with all the talk and need for diversity, respect for women, uproar over slight changes, big changes and no changes, what did I do? I created and put out to the market, a white male hero wearing an American patriotic costume. (The American angle is best suited for another post).

So, Should I feel bad? Does all of this suddenly devalue my book? Am I considered “part of the problem” because of my creation?

I hope not because it’s got a really diverse cast. And every character that appears in the book was created a long time ago. It’s got a really strong female lead who is one of my favorite characters of the one’s I’ve created mostly because she’s tough, smart and thoughtful. I actually named her and kind of modeled her after real-life super-spy badass Valerie Plame.

But why is my main character a white male as opposed to a black male? Or a female? I want to answer this question. Not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to. The answer is because the main character’s look is sort of modeled after me. Remember I mentioned someone "other than me" being cast as Moon Knight?

Many moons ago, before I focused on writing, I wanted to be an actor. I still kind of do, I just don't have the time. I have zero real acting experience, but the kid in me only ever wanted to play a superhero in the movies or TV and leave my mark on the culture that way. It's good to have the big romantic dreams... even today.

So yeah, Patriot-1 with his brown hair and blue eyes, like a couple other characters I've created in the past, is kind of designed that way. Though today I have much less hair.

But the truth is, Patriot-1 is a great story. Really. And when it comes to comics and the movies based on them and the culture surrounding us, that's what we need to focus on. Good stories. I want to see a Black Widow movie. I sure as hell want to see Carol Danvers in the movies. I want to see Black Panther. And most importantly I want to enjoy the hell out of those movies like I have  just about every other Marvel movie.

I also want Wonder Woman done right. Not this Batman v. Superman loose Dark Knight Returns adaptation nonsense.

As an industry and a culture, we need diversity to get there. We need writers and creators with different experiences and interests to get us there. We need a broader range of characters at the forefront of the culture without compromising their own identities.

As creators we need to focus more on telling, selling and spreading great stories, not becoming the story.

I love comics and I love being a part of the industry and I will fight for it to be equal for everyone. I will fight for "Comics are for Everyone" for as long as I can.

This is what we do. And we can do better.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's been busy...

It's been a busy, crazy, roller coaster month and a half since I launched the Patriot-1 Kickstarter on July 1.

Thankfully, the Patriot-1 Kickstarter was successful. That's only the beginning of the work... what comes next is trying to organize rewards, it took me a week just to get the files in the right size and format to the printer, but now it's all good things are moving along and after 7 years, Patriot-1 is real. I've held it in my hands... I've read it like 5 times... I carry a copy in my bag to work.

It's all exciting stuff, I did a convention and sold a few copies, but the convention itself wasn't great, but Baltimore is on the horizon and I can't wait. I hate, HATE being away from my wife and my kids... but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Kickstarter was a roller coaster, and I will have a post on the experience soon.

But what's really been eating at me this week is the news. The stuff in Ferguson, the horrid state of racial relationships in America, and delving back into comics, the rampant sexism that is currently fueling raging debates among friends and professionals.

It's all a bit crazy, really. And something I feel like talking about.