Friday, September 21, 2012

An Open Letter to the People in Charge at DC and Marvel

To Diane Nelson, President, DC Entertainment
and Isaac Perlmutter, CEO Marvel Entertainment,

            I don’t find it very likely that either of you will actually read this letter, but I’m writing it anyway—and addressing it to both of you—because I think we need to talk.

It’s about Digital Comics.  I recognize that both DC and Marvel have become multimedia entertainment companies, and although I haven’t looked at your books I suspect that comics are no longer the major revenue stream for either of your companies, and haven’t been for years.  But both DC and Marvel remain comics companies at their core, and it is as comics publishers that you retain substantial goodwill but also provoke substantial frustration from fans.

I wonder if you realize how deep the goodwill directed toward your companies is.  People like me want DC and Marvel to make lots of money.  We want you to succeed, because we want you to keep making comics.  We want you to make more comics and better comics.  We want you to make more movies and games and tv shows and we want you to make them well.  And we recognize that you need to be making a profit to do that.  So we want you to make a profit.  When those of your fans who probably annoy you the most express their unhappiness with you and with your company’s practices it is almost always born from frustration that stems from a genuine desire to see you succeed.  We want to see comics written by and starring women not just because we want to be “politically correct” (whatever that means) but because we want to read those comics and we would buy them.  We want to give you our money and we want you to take it and we want you to make great things with it so we can give you more.  We want to be able to show your comics to our friends so that they will buy them too.   And it’s true that few of your fans have done the market research and focus-group testing that you hopefully are doing, so maybe you feel justified dismissing those concerns because you are certain that you know better.  And maybe you do.  But I think the number of instances of failed or cancelled books will force you to agree that even if sometimes you know better, sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you miss great opportunities for sales.

Which brings me back to my point about digital comics.

What are you thinking?

Digital comics from both of your companies currently cost exactly the same as print comics, with a few rare “special deal” exceptions.  This is a huge mistake and it is costing you money and readership.  The advantage comics had over most other forms of media in the earliest days of comics was that they were so cheap.  They were printed on cheap paper, poorly bound, cheaply printed, but even kids could buy them.  I realize that you don’t want to go back to those days, but the digital age means that you have an amazing opportunity to have your cake and eat it too.

Comics right now are expensive.  It probably feels to you like $2.99 and $3.99 is practically giving the comics away, you can’t imagine making a profit if you sell the comics for less.  But from the perspective of readers it’s just too much to pay on something that might not be good.  $2.99 is too much to pay to read issue #7 of 9 without reading the other eight issues, but buying the whole run is $20 which is too much to pay for a run that isn’t good.  I can buy a movie on iTunes for $4.  I can buy a novel which will give me 30 hours of entertainment for the same price as I spend to buy a whole stack of comics that give me 20 minutes of entertainment.  So, many of your readers aren’t willing to take a chance on something new.  We read our favourite comics regularly, and occasionally try a new comic or two.

But in digital comics you have an opportunity.  If digital comics were, say, 99¢  instead of $2.99, I would buy many many more comics.  I would buy a random issue based on the cover art, and if it was good I would go back and buy the whole run, or consider subscribing.  99¢  feels like nothing.  I suspect that you are worried that cheap digital comics would take a piece out of your print sales.  You are afraid people will buy ten 99¢ digital comics and spend $10 on you when they used to buy ten print comics and spend $30 on you.  But I really think this fear is ungrounded.  I think that a great proportion of the people who buy print comics every week buy them because they like print comics and will continue to buy them no matter how cheap digital comics become.  I would keep buying the print comics I currently buy even if the digital versions were free.  But perhaps some people would stop buying print in favour of cheaper digital comics.  And some of those people, no doubt would buy the same ten comics every month that they used to and you would see a drop from those people.  But plenty of people set themselves a comics-budget every month and would buy $30 (or $5, or $300) worth of comics every month no matter how many comics that bought them.

What would certainly happen if digital comics were 99¢ is that people who currently buy no comics at all would start buying some.  And if the comics they bought were good—and by “good” here I simply mean, appealed to them—they would buy more.  What would certainly happen if digital comics were 99¢  is that regular comics readers like me would start buying more impulse-buy comics, trying out characters and stories that we’ve never cared about before.

I’m sending this letter to Mr. Perlmutter at Marvel as well as to Ms. Nelson at DC despite the fact that I currently read DC almost exclusively because I think it makes this point well.  I don’t read Marvel comics because I’ve never read Marvel comics and there’s too much back story on most of your titles and it costs too much to get started.  And I already spend enough money over at DC.  But if I could read an issue of Spider-Man for 99¢, I would sometimes.  And after the successful Avengers movie, if Avengers comics were available digitally for cheap I am certain that would entice many new readers without diminishing the print sales to the readers you already have.

And the same works in reverse.  I have friends who read Marvel almost exclusively for the same reasons as I read DC almost exclusively.  It’s the universe and characters that they know and love.  But if it was easy and affordable for them to familiarize themselves with Superman or Batman, they would.  And after the successful Batman franchise, if Batman comics were available digitally for cheap I am certain you would find new readers.  The reboot of your universes is only half of the picture if you want to attract new readers, the other half is to make comics seem like they are not a financial commitment.  Digital comics are the way to do this at little risk to you.

Since you are competitors, I would imagine that the prospect of people happily reading both DC and Marvel runs counter to a sense of corporate competition.  But you don’t need to think that way.  Cheap digital comics are a way for DC readers to dip their toes into Marvel without leaving DC, and vice versa.  You both can retain your loyal readers and also add some of their loyal readers.

I am sure you are both competent business-people; certainly you are more savvy business-people than I am, since I am President/CEO of nothing.  And by virtue of your confidence in your own competence and the competence of the people around you you may be inclined to ignore what you are justified in seeing as a crank letter from a crazy fan.  But I am a consumer who is telling you that I want to give you more of my money, I just need you to give me the opportunity to do so.

A Concerned Comics Reader

I'm not back.

If you've been watching this space anxiously, I'm sorry to disappoint. I'll be back sometime, but for now the demands of my PhD are taking precedence.  I do have one thing to post here, though.  It doesn't fit the theme of the blog, but I think this is the best place for it.  Watch this space for an open letter to the people in charge at DC and Marvel.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Before Watchmen, Jack Kirby's Avengers, Creators, and Characters

I'm going to ramble for a bit here.  Forgive me.

If you pay any attention to the goings-on in the comics industry at all you'll already know that there have been ... goings-on.

You can read a good opinion piece on both by David Brothers here.  Whether you end up agreeing with Brothers' opinion or not, I think you'll get a good sense of the issues.

In a nutshell, both DC and Marvel are currently reminding the world that they have never cared too much about creators or their rights.

In the Marvel world this is revolving around The Avengers lately.  The central characters of The Avengers were mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (not always together) and the team itself was created by Lee and Kirby.  This is a problem because Jack Kirby was, by any standards, treated badly by Marvel.  They may have (and probably did) behaved legally, but they definitely did not behave ethically toward him, the upshot is that Kirby's estate will likely not receive any royalties from the Avengers movie, Kirby's name has not been tied to promotion of the film in any way, and it's unclear whether his name will even appear in the credits.  The rhetoric about Kirby by Marvel defenders has basically been "he signed a bad contract; that's his problem."  It's not that simple, but even if it was the contract defines Marvel's legal obligations, not their moral ones.  It is obvious that giving Kirby credit, control, and money would have been the right thing to do.  You can read more about Kirby and Marvel here.

In the DC world the kerfuffle revolves around Watchmen and Alan Moore.  Watchmen, published in the mid 80s, is one of DC's most profitable and critically acclaimed assets.  It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and it was his sense that he was treated poorly over Watchmen that caused Alan Moore to break with DC.  DC has decided to write a series of prequels called "Before Watchmen," over Moore's objections, but with Gibbons' approval.  The comics-focused parts of the internet have been buzzing with debate about Before Watchmen.  The issue is clouded at first by a few factors, including the fact that Moore can be kind of a dick and that some of the creators who are working on Before Watchmen (especially Darwyn Cooke) are really good.  But really, the situation is much the same as Kirby's.  Moore signed a contract and DC isn't breaking it, but they're acting against his wishes.  The publisher is behaving legally, but not morally.  They are not demonstrating respect for the creator of the property.  Whether Moore is behaving well or not is kind of a separate issue.

And here's where I become conflicted.  I side with the creators.  They should be able to exert control over and to profit from the success of their creations.

But one of the things I really like about mainstream comics is the way it is so often character-or-plot-oriented rather than creator-oriented.  I actually really like that hundreds of people have written Superman, some well and some badly.  I'm a fan of adaptations and re-imaginings, and I do not think that a bad Watchmen prequel is capable of taking anything away, artistically, from the original.  I'm really looking forward to seeing Joss Whedon's take on The Avengers.  I wish Alan Moore would give his blessing to spin-offs and continuations and sequels and prequels of Watchmen and V for Vendetta and whatever else. But in Moore's case I think that ship has long since sailed.  He doesn't trust the industry (with good reason).   What I'd like to see is the publishers treating the creators with enough respect that creators can start to trust the publishers.

I recognize that it's difficult for a company to part with money if they can avoid it. But can you imagine the goodwill DC would have generated if they'd just given Watchmen back to Moore and Gibbons? Can you imagine the goodwill Marvel would generate if they publicly apologized, wrote up a new contract with Kirby's estate, and gave him, say, an honorary credit in the film?

Anyway. I'm rambling.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women and (super)Men

Let's try to take a look at Action Comics #1 (the 1938 one, not the New 52 one) from a feminist perspective, and see what we come up with.

The first thing to note, of course, is that Superman is gendered.  That might seem like a stupid thing to point out; of course Superman is gendered. Isn't everyone?  There's no such thing as a gender-neutral person, is there?  But there are two important things to notice here.  Firstly, the division of all of humanity into one of two gender categories is not necessarily as obvious as it may seem--we'll leave that point to the side for now--but secondly, there's no reason that the "man" part of Superman has to be there.  Superman has had such an influence on superhero nomenclature (Batman, Spider-man, Aquaman, Hawkman, Plastic Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Giant-Man, X-Men, not to mention Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Power Girl, etc) that we can easily forget that there's no inherent reason why a superhero's name needs to be gendered.  But Superman is not just a super person, he's a super MAN, and it is implicit in his identity from the beginning that whatever else he is he is a figure of idealized hyper-masculinity.

Superman's first real appearance in the comic (real appearance as opposed to a brief expositional flashback) shows him carrying a woman who has been bound and gagged.  The gender politics of that first image should be clear, the (super)man is in motion and has full agency, while the woman is completely powerless.  We later learn that this bound woman is a "murderess," and Superman's hurry here is to convince the governor to pardon an innocent woman who is about to be executed in favour of having this blonde woman arrested.

A few pages later Superman has a second--indirect--interaction with a woman.  Clark Kent, in his role as a reporter, has been called to report on "a phoned tip" of "a wife-beating."  He arrives as Superman:

The paradigm set up here is of woman as either criminal or victim.  Although it is true that Superhero comics tend to be populated with many criminals and victims in general, by this point in the comic we have seen sixteen male figures of whom one is a criminal and four female figures of whom two were victims and one was a criminal. Women here mostly conform to the "damsels in distress" trope, and they exist fundamentally so that the figure of hypermasculinity will have someone appropriately weak to rescue.

Lois Lane is both a famous example of this tendency in Superman comics and also a subversion of it.  On one hand here and for much of her presence in Superman stories in all media Lois is Superman's built-in damsel-in-distress.

On the other hand Lois' character is, even in this first outing, a more developed character than are the other damsels/victims, and her relationship to Clark/Superman is not limited to being rescued.  Lois is one of the vertices of a love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman.  Clark loves Lois, but she spurns him. Lois loves Superman.  In this first comic the love triangle is barely developed--certainly Lois' affection for Superman is not yet established.  But here is what we do see:

Lois is established here as symbolic of an unattainable woman.  Clark pursues her--and the "for once" line lets us know that he makes a habit of it--but he is usually ineffective.  She's cold and aloof yet desirable, and while we might say that this is partly because she is not a human character but an object Clark wishes to possess, we might also note that she is given real agency and a real personality here.

Lois avoids Clark because he's a coward, and we see here that Lois' strength is one of the things Clark admires about her.  The preoccupation with strength is a theme in Superman comics, especially as created by Siegel and Shuster.  The emphasis on strength is part of an emphasis on masculinity, and Siegel and Shuster define manliness as strength.

And there you have it: a preliminary examination of some of the gender politics in Action Comics #1; a feminist reading of Superman.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Feminist Superman

Feminist theory covers a lot of ground and a lot of approaches to literature.  The simplest way to understand feminist criticism is to say that a feminist reading of a text is one that focuses on women.

Sometimes that means focusing on books that were written by women--often as a way of correcting a historical inequality.  For most of the history of literature most of the books that have been seriously studied have been written by men--but men were never the only people writing.  Feminist criticism is a way to try to fix what we read and who wrote it.  This kind of feminist reading would point out that there have proportionally been very few women who write comics for DC, but would draw our attention to women like Dorothy Woolfolk, Mindy Newell, and Gail Simone.

Sometimes that means focusing on female characters in stories--again often as a way of correcting historical inequality.  Focusing on female characters in a feminist context can mean a lot of different things, but in brief it always has to mean focusing on the female characters themselves, instead of just focusing on how they relate to male characters.  So talking about Lois Lane is a start but if we're talking about Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane then we're still defining her as a character in terms of her relationship to a male character. A feminist reading might instead want to talk about Lois Lane herself.  Or even a focus on Superman can be feminist in this way if it is a focus on Superman as Lois Lane's boyfriend.

Sometimes that means focusing on gender in general.  Certain strains of feminist theory have stressed that "woman" as a category is invented by culture, and that it is defined in contradiction to "man" as a category.  So a reading of Superman that focuses on how Superman is a representative of masculinity, especially when that reading emphasizes the way masculinity is socially constructed and the way that it simultaneously constructs femininity, might also be a feminist reading.

Those are only three of many ways to do feminist criticism, but I hope you are getting a picture of how much scope there is in feminist criticism.  I'll be back soon with a second post on feminist criticism, where we will actually do a (brief) feminist reading of Action Comics 1.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Like Racist Things

Sexist, too.

All right, calm down everybody.

I don't mean that I like these things because they're racist/sexist/whatever. It's not that I go out looking for racist stuff to enjoy.  A better, less provocative way of putting it would be "Things I like are Racist".

But look, I read comic books and Medieval literature. I can't pretend that stuff is unproblematic. More, I don't think it is right to pretend it's unproblematic.  I think it's bad scholarship, and I think it's bad human-ship.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  What is the problem here, and what can we do about it?

I've posted a (slightly) different version of this on Medievalala too, because the issues I'm going to write about here really concern both medieval literature and comics--especially the kind of comics I usually focus on.

The Problem with Comics

Although my title references racism specifically, I'm concerned here with the whole rainbow of discrimination: racism, sexism, ablism, heteronormativism, classism, beautyism, sizeism you name it.  While arguably all literature and definitely all categories of literature contain some problematic stuff, mainstream superhero comics are especially bad.
In its simplest expression, the problem is this: superheroes are white.
Click to Enlarge. If I did it right.
That image is a splash page from the 2004 "Identity Crisis" storyline.  That story isn't important (yet) to this post, but what this page is convenient because the idea of this scene is that it's a funeral and all the major DC superheroes attend.  Take a look and see how many People of Colour you can pick out of that crowd.

I count four obvious and a few ambiguous.  And of those four only Cyborg could really be called an A-list character.  And while DC has made some (tiny) attempts at improving lately (by adding Cyborg to the Justice League, for example), this tiny progress does not do much to change the landscape.

The point is that this is a very white universe.  The superheroes are white and they fight mostly for the interests of White America.  DC's past attempts at addressing this have been well-intentioned but ... clumsy.
And even if DC undertook a massive about-face and made their universe truly inclusive, they still have decades of history that will still exists and that--frankly--is what I study.  So the problem here doesn't go away even if the comics industry changes.  Which doesn't mean that it shouldn't change, by the way.  But since superhero books are primarily aspirational, and since there are so few POC characters, that means that historically readers of colour were implicitly told by comics that what they should aspire to be is white.

The sexism of comics has been so well documented and so extensively commented upon that I'm not even going to rehash it except to say that the mainstream comics industry systematically objectifies, sexualizes, and marginalizes female characters, even to the detriment of both story and sales.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, just Google "Starfire new 52".

Why This is a Problem

Now I'm going to give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.  But that's what the problem here is about.  Politics of representation is not just a matter of over-sensitive political-correctness.  I believe that books matter, and if I didn't believe that then I wouldn't spend all my time reading them.  The stories we tell and the stories we hear both shape and are shaped by our worldview.  Bigotry in fiction is a problem firstly because it reveals the bigoted assumptions behind the creation of that fiction.  So it should be no surprise that while the exact percentages change often and are disputed and disputable, but it is indisputable that there are, for example, far fewer women than men creating comics at DC or Marvel.

I'm not saying that these publishers need to hire women and minorities indiscriminately, or that the people creating comics are all racist and sexist as individuals, or even that the policies of DC and Marvel are sexist or racist.  They may be, but that's not really my point.  My point is simply that by far the bulk of comics that have ever been published by DC and Marvel were written by white men about white men the concerns of white men with a white male audience in mind.  And that should bother us as readers--whether scholarly readers or simply fans.  It should (and often does) bother women who read comics because they are so clearly and often aggressively the object rather than the subject of the narrative, so the narrative is alienating.  It should (and often does) bother minorities who read comics because they are so often absent from the idealized world being depicted and are do not have the same scope for identification that their white counterparts have.  And it should bother white male readers of comics, like me, firstly because we are being presented with an impoverished and limited world and that's boring, and secondly because (at the risk of repeating myself), we don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.

False Solutions

As a reader, whether a fan or a scholar, the solution to these problems can't be to ignore them.  It can't be to deny them, or to pretend that the problematic representations in comics don't matter.  The option to ignore harmful representations is the option of privilege, and exercising that option is being complicit in the racism and sexism behind those representations.

And it can't be to excuse these problematic representations on the grounds of special-circumstances: that the A-list characters are all legacies of a different time.  There are many problems with this excuse, but the simplest is that no matter when things were produced they are being read now.  Even if we accept the (frankly lame) excuse that writers of the past didn't know any better, readers of today do.

Possible Solutions

One possible solution, of course, is to choose something else to read.  Within the medium of comics, mainstream superhero comics are not all there is.  Plenty of independent comics are light-years better than DC or Marvel in terms of the politics of representation.

When you're reading for fun, this is easy.  Don't read things that you don't enjoy.  If the problematic elements are such that they overwhelm the pleasure of the reading then there really is no problem. 

When you're reading as a scholar, whether a student reading an assigned text or a higher-level academic reading for the edification of yourself or others, the option of just not reading problematic stuff is less viable.  In the first place, pretending that problematic texts don't exist is itself deeply problematic because it is an idealized and false representation of the world.  In the second place, sometimes texts are just plain worth reading from an academic standpoint--whether because of their historical significance or because of artistic value or as a counterpoint to another text. 

A possible solution here is to read with (faux) objectivity.  A scholarly study of art or literature as an object need not imply any kind of tacit approval.  There are plenty of historians who study Nazi Germany and that emphatically does not make those historians Nazis.  It is possible to study the racism and/or sexism of comics directly.

But eagle-eyed readers will notice the bracketed (faux) I placed before the word "objectivity" in that last paragraph.  I like Superman comics.  If I read them from a position of objectivity, that is a false position and I am being disingenuous.  I suspect that most academic readers of comics share this position with me.  I suspect that most scholars like what they read, at least on some level.  And if they don't, I think that is ... well ... sad.  And they should think about changing specializations.  Even historians who study atrocities often look for good in the responses to those atrocities, and it is usually not so much so that they redeem the historical period as so that they redeem the process of studying the historical period.

But academic readings do need a certain degree of, or a certain kind of objectivity.  A critical analysis is not a review, and within an academic context nobody cares very much whether I like Superman better than Batman.  But they might care what I think is happening within a given Superman comic, or how the character evolves or resists evolution over time.  There are multitudes of angles from which to approach comics that have little to do with race or gender, and they're valid.  So without arguing that the problems of representation don't matter, I can legitimately argue that they're not my point.

Which brings me back to readings for pleasure.  If the problematic elements aren't enough to keep you from enjoying a text--if you do enjoy reading problematic stuff--then I think what you need to do is acknowledge the problems, and articulate the positive.  This post over on the Social Justice League blog has a few good suggestions for how to approach fandom of problematic material.  The author suggests that fans must acknowledge the problematic elements without attempting to defend, excuse, or gloss-over those problems.  What I think is missing in her article, though, perhaps because she thought it went without saying, is that narratives are complex and the best ones are the most complex.  Which, if we rephrase it in subjective terms, means that the comics you think are the best are the ones you find complexity in.  Like a racist family member, you confront the text about its flaws but continue to love it despite them, maybe because of its virtues, and maybe just because of its familiarity.  When I say "articulate the positive" I don't mean argue that the positive outweighs the negative, so that you can argue someone else into liking what you like.  But I do mean learn to articulate what it is you like and why, even if the only one you're articulating that to is yourself.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Myth of Superman (no, not THAT "Myth of Superman")

The title of this post is a reference to an essay by Umberto Eco entitled "The Myth of Superman".  I write about Eco's essay here.

Like a psychoanalytic reading, a mythological or archetypal reading of a text is content-based.  And like psychoanalytic readings, mythological/archetypal readings are typically preoccupied with symbolism.  Rather than being concerned with psychology--with the workings of a mind--however, mythological readings are concerned with mass-psychology--with the collective imaginings of all people.  And though mythological/archetypal readings have in the past made a claim to account for all people, many critics now argue that archetypes are culturally bound, so when archetypal critics talk about "all people" they often really mean "all people who share our culture".  On the other hand, given the effects of globalization and the ease with which cultural/mythological/archetypal ideas spread,  there's a good case to be made that all cultures have interacted with all others to at least some degree.

In any case.  Mythological/archetypal readings are also reminiscent of some kinds of structuralist criticism, because both often appeal to archetypal narrative elements like "the hero".  In these terms, Superman seems particularly easy to read.  Superman is the hero.  He is an archetypal representative of masculine strength.
Clark Kent is both an archetypal representative of the hero's weakness and also of the Jungian "persona", emphasizing that the face we show to the world is not the same as our "self".
Definitely two different selves.

This, by the way, is the answer to the commenter on the Marxist post who pointed out that Superman's boss is only a cover, that Clark is not really allied with the proletariat because his "boss" has no real authority over him. That's definitely true.

On the other hand, part of the point of Superman is that the self is divided. Debates about whether Clark or Superman (or Bruce or Batman) is the "real" identity miss the mythological resonance that makes the secret identity such a compelling narrative archetype.