Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Listen 1st (my second reply)

By David Brothers

"you will grow to be something inventive and electric; you are healthy, you are special, you are present."

My name is David Brothers, and I use my platform as a writer about comics to explore the intersection of race and comics, with a focus on black culture specifically, due to having been immersed in black culture from conception on. I've done it on my own and for Comics Alliance, Comic Book Resources, and even Marvel itself, in a weird twist of fate. It's a difficult specialty, but one that I believe in.

Race and ethnicity factors into everything in our culture, including comic books. I wanted to explore that connection from every angle I could find. I wanted to provide a perspective that is frankly still lacking in comics media, and I found that perspective in any form was not just generally unwelcome, but often met with shrouded, passive-aggressive hostility. People have asked friends if being around me is like being in a black power rally and worse. Once, a cartoonist and myself were smeared in an interview by a prominent critic who suggested that we were intellectually dishonest angry black men because we got into it with him once.

It happens. I live in America. I know how it goes. America in general is unready to grapple with its race problem, and the reason, to be perfectly frank, is that white people are uncomfortable with discussing it in real terms. That leads to increasingly outlandish denials and dismissals.

A good friend of mine once said that using the phrase "white supremacy" in an essay, no matter how apropos, was like starting a fire. People stop listening immediately because their hackles get raised. They get defensive. Alarms go off. He was right, and I told him so, but I was cocky enough to bet that I could pull it off. I was mostly wrong, as I soon found out, because we treat words like "racist" and "white supremacy" with much, much more weight than they truly deserve.

To put it plainly: white people behave like "racist" is as bad a slur as "nigger."

If someone calls me a nigger, I'm expected to frown, but take the higher ground. If I lash out in any way, I'm confirming their prejudice. I become the Angry Black Guy, even if that anger is perfectly warranted. I will be told that I shouldn't be so careless with my words. If I say someone did a racist thing—which is not the same as calling them a racist—I have been told how I'm putting their career at risk, slandering them and their family, and opening them to what are frankly unlikely reprisals from boogeymen.

There is an imbalance here. If I want to talk about race, I have to choose my words very carefully to avoid offending someone else, even if they are the direct cause of my frustration. I cannot accurately describe something because the words that are the best fit for the situation have been stripped away as verboten.

I bit my tongue and carefully aimed my darts for years. I made a conscious decision to avoid calling any actual person a racist unless they'd said or done something that was entirely beyond the pale. I generally do not curse when writing online, either. And yet: I'm the guy in the fields with a shield and a spear. Holding back was due to an excess of caution—cowardice, I meant—on my part. Considering the reaction, I probably should have stepped and fetched a little better.

No matter how careful I was, or how innocuous the observation, there has always been someone—someone with a name, someone with a career in comics—ready to put me in my place and shut me up instead of addressing my points. I am not allowed to speak my mind the way I should, because I do not share the point of view of the establishment. I am not allowed to call it like it is, because I may hurt someone's feelings. My gay, female, Muslim, Asian, and trans friends have faced similar blowback, custom-tailored to their own existence and experience.

"you will grow to be something tenacious and exalted; you are mighty, you are gracious, you are lauded."

The first comics critique I ever heard was from my mother. I was a Jim Lee X-Men kid. She let me have the comics, but she made it a point to talk to me about their content. I still remember her speaking to me about the "provocative poses" of the female characters. I didn't quite get it then, but now that I'm older, I realize what she was getting at. As wonderful as those comics are, they present an image of women that a growing boy should not internalize.

As a boy, all I knew was that Lee drew bombshells. I likely balked and denied what she was telling me. But she provided a perspective that I couldn't supply myself, and the more time passes, I'm grateful that she tried to instill that in me as a child. While she didn't even like comics, she was engaged and caring, and shifted my path.

When someone makes a post saying that something is some type of -ist or -phobic, the conversation always goes the same way. The rebuttals never actually address the concerns of the post, preferring instead to present evidence that the creator is a saint/undeserving of the critique or maybe just saying that the essayist is wrong and stupid and young. The next step is war, either in comments or on Twitter, and by that point, the original, valuable observation has been lost to the drama. Comics sites will begin paying attention, focusing strictly on the juiciest bits, and that focus in turn informs how the rest of the comics community views the conflict.

There is space in comics for a few specific types of criticism, including the enthusiast-oriented Wizard Magazine strain and the more academic, highbrow approach from The Comics Journal. If you get a bad review from TCJ, you nervously laugh it off and talk about how any review in the Journal is part of your bucket list. If you get a fawning review, you retweet it to tell your people. These are familiar to us.

But the new criticism, the criticism that is largely coming from black and brown and Asian and Muslim and gay and trans and feminist circles and even more besides, doesn't have an established place in comics yet. The culture is not used to it. The culture doesn't know how to react to it, because it often comes from a deeply personal place and is accompanied by emotion instead of rote facts about first appearances and career milestones. The result is a constant diminishing of the concerns of the essayist and mocking of their context.

We talk about outrage culture and never stop to ask ourselves why someone saying "This hurt me, here's why" is offensive, but a white man creating a comic where women are raped and non-whites are racially stereotyped is not. We scream "Free speech!" in the face of people who say "This is messed up." We never examine why someone is angry before dismissing them for their anger. We demand perfection and eloquence from someone who has just been confronted with the unbridled contempt someone else has for them and everything they represent.

New criticism means new voices. New voices means new approaches. New approaches means messy growth. Many of us are not trained critics. We're learning how to write as we live, and we're still learning how to live, too. My views have expanded and changed during my time spent writing about comics, and I imagine the same is true of others. I've written things in the past I wouldn't now, and when I re-tread over well-worn ground (like this essay, here and here), my angle of attack is generally different.

Over time, I've seen friends on Tumblr go from incoherently screaming about injustice to laying out the facts in an incredibly eloquent manner. I've had other friends bail out of the conversation and comics almost entirely, because it wasn't worth the scorn that comes with baring your soul and the bridges burnt because someone else caught feelings. We are learning on the job, just like you had to, but you're using the possibility of critical inexperience to invalidate actual lived experience.

We wouldn't critique, we wouldn't jump up and down and holler for or against a comic or trope if we didn't care. We holler because we want comics to be better, we let you inside our pain because we want comics to be better, we point out where you are stepping wrong because we want comics to be better. I asked my followers on Twitter why they write about social justice when I was feeling pretty frustrated last week. The responses are sad, hopeful, and honest.

"you will grow to be something dynamic and impressive; you are patient, you are gallant, you are festive."

This essay started as a response to Ken Parille's essay about the habits and motivations of Millenial Literalists in The Comics Journal, and I even had a real pithy "The real critic of the year is you, brave social justice warrior!" outro ready to go, Kevin Durant-style. I had all these jokes ready to punch holes in Parille's facile argument, even down to picking out relevant "Death to the olds!" panels from comics generally written by old men, but Parille is not the story. His age isn't the story, either. Replying to Parille directly would just be starting another fight that'd be forgotten next week, when some creator somewhere chooses to imply that black people deserve to be murdered by the police or Islamophobia is cool. Fighting with comics dad doesn't appeal as much as it used to, now that I've got a few matches under my belt.

What's the story? The story is the way comics, as a culture, denies us our voice because we aren't like them. The story is petty rivalries overshadowing genuine issues because the personalities involved can't get out of the way. The story is that we're here, we're not going anywhere, we're more than aware of our past, and—to be perfectly honest here, because it's clear to me a lot of you don't realize what's happening right beneath your nose—you're either going to roll with us or get rolled over. In other words: you don't have to agree, but please respect it.

This essay is me justifying our humanity and our intelligence and our worth to people who have demonstrated a disinterest in all three aspects, a foul task made necessary by the fact that our cries are treated like children throwing a tantrum because the establishment loves the status quo. Think about what that means. Think about the imbalance and how that's hurting comics.

And stop being so afraid of the word racist, you cowards.

edit, 1/14/15 @ 0815: I stumbled in the paragraph about Ken Parille, accidentally implying that he is guilty of the same things I'm decrying in the previous two sections. It's an unintended connection, but one I want to clarify because it's unfair to him on my part if I don't. Parille's piece is obviously tongue in cheek, and this essay began as a direct reply to that before I realized that speaking on Parille's words directly would obfuscate my true feelings on the issue, as expressed in this essay. I'm not so much interested in rebutting Parille and going bar-for-bar in an internet fight over it as I am speaking to the greater problem with comics as I see it, but by leaving a reference to the origins of this essay for context, I accidentally painted Parille with the wrong brush. I'm sorry, Ken! I'll do better next time.


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  2. Beautiful.

    Once again Brothers hits the nail on the head.

  3. Brilliant. Thank you.

  4. eres brillante, david.


  5. "Once, a cartoonist and myself were smeared in an interview by a prominent critic who suggested that we were intellectually dishonest angry black men because we got into it with him once."

    Who was the prominent critic?

    1. Nobody—who he is doesn't matter half as much as how his behavior fits into a well-established pattern of behavior experienced by myself and others. I intentionally left it vague because otherwise, we'd have to re-hash the old dumb nonsense instead of talking about the real issue.

  6. David, you continue to wow me with your incredible insights; thank you so much.

  7. Great essay and great to see it on this site (my only criticism of this great page would be that the it needs more cola reviews). After I finished reading it, what bothered me the most was a discussion I recently witnessed on some message board. (White, male) people complained about and agreed that "Social Justice Warriors have already ruined comics" (which was supposed to be a warning that they were now coming after computer games next). David's essay is a poignant reminder how utterly ridiculous this entire notion is (and in so many ways). The message board discussion deeply troubled me. So, thank you, especially for being strong and optimistic. Let's roll!

  8. Good words. Necessary ones, too. Thanks, man.

  9. Great post, thanks for giving me a lot to think about. I hope that this new criticism can find a place in comics culture. We'll be better for it.

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  11. killer contribution to the conversation! many thanks! in some ways i hope new crit resists finding a place or name. there’s an old chinese proverb that goes, “as soon as you give a name to something, it begins to die”.

  12. can folks speak to how they view the impact of the medium (blogs, twitter, tumblr, etc) on the message? its something i struggle with. thanks

  13. I appreciate that reference to 75 Bars. You're a sly one, Mr. Brothers.

    More importantly, I know that it takes lots of mental and emotional labor to keep writing about comics despite all the problems you've described here (and the ones that you've described elsewhere), so salute.

    Lastly, in regard to white people recoiling from the word racist, what makes it so much more cowardly is the fact that, as you describe, lots of non-white people use the word very strategically precisely because it gets such a histrionic reaction. To think that we understand the seriousness of the word and use it only when it feels indisputable, and there's STILL a dispute really exemplifies how toxic the current dialog on race is. It's pathetic.