Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Don’t Be a Dick: Tips and Tricks for How to Talk About Comics

By Kim O'Connor

I’m having a hard time writing about comics. Some weasel called me garbage and I feel sort of…paused. A shaky angry sort of pause, like I’m on VHS. Of course I know better. I know better than to be mad, much less to beat myself up over feeling mad. Above all, I know better than to publicly acknowledge any of that, ever. It’s the sort of thing that makes you look dumb online.

Remember when Shia LaBeouf did that stunt where he watched all his own movies back to back? It was the latest effort to rehabilitate his reputation after years’ worth of antics that included plagiarizing Daniel Clowes, chasing a homeless man, and maybe almost murdering his girlfriend. In a world in which Britney is a long-forgotten joke and LiLo, at 27, was described by the New York Times as “years beyond her peak, shorthand for total public collapse,” LaBeouf’s team wasn’t even worried. When you’re a dude, all you need is a publicist with enough chutzpah to spin your blatant mental illness/substance abuse problem as self-aware art. Who needs a comeback when you can just pretend your client’s entire shitty life has been a long con in the name of something (anything!) avant-garde?  

Lauded as “performance art” by WIRED and a “work of genius” by Rolling Stone, LaBeouf’s movie marathon got massive amounts of perfunctory press. My favorite report was from a journalist at New York Magazine who observed part of it in person. What made his piece interesting was a couple of sentences that inadvertently captured something real and true about the whole spectacle:
I got excited when I realized I had to use the bathroom, because it meant I could leave the row and push past LaBeouf, which would allow me to see if he was a stand-up-and-let-the-person-past-you kinda guy or if he was more into remaining seated and swishing his legs to the side. It was the latter!
My god, is there any metaphor for #content more perfect than going to the bathroom and writing about it? I imagine those lines would have struck me even if I hadn’t already disliked the person who wrote them, but it’s hard to know for sure. Abraham Riesman, a writer who literally generates content by taking a piss, had been a real dick to me on Twitter the month before.

I think this was my exact face when I had my own deep meta moment reading Riesman’s take [on the time he was a dick to me] in another piece for New York Magazine, this time about why he quit Twitter.

I first encountered the piece when a political writer I like had tweeted a screenshot of this paragraph; comics being a small world, I recognized “myself” right away:
I got into a fight on Twitter with a reviewer from a low-end culture site who had some idiotic opinions about a cartoonist I enjoy. The reviewer is a person of no major consequence in the critical world, and the site is widely derided, but I still felt compelled to get into an argument with her. I wasted nearly an hour doing so and found myself exhausted afterward.
Riesman’s writing had once again accidently revealed something real and true—not about the nature of Twitter, but about comics discourse, which is badly broken.

I’m not sure how to make this point without going into excruciating detail about what actually happened, but I promise you this is going somewhere: The “fight” Riesman referenced was in fact a string of a dozen or so angry, condescending comments he tweeted at me over the course of an hour. The occasion for his fury was my review of Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, which I dinged for having no real women characters. In that review, and on Twitter, I linked to six or seven other reviews of the book (and issues of Optic Nerve that later became the book). Riesman took those links to be a series of personal attacks on the authors from a tacky, uninformed asshole [me] who clearly hadn’t read enough Tomine to appreciate his genius.

Riesman’s mistake (a common one) was in not recognizing the difference between a critique of someone’s work and a personal attack—a mistake he would repeat when he personally attacked me three months later. I mean, I still don’t think the pieces that I linked were very good (which is a comment on specific pieces of work, not the careers or credibility of those writers). But my point wasn’t hey, let’s have a laugh at these ding-dongs; it was that critics tend to hit the same notes in reviews of Killing and Dying. They praise Tomine’s mastery, perceptiveness, emotional range and subtlety—observations that don’t really hold up if you bother to look past his male characters. It’s not that other critics are “wrong” to like Tomine. I just find fault with the homogeny they collectively represent.

I politely explained all this to Riesman later that afternoon, but he’d already quit Twitter.

That was in October. Fast-forward to late January. Riesman deleted all his tweets to me in preparation for the publication of his piece, but I had screenshots I’d taken just a few weeks before. As it turns out, the time he argued @ me had stuck with me, too. Saved in a folder titled “Don’t Be a Dick,” I had used them as inspiration for an essay about divisiveness in comics culture that I had started writing earlier that month. (C&C went on hiatus in January, so I never finished it.) Here’s how it began:
A few months ago, a comics dude ruined my afternoon. I mean, it wasn’t anything serious. He didn’t lick my face at an industry event or lead a frothing bro army into my inbox. It was just a regular stupid boring kind of ruin, like when you’re having a nice dinner outside and it starts to rain.
You know, the kind of ruin where you reviewed a book for free, for “fun,” except now you’re on a work call, and you can barely hear the person you’re talking to because your phone keeps vibrating with patronizing tweets from a shaky red-faced fanboy who will rage quit the platform before you even hang up. Adding insult to injury, being a shaky red-faced fanboy is what he does for a living, having defeated the final boss of the tcj comments section and found whatever version of the philosopher’s stone it is that lets you monetize explainers on stuff you and your red-faced brethren love to shake about. This is just one of the many reasons why, as the angry man will helpfully explain in the months to come, he thinks he’s so much better than you. God bless this meritocracy.

Anyway, those dumb screenshots were the only reason I was able to call Riesman on what he had written. Partly because of that, but mostly because he had already made himself look so bad in his own ridiculous piece, it became a whole thing on Twitter that day. I think on the surface it probably looks like I “won” that argument, if you can even call it that. (It was never my argument; it was his.) But the reasons I’ve been having a hard time writing about comics are more about the things no one saw. That’s the way it is with comics controversies (big and small alike)—they’re these unimpressive piles of tweets or comments or emails or whatever, or even just the ghosts of those things. Intimations and fragments. The more you have to sift through them, the pettier it all seems.

After Riesman was mocked in an industry newsletter (media, not comics), my paltry Twitter following doubled overnight, and a lot of writers I really admire started following me back. I guess that should have made me feel good (or at least not bad)? They followed me because I stood up for myself. But I had suddenly come to the attention of my professional heroes as a direct result of a man calling me a low-end idiot nobody, and I guess I wish the circumstances could have been different.

Meanwhile, someone sent me a link to an insane Facebook rant that Riesman had written back in October. “I found myself drawn into a conflict with a progressive comics essayist,” it began. (“Progressive comics essayist.” Hahaha, kill me now.) He goes on:  
Her willfully ignorant opinions tensed up my stomach and I, against my better judgment, indulged my righteous fury and wrote a half-dozen tweets pointing out the flaws in her argument (and how those flaws ultimately do harm to the cause of progressive comics criticism). But why? Why did I bother? This was a person with a pittance of an audience, writing for a laughably backwater website. Why was I wasting my time? And why had I experienced a physically harmful reaction when I read her tweets?
I know that reads like parody but the sad truth is that it’s couched in thousands of words that are totally, totally serious. Reading that post…I don’t know. Part of me thought it was hilarious. But also, knowing that my opinions on Adrian Tomine made some stranger physically ill—and that he remained so angry about it that he wrote something very similar on a public, high-traffic platform three months later—makes me feel deeply fucking weird. So much so that I’ve effectively quit Twitter myself (for now, not forever). I mean, I’m there. I just feel strange.

Even as I was taking in Riesman’s [other] rant, Comics Twitter did as Comics Twitter does. Hey, you gotta hear both sides. Spotted: the most self-obsessed dude in comics crit with a series of subtweets about what a piece-of-shit writer I am, and what a crying shame it was he couldn’t complain about it more openly. He was the hero Twitter deserved, but not the one it needed just then…not that he was going to let a little thing like popular opinion keep him from being a bit of a goon. He was immediately retweeted by an industry blogger who had been mad af in my DMs the week before, accusing me of libel in an old thing I had written about racism. (Libel! Which, like, lol. But also think about the absurd levels of hostility and defensiveness it takes to arrive at libel.) I mention all this because they’re two more good examples of comics types who couldn’t distinguish between a critique and a personal attack to save their lives. They’re both routinely awful to anyone who disagrees with them.

Another thing that happened behind the scenes was that Riesman sent me a bunch of really lousy apology emails. (I’m not going to quote them at length, but they were frustrating. Like a telepath pushed to her limits, my nose started to bleed when I received the fourth one.) He didn’t want to say he was sorry on Twitter because he thought it would “fan the flames,” but I was more than welcome to announce that I had received a private apology. I wrote a long, thoughtful response to his second email; exactly six minutes later, he replied that he was going to carry forth my vital words as he tried to be a better person. Well, yay for him. Me? I still feel stuck on his anger and contempt, which I guess I’m supposed to believe somehow transmuted into a benign state of totally self-aware repentance in the six minutes it took for him to read and respond to my email.

Even as he was writing me all those apologies, Riesman was begging his editor in the background to let him change the piece. At first the editor said no, saying it was against the magazine’s policy. When Riesman asked a second time, his editor agreed to the change. The piece was quietly rewritten. This is what it says about me now:
I picked a fight on Twitter with a cultural critic. It was someone I don’t know personally and who I had noting to gain from fighting with, but I still somehow felt compelled to start an argument. I wasted nearly an hour doing so and found myself exhausted afterward.
And here’s the note that was appended at the bottom:
*A previous version of this article framed the incident that led Riesman to leave Twitter in a light that was, in retrospect, unnecessarily harsh in its characterization of the other person involved.
The new version is somewhat more accurate in its description of the original incident. It is, however, dishonest in framing the change as “unnecessarily harsh” (as opposed to inaccurate or misleading), in leaving no record of the original passage, and in continuing to refer to what happened as a two-sided fight. The purpose of the change itself was to make Riesman look like less of an asshole for anyone new to the article (it was still trending at the time)—and, presumably, to make it harder for me, a person who regularly writes about sexism and power dynamics in comics culture, to reference it later. On the record, Riesman gets to be the reasonable person he never was, and an act of bullying that I explicitly tried to call attention to was effectively obscured. You can see a pattern here—being a dick and deleting the tweets, belittling me in New York Magazine and deleting that too, sending a bunch of bad apologies but refusing to publicly acknowledge any wrongdoing…it’s nasty, manipulative, and self-serving. And the more words I have to use to describe it, the more it looks like I’m just making a big deal out of nothing.

Feeling like a fucking idiot (I’m fully aware that I’m the only person on earth who cares), I asked the editor to either restore the original passage or write a correction that didn’t emphasize Riesman’s rehabilitation. His reply? Sorry, no. “We considered the revision of that passage carefully.” Well, so did I. And including the original piece, the opaque “correction,” and that correction’s seeming disregard for New York Magazine’s actual correction policy, I count at least three really dubious editorial calls.

Some time has passed, but an inconvenient problem remains: comics crit is a very small world in which Riesman has a very loud voice. Sometimes it grates. Case in point: I was researching a difficult piece, a really personal take on Jessica Jones in which I explain why I think the show’s sexual politics are bad. One of the first links I encountered was a piece by Riesman, “Jessica Jones Has Hot Sex and Nuanced Sexuality,” that conveys his unbridled admiration for an episode in which “the title character got screwed doggy-style.” If you’ve actually watched the scene, you might recall it isn’t exactly the “wild romp” Riesman describes; for example, Jessica flips over because she feels uncomfortable looking into her partner’s eyes. As viewers, we don’t yet know exactly what’s up with that—it’s the first episode—but the scene is explicitly marked as emotionally fraught. If you couldn’t tell by her body language in the scene itself, the fact that she cries and pukes afterward is another helpful clue.

Anyway, here’s Riesman crowing about how what a hot fuck he thinks that was:
Smash cut to Luke on top of Jessica in his bed, going at it with a sexual fury unlike anything Marvel (or DC, for that matter) has even come close to putting on screen. She eggs him on, and when he warns her that she might not be able to take it, she insists she can. At that point, he flips her over and starts taking her from behind while the camera focuses on her impassioned face. It's a scene where Jessica is in total control of her sexuality. Whatever her reason may be for banging Luke, she's doing it on her terms. It's the way real-life grown-ups have sex, not the way neutered TV superheroes do.
Yeahhhhhh doggie! That’s exactly what incredible sex looks like when you’re an adult who feels totally in control: avoiding eye contact, crying in the bathroom, and projectile vomiting in the street after fleeing the scene like a criminal. Any sexually empowered woman can tell you that’s the trifecta. But seriously, this is what passes as a feminist perspective at all those “high-end” culture sites: a white guy writing about his horny level while, in the background, he squelches the voice of an actual woman who writes on the same subjects. Or tries to write about them, anyway. I don’t know. I’m having a hard time.

I’m writing today because I think I know the answer to a question that comics types revisit every so often: Why aren’t there more people writing comics crit?

Some of the reasons are universal. (There’s no money in it. There’s no real audience.) Others are huge, but not universal, like systemic racism and sexism. On top of all that there’s another, more nebulous obstacle that some of us experience, and that’s the fact that comics promotes a culture in which people feel way too comfortable acting like total dicks to complete strangers.

I know what some of you are thinking. Kim, I can’t help but notice that you yourself are a total dick. No, my friend. You are mistaken. I am a bitch.

How does one know a dick from a bitch? To start, a dick is someone with the total inability to distinguish between a personal attack and a critique of someone’s work. A bitch is someone who’s seriously sick of that shit.

A critique of someone’s work involves good-faith engagement with another person’s words or ideas building towards a substantive point—something beyond “you suck” or “that’s dumb.” A dick interprets every criticism, however carefully articulated, as “you suck and that’s dumb.”

Good-faith engagement doesn’t necessitate the absence of snark. Dicks are really invested in the idea that critiques of them have the sheen of respectability, like a business suit. They often wonder why a bitch can’t be more polite. They ask this calmly, drawing upon a seemingly endless reserve of something they believe to be neutrality. They don’t understand they are a protected class. See, when you’re a dick in comics culture, all the other dicks don’t act like dicks towards you. It must be some sort of crazy coincidence.

Personal attacks, I hope we all agree, are shitty and unfair. Conveniently for dicks, all negative assessments of their behavior or work are classed as personal attacks. This provides two key benefits: (1) there’s no need to take the negative assessment seriously, since it’s supposedly shitty and unfair, and (2) it’s totally fine to respond with an honest-to-goodness personal attack because, hey, “they started it.” And so we have this weird intractable problem in comics culture where all the dicks are taking everything personally, but also nothing personally, often while doubling down on whatever behavior it was that they were being criticized for in the first place.

Like bitches before me, I’ve been called sanctimonious and petty and provocative. What I am, in fact, is tired of people being dicks—often to the detriment of my own message.

(A message that is, invariably: don’t be a dick.)

It’s that signal failure that bothers me most, much more so than whatever dumb angst that people like Riesman make me feel. That guy’s an employee of a prominent magazine—one I subscribe to!—not the old coot who used to leave me unsettling comments about “dishonoring” the Hooded Utilitarian. Which is worse: if I can’t convey a simple, obvious point to the kind of “opponent” who should be most receptive to my message? Or if misogyny is so entrenched in this culture that I can’t review an Adrian Tomine title without some asshole making me want to quit comics?

Riddle me this: how is it that Abhay Khosla writes a novella-length wank joke about racism, misogyny, etc. and gets celebrated as a balls-to-the-wall TRUTH TELLER while the rest of us (women) writing about the same stuff get weird, aggressive, distressing bullshit, very often from our peers? I wrote one measured comment on his (mostly great) piece about how one section was weak and disingenuous and what *I* got was a personal attack from another commenter that tcj had to censor. I’m sincerely grateful to Khosla for taking the time to explain why trash opinions and literal crimes are Very Bad to a bunch of men who think most of that stuff is a joke anyway, but that’s an entirely different project with different stakes than whatever it is that the rest of us who wrote about those issues all last year have been out here trying to do, often in the face of real hostility. No one seems inclined to discuss that hostility with any openness or honesty, much less examine it in terms of personal responsibility.  

Here’s my suggestion: We need to call a moratorium on personal attacks in comics crit. Really this boils down to basic human courtesy. Don’t be a dick. Don’t be a dick to me. Don’t be a dick to anyone. Don’t attack people personally. Make fun of the stupid things they say, not who they are or where they said them. And maybe try to do all of that in service of some objective that’s not just putting someone down. That’s not practicing criticism; that’s being a sociopath.

In so many ways, I’m living my best life in terms of writing about comics. Somehow I’ve landed here on a website that means something to me. When I mock cartoonists, publishers, fellow critics, and other industry figures, I try to critique their actions and words and ideas as specifically and substantively as possible. I don’t do it to demonize them or make them feel bad about themselves; I do it because I’m very tired of reading the same stories about the same shit from the same perspectives. I really grapple with trying to find a way to write about these issues in a way that’s effective and ethical and entertaining and interesting to me, with mixed success.

In my own work and elsewhere, I feel like I watch conversations about the stuff I care about repeatedly fail to get off the ground. I worry I’m slowly becoming humorless about it, which I resent. Every time I vent my anger I know I’m losing more ground with the very people I ostensibly wish to reach. I honestly don’t know that I’m capable of writing for an audience that doesn’t already agree with me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to set aside my indignation in the service of being more effective. I’m not even sure that I should.

I guess that’s what Abraham Riesman is to me more than a personal antagonist: a symbol of that failure to communicate. Of futility. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I think he makes the Internet a shittier place, and that’s on him. But I look at that stuff he wrote and think: demonstrably, I’ve failed. I’m failing.

Maybe it’s too much to hope for, this dream of mine. Still, some crazy part of me dares to believe that, one day, my “progressive” movement will finally take hold. The next time you’re tempted to be a dick to someone, ask yourself: could I just not? Maybe we'll all be surprised.


  1. Comics are better off for having Kim O'Connor write about them.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. Damn. I somehow missed all this when it happened (maybe I wasn't following Kim on Twitter yet? - I only know her work from that "laughably backwater website" for whom I sometimes write as well).

    Sounds fucking exhausting, but I really appreciate you keeping a spotlight on this, even if I also appreciate how it'd make you want to quit.

    I, for one, always appreciate Kim's perspective, esp. b/c it is often on work that is out of my wheelhouse, so I need that input to get a sense of it that is not the usual TCJ take.

  4. This is such an important conversation, thank you so much for having it. The industry can't evolve if it's not allowed to critique itself.

  5. This is great stuff. It actually reminded me of Khosla at times, so it was odd to see that bit at the end (though not surprising). Anyway, here's hoping this post gets the positive response it deserves!

  6. I've never read you before, but this article really put things in perspective to me. You're exactly right, it's like there's this breed of internet dudes who cannot for the life of them talk about substantive issues or take any kind of criticism without investing their personal identity in it and lashing out when they feel threatened.

    I wish there was a solution to this. I hope your dream comes true and I share it. At the very least, I believe that the comics industry will be a better place with more voices like yours in it, so I hope you don't give up, even though it's awful.

    I'll be following whatever you do from now on. It's very valuable.

  7. You took this to the next level. You are the first sip, that refreshing fizz, that puts Comics and Cola to the bonus round.

  8. So, as someone who has never visited the site before, I would like to say that I am now going to be a rabid fan.

    It's incredibly distressing to know how small the audience is inside this sphere, especially when you have conversations like this that NEED to take place. I'm sad that I was exposed to his Jessica Jones take, but in all honesty, that article should be getting attention as an example of why men need to stop trying to dictate the voice of women writers and characters. That whole piece was disturbing and indicative of how men view women sexually. Also, it shows he never read the fucking books. . .

    But yeah, bottom line, fantastic fucking piece.

  9. Wow! Why are you saying good bye to this bog? You totally kick-ass. I wish more people wrote like this.

  10. Thanks for this.

    "[C]omics promotes a culture in which people feel way too comfortable acting like total dicks to complete strangers."

    Unfortunately, while the internet exacerbates this problem, it isn't new. When I was younger, the only place to find comics criticism was the Comics Journal print magazine. At first, I thought I had found my people. Yet it quickly became clear that the editors didn't understand the difference between real criticism and personal attack. And the readers, in the form of letters, egged on the blurring of this boundary. When the Comics Journal started its message board, this nasty attitude had an easy avenue for coming to the surface. Of course, these days there are plenty of avenues.

    Thanks again. I'm so sorry this site is no more.