Misogyny unmasked

Superheroes: A Never-Ending BattleTonight PBS is airing a three-hour documentary, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, which, among other things, promises to examine how caped crusaders have addressed “contemporary social issues” throughout their 75-year history in comics, radio, television and film. Hopefully, this will include battlefield reports on the unfair representation of women carried out by the mostly male troops who have historically served in the trenches of the comics industry. However, from comments recently made by some of the foot soldiers interviewed for this program, I don’t expect anyone to break ranks in the ongoing cover-up of a full-scale War on Women currently being waged against female superheroes and civilians in the pages of mainstream comics.

Fortunately, while the industry refuses to police itself, reports from embedded journalists Noellen Clark of the Los Angeles TimesAlyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress and Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance, are creating a growing backlash from outraged comic book critics and fans.

Overdeveloped and underdressed
During an August 7 press event for the PBS documentary held by the Television Critics Association, an all-male panel of comics creators displayed an astonishing ignorance of gender issues and their own industry. As reported by Alyssa Rosenberg, according to Image Comics co-founder and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane:

As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.

Does someone really have to explain to McFarlane that hyper-exaggerating the pectoral and bicep muscles of male superheroes is not the same as depicting female superheroes with ridiculously protruding breasts and backsides? Has he or any other comics artist ever drawn Wonder Woman bending a steel bar with her cleavage or butt cheeks? A truly equivalent portrayal of Superman or Batman would have them showing off enormous bulges in the crotches of their spandex trunks. Yet if anything, given how little their skin-tight costumes leave to the imagination on every other part of the body they cover, the groin areas of most male superheroes are modestly under-emphasized.

Sexy Sexist Superheroes

The female superhero aesthetic equitably applied to Wolverine, Batman and Superman. Image by SymetryIsArt

And what does McFarlane mean by “a little more skin”? The costumes of most modern super women look like they belong in a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog rather than a comic book. Comparing the costumes of male superheroes to those of their female counterparts is like comparing police, firefighter or EMT uniforms to the “sexy” costume versions marketed to women (and girls) every Halloween. This is not the sort of apparel anyone would choose to wear for fighting vicious and powerful super villains (or for going outside in temperatures below 80 degrees). Even though he’s invulnerable to harm, in Man of Steel, Superman didn’t fly into earth-shaking battle against General Zod dressed like a Chippendale dancer.

But the physical endowments and skimpy costumes of female superheroes are only part of the problem. While male superheroes are constantly depicted striking heroic and even menacing poses, women superheroes are always presenting themselves like models in a  Playboy centerfold. The attitude towards female superheroes apparently shared by many male creators and fans is that they serve a very different purpose from the super men with whom they patrol the streets and skies. Super women aren’t here to inspire and protect but to titillate and arouse.

Sexist superhero imagery

Gender identity
Another member of the Television Critics Association panel was Len Wein, writer of many of my favorite comics growing up as a kid and creator, with various artists, of such famous characters as Wolverine, Storm and Swamp Thing. Rossenberg’s  Think Progress piece reported this perplexing statement by Wein about addressing women’s issues in comics:

 I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character.

No disrespect intended (despite how the following is going to sound), but spoken like a true straight, white male (stereotype).

Of course, focusing on any one aspect of a character to the exclusion of all others is most likely going to result in inauthentic and uninteresting storytelling. But claiming that race, gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t relevant to the way people perceive and interact with the world, and the way the world perceives and interacts with them, demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness of sociology and human psychology. It also seems to me to be based on an assumption that everyone’s life experiences are fundamentally the same. This can lead to some incorrect and potentially harmful conclusions when the assumption is being made by someone who has won the genetic trifecta of gender, race and sexual orientation that has directed the course of human civilization for millennia.

Male privilege (as well as white and straight privilege) tends to be invisible to those who benefit from it (and to many who don’t), and this seems especially true in the disproportionately male- (white- and straight-) dominated world of the comics industry. Despite having created the first black woman superhero—or perhaps because of it—Wein doesn’t see any need to have his characters acknowledge the institutionalized injustices perpetrated against women, or any other demographic in our society. He and the other members of the panel intend this willful disregard of cultural context as a great equalizer, when it is really a (likely unintentional) dismissal of the challenges faced by anyone not born into their favored caste.

And the continued failure (or refusal) of creators and publishers to acknowledge this fact contributes to even greater and more offensive expressions of misogyny.

Hate crime
The day before the above statements were made during the TCA panel, another of my favorite comic book writers disappointed me with his quote in a New Republic article. Mark Millar—author of Superman: Red Son, The Authority, The Ultimates and the much less-known Superman for the Animals (on which I served as Creative Consultant)—was asked about the frequent use of rape scenes in his stories, to which he replied:

The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.

That analogy is so flawed it took one outraged reader less than 140 characters to refute it in a tweet that pointed out victims of decapitation don’t live through/with their violation and aren’t blamed for bringing it on themselves.

Or, as Wired columnist and former Comics Alliance editor Laura Hudson put it:

It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.

Male trauma

Was it a lack of commitment to good story telling that had the World’s Finest superheroes killed and crippled in combat rather than raped?

Certainly Millar must understand this. Rape is experienced differently by its victims, and viewed differently by society, than any other violent crime.  A rapist is deliberately choosing a form of assault that will often—undeservedly—generate the greatest sense of degradation and shame in its victim while simultaneously generating the least sympathy and support from the public. If his goal in Kick-Ass 2 was to make the evilness of his story’s villain glaringly obvious through the commission of the “ultimate” “taboo,” why didn’t Millar have him and his henchmen gang rape Kick-Ass rather than the hero’s teenaged girlfriend? When male superheroes suffer the “ultimate” violation at the hands of their arch nemeses, they get to go out fighting heroically. In epic battles with Doomsday and Bane, respectively, Superman was killed (at least temporarily) and Batman’s back was broken—they weren’t bent over a table with their tights around their ankles and sodomized* (as infamously happened to the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibney, in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis).

Despite assertions from members of the TCA panel that art only ever imitates life— never vice versa—the normalization of rape culture in comics and other media can’t help but have an impact on society. Millar’s and Meltzer’s depictions of rape might not inspire real-life rapists, but they contribute to the attitude that sexual assault is no different than any other violent crime. As Joseph Hughes put it in his ComicsAlliance post:

In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad. In the United States, where the majority of Millar’s comics are published and sold, one in six women has experienced an attempted or completed rape, only 16% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only about 5% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. In Scotland, where Millar resides, incidences of rape and attempted rape increased by 15% from 2011-12 to 2012-13. These are not statistics one typically associates with decapitation.

This diminishing of rape as a crime and rapists as criminals has been repeatedly played out in real life in the past year. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, the two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio, convicted in March of raping a 16-year-old girl, received one-  and two-year sentences for their crimes. Meanwhile, Deric Lostutter, the man who brought the case to the world’s attention by leaking incriminating tweets and Instagram photos posted by the rapists’ friends, is facing charges of computer hacking that carry a possible 10-year sentence. In August, Montana judge G. Todd Baugh gave 54-year-old former high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold a one-month sentence for repeatedly raping 14-year-old student Cherice Moralez, who committed suicide before her assailant was brought to trial. Judge Baugh explained his leniency by saying that the victim was ”older than her chronological age” and ”as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.

Harley QuinnPerhaps once again attempting to reflect society without influencing it, DC Comics announced in September that it was holding a public artist audition that sexualized suicide. Applicants were required to submit drawings of female Joker sidekick Harley Quinn about to kill herself by various means, including lying naked in a bathtub with an array of electric appliances dangling above her. Showing a sick sense of humor the Joker would have appreciated, the contest announcement was made immediately prior to National Suicide Prevention Week. After being subjected to a week of vocal public outrage, DC Comics eventually apologized.

No woman left behind
Even though the ongoing War on Women being waged in superhero comics takes place on imaginary battlefields like Metropolis and Gotham City, it’s inflicting mounting casualties among real-world readers. When I imagine the level of betrayal felt by girls and women constantly subjected to the sexual objectification of the female characters that have helped shape their concepts of personal achievement and heroism, I’m reminded of another military analogy: the sexual assault of female members of the armed forces by their supposed brothers-in-arms.

I made this connection after hearing victims share their stories in the documentary, The Invisible War, and then reading a 2011 post by Laura Hudson condemning a trend in DC Comics toward increasingly pornographic portrayals of female superheroes. The sense of loss Hudson expressed over the demeaning of her fictional role models seemed strikingly similar to that of military women betrayed by those who’d sworn an oath to have their backs. It’s the heartbreak of learning that not only is the relationship of love and respect you thought you had with someone not mutual, it’s a sham being exploited by someone who holds you in contempt. Or as Hudson put it:

 I’m so, so tired of hearing those messages from comics because they aren’t the dreams or the escapist fantasies or the aspirations that I want to have. They don’t make me feel joyful or powerful or excited. They make me feel so goddamn sad that I want to cry, because I have devoted my entire life to comics, and when I read superhero books like these I realize that most of the time, they don’t give a sh*t about me.

Of course, it’s the generals of the comics industry—the real-life writers and publishers— who are responsible for this betrayal, not the fictional foot soldiers who are just following orders. And if the comics industry doesn’t have the backs of fangirls and fanboys equally, we need to have each others’. Male readers need to call out comics that promote sexism and misogyny and let publishers know we’re not interested in superhero stories that lift up one half of their audience while trampling on the other.

UPDATE
As I expected, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle spent no time examining the rampant misogyny going on in the pages of superhero comics today. The issue of feminism was addressed almost exclusively through mostly positive interviews with Lynda Carter and Gloria Steinem about the iconic stature of Wonder Woman.

Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book CultureIn contrast, the 300-page companion book to the PBS series, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture, does a much better job than the three-hour documentary of exposing the sexism still alive and well in superhero comics. A three-page section, “Women in Refrigerators: Battle of the Superheroines,” takes its title from the disturbingly frequent tendency—identified by comics fan-turned-bestselling writer Gail Simone—for (mostly male) writers to have female characters brutalized, killed, raped and/or stripped of their powers. The name of this syndrome comes from the kitchen appliance in which Green Lantern once found the dismembered body of his girlfriend. (The book also devotes more coverage to comic book racism and homophobia.)

* To be fair, Mark Millar did write the only instance of male-on-male superhero rape I’m aware of in comics, but both the act and the victim’s reaction to it were so subtly depicted as to be easily missed.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 6)

During WWII and the Korean War, superheroes fervently proclaimed our country’s moral infallibility (while the non-superhero stories of disreputable but brilliant EC Comics exposed the nation’s seedy underbelly). The 1954 comics industry-imposed code that prohibited any show of “disrespect for established authority” forced superheroes into service as unquestioning cheerleaders for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. But because superheroes were born out of disrespect for established authority, this indentured servitude was ultimately doomed to failure. As the 50s gave way to the 60s and 70s, and Americans were asked to fight in yet another Asian war, questioning authority soon became the norm.

Super power to the people
The first sign of change came in 1961, when Marvel Comics revived its superhero line with the release of Fantastic Four #1. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a dysfunctional team of characters more in touch with the real world than the staid and virtually interchangeable superhero personalities of DC Comics, which had initiated the Silver Age superhero Renaissance in 1956. The headliners for the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee referred to Marvel’s chief competitor) were all staunch supporters of the status quo and law and order. Someincluding the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkmanwere actually law enforcement officers (either in their costumed or civilian identities). Marvel, on the other hand, was fast developing a reputation for characters who behaved more like James Dean than John Wayne.

Amazing Spider-Man #68

Amazing Spider-Man #68. Cover art by John Romita.

Created in 1962 by Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the most popular Marvel superhero because he was the one with whom readers were most able to identify. Peter Parker was a high school student when the bite from a radioactive arachnid gave him the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. What made him unique among superheroes was that he was often just as concerned with getting a date or good grades as he was with defeating super villains. But as Peter grew up, along with his audience, his personal concerns became more political. In The Amazing Spider-Man #68 (January 1969), he lends his sympathies, though not his actual support, to fellow college students holding a protest for affordable campus housing.

But while Marvel may have made the opening bid in what’s known as the “relevance” trend in comics, DC quickly upped the ante.

Green Lantern was one of several Silver Age superheroes DC created by borrowing the name of a fallen Golden Age star and applying it to a wholly new character. These revised editions reflected the idealism and fascination with science that exemplified post-WWII America. While the Golden Age Green Lantern had wielded a magic ring, the ring of his Silver Age successor was created by an advanced alien race that enlisted him into their intergalactic police force. When sales of this new Green Lantern’s comic book began to falter, DC Comics brought in writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams to try a radically new storytelling approach.

O’Neil first added Green Arrow, turning the formerly nondescript superhero into a revolutionary, more in keeping with his Robin Hood roots. Using Green Arrow as a cranky liberal foil to Green Lantern’s traditional law and order morality, O’Neil began a lively debate on a variety of pressing social concerns.

It started in 1970, the year many comics historians mark as the beginning of the more mature Bronze Age of Comics.  In Green Lantern #76, an elderly African-American gentleman poignantly asks the title character why he devotes so much time to protecting the many-hued inhabitants of planets throughout the universe while ignoring the plight of people of color on his own world. Bowing his head in shame, Green Lantern is really taking the fall for comic book publishers, writers and artists who had failed for decades to reflect the racially diverse reality of the world in which comic book readers lived.

Panels from Green Lantern #76

From there, Green Lantern spent the next two years addressing such topics as political corruption, Native American rights, sexism, overpopulation, and pollution, and introduced a militant African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart. In one issue, O’Neil and Adams presented veiled commentary on the trial of the Chicago Eight, who had been charged with conspiracy in the aftermath of  police-incited riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

During the convention, the evening news televised nightly scenes of cops brutalizing protesters—along with journalists, convention-goers, and anyone else who carelessly got within nightstick-reach. The defendants accused of deliberately orchestrating the riot were social justice activists and community organizers David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. During the trial, Black Panther Party co-founder Seale was gagged and bound to his chair after repeatedly disrupting the proceedings by demanding (in a sometimes less than respectful manner) his right to represent himself (he was eventually removed from the proceedings entirely, leaving behind the Chicago Seven).

The trial concluded February 18, 1970, with all seven defendants being found not guilty of conspiracy (but convicted of contempt of court and other charges). The cover of Green Lantern #80, which went on sale about six months later, showed its title character and his two companions bound, gagged and also on trial for conspiracy. (A similar image that appeared two years later on the title page of The Incredible Hulk #153 made doubly sure the allusion wasn’t lost by including lyrics from the Graham Nash song about the Chicago Eight trial.)

Bound and gagged

O’Neil’s innovative writing and Adams’ realistic art received favorable reviews in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, gaining national attention for Green Lantern and a new air of respectability for comic books in general. This led to something of a “relevance race,” where publishers tried to find more controversial social issues to tackle in their comic books. Nothing at the time was more controversial than the Vietnam War, which, as it happened, was directly responsible for the creation of what today is one of Marvel Comics’ most famous (and lucrative) superhero characters.

Iron Man #78. September 1975.As I explained in my post on comics of the 50s and early 60s, anti-Communism was once the driving force behind the origins of many Marvel superheroes. In the case of millionaire munitions magnate, Tony Stark, he was mortally wounded by a landmine while conducting a field test of one of his latest weapons in Vietnam. Captured by Chinese guerrillas who demanded he make weapons for them, Stark instead constructed a mechanized suit of battle armor to make his escape as the invincible Iron Man. In his 1963 debut, Iron Man showed no mercy to the “Red Menace” and no doubt in his government’s noble intentions (and actions) in Southeast Asia. But by 1975, Vietnam protesters had gained the upper hand in shaping public opinion against the war, aided by disturbing events such as the My Lai Massacre and the release of the Pentagon Papers. Suddenly, Iron Man, the former poster child for the might of the military-industrial complex, was now deeply conflicted about his personal role in the war and his government’s true motives behind waging it.

Panels from Iron Man #78

Tony Stark has a change of heart. From Iron Man #78. Written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by George Tuska.

The Amazing Spider-Man #96

The CCA-seal-less cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #96. Art by Gil Kane. See the upper right corner of the comics covers above for comparison.

The changed public attitude about the Vietnam War and the government expressed by Tony Stark were reflected in relaxed provisions adopted by the Comics Code Authority four years earlier. After Marvel editor Stan Lee accepted a request from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to have Spider-Man address the issue of drug abuse, he was told the CCA prohibited any mention of drugs, even if it was in a negative light. Lee decided to run the anti-drug story anyway, without the CCA’s seal of approval, in The Amazing Spider-Man #s 96-98 (cover dated May-July 1971). The positive publicity this brought Marvel finally forced the CCA to acknowledge that there were as many college students as kids reading comic books, and it revised its Standards accordingly. An addendum to the prohibition against encouraging disrespect for ”policemen, judges and government officials” allowed it only on the condition that, “If any of these is depicted committing an illegal act, it must be declared as an exceptional case and that the culprit pay the legal price.”

But unlike the Manhattan-based “Big Two” publishers DC and Marvel, the independent creators of the Underground Comix movement that had sprung up on the opposite coast in San Francisco weren’t bound to the draconian dictates of the CCA. These twenty-something artists and writers used comics to promote their counterculture values of drug use, free love, rock music and rebellion against authority. Most of the stories they created didn’t deal with superheroes, and the few that did used them to confront the traditional values and institutions upheld by their mainstream peers.

Larry Welz’s Fillmore Grinchbottom is a powerless nobody until he chugs a can of magic beer and is transformed into Captain Guts, “raging avenger of the establishment.” For three issues (1969-71), Captain Guts brutally dispatched hippies, minorities and other imagined threats to straight, white, Christian America. In contrast, Spain RodriguesTrashman (1968-85), is a counterculture James Bond who uses mystic powers gained through his training by the anarcho-Marxist Sixth International to fight the fascist U.S. government of a near-future dystopia.  Probably the most famous Underground comix superhero is Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog (1968-90). This snout-faced, hyper-patriotic powerhouse satirically exposes the hypocrisy in our democracy by furiously defending it. In the 1970 story “Believe It or Leave It: You Don’t Know How Good You Got It Here in America, Bub,” Wonder Wart-Hog points out how lucky readers are to live in a country free of corrupt political bosses and secret police, while the panels his narration appears on show caricatures of then President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Underground Heroes

Captain America #176

Disgusted with his government, Cap calls it quits. Captain America #176. Cover art by John Romita.

Wonder-Warthog’s implied criticism of Nixon and Hoover was something beyond the capabilities of mainstream comics publishers at the time. The Comics Code Authority’s revised 1971 Standards still didn’t allow stories to “promote distrust of the forces of law and justice.”  That’s one reason why, in Captain America #175, published in the wake of Watergate (July 1974), it is a fictitious, unnamed and unseen U.S. President who commits suicide after his part in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government is exposed to the public. This traumatic event leads a disillusioned Captain America to temporarily abandon his costume and name, adopting the identity of Nomad, The Man Without a Country. (For the full story, see the “Love it or leave it” section of Part 3 in my 2011 series of posts on Captain America.)

It wasn’t until 15 years after Spider-Man first loosened the Comics Code’s stranglehold on creative and political expression that mainstream superhero comics would portray Nixon, and another iconic Commander-in-Chief, in the less than flattering light many people felt they deserved.

Stay tuned for Part 7: All the President’s super men

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Hooded injustice

Zimmerman justice by George Danby

Cartoon by George Danby. danbyink.bangordailynews.com
Of course, most of the public outrage over the verdict comes from a perception that it was “the American Way.”

If Trayvon Martin had lived in Gotham City, he’d still be alive.

Because in comic books, vigilantes are never wrong.

That’s really the most remarkable and important thing about a superhero (the comic book term for “vigilante”).

X-ray and microscopic vision, golden lassos of truth and hyper-senses empower superheroes to infallibly sort the guilty from the innocent. If a superhero ever does falsely apprehend someone, it inevitably turns out to be the result of an elaborate frame-up masterminded by one of his or her arch nemeses.

The Dark Knight

From Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

But even in such a rare case, no real harm is done, because comic book vigilantes—at least the ones I grew up with—don’t use guns and never kill. Even those without the advantage of invulnerability, super speed or super strength are so skilled in unarmed combat that they are able to subdue any miscreant humanely (that is, if you consider it more humane to beat people unconscious than to shoot them).

Unfortunately for Trayvon Martin, and all those who loved him, he lived in Sanford, Fla., not Gotham City, and George Zimmerman isn’t Batman. He was a real-life alleged vigilante armed with a gun, poor judgement and most deadly of all, his state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives any citizen the right to use lethal force against anyone they see (or claim they saw) as a threat.

Full disclosure: I didn’t meticulously follow every minute of testimony shared with the world by the media, and like virtually everyone else expressing an opinion about this case, wasn’t in the courtroom. And like all but two people, one of whom has been forever silenced, I wasn’t there when Zimmerman killed Martin.

But he did kill him. The armed and adult Zimmerman followed the ”suspicious” teenager despite being told by the police* that they didn’t need him to. It seems certain that Zimmerman was frustrated and perhaps hostile, being fed up with crime in his neighborhood and that, as he said on the 911 call that night, “These assholes, they always get away.” Maybe Martin was frightened and hostile about being followed by, as he allegedly told a friend on the phone moments before his death, “a creepy-ass cracker.”

However the confrontation unfolded from there, because of its outcome, I think the failure of the Florida legal system to hold Zimmerman at all responsible for his actions sends a truly horrible and hurtful message, on two counts.

Trayvon by Nick Anderson

Cartoon my Nick Anderson. blog.chron.com/nickanderson

First, Zimmerman’s acquittal means that in the eyes of the law, he was justified in killing Martin. From this, it’s only natural that some people—including Martin’s loved ones—might infer that the state essentially found Martin guilty of having done something for which he deserved to die. Although Florida’s racially-biased Stand Your Ground law put the burden on Martin to posthumously prove his innocence, the burden should have been on Zimmerman to prove that Martin’s actions on what turned out to be the last night of his life merited a death sentence.

Stand Your Ground Law by Mike Keefe

Cartoon by Mike Keefe.
www.intoon.com

Second, Zimmerman’s acquittal may just encourage future copycats who put themselves in similarly hazardous situations to make sure they always shoot to kill. As demonstrated here, being the only person left alive after an alleged self-defense confrontation does away with the possibility of any rebuttals to the shooter’s sole eyewitness testimony. In this case, Zimmerman admitted that he’s the one who made the conscious decision to set his life on a collision course with Martin’s. Had the 17-year-old survived the impact of that decision, he could have just as easily invoked the Stand Your Ground defense to justify attacking Zimmerman.

The failure of the jury to find Zimmerman guilty of even the lesser charge of manslaughter has inflicted yet another terrible wound on Martin’s family, the town of Sanford, the state of Florida and the nation as a whole.

Racist profiling
Another truism of comic books is that the villains are wholly and irredeemably evil.

We’ve established that George Zimmerman isn’t Batman. He’s also not the Joker.

Yet the almost gleeful enthusiasm and vulgar expletives with which some people have denounced him as a racist seem disturbingly similar to the way a member of the KKK would refer to Trayvon Martin.

This sort of one-dimensional character analysis is beneath even some comic books.

In the first issue of Grant Morrison’s comic book series, The Invisibles**, King Mob, leader of a freedom fighting band of revolutionaries, breaks into an evil indoctrination center to rescue the latest recruit to his team. In the process, he shoots several armed and helmeted security guards, putting a bullet right through the visor and between the eyes of one of them. Eleven issues later, Morrison interrupts the ongoing story line in the series to suddenly reintroduce this random guard and flashback through his entire life. We see a boy named Bobby being raised by an abusive father and growing up to be a struggling working class veteran in a troubled marriage who eventually makes the fatefully fatal decision to take the security job as his only means to support his wife and special needs daughter.

Suddenly, this faceless and all-but-forgotten character from the first issue seems less like a thoughtless thug, and King Mob seems less like a hero.

There is at least a reasonable doubt as to what motivated Zimmerman to follow Martin (granted this is partly because the other participant in the altercation is dead).

Reducing someone to a single negative character trait or bad behavior is something people throughout the centuries have done to outcast those they perceive as “Other” from the rest of humanity and absolve society from having to regard them as individuals.

And it’s exactly what caused this tragedy in the first place.

The bitter irony is that, in setting out to watch over his neighborhood, George Zimmerman may have become its greatest threat. Ultimately, he ended up killing Treyvon Martin not because of the color of his skin or what he was wearing, but because he chose to see him as an Other when he should have seen him as a neighbor.

* I realize that the outcome for Trayvon Martin may well have been exactly the same had he been confronted by the police. In fact, giving George Zimmerman a badge might have been the only thing that could have made him more dangerous.

** It is impossible to adequately explain this mind altering, spy thriller, roller coaster ride of conspiracy theories, metaphysics, graphic violence and slightly less graphic sex, but I give it a shot here.

 

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Standing up for women

Texas state Senator Wendy DavisTexas Senator Wendy Davis walked right out of a Frank Capra movie and into the world spotlight when she stood on the floor of her state senate for more than 11 hours June 25th to filibuster a bill that would severely (and unconstitutionally) deny Texas women access to safely performed abortions and other healthcare services. Senate Republicans practiced parliamentary chicanery to end the filibuster one hour short of its midnight goal, but motions made by Davis’ fellow Democratic senators and thunderous chants of “Let her speak!” from the (mostly female) observers in the gallery helped run out the clock on the special congressional session and kill the bill (temporarily).

Sen. Davis’ heroic stand for women’s rights was an instant social media sensation (it was overshadowed in most mainstream media outlets by the news of the following day—the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of DOMA and California’s Prop. 9).

What heroes WearAppropriately and unsurprisingly, superhero memes featuring Davis quickly began to populate Facebook and Twitter. The image that caught my attention was one by Steve Marmel likening the bright pink sneakers the senator wore during her filibuster to other examples of famous superhero footwear. The comparison between Wendy Davis and Wonder Woman seemed particularly fitting to me given the impassioned defense of women’s reproductive rights the Amazonian ambassador once delivered before the United Nations (as depicted by writer Joe Kelly and artist Phil Jimenez in the July 2001, Wonder Woman #170 [Copyright DC Comics]).

Panel from Wonder Woman #170, July 2001. Written by Joe Kelly and drawn by Phil Jimenez. Copyright DC Comics.

protect reproductive rights in Texas. We can Do it!When Governor Rick Perry called yet another special session of the Texas legislature July 1 to once again try to push this bill through, I took the opportunity to carry on the Wonder Woman/reproductive rights meme. To show support for Sen. Davis and her allies as they geared up for battle again, the group Stand With Texas Women asked people to post orange pro-choice profile badges on their Facebook pages. In response, I created some of my own designs by merging SWTW slogans with repurposed Wonder Woman images. Another of my badges uses concept art for a contemporary series of DC Comics collectible statuettes inspired by WWII pinup art to create an homage to the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster of that period. What I like about this image is that it evokes the era that Wonder Woman was originally created, and when the seeds of modern feminism were sown by real women who were cutting their own apron strings and entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers to do jobs traditionally assigned to men. I also appreciated the chance to recast this image from its intended purpose as fanboy erotica into an icon of female liberation.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that has plagued Wonder Woman and other female superheroes for more than 70 years. Almost exclusively created by men for consumption by male readers, they have constantly been presented as objects of male fantasy. While comic book super men are depicted in costumes and stances meant to convey power and inspire great deeds, super women are often drawn in impractically revealing outfits and centerfold poses meant to arouse and titillate. Even a feminist icon like Wonder Woman, who psychiatrist William Moulton Marston created as an alternative to what he saw as the “blood-curdling masculinity” of male superheroes, is often depicted as more bathing beauty than Amazon warrior. (In fact, I began this site three years ago today with a post about the controversy over DC Comics’ decision to replace Wonder Woman’s bikini bottoms with a pair of proper pants–which were quickly stripped from her.)

Abortion rights protest at the Texas state capitol building in Austin. 7/1/13
Photo by Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of real-life women in Texas right now modeling the sort of truly heroic behavior that has achieved seemingly superhuman feats against impossible odds throughout our country’s history. Inspired and mobilized by Sen. Davis’ actions, thousands of orange-clad warriors descended on Austin over the past two weeks to fight for justice. They demonstrated outside the capitol building and testified before the state Senate and House. And out of this popular uprising, more heroes emerged.

Sarah Slamen (who goes by the Twitter handle, @VictorianPrude) used the time she was given to address the members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to call them out on their hypocrisy and graphically describe the suffering individual senator’s would be inflicting on women and children throughout the state by pushing their extremist religious views and bad science on the people of Texas. As intolerant of free speech as freedom of (or from) religion, just two minutes into Ms. Slamen’s testimony, presiding Sen. Jane Nelson had her forcibly removed from the building by three troopers. Despite this thuggish effort to silence her, Ms. Slamen got to deliver the rest of her remarks to a national audience two days later on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Today will most likely be the last stand of Sen. Davis and her supporters–at least for now. With weeks still left in the congressional session and another filibuster out of the question, the anti-women bill championed by Gov. Perry and the Republican legislature will almost certainly pass this time. But that will just be the beginning of the next series of battles against state-enforced misogyny, which may even end with Wendy Davis taking Rick Perry’s job.

Regardless of the obstacles or final outcome, Wendy Davis, Sarah Slamen, and thousands of other Texans remain committed to waging a never-ending battle for truth and justice that will guarantee women the right to protect their health and that of their families.

And hopefully they’ll show comic book publishers and readers that this is exactly the sort of cause that any self-respecting superhero should stand up for too.

Posted in Activism, Non Fiction, Personal heroism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sometimes, the good guys wear black

Cover to The Liberator #1. Copyright Matt Miner. Cover art by Tim Seeley.

On my birthday this Wednesday, June 19, publisher Black Mask Studios will be presenting me with a very special gift that combines two of my favorite things—animal activism and comics. Even better, it’s a gift that will go out to everyone reading this as well.

Conceived and written by Matt Miner, with art by Javier Sanchez Aranda, Liberator # 1 introduces Damon Guerrero, a fictional version of many real life heroes who are willing to take direct action, and risk arrest, to free hundreds of voiceless victims from misery and eventual death inside factory farms, fur farms, vivisection laboratories, puppy mills and other production lines of institutionalized animal cruelty. The story opens with the black-garbed Guerrero (which is Spanish for “warrior”) sneaking onto the grounds of a dog fighting ring under cover of darkness to free its canine captives and torch* the empty trailer where the owners run their illegal gambling and drug operations. Guerrero is another kind of Dark Knight; defending otherwise invisible victims of heinous crimes that violate the laws not just of the courts, but of nature and basic humanity. And in setting himself above the laws recognized by society, he follows in the tradition of literary freedom fighters—like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro—who inspired the creators of Batman, Superman and other modern comic book superheroes. As stated by ComicBooked.com:

“Unlike any comic book project to date, Miner delivers a message about the world of animal abuse from the point-of-view of someone with expert knowledge on the matter, while blending it with a gritty protagonist in the vein of Batman or The Punisher.”

I encourage anyone who loves animals, and is outraged by the injustices routinely inflicted on them by humans, to pick up a copy of Liberator #1 when it arrives at your local comic book store this Wednesday. And if you’re going to be in New York City on Wednesday, please stop by JHU Comic Books for a 6 p.m. release day signing event with Matt Miner and Liberator editor/letterer Vitto Delsante.

Not only will you be supporting a new comic book creator and his efforts to tell a very important story, you’ll be helping to take direct action on behalf of animals, since 30% of the profits from each copy sold will go to support pit bull rescue.

Because justice shouldn’t just be something you read about in comics, and it shouldn’t just belong to those of us who can read or write them.

*A disclaimer about arson

Although I commend the extralegal actions of others who responsibly free and relocate animals being imprisoned, tortured and killed by humans; confiscate evidence to expose the barbaric activities of animal abusers; and destroy instruments used to carry out such cruelty, I condemn the use of arson (or bombs) to destroy whole buildings and other structures where animals may be housed and or exploited.  Despite Guerrero’s claim in Liberator #1 that he’s “careful nobody dies, nobody gets hurt,” as an animal rights activist, that would require that he make sure any indigenous rodents, insects or spiders were evacuated from the trailer before he set fire to it. In addition, firefighters responding to the blaze will risk their lives trying to put it out.

Fire and explosives are uncontrollable and pose too much of a threat to innocent people and animals for me to consider them legitimate tools in the cause of any social justice movement.

Posted in Activism, Animal advocacy | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Metapocalypse now

MorrisonCon program

MorrisonCon program cover. Art by Chris Burnham.

What if Grant Morrison hosted a comic book convention and it changed the world?

That’s exactly what happened nearly two weeks ago at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, although you probably haven’t noticed any difference yet.

But if Grant Morrison is right, you will.

The brainchild of James Sime, Kirsten Baldock and Ron Richards, and curated by Grant (with his wife Kristan), MorrisonCon was designed to tear down traditional comic book conventions (in both senses of the word) and rebuild them from the ground up into an intimate salon experience promoting an exchange of ideas and creative visions about the comics art form. More than 400 people made the pilgrimage to the Nevada desert to attend panels and participate in activities developed by Grant and featuring his nine hand-picked collaborators and co-conspirators: Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Thief of Thieves), Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, Happy!), Jason Aaron (Scalped, Avengers vs. X-Men), Jim Lee (X-Men, WildC.A.T.s, Justice League), Gerard Way (The Umbrella Academy), Jonathan Hickman (S.H.I.E.L.D., The Manhattan Projects), Frank Quitely (The Authority, WE3, All-Star Superman), J.H. Williams III (Promethea, Wild Girl, Batwoman) and Chris Burnham (Officer Downe, Batman Inc. ).

The diverse panel discussions addressed comics-related topics such as writing and drawing; connections to music and movies; the worlds of science, metaphysics, magic and myth; Jungian archetypal imagery; and the hastening evolution of human consciousness and technology as we approach the predicted Mayan apocalypse on December 21, 2012.

Expect maximum rock 'n' roll, chaos magic, mind-bending esoterica, sharp suits, surprise guests, and once-in-a-lifetime performances, all wrapped up in the glory that is comics, comics, and more comics.  Grant Morrison

As fascinating and exhilarating as I found all these discussions, they’re not the sort of subjects I usually address on this blog. But even though it wasn’t the topic of a panel, one of my favorite qualities of Grant Morrison’s work is that it has often pushed the boundaries of society’s accepted notions of justice.

I first got hooked on Morrison reading Animal Man, which, besides being an amazingly well-crafted work of metafiction, sought to expose one of the most pervasive and least acknowledged abuses of power in the modern world (as it was in the ancient one): the human exploitation, enslavement, torture and mass killing of the other animals with whom our species shares the planet. The Invisibles was a metaphorical representation of the eternal struggle for individual freedom, self-expression and self-identity against the authoritarian demands for conformity enforced by governments, corporations and religious institutions.

Animal Man #26

Animal Man meets his maker. Words by Grant Morrison, art by Chas Truog and Mark Farmer.

But when Grant left Animal Man in issue 26, donning his first fiction suit to enter the comic book reality he’d created and confront its title character, he explained that his decision was based in part on a feeling that his animal rights story lines had become too “preachy.” By the time Grant’s epic The Invisibles reached its conclusion, the messianic Jack Frost had realized that the battle between freedom and control was a false dichotomy. At MorrisonCon, Grant explained it in Buddhist terms—that we are all as one, both oppressor and victim, villain and hero.

Grant’s decades of work in comics led him to conclude that superheroes are not well-suited for resolving the infinite crises that plague the real world. In his book, Supergods, Grant wrote that “The presumption that superheroes could literally show us how to end hunger or poverty seemed as naive as a belief in fairies.”

I asked Grant during a Q&A session at MorrisonCon if he still felt this way. He replied that he didn’t like to be dogmatic and encouraged creators to express their passion for social causes through their comics. His personal feeling is that pointing fingers at people is one of the surest ways to turn off readers and is never a very effective way of inspiring change. I conceded that his powerful and emotionally riveting WE3 did a much better job than Animal Man of arguing the cause of justice for all beings (in equal part due to the beautiful art of Frank Quitely), even though no one in the story ever mentions the subject of animal rights. (On a related note, I was happy to hear Grant say that he still cares about animal issues and supports animal charities.)

Grant also shared, repeatedly during the weekend, his belief that it is not any one person’s responsibility to save the world. His advice was to just be the best you can be, at whatever path you are called to pursue. Be kind. Be a good friend and neighbor. Be a positive influence on others. Of course, it follows that, if everyone takes this advice, the world will no longer be in need of saving.

That, to me, was the most important and profound message to come out of MorrisonCon. And the most revolutionary.

Justice in our society (and in our comics) has always been retroactive. Someone commits a wrong against someone else, and police and the courts (or superheroes) step in to right it. Unfortunately, that’s inherently impossible. Once the scales are upset, they can never be fully balanced again. Even if the perpetrators of injustice are apprehended and sent to prison, and losses or damages are compensated for, nothing can undo the harm that was done to the victims (unless they can find the inner strength to forgive and move past it on their own).

The only real justice is preemptive. Living a life of tolerance and compassion so that the scales are never unbalanced in the first place.

The Invisibles Omnibus

Weapon of mass deconstruction

And that was the true miracle of MorrisonCon. It turned Las Vegas into the testing ground for a meta bomb (-physical and -fictional) with the potential to send out shock waves that could change the consciousness and conscience of society. The event was a neon hand grenade primed to remake the world in the image of anyone willing to pull the pin—like one of Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects opening a portal to J.H. Williams III’s Immateria. Based on most of the comments my fellow attendees have been tweeting since then, the explosion of creativity, good will and camaraderie generated that weekend has already changed the worlds of the 400-plus people who were caught in the blast.

And now we have scattered from the Nevada desert to the far reaches of the globe, rippling outward in a chain reaction that will continue touching other lives—through art, personal relationships and activism—triggering more explosions until a critical mass is reached that can rewrite the story of our collective future.

And eventually the whole world will be changed, the only way it ever has been—one heart and mind at a time.

My road to MorrisonCon

1990: Working as a correspondent at PETA when Grant finishes his run on Animal Man, I write and send him (via DC Comics) a letter from the organization officially commending his animal advocacy (and exceptional storytelling). I don’t know if it was ever forwarded to him.

1996: After reading Flex Mentallo, I write my second letter to Grant (via Vertigo Comics), this time thanking him for rewriting a happy ending to a personal tragedy in my life. Again, I don’t know if he ever received the letter.

1999: Working with DC Comics as the Director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program, I try unsuccessfully to get Grant, who is writing JLA at the time, to write our educational comic book, Superman for the Animals. (The assignment is instead given to Mark Millar.)

2002: Consulting with Marvel Comics on my second Comics for Compassion project, I make another unsuccessful attempt to get Grant, who at this point is working on New X-Men, to write the story that will eventually be published in X-Men Unlimited #44. (In the end, the Genesis Award-winning story, ”Can They Suffer?”, is written by Chuck Austen.)

2005: In April I give a PowerPoint presentation, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons, and Graphics,” which focuses heavily on Animal Man and WE3, at the Grassroots Animal Rights Conference in New York City. An excerpt from that presentation is the basis for my article published the following month in Satya magazine, “United Animal Kingdom: Grant Morrison’s All-Species Comics.”

2007: I meet Grant for the first time in NYC after he appears on a panel discussing superheroes as part of that year’s New Yorker Festival. He signs my first issues of Animal Man, The Invisibles and WE3 and I give him a printed copy of my 2005 PowerPoint presentation (and, I think, a copy of the letter I sent him while working for PETA).

2010: Our house is broken into and, along with more traditionally stolen items, the thief takes several of my Grant Morrison comics, including the three Grant signed for me. (Several months earlier, almost my entire run of The Invisibles—excluding issue #1—was destroyed in a basement flood that claimed hundreds of my comic books.)

Me and Grant Morrison2012: Trying to find a way to replace my Grant-signed comics, my wife Vicki stumbles on MorrisonCon, which I somehow have not heard of, and buys me a ticket as a 50th birthday present. During my encounters with Grant at MorrisonCon, I get several items signed, have my picture taken with him, and finally get to thank him in person (as well as Frank Quitely) for Flex Mentallo.

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Dynamic Duo (Part 2)

Jack Kirby, known as the “King of Comics,” brings a visual dynamic to the duo of iconic figures I’m celebrating for their influence on my life. Kirby, who would have been 95 today, is one of the founding fathers of the comics industry and one of the art form’s greatest masters. He defined the graphic vocabulary of depicting superhero action, was instrumental in building the world’s biggest comics publishing empire, and his seemingly limitless imagination introduced generations of readers to countless worlds of awe-inspiring visual majesty and wonder. Unfortunately, unlike social justice icon Howard Zinn, I never got to meet Kirby, but his lifelong passion for graphic storytelling was crucial in kindling my own.

The Cosmic King
The man who would be King was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. The young Kirby drew as a way of escaping from the impoverished conditions of his neighborhood (he sometimes used the hallway walls of the tenement building his family lived in as a sketch pad). Essentially self-taught, in late 1939 he began working for the movie animation company Fleischer Studios, and then, as the Golden Age of comic books took off, he began writing and drawing for the comic-book packager, Eisner & Iger Studio. Working in all comic book genres under a variety of pseudonyms, in 1942 he legally changed his name to Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney (and not, as some people claimed, to hide his Jewish heritage). This was the same year that Kirby married Rosalind Goldstein, with whom he would eventually raise four children (another coincidental similarity between Kirby and fellow New Yorker and son of Jewish immigrants Howard Zinn, was that both men married women who went by the name “Roz”).

One of Kirby’s earliest and most famous contributions to comics history was creating Captain America in 1941, with partner Joe Simon, for the company that would one day be known as Marvel Comics. Simon and Kirby soon moved to DC Comics, where they produced the kid gang comics Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion and eventually went on to create the romance comic genre.  In 1958, Kirby (without Simon) returned to Marvel Comics, where he drew everything from westerns to giant monster stories (which were one of my early childhood favorites). Then, starting in 1961, Kirby and Marvel editor Stan Lee began a nearly 10-year creative collaboration that is widely regarded as the most significant and successful in comics history. During this period, Kirby co-created characters and groups including the Fantastic FourThor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer and Nick Fury (in his roles as both leader of the Howling Commandos and as a later agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). But despite Kirby’s contributions to the success of Marvel Comics, which became known as “The House That Jack Built,” he left the company for the second time in 1970 to work again for DC Comics, due to disputes over creative control, credit, compensation and ownership of his original artwork.

This is where I come in. At eight years old, 1971 was my first full year as a comic book reader, so my first exposure to Kirby was the amazing array of comics he began writing and drawing for DC at the time. These included his epic Fourth World saga, which chronicled the conflict between the super-powered celestial beings of New Genesis and the demonic denizens of Apokolips, led by the evil Darkseid. Consisting of New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle, these titles were Kirby’s attempt to create a modern mythology that would present primordial archetypes with superhero style.

Over the next year, Kirby also introduced readers to a centuries-old Arthurian demon doing battle in the present with equally ancient witches and warlocks; the last boy on a post-apocalyptic earth ruled by mutated anthropomorphic animals; a meek everyman in a soul-numbing future utopia transformed into a One Man Army Corps by a sentient satellite; and a superheroic master of Dreams protecting sleeping children from marauding nightmares. This was unfettered Kirby unleashing the full force of his imagination on impressionable young eyes and minds like mine in images so full of energy that they could barely be contained on the page.

Despite this outpouring of ideas at DC, in 1975 Stan Lee coaxed Kirby back to Marvel. In addition to working on his superhero creations Captain America and Black Panther, Kirby explored more cosmic concepts in series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, ancient astronaut theories, and anachronistic prehistory.  But perhaps predictably, after just three years, Kirby’s continued dissatisfaction with Marvel’s treatment of him, including the company’s refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, caused him to leave the publishing house that he built for the third and last time (See the Comics Reporter for an impressive sampling of Kirby’s art throughout his career).

cinema a la kirbySince Kirby’s death in 1994, DC and Marvel have continued to profit from the characters and worlds he created. Although neither of the two comic book publishing giants ever gave Kirby the compensation he deserved, his mistreatment by Marvel, which I described in a previous post, is legendary. Adding insult to injury, over the past 12 years, movies based on characters and stories Kirby created with Stan Lee have grossed $6.5 billion worldwide. Marvel and its parent company, Disney Studios, have fought Kirby’s heirs in court to prevent them from receiving one cent of that money and, perhaps worse, to deny their father’s contributions to the original works that generated all this wealth.

One of the biggest disappointments over Marvel/Disney’s actions for me as a comic book fan, and the greatest betrayal to Kirby and his family, has been the credit his longtime collaborator Stan Lee has taken as the primary architect of the Marvel Universe. Immediately after the big bang that started it all in 1961, and during the years of expansion that followed, Lee was explicit about Kirby’s role in Marvel’s success. In a 1968 interview, Lee admitted:

Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Doctor Doom” . . . or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing . . . I may tell him that he’s gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.

But when he testified on Marvel’s behalf during the copyright lawsuit, which the Kirby heirs lost, he made it seem like he was the captain directing every element of story production:

STAN LEE: Well, it was my job to dream up new characters or to continue with the characters we had and to pick the best artists and the best writers unless I wrote something my — I had the privilege, which now that I think back, it was rare, but I could either write stories myself or I could hire writers. I couldn’t write everything. And it was my job to hire the artists to draw the stories. And I did that for quite a number of years.
Q. And did you give instructions to the artists as to how you wanted the story to go?
STAN LEE: Oh, yes. That was my job as Art Director.
Q. So in addition to writing, you were also the Art Director?
STAN LEE: Yes.

More shocking to me were statements Lee made during an interview this year to promote both The Avengers and an autobiographical documentary released by Lee’s own production company. After expressing confusion as to why Kirby’s name should appear in the movie credits for The Avengers,  Lee tried to pass the buck, saying that (despite his status as Editor Emeritus of Marvel Comics and Executive Producer on every Marvel Studios film) he had nothing to do with deciding who got credits in the movie. Then he complained that he thought he was going to be asked about his documentary, ironically titled, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.

This title is taken from Lee’s most quoted line as a comic book writer (from the 1962 first appearance of Spider-Man), “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” Lee enjoys the adoration of millions of comics fans, international fame as a pop cultural icon, and millions of dollars on Disney’s payroll. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to risk losing all that by speaking out against the House of the Mouse in Kirby’s defense. But Lee would have none of those things in the first place if not for Jack Kirby. Lee is the only person who can set the record straight about Kirby’s co-authorship of the Marvel Universe and help his heirs get at least some fraction of the recognition and compensation that the King never got during his earthly reign. I just hope that Lee finds the power to live up to that responsibility, before it’s too late.

Posted in Creators' rights, History, Superheroes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dynamic Duo (Part 1)

Starting today, I am celebrating the birthdays of two iconic figures who are among the most well-known and loved men in their respective fieldssocial justice and comic art storytelling. Even though these two sons of working class Jewish immigrants were born only five years and about six miles apart in early 20th century New York City, to my knowledge they never met or even had any awareness of each others’ existence. In contrast, not only was I aware of both of them (and eventually met and frequently corresponded with one of them), but they have been instrumental in shaping the two great passions of my life. That makes them largely responsible for the existence of this blog, which makes it fitting that I remember them as the superheroes they were, and are, to me.

Professor Z
Howard Zinn was born on August 24, 1922, in Brooklyn, where he grew up during the Great Depression. Both his immigrant parents were factory workers with limited education when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the series of apartments where they raised their children. Zinn’s love of reading started when he picked up a discarded copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar that someone had tossed in the street. His parents further encouraged his interest in literature by sending 10 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens’ collected works (which provided his first introduction to the long history of class struggle). He also studied creative writing in a special program at Thomas Jefferson High School.

At 18 he became a shipyard worker and then flew bomber missions during World War II. These experiences helped shape his opposition to war and passion for history. In 1944 he married Roslyn Shechter, with whom he would raise two children. After attending college under the GI Bill and earning a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, he taught at Spelman College, where he became active in the civil rights movement (one of his students, Alice Walker, would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Color Purple). After being fired by Spelman for his support for student protesters, Zinn became a professor of Political Science at Boston University, where he taught until his retirement, as a Professor Emeritus, in 1988 (his young neighbors in Boston, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, became Zinn’s lifelong admirers).

I first became aware of Howard Zinn in 1990, when an anarchist coworker introduced me to his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1980, and been featured on The Sopranos and The Simpsons, and in the film Good Will Hunting (written by and starring his since grown protégés, Matt and Ben). Reading that book gave me a new appreciation for U.S. history, which at a mere 200-plus years, I had always considered too short to be of much interest. It also demonstrated to me that “history isn’t what happened, but a story of what happened,” and that with very few exceptions, the story of our nation’s history has been told by rich, white men of privilege. A Peoples’ History (along with the several others of Zinn’s more than 20 books I later read) taught me that the great leaders of history, usually credited with directing our country’s sometimes agonizingly slow journey toward the pledged goal of “liberty and justice for all,” seldom really led so much as they were dragged toward it—sometimes kicking and screaming—by outraged masses of common people. The most valuable lesson I learned from Professor Zinn was that true patriotism requires an honest examination, and sometimes criticism of those leaders’ past actions and motivations, because if you believe your country has done no wrong, it’s easy to believe it can do no wrong—which inevitably results in it committing truly terribly wrongs.

I met Howard Zinn for the first time at a 1995 book signing at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., which coincided with the release of a revised and updated edition of A Peoples’ History. Shortly after that meeting I began corresponding with him, eventually sending him my proposal for an as-yet-unrealized book on the history of social justice issues portrayed in superhero comic books.

Me and Howard Zinn at Politics & Prose in 1995Howard wrote to me that, although he had been a fan of pulp magazine heroes such as Doc Savage (also one of my favorites), he “never followed the superheroes in comics, though of course I was aware of Superman and Batman and the others.” (He was about 16 when the Golden Age of Comics started in 1938, which was probably just old enough to avoid getting caught up in the comic book craze that was enthralling young readers across the nation.)

Despite his lack of personal experience with comic books, he appreciated their potential for conveying important ideas. He wrote this endorsement for Joel Andreas’ 1991 graphic exposé, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism:

“Addicted to War is a witty and devastating portrait of U.S. military policy, a fine example of art serving society.”

One of the proudest moments of my life was reading the endorsement Howard emailed me for my own work: “I think your book proposal is ingenious, unique, important — could be a real contribution to our cultural history.”

Of my opinion that superheroes should be champions of social justice, Howard said:

Sure the dogmatic view of the socially conscious superhero would say: aha, more dependence on individual saviors — not really democratic. On the other hand, kids need heroes, and better an anti-war, anti-Establishment hero — as a transition to a more sophisticated view of [how] social change occurs.

Although comic books had never much influenced Howard, his work did eventually have an influence on comic books. It was a major source of inspiration and information for  Uncle Sam, a two-issue miniseries by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross, originally published in 1998 by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. In it, a homeless man dressed as the title character stumbles through an unnamed American city struggling to remember who he is, while experiencing vivid flashbacks of being present at various moments throughout our nation’s past.

In the second issue, a triptych shows three historic scenes of government violence witnessed by Uncle Sam: Shays’ Rebellion, the Haymarket massacre and the Kent State shootings. Due to my own education from Professor Zinn, I noticed the middle panel mistakenly indicated that the Haymarket incident took place in 1893, rather than the correct year of 1886. I had met Steve Darnall prior to Uncle Sam‘s release at the Small Press Expo I attend every year, so I emailed him to let him know about the error. The date was corrected in the hardback edition collecting the original two issues that came out the following year. Later, I arranged for Steve and Alex to send an autographed copy of the hardback Uncle Sam to Howard.

Panels from Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross

A People's History of American EmpireI had once suggested to Howard that a graphic adaptation of A People’s History would be a great way to reach a whole new audience of readers. I don’t know if he remembered my suggestion or not, but in 2008 that graphic adaptation became a reality. Actually,  A People’s History of American Empire adapts both the original A People’s History and Howard’s 2002 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (which was later made into an award-winning documentary narrated by Matt Damon). Edited by Paul Bruhle, scripted by Dave Wagner and illustrated by Mike Konopacki, Empire primarily focuses on the history of U.S. military expansionism, but also shares  important incidents in U.S. labor history, such as the 1894 Pullman Strike involving 250,000 railway workers across the country and the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which Colorado National Guardsmen opened fire on a tent-colony of 1,200 striking coal miners, killing 19 men, women, and children.

Here’s an eight and a half minute video preview of the book, narrated by Viggo Mortensen.

Jasper Meets Howard Zinn

2010 cartoon by Angelo Lopez featuring Howard Zinn. (Click to enlarge.)

Sadly, Howard Zinn died on January 27, 2010 (he would have been 90 years old today).  Despite this, his presence continues to be felt in the world of comic art, thanks to the works of cartoonists who were among his unofficial students. He was eulogized shortly after his death by Keith Knight, creator of the syndicated newspaper strip, The K Chronicles. Nearly a year later, Howard payed a visit from beyond the grave to political cartoonist Angelo Lopez‘s character, Jasper the Cat, to lift his spirits about the possibilities for meaningful social change and to remind him that President Barack Obama, like all politicians throughout history, must be held accountable to the people (be sure to visit Angelo’s Web site for the second page of this cartoon).

Although the world is greatly diminished by the absence of Howard Zinn from it, I take comfort in knowing that the many people inspired by his work and educated by his writing continue to carry on his struggle for social justice.

Tuesday I will share a post commemorating Jack Kirby, the other half of my Dynamic Duo.

Following that, I will continue my Comic Book Justice series (which is based on the proposal I sent Howard).

 

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Comic Book Justice (Part 5)

Even as a new era of American prosperity began after WWII, the cloud of radioactive ashes drifting outward from Hiroshima and Nagasaki spread a nuclear winter across the globe that froze any hope for a lasting post-war peace dead in its tracks. As communism replaced fascism as America’s ideological opposite, bringing with it the chilling and ever-present threat of atomic annihilation, people huddled together for the warm feeling of security that comes from familiarity and conformity. But that feeling quickly vanished when the whole country soon found itself shivering under the icy stare of the Cold War’s self-proclaimed commander-in-chief.

The big chill
Senator Joe McCarthy and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spread paranoia like frostbite, convincing the American people that the only way to save their way of life was to cut off parts of themselves: chiefly their civil liberties and fellow citizens. Any deviation from the accepted norms of behavior was seen as evidence of communist subversion and a threat to all of society. Although McCarthy and his cronies were able to ruin hundreds of lives in a matter of just a few years,  the senator finally went too far in 1954 when he attacked the U.S. Army. But just as McCarthy was losing both his credibility and his hold over the nation, a troubled doctor was enlisting the aid of another U.S. senator in an attempt to purge the comics industry of its own unwholesome elements.

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Fredric Wertham gets to know his enemy.

Author of the anti-comic book diatribe, Seduction of the Innocent, child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had concluded that because most of the juvenile delinquents he treated in his Harlem clinic read comic books, comic books must be a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. This herculean leap of “logic” conveniently overlooked that nearly every well-adjusted boy and girl in America read comic books too. In 1948, a series of incendiary distortions by Wertham and others published in the popular press led to comic book burnings from coast to coast. Having seemingly forgotten America’s recent triumph over Naziism, communities began reenacting the Third Reich’s crimes against free expression by gathering up and incinerating the works of “deviant” comic book writers and artists they deemed unfit for public consumption.

Comic book burning

Young Americans emulating Hitler Youth at a comic book burning party. Binghamton, New York, 1948.

But such acts of vigilante fascism weren’t good enough for Wertham and his supporters, who would be satisfied with nothing less than having comic book decency enforced by law. Wertham found a willing ally in Senator Estes Kefauver, co-chair of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham testified before the subcommittee as an expert witness, and the allegations he and Kefauver made about the corrupting influence of comics were latched onto by the media, which dramatized these charges with all the hysterical inaccuracy that films like Reefer Madness used to depict the effects of marijuana. In a 1955 episode of the televison news exposé program, Confidential File, host Paul Coates implied that prolonged exposure to horror and crime comic books turns impressionable boys into serial killers (the part of this dramatization I find most horrifying is graphic footage of comic books rolled up in back pockets and tossed on the ground outside). This disturbing program later inspired the title of Ron Mann’s 1988  pro-comic book documentary, Comic Book Confidential, which includes a scene from Confidential File (you can watch the entire 25-minute episode here).

 

Captain Marvel Adventures #140

Korean War-era comic book featuring a story about “Mongol blood drinkers.” Cover dated January 1953.

Wertham and Kefauver also aimed most of their criticism at crime and horror comics, which did contain unsettling excesses of violence and were being marketed to kids. Like many real people at the time, comic book superheroes tried to protect themselves from being blacklisted by loudly proclaiming their patriotism. The Korean War gave the few superhero veterans who survived WWII the chance to prove themselves loyal Americans. They waged a full-scale assault against Soviet agents and Red Chinese soldiers who were rendered with the same sort of Mongol horde imagery that had demonized the Japanese during WWII. But readers no longer saw superheroics as a reasonable or even entertaining response to the alleged communist threat, and superhero comics were quickly crowded off newstand shelves by titles featuring G-Men and other federal agents battling against the Iron Curtain.

The only exceptions were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, whose comic books continued to be published throughout this bleak period. This trio had maintained their popularity precisely because of their wholesome, all-American demeanor and their avoidance of sensitive subjects. But that didn’t save them from  Dr. Wertham, who claimed, “They arouse in children phantasies [sic] of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.” And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

hidden images

Dr. Wertham spotted a subliminal depiction of female genitalia insidiously hidden in this man’s shoulder muscles.

Demonstrating an imagination even more vivid than that of the children he was trying to protect, Wertham saw sexual imagery in almost every comic book panel. But the good doctor’s most damning diagnosis was given to superheroes whose sexuality he thought was directed toward their own gender. Wertham proclaimed that Batman and Robin represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and that their “Lesbian counterpart,” Wonder Woman, was someone who “tortures men, has her own female following, [and] is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman.” These charges were no doubt taken very seriously by parents who probably found the prospect of their kids turning out to be sissies or tomboys just as frightening as the idea of their becoming juvenile delinquents and mass murderers.

Unwilling to wait for the temporary insanity behind such accusations to subside on its own (which it soon did), in November of 1954, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) in an attempt to quell the Senate’s anti-comic book inquisition. The CMAA immediately drafted the Standards of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which placed far greater restrictions on free speech than Congress ever could—without repealing the First Amendment.

CCA seal of approvalFor a comic book to receive the CCA seal of approval on its cover—without which no retailer would sell it—the story inside had to adhere  to the organization’s rigid list of guidelines. Primarily concerned with curtailing depictions of crime, violence, sex and the supernatural, the CCA also sought to wipe out civil unrest through its General Standards Part A: #3, which insisted that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” The lone maverick to challenge the acceptance of the status quo and expose the ugly truths behind the American dream was non-superhero publisher EC Comics, which was soon all but silenced by the severe restrictions placed on it by the CCA. This guaranteed that young readers would never be exposed to any dissenting opinion’s about the wisdom and justness of those who decided what rights they and their parents were entitled to and how and when they could exercise them.

When DC Comics began a superhero revival in 1956, heralding what would come to be known as the “Silver Age” of comics, this formula for success was repeated by a whole new generation of costumed crime-fighters. This ensured that any superhero role model readers might encounter in the pages of a comic book would be an unquestioning supporter of whatever government policy—from segregation to the draft—was in effect at that moment.  But as the next decade unfolded, the attitudes of society, including comic book readers, quickly began to change, and the Comics Code Authority eventually had to change with them.

Next, Part 6: Super power to the people.

Note: For an excellent in-depth account of the Senate hearings, the creation and enforcement of the Comics Code, and the history of government attempts to censor comic books, read  The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 4)

While Superman and several of his costumed comic book peers had begun their careers as champions of the downtrodden, their focus changed with the advent of World War II. Soon, superheroes were racing each other to jump aboard the jingoistic bandwagon and demand the total destruction of America’s enemies overseas. There was little room left for any character still trying to point out problems on the home front. But even though most comic book writers and artists of this period were producing a seemingly endless supply of pro-war adventures, some of them—whether intentionally or not—created comics that exposed the horrors and injustice of war hidden beneath pageantry and propaganda.

Superman #18, 1942

Superman goes from dove to hawk (1942).

All that glitters
December 7, 1941, may have been a “day of infamy,” but it also ushered in a “Golden Age” of opportunity for superheroes. That is the name comic book historians have given to the industry’s formative years when a host of costumed characters was unleashed on young readers eager to share the excitement of the times. Before America’s entry into WWII, Superman had stopped two fictional wars on humanitarian grounds, due to the massive death and suffering all armed conflicts inevitably cause. But once America joined the Allied Forces, he became a poster child for the U.S. war effort (mostly on comic book covers—the stories inside rarely addressed the war, which Superman had already twice demonstrated he would have been able to end in a day).

 Superman painted on B-17 bomber

Reflecting the nation’s sense of outrage in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, grotesque caricatures of the Japanese replaced corrupt Americans as the villain of choice (German Nazis, although usually portrayed as buffoonish or sometimes monstrous, were generally not depicted with the same type of racist imagery). Meeting the “yellow hordes” head on, legions of Golden Age superheroes brutally dispatched the enemy in droves.

Laying waste to the the enemy

No sympathy for the "yellow devils."

Captain America #1

Captain America #1. Cover art by Jack Kirby. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Sometimes almost literally draped in the flag, a host of super patriots—including the Fighting Yank, Minute Man, Major Victory, the Spirit of ‘76, and even Uncle Sam himself—gleefully leapt into the fray. The most famous of these star-spangled heroes is Captain America. Almost a full year before the United States went to war against Germany, this “Sentinel of Liberty” showed up on the cover of his first comic book socking Hitler in the jaw. But the political daring of Jewish creators Joe Simon and legendary artist Jack “King” Kirby ended with this first strike against Aryan tyranny. Happy to attack the Nazi Party’s evil agenda, even while our own government at the time was still indifferent to it, neither Captain America nor any of his peers so much as questioned such U.S. “Reich-like” practices as the racial segregation in the military, the turning away of Jewish refugees, the unconstitutional imprisonment of 6,000 conscientious objectors and internment 110,000 Japanese-Americans, or the incineration of an estimated 150,000-250,000 men, women, and children in the twin atomic holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bombshell

Bombshell wages peace. From Boy Comics #3, 1942.

Even though no superhero at the time dared to speak out against these acts, some did add a plea for restraint to the comic book crusaders praising the glories of war. Apparently worried that they might be taken as wimps, writers often gave these less belligerent superheroes extremely combative names. Bombshell—a product of publisher Lev Gleason—was charged with a mission of peace (oddly enough) by his father Mars, the Roman god of war. Bombshell was equipped with a magic sword that was incapable of drawing blood, but could slice through Panzers, U-boats, and Stukas as if they were made of tin foil. Other anti-war superheroes included Centaur Publications‘  paradoxically named Man of War (also a creation of the god Mars), and the android, Manowar (sometimes known as White Streak), published by Funnies Inc. Manowar/White Streak described himself as ”a keeper of peace, breaker of war mongers who fight for profit with men’s lives as pawns.”  Despite their noble ideals, these comparative pacifists (who had nothing against using their fists in pursuit of world peace) were quickly overshadowed by their more bloodthirsty peers and soon faded into obscurity. But their cause was not lost.

The Justice Society of America (JSA) was the world’s first superhero team. When it debuted on the cover of All Star Comics #3 in the winter of 1940, the JSA’s original roster included the Atom, Doctor Fate, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hourman, the Sandman and the Spectre. While promoting the Allied effort as earnestly as any, the JSA often pointed out the tragic nature of WWII through stories that focused on war orphans (issue #7, 1941) the starving masses of occupied Europe (issue #14, 1942), or disabled veterans (issue #27, 1945).

The JSA in All-Star Comics

The Justice Society of America draws attention to the true cost of war.

Godless Pledge of Allegiance

A Godless Pledge of Allegiance. From All-Star Comics #22, 1944.

In All-Star Comics #16 (1943), the members of the Justice Society of America—which by then included Wonder Woman, Doctor Mid-Nite and Starman—campaigned to denounce racism, religious intolerance and classism as tools exploited by the Nazi’s to divide a united America. In All-Star Comics #22 (1944), they encouraged citizens young and old to embrace tolerance and understanding as the defining characteristics of our nation. The last page of this story serves as an interesting historical and cultural artifact. It shows the JSA leading an auditorium full of children in a Pledge of Allegiance that is missing the phrase “under God,” which wasn’t added until 1954 (proving that, if the Greatest Generation’s godless allegiance to their country was good enough to defeat the Axis Powers, it should be good enough for today’s Americans).

Junior JSA membership certificate

The super group encouraged young people to practice what the JSA preached with a radical pledge of its own that was included in the membership application sent to readers who paid 25¢ to join the Junior Justice Society of America. Stressing the JSA’s idea of a just society, this 1942 document asked young members to promise:

“. . . to help keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different because we are rich or poor, employer or worker, White or Negro, native or foreign born, Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic. . .”

Unfortunately, these high ideals were short-lived. World War II ended with two atomic bangs that sounded the death knell for superheroes who questioned the status quo. In fact, by the time the mushroom clouds of V-J Day had cleared, the stampede of comics’ initial superhero gold rush was already losing steam. Peacetime publishers were turning instead to humor, romance, western, horror, and true crime comics as principle sources of profit. They had no way of knowing that the enemy the JSA had warned of would soon strike from within our own borders.

Next, Part 5: The big chill.

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