This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 30, 2014.
I want to be very clear going into this critique: I am providing a critical analysis of a single issue of a comic book. I am also critiquing the community that reviewed a comic book. That is it. This is not a declaration of outrage. This is not an attack on any creators. This is not fan fury. It is an attempt at an informed analysis of a comic book.
I’ve been regularly enjoying the first four issues of the new Marvel series Cyclops. Greg Rucka has written a father-son tale that balances humor and pathos inside the genre trappings of a space opera. Artist Russell Dauterman has evoked a wide variety of alien landscapes, flora, and fauna, making the comic a visual treat. This is all very good.
But the most recent issue, Cyclops #5, presents a deeply troubling scenario.
Cyclops #5 centers around a conflict between Cyclops, his father Corsair, and a group of bounty hunters. The hunters are led by Travis. Travis is a slave holder. The word ‘slave’ is never used in the comic, but the story makes that relationship clear. The first sequence of the issue introduces Travis and Savva. Savva is shown serving Travis: she kneels before him and only calls him “Master”. When she begs Travis to eat something, he grabs her by the throat and dismisses her. His actions towards her are consistently dominant and cruel in nature. There is no doubt that Travis and Savva are master and slave.
There are some allusions to this being a master/slave relationship in the script as well. Savva does not appear to be a proper name, but a title. Travis calls her “my Savva” and she refers to herself as “the Savva”. Cyclops even explains to Corsair that, “Travis is her master, she is indentured to him.” The history of indentured labor does not separate that term from the concept of slavery. They have often been one and the same thing.
It’s not the existence of slavery in the story that is troublesome, though. It is the manner in which the heroes handle its existence. At the end of the issue, Savva makes an arrangement with Cyclops to save Travis, but in order to save his life, she must betray him. Cyclops and Corsair are able to make their escape, but they leave Savva with Travis. It is heavily implied that Savva will be physically reprimanded for her actions. Cyclops says, “Travis is gonna punish her,” and Travis’ earlier abuse with minimal provocation does not bode well for Savva’s well being.
Cyclops is rightly disturbed at this outcome and questions his father about it. Rather than address whether it is morally conscionable to abandon a slave (even one who does not want to leave) to the abuse of his or her master, Corsair tells Cyclops that what Savva has done is ‘honorable’. He places the value of keeping a promise above the horrors of slavery.
That’s a big problem.
The conceit here, the moral about honor and promise keeping, dodges the ethical issues at play and undermines the deeper issues. The conclusion to this issue is either ignorant of these problems or too lazy to address them. They are certainly present throughout. Slavery and physical abuse exist within the context of the story, and they are summarily dismissed by the heroes of the story.
Cyclops and Corsair are witness to a situation that involves both slavery and physical abuse. It is further complicated by the fact that the victim of both has seemingly become a willing participant. No one will deny that this is an incredibly complicated moral scenario. However, choosing to construct such a nuanced situation means creators ought to be prepared to address its consequences. The characters’ choice to tolerate what has already happened and will continue to happen is morally troubling, especially for a hero like Cyclops. To explain that choice with a quip about ‘honor’ is lazy and does not lend these issues the weight they demand.
Cyclops #5 does not actively endorse slavery, but it allows that people can choose to be made slaves. It does not actively endorse domestic abuse, but it allows that victims should be allowed to remain in potentially lethal relationships. Both of these allowances are big problems.
We should not judge the character of Greg Rucka or penciller Carmen Carnero based on this lone sequence. Their work elsewhere in comics and in life show them to be outstanding creators and individuals. However, read only within its own context, Cyclops #5 presents these ideas and subtle endorsements which are seemingly in direct conflict with Cyclops’ own initial heroic instincts. It’s a failure of the larger story and one for which Rucka and Carnero should be held accountable.
It’s also one that seems to have been entirely ignored. Of the reviews published concerning Cyclops #5, none address the topic of slavery. Only one mentions the word “indentured”, but does not follow up on the implications of this relationship or the heroes’ decision not to intervene on Savva’s behalf. Critics writing about this issue are either not engaging with the text or are purposefully ignoring these issues.
The presence of slavery in Cyclops #5 is clear. Engaging with the dialogue and images reveals a great deal of evidence that Savva is both a slave and victim of domestic abuse that Corsair and Cyclops chose not to rescue. This is not a theory or extrapolation, it is a clear conclusion based upon the text. For reviewers to have either missed this element of the story or chosen to ignore it is a major oversight. It is the role and responsibility of critics to actively engage with a work of art – in this case, a comic book – to understand and explore it. In doing so, they can assist others in deriving greater value from the art. Missing deeply troubling elements like this reveals a culture of critics who are not yet up to that task.
Rucka and Carnero are adults and professionals. They are capable of handling criticism. They have both created excellent comics before and I have no doubt that they will do so again. Comics is a small community and those of us who write about comics often know or know of the creators we write about. I interviewed Rucka this spring for almost an hour and was deeply impressed by him as a writer and human being. But it’s dishonest for me as a critic to ignore a problem in his work out of fear that I may offend him.
What I find most troubling about this issue is not the lazy dismissal of slavery and abuse, but the unwillingness of comics reviewers and critics to engage with the material. It’s not that all writers should have noticed this or chosen to write about it, but every individual who wrote about Cyclops #5 either ignored or missed the topic.
Rucka, Carnero, and their readers deserve better critics.