This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 29, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
When do “good intentions” cross the line over into “overtly harmful/reductive”?
In comics? Constantly.
We’ve talked before about how the American comics industry is often plagued with problems of injustice and mistreatment. For professionals, journalists, and readers familiar with the inner-workings of the industry, there’s plenty of troublesome knowledge to go around. When you’re a fan and see so many problems, I think there’s a tendency to take anything resembling a win as a win. If something is striving to be good or positive, you put it down in the W column and call it a day.
But that’s a bullshit mentality that allows for a lot of bullshit to occur. Comics is chock-full of good intentions, but so far that hasn’t been enough to fix a lot of real problems in comics or address issues outside of them in a thoughtful manner. The truth is that intentions don’t matter for shit, what matters is execution. It doesn’t matter if Spider-Man intends to save the girl, if what he does is snap Gwen Stacy’s neck. I guarantee you that Gwen doesn’t care what was in his heart after that happens.
Of course, we’re just talking about stories in funnybooks. Nobody is going to die from a poorly executed comic; I hope not, at least. But that doesn’t mean they’re entirely harmless. The past month has been full of examples of big releases in mainstream comics that were clearly driven by good intentions, but definitely crossed that line you mentioned into being “overtly harmful/reductive”. It’s a lot easier to understand nonsense when you see nonsense, so let’s take a look at a few.
The most obvious recent example of this is Ms. Marvel #13, the big election issue that was published after Election Day. I think there’s a need to preface any discussion of Ms. Marvel screwing the political pooch with mention of how often it hasn’t done just that. It’s a comic that has been an inspiration to many current and new readers within comics, and even people outside of the medium. Kamala Khan means so much to so many. The creators on the title have consistently tackled important themes of diversity, acceptance, and responsibility in a fashion that is both charming and intelligent. I would have highly recommended every issue in the series on both accounts, until this one.
Because Ms. Marvel #13 is a clusterfuck of good intentions going horribly wrong and no amount of previous good work justifies this particular stapled pamphlet of nonsense.
Let’s start with the most obvious issue: the release of the issue itself. Ms. Marvel #13 was originally slated to be released before Election Day on November 8th, but was delayed until November 30th. This wouldn’t be a problem if the story inside existed well without the context of an upcoming Presidential election. That is not the case. The antagonists of the piece are clearly intended to mimic the major party candidates of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. An entire page of the issue serves as nothing more than an infomercial on how to find your polling place and register to vote. The comic is not a free advertisement encouraging people to vote though, it’s a piece of entertainment that readers paid for to be informed about things that no longer matter.
What’s worse is that in the wake of the election, the issue highlights so much of the ego and rhetoric that made the dark reality surrounding the issues publication possible. While Ms. Marvel #13 tries its best to remain non-partisan, the politics of the series and the issue itself are clearly liberal. It abhors rules that limit voting and partisan redistricting. It supports a diverse electorate and make the Trump-like candidate an actual member of Hydra, while the Clinton-like candidate is merely an unpopular incumbent (and a victim of his opposition).
The comic actually advocates for strategies and beliefs that run contrary to effective voting strategies and the compromises necessary in democracy. At one point in the story Kamala says that democracies rely on daily engagement and that you can’t just get out on Election Day, but the entire story is about people getting woke on Election Day. Nobody in Jersey City cares about the Election or any of the problems of the likely new Mayor, until Ms. Marvel and her friends run around rallying them on the day of the election itself. It’s a complete contradiction of her speech and supports the idea that Election Day is all that really matters.
A third-party candidate eventually wins the election, a librarian that nobody had heard of until Election Day. It is possible for independents and third-party candidates to be elected in our two-party system, but it’s a slow, trying process that starts at the bottom and builds upward. Here a complete unknown is swept into a major mayoral office on a last second surge. It’s silliness that supports the idea that voting your conscience matters over the actual power and impact on each individual vote. Again and again, Ms. Marvel #13 throws realism out the door while attempting to explain how democracies function and plays out a fairytale-like happy ending in spite of the incredible naivete on display.
You can look at the ideas in the book and try to claim that it is being as idealistic as possible. Yet the brand of idealism it supports is the exact same sort of lazy rhetoric that helped deliver a Trump presidency. It promotes last second campaigning, voting based on emotion rather than logic, and a general belief that things will probably just work out in the end. Before Election Day it would have been easily read as a slight and flawed bit of trivial entertainment. In the rise of Trump’s America, it exposes the traps of lazy liberalism.
Unlike Ms. Marvel #13, which can at least be called idealistic, Champions #3 is purely cynical. It establishes its tone at the start of the issue by casually dismissing the cliffhanger of Champions #2 with some adolescent dialogue that sounds like poor-imitations of 21st Century teenagers (and an awkward joke about lesbians). The very premise of the book is continually questioned as being silly or driven by outside concerns. Everything reads like it is being written because it was determined to be saleable, not because someone thought it was a good idea.
Then the team goes to the imagined country of Sharzad where Muslim women are being prevented from receiving any formal education under penalty of death. It’s a very real issue that affects millions of young women in different areas of the globe, one that has no easy solutions and demands incredible bravery from those resisting oppression. The Champions look at this as an easy adventure and decide to throw out the name of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai just to wink at their audience that they totally know this is a real thing and totally hopped on Wikipedia to learn about it.
The plotting of what comes next reads as cynically as the setup, too. They crash into a small town, have a brief learning moment, then execute a plan that mostly involves just punching the bad guys. It’s superhero comics 101 and doesn’t take into account the continuing death threats and suppression that will face the women of this community after the six children with extraordinary powers leave. Champions #3 acknowledges these problems exist, but essentially ignores them at the end because they are too complicated and fraught to be dealt with in the pages of this Marvel teen superteam book.
This is a comic that tackles a problem bigger and more serious than the premise of the comic itself. Rather than stepping up to handle the subject matter with the appropriate gravitas required, it attempts to jam the lives and freedoms really being threatened today in its shoebox of creativity. The results are disastrous and diminish the reality of those actually facing the horrors that the Champions simply punch. It does not make a call to action for readers, but merely exposes the flaws embedded deep within the superhero genre as it becomes clear physical power cannot truly ensure truth or justice in the world.
Just to make sure it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on Marvel Comics too much, DC Comics (along with IDW Publishing) offered a great example recently in the Love is Love anthology. The anthology itself is a great concept founded on good intentions. It uses lots of recognizable characters along with some original stories by a bunch of top-notch talent to send proceeds to those affected by the Pulse shooting in Orlando. I would encourage getting it simply to help support a good cause, check out the good stories, and encourage similar initiatives in the future.
However, there are some really poorly conceived stories packed within this volume. A one-page story of Deathstroke shows him listening to real coverage of how and where the shooter obtained the weaponry used during the slaying. In response he takes all of the guns in his apartment, dumps them in the garbage, and swears to only use karate from now on.
It’s a joke, a very bad joke.
Not only does it play poorly against the character chosen, who regularly uses gun violence to slay hundreds of people, but it diminishes the problem it’s seeking to address. There’s a cause and effect of seeing guns used to kill, then deciding to put guns in a dumpster on a city street that is silly in nature and might evoke a laugh from some. Yet the setup for the joke is the Pulse shooting itself. The facts of the case are stated at the start of the strip and sets this story in a world where this really happened (albeit one where Deathstroke also exists). His reaction is farcical and the joke becomes darkly unfunny because it’s a minor gag confronting the mass murder of dozens of innocents due to their sexual orientation. It’s a very bad joke.
None of this is to say that we can’t address real tragedies and problems with comics or superhero stories or humor. What I am saying is that the intent behind these stories does not matter, only their execution. Comics creators obviously want to address real issues. They worry about the election and future of America (as they should), they are distressed to read about the suppression of women’s education (which is only natural), and they are distraught over the mass killings (and that is simply human). They have every right in the world to attempt to address these issues too.
None of that makes the attempts inherently good or laudable. Seeking to do something good is very different from accomplishing it. These comics are not personal journals or scribblings in the margins. They are completed works by professional creators being sold to an audience in an attempt to say something to the world. This is art being put into the world and no matter how well-meaning the artist may be, that doesn’t make the art any better or worse.
Looking at comics like Ms. Marvel #13, Champions #3, and some samples in Love is Love, it’s clear that the best intentioned creators can put out work that ranges between being grossly ill-conceived to outright damaging in its philosophy. These are comics that assumed the intent to make a better world would be enough to justify their existence. It is not. They are comics that diminish serious issues and encourage ideas that actively disastrous, and they should be called out for being just that.
Where exactly does the line lie between good intentions and actively harmful? Like so much in the world, it’s one of those things you simply have to know when you see it. Examples like this make it clear what is past the line though and will hopefully encourage future creators to put a bit more thought into ideas, concepts, and realities that deserve it.