My Problematic Faves: On Censureship and Self-Censorship in Comics

//This post is part of the Women Write About Comics blog carnival. We thank them for inviting Paper Droids to take part.

As you can probably tell from my Gender Issues column, I want to support comics featuring strong women characters, especially those created by ladies. That said, despite my deliberate reading choices and comic-purchasing habits, it can be difficult. I love a male anti-hero as much as the next person, and a lot of my favourite comics contain problematic content. As a result, I find myself censoring my own reading—or at least censoring what I talk about loving online.

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We all enjoy stories that unintentionally do things wrong at times, but everyone has a different threshold for the kind of problematic content they can overlook. Personally, I think mine has something to do with other redeeming qualities in a comic. I believe it’s possible to point out that any story—comic, novel, movie, TV show, etc.—is deeply problematic while acknowledging that it has other strengths, and it’s up to each reader to decide whether they want to engage with that particular work or not.

For example, I have a complicated relationship with Alan Moore’s work. There’s no denying he’s an incredible storyteller, and whether I love or hate it, I know I’ll have a strong reaction to anything of his that I read. I don’t want to read The Killing Joke, because while I frankly don’t care about Batman stories, the implied sexual assault and use of Barbara Gordon as a prop doesn’t win it any points either. The Silk Spectre I storyline in Watchmen makes it harder for me to enjoy, but I can still appreciate the work as a whole.  I overall really disliked The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where the treatment of rape didn’t warm me to the bland art and unappealing story. Moore’s Swamp Thing, however, is one of my favourite comics. Like most of Moore’s work, it too contains sexual assault and Abbie is put through the ringer more than is probably necessary. Yet the story is incredible, the romance sweeter than it has any right to be, and the art is some of the best I’ve seen in any comic.

What’s the difference between these stories and their various treatments of sexual assault (even if only implied, as in TKJ)? I’m sure I could break each one down on an individual level, but generally I know that I can still enjoy a story that has rape in it, but only if I find other elements compelling. Some people can’t enjoy such stories at all, or comics with racism or aggressive ableism, and censor their reading accordingly. There’s no objective guidebook that can tell us how to feel about a text.

That’s what criticism is supposed to be about: telling others what you thought of a comic and maybe encouraging people to read it (or not to), but ultimately a person’s got to make that choice for themselves. However, social media has democratized criticism, allowing fans to interact with texts and with creators in a way never seen before. We’re still figuring social media out, but anyone can start a blog or a Twitter feed, and we’ve all seen quotes blow up after being misunderstood or taken out of context.

thor-issue-1This new form of censure, a more vocal, visible social backlash, is weird and, at least for me personally, makes things awkward. Not only do I censor which comics I read, but I’m self conscious about which comics I talk about on social media, as well as how I talk about them. I don’t want to hurt people with the things I say, but at the same time, I sometimes feel like I have to apologize for everything I like that hasn’t been approved through every lens.

Social media spaces like Twitter and Tumblr are constantly on the lookout for mistakes and errors and users are quick to react when people make mistakes. We’re constantly being told that our faves are problematic and it’s sometimes implied that, in many cases, we should then recant and abandon them. There’s talk about how to enjoy something with problematic content, but only if you can scroll past so many essays condemning something before you start to feel guilty about loving it. Especially if the content really hurt someone, it’s harder to apologize and justify your love for it. So on social media it’s easy to feel that liking anything even the tiniest bit problematic is wrong.

But then, questioning the status quo in nerd media of any kind can also make you a target of the more traditional fans of the medium—look at GamerGate. Then social media conversation gets divided into two caricatures, the Social Justice Warriors and the whiny, entitled fanboys. Obviously there are myriad viewpoints within, between, and outside these categories, but it seems like they’re the two with the loudest voices. Both groups can be vocal and passionate about calling out comics, creators, and fans that do things “wrong.” And it’s not always done nicely, or even respectfully.

Regardless of where you fall politically, it’s hard to deny the pervasive sense that Twitter and other social media sites can feel like an environment where critics and creators alike have to self-censor their work or spend hours defending themselves with no real peace. Thus, social media sites become places where we censor ourselves even more. First we become selective about what we read, then we become even more selective about what we say about it online.

ms-marvel-cover-1Take the new Thor, for example; I count myself among the people whose responses were mixed; this is a nice but ultimately impermanent gesture, and I’d love to see this level of marketing go into some of Marvel’s classic lady characters. I am enjoying Thor’s current adventures, but I know that she won’t be around forever, and eventually the Odinson will have to reclaim his hammer. My reaction was mild next to many parts of Twitter, where there was a lot of both support and disdain. But thanks to social media we can now interact with the folks behind comics in a way never seen before, which means that fans can have a real impact on storytelling.

And it’s clear that creators and companies alike are hearing the conversations as they’re taking more risks and trying new series alongside reliable money-makers. Giving a solo series to Storm or Black Canary or bringing in a new character like Kamala Khan is a good decision, even if some readers take it as “forced diversity.” It allows for new perspectives and fresh stories, expanding the potential audience and sales—these new stories are revitalizing an industry that’s practically collapsed on itself before due to stale stories and sagging readership.

I love so many inclusive comics that wouldn’t have been published 10 years ago, but I can’t deny my fondness for a lot of the classics, even if they often contain cringe-worthy dialogue and story-lines. There’s still a place for the white dudes who have been driving comics forever, and rightly so—they’re classics for a reason. I love that I’m reading comics in a time when I can read a great story about Batman and then pick up a great story about people who stop time when they orgasm.

As a reviewer, however, I sometimes struggle to balance my values with a more objective assessment of graphic storytelling, since in many ways, I can’t separate them. While the constant arguments on social media complicate things, I’m glad I’m reading and writing about comics today. We should applaud the companies that take risks on creators or story lines, even if they don’t always land. But if we keep the conversations going—as civilly as possible—innovation should continue and comics can only keep getting better.

//Images courtesy of Vertigo and Marvel.

Allison is a part-time superhero, space bounty-hunter and crayon-colour-namer. When not reading or editing comics, you may find her watching old horror films or looking at pictures of puppies on the Internet.

  • I’ve re-read this a couple of times since it was published, and I have some similar feelings. Grant Morrisson’s The Invisibles and Jason Aaron’s Scalped are two things I felt very conflicted about discussing online, because there are elements to both that many people feel are horribly transphobic and racist respectively – and then many people from the same communities don’t feel that way. But like you said, I don’t want to hurt people. (I ended up recommending the first with a big caveat, and I’m not going to be discussing the second because the objectionable parts are the whole story, it isn’t just one element of the book.

    There is such a rush to judgment, and there is such a tendency for people to reblog/tweet things as if they were true, even if the person propagating the information hasn’t even looked at the source material.

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