Crown on the Ground / the Physical Impossibility of 2017 in the Mind of Someone Living in 2016

 

A memento mori is, more or less, a work of art that acts as a reminder of the viewer’s mortality. If we demur that 2016 was not one big memento mori then K.C. Green’s On Fire -or at least the two panels of it that get passed around the internet the most- is the signature example. I started this column with grand designs, “panning for gold in the archetypal dung of the human unconscious,” as the Invisibles quote goes, but I’ve come up with little gold and much dung over the last few months. Many great things have happened in the last year in comics, like Wonder Woman finally entering the prismatic age on her 75th birthday, but while there has been both beauty and grace, most people would say that 2016 was here to punch them in the face. So with that spirit in mind, I’ve decided to craft something of a memento mori for comics criticism: a reminder that it will die, if it hasn’t already.

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It’s been a rough year for the field, with numerous sites folding and several prominent critics either going dark or significantly curtailing their writing, resulting in a picture that is more or less as bleak as the Walking Dead franchise. Unlike that particular comic and/or tv series though, there hasn’t been a significant reflection on what it takes to survive in the current landscape and what gets lost along the way. It’s easy enough to point to SEO as the Negan, the grinning, dead eyed monster that tore a swath through not just comics sites, but every outlet that stakes its financial health on ad revenue and search engine results because it’s demonstrably true.

Whenever it gets pointed out that it takes a fairly absurd amount of time to find an item relevant to actual comics on a comics news site, it doesn’t take long for editors from those sites to appear and chastise the critics by saying that this is what it takes to survive like so many Rick Grimes (without the naff accent, mind). Survival, in this case means more than the bare minimum of blood pumping in one’s veins though. In the relevant context it means continuing on as a profit driven enterprise supported by ad revenue, a not inconsequential amount of which comes from the publishers of the content under review in a couple prominent examples. When those sites aren’t owned by publishers, as is the case with Bleeding Cool and The Comics Journal, owned by Avatar and Fantagraphics respectively.

The potential for bias compromising review work is definitely concerning, but the change in format and direction by corporate backed sites in the name of chasing ad revenue is quite possibly an even bigger threat to the viability of comics criticism. Pivoting towards expanding coverage of TV and film adaptations isn’t a bad decision in theory, but obsessively picking apart every little rumor, blip, and fart coming out of Hollywood has, and continues to fundamentally damage how we’re encouraged to look at the medium and how the industry perceives of itself.

It’s been a long simmering criticism that comics have become, as a medium, either an intellectual property factory farm for the media conglomerates that own the biggest publishers or a repository for tv and film pitches and the majority of comics news sites, rather than rebuking the trend, have eagerly bought into that mentality. You can find interviews or opinion pieces diving into matters of craft at most comics focused sites, but in order to find them you have to wade through a constant deluge of speculation about upcoming adaptations, fan casts for properties that haven’t been optioned yet, and analysis-free listicles, which is the real tragedy. Ramping up content that reduces comics to fodder for other mediums until it eclipses consideration of them in their native medium does nothing but degrade the discourse.

It’s actually reached the point that a widely circulated piece outlining why the author thought Motor Crush would be the next comic optioned for TV was published a week before the comic went on sale to the general public. We’ve literally reached the point where comics are being appraised for their viability as films before there’s even been a chance for the average reader to appraise them as comics. It’s a state of affairs that worryingly reflects my favourite critique of Damien Hirst, the man who constructed the most needlessly baroque and costly memento mori since the Great Pyramid of Giza by putting a tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde:

“As Hirst has become wealthier, his work, which (as Houellebecq points out) incessantly circles the twin poles of death and money, has lost the cocoon of edgy cool that sheltered it through the 90s, to emerge, like one of his murdered butterflies, in its full form: as a pure commodity, fluttering free of the things that tie most art down – aesthetics, geography, the specifics of material and manufacture. He has certain signature elements (dots, pills, dead things, shiny shelves, chunks of scientific text) that can be deployed, with minor variations, at every price point from major installation to souvenir mug. His thematic interests in pop culture, shock and replication make it easy to keep a straight face while he sells his dodgier diffusion lines in markets that haven’t been saturated by the earlier “better” work – see, for example, the shameless recent series of National Geographic-style butterfly photos, punted out in Hong Kong, safely away from the derision that might have accompanied them in London or New York.

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This isn’t just art that exists in the market, or is ‘about’ the market. This is art that is the market – a series of gestures that are made wholly or primarily to capture and embody financial value, and only secondarily have any other function or virtue. Hirst has gone way beyond Warhol’s explorations of repetition and banality. Sooner or later, his advisers will surely find a way for him to dispense with the actual objects altogether and he will package concepts in tranches, like mortgage securities, some good stuff with some trash, to be traded on the bourse in Miami-Basel.”

It’s more or less the same death spiral that comics are being ushered into as the attention is shifted away from the artistic and narrative merits of the native medium and towards the various ways the intellectual property can be skimmed off and commodified for an audience that validates its “geekiness” through branded consumer products. You can already see the comics equivalent of the nadir that Hari Kunzru projects for Hirst in the dead eyed plastic gaze of the rows of Funko Pops on pace to outnumber comics in actual comic shops, so if anything it’s incumbent on comics critics to push back against the erosion of the medium.

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The other seriously detrimental aspect to committing to the rote regurgitation of rumors and behind the scenes minutiae of comic book adaptations is that it sacrifices the ability for any sober criticism from the same outlet to have any moral or ethical resonance. It’s a position that Jill Pantozzi recognized the untenability of when she made the call to cease coverage of Game of Thrones at The Mary Sue following the addition of a rape scene to the TV show that did not occur in the corresponding novel. Pantozzi understood and articulated that continuing to promote the property through reposting trailers, photo galleries, and consumer goods would weaken her stance against its use of sexual violence, so she made the choice to cut off coverage at the expense of the traffic that it generated.

The reality is that, regardless of intention, running a critique of a significant issue like the whitewashing and orientalism displayed by Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, and Iron Fist while offering exponentially more uncritical promotional coverage makes the critique look like a hairshirt. Offering a stern rebuke with one hand while continuing to exploit the phenomenon for material gain is no way to inspire any kind of meaningful change or realignment of audience expectations. Merely pointing out the mechanics of oppression and exploitation isn’t activism until it’s followed up with concrete action.

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So a site like Geeks of Color will always be in a better position to offer up an opinion as to why Danny Rand should be portrayed by an Asian-American actor, because they lack the entanglements that come with trying to monetize their coverage of the Marvel Netflix series. It’s one of the primary intersections where the cost of survival for major sites that have adopted corporate backers in recent years should come under more intense scrutiny. Suggesting that a constant flow of uncritical movie based clickbait is what’s necessary to pay for hosting and compensate the staff is nonsense, because it doesn’t represent the aims of the corporations backing those sites.

Purch, Newsarama’s parent company, describes itself as a “growing portfolio of brands and products focused on purchasing decisions” while Abrams Media, the current owners of The Mary Sue describe their business model as the “discovery and development of passion pockets.” These are businesses whose sole concern is return on investment, earning maximum profit for their stakeholders from minimal investment, it’s pure extractive capitalism. The clearest and most unfortunate example of how that compromises the integrity of these outlets is currently on display at The Mary Sue, which has just put out a call for new writers that they don’t intend to pay:

“This new contributor initiative is one that will supplement the feminist pop culture criticism and news that makes this site special, and we hope it will result in some positive effect on the world.

Paying all of our contributing writers has been an important priority for the team here at The Mary Sue, and we have been paying at least a small fee to everyone who writes for us. We’re very proud of that, and we will continue to pay all contributors who write about entertainment. Thanks to our subscribers and other factors, we’ve even secured a small increase in our monthly contributor budget. But, in the interest of transparency: We have decided to accept some unpaid pieces in an effort to ensure that more voices are heard during this tumultuous time. To be clear, there will be no change in pay for our existing contributor efforts, except that we will have a few more dollars to allocate.”

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The initiative is specifically targeted at uplifting marginalized voices, “specifically looking for writers who have something important to say about our current sociopolitical climate, whether it concerns their personal experience or the state of our society itself.” It’s the starkest evocation possible of treating dissenting or marginalized voices like a hairshirt, especially given that these new contributors are expected to write without compensation while entertainment writers are effectively given a raise. Apparently, “developing passion pockets” includes soliciting unpaid labor to maintain the brand image. It’s been a rallying cry for quite some time that corporations will never love us and that they exploit emotional attachment to our youths when it comes to comic book publishers, but it isn’t one that’s extended in a meaningful way to comic book news sites either before or after the wave of consolidations and corporate buy outs. What The Mary Sue is doing through an initiative like this is preying on a sense of feminist solidarity that Abrams Media cravenly believes is a brand identity to exploit. It’s more or less the same principle that has driven people to write for little to no compensation for for-profit enthusiast sites taken to its furthest logical conclusion.

What sustains these sites is the dream of turning a hobbyist pursuit into a career and the fundamentally transient nature of comics criticism. Everyone wants to get paid to do something they love, but so far comics criticism has proven itself to not be sustainable as a career and turning to corporate backers has not solved the problem of sustainability or equitable compensation. Instead, the most incisive and urgently needed work has been increasingly coming from a panoply of relative newcomers that treat their critical writing as a hobbyist pursuit with monetization barely factoring into it, if at all. The conundrum of finding a sustainable business model that compensates contributors fairly without crossing over into corporatist exploitation remains, but the long term solution to that problem is a lot more likely to be found by advocating for fairer labor practices for freelance workers and universal basic income than in any website that produces content about comic books.

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The other issue with major corporate backed, comics focused websites is that they aren’t effective ambassadors for the medium: no one who isn’t already deeply invested in reading comics is going to be reading the likes of CBR, Newsarama, or ComicsAlliance. In an age where outlets like IGN, MTV, Autostraddle, Teen Vogue, The LA Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Vice have all proven themselves capable of reporting on comics and their various adaptations competently, the utility of websites hyperfocused on that particular niche has become increasingly questionable.

Instead of treating that change in the culture as an opportunity to steer away from that kind of coverage and focus on matters of craft and overlooked work, these sites have doubled down on chasing the same diminishing returns as an increasingly crowded field. It’s a reality reflected in the marketing decisions of the major publishers, who have begun moving away from comics specific outlets to make major announcements. DC, Marvel, and Image have all noticeably increased their outreach to outlets like The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, and cross platform portals like The Mary Sue to announce new titles and initiatives, because that’s how you grow your readership. If any of this sounds worryingly familiar, it’s probably because the business of comics being written about has come to parallel the business of how comics get made in the sense of the dominant outlets in both fields being small appendages of very large corporate beasts that lumber slowly through the most pressing topics of the day.

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So really, while these sites can and have produced good work, they don’t really represent one hell of a lot more than a dead tiger shark slowly rotting away in a tank of formaldehyde. The most piercing application of Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living as an allegory for the state of comics criticism may lie in the original shark being removed after it decayed to the point of seriously clouding the solution it was suspended in. Whether that murky loss of perspective represents the current condition, or the original shark’s eventual replacement with a new one represents the corporate takeovers of the major sites is a matter of conjecture, but the fundamental point is that it function as a memento mori, a reminder that we’re looking at a dead thing presented to us as the simulation of something living.

It’s all a bit morbid and quite the downer to end the year on, no matter how dispiriting it may have been, but while a memento mori is constructed to be a reminder of the viewer’s mortality it doesn’t necessitate a spiral into nihilism. Reminders of the fleeting nature of existence can serve to sharpen the present moment and reaffirm our highest impulses, hence the exhortation behind Horace’s famous “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” or seize the day, put little trust in tomorrow.

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I noted at the top of this entry that I’ve come up with a lot more dung than gold over the last few months, but that’s never stopped me from attempting to chart a course forward. Before we can begin to decide where we’re going, we need a sober and serious reflection on where we are, and central that is a recognition of the fact that corporate consolidation of major comics news sites has intensified how under-educated, under-resourced, underpaid, and overworked most comics reviewers are.

One of the truest and most fundamental realities of comics criticism is that it’s a transient field with a very short life cycle. People come into it with little to no formal training because there’s little to none available and they have a crack at it until they move onto something more fruitful or diminishing returns catch up with them. As a result there’s no established and easily accessible canon, there’s little in the way of bodies of work to build from and refine the field, especially since the waves of consolidation and site shutdowns have wiped out massive amounts of it. So it lives in a cycle of death and rebirth with very little karmic escape velocity, few lessons stick from one generation to the next. I knew from the beginning of my current run at it, beginning in 2014, that my time in comics criticism had an expiry date so I set out to build up a body of work I could leave behind, and that’s an undertaking that I’d urge anyone either in the field or contemplating it to consider.

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The need for accessible archives of criticism and the reality of the short memory of the field have come into sharp focus for me in recent months in both positive and negative ways. On the positive end, after constructing a queer reading of Wonder Woman for my review of the Earth One graphic novel and re-examination of the last decade’s worth of her comics, I found a vindication for my perspective from Phil Jiminez in an interview with Joseph P. Illidge for CBR back in 2014. My conception of Diana’s queerness was essentially an echo of Jiminez’s contention that she’s “the ultimate ‘queer’ character — meaning ‘queer’ in its broadest sense — defiantly anti-assimilationist, anti-establishment, boundary breaking.” It’s a perspective that my argument for approaching Hippolyta’s flight to Themyscira as an act of queer nationalism, among other things, easily nests within.

More substantively, I found another illuminating passage in that interview about the pitfalls of swiftly moving same gender couples into marriage:

“One unfortunate side effect of the “straight to marriage” model of these kinds of relationships is that it sexually neuters them; it tidies them up, makes them safe and consumable for the masses. And no, I’m not disparaging those who choose to get married in real life; I’m suggesting that, in mainstream superhero comic book storytelling, gay marriage has had a way of compartmentalizing gay characters in a way that’s romantic without being overly sexual. It’s safe, and more easily digestible by most consumers (some of whom are gay) who still remain on edge about giving same-gender couples a sexual/romantic life that doesn’t mirror the most traditionally upright models that many value for social and often political reasons.”

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What struck me about it is how closely it mirrored in spirit, if not letter, the critique I leveled at the battle J.H. Williams III and W. Hayden Blackman reportedly fought with Dan Didio over trying to marry Kate Kane to Maggie Sawyer:

“[…]it seems bizarre and wrongheaded that Kate Kane, who literally gave up a ring because she was unwilling to lie about who she was would turn around and put her faith in another ring whose backing institution has the very same history of marginalizing her identity. She found a way to serve outside of the mainstream, so it only really follows that she would find and embrace a way to love that also sits outside of the mainstream. Finding empowerment and self expression outside the normative is what made Kate a truly different, truly queer character and dictating that she express love and intimacy in the most banal, normative way possible is a fundamental violation of the Kate Kane that gave me the strength to assert my own queer identity.”

In that instance, Jiminez’s statements came a year after mine, so while I wouldn’t have his perspective to buttress my own at the time even if I’d known where to look, it’s still incredibly valuable to see a fundamentally similar logic brought to bear on the industry, to feel strengthened and validated by it. Having parallel, intersecting, and collaborating thinkers is, after all, how the discipline of queer theory that both myself and Jiminez draw on to inform our perspectives on superhero narratives was developed to begin with.

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Unfortunately, it’s a testament to how quickly and easily these viewpoints get overlooked or forgotten that Jiminez’s work and stated perspective weren’t drawn on in the interview Greg Rucka gave to Comicosity to solidify Diana’s status as queer in his current run with Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp. Rucka, perhaps wisely as a straight man, demurred on defining queer, but at the same time Jiminez, who directly preceded Rucka’s first tenure on the title, was available to cite. Ultimately there’s not much to gain from a straight man defining or rationalizing queerness to a dominantly straight audience, but there is tremendous value in straight writers engaging with queer thought and being able to draw on those thinkers and cite them appropriately.

Of course, in the instance of Rucka’s Wonder Woman, we have a straight male writer who assures us Diana is queer, can’t explain exactly what that means or how he intends to implement it, then goes on shortly after to write a story told entirely from Steve Trevor’s perspective about his normatively heterosexual romance with Diana. That certainly isn’t furthering on page queer representation, but the dye’s is cast and the story that Diana’s queer was gobbled up by all the sites that wanted in on traffic it would generate, and so the meaning of the term “queer” within comics gets eroded a bit more.

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So the question, to me, that comics criticism has to pose to itself in the year that we’re on the doorstep of is whether it’s more interested in being political or pursuing the appearance of being political. As disappointing as it is that Rucka is willing to claim queer as a descriptor for his work without being able to cite any of the thought, study, or lived experience behind that term, it’s par for the course in most comics criticism and review work. Queer is frequently reduced to a placeholder for “not straight” much like “feminist” seems to stand in for “things that appeal to women in a superficially socially aware way,” and “diversity” is window dressing for “a white person put a not white person in their comic.”

Citing these terms and the concepts behind them with no specificity isn’t activism or progress. Pointing out the existence of oppression or oppressed people isn’t activism, and has no real inherent value unless it’s paired with direct action of some kind, as mentioned above, and it becomes further meaningless when the ideas put forward aren’t articulated properly. Superheroes, the axis around all popular comic book storytelling revolves around, are inherently politicized and have been since their genesis. They’ve always been used to project a set of values. It’s contingent on critics to interrogate and challenge those values meaningfully.

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