On Sunday 29th October we were lucky enough to be invited to MCM London Comic Con to put on a S.M.A.S.H. event on the topic of Controversy.

We were also lucky enough to have our panel be composed of several beautiful and talented people:

Hamish Steele (Pantheon) @hamishsteele
Nieros Oyegun (TPub Comics) @nieros
Gareth Brookes (A Thousand Coloured Castles) @brookes_gareth
Hannah K Chapman (Comic Book Slumber Party)  @hannahkchapman
Hosted by Joel Janiurek (Barbican Comic Forum) @gocomplex

Before the day of the panel we sent them an email asking the following questions:

What makes something controversial?
Would we be better off without controversy?
Does controversy happen because different people have different views?
What are the positive aspects of controversy?
Are there things which are controversial which shouldn’t be (and vice versa)?
Why do we have controversy?

Read their responses below!

Hamish Steele (Pantheon) @hamishsteele

I found writing this intro really hard. I actually emailed ahead of time to say I couldn’t put my feelings into words as eloquently as the others. For a long time, I’d always thought my feelings about controversy were pretty solid. I believe in equality, justice, representation and delight in angering bigots with my work. But for every example of a controversy that paved the way for progress, there’s a controversy that lead to things taking a step backwards.

Was the backlash to Thor becoming a woman the same thing as the backlash to Captain America becoming a Nazi? Is my delight in angering bigots the same as the delight some people seem to get out of angering “those damn SJWs”. I don’t think so, as do many of us but objectively, I can’t really answer why.

Can Marvel tell the difference in those controversies? Do Marvel care which side of the political compass is mad? Do they care whose money they’re taking? A sale’s a sale!

Another example: I’d never have heard of Image’s The Divided States of Hysteria had it not been for the huge backlash to it this year with it’s horrible transphobic content. While I’m firmly on the side of the backlash, I wonder how many extra sales they got from all this free publicity.

This is why I just don’t know how to answer this as a reader of comics or as an activist, as I feel I’ll just be hypocritical, I can only answer as a creator. And I believe there’s a difference between expecting controversy from your work and courting it. And I believe with my work and the comics that I enjoy, that controversy is a byproduct of doing something new, rather than the intended reaction. If the only way to make people read your stories is to make them mad, maybe your story could use another draft.

Nieros Oyegun (TPub Comics) @nieros

Controversy is essential.

People have different viewpoints, are different – it’s what makes life interesting. Oftentimes the world needs the flint of controversy to light a fire for change, when the ‘controversial’ rubs up against the ignorant, hateful or afraid. I’m thinking of the once (and still in some quarters) controversial activism for abolitionism, suffrage, LGBTQ rights – any number of activist movements supporting political, personal and civil freedoms. Today, some people see the movement #BlackLivesMatter as controversial (ref. the frequent indignant riposte: “All Lives Matter!”). For anyone who takes that viewpoint and is a fan of comics, may I refer you to cartoonist Keith Knight’s chronicles of police brutality against black people, which have been voluminous enough to merit an entire collection, titled They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?

So yeah, controversy can be useful. But controversy for its own sake is, well, exhausting. Anyone with an intellectually combative, contrarian-by-default friend knows what I’m talking about… Personally, even when all-out consensus is unattainable, I still like to identify common ground. It’s something of a personal tic, but I also genuinely believe that few things in life are a zero sum game, and there often is common ground in any situation, if we care to think creatively enough. As humans evolve we construct ever more value, resulting in ever more interactions in which both sides come out a winner (is the general idea). It’s how society advances, and how cultural evolution happens, because there’s this preference for non-zero sum games.

In our time the most important consequence of this seems to be that there will be more and more data, more and more computation, more and more algorithms. Many more decisions are going to be driven by machine learning algos. AI? Talk about controversy! Do we rage against the machine, or go the way of advanced replicants? However things turn out, the controversy in fields like AI is essential for driving debate and shaping a future that we can all live with/in. An aside: this reminds me of something I recently read, that 90% of all data that exists was generated just in the last 2 years, and only 2% of all data has been ‘evaluated’. We’re drowning in the stuff! What’s the value here? I guess those who figure out a way to analyse and harness ever more data insights will have the competitive edge…

All that said, controversy is as controversy does. One guy’s controversy is another guy’s “meh”*

*A café in Shoreditch that only serves cereal – a controversial sign of goddamn gentrification, or just breakfast whenever you want it?

Gareth Brookes (A Thousand Coloured Castles) @brookes_gareth

At its best, art should be shocking, and it should be shocking because it’s new. When it’s not new, controversy can be manufactured as a stand in for the surprise an audience feels when confronted with a piece of culture that articulates social change. Of course, truly original art is often controversial, but at its worst Controversy mimics this surprise in order to sell stuff.

In the 90’s sex was used to sell stuff. We would have to wait until 2 in the morning to see Madonna’s ‘controversial’ new video. At 2.05 we would realise it wasn’t shocking, and the song was crap, and we had school tomorrow. This taught us an important lesson.

In order to make something controversial we have to invent an imaginary person to be scandalised by it. In the case of the Madonna video, it would have been some teacher, village vicar, or sexually repressed spinster in the Mary Whitehouse mould who (it would be enjoyable to imagine) would get all frothed up about it and write into ‘Points of View’. It was fun to pretend that there were forces in society that wanted to stop us from watching the Madonna video, to limit our freedom through the pursuit of their narrow-minded agenda, and that we, as consumers, represented the vanguard of change. Once the controversy was done however, it was necessary to put all the perceived societal prejudices back in place for the next time a controversy was required.

Nowadays sex has lost all its currency. Instead of sex being used to sell things, fear is deployed in order to generate advertising revenue through clicks, and instead of scandalised vicars, it’s necessary to imagine that the content one is consuming is contravening an amorphous code of Political Correctness that is beloved of some ephemeral elite. The reactions to such contraventions still retain the onanistic character of 90’s controversy, and, once again it’s fun (for some people anyway) to pretend that there are forces in society that want to limit our freedom through pursuit of their narrow-minded agenda.

At the same time controversy seems to be peeling away from culture through a loss of attention span. The word controversial is now often accompanied by the word tweet. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine anyone going to the effort of being scandalised by Joyce’s Ulysses when outrage is so readily available elsewhere.

Hannah K Chapman (Comic Book Slumber Party)  @hannahkchapman

Controversy is only as useful as the change it inspires. It’s not enough to bluster for five minutes, to fling mud and call names, and quickly move on to the next drama. Steps must be made to ensure that the very thing that was controversial in the first place doesn’t happen again.

Last years Angouleme International Comics Festival was mired in criticism for not nominating any women for the prestigious Grand Prix. A lifetime achievement award that in 43 years, has only been won by one woman: Florence Cestac. The Women In Comics Collective Against Sexism penned a letter to the festival calling for a boycott and asking whether “we will require women in comics to perpetually remain in second place?”. 12 of of the 30 nominees, including Chris Ware and Joann Sfar, removed themselves from the running in solidarity with the protest.

Frank Bondoux, the executive director of the festival, argued that “unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics art. It’s a reality. If you go to the Louvre, you’ll equally find very few women artists.” No mention was made of the role that institutions like the Louvre, or festivals like Angouleme, play in maintaining gender disparity within the arts. By refusing to recognise the achievements of a marginalised group you reinforce their silence and make it harder for new creators to find a voice.

Change did arrive at Angouleme: six women (Marjane Satrapi, Posy Simmonds, Linda Barry, Julie Doucet, Moto Hagio, and Chantal Montellier) were added to the list and then, days later, the list itself was scrapped. Voters were free to cast their ballot wherever they chose. Of course, not everyone was happy with this decision. For many the nomination is almost as valuable as the prize itself; deserved recognition that helps new readers discover their work. And then there’s the idea that too much choice isn’t always a good thing. Doing away with the list may result in only the most obvious candidates winning in future.

It does give me hope that controversy can affect change. It certainly gives respected creators (yeah, I’m looking at the men!) the opportunity to lend their voice where it’s needed. I’m just waiting to see now what the result of this years Lakes scandal will be and whether we’ll see a change that’s very much needed…

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