8 Truths the Comicsgate Gang Really Needs to Accept for the Sake of Their Own Happiness and Mental Health
1. Diversity — however you want to define the word — is not the reason why comics aren’t selling the way they used to.
Another day, another controversy. This time, it’s Captain Marvel — or more specifically, it’s the fact that the star of Marvel’s latest big-budget film said some things about employment diversity in Hollywood that made a few people angry, which of course has led some of those people in the Comicsgate camp to rev up the old outrage machine again over how diversity pushed by progressive types is “ruining” comics.
It’s a talking point accepted as gospel by people who argue mainstream comic publishers (and Marvel in particular) have lost their way in recent years; i.e., that the number of comic books sold every month is going down because publishers insist on putting out “politically correct” books instead of “telling good stories,” and fans are rejecting these offerings by the “social justice warrior” editors and writers. The only way to save comics, they say, is to stop alienating these fans with stories starring characters that fans like them don’t want (read: women, non-white, LGBT), and to leave the political messages out of their stories. Do more of the stuff we want, they say, and watch those sales numbers go back up.
The problem is that belief is based on the assumption that declining comic sales is a recent thing, and that this decline in sales is solely (or at least mostly) driven by fans upset by finding politics in their stories. While it’s possible that some fans have stopped reading comics for that reason, there’s simply no way those fans can account for what has been happening in the business over the past several decades.
Since the books cited in these discussions are typically superhero books (and just the North American ones at that), let’s take a look at the top-selling superhero comics of 1969 compared to 40 years later, before the current crop of Comicsgate critics were complaining about “politically correct” stories ruining their fun:
Average monthly sales of superhero comics:
1. Superman (511,984)
2. Superboy (465,462)
3. Lois Lane (397,346)
4. Action Comics (377,535)
5. Spider-Man (372,352)
6. World’s Finest (366,618)
7. Batman (355,782)
8. Adventure Comics (354,123)
9. Fantastic Four (340,363)
10. Thor (266,368)
11. Incredible Hulk (262,472)
12. Daredevil (245,422)
1. Blackest Night (140,667)
2. Captain America Reborn (108,240)
3. Batman and Robin (106,835)
4. Green Lantern (103,579)
5. Old Man Logan (93,744)
6. New Avengers (85,526)
7. Green Lantern Corps (83,042)
8. Dark Avengers (79,662)
9. Batman (76,936)
10. Uncanny X-Men (73,523)
11. Amazing Spider-Man (70,118)
12. Ultimate Avengers (68,539)
That’s quite a difference over 40 years, to go from top-selling titles hovering around the half-million mark to the biggest books moving just north of 100,000 units. (It gets even more dramatic if you go further back in time to when issues of books like Action Comics or Captain Marvel Adventures regularly sold more than 1 million copies per issue.)
Sales figures at Comichron.com show month-to-month sales today aren’t any better than they were in 2009, with top-selling books like Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy and the recently relaunched Captain Marvel — getting an obvious bump from this month’s film — hovering around the 100,000 mark. (Though it has to be said that having a hit movie doesn’t always guarantee higher sales; Wonder Woman was one of 2017’s biggest films, but the number of Wonder Woman comics sold in North America have gone from 200,000 units in 1965 to just north of 50,000 today).
So what caused this declines? That’s a whole other list in itself. Changing retail conditions, tighter distribution costs, rising prices tied to higher material and production costs, changes in the ways artists are paid for their work, a dose of corporate mismanagement, the commodification of “geek” culture, a shift in consumer preferences to digital media and trade paperbacks, more intense competition from other media channels for our limited attention…
The bottom line is there are a lot of social, cultural and economic factors working against the humble comic book, just as there are many reasons why print newspapers and magazines are losing their appeal in these modern times. To pretend all of those things have little to no bearing on the situation just so you can create a narrative that pins the blame on a lady Thor or Mockingbird wearing a feminist T-shirt is at best naive… and downright dishonest at worst.
2. Comics have always been political.
When people repeating the Comicsgate line don’t want to be seen as attacking specific groups of people for “ruining” their comics, they often use language that boils down to “Comics these days are just too darn political.” If we can only get back to that golden age when writers focused on just writing good stories, they tell us, then their comics will appeal to a wider audience and more people will start reading them.
While it’s hard not to read “too political” as “giving too much space to people who don’t look or act just like me,” let’s be kind and assume this is a good-faith objection — that there are disaffected fans who are genuinely distressed by the idea of fantastical characters getting bogged down by addressing real-world political issues. “Come on! They’re supposed to be fun stories about guys in tights beating up bad guys and saving the day! Why do we have to drag politics into it?” Actually, the better question would be: when were politics ever not part of comics?
We could talk about the inherent political issues raised by the elevation of the superhero archetype (taking the law into your own hands, the individual vs. the collective, rehabilitation vs. retribution, etc.), or we could talk about how most of the creators of our most popular superheroes got into comics in the first place because of the social and political pressures that kept people like them from going into the more “respectable” arts professions.
But here’s the thing: we don’t even have to get into any of that because the not-so-shocking truth is this politics stuff is everywhere in comics from every era. It was a political act for Siegel and Shuster to sic their Superman on abusive husbands and crooked mine owners at a time when domestic violence and workplace safety were not seen as important issues. It was a political act for Simon and Kirby to have their character slug Hitler at a time when a lot of Americans openly supported Germany’s fascist policies. (Google “Nazis Madison Square Garden” to see what young Jewish lads like Simon and Kirby had to deal with long before the U.S. joined the war.) It was a political act when Kirby and Lee created a black superhero and a futuristic African nation at a time when many U.S. retailers refused to carry comics with black characters on the cover, and it was a political act when Don McGregor and Billy Graham sent that same hero to the Deep South to fight the actual Ku Klux Klan.
Wonder Woman promoting gender equality? Spider-Man debating campus protesters? Batman expounding on the dangers of guns? Bottom line: comics (like any art form) are produced by people with ideas about how they see the world and how they think the world should work, and there was never a time when the politics of those people weren’t a part of the comics they produced. We need to accept that as a starting point and move away from the idea that comics were ever “pure” of political content. Because they never were. And voicing the opinion that the comics or movies you first discovered as a child weren’t “political” only demonstrates how you didn’t see it the first time — and still refuse to see it today.
3. Your favorite writer or artist not getting a gig is not a freedom-of-speech issue.
This comes up whenever a writer or an artist who identifies with the Comicsgate movement talks about how they lost a job because of their political beliefs. Fans who accept this version of events then repeat the assertion until it’s accepted as fact that all the editors at the big comic companies are part of a leftist cabal that gleefully blackballs creative folks whose politics they don’t like.
Let’s put aside the more obvious self-serving parts of that interpretation of reality (“And I would have made them billions with my genius, if they weren’t so hung up on stupid politics!”) and focus on what these artists are actually claiming; namely, the billion-dollar companies that own the most recognizable and marketable comic characters in the world are turning away valuable, money-making talent like them solely because of their political beliefs. Be honest: does that sound like any major corporation you can think of?
Like any business, a publisher’s ultimate loyalty is to the bottom line. If a company believes the risks of working with Outspoken Artist X outweigh the benefits, or if it decides that it can complete a project with the help of an artist whose involvement won’t cause them the same PR headaches as X, then it will choose the less risky option.
In this context, it’s very unlikely an assistant editor at Marvel or DC is seeing someone’s Twitter feed and thinking, “Wow, I don’t like this person’s politics, so I guess I won’t give them the job.” More likely, what’s happening is that editor’s boss’s boss has looked at the cost/benefit analysis of having the company being associated with that person’s objectionable beliefs and decided it’s not worth the risk. (And not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out this corporate reluctance to hire outspoken artists isn’t just affecting right-leaning talent; see also “James Gunn” and “Chuck Wendig” for two recent examples of left-leaning artists who were pushed out of cushy gigs after things they said on social media were brought to the attention of their employers. Maybe the real lesson here is “Don’t spout off on Twitter.”)
These artists who say they’re being persecuted professionally for their politics, their beef isn’t with “social justice warrior” editors handing out plum assignments to their “PC” friends; their beef (even if they don’t realize it) is with industry consolidation, shrinking markets for their wares, backroom bean-counters running the show, and people in corner suites who see artists as interchangeable, with little difference setting them apart except for how much they’re willing to accept in payment and how much of a hassle their employment might cause.
Now, it’s possible that at some point someone at one of these publishers told a complaining artist that he’s not getting the job because of something he said or did in the past. But what I think is more likely is that we humans as a rule don’t handle rejection well, and when it happens to us we jump on any explanation for why we didn’t get the job — especially if that explanation allows us to avoid facing the fact that maybe we’re not as indispensable as we think we are.
4. There is no more “bad writing” in comics today than there ever was, so let’s stop pretending that’s the real issue here.
Because most people know it doesn’t make them look good to rail against the existence of women, non-white people and others as the reasons why today’s comics are bad, you’ll often hear people in these Comicsgate discussions say what they’re really mad about is “bad writing.” And to be fair, I think there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the quality of writing in today’s mainstream comics, and whether that quality has had an impact on sales. The problem is that those discussions tend to get overtaken by people looking for validation for their more emotional opinions as part of something I’ll call “the Ghostbusters effect.”
Remember when that new Ghostbusters movie came out a few years back? Long before the movie even hit theatres, the internet was on fire with (mostly) white and (mostly) male commentators railing against the film’s very existence, simply because the film had an all-female team of Ghostbusters. I know, it doesn’t make sense to me, either — but for whatever reason, there were guys out there absolutely livid at the idea of women Ghostbusters “ruining their childhood.” And then the film came out, and film critics who tried to focus on flaws in the film’s script or pacing found their lack of enthusiasm for the film co-opted by these guys: “A-ha! See? They agree the movie sucks! It’s a movie that stars women! Therefore, movies starring women suck!”
Like I said, there’s room for honest discussion about current trends in comic writing and whether those trends are hurting sales. “Decompression,” for instance, is the term for a form of storytelling that places a stronger emphasis on visuals or character interaction than plot, resulting in stories that move much more slowly (and typically take more issues to tell) than stories in Silver Age comics. Is this trend a problem for comic publishers at a time when media consumers are being conditioned to take in information faster? Are readers turned off by continuing storylines that force them to spend more money than they expected? These are valid questions. But as long as the Comicsgate crowd keeps insisting on turning every conversation about editorial issues towards their pre-conceived conclusions, it’s going to be difficult to have those conversations.
Also, let’s not let nostalgia cloud our minds to the fact that most of the comics back in the “good old days” weren’t all that great, either. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once proposed a law: “Ninety per cent of everything is crap.” The people arguing that all comics today are badly written are either refusing to see all the good books coming out now that disproves their point… or refusing to acknowledge the many comics from the “good old days” that were bland, run-of-the-mill or just plain crap. Either way, they’re not arguing in good faith.
5. New characters are written into existing books for reasons that have nothing to do with “pushing an agenda.”
From what I can gather reading their demands, the biggest fear of these Comicsgate folks is the slight chance that someone, somewhere is plotting to make them realize that people who don’t look exactly like them exist. Maybe that’s not entirely fair; as far as I can tell, it’s not the existence of non-white/male/straight characters they seem to object to, just the idea that comic fans like them should be forced to see them in prominent roles: “Hey, I’m all for equality, I just don’t want this X-Man I started caring about five minutes ago to get turned gay by some ‘PC’ writer with an agenda. Or some chick pushing Thor aside in his own book for a few issues before the blond dude inevitably comes back. It’s about honoring the character, you know?”
This is a hard one to unpack, because people who talk about these kinds of issues tend to run the gamut from “I don’t think it’s logical to cast black people as Asgardians” to “It’s part of a plot to destroy white men.” And then you have those fans who — good faith or no — object to longtime characters like Iron Man or Thor sharing their name with a woman or non-white character. So rather than try to unpack all of that, let me present a hypothetical scenario.
Let’s say you’re a young writer and a huge comic fan. You’ve just landed your dream job as an assistant editor at “Marble Comics,” home of all your favorite heroes. You can’t wait to get your hands on the characters you grew up with, but you’re also full of great ideas for brand-new characters that you’re sure will be a huge hit with readers.
Thanks to the joys of media consolidation, Marble is part of a larger entertainment corporation — let’s call it “Fizzney” — that bought the company a few years ago. Fizzney is enormously successful because it knows how to sell product, with decades of selling experience and an army of marketing professionals helping executives decide what to sell next. And what these marketers are telling their bosses is two things that everyone else in the entertainment business already knows: (1) international markets are growing faster than the North American market and (2) the face of the American consumer is literally changing, with demographic trends forecasting a far more diverse country than in decades past.
So. You’re a fresh-faced junior staffer at a once-mighty publisher that’s now a very small piece of a very large conglomerate. Your division’s revenues in relation to the larger company’s bottom line amount to a rounding error in the grand scheme of things, but you still feel pretty pumped about being there because so much of the larger company’s current box-office success is based on the books that your company published 60, 70, 80 years ago. You can’t wait to start pitching ideas for the company’s next big breakout character, and you get ready for your first meeting with your boss’s boss to pitch those ideas.
But before you get too excited, here are some facts to consider.
Fact: the people who bought your company bought it for the marketability of your legacy characters, not for whatever new characters you can come up with. (And they certainly don’t want to get into any development deals with someone who might insist on ownership of their characters, since they just spent billions securing the rights to characters that are guaranteed to make them money.) It’s going to take a lot of convincing for them to take a gamble on your untested idea — unless your idea has a connection to one of the established characters.
Fact: The entertainment business being what it is, the majority (if not all) of your company’s books printed are going to be part of a larger marketing plan — a plan in which your books support whatever big-budget films are produced by your parent company, not the other way around. No connection to those films means there’s very little chance your character will see the light of day.
Fact: Your parent company, looking ahead and keen on conquering foreign markets, understands the need to nurture characters that reflect the changing face of its audience — which means you and your company are under the gun to write new stories about established legacy characters while also finding ways to introduce new and more diverse faces into the mix.
Bottom line: the comics business is a business — the idea that editors with an interest in keeping their jobs would deliberately sabotage their company by placing their “social agenda” above their desire to stay employed is beyond ridiculous. Those writers and editors in the company I’m describing became writers and editors because they want to create, and you can believe a lot of them wish they could publish all the original characters they want, in as many new titles as they can put out.
But that’s not feasible because of the current state of the comic business, and they have to work within the parameters established by their corporate bosses. And when those parameters include both “Write stories about our biggest-selling characters” and “Write stories with more diverse characters in them” but no one’s signing off on printing more titles because the market won’t bear it… well, you end up where we are today: books with the names of the “big name” characters on the front but new and more diverse characters inside.
Blame it all on “liberals” with “social agendas” if it makes you feel better. But it won’t change the fact these new characters are introduced into books starring classic characters for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writer’s politics.
It’s just business. And it always has been.
6. These attempts to sabotage movies and TV shows you don’t like are pointless and need to stop.
As I write this, Captain Marvel recently had a good opening weekend. Very good, in fact — as in, “$455-million worldwide opening weekend” and “third-highest March opening of all time” good. Last time I checked, it’s making serious Star Wars money, with $800 million and climbing in worldwide ticket sales. It’s probably not going to be the year’s highest-grossing film — all bets are on next month’s Avengers: Endgame for that title — but I think it’s safe to assume it will do well in the rankings despite the efforts of a lot of people who were trying to sabotage it.
If you’re reading this in the far-off future, you might not remember what all the hubbub was about. But basically it boiled down to this: some angry white guys decided Brie Larson said mean things about people like them (she didn’t), and they punished her for it by… rigging the scores on a popular movie review website. Yep, it’s as silly as it sounds. (Though not as silly as one proud defender of men-kind denouncing the film as feminist propaganda because Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is shown in one scene helping with the dishes. I’ll leave it to the famously profane Mr. Jackson to provide the appropriate retort to that.)
Not that Captain Marvel was the first target of these wi-fi warriors; they also went after Black Panther (highest-grossing film of 2018), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (highest-grossing film of 2017) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (highest-grossing film of 2015 and third highest-grossing film of all time) for various reasons that boil down to objecting to the existence of films that show someone other than white dudes being the hero. (And like I said above, they also tried to sabotage 2016’s Ghostbusters for having too many girls for their liking… but in all honesty, they really needn’t have bothered.)
I don’t know where I’m going with this point other than… are we done now, guys? Can we just admit this constant outrage-rinse-repeat thing is not having the impact on Hollywood that you might have been hoping for, and move on to other forms of protest? Or maybe — and hear me out here — we can stop with the online harassment and protests altogether? Maybe just not care about how these movies are doing and move on to more productive pursuits? Not because your viewpoints are outdated or wrong but because… well, what’s the endgame here? Companies like Disney have clearly found a formula that works; are you arguing that they could make even more money than they’re currently making by putting out films that only star white guys? Is making more money even possible for Disney right now? If that’s not your point, then what is it?
“Hey, why are we talking about movies here?” my hypothetical debate opponent says. “I thought we were talking about comics.” We sure are, friend. We sure are. And I can understand how you wouldn’t want us to talk about wildly successful films with diverse casts that appeal to a broad range of audiences in a conversation about how comics should aim for less diversity in order to survive. But until the Comicsgate gang can explain how making those superhero films less diverse and less appealing to audiences makes good business sense… maybe we shouldn’t go around demanding the same for our comics?
7. Nothing is stopping you from being the change you want to see.
Let’s suppose there’s a place you used to go to when you were younger, a place that you thought was the perfect hangout. The food, the music, the company — you have a lot of happy memories of going there.
Then — as life moves on — you stop going out as often as you used to, but one day you decide to stop by the old haunt for old time’s sake. You’re shocked as soon as you step inside: the place has a new owner and staff, the crowd you knew has moved on, the menu has gone vegan, the old jukebox and pinball machine have been replaced by Slam Poetry Wednesdays and meditation mats… it’s the same building, but everything else has changed.
What’s the rational response here? Do you throw a tantrum, call everyone in the place mean names and demand the owners change everything back to the way you like it OR ELSE… or do you shrug, enjoy that moment of nostalgia you’re feeling and find a new place to hang out that’s more your style?
The fact these Comicsgate people tend to choose Option 1 makes it hard for me to take their complaints about today’s comics seriously. Let’s assume that everything they say is true, that all the big publishers are run by social justice warriors churning out bad stories full of leftist propaganda that’s turning off real comic fans like them — you know, the ones who know how these superhero stories are supposed to be told.
If that’s the version of reality we live in… then what’s stopping these guys from showing us how it’s done? If they know what comic fans really want, then why aren’t they creating their own comic companies to put out these “good comics” that the Marvels and DCs of the world aren’t interested in making? Why do they instead keep insisting on crashing a party where they don’t feel welcome, to tell everyone else how this “partying” thing is supposed to be done? I’m starting to feel a bit rhetorical because I think we already know the answer.
To be fair, there are some Comicsgate types putting their money where their mouths are by creating their own comics through publishers like Arkhaven and ComicsGate (though the backers behind that one ran afoul of other Comicsgate types who objected to the co-opting of “their” term to produce comics specifically geared towards Comicsgate supporters; no, I don’t get it, either). I’m pretty sure I don’t share the same political views as the minds behind Gun Ghoul or Alt-Hero: Q (sidebar: so overt politics in comics is okay when they do it…?), but my hat’s off to them anyway — at least they’re not sitting around and moaning about how the big companies won’t let them play in their sandbox. No, they’re taking advantage of the internet’s ability to connect directly with their audiences, bypass the usual comic distribution channels that shut out smaller players in the past. So everyone else screaming about “progressive” comics… what’s their excuse?
8. This thing about “social justice warrior” being an insult? It’s got to stop.
Seriously, I will never understand how “social justice warrior” became a go-to insult for so many people who claim to be comic fans. “Social” means “needing companionship” or “of or relating to society.” “Justice” means “fairness in the way people are dealt with.” “Warrior” means “one who fights in a war.”
That is literally the job description for every character who has ever put on tights to fight crime.
I mean, what’s the opposite of a “social justice warrior,” an anti-social coward who believes in special treatment for some but not others? Is that how the people who sneer at “SJWs” really want us to see them? Is it how they see themselves?
I kid, but not by much. I get how the label is typically used against people who are perceived to be virtuous only in online spaces, the “warrior” part used ironically to point out how those people supposedly never transfer their words to actions in the real world (although how the insulter knows that about someone else they haven’t met is a mystery). But seriously, guys. Enough is enough. Time to come up with some insults that are actually insulting. Or like I said, stop wasting time on insults and show the rest of us how it’s done.