Sunday, April 27, 2014

Storytelling

My dad and I have what I tend to think of as a distant, tenuously cordial, relationship. This is an improvement over at least a decade’s worth of animosity. A lot of how I feel about it and the years of tense, sometimes outright hostility between us, are defined by moments in stories that gave me insights I might not have come to on my own.

It’s fitting that this is the way I relate to my father, through stories, because he’s responsible for introducing me to the books and narrative worlds that have shaped my life the most. My dad is the one who read me The Hobbit when I was 5, solidifying my lifelong obsession with Tolkien. My dad is the one who brought home manga for me and my brother from Japan, all in Japanese, as my first introduction to the magic of words and pictures. My dad is the one who took me to the comics shop and let me pick out my own books starting when I was ten or eleven. My dad is the one who let me watch Raiders of The Lost Ark and 7 Samurai and Star Wars and Monty Python when I was too young to “get” a lot of what was going on, but still deeply influenced my outlook on the world.

We don’t talk a lot, me and my dad. I Skype with my mom pretty regularly and he’ll pop in to say hi, but it’s always a little awkward. A little rushed. When we do talk, it’s not about what’s going on in my life or his. We talk about stories because for us they are safe and meaningful and keep us from touching on old hurts and current regrets.  

One of my favorite films, that my father first let me watch when I was probably 7 or 8, was Stand By Me. I didn’t know it then, but it was my first exposure to the work of Stephen King, an author whose storytelling I would come to love, admire, and find both inspirational and heart wrenching over the years.  Even though I was too young to fully grasp all of the themes and relationships in that film, it stuck with me, and became a frequent re-watch and top film recommendation.

I my 20’s, during a particularly rough patch with my father when I didn’t speak to him for about 6 months, I re-watched Stand By Me as a kind of comfort blanket. It was like visiting old friends you haven’t seen in awhile and staying up late at night to have the kind of conversations that only happen past 1am.

I was watching the scene toward the end, when Geordie is finally breaking down about his brother and his father. His best friend is comforting him with a wisdom and compassion we rarely get to see boys express, when a line from the Chris character hit me like the train hit Ray Brauer in the film, knocking the breath and life out of me for a moment.

“Your father doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t know you.”

I’d heard this line hundreds of times before. Heard it, but not understood it. Heard it, but not really felt it. Until that moment, in those set of circumstances, I don’t think I could have really grasped the depth and importance of that set of words. Something angry, frustrated, and deeply hurt inside me let go a little that day. I understood my father in a way I hadn’t before and finally grasped something important about our relationship and the guilt and sadness I’d been carrying around about it since adolescence. Until that moment I don’t know that I’d really let myself realize that I honestly thought my father hated me and that it was my fault. Only it wasn’t, he just doesn’t know me.

That line changed the way I thought about my relationship with my father and helped me move past some things that had been eating away at me for a long time. It didn't fix our relationship, that's not something that can be fixed like that. It simply allowed me to see, clearly, something that had previously been buried in emotional fog.

It baffles me sometimes how my dad and I, with so many stories in common, can be so little alike in most other ways. I try not to dwell on things that were said in anger or resentment, that exist in a past that there should be enough distance from now to not matter so much. But it lingers. Even when things are forgiven, they don’t disappear. And some things simply aren’t gotten “over”. I’m not even sure it’s about forgiveness at that point, it’s more about acceptance. Accepting who you are, who they are, and that events have shaped you both collectively and separately that there’s no going back from.

It’s bittersweet, thinking and knowing that, because I personally believe life is too short and grudges and anger don’t make it any easier or better. I also think, though, that people sometimes mistake forgiving as forgetting, or as a kind of do-over for things that can’t always be undone. Sometimes relationships can’t be salvaged. Sometimes it's not about it being "good" but about it not being "bad". Sometimes we are distant because the people involved are too different. Sometimes distant is better than none. And with my dad and I, we at least have these stories that give us some kind of common ground.

This, among many other examples, is why I believe stories are powerful, important, transcendent things that human beings take too much for granted. Our ability to tell a story, to connect with others through thoughts that become words that weave into tales is a remarkable, incredible thing. We can reach through time and space with our stories. We can touch the lives of people we will never know and who will never know us. 

A story can radically change the trajectory of your life, it can alter the way you think, feel, and imagine what life can be. A story can get you closer to understanding what it’s like to be someone else than almost anything else, and it can show you who you really are. The stories we love live inside us, waiting to be shared. They are a source of comfort, change, and joy in a world full of chaos, pain, and difficulty. We should use that power wisely.





Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh No, Not Again

I honestly don’t really have the time to keep addressing yet another example of sexism in comics, it’s been nearly 15 years of this, I feel like a broken record. But. Here we are and here I am and there are a few “arguments” I think need to be countered. Again.

The first problem is how often I see directly contradictory ideas offered as trump cards in discussions about sexually objectifying images of female characters.  Somehow an image is both “realistic, some women really look like that!” and also “not meant to be realistic, they’re fictional and exaggerated for effect!”. These two things don’t go together. Either they’re realistic or they’re not. Hint: they are not. If you’re going to argue that they’re supposed to be exaggerated, fine, but then you’re going to have to acknowledge WHY they’re exaggerated, what bits tend to be exaggerated, for what audience, and how that might inform the objectification criticism.

If you’re going to argue that things like the brokeback pose, impractical outfits whose sole purpose is cleavage/butt definition, are deliberately exaggerated for effect…ok. But you don’t then get to argue that it’s somehow also “realistic”, or that that exaggeration isn’t for a very specific purpose. Otherwise they’d be exaggerating brain size or non-sexual characteristics. The purpose is sexual objectification. Own it.

This goes to another argument that also uses two conflicting ideas. Namely that comics are “for” a male audience, therefore the women are depicted this way to appeal to male readers who apparently only want one body type and only “sexy” images of said characters. This is followed up by saying male characters are also exaggerated therefore it’s equal. Only that’s not possible IF the audience is supposedly straight male. Because if that’s the case, then the women being drawn that way is so that they exist as sexual fantasies and the men are drawn that way to be heroic ideals. Those two things are not the same and they are inherently unequal. The purpose of the exaggeration is very different. It just is.

I also don’t buy the argument that “super” characteristics automatically means one extremely exaggerated body type for women, all the time, that just happens to be very porn-y. On books that are not porn or even porn “lite”. Theoretically the point of super hero comics is telling sequential stories about super hero’s. Sex MAY occur in those stories, but they don’t exist as a vehicle for sex. Porn, on the other hand, is about sex, not story. This isn’t a particularly difficult distinction.

However, when you show women the way a lot of comics covers do, that line gets hella blurred. There’s very little story reason so many of them are posed in a titillating fashion and most of the time it does nothing for the character, either. Because it’s not about them being sexy on their terms for themselves, it’s about being perceived as sexy by others. It’s for an audience, for a viewer, not for the character.
Look, I don’t have any issue with sexy images of women. I like them, I draw them myself. I like porn, I enjoy porn comics. And newsflash: lots of porn comics are far sexier than any of these mainstream covers, with better proportions, art, and layout. So the problem isn’t sex, sexiness, boob size, or even exaggerated proportions.

The problem is WHY they are exaggerated, who is exaggerated, what the context is, who is doing the image and from what pov, and what it conveys. What, exactly, is the point of all these sexy women on comic book covers?  A cover is supposed to give a reader an idea of what the book is going to be like, to appeal to them, to invite them into the story. If your story is “hey, lookit some boobies” terrific. But if it’s a more complex look at how characters with powers deal with the world? Your cover should reflect that idea. Otherwise, what are you conveying? That you’ll get a good story about complex, interesting characters…or a pseudo-porn?

If the latter, just admit it and go for it. Stop being coy or pretending it’s something else. And if it’s not, then give your female characters the same respect you give the male characters and define them by something other than exaggerated visual depictions. At the very least it’s a lazy and trope-tastic art style that repels a lot of potential readers who might otherwise want to check out these stories, if they had any idea what the stories would actually be like. I mean, supes are supposedly “modern myths”, right? That sounds like they’re supposed to be taken just a tad more seriously than Skinemax. So maybe the covers should reflect that. Or not, but pick a direction and own it.

At least with something like Busty Cops or Taken by Bigfoot I know what the hell I’m getting into. They aren’t pretending to be anything else. Comics seem to want this both ways and it’s just insulting at this point. 

Something else that’s insulting? Accusing critiques of vendetta’s, biases, and not being qualified to discuss material in their own field…because they explain why a cover may not be working the way it’s intended. In comics, covers are marketing tools as well as story extensions. It is completely valid to look at one and question whether it is successful and if not, why not. And if the person doing the critiquing happens to have actually edited comics for a living? Yeah, you should pay attention, not throw temper tantrums. Our experience, knowledge, and expertise is absolutely relevant…and I really have to wonder about someone who thinks an informed critique is LESS valid than a reactionary Twitter fit. Let alone some tinfoil hat conspiracy against one of the top two publishers in comics.

I mean, I’ve been editing comics for nearly 15 years. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t or that my CV isn’t something you should consider when I offer an opinion. You don’t have to agree with me, but yes, I do think my background gives my perspective some weight and at the very least some consideration if I talk about things like how covers are developed and how important what that imagery conveys is. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Can you disagree with a woman in comics without it being sexist? Yep. But not by assuming they don't know what they're talking about because they're a woman, or claiming they have an "agenda" for discussing sexism, harassment, or the ramifications of sexual objectification in pop culture. Unless the "agenda" you're talking about is making comics culture less toxic. 


Finally, if you send rape threats because someone criticized a comic book cover (or for ANY reason) I can only assume you left your sanity in roughly the same location as your brain. Firmly and perpetually up your own ass.