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 Life Skills for Fanboys:  In Response to Chuck Dixon, Paul Rivoche and Janelle Asselin

 written by Tony DiGerolamo, Copyright 2014

To further my goal of helping fellow fanboys, I have included an index of links of previous columns with their topics.  Don’t take it personal, I’m just trying to help.  Previous columns are indexed at the end.


I was honestly going to end this column last week.  I just had run out of topics and then like mana from heaven, someone decided to mix politics and comic books.  That was like giving me candy on Christmas!  The first column was in the Wall Street Journal called How Liberalism Became Kryptonite for Superman: A graphic tale of modern comic books’ descent into moral relativism.  This was written by famous comic book duo Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche.  The response (or at least the one I saw) was from Janelle Asselin over at Comic Alliance and was called Superhuman Error: What Conservatives Chuck Dixon & Paul Rivoche Get Wrong About Politics In American Comics.

You have to read both columns to understand my response.  And as most bros that know me know, I’m another one of those Libertarian troublemakers.  But I feel I have a unique perspective on this discussion since I am one of the people fairly outside the Left/Right political dynamic.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

I am a huge fan of Chuck’s work and interviewed him at least once or twice back in the day when he was writing most of the comics at DC (Batman, Deathstroke, etc. and then the Punisher over at Marvel, amongst many others).  Chuck lays out his premise: that Conservatism has been either driven out of comics or that Liberalism, as defined by being overly PC, has infused the current storyline and taken them over.  (I’m surmising, but you get it.)  Also, that conservatives are discriminated against in the editorial world of comics, which creates an atmosphere of intimidation or something akin to censorship.  He and Paul also give a broad history lesson in comics and how the politics when from being clear good vs. evil to being so gray, you can’t tell the good from the bad anymore and that Liberalism is to blame for that, more or less.

Righteous Indignation

Asselin’s response is (again, in a nutshell) that although Chuck and Paul are well liked creators, their premise is flawed, their view of comic book history is incorrect, their word usage is sub par and they are a couple of right wingers like Frank Miller.  But they’re right that there aren’t many conservative comics, they’re talented but they shouldn’t blame liberals for their problems.

My Take:  Chuck and Paul

I agree with some of what Asselin is saying.  Chuck and Paul sound like two old men bemoaning the romantic “good ol’ days” where everything was squeaky clean and black and white.  However, they are writing a column in the Wall Street Journal, they had to gloss over some stuff to get their point across in a few thousand words.  But yeah, if you’re going to make big claims, have some big evidence to back things up.

But C&P definitely nail one thing: there tends to be more Liberals in the editorial room these days than conservatives.  But are editorial meetings really choked with hipsters sporting Che Guevara T-shirts and copies of Nietzsche?  Is there an organized liberal agenda that pervades comics, as in other entertainment areas, that makes every major player push recycling and multi-cultural diversity?

No.  It just seems that way to Chuck and Paul and the reason is this:  There is a bias, but that bias comes out of the hivemind of the publishing organization, not one particularly political philosophy or another.

The Hivemind

The concept of a Hivemind really crystallized for me using the website Reddit.  On Reddit, people can vote links up or down and make comments about them.  I post links and sometimes links from here.  Sometimes it’s good, great, horrible or just nothing.  Fans are fickle and the Internet is fickle times a million.  However, there are certain areas of Reddit, especially the political rooms, where users (called Redditors) have created a Hivemind.  This hivemind is the area of acceptable opinion within a narrowly tailored topic room on Reddit or sometimes not-so-narrow.  The most glaring example is the room r/politics.  (The “r” stands for “room” or “Reddit”, I’m not sure.)

Anyhow, the hivemind in r/politics for the last six years or so, loves Obama.  Although recently his popularity has faded somewhat in the room, he has many tried and true defenders.  So if you post a link that says something like “Obama Pushes Iraq for Reforms, But Prepares Air Strikes” it’s like to get voted down into oblivion because it’s critical of him and the Hivemind likes Obama.  Conversely, if you post something super positive, even if it’s straight up propaganda from the White House or the DNC, it will likely get voted up.

The World of Editorial Teams

In the world of comics, there are editorial teams.  At Marvel (and this was a few years ago) the books were split amongst “Marvel Houses”.  One editorial team did X-men books, one did Avengers books, one did Spiderman books, etc.  The DC split was a little more complicated, but it was something like Vertigo and then various teams that had books across the spectrum of superheroes.  I knew one editor that edited one Batman book, but not the others and he had quite a few under his umbrella.

But each team is a group of co-workers that have to work together.  And when you have say who you’re going to work with, you tend to hire people you like and get along with.  So are all editors liberal?  No, but a lot of them are because most of them went to college.  And if you don’t think most college campuses are liberal in mindset, I don’t think you’ve been to many college campuses.  It’s just the way it is and I’ve been to quite a few.

I think it tends to be liberal for the same reason it tends to be liberal in the editorial teams: people hire other people they like and agree with.  And guess what, if you don’t agree with your boss’s political beliefs, you’re probably going to go along with them anyway because hey, he’s your boss.  That doesn’t mean most bosses are some liberal ogres demanding political opinion conformity, it just means that most people aren’t going to risk pissing off their boss.  It’s just not healthy for your career and I have a long history of pissing people off, so believe me, I know what I’m talking about.

Now, not all editors are liberal.  I once pissed off an editor that was a Republican because I made a joke about Republicans that he didn’t like.  He took it kind of personally, sent me a bunch of notes and I never made a political joke in his comics again.  It was his prerogative how he handled it.  I would’ve been fine with just a note that said “Cut this, too much,” but he felt obligated to explain that he was deeply offended.  (Politics is often very personal to people.)

How the Hivemind is Built

So people tend to hire people just like them.  And if they don’t, then the people that get past the gatekeepers know to act like your co-workers.  I mean, we’ve all been there with co-workers or just a group of people.  If the group likes something, you gotta like it or look weird.  If the group dislikes something, you gotta dislike it or look weird.  It’s not politics, it’s just being human.

Liberals tend to group with liberals.  I’m sure in the 1950’s it was the complete opposite.  Stuffy editors in suits and ties from Mad Men, smoking and saying in a paternal voice, “Gee, Tom, you ought to flatten out that bulge on Superman.  People might talk!”  Conversely, if an assistant editor today overhears his boss on a phone call bemoaning Republicans or he happens to know his boss is really into animals and a member of PETA, he’s going to take that story about big game hunters and say to the writer, “Gee, Tom, you ought to make the big game hunters look like the inhumane, gun-loving Rednecks that they are.”  So it’s not a cabal, it’s just the natural tendency for an employee to want to please his boss.  It is, after all a company with employees.  And it’s not like the creator is going to rise from the dead to give his approval or thumbs down.

Chuck’s Case

Chuck tells the story of how he questioned the inclusion of an AIDS storyline in one of the DC Comics, since it was aimed at kids.  He was told to apologize for even suggesting it to his colleague.  Now there may be more to the story than what Chuck could put in the WSJ piece, but it’s a legitimate question.  Asselin rightly points out Chuck’s more adult storylines and says, hey, what about all these?  And C&P go on to say that this directly impacted Chuck’s ability to work.

First, as a Libertarian, I’m all about free speech.  You should be able to say what you want.  But DC Comics is a private entity.  If they want to tell an employee to apologize to another over some trifling issue, that’s their business.  But understand, Chuck is an employee and the hivemind told him to apologize.  Whether he’s right or wrong is irrelevant, since he offended the hivemind which is mostly made up of the fears several employees have of offending their superiors, it becomes, “Gee, Chuck, better apologize.  That’s dangerous thinking!”

My Take:  Janelle

Janelle’s right to criticize Chuck and Paul.  They do jump to some big conclusions based on a rather broad painting of history.  And ending the piece with “It’s time to take back comics.” implies that it was in the conservative camp to begin with and was somehow “lost”.  But Janelle also makes the some of the same mistakes that C&P make.  She criticizes them for not using the term “moral relativism” correctly and she rightly points out that it is often a club that conservatives use against liberals.

To be more precise, however, it’s usually a club that Republicans use against liberals.  Conservatives are a wide, wide swath of the political spectrum, as is the term Liberal.  Quite frankly, that they both use the terms in a way that lumps their opposition into one easy ball of “evil” to kick down the street.  “See that ball of Conservatism over there?  Kick that bastard ball!”

So in attempting to parse Conservative and Liberal, Janelle conflates Republican with Conservative as if the two terms are interchangeable.  Mostly what she’s talking about and what C&P are presenting are Republican views.  Libertarians are considered Conservatives and I could give two flying fucks about the jingoistic Superman bullshit C&P imagine should make a come back.  So what am I?  Some aberration Conservative?  Hell, there are so many divisions amongst just Libertarians:  libertarians (with a small “l”), Liberal-tarians, Cosmotarians, Anarcho-Captialists, Volunteerists, etc.  (I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch.)  Painting either side with such broad brushes is what they do in (forgive me) cartoons and comic books to simplify for the kids.

Politicizing Superheroes

While C&P yearn for the “moral compass” and Janelle tries to prove that Captain America was really a progressive—  All the writers are really stretching to make their point.  They have to, since these comic book characters have been around for decades and they seem to forget they get reimagined every other week.  Batman was not always brooding, Superman was not always so huge and muscle-bound and what color is the Hulk these days?  Comic book characters often follow trends because the creators are long gone and even when they worked in these comic book companies, most of them were just employees too.

Comic books are a business and the business is to get numbers, baby!  Circulation, circulation!  If being a Liberal or a Conservative or a Handicapped-Amish-Native-American-Rapper means sales—  It’s going to happen to Superman or Spiderman or whatever hero eventually.  Are the three people writing this new to this game?

When I was a kid in the 70’s, hippies will still all the rage…on TV.  While hippies in real life were on their way out, TV hippies had just really come into their own.  They didn’t magically start appearing when they appeared on the street, it took years after hippie culture was so pervasive that TV writers and producers started to include them.  Then they included them too much.  There wasn’t a cop show with a bad guy who didn’t say, “Oh, man!  This is a bad trip!  So heavy!”  But eventually, they went out of vogue and off TV.

The same thing happens with politics.  With the rise of Libertarianism on college campuses, I have no doubt that we’ll start seeing them in comics…a few years after the Libertarians finally elected a few Reps and Senators.  If it becomes a popular trend, regardless of the feelings of the editors working at the time, it’s going to make it’s way into story lines.  Because it’s a business, not because anyone necessarily feels a strong need to infuse Libertarianism into The Punisher all of a sudden.  (“You wanna live?  I’ll let the free market of my bullets decide!”)  In other words, these are trends, they just happen to be political.

Liberalism (or more accurately, some aspects of it) is still popular enough that it survives in the editorial offices.  But with the shake ups in staff, the old leave and the younger move in.  It changes, so the hivemind changes.  Before what was unacceptable, becomes routine.  I remember when DC canceled that Swamp Thing story because it was going to include Jesus Christ.  Compared to some of the Vertigo stories I’ve seen since, that pales in comparison.  Hell, the popular series Preacher clearly implied that Jesus Christ had a bloodline and that the Catholic Church had been guarding it for years.  The end result was a group of mentally deficient, inbred, feces-throwing mutants that acted like wild apes.  These characters (along with many, many others) were gruesomely killed and no one even batted an eye when it came out.

The Point of All This

Parsing the political views of fictional comic book characters that have been around for decades and have gone through many, many changes is about as relevant as trying to prove who would win in a fight, The Hulk or Superman.  It’s fanboy bullshit.  It has zero relevance.  C&P’s take on the Liberal cabal trying to undermine our children through the comics medium is foolishly lacking context and Janelle’s attempt to “right” the imagined wrong only serves to imply that C&P have a relevant point.

No one gives a shit if Superman gives up citizenship at the U.N. unless the story is good.  It’s just another issue designed to sell the trademark.  The people who care are customers and if DC really wanted to make a few million sales, they’d take a stronger stand than that in my opinion.  (Oh, Superman is renouncing his citizenship because he doesn’t want to be an instrument of U.S. policy?  Well, is he going to stop the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen then?  Will he be stomping the Nazis that live in Kiev against the wishes of the State Department?  Where was he during the Occupy movement when protesters got stomped?  Or for that matter, where was he during Vietnam, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and September 11th?)

Down this path leads madness and the three writers should know better.  Dixon should (and has) used his writing abilities to make political statements in his comic book stories.  (A great one in particular is this Batman story where Gotham is taken over by a security corporation just as Batman is nearing retirement.  I think it came out in the 90’s, but it’s kind of like a TSA and NSA for Gotham that goes overboard and Batman puts it down.)

And Janelle agrees that there should be more “conservative comics”.  Really?  Why?  Who cares what political bent a comic book takes as long as it is good?  Are we to politicize comic books and reduce this to a numbers game?  (“We’ve got too many liberal comics, we need some conservative ones to balance it out!”)  That’s what MSNBC tried to do during the Bush administration.  Phil Donahue counted as “two” shows because he was “so liberal”.  Meanwhile, to placate their perceived conservative audience, they ended up canceling Donahue and keeping the sinking ship that was the Dennis Miller Show.  How’d that work out?)

What Comics Should Be

Comic books should strive for greatness.  Period.  End of sentence.  Whether or not there is a clear moral compass or layers of gray.  And no matter what political stripe.

No one at Marvel or DC or any other comic book company should be shooting down stories because their political leanings offend them personally.  They should shoot them down because they are repetitive, boring and trite or that they fly in the face of the character and/or the corporate branding for which it stands.  It’s interesting when writers take a strong view on things.  It gives them a particular vision.  As much as I think Frank Miller went off his nut during his Occupy rant, I still would’ve like to have seen his Batman vs. Al Qeada comic.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been very PC, but I’ll bet it would’ve made an interesting read.  (But it’s also DC’s right to turn it down and avoid controversy.)

C&P have fallen into the old man trap that Steranko did when he ranted about The Pro on message boards.  You’re all very talented, but things change fellas.

Sure, I can see that comic book characters were once simple and pure.  But that made them boring to readers after a while.  The ante had to be upped.  The Joker was cool, but he became even cooler to some fans after they turned him into a homicidal maniac.  However, in upping the ante too far, editors have painted their talent into a corner.  Now when the Joker kills one or two guys, there’s no impact.  Now he has to murder a busload of puppies and nuns just to get readers to notice.  Creatively, the editors turned a short term gain into a long term problem for the talent.  So there is some merit in what the old guys are complaining about strictly from a story perspective.

And Janelle is right to lambast these guys for making it sound like the sky is falling.  But please, reducing these two creators and comparing them with “Internet commenters” by saying “…they still deserve the opportunity to produce comics that accurately represent their world view — and they’ve taken the advice so many internet commenters are eager to throw at comics feminists online, which is, “If you don’t like what’s being made, make your own comics.””  Really?  Is that how making your comics comes about?  Some yells at you on the Internet and the feminists are off and running?  How about taking the advice of ANY comic creator that has ever made his own comic and maybe all the guys at Image?  How many more political tie-ins are you going to hammer into this column?

And, quite frankly Janelle, you end up proving C&P right to some degree by responding to their column at all.  Despite the college-level glossary of terms, you sound like a stereotypical Liberal whose PC-sensibilities have been offended by those mean ol’ “right-wingers”.

Again it goes back to making GOOD comics.  If a feminist makes a shitty comic, it doesn’t matter if she’s a feminist or a Republican or a Democrat or a Liberal or Conservative.  Poor art and a bad story aren’t going to sell a message no matter what your good intentions are.  And I’m not talking about sales.  I’ve seen plenty of good comics that didn’t sell.  That’s just the nature of the business.   Shitty is shitty and good is good regardless of the political bent of the creators.

Politics only belongs in comic books when it enhances the story.  A strong vision from a great talent can do that, but that talent must often battle the hivemind just to get a few ideas past the gatekeepers.  If Janelle and C&P really want to do the world of comics a favor, they should be demanding that the hivemind be more open to everything so that storylines take risk and strive for the greatness that comics can achieve.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t have more time any more of this nonsense.  I gotta make new comics and I gotta make them better and better each time.  I suggest you all do the same.

Previous Columns
Obesity at Cons
The Art of Conversation
The Line Between Fans and Pros
Geek Elitism
Convention Panels
Convention Volunteers
Food Gifts
Women and Cons
Get Your Room Party Together
Stop Bringing Your Kids to Cons
The Face of Geek Needs Work
Fixing the Face of Geek
Franchise Worship
Presenting Your Project
The New Image?
Stop Trying to Make Geek Cool
 Rethinking the Comic Book Con
Zombie Stories Should Still Be About People
Geek Stereotypes and the Big Bang Theory
Con Locations
Traveling to Cons on the Cheap
Con Economics
Comics, Sexism and Trolling
Searching for the Words
How to Fix Comics?  Stop Reading Them
Shopping at the Con
The Hollywood Double Edged Sword
Beware the Geek Scams

Success Kills