Pull List of Justice: September 2013

pulllistofjusticeRegular readers of my stuff will know that I am a comic book fanatic and have argued many times that comics have historically been at the forefront of social progress, often addressing issues that television and other mediums have been unable or unwilling to. Yes, they can also be problematic, but I contend that finding the right book with the right author can lead to a wealth of fantastic characters representing all sorts of diverse types of people and ideas.

So welcome to the beginning of what will hopefully be a monthly feature in which I describe the wonderful things that are happening in the comics I read that send a positive message in the social justice arena. I should point out that I can only really write about the comics I actually read, so if you have a book that you think would be great that I don’t cover, mention it in the comments. Otherwise, all comics and characters are the property of their respective companies and are being reproduced in part here under Fair Use guidelines.

Now, let’s jump right in.

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Thus begins my latest piece for Queereka. I hope that this will become a regular thing and get more people reading some of the amazing and socially progressive comics out there.

Poor Reaction to Affleck: He-Nerd Rage

ben-affleck-batman-tai-urban_wenn20441205__oPtWow. Been asked three times today what I think about Ben Affleck cast as Batman, once by a person I don’t know and who isn’t a reader. Hate to pass the buck, but with the exception of his dislike of Man of Steel that seems to increase over time (I still like it on the whole), I’d have to say that MovieBob pretty much nails it.

Yes, he’s been in some goofy movies, and yes he’s not as talented as Matt Damon (who probably wouldn’t be right for the role), but he’s a solid actor with a love of comics, two Academy Awards, who has played a range of different parts with depth and aplomb. Sure, his last attempt at a comic movie, Daredevil, sucked, but it wasn’t because of something he did. It was a poorly written movie where the hero was heroic because stories have protagonists and the villains were villainous because stories have antagonists, and in neither case was any motivation assigned to anybody. However, that didn’t keep Michael Clark Duncan from doing a great Kingpin and it didn’t keep Affleck from making a believable Daredevil and, more to the point, Matt Murdock.

I will add that I think Affleck is suffering from a largely male-dominated nerd culture that won’t let go of the brief moment when Affleck was considered a pretty boy instead of a legit actor. This was roughly when he was dating J-Lo, which was bad enough (he’s dating a POP STAR! Nerds stand against pop and everything pop represents!), but then he went and married Jennifer Garner, who was in enough leather-clad spy and super hero roles to have, again for a moment, set herself up as a male nerd fantasy. This combined perception of betrayal and appropriation seems to have set Affleck up as being entirely untenable as a potential Batman, the Mary Sueiest of Mary Sue characters.

And the thing is, I remember the hate directed at Affleck at the time and, to a lesser extent, Garner. Regular readers can probably predict what was said about Garner, but there was this overwhelming sense in geek circles that this guy sullied himself with pop star germs, then swooped in to ruin Daredevil and take Sydney Bristow from us, forever ruining what would have undoubtedly been many more Elektra movies. He had the gall to impregnate her, depriving us of another season of her kicking ass in skimpy outfits in Alias. He…he…something! It was all very confusing back then.

And, to be honest, it’s not just Affleck who gets this. Anyone remember the reaction to Heath Ledger as the Joker? Fortunately, the internet is forever. Did you know there was a time when that guy who did Inception was just some empty-headed pretty boy who only ever did one part and looked like a girl (TW: early internet webpage design)?

Now, I will admit that he has done a number of bad films. I won’t go into them, it was covered pretty well in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but the guy has also done a lot of really fantastic ones. However, lots of people have. For example, did you know that before playing Batman, Michael Keaton was Mr. Mom? He was in Touch and Go. How about The Squeeze? Pre-Batman, this guy had basically one great film, Beetlejuice, and two good ones, Johnny Dangerously and The Dream Team.

But this has nothing to do with good and bad films. It has a lot to do with the perception of Affleck as a pretty boy, and most especially as Not One of Us. Oddly, Affleck himself seems to express the sentiment quite nicely in this interview:

People decided that I was the frat guy, even though I’ve never been inside a fraternity, or the guy who beat them up at school, even though that wasn’t me at all.

The pretty boy actor has a lot to overcome in nerd circles. They need to somehow prove their bona fides as real representatives of geek culture, because wide appeal to others marks them as…well, Other, and we can’t have that. And it seems that building his own goddamn Batcave in his house doesn’t count.

What I’m saying is, time to stop jumping on the “he’s going to ruin the role” bandwagon and think of this rationally. This is an accomplished actor and director. This is the guy who killed it in Argo, Shakespeare in Love, Chasing Amy, The Town, State of Play, and Hollywoodland, among others. He has the chops, he has the passion, and if they can get him to direct one of these films (he was offered the director’s chair for Justice League if he agreed to play Batman years ago), he certainly has more talent in that department than Zack Snyder. He is not just a pretty face, and it’s time that we stop knee-jerk reacting to actors who made their bones being marketed in parts for their looks.

First US Administration to Actually Address Bi Issues

Bifurious Femininja

I want this to be a real manga (via)

I generally don’t like to make a big deal around token gestures. It’s one thing to talk about things and another to actually do something. But this does seem like an important step.

For the first time in history, a representative from the White House will be holding a roundtable discussion on bisexual issues, specifically how bisexuals are affected by public health problems, partner violence, and several other subjects that are usually discussed in the context of monosexuality. It will be hosted by White House LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan on September 23.

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Thus begins my latest contribution to Queereka. Go take a look to read the rest.

Comics Leading Society

I know this is a little late, so please excuse me, but I just couldn’t let this go without saying something.

You might have heard that some serious heavyweights in the comics industry dismissed accusations of sexism, while also saying that comics are usually following, not leading, social change, so that makes it totes ok if they were sexist, which they aren’t. Their arguments read like a greatest hits of privilege apologetics (e.g. “We objectify men, too!”, “Why don’t they make their own comics?”, and the suggestion that superhero comics, like skepticism, are more of a guy thing), and include a digression that touches on race by arguing that actively pursuing diversity automatically means not creating a stand-alone good character.

The people in question are Len Wein, most famous for creating Wolverine, Gerry Conway, who invented The Punisher (and gave what was to me the most baffling and infuriating quote, that “…the comics follow society. They don’t lead society.”), and Todd McFarlane, who developed a comic book as an excuse to sell toys.

Before we get too into this, I think it’s important that we have some context for these guys’ careers, because they are not lightweights in the industry, and all of them have had significant impacts on the way we experience comics to this day, for good and for ill. But by examining where they came from, we might be able to understand why they are so horrendously wrong.

Let’s start with Wein. While Len Wein is best known for his creation of Wolverine, he actually created a number of the X-men that are incredibly popular, including Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus.  He revived the book from five years of hiatus in 1975 and his tenure on the title set the stage for the team most non-comic readers would become familiar with: the 90’s animated series composition. Wolverine was introduced to the team in this book, but the fuzzball was introduced to the universe over a year before in Incredible Hulk 181, touted as “The World’s First and Greatest Canadian Super Hero”. However, unlike his predecessors and, to an extent, his successors, X-men under his direction wasn’t as socially conscious, preferring to focus less on the place of mutants in the world and more on super-powered people beating up on one another. Wein eventually became Editor-in-Chief at Marvel.

It was under his leadership that a man named Gerry Conway would be writing The Amazing Spider-man. Conway started at Marvel around the same time as Wein. In fact, 1970’s Daredevil #71 was Wein’s first comic at Marvel, and Daredevil #72 was Conway’s. Conway took over Spider-man at the tender age of 19, after a couple of years of writing duties being passed between Roy Thomas and Stan Lee. Again, we saw a move away from making any statements (ironic, only a year after Amazing Spider-man #96-98, which was not given a Comics Code Authority label because Lee wouldn’t abandon a plot thread about the dangers of drug use), and the eventual introduction of Punisher in issue 129. He would also script “The Night Gwen Stacy Died“. Punisher wasn’t given his own book until the early 80s, but stood out for his willingness to kill, a function largely of his antagonists being the mob and it being easier to mow down scores of faceless goombas than to have to create a new Doctor Octopus or The Vulture every couple of issues because you keep killing off unique villains.

Finally you have McFarlane. It’s hard to count him among the other two since he didn’t make his money or his fame from comic books directly. Rather, he created a comic, then marketed the hell out of toys for the comic. Yes, he did work on Spider-man as well, but really his success came from his founding of Image comics, an exercise in remembering why artists don’t just write their own stuff, and the creation of Spawn, who has limped along in comic fandom with some hard core followers but no lasting impression. I’m sure there are some Spawn fans out there, maybe even a couple that can name a Spawn villain off the top of their head that isn’t Clown, Satan, or Martin Sheen, but when your supporting characters are so incidental (BTW: Spawn had a supporting cast) that they can be cannibalized by your former company in an ill-advised continuity-merging event, you haven’t created a lasting property. Ultimately, McFarlane’s influence would probably be felt less as a creator and more as one of the people most fueling the Speculation Bubble that was one of the main reasons 90s comics were so awful.

The reason why I go into this digression is two-fold. The first is to point out that asking Todd McFarlane his opinion on comic books is a lot like asking Uwe Boll his opinion on movies. Sure, he’s made a few, but they’re not very good and usually a means to an end. McFarlane is much better equipped to answer questions about character design, much like Boll is better equipped to answer questions about just barely avoiding committing fraud.

The second point is that while McFarlane, who drove the Liefeldian testosterone-fueled 90s overeaction to body shape and human behavior (hello Youngblood, Cable, Doom’s IV, and Hardcore Station, to name a few), could be excused for thinking that comics never did anything he wasn’t interested in doing, Wein and Conway know better.

As I mentioned above, Conway, who gave the damn quote, took over Amazing about a year after Stan Lee specifically bucked the industry trade group in order to publish an incredibly timely comment on drug abuse and its dangers. Wein revived a book that had a really respectable seven year run as a metaphor to the Civil Rights movement while it was going on. Both of them started at DC and worked there during Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ incredibly well done and successful Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers, which were specifically designed to address social issues because those were the books that were popular at the time (as a side note, they were also astounding and dealt with issues from a really balanced, but hard-hitting way).

Conway and Wein were executives at Marvel when X-men: God Loves, Man Kills was published in 1982. They were part of the industry and even could have grown up reading Archie Comics, which has always presented Riverdale as progressively accepting of other people, being one of the first comics to have regular appearances by characters of color, fairly recently introducing gay teen Kevin Keller, depicting Keller’s future marriage to a same-sex partner (after coming home a war hero), and this month showing him kissing his boyfriend on the cover of his title book.

Wein and Conway both should be aware of William Marston’s opinion that women should be in charge of the world, and how his feminism guided the creation of Wonder Woman. They might have even heard of Truth: Red, White, and Black, X-men: Magneto Testament, or Pride of Baghdad. You’d think they would have been familiar with Iron Man’s continuing battle with alcoholism or the decades of thoughtful fallout from Hank Pym’s abuse of his wife. Or with the importance of the introduction of characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, and White Tiger. It’s possible they haven’t seen how well Batgirl has been doing since the launch of the New 52 under Gail Simone’s leadership.They almost certainly have heard of the Marvel Civil War, which is my favorite crossover event of all time because it dealt with the question of how much liberty we can sacrifice for security at the height of the War on Terror.

Even if all of those things escaped their notice, they might be peripherally aware of this comic about an immigrant boy who comes to be raised in middle America and becomes a hero. In fact, the popularity of this comic is attributed as one of the reasons why many immigrants joined the war effort in the early 1940s, despite immigration being a very sore subject during the time of that comic’s popularity.

Comics have consistently been ahead of or right in the middle of social change. They are often overlooked as a significant mover of social progress, mostly by people like Wein, Conway, and McFarlane who have never and will never have to worry about whether a character is like them at all: most characters are in a number of ways. They will never care about seeing people dealing with the problems that affect their lives, because the problems that affect their lives are not the kind of problems that need heroes.

But to suggest that comics are behind the curve is to project their own apathy onto a medium that has spoken directly about issues that have had to be tiptoed around in other places. It has been in front of so many social movements, and that we see it lagging behind on women’s issues in many significant ways is more disappointing because they have been a positive voice on so many other things.

Comics can be a catalyst for change, especially super hero comics, even from the Big Two publishers. That’s why it’s important that we push back against these types of attitudes, and demonstrate that the books that we want are the ones that are not only well written, but make a point to be inclusive and allow characters to be something other than wish fantasy fulfillment for straight white cis teenage boys.

Judge: Hiding Money From Rape Victims A-OK

Regular readers will know that I consider Timmy Cardinal Dolan to be an example of the worst that humanity has to offer. A fetid pustule bloated by self-righteous ego-mania, Timmy is more than homophobic, more than just a defender of child rapists, he is also a fraud and a thief. Except, not according to one Wisconsin judge.

I wrote in my Human Excommunication of Timmy about how, when faced with lawsuits for those priests he allowed to continue to rape children for years when he couldn’t pay them to do it as a hobby instead of professionally, the sanguine coward moved money around into another fund to make it immune from being seized and given to the victims he tried to silence.

Unfortunately, to Judge Rudolph Randa, compensating rape victims is a secondary concern to making sure that men in Milwaukee can continue telling people stories every Sunday because having to pay for their crimes would, “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” Basically, because it was moved into a cemetery fund, and the upkeep of cemeteries is important to the Catholic faith, then taking away that money prevents them from practicing their religion. And, as we also see with the Magdalene Laundries, it‘s pretty clear that accepting responsibility for and making amends when you do awful, inhuman things is not a part of the Catholic faith, ergo Timmy’s accounting trick is legal.

Do I really need to go into the problems with this? I recently got a traffic ticket, so does that mean that I can simply insist that the Flying Spaghetti Monster disapproves of tolls but demands that the fastest available route be taken, therefore trying to make me pay to use roads hampers my free religious exercise? What we’re seeing with Randa is another example of people who seem to think that believing in fairy tales with enough conviction is reasonable justification for any action. Usually it’s trying to force other people to live by the strictures of your religion (e.g. abortion, abstinence only sex education, same-sex marriage, etc), but it’s becoming quite in vogue for prominent religious people in this country to say that their faith should exempt them from the law or even criticism of their ridiculous ideas.

The good news is that Randa is usually overturned on appeal. The bad news is that there is at least one person who is so monumentally screwed up that he thinks that denying compensation to rape victims is entirely ok if an invisible sky pixie wants to make sure the things we use to mark where we keep decomposing flesh are well polished.

Hey, instead of just saying that he won’t actively be mean to gay people as long as they’re sufficiently closeted, maybe this is a place where the Pope can step in and do some real good for a change!

It’s Not New, It’s Not Exciting

“OMG, OMG, OMG. Did you hear what the Pope said about gay people? Did you? DID YOU? This is a sea change! It’s so important! He’s said something amazing and groundbreaking!”

Now, please raise your hand if you’re, like me, getting tired of hearing people take a throwaway line and try to make it sound like it means that a man who has historically been a homophobe in one of the most homophobic organizations on the planet is suddenly all buddy-buddy with the LGBT community.

For those who missed it, on the way home from Brazil, Pope Francis held a press conference on the plane where he was remarkably candid about a number of topics. One of them was about homosexuals.

They say they exist. If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalized because of this (orientation) but that they must be integrated into society.

Now, people have heard this and thought “Wow, this is such a change!” Hate to be the one who ruins the fun happy Pontifex Pleasure Party, but this is not a change. This is status quo.

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Thus begins my newest post on Queereka about why it’s not a big deal what the Pope said and why we really should be less willing to praise what is basically just standard human decency.

I’m Not Ready for Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis, left-wing evangelical preacher and person who runs the Sojourners organization (and associated magazine), was on Real Time with Bill Mahar and I have to say I was not impressed. I’ve never been impressed with Wallis, nor most left-wing evangelicals, and this is exactly why.

I should point out that I am not the biggest Mahar fan, either, for various reasons, but I think he brings up a really good point here which is that Wallis kept avoiding answering the questions. And that makes sense, since the questions don’t have very good answers. He doesn’t want to cop to the fact that he wants the Bible to say the things he likes and only the things he likes.

I would like people to take the Bible literally when it says “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Reza Aslan (the lit major and Ana Mardoll fan in me sees the irony there) points it out the problem really well when he says, “What you don’t like is figurative, what you do like is literal. The reason the Bible matters…is not because it’s true or false, it’s because it can mean whatever you want it to mean.”

And that’s where I get stuck. I get that Wallis agrees with me on most issues, though his desire to stay “neutral” about things until fairly recently is disturbing, but I have trouble with him because he’s still making an argument that makes no sense. He avoids discussing why we should take his interpretation of these stories literally and somebody else’s figuratively.

Now, I would argue that we don’t need  those stories and that his morality has informed his Biblical interpretation, not the other way around. If the Bible is to be taken seriously as a social justice text, it should be easy to read as such, and not require the backflipping that Wallis and those like him have to do in order to make this book say the things it damn well should say. Instead, we’re left with this interview full of distractions and subject changes because Wallis can’t give a good reason why I should pay attention when Jesus says to love one another, but ignore it when he says that you should never get divorced.

Honestly, the most coherent I’ve ever heard anyone be on the subject is Fred Clark, who has argued repeatedly that the Bible is a collection of stories around a certain theme. I still don’t agree that that means that there is any indication of a savior or a need to be saved at all, but his general idea is to take none of it literally and to be honest about his application of outside morality to how to reads the book, since it’s not a source of authority in and of itself.

I think if Wallis et. al. want to make a case for their interpretation of the Bible, they need to stop pretending that it’s obvious that Jesus agrees with them and start explaining this book the way Clark does: as a collection of ancient stories that, when taken together, lean toward suggesting a more just society. Like any other collection of stories, there are good parts and bad parts. There are times when even the ostensible “good guys” do horrible things. But the main theme is that through all of that, eventually love and justice overcome, which is not a bad theme for a story. And then, like a Tolkien novel, you read the appendices and you see that bad stuff still happens.

I admit, as an atheist and the certified owner of a literature degree, this is a bit self-serving. I would like to see fewer people treating the Bible as if it has any sort of authority in and of itself. I would like to see it treated like any other short story collection and be open to literary criticism (a post-colonial reading, for example, could be really fascinating considering how often Israel changes hands). That being said, trying to treat it any other way leads to what we see in this video with Wallis: red herrings, No True Scotsman fallacies, question begging, and abrupt subject changes. It’s all you really can do if you don’t want to just say, “I like these parts, so they’re true, and the parts I don’t like aren’t because of reasons.”

So I really would like to be on board with Wallis. I appreciate his alliance and, now that he’s finally come around on the LGBT thing, I appreciate his evolution. I wish there were more vocal evangelicals like him. But he needs to look at his arguments very closely, because he’s no Harry Jackson, Rick Scarborough, or Mike Huckabee, all of whom are used to blatantly lying about what they believe and shifting the conversation to avoid hard questions. Jim Wallis isn’t a good enough liar to be able to hold these positions and still sound coherent, so it’s time he looks for a way to communicate his message without sounding like he can’t even explain it.

Come See Me at FtBConscience!

FtBCon starts today and, while I am sad I will be missing Dave Silverman’s opening because I’ll running my bisexual support group tonight, I will be around for other sessions. You can see the full schedule at FtBCon.org or on Lanyrd.

More to the point, I will be speaking at a session!

Improving the Image of Atheists

by Kaoru Negisa, Stephanie Zvan, Chris Ho-Stuart, James Croft and Sarah Moglia

Atheists have an image problem. We didn’t create it, but we’re the ones with an interest in fixing it. Let’s talk about the range of strategies for doing that while still fighting our fights.

At 10:00am to 11:00am, Sunday 21st July (Central Standard Time)

That’s right, kids: I am waking up early on a Sunday, which I’m pretty sure nullifies part of the point of being an atheist, just so I can talk to you about how we can show the world that we only eat babies when Evolution tells us to. Seriously, I’ll be talking a lot about the appearance of atheists in pop culture, but hopefully also be listening to the rest of the panelists who, I assure you, are pretty much all smarter and better at this than me.

Other than me, there are a ton of fantastic panels that people will be on, including one on Atheists in Pop Culture (that I couldn’t get on because they already were over their awesome quotient on speakers), a fascinating looking panel on the harm of pseudoscience featuring the inestimable Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner and several other great speakers, a panel on myths and facts about trans* people, one about female protagonists in video games, and those are all just on Sunday after I speak.

So go to their website, follow the con on Twitter, follow along on Google +, look at the schedule on Lanyrd, and go listen to all of the very smart, very insightful people (and me), talk about things, interact with you in chatrooms and via Q&A segments, and generally hang out online with some of the owners of the internet.