Batkid is The Best Thing Ever

Wow, it’s dusty around here.

So, all of my writing time has been for work these days (please click the donate button on the main page if you want to see me focus more here), but I had to come out and write here because I apparently missed the best story of the month, possibly the year, and need to comment on it.

My favorite charity, the Make-a-Wish Foundation (I toured Europe with a jazz band doing work for them twice) granted a wish for a leukemia survivor by going to my favorite medium, comic books. Not only did they turn him into “Batkid,” they had him running around the city in a Lamborghini Batmobile with Batman and his kid brother dressed a Robin. He disarmed a bomb and rescued a woman tied to cable car tracks, mere seconds before the cable car came by. Then he stopped the Riddler from robbing a bank. Then he saved the SF Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, from being kidnapped by the Penguin who was also hauled off the prison. Both villains were in their delightful Adam West-era costumes.

But that’s not the best part. The best part is that thousands of people got involved in this. San Francisco was turned into Gotham City for this event. There were people cheering him wherever he went. The actual Chief of Police made a public call for his help, and thousands begged his assistance. Graham Nolan, co-creator of Bane and artist for several excellent Batman stories, drew a picture of Bane being frightened of Miles Scott, the 5-year-old secret identity of the mini Caped Crusader.

batkid baneAbout 12,000 volunteers from the city got involved in this. The president of the United States sent him a Vine to congratulate him on his work. He was given the key to the city. The San Francisco Chronicle turned its front page into the Gotham City Chronicle to run stories about his exploits. Former and future Batmen Ben Affleck, Adam West, and Michael Keaton all had great things to say to him.

gotham city chronicleThere is nothing bad about this story, except for a few assholes who think that it was wrong to do because he is in remission. Make-a-Wish’s response: “We would never penalize a child for getting better.”

This is so incredible. This is what comic books are supposed to be about: giving hope to people who don’t have it, making ordinary people feel extraordinary, and uniting people in goodness. It’s what a lot of comic book fans were saying was missing from Man of Steel.

But the sheer outpouring reaction from people is a perfect example of the greatness of human beings. When we come together for goodness, we do amazing things. Thousands of people gave up part of their days just to make a sick five year old feel good about himself.

This story made my year. This is why I read comic books, and why I support Make-a-Wish, and why I love human beings despite all of our flaws.

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.

_____________

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.

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.

Free Comic Book Day!

First, May the Fourth be with you. Always.

Now that that’s done, today is not only Star Wars Day, but Free Comic Book Day. As you can imagine, this makes today a very exciting day for me. I have a lot of work to do, but my excitement is palpable and I can’t wait until noon when the comic shop opens. I’m at the Sewing Goddess’s place, so it’ll be an unfamiliar comic shop, but the culture is the same and I’m ready to talk about how awesome the new Aquaman is, or how much I love everything Kieron Gillen writes (and he’s doing great with Young Avengers), how much I miss Avenger’s Academy and how torn I am about Avenger’s Arena (if you haven’t guessed, Marvel has realized that slapping “Avengers” on anything basically allows them to print their own money). And, best of all, I will get to see what sort of promotional comics they will give out so I can see if there’s anything worth reading that I might not have looked at before.

Anyway, I leave you with my favorite Avenger’s parody. The Sewing Goddess played it for me last night (she wanted to make sure she could see my face when I watched), and I adore it. Gritty Reboots is my new favorite YouTube channel.

I agree with this article that it could use a little more diversity, but it was still incredibly awesome and I would seriously watch the hell out of that film. It would be like Scary Movie, but entertaining.

Various and Whateverthehell

Since I’ve been so busy, it’s time to just have a quick link roundup to cover everything I’ve wanted to talk about.

Miss America Chavez (designed by Jamie McKelvie, personal work 2013)

Absolutely beautiful comic about somebody who’s girlfriend is transitioning. For only a few panels with a bunny and a frog and a bear, this is really touching.

– More from the annals of “Feminism is already working on men’s rights issues.”

– A young man in Toronto is sexually assaulted by four women, and Rosie DiManno of The Star insults him. This lowlife seems to think that most men would love to be non-consensually ganged up on by four women. Look also for the fat shaming, slut shaming, and homophobia embedded in her assumptions about the perpetrators.

– A Christian school has decided that a married lesbian couple needs to get a divorce in order for their child to keep going to that school. Why they would want to send their kid to such a backward place, I have no idea, but since this is in Mpumalanga, South Africa, I’m sure there are other factors involved.

– Speaking of schools being the absolute worst, a Polk County high school (which is less than an hour from me) has expelled a student for a science experiment that created a small bang and some smoke but didn’t hurt anyone. JT writes about it and suggests how you can write a polite and well considered email to the school administrator explaining why this is an overreaction. Also read the comments in which they ask whether the school’s football players are expelled for breaking the school’s policy against hitting other students every time they tackle somebody.

“Angering the pope” should be an euphemism for masturbation now. Like “choking the bishop”, really.

– Researchers at IBM have made a movie by manipulating atoms on a copper surface and filming it. This is really, really awesome.

Ok, enough procrastinating. Back to work.

What the Comics Industry Can Teach the Atheist Movement

The other day I was pretty harsh on DC for their choice not to cast Stephanie Brown as the new Robin, and their apparent hostility toward the character in general. That hasn’t changed, but I do want to give DC credit for something they’re rolling out.

DC will be adding the first mainstream trans* character to their books. She is a supporting character, Batgirl’s (Barbara Gordon) roommate. No powers, no funky reason for not being cisgender, just a character with whom we can empathize. Writer Gail Simone, who could make an engaging and character-driven narrative out of a paperclip factory expense sheet summary, said she wanted to create “a reality based character.”

…a character, not a public service announcement … being trans is just part of her story. If someone loved her before, and doesn’t love her after, well — that’s a shame, but we can’t let that kind of thinking keep comics in the 1950s forever.

I also think it’s great that she spoke to people in the trans* community before creating the character, to make sure that she presented Alysia Yeoh as a realistic portrayal, not a stereotype.

Let’s jump over to Marvel, specifically Avengers Academy, which I’m trying to catch up on all of the post-Fear Itself issues of. Basic premise: when Norman Osborne was in power after the Marvel Civil War, he kidnapped a group of kids with powers, abused them, and brainwashed them to fight for him. They are eventually rescued by Hank Pym (and the rest of the Avengers) who decides to start a school to help them overcome what Osborne did to them, give them a stable environment, and train them to use their powers. After the events of Fear Itself, Pym opened the school to anybody who wanted to join and recruited two other kids.

Now, if we look at the lineup, the class leader, Reptil, is a Hispanic kid from the suburbs. White Tiger is the sister of the original White Tiger, the first Hispanic super hero in the Marvel universe (both in terms of first published and first to appear in the context of the story). We also have an Asian girl (not a diminutive, they’re all teenagers), Hazmat. Outside of race, there are two queer kids: Lightspeed, who just joined the team and is openly bi, and Striker who came out as gay to her (and later to a press conference, because you can do that if you’re being trained by an Avenger).

And, of course, Pym is an open atheist.

Many of the Avengers Academy plots focus on developing these characters, and in a lot of cases the way that they relate to the world as a minority of some sort or another often gets some spotlight. White Tiger feels that she has to live up to her brother’s legacy, not just in being a hero, but specifically in being a Hispanic hero, while Reptil doesn’t see the point of focusing on his race at all. Lightspeed gets frustrated since she’s still having trouble accepting her sexuality and not wanting it to become her defining characteristic, but Striker just sort of came out and seems to be having no problems with it at all.

“What does this have to do with atheism?”, I hear you cry.

The other day, Richard Carrier at FtB wrote about how Phil Mason (Thunderf00t) basically used creationist tactics to make a video in which he decried a speech Carrier gave and made it seem, through editing, that Carrier was saying something he wasn’t.

Carrier does a fine job of pointing out all of the dishonesty in Mason’s video, but there was one part of it that stuck out for both Carrier and I. Emphasis his.

Now Thunderf00t lays into minorities (timestamp 15:16). He sneers (literally: listen to his voice) at my call for atheist organizations to be more responsive to and cooperative with minority atheists and minority atheist groups.

Now, it’s bad enough that T-f00t says this kind of stuff. I’ve come to believe that he is, as Carrier suggests, indeed a sociopath and absolutely incapable of empathizing with other human beings. But surely his trollish little minions can’t all be sociopaths. Here’s a few of the comments (emphasis theirs):

You are also a complete fool when doing marketing analysis, as TF conclusively demonstrated in his video with the ratio between believers and atheists. Only a person with infinite resources would waste resources targeting “black atheists” when they could target “atheists without restricting it by race” or even addressing “theists” or the entire population. You are the one employing racist logic here Carrier, not TF…And to compare it to the state of the Republican party is laughable. They have problems because the minorities are the majority, but in our case there is a well defined theist majority as TF showed you and it is the very fact that they are a majority that is the entire problem. – Illusio

 

You should focus efforts on a specific minority and it’s not a racial group but rather a religious group (Muslims). Given that Islam’s influence in the world is far worse than Christianity’s and virtually no free society has ever been founded on Islamic principles, I’d appreciate any campaign aimed at convincing Muslims to renounce their faith and also helping them avoid problems within their community (all 4 schools of Sunni Islam mandate the death penalty for apostasy).

It makes no sense to attack Christianity primarily when Islam is on the rise and is causing many problems in the world, not because of “extremists” twisting its “peaceful teachings” but because of fundamentals of Islamic theology which are inherently hostile to non-Muslims, women and personal freedom. – Dan

 

I know there was at least a few more that seem to have been erased because Carrier doesn’t deal with that sort of shit on his blog (nor is he required to). The basic premise, though, is that since minorities are so small (race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.), then there is no point doing any sort of outreach to them at all or bothering to address their specific concerns.

Not only is this lazy, it’s kind of pathetic. Mason and his minions seem to think that listening to minority atheists, talking about problems that are unique to them, and inviting them to speak at conferences is somehow this great burden, this overwhelming task that will bring in sub-standard speakers and thinkers just because they happen to be Latin@, or black, or queer, or women. This falls under the presumption that white men have been primarily the face of atheism for so long because they’re just better at thinking about these things, and that somebody can’t be a minority and brilliant.

The way I got into the atheist movement as an activist was not through Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens. I haven’t even read Dennett. While I respect the Four Horsemen, I don’t much like Dawkins or Harris, who I find far too disconnected from the lived experiences of actual atheists, and while their work is fantastic and insightful, I just have no impulse to really go back to it for anything other than the occasional reference. Hitchens I adored for a number of reasons, but I think that, again, he let his philosophy get in the way of empathy far too often.

No, I joined because I saw a post by Jen McCreight when BlagHag was still an indie blog about LGBT inclusion and why her atheism gives her an objective foundation for queer advocacy (both in terms of humanist principles and the rejection of religious dogma that is far too often the source of homophobia). From there she moved to FtB where I discovered JT (originally because he had a cute picture up, I admit, but he turned out to be actually brilliant), who pointed me to Greta. I started reading Ed because “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” is an awesome name for a blog and I’m a politics geek. Eventually I also saw how awesome Ashley was, and Kate from there, and eventually even Miri, who is made of pure sunshine (in that she’s bright, enlightening, and will burn the fuck out of you if you’re not smart).

Their examples got me involved in blogging and RL activism. And I wouldn’t be here if Jen didn’t take some time to talk about something other than why Pascal’s Wager is ridiculous.

Talking about issues that interest minorities in one respect is a good way to get another conversation going. DC and Marvel both realize this, and they took the incredibly easy step of diversifying their casts, because when you see yourself (or a part of yourself) in a character, you’re more likely to connect with them and want to come back. Similarly, if you see yourself in a movement, you want to contribute to that movement.

No, it’s not enough to “treat everybody the same: like human beings.” Yes, you should treat everybody like human beings, but not the same human being. We all have different cultures, life experiences, day to day issues, and personal hangups. In many cases, the minority that a person identifies with experiences a lot of the same types of thing, and trying to address that shows people in those minorities that you actually care about this. When you say that you “treat everybody the same,” what you’re saying is that you treat everybody like a middle class white man, ignoring the unique circumstances those people have lived. You should treat everybody well, but just because leaving your church didn’t cut you off from all social connection doesn’t mean that the black guy from Memphis had it so easy, and it is almost no effort to deal with that.

Characters like Alysia Yeoh and the students at Avengers Academy are not attempts to fill quotas or diversify because it’s “trendy,” they are attempts to recognize that there are a lot of different types of people in the world, and it takes the barest minimum of effort to incorporate that. Minorities can be super heroes and the friends of super heroes. They are a part of life, and inviting them into our stories or our movements gives us perspective, makes us better.

Being kind, showing consideration for others, paying attention to people who are generally ignored: these are all Good Things, things we should be embracing. We cannot simultaneously listen to the marginalized while denying their marginalization. We cannot pretend that discrimination is a personal choice and not a systemic problem, so my just saying something like “I don’t see color” means that racism (for example) doesn’t exist or I can never again do anything racist. Most importantly, we can’t just make the same arguments against faith and religion over and over again and hope to reach people on the strength of our philosophy when they’re more concerned with the problems they face in their day to day lives, as if accepting logical arguments is a test and anyone who doesn’t do so isn’t smart enough for the Atheist Club.

Comic labels, from Marvel and DC to Archie, have consistently been at the vanguard of social change, and I think that’s amazing. We can also be at that vanguard, clearing the path for new people and new ideas to infuse our movement rather than shambling lamely behind, wondering why our once exploding campaign has stopped gaining ground, unable to convince even a rising demographic of non-religious theists to take the one last step.

Responding to Fandom

First thing’s first: to everybody who has been sharing my post from last night all over Facebook and the like, thank you so much. I wrote it because I was too angry to sleep. and now it’s really just taking off like crazy. I have the best, most intelligent, most attractive readers on the internet, and I hope that those of you who came around for the last Human Excommunication or to read about how re-posting the Frankenstein’s monster of a Bill Cosby speech doesn’t make black people the absolute worst will stick around for more rage coupled with supporting details.

Yea. Like that.

And it is on that note that we’re going to take a small digression away from rage to discuss something that is merely frustrating, perhaps a bit anger-inducing: the new Robin.

But first, some history.

During the 90’s, when everything about comics sucked, the few gems in the industry really stood out. Among them, we were introduced to a semi-villianess named Spoiler, the daughter to Chuck Dixon’s pulled-from-the-bin-and-dusted-off Cluemaster. Basically, she ruined her father’s plans, but wasn’t really a “good guy”, much like the Huntress from Green Arrow. She had her own agenda, and often it matched up with the Dynamic Duo, specifically Tim Drake Robin for whom she became a love interest.

Due to a number of things, Tim’s father finds out that his son is Robin, forces him to retire, and Spoiler, who is named Stephanie Brown, gets her own Robin costume and demands that Batman train her. He does, she’s Robin, all is good until she makes some serious mistakes and is fired…and becomes Batgirl.

During this time period, however, Steph really gained a major fan following. She’s spunky, raw, and really an interesting character. So when DC annouced they would be bringing in a female Robin, people got excited that it might be Steph.

Nope. It’s Carrie Kelly from “The Dark Knight Returns.” This is about as much of a letdown as when DC announced that one of it’s “major characters” would be gay, then made it Alan Scott, who is absolutely awesome as a character, but let’s not pretend that when people think of “Green Lantern,” they’re thinking of his Earth 2 counterpart. Similarly, I really, really like Carrie Kelly, but there’s a whole lot more going on behind this.

Ultimately, DC isn’t my comic label, Marvel is, but after reading Jess’s take on the bizarre and active opposition to Steph at DC, I can’t help but wonder what the hell they think they’re doing over there. Here’s a partial list of the things that DC has done to prevent this character from seeing the light of day, as compiled by Jess.

  • made Steph Robin as part of a publicity stunt, only to promptly kill her off in a lengthy, brutal, sexualized sequence;
  • subsequently announced that she had never really been a Robin and denied her a memorial case for years;
  • hosted a panel in which one of their freelancers, speaking as a representative of their company, expressed a desire to violently murder her fans for asking when they would see her again, and did not subsequently apologize nor request that the writer do so;
  • removed a character who, again, made The New York Times bestseller list, along with Cassandra Cain, from their New 52 in favor of Barbara Gordon, claiming it was to avoid confusion, while retaining four essentially identical-looking male Robins (thus eliminating not just two female characters, but a character of color and a differently-abled character);
  • rejected multiple pitches from popular writers to use her, including Gail Simone, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, Bryan Q. Miller, and Scott Lobdell;

There are several more examples over at the post, and I highly recommend reading them all. The point is, despite a dedicated and huge fanbase, the high muckity-mucks at DC really, really, really don’t like Stephanie Brown and they’re going to do everything in their power to ignore fans and keep this character out.

That’s one reason why I’ve always been more of a Marvel reader, really: they tend to be more responsive to the fans (also, Doctor Strange is an amazing character, and the new Defenders is fantastic). In fact, like we see with the absolute train wreck of 90’s Spider-man plots that eventually ended up with a plane-crash-on-train-wreck attempt to correct those plots (One More Day, the Clone Saga, I’m looking at you guys), they may be even too responsive to their fans. However, I prize more highly a ham-handed attempt to correct a wrong than the steadfast refusal to admit to it.

And now we get to the crux of the matter: is it better to save face and deny a problem or to admit to it? Well, we can look at some examples.

Perhaps the most obvious is the Vatican, an organization that has staked its claim on infallibility, so they are completely unable to admit to wrongdoing, instead having to hide, deny, and command away any problems they may face. Even when they do apologize, it’s for things far too late or minor that any change can be affected. By extension, the ever-dwindling group of people who still give credence to the Vatican as a moral guide will reflexively proclaim every pope BESTEST POPE EVAAAAARRRR, and the problems will continue.

But yes, that’s an easy target. “You’re always down on the Church, Kaoru! Why don’t you ever criticize atheists?” Well, dear reader, let me do just that.

Sam Harris has recently come under attack for being “Islamophobic”. This is part of a recent trend these last two weeks to conflate the criticism of Islam by the New Atheists with a hatred of Muslim people in that weird way that we say “race” when we’re talking about “religion” (see also: Jewish). I think many of the criticisms of him and people like Jerry Coyne are off base, but then we have Harris’s response (h/t PZ Myers).

A general point about the mechanics of defamation: It is impossible to effectively defend oneself against unethical critics. If nothing else, the law of entropy is on their side, because it will always be easier to make a mess than to clean it up. It is, for instance, easier to call a person a “racist,” a “bigot,” a “misogynist,” etc. than it is for one’s target to prove that he isn’t any of these things. In fact, the very act of defending himself against such accusations quickly becomes debasing. Whether or not the original charges can be made to stick, the victim immediately seems thin-skinned and overly concerned about his reputation. And, rebutted or not, the original charges will be repeated in blogs and comment threads, and many readers will assume that where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

Rather than admit that at the very least when he regurgitates well-worn philosophical experiments and tries to apply them to the real world, they have the potential to negatively affect people in the real world (PZ has plenty of examples), he basically says that any of his critics are unethical for calling him names. I disagree with most of his critics, if for no reason other than they are criticizing the wrong thing, but Harris’s response is a blatant attempt to cover up mistakes by blithely putting his fingers in his ears and repeating to himself how much better a philosopher he is than other people.

We make mistakes. It happens and it’s a part of human nature. Sam Harris needs to admit that his philosophical riffing often comes across as callous because he is trying to impose the results on a real world that doesn’t so easily conform to thought experiments. DC needs to realize that Steph Brown is not going away and it’s time to confront that and address it rather than attempt to suppress it. The Vatican…well, it needs to close up shop, but at the very least it needs to show some real humility (not just washing the feet of AIDS patients or choosing a less ostentatious wardrobe, neither of which require any effort), admit to its mistakes, and make an effort to actually fix them (working with governments for the prosecution of people who had raped children, falsely imprisoned women, or snatched babies from their parents would be a start).

Joe Davidson can donate 10% of the nightly earnings to Camp Quest from the night that he reneged on his deal with them.

Brad Paisley can resolve to talk to some black people who are from the South and not multimillionaires to learn about modern racism, why wearing a Confederate flag is not a color-blind expression of heritage, and make an effort to highlight actual Southern contributions to this country.

We all make mistakes, but we can learn from them, we can grow and we can make amends. That sometimes means listening to our fandoms, even when they’re being our critics.

“Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

Anthony over at Rev Rants has a new video up in which he discusses how every time somebody points out that video games should move away from the “guns and chainsaws” mentality that so many games seem to have and focus instead on creating games that address serious philopsophical issues, there are generally two camps: the ones who smugly agree, and the ones who get righteously furious at the idea that games should no longer be “fun.”
And that’s where I lose the argument. Anthony brings up some very good points about how if games are to to treated seriously as an art form, they have to be about more than just the physical challenge of pressing the right buttons at the right time to kill your endless stream of enemies in the most creative ways possible, but I take issue with the fact that he doesn’t really go into what I consider to be the major problem with this argument.
Media that challenges us intellectually can and often is really fun.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t believe this or that I have a problem with the video, which I think is largely spot on, but rather that in arguing for games to be more thought provoking, he neglected to explicitly point out that that doesn’t mean the game isn’t suddenly fun, as if every medium has to have its share of “interesting” things and “challenging” things, and checks them off a list to fill certain quotas in order to qualify as “art.”
Some of the games he mentions, for example, are not only thought provoking and interesting, they are also a real blast to play. Braid is one of my favorite games that he mentions. It was clever, artfully designed, did really fantastic things with mechanics, and told a story that produced a wonderful twist ending without significant cut scenes, dialogue, or anything that explicitly spelled out what was going on. It was a beautiful game that told a great story with a lot to discuss, and was still hours of fun.
Similarly, Journey was fantastic. It was gorgeous, emotional, and thought provoking, but also a whole lot of fun.
Far too often, the idea comes up that something, anything, can be fun or it can be intellectually challenging, but it can’t possibly be both. I hear this most often when I talk about texts and do close readings of them. The common refrain is “Can’t you just enjoy the movie/game/song/book/whatever?” or, even worse, “When I watch a movie/play a game/etc., I don’t want to have to think about it.”
When did thinking become this gigantic burden? Seriously, I’ve been thinking for the 30+ years I’ve been alive and, quite frankly, it’s the most fun thing I do.
The Rev also brings up movies in this as a medium that struggled to attain a reputation for artistry, and even mentions in passing the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” He does this to point out that despite how many absolutely awful movies come out every year, there is a “bedrock” of artistic films that prove that movies can be an artistic medium, giving big studios an incentive to create films that are contemplative, so we can have the American Beautys and Fight Clubs and even Willows (which I just watched again a couple of days ago because it has some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen in film) without those who for some reason I couldn’t begin to articulate don’t enjoy thinking too much missing out on another American Pie or [Fill in the Blank] Movie sequel. The existence of Casablanca does not preclude the existence of No Strings Attached. Because The Godfather was made does not mean that Corky Romano was not. And the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did not prevent the filming of The Hangover, much to my continued chagrin.
To an extent, I think this goes with Anthony’s point about how a medium doesn’t have to be one thing, in that video games can be serious and they can be fun, but I feel like he’s separating those two ideas. A video game, like any medium can be serious and fun in a single game. In fact, I would hope that is the objective in most cases: to make a point and make that point enjoyable. I can appreciate the technical aspects both in terms of film and writing of Casablanca and still be deeply invested and entertained by the plight of Rick and Ilsa.
There are two more supplementary points to this video I would like to make. The first is that the Rev makes a point I rather disagree with around the 5:27 mark when he starts to talk about comics. The point he makes is that while there are some amazing indie comics doing interesting things, the mainstream publishers are basically super hero comics, with the implication that super hero comics can’t tackle meaningful subjects in a serious way. While I love and respect a lot of indie titles, I think this seriously underestimates the ability of super hero comics to deal with important , human issues. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see the metaphor for the civil rights struggle in X-men going back to its conception, nor Stan Lee’s refusal to change a story line in The Amazing Spider-man that dealt with drug addiction in order to get a Comics Code Authority seal for those three issues. There were the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers that were designed specifically to deal with social issues, and to do so by pairing a highly liberal with a highly conservative superhero so they would be able to really delve into the ideological divides present. Shortly after taking over Green Arrow in 2004, in fact, Judd Winick started a storyline dealing with Speedy (Mia Dearden) testing HIV positive that was sometimes ham-handed, but a real attempt at dealing with a serious issue that didn’t drain a drop of entertainment from the comic.
Beyond those, look at the Marvel series-wide events, most specifically the Civil War, but also Fear Itself. I make no secret of the fact the Marvel Civil War is one of my favorite comic series of all time. In the midst of the War on Terror, Marvel decided to take a hard look at how we balance our need for security with our civil liberties and used its major characters to do so. And it doesn’t just focus on the heroes themselves: it takes the time to explore how it affects everybody and the historical connotations of what we’re doing. At the end of one of the Frontline issues, for example, there is a small vignette about a couple of Japanese Americans reporting to an internment camp, and the panel sticks in my mind is where the father is telling his child that the reason why they left their home and have to live there now is that they’re “good Americans” and this is what their country requires of them.
Superhero comics are absolutely able to be serious and give insightful treatments to real problems while still remaining fun.
The other thing that this makes me think of is the current problems within the atheist movement vis-a-vis whether atheists can speak out against social injustice in light of their atheism and skepticism or rather, as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds. Much like video games can be more than one thing, so can the atheist movement. If we’re feminists because there is no rational reason to oppose equal pay for equal work or the perpetuation of rape culture, that doesn’t mean that suddenly people will start believing in Bigfoot. Anthony says that those who agree that video games should be about more will “look down their nose” at others who don’t, but the counterblast is often just as guilty of that behavior. Applying that to atheism/skepticism, there is a fair amount of “Well, I’m a real atheist because I don’t spend my time discussing LGBT rights, which have nothing to do with psychic scams,” and that’s not only not helpful, it’s a callous attempt to avoid bringing skepticism to its logical conclusion. That being said, it’s also not prohibited to focus your energy on combating pseudoscience just because my energy is on how blind faith in bad ideas makes otherwise good people do terribly cruel things to myself and other queer folks.
Things don’t have to be just one thing. Games don’t have to be either fun or contemplative. Superhero comics don’t have to be exciting or socially meaningful. The atheist movement doesn’t have to be just about stopping quack doctors from scamming people or stopping quack preachers from advocating for the death of homosexuals. We are capable, as humans, of doing many things for many reasons, and it’s important to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Cosplayers Are Overrated Slut-Sirens

Here’s one for the confusion files. Some of you may remember Tony Harris, who did some wonderful comic illustrations for Starman back in the 90s and has done some mediocre work since then. Apparently, he doesn’t really like cosplayers.

Tony Harris ranting about how much cosplayers are evil sirens who befuddle geek men that know that they're not all that anyway. Yea, I'm just as confused.

Let’s examine this for a moment.

First of all, I can see why Harris is the illustrator, not the writer or letter. He uses extraneous capitalization like a Christianist lovingly reminding me how evil and hellbound I am. Is it just that capital words are clearly Very Important when Inserted into sentences and make The point much More Obvious? Are they Referring to Anthropomorphic Manifestations of their favorite Words? I UNDERSTAND ALL CAPS IS YELLING, but Why just random Words capitalized Throughout the piece?

Ok, enough of that joke. Let’s look at some of Harris’s specific objections to women cosplaying. Commentary will be both inserted into the quotes and after.

I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake)…

This is what we in the LGBT-sphere call The Obligatory “I’m Not Gay” (yay! More capitalization!). He feels the need to first assure us that he likes staring at scantily dressed women, but on his schedule, if you please. You can’t just be walking around wearing “racy type stuff” when Tony Harris isn’t in the mood to look at you! Also, how very kind to keep your words PG for those sensitive lady eyes that might see a post from a guy called “Tony Effing Harris.”

but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: “Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC.”

This just seems like he’s Eastwooding. Or yelling at the cardboard cutouts of atheists that Chris Steadman attended a party with once (nobody has ever said, “Wasn’t it wonderful how intelligent the panelists were and how wickedly they’d exposed the frauds of religion? Weren’t they right that we must all focus our energy on bringing about the demise of religious myths?” in an actual conversation, ever). Basically, Harris has created a geek nightmare and, like the Great and Powerful Oz, is making quite a show of presenting it as real.

But he carves out some space for his friends who do the same thing. Because he knows they’re cool. No, it’s that really nebulous Other Girl out there who is secretly trying to manipulate him…er, con goers who totes aren’t Tony Harris, into liking them so they can giggle at how pathetic those not-Tony-Harrises are.

You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) [KN: slut shaming isn’t half as fun without some fat shaming chaser or you have Big Boobies [KN: Adults call them “breasts” or, more accurately, “none of your damn business”]. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? [KN: Yes, I noticed that. Because I assume guys like you draw a distinction between “big” and “great” when it comes to breastsYou are what I refer to as “CON-HOT”. Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. [KN: So you refer to them as “con-hot”, but don’t really think they are. So why do you refer to them as that?Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. [KN: “Preyed on”? Does that mean groped against their will and sexually harassed?] You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate [KN: Oh, you meant they were magically forcing helpless geeks to have pantsfeelings and then masturbate later. Yea, I see how that’s much worse than what I thought].

This bit is all over the place. Harris thinks they’re “con-hot”! No, he doesn’t think that, but some other guys think that! And they might want to have sex with people! And won’t necessarily be able to because they’re awkward! Hanging! Open lips! The Moon and Stars (of pleasure)! And this just makes the homunculus that Harris is yelling at so very happy that later that evening, while wearing the robes of an evil empress, she’ll laugh her evil cackle and purposefully not touch herself while getting off on the idea of geek boys…

You know what, I can’t even keep that particular joke going, it’s so absurd. What Tony Harris doesn’t seem to realize is that girls, even one that are hot enough to tantalize the geek men he seems to be ineptly defending, are actual, real people who have complex desires and may not necessarily dress in revealing clothing just to lure in vulnerable men for the dastardly goal of not doing anything to them.

[…]YOU DONT KNOW SHIT ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER. [KN: Wow, this is almost getting into Hipster Sexism territory. It’s bad enough that they’re sluts, but they’re mainstream sluts as well] And also, if ANY of these guys that you hang on tried to talk to you out of that Con? You wouldnt give them the fucking time of day. [KN: He says, based on those John Hughes movies he watched once] Shut up you damned liar, no you would not. Lying, Liar Face. [KN: Going to take this personally in a minute, buddy] Yer not Comics. [KN: No, they’re people. The comics aren’t real, Tony.] Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons. And the real reason for the Con, and the damned costumes yer parading around in? That would be Comic Book Artists, and Comic Book Writers who make all that shit up.

My friend, who I will call Social Justice Heroine unless she gives me a better moniker, that pointed me to this article made an excellent observation. Isn’t Tony Harris, the person that the con is there for (instead of, you know, the fans who pay him to draw stuff), in a pretty unique position to solve this problem? I mean, he’s a comic book illustrator. Why doesn’t he draw comic book women wearing more clothing, or with less obvious breasts, or in positions that a human body is capable of achieving? I mean, I’m sure he’s never…oh. Oh, my. Oh, my, indeed.

Ultimately, Harris’s rant is as incomprehensible as it is stupid. He both tries to excoriate women who dress in ways he finds inappropriate (sometimes, because he’s not gay) as man eating predators out to do absolutely nothing with some poor, socially awkward geek, and as ugly sluts who noble comic fans can see right through. He’s using scattershot stereotypes and ending up with a confusing mess of entitlement that just makes it seem like he spent his formative years wondering why no scantily dressed women with super powers ever needed to be rescued by him. And in the process, he completely dehumanizes women who cosplay (notice how he calls them “the thing”, not even recognizing that they’re individuals), reducing complex human emotions and motivations down to “you just want to make men feel bad about not having sex with you!” Basically, Tony Harris is the anti-Scalzi, Scalzi being the avatar for all that is right and good in geekdom. EDIT:  I wrote this last night and scheduled it, and in the interim Scalzi responded to Harris. All that is right and good in geekdom.

Tony Harris needs to get over himself. What women wear in any context is none of your damn business. Geek men don’t need you “sticking up” for them, either. They’re remarkably intelligent and will take care of themselves. But most importantly, unless you’re the Mind Reading Comic Illustrator, you have no fucking clue why people wear what they wear, whether they know enough about what they’re wearing to pass muster with you, or anything else about them. So knock it the fuck off.