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Subj: The Politics of Marvel Comics, and Common Ground for the Thor board. [a short essay]
Posted: Sat Dec 23, 2017 at 01:06:16 pm EST (Viewed 527 times)
Now political discussion, often of the worst kind, dominates our conversation about Thor comics and comics generally. This is obviously due to the advent of Jane-Thor and Marvel's current era of attempted diversity. Because this iteration of that era seems to be drawing to a close, and Jane's story appears to be coming to an end, I thought it might be worth thinking through what's been going on in the comics and what's been going on with us on this board.
I think what Marvel is waking up to (hopefully) is that if you're going to make it a goal to increase diversity--and I think that a very good goal to make--you have to do it organically through good story telling. You can't just do it with flash in the pan publicity stunts or top down editorial mandates. Most of Marvel comics characters have taken the better part of sixty year to fully take root in the culture. And the bedrock of that has always been the adoration of true blue fans and the fundamental stories that have seduced them. If anything, I think Marvel's failure here isn't so much a failure of expressing their political values. It's a failure of belief: the belief that editorial control extends so far as to tell fans what they like or the belief that because they're behind the creative wheel, they can mold fan interest as easily as they can their stories. I don't think it's so much a matter of these characters representing different ethnic or gender identities that people are rejecting. I think it's their sheer newness. Point being, you can't just say to fans, by fiat, "here, these are the characters you'll be reading now."
That being said, I do think there's a massive call--not necessarily from this board, but nevertheless--to see a more diverse array of people from different ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientations, etc backgrounds at the center of the Marvel's universe. And this I think is a legitimate desire on the parts of a big chunk of the current and potential fanbase that can't be easily or fairly dismissed. The other day in the comic store I saw a little black girl who must have been around 8 or 9 taking a Ms. Marvel comic up to the register, and I thought, "this is why diversity in comics is important. This is why we need black heroes and gay heroes and female heroes and disabled heroes and all the rest." Because I was 9 when I started reading comics and they have meant the world to me. And I want that little girl to feel like those kind of stories could be for her and about her. And that she's welcome and invited to read those stories. And that there are heroes out there for her too. Comics at their best have a capacity to inspire people and to show us a version of the world that's redeemable and where people do the right thing for the good of others. Comics can give people hope. So I think we have a duty to insure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they're coming from, feel like they have access to the kind of world that comics can provide.
However... as noble as a goal like that might be, it doesn't mean the attempt to achieve it can't be made poorly or incompetently or cynically.. And in many ways, I think Marvel is guilty of this sort of activity. If one is critical, I think their mistakes have been pretty conspicuous. Their chief mistake has been their choice to replace classic characters, rather than independently build up new characters. The better strategy would be to prop up minority characters or create new ones to fight along side classic heroes, rather than have the new characters replace the old.
Marvel's strategy was doomed to fail from the beginning because it was necessarily divisive, and was counterproductive to the very values it supposedly means to espouse. The divisive thing is obvious. If you have to come up with a short list of the greatest fears of straight, protestant men when it comes to the culture landscape topping that fear list would be that they'll be replaced and erased by other cultural identities. And to me that's a legitimate fear. Irrational, dangerous, tribal, and selfish without a doubt, but it's a fear that's primitive and human. Understandable all the same. Now of course their feelings of being erased aren't more important than anyone else's, but the idea that Marvel was going to essentially symbolically reproduce a fear that so many conservative men have, by replacing all of their favorite heroes, like some bizarre horror puppet show, thereby stoking the flame of their fear and confirming every crazy reactionary eschatological terror fantasy, is beyond frustrating. It's insane. I think many of the conservative Thor fans for instance exaggerate the degree to which Marvel has hurt the character, but their claims aren't baseless and it makes sense they feel insulted and alienated.
More to the point it absolutely sends the wrong message. Most people left of center don't support the idea of punishing or replacing white, straight men. They just want a world that gives minorities and women all the same access and opportunities that white straight men have enjoyed for so long. They want the cultural center to be shared and not dominated by a single cultural group. We want to see people from all walks of life coming together to fight evil in our hero stories (to be melodramatic about it), we don't want to groups replacing one another. When conservatives say Marvel's "SJW" activities have been divisive, that's when they most have a case.
And if Marvel was sincere about those values, there were some more honest ready-made strategies to realize said values. Chiefly, they could have gone with a similar technique that Geoff Johns did back with Green Lantern during the Sinestro Corp War, Blackest Night and all that, which is to say, rather than destroy or dismantle Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Johns just shifted the focus of the DC Universe to the events taking place in the Green Lantern titles. Pretty soon the fulcrum by which the DCU turned was the Green Lantern ring. Analogously, Marvel could have adopted a similar strategy, viz. take characters like Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Northstar, or whomever you like, and have them fill out cross overs more significantly. Make the things that happen to them be the crucial events that take place within the Marvel universe. Let the events that take place within the pages of Black Panther and Captain Marvel echo throughout other character's books like what happens with Spider-man, Wolverine, the Hulk, and Thor. And let's be honest, this would mean that characters like Ironman, Thor, and Spiderman might have to take a step back in terms of how frequently they appear in the larger universe, to make room for a host of new heroes that better represent fanbase. And many of you would be equally unhappy with characters like Storm or Monica Rambeau being the nucleus of Marvel events, but I think there'd be far less reason to object and far more likely those objections would be born out of naked bigotry. Regardless, at least with this approach Marvel's classic characters would still be present, especially in their own titles and their respective fans wouldn't feel like their favorite characters had been denigrated or perverted. Comics fans are strangely a "death before dishonor" crowd. But rather than deliver the message, "we at Marvel believe in equality and inclusivity," Marvel's message has been "cultural power and presence is a zero sum game. Only one group can be king of the mountain and it's not you anymore." As such, Marvel's response to their larger diversity strategy has been this disappointingly pathetic surprise. Things have backed fired and they've been caught on their heels. But more on that in a minute.
Returning to the point, I don't mean that exclusively that Marvel comics should revolve around its non-white, non-male, non cis-gendered, non-straight characters as a policy, in perpetuity. Just more often and equally, and that this is a more organic less abrasive way, and more likely to actually achieve diversity in comics. The real success stories in Marvel for this new crop of so called "diverse" characters has gone more with the kind of gradual story based technique I'm referring to. Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Black Panther are all ascendant characters and none of them because Marvel commanded it by fiat or reduced fans' options forcing them to go with what was on offer, i.e. their new ling up. No, those successful characters have steadily won over fans through a combination of Marvel slowly but surely investing in them: higher profile talent on the books, critical successes, and having said character occupy more of the center of Marvel's interconnected universe. People are choosing those books and those characters because of their own merits.
All this being said, the mistake I think many conservatives fans make in their diagnosis of Marvel's so called SJW agenda is to think that Marvel is primarily politically motivated in some extreme way. This misses the mark substantially. It's Marvel apolitical nature that's led to these snafus. I think the political landscape at a pop culture level is more divided than it's ever been. There's very little neutral ground now; there's nowhere to stand on these kinds of issues where half the country isn't going to call you a monster. Marvel is dealing with a shifting, divided political ground. That is to say that it's not Marvel that's divisive, it's our politics themselves, and Marvel's just incompetent to meaningfully navigate the territory. So, what many of you attribute to insidious political agendas, I think are much more likely a result of the company's political clumsiness. Rather than be devious operators, I think Marvel is populated from top to bottom with political novices. People who's background has never included having to really think through the realities of political conditions or their implications at this scale. They're just a collection of pulp writers and company men. Speaking as a leftist, I actually find what politics they are able to articulate predictable and banal. Point being, Marvel is just playing the ball where it lies, and I think of what I'm saying as both and indictment and a defense. They're just a publishing company that's expected to entertain in order to turn a profit, and I think from their vantage point the culture is changing and they're trying to keep up or get on top of it so they can continue to sell books. At the same time, we should probably stop applauding them for their progressive bonafides. As a practice, they generally adopt simplistic, uncritical, easy politics, and convenience is way more their watch word than principle or integrity.
That's of course them operating as a company driven by a profit motive incentived by market competition . Within their ranks, however I think they' have some fantastic people doing some amazing work. Ironically, I think Jason Aaron's Thor story has been a better example than most of competent, and at times, exceptional story telling. Thor, God of Thunder: I think is one of my favorite (if not my favorite) Thor runs. And as critical as I was of their decision to have Jane replace Thor and have Thor rendered unworthy, I think within those parameters the execution of that story has been superb. I wish the original Thor was more central to the story, but I actually think the way he's been depicted over the course of Aaron's run has been multidimensional, impressive, and interesting. The only damage or insult I can see are superficial details. I think Thor himself has been handled quite well with respect to his character.
Anyway, I bring this up, because this board honestly is becoming intolerable, where Thor has now become a flimsy proxy for some of us to trot out our political axes to grind. I thought I'd try to put some of this in a productive context, because some of our criticism against Marvel go double for us. Everyone's been complaining Marvel is just using their comics as a launch pad to rail about their politics. Isn't that precisely what this board has become?
---the late great Donald Blake