by Alex Valente
Repeat after me: comics is a medium, not a genre. Good? Good. Let’s start from there. Comics is (yes, plural noun, singular verb) a medium. As such, it has the power to channel ideologies, reflect society, provoke ripples in current trends, generate new ones, validate certain opinions, undermine others, and most of all — it influences a gigantic audience, it creates a dialogue between readers and authors.
Sometimes that dialogue is out of sync. Sometimes a side shouts louder than others. Sometimes it falls short of everyone’s expectations and hopes. And sometimes, really good things happen, and excellent conversations take place.
Let’s start from the bad. Last week, Ike Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Entertainment —owner of one of the giants of the comics industry, and now part of
the Empire Disney — donated a hefty sum to a fundraiser held by Evil Sith Lord GOP nominee Donald Trump. I will not go into too much detail here, as plenty of other outlets have covered the issue, and delved a little further into the shady politics at the House of M House of M and its higher echelons. What I will say is that Perlmutter has had several disagreements with other Marvel spokespeople in the past, and said some seriously stupid things about how the company is or should be positioned in 2016. As I said, a lot of it is covered in the articles linked above.
Also last week, the apparently final chapter — until this week, when it turns out it wasn’t — of this year’s Angoulême Festival débâcle took place. The Fauve D’Or is one of the highest recognitions to be awarded to creators working in the field, with a degree of focus on Francophone products, but also acknowledging international output. Unless it’s by women. Because there are no significant female authors in the history of comics. There were boycotts, withdrawals, media coverage across international papers and channels, a number of campaigns and exhibitions were set up to show just how wrong they were, and everything seemed to settle as the organisation opened up to more representative nominations. Then they fucked up again.
The fact is, despite these ridiculously disgusting shows of power from people involved in the industry (a certain easily identifiable group of people, for that matter), the medium has much more power lying in the gutters — the space between panels in a traditional comic layout — than Perlmutter or DiDio (DC Comics) or Stephenson (Image comics) will understand. One of the Marvel Comics writers, G. Willow Wilson, wrote a thoughtful and proactive response to the Perlmutter/Trump issue. She asks questions about the possibility of separating the company from the creators, and how personal ideologies might fit in that essentially capitalist landscape of the entertainment industry. G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel (with Sana Amanat and Adrian Alphona) is the story of first mainstream female Muslim superhero — one that flies directly into Trump’s racist face and suggestions — and one of the 2016 winners at Angoulême. Bam.
Another example of where the ripples are headed comes from a slightly more niche comics corner. I was able to run a title like ‘Windblade announced as cisgender woman’ (more or less) on a site dedicated to The Transformers, one of my unashamedly nerdiest interests. For a franchise which has only recently realised that women read, write, and draw comics — gasp — it was a gigantic achievement. Mairghread Scott was the first woman writing giant robot fiction featuring the first female giant robot, as chosen and helped shape by fans through an online poll (another whole team has appeared since, too). Scott has since been championing this neglected side of the fandom, and has helped ensure an increased diversity in the fields she covers. A year ago, she delivered one of her best lines yet: “Working with robots doesn’t stop us from exploring diversity”. Pow.
Moving further away from mainstream publishers, the wild and wonderful world of self-publishing and independent publications offer an even wider sandbox for the more progressive ideas and concepts to flourish. Several artists currently working for the major publishers started out this way, and have not forgotten the ideals that propelled their artistic pursuits. Be it through fan art, homages, or original stories, be it ranging from webcomics (e.g. Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content, Deena Mohamed’s Qahera), Tumblr posts, or printed zines, the comix scene is alive, well, and thriving — don’t let anyone tell you differently.
The American Comic Book started, in very broad terms, as a medium for exiles, expats, refugees, and aliens in US culture to tell their stories. They contained messages of hope, achievement, triumph, and endurance. As the original creators and publishers established themselves as part of the powerhouses, their ideology mutated, adapting to and essentially speaking for a new status quo. Those roots, however, have not been forgotten by those working in comics today.
There are news and reporting outlets like The Mary Sue, Panels, Black Girl Nerds, Women Write About Comics, or Eisner-nominated Comics & Cola. There are reader-based initiatives such as Push Comics Forward and We Are Comics. There are reading and discussion groups, such as Laydeez Do Comics. All of which are dedicated to offering a different perspective on what is available, but maybe still unknown, to readers. Even within mainstream channels, the effort is undoubtedly there, and from a good number of sources. The GLAAD Awards have a whole category dedicated to the comics medium, and writers in non-specialist publications, such as Laura Sneddon, are making sure the media pick up, fairly, on the bigger news at least. Heck, morning talk shows and papers are actually being used to promote new comics developments. Perhaps it is time for the rest of the industry to wake up too.
To find out more about how the comics world pushes these conversations forward, make sure to attend War of Words, the first progressive media conference organised by The Norwich Radical. The panel ‘Comics as a Progressive Medium’ features book and comics artist Rosie Sherwood and Laydeez Do Comics founder and comics author Nicola Streeten.
Featured image © Jamie McKelvie; Marvel