Last year, I wrote an editorial on Airboy and accusations of transphobia that were levied at that comic’s creators. Though I mixed in criticisms I had of Airboy from issue one, the main point I tried to get across was that the best possible strategy Airboy’s creative team could take was to listen and try to understand why fans were upset about the comic’s trans representation rather than shrug off their complaints or place the blame on them for being offended. All things considered, I do not feel this was an extreme request (and to his credit, Airboy writer James Robinson did offer up a sincere apology and the dialogue was altered in subsequent edition, here’s an example of the old dialogue versus the new) but in the current culture commentary climate, what I wrote would likely be reframed as an example of “entitled fandom” being too “demanding.”
There are a number of issues with this reframing of legitimate fan and criticial complaints, but the most consistent is the notion that a plea for better visibility is a hissy fit rather than a worthwhile suggestion of how to open a work up to new audiences. On one end of the spectrum are writers like James Robinson, who are capable of admitting they fucked up and try their best to listen to complaints and use them to improve their work. At the other end of the spectrum are entitled creators who view all critical feedback through the same vitriolic, destructive filter. So is the problem an entitled fandom being too demanding? Or is the problem an entitled professional base refusing to ever admit wrongness?
Obviously nothing is ever entirely black and white, but it’s important to pay attention to who has the actual established power in that particular dichotomy. Fans can have an impact on mainstream series– they are the ones pouring money into them, after all, making them shareholders of a sort– but the publishers hold all the cards and they milk the belief that fans have power in order to profit off of it. This is how we arrive in a situation like the one we have been in over the past month in comics, where star Marvel writer Nick Spencer can launch a new Captain America series with a twist ending revealing the patriotic character has been an agent for a Nazi spinoff organization all along, and thrill in the volume of response.
Everyone is talking about a comic book. Refuse to believe that’s a bad thing.
— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) May 28, 2016
Marvel and Spencer both enjoy the outrage because it brings attention to the title and sells more units, the gimmick worked. But when the conversation shifts from standard outrage over a hero turned villain and centers on the way Marvel continues to use disenfranchised communities for commercial gain– whether it’s this connection of a traditionally liberal character created by two Jewish men to a hate group or Marvel’s controversial hip hop variant cover campaign– these publishers grow defensive and angry. The conversation is no longer under their control and is shining a light on issues they do not want to discuss, therefore it is a conversation they will not have and they will utilize any number of tactics to manipulate the conversation until it returns to a place that benefits rather than criticizes them.
Like so many other attempts to police activist rhetoric before it, a lot of the discussion around the issues with fan demands has recklessly connected it to actual attempts at silencing and oppression. This is how we went from a totally unsurprising fan outcry against Captain America coming out as a HYDRA sleeper agent (outcry that was arguably actively encouraged and welcomed by Nick Spencer on Twitter) to a series of finger pointing essays about the dangers of fandom connecting legitimate fan complaints to extreme reactions like vague threats of violence. Notable comics critic J.A. Micheline had this to say about the subject:
Make no mistake: much of this ill-handling is intentional and strategic. It benefits structural power to co-opt, reframe, or misrepresent marginalized concerns. It’s how speaking truth to power becomes “entitlement” and “toxicity.” It’s the reason marginalized anger is presented, side-by-side, with bad actors, only for that conflation to be weaponized against us moments later. Again: this is strategy. These are concerted efforts whose intent is to preserve extant injustices, crush the disenfranchised, and frankly, to do harm.
Micheline herself has been framed by some men in the industry as part of the problem, with Chew writer John Layman going so far as to call her a “toxic presence” in a series of Tweets.
— Layman (@themightylayman) May 31, 2016
Layman’s offense came out of a place of reframing itself, as he attempted to diminish the criticism of him as a writer who indulges in transphobic rhetoric and behavior as fan overreaction that labeled him as a transphobe simply for liking Airboy. Micheline is a lauded critic, with bylines at major publications ranging from Comics Alliance to the AV Club to VICE, she is a respected member of her community with valid complaints about the way comics creators reframe these discussions, but it’s easier for those in power to brush her aside and label her toxic than to engage with the hard questions she asks. Is entitlement asking hard questions? Or is entitlement refusing to answer valid questions about your behavior and the ways you do harm?
To a growing number of people in the comics community, the entitlement they want to diminish isn’t passionate requests for changes in character canon but the privilege power holders in the industry have of never answering legitimate questions. Fans and critics are constantly expected to check their entitlement, to show compassion to white male creators who receive threats of violence when they court controversy, but that respect is rarely offered in return. Critics like J.A. Micheline and Janelle Asselin, who was harassed all the way to the hospital for her writing on the protection of serial sexual assaulter Scott Allie at Dark Horse, are routinely ignored when they speak up about the bad behavior thrown their way. Worse, writers like Micheline and Asselin aren’t just receiving harassment from overzealous fans but also from professionals in the industry, many of whom are in positions of power at publishers.
This disrespect became especially clear this week as Spencer and Marvel cohort Dan Slott jointly attacked Comics Alliance Andrew Wheeler for his comments about how Marvel has handled the Captain America situation. Slott even went so far as to recklessly frame tweets by Wheeler so that it seemed like the editor was endorsing death threats against Spencer. To date, the only “news” source in comics to report on this behavior is the satirical site The Outhouse, while mainstream outlets like Vulture framed Wheeler as part of a “vicious” fight without pointing out that the vicious behavior was not coming from Wheeler but from the professionals the article mostly defends. To further muddy the waters, the Vulture piece then immediately distances Wheeler, a victim in that “vicious fight” if there was one, from the “calmer, more eloquent parties in the battle.”
Given the behavior of these professionals, both in the comics industry and in the media that report on it, is it any wonder that fan and critics alike are both taking the conversation to social media platforms like Twitter, where the sheer volume of criticism that emerges against creators and publishers makes it impossible to ignore? And is it any wonder that this exodus to social media is treated by the industry as a mob? Particularly when the activity of Twitter is what forces the industry to finally talk about longstanding issues, like the protection of known sexual assaulters like Scott Allie and DC editor Eddie Berganza? The comics industry wants fans to believe social media only counts for anything to those in power when it’s used against itself, like death threats against a white male writer, its power figures attempt to diminish the change social media is forcing on the industry, writing these movements off as illegitimate and entitled. But is entitlement asking why men like Allie and Berganza are able to remain employed and protected despite their behavior? Or is entitlement refusing to speak up or do anything about these men? Why is a perceived irate fandom a more immediate concern to this industry than the ridiculous number of sexual predators protected at publishing companies, or the hateful rhetoric pros routinely hurl at the Michelines and Asselins and Wheelers of the world? Why are death threats seemingly only newsworthy when they are received by a white male writer? Why is this situation the situation that showcases how “broken” comics is rather than any of the horrible acts in comics that have been illuminated over the past year?
We are at a point where we must decide which end of the entitlement spectrum is the one that needs to be addressed most. Change is happening in the comics industry regardless of what established pros do to try to stop it. Everyone who tells you that you speaking up is dangeorus, or useless, or stupid, is painfully aware of their obsolescence. They are falling, and these attempts at reframing valid and important questions are symbolic of that fall. Keep speaking up. Keep asking comics to be better. Keep annoying those people in power who are afraid of your voices. Because the truth is that fandom isn’t broken. Criticism isn’t broken. It’s the traditional comics industry that is broken. And we are entitled to a better industry.
Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated that the trade release of Airboy edited out some of the dialogue that was found to be offensive. We have now included images from the review PDF copy Image sent us that show a change in dialogue, but some people have indicated their physical trade collections do not have these changes. If anyone has images of the printed trade that show that these changes were not made, please let us know
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover