One of my chief struggles with comics fandom throughout adulthood has been the reflexive defensiveness of established pros and traditional fans against criticism and attempts at pushing progress. It’s not something I’m entirely unfamiliar with outside of comics, anyone with a punk adolescence should also be familiar with the phenomenon, ditto anyone with even a slight interest in gaming. But I think in comics it always affected me more because it was the first medium I fell in love with and the one that has fought the hardest throughout my life to maintain a certain status quo. The first time I quit comics it was because music stole my affection. But every time since it’s been because I’ve looked around and acknowledged how much the largest group of people in comics just bring me down, leading me to ask whether I really need this in my life. Some people call that mass of cranks the phenomenon of gatekeeperism, a deep need by dudes who consider themselves the height of taste to keep the rabble and the funkillers out, to make it known across the land that theirs is the only opinion that matters and your personal feelings on a subject are essentially nonexistent as far as they’re concerned. Comics are opening up so these dudes are especially on the attack now, as you might have noticed if you follow a decent number of comics folk on Twitter and saw the Airboy #2 debate.
If you’re a smarter person than me, you’re not familiar with Airboy. To recap, it’s a new Image series by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle that is basically about both those guys trying to reboot the Golden Age character Airboy for today’s audience, its meta bro aspects leading me to call its first issue “an Entourage homage to Adaptation set in the comics world, only somehow more misogynist and juvenile and misguided.” I didn’t like it, I thought it was a comic with a tired premise and an even more tired perspective built for aging comics vets who wanted to recapture a youth cool I don’t think they ever had. I also felt that it had an underbelly of hate so I wasn’t too surprised to hear its second issue prominently featured a transphobic subplot, wherein Airboy tags along with James and Greg to a trans bar and proceeds to get “tricked” into receiving a blowjob only to find out the giver expected the favor returned. A number of fans found that to be a hurtful representation of trans culture and who can blame them? The joke here isn’t on James and Greg, which is a position you could theoretically take with the debut, but on trans “deceivers” and their “victim” Airboy; James and Greg literally use a trans person as an object for a prank, potentially jeopardizing her by keeping Airboy in the dark, hoping for an explosive response. Four decades ago, The Kinks’ “Lola” took a more progressive stance on this kind of incident and still managed to be humorous. We’ve come a long way, baby.
It seems like an easy issue to call out as gross and mean-spirited, right? Except that those who are a part of or close to the trans community are being told to shut up on the issue, comics vets punching down to protect their buddy. In a less obvious way, you saw this with the discussion around the first issue, too. With the exception of one mid-period Image hack writer, I don’t think I ran into any hostility for my opinion about Airboy #1, in fact I had a handful of civil discussions about my problems with the comic with people who actually liked it that I otherwise respected the taste of. However, Amy Brander did not have the same experience with her negative second opinion review of the debut at We the Nerdy, which resulted in some condescending comments on the piece as well as Twitter heckling. It’s weird, right? A straight white male talks shit about Airboy and gets some healthy debate. A woman writes a less incendiary review and gets a steady stream of dudes telling her in no uncertain terms she’s wrong and just doesn’t get it.
The transphobia issue has received a larger outcry, and for good reason, so now comic vets are coming out of the woodwork to defend the jokes, like hordes of even less entertaining Patton Oswalts eager to launch the censorship accusations. You can predict the language of this stuff at this point, as people who come from privileged backgrounds fall over each other to defend their comrade. “It didn’t offend ME,” they’ll say, “so what’s YOUR problem?” In the case of Chew writer and fellow Image vet John Layman, you get a handy representation of all the standbys, beginning with the accusation that anyone who found Airboy to be worthless suffers from reading comprehension:
Before digging in real deep with “well, your tolerance is out of whack for this stuff”
Culminating in “as a white man, I can handle abominable characters”
As Layman lightly concedes by the end of that exchange, people from the targeted background might “possibly” have found Airboy #2’s transphobic scenes to be deal breakers but the larger, between the lines point made by Layman and a number of other white male writers who weighed in to defend the work is that those people’s offense and feelings on the issue don’t matter, something that’s even clearer when you realize Layman didn’t learn anything from his own problems with trans representation— he even went so far as to chastise Women Write About Comics for writing an editorial on it. John Layman, like any number of other white comic veterans standing up for their right to be offensive, perceive Airboy, a work of meta-fiction, to be more worthy of defense than actual human beings who read the issue in question and were hurt by it. My question is: why do we even need the opinion of these creators on this specific issue? What exactly can they bring to the table? Why can’t they just listen and learn, like Cameron Stewart and the Batgirl team did when they had their own (far less offensive) problem with trans representation?
That conundrum segues into the side issue of why Airboy even needs to be defended. It’s disappointing that the only time these types of creators ever get involved in censorship debates is when they feel like their right to make jokes at other cultures’ and sexualities’ expense is in danger. I don’t really remember that many creators speaking up over DC’s refusal to let Batwoman get married to her partner but there are still comic creators using the Je Suis Charlie hashtag as an excuse to make Islamaphobic cartoons. Removing quality from the equation altogether, is Airboy’s “boys will be boys” story something that is in danger of disappearing from culture? Judd Apatow’s empire of films by and for man children behaving badly doesn’t seem to be hurting for sales, and Two and a Half Men remains one of the most successful television series in history. You don’t have to look very hard to find works like Airboy, but you would have to look much harder to find a comic or, hell, a work in any medium that treats trans culture fairly. What is it that Airboy communicates that is so revolutionary? Is its offensiveness targeted at individuals and groups that need to be taken down a peg? Or is it the same old tired attacks on groups that are always attacked? The first issue used an overweight woman as a prop, the second issue has a trans panic joke for a plotline, so where do we go from here? Greg “Anaconda” Hinkle comparing dicks with a mandingo? Would Mark Waid retweet that as eagerly as he did John Layman’s defense in that instance, knowing that he’s struggling with racial sensitivity issues of his own with Strange Fruit?
As a straight white male myself, the voices I want to hear from on issues like these are not fellow white men, particularly not insensitive, out of touch ones. I know my own perspective, I know that I realistically never have to deal with the kind of discrimination and cruelty that my queer friends do on a daily basis. I may not be offended by something but if they’re offended by it, I listen in order to gain perspective, to learn how I can be a better person and more considerate of the people around me. Maybe I found a joke funny but didn’t realize the impact it had on a friend. Is it going to hurt me to remove that joke from my repertoire? Is my need to be able to say whatever I want without consideration for others more important than treating someone else as a human being and respecting their boundaries and emotions and experiences? It’s not censorship, it’s being human, it’s agreeing to operate within a society that functions best when it includes as many as possible. In comics this is especially true, as even now, at the height of comics’ progressiveness, we’re looking at major publishers that routinely have less than 10% women in creative roles on titles, that are so lacking in gay representation a time displaced X-Man getting forcibly outed is seen as a major step up. So maybe next time let’s trumpet a work that flips Airboy’s script and actually is revolutionary, maybe one featuring two women getting sleazy, talking about periods rather than penis size then coercing a drunk boyfriend into some ball torture, or really anything that doesn’t star the same tired white dudes, and then let’s see how eager these creators are to defend its right to be dirty.
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