Has political correctness run amok in comics?!?!?

I am a big fan of political correctness. Back in the day when it first became popular (the late 1980s/early 1990s), it was a way to attempt to name groups by what those groups wanted to be named rather than what outsiders wanted to name them. We’ve done this for years without it being too much of a controversy. “Colored” gave way to “Negro” which gave way to “black” or “Afro-American” which turned into “African-American.” “Indian” was replaced by “Native American” or “indigenous.” Its history is more complicated than that, of course, but if you boil it down, it simply means trying to find language that isn’t offensive. That’s a sticky wicket in itself, because what may offend one person might not offend someone else, and obviously, it opens up a lot of room for mockery, but in general, I have no problem with trying to use language that isn’t offensive. When I was a journalism student at Penn State (before I changed my major to the obviously more potentially lucrative major of English), I interviewed several Native Americans on campus (at that time, there were, I think, less than 20 in the university – Pennsylvania does not have a gigantic Native population). I actually asked them what they wanted to be called, and most of them didn’t care if I called them “Native Americans” or “Indians” – most, in fact, wanted to be called by their tribal name. So it never hurts to ask. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it makes people happy because you actually care about their feelings. That’s what political correctness means to me.

Berke Breathed, as usual, has the jokes

Of course, because this is the world, the term became a loaded one, with conservatives seizing upon it as a way to mock those who don’t believe in good old-fashioned ‘Murican values and liberals using it as a cudgel on anyone who questioned them. It’s too bad, because our supposed gentility when it comes to language means that in “polite society” we have to use the term instead of saying “Don’t be a dick,” which is what it really means anyway. And of course, certain crazy elements who read comics have decided that “political correctness” is ruining comics. Do they have a point? Let’s look at the examples!

First of all, there’s the infamous Batgirl #37. Back in 2014, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr took over Batgirl and began a well-received run. They seemed to have all the fun energy that is often missing from DC comics, and they wrote Barbara Gordon and her friends as real-ish people, unbearably hip and cool real-ish people, but real-ish nevertheless. And then their third issue together, #37, showed up. And people went nuts.

See, there’s a Fake Batgirl jumping around being Batgirlie, and Real Batgirl isn’t happy about it. There’s also an artist named Dagger Type who has an exhibition of Batgirl photos, pictures that he took using a model dressed like our heroine. We never see Dagger Type in person (before the controversial scene, I mean), just a large photograph of him at the exhibit, and when Batgirl confronts the curator of the museum, both women refer to him as a “he.” Then, Batgirl meets Fake Batgirl and they fight. Tarr draws Batgirl as a woman, with no clues whatsoever that she’s not a woman. Then Batgirl grabs Fake Batgirl’s mask, and you know what happens next:

Then, a few pages later, we get this:

Some people lost their shit. I have no idea how many, but enough that it became a small media storm. Why, you might ask? Well, in the first example, Barbara reacts to the revelation that Fake Batgirl is actually Dagger Type with “disgust,” suggesting that Barbara is horrified by a transgender person. In the second example, the rest of the cast mocks a transgender person for dressing “like a woman.” Here’s one person’s thoughts on the issue, and here’s another one. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr made the rather unusual decision to not only apologize, but rewrite the offending scenes for the trade paperback, as detailed by some dude named Brian. Check out the changes:

That’s the big one. Here are the other pages:

Now, Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr can change whatever they want about their own art – there are several versions of “The Scream,” after all, so artists are rarely “finished” with something, and if they wanted the comic to be less offensive to the people who were offended, that’s fine. I’m always of the mind that once art is out there, it should stay that way, warts and all, because it tells us about the artist, the audience, and the society in which it’s produced. I don’t get offended easily and I’m not in a category of people who gets persecuted, though, so I understand that it’s not necessarily my call. But this kind of thing gives “political correctness” a bad name, I think. It’s a facile reading of something by people who ignore any context and are even, perhaps, looking for something to complain about (I tend to assume good faith with people, but I also know that some people just like arguing – I know one of those people and call him “Dad”). In my mind, anyone who reads this issue knows that Barbara is not responding with disgust to Dagger Type, but surprise. You can argue that Tarr draws Dagger Type far too much like a typically buxom woman before the reveal and more like a crazed man afterward, but notice that the art was not changed in the edit, the words were. But anyway, here’s what we know about this situation: a faux Batgirl is swinging around, and no one thinks she’s a man. Dagger Type is not seen before this except in a photograph, in which he presents as a man, and a person who (presumably) know a bit about him, the curator of the museum, refers to him as “he.” There is no indication that he is transgender in any way. I guarantee you that if you believed that a person was a man and a completely different person than a woman whose face is always masked, if you took off the mask and saw that the man you believed was a completely different person than the woman you’re supposedly dealing with, you’d have the exact same reaction as Barbara. Even if you yourself were transgender, you’d have that reaction. It’s a perfectly natural, surprised reaction to something that you believed was true turning out to not be true. It is, in my eyes, not offensive at all. Of course Barbara would react that way, even if one of her good friends is transgender. And again, a crucial point: Dagger Type is not transgender. The scene later is very clear, as well. The people are not laughing at Dagger Type because he dresses like a woman, they’re laughing at him because they know he’s not Batgirl and he’s trying to make money off of something that they clearly think is non-commercial (in the smuggest way possible, true; I love the word balloon about everything cool being an ad, because these kinds of hipsters like to believe they’re above making money when they’ve commodified pretty much everything). Context matters, and even before we know that Dagger Type is the villain of the piece, the creators have set him up as someone who exploits tragedy (Barbara’s crippling at the Joker’s hands) for money, and the creators are even holding up the audience themselves for ridicule, as they were eating up the Batgirl exhibit before they knew that the model was the photographer dressing up as Batgirl. This is a lot more complex than “Barbara is transphobic,” on other words. Yes, you can make the case of Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr falling into the trope of “the cross-dressing maniac,” but to me, they do a very good job showing the damage that the craving for fame can do to someone, making Dagger Type a far different “cross-dressing maniac” than, say, Norman Bates (to whom he’s been compared). This is what art does: it sparks conversations about what we as a society accept and what we should do about it. The neutered version makes people feel good. Yay.

This isn’t just a problem with left-wing “snowflakes,” either. Everyone can be offended and demand changes due to political correctness! Recently, you might have seen that DC was going to publish a comic called The Second Coming, but they canceled it after an on-line uproar. The Second Coming is a story about Jesus returning to Earth and becoming a sidekick to a superhero, who’s basically Superman (it was a Vertigo book, so it wasn’t Superman, but it was). Mark Russell, the writer, has a strong satirical bent, so it probably would have poked some fun at religion, but the many, many people who signed an online petition to get the book killed 1) had never read it (as it hadn’t been released yet), and 2) were never going to read it, because they don’t read comics (the petition got over 200,000 signatures – can you imagine if that many people actually bought the comic?). They had no idea what kind of comic it was, yet they were so offended by it they demanded DC kill the book, and DC blinked and killed it. Russell and artist Richard Pace got the rights back and are now publishing it through Ahoy Comics, but this is a wonderful example of people who, in general, deride “political correctness” and tell offended people (like those who didn’t like Batgirl #37, for instance) to “get over it” doing the exact same thing – demanding that art be changed because it offends them. As with Batgirl #37, I think this is somewhat ridiculous. I am not even a little bit religious, and I choose to believe that God does not exist rather than accept that, if he does exist, he’s kind of an asshole, and I think we’d all be better off if we got the notion of God out of our lives entirely. I don’t say that a lot because I recognize that it might upset some people, so I’m not aggressive about my atheism. If you want to believe in God, feel free. But I wonder about these people who get so upset about a fucking comic book possibly mocking Jesus (which, let’s be honest, it really wouldn’t – Russell is a pretty good writer, but he’s not that acerbic). If your faith in your religion is so fragile that a fucking comic book that you won’t even read disturbs it, perhaps you should examine that faith. As I’ve said before, I love ABBA. I have been mocked in the past for my love of ABBA. And yet that mockery doesn’t change the fact that I love ABBA. If you love Jesus, someone mocking your love of Jesus shouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever on that love. Yet these “politically correct snowflakes,” this time from the right wing (I would imagine), got DC to kill this comic. Yay, snowflakes!

I bet that dude didn’t even pay for that bread, because Jesus is a socialist!

This even extends backwards in time, as another recent cancelation by DC shows. DC solicited a giant hardcover collection of the 26 issues of Detective Comics that appeared before Batman’s first appearance in issue #27. It was $150, so casual comics fans would not be buying this. People who don’t read comics would not be buying this. Very few people would be buying this, in other words, and those who would be buying it already knew (I’m assuming, but I’m pretty sure I’m correct) about the rampant racism in these first 26 issues. DC canceled the project and said it would not be resolicited. As with many things, they didn’t give a reason for the cancelation, and if I were not of a more conspiratorial mind, I would simply blame it on the fact that it didn’t meet the sales threshold that Diamond has for a book to be sold. As I noted, it’s $150 for 80-year-old comics that are fairly primitive even by the standards of the day, so I’m not surprised it was canceled. However, in the wake of people freaking out about the Bat-Penis in Batman: The Damned (which could be a case of political correctness running amok, but I think it’s just that people fear penises), and with the example of Batgirl #37 in their recent past, DC probably didn’t want to publish wildly racist comics in today’s atmosphere. Who knows what kind of shitstorm would have ensued if some easily offended person got their hands on it. I would have thought DC would have published it anyway, as the comics are fairly valuable historical documents, and gotten a lot of different and diverse writers to contribute essays about the times when they were published and the attitudes of the people writing, drawing, and publishing the comics. It would have been fascinating. I don’t know if DC got cold feet with regard to these comics, but it kind of seems they did. If so, that’s shame.

The problem is, of course, where does it end? And who gets to decide? Great art is often rooted in disturbing things, and while “Don’t be a dick” is good advice when you’re dealing with people, does it apply when dealing with art? Could Batgirl have begun a conversation about the twisted desire for fame, the appropriation of icons without their consent, the irony of people believing they’re above capitalism when they drive it? Could The Second Coming have challenged the way Christians have changed the teachings of Jesus for their own ends, turning something that is supposed to be a transcendent experience and dragging it down into the mundane, as humans always do? Could the Detective Comics collection been used as a teaching tool to examine popular culture in the 1930s and grapple with why Jews (an oppressed minority and the ethnicity of many early comics creators) and cosmopolitan New Yorkers (who presumably were exposed to other cultures) would portray minorities in such a horrible way? Eh, maybe. You never know where the conversation about art is going to go. That’s the beauty of art. It challenges us in ways we don’t expect, and it makes us think about the creators of the art, our reaction to it, and why we have that reaction. It shouldn’t necessarily be easy, and it’s a shame that too often people want it to be. But that’s why cookie-cutter police procedurals are so popular on television, I suppose.

As I noted, I’m a big fan of political correctness. I think we should strive to use language that makes the least amount of people angry, and if you can’t stop saying certain words that you know are going to piss people off, it’s because you’re a dick and you’re just doing it because you like being a dick. It doesn’t take much of an effort to learn how to use language that won’t offend people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing really wrong with being offended by art, either, and I have no problem with people writing about something that annoys them because of the way they see things. What I object to is trying to force others to think the way you do and ignore the context of what’s being presented. Earlier this year, a black man in Phoenix objected to a photograph on the wall of a restaurant showing a group of coal miners drinking at a pub. The men had just come from the mine and their faces were covered in coal dust. The man who didn’t like the picture knew they weren’t in blackface, he knew the entire context of the photograph, but in the column he wrote for the newspaper, he said that context didn’t matter. He thought the photograph should be taken down, but the manager of the restaurant didn’t do it (there are, I’m sure, two sides to the story, but that’s the gist of it). I can see why an century-old photograph of people in blackface shouldn’t be hanging on the wall of a restaurant, but when someone says context doesn’t matter, I have to stop. Of course it matters – context is almost everything, especially in art. That’s what’s depressing when political correctness runs amok. All context is lost. And that’s too bad.

Ultimately, these are tempests in teapots, but I do hope that people can back off and let artists be artists. I don’t have a problem with Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr deciding, on their own, to change the comic they worked on, but I wonder if they feel that it wasn’t really their choice and that, despite their public proclamations, they felt they had to change it or the tempest would grow louder. Beats me. Just as I don’t know if DC canceled the Detective Comics collection because of fears of backlash, I don’t know how people who didn’t like Batgirl #37 would have reacted if the creators hadn’t changed the book. People having a voice is great, but using that voice to censor anything is a slippery slope. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr should be free to offend transgender people. Mark Russell should be free to offend Christians. DC should be free to offend minorities. They’d all be dicks to do so, but still. Consumers should be free to not buy what is being sold. They’re also free to engage in discussion about what this art is saying about its subject and this world. Art is great at this, and it would be too bad if it stopped being something that forces us into uncomfortable places. The world doesn’t need more doctor shows and cop shows.

8 Comments

  1. Peter

    I am a straight, white, Catholic dude, so I’ve probably faced the least discrimination imaginable throughout my life and it can cause me to have some blind spots about what degree of “political correctness” is appropriate – but I agree that it’s definitely a good thing. In the “real world” (i.e. in interactions with people outside of the internet), I am grateful to folks who tell me how they’d prefer to be addressed and I am always happy to comply. Similarly, it’s usually not a big deal if someone says something offensive to me and I ask them to stop. That personal interaction is a powerful guard against ignorance turning into actual maliciousness.

    Online, though, it feels like there is less to stop people from having the knee-jerk reaction that anyone who says something even mildly offensive is intentionally being a dick. It is rare for someone to be given the benefit of the doubt – to think that they didn’t know any better or made a one-time mistake and will do better next time. This is what frustrates me. If you automatically assume someone is a bad actor, it’s not going to build bridges of understanding. Also, it’s not going to allow for a real evaluation of or dialogue with the artist’s work, which is a real shame. Even some people who are well-known dicks still say something worthwhile from time to time (see also: Miller, Frank; if we go beyond the realm of comics, we have a billion dickish but important people ranging from Pythagoras to Eddie Murphy…).

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: The on-line nature of this phenomenon is definitely a factor, because, as so many have pointed out before, people write things on the internet that they wouldn’t dare say in real life. Unfortunately, I think years of allowing people to rant on the internet has bled into the real world, and now people do say a lot of things they used to reserve only for on-line. It’s frustrating. But I agree that if you assume someone is not operating in good faith, it’s impossible to discuss what they’re trying to say. And your examples of dicks making good points is spot-on, too.

        1. Greg Burgas

          Fraser: It’s very tough to figure out on-line whether people are arguing in good faith or just trolling. I don’t think I’ve ever argued with anyone on-line, because it’s too hard. I’ll say my piece, but if people want to take it further and really get into it, I usually disengage. It’s frustrating.

          I don’t mind arguing in person, though. I always say that as long as insults aren’t involved, it’s fine. I had a long conversation with a Trump voter at my comic book store a few weeks ago, and while we disagreed on almost everything, it never got horrible because we didn’t insult each other. Even if you don’t convince someone, you can still express your views. Just, you know, don’t be a dick. 🙂

  2. Will C.

    I think the essential argument here is sound. Really in the last few years the movement toward censorship is one that is the most frightening. It’s mired in irony, too, this censorship. Hey, if guy next-door wants to be called Tincan, call ’em Tincan (to use an extremely light example). Forcing censorship of out w/out context, fitted only w/ pitchforks, is a tragedy.

  3. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    For my blood, a good example of this is Robinson airbrushing his (wonderful) Airboy story, and removing the word “tranny” from the dialogue without changing the plot, or the point the character was making.

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