Luckily, in February, comics faced an older and more conventional threat than terrorists: someone in the media daring to admit to being unimpressed by comics.
Leading the charge was The Guardian, which published art critic Jonathan Jones's boring but somehow incendiary “When did the comic-book universe become so banal?"
Jones often plays the role of a sort of dull “provocateur” for The Guardian (e.g. saying that photographs don’t belong in art galleries, refusing to read Terry Pratchett, his mum was doing his dad a favor by poking holes in the condom so quit crying old man, blah blah blah). But with comics, he found one of his most gullible audiences to “upset” yet.
Looking at a copy of Scott McCloud's new graphic novel, The Sculptor, Jones had the audacity to state that he thought comics generally "weren't worth an adult's time" and were "studied banality." To put it another way, he had extraordinarily nicer things to say about The Sculptor than anyone that I actually listen to. Yes, someone found the bookstore wing of comics a little boring to look at — zounds! Jones was also dismayed by the amount of the art he saw that was merely functional in illustrating some story, rather than expressive and interesting on its own terms, like that of his artist-of-choice Robert Crumb. In other words, rather than dismissing comic art entirely, an art critic dared to express a preference. In public, even! The bastard.
Did comic book people react well to this light criticism?
Clickbait site Uproxx screeched "The Guardian Art Critic Doesn't Understand Why Comic Books Aren't Just Pretty Pictures", shouting that Jones needed to pay more attention to Hawkeye comic books. Bleeding Cool interrupted their non-stop coverage of Frank Cho to declare "The Guardian vs Comic Books". Tweets flash-flooded Tweet Central, drowning three Twitter employees, nameless employees buried together face-down in a single unmarked grave.
Uproar about The Guardian’s article was so widespread that even The Guardian itself got in on the anti-Guardian clickbait with its own attack piece on The Guardian, "Why our comic book heroes deserve to be celebrated not trashed". After pronouncing that Jones was "cocooned in snobbery" and “[flailing] around trying to understand [his] significance”, The Guardian's self-rebuttal proceeded to ignore every point Jones had made (albeit clumsily), and instead babbled that Persepolis had a "sympathetic protagonist," Grant Morrison's comics had "complexity beneath a bubblegum surface," cosplay is very popular, true comix fans reassuringly had a "working understanding" of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Stan Lee was somehow “underappreciated.”
The Guardian also published "Comic studies has been undervalued for too long: we're fighting to change this", an article about "decades of comic scholarship" which concluded with a recommendation that people read more Batman comics.
The underappreciated Stan Lee, the undervalued Batman: The Guardian was so jittery to get back in the good graces of readers that it almost begin praising an unknown band called The Beatles.
“Jonathan Jones forgot Batman and Hawkeye and Guardians of the Galaxy! How dare Jones find Scott McCloud banal when cosplay??” It was difficult to read any of the responses to Jones, defending comics as a legitimate adult medium, without picturing the person writing the response while crying into a hankie.
For those who might suspect that Jones’s true offense was that he deviated from the comics cult of relentless positivity — well, Jones would find himself in good company when in May, The New Yorker published “Looking at Female Superheros with Ten-Year-Old Boys”.
Now, the point being made was even more unbelievable! Harvard professor and frequent New Yorker author Jill Lepore had looked at a Marvel Comics Secret War tie-in imaginatively-titled A-Force. Rather than write an in-depth and exhaustive essay about it, as she had with, say, her (quite spectacular) essay on disruptive innovation, Lepore wrote a tongue-in-cheek goof-off piece about how lady superheros looked "ridiculous" and "like porn stars," and how she had showed A-Force to two boys who were both bored and confused.
Alternate possible titles for the New Yorker article: "Human Being has Ordinary Reaction", "Children Prefer Entertainment", "Serious Writer Decides to Have Some Fun Because Not Everything in Universe Needs to be Taken Seriously", or "Pagaste por esa mierda, cabron?" (to attract that lucrative Spanish-language audience, at least if Google Translate can be trusted. Thanks, Google Translate!).
“How could it be? How could any decent human being think that comic book artists drew silly-looking women? How could children fail to be entertained by a multi-title crossover tie-in? How could anyone write a tongue-in-cheek article about a Secret Wars spin-off? Why wouldn’t someone do intensive research before daring to write about a Marvel comic? Inconceivable!” gasped comics, shocked, horrified.
None gasped in more hot air than G. Willow Wilson, A-Force’s author, who then blew out a lot of that hot air onto Tumblr, America’s #1 home for politically incisive reviews of Poe Dameron slashfic, thirsty gifs of that movie Carol, no-dimensional racial politics, and anorexia fandom.
Wilson began by complaining that Lepore had foolishly expected to understand the first issue of a comic book without “rigorous scholarship”, and insisting that Lepore should have waited until the comic’s completion (which came in October 2015) before saying anything out loud about this comic book sold to the public on an installment basis at a cost of $3.99 per installment. Wilson then complained that due to this lack of "rigorous scholarship," Lepore didn’t understand that the women’s costumes in A-Force were "purposefully crafted to resemble those of male superheros. They are, for the most part fully covered--a profound departure from the teeny bikinis of the 80’s and 90’s."
For example, Dr. Lepore missed the above likewise pretty profound splash page from A-Force #5. If only Dr. Lepore had slowed down and done more scholarship, she could have seen this splash page and all the progress that women have made!
In the '90s, that She-Hulk character (?) would have just been naked on an empty page, spread-eagled, dutifully examining her own vagina with a mirror. The Comics Code would have demanded it! But now, thanks to Marvel Comics feminism, She-Hulk gets to stride into battle not in one of the teeny bikinis of the '80s or '90s, but proudly wearing a Frederick's of Hollywood Pleated Mesh Teddy. Progress! Tigra, the character wearing a "teeny bikini," has to walk behind a lady in a completely different kind of bikini top, going into battle with an exposed belly button, and next to a character wearing a fourth, entirely different kind of bikini top, also going into battle with a naked exposed belly button.
That’s right, MRAs! Girls reading comics know they don’t have to play by The Man’s rules anymore! When they’re walking into battle (or dare I say ... the board room?), they can wear any kind of bikini top they want that accentuates their sexy little belly buttons. AMERICA!
Wilson kept going: “Her article is a very crisp demonstration of the difference between criticism from within the community–criticism from people who love comics and want to see them succeed–and criticism from the self-appointed gatekeepers of art and culture, who categorically do not give a shit. This is what it looks like, folks! … What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches.”
Comics: a decades-long struggle for respectability. But in an EC-style twist ending, it turns out that comics’ definition of "respectability" this whole time was being largely ignored by adult media while reactions to comics come only from those people who comic creators themselves arbitrarily deem to "love comics." Um... Except we already had that? We had that before? Isn’t "getting ignored by The New Yorker, and only talking to comics-lovers" exactly what we had since forever? I thought that was what people wanted changed. Will you people ever be happy?? Make up your minds!
Ancient Observation Repeated for the 93-Billionth Time: Nerds never wanted “respectability” for being different. That entire time, they just wanted conformity to benefit them instead.
Merciful gumdrops, though, it’s extra-hard to take a culture seriously when its definition of the “ivory tower” is a magazine available on every newsstand still standing in the United States. "That magazine that publishes television reviews, funny essays by Steve Martin, and cartoons is an ivory tower." If that’s your idea of an ivory tower, you’re going to shit your face when you look up “college” in the dictionary. (P.S. a dictionary is something eggheads in ivory towers use as part of their gol’darned book-learnin’.)
Oh, we could debate whether Lepore’s references to “porn stars” was in good taste, or was unnecessarily judgmental towards women in a different economic class, or any number of other issues. But why kid ourselves that this had anything to do with Lepore? Why pretend that Lepore’s opinions were actually engaged with, instead of met with classist arguments about how she wasn’t entitled to them because she wrote for The New Yorker? Wilson used the word “community” four times in her response (comic creators’ word for “shoppers”). As with the clickbait reactions to The Guardian, the shoppers were the target suckers. Rally the faithful, preach to the choir, reassure the marks that they were part of some noble enterprise, instead of a noisy clusterfuck that any serious, educated adult would just throw their hands up and snicker at.
Sure enough, the reaction of fans on Tumblr to Lepore was equally as considered: “A lot of these mainstream press writers really need to butt out of analyzing the medium if they don’t actually care enough to research what they’re writing about”; “I love Dr. Lepore’s book but The New Yorker can get fucked. For real”; “I’m not very familiar with The New Yorker. Is this sort of ‘journalism’ their stock in trade?”
This is not what disagreement sounds like. This isn’t what sharing something you love with other people sounds like either, except in its most tragic forms.
It sounds more like a bunker mentality that would make Eva Braun blush. Both with Lepore and Jones, the response sounds like people jostled on a personal level; people who had succumbed to a sales pitch about “community” designed to keep them nestled snug asleep believing some flimsy product could make them feel less alone; people angry to be awakened even for a moment, and eager to return to their delusions. That doesn’t sound like “community”-- it sounds like cowardice.
This is what it looks like, folks!
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