Wherein I ponder the a strange intersection of prejudicial code words and reasonable criticism.
Last week I happened to stop by Blastoff Comics in North Hollywood, California. It looks like a hole in the wall from the outside, but make no mistake, it’s a boutique shop. Much of the shelving is custom-crafted wood and there’s a standing rule never to put drinks on the custom-built wood counter. It’s bright and friendly and people regularly come in and out to chat about comics and buy some books. It’s in this milieu I started up a conversation with the store manager about the recent developments in Iron Man.
I’ve been reading comics since I first learned to read at all. Although Spider-Man is my favorite, I’ve been reading Iron Man since before it was cool. I remember being scolded by another comic book geek on how I like the “weird” superheroes like Iron Man instead of, say, the X-Men. I bring this up so readers understand there’s a bit of investment here.
I’ve long since accepted the fact that the superhero mythology has passed me by. Sure, the old characters are still there, but the comics today are meant for a newer generation. This is reflected in another character, Thor. The idea of Thor as a woman was pitched to Marvel based off an old “What If?” issue where Jane Foster, the current Thor, becomes “Thora” after picking up the mystical hammer Mjolnir. The idea of a female Thor is thus very old, but it’s no coincidence that the new Thor was revealed earlier this year. Women in comics have always been there both in readership and in creation, but only recently some kind of threshold has been reached where companies are actively campaigning for their patronage.
Still, the habit of corporate mining and molding of cultural history is very real. Spider-Man, for example, is now the CEO of a multi-national corporation, which seems to conflict with his archetype as the perennial underdog. Anyone who follows comics also knows that Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, has now been revealed to be a Hydra secret agent (so much for an American icon). It’s not unusual to see companies play with an established formula to maximize profits rather than nurture long-term value. I don’t complain about things like this often because it’s not productive, but it’s fun to bitch every once in a while and the situation with Iron Man seemed tailor-made. This, of course is why I was so surprised at the response from the manager.
The popular phrase for the new Iron Man is “It’s a gimmick”. Now, I’ve seen that response online, but I never really thought much about it. From my story above, I hope it’s understood that when I say something looks like a gimmick or a marketing ploy, I mean it. I’m not using a code word for “I don’t want women and minorities in comics”. Yet, the manager, a woman, expressed huge exhaustion at the idea for the basic reason that it’s being used with these very meanings.
Donald Trump and the Tea Party notwithstanding, America has been slowly trying to move past its racially divisive history. As the demographics become more multicultural, there is more pressure generate code words and code phrases to hide prejudicial intent. As a result, instead of proclaiming antipathy towards a black female being the next Iron Man, people are claiming “It’s a gimmick” and trying to downplay the value or quality of the work.
It’s interesting that a similar effect is happening with the all-female Ghostbusters movie. At the time of this writing, it has just been released with many predicting that any positive review has been bought by the studio and is untrustworthy. Again, I wasn’t enthused about the movie as I saw it as yet another remake with the use of an all-female cast to provide some kind of hook. I would have preferred it to be a sequel to the franchise with a new generation of Ghostbusters picking up where the original group left off. That said, if the movie’s good, more power to them. The problem is that we again have an issue where any legitimate complaint is weakened because those same words and phrases are being used to mask more prejudicial feelings.
I recall first noticing this trend back when Barack Obama was about to become America’s first black President. I was planning on voting for him because I felt he represented a break from political dynasties and could potentially break the “business as usual” political crowd. Naive, I know. For the sake of being complete, I also searched out counterarguments to voting for Obama. That’s when I first came across the “it” argument.
The argument was simple. To be President, you need to have an “it” factor. Obama didn’t have “it” and therefore he should not be President. I first heard this from my supervisor at the job I was at. He was a Texan who liked to say that he loved California but hated Californians. That is, California would be so much better if Texans were in control of it. He was the first one to mention the “it” argument to me.
At first I thought it was stupid and vague reason not to vote for someone, but he was my supervisor so I didn’t pursue it. I began to see, however, this argument pop up repeatedly. I began to realize that no one wanted to get called out for racism, so they were using the “it” argument. The use of the word “it” is so generic that it could mean anything. Much like the use of the word “gimmick” with Iron Man or Ghostbusters, the word “it” was shield to hide behind so that prejudices could be expressed but never confronted.
I wish I could say I had an answer for this use of coded words and phrases. Usually when I write about a problem I try to offer a solution as well. In this case, I think it’s just time. As the larger culture becomes more diverse, so will the readership of comics. I think that, over time, this will just sort of fade away. If not because of multicultural dynamics, then perhaps because the inclusive push in comics isn’t going to go away. Much like I mentioned in the beginning, comics represent a new mythology for a new time. Those holding on to the past will fade with it and disappear like tears in rain.