History is Written by the Winners of the Marvel No-Prize
Guest commentary post from Emma Houxbois. Emma is a queer blogger for hire out of Vancouver, BC most recently attached to Girls Read Comics. You can follow her on Twitter @emmahouxbois.
The thing about history is that you’ve got to be really careful who you let write it. Herodotus, the guy widely acknowledged as the inventor of western history writing was known as both “The Father of History” and “The Father of Lies,” in his lifetime, and one of the reasons for that was that he never really made any kind of an effort to judge the credibility of the people he was collecting history from. It’s widely believed that he skewed towards the empowered members of society, meaning that the saying “history is written by the winners” is as old as history itself. This past week in comics, we got the rude awakening that it’s history is currently being written by the winners of the Marvel No-Prize.
For reasons unknown to anyone with a lick of sense, a panel consisting of Todd McFarlane, Len Wein, and Gerry Conway were assembled to publicize a forthcoming PBS documentary about superhero comics. While already dubious choices compared to more genuinely influential and knowledgeable prospects like Trina Robbins, Mark Waid, Karen Berger, or that mysterious Twitter account claiming to be Steranko, the trio put on an astounding display of jamming their entire legs up to the knee down their own throats. Todd McFarlane, creator of one of the best selling black superheroes in history, seems to believe that increasing diversity in comics will only lead to tokenism. Of course in 2006, when Robert Kirkman crashed McFarlane’s panel at the SDCCI, the Spawn creator had no idea who he was until he was informed by another panel member that Kirkman was “the guy who writes that zombie comic you like,” a comic published by McFarlane’s own Image Comics at the time. McFarlane also went on, during the same incident, to say in defense of having not done anything significant in comics since Spawn that “once you’ve created your Mickey Mouse or your Donald Duck, you don’t really have to do anything else.” So it isn’t as if McFarlane’s complete indifference to anything in comics that isn’t related to his personal legacy is a closely guarded secret or new information. Nor is it that he’s a noted hypocrite after having lost a lengthy legal action by Neil Gaiman to regain control of the characters he contributed to Spawn after years of McFarlane crowing about how the founding of Image was a victory for creator’s rights in the industry.
Gerry Conway was adamant that superheroes are strictly for men and boys, using a bizarre self defeating anecdote about his daughter’s disinterest in “guy stories,” mentioning Faith Erin Hicks who writes The Adventures of Superhero Girl. Of course Conway is responsible for the two most exploited fridgings in Marvel history, if not superhero comics as a whole; The Punisher’s self justification for his antics based on the death of his wife and child as well as the death of Gwen Stacy. If Conway’s own daughter is disinterested in what he calls “guy stories” and McFarlane wouldn’t use superheroes if he wanted to write a story catering to his own daughters, it has to be noted that Conway’s body of work is one of the chief culprits in disillusioning potential female readers. Of course Len Wein is the real elephant in the room, given that Alan Moore disclosed in 2006 when he approached Wein for permission to cripple Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, Wein told him “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” Inviting Len Wein or Gerry Conway to talk about gender in comics is basically like asking Don Imus to talk about racism in sports.
At around the same time that this nonsense was unfolding, a beautiful and moving thing that happened in Japan was being circulated by Sailor Moon fans on Tumblr. The second live event detailing the festivities for the 20th anniversary of Sailor Moon and the forthcoming series was being translated, capped, and analyzed by the fervent western fans of the pop culture juggernaut. However, instead of updates on the timeline for the new series, what dominated the fan discourse were the statements by the director of the 2013 edition of the live action stage show, whose cast is entirely female. By way of explanation, he related that his understanding of Naoko Takeuchi’s manga was that it was written by women for women and so it was only natural to put on the show using only women. Not satisfied with those bold and endearing statements, he went on to say “I feel like Takeuchi Naoko’s work flew in the face of the atmosphere at the time. It said ‘women are strong, there’s nothing wrong with being strong and we should be stronger’ and as a result in these twenty years, women have become stronger in our society. That part of her work has everlasting value and I feel like now we should remind society again of the same message.” While I’m not sure that twenty years of gains for women in Japanese society can be chalked up entirely to the influence of Sailor Moon, it is heartening to hear, especially from a man in this context, the fervent belief that comics can in fact inspire positive social change. It isn’t hard to see that same belief among the western fans, as it’s an unmistakable fact that a large segment of young women active in fighting for representation in western comics are Sailor Moon fans, and the most ardent supporters of Sailor Moon are staunch feminists. Sailor Moon also continues to deeply influence female creators to this day, most notably Adventure Time contributor and Bee and Puppycat creator Natasha Allegri, whose genderbent world of Fionna and Cake rests on Sailor Moon as it’s foundation from the rabbit ears on her hat to her feline companion and even her formal gown patterned after the future Silver Millennium version of Usagi.
That Conway feels comics follow instead of lead culture is no actual reflection on the real state of the world’s last living mythology, it’s a reflection on three men who never pushed themselves or their work to a level beyond what could be most comfortably and easily sold. None of them put their careers on the line with bold statements like Dwayne McDuffie’s infamous Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers memo or created entire critical frameworks for discussing women’s place in popular fiction like Gail Simone’s Women in the Refrigerator polemic or Alison Bechdel‘s eponymous test. It also really begs the question if any of them are aware that Captain America punched Hitler a full year before the United States entered World War II. In every decade that superhero comics have existed, they’ve lead culture. In a landscape where Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, (directed by Jodie Foster in the episode revolving around her character), is making headlines and shattering the long history of cis actors being cast as trans* people, comics are leading culture. Matt Fraction is currently surfing the crest of the wave of positive portrayals of trans* people in a team book that is three quarters female. Gail Simone is poised alongside him selling out her Batgirl title in which Babs’ roommate is a trans woman. The critical importance of all three narratives cannot be underscored any stronger than by Chloe Sevigny’s current shameful behavior wearing a prosthetic penis to portray a trans woman and throwing around slurs that demean real trans women behind the scenes. Which is just one singular issue, one singular anecdote in a sea of progressive storytelling in comics that has taken the lead on issues as diverse as addiction, sex work, homophobia, racism, sexism, and domestic violence to name a few. The true history of comics isn’t a soulless echo chamber of privileged men writing exclusionist power fantasies for each other. The true history of comics is as queer and beautiful as it is ugly and heartbreaking, when it’s told by people who actually participated in and benefited from it’s queerness and beauty. Sadly many including Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Dwayne McDuffie have passed away but there do remain several other creators and commentators who, if given the chance, would gladly sing the praises of those and other trailblazers.