Category Archives: Commentary

All Hail The King!: 100 Years Of Jack Kirby

On August 28th, 1917, in New York City’s rough-and tumble Lower East Side, the most visionary and significant artistic innovator of the 20th — and, so far, the 21st — century was born. I say that without a hint of hyperbole, exaggeration or, even more appallingly, irony, because the boy that  Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg named Jacob (or, in their native Hebrew, Ya’akov) went on to shape modern popular culture — and, by extension, culture as a whole — more than anyone else you can name.

And speaking of names — he had many, in addition to the one written on his birth certificate. Some called him Jolly. Some called him The King Of Comics. Some shortened that to simply “King.” Early in his career he experimented with nom de plumes such as Fred Sande, Curt Davis, Jack Curtiss, and Ted Grey, among others. But the “handle” by which he is best known is the professional moniker that he stuck with, the one that would adorn all of his monumental works in the decades to come, the one that would eventually be engraved on his tombstone — Jack Kirby.

If you love it, odds are better than good Jack created it : Captain America. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Black Panther. The Avengers. The X-Men. The Silver Surfer. The Inhumans. Doctor Doom. Magneto. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Galactus. Darkseid and The New Gods. Kamandi. The Demon. The Newsboy Legion. The entire romance comics genre. And all this? It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Jack Kirby created characters as effortlessly as most people concoct excuses. He was literally a non-stop idea generator. And his ideas stuck. The overwhelming majority of them have not only stood the test of time, they’ve gone on to earn billions. What is cynically called “intellectual property” these days? Most of it came from one man’s intellect.

Here’s the damndest part of all, though — he never slowed down. Never stopped. Innovation was in his blood. He may not have created the comic book. He may not have created the super-hero. But he re-created both so many times that they would be unrecognizable today, if not extinct altogether, were it not for him. And with each successive project he undertook, he went bigger. Bolder. Challenging himself to push beyond what he’d done before, and to re-shape not only his readers’ expectations, but their perceptions.

No less an authority than Grant Morrison has called Kirby “the William Blake of the 20th century.” The comparison is apt. Like Blake, Kirby seemed attuned to something beyond that he was able to translate into the immediately recognizable. He filtered complex thought-forms into visionary illustrations and stories that were both mythic in scope and human in scale. The universe of the imagination was his playground, and he not only went to worlds far beyond our own, he invented them. Time and time again.

Jack Kirby re-wrote the rules with explosive force. While his predecessors concentrated on making four-color action smooth-flowing and balletic, he set out to sock you in the jaw. While they went for something akin to formal grace and even elegance, he went for impact. Art that you’ll always remember is nice, but art that makes you remember how it feltto see it for the first time with each subsequent viewing? That’s something else altogether. That’s, as the kids say today, “next-level shit.”

Look beyond comics for a minute and consider films. Consider that Jack Kirby gave us “The Source” and Orion being Darkseid’s son before George Lucas gave us “The Force” and Luke Skywalker being the progeny of Darth Vader. Ask yourself if the concept of the “blockbuster” film as we’ve come to know it would exist if not for Kirby. The scale, the magnitude, the grandeur of the multi-million-dollar Hollywood production — Kirby did it all on the printed page first.

How about video games? Today’s “POV” and “multi-player/interactive” games all put the action right up “in your face.” Who was the first person to introduce that perspective? To put the consumer right in the middle of the action and “see” things from their vantage point before he put pencil to paper? You got it.

To drag things back to the medium that Kirby not only operated in and excelled at but flat-out owned, there are entire artistic tropes that he devised from whole-cloth and that remain entirely his as surely as the label “King Of Comics” does and always will : “Kirby Krackle.” “Kirby Tech.” “Kirby Collage.” All these are spoken of not only with awe, but with reverence. There’s nothing else like ’em. There never will be.

Let me add one more innovation to the list that The King never gets enough credit for — “Kirby Dialogue.” It was singular. It was, appropriately, mythic. It was as unconventional as his art — and every bit as effective. It contained, and communicated, entire universes of meaning. It was magnificent, in the strictest dictionary definition of that word.

What could motivate one man to do all this — to reach for the stars and bring them down to the rest of us day in, day out? How about love. Kirby was never too proud to admit that he was, at the end of the day, a worker. And he took pride in how hard he worked for the best and most noble reason of all — he was doing it to put food on the table. To provide a better future for his wife, Roz, and their four kids. Sure, he wanted to keep us glued to the page — but he did so in order to provide for them. Intentions don’t come any more pure than that.

Jack also served his country in the European Theater in WWII. Those experiences, as well as his hard-scrabble upbringing, frequently made their way on to the pages he wrote and drew, and that leads to yet another point I want to make : for much-larger-than-life modern mythology, the entire Kirby canon is, in all ways and at all times, a highly personal one. There’s more than virtuoso artistry and dynamic scripting in every Jack Kirby comic, there’s a hell of a lot of heart and soul. His work speaks to us all on a core level in a way no other comic-book creator has ever been able to duplicate — and trust me when I say, they’ve all tried.

In the coming years, we’ll be hearing more about Jack Kirby than ever. The power of his imagination, having been tapped by the Marvel/Disney bean-counters and suits for well over a decade at the box office, is about to bear lucrative financial fruit for DC/Warner, as well — Darkseid, and the rest of the Fourth World characters, are about to take center-stage in the so-called “DCEU” in a big way. Residuals, which hopefully his heirs won’t have to fight tooth-and-nail for as they spent decades doing with the so-called “House Of Ideas,” should be enough to help guarantee them all a comfortable retirement. Yup, even 23 years after his passing at the age of 76, The King is still providing for his family — and something tells me that if he’s looking down on this world, that fact makes him proudest of all.

As for everything else going on down here on the mortal plane? Kirby saw it coming. Streaming entertainment, consumerist gluttony, pointless war, clashes of ideals, global communication, even Donald effing Trump — all predicted, often with uncanny accuracy, in the pages of his books.  The King was a product of his times, without question — but he was also, and always, a few steps ahead of them. That depressingly-overused “genius” label that now gets applied to anyone who writes a half-decent novel or makes a watchable film? It’s actually too small in this instance.

And so the legacy of this great man is destined to continue on, for as long as there are ideals to aspire to and children (and grown-ups) to dream. For all the turmoil Kirby foresaw in the times ahead, his work always retained an essential and irreducible optimism — a belief that the human spirit would not only endure, but triumph. If you were to ask me to name a more aspirational, and inspirational, artist, I couldn’t do it. But Jack did a lot more than hope for the best from us — he was the best of us.

I have four heroes in this life : my mom, my dad, my wife, and Jack Kirby. The first two raised me, and continue to do so, because goddamnit, I’ll always have a lot of growing up to do. The third saved me. The fourth inspired me to dream and his work continues to keep those dreams alive. My existence wouldn’t be anywhere near as rich, as rewarding, as joyous without them. And they each, in their own way, show me the way forward every day. One could argue that I only personally know three of these remarkable, extraordinary individuals, sure —

but then I pick up any random issue of New Gods. Or Captain America. Or Kamandi. Or Machine Man. Or Black Panther. Or Silver Star. Or Challengers Of The Unknown. Or Mister Miracle. Or OMAC. Or The Sandman. Or The Forever People. Or my personal favorite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, and I realize — the fourth name on that list? I know him, too. And I know that, cliched as it may be to say, “He Will Always Be The King.”

(originally posted on Trash Film Guru)

Educator’s Perspective: “Sh*t My President Says”

It’s said that no work of literature is written in a vacuum.

One of the first things you learn to do as an undergrad in any course in literature is to unpack the political, cultural, and societal implication of whatever it is you’re reading, because whether the author intended it or not, he or she was assuredly influenced by the circumstances in which it was written.  Even as a high school student I learned that Shakespeare’s fascination with witchcraft in Macbeth is likely an influence of the King under which he was writing, who had an interest in the occult himself; The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm both have their roots in a kind of British political anxiety, and the only way that On the Road can be more of a manifesto of the early counterculture movement is if copies of it are beaten by riot officers.

Yet I’ve always been more interested in the political, cultural, and social capital hidden away in the more obscure media, the stuff that, for whatever reason, has for so long escaped the notice of conventional scholarship. Though teachers have long adored the political cartoon there remains a strange, standoffish attitude toward the comic book, as though we’re all still in the 1950s and Dr. Wertham is sitting across from us making all sorts of uncomfortable eye contact over a stack of World’s Finest. Thankfully that attitude has receded significantly in recent years and I’m happy to see more and more that teachers like myself are having success in using the rife political and cultural content of comics as a springboard to discuss ideas as diverse and grandiose as race relations, diplomacy, and the importance of de-mystifying the “other”ness of foreign cultures, peoples, and ideologies.

The conversation about the political and sociocultural implications of comics – really, of all media – is always hobbled somewhat when it hits a K-12 classroom environment.  There begin conversations about correctness and age-appropriateness, and whether a book can or should be introduced to the student population for fear of indoctrination. Year after year mainstays like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are called into question by school boards and parent groups across the country, and while their reasons are varied they general boil down to what we want our children to discover about who and what we are.  Works that are censored for classroom use have a common thread: they oftentimes highlight the worst of us, in an attempt to ensure that we avoid making the mistakes of our ancestry.

That being said, it seems highly unlike that Shannon Wheeler’s “Sh*t My President Says” will ever see regular use as a implement of classroom instruction, given that it is both a comic book, and therefore still a subject of academic uncertainty by some of my colleagues, and demonstrative of one of the most deranged, startling, and ultimately embarrassing garbage fires of the 21st century.  It is eye-opening in its candor, tragically funny, vitally informative, and ought to be required reading for anyone hoping to study the political machine of the early 21st century. It may very well be one of the most important historical artifacts of this decade.

All because of Twitter.

“Sh*t My President Says” is a perfect example of the historically-embedded nature of media. Even without Wheeler’s accompanying caricatures of Trump as a riotous toddler with a phone fetish, the collection of our mentally-errant President’s 140-character temper tantrums provides a sobering look at just how we got to where we are. Taken with Shannon Wheeler’s supplemental artwork, the Tweets take on a second life: their childishness is thrown into a stark relief with the inclusion of the author’s idealized boy king Trump, and indeed the whole work might read as a fiction were we not living it as we are now.

From a teachable standpoint, nothing beats a work that provides the subject’s words as they were uttered while simultaneously offering a responding critique of them. In this way Shannon Wheeler has submitted to his audience a kind of living primary source, an artifact that both serves to document history as well as record our collective reaction to the oftentimes unbelievable events of our current political climate – which, of course, is a form of history in and of itself.

Is it teachable? Absolutely, and pertinently so: in much the same way that we recognize the crassness of the language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the sexuality of “The Awakening” as indicative of the societies and cultures of the time in which they were written, Wheeler’s compilation of the fractured thoughts of our enfeebled Commander-in-Chief are likewise a reflection of the state of our society. Wheeler provides a means to process an pivotal event in American political history in a way that is accessible for its simplicity, honest for its presentation, and as painless  an experience as it could be possibly be for the author’s satirical approach to her bumbling, foolhardy subject matter.

Nevertheless, I give Mr. Wheeler a great deal of credit for his work in compiling this trainwreck of a timeline in recording the Trump tweets he has.  For the levity with which it is presented, there is something truly sinister about seeing these words become actions, and those actions engender other, more awful actions. Longtime exposure to those levels of ego-maniacal word vomit cannot be healthy for an individual, and I hope sincerely that Mr. Wheeler recovers quickly for his exposure.

While its unflinching revelation of the worst of our potential all but guarantees it never sees widespread classroom use, I fully expect that passages from “Sh*t My President Says” will find their way into political science and literature classrooms across the globe. This cutting work of comics journalism is a vibrant reminder of how we ended up in this mess, and I wager that there’s more than a few daring educators willing to make the case that, like Mockingbird and Rye, just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to its implications.

Literature isn’t written in a vacuum – but sometimes the stuff that inspires it sucks nonetheless.  It’s our job to learn from it, and works like Wheeler’s make that possible.

Defenseless: How The Defenders Fails and Augurs Poorly for the Future of the Netflix-Marvel Union

You know it’s a bad sign when in the middle of a superhero team miniseries you find yourself pining for the team members to work solo again. Yet this is precisely the thought I had watching Netflix and Marvel Television’s long awaited miniseries The Defenders.

Debuting last Friday, the miniseries was the culmination of a plan that goes back over three years. Laid out in the first quarter of 2014, The Defenders would serve as the fifth act to a cycle of Netflix series focusing on the “street-level” Marvel heroes. The plan sounded promising. Unlike their comic book counterparts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films had acquired an unmistakable post-Avengers bloat. It became a running joke that all the (solo character) sequels after Avengers featured antagonists and earth-shattering stakes that really merited the team reforming. In the comics, the solo titles have the freedom to take a single Avenger and put him or her in decidedly intimate stories where the stakes weren’t so dire, but the blockbuster mentality of movies overruled that.

So the idea of focusing on heroes who fight in alleys rather than the roofs of skyscrapers held a lot of appeal as did the selections of characters who (with the exception of Iron Fist) were all fan favorites with staunch followings. The first show would be Daredevil, the scrappy blind brawler who plays like a working class Batman with Catholic angst. Then Jessica Jones, a recent creation from an innovative neo-noir title called Alias that explored gender politics, trauma, healing so well it earned the show a Peabody Award. Next came Luke Cage and finally Iron Fist (the latter show breaking the impressive streak of critical approbation).

But what we got on Friday wasn’t just a disappointment, it reflects a lack of vision at the top of Marvel Television that is stunning. The team behind The Defenders had over three years to make this show and yet every one of the 8 scripts feels like it was rushed on a Sunday evening for a Monday deadline.

The first catastrophic flaw is the utter lack of connection this series has to the comic books or the MCU. In truth this is really two flaws that have interwoven so tightly as to appear fused together.

The first half of this is seen in the total lack of excavation on the part of the storytellers of Defenders lore, plotlines, or iconography. When you watch the miniseries, you wonder if the writers and showrunner even know who the Defenders are or what makes them unique.

For the uninitiated: The Defenders first appeared in 1971 as the brainchild of Roy Thomas. The series began as a contingency plan for the cancellation of Doctor Strange. Thomas shrewdly figured out how to continue Strange’s story arc: by continuing it with a new team. He brought Strange together with the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner to finish Strange’s plot line involving the planned invasion of Earth from beings from another dimension. And so the Defenders were born.

The Defenders had to establish its own identity quickly. All the major teams were already in place so The Defenders needed to claim its own corner of the Marvel Universe. They became Earth’s line of defense against mystical threats and in essence the team served as the as-needed backup for Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth.

The Defenders were branded a “non-team”: unlike the others they had no headquarters, no symbol, and their roster fluctuated wildly. The Defenders were a team of rugged individualists who could never be an Avenger (Joss Whedon beat them to the bunch by bringing some of that “band of misfits” energy to the Avengers films).

A major blow dealt to the series is the loss of Doctor Strange. Strange is more of a constant presence in the Defenders than any other single Marvel character has been to any other Marvel superhero team. If you’re asking why Strange isn’t in the Netflix series, the answer lies in the unsexy world of corporate structuring.

Marvel Studios and Marvel Television have for some time regarded one another as stepsisters despite the central conceit that the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe would reflect the unity and continuity of plot in a way heretofore only seen in the comics. Lore has it that the split began when Marvel TV decided to resurrect Agent Phil Coulson (much to the consternation of the Marvel Studios), the everyman SHIELD agent whose death cemented the Avengers as a team. This seems to be largely accurate. Agent Coulson was a mainstay in the Marvel films before his “death” in Avengers. Since his small screen resurrection, he has not appeared in any of the films or even been mentioned (even in Age of Ultron when it would’ve made sense). As a result, the Marvel TV series became the bastard sons of the Marvel movies; the shows would pattern themselves after the storylines of the films, the films pretended the series didn’t exist. This has been frustrating to fans since it violates the whole idea we were promised when Iron Man was released 9 years ago.

And worse yet, the problem has gotten worse. Now the bastard sons, having grown tired of rejection, have walked away from the family.  In the Netflix series there has been a marked decline with every show of references to the big events of the MCU. Loki’s thwarted invasion of Manhattan is crucial to the first season of Daredevil and is mentioned many times in the first season of Luke Cage. But in both Iron Fist and The Defenders it is never mentioned once; nor are Ultron, the Sokovia Accords (which make it a crime to practice superheroing without government registration and oversight), or the fact that the Avengers dissolved spectacularly in a very public brawl.

Doctor Strange was claimed by Marvel Studios and denied to Marvel TV, which is a shame not just for The Defenders but also for Doctor Strange because I’m quite certain the character would’ve been better served in a Netflix series than on the big screen.

Finally, when Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige outmaneuvered his boss Marvel Entertainment Chairman Isaac Perlmutter (famously conservative, both politically and with the purse strings), he took Marvel Studios away from Marvel Entertainment and put the parent company Disney in charge. This was a shrewd move and will likely be beneficial as now Feige can operate without any input from the Marvel Chairman (Perlmutter appears to have been somewhat toxic: he famously drove Joss Whedon into the arms of the competition, sparked standoffs with talent over pay, and once blocked Rebecca Hall’s character in Iron Man 3 from being the villain simply because she was a woman). But Marvel TV wasn’t part of that deal. They stayed under Perlmutter. So the rift has widened.

All of this leads to a curious sense of disconnection from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a shame. The timing of The Defenders is perfect since it coincides with the shift toward mysticism in the MCU. And the “non-team” element fits because the Defenders are in essence filling the void created by the implosion of the Avengers, an entity that is never once mentioned or referred to in the miniseries.

The idea that four loners are compelled to join forces to become a team because the team everyone relies on is MIA is the perfect comic book metaphor for life under Trump. The norms and oversight we’ve taken for granted became null and void on January 20, 2017 and many citizens have made the decision to become defenders as a result.

It would be easy to write another 10 pages about what The Defenders should have been, but let’s focus on what it is. For one, it is short. The Netflix solo series have all run 13 episodes and that is the most consistent complaint. By the 10th episode, these series, even at their best, begin treading water in order to fill out that episode count. The Defenders which one would assume could easily fill out 13 episodes, has a hard time filling out eight.

Plotting is often overrated in importance. But if you’re going to underplot a story, it better take up character development and/or rich, complex themes to fill the void and The Defenders does neither. Instead we get an endless procession of ‘what are YOU going to do” scenes, broken up by utterly uninspired fistfights.

Not one character in Defenders has anything approaching an arc either. The supporting characters that once brought so much to their respective solo shows, are relegated to waiting room small talk. Claire Temple, the fifth Defender in essence, who has been a vital presence in all four solo series is relegated to Love Interest. Claire’s payoff for entering this world appears to be the honor of getting to be Luke Cage’s lady (no small accomplishment, I grant you). It would have been great if she’d found a way to fulfill her own destiny in this culminating miniseries, like floating a proposal to Danny Rand to set up a clinic (perhaps with a hidden purpose of healing outlaw heroes), but this was beyond the imagination of the writing team.

And then there’s Alexandra, the putative nemesis. The miniseries reveals the casting of Sigourney Weaver to be nothing more than a stunt. Her character is a compendium of bad guy cliches and comes to naught. I hope she was paid well. Alexandra shores up one of the unspoken rules of comic book movies that showrunner Marco Ramirez and his staff foolishly flouted: do not make up villains. Draw from the source material.

The Hand returns and one hopes for the last time as the laughably generic sinister secret society (dripping with Yellow Peril Orientalism) is pushed past the point of absurdity. It’s objective is ill-defined, trite and nonsensical, the scenes between its immortal “fingers” is a crushing bore, and even their corporate cover (Midland Circle Financial) offers nothing of interest. Foolishly, I thought perhaps we’d learn that all of their origins- Matt Murdoch’s blinding, Jessica Jones’ car accident, Luke Cage’s experiment, and Danny Rand’s plane crash- are interconnected. We do not.

Again, with over three years to plan The Defenders, I am staggered by the poverty of ideas. We know they can’t fight the Chitauri in the way the Avengers did or travel to space but you can write interesting scenes as cheaply as you can write bad ones. Everything in Defenders is borrowed or a retread. The big bad guy twist from Luke Cage is employed again without any of the emotional impact that made the twist work in the earlier series. Daredevil has a climactic battle that is almost dialogue identical to the helicarrier fight between Captain America and the Winter Soldier.

Marvel's The Defenders

Worst of all, The Defenders doesn’t copy the good stuff from better films. The Defenders never have the “now we’re a team” moment one needs in this kind of story (e.g., using their skills in tandem to defeat something they’d be unable to stop alone). The creators seem to think having them stand shoulder to shoulder makes them a team.

The Defenders was always going to be tricky. Combining street-level action with the epic dimensions of a team story is contradictory at best. But after the stupefyingly poor Iron Fist series and what looks to be an ill-conceived Inhumans show over on ABC (word has it Perlmutter insisted the Inhumans become the X-Men of the MCU despite almost no significant fan interest in the show) it appears that Marvel TV is at a crossroads. Perlmutter’s parsimoniousness combined with Marvel TV honcho Jeph Loeb’s lackluster attempt to compete with Marvel Studios is ruining the entire endeavor which at one brief, shining point looked stronger and more interesting than the theatrical releases.

Next we’ll get a Punisher series, and in the next few years, new seasons of all four of the Defenders’ solo shows. Loeb has been vague about whether or not there will be a second season of The Defenders (I would prefer a Daughters of the Dragon miniseries that puts Misty Knight and Colleen Wing front and center). Loeb and company still have the characters they need to make TV series every bit as good as the best of the theatrical offerings. The Marvel films work best when they hire a storyteller who connects to the material in a deep way, and the Marvel TV series need to find showrunners with the same passion.

 

Brandon Wilson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and educator. He has directed numerous short films and two feature films, most recently “Sepulveda” sepulvedathemovie.com which he co-directed with his wife Jena English. He writes essays on film and culture at geniusbastard.com. He also tweets a lot.

“Comics” Need to Deal with their White Supremacist Issue Before Hashtags Mean Anything

With the country still in shock and the civilized part outraged by the events this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia many have wondered what they can do about the domestic terrorists that plague our nation. While they might hide behind labels such as “alt-right,” the triumvirate of White Supremacists/Nationalists, KKK, and Nazis are exactly that, domestic terrorists responsible for the murder of Heather Heyer and injury of 19 others.

The comic industry does what it does best in these situations, hashtag their way to involvement while ignoring their own numerous issues in their backyard that involves creators, fans, the press, and the publishers that enable it all.

Not even a month ago we ran a story about a comic about white “American nationalist” Kyle “Based Stick Man” Chapman being created with quite a few “mainstream” creators who publically haven’t seem to be condemned for their involvement. Mike Baron, Donald Jackson, Rick Miller, Brett R. Smith, and Mort Todd have escaped in their involvement mainstreaming through propaganda a comic an individual who sided with those domestic terrorists this weekend. These five individuals aren’t conservatives in the industry, these are five individuals who are working with a racist that’s on the radar of both the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. They are aiding and abetting a racist.

Brett R. Smith went so far to call it a “war”:

This is not only a culture war, this is war. The highest form of warfare is to subvert the culture because you don’t have to raise a standing army. We’re never going to change the culture from Washington. We’re going to do it from comics, from movies.

And, I’m sure Smith will suffer no consequences for his comments continuing to get work much like the other deplorables in the industry have been protected in the name of “free speech,” “art,” or whatever other excuse is in vogue for the week. I’m sure some creators will brush this entire post off as “mob justice” with an agenda (there is one, fuck Nazis).

But should we be surprised by the industry’s inaction? No. It’s the latest in a long string of instances where publically we’re told “diversity” and “inclusion” but those words ring hallow as behind the scenes reality is anything but. The industry still makes money off of material that called “art” and “challenging” (ex. Image’s Airboy and Divided States of Hysteria) but in reality is the same edginess that makes the Fryer’s Roast still a thing. It’s a bygone mindset that hasn’t been “in vogue” for decades now. They profit off of it catering to a dying breed of “cis het white males” that are the same cesspool that gave us things like GamerGate, Trump, and Charlottesville.

Beyond a few creators, the industry has been silent about the above comic and outright defends insensitive material not realizing you can defend it’s right to be published and condemn the content at the same time. Instead those (often marginalized groups and individuals) raising concerns are dismissed instead of being listened to with creators rallying the wagons around in defense in the name of “art.” But how many creators will refuse to work with the above? How many publishers? How many conventions will not invite them? When push comes to shove few creators really act on their convictions instead settling for a few Tweets of support.

But, one doesn’t have to look far to understand why this is the case. The industry still sees those cis het white males as their customers.

Marvel Comics made news when a quote by their Vice President of Sales David Gabriel was taken out of context:

What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel told ICv2. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not … We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.

“What Marvel has heard” has led the publisher to rethink their sales slump and return to a “core” and “traditional” set of their characters, mainly “cis white and male.” What few seem to connect is this same narrative is the one that has plagued the video game industry for years now and gave rise to GamerGate. Video game companies were catering to “social justice warriors” by making their stories and characters more diverse. In reality one can easily argue those same companies are instead positioning their releases for a broader worldwide market. Where in video games there was a name for this neolithic and backwards movement, in comics it hasn’t revolved around a hashtag instead being push as a narrative by fans, stores, and even the a duped media who while discussing “sales” push the narrative that diversity doesn’t sell.

For months the narrative has been the same, the industry’s (re Marvel and DC) sales have been in a decline during the period they have attempted to diversufy their characters and much slower the creators. Though sales numbers are incomplete and often off by thousands (something I’ve confirmed directly with creators) a lack of deep dives into market trends, changing consumption rates, shifting business models, broken distribution systems, keeps the narrative focused on “numbers” and “diversity” playing into the regressive fan narrative. Further when pointing to sales years ago without further insight can only lead one to a conclusion that those backwards looking individuals must be right. There is no counterpoint only flawed numbers.

But beyond the sales, lack of condemnation, there’s a simmering acceptance of articles and discussions that don’t get called out for what they are.

The launch of Wonder Woman pivoted from the success of a female led superhero film to a discussion as to whether actress Gal Gadot was “white.” Numerous sites ran think pieces on the debate while little was dedicated to the anti-Semitic nature of the discussion as a whole and it playing into the Nazi/KKK/white supremicist narrative. In an industry founded be Jewish individuals, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, the cluelessness within the “comic community” over the discussion was astounding. Argue Gal Gadot isn’t white you’re reinforcing racists beliefs that Jews are “other.” Argue Gal Gadot is white and you’re reinforcing racists beliefs that Jews “blend in” and are “sneaky.” So maybe it’s best to not even have the discussion let alone have it run on (formaly) reputable sites? But, that’s rarely, if ever, brought up. Instead the discussion as a whole is treated as a valid one to have and it reinforces a belief of racists.

But should we be shocked by any of this? A publisher can’t even condemn the use of their character’s iconography by racists a simple act that even the Detroit Red Wings were able to do.

In an industry that was founded as a haven for individuals that couldn’t get work due to their gender, skin, or religion, and whose earliest works challenged the status quo championing a progressive outlook, we’ve slipped over its 100 years of existence.

It’s time to remember our roots and practice the lessons taught by the champions we love on the pages. We don’t need hashtags, we need real heroes who will stand up.

Cee Lo and Teen Titans Go!, a Musical Combination That Falls Flat

The Night Begins to Shine” by B.E.R. is some 80s-inspired electro-soul music that’s well know to Teen Titans Go!, the popular cartoon geared towards kids. The song, a favorite of Vic Stone aka Cyborg, is the heart of a four-part Teen Titans Go! special that kicked off on Cartoon Network this week.

To promote the episode, three new versions of the song along with two other B.E.R. songs heard in the special, are being released through WaterTower Music. One of those new recordings is by Cee Lo Green, a musical artist with a troubling past in actions and words, and one musician a show aimed at kids shouldn’t be embracing. The singer has had legal issues including drug charges, accusations of rape, and a defence of rape of which he had to walk back (and that was also to defend Bill Cosby).

In August 2014 the singer pleaded no contest to one felony count of “furnishing a controlled substance – a charge stemming from a July 2012 incident in which a woman accused the singer of slipping ecstasy into her drink.” He was ordered to complete 360 hours of community service.

But, that “controlled substance” charge was the tip of the iceberg as the woman he slipped the drug too also accused him of rape after waking up naked in the singer’s bed not remembering anything. The prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to file rape charges of an intoxicated person (some reports say the prosecutors found it to be consensual).

Then the singer defended the action Tweeting:

If someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously, so WITH implies consent. People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!

The singer then apologized for the Tweet with:

I truly and deeply apologize for the comments attributed to me on Twitter. Those comments were idiotic, untrue and not what I believe.

and

I do realize in retrospect that it was highly sensitive, what I tweeted – highly irresponsible. It did stem from emotion causing some involuntary action, and I do believe that, maybe just possibly, we could all give each other a margin for human error.

The year of those charges Cee Lo quit the popular television show The Voice to avoid being fired, which rumors indicate all revolved around his legal troubles at the time. NBC called it a “mutual decision.” He was booted from at least two concerts and TBS cancelled his television show The Good Life over the charges.

Flash forward to 2017 and Green is on a rehabilitation tour attempting to deflect from past issues and rebuild his career and that apparently includes providing music for a kids show. There’s something chilling and nauseating about seeing an accused rapist rehabilitate his reputation and career and partially doing so through a venue aimed at kids is even more sickening. We shouldn’t be enabling this as consumers and shame on WaterTower Music for being complicit in it all and allowing a toxic personality to be involved in something that’s for kids.

An Educator’s Take on The Not-So Secret Society

Matthew and Arlene Daley’s The Not-So Secret Society is the next in a long line of comics made for and by educators with the explicit purpose of classroom use – a line that often varies in its quality and content, but generally has its heart in the right place.

As both an educator and an advocate for the intellectual and academic merit of the Comics medium, I’m firmly in the middleground of excited and tentative when a new educator-based comic is announced. Where content is concerned, I’ve seen more than a few well-intentioned educators more or less butcher the medium through fundamental misunderstandings of how comic books function, resulting in little more than an illustrated textbook; where tone is concerned, I’ve been disappointed more than once with a sanctimonious, pedantic tone struck toward a reading audience that we teachers know – we know – responds best to guidance when it comes from a place of mutual respect and openness.

Thankfully, The Not-So Secret Society appears to avoid both of these issues.  Billed as “an all-ages adventure that celebrates the value of teamwork and lifelong friendships”, the Not-So Secret Society follows the misadventures of a group of friends whose science fair project, a candy-making machine, inadvertently unleashes more than they bargained for on their city. The preview copy I had the chance to read promises a straightforward and accessible all-ages romp without a trace of condescension. Characterization of each of the main characters is clearly defined, if a little cut and dry, and follows the “stock school clique” format you’ve seen before – which, given the target audience, isn’t surprising nor a negative. The art is easy for young eyes to follow without being so simple as to lose the interest of older readers; there’s plenty of detail in the backgrounds and enough of a Saturday cartoon vibe to evoke memories of Recess, The Weekenders, and other dearly departed early morning classics.

I am curious to see where the co-creators’ education experience will come to pass, as the bit of the issue I was given to sample played very little to overt pedagogy or any kind of explicit subject area content (or, really, anything apart from setting up the story itself), but as far as I am concerned that is a good sign. If the Daleys can take a story about a candy-machine-gone-bad and somehow spin it into a lesson worthy of classroom inclusion, then more power to them.  There’s also the equally-valid notion that the endgame is the focus on “teamwork and lifelong friendships” that the overview promises, which has its place in the classroom but is less in demand as an explicit lesson, especially in the era of truncated instructional minutes and concerns about time, time, time.

Perhaps not surprising is the boost of confidence I feel for this title knowing that it is being published by an imprint of BOOM! Studios. BOOM! has become an easy favorite of mine over the past year for its fearless embracing of that which falls just shy of the traditional comic book reader’s tastes while still maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere. Titles like Adventure Time and Steven Universe come to mind, but also Lumberjanes, The Backstagers, and the masterful Power Rangers reboot all speak highly of a publisher that, while not as flashy as the big guys, certainly knows how to choose its horses in each race.  I may still be on the fence when it comes to the direction that The Not-So Secret Society will lead, but its inclusion alongside such noteworthy titles is worth consideration.

Don’t misunderstand: The Not-So Secret Society is still a young reader’s book. I can see its simplified structure and easygoing narrative style as an excellent fit for a late elementary school classroom, and clever development of the story might even suggest it as a contender for middle school libraries – but beyond that, I think it’s easy to pass on this one unless you’re an educator, mentor, librarian, or otherwise have a vested interest in this work’s intended audience.

The Not-So Secret Society makes for an easy read for the young comic book reader in your life, with its easy visuals, straightforward storytelling, and the publishing power of BOOM! behind it. I’m excited – and hesitant – to see where the Daleys take their candy-coated adventure, and whether it lives up to all that it could be.

But Tell Me More About This Doctor Poison

In the past year I’ve stumbled into a social circle that is primarily comprised of ferocious, thoughtful, hilarious females. A handful of these very ladies accompanied me to see Wonder Woman and shared their thoughts with me afterwards. I’d like to thank Athena, Pauline, Sonja, Angela, and Elena for contributing to this review.

Shortly after its release, GP’s Elana Levin hosted an episode of Graphic Policy Radio devoted to the film with a focus on race and sex, in which she stated, “I really liked the movie, but not unreservedly” and I can’t put it any better myself. Despite an outpouring of support from women on the Internet, friends and strangers alike, loving it with hesitation seemed to be the consensus amongst my little tribe. We had a hell of a time and there was a lot to celebrate, but the chinks in the armor didn’t go unnoticed.

Let me quickly disclaim that my friends and I are all limited in our exposure to Wonder Woman comics. We each know her primarily as a beloved pop culture icon, and have vague memories of the show. I would be hard-pressed to tell you I can remember anything about it beyond its spectacular theme song. But we’re also feminists, critical thinkers, and various flavors of badass; lawyer, veterinarian, fire dancer, pole dancer, performance artist, personal caregiver, writer, and cartoonist are all things that describe our combined professions and hobbies. Wonder Woman is a pop culture icon many women hold dear, readers of the comic or not.

We were all enamoured by the opening scenes on the island of Themyscira. Robin Wright killed it as Diana’s aunt, Amazonian warrior Antiope (aka Princess Fuckin’ Buttercup). Watching a passionate young Diana grow into an ass-kicking grown woman was powerful and refreshing. Unfortunately, we were all let down by how quickly Steve Trevor showed up and how fast Diana was to trust him. I do give the writers props, however, for keeping him out of mansplaining territory throughout the course of the film, despite the born sexy yesterday-ness of their relationship. (H/T to Athena, for introducing me to the trope!) Despite being a man with a lot to explain to her, he consistently managed to avoid condescension even when exasperated. The biggest problem with Steve wasn’t so much the character himself, but the role he played in motivating Diana to find her true powers. For a flick about feminine strength, the amount of influence given to a hetero-normative fling was a bitter disappointment.

But the biggest disservice, in my opinion, was the glossing-over of Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison. Again, I’m naive to what her actual background and development is in the comics universe, but from what I saw in the movie she’s someone all-too-relatable; an intelligent, capable woman whose personal traumas have left her wanting to burn the world. Tell me more women in any given audience won’t find that more relatable than Diana’s physical prowess and principle-fueled optimism. There was a shared disappointment amongst my friends and me regarding the good doctor’s position as a subordinate to General Ludendorff. While yes, it makes sense for a movie about fighting the patriarchy to pit Wonder Woman against a man, the stakes would have felt higher to me if Diana were up against a woman whose pain and anger matched the strength of Diana’s happiness and hope. It’s an internal struggle too many women carry, and playing it out as Diana vs. Maru would have been more meaningful than Diana vs. any man. And while we all smirked when Maru rebuffed an undercover Steve Trevor for shifting his attention away from her as soon as Diana entered the room, I don’t think any of us cared much for the overall implication that “beautiful = good, deformed = evil,” though it was suggested to me that this is a common device for DC. (And even if it is, it doesn’t make it any more forgivable.)

Again, there were a lot of good things happening throughout, and the impact the film has had on women has been largely positive; I don’t want to detract from that. I just hope that future installments continue to raise the bar to tell a compelling story about a powerful woman (or better yet, powerful women) without having to center around a romantic interest or minimize compelling adversaries.

Cars 3 Races Past White Male Privilege

(This post contains plot spoilers for Pixar’s Cars 3)

Cars 3  is, for the most part and certainly in the first hour of its runtime, an unremarkable bore. It is easily dismissed as a cynical cash grab in a franchise that has always sold more in merchandising than ticket sales. But then in its cinematic final lap, it kicks it into high gear and finally finds a voice– and, even more importantly, something important to say.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is facing a midlife crisis. A new breed of faster race cars, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer— who should just be considered a stand-in for the worst of dude-bro douche culture) has outpaced the once great champ. With his contemporaries retiring to make way for the new line, McQueen goes to train to regain his crown.

Cars 3

At the brand new, high tech Rust-eze Training Center, McQueen is trained by Cruz Ramirez. (Note the name. This is explicitly a woman of color, which becomes incredibly important.) When they go on a training road trip tracking down the old haunts of McQueen’s mentor Doc, the Hudson Hornet, she confides to him how it was she became a trainer rather than a racer herself.

She grew up watching McQueen on tv and was inspired by him. She trained and got up early and did laps to be as fast as she could. She was faster than everyone in her town, but when she got to her first race? There was no one there that looked like her, and was intimidated by the bigger, faster cars. Cruz asks Lightning where he got that confidence from. He replies he doesn’t know, he’s just always felt confidence and positive about his own abilities.

And this is one of the best explanations of what it means to be a white male in America. Always confident, always told how remarkable we are, given mentors and opportunities, and then told we make it on our own steam. We see ourselves represented on tv, on the news, reinforced through the media as the pinnacle of success. And kids of every race, color, gender look up to the heroes on TV and want to be them.

But how many will have a crisis of confidence when they show up for their races, and none of the their peers look like them? And Lightning, when facing his first crisis of confidence ever, has to figure out why he can’t do all of the things he’s always been told he could do. Just like the forces of toxic masculinity, this affects Lightning as much as it does Cruz.

Along their way, Lightning and Cruz track down the mentor of the Hudson Hornet, who trained Lightning in the first Cars. Upon finding him in a roadhouse in the Carolina mountains, they also meet a group of classic racers, including a woman and a car who is a fairly obvious stand-in for an African American. They talk about how in the old days people wouldn’t let them race, but they forced their way in. And then they had to compete even harder to get the respect of others who thought they didn’t deserve to be there. This will certainly slip by younger audiences, but is a key moment– and also a good reminder of just how far we’ve come.

The final climax of the film occurs when Lightning realizes he is outclassed by the other racers, but that Cruz is the only one capable of taking them on. He comes in for a pit stop, and forces her out onto the track to finish the final ten laps in his stead, cheering her on as her crew chief.

And with someone showing the confidence in her and having received the mentorship from several masters, she’s able to win. This sends shockwaves across the racing world, even including a race correspondent named Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington). Up to that point, Certain had received a huge amount of disrespect from her on-air colleagues despite being the stats expert and far more competent at her job than anyone else. Cruz’s win inspires her, and you can see and hear it in her voice that it matters that she could win.

And this is where we learn the lesson about white privilege: Lightning McQueen isn’t the villain in this movie because he’s white and male. He’s the hero, too. Being white or male isn’t bad– it what we do with the fact that society has been set up to, more or less, work for us and people like us. But he is most heroic when he uses the confidence and access and privilege he has been afforded to pass that along to someone new– specifically to a young Latina racer who just needs to be given a shot.

This mirrors the sort of mentor relationship we get in Star Wars, with Lightning McQueen as Luke Skywalker and his first mentor Doc the Hudson Hornet as Obi-Wan Kenobi. When that mentor passes on and he faces new challenges, he has to seek out the Yoda of this story. And then, perhaps most important, he is challenged to pass along what he has learned to Rey. (We eagerly anticipate seeing the continuation of that story later this year.) It’s a sort of beautiful universal story, and it’s great to see a studio saying that our heroes don’t have to be all white and all male– they certainly were in the first two films of the franchise.

And the moment Cruz realizes her potential and finds her inner confidence and strength, it is equally as powerful and potent as when the lightsaber flies to Rey’s hand, or when Diana of Themysicra walks out into No Man’s Land and becomes Wonder Woman. Indeed, this would make an excellent daddy-daughter double feature this Fathers’ Day weekend for dads who want to show their girls that they are the heroes of their own stories.

Pixar’s Cars has long struggled to find anything to say other than “ka-ching!” as the merchandising money rolls in. Here they find their voice and say something powerful, and say it to an audience — girls — who are not always the main demographic consideration for a movie about race cars.

Don’t get me wrong– most of the movie is a relatively boring piece of commercial cinema interchangeable with the most banal parts of the previous two films. But those moments when it shifts into high gear are something to behold.

Dealing With Depression and Writing Comics

One of the most well regarded creators in the comics industry is Jack Kirby (to say the least) and he had an interesting quote when it came to comics.

‘Kid, comics…they’ll break your heart’.

I’ve dealt with depression from a young age, it was something I think happened to me due to many personal reasons I won’t discuss here.  For the majority of this time, I lived in denial or the hope that I could simply battle it on my own.  I didn’t tell anyone about it and I fed into it a lot by making poor choices.

I would imagine that everyone’s experience with depression is different but mine is like dealing with a hungry monster who specializes in finding ways to feed itself.  It makes you make decisions that are sometimes against your better judgment because it leads to you feeling worse which feeds into it, which makes it stronger and then it has more influence over your choices and the cycle continues.

Several years ago, something happened where I basically fell to pieces.  I had been working at a small print company that I believed very much in, had a lot of people I trusted work for and invested quite a bit of money in.  The founder of the company often called me ‘crazy’ for investing the money but I believed in the company because I didn’t see it for what it was becoming over time.

I won’t go over that here because it’s not what I’m here to discuss but one day, I decided to part ways with the company and broke off a lot of relationships I had depended on for years.  Were they healthy relationships?  Absolutely not and this is part of the reason why I decided to cut ties with only a few people who I thought were genuinely, my friends.  I wanted to stop feeding the monster even though, at the time I was petrified if I did stop feeding it that I would be left destroyed.

I broke down quite a bit that day and my ever supportive and lovely wife basically picked up all my pieces and tried to reassemble me.  I decided to get help through councelling and medication.  Although these solutions won’t suit everyone, I found medication incredibly helpful.  It was like waking up from a long nightmare and people that knew me commented on a noticeable improvement in my overall mood after only a matter of weeks.

I used to get sad about everything and now…I simply don’t.  I put a lot of onus on myself to accomplish an ever moving goal, please everyone, do everything and try to schedule myself into ‘fun’ related activities.  Has all of that gone away?   Not entirely but I’m certainly more casual about it and much happier as a result.

My wife, friends, and family have been a great source of help to me and the birth of my son last September causes a bright light in my life for me to remain grounded.  I can’t be self-destructive as I used to be because he depends on me and because I love him so much, I don’t want to ever let him down.

Yet the monster remains.  Never fully going away and the part of me it really likes to chip away at is my desire to create comics.  I’ve read comics as far back as I can remember, starting with the weekly installments of British comics like the Beano, Dandy, and Buster.  I’ve wanted to write them since I was about 11-13 when I first read Kraven’s Last Hunt.

It’s something that sadly doesn’t come easy.  Working in comics takes skill, financial means, connections and luck among many other aspects to try and even get a toe in the door.  Why I depended on the aforementioned company I alluded to earlier is because they published my work and I wanted to stay on their good side because I was worried that no one else would want me.

My stories told there got good external praise and I was given a good amount of opportunities, some I took and others I didn’t.  Most of them sadly didn’t amount to much but I created a respectable resume of well-drawn stories I could carry forward to say ‘look, I can do this kinda/sorta’.

I’ve worked for other companies like Uproar, Alterna, Nemesis Studios, and Outre Press.  The stories I’ve done with all them have gotten good reviews from both inside and outside the companies themselves but still, I desire more.  Not as much as I used to but the one thing I can’t get past in my mind is how much I love comics and how much I adore creating them.

I love crafting stories, I adore setting up plots and building characters just to see people’s reactions or hear what they think.  My wife would often describe me as a sharer, if I watch or read something I really enjoy I want others to experience it too so they can maybe get something out of it as well.

Sometimes I come across as pestering when I really am trying to plug something I enjoy but it really is done with the best intentions.  My work is an extension of that, I’m not saying that it’s perhaps as good as other work I’ve experienced by others but I just want to create and share.  Do I want to get rich off comics?  Not necessarily but I want to be able to earn enough so I can immerse myself in the worlds I’ve created and perhaps even some day…the worlds that others have.

Here’s where having depression and having a burning desire to work in an industry that everyone struggles to make a mark in can be hard.  To get noticed in comics, you have to produce comics and that can take money…a lot of money.  You can get people to work for you for free, sure.  You have to look and maybe compromise on quality but they’re out there but sadly in my experience, it’s never worked out well.  Even when paying people it can be a rocky road as often I have worked with people whose passion does not match my own.

Money is not plentiful for me.  I do okay but I invested a lot in the company I alluded to before and didn’t get anything back (I sadly wasn’t the only one) while a lot of money I invested in a co-writing project got killed by the other writer.

Comics sadly for something that are called ‘funny books’ is not always a barrel of laughs. So I do what I can and I often ask myself ‘is it enough?’  I pitch to things like the annual Millar World competition and am waiting for word on the DC Talent Workshop while keeping an eye out for things that will try and advance me to where I wish to be.

I pay artists for short projects where I can afford it and love these stories.  I am really grateful for Peter Simeti, one of the most daring and innovative publishers out there for making me a part of his Alterna comics by including what I have to offer in his annual IF anthologies.  Still, there’s so much more I want to do.

Several years ago I published the first issue of a mini titled Living With Death and a one shot named Sparks.  Only one issue of both ever was released due to various reasons I won’t go into here.  Their continued ‘lets pause this for a moment’ status crosses my mind nearly every day and for someone with depression who wants to share his stories…that can be hard.

I’ve tried Kickstarter for Living With Death but didn’t achieve my goal.  Even if I had, I would have only been able to produce the first two issues.  It’s ultimately not fair on the series, myself or the people that have enjoyed it.  Perhaps I need to just learn patience but there are times when I wonder what will change.

Unless I win the lottery (which is difficult as I don’t play) or get lucky with an editor seeing a short story I wrote, I am in a state of comic limbo.  I do have other things I do I enjoy like working on the Rabbitt Stew Podcast (plug, plug) or the By The Numbers articles on this very website (plug, plug).  I would like to have more time to get back to articles about the industry but with writing, baby raising, working, spending time with families, friends and some time for recreation somewhere…it can be hard.  I’ll try to get back to them though…eventually…promise!

I know it’s something that can’t happen right now but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t upset me.  I suppose all I can do is be grateful for the things I do have that I adore (like the things mentioned above) and try to remember that often times, some of the greatest writers/artists or whoever went undiscovered for decades.

Am I anywhere near their quality?  It’s not for me to judge.  I just thought this morning that perhaps, I’m not the only one out there.  Dealing with depression and looking into any creative prospect can be a dangerous mix.  You (or at least I) can put yourself under a lot of pressure to succeed (whatever that means ultimately) and even the slightest set back or disappointment can be devastating.

I just do what I can, be proud of my work and hope that maybe…just maybe I can bring to life some of what I have to share.  I’m hoping I have a long life ahead of me and I have the rest of that to try and make this work.

It’s not always easy…but is anything worth having?

I hope in this article, I don’t come across as the helpless victim.  A big part of dealing with depression is knowing your main advisory is just a version of yourself.  I have often played the part of the villain in my little play and it’s not something I’m proud of.  There are a few people I have regrets with how things ended and I’m just glad I didn’t push away the people I still have in my life.

If you’re reading this and want to write comics, draw comics, make movies, make games or even find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, I wish I had a magic solution.  Times are hard, life can be frustrating but ultimately…know that in a way, I think if you can manage to work at it…even a little, life can also surprise you.

I’m about to go spend time with my son, who will greet me with the biggest smile like I’m the most important person in the world.  To him, in some ways I am and it’s things like that when I stop and remember how fortunate in some ways I really am.

I may not get to write comics as much as I would like but I know that I have responsibilities and that even though it may seem like a dark tunnel is surrounding you that ultimately at the end of it, light in one form or another will guide your way.

The CW’s Riverdale’s Real Mystery is Ignoring Its Diverse Cast

The CW hit, Riverdale, has a major representation problem and it’s being severely overlooked. Despite being one of the most diversely casted teen dramas on the air, their representation of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, is seemingly unimportant to the writers, this despite Kevin Keller and Josie McCoy being prominently mentioned and shown in the promotional material. While there is no arguing these characters are present in the show, they are primarily seen and not heard. The few characters who are given lines either disappear from the story altogether, are used to prop up the core four’s storyline, or simply ignored.

Josie and the Pussycats (Ashleigh Murray, Hayley Law, Asha Bromfield) have shown viewers musical talent and promise. Josie (Murray) is the only person of color who has been given significant screen time, dialogue, and backstory. Viewers are pulled in when they learn about her overbearing father pressuring her to follow his footsteps and supportive mayoral mother, but then only give the first eight episodes and disappears for the rest of the season. Not even a single line has been introduced to explain where she has gone. Even an “I can’t believe Josie gets to record a single in Los Angeles” would suffice.

Valerie (Law), has been Archie’s love interest, and seemingly the only thing that makes his character even remotely interesting. The show appeared to be on the right track, gradually building their inevitable relationship when they finally come together after the talent show, but then she quickly becomes a sounding board for Archie’s ridiculous rants and nothing more until she finally leaves him for ignoring her. Many viewers felt as though it wasn’t just Archie who ignored Valerie, but the writers, since fan are given virtually nothing about her other than she is a musician who won’t take any of his nonsense.

Melody’s character (Bromfield) is virtually non-existent. I’m pretty sure the actress hasn’t even had more than a single line in the entire first season. Josie and Valerie are given minimal agency, while Melody is given absolutely none, completely ignored. As of right now, Melody’s character serves no other purpose than completing the infamous trio of rocker women. That being said, my favorite fan theory is that Melody killed Jason and the motive was simply because everyone ignored her.

Other characters being blatantly ignored like this include Ginger Lopez and Tina Patel (Cheryl’s “minions”). You may have no idea who these characters are, as they are never properly introduced, but they are definitely there. Cheryl kicked them off the River Vixens because they didn’t vote for her during the infamous Veronica vs. Cheryl dance off. I’m supposed to believe these two girls just stood there without emotion while their alleged livelihood is being taken away from them? The lack of focus also took away any emotional impact from the scene. Without knowing them, it’s hard to care if they’ve been booted from the clique.

Kevin Keller is another character being treated unfairly. He is by far a fan favorite and one of the only LGBT+ characters with a major role. He gets some of the funniest lines and viewers are never disappointed with his hilarious reactions. We learn a minimal amount of his backstory—he’s the son of the sheriff who is accepting of his son’s sexuality—and I do give credit where credit is due, I appreciate the fact Kevin’s sexuality is a non-issue, only used to further drive a complicated plotline. What’s bothersome is the fact he is only given an implied storyline.

For example, viewers see Kevin connect with Joaquin and an exciting, new storyline is introduced. Then Joaquin is dropped and doesn’t appear again until a couple of episodes later, where it’s revealed that he and Kevin are now full-fledged dating. When did this happen? Viewers don’t get to see the relationship progress in the slightest. We only get to see them make out one more time at Jughead’s birthday party. It’s very possible the development of this relationship was cut and left on the cutting room floor, but the crew completely lost an opportunity to appease fan’s needs for a well-rounded gay character with his own storyline.

Another example is that it’s implied the infamous character Moose, is in the closet and is willing to hook up with Kevin as long as no one knows. This is a new piece of information for long-time Archie Comics fans, as he has previously been known purely for being the stereotypical “dumb” jock. This small piece of information makes a previously dull character, more complex and interesting, but it’s never mentioned again. The writers had an opportunity to expand here and dive deeper into this character but chose to only use him again several episodes later, as a punching bag to a gang of thugs. There was no character development at all.

The problem seems to lie in the story of Riverdale not being fully realized yet. The writers need to decide if this is a story about the core four or the town of Riverdale as a whole. With a focus on the parents, it would seem the writers have decided the whole. If this is correct, then they need to give their diverse cast’s characters more substance and agency. If the story’s goal is to center around the core four, then random, deep insights to other character’s past that were once introduced and then forgotten (i.e. Josie), need to be dropped. Once this is sorted out, many of these issues won’t be as prominent and the storyline will seem more consistent, although many viewers are hoping to see more of these forgotten characters, so let’s hope they don’t choose the latter.

In interviews, writers have mentioned one might consider the first season of Riverdale as a prequel to where we meet them in the original Archie comics. Where we meet the characters now, aren’t necessarily where they will end up, and there is a chance they might become closer to who their characters are in the original canon. Perhaps that means we will finally see an asexual Jughead (which is a whole other issue entirely), the epic love triangle that is Betty, Archie, and Veronica will finally rear its ugly head, and so on. That being said, this gives viewers hope that the character’s currently being mistreated or overlooked might have a bigger role and impact in future episodes to come.

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