How Lack Of Empathy And Compassion Is Creating A Divide Between Creators And Fans
This week there’s been a lot of talk and controversy surrounding J. Scott Campbell’s Midtown Comics variant for Invincible Iron Man #1, featuring the 15-year-old Riri Williams, AKA Ironheart. Fan response to the cover pointed out the highly sexualized depiction of Riri and the inappropriate decision to assign the cover to an artist known for his pin-up work, but things got worse when Campbell and other creators responded to the controversy.
Campbell and his defenders’ rebuttals featured the typical lines about social justice warriors and censorship, and creators in this situation seem to always assume that they’re infallible when it comes to the art they create. Yet another week of controversy in comics has me asking; What’s so wrong about stopping to listen to what people have to say?
Now, this isn’t going to be a critique of the cover itself; critics and commentators such as Tee Franklin, Steph I. Will, Lauren Warren and Rebecca Theodore have written and tweeted about the cover’s numerous problems, and I highly encourage you to seek those voices out. Instead, I want to talk about the persistent problem in comics where creators assume fandom is a hivemind out to get them, and respond in kind.
Campbell’s reactions to this cover have been defensive, to say the least, referring to critical fans as “complainers,” and calling the controversy an “SJW whinefest” on Twitter. The cover has since been pulled by Midtown Comics, but that has only fueled the controversy and again created a divide between fans with legitimate criticisms and a creator who won’t consider the problematic nature of his work.
Earlier this year, Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz’s Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 featured the last page shock reveal that Captain America was an agent of HYDRA. Fans reacted vocally with numerous legitimate objections --- the main two being that Marvel has no problem introducing a Nazi Captain America, yet won’t entertain the idea of giving him a boyfriend, and that making Captain America a member of a Nazi organization is an affront to Jewish fans of a hero created during wartime by two legendary Jewish creators.
The response from the likes of Nick Spencer, Dan Slott, Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso was... well, it wasn’t great. Creators --- not just those involved directly with the story --- patronizingly reminded fans that it was part one of a larger tale, which ultimately amounts to, “keep giving us money,” and little attention was paid to the actual issues people had concerns about.
It is true that Nick Spencer received death threats over the events in the story --- Joe Simon and Jack Kirby also received death threats from American Nazis for their depiction of Captain America --- and death threats must be unequivocally condemned as deplorable, with no place in any type of discourse. However, rational fans presenting genuine criticism of something they see as offensive should not be dismissed on those grounds, and it's certainly not acceptable for some creators to imply that the fans with genuine criticisms are responsible for the death threats or affiliated with the people making them.
Jumping back a bit further, when Marvel announced a new Hercules series last year, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso categorically stated that the character was straight, and not bisexual as had been established earlier in Marvel's own comics (and even earlier than that in Greek myth). When fans voiced their concerns, Alonso made fun of them on Twitter, and retweeted a meme about it created by individuals who identified as members of the hate group Gamergate.
Imagine the dialogue that could have opened up if instead of laughing at LGBTQ fans desperate for representation at a publisher that has failed to provide it, Alonso stopped and considered he may have been wrong. Even if he wasn’t wrong, it’s important to consider that you might be able to learn and grow by listening to people with different positions.
However, over the past few years, Alonso has drawn a line in the sand, and at times proved to be openly hostile towards those who seek to suggest Marvel might not be doing the best in certain areas. On more than one occasion, he has referred to sections of fandom as “shrill” and in a recent panel appearance stated, “I am the last thing from a social justice warrior.”
When creators in this position talk about “fandom,” they’re not talking about everyone that reads comics, which is what fandom is. They’re talking about marginalized fans; women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups who seek accurate representation of the lives they live. Representation should not be a tough ask for the company that used to pride itself in portraying “The world outside your window.”
It’s hard to believe that so many people who have spent literal decades in the comics industry have so little empathy in situations like this. The comics industry would be a much better place if people were aware of their own fallibility, lowered the defenses, and listened to their audiences concerns, instead of crying “censorship.”
A perfect example of the right way to handle this came from the former Batgirl creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, who were criticized for Barbara Gordon’s inappropriate reaction to the male Dagger Type when he was revealed as the imposter Batgirl. When fans spoke up about their discomfort with the scene, the creators released a sincere apology and amended the dialogue to better match their intentions.
While you can go see the likes of The Avengers and Doctor Strange in big-budget battles on the silver screen, comics is still a relatively small and insular industry. Instead of planting themselves like a tree in the ground and saying “No, you move,” creators should take the time to listen and grow. To borrow a line from All-Star Superman “It’s just all just us in here together, and we’re all we’ve got."