Comics

We Found Love In A Hopeless Place: Comics Creators and Contact Channels

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Carol Corps

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Hazel with her exploration of comic book creators, fans, and a new meeting place for both: social media. If you’d like to submit your own review or feature, please check out our submissions page.

-Kelly

I am careful about what media I consume. It’s for my own good. I find even comedy programmes stressful when there is a cringe moment approaching; the appeal of drama entirely escapes me. Sometimes – well, honestly, quite a lot of the time- I hide behind things and stick my fingers in my ears during apparently conventional scenes because I’m worried something trigger-y is about to happen.

The thing about approaching media with this caution is that you’re going in with a fighting stance. When my partner and I tried to watch Breaking Bad, I was close to panic from the idea I was going to have to try really hard to watch a serious programme before it even started. Stress like this isn’t the (supposedly fun, I wouldn’t know) thrill of excitement and involvement that other people feel when they presumably enjoy the show. It’s a visceral emotional klaxon and subsequent lockdown of facilities. When I watch or read stuff where I fear it’s going to come up, I’m the equivalent of a shadowy government laboratory on red alert and the first reaction is a blaring mental display of flashing lights and portcullises slowly drawing down over windows, terrified employees left to the zombies inside.

Breaking Bad & Fun

So there’s not a lot of enjoyment to be had, for me, in a lot of media. I’ve barely read anything fictional, hardly watched anything non-factual, for years. Oh, there have been exceptions- CSI, where rapists and murderers are firmly disapproved of and always caught, but by and large it’s been cooking telly and books about architecture. Bit of fanfiction, maybe, if the mood takes me- that has trigger warnings at the start, so I can pick and choose.

Except, see, I’ve been reading my way through the whole of Marvel’s back catalogue over the past eleven months. Yes, comics, that medium much maligned (often rightly so) for its appalling treatment of serious issues, misogyny and ingrained problematic social ideas. And one of the reasons I’ve consumed it so voraciously has been that I’ve been able to relax into it – there’s no tension, no prickly discomfort and twinges of PTSD, no scratchy impatience with having to try to pay attention to something horrible.

Oh, there’s drama, you understand. There’s things that have been so terrifically painful, as arcs. But there is tragedy and there is pain and there’s a sweetness and greatness to sad works and they don’t have to be a series of triggers. In fact, when you move away from harmful tropes, thus causing a more interesting and character-engaged narrative, you get the most acute points of divine story-telling agony.

There’s one title out of the 28 I’m currently picking up that I approach with caution. But the rest, not a twitch. I can unflinchingly and enthusiastically read something that makes me cry and think “wow, what a beautiful story” instead of just being nebulously unhappy at the way it’s set me off and feeling disenfranchised from whatever’s happening.

“What someone aspires to do with something and what they execute isn’t always the same but at least when you have them saying it, clearly, consistently, you know the willingness and the intent is there.”

This works if I feel like the creators are portraying a bad situation, while acknowledging all of the badness and its implications for all of the characters and the complex way in which they will react, without exploiting it or being gross. This isn’t that hard, if you engage even a little bit and doesn’t at all preclude fun. I love dark humour, for instance, and I’m not at all opposed to violence in media (like nearly everyone else, Wolverine is one of my favourites). I just want dark elements to be fully thought out and as funny or viscerally horrible as the author intended, not as a parody by-product that sends me off into a deep gloom or panic. Tragedy not shock, drama not diversion. And normally to insulate myself from the reaction I might have to media, I shut out the ability to laugh at things, I shut down the emotional reaction – it feels consequently like responding through a muffling fog, distant and not really entertained. So to truly enjoy something, I have to trust it enough to pull back from that, to let in the risk that it’s going to hurt me.

Fandom, in contrast and as a separate shadow-entity from media itself, is often about creating safe spaces. They might be safe in the sense of no one judging you for being into male lactation clown gangbang slashfic or it might just be moderately secluded, by the pseudo-anonymity of screen names if nothing else. Fandom is cruel and frequently psychotic, as a loosely-organised unit, but you find your niches, your little areas and your friends and your experiences of the media, away from the creators, where you take it to some dark corner and pull it apart and remake it as your own and wear it like a mask and turn yourself into a disturbing avatar-effigy and then you roleplay characters into true being and then finally when the portal opens it – oh, nevermind. Look, fandom is very exciting and one of the reasons that it’s both (sort of) safe (sometimes, in some places- fans can be massive bigots) and thrilling is that it’s not ‘official.’ No one knows about it.

But that’s not entirely true anymore, is it?

From mattfraction.com.

From mattfraction.com.

One of the reasons I feel ok about letting down my guards and emotionally engaging with Marvel comics is, without a doubt, engaging with the creators online. If I see Matt Fraction giving a cosplayer a note saying that anyone who says she shouldn’t dress as who she damned well wishes can go fuck themselves, I can feel reassured that while his comics aren’t going to somehow magically never have anything problematic in ever, he is an active Agent Against Grossness. When Kathryn and Stuart Immonen electronically high-five fans for wanting female characters appreciated more, you know they’re right-on. When Kelly Sue DeConnick chews out a sexist or Jamie McKelvie talks at length (well, length for McKelvie) about how he works on ensuring redesigned costumes for female characters are practical, Kieron Gillen talks about feminism, Brian M Bendis tells “fans” who complain about comics “catering to women” to stop reading his work. They all talk about the importance of inclusivity, of the relevance of Miles Morales and the mixed-race Mexican/African-American Spider-Man’s proof of concept.

Of course, that isn’t the case for everyone – Rick Remender (who had previously written one of my favourite painful, tragic arcs ever, so I’m not saying these things are permanent and unchangeable loyalties) had a minor Twitter meltdown when he suggested that people who might find some of Alex Summers’ Big Ostentatious Speech in Uncanny Avengers slightly racially dubious should “drown themselves in hobo piss.” Now, we’ve all been drunk on Twitter but that’s taking it pretty far as far as insulting the shit out of your fanbase is concerned and indeed, he had to apologise about it subsequently. (Well, he didn’t exactly say sorry – but he did express regret.)

Remender "Hobo Piss"

What happened over at Marvel HQ, though, was that Brian M Bendis went and did a huge chunk of a subsequent issue of All-New X-Men where Kitty Pryde demolished Havok’s speech. Cus if you ask your fans to drown in urine, you’re fair game for your own company. And there’s few things more reassuring than seeing that.

The Hobo Piss Incident (as it shall be known) is particularly interesting because Remender said that what provoked him into acting out was fans calling him racist. Thing is, here, there’s two shields that have to come down to make this whole thing work- the writer has to, in order to deal with fans at this level, take their own guard down to put themselves in an arena where they can be, well, got at.

If you cornered a creator and asked them how they find interacting with their fans on, say, Tumblr, they’d probably say something along the lines of ‘brilliant and hilarious and I’m not sure I like it.’ In the same way most people have googled themselves, it’s very tempting to search social media tags for references to your work.

This can be awesome – you only have to look at Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Tumblr-con organising Carol Corps (dedicated fans of the current Captain Marvel) or the intense burst of loyal love that Kathryn Immonen received as her beautiful run on Journey Into Mystery ended to see how well this can pan out, in terms of building an affectionate rapport with a fanbase. But then, fans are not always nice – sometimes it’s deservedly interrogative (“why have you put this sexist/racist thing in this comic?”) and sometimes it’s greedy and pushy and unpleasant (variants on “you don’t have the right to write this deviating from MY ideas of it!!!!”*) and sometimes it’s just offensive. Good creators will probably have a bigger proportion of nicer fans but it’s not a vetted thing and if you’re a creator who puts yourself out there, you’re at risk of some really unpleasant behaviour.

Would I do it, if I was a comics writer or artist? I don’t know; it’s a horrible gamble. I don’t know how well I could stay shut up about things that I thought people were interpreting wrong, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have some kind of Hobo Piss Incident myself. I’m not a very well balanced person in that way.

The internet can be cruel, even to Loki.

The internet can be cruel, even to Loki.

But I have infinite amounts of respect for the creators that do it. If they sit there every day, answering asks and saying that they want women to read comics, that they want the full diversity of humanity to be represented in comics, that they aren’t interested in writing for close-minded people, that they want their work to be interesting and fearsome and beautiful and heartbreaking and mischievous and to leave a mark on its readers but not cause harm, indeed, sometimes seek to actively redress harm, then that’s good work. That’s a self-exposure that lets fans in turn expose themselves to the work, able to get a measure for what they might encounter and the intent of the writer, if it upsets them.

What someone aspires to do with something and what they execute isn’t always the same but at least when you have them saying it, clearly, consistently, you know the willingness and the intent is there. And I don’t know how weary they get at hate in tags or random unpleasantness in asks but I hope it is weighed out by good stuff for the creators, too. And I hope it helps with their aims to include people, that it helps more and more creators understand why some ideas can be offensive or helps them put new ideas and experiences into stories, opens up new narrative opportunities. And is, y’know, enjoyable and fun for everyone.

Maybe it’s because this generation of comics creators were fans themselves, before. Internet fans, no less. So they not only know what they’re dealing with (albeit I think this would be the thing that utterly terrified me) but they were born from it, can hardly guard themselves from themselves and their own internet friends. It’ll be interesting when we get, say, the first Thor creator who found out about Thor via Tumblr. Would you stop tracking the tag? I don’t know but maybe you should. It’s kind of for the fans, after all, even when the creator is one.

Which goes a little way back to the thing about fandom as a safe(ish) space because it’s hidden. But if a creator knows how to find things about their stuff on social media, not just on “official” sites then how can you stop them? Fandom used to lock itself away on Livejournal communities, specific messageboards, mailing lists, etc. but Tumblr is a wide-open free-for-all, for the most part and Twitter almost moreso. There have been a few recent incidents of creators searching mentions of their work on Twitter and trying to correct fans about it, to the general alarm of the fans. Equally, there’s the persistent habit amongst some fans of @’ing in creators when criticising their work but not addressing them, which is utterly maddening to receive.

thorloki

Now that fans and creators occupy the same spaces, the same sites, the lines between where you can get burnt by who get ever more confusing. After all, you could be a previously huge fan of someone and then see them being a huge idiot on social media and well… not quite enjoy them as much, same as you might think interacting with your fans is terrific until the first instance of ‘I cant believe you did THIS with THIS character you are SO WRONG I HATE YOU.’ This ain’t no letters page, this is instant reaction every month, so easy to dash off that people can barely avoid it. The problem isn’t opening the means of communication anymore, it’s trying to funnel it into something usable. And if you fuck up, someone will notice.

Which would bring me sadly to Dan Didio. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I have 0 interest in DC’s output and he’s probably a big reason why – there’s no particular need to rake over his millions of social media gaffes, at least, not when The Outhouse is doing such a good job but his internet presence is basically turning DC, as a unit, into one torrential, camel-bladdered Hobo Piss Incident. A giant ‘fuck you’ to anyone who dares to get in contact with anything but praise.

Fans are rude and creators can be assholes but I’m genuinely pleasantly surprised, on balance, at how well the closeness is working out, in the comics fandom. Well, I say comics. Marvel. I don’t know how much gets disappeared to linger like festering wounds on both fans and creators alike but it seems like there’s also a lot of, well, nice things. Positive emotive moments, the good feels, whatever you want to call it. And maybe that’s the thing, to have fandom and creator learn to live in some kind of disquiet harmony.

Fans need secluded spaces and creators need the right to, essentially, work in a reasonable amount of peace but once we’ve all gotten over the initial shock of finding each other on the same sites, I hope it’s easily-negotiated etiquette to create this common ground where increased trust can be built. Comics fans and creators have been a bit of a blurred concept for a long time (in the sense that creators become fans of other creators work, as well as coming from the fanbase in the first place) and broadening opportunities for engagement can only be positive for the medium.

 

 

*One of the absolute bottom-of-the-pit, appalling-on-every-level examples of this is the pages and pages of mass panic about Jamie McKelvie’s design for Wiccan and Hulkling’s hair, which was apparently “too gay.” Yes, people thought this was an ok thing to write about a hairstyle. Well done everyone, we will now hold a minute of silence while we weep brokenly.

Fake fur coat, extensive collection of pants. Writer for FreakyTrigger, mother for Tumblr.

3 Comments

  1. Courtney

    October 4, 2013 at 8:24 PM

    I have so much YES to say about this article I don’t even know where to start. So I’ll start small: this all resonates with me a lot because I’m constantly conflicted over Bendis. He wrote the worst storyliine ever for Ult MJ, but at the same time, you know he really does want to create a better atmosphere for women in comics so you’re like, yeah man! Keep trying! But… try harder… but thanks! This comment is a mess and this is why I rarely leave comments.

    Anyway, I see some of the horrible things that get said about other creators, and you just hope everything balances out in the end. I wouldn’t want to have to try to filter like that, because I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind.

  2. Courtney

    October 4, 2013 at 8:25 PM

    Also I find this article really interesting in light of the LBD fandom/creator interaction drama, but I have too many convoluted feelings on that I don’t even know where to begin. But it’s an interesting parallel.

    • Rachel

      October 6, 2013 at 2:05 AM

      I was thinking of a similar parallel with Bioware’s David Gaider.

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