The Comics Confluence, by Elayne Riggs
As The Dark Knight breaks more box-office records (with its accompanying Watchman trailer leading to orders for the original book jumping up near the top of the Amazon charts) and Hollywood relocates to San Diego for the coming four-day weekend that used to be known primarily as Geek Prom, it’s clear that comics continue to affect the wider culture as never before. Two recent examples of this seepage and mingling have reared their heads in the world of toys and politics – respectively, as reported here on ComicMix and lots of other places, Mattel’s decision to release a special-edition Barbie dressed as Black Canary, and the New Yorker cover featuring a scare-fantasy version of Barack and Michelle Obama. Lots of comics folk have weighed in quite nicely on the latter, including our own Mike Gold, but heaven forfend I don’t take my turn before the subject is completely eclipsed by the next manufactured controversy in the ever-spinning news cycle!
To the Barbie matter first. For whatever reason, the UK newspaper The Sun took the wacko group Christian Voice seriously (which is like American media taking Bill Donohue’s Catholic League seriously) when the CV nutbars complained about the incarnation. And you just know an organization that supports marital rape has the moral authority to comment on how the Canary costume is “irresponsible” and “filth”!
I can sort of see the sighing over fishnets. I’ve never liked fishnets. I think I tried to wear them when I was a teenager, years before wearing ripped ones became fashionable (I think I would have liked ripped ones), and they were just all itchy and made marks on my skin and were simply uncomfortable. They seemed like something made for guys to leer at on women, rather than something made for women to enjoy. Likewise, I don’t care for the way high heels can cripple a woman’s legs, and I don’t wear ’em myself because I figure I’m tall enough, but the heels on those boots aren’t really that high. And leather? Seriously? A leather jacket and gloves, some sign of the impending Apocalypse? Didn’t the outrage about this clothing choice reach its peak around the era of Marlon Brando and James Dean?
You really know where these weirdos are coming from when they opine “Barbie has always been on the tarty side.” Look, Barbie may be many things that Brits may not really grasp that well since they don’t have a solid history built around fetishizing the doll. Yes, she’s anatomically impossible, a bad role model for girls who think that’s what women are supposed to look like (although if they do, lord help them when they start to inquire about the lack of sex organs). And yes, the “character” of the doll is often portrayed as brainless and certainly acquisitive. And goodness knows the Black Canary Barbie is wearing way too much. But tarty? Always? Even Cabaret Dancer Barbie (thanks Heidi Meeley!) doesn’t look all that tarty, and she’s supposed to. Come talk to me when you learn how to respect actual women, you morons.
(Adds Val D’Orazio: “The problem is, many people assume, when they hear "Barbie," that we are talking about strictly children’s toys. Whereas, like a large segment of the action-figure buying public, what we are really talking about are adult collectors. Kinda like…comics?”)
Respect seems to be at the heart of the controversy over New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt drawing a cover depicting Michelle and Barack Obama (who, let’s face it, is fairly blandly centrist aside from his occasionally soaring rhetoric) as the extremist caricatures that right-wingers make them out to be. As Mike Gold and others point out, Blitt is one of the heirs to a longstanding tradition of editorial cartoon satire that goes back at least to the days of Thomas Nast and other artistic court jesters spitting in the face of the powerful.
Ah, but there you are. In a way, sure, the Obamas are certainly powerful at present. You don’t get a pretty decent shot at the most important position in the modern world if you haven’t risen into a position of some power. On the other hand, they are the Other hand. They are not the assumed cultural and political default (read: white) in this country, and there are not only, to use the current euphemism in vogue, many “low information” citizens out there eager to believe the worst, but many white folks who don’t really consider the result of privilege and marginalization (just as there are many well-meaning men who never have to consider the result of their societal privilege on the way they marginalize women’s experiences).
Kai Chang elaborates at greater length: “In my world, the purpose of satire is iconoclasm; by which I mean, the breaking of icons, the exploding of false power centers and false narratives which hold destructive sway over society. The New Yorker cover, despite its intention and despite being sarcastic, is not satire; rather, it is a visualization and manifestation of racist clichés and stereotypes, and thus a propagation and perpetuation of racism. It does not interrogate the validity of those racist stereotypes, but rather accepts and gleefully embraces their marginalizing and dehumanizing power, then implies that it’s ludicrous for conservative yahoos to think that the Obamas are those kinds of blacks; the Obamas are good blacks, not scary militant blacks or Muslims; the Obamas do not sport Afros or turbans, they are not reminiscent of dangerous Sixties radicals, no sir, they are down with the program, they are safe for whites."
A number of artists and other intelligent observers have noted that satire isn’t necessarily meant to be subtle. But many Americans are as satire-impaired as they are irony-impaired. Among those in Tom Spurgeon’s gathering of artists’ views on Blitt’s cover, Darryl Braithwaite notes that “instead of being over the top and exposing the ridiculousness of these right wing talking points, the artist here simply repeats the talking points. It looks, therefore, like an endorsement of these radical points of view.” And this, even when most thinking people understand it isn’t. And Andrea Rubinstein reminds us that “Satire isn’t a synonym for ‘mockery.’ It isn’t something that is easy to do right, and it certainly isn’t accomplished by simply rehashing elements that have been used by a group that’s in political opposition to the person doing the satire. It’s not enough to say it’s satire because ‘everyone’ knows the object of mockery is ridiculous, especially when there are plenty of people who obviously don’t. The thing that the satire is mocking needs to be blatantly and obviously ridiculous and wrong. And not just to people who already see the subject as ridiculous and wrong. Satire needs to expose the logical fallacies of the object of ridicule, not simply summarize them.” Because when you summarize them, you invite boneheaded comments like G. Gordon Liddy’s (via Tamora Pierce) “The New Yorker finally got it right.” Which yes, these idiots would say anyway. But as Jon Stewart is fond of saying about groups like PETA and CODE PINK, “You’re Not Helping.” Why give them such an easy target?
Val comes up with a cartoon of her own to counterpoint this discussion, a depiction of McCain and his political bedevilers from Rolling Stone, and poses the question to her readers of whether it’s effective political satire or merely offensive — i.e., failed satire. I’m inclined to agree with her conclusions.
And yet, I’m also inclined to agree with my husband when he applies what he calls the MAD Test to this cover: “Would it work as it was presumably meant to if it were a MAD Magazine cover, and not a New Yorker cover?” I have to admit, despite everything written about how it manifests racial clichés, that I think it would. Is context everything here, or is it just that we’re more used to seeing MAD successfully skewer our culture where other magazines fail?
So what comics-to-public foofaraw is around the corner? Any bets on the Elfquest dance with Warner and how it will affect royalties on the books? Or is that too inside-baseball? I think we need something bigger, but you’ll pardon me if I don’t think there’s anything bigger right now than The Dark Knight’s movie proceeds…
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and kinda wishes she were going to San Diego this weekend. Then again, she wishes she could have gone to Netroots Nation or BlogHer last weekend. All in all, to tell the truth, she’s pretty happy sitting in air-conditioned public transit to and from her job.