Martha Thomases: Short Stories

Excuse me while I talk about world affairs for a bit. I promise this will come back to comics.

One of the talking points about ISIL, the crazy people in the Middle East beheading hostages and slaughtering hundreds (thousands?) of others is that they are successful because they are so savvy with social media.

Now, I confess that my Twitter skills aren’t great. However, I hadn’t been able to figure out how one could assemble 140 characters (or a video, or a Facebook page) to make a person want to become a suicide bomber or cut off heads. Sure, maybe there are psychopaths who would respond, but that’s a tough crowd to get together for a focus group.

On Saturday, this story ran in my local paper, with both an explanation (at least, one I could understand) and a potential solution.

The ISIL propaganda works, not because people are inherently suicidal or sadistic, but because we are, each of us, desperate to be the lead character in our own stories. If you’re a Muslim kid in a place with a depressed economy, no job prospects, and nothing to do, it can be very appealing to think of yourself as representative of The Prophet on Earth, dedicated to avenging the wrongs done to your people.

Of course, it’s not that simple, but it offered me a way to understand. And it offered Suleiman Bakhit a way to save the lives (and, in my opinion, the souls) of those most susceptible to ISIL’s propaganda. Mr. Bakhit created a comic book that offered other, better ways for a kid in ISIL’s target market to be a hero.

This made me think about the reasons those kids (in this case, in Jordan) didn’t have the kind of pop-culture heroes we take for granted in this country. And then, it made me think of how we hold up different kinds of heroes to different segments of the American audience. Straight white people get Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow and more.

Quite often, it’s not enough.

When a publisher of super-hero comics, or a director of super-hero movies, etc., chooses to change the race or gender of an established hero, there is a predictable outcry. White fans insist the change was made to be “PC,” and not possibly because the comic creators or director had a story he/she wanted to tell.

Even creating a character who isn’t straight and white can be denounced by fans. I remember very well at the launch of Milestone that we got a lot of flack from comic book fans because DC was distributing comics that starred hardly any white people. Again, they insisted that DC must be doing this out of some kind of PC pose, not because the stories were good. As DC’s Publicity Manager, I saw a lot of those complaints, and I can assure you, they were real and they were nasty. If there are any doubts, you can ask our own, beloved Michael Davis.

I don’t know why it’s news that we each want to be the hero in our own story, the lead in our own movie. One of the ways I can tell if a comic or film (or novel or television show) is good is how difficult it is to imagine a story starring a minor character.

A good story is a good story. That is enough justification for it to exist. If, in addition, a good story offers its audience a way to consider a world without terrorism, that’s even better. And if a good story inspires its readers to heroically change this world without joining ISIL or other terrorist groups, that’s fabulous.

If that story requires an African-American Batman, I’m cool with that. We all know they’ll just change it back in a few months, anyway.