Sunday, February 19, 2017

Arrow: Or, Virtue Rewarded

In the early 1700s, as printing technology expanded and became more affordable, books were no longer strictly available to the aristocratic classes. The great unwashed gained access and, as you might expect, this caused considerable consternation among the cultural elites. They could handle the subtleties and complexities of fiction. But moral ambiguity would be lost on the working class. Therefore, it became important for the enlightened upper class elites to impart their wisdom through their art. It couldn’t just entertain— it needed to instruct the hoi polloi as to how best to conduct themselves.

As a result there was a rise in moralizing works along the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. This book is, I’m not joking, about a servant called Pamela Andrews who resists her employer’s repeated attempts to rape her. Finally, for her virtuous ability to fight off his attacks, she’s “rewarded” with a marriage proposal. Check out the cover for the 1741 edition, which it’s asserted the book was published “to cultivate the Principles of VIRTUE and RELIGION in the Minds of the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.”

Sorry if you're triggered by seeing something that asserts there are only two sexes.

Throughout history there’s always been a tendency for humans—mostly of the upper classes, the wealthy, the elites—to assume they know what’s best for everyone else. And to attempt to impose that morality on others. Or at least instruct them on what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s the impulse that motivated Meryl Streep’s embarrassing hectoring diatribe at this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony (ah, the irony of holding oneself up as a moral arbiter at a ceremony created by a group that formed to scam movie studios out of free bottles of wine and promotional swag!). And it’s the impulse that motivates Marc Guggenheim’s assertion that he’s going to use his comic book-based TV shows to promote his own specific worldview. First up, "Arrow."

“I’m an unapologetic progressive,” he said. “But the thing that I’ve noticed is that not talking about issues serves a conservative agenda, not a liberal agenda.”

Green Arrow, the featured Intellectual Property in the “Arrow” TV show, is generally portrayed as an “unapologetic progressive” in the comics. Up to this point the Oliver Queen of the TV show has been largely apolitical (despite his being the mayor of Star City now).* The show has been rewarded with decent ratings, especially for CW shows. But that might be changing:

“We went into Season 5 wanting to do an episode about an issue,” executive producer Marc Guggenheim told reporters earlier this week following a screening of the episode, lamenting that current broadcast dramas don’t often tackle topical issues the way shows like “LA Law” and “Picket Fences” did. “Gun violence felt like the right topic, because of its topicality and because of the level of gun violence is on ‘Arrow.’ We could have done an episode on abortion, but that’s not really where the show lives. So gun violence really felt like the right thing to tackle.”

I’m old enough to remember “Picket Fences” and “L.A. Law,” but are you? How often are those shows aired in re-runs? How popular are they on streaming sites? And he wants to turn “Arrow” into them? Even as Marvel's comics division, in response to dwindling sales, has decided to cut out the leftist bluenosing hectoring and get back to "meat and potatoes" storytelling.

A big problem with introducing topical discussions of political issues in art about supernatural/superscience characters is that they feature supernatural and superscience characters. The presence of "metas," who can punch buildings down or vibrate their hands into your chest to stop your beating heart or cause your innards to explode with a thought kinda changes the dynamics of the gun control debate, doesn't it? In a world like that, if you don't have an arsenal you're a fool, full stop, end of discussion.

And by the way, "metas" also change the abortion debate. "I'm against abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, and meta."

Wait a second--with all those superheroes running and flying around, why wasn't one of them around to protect Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy?

I suppose it could be worse. Guggenheim could be saying that he’s going to physically assault people whose ideas he doesn’t like. So it’s all relative.

This comes not long after the great George Perez, one of the maybe twenty best comics illustrators of all time, announced that he would honor prior commitments to appear at conventions in states carried by President of the United States Donald Trump, but would be donating proceeds from these events to progressive and leftist causes. The writer Mark Waid announced that he wouldn’t be boycotting any Trump states, but would be using his straight white male privilege to intimidate people:

I’m not hard to find at shows. If you’re a fan or creator and are ever, ever made to feel uncomfortable on a convention floor, come find me. If it’s a fleeting thing, just come hang out. If, on the other hand, you can point out the aggressors, I will rain HELLFIRE on your behalf, I PROMISE you. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you that I’ll flip tables on bullies and creeps, and I’ll have your back. And while I’ve never had to use it, I’ve got enough clout to have hatemongers flat-out thrown out of shows, and I am not above those sorts of nuclear options.

Trump didn’t carry every state in the presidential election, and he apparently lost the popular vote by a wide margin. But take a look at the election results broken down by county:

The country is a sea of red. Clinton only carried about 100 counties, meaning her appeal, and the appeal of the Democrat party, was limited and provincial. It was concentrated in a few urban areas, and even in the states that Clinton carried, which are a-okay with Perez and Waid, Trump carried most of the counties.

The entire country is an unsafe space! But don’t worry—“Arrow” is going to make you a better person. Mark Waid is going to protect the oppressed. At comic book conventions.

People opposed to Trump have taken to calling themselves a “resistance,” but the resistance has already risen up. It elected Donald Trump. Those who are trying to impose their morality on the red counties that sweep across the country—who are trying to show us how to be virtuous—have concentrated themselves in a few areas. Geographically they’re a small minority. They need to stop thinking regionally and start thinking nationally. They need to engage. They need to listen, and stop with the moralizing and the hectoring, or they’re going to further marginalize themselves.

*Full disclosure: I haven't watched "Arrow" in a few weeks. I got fed up with the Olicity thing; their breakup was pretty lame.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Marvel’s leftist turn has been killing the comic book industry—maybe its course correction can save it

For most of my lifetime, Marvel has outsold DC, often dominating them by wide margins. However, since DC’s Rebirth event (which corrected their “New 52” misfire), DC has dominated Marvel in comics sales. What DC’s editorial braintrust has done is return to what it’s calling “meat and potatoes” storytelling. Basically, this means taking the emphasis off politics and quirks and emphasizing classic comics storytelling and Intellectual Property.

While DC did that, Marvel doubled down on its strategy of pushing leftist politics in its books. This seemed to flow from top-down editorial choices that started with changing the race, gender, and sexual orientation of its Intellectual Property. That in itself isn’t a problem. If Ms. Marvel is a Muslim whose family is from Pakistan, then hey that's great— as long as the story is good!

But, as the Rageaholic has pointed out, mainstream legacy comics have become preachier than a Catholic mass:

When I was a kid they had programs called “After School Specials.” These moralizing narratives were built around TEACHING A LESSON in big bold capital letters. Story was always meant to be subservient to the lesson. We made fun of these TV shows. We saw right through them, even when we were ten. Today, Marvel (and Archie!) editors seem to have taken their inspiration from these shows. They seem to believe that comics fans are bigoted buffoons who need to be TAUGHT A LESSON about diversity, white privilege, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc etc. And Thor and Captain America are just the Intellectual Property to push those enlightened values!

Politics—in particular left wing politics—have been around since comics’ inception. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America were all New Deal Democrats who actively promoted big government progressive ideas. The difference was that the lectures let up on occasion, and they weren’t imposed on the stories by the publishers. A Superman story might feature a variation on the broken windows fallacy, or Wonder Woman might advocate for free milk for children, or Captain America might punch Adolf Hitler in the face to promote the US getting involved in World War II, but there would be other stories in the same volume that was preach-free.

It’s not like that today. Nearly everything Marvel produces is geared not toward entertainment, but leftist advocacy. And it’s so awkwardly shoehorned into the story that it almost ceases to be a story at all—it’s like someone transposed a Salon article.

These panels came to symbolize everything that was wrong with Marvel Comics over the last few years. Basically this is a Tumblr with pictures.

It’s possible that Marvel had decided to write off comics entirely, using them as trademark maintenance and workshopping story ideas/IP variations, as suggested by the loathsome “Moviebob.” According to this virtue-signaling dummy, “Furious fanboys are missing the point - but what else is new?”

Yes, Marvel can afford to lose money on their comics. DC can, too. But maybe, just maybe $3.99 is too much to pay to read a twenty-two page lecture with drawings. Maybe, just maybe we’ve reached a tipping point where the once mighty Marvel has come to dust off its once vaunted sense of pride and that old competitive spirit and decided that the plummeting sales of their flagship comics—the wellspring from whence their IP flows!—is seriously bad optics.

Because now Marvel has decided to de-emphasize the (leftist, it’s always leftist!) politics and get back to “meat and potatoes” storytelling.

And last week’s Marvel creative summit I am told by well connected sources who have proved themselves in that past there was more of a focus on what DC Comics internally called “meat and potatoes” comics that preceded their doubling down on the popular characters and bringing back old favourite takes with DC Rebirth.

I am told, as Marvel brings back the X-Men line with a bang, to expect a return to more of a status quo for titles such as Thor, Iron Man, Hulk and more. A more familiar looking Marvel Universe by the autumn – although, just as with Captain America, as classic-look-characters return, expect new characters to keep a number of their books.

This response to market forces isn’t just good news for Marvel fans—it’s good news for comics fans. Because Marvel’s leftist preaching wasn’t just killing it’s comics—it was killing the comic book industry.

...And if modern Marvel creators had been working in the 1940s, you'd get something like this.

Thanks to their movie, TV, animation, and video game products, neither Marvel nor DC really needs their comics to make money. They can publish their comics at a loss, and more than make up any difference with a hit movie. But no other publisher is in such a luxurious position. And if the top two content providers in an industry are willing to publish their material at a loss, and are perfectly content to watch sales dwindle while they “workshop” new material for other media, then other publishers are going to suffer. Marvel and DC have the Intellectual Property that drives sales. If more and more people feel that those companies aren’t producing material that speaks to them, they’re going to take their business elsewhere—away from he comic book shops that are the almost exclusive home to comics.

Which means that smaller books from independent publishers—already endangered thanks to the way Diamond distributes and comic shops order books (books are ordered three months in advance and small publishers who manage to get one or two people to pre-order their books often don’t sell any more than that, because the comic shops order ONLY those two books and don’t order any extra to put out on the shelves)—are going to see their sales drop even more. And they won’t be able to continue publishing, even on the vague hope that a movie producer might see the book and option it for a film.

Which means that the comic book industry has been dying a slow, painful death.

There is a very small, vanishingly small, but exorbitantly vocal minority of people who crave moralizing hectoring in their entertainment. If a comic doesn’t do something to advance their favored political narrative then it must be protested. If a piece of IP doesn’t head to a Congressional hearing to offer some kind of bon mot about, say, the wage gap, they’ll take to Tumblr or the Mary Sue or i09 or whatever to offer an impassioned, chin-stroking think piece. But do those people actually buy comics?

Well, Marvel has been pandering to them for awhile. And now they’re changing course because they’re getting trounced. Let’s hope that they’re fixing this in time to save the comics industry.

UPDATE: Mundane Matt has a video that comes close to making some of the same points I made: