Friday, 27 March 2015

Electricomics Market Questionnaire - Lend Your Voice!

Calling all comics people! Do you read, make, or sell comics? The Electricomics project needs your voice! Take a minute to run through this questionnaire and chronicle some of your consumer habits: how often, for how much, and where you buy digital comics, or if you buy them at all. Your input will be furthering the goals of a Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project, jointly run between the arts company Orphans of the Storm, the technology provider Ocasta Studios, and researchers from the UCL Institute of Education and the University of Hertfordshire

Read more on their Google Doc at:

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Killing the Cover, What a Joke: Batgirl, Misogyny, and Everything DC's Readers Are Scared Of

By now most if not all of us have read at least one of the articles addressing Rafael Albequerque's recent Batgirl variant cover, which paid homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke. We've read the artist's statement, and we've read DC's statement. We've perused the Twitter rants and familiarized ourselves with reader outrage about a multitude of things: the scared look on the heroine's face; her position of vulnerability; her position of vulnerability in relation to a man in power. It's been noted that this was put on a cover, the quintessentially unavoidable part of a comic, the bit you can't "opt out" of when you're browsing the shelves. I only recently started reading into this matter, a little late to the party, but the arguments I encounter most often are these: the readers don't want to see their heroine in this situation; they want to see her win a battle against a villain; the cover doesn't suit the intentions of the current Batgirl title; and the cover references dark events in the character's pre-New 52 origins, bringing readers back to a problematic story that they shouldn't have to wrestle with.

Damn right it does. What part of "villain" are we not understanding?

The Killing Joke is a brilliant story. It is also absolutely, fundamentally, a problematic story. For those of you who haven't read it, a brief synopsis: this is the tale of Oracle's origin, in which Barbara Gordon is attacked at home by the Joker, who shoots her through the spine and strips her, leaving her naked and paralyzed on the floor while he takes he later uses to psychologically torment her father, Jim. It's a classic example within the comics canon of a woman being victimized simply to provide a point of pathos for a male hero. Barbara suffers greatly, and is left paralyzed for life, but her ordeal is inconsequential to the story; the focus is on Jim as he bears witness to his daughter's trauma. People are upset because this story bothers them. It should. It needs to bother us; we need to to be bothered by it; it is brilliant because it bothers us.

Stories that don't bother us are not worth writing

But people don't look back at the Lord of the Rings and gripe about Sauron's unconscionable actions. We don't threaten to boycott Indiana Jones if it doesn't stop portraying the cruelty of Nazis on the big screen. We all accept Nazis as evil, the "bad guys", and Tolkien was writing long before the era of Dexter and Hannibal. There's something else at work here. Has a cultural paradigm where we celebrate the villain led to us asking for villains whose actions we can condone? Because that's what the people opposing this cover are asking for: a Joker who is socially conscious, a homicidal, anarchist psychopath who won't oppress women. I figure what we're admitting when we demand this cover be pulled is that we're looking for villains who won't remind us of the problems inherent in our own culture. Aliens are alright. Fascists are fine. Crazy magical forces of evil are good to go. Heaven forbid we be confronted by a villain who embodies misogyny, though; that's way too close to home, let alone a villain who we understand is acting out that oppression because he is batshit insane.

Except that's the meaning of villainy. The bad guys should be exactly that: everything wrong with the world. Everything wrong with us. They should make us squirm. They should be a problem for us.

The cover is also, by nature, a cover; it's not doing its job unless it's in your face. I can't help you there; that's visual culture for you. But we live in a world of trigger warnings now, and that means it's becoming ever harder to talk about these things because once someone plays the Trigger Warning card, you can't speak out against them without coming across as the insensitive asshole at the table. We've built ourselves a fortress of insecurity, a honeycomb of carefully shored-up padded rooms where we can be kept far away from the things that cause cognitive dissonance, that force us to come to terms with whatever it is we've suppressed, in order to convince ourselves that everything's gonna be alright, that we're good people.

Look at this cover and tell me everything's gonna be alright.

Look at this cover and tell me the heroine would be better off if she never had to confront this shit. I wish I could have you look me in the eye and tell me you want a Batgirl who confronts violent, terrifying misogyny (the reality of this world we live in) with a carefree smile on her face. That shit is grim. Now, there's the perfectly valid argument that this cover is tonally disjointed from the rest of the Batgirl title so far. I haven't been reading it, but from what I have seen of Batgirl floating around the internet I would say that's an accurate statement. It will be interesting to see what's actually under that cover when the issue is released; if the cover accurately represents the story within, the younger crowd of readers who have been attracted to this heroine may be in for a shock. There will undoubtedly be fallout. Fans may feel betrayed, and the hard truth is this: you have no right to feel betrayed. DC Comics doesn't owe you a thing, even if they should (I'm an idealist; I think every storyteller and artist ought to be beholden to and mindful of his/her audience, to a degree. Rafael Albuquerque has been a brilliant example of this in his concern for his fans' response to the art, taking it upon himself to enter into discussion with the editors and have the art retracted). But they don't; that's the nature of the industry. This isn't some Kickstarter campaign where your donation entitles you to a reward; it's the publishing branch of a much larger company, owned by another company, owned in turn by the world's third-largest entertainment conglomerate. Any debt of gratitude you feel DC comics owes you for reading their material is illusory and sadly misplaced.

So, any backlash against this cover can't really be about enacting corporate change. The outraged parties got lucky this time around; they appealed to an artist inclined to take their pleas to heart, but I think what he managed to give them was their comfort. What I hear in the bulk of these arguments is a desire to get back to a utopian period in the history of superhero comics, but this cover undermines that mission. It was a time when heroes never lost their battles, when the bad guys weren't too upsetting, when a reader could open a comic and be sure that they wouldn't be confronted by anything that challenged them, made them squirm a little, made them doubt that law enforcement personnel were anything less that paragons of virtue or that the government was anything other than wholeheartedly devoted to the greater good. It was a time when comics built up hope in a reader, wrapped them a blanket of comforting narrative tropes and banality and let them know that everything would be okay. That is the kind of comics scene which this cover works against, and it must be pulled from the shelves and made an example of so that we can return to the golden era of...

The Comics Code.

Maybe you've heard of it? That asinine piece of legislature in the mid-1950s that gutted the mainstream industry, tying the hands of creators and forbidding them to write anything other than moralizing propaganda that fostered children's blind trust in the ethical authority of the state. I can't seem to shift my perspective on this cover to allow myself to see it as anything short of foreboding.

Alright, let's wrap this up. I want to address a couple of other internet articles here quickly. Bleeding Cool posted a great interview with Albuquerque in which the artist makes his position and his motivation for pulling the cover quite clear. He's eloquent and smart about it, which is refreshing. I can't say I agree with all of what he says, namely that, "A series aimed at the teenage female audience should not have a cover like this." Oh? Is it going to be too much for them to see one of their heroes confronted by the same oppressive, violent garbage they're going to have to deal with from men for the rest of their lives? That'd be terrible, wouldn't it? Can't have that.

I'm writing this largely in response to a pair of excellent blog posts by Adam Gorham. Adam wrote the first one in response to the cover debacle, and upon reading it I pitched some raw ideas at him on Twitter, to which he responded with the second post. I'm gonna pull a couple quotes from that second post, but you should go read both of them; they're short, and worth it. Adam, responding to my "what if the story should be a problem?" argument, says,
"The problem I have with that argument is TKJ isn’t about Barbara Gordon. She’s made a victim in service of a plot that focuses on the characterization of three men. Her suffering is merely a plot motivator for them to duke it out." 
He goes on to quote another fellow, John Lewis, who says much the same thing and caps it off with the observation,
"Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans." 
I've chewed on that for a while, so let me spit it out and say: what better way to show what a heroine like Barbara Gordon is worth and how far the industry has come than to reprise the horrors of The Killing Joke and have Batgirl emerge victorious through her own suffering. That's the story I hope to see under that cover. I'm not holding my breath or anything, but it'd be nice for a change, wouldn't it? To not pull any punches, to have the Joker enter the scene as vile and demeaning as ever, and to have this strong, resourceful role-model for the up-and-coming generation of modern women stand up to that violation, defeat it, and emerge the stronger for it. Hiding from the cover is not the answer; facing down our demons is.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Penny for Your Thoughts - UBC's Student Elections, Money, and the End of History

It doesn't take a political analyst to tell you that the average university student cares very little for campus politics.

I include myself in that statement. Apart from my four years as an active member of UBCO's visual arts course union, which (in my opinion) plays an integral role in keeping the art communities of both the university and the Okanagan at large from stagnating, I've largely stayed out of student politics and had a hard time stomaching the BS generated each year come election season. To make it worse, as cartoonist for The Phoenix News I've been in thick of it, tasked with critiquing the goings on in my own inkstained way. On second thought...that's been kinda fun; getting paid to take the piss out of student politicians is a good life.

An article from The Ubyssey, the Vancouver campus paper, caught my eye on Facebook the day before yesterday: "Presidential Candidates Discuss Student Life, Tuition Increases, and Hunger Games". The photo on the article made me remember something I'd read about a joke candidate at UBC, some guy running in V's Guy Fawkes mask from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which I thought was a laugh. So I read the article.

And it really pissed me off.

I shared the article on Facebook, at midnight (which is never good idea; I get cranky around midnight), making clear my opinion that we had officially reached a point where the idea of genuine revolution is now nothing more than a student punchline. I got my first comment around twenty minutes later from a friend back in Canada: "LOL!"

To which I replied:
In retrospect, this may have been a little drastic, but I was mad. Maybe it was lingering effects of receiving my friend Leah Moore's rage when British Unity scumbag Nick Griffin started using her dad's V symbol in his xenophobic political campaigns. Maybe it was the cantankerous streak last weekend left in me, having spent Saturday night drinking in Glasgow with my Irish-Marxist-punk-intellectual-art lecturer buddy Dave, who has pure revolution pumping in his veins. My pal on FB tried to defuse the situation, noting that surely there's "significant distance between Tiananmen Square and a noteworthy play of fiction regarding a vivacious character" (kudos to him for "vivacious"). But I wasn't taking any shit about this; far as I was concerned, sitting in my dorm room at 1:30am and steaming mad, this was The End. Student politics was dead. 
"Noteworthy? Hardly. It's a political shit-disturber cosplaying for attention. Which sort of distance do you mean: geographical, chronological, or ideological? Just because we're no longer living in the Cold War doesn't mean we should leave those sentiments to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. It's like pulling teeth to get our generation of students to vote right now, in our own bloody student elections never mind real-world politics. The apathy is suffocating. We live in a safe, sheltered, postmodern Western world where we are told that we're training to become intellectuals of some kind, when in reality all we want is a receipt for our "education" printed on fancy paper. That makes the vast majority of us weak, ignorant, and lazy, and it's turned the platform of politics into a stage for parodying ideals of revolution from an era when a higher percentage of the student body were willing to die for an idea than we can currently get to drop a slip in a ballot box."

Between then and now I've done a lot of reading. The morning after that exchange I had a less-than-cordial private message waiting for me, calling me on my bullshit for criticizing this harmless gag so harshly when I've not only lampooned politics in my own work but also defended the much harsher satire of publications like Charlie Hebdo. At the same time I came across a brilliant article on AlterNet about a student organization actively challenging current academic economic thought by trolling conferences and lectures with incisive questioning. I sent that back as a reply, saying that this is the role students need to take upon themselves: not sitting on a stage in a comic book mask making Hunger Games jokes, but committing themselves to real, intellectual action that addresses the flaws in contemporary social power.

I woke up this morning and read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?". I read a piece on The Guardian that a friend of mine shared titled "Politics Was Once About Beliefs and Society. Now It's a Worship of Money.". Then I started digging through The Ubyssey's Alma Mater Society election material, and everything came together in a rather satisfying way.

The first thing I discovered is that the fellow running as V is a wicked smart, well-articulated student activist named Viet Vu (I shit you not) who is currently president of the Vancouver School of Economics Undergraduate Society. "Vu became president of the Economics Students Association in 2013...As president, Vu’s role is both supervisory and ambassadorial. He advises the society’s other execs on their day-to-day activities and event planning, and represents economics students in dealings with UBC and the AMS." Not, I freely admit, the guy I expected to find under that mask. Vu wrote a letter in The Ubyssey last October, voicing his sadness at the results of the AMS's annual general meeting, which ended on that occasion with a poorly-conceived vote on the matter of whether or not the society should be sanctioning student protests. UBC has been steadily increasing student fees, and action is needed; what lay undecided at the time was whether such action would officially involve the AMS. The vote went through, committing the AMS to support of student fee protests, but Vu said this was a mistaken decision. Read his letter; like I said, the guy's articulate. He cites past negotiations with the school which were successful, in which discourse and not aggressive mobilization of the student body won over and implemented change. Using AMS resources to fuel protests, he says, will do more harm than good in the long run.

The man, the mask; Viet Vu (left) and his
presidential alter ego (right)
There are most certainly those who disagree. The opposition was quick to respond to Vu's letter with one of their own, penned by one of the editors at The Talon, UBC's alternative press newspaper (they're the aggressive, activist ones). No punches were pulled. The letter confidently deploys militarist language in presenting Vu's position as defeatist."Despite what Vu and others in his stead imagine, the 'play nice' strategy isn’t about going into battle for students — it's about negotiating the terms of our surrender." After stating that UBC's negotiating process is callous and patronizing towards its students, the piece caps it all off with this:
And for those of you who will counter that those protests should be organized on an exclusively grassroots level, consider this: if student mobilization is being orchestrated by a body independent of the AMS, why would the university negotiate with the AMS? If the AMS has no ability to stop the protests, how would they have any legitimacy in those discussions? And most importantly, if the AMS isn’t on the front lines with students fighting for accessible education, how can they claim to represent us at all? A student association that isn’t fighting with us can’t fight for us; and a student association that can’t fight for us isn’t one worth having.
Apparently there's a war on, and unless they're paying for the picket signs and bullhorns Vu and his diplomats aren't invited.

UBC has a long and strange tradition of joke candidates in their student elections, stretching back as far as the 1920s. The function of such a candidate is up for discussion, but I figure this article is pretty spot-on: the gag runners are there as a satirical foil to cast the other candidates and the election process in a light that makes you raise an eyebrow at the whole thing. "You run a goat in an election to equate the other candidates to a goat. They have to run against a goat. They have to compete with a goat. That’s funny." Damn right that's funny. What I'm working to understand is where Vu and V fit into that tradition. Vu is also running for senate, and advocating for an "action-forward" senate; I can only assume the action he has in mind doesn't involved hand-painted signs and marching. Is Vu, then, running for a senate spot that he sees as being the right channel for the kind of productive discourse he believes in, while using the presidential race as the most prominent stage from which to lampoon the picketers? I'm very curious to see how that pans out.

To wrap this up I want to touch quickly on the three other pieces of writing I encountered recently, external to the whole UBC thing. Some of you reading this may already be familiar with Fukuyama's theories about humanity having reached the "end of history", a point, he says, where we have exhausted ideological evolution. Western liberalism is it, the culmination of all our thinking which ultimately recognizes human rights, class divisions, sexism, etc. All those issues can be resolved within this framework, and all opposing systems (fascism and communism, namely) have already fallen flat. Therefore any political quibbles we have from now on will be about tweaking the system we already have in place (my first reaction was, "but that system won't work because patriarchy", but that's a conversation for another time). "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." Which jives rather well with that Guardian article I mentioned earlier, claiming that politics has forsaken the pursuit of ideological reform for good business practice, and that AlterNet article about economic rabble rousers stirring up new and rejected ways of thinking among the old and stale minds in the Academy.

Somehow, it all comes back around to economics.

So, maybe it's true. Maybe this is the end of history, and all we've got left to look forward to is a bunch of wannabe politicians whingeing about funding, student fees, and the f**king activists waving signs outside the boardroom windows. I dunno; I'm a cartoonist, not an economist. You'll find me sitting at a desk somewhere with a pen, making you all look fat for a student newspaper that doesn't have enough money to pay me that week because the funds were diverted to buy pizza for the crowd of angry hipsters camped outside the university president's office.

Oh, and Mr. Vu? Stop making corny Hunger Games quips about fighting to the death for the new SUB; let's not mix our pop-cultural metaphors more than we absolutely have to.