Pink & Ginger: What’s Bugging DC Comics?
So, I’m trying this new thing where I try to share with you some of the awesome, free-range conversations I have with my Darling Husband, a/k/a Cam Banks—Internet-famous author and game designer, family man, and Twitter’s Dad. Thanks to Eric Paquette for the series name: it makes us sound like an awesome spy duo or a delicious drink!
Today’s topic has been on rising boil for a while, but just blew the lid off last night with its latest flare-up. First, asking vociferous homophobe Orson Scott Card to write for Superman; then, this week, DC letting the Batwoman creative team quit rather than publish the same-sex marriage of BW and her partner, followed by last night’s kicker, the Harley Quinn “Break Into Comics!” contest art direction, which invites folks to draw HQ trying to commit suicide in a series of ways, including naked in the bathtub. People are so outraged that sources say individuals at DC are getting threats, in typical and totally unacceptable Internet fashion.
So my question to you, DH, is this: What in the pluperfect hell is going on at DC Comics right now?
DH: This whole direction of being incapable of seeing what effect their portrayal of various characters is having isn’t new, obviously. You only have to look back to the past few years to see decisions like the really blatantly sexualized female characters in some of the New 52 titles. There’s a reason that one website has a “X Days Since the Last DC Comics Blunder” counter. [You can find a timeline of departures from DC since the New 52 reboot here.]
ProfBanks: Right. But all of these things have to make it past many sets of eyes before they finally go live. How do you think DC has become so divorced from their readership and core values?
DH: I think it’s more complicated than people think over at Warner [DC’s parent company]. Remember, this is a gigantic multinational entertainment company, and the turnover has been really crazy. Executives coming and going. People in charge of making decisions being fired or let go or moving on. Look at the fallout after Man of Steel, for instance. At DC Comics, I’m not sure some editorial staff know from one day to the next who their boss is. That doesn’t really explain why the folks who have their “boots on the ground” so to speak aren’t aware of the messages they’re sending out.
PB: What fallout after Man of Steel? I totally missed this.
DH: So, there’s been a lot of discussion of what would happen if they made a Justice League movie. Part of the deal with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Bat-flicks and Man of Steel was that they could somehow tie into one another and everything would naturally go Avengers-like. Unfortunately there was a dispute among the various executives in charge of movies and media, and Legendary Pictures walked away from Warner. Long story short, I don’t think the upcoming Batman/Superman movie was Plan A. Plus, a lot of people were seriously upset with Man of Steel anyway.
PB: I know I was really disappointed by how careless the destruction was in the movie during the fight between Supe and Zod. In the Superman II version, Zod and his team were able to break Supe’s focus by endangering people, whom he automatically went off to save. There was none of that care in Man of Steel, and pretty egregious destruction. I get the “But I just wanna stomp Metropolis!” urge for a filmmaker, but compared to The Avengers‘ battle in New York, the big Supe-Zod showdown just felt like a boss fight on a 2D video game backdrop where there are no consequences.
DH: Exactly. And this is a good example of missing the point. Now, I don’t think it’s an epidemic of thoughtlessness, it could just be another symptom of the push to get bigger, better SFX and visuals out there and skimp on story and plot. And we all know that no single screenplay in Hollywood ever gets to stay intact without being stripped apart and rebuilt hundreds of times by producers and studio executives. But even if this were shown to test audiences, I would have thought at some point somebody would have said “Hey, isn’t this kind of just disaster porn?”
PB: What I keep coming back to is the growing gap between the values DC has always espoused, especially through Superman but also underlying other core characters, the whole “truth, justice, and the American Way” thing. The “American Way” is changing as demographics change, and while the old mythology is powerful, aren’t they missing a huge opportunity to be more to today’s readers?
DH: They are. And in fact, there have been great strides made in terms of certain creators and writing and progressive characterizations. I don’t think you would have seen Batwoman—a really kick-ass lesbian hero character—headlining her own title a decade ago. Not the way folks like J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman have been writing her, anyway. But somebody higher up the food chain didn’t read the memo. Or, in this case, tossed out their wedding invitation.
PB: Whereas Marvel actually sent out wedding “invitations” before their same-sex marriage in Astonishing X-Men #51 last year, and it sold hugely for them. Do you think DC execs just don’t have a good idea of who their readers are?
DH: It’s possible. It’s also possible that we don’t know who their readers are, not completely, and that we’re sort of assuming that there’s a huge untapped audience of LGBT and multicultural readers who are being sidelined. That’s the problem with demographics. In some cases, an exec looks at two numbers on a sheet and says, “Well, we can afford to kick those people to the curb because this larger group won’t be interested and they give us more money anyway.” I have a feeling however that they’re on the wrong side of history here even if they believe they’re making good business sense.
PB: Compared with the success of Marvel across the board right now, I can’t understand how they think the move toward…I don’t even know WHAT they stand for anymore…is the right one. I mean, honestly, at this point, I have serious reservations about letting our boys consume DC material. What about you?
DH: I think you could take that stand, but on the other hand, so much of the tie-in stuff has nothing to do with this. Like, the Young Justice animated series that recently ended was amazing. I can only assume the new Batman cartoon will be a lot of fun, too.
But I think we’ve both come to the conclusion that certain properties like Injustice or Arkham City are too intense and don’t portray women or minorities in a way we want our kids to be exposed to. And hey, there really is no end of Marvel stuff out there.
Plus, having read Batwoman, it’s for mature audiences anyway. Not because of the character’s sexuality, but because a lot of the Bat-titles are written for mature audiences. (Don’t get me started on THAT mixed message, though.)
PB: Right?! Merchandising and marketing is aimed squarely, with the force of a firehose, at getting kids into Batman, but they’re not producing new content that’s age-appropriate except for the new show. And don’t get me started on Arkham Asylum and Arkham City—having that battle with the kid every other damn week is wearing me out. He thinks it’s okay that he understands that the way women and minorities are portrayed and treated is really messed up. He doesn’t believe me when I say that knowing it isn’t enough when his brain is absorbing these messages in formative years.
DH: Insert “I consumed media like that when I was a kid and I’m OK” comment here. At the very least, I’m conscious of how much we work to include diverse characters, stories, and other media into our kids’ lives so that, rather than necessarily getting rid of problematic stuff, we present more positive alternatives and make those more appealing. It would sure help if our major entertainment media companies would pitch in a little more in this regard.
PB: Yes, please. Let us leverage our vast combined influence on the entertainment media complex to make this happen.
DH: Great case study: Minecraft. But you watch. One day we’ll find out somebody who works on that game is a Nazi sympathizer or hunts big game in Africa.
PB: We’re not talking about Minecraft, dear. We’re talking about the screws loose in DC Executive Land.
DH: So my big take-away from this is that someone, somewhere, in DC Land needs to get a handle on the messages they’re sending out. They’re not in charge of that message right now. They might think they are, but I think the evidence (and the departures of writers and artists) is to the contrary.
Plus, for crying out loud, don’t use naked suicidal Harley Quinn as your art contest subject.
PB: Because that’s not triggery in any way.
DH: Nobody thinks this is a good idea.
How about—shocker!—a contest where you’re tasked to gender-flip a major DC character or present them as a non-white non-traditional character? That’d be a wonderful use of creativity.
PB: YES. MAKE IT SO.
DH: It’s already being done by every progressive artist on Tumblr or DeviantArt anyway. Maybe DC is just permanently late to the party. What do you do when your audience can find better uses for your IP than you do?
PB: Total regime change. The King is dead. Long live The King.
Thanks for the chat, honey.
DH: You’re welcome! We should do this more often.
PB: Yes, let’s.
It speaks to what I’ve been wondering myself.
I suspect DC is stuck in a ‘dark and edgy sells’ rut. Nolan Batman won them so much money and fan acclaim they want to crank up the formula and apply it to everything.
This, I believe, poisons the characters. Which is a terrible shame.
Not only does it poison them, but it distorts the real dark spaces that exist among these characters to be explored. It wastes an opportunity to deal with true, brutal experiences and stories and consequences that comics could interpret and relate with alongside their readers, building them up and helping them live in the world.
As you say, a terrible shame.
Call me cynical but did it ever occur to you that all the press and controversy was the point? I understand advertisers love it that DC is being talked about. No one gives a flying fig about being on the right side of history in a boardroom. Its all about the $. If this does eventually cost them they will course correct. We’ll see!
Is it possible that DC is oposed to their characters being married *at all*, rather than oposed to being married to a partner of the same sex?
I mean, the only character in the n52, who is married, is Buddy Baker (and he is far from the “classic” hero). Even in Marvel they married two C-list characters, who don’t have their own title. For the other characters they don’t try to focus on the characters being married (even if it is central to the characters, like Mr.Fantastic/Invisible Woman) or actively try to split them up (like Peter/MJ or (more recently) Cyclops/Emma Frost).
I can understand the value of keeping characters unattached for plot purposes, certainly. My reason for thinking it’s not just that benign is the pattern of regrettable decisions. One choice does not a system make, but there are too many bad choices to ignore the picture they’re drawing.
Denying the marriage of Kate and Maggie is just one part of the overall problem. Even if DC didn’t want any character to marry, it doesn’t explain the naked Harley suicide, or even the Harley Suicides panels. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in editorial saying, “Hey, wait a minute!” Even if you split the wedding fiasco from the Harley Suicides, something seems to be inherently broken over at DC. A disconnect.
Marvel finally allowed Northstar to be out and featured his wedding on a prominent comic. Marvel finally got its movies to reflect the comics and be done well. Over at Archie Comics, editorial beat Marvel to the gay wedding, plus gave Kevin Keller his own title.
At DC, it seems like there’s desperation. The 52 reboot got attention, but the execution is leaving a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and the latest stumbles aren’t helping.
Getting characters (gay or otherwise) married means *nothing* if you don’t do anything with it.
Northstar and whatshisname got their wedding and then dropped off the face of the earth. Same with Storm/Black Panther (are they still married?). I’m still waiting for a good story, that shows the F4 as a *family*, etc. …
Nowadays, in comic books, “getting married” seems to be code for “we are not interested in writing for this character anymore”. 🙁
If it was just the marriage, then it’d be chalked up to lousy communication between editorial and the creative team when the proposal was first submitted. But the cancelled wedding isn’t isolated. Over the past few years, DC seems to be tone deaf to what the company is doing. The hypersexualization of Starfire in the reboot of the Titans when the cartoon wrapped up turned away potential new readers. Getting Orson Scott Card to write a new Superman title at a time when his anti-gay* agenda was well known cost DC exposure as comic stores decided against stocking the title and lost DC an artist.
*Anti-gay as in removing rights, as opposed to, “ew, ick.” While the latter isn’t kosher to publicize, it’s not as insidious as calling for the creation of concentration camps. (http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-hypocrites.html, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/print/700245157/State-job-is-not-to-redefine-marriage.html)
Now we have the Harley Suicides, a way for new artists to break in, mimicking the Bunny Suicides. Again, tone deaf – the Bunny Suicides involve nameless, identical rabbits killing themselves with Rube Goldberg devises. Whoever at DC came up with the Harley version forgot the black humour, especially in panel 4, which requires a nude Harley trying to electrocute herself in a bathtub. Um, what?
It’s not *just* the cancelled wedding in Batwoman. The wedding, which could have been forestalled when the proposal was made, just gets tossed on the pile of stumbles DC is having.
As I’ve commented elsewhere… it really seems like DC would like to fire their audience and replace it with one more in keeping with their values and aesthetic. At this rate, who knows? Maybe they’ll succeed. The same thing could happen to Penny Arcade.
[…] I was fresh from anger so blinding that I brought in the Darling Husband to help me write a blog post about it because I was worried I couldn’t write sensibly on the subject. So the tears that […]
[…] down. What happened is easy to find; over at Jessica Banks schools you, Jessica and her husband Cam detail the latest problems quite nicely. Why it happened is another […]