AICN COMICS Op-Ed: No More (Calling People) Mutants, or...Remender Was Right
Late Friday night, I posted the below editorial in full on my personal site, Arthouse Cowboy. It is reprinted here in full (including some additions and post script), with the gracious approval of AICN's own "Ambush Bug". The comments mentioned in the Post Script section below can be found under the original post on AC.
I planned to write under 500 words and ended up with around 3000. Thanks in advance for reading.
I wasn't even aware of this whole thing until today. I've spent a few hours now collecting my thoughts, even though I initially figured I'd dash something off in just under an hour.
I'm disgusted by this post at Bleeding Cool. It brazenly opens with a pile of slurs as examples of the alleged injustice to political correctness found in Uncanny Avengers #5. In the issue, Havok (aka Alex Summers) declares his desire to be known as a person before being reduced to a label associated with prejudice and bigotry:
He's speaking to his desire to be recognized by his fellow human beings as a human being first.
I disagree that this issue of this particular comic book in any way undermines the general notion of mutants representing minorities, the persecuted, and the oppressed. Moreover, Rich Johnston's implication that this is some sort of demonization of the word mutant is such a crass, overreaching grasp at straws...I'm amazed he got away with this load of crap. Bleeding Cool, as they are wont to do, have manufactured yet another controversy out of thin air, and the rest of the comics blog diaspora has followed along and validated them.
The original post spurred a wildfire of pseudo-analysis, insubstantial commentary, and this BC followup. While reading it, you can almost hear Johnston cackling in glee at his filthy victory. That Johnston and his "Little Bleeders" actively engage in a fresh demonization of the week every week is disgusting, slimy, and detrimental to the comics community. I've said I dislike his tactics in the past, but now I've decided that he's a full-on scumbag.
I applaud the significant amount of thought put into this piece at Comics Alliance, but it, too, is misguided and looking for something that isn't there.
If your argument comes around to "I don't like this writer's work because I assume s/he means something I'm reading into it of my own accord", then I urge you to go out and do some creative writing that cannot be interpreted differently than you had intended. Let me know how that goes for you.
The most infuriating thing I've seen develop out of this insta-controversy are allegations that writer Rick Remender has somehow "ruined" or "rewritten" the X-mythos and what it represents, and consequently, he's some sort of racist misogyno-homophobe who "just doesn't get it".
Before I do my best to pulverize this whole facile argument into dust, I have to share some background on me: who I am, my life experience, and how I identify myself. This subject cannot be discussed in a semi-vacuum, nor from a pulpit of absolutism.
In a way, I've been trying to find the reason to write something like this for years. I hate that I'm writing it in connection to the work of one of the least ethical demagogues in comics journalism history.
I'm the multiracial, first generation son of a Chinese-Cuban immigrant and a Western Eurpoean/"white" American. It's thought that my paternal grandmother was Afro-Cuban. Growing up, checking the "race" box on forms was a complicated, fraught decision for me. Sometimes I could only pick one, other times I could pick all that applied. Other times, I wondered why in one place it offered "non-white Latino" and "white/Latino" as options, but on other forms, "Latino" didn't seem to exist.
As a child, I thought we could have a black or latino or female President of the United States, but I never thought I'd see a President of "mixed" race in my lifetime. I never thought that I would be able to say "like our sitting President, I'm the son of a non-white foreign immigrant and a white teacher from Kansas". To me, Barack Obama is a human being first, and his experiences and struggles first. That he is also half African and half "white" is an aspect of who he is, rather than the overriding label or definition of who he is. Likewise, I think of myself as a human being and the sum of my experiences first, not the series of tags utilized to categorize me.
I don't reject my background, nor am I ashamed and trying to hide who I am. That wasn't always the case, but now, I'm proud of and embrace everything that makes me unique, different, and to some, "weird". As a result, I refuse to be reduced to a label. I would rather be someone's friend rather than their "Cuban friend". I want to be a broadcaster, not a "Latino broadcaster". I want to be a writer with diverse roots, not an "exotic multicultural voice" (as I was once referred to in publication). I am no better able to do a certain type of work nor simply exist on this planet due to my intrinsic qualities.
My younger brother was Autistic. In the old days of developmental disability diagnosis, he was referred to as "high-functioning". He was fixated on routines and patterns, and was a savant when it came to memorization. He had extremely keen senses of hearing, touch, and sight. His hyper-sensitivities took various forms, whether instant agony at a singer being off-key, or tactile stimuli, like the texture of food. Those who read comics or watch superhero movies can understand why I felt like my little brother had mutant powers that manifested very early. He couldn't fly or read minds, but they were extra-sensory abilities all the same.
He and I were both born in the early-to-mid-1980s. He fixated on and most loved cartoons with absolute good and evil sides, like G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Transformers, but above all, he loved the X-Men.
For whatever its flaws, the 1992 X-Men animated series represented a watershed in the history of his self-expression. He gravitated toward the treatment of "mutant freaks" in the very first episode, and the persecution of those who are different. They can look like any other person, wearing the same clothes and skin. He directly related to and deeply felt the moments when our heroes's underlying differences were exposed, and the public acted out in fear. Whether it was the popping-out of claws, or, in other cartoons, the hulking-out of the Hulk, he saw himself in those characters.
He died in 2011 from an aggressive, cancerous tumor in his chest. Until the end, the great work of his life was an unending struggle for acceptance.
Growing up, I would have given anything for people to accept him as "Eddie" instead of "that retard" or "that weird kid" or "the freak". What I would have given for people to not tense up when he would act out in public. When they would realize what he was, they would clutch their children close and/or tense up, like he was some sort of terrifying animal, a beast. To them, he was a monster, not a human being. It bothered me most when people would imply that since my brother was Autistic, that naturally, I had to have "had some retard rub off on [me]". It bothered me not because I felt insulted, but because they were saying my brother was inferior, worthless.
The world would be a better place if it were full of people as optimistic, affectionate, and honest as my brother. He had his problems and deficiencies, but...don't we all?
I am not saying that this is how I see the definitive nature of Marvel's mutants, as analogues for those with developmental disabilities. I do not see the X-Men or mutants through this narrow a field. They are much more universal and multifaceted than that.
I think that the moment a very, very subjective mis-read of "don't call me a mutant" as "don't call me black/gay/female/etc" hit the internet, everyone lost on all sides of this ridiculous non-debate.
I've directly identified with the X-Men stories as an unwanted outsider. I was an "ethnic other" growing up on top of being a bookish know-it-all nerd. Teachers in school Americanized my first name "because it's easier to call you Moses". The "Asian" and "Latino" groups of kids in school didn't accept me as part of their circles because I wasn't all one thing. There was no animosity, but I would be told "well, but you're not really [X]", as if I did not count. The "White" kids accepted me, albeit as an "other".
I was teased, bullied, and mistreated. The impression was that I wasn't just different, I was multi-different. The trouble always exploded when I revealed my true "mutant" self, whether through talking about my distinctly different family traditions and life from that of WASPs, speaking or pronouncing Spanish in public, or whatever else. The discomfort with my "other" status caused no end of brutal, awful things to be said. That kids had multiple lists of racial slurs to pick from meant they could mix and match them like toppings at Dairy Queen.
Growing up, I wrote adventure and fantasy fiction, poetry, plays and screenplays. I acted in dramas, comedies, and musicals. Rewatching Heavyweights recently, I thought "that chubby kid in the Les Misérables sweatshirt and a beret? I think that wasme".
I competed in Acadaemic Pentathlon and Octathlon, the competitive sports for bookish nerds. I went out for gymnastics when all the "real men" went for football in 9th grade. I played Japanese RPG video games with complex existential plotlines. In middle school, I created and DMed my own pen-and-paper role-playing game. It was like Dungeons & Dragons, but due to some combination of parental sheltering and Dallas being Dallas, I had never played D&D or been allowed to hang out with "those weirdos" who did.
I related to the X-Men and mutants. The things that made me who I was turned out to be things that others did not understand, did not care to, and were determined never to tolerate, let alone accept.
The definitive characteristic of mutants in X-comics is fundamentally about "outsider" status and a lack of tolerance and/or acceptance. It is equally made up of people with extraordinary talents using them for the cause of good and justice in the world. This does not limit mutants to only representing a single group, nor does it require their narrative to conform to how the reader most deeply relates to them.
The X-gene and mutants represent an impossibly large spectrum of diversity in traits and attitudes.
The X-Men and mutants are not analogues for those who fought for equal rights in the decade of the X-Men's creation (and thereafter). They are not analogues for those campaigning for the recognition of marriage equality as I type this in 2013. They are not analogues for the disabled, whether their conditions are developmental, physical, or emotional. They are not analogues for the persecuted nerds, geeks, and dorks like myself and others, who have been buying X-comics for decades.
To me, mutants metaphorically represent our internal strife as a human species desperate to categorize, archetype, and reduce the value of one another to enhance our own self-worth. A mutant doesn't have to be different in just one manner, whether it's how they look, act, touch, taste (I guess), or sound. The fundamental trait of a mutant, to me, is that they are indeed somehow different. Those with amazing abilities to fly or shoot lasers from their eyes are denigrated as freaks of nature. Those with scales for skin or glow-in-the-dark eyes don't have to demostrate the ability to fly to be labeled a freak.
A very clever take on the "Batman slapping Robin" meme from artist Stephanie Lantry. Take a look at her site for a full-size version.
Those crying foul regarding how close in the alphabet "M-word" is to "N-word"? There are a lot of letter-words: R-word, C-word, B-word, and so on. None of us owns disenfranchisement more than anyone else. To say otherwise forwards the same argument used by those who actively promote prejudice and bigotry. That is to say some are superior to others. Even in their disenfranchisement, some are more deserving of mention and attention than others. I saw one comment about how awful Rick Remender is for writing Wolverine calling Sunfire a "walking atomic bomb". Are we really going to that extreme of over-sensitivity, attaching post-WWII anti-Japanese sentiment to a writer born decades after that war ended? Are we ignoring the voice of characters and pretending that Wolverine has never said anything coarse, harsh, or insensitive? Moreover, Sunfire's powers have found him described as "a walking atom bomb" for a long, long time.
I respect the writers at Comics Alliance (EIC Joe Hughes and columnist Andrew Wheeler) more than ever for putting a great deal of thought and care into the piece they wrote; however, just as in competitive debate or legal proceedings, if your case is fundamentally flawed, it doesn't matter how hard you worked on it nor how well-crafted it is. The underpinnings of their argument is that Havok's revisionist (my word not theirs) version of Xavier's philosophy is replete with self-loathing and denial. Again, my contention, and apparently that of the writer himself, is that Havok is saying "recognize my humanity first, not the labels attached to mere aspects of who I am".
I comprehend how one can choose to interpret the words on the page that way, but I don't believe assessments like theirs would be so prevalent were it not for the invisible hand of the Bleeding Cool piece nudging the internet toward outrage. I'm not saying they are gullible or easily mislead, but rather, that their site, like other major comics blogs, survive on being "part of what's happening". That's how they score big traffic spikes and satisfy their advertisers. Even if they they end up tempering their opinion down the road or reconsidering it, they have to strike while the controversy is hot.
I'm most angry about the implication that since Remender is a white, straight male, he is incapable of writing an "inclusive" comic book. Where others found instant offense to be taken, I found something that moved me in ways that comic books rarely do. The same thing happened to me as when I read Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel being urged to "punch holes in the sky".
"How about Alex?" made me choke up. I put down the comic and let a couple of tears roll. Uncanny Avengers was all right enough until then. That moment, for me, is what started to elevate the nature of the book beyond "neat superhero team mashup gimmick book". That's why I was surprised to see a corner of the internet lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks over something I found so satisfying.
Different characters have different characteristics that a wide array of people connect with in unpredictable and infinitely varied ways. That is why we all love comics. That is why we all are hyper-sensitive to anything that may threaten the escapism we hold so dear.
Havok (Alex Summers) is white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. He doesn't look like me, and I don't relate to being able to wake up white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. To say I'm incapable of relating to Havok is like saying I'm incapable of relating to Luke Cage because I'm not black, or Sunfire because I'm not Japanese. When I look at Alex Summers in this comic, I see a man who is misunderstood and hated for a part of who he is, something that he couldn't change even if he wanted. Alex doesn't resent or hate himself, he resents being reduced to "mutant [human] Alex Summers, who fights against evil and injustice we hope OHGODWHATIFHEFOESCRAZY?!" instead of "Alex Summers, who fights evil and injustice with his unique talents".
This is not an endless semantic argument, regardless of how some unfortunately influential stink-makers might like to frame it. This is about a precision of language and storytelling that they could only dream of mastering.
Where the arguments of detractors utterly fall apart is in questioning the dramatic gravitas of the brother of the most wanted mutant on Earth leading this team with this purpose. He's not leading the team because he looks Aryan, he's leading it because his brother almost tore the universe in half and this setup makes for interesting dramatic tension. The hate squad are, in effect, saying "I wish I ran Marvel, I could write all of this so much better".
Let's pretend that there is such a thing as a time machine...a time machine used to change editorial and writing decisions in comic books. To have shoehorned a "minority race/status" leader into the Uncanny Avengers team as its leader for the sake of diversity alone would have been assailed as pandering to quota-like expectations. It would also cause more continuity and plausability complaints than anyone has already voiced.
Oh god, what have I spent 2700 words writing? That is what this whole charade really is? "I wish I ruled the comic book world"?
Well...hopefully you got something out of this, dear reader. I'd better wrap this up.
I would love to see news and opinion outlets writing interesting, insightful news and opinion. I wish that they would do this instead of spending most of their effort desperately scratching for something with which to fuel a traffic spike.
Bleeding Cool are the same jackals who tried to invent a "rape controversy" surrounding Doc Ock inhabiting Peter Parker's body in Superior Spider-Man and taking Mary Jane on a date. They've tried to forward the idea that they are helping the cause of justice and equality by affecting editorial change. If they really care, where was their similar campaign (beyond one initial post) about the killing of a pregnant Lois Lane at the hands of Superman? As we say in Texas, these fellows are "all hat, no cattle". Nice occasional scoops, boys, but where's the beef?
This "controversy" is dead on arrival, and that it was coaxed into existence by those considered among the leading editorial voices in the comics industry offends me, both as a journalist and a comic fan. That BC got away with what they did in that first article offends me as a citizen of the civilized world.
Maybe Rick Remender's initial reflexive reaction to this was coarse and...colorful, but...
...I cannot say that I disagree with him in spirit. If I were being assailed on all sides like he was, I think I might have been less kind than that. To his credit, Remender rather swiftly and sincerely apologized for the lack of tact shown here.
If you bought in to this "raging controversy", take a breath and look at what is on the page with as fresh of eyes as you can. The writer of some of the most nuanced and thought-provoking mainstream (and independent) comics of the last ten years is not the problem here.
All I can leave you with is this: do good work, treat each other well, and enjoy life. Also, don't feed the trolls.
[UPDATE 2013-03-31: I've added some minor clarification in a few places above, and a Post Script below. The initial writing of this article was a great deal more engrossing than I had planned at the outset, and these additions do not change the shape of it as a whole.]
I put a great deal of time and multiple revision passes into the article seen above.
I've received emails, tweets, and a comment below to the effect of: "nope, sorry, mutants are a different species". The point being made in these criticisms is that mutants are not human. That isn't true, and this gives me a rare opportunity to cite my undergraduate major in Anthropolgy to prove a point.
Even though I hate citing a Wikipedia article, it's correct in this case. "Normals" or non-mutants are Homo sapiens sapiens, whereas those with the additional mutant "X-gene" trait are Homo sapiens superior. To say that mutants are not human is the same as saying someone with Down Syndrome is not human due to a chromosomal abnormality. Mutants are different, but still part of the human species. Mutants are members of a subspecies yes, but absolutely not non-human.
Being "loud and proud" about one's mutant status is to be commended, and again, I don't think Remender is disagreeing with that. Havok, as written, is promoting that he is a human being first, and a series of labels secondarily. His rejection of the connotations of the word "mutant" is entirely contextual to the way it mutated (imagine that) from an identifier to a full-on colloquial slur in the Marvel Universe, especially following the events of Avengers vs. X-Men.
"What Opinion? Where?"
The proprietor of Bleeding Cool himself was the first commenter on this article. He echoed his assertion that there was no "allegation of injustice or demonisation". He says that I "[inferred] much which wasn't intended". I could not disagree more vehemently. The persona of Bleeding Cool is as the agent provocateur of the comics world, that is to say the first to comment on the latest, best, and worst in the comics industry. They do reportage, but their specialization is in driving perception. Their scooping of behind-the-scenes creator mistreatment at DC has been very informative and might be true in pieces or all-around. At once, it is taboid in delivery style and sensationalism. That isn't a judgment so much as an objective take on the compositional style. Lighting fires and watching others fuel them is what they are known for doing.
For what it's worth, if Bleeding Cool's Rich Johnston really does want to "chat" about this whole thing, I might be open to having him on Giant Size to discuss...but that's a big maybe.
"Remender Was Right"
Guys like this...
...really are the fringe on this whole thing.
I'm not the only one coming out to defend Remender. Here are a few tweets I found, the candor of which is exponentially growing in quantity on Twitter (thankfully). Just look at what his mentions look like now compared to a few days ago.
This too shall pass.
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