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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

REFORM, HARLEQUIN!: THE NEW TITS

I still like my titular pun in Part One on a famous Harlan Ellison story (labored though it may be-- the pun, not the story). But even when I tossed it out there, I was aware that "elitistsnobmen" were not the only ones attempting to get the Harlequin of pop culture to sit straight and eat right.

Basically, there are two types of reformers: those who want a thing to be made better because they care about said thing, and those who are trying to convince you that the object in question is much less interesting/edifying, etc. than something else. The latter are the "elitistsnobmen" in question. The former, then, are the fans, who often have a certain love/hate affair with the object of dispute, but who are not looking to abandon the object for something else.

My general impressions are that most of the fans who objected to the death of Ryan Choi are of the first type. In addition, most would seem to have a liberal belief in the inherent value of ethnic-and-sexual diversity. I would not dispute that this is a real value, even at a time when comic books have become something of a marginal medium in terms of bulk sales. I doubt that diversity will ever pave the road to greater sales for the medium, as some pundits have asserted, but I think that diversity should be pursued in all genres (be it superheroes, teen humor, or whatever) simply because it's the right thing to do.

Yet we're talking about representations of diversity within a mainstream genre currently noted for extreme sensationalism creates some problems as to what an audience can reasonably expect from the producers of sensationalistic entertainment.
It's a little like expecting Roger Corman, who made his fortune putting tits in movies, to suddenly swear off tits.

Jennifer of REAPPROPRIATE responded to my earlier essay thusly:

"In the end, I think much of the reaction is fannish anger, but just because it is anger, doesn't make it misplaced. There should be some acknowledgement on the part of fans that characters are important to them, and that their deaths should be meaningful. Asian Americans are reacting negatively to Ryan Choi's death specifically because he's APIA. We're not saying he should be immune to comic book deaths, we're protesting the seemingly insensitive and inconsequential death that he suffered particularly considering he is one of the only APIA superheroes to have their own title."

I don't disagree with the anger: as per my earlier mention of Gerry Conway (FOUL SLAYER OF BLONDE VIRGIN GWEN STACY!!), I've been angry about a lot of meretricious comic-book deaths in my time, too. I don't have a problem with critiquing a given comic-book death because it's badly handled or disrespectful to earlier iterations of the character. And on the level of purely personal taste, I don't like the trope of the "insenstive and inconsequential death" that is exemplified by Conway's treatment of Gwen Stacy, and I greatly prefer the sort of "tragic but meaningful death" accorded another SPIDEY character, Gwen's pop George, whom Stan Lee killed in a manner no less shocking at the time but with more respect for the character.

And yet, my impression is that "insenstive and inconsequential death" has become the "new tits" for the mainstream superhero genre. I'm sure that tragic deaths still take place in current superhero yarns, but the trope of the meaningless death has in my opinion taken the lead in terms of its power to shock-- and that makes it of supreme interest to producers of sensationalistic entertainment.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the power of this trope as the "Women in Refrigerators" concept. Long before Ron Marz killed off a fairly minor girlfriend-character in GREEN LANTERN #54 (1994), there was a long and perhaps hoary tradition of killing off support-characters in order to put the main hero through the emotional wringer. Certainly superhero comics did not invent the tradition, and on the whole they *may* have been considerably less misogynistic than other genres (the private detective genre comes to mind, with Mickey Spillane at the head of the pack). But had Green Lantern's girlfriend been given a respectful and meaningful death, instead of a cruel sensationalistic death, would anyone have remembered that the character lived or died? Given a respectful death, would she have become a metaphor for female disenfranchisement?

Ryan Choi is now more or less poised to represent Asian superheroes in roughly the same way, even though, as I took pains to stress in my last essay, he's not being victimized to any greater extent than, say, Hawkman and Hawkgirl. In terms of my own taste, I, like Jenn, would rather see him (or any half-decent hero) get a respectful death.

But I don't see much evidence that respectful death sells comics.

And for the producer of genre-comics, as for the carnival barker, his first job is to convince you to plunk down your money. As to whether he's selling you sizzle or steak once you get inside-- that you only find out after paying.

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