Grumpy Old Comic Creator Yells About Marginalized People: A Trope
For those of us playing the home game for New York Comic Con this year (see: this guy), there was an “incident” during the LGBT panel involving comic creator Peter David and his personal feelings on the Romani people. David, probably best known for his work on the X-Men and Dark Tower series of books, lashed out at a fan asking about Romani representation in comics. David responded with an anecdotal story of Romani people he encountered in 1993 before loudly banishing the fan from the mic. The video is rough to watch, but what is worse is that David double-downed on his comments after the panel . Some blogs have mentioned that this is the type of gaff we would expect to hear on the campaign trail from the likes of a certain Orange-faced pussy-grabber–not a comic book convention. The fact that this came up during a panel on LGBT visibility in comics books makes it seem weird from the start, but does not excuse David on his retort.
Additionally, Peter David should not be seen as a one-shot. He is the newest incarnation of a long-standing tradition of white comic creators belittling the questions of non-white, non-male comic book fans.
Five years ago it was Dan Didio with his comments about women creators. Three years ago DC tried to explain away why Batwoman could not get married to her girlfriend (and lost a great creative team in the process). Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman cover. Hell, I got snarky at Pat Broderick for going after Cosplayers two years ago. The creative minds of the major comic book companies seem to lack the ability to engage the interests of their fans. Or don’t care. Either way, it is becoming apparent that the old white leaders of the comic book world are holding onto the keys of the castle like its a mint copy of Action Comics #1. Anyone who wants to read (update it or check the validity of the condition of the issue) will have to grab it from their cold, dead, hands.
This isn’t hyperbole, and this isn’t just about Peter David. The last generation of creators are starting to spout things you hear from your black sheep aunt or uncle at Thanksgiving. It disgusts the comic book fandom, or at least makes it very awkward at our extended family gatherings in New York and San Diego each year. We need to unpack why these comments are appearing in the first place instead of just rushing to conclusions. We need to look inside ourselves as a community to understand the business, the history and the longstanding culture that David, Didio and the like came from.
The generation that is controlling the editorial and creative sides of major companies at this juncture are primarily, well, white men. They became writers in the 70s, 80s and 90s when comic book culture was viewed as the space of teen boys and geeky 20-somethings. Comics were not “cool” or the blockbuster industry it has created today. But you knew this. Just look at Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher, as an example. Or David Hasslehoff as Nick Fury. This is the community that holds down the reigns of comics today. They trudged through the rough years of being a comic book fan as not a sign of being “hip” but as a sign of adolescent immaturity. Try as they might to tell you the beautiful work of British comic creators in AD2000 or the groundbreaking work in print at Vertigo, Milestone or, heck, Image these men still had to write for a demographic of young suburban men. Through the grimdark 1980s and into the Extreme 1990s (and, further, into the retcon-punching-universal-walls of the 2000s), comic creators were a part of a niche market that has only opened up to the rest of the entertainment world in earnest in the past 15 years. In that time the division between OG comic book fans and the new school comics-as-fashion/comics-as-alternative culture/comics-as-culture crowd has grown at a steady pace.
Stan Lee has admitted that many of his iconic Marvel creations were doused in various forms of radiation as a reaction to the Atomic Age with little or no accounting of the science behind it. There was more fantasy (read: blatant stereotypes) in the creation of comics four, hell, two decades ago than they are now. It is, in part, because of the community that comics were being written for. Or mainly for.
Independent comics have grown in the last two decades to include varied identities and interests. They have not only become major motion pictures and television shows but Broadway plays. I could rattle off a gazillion writers and artists that have helped shape our current comic book fan culture, from the Hernandez brothers to Alison Bechdel to Marjane Satrapi. Suffice to say our global village has become so much smaller. Creation of characters are more nuanced now. More readers will respond to the stereotypes on the printed (or digital) page. When a character is made Muslim for diversity, the business interests of major companies shine through clear as day…or at least entrench stereotypes further.
So then, why are we surprised when a creator like David spouts anecdotes about Romani people? Because we are no longer in the dark ages of comic books. They are a content accessible to people of all backgrounds through various media forms. We expect more from our creators, their past creations and to answer why a character was developed to embody rather than balk stereotypes. An anecdote about a trip to Eastern Europe in the 1990s will do nothing to help the struggles of today, David. DC and Marvel may be corporate holdings with the need to sell comics to a broad audience, but it is starting to seem like we haven’t delineated very far from the orientalist, imperialist images of the 1920s and 1930s.
Creators need to listen to their audiences, even when they disagree, to understand the impact their characters have on individual fans. Popular culture is political culture now more than ever. Because you may have a 20 year old anecdote that does not align with the struggles of a particular group of people gives you no right to respond like an oversize child. This is why these conventions were created. We come to talk to creators about our favorite work by them–and how they can impact our lives in greater ways. Silencing your fans as they diversify will do only harm. We don’t come to conventions just to pat you on the back, we come to help build a better comic book community, to open up a discourse and hope you think about us next time you put your pen to paper.