Comics plight no laughing matter

An iconic American art form is in crisis thanks to new writers pushing politically-correct storylines

Art
Not so heroic: Batman punches Robin in “Batman”, written by Tom King, with art by Mikel Janin (DC COMICS)

In May the news was leaked that writer Tom King would leave DC Comics’ flagship book Batman, cutting short his 100-book run and leaving after issue 85. Fan patience had snapped after Batman punched Robin, effectively his adopted son. Was Batman under mind-control or faking it as part of a plan? No, he was just angry and depressed. King’s Batman is a volatile man wracked by self-pity after being jilted at his own wedding. Readers were already deserting before this incident, with sales dropping below 90,000 per month; a decade ago sales of 200,000 were common for big titles. Yet there are rumours that this “firing” was an elaborate publicity stunt.

Identity politics has sowed seeds of a bitter civil war in an iconic American art form, driving it towards cultural irrelevance and financial collapse. Against the odds, devoted fans and a few creators are struggling to establish an alternative network. How did things get so volatile?

Welcome to the inverted world of American superhero comics. In an age of blockbuster superhero movies making billions, comic sales are low and dropping. Rather than embodying aspirational qualities of bravery, self-sacrifice and fairness, today’s comic-book superheroes are weak men wrestling with toxic masculinity. Ineffectual, hapless and emotionally incontinent, they are wretched role models. Some fans deride these emasculated heroes as “beta males and cucks” (cuckolds); the descriptions are dismissive, but accurate. King’s other book Heroes in Crisis is set in a counselling centre attended by superheroes seeking treatment for stress.

On the other hand, the women are bad-ass warriors and super scientists who don’t need men—quite literally, as many of them have been converted to lesbianism. The Unstoppable Wasp featured an all-female team of self-validating young genius scientists (in a rainbow coalition of ethnicities) who also happened to be lesbian or bisexual. The characters were examples of transparent virtue signalling and demographic targeting. Shallow interchangeable characters and feeble stories failed to appeal to young girls—The Unstoppable Wasp was ignominiously pulled because of low sales.

A cohort of female young-adult authors was hired to tap fresh audiences but has instead driven away the established audience without bringing in youngsters, women and ethnic minorities. These writers do not take American superhero comics seriously. They undercut everything with humour, hence endless quips about pop culture and banter about food. Exciting adventures are replaced by slice-of-life dramas. New writers push leftist politics and fringe social attitudes: escapist adventures are problematic because they allow readers to ignore social issues; muscular men and shapely women reinforce body stereotypes, marginalising the overweight and transgender people. In an age of “positive representation”, characters are unblemished representatives of identity groups, hence the glut of perfect (and perfectly dull) characters. Characters are gender- or race-swapped to undermine supposed stereotypes. There’s a Korean-American Hulk (Amadeus Cho, in The Totally Awesome Hulk) and a teenage black girl Iron Man (Ironheart).

When fans complained about bizarre story choices, lazy art and drastic alteration to established characters, they were called bigots and smeared as Nazis not just by other fans but also by creators. The comics industry, which has always had diverse creators and characters, was castigated as a white patriarchy by newcomers ignorant of its history. Experienced popular artists who are Republican voters (Mitch Breitweiser, Jon Malin) and traditional Christians (Doug TenNapel) have been unofficially blacklisted by social influencers and industry insiders. Artist Ethan van Sciver experienced harassment, stalking and intrusion into his private life. There is a climate of fear as a handful of professionals and a few hundred political activists use social media to intimidate creators, fans and staff into support or silence. The specialist press runs a sombre roll-call of comic-book shops, which are practically the sole sales outlets, closing because they are unable to sell politically-correct comics to readers in search of escapist entertainment. My book Culture War details how the American superhero industry has been damaged by entryists, who enter cultural production with the sole aim of using it for political goals.

A group of fans and creators rejected the politics, abuse, relentless tampering with  the canon, exploitative business practices and boring stories to form a movement called ComicsGate—the name is an echo of the earlier, similarly bitter, online culture war in the video games arena. In a consumer revolt against big publishers and aggressive creators, ComicsGaters built communities in chatrooms and comment sections. They made videos critiquing lazy creators and complicit publishers. Then they published their own books. Last year van Sciver, a veteran of the comic-book business, launched CyberFrog Bloodhoney, a book of his own characters. Building rapport with fans via videos and showing them artwork in progress, he raised more than $800,000 on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. When Richard Meyer wanted to publish the action comic Jawbreakers, he struck a deal with independent publisher Antarctic Press. But  within 24  hours it was off, allegedly after a major writer, Mark Waid, contacted Antarctic Press and interfered – with the result  that Meyer is now suing Waid for damages.

Earlier this year, activists’ spite reached dangerous levels. Small publisher Alterna Comics has stayed out of the ComicsGate controversy, steadfastly committed to published comics with a minimum of politics, but it has been viewed as sympathetic to ComicsGate.

On February 13, someone contacted police and falsely stated that Peter Simeti (owner of Alterna) had a gun and was a danger to others—an illegal practice called “swatting”. During an online video chat about comics, Simeti’s home was raided by a police SWAT team. In non-ComicsGate cases, swatting has become a tactic to intimidate people and has led to accidental shootings and at least one killing by police. (Swatting was later used against a prominent anti-ComicsGater.)

Ultimately, readers will accept diverse characters, but only if they care about them. For that to happen, creators need to care about stories and characters. Sadly, cultural entryists’ disdain for both genre and readership may yet destroy American superhero comics. If there is a future, it lies in ComicsGate.