The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 238 | On Gene Luen Yang’s National Book Festival address

Leaving Proof 238 | On Gene Luen Yang’s National Book Festival address
Published on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: Gene Luen Yang pays tribute to Dwayne McDuffie and suggests that fear of Internet backlash might be pushing some creators towards excessive self-censorship in his National Book Festival speech. ALSO: A Last Devil art update!

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Yang displays his “We Need Diverse Books” button during the 14th annual National Book Festival at the Library of Congress.

If you haven’t yet read the transcript of the speech Gene Luen Yang (Boxers & Saints, Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise) gave during the recently concluded National Book Festival gala at the Library of Congress, I strongly suggest clicking on this link and reading Michael Cavna’s Washington Post article covering the event from a comics-informed perspective. Cavna does a great job thumbnailing Yang’s career and explaining the significance of a comics creator finally being invited to formally address a crowd that, in Cavna’s estimation, seemed somewhat hesitant to consider comics as “true literature.” (An aside: I don’t really care for a lot of the “high art vs. low art” debates as they concern comics—it strikes me as a lot of bloviating from both sides—but I am all for anything that paints comics and comics creators in a positive light.)

Yang’s speech, which was built around the theme of diversity, paid tribute to the late Dwayne McDuffie and his efforts to make comics and animated TV shows—superhero-themed ones in particular—more inclusive to audiences and creators of different backgrounds. Yang also forwarded the notion that positive depictions of minority characters in comics—even “flawed” characters designed and written by people who may not actually be all that familiar with the culture and ethnicity the character represents—can serve as aspirational figures for minority readers, just as McDuffie was inspired as a kid by Marvel Comics’ Black Panther (an African superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby).

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The portrayal of an atypical Asian-American lead in the John Rozum-penned series Xombi had a profound effect on Yang.

Those of us firmly ensconced in the world of comics and comics-related animation since at least the late 1980s have been affected directly and indirectly by McDuffie in how we think of depictions of race in comics, whether we know it or not. A case in point: for a certain generation of viewers, I think their default mental image of a Green Lantern will always be Justice League/Justice League United‘s John Stewart. In his speech, Yang brought up his discovery as a teen of Xombi, a comic published by Milestone Media (a short-lived DC Comics-affiliated publishing company co-founded by McDuffie in 1993), as being particularly important in shaping his future career—Xombi was the rare American superhero comic that featured a solo, non-martial artist, Asian-American male lead.

McDuffie and Milestone Media’s contribution to changing the discourse on race in superhero comics is fairly well known within the comics community, however, so what really stood out to me in Yang’s speech is his explicit acknowledgment of the fact that today’s comics creators are feeling intense pressure from “the Internet” to censor themselves with regards to depicting characters and situations outside of their direct realm of experience. Below, I’ve reproduced the relevant segment of the speech concerning the issue (emphasis original):

We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree.

But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.

For some, Yang’s arguments may seem like a preemptive attempt to turn the tables on critics but to me, it echoes many of the same concerns Image Comics editor and staffer David Brothers has recently raised about how the force of “diversity marketing” is stifling meaningful critical debate in certain comics circles and replacing it with a simplistic “you’re either with us or against us” narrative. It’s probably also worth noting that these two prominent and respected comics professionals are minorities themselves—Yang is Chinese-American (Taiwanese-American, if you want to make the distinction) and Brothers is African-American.

All in all, I think their sentiments reveal what I think is a desire by creators and editors to take back a measure of control of the discourse on race in comics from a well-meaning but occasionally misguided general public empowered by the ability to provide instant, widely-circulated criticism and in some cases, exert pressure on publishers through organized mass online action.

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Hacktivist #1 was subjected to critics’ premature assumptions about its creators’ views on race.

I do think Yang and Brothers’ shared trepidation about the immediacy of Internet and social media criticism potentially undermining the art, craft, and creative integrity of comics is justified. Recently, I reviewed the hardcover collection of BOOM!/Archaia’s Hacktivist miniseries, which I found overall to feature a reasonably even-handed, fictionalized portrayal of the 2011 civil unrest in Tunisia. However, the opening chapter of Hacktivist featured what was ostensibly a corporate America-centric initial view of the situation. Writers Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing would radically subvert that perspective to great dramatic effect in subsequent chapters, but during Hacktivist‘s original print run as a serial comic, that subversion would come too late: Based on a shallow reading of the first issue, many online reviewers and casual commentators had already dismissed the work out of hand prematurely, with some stopping just short of publicly accusing it of racism. That may seem like something that can be blamed at least partially on a failure of the serial format—I personally think Hacktivist might have received a much better critical reception had it been originally released as a completed volume—but it is still disheartening to see a well-made work that rewards readers’ patience perhaps fail to live up to its full commercial potential because of critics’ very strongly-worded (and ultimately very wrong) assumptions about authorial intent based on incomplete information.

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In an essay in Veil #1, writer Greg Rucka went to the trouble of explaining why the female protagonist was portrayed the way she was in the comic.

Readers may have also noticed, too, the essays and explanations showing up in the backmatter section of various comics and in creators’ blogs, all clearly meant to counter or even head off any Internet-based allegations of racism and sexism their work may unintentionally engender. As a recent notable example, in a message to readers published in Veil #1, Greg Rucka—who has practically built an Eisner Comics Hall of Fame-worthy career writing strong women protagonists like Whiteout‘s Carrie Stetko, Queen & Country‘s Tara Chace, Gotham Central‘s Renee Montoya, Lazarus‘ Forever Carlyle, and Stumptown‘s Dex Parios—talks candidly about the technical and dramatic considerations behind the decision to portray the eponymous female lead as naked and vulnerable in the issue’s opening pages and the difficult balance artist Toni Fejzula has to maintain in portraying Veil as beautiful and desirable to the book’s male characters without reducing her to a sex object in the eyes of readers.

Similarly, in the closing paragraph of the backmatter essay in the excellent The Fade Out #1, writer Ed Brubaker goes out of his way to explain that the occasionally racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic elements of the comic’s dialogue are intended to paint an accurate portrait of the story’s 1948 Hollywood setting. They may not say so plainly, but Rucka and Brubaker’s messages to their readers betray an awareness of certain segments of the Internet commentariat’s penchant for taking single panels or pages out of context and using them in the service of memes and other extremely reductive modern rhetorical devices.

Still, how can all this be a bad thing? Doesn’t this increased external scrutiny mean better and more inclusive comics in the end? That’s certainly one possible outcome, but it’s not the only potential result, as Yang made clear in the closing portion of his speech:

This fear [of getting characters different from us wrong] can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.

After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.

I told you the story of Dwayne McDuffie to encourage all of us to be generous with ourselves and with one another. The Black Panther, despite his flaws, was able to inspire a young African-American reader to become a writer.

We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human.

Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.

Also, it’s okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them—definitely correct them—but do so in a spirit of generosity. Remember how soul-wrenching the act of writing is, how much courage it took for that writer to put words down on a page.

And let’s say you do your best. You put in all the effort you can. But then when your book comes out, the Internet gets angry. You slowly realize that, for once, the Internet might be right. You made a cultural misstep. If this happens, take comfort in the fact that even flawed characters can inspire. Apologize if necessary, resolve do better, and move on.

Let your fear drive you to do your homework. But no matter what, don’t ever let your fear stop you.

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Digressions

Development on The Last Devil, the original comics project I’m working on with my brother that I first revealed a few months back, got held up these past several weeks because of certain family emergencies and related events taking away from the time we would normally devote to it, but we’re back now, and hopefully we can start posting regular updates again.

We’re on a bit of a Pluto (by Naoki Urasawa) kick these days, which has us revisiting and revising some of the character designs. Check out the revised take on one of the lead characters from The Last Devil, the 19th century Filipino soldier-of-fortune Vincente Macanaya:

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To learn more about The Last Devil and see more of the development sketches and unrelated fan art, visit the Unwilting Art tumblr.


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