Sunday, January 14, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Religion, Politics and Chuck Dixon

It is no secret to you, my regular readers, that I am not a big fan of Judd Winick’s work – particularly his run on Green Arrow. However, a recent controversy in the comic book world has led me to a realization about exactly why I do not like Judd Winick’s work.

I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this because I’ve already said enough on the hows and whys in the past. Nevertheless this argument, already well covered by many other writers on the blogesphere - including our own Tim Stevens - has allowed me to reach a personal revelation.

Recently, writer Chuck Dixon was announced as the writer of an upcoming Grifter/Midnighter team-up book. This upset many fans of The Midnighter, whom had concerns about how Dixon – an outspoken conservative who has made statements against portraying homosexual characters in superhero comics in the past – would portray The Midnighter, an openly gay superhero.

Dixon was interviewed about the controversy earlier this week by Newsarama and was given a chance to explain his past statements, including what some perceived as personal attacks on writers Ron Zimmerman and Judd Winick.

Now I admire Dixon as a writer. Nobody today, for my money, can write a good simple action story like Chuck. That being said, while I agree with a lot of what Chuck has to say and think he is very reasonable in how he says it, I still think that there’s a wee bit of hypocrisy in Chuck Dixon being the messenger in the case of some of these messages.

Let us go down the interview, point by point.

1. Regarding his past comments and openly gay comic characters

”I was critical of Marvel’s presentation of Rawhide Kid as a homosexual. I thought that the limited series was done as a stunt and wound up demeaning both the Kid (a childhood favorite of mine) and the homosexual community. I committed some unforgivable sin by suggesting that perhaps a Howard Stern staff writer would not the ideal candidate for a sensitive portrayal of a gay western hero and that it was a mistake to retro-fit an established character rather than create a new one.”

“The Perpetually Outraged instantly labeled me as a homophobe and the label became permanent when I weighed in on Judd Winick’s introduction of an openly gay character in Green Lantern. My suggestion was that superhero comics are, whether die-hard fans like it or not, ostensibly children’s comics and perhaps not the forum to be informing children of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or sexually transmitted diseases. I think I incensed some people by saying that I didn’t want my kids receiving their sex ed from Judd Winick in the pages of a superhero comic book. I still don’t... And the introduction and retro-fitting of gay characters into established series has become an instant cliché. It’s done in a cynical manner strictly for marketing purposes in a way that should offend everyone...”

Now, here’s a little something that may shock all of you, who well know that your kindly Unca Starman is that rarest of all creatures; a fightin’ Texan Liberal.

I agree with 75% of what Chuck Dixon just said.

I agree that Rawhide Kid was an insult to the homosexual community and was as stereotypically offensive to gay men as Stepin Fetchit films are to those of African heritage. (Those who haven’t seen it already can read my original thoughts here.)

I agree it probably would have been better to tell the story used in Rawhide Kid with a new character instead of using an established name, not because I am against the idea of revamping a dead property but simply because the manner in which it was done smacks of cheap sensationalism.

And speaking of sensationalism, I agree that the introduction of gay characters to most recent comic titles has, for the most part, been handled in a less than graceful manner and is usually done more for the purposes of publicity than an honest attempt at inclusion. I point to the outing of Freedom Ring in the pages of Marvel Team-Up as ‘Exhibit A’.

And I certainly don’t want Judd Winick teaching a sex-education class if his portrayal of how he did so in Pedro And Me is at all accurate.

This begs the question of why Chuck chose to single out Judd Winick in particular. After all, Judd isn’t the first writer to introduce a gay character into the pages of Green Lantern. Ron Marz, whom Dixon co-wrote a number of stories with, holds that honor for introducing lesbian couple Lee and Li into the book as Kyle’s neighbors. And James Robinson retro-fitted Mikhal Thomas (aka Starman III) into a homosexual relationship with relatively little fuss as did Greg Rucka when he outted Rene Montoya in Gotham Central.

Perhaps it is because Winick seems to want to make a statement more than he wants to tell a story. As such, he makes himself a target because of his activist approach to writing. Winick specifically created Terry Berg to make a statement. He wrote Pedro and Me to make a statement. And he gave Mia Dearden HIV to make a statement. The problem is that if you keep giving the same speech over and over, people will get sick of it and stop listening.

Okay. I understand. Gay people are people too. Now what?

Of course Dixon’s main concern in all of this seems to be books aimed at younger readers. And with the exception of Marz’s Green Lantern, all these books were aimed at mature audiences. But ignoring all issues on whether or not comic books are still a children’s medium for the moment, I must take issue with the idea that a superhero comic would not be a good medium with which to teach pre-teens about sex, drugs and the other nasty things that we try and protect the innocent from until they become too big for us to pull along behind us.

Why do you think Stan Lee stumbled his way through the now infamous anti-drug issue of Amazing Spider-Man in defiance of The Comics Code Authority? Because someone at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked him to do so. And that was such a big hit, that it led to the entire industry following suit in an effort to discuss real issues in the funny books so the kids might learn something.

This begs another question; just what are the kids learning?

2. Regarding the portrayal of sex in comics...

“I’m no more in favor of a frank sexual discussion between Reed and Sue or Lois and Clark than I would be were it Gay Character A and his partner.”

“When I was writing Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s romance I stayed away from stating that they were in any kind of sexual relationship. You could absolutely imply it. But you could just as easily tell yourself they were saving it for marriage. Is this method naïve? In movies made before the 60s it was the norm to present characters as romantically involved and then leave clear indicators that they were getting it on between scenes. Clark Gable and Jon Crawford go into a hot kiss and we fade to black. Cut to next morning and she’s making him breakfast and dressed in a different nightgown.”

“Now they could have kissed one and then played Monopoly until dawn. The audience was left to choose what they wanted to believe and there was no need to explain the facts of life to the kids after a Cary Grant movie. We used to call them “air force” scenes. Whoosh! Right over the kid's heads.”

“So Clark and Lois can be seen kissing and being affectionate and there’s no need to explain it. The sexual aspect of their relationship doesn’t have to be explored. But if Wonder Woman and Supergirl are seen kissing then that does call for an explanation. The sexual aspect of a relationship like that will call forth questions from the kiddies.”

“…There are a million different ways that the issue of sexuality of any kind can be introduced to children. But why can’t some comic creators resist the urge to do so in the pages of a superhero comic? It’s a genre where people wear capes and masks and have magic rings and lift buildings up over their heads. And no matter how much you wish the genre could grow old with you, these are still characters for children. They’re on pajamas and backpacks. They’re Legos, for God’s sake…”

Again, Dixon references children and wanting to protect them from what he sees as something that is not appropriate for young eyes. Now, this is a noble goal and one I know a little bit about from my current and previous positions as a comic book salesman and as a librarian.

Back when I was a comic shop guy, I had a responsibility to let parents know that Spawn was probably not appropriate for their five-year-old. In my current position as a librarian, I have the responsibility of making sure that children’s reading material is age-appropriate – i.e. making sure that Sin City is not filed in the children’s section, despite being an illustrated book. That said Dixon’s point here presumes two things that I know not to be true from personal experience.

First, Dixon seems to think that children are in serious danger of reading Green Lantern or Green Arrow. While Chuck’s concern for children speaks well of him he’s a day late and a dollar short. The new generation has very little use for $3 funny books. Much to my dismay, I can tell you that the number of children who came into my old store looking for something besides Yu-Gi-Oh cards was few and far between. Those few who were there for comics limited their reading material to kiddie-specific fare like Sonic the Hedgehog or the Marvel Adventures or Johnny DC lines. The average comic fan and target market these days is a lot closer to my age than that of Little Billy.

Secondly, Chuck seems to think that without parental guidance, children will be unable to comprehend the idea of boys or girls kissing one another. Now this is a major hornet’s nest and I’m a fool to even go near it. But for one moment, let us put aside all spiritual and religious considerations regarding homosexuality.

Given that, is it truly that more difficult to say "sometimes two people who love each other will kiss one another like that" instead of saying "sometimes a man and a woman who love each other will kiss like that"? To my mind, it isn’t.

To tell another story, I have a friend who has two children from two marriages. The first is almost twenty. The second has just turned seven. The first is a pre-op transsexual. The second is a young girl.

The second has no problem understanding that she used to have a brother but her brother had decided she’s really a sister. To the second one, this is not strange or complicated simply because everything seems strange or complicated at that age and most things adults do don’t make sense to you anyway. All of the younger children I work with are the same way.

Of course it is well within the parents’ rights to decide when such questions are answered and how such questions are answered for their child. This harkens back to Dixon’s earlier comments about not wanting Judd Winick teaching his children sex-ed.

And while I disagree with Dixon on how it is more complicated to explain two people of the same gender kissing or holding hands to young children than it is to explain a man and a woman kissing, I do agree I do not want to hear Reed Richards graphically explaining how he uses his powers to keep his wife happy nor do I want Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex to ever come into discussion in an actual Superman comic.

That said, I have to wonder – is Chuck’s issue really with all sexual content and politics in the funny books? Or just sex that he himself finds offensive and politics beyond his own?

3. Regarding politics in comics...

“I’ve never backed away from my disdain for agenda-driven comics in what should be the medium’s primary escapist, mass appeal genre. Stand on your soap box all day long. But don’t stand on the shoulders of household-name icons. Write the characters in character and don’t write your world-view through them…”

“…Will the inclusion of gay characters in mainstream comics make homosexuality more acceptable? I haven’t seen a mainstream comic story yet with a gay character that wasn’t loaded with stereotypes and clichés. A wise editor I used to work with cautioned his writers, “don’t write about human relationships unless you’ve had one.” Most of what I’ve seen of the conscious-raising variety of comics on this subject has been dismal and pandering. Loaded with mock outrage and received wisdom and very little honest human interaction. It’s dealt with an in-your-face issue rather than a story.”

I believe most people do not want to be preached to and will resist any attempt to be told what to do out of general contrariness. I know people who voted for a political candidate simply because the opposition had an annoying advertisement. I’ve joked that many anti-smoking advertisements have made me consider taking the habit up as a form of protest. And I agree with Chuck that nobody wants to hear someone channeling their political opinions through a comic book in a ham-fisted manner.

Of course, Chuck Dixon would never do such a thing himself. Would he?

Birds of Prey #10

Birds of Prey #17

Ah. Well, apparently when he would when creating the circumstances for a story that allows him a chance to make a Democrat president look weak-willed and dependent on his wife.

Incidentally, I did some research and I could not find anything on ex-President Jimmy Carter (the peanut farmer in question) agreeing to a weakening of the ABM Treaty much less the addition of the specific, and I must say rather contrived rules, that Dixon refers to in the above panel. If anyone can provide me with proof that the United States is part of an international treaty of some sort that states that cruisers at sea are forbidden radio contact with one another during the time of a missile attack and how Jimmy Carter is responsible for it, I would appreciate it.

In reading some of the other articles about Dixon and his past work in the last week, I’ve seen quite a few stories I read in the past in a new light. I never thought about adult content in the issue of Green Arrow where Connor Hawke lost his virginity to a ghost - at least not in terms of how suggestive the artwork was. I never before thought about how the Planned Parenthood worker Stephanie Brown spoke to while she was pregnant seemed to be trying to push Stephanie toward having an abortion in a comically exaggerated manner much less how Chuck Dixon was tackling the issue of Teen Pregnancy. And thinking on all of this is what led me, ultimately, to my revelation.

This is what has, in the back of my head, made me so angry about Judd Winick. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with continuity or characterization. It is the fact that Winick is so backward as to what a liberal should be and that in turn influences how he writes Green Arrow.

Back in the Dennis O’Neil days, for all of his loud-mouth and reactionary ways, Oliver Queen did one thing that he does not do very well under Winick’s pen. He listened to the other guy and let him speak before letting him have a verbal sucker-punch. How did most of the fights with Hawkman start? The two were discussing politics and Ollie the hothead would start spouting off against “the feathered fascist”. But he always let Hawkman get a chance to say something before throwing out the accusations of how ignorant he was and saying he should be “Caveman” instead of Hawkman.

Not so with Judd Winick’s Green Arrow. Here, there is no room for discussion. Oliver Queen delivers his messages from behind a podium or to a sycophant in his employ with no reaction from the other side of the aisle. The conservative pundit on a talk show is silenced by a shouting liberal and we cut back to the action before any rebuttal can be given, leaving the liberal (and Winick by proxy) with the final word.

As a liberal, this behavior infuriates me even more than conservatives who consider that just because I identify myself as a liberal, that I must believe everything they consider to be a liberal cause. They never think that I might be in favor of the death penalty or that I think PETA goes too far because those aren’t things liberals are supposed to believe in, to their minds. They presume that because there is one liberal like this, than that is what we all must be like.

It’s a sad thing. And liberals do this with conservatives too. I’ve seen quite a few people I know to be of a liberal persuasion dismiss Chuck Dixon’s comments out of hand while banding about words like “Nazi”. They don’t stop to think that, hypocritical though he may be, he might have a few good points.

This happens on both sides of the political fence. It happens with the Bill O’Reillys who tell their liberal guests to shut up and turn their microphones off. It happens with the Al Frankens who would rather tell jokes about George W. Bush stuttering than talk to an intelligent conservative about real issues.

It happens with the Chuck Dixons who write Planned Parenthood counselors indulging in behavior that would get a real counselor fired. It happens with the Judd Winicks who make all their conservative characters cops on the take or amoral C.E.O.s.

And for all of us, if we’re going to solve these problems someplace outside of the funny books, it needs to stop now.

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