I’m pretty sure this post will be unlike every other post out there right now talking about Fantastic Four #587, the supposedly penultimate issue of the series, featuring the death of a major character. I will not reveal the death here, for the two of you out there who have managed not to be spoiled by every major news outlet everywhere and for whom the story might still offer slightly more emotional impact than a Marvel Hostess Fruit Pies ad. I’m not here to talk about that event at all, in fact.
This issue cheesed me off for an entirely different reason: its (non-lethal) treatment of Sue Storm in a particular scene.
(MINOR SPOILER TO FOLLOW)
So at one point in the issue, Sue Storm is hanging out with Namor: fish-king, current X-Man, ambiguous super hero/villain guy. Namor makes some unreasonable demand during a diplomatic dispute with some other fishies. Sue’s all, whatevs Spongebob, and starts to turn away to get on with grown-up diplomatic things.
And Namor roughly grabs her arm and starts shouting in her face, “Woman, you do not turn away from [me]!”
Sue hauls off and belts Namor in the face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Two pages later he’s licking her boots (not literally, because ew) and calling her magnificent.
It bothers me a lot that Namor would use the word “woman” in this fashion. The use of the word in that context is othering and dehumanizing. He’s not saying, “Sue, you specific person that has angered me, don’t turn away because we’re not done fighting as equals.” He is saying, “You woman, how dare you disrespect me, a man, to whom you should automatically be subservient.” No one would use “man” in that way, and other familiar names - dude, guy, buddy - are identifiers of equality and/or friendship that show frustration, but not superiority. In retrospect, Sue punching him almost makes it worse, because if it were a man who hauled off and punched Namor, it would be the start of a big fight. This highlights the inequality.
Is it out of character? Not really. Namor has always been arrogant. He’s often been violent. And where it comes to women, especially blondes, and double-especially Susan Storm, he’s always been creepy and objectifying. The problem is that no one calls him out on that last part. He gets called out on the arrogance and the violence plenty, but no one ever tells him, “You will not talk to women as if they’re trash or treasure and nothing in between. They’re people, just the same as men-folk and fish-men-folk.” If you ask a comics fan for Namor’s flaw, nine times out of ten they’re going to say, “Uppityness,” not misogyny.
Please note, I’m not saying Namor shouldn’t be flawed or arrogant. I just don’t want to see his arrogance specifically written as misogyny unless other characters are going to recognize that issue with equal specificity. He grabs Sue, she punches him, but the way he uses the word “woman!” goes unremarked. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that treats misogyny as just something that happens, a way in which men behave sometimes, even otherwise often (okay, sometimes) heroic and admirable men.
This is unfortunately true. This is something that happens. This is a way men, even good men, often behave, often without even recognizing the fact. It is realistic, no doubt. And I’m pretty sure that’s the justification Fantastic Four writer Jonathan Hickman would give for this characterization-especially as he played the realism card defensively in the series letter column once already, when readers tried to point out the problem in Valeria Richards called her brother “retard.”
Marvel’s editors and many of their fans seem to have no problem with writers pursuing such “realism,” despite the women, the handicapped, etc. who get marginalized in the process. Hickman is a popular and successful writer, recently named by Marvel as one of their “Architects,” the guys assigned to write key storylines shaping the Marvel universe as a whole, and turning out what Marvel talent scout C.B. Cebulski proclaims "some of the best Marvel stories ever."
Such proclamations, and the sales figures achieved by writers like Hickman, make me feel quite out of step with current comics readers and publishers. There are a lot of comics out there that do a great job of featuring and respecting strong non-traditional characters: women, non-whites, gay heroes, etc. But with a few exceptions, these series frequently languish on the lower end of the sales charts (X-Factor, the new Spider-Girl series) or get cancelled altogether (Captain Britain & MI: 13, Agents of Atlas, Runaways).
When I try to point out problematic treatments of women and minorities on comic book message boards, I’m frequently told that I expect too much, or that I’m taking things too seriously. That superheroes have always been a boys’ genre, and always will be, and you can’t argue with popularity, and things have gotten a little better since the old days, and isn’t that enough? These are the things I’m told as a man; on some boards I see much worse things said to the women who post, Rachael included, and not so politely.
Still, with editors and writers and fans and sales all stacked against me, there have been times I started to wonder: am I a ridiculous Pollyanna for wanting better behavior in comics, for believing that comics and respect are not mutually exclusive?
This angers me. The injustice seems clear, that so often the same books that fail to treat people are successful, and so often the ones that get it right are not.
It makes me ashamed. Am I just being petty, whinging because some of my favorite books have been cancelled, while anything starring Wolverine can run forever?
I quickly decide that no, I really am angry about the content. The popularity differential just adds to the frustration, because it’s all part of the same problem: we live in a culture that doesn’t recognize how often it still belittles so many kinds of human beings. That thinks sexism and racism and all the other -isms have been conquered, and we’re all equal at last, when the problems have just dropped under the surface.
Then I feel ashamed again, because I’m so self-righteous, and who wants to put up with that? And I wonder if it’s wrong of me to tell other writers that there’s something wrong with expressing the world as they see it.
But the problem with such realism is that reality and fiction are not the sharply separated concepts that writers like Hickman suggest them to be. Ideas are viral, and every idea we encounter shapes our understanding of the world-of what is right, of what is normal, of what could be better and what never will be. Whether the ideas are presented ostensibly as truth or as fiction, everything we encounter shapes our view of acceptable behavior. We’re all aware enough on some level to know that even fiction is written by somebody, and that no matter how many purple aliens they did or did not include in their story, they were basing the words they put down on something they’d seen or read in the world, on some idea of what is true or what should be true or what might be interesting if it were true. So we mimic what we see and hear and read, with or without noticing we’re doing it, and with generally little regard for whether we’re mimicking someone real or imagined.
As writers of fiction we therefore have a responsibility to be aware of the ideas we reinforce with our creations. It may be realistic to show a jerk acting like a jerk, to show them belittling people based on their gender, or their race, sexuality, religion, lack of religion, age, shape, gender display, physical ability, mental ability, or a host of other traits. But it’s just as realistic to show more aware people calling jerks out on this behavior, making clear to them and the reader that it is NOT okay. Showing the jerk behavior without the rebuttal just normalizes douchebaggery.
I want more than that. Especially from my superhero comics, which are largely about ideals. I’m a kid who grew up on “Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends” and X-Men comics, and I’m sure they played a role in helping me figure out what I believed about life and love and being a good person. These characters matter. The creators WANT them to matter, or they wouldn’t devote their lives to telling their stories.
But when a character acts like a total jerkstore and no one around them says a thing, we’re told that it’s just “showing real life,” and we shouldn’t think about it too hard. Jonathan Hickman writes characters who belittle women and the mentally handicapped, and when readers write in to tell him such treatment hurts them and belittles people they care about - one reader who complained about the use of “retard” was a Special Ed teacher - Hickman does not apologize or promise to do better in future, he just says, “I’m writing people as they are.” No, sir. You’re writing some people as they are, and failing to show why they should be an exception and not the rule.
So y’know what? I’m not asking too much. I know this because I’ve read plenty of comics that got it right, that showed complex, flawed characters who did not have to belittle entire classes of people, or got called out when they did so. I’ve read plenty of interviews with writers who care about such things. I’ve read plenty of blogs from readers who want what I want.
I want comics to be better. Not just better than crap, or better than kinda okay. I want them to be better than the world, because I really believe they can help make the world better. And I will not be ashamed.