Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Comics Industry: On Being A Symbol And Not A Person

From Priest & Bright's "Quantum and Woody"
Coming off the news that the classic cult comic "Quantum and Woody" will be rebooted at the new Valiant Comics without its original creators/creative team Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright, I wanted to excerpt a blog post Priest wrote in 2011 called "The New Black Mambo." In it, he explains why he stopped writing comics:

"'Why don't you write comics anymore?' I get asked this a lot, so much so that it made sense to me to post something about it. At some point I was no longer a writer. I had, somehow, become a black writer. This perplexed me, considering that, back in the halcyon 80’s, where Marvel was a hotbed of scathing, litigiously un-PC sexism and racism (reference: Rescue Me's potty-mouthed fire house), I was never seen as a 'black writer.' I competed with everybody else, with guys who had much more experience than I, and did the grunt work and odd jobs just like anybody else. Nobody at DC hired me to reboot Green Lantern in Emerald Dawn because I was a black guy, and Fabian Nicieza seemed to not notice or care about my skin color when he approached me to dream up a Power Man/Iron Fist-esque buddy book for his startup imprint Acclaim. Pre-Milestone, the subject just didn't come up. Which isn't to suggest racism did not exist, it surely did, but that, for the most part, my race had nothing to do with the assignments given me (or not as the case may be). Somewhere along the way, Marvel became much more PC and I became inexplicably much blacker."

Some annotation here. I worked for Nicieza at Acclaim (the former-former Valiant), and what Priest writes here is spot-on. Gender and race did not seem to be an issue for Fabian. We had a very diverse staff, diverse creators, and diverse characters -- but the key was, it wasn't diverse "by design," to fit some quota.  It was just an organic combination of people and ideas.

Point two: I feel a similar hyper self-awareness of being female in the comic industry, always have and probably always will. When I wrote comics and comics-related articles, I was a "Female Writer" -- all opportunities offered me had to have a component of highlighting my Femaleness, my status as Female Writer, Female In The Comics Industry. I was not a person, a writer, a fan of comics -- I was a quota, I was a person whose intentions and qualifications were suspect because of my gender, I was a figurehead to be trotted out during Women's History Month Time and then put back in the box.

In fact, the only comic writing gig I ever got that felt completely devoid of this aspect were a couple of journalistic assignments I received for Marvel's X-Men magazines, in which I was hired because I "knew" X-Men; my editor never made me feel anything other than I was just another writer, my gender not influencing the matter in any way. Of course, by the time I wrote that material, I had changed my professional writing name to the genderless "V.R. Gallaher" -- because I felt I would be taken more seriously in comics if it wasn't immediately known that I was a Female Writer.

But that sort of shit really bothered me. And reading back Priest's words, I totally get it.

From Priest and Bright's "Quantum And Woody"

Priest goes on to elaborate how virtually every project he was offered post-Acclaim was related to his "blackness":

"I’ve said, repeatedly, that if a publisher wants to get real and offer me a gig—not an opportunity to run in circles and then jam me—I’d look at it. Flash, Green Lantern, Thor, Deadpool. But if my name only comes to mind when looking for a writer to helm The New Black Mambo, thanks but no thanks. It really won’t bother me to never write comics again."

This is how I felt when I started turning down opportunities to write for more female comics anthologies and other "Representing The Femaleness" type guest-posts and convention stuff. I am not anywhere near as accomplished a writer as Chris Priest, but I guess my point is: if someone with his impressive resume is treated like this (and there are many, many others who have faced the same situation), I don't have a shot in Hell. I really don't.

Other than to create my own work, in which writing novels seems to be a lot more cost-effective and less stressful than brokering comics deals -- because in the end, I still have to go to the well and try to sell comics to people who look at me as A Female Who Wrote A Comic Book. I still have to make the decision: do I use the "female cachet" to help get these books sold? Is that whoring myself? Or will I be suspected of being a whore if I'm a female in comics anyway? Isn't that always the refrain on message boards? "Whose dick did she have to suck to get that writing gig?"

Well, I'm V.R. Gallaher. I'm not even female. I could change the name to my Blogger tag "Verge" -- see, now I'm no longer human, I'm some sort of intangible Internet Entity. So there you go. Problem solved.

Again, I think the basic problem is that mainstream comics lacks that organic diversity. You know this is true. Fabian Nicieza didn't hire Priest because he was African-American -- he hired him because he was talented. Fabian didn't go: I have this new black superhero here, who is a black writer I can use to write him? But this happens often in Comics: I have this "Women's Tribute" comic, who are females that we are never going to hire again who can contribute? We have a book about a female character which is written by a female! Amazing! When we were trying to figure out who would write it, we were like: we need a female writer, because that would be cool and then women can get involved in writing our books and shit.

It just makes you feel shitty, especially when you have spent a good deal of your life in this fandom and business. You are constantly weighing keeping your integrity against just being that figurehead for Women's History Month and getting the scraps that come with it. "If I play up the woman thing, I will get more sales. I'll get sympathy sales. They won't even read my fucking book. They'll just buy the comic and feel good like they've contributed to a charity."

And so in the end, I agree with Priest about just not being able to take it anymore. Feeling dehumanized. Not being accepted for who you are, but what you "represent."

Which is why, going back to "Quantum and Woody," if it turns out that Priest/Bright were cheated out of the rights here -- or if not exactly cheated, "Alan Moored" out of them -- I'm going to be really really sad. Because "Q&W" was more than a comic book to me -- it represented a sort of utopia where people were hired for who they were and the ideas they contributed, where making comics was fun, where people poured their soul into the creation of characters. I sometimes feel that this era is over. I sometimes feel like Acclaim was a great anomaly, a bubble.

One day, I will have a lot more to say on this topic. One day.

Postscript: To those females in comics who so vocally jump to the mike every time this topic is brought up and proudly reply that they have NEVER seen any sexism in mainstream comics and don't know what I'm talking about -- you are the WORST. Ditto to people of color who say there is zero racism in the industry. I hope being a "good soldier" gets you plenty of work; it will only last for so long, though.