Fans cannot emote?

Plus: John Byrne's treatment of women and the “fanboy” stereotype

May 9, 2005

By Avi Green

On Comics Worth Reading’s blog section last year, and also on Precocious Curmudgeon, there was an interesting entry about how the defenders of Identity Crisis were trying to imply that the critics of that abominable miniseries were emotionally upset:

‘As I posted on Usenet, I find it interesting that the defenders of Identity Crisis always assume that the critics are responding emotionally. Many of them write off the logical and textual analyses demonstrating how IC is bad writing in favor of calling those who point out the problems "fanboys" or "emotionally upset".’ – Johanna Draper Carlson

This was quite an interesting thing to learn about, mainly because, for people who supposedly want more character depth in comics, personality, stuff like that – it’s ironic that the defenders of such a book should be so against people in real life showing any such thing, which is precisely what the offended fans were doing.

However, if there’s anything – or anyone – this most certainly does bring to mind, it’s when Hero Realm’s webmaster Alex Hamby, who comes as almost the perfect example of such hypocrisy for a subject like this, pretty much used the very same approach when he went and, in a most awkward manner, attacked/tore down on Gail Simone’s Women in Refridgerators website, as I discussed last February. (For the record, I also found the rest of his two columns recently, and have spoken about them here too.) If you read Mr. Hamby's ghastly little diatribe there, you saw that he said, “I can easily see how seeing a woman or a child hurt in fiction would evoke horror and a reader's desire to help end any such suffering.” Two points to make in response to that: first, what’s wrong with wanting/wishing to do so? In a world so full of violence, do we truly need more? Second, one of the leading reasons why readers were offended, of course, besides the fact that the rape scene in Identity Crisis was in poor taste and was also tremendously one-sided to boot in its depiction, complete with an almost exclusively masculine viewpoint, was because, as fans of Sue Dibny, seeing her being subjected to such atrocities, the rape being even more than once, and even a scene of her bleeding from the head to accompany it included as a third act of horror, was just simply unacceptable.

Let’s be clear. As characters who were created for the genre of lighthearted adventure, Ralph and Sue Dibny are just simply ill-suited to the whole story. In fact, when you see that the mindwiping doesn’t seem to work so well on either Dr. Light or even Batman, but does seem to work quite well on Sue, so that only adds insult to injury.

Thus, Mr. Hamby’s silly and meaningless little argument is even more a classic exercise in futility and delegitimizing the democratic right of comics fans to argue against what they find offensive than it seems.

Even more ironic (and hilarious) however, was that, for someone who implied that fans were responding simply out of being emotionally upset, Mr. Hamby himself tended to act stung/upset and to bash what he considered an attack on anything Marvel did that was okay by him during the Jemas regime at the House of Ideas (which even included, sadly enough, the Trouble miniseries by Mark Millar, and may even include the Sins Past story arc in Amazing Spider-Man by Straczynski), it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was very upset whenever his favorite comics company took flak for something the readership didn’t find pleasing, but that he, in all of his selective positions, did. In fact, as I recall, when he once interviewed Mark Alessi, former chairman of CrossGen, which is currently in the midst of a court hearing to deal with the ownership of their properties over at Cal Publishing, he seemed pretty upset that anyone could have the gall to criticize Marvel, even if it was justified. (And the really weird thing about it was that, his misgivings about what Alessi had to say seemed to be on just business-related matters!)

In fact, to make his argument about tragedy, drama and emotional depth even less credible: from personal experience, when I tried to ask him on a topic he started on a board section meant for those so-called columns of his, "why not keep Sue Dibny alive and let any rape serve as character development, or introduce a new ongoing character for whom it can serve as such?" he simply said in response to my posting, "okay, who wants to see a new, unknown character being killed off?"

So in other words, what happened was that he ignored what I was trying to say in the first place, which was – why not let this kind of brutality, at the very least, serve as something to fulfill what he ostensibly advocated, which was character development, or even to introduce a brand new character in the DCU who fell victim to the experience, whose own development could stem from that as the years go by. And then he says that wants the characters to have some emotional depth! Well actually…he didn’t. He only said, quite simply, that, “tragedy makes good drama.” In other words, it would seem as if all he was interested in was that the characters be grieving, and little else. Right, go figure.

That could also explain why he said almost virtually nothing about Elongated Man himself in his column, and indicate what he really thinks of him following this mess, which is, in one, single word: nothing. Nor from what I recall did he even try making any genuine discussion of him when talking about IC on his site’s board. Hence, IMO, his argument was not genuine, and most certainly wasn’t altruistic. So to say the least, it would appear that truly speaking, Mr. Hamby was not interested in the characters themselves or what developments could be made for them, but rather, all the grief they were going through.

As for his arguing that there are some male characters who’ve experienced the same kind of degradation that female characters have, well, to be fair, yes of course there are some. Mister Miracle may have been victimized in such a way in a story that Alan Moore wrote in the late 1980’s at DC, and the second Starman, Jack Knight, was more or less a victim of rape, when the female villianess, the Mist, drugged him and pretty much bore his child in 1996, when James Robinson wrote the 1994-2000 series. The idea behind that story was that she was looking for something that could serve as the perfect weapon against Jack Knight, that being that she mothered his own son. Less successful on an artistic level however, was when, just last year, Devin Grayson wrote an absurdly fanfiction-ish scene in which the female villainess Tarantula apparently does that to Nightwing on a rooftop, following her supposedly slaying Blockbuster in Dick Grayson’s solo book, a storyline that was apparently meant to make it look as if he had something to be sorry over, that being his failure to prevent a villain, in this case, from being slain. (And then, to make matters all the more ridiculous, Roland Desmond turns up alive and well over in Robin’s own book just shortly afterwards. So what was the whole point?)

So are there some examples in comics history? Sure. And while the examples I gave took place over at DC, I’m sure there’s some over at Marvel too, both good and bad. But the fact that Mr. Hamby didn’t actually use any of these examples directly within his own column/editorial on the main site pretty much shot down any credible argument he could’ve at least tried to make, and only compounded the perception that he was aiming for the lowbrow on purpose. So much for creativity in writing an editorial.

Of course, the main problem with his attempt to use the victimization of male characters as a means to justify the notion of female characters being victimized as well in comics is that he's also implying that it's okay to do it to male characters as well. This begs an interesting question: is violence against even male heroes justified? Of course not. So Mr. Hamby's resorting to an approach like that is insulting not just to women, but to men as well, because, while male heroes taking blows is nothing new, what's he says there is very much legitimizing assaults on male characters as well as female ones.

It may be in bad form to hit a lady, but that does not mean that it's okay for villains to subject male characters to violence as well. In fact, any violence against innocents is simply unacceptable. And that's why Mr. Hamby's attempt at moral equivalency fails miserably.

Reading these excellent weblog essays, I understood and realized much more than I had before, what Mr. Hamby was doing back then. For this, I wish to offer many thanks to my blog brethren, for being the real heroes when it comes to comic books, and for helping me to understand all the better why in the end, Hero Realm was simply and sadly not worth my time.

For the record, from what I can recall of Mr. Hamby, his being a fan of DC Comics was questionable at best. He almost never tended to post on the DCU boards on his website, and whenever he did have something to say, it was usually just on some “fanboyish” item, such as the Hush story arc in Batman by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, and also on Identity Crisis, of course. There were some things not in connection with “fanboy” talk that he did tend to discuss at times, including Superman books, but other than that, very few things seemed to interest him in the ways of DC.

For someone who seemed to consider IC a book worth upholding, it’s apparent that it was otherwise out of knee-jerk motivations and loyalty to the establishment only.

Stuck in the Byrne-Hold

One of the most absurd things about Mr. Hamby that I can remember him doing, was how he tended to have misgivings about John Byrne's later work, post-early-90s, yet when it came to his de-facto defense of Identity Crisis, as seen in the editorial he wrote that I dissected earlier, he argued at almost the same time that Byrne was to be praised for making us as readers feel something when featuring a violent assault on women and children. The fatal flaw to this argument however, was that Hamby wrote (very ambiguously at that) about what Byrne (and Brad Meltzer) supposedly accomplished in his past works as if this were a known fact.

I recently happened upon this old article from Hero Play on the internet, in which the writer talks about how, while Byrne did write some impressive stories involving female protagonists, he still had a very questionable, and even at times, very disturbing approach, to his depiction of women in comics, that could more or less refute what Mr. Hamby was trying to imply in his silly diatribe of yore.

As the writer of the article on Hero Play points out:

"Superhero comics have always been violent to some degree, and that is to be expected, so I paid more attention to how the characters dealt with violence against them, and whether they were portrayed as struggling or helpless, defiant or frightened. When I divided the results by gender, I was surprised at the severity of the bias.

I undertook the same methods on the other Byrne books I had: Alpha Flight, Superman, the Fantastic Four and others, and found the same recurring themes: routine kidnapping, abuse, torture, and killing of women in order to further the story and give the male characters something to think about."

In my own experience in reading any of Byrne's books, I too have noticed that at various times, such as in the case of a story in the Fantastic Four from 1981 that involved a young girl coping with an abusive drunk of a father in a small town in Arizona (one of the most puzzling things about it was that one of the characters featured in the medical clinic said that he was a native of that state, yet his accent was written so that it looked a lot more like something from out of the southern states). To Byrne's credit there, I will say that he at least showed that Frankie Raye, who later became, Nova, the new herald for Galactus, was mad as hell about that, yet at the same time, I was annoyed that she was the only one who seemed genuinely furious about it, Reed's stern reply to a question later submitted by the father notwithstanding. And then, there was a scene in a later issue from 1986, towards the end of his run at the time, where She-Hulk is about to use a piece of metal she's ripped off from a dashboard in a spaceship the FF are fighting in during a battle with Blastaar in the Negative Zone to do some damage with, but the aforementioned villain stunned her with an energy ray before she could even do anything.

Another more definate example I can think of though: I remember reading the first issue of the third ongoing Superman series of today, which replaced Adventures of Superman as the sans-adjective title, in which Byrne reintroduced Metallo. He'd broken into a city bank as a way to draw Superman's attention, and then, when Clark and Lois came in to see what happened, John Corben briefly held her hostage in order to force Clark into action as the Man of Steel. And the part where Corben yanked her arm(s), from what I can recall, was alarming. And if that's not enough, the infamous "Byrne-Hold" in which a woman is held at arms length by the neck, comes into play here too. Not that Lois was scared of him, but what's really annoying about it is the way it's presented: she's not exactly shown to be in genuine pain, not even after being put down, when in real life, anyone who'd been held like that would surely have been gasping for breath at least a short period afterwards. This has the effect of making it seem stilted and exaggerated at best, and it's certainly another clue as to Byrne's mistreatment of women, whenever it serves not the story, but apparently, he himself.

And yet, it's probably nothing compared to that Fantastic Four cover shown in the article, where She-Hulk was being kicked in the head by a supervillain! OUCH!

In the issue of Action Comics where Superman meets the Teen Titans, Donna Troy, then still Wonder Girl, talks about being one of the "liberated ladies" while fighting, and then finds herself in this very same grip, this time by the Man of Steel himself, who's been possessed by/had his mind switched with that of a crazy crippled man, who then makes rather ludicrous implications in dialect towards her. Is that supposed to be Byrne's way of making a jab at feminists, or independent women, whom Donna has sometimes symbolized? I don't know, but I will say that it almost seems to have "Murphy Stu" (the male fanfic term for a writer who inserts himself into the story proceedings) written all over it.

(And that's not all: thinking back on that story now, I can't help but wonder if Byrne was jabbing at fanboys, enforcing the stereotype of their being aimless nerds by implying that they were also brutes and nihilistic underneath. It kinda reminds me of the movie Unbreakable, which, now that I realize it, built upon some comics fan stereotypes, by implying that they're insane. And almost makes me feel embarrassed to have seen it, certainly the ending.)

Then, in another of Action Comics, Hawkman and Hawkgirl guest star, and as the writer points out for starters:

"Later on, when Hawkman and Hawkgirl appear (actually, the cover bills it as "Superman & Hawkman"), guess which one gets beat up on? While Hawkman and Superman handle an armada of alien ships, Hawkgirl gets beat up on by a supporting cast villain."

Not just by a villain, tragically enough. Even Hawkman himself beats up on her, as shown in this picture right here.

Now it may not involve any bleeding. But even so, what's shocking about it is how it depicts the Winged Warrior smacking - no, slugging -  the woman he's usually known to be very loving and fiercely protective of across the head. Some way to depict Hawkman as a loving husband, that's for sure.

And then, there's this part, which points out that Byrne may have preceded what Meltzer did, in dealing with pregnant women in one of his own creator-owned books, The Next Men:

'The basic premise of this book is that teenage mothers were kidnapped and experimented on to create a race of superhumans: the Next Men. Byrne's fascination with abusing and killing pregnant women (in especially gruesome ways) comes back again and again in the books he works on. I suppose it could be called a "motif."'

From this, we see that the attacks on pregnant women in comics is nothing new, and that Byrne certainly had some kind of a facination with the whole distasteful idea.

Then, there's the time when he turned Scarlet Witch evil in West Coast Avengers in 1990:

"The Scarlet Witch is almost always cringing from whatever threat they're facing, while the others prepare themselves to fight. (Of course, that doesn't happen when she's the featured villain.)"

If there's something else this part of the article made me think of, it's some kind of stereotype that seems to have appeared here and there in entertainment, wherein a female with combat skills is only shown as being truly effective if she's evil! I've noticed that form of stereotype here and there, in a few movies and such, in example, and the part about Scarlet Witch's having gone nuts and turning crook again for a time reminded me of that bizarre stereotype.

And what's really awful about all this is that Byrne's story from around that time was where Brian Michael Bendis got the idea from for how to write up the premise for Avengers Disassembled last year. And then someone reviewing the Avengers Disassembled arc over at Hero Realm (see below for more) had the sheer ignorance to say that Bendis did his homework!

For someone who sometimes tended to say that Byrne's past his prime, Mr. Hamby certainly seemed quite impressed, even today, with how Byrne had a fetish for mishandling the female characters in a lot of the comics he wrote.

The following quote from the Hero Play article should pretty much sum up what seems to be quite a trend in comic books, and may even suggest who really ended up popularizing it:

'One of the things about Byrne (and most comics writers) is that whenever he wants to give his male characters more "depth," he kills off or tortures the women around them. When he wants to give the women more depth, he just tortures them directly.'

And what's really scary when thinking about that, is that, while it didn't start with Byrne, and won't end with him either, he may very easily have popularized the trend of discrimination against women in comics. The possible difference though, is that in some cases, he may have tended to be more subtle in his approach, whereas Meltzer, and even Chuck Austen, who did something like that with Polaris in Uncanny X-Men, was more out in the open when doing it.

Now, let us turn to what the definitions of fanboys are, to say the least…

What is the meaning of the term “fanboyish”?

For many years now, that’s something I’ve never been quite sure of, as to what being a fanboy (or fangirl) really is or means. But I guess in fairness, there could be two-to-three different meanings to one word.

One, is simply being a comic book fan, ditto of the characters who populate them. The second is those who enjoy the traditional themes of comics, such as action, adventure and romance. The third, however, is being an addict in a most weird sense, that being one who buys the mega-hyped, so-called “events” regardless of whether they’re good or bad, simply because they were hyped, and that is presumably who these kind of books are aimed at too. The aimless addicts care nothing for history or consistency, how the characters acted before, or even the lessons of life that great writers like Stan Lee and Denny O’Neil tried to offer. Nor, in fact, do these mindless, unthinking addicts, who also do not seem to have a single second thought as to morality, ever seem to care if the stories at hand are discriminatory against race and religion, or even women. They seem to be doing little more than to respond to a beacon signal emitted by the company, calling upon them to buy, buy, and buy, just because it’s some kind of a celebration, like being invited to a birthday party.

That, to say the least, is what these so-called events seem to be thought of as being in many cases: big gala celebrations where the idea is to have a great time at the carnival fair, even if they’re serving up phony milkshakes to go with it. And nobody even tries to check if they’re really getting their money’s worth, or if it fits in well with any of the positive messages that Marvel and DC were trying to promote years before, including that famous line by Stan Lee, “With great power, must come great responsibility!” In fact, and as mentioned earlier above, a reviewer on Hero Realm back in late 2004 reviewed Avengers Disassembled’s last parts (look here for the review, and here for what I have to say about it on my own blog) and most dismayingly enough, the reviewer completely failed to understand why the outcome, with Scarlet Witch being depicted as gone insane from having failed to raise real children, and unable to cope with power, was resorting to misogynistic stereotyping. He just gave a collosally favorable rating without a second thought, because he enjoyed the story simply out of being a comics fan, and did not have any considerations, moral or otherwise, on whether or not Marvel or DC were resorting to cheap elements, nor if they were really taking any genuine steps in setting any of these “bold new directions” they speak of in cases like these.

It just goes to show why something is going to have to be done in order to start educating people on why discrimination against racial minority groups and women does not make for good entertainment, and it also shows why Women in Refridgerators is as relevant as ever an argument on discrimination in the comic book industry.

Recommended links:
Comics should be Good weblog entry
Howling Curmudgeons entry from December 16, 2004
Everything2.Com: The treatment of female characters in Superhero comic books
Everything2.Com: Countdown to Infinite Crisis article
Sequential Tart Roundtable: Dissection of 2004
Comics Should be Good entry from April 2005
Mr. Bad Example: Same as it Ever Was
Comics Worth Reading entry from May 2005
ComixExperience's Savage Critic: reviews from May 8, 2005

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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