Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sketched comic discussuion: Being terrible without being awful

This is something different today. There are a few graphic novels, specifically noir books, that I wanted to review, but I didn't know how to feel about them. One the one hand, I feel uncomfortable by the source material because there're some things in these that are misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist and really just hateful. But on the other hand, a lot of noir is about terrible people doing and saying terrible things in a den of seedy grime.  I want to unequivocally like these noir stories. I love noir. But I don't feel right recommending them to people when they outright demean marginalized groups. I don't always want to have to call out when one more story is about a cis straight white male with daddy issues and herteronormative sex hang ups and all the things surrounding him are problematic. I don't want to have to keep calling it out on every single story. Should I?  Can we have great noir stories about filthy, reprehensible people without contributing to an overall narrative that seems to alienate anyone who isn't white, straight and male?
Instead of stuff from books, I'm just sketching more diverse nori characters.
And if you don't like it you can PUT IT IN THE SUCK IT BUCKET. 

Privilege check: I am totally a cis white straight male, so I am not at all the be-all end-all to know what's right for people of other races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. Please call me out if you think I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Also, I'm going to be talking about this as a comics creator as well as a comics reader, being a creator of noir comics myself.

Also note: All the books I'm talking about have AMAZING art. Really great black and white noiry contrast stuff. I'm just taking to task the stories involved.

I started seriously asking myself this question when I picked up a random noir comic I've never heard of(and can't find anywhere else) called The Iguana by Carlos Trillo and Domingo R. Mandrafina. It's...really unsettling in how awful it is. It's just depths of terrible depravity...and I kind of love it. It concerns the death of a local gangster known as "The Iguana"(for his rough scaly skin and forked tongue and the fact that he looks like an iguana) in a small South American village and a reporter coming to investigate why such a hate-filled man had such a grip of fear on an entire community. It start out promising with the title male character getting killed off, and the main protagonist coming to investigate being a hard-hitting Chinese American reporter named Susan Ling. Already you've got a female POC as your main character! Sounds good, right? Well, when the main character isn't being called a whore or worse by the populace, you've got the stories of the Iguana's actions, including A LOT of violence towards women. And then there's a pretty racist depiction of a black woman that looks like a slightly less racist version of the Pokemon Jynx. There's a lot of stuff that's really problematic to say the least.
plus-size super cutie femme fatale

Then at the end of the book, the main character finds she's sexually attracted to the Iguana and forces her coworker to put on an "Iguana" mask so she can pretend to have sex with him. And it's here that I don't know how to take this. Sure it's an interesting twist that she suddenly becomes sexually excited by this awful human, but what does that say about her character? What does that say about women? Why should she fall for this horrible horrible person? How can I like a book when it's borderline racist and just awful toward women? Even if it's an interesting story, can I in good conscience recommend it to anyone?

There's another book called Filthy Rich by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos. It's part of the "Vertigo Crime" line that I'm slowly making my way through. It's another story that I generally like but also have problems with. On the surface, it's yet another story about a straight white guy who's sad that he's not doing that great. Also it takes place in the 50's/60's-ish so OF COUSE there's a lot of men treating women as objects and no other races. Anyway, it's about a former high school football star who's now a car salesman and pretty bad at his job, so he's instead tasked to watch the rich boss's wild daughter and keep her out of the papers. I mean it's literally a story about the patriarchy controlling a woman from the guy's point of view. I shouldn't care about the book for those reasons alone, but man it's a good story. Partly because the main character, Rich(full name Rich Junk because Wealthy Jackass was taken I guess) is such a terrible character. We don't like him and, unlike most modern videogame protagonists, we're not supposed to like him. We're supposed to think he's a creep and a jerk and hate his guts. What would be a "redemptive hero" arc in another story is more of a "complete douchebag proceeds to fuck up everything because he wants more than what he has" arc. Rich is already rich, and he's got a girl, but still he wants to fool around with the boss's daughter and take the big man's money. He's not a good guy. And amazingly, the story does not let him off the hook. He gets what's coming to him. It's really good noir. I easily spend a whole article geeking out about the plot and morality.

That's great and all, but then you have all these little terrible things that make me hate it. Early on one of his coworkers derides Rich for "queering up his sales" which, um, this is a book written in 2009, did that really need to be there? What purpose does it serve? Do we really need to be reminded that the environment back in the 60's was casually homophobic? It serves no purpose! Plus, there's stuff with men taking advantage of women, and violence against women, aaaaand rape. So that's what's in there. Is there a way to have all that good character work and non-redemptive arc without having the homophobic, sexist crap? Could the story work without the rape? Can I give this to a woman or a homosexual or really anyone who's not a straight white male and go, "Read this it's a great noir book"?
yo more homosexual henchmen
and detectives please

It reminds me of possibly my favorite Doug Tennapel book, Black Cherry.  I will not at all defend the creator's gross homophobic views. They're disgusting and backwards, and I wish he knew better and was more inclusive towards people. But damned if he doesn't make a great graphic novel. And genrally speaking, his works don't reflect any homophobic views. They all have religious overtones(I mean Black Cherry is about an alien becoming a catholic priest and fighting actual devils with the actual tiny body of Christ in him), but they don't have an overtly homophobic message(though you could argue that not having any homosexual characters in any of his books shows that he's only portraying a heteronormative worldview BUT ANYWAY). Except for Black Cherry, which doesn't have a homophobic message, but does feature casual uses of the F-word(the gay slur not fuck). It's about the same kind of language you'd hear in an episode of the Sopranos. It looks like what he's trying to get across is that general tough guy "no-homo" mafia environment, and possibly even make fun of it. But does he need to use the F-word to get that across? You could argue that he's not portraying an overall anti-gay message, but if you use that type of language, you're definitely going to turn off people who are seriously offended by that. And is that worth it?Is it worth it to alienate these marginalized groups just to get a darker more serious fucked-up world? And that's really the heart of the problem.

Noir is inherently dirty and gritty and generally filled with terrible people who say and do hurtful things. And it's very easy, and in certain context makes sense, that these awful people will say and do terrible things to and about minorities. But if you put those hurtful things in your books that have been used to demean, oppress, and control people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations and genders, people with disabilities, etc., you're not going to get any of those good people as readers. You're doing to them what the world already has a thousand times over. Do we necessarily need to have gay slurs and derogatory terms for women and acting terrible to minorities and rape to get that sense of dirtiness and griminess in our stories? Is it contributing anything to the narrative or to the overall culture, comics, noir or the general world?

Sure, there's also the case of making a terrible, awful character spout terrible, awful things so you can punish or kill him off later. That can work, but there's a limit to how much of a soapbox you can give that character before you diminish your returns. And what about when it's used as an actual plot device or to generally say something about how fucked up our culture is?  I'm reminded of that movie that used the N word as a plot device. But how many times are these things and words actually used properly instead of just casually thrown in? Take rape for instance(OH NO). There could be an interesting story involving rape. In fact, one written by a rape survivor about how awful an experience it is and how society ostracizes her and turns her back on the entire event could be a great piece of media to show, well, how fucking awful rape is and how much worse it is that we don't do more about it. But the way it's usually used is just to make the story seem more "mature", or to make your female protagonist suffer before she becomes a hero, or hey just giving the male hero a reason to do stuff. It's being misused and in a way not contributing to the overall society.  How many times and in how many stories do writers overuse the word "bitch" just because they want mean bad guys but aren't creative enough to think up better insults?
Not enough Asian characters that
AREN''T ninjas or silent badasses,
and DEFINITELY not enough
characters with disabilities.

See I love noir as a genre, and more than anything I want to get other people excited about it. I want it to grow and change and evolve. I want different stories, more diverse stories. I want noir to be better. But all I keep seeing is the same old tired stories about straight white men being terrible to everyone who aren't straight white men. And I think that does a disservice to the genre by 1) showing other marginalized groups that it is just about straight white men and they're not welcome, and 2) showing straight white men that this behavior and these types of stories are normal and still acceptable and that these are the only stories available. They're not. They can't be.

I look at stuff like Bound, which is an AMAZING noir movie involving lesbians that's still somehow respectful to lesbians. I look at The Family which has some great female characters.  I see stuff like Virgil on Kickstarter about a black homosexual cop saving his lover in Jamaica. There's some great different characters in One Hundred Bullets and Criminal and Blacksad.  I need there to be more diverse stories out there.

I think we can make better noir. I have to believe we can do that. We can make really good noir stories with terrible awful characters WITHOUT stopping to be homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic and ableist. When you make your noir story, think, does this really need to be about ANOTHER straight white guy? Do you need those slurs there to really get whatever seedy atmosphere you're trying to get across? Does the main hero really need to have his wife raped and killed in front of him for him to turn into a an interesting hero? Do you need your villains to say the word "bitch" 37 times?  No, you probably don't. Don't take the easy way out. Make a better story.  Maybe MAYBE one or two of those awful things will need to stay in there for a good plot point or interesting message, but I think 90% of that can be weeded out.

Really, the hardest question is what to do with all the noir comics and stories already out there. On one hand, if I just dismiss anything with terrible language, it's kind of like refusing to watch any of the classic noir films in 1940 because of the obvious misogyny and racism.  It's hard to fault them for not knowing any better. But it's also not quite right to give them a free pass, especially for stuff coming out in this century. So I'm going to continue to like the stories I like, but I'm calling shit out when I see it, and I'll be hard-pressed to recommend any books with this kind of hate. Because this shit is no longer OK.  We live in a new world full of diverse groups and there's no reason you can't be more inclusive in your stories.

So in conclusion: diversity and being inclusive to your audience trumps letting your characters be truly terrible people. Lines drawn, shots fired.

What do you think? How do you reconcile these hate-filled characters? Can you still recommend these stories? Am I being crazy? Honestly I want this to be discussed.

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