Remember when we were all shocked and appalled to find out that the delicious chicken we enjoyed was homophobic? Yes, it turned out that Chick-Fil-A’s desire to promote what they believed to be traditional Biblical marriage included donations to foundations that opposed gay marriage and homosexuality generally.
Once the controversy heated up, The Onion ran their obligatory joke headline…
…which gave me pause. Like all brilliant comedy, The Onion’s headlines are often double-edged. How can a chicken sandwich possibly be homophobic? It can’t really. The company that produces them is just run by people who believe things about people and use their money to support political and social initiatives that advocate for what they believe. Just like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Starbucks and Disney. It is also a company that complies with anti-discrimination laws (the above companies, too, to their side, would have no problem hiring a social conservative). After some broo-ha-ha, everybody settled down and realized that all’s fair in love and war, and return to the good old American way that allows diverse groups to do business in a pluralistic society, and everybody pretty much remembered that the power to change things lay in the consumers’ ability to just decide not to eat chicken.
You’d think we’d learned something. But then this happened. Oh, the comics community…
The short story is that Orson Scott Card recently spoke out against gay marriage. He was–as many gay-marriage opponents are–not terribly diplomatic–though it is certainly a stretch to call his comments “hateful”. This is hateful. Card is just your dad. The comics community–betraying its latent adolescence–was instantly revolted by Card’s dadness, and protested loudly his appointment as Scribe of Superman. The artist then walked off the book. DC Comics, a company with a long history of sensitivity to its fan base (or perhaps a company that is easily cowed) has shelved the story.
This may seem like good old-fashioned protest and boycott. But there’s some confusion that naturally arises from the Wired piece I linked to above. The headline is “Orson Scott Card’s controversial Superman story put on hold” This may have understandably given the impression that the Superman story Card has produced is anti-gay. But the thing is, nobody has actually read this story. The story is not controversial, Card himself is. The comics community has prohibited a comic book for hitting the stands before anybody has read it. We don’t know the story. But we’ve gone ahead and decided that it shouldn’t be published.
One might argue that a story is not the same thing as chicken, that the writer himself is part of the product and his ideology will and must necessarily bleed into the characters he portrays. One might even more persuasively argue that Superman is such a deeply held cultural icon that the fight is really over the soul of Superman that we all have a stake in, and not just one particular man’s opinions.
But here’s the thing. Card’s story would only have been one of three current Superman series out there. The others are Scott Snyder’s upcoming Superman Unchained miniseries and the regular run of Action Comics. DC has a long history of trying multiple creative approaches (often literally multiple) to Superman. Observe:
Want a Superman that works for you? Take. Your. Pick. Seriously, there are so many Supermen out there. So let’s get it out of our heads that Card’s Superman, whatever ideological contours he may have given him, would simply not have been the definitive version of Superman. DC has a very large menu of Supermans.
As to the first point, whether one can separate creator from creation, this is an esoteric point that is surely the subject of much boring humanities research, and we can’t hopefully resolve it here, but it may help to point out that Card has written some of the most well-loved science fiction out there, almost universally enjoyed. Everybody loves (loved?) Ender’s Game, and there is really nothing in there that one could call homophobic unless you have a lot of time on your hands and an MFA in literary criticism but failed to get a professorship. Just like the chicken sandwich, we were all surprised about Card’s beliefs, it tainted our enjoyment of his novels, then we realized that sometimes a someone’s work can be enjoyed regardless of his own personal beliefs. It explains why I, a social conservative, can still enjoy Joss Whedon shows. It explains why I can still enjoy crazy Scientologists like Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men and, well, I guess just…movies with actors in them generally (and a lot of the music scene to boot). To react before a writer’s work has even hit the shelves betrays a deep lack of sophistication and a disrespect for the creative process and art in general.
The comics industry has a deep history of counterculture. When the government censored comics in the 1950s, it set the stage for the powerful countercultural movement of the 1960s and strongly emboldened anti-establishment writers like R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith to produce intensely political and countercultural comics. As in every most arena of art and entertainment, the counterculture has come full circle and is now the mainstream. The millennial comics renaissance celebrates this history, sometimes far too self-consciously, and now, with supreme irony. The series of unfortunate events surrounding Orson Scott Card’s Superman ultimately betrays the liberal argument against censorship that is repeated every time a church raises cain about the latest display of sex and violence in the movies: “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” Why can’t they follow their own advice when art falls outside their own ideological boundaries? Instead, outspoken, blogging comic readers are supporting de facto censorship. It is hypocritical in an industry that prides itself on diversity and inclusivity to disallow any book to present alternative takes on characters, especially before we’ve even read them. I understand that the internet has turned into a lively community of rumor mills and pre-release hype, but honestly, it’s like we think that our ability to blog has bestowed upon us the power of cultural prescience. This is really just a 21st Century version of 1950s censorship. It’s digital bookburning without going through the potentially embarrassing project of actually burning books. At least book burners actually had books to burn. This is like Minority Report meets Faranheit 451. I can see the trailer now “In a world, where books can be banned…before they’re even read!” dun dun DUN!
Just to be clear, I wholly expect comic readers to speak out what they believe in blogs and letters to the editor and every public outlet available. I just wished they’d been sensible, rational people and done it after they had actually read the book instead of before and without indulging in personal attacks against Card, DC and everyone else involved in the supposedly hate-fueled project. Chris Sprouse’s exit due to “pressure” betrays a culture of intimidation and slander in the comics community. Speculative generalizations about the ideological makeup of “the comics community” aside, the problem remains that we cannot read Card’s book and decide for ourselves what we think of it. We have decided to punish Card himself with juvenile tantrums instead of exercising our mental and economic powers to do so sensibly. In attacking Card and DC, we have deprived ourselves of two very important democratic powers: 1. The critical exercise of unpacking themes, analyzing characters and writing freely what we think about them. 2. The power as consumers to boycott products that we don’t agree with. It could be argued that this was the power exercised in public outcry, and that DC cowed to it too quickly due to feared lack of sales, but this is simply not the case. There is no evidence to suggest that DC and Sprouse were reacting to lack of sales, but more of a fear of having tarnished reputations and being targeted by activists. DC wasn’t judging market forces, it was dodging political crosshairs.
There’s a scene in the West Wing, where a gay Republican senator argues with Josh about his opposition to pro-gay legislation. “Why does everything have to be about that all the time?” he says. In a weird but fruitful twist of the imagination, we could put Card in the same place. We simply have no idea whether his Superman story would have been about that. If Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Ender’s Shadow, Ultimate Iron Man, and many other well-liked and profitable Card books is any indication, the man is capable of writing on a number of themes that do not include homosexuality, (childhood, religion, life, death, cultural anthropology, war and genocide) and he has proven himself capable of restraint when writing on popular and well-loved characters. His run on Ultimate Iron Man did not turn Tony Stark into a raging homophobe. Instead it explored deep themes about nanotechnology and transhumanism. Why do we think he would have done otherwise with Superman? I guess we’ll never know now. While most will shed not a tear for Card’s canned Superman story, it is worth remembering that Card is a writer, a successful one, true, but still a guy that works for a living. And now we’ve worked to prevent him from working for a living. In essence we have pre-judged. We have been prejudiced. We have reduced someone’s entire creative imagination to one part of his ideology and attacked the man, instead of his work. We have also, by the way, deprived other comic readers that may actually share Card’s worldview to enjoy a book they identify with, and–as many undemocratic, insular communities are wont to do–been quite explicit about who is and is not welcome to the comic-fan fold, all in the name of inclusion. The irony is astounding.
So art may not be the same thing as chicken, but in that both are products, the two are certainly similar. They should both be allowed on the market and allowed the opportunity to either be consumed or left on the shelves. Next up will be the long anticipated movie adaptation of Ender’s Game that will, despite controversy over Card, probably do fine. It could also have been well-written and engaging. And perhaps this is the crux of the issue: it’s hard to abstain from things, whether it be delicious chicken or a good comic from a top creative talent. When we realize that the products we consume are part of networks that we don’t like or agree with, we can’t muster up the courage to do something about it ourselves, either through our mental powers or our ability to abstain. We’d rather be shielded us from these bad influences and live sheltered lives.