Comics and Cowardice
September 24, 2017 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Comics and Cowardice: a twine essay about how those in comics lie about their own work, ignore, excuse, or even celebrate bigotry, and quietly tolerate harassers in their field. Furry writer and comics critic Colin Spacetwinks comes for the comics industry, with receipts, in a 75,000-word Pay-What-You-Want Twine essay.
Cowards made by complicity, cowards made by dishonesty, cowards made by a desire to be praised and an even greater desire to avoid all negative response. Comics runs on cowardice, because it is run by cowards. And I'm hardly the first person to point all this out. This piece doesn't exist without dozens of people pointing out all the problems in comics, on the page and off of it, that have been ritually, systematically, ignored. When you say "comics has problems", people in comics will nod their heads and agree. When you say "and these are specifically the things and people contributing to those problems", everybody can't run away fast enough.

Comics and Cowardice Table of Contents:
Chapter 1 - Rick Remender's Uncanny Avengers, and lying about one's own writing.
Chapter 2 - Dishonesty in talking about one's work outside of comics
Chapter 3 - Nick Spencer's Captain America: Sam Wilson, part 1.
Chapter 4 - Nick Spencer's Captain America: Sam Wilson, part 2.
Chapter 5 - Nick Spencer's Captain America: Steve Rogers.
Chapter 6 - Secret Empire.
Chapter 7 - The tolerated bigotry and harassment of Big 2 comics.
Chapter 8 - Indie comics, "ironic" bigotry, tolerated abusers, and the cover-up of its own islamophobia.

A 2016 interview with Colin Spacetwinks about documenting furry history and using Twine for journalism.
posted by nicebookrack (34 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
75,000-word Pay-What-You-Want Twine essay
At 75,000 words, Colin might need to pay *me*.

Joking aside, I'm down with the name-and-shame.
posted by thedaniel at 4:14 AM on September 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've favourited this so I can use it next time someone talks about the internets reducing our attention span.
posted by Segundus at 4:25 AM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is going to be a busy week for me, but I can't wait to dig into this, as I've enjoyed his previous work on comics.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:29 AM on September 25, 2017

Oh dang, I didn't realize this was out yet. I habitually link his The Problem With Comics twine when the topic comes up so you can imagine I'm excited to read this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:47 AM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

At one point the author puts out this commentary on the setup of the Captain America in HYDRA storyline:
So Spencer needs Steve to be a villain but he can’t be a bigot. He wants Steve to be corrupted, but not that corrupted. Spencer is trying to make him like Cobra Commander in the 80s GI Joe cartoon, essentially - fascist, but not bigoted.
This is interesting, as the 80s era GI Joe storyline actually started out as Marvel writer Larry Hama's concept for a fresh take on the existing SHIELD vs. HYDRA conflict. Called Fury Force, the story would have followed the exploits of Nick Fury's son as he lead a crack team of specialist soldiers against HYDRA.

Right around the time that Marvel was trying to decide if and when they were going to make Fury Force into a new montly title, the head of Marvel ran into the CEO of Hasbro at a charity event. The guy from Hasbro metioned something along the lines of: "Hey, we're going to relaunch that soldier/adventurer toyline from the 70s, but instead of Barbie-sized, we're going to make them like those Star Wars action figures," and the guy from Marvel talked him into letting Marvel's writers come up with backstory.

Marvel told Hama to take Fury Force, and scrub Marvel's trademarks out of it. Sgt. Nick Fury Jr. became Col. Hawk, HYDRA became Cobra, and Marvel ended up doing both the tie-in comic books and having their animation company Sunbow Productions do the TV show.
posted by radwolf76 at 7:00 AM on September 25, 2017 [37 favorites]

Colin's Twine essays are definitely worth paying for and actually reading all the way through.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:23 AM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Working my way though C and C as we speak.
posted by Samizdata at 7:27 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

So I haven't read this because I have work in the morning, but does this seem to anyone else less about cowardice amongst the mainstream comics industry generally, and more a takedown of Nick Spencer specifically? Chapter 3 through 6 is specifically about Spencer's work, and given how Spacetwink's referred to Spencer in the past on his Twitter, I'm going to guess that Chapter 2 has a bit to say about Spencer's right-wing run at public office.
posted by Merus at 7:27 AM on September 25, 2017

Merus: the epilogue discusses how the essay started out as a criticism of Nick Spencer's Captains America runs specifically, and then expanded because Spencer wasn't writing in a vacuum; the problems with Spencer were of a piece with Marvel/Remender's tactics of "This storyline is political unless it's unpopular in which case it was never political" and comics' greater tendency to downplay abusive behavior from privileged cishet white guys in the industry, inside a larger pattern of preferring peace over justice. Essay kinda-quote: "Context matters. Even, and sometimes especially, stupid bullshit context."
posted by nicebookrack at 8:22 AM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have no idea how to actually read this as an essay, I can't seem to fathom how to read it in any order. Is each 'chapter' just one page and the links therein for me to read more detail should I so desire? At the end of chapter 1 is the sentence:

"Comics are full of cowards, who refuse to stand behind the meaning of their own work when it doesn’t get the praise they expect."

which is a link, but it doesn't take me to the start of chapter 2, is it the next page of chapter 1 or a tangent/fill in to chapter 1?

I feel like a luddite trying to navigate this! :-D
posted by diziet at 10:12 AM on September 25, 2017

At the end of Secret Empire (very minor spoilers) the interned Inhuman/suburban dad is released, signs away his right to sue the government, and goes home to his graffiti'd slurs covered house. The next morning he wakes up to the sound of his neighbours, the same ones who bullied his child and reported him to the authorities, repainting his home. And everything is hunky-dory.

That frustrated me as much as anything in that book. That the people who complicit, either through their complacency or through outright cooperation with the facist regime, get to wash their hands of it so easily. Not only was it a clumsy and ugly metaphor about authorial intent. It felt like a setup for post-Trump America where we'll all be friends again and pretend that none of this ever happened.
posted by thecjm at 10:19 AM on September 25, 2017 [11 favorites]

This is interesting, as the 80s era GI Joe storyline actually started out as Marvel writer Larry Hama's concept for a fresh take on the existing SHIELD vs. HYDRA conflict.

As it's a chance to share my favorite story about the industry: if you want to read about people of color working in the Big Two in the '80s, Christopher Priest's "the last time priest discussed race in comics" is a must-read, particularly "Part 3: Enter the Dragon" about his experiences with Larry Hama. A small tidbit:
At the restaurant, as we waited for an open table, a lovely blonde and her lunch companion stepped past us, and the host appeared and began to seat them. Hama objected, politely— we were here first, and the host quickly sat us instead. Hama sat at the table, removed his mirrored aviators, and said, "Jim— never let the white man take advantage of you."
I also bring this up in this discussion in part because they're an example of a deep but subtle subversion of comics norms. Yes, it's soldiers against basically terrorists in clown costumes and all that, but I'd challenge you to find many ongoings of the '80s that so consistently centered on a black man, a white woman, and a disabled white man as its core protagonists. It's easy to forget the impact of the GI Joe comics, which at many points in the '80s were dueling the X-Men as Marvel's top-seller and were wildly different in tone and maturity from the cartoons people remember. Those comics contained a whole lot of political criticism and commentary, and it's not remotely all "rah rah 'murica" stuff.

...and not for nothin', but I used to think pretty highly of how much work Hama put into showing how an organization like Cobra could grow, only to watch 2016-2017 happen and think, "Damn, Larry Hama worked way too hard."
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:26 AM on September 25, 2017 [14 favorites]

* "I also bring this up" = the GI Joe comics, not just Priest's piece, sorry. That sentence had better context when I wrote it the first time, but then I edited before posting it and suffered edit fail. My bad.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:34 AM on September 25, 2017

It's Thursday again! Time for all your comics-adjacent friends to retweet fragments of another fifty-seven tweet long thread about Why Marvel And DC Are Doing It Wrong from everyone's favorite pink nosedog Colin!
posted by egypturnash at 10:38 AM on September 25, 2017

It felt like a setup for post-Trump America where we'll all be friends again and pretend that none of this ever happened.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was waiting for Star Trek: Discovery to come on, because the football game ran long and pushed 60 Minutes back, and Oprah was talking to some people who voted for Trump, and I had to walk out of the room because of the one lady who insisted that "the country hasn’t given Trump a chance". I wondered if anything, any sort of revelation, could bring this lady a moment of clarity, and whether she would admit to any sort of culpability, ever, and I decided that it was terribly unlikely--she'd probably just blame the media, and Hillary Clinton, most likely. See, if you deny what he says that easily and reflexively, you can always deny what you said, even if you were witnessed by millions of people impatiently waiting to see if the new Trek was worth the wait.

And so, painting over the racist graffiti? That's a great metaphor IMO, because all those words are still there. They might be able to be picked up with the right type of X-ray equipment, or, hell, Sue Storm could just render the top level of paint invisible. Just as a little reminder in case anyone needed it. "That your handwriting, Bob? Yeah, you always did spell 'scum' with a K."
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:50 AM on September 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

and more a takedown of Nick Spencer specifically?

Mostly, other than the Rick Remender bits, Spencer really has become whipping boy for the flaws of the industry here, though I can't say it's entirely undeserved.

And I say that as someone who liked Superior Foes, likes The Fix, and halfway suspects that for the most part Spencer is a victim of bad timing with Secret Empire, but given all that I can't help seeing that wherever something is a problem Spencer has steered into it as hard as possible for the the worst possible outcome.

Phil Sandifer, after making many similar points:

Some of this - much of it, even - is simply that Nick Spencer is very bad at his job. But that only explains why Secret Empire serves as a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yes, Spencer is too crap to avoid simply falling headlong into the worst pathologies of superhero liberalism, but he didn’t create those pathologies. All he did was surrender to them completely. The fact of the matter is that Secret Empire is bad in ways that are natural extensions of the genre, and, at least inasmuch as superheroes have become one of the bedrock genres of 21st century popular culture thus far, of that broader culture. Yes, the genre largely originates out of the collision of pulp adventure heroes and World War II and was initially heavily focused on punching Nazis, but its ability to illustrate effective resistance to fascism was based fundamentally on the fact that in 1941 resistance to fascism amounted to uniformed American soldiers attacking non-American fascists. Outside of the material context of a literal war against an external fascist threat, the basic fact is that a designated and uniformed bunch of special people whose role is to uphold the status quo through violence are a uniquely flawed framework for talking about fascism.

Typically when we think of occasions when a work of art issues a challenge such that any who follow must either answer or be shown as lacking, we think of visionaries and iconoclasts. But with Secret Empire Nick Spencer joins the exclusive ranks of those who have managed it through sheer incompetence. This is not merely an embarrassingly bad summer crossover that should serve as a vivid wake-up call to Marvel regarding the need to reexamine their approach to publishing. This is a comic so gobsmackingly and bleakly awful that it begs to be the epitaph for the entire genre - the point where we, culturally, accept that the superhero craze we’ve been living in since the turn of the century has run its course if this is what it does when written on all of its default settings. The gauntlet has been thrown down. From here, the onus is on anyone working with superheroes to demonstrate why the genre should even exist.

posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on September 25, 2017 [13 favorites]

It felt like a setup for post-Trump America where we'll all be friends again and pretend that none of this ever happened.

In semi-defence of Spencer I suspect it was written in expectation of a Hillary win and all the nazi shit that comes with Trump fading to a dull roar.
posted by Artw at 11:13 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

but its ability to illustrate effective resistance to fascism was based fundamentally on the fact that in 1941 resistance to fascism amounted to uniformed American soldiers attacking non-American fascists.

Before Pearl Harbor, Cap mostly fought homegrown fascists in his comic. Just sayin.'
posted by nonasuch at 11:43 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

In semi-defence of Spencer I suspect it was written in expectation of a Hillary win and all the nazi shit that comes with Trump fading to a dull roar.

There's obviously a political metaphor there of some sort, even if Spencer denies it. You might be right in that the reason Spencer wrote a very political book and almost immediately denied it's relation to 2016/17 America is that his plot for this didn't account for Trump winning and that he was stuck with the story in hand.

Burt I saw two meaning in that passage - and the other, less political and more personal one, was Spencer releasing himself from responsibility for his whole mess. He can literally write slurs and fascist messaging in Captain f'n America'd word balloons, but if the house is repainted in the end, and Cap is back to himself by the last issue, all is forgiven, right?
posted by thecjm at 12:10 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Before Pearl Harbor, Cap mostly fought homegrown fascists in his comic. Just sayin.'

Captain America Comics was published in March '41. At this point, there are as many issues where Captain America is a werewolf as there are that predate Pearl Harbour.

But yes, your point is a good one - Cap started his career by protecting America from both home grown fascists and their insidious foreign allies' agents and spies sent to America.
posted by thecjm at 12:14 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hey, don't be dissing cap-wolf.
posted by Artw at 12:28 PM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

Hey, don't be dissing cap-wolf.

We need to be showing respect for Lupine-Americans!
posted by Samizdata at 12:32 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

scaryblackdeath - Love the shoutout to Hama's run on Joe. I might add Storm Shadow, an Asian man, to your invocation of Stalker (black man), Scarlett (white woman) and Snake Eyes (disabled white man). Storm Shadow was, to me, the real soul of the series and someone that, in readings as an adult, feels a bit like a stand-in for Hama's own viewpoint on war and violence.

I've only read the first volume or so of Superior Foes of Spider-man, the first volume of Astonishing Ant-Man and most of volumes 1, 2 and 5 of Sam Wilson, Captain America. I don't quite understand the vitriol aimed at Nick Spencer, although I have not read any Steve Rogers Cap or Secret Empire, as I don't do summer crossovers.

I have also not read the linked 75,000 word opus, but I did read Phil Sandifer's link above, which is described as making similar arguments. Sandifer's essay evokes lots of complicated thoughts for me, but I'll try to condense and keep them brief.

1) Sandifer points out two specific episodes in Sam Wilson. One, where Wilson and associated heroes confront some social justice warrior parodies, occurs in a volume I haven't read, but sounds tone deaf. It strikes me as an attempt to poke fun that's neither funny nor really aimed at a deserving target. So, I agree that it was a bad idea on the part of the writer. The second episode he specifically critiques occurs at the end of the first volume, when Falcap confronts a gathering of wealthy 0.01% who have been employing costumed supervillains and mad scientists to aggressively create new cosmetics. I think it's supposed to be a bit zany to better suggest the satirical nature of the villains in the first volume. It's definitely a critique of capitalism. A late critical confrontation occurs when the leader of the supervillains, a Serpent Society supervillain and former advertising exec ripped from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, pushes Falcap out of a skyscraper boardroom window after delivering multiple paeans to capitalist excess and greed. In Sandifer's reading, a specific two-page spread at the end excuses capitalism, even though the protagonist and narrator, Sam Wilson, essentially arbitrarily punishes one of the execs and blackmails the rest. His final statement is that he will figure out a way to punish the rest in time.

2) A significant subplot in the first volume is that Falcap helps undocumented migrants who are being attacked by a parody of a volunteer paramilitary border patrol. He ends up getting a new sidekick out of the whole adventure who becomes a new Latino Falcon. A significant subplot in the final volume is that masked militarized police brutalize a fellow black hero. When Falcon goes to help, the hero, Rage, rejects his help so that he can show people what ordinary black men face when they are oppressed by the criminal justice system. Things don't go well for Rage.

Again, I haven't read everything Nick Spencer has written and don't do the Twitter thing, where he has apparently gotten into arguments with people, but I don't see how the books I've read have some secret conservative agenda. If anything, I was surprised to see Marvel be so on-the-nose about current political issues, albeit within the world where people dress up in costumes and throw magic shields and fly on "hard light" wings and so on...
posted by Slothrop at 4:29 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Spencer is way more centrist accidental neonazi-enabler than he is actual neo-nazi. Like, I think an actual neo-Nazi would stop and think about if giving Thor's hammer to a Nazi Captain America was giving the game away a bit, Spencer will just blunder in with "Hydra aren't really Nazis" and just do it. That's how we end up with the profoundly muddled situation where his Sam Wilson Captain America is against Nazi punching and his Steve Rogers Captain America is justified as being a look at the roots of fascism but has it's teeth so thoroughly pulled it ends up like one of those NYT "economic anxiety" articles.
posted by Artw at 5:24 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd highly encourage y'all to read TFA, or at least skip to the climactic Secret Empire chapter; it talks in detail, with excerpts from the comics, about how in Nick Spencer's efforts to avoid tainting Hydra Captain America with actual racism bigotry, he created a storyline in which America under Hydra Cap's fascist rule is less racist than it was before, and then completely drops the storyline without exploring any of the ramifications of that.
From the Secret Empire chapter (several clicks in? it's hard to link to a specific Twine location):
Secret Empire takes what was a bad and dishonest handling of racism in America, and makes it worse, because it creates an America where racism doesn't exist. Not that it wants to show that Hydra actually actively endeavored to cause that. Just that, because Hydra and Steve need to not be bigoted so all the criticisms lobbed at Spencer's work weren't actually correct from the first part... racism simply stops existing in America. Bigotry stops existing in America. How? It just does. All that's left are metaphors and symbolism for that bigotry that won't even admit to being symbolism for that bigotry. So pervasive is this erasure of America's bigotry, whenever the book brings up Rage and Americops, it still elides the very bigotry that was fundamental to it by simply not mentioning it. [...skipping over another comics excerpt...]

This is as close as the book can get to mentioning race inside of Secret Empire, and it still can't quite close the deal. It walks around it, like it's almost a mirage, something that exists in the distance, in the haze of a vision, but it can't be touched, or even said plainly and out loud. [...]

[...]But it doesn't talk about race, not really. Not in Hydra's America, and it only vaguely gestures around it in what came before. It runs into that immovable object, that need to keep Steve and Hydra "clean". Can't get too specific, or it ruins that.

It runs into a second, even quieter immovable object, which is that the writer, Nick Spencer, can't bring himself to admit that either 1. He doesn't actually have any ideas about what to do about racist fascism in America or 2. Direct action, violent direct action at that, is sometimes necessary to affect change in this country. And that "perfect" protests and just going to the ballot box and hoping for the best sometimes, often, isn't enough to get the job done. And that telling people to just be patient and wait and hope for what they should've had from the start is insulting.

Part 2 is interesting in another way. When Nick Spencer talked about how punching nazis that were "just speaking" was unacceptable, there was a lot of questions, most of which boiled down to this: "when is it okay to punch back?" Spencer's answers tended to keep framing things purely in terms of self defense, when nazis take the "first swing."

In very limited self-defense terms at that, treating all violent nazi encounters as if it'll just be a pure one on one fistfight. Not counting the holocaust itself as the "first swing", or their previous decades of violence against communities as a "first swing", or their continued attempts to intimidate and terrify and let people know the moment they get power they'll do a hell of a lot more than take a "swing", or even their joinining various law enforcement units so they can do all their bigoted brutality while backed up by the power of the state and given the benefit of the doubt of the people. That the only terms that matter and that the only ones that seem to exist is in a 1 on 1 schoolyard style showdown fistfight. This elided what people were really asking:

"How much power do nazis, do fascists, have to have to carry out their goals before we're allowed to fight back?"

Whenever pressed on this question by multiple people, Spencer would dodge. He'd also frame the violence of the Stonewall riots purely in a "self defense" manner and he doesn't believe the violence there actually helped LGBT people achieve rights and protections, only peaceful organization and voting did that.

Secret Empire, however, whether intentionally or not, seems to be Spencer's answer to when it's appropriate to fight back.

It's when the fascists have already won.
posted by nicebookrack at 6:09 PM on September 25, 2017 [17 favorites]

For the record, Spacetwinks' essay is totally biased toward the "Nick Spencer is an asshole" agenda. But this is accompanied by a lot of accumulated statements and evidence arguing rather forcefully that Nick Spencer may, indeed, be an asshole.

Spacetwinks wrote a notorious extended Twitter thread in August regarding Nick Spencer's politics:
Nick Spencer, writer of Captain America and Secret Empire, ran a 2005 cinncinnati city council campaign based on "law & order" & "business" (NOTE: This is true!)
he ran on increasing police presence in black neighborhoods and locking black people up and gentrifying them out of neighborhoods.
he has never apologized this or even acknowledged that is what he fucking ran on. he prefers it goes out silently.
he believes the stonewall riots did not help gay rights. he believes that civil rights were achieved entirely "peacefully" under MLK.
he caped *hard* for the "no violent reaction to nazis is acceptable" position after richard spencer got punched.
it became increasingly clear that he only really cared about this because he was worried about *his* personal safety bc he was called a nazi
he talked constantlyabout fearing for his life, as fucking muslims, black people, trans people, natives, etc, are murdered every *day*
[...] i do not think nick spencer is actually a nazi - i think he is a garden variety centrist liberal who values order over justice.
i think he is a self centered piece of shit who only cares about his own safety and the harm of others is merely "unfortunate".
i think when he sees queer people abused, muslims being killed by drones, black people murdered by cops, etc, he goes "unfortunate!"
Like on the one hand, holy shit, I'm amazed Spencer isn't suing yet for libel. But on the other hand, holy shit, 99% of what Spencer's getting lambasted for is stuff Spencer has said, himself, in public.

I'm feeling 50% "but the thoughtful critical arguments in this comics criticism will be overshadowed by the personal animosity directed towards one guy!", 50% "YESSSSS DRAG HIM"
posted by nicebookrack at 6:39 PM on September 25, 2017 [12 favorites]

Spencer's relentless self owning on Twitter plus his clear conviction that he's actually done a great job there has lead me to the conclusion that if I ever get big in comics I'm just going to drop out of all public social media there and then. Garth Ennis has the right idea.
posted by Artw at 6:54 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

(In fact I don't think he ever got into any social media in the first place so he has better than the right idea)
posted by Artw at 6:54 PM on September 25, 2017

I have no idea how to actually read this as an essay, I can't seem to fathom how to read it in any order.

It's a long linear chain of pages; follow the link in the final paragraph of each page to get to the next page. The "chapter" links in the table of contents are simply shortcuts to specific points in the chain.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:40 PM on September 25, 2017

I'm not entirely sure why it is twine except twine is a handy way of making a self contained HTML file as well as being a game editor.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on September 26, 2017

Oh, also it seems to suck in Safari, use an alternate browser.
posted by Artw at 9:28 AM on September 26, 2017

BTW a good, if not too happy, summary of Secret Empire can be found here: The Man in the HYDRA Castle
posted by Artw at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

"I haven't read the article with all the detailed receipts, but I'm quite positive it's wrong" is, like, the worst possible take.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:31 AM on September 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

In the Secret Empire chapter, I enjoyed the detailed kudos Colin gives to What If? #44, "What If Captain America Were Revived Today?"—in which Peter Gillis basically already wrote the entire Secret Empire plot in 1984, only better, more eloquently, more directly and explicitly about bigotry and fascism, and wrapped up in a single standalone issue. I definitely want to buy that issue in digital.

I hope that a larger media publication (with money!) offers to republish "Comics and Cowardice" (for money!) in article form, both to get wider circulation and to make article sections less obnoxious to link to.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:04 PM on September 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

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