Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Word About Hate

Unfortunately we do not live in a world wherein all hate comes wrapped in bilious anger, color coded for our convenience. It would be wonderful of all bigotry came in the form of (to use Tom Spurgeon's wonderful analogy) Bull Connor-style red-faced pyrotechnics . . . but that's just not the case. Rage does not necessarily precede hatred. It is possible for hatred to come wrapped in piety, shorn of any overt animus. Hate in these terms is not an emotion experienced but a sensation conveyed. History is replete with examples of passive racism and bigotry that takes the form of (seemingly) gentle condescension and even active (seeming) beneficence. This is one of the reasons why a book such as Uncle Tom's Cabin is such a tricky, unpleasant read: there was almost as much antipathy towards black slaves on the part of white abolitionists as southern plantation owners. The difference is that the bigotry of the latter came cloaked in righteousness and religious conviction, wafted on a cloud of noxious, patronizing contempt.

The situation becomes even harder to parse when we view history through the lens of gender. We don't have the option of erasing sexism from history because history is permeated with - and in many ways, even predicated upon - the assumption of institutional sexism throughout every layer of society. This is a very difficult subject precisely because it implicates almost the entirety of human culture. We can choose now in the present not to give our money or attention to blatantly racist, sexist, or homophobic garbage media, but we can't look backwards with these same blinders: we would in that instance find precious little on which to fix our attention.

The problem is not that hateful attitudes and soft bigotry in all forms existed throughout history, however. That is given. The problem is that these ideas, whatever they may be, are by no stretch of the imagination dead. We can't sit back and calmly, disinterestedly dissect the racism in The Birth of a Nation because the ideology that inspired Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman is still alive, regardless of our best wishes and actions to the contrary. But at least we can say that any reasonably intelligent person should reflexively regard these kinds of stories with the proper contempt they deserve. The Birth of a Nation will always be important as a primary document in American history as well as one of the formative works in film history, but there's a difference between appreciating a desiccated cultural artifact for its inarguable significance and keeping that same artifact as a part of our living culture, right?

Let me introduce an example that might hit a bit closer to home for many of my readers. Say, just for the sake of argument, that there was an American author from the first half of the twentieth century who - while obscure in his lifetime - in death eventually became recognized as one of a handful of the most influential fiction writers of the century. Let's say that this author's stories became widely read and anthologized even outside the small ghetto of his genre, that he became recognized as one of the preeminent writers of American gothic fiction, an heir to Poe and contemporary of Faulkner. Let's go one step further and say that this hypothetical author was even inducted into the esteemed company of the Library of America, gaining the imprimatur of the "official" guardians of American literary culture, and confirmed as an artist of enduring historical import.

But let's also pull back the curtain and look at the reason why this writer's work has remained so persistently popular. Let's say this writer produces horror fiction, books and stories filled with images of unease and dread, animated by an overwhelming and overriding spirit of animal revulsion to the mysteries of an unknown universe. Let's say that the source of this dread - one of the prime factors in this hypothetical writer's ability to so effectively conjure up imagery of inescapable terror - was actually a very real and methodically documented pathological racism, a hatred of non-whites so severe as to resemble a form of psychosis. What then do we do with this hypothetical writer, a man whose books have against all odds become a part of the American canon, and whose work is now more popular and more widely read than it ever was in his own lifetime?

You probably see where this is going, and the chances are good that if you're reading this blog at home you might just be able to walk to a bookshelf and pull down an example of this "hypothetical" author's work. It might even be something you take great pleasure in reading - not just for homework, mind you. The author in question is H. P. Lovecraft, and despite his unquestionable importance he was also, inescapably, a terrible, terrible racist. And it's not even as if - as is the case with Roald Dahl - we can set these facts aside in our considerations of a (relatively) sanitized body of work. No, Lovecraft's racism permeated just about everything he ever wrote.

We can't just say that because an artist is a racist or a sexist or a homophobe that his work is without merit. We can't even say that work produced with the express purpose of promulgating objectionable or offensive ideas can be safely set aside, because we can't erase these ideas from the history books, and we can't erase the influence of even an unquestionably, unforgivably racist document such as The Birth of a Nation. We can hope that the only people who will ever want to see The Birth of a Nation are scholars and historians.

All of which is to say that we can't sidestep the fact that large portions of Cerebus are unquestionably, unforgivably sexist. Sim himself can quibble all he wants over just what the word "misogyny" actually means, but dictionary arguments impress no one. He proposes with a straight-face in as unambiguous language as it is possible to use that he believes women do not possess the mental capacity to differentiate themselves from animals and babies (for just one example). He sincerely believes that women are substantially and substantively inferior to men in every significant way. Under almost any contemporary definition, the assertion that an arbitrary percentage of the population is sub-human is simple bigotry. This is the social compact that most reasonable human beings should accept as a given, even if these ideas have obviously not been expunged from society. For vast stretches Cerebus transforms into a strange hate screed, a rant whose offensiveness is only very slightly ameliorated by the fact that Sim's self-imposed exile from mainstream society appears to have brought far more harm to him than his words have ever harmed another human being. I will not go so far as to say that Sim is crazy, or unhinged, or possesses in any way a compromised mind: these are ad hominem attacks that do little to engage with the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind Sim's actions. No, Sim's words speak for themselves, and they say in as unambiguous a manner as possible that Sim's ideas about gender are a cauldron full of hateful gibberish built on subjective readings of religious documents and specious anecdote.

So with that said, can we dismiss Sim as a useless and tired crank? Can we throw Cerebus in the trash heap? I don't believe we can dismiss the work in any such summary fashion. As much as we would all like to believe that Dave Sim and Cerebus are exceptional outliers with little or no relation to the mainstream of comics culture, doing so ignores a very important and very unsettling fact: the sexism that Sim perpetrates is not, in fact, totally alien to the comics field. Despite the best efforts of a number of diligent historians and activists to shine light on forgotten or ignored crevices of comics history, the fact remains that the comics industry - or at least the North American English-language comics industry - has traditionally been the bastion of men. This is especially pronounced in the later years of the twentieth century, at which point the gradual industry domination of superheroes and similar adventure genres only exacerbated the push in readership away from generic diversity. In other words: historically men have always produced most comics, but for much of the last century comic books (as a children's medium) were read by boys and girls in comparable measure. Towards the end of the century this changed, and the increased masculinization of the field meant that creators who came to prominence in a post-superhero world were producing books for an audience that had become increasingly, exclusively male.

When the underground comix appeared in the sixties they were playing off the mainstream - not necessarily in direct conversation with the superhero comics that found renewed popularity in that decade, but with the very idea of sanitized, family-friendly entertainment represented by the diverse array of properties found in any given run of Dell's Four Color. When the undergrounds receded the post-underground artists who rose to prominence in their place were the product of a more active dialogue with the then-current mainstream. When the first generations of post-underground "alternative" comics artists rose to the fore, many of them - and some of the most prominent names, such as Ware, Clowes, Bagge, Chester Brown and Joe Matt - produced work that was preoccupied with the issue of masculine identity. These are ideas that we can't help but understand, having grown up as readers in the crossfire of the mainstream / "alternative" dichotomy. In forty or fifty years it is conceivable that readers might need footnotes to explain the precise significance of the Superman figure in Jimmy Corrigan or the consistent self-effacing anti-masculinity present in the self-representation of autobiographical artists such as Brown. In the last years of the twentieth century, at the very instant when comics began their push out of the straitening confines of the direct market / superhero retail wasteland - and it must also be said, at a time when more and more female artists began to appear, first in a trickle and then in a deluge - a substantial part of the medium was still for one moment defined by the kind of masculinst / anti-masculinist narrative that already now begins to resemble ancient history.

Which isn't to say that sexism is dead in comics. But for the longest time the dialogue inside the industry was completely dominated by competing views of masculinity, with only so much room for women as was provided by the stupendously large breasts of female superheroes. Some of the most formally adventurous and aesthetically rewarding work produced in the late eighties and the nineties was the product of artists who grew up in the hothouse of men's adventure stories rebelling against the conventions of the dominant power fantasy by producing successive waves of anti-power fantasy - impotence fantasies such as I Never Liked You, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, the aforementioned Jimmy Corrigan, American Splendor (which, to be fair, began in the seventies when the undergrounds were not yet entirely dead), almost everything by Clowes with (of course!) the exception of Ghost World. Which is not to say that this was the only ideological current stirring the tide in comics, but with so many of the medium's foremost talents dedicated to untangling questions of masculine identity, it's hard not to see that male identity exerted a powerful force on the evolution of the medium in our lifetimes. (And if you don't believe me, another viewing of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb might prove the point.)

In this light it's easy to see that Cerebus, while by far the most extreme example of a masculinist narrative, is essential - and will, in passing years as these historical distinctions become more distant and (hopefully) academic, become even more essential. Dave Sim is one of the great products of the massive wave of post-underground comics artists who did not merely reject the mainstream out of hand but who had grown up with superheroes and fantasy comics, and whose work was conceived in response to and in parallel with these ideas. (You can probably add the likes of Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller, on the more mainstream side, as important creators whose work was defined in part by problematic gender politics.) You can't say that Cerebus is external to comics history because the gender issues confronted in Sim's masterpiece are, for better and (mostly) for worse, inextricably a part of comics history. We were a boy's club for so long that it's easy to forget how odd the shape of our industry might well look to those readers and scholars who will follow in our footsteps, and even how the very idea of the comics "industry" at the fin de siecle period warped the critical dialogue. In order to understand why the comics of today look and read the way they do, people will need to understand why the industry developed the way it did and the ways in which its shape influenced the artists who rose to prominence. Dave Sim, as weird and hateful as he is, is an essential part of this history, and his reactionary politics offer perhaps the most stark representation of exactly the issues at stake throughout the industry in a time of great upheaval. There are few sadder stories in comics history, after all, than the gradual destruction of Jaka by her creator - once one of the great female characters in all comics, turned into a shrill and bumbling bimbo by a creator who had willfully abjured modernity, and in the process turned his back on a medium that had moved onwards and away from him. There's a lesson there, for those who care to listen.

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