Thursday, August 25, 2011

Controversy Sells

By Jay Stringer

In which there is some offensive language, and for once, it's not coming from me.

I've compared publishing to pro-wrestling on here before. It's not the most accurate comparison in the world, but it's closer than it has any right to be. Where I really compare them is in marketing. Controversy sells. Just ask Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Ask Eisler. Konrath. Ask Alan Moore. There's nothing better when you have something to sell than to stick your head above the parapet, give some soundbite of controversy, then retreat. No sooner is DC pushing a Green Lantern storyline across it's whole line, then Alan Moore is giving an interview pointing out that the story is inspired by stuff he wrote 20 years ago, and the news cycle goes a-spinning, and books both old and new get sold, and everyone goes home happy. I suspect writers like Geoff Johns, deep down, are no more upset over being name checked by Alan Moore than some modern wrestler is about Rick Flair or Hulk Hogan talking them down in public. Because it gets the names and the work out there.

It is pro wrestling.

And I'm not knocking it, because it works. You wait till I have my book deal, I'll be giving interviews where I say that Professor Steve Weddle told me he stole his beard from Conan O'Brien, or that me and Dave White are now locked in a silent feud because he didn't cast me in his latest book. And it might not end me up on the NYT best sellers list, but if I use the right words, and mention the right people, then it'll get me enough google hits and news pickups to buy me a few cups of coffee.

Writers do this all the time, and I enjoy watching the game. Sometimes I'll play along, sometimes I'll stand and laugh, but I rarely let any of it sink in past the most superficial layers.

But something nagged at me this week. I started off bemused, then I got angry, then I moved on to the def con 5 of modern life- blogging.

Grant Morrison is a damn good writer. He's written many of the most creative and exciting comics of the past three decades. He can be guilty of following the idea rather than the story, and drifting into a dead end, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right. He's also been to the school of Alan Moore marketing, because he's getting better and better at the packaged controversy. He can give interviews filled with 'frank' and 'honest' views that also, miraculously, happen to contain the right words and phrases to chum the water and create a feeding frenzy. It's a skill. An art. Chuck Wending could probably blog on the 25 things you need to know about marketing the Alan Moore way, and it would be amazing.

Grants been giving a few interviews of late, because he has a book to sell. So as I was reading his latest, with Rolling Stone, I was chuckling along as he ticked each box.

You want something where I compare Superman to socialism? Check. You want a sound byte about the death of the comics industry? Check. Want some fuel onto the fire of a feud with Mark Millar? Checkity-Check.

But then he goes and starts throwing around the concepts of misogyny and rape. And somewhere deep down you're thinking, is Jay really going to blog today about the subjects of misogyny and rape? Well, kinda. Here's some of the relevant extracts from the interview, then I'll try and explain whats pulling my bass string around my gut. I'm going to quote a bigger chunk than usual, just to give the words some context. (And here's where the offensive language creeps in, be warned.)

You were very kind to Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis in Supergods.
I was trying to be kind because I like Brad Meltzer. He's a nice guy. I have a lot of interesting conversations with him so I tried to focus on what I thought was good about it and there was actually quite a lot when I read it again. The first time I read it I was kind of outraged. I thought this was just… why? What the fuck is this, really? It wasn't even normal. It was outrageous. It was preposterous because of the Elongated Man with his arms wrapped several times around the corpse of his wife. I thought something is broken here. Something has gone so wrong in this image.

That plotline faced a lot of criticism, in part because people saw it as misogynistic.
It's hard to tell because most men try to avoid misogyny, really they do, in this world we live in today. It's hard for me to believe that a shy bespectacled college graduate like Brad Meltzer who's a novelist and a father is a really setting out to be weirdly misogynistic. But unfortunately when you're looking at this beloved character who's obviously been ass-raped on the Justice League satellite, even saying it kind of takes you to that dot dot dot where you don't know what else to say.

Maybe it's for the best that DC Comics is starting over now.
But I don't know. There's been lots of things, the sexism in DC because it's mostly men who work in these places. Nobody should be trying to say we're taking up a specifically anti-woman stance. I think it would be ignorance or stupidity or some God knows what. I was reading some Alan Moore Marvelman for some reason today. I found one in the back there and I couldn't believe. I pick it up and there are fucking two rapes in it and I suddenly think how many times has somebody been raped in an Alan Moore story? And I couldn't find a single one where someone wasn't raped except for Tom Strong, which I believe was a pastiche. We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape!

Okay, there's a whole can of worms here, and I'm not really worthy enough to open it. Much like my many visits to the head-teachers office, we're going to take this one grumble at a time.

Is there misogyny in writing? Hell yes. We've all seen it. We've all, hopefully, been repulsed by it. Some folks are going to be more perceptive of it that others, but we all know that we've come across it. And there are added layers in comics because it's a visual medium. It's not just the writing of poorly chosen words, it's also the drawing of poorly chosen pictures. There's an unacceptable litany of misogyny in the history of super hero comics. But surely you have to pick the right fights, tackle the actual problems, rather than simply name check a few that help you get some press attention?

Also, and this is a theme we've discussed on DSD before when dealing with race and racism, it's surely vital to draw a line between when a writer is covering a misogynist subject matter as a necessary part of character/plot, and when a writer is being misogynist. And in the quotes above, he's doing a very awkward and delicate dance of calling a few folks on it without wanting to be seen to be doing it. He's the guy saying, "I don't wanna call a guy misogynist, but.." And if you're going to go down that road, lets make sure you're going down the right road.

Lets take the first one first. His comments are aimed at Brad Meltzer, and his 2004 story, Identity Crisis. It was a Justice League story, featuring all the shiny nice super heroes you'll remember from Saturday morning cartoons, and it was highly controversial for adding in some dark sexual elements to the storyline. The story starts with the death of a female character, Sue Dibny, and then follows a murder mystery of sorts that leads in some dark places. It's revealed that, at some point in the past, Sue was raped by the villain Doctor Light. To deal with this, the heroes all agreed to use their powers to alter the villains mind, to wipe his memory and alter his personality. Batman, being the all round swell guy that he is, refused to go along with this, and so his colleagues -the good guys- invaded his mind too, wiping his memory of the event so that they can carry out their plan.

Now, the rape itself was horrible. It was a nasty, nasty moment. And it was supposed to be. That surely is the right reaction of such an act. Also, the fact that this was yet another story kicked off with a dead woman doesn't always sit easily. If you're going to use that as a catalyst for a story, you need to make sure you're doing in for the right reasons, and that your story is good enough to earn it. Did Identity Crisis earn it? I don't know. I wasn't quite sure what I thought of it at the time. I wasn't completely sold that the story needed to be told, or that those acts needed to be depicted. At the same time, the story itself was using them to ask some interesting allegorical questions. As much as we could spend a whole blog discussing the vile act that's depicted aimed towards a woman, we could also dedicate a lot of time to the issues about the mind wiping. Heroes decide to punish a criminal by changing who he is. They do the same to one of the good guys, all in the idea that the end justifies the means. It's a story that depicts acts of mental invasion that are counterpoints to the physical acts that kicked off the story, and it's really asking, are these acts justified?

6 years later and I've never felt the need to re-read that story. But then, I don't feel the need to jump into bed and crack open the spine on The Killer Inside Me or The black Dahlia. But they were great and challenging books. Is Identity Crisis deserving of being compared to those books? Not really, and as I said, I've never fully digested whether or not I thought the story worked. But I could see what it was aiming for, and I could see why it thought it earned the use of those nasty moments, and that in itself is enough for me to hold back from making accusations of the writer.

Next up, Alan Moore. Now, Moore is something of an easy target for comic writers wanting to make waves. He makes enough of his own 'pro wrestling marketing' comments to set himself up for a fall. But -and I stand to be corrected here- he talks about the work, about the quality of the stories and the abilities of the writers. He takes swipes at what he perceives (or what his marketing persona perceives) as a tired old industry peddling thirty year old ideas. And as much as these comments earn the ire of the Internet, they are a world removed from calling someones morality into question or saying they are "obsessed with rape." Shit, those of us here at DSD, and many of you who read and have shared your work with us, write some dark dark things. And we'll take criticism of our abilities and our work on the chin. But to make accusations about our character?

Alan Moore is one of my biggest influences. So I've read all of the work that Morrison is referring to. You know what? There's been some rape in there along the way. But looking back over, say, the forty year career of a crime novelist or screenwriter, you'll find a few instances of the same thing, mixed in with many other dark deeds. But do we simply hide behind statistics, or do we give the writer the benefit of context and story? Morrison doesn't make it clear which Miracleman issue he's referring too, and I don't have my (coughdigitalcough) copies to hand to sift through. But I can give an example of his writing in another well known story, WATCHMEN. It's a remarkable piece of fiction, and it has a horrible rape scene in it. If you've seen the film, then you've seen a version of that scene. It's uncomfortable and nasty in the film, but then, the whole film is uncomfortable and nasty, so put it to one side while we talk about Moore's work.

Sally Jupiter spurns the advances of Eddie "The Comedian" Blake, so he brutally attacks and proceeds to sexually assault her. He is caught in the act by one of the other male characters. Again, it's a nasty scene, and again, it's supposed to be. As a man kicks and punches a woman, we see the image of an ape in the background, the connection is clear, this is a man acting like an animal. We see the pain caused to the woman, and there's nothing glorifying about it, we are repulsed. When he is stopped, when another character intervenes, we then see two men fighting, making the other connection, sex and violence, men trying to impose themselves. And in the next moment, after Eddie has been chased off, we see the 'hero' of the moment unable or unwilling to offer any sympathy or condolence. He tells Sally, "for gods sake, cover yourself," showing that he is as caught up in the underlying issues of identity and power as Eddie. It's a well written, well drawn, powerful scene. It repels us in the way that it should, and it reveals elements of character in the way that earns it's use.

Why am I going into such detail about the scene? Well, first I think it's important to judge a writers intentions by actually reading the context, to see how the act was used, and why. Does it tell us anything about the characters? Was there a way to get the same effect without using such a charged concept? Are we seeing the character at work, or is this direct from the mind of the writer?

And the other reason is because of what Morrison says near the end of the extract I quoted. "We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape." Again, "I'm not saying he's misogynist but..." Why phrase it that way, or even in anywhere near that context, other than to get away with sliding in a dig while saying that you're doing the exact opposite?

Man, that Moore guy, he's weird, look at all the nasty shit he's written. I've never written anything like that. Especially since he takes such umbrage at a "beloved character being ass-raped," as he so considerately puts it. Except, as it happens, there is a comic in the attic at my parents where Grant Morrison depicted Dan Dare being held down by soldiers while a Mekon did a nasty thing to him from behind. In Downing Street. In front of the colluding Prime Minister. Cut to a picture of Big Ben in what looks like a condom, and the Mekon saying, "Think of England, Colonel Dare, it's more than England ever did for you." After the act, Dare even feebly thanks the Mekon for humiliating him.

Twenty years on and Morrison probably wouldn't write that scene. Twenty years on and I don't find it anywhere near as edgy and deep as I thought it was back then. Now I find it uncomfortable and nasty. Now I find that he's using a horrible act for political effect. He's showing Dan Dare, one of the leading symbols of British comics and an establishment figure, being violated by the state. Twenty years on, we've all changed. But you give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Or you try to. That's what he deserves, right? The benefit of context and story, before you start making accusations?

And sure, an act of male on male violation isn't misogyny, but I feel the point remains the same. It's still about depicting that act, an act of taking someone's choice, someone's space and identity, and using it to please yourself or make a point. So how is it then, that it's okay for Morrison to depict such a horrible act in 1990, to make a symbolic point about the icons and politics of the day, but that it's not okay for Alan More to depict the act in 1986, in a moment that revealed character and plot? It's not okay for Brad Meltzer to depict the act in 2005, in a story that is trying (if not succeeding) to raise valid moral questions?

Within the last couple of weeks, I had a strong reaction to an episode of a TV show. A woman is brought into the episode as an authority figure, it seemed, simply to walk around the set while a male character makes vile sexual comments about her, before he shoots her twice, takes her authority away, and then incinerates her. And I'm not playing those things up for effect, they're exactly what happened. And I was pushed away by this. I felt that the story didn't earn it. I felt there was something nasty at the heart of it, but not a valid nasty, not something that had been earned. My initial reaction was to talk to people about the misogyny of the story, about what it said about the writer. Then I found out the episode was written by a woman and, while that doesn't meant it can't have been misogynist, it made me think twice. It gave me enough pause to make sure that I didn't go shouting about it, or making any public accusations. I've spent time since then trying to decide whether what I was reacting to was an abhorrent underlying message, or whether it was simply bad writing.

Because that's surely the basic point, right? The quality of the writing. Good writing earns the use of dark and nasty deeds. Bad writing hides behind the use of dark and nasty deeds.

Here's where my anger is coming from; Rape, Mysogyny, exploitation, violence against women (or violence against any victim, frankly) are difficult issues. they are complex issues. They're not something that can be done justice in a Rolling Stone interview any more than they can be done justice in a ranty blog by a crime writer. These themes are the bread and butter of crime fiction, and they are issues that any responsible, self-respecting writer thinks long and hard about before tackling. As writers, we write about a world where characters say racist things, a world where women are victimised, and where children are abandoned. And we have to be honest about these things. Honest enough to over them, whilst also honest enough to make sure we're covering them the right way.

There are still too many inappropriate representations of each of these things in the mainstream media. There are still battles to be fought there.

Do we fight these battles by having a considered debate? By letting good writing and brave writers nudge us toward these issues? OR do we simply toss them around in thinly veiled jabs at other writers to sell our books? And as writers, don't we have a responsibility to our colleagues to treat them with the same respect we'd want? A responsibility to give them the support they need to examine dark themes, without fear of being singled out?

As much as these issues are probably too big for a Thursday morning article on a website, I also think they're too big to casually toss out in the middle of a promo interview. If Morrison really believes in the issues, and really believes that these writers need to be called on them, then surely there's a better way to do it, and a greater conversation to be had. Alternatively, he doesn't really believe it, and is simply using such sensitive issues and such tactless comments to sell his book.

Maybe there are some places that pro wrestling shouldn't go.

I'd be interested to hear your views on those questions, and on where you draw the line. Are there any acts that you don't think a writer should depict? And what do you think a writer needs to do in order to earn the use of those acts in a story? And after I've taken my soap box to shout some negatives, I'd be interested to hear some positives; which writers do you think are best at earning the use of terrible acts? Which writers have done their dark subject matter justice through good writing?


Dana King said...

This will seem a semantic quibble, but here it is: There are no subjects that should be off limits to a writer; whether/how he chooses to depict them is the issue.

Rape, child molestation, animal cruelty, sadism are all valid topics. The question is in how they are presented, and to what detail. Past a certain point and you've gone past getting the reader to empathize with the victim, or think critically of the act; it becomes distasteful for its own sake, a kind of porn far worse than picture of two consenting adults screwing.

NO matter how dark our subject matter, good taste still matters, if only because at some point a line will be crossed where some readers don't "get" it, and think you're writing a manual. (Witness the status of the 80s film WALL STREET to young brokers today. They see it as a primer, not a condemnation.)

Thomas Pluck said...

It depends on how salaciously you do it. I'm not a fan of slasher films because of the virgin final girl crap. It parades as shocking when in reality, it is the reactionary excretion of the id.
For example, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force. I love that movie. John Milius wrote it. There are scenes in which hookers are murdered. One has a can of Drano poured down her throat in the back of a cab. Others are blown up in a mafioso's pool and machinegunned.
The second is done by a rogue cop, and I can see him hating hookers, especially if he took a few BJ's to let them slide, he has guilt and self-loathing. But did we need to see a pimp pour Drano down a black woman's throat so we'd know "this pimp deserves to die?" Or was it salacious whore-hating?
That scene always made me uncomfortable. Now, a lot of women die horrible deaths, whether they are prostitutes, nuns, moms or cops in crime fiction. But the revolting fact is a lot of women are murdered in reality, and even more are raped. Should we ignore this? No, but we should be damn careful in how we portray it.

Back to Moore, Sally Jupiter's love for the Comedian after her rape also bothered me. It was supposed to. He was trying to stretch what stories comics could tell. Maybe Sally internalized the misogyny of her time. Maybe she thought she deserved it. Moore is wise by not spoonfeeding us the answer. And the plot hinges on it, when Dr. Manhattan makes his choice. So Moore does not do this lightly.

On the other hand, Frank Miller's obsession with killer prostitutes has been roundly mocked. The Sin City tales are fun. The first one with Marv remains the best. The rest feel like retreads, dipping into the same sleazy well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am mulling this over. Didn't want you to think it wasn't being read.

Jay Stringer said...


Yes, I pretty much agree. And your line about Wall Street is so sadly true. Reminds me of a generation of kids who missed the point of Goodfellas.


Well said. Very perceptive comments on WATCHMEN and the relationship between Sally and Eddie. It's definitely meant to evoke those feelings, such is the quality of the writing. Seems to me that anyone wanting to single out Moore for rape and misogyny is like saying "Hollywood is full of racism, just look at Blazing Saddles."

And also perceptive on Miller. I've home less and less enamoured with his writing as i've gotten older, and it's largely the characterisation thats done it. And yes, every woman has to be a hooker, a samurai, a porn star, or a combination of all three.

Patti, Not to worry, a subject like this is one to mull over, not react instantly too. I did the same with the original interview, took me a few days to decide what I thought.