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The Big Two and Being Progressive: Cautionary Tales

There is nothing or very close to nothing, more important to the mainstream comic book industry than having good press. Of course, as with any industry, it has to look good – has to keep up appearances. What this means in this day and age is whether or not a comic company is truly “progressive” or not and whether it is in comparison to the competition. How much more closer to the cutting edge of writing they are, how much more mature they can be, and how many more groups they can appeal to.

To put a blunt point on this, it’s the monetarily charged desire to appeal to the various different socially conscious circles and their communities in general. Now I am not saying that the general course of action is wrong, ie. Regarding representation in media, because representation is still a big issue. The main point that is held in contention here is not that there needs to be a larger push for these kinds of characters, which there needs be, but to the quality of those said characters. As in – they actually need to be characters, which is lacking is actual amount in the more prominent comic companies, ie. “The Big Two.” They cannot in general seem to go about important issues such as these without making a big, ham-fisted, fiascos of things. Namely, there is no subtlety in their handling of things.

The majority of the time it’s nothing but outright two-dimensional pandering. A set filled with shallow cardboard cut-outs of characters. Only inserted into the story for the sole purpose of being there and little else, other than being noticed by the press that can be generated from their inclusion. It’s false, it’s flamboyant, and it’s just not good writing. Now, this sort of mismanagement was understandable two decades or so ago, when these subjects were first getting their day in the sun, with such now laughable/embarrassing incidents including the coming out of Northstar and the introduction of “Extrano.” Incidents that were done either blatantly, or pushed to a ridiculous extent – Extrano being one of the worst constructed characters of all time, singularly being used to push out any manner of stereotype. That was what being progressive was back then. Just that they were included mattered. But in this modern age we should be able to expect more, right?

That is where we hit another bump in the road, because even in our more socially aware times, this sort of behavior and quality of writing is still produced. We still see the same amount of slap-dash construction even in the most recent comics. To pull out a primary example – Batgirl #19. Now this particular issue has already made the rounds around the web for introducing the first transgendered character within a mainstream comic book. I would actually call that a major achievement – had the character in question been an actual character. However, the character was hardly more than an unformed shape without any discernible qualities to take note of. There was really nothing to the character until the big reveal, so now that is all that the character revolves around. This is not mentioning the horrible way that this reveal went down – that it was inserted forcibly into the narrative right in the middle of a major plot event for no reason but to get it out. To draw the majority of the attention of it. It was so unsubtle it hurt.

The fact of the matter is, as previously stated with my feature regarding the resurrection of Vibe, that this type of representation needs to put emphasis on the characters first. The routine of shelling out of this non-writing helps no one. For another example of where characterization must come first is the “New 52” version of Golden Age character Alan Scott, whose reintroduction as a gay character led to much anger and sighing in most cases over the web. The funny part of this matter is that while Gail Simone’s half-made characterization got some praise, it was James Robinson’s handling of Alan Scott that deserves it. Like all good handling, the “progressive” aspect of Alan Scott is simply there to round out the whole of the character’s other traits. It just adds to whatever else is already there and so they are not defined by this one little thing and so can’t really be said to be a gimmick. A character is a character, and thus truly representative of the people that it is supposed to be representing – real people.

Perhaps one of the most famous, and with some of the most fanfare, of this type of good representation has to be the pair of Apollo and Midnighter, from first the Wildstorm catalog of comics and now a part of the mainstream DC Comics universe. For years Apollo and Midnighter have been a golden standard for how to balance their progressive nature with their overall characterization. They’re good fathers, a good married couple, and badass crime fighters each with their own individual quirks and tendencies. The whole gay aspect is just another, small, layer to it. Big and showy might be what gets press attention, but small and introspective is what actually makes those steps into the future. Without these to help then we’re still going to be stuck with cut outs that will only alienate an entire consumer base. Quality can equal sales if played right and there needs to be these examples in order to show the way.

Other notable mainstream characters, of the recent era, include Dr. Donald Meland and Wally Layton from Scarlet Spider, Dale Gunn from JLA’s Vibe, Kate Kane from Batwoman (who is getting married), and really anywhere in the mainstream comics industry that breaks the conventions of having conventions when it comes to this subject. That the list above of good progressive characters is not bigger (and that they haven’t been noted for this achievement) is a shame. It’s a pity and one hopes that they are the harbingers to modern change. DC Comics and Marvel are where the press turns to and they need to step up their game in order to have clear, fair, and unbiased representation.



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