May 18, 2010

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DC Comics: Now Standing for Definitely Conservative?

Warning: While I try not to get overly political here at Panel Patter, this commentary makes statements that have their basis in an apparent difference in political ideology between myself and the people in charge of DC comics. If you're curious, read this and please tell me what you think. If you don't like political discussions in relation to comic books, then I strongly suggest you move on. -Rob

As you may have heard, DC Comics, now run by Dan Dido and Jim Lee, has opted to shut down CMX, the Manga line of DC Comics. The reasoning stated is that there are "challenges that manga is facing in the American marketplace", most likely a reference to financial issues that other publishers are experiencing.

Now, I admit I'm upset at this news because I like manga, and I like the CMX Manga I've tried. I'd be plenty mad if this was Marvel or Dark Horse or whoever shuttering a division that provided comics which I found to be really good. It's also been a rough road for manga of late, which seems to get pirated far more than other comics. I mean, just lately, Del Rey cut out some projects, Go Comi! has lost its website and can't be reached and Viz had to lay off a large number of workers. So this latest news just feels like another kick in the shins.

However, I feel that this is deeper than just canning what is probably not a very profitable arm of the comics division of the larger Warner Brothers company. This is not a move in isolation, it's a pattern of action that leads me to believe that DC Comics is trying to market itself to a group of people who, like the comics DC is promoting, want to look backward into the age of what was, rather than forward into the promise of the future. Giving up on manga, despite the fact that the right titles, marketed properly, can compete financially with most of what DC publishes in single issue and trade form, strikes me as part of a trend that places the company squarely with a vocal political minority that refuses to accept that the world has changed.

In other words, it sure looks like DC is trying to be the comic arm of the Tea Party and those who want to keep this country divided along racial lines. With the stories of the past few years, DC has not been a good place to be if you aren't a white male character steeped in years of history. It seems like they have no desire to even try to write a comic written for women or minorities, or at least one that doesn't show them as being second class.

I'm not saying that capes comics are generally a good place for women or minorities. How many plots have revolved around powerless (and even powered) female characters getting abducted, abused, and/or killed? I bet we could name a lot of them without even breaking a sweat.

But if you look at DC's pattern since around the time of Identity Crisis, you see a slow but sure progression of DC using violence against women as a recurring plot device (take Dr. Light, who even manages it as an undead Black Lantern), an uptick in gore (blood-vomiting characters, anyone?), and women as objects (Hal's joke about 3-ways). Female characters left almost naked and weak after a battle? Giving Wonder Woman a ring of love because she's got a thing for Bruce Wayne? Bringing Firestorm to life, but using the white version as his physical form? It's hard for me to believe that no one at the company sees what they are doing.

If that's not bad enough, other than Blue Beetle, a third-stringer at best, can you name a legacy character not formerly written by Greg Rucka that hasn't been rebooted back to being the white male all the 40 year olds knew and loved when they were kids? I know just making a list doesn't prove anything, but this post showing just how many times the Dan Dido-helmed DC has taken out the minority version of its character is pretty damning.

Now, I used that example because I didn't want to spend hours working on my own list. There are many problems with that blogger's entry, starting with the fact that some of the racial designations are kinda dubious. There's no context, either. There's not a list of white characters who also got the axe, since DC is drowning in a wave of dead bodies for most of this decade. Those are just a few points against it. However, to see a list like that does make you stop and think, when you combine it with other factors.

I know some of those replacements were forced on readers, and in other cases, it seems that the change in race was more akin to a change in costume. I mean, I gotta admit, I'll never forgive Jamie Reyes for not being Ted Kord. Why couldn't Jamie be his own hero, or at least leave Ted alive to mentor him? I've also heard the argument that the stories with the minority racial characters weren't very good. You know, they may be right. But were many of them given a fair shake? If you look at John Stewart's first appearances, it's not like he was perfect. You could argue it took the animated JLA series to get him going. Plus, it's not like bad stories are limited to new characters. There's plenty of clunkers in Batman's vast publishing history. I wonder if anyone cared to try and make these characters real stars or if they were all just marking time for a set of triumphant returns of the "real heroes," who of course just so happen to be white.

When you see so many returns to the 1970s, but with a level of violence only the 1990s could love, and top it off with not a single person at DC thinking perhaps calling something a "white power ring" might not be the best idea, I can't help but think that we need to take a look at who DC is trying to market to.

Sure seems like comics with a lot of white male characters getting into over the top bloody action scenes with women as collateral damage would be a big hit with those who see nothing wrong with the racism of 1950s Westerns, want the country to remain English only, and refuse to acknowledge the legal birth of a United States President, now doesn't it? As an added bonus, watch fans of the current DC comics state that they can't see race, just like they do at Tea Party rallies when questioned on the same subject. I am amazed that anytime anyone suggests that racial factors might be at stake, it's like finding out there's gambling in Casablanca. Maybe the two aren't linked, but if you're saying the same thing as a person holding up a "He's from Kenya" sign, maybe you need to start looking inward at what you're reading, writing, and/or publishing.

Am I being unfair? Maybe just a little. But given that DC the parent company gave up on their Minx line after failing to find a way to make it work (try not asking Vertigo writers or D&D enthusiasts to write the scripts) and is now giving up on CMX despite critical acclaim for their books, I can't help but think that Dan Dido, the main main behind these changes, has an agenda to promote and is using his power at DC to do it. The canning of CMX by Dido fits this pattern perfectly. After all, it has a plethora of non-white characters by definition, is popular with female and gay readers, and often shows non-traditional values in a positive light. That doesn't appear to be the demographic DC is looking for right now, as they write comic after comic that's bound to be most popular with an older, whiter, right-wing fan base.

Don't believe me? Air, a Vertigo series that sports an Arabic-looking roguish hero who fights against a Dick Chaney clone and also features a female-run company that uses South American Indian technology to make the world a better place that's less dependent on oil, just got canceled, too.

Again, any one of these things is a coincidence. All of them together form a pattern in my eyes. Even if it's a pattern designed to chase dollars rather than a particular political agenda, I can't see how this strategy works in the long term. White men are going to be the minority in the United States within the next 50 years, probably sooner. They already are in terms of the world. DC seems hell-bent on making sure they alienate or (at best) ignore a huge potential audience. I just don't get why. The only answer I see is politics.

Circling back to to CMX to close this out. Manga single volumes sell into the millions in Japan, though they are less popular here. However, there's more of a market for a popular manga than there is for the plethora of low-selling titles that DC keeps afloat every month. Had anyone actually bothered to get CMX into the hands of people who wanted to read them (Border's and the like), I bet they'd have better financial success. Refusing to give that a try makes me wonder about the direction of the company.

Placing CMX at the mercy of the direct market was a mistake. I've haunted comic book shops for almost thirty years, and I can count the number of manga purchases I've seen there in the dozens, if that. Hell, *I* never bought a single volume at my LCS. Manga is sneered at by a large volume of the direct market crowd--unless of course it features a lot of cleavage. In a way, it's amazing to me that CMX lasted this long without having a bookstore presence at least as big as the one for DC's trade paperbacks.

At the end of the day, I'm sure the bottom line dictated part, perhaps most, of the decision of DC comics to give up on manga. But on the other hand, a few changes in marketing and a little actual support could have leveraged DC into a leader in the manga market that's taken a hit with the pullbacks by Del Rey, Viz, and, going back a little bit, Tokyopop. It would also have been a way for DC to one-up Marvel, whose manga attempts in-house were not very good and who lost its outsourced deals.

Given how many poor-selling DC titles that are out there (Magog, I'm looking at you!), I can't believe this move was made for purely financial reasons. If there were pullbacks all around the company, I might buy that argument. But when you're putting out almost 100 comics a month, and many of them can't outsell in a month what a baseball team draws on an average night, we aren't dealing with a financial fallout. I think it says more about the mindset of the people in charge, which, based on current output, has more in common with the Tea Party than those who are looking to make the world a better, more inclusive, place.

I really hope I'm wrong about this. Perhaps it is just about a quick dollar--the gore and glamor is giving DC a boost in the sales standings, after all. The popularity of what Chris Sims refers to as "regressive storytelling," might just have racial and cultural implications as an accidental (if harmful) side effect. I think Sims has a point. DC wants its creators to write comics that sell, and comic book fans don't take to change very well. It could be less of an axe to grind and more of a need to try and prop up an industry that's so resistant to change that they'd rather pay $4.00 for a bad Batman story than a good one featuring, say, the Creeper.

Yet Wonder Woman is an amazing, long-standing character who can't even get DC to make her into a movie or give her a major, company-wide story. Why is that? Sims notes that comics fans called John Stewart "Black Lantern" for years, and don't forget what people said when Dwayne McDuffie was writing Justice League or the way in which DC handled the Milestone characters, right down to lobotomizing McDuffie's epigraphs. There's yet another example of DC being unfriendly to anyone who isn't white or whose characters might not act in the ways that a conservative reader wants them to. There's gotten to be so many since Dido took over that I can use them casually to end paragraphs!

This is not meant to say that all DC fans are right wing, anti-feminist, racist bigots. Or that everyone who works for DC is writing comics that have racist, overtones. Gail Simone, Grant Morrison, and Jimmy Palmiotti are just three writers can name off the top of my head who are still going good work. But even they are catering to those who like their violence meter set to 11.

At some point, this pattern has got to be set by someone, and I think that someone has a worldview that is very different from mine. Taking it all together, from white rings to white Firestorm to no manga, and this certainly looks like a company that's trying to recreate a past that I for one do not want to return to.

Obviously, based on sales, I guess I'm in the minority on this one. That fact makes me sad, because I'd like to think we're better than that as a country and as a fan base. We can do better than comics that kill babies for shock value, people. And guess what? We can do them with characters who don't look like us, too. CMX's demise is a symptom of a bigger problem, one that right now, I don't think has a cure.