I’ve had this sort of conversation a lot recently:
Lian Harper, a little girl of color and a unique and charming character, is killed off in a terrible comic book to forward the angsty storylines of her white father and grandfather.
Friend #1: Man, I’m so glad I don’t read DC comics anymore.
Right after an excellent article points out DC’s unfortunate tendency to kill off, limbo-fy, or otherwise sideline their non-white (and female) legacy characters in order to bring back their white, male forebears, non-white legacy character Ryan Choi is killed off to clear the way for his predecessor, white Ray Palmer.
Friend #2: I’m really glad I don’t give DC my money.
Ian Sattler makes one of the most mind-bogglingly ridiculous statements I have ever heard a DC representative say, dismissing accusations of inadvertently racist storytelling with an argument debunked by a fictional character in a comic published by DC that came out forty years ago.
Friend #3: This is why I stopped reading comics.
You may have noticed that these aren’t so much conversations as declarative statements by my friends. That’s because my part of the conversation consists mainly of uncomfortable, guilty silence. Because I also find all of these things reprehensible. But I still buy comics.
[Note: If this seems unfairly weighted against DC, it’s just because I don’t read very much Marvel. I really have no idea if they’re better or worse at writing women and POC than DC, although I suspect it’s about even.]
Whenever DC does something thunderously hurtful or stupid, I go through the same mental song-and-dance. In order to dramatize this internal process, I’ve enlisted Jaime Reyes and Kara Zor-El to act it out, because why not.
…Thank you, Jaime. Shall we continue?
Jaime: I can’t believe DC did that.
Kara: I can’t believe Jess gives money to a company that does things like that.
Jaime: But she didn’t buy the comic in which That Thing happened. This is exactly why she avoids big company-wide crossovers, where things like That Thing tend to happen. She reads books like mine.
Kara: Your book was canceled.
Jaime: …Oh yeah.
Jaime: But my point still stands! Why shouldn’t she support books that she does enjoy, where things like That Thing don’t happen, made by creators who don’t do things like That Thing for cheap shock value?
Kara: Because a vote for approval of one book is a vote for approval of the whole company. And she doesn’t always approve of the whole company.
Jaime: But if she doesn’t buy the books that she does like, not only will she not get to enjoy them, DC may take the decreased sales as a sign that their readership doesn’t like those books and cancel them. If she’s voting with her wallet, isn’t it better to vote for books she likes particularly those with female or non-Caucasian leads than vote against the comic book industry as a whole?
Kara: Not if she’s broke.
Jaime: Fair point.
Kara: Look, I don’t want her to stop enjoying my adventures, but by purchasing my comic, she’s also providing financial support to an industry that glorifies sexualized violence against women, erases and defames minorities, and employs creators who publicly announce the violence they fantasize about committing against members of organizations to which she belongs.
Jaime: She’s also providing financial support to an industry that tells stories that move her about characters she adores in a medium she considers to be an important aspect of our culture. A medium that, I might remind you, is dying. Is she going to take away her $2.99 and let superhero comics go gently into that good night?
Kara: …That last line sounded really out of character for you.
Jaime: Well, I’m really just a figment of Jess’s imagination.
So, uh…do you guys have a solution for me?
Kara: I got nothin’.
Since I, like Kara and Jaime, have no solution for my dilemma, I usually just wind up doing what I’ve been doing buying comics that feature characters I love and creators I respect, while avoiding the type of books that tend to lay waste through swathes of C-listers and the creators who have produced work I find offensive. But I feel guilty about it. I could stop buying comics, but I’d probably feel guilty about that too. (My mother’s Jewish and my father’s Catholic. I’m really good at feeling guilty.)
So what do you think, folks? Am I the only one who goes through these internal trials? As comic book fans, do we have an ethical responsibility to buy or not buy comics? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Would Tiny Titans be improved by melodramatic Dylan Thomas paraphrases for no reason?