I wasn’t planning on writing a post tonight. But then I read this article about Chelsea Cain, the author of Marvel’s Mockingbird comic. It turns out the hateful backlash from “misogynist bullies” to the cover of the series’ finale, issue #8, was so overwhelming that she decided to leave Twitter. As far as I’m concerned, this is not okay and we need to talk about it. I guess cleaning will have to wait for the weekend…
The cover of issue #8 depicts Bobbi Morse, the titular super spy/superhero, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” I saw the comic when it came out last week and thought nothing of it. Apparently a lot of other people didn’t agree with me. For reasons beyond my ability to comprehend or imagine, a certain segment of comic fandom felt showing the words “feminist agenda” was grounds for spewing hateful rhetoric at an author. As soon as I read the article, I went to my local comic book store and purchased the entire eight issue run of Mockingbird. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to see for myself what all of the fuss was about. Second, and far more importantly, I felt this was my duty as a believer in social justice. Nothing justifies the level of harassment Chelsea Cain’s endured. And, as is the case with all social justice issues, to do nothing is to be complicit in social sin and systemic injustice. So I spoke in the way our capitalist culture hears most clearly – with my wallet. I bought the entire series, to support an author being hatefully persecuted, and I read the comics, to see what the story was about.
Do you know what I found when I read the series? Mockingbird was a really fun, funny book that’s uncompromisingly intelligent. Bobbi Morse has a PhD in Biology, in addition to her Super Soldier Serum and Infinity Serum, and she solves more problems with her knowledge of science and math than she does with her fists. I honestly learned a lot about biology from this comic in addition to seeing some great superheroics. I also found a wildly unique comic, written to feel as much like a mystery/thriller as it was a superhero tale. I loved everything about it!
Perhaps most important of all, I found nothing controversial in this series. Yes, Bobbi Morse is a strong, bold, intelligent, powerful female character. She’s also emotional, layered, and conflicted at times. She is a lovingly crafted, dynamic character. But there was no “aggressive feminist agenda” in the book. It wasn’t preachy nor in-your-face with anything either. So the anger and ire that has been pouring out in all manner of forms has nothing to do with some misperception of a presumed message built through the run. Rather it came entirely from seeing the words “feminist agenda” on a cover. And that is not okay.
First, it saddens me that Feminism is still so often hated, maligned, and defamed. The movement is about EQUALITY. That ‘s the end of the story. To be blunt, the idea that everyone doesn’t deserve to be equal has no place in 2016. There are all sorts of people who will try and say differently but, at the end of the day, those are simply voices of patriarchal oppression looking to maintain a status quo with women held in subservience to a male-dominated culture. That may sound extreme but we need look no further than our casual cultural use of the term “feminazi.” Think about it for a few seconds. It’s completely inappropriate! To equate, even in a joking manner, those seeking equality with those who perpetrated the Holocaust and the murder of over six million Jewish people (and over eleven million people in total) is 100% unacceptable. It is unfair to feminists and it trivializes those who died. Yet, culturally, we toss the term about casually because it’s okay to link women seeking equality with those who perpetrate genocide.
Second, to my mind, there is no acceptable argument for diminishing a human being, any human being. We are all equal. Period. I am proud to call myself a Feminist and have ever since I learned what the term meant. Because, honestly, who can really be against equality? Also, I consider myself Christian and, as such, I need to embrace this view. A major part of Jesus’ movement was the empowerment of women. He treated women with absolute equally in his movement and expected others to do the same. If I’m to honor this man I call Christ with any sort of authenticity, I need to fight for the same.
Third, our art (hopefully) should challenge these sorts of oppressive ideas as well. Art, when it’s operating at its highest potential, elevates us and helps us to reach for the transcendent. If all comic books are is a bunch of white men enacting male power fantasies with objectified women by their side then they can’t really do that, can they? If, however, art is advocating inclusion, offering a voice to the voiceless, and looking to bring those on the margins of society and culture into the center, then it is challenging us to do the same and, as such, trying to elevate us and pushing us closer towards a transcendent mindset.
But let’s remember, (and this is important) those last three paragraphs are unquestionably faaaar more preachy and “controversial” than anything in Mockingbird‘s entire eight issue run!!! Yet people saw a female character (and the star of, as I learned this evening, a brilliant and highly entertaining book) wearing a shirt with the words “feminist agenda” and they freaked out. Would you like to know the wonderful, ironic twist? It wasn’t even Bobbi’s shirt. After falling off a cruise ship, she washed ashore on an island and found it at a resort. That’s what she was wearing when she was picked up by SHIELD. The vitriol this cover caused has (obviously) upset me.
As a lifelong comic fan it makes me incredibly sad to hear Chelsea Cain, who’s sold millions of thriller novels and openly enjoys interacting with her fans online, say she’s “Never had to block people [on Twitter] until I started writing comics.” That deeply bothers me. I write often on this blog about how happy I am to be back in the world of comic collecting, how I missed it, and how returning has felt like coming home. However, if I’m being honest, there is one facet of this hobby that fills me with sadness and shame. That’s this angry, vocal subgroup of fans who are disproportionately troubled by the rise in prominence of minority characters.
Women, thankfully, aren’t the objectified male sex fantasies they were when I left comics behind in the late 90’s. And now Miles Morales is Spider-Man; Kamala Khan is Ms. Marvel; Jane Foster is Thor; Sam Wilson is Captain America; and Riri Williams is becoming Iron Heart (to name but a few examples). Comic book superheroes are becoming more diverse and, as such, far more representative of our world! This is part of what brought me back to reading comic books after a seventeen year absence!! They are relevant in a very real, very powerful way. They more accurately reflect our world and, in so doing, not only allow more people to love and relate to these characters but can more fully serve as modern mythology. The more people who can authentically relate to these characters, the more they can guide and challenge us as an entire culture. And, in addition to being fun, that’s part of their job. Or rather, it is when comics are written to and are performing at their highest level. Yet look at some of the comments posted on Marvel’s Facebook page about this book. It makes my soul sad :(.
Some people seem to truly hate this and take every opportunity available to them (the comment sections of online articles, social media, writing to comic book letter pages) to express their distaste. They claim this is a “gimmick” or a “P.C. agenda.” They accuse these creators of “pandering” or (most confusing of all) somehow ruining these characters by adding new dimensions and making them more relevant. I have no idea what the people who write these angry comments, who flood Twitter with misogynistic ranting, are so afraid of. Why would someone be troubled that there’s a black Spider-Man now? Who cares if Mockingbird is wearing a shirt that says “feminist agenda” on it? How is it “pandering” to have Ms. Marvel be Muslim?
These comments always stir two emotional responses in me. First, comes the righteous anger. I want to say – If you can’t handle this than, as blunt as it may sound, you’re welcome to leave the contemporary comic scene. You won’t be missed. Sleep comfortably amongst your back issues that don’t challenge your narrow world view. As Bob Dylan sang so many years ago, “Your old road is rapidly agin’ / Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin’.”
Second, when my heated frustration cools, the more compassionate perspective arrives. I wonder, looking at these people reacting with hate as unjustified as it is unfounded, what’s hurt them so badly in the past that they feel the need to hurt others to feel better? It is horrible to have this sort of hateful rhetoric directed at you but I’d also imagine it would feel horrible to have this sort of hateful rhetoric living inside you. We’re built for loving communion, not for anger-fuelled division.
I went to the comic store tonight passionately looking to do my social duty. I ended up finding a comic book I fell in love with and wished I’d known about sooner! Still, I know Mockingbird will become a frequent member of my re-reading pile. As to the sadness I feel looking at the senseless attack on a talented writer who produced a highly underrated comic, all I can do is remind myself this isn’t how our world is meant to be nor how it will always be. While those who shout such angry, close-minded comments from every platform available may be loud, they are not the majority. Those voices, in time, will fade from our culture and become a sad little footnote in history. In the end, I believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is correct, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”