Review: AIRBOY #2

Airboy2

AIRBOY #2
Written by James Robinson
Art by Greg Hinkle
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: July 1, 2015

James and Greg have fallen down a hole and found Airboy at the bottom. Not the Airboy script. Not an old comic book. Airboy, live and in the flesh. And what happens next… well.

One of the reasons I gave Airboy #1 a 10/10 is because it was about characters who beat themselves down, when they’re acknowledging that on the page or not. It felt like self-flagellation, and a little like masturbation, and that sense of honesty made it a superior comic. But Airboy #2 took all of that energy and applied it to punching down on other people — transgender individuals who aren’t even characters in the book really, but background objects or plot devices. This gives the issue a 100% different tone from the previous one. And it highlights something that many fans don’t get about representation.

It’s not that terrible things can’t be done or said by terrible people in a comic book. Being a villain is OK. The characters of James and Greg alternately play that role here. What’s not OK is leaving the victim of that terribleness — name-calling, rape, any sort of dehumanizing behavior — without a voice or narrative agency. It’s not the terrible act in itself I find so appalling (although the proliferation of it in absence of the alternative is stifling to say the least). It’s that there are no consequences. No comeuppance. No voice for the people being abused. And when a community of people — transgender, gay, Black, women — are frequently put in the same position of being punched down with no ability to respond, it’s not acceptable.

Justice League 3001 #1 had a similar issue last week that I noted in my review, but at least with Guy there’s a chance for narrative reply. Because it’s an ongoing series, because Guy Gardner is a main character, there’s opportunity to counteract that book’s Superman’s contention. And because of an internet dialogue that occurred with one of the writers immediately post-release, I do believe that will happen now.

Unfortunately, in Airboy #2, this abuse (and believe me, calling someone a “tranny” and misgendering them deliberately is absolutely 100% abuse) is happening to characters without agency, without names, without recourse. And that makes it burn far worse to me. If the next page of Airboy #2 had been one of the women telling James or Airboy or Greg off and kicking them in the nads, the tone shifts. But instead, we just have another faceless community being dehumanized. “Just” is the operative word here. It doesn’t go farther than that.

[And by the way, if you don’t know, calling someone a “tranny” is not OK. Neither is “retard,” “faggot,” “cunt,” “kike,” or the N-word. Just want that out there in case anyone is still confused about that.]

I want to sit here and laud Greg Hinkle’s beautiful art and James Robinson’s sharp, self-deprecating dialogue in the rest of Airboy #2, but I honestly can’t. This issue isn’t about that anymore. It’s been overwhelmed by a transphobia that goes unchallenged narratively. It could be easy to say, well, the book isn’t about the women Airboy and the gents abuse, so why would the story shift them into subjectivity? Except that a) if the story’s not about them, they shouldn’t be in the story to be objectified. Women — transgender women — are not lamps to be repositioned in a room however you like and turned off when not in use. And b) now it is.

Now, Airboy #2 is all about those transgender women the book dehumanizes, and there’s no getting around it.

The Verdict: 5.0/10

 

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11 Comments

  1. Jason A. Martin said:

    Oh boo hoo. Someone got some sand in their mangina while taking a break from feminism 102. Get over it, they were in a tranny bar (and yes, that’s a fair term, embraced by the community actually), and they got blow jobs from trannys. In case you didn’t notice, self-abusive promiscuity is a BIG part of “gay culture”, as evident in their own pride parades, and in any gay bar on any given friday or saturday night. You REALLY missed the point. Not every setpiece needs a voice, protection, or vindication. Sometimes a whore tranny is just a whore tranny Jim.

  2. Tijmen said:

    I think the notion that every bad thing said about or done to a [historically oppressed group people] has to be automatically balanced by consequences/comeuppance, preferably at the hands of members of said group (so that they are given voice/narrative agency) within…the same storyline? The same issue? The same scene? The same page? The same panel? …is bullshit, pure and simple.

    I understand the well-meaning sentiments behind it, but it turns all art into political and moralizing propaganda. It’s like the old Comics Code that demanded stories never ‘glorify’ crime or feature ‘questionable’ content. Realistic stories demand a realistic world, or at the very least a lifelike one, and unfortunately the real world is not a fairytale place where every bully gets his or her comeuppance and every bigot his or her just rewards within minutes of uttering something offensive.

    Also, realistic storytelling means being able to admit that there’s a lot shades of gray between a saint and a sinner: not all black, gay, transgender, female, disabled, etc. people are all-good, just as not all people who hold bigoted or offensive views are necessarily all-bad. Demanding that artists and storytellers pretend otherwise means imposing a rigid black-and-white, good-and-evil view on art and storytelling, and willfully ignores the complexities that can make flawed characters (and, in fact, real-life people) so interesting.

    Furthermore, I firmly believe that audiences are smart enough to recognize awful characters and bigoted slurs for who and what they are without the artist or author putting up, in a narrative sense, giant blinking neon-signs pointing out just how awful and bigoted the characters are. Art and stories usually only get better when they don’t assume their audience consists of idiots, I hope we can all agree on that.

    In conclusion: apply this reviewer’s rigid standards to some of the greatest, most universally-acclaimed comics, TV shows and movies of the past few decades, and you will find countless examples of offensive speech directed at minorities going ‘unchallenged’. Watchmen, Preacher, Deadwood, the Sopranos, Being John Malkovich all immediately spring to mind. Rather than prove that these works are all ‘unacceptably abusive and dehumanizing’, it proves that this reviewer’s standards are flawed, even if his heart is in the right place.

  3. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, first off, there are so few positive representations of the transgender community — and so many negative ones, as was the case in Airboy #2 — that it’s not productive to talk about shades of gray here. If the representation were already well balanced, then I might be more inclined to agree with you. But it is not. At all. It’s all black, no white.

    I do think books that treat whole demographics as objects of humor and stereotypical abuse need to be subject to criticism and dialogue. The Comics Code, however, was not an organization that promoted either. It was a self-censor that comics companies agreed to (were pressured into) using to limit content creators could make prior to publication. I have never advocated anything of the sort. But just because I believe in your right to make and say anything doesn’t mean it’s free from criticism.

    I am not issuing standards, nor am I advocating censorship or a product recall or a boycott or anything of the sort. Others have. I disagree. What I am doing is critiquing, and sharing my thoughts about what makes for narrative that can be both compelling and, quite frankly, not asshole-ish. I’m supporting a dialogue that will hopefully remind creators and fans that taking another whole group of people and turning them into faceless plot devices, like writers in the 1940s did to the Chinese or Nazi propagandists did to Jews in the same period, is wrong and has an effect on our culture. And as it turns out, the writer agrees, as he has since issued a well-thought-out and heartfelt apology.

    P.S. Watchmen is one of my favorite stories of all time. It also is extremely problematic, as pretty much everything ever written by Alan Moore is, in its depiction of women and rape. That doesn’t change my love for it anymore than the content of Airboy #2 changed my love for Airboy #1. But it doesn’t mean I need to ignore how terrible this part of the narrative is either. In fact, it’s the things we love (and I do love James Robinson’s writing and am quite fond of Mr. Robinson himself) that are owed criticism and not blind allegiance. Blindness to problematic content is good for no one.

    P.P.S. The argument that because someone else did it twenty years ago (and we didn’t balk) means we should still be doing it is a non-starter. Some human beings were once considered property. Gay men were once chemically castrated. It used to be socially acceptable to make children work in factories. Times change. And I find it crazy that anyone of conscience wants to be the dinosaur that’s willing to die on the hill of being shitty to people who are beat down every day already.

  4. Tijmen said:

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to write your extensive and thoughtful reply: I appreciate it!

    Let me start at your conclusion: you misunderstand me, I don’t wish to ‘die on the hill’ of being shitty to people, beat down or otherwise, but I do wish to ‘defend the principle’ (sounds a lot less futile, doesn’t it?) of people getting to write stories about fictional characters saying and doing all kinds of things I would never in a million years advocate people doing in real life, even if those fictional characters’ words and deeds offend someone.

    That’s because I think the notion that art can corrupt our minds and cause us to act in violent, immoral or bigoted ways is deeply, deeply flawed: it’s unproven and it’s dangerous. Consider this: today there are more violent video games, more violent movies and more violent songs available to more people than at any previous point in history. Yet violent crime statistics are much lower than they used to be, and declining. The availability of tons of ‘degrading’ pornographic material hasn’t prevented society from becoming more and more female-friendly. The (fantastic) music of Notorious B.I.G., despite its fundamentally regressive and cliched representation of black machismo and street culture, hasn’t prevented Barack Obama being elected. And so on.

    I think all these examples prove that adults can distinguish fiction from fact just fine, and that reading, watching, playing or listening to something that might contain elements that are (or could be construed as) sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist or otherwise offensive doesn’t mean you automatically consciously or even subconsciously internalize those attitudes. And that’s why I disagree with you when you write that:

    “What’s not OK is leaving the victim of that terribleness — name-calling, rape, any sort of dehumanizing behavior — without a voice or narrative agency. And when a community of people — transgender, gay, Black, women — are frequently put in the same position of being punched down with no ability to respond, it’s not acceptable.”

    I’ll give you another example. In the movie Being John Malkovich (by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman), Catherine Keener’s character Maxine and pathetic protagonist Craig have the following exchange:
    Maxine “You’re not a fag, are you?”
    Craig: “No, I am really attracted to you.”
    Maxine: “‘No, I am really attracted to you’, Christ, you are a fag. Okay, we can share recipes if you like, darling.”
    Going by your logic, the fact that Maxine is never called out for her homophobic remarks, and in fact has one of the happier endings in the movie, would imply that the whole film is ‘unacceptable and dehumanizing’. Never mind the fact that the rest of the movie is, in fact, a very weird yet compelling study of what constitutes love and attraction, playing with gender identity and alternative relationships along the way. I believe that Maxine using the f-word *without being punished for it, be it directly or indirectly* communicates to the audience that Maxine (as presented up until that point in the movie) is a deeply unpleasant person, not make the audience think ‘hey, if that unpleasant woman is saying it, so should we!’.

    Finally, I think you’re somewhat hyperbolic in your assertion that it’s ‘It’s all black, no white’ re: representations of transgender people. All my life, there have been positive, non-stereotypical depictions of them in various media, from Twin Peaks and the Crying Game to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kiss of the Spider-Woman to Transamerica, Transparent, the latter volumes of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Savage Dragon, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and so on. That’s a pretty good score for a minority that’s 0.2% of the population (going by John Oliver’s recent figures).

  5. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, let’s start at the end.

    I disagree wholeheartedly that the views espoused by the Code and mine are ideologically adjacent. Because ultimately, I do want art to reflect how the world actually is, warts and all. I just don’t want that viewpoint to be terminally one-sided on the part of cisgender white men. That scene in Airboy was not the real world. It was a one-sided presentation of a terrible thing without any acknowledgement that it was happening to actually human beings and not mannequins. The content isn’t the problem, as I said. It’s that you never get any sense of the humanity of the people being treated poorly. Show that, and I would not object. At all.

    And naming 10 instances of positive transgender presentation in over two decades, amid the millions of media representations of men and women, cisgender and transgender, is paltry to say the least. Particularly in comparison to how many negative representations of transgender individuals occur on a single television show, Law and Order: SVU, is more than triple that in the same time. And that’s one television show.

    You may not see it, but it’s there. And every transgender person sees it every day, all day. And while violent crime rate may be in decline, suicide rate among transgender individuals is 41%. That means that 2 of every 5 transgender persons has attempted to or succeeded in committing suicide. Statistics also show that while anti-LGB hate crime is down, anti-transgender hate crime is up, 13% over last year. Don’t be so sure that what we put out there doesn’t have an effect on what happens in the real world.

    But that’s really not the point. No one is telling James Robinson or anyone else what they can and cannot write and do as art. But you take responsibility for what you put out into the world and every one who purchases it also buys the right to criticize. And in this case, James agrees.

    P.S. Yes, I think Being John Malkovich is homophobic in that scene. The word faggot is used gratuitously at my expense. Does that ruin the entire movie? No. Does what happen in Airboy #2 mean I hate Airboy #1 or won’t buy Airboy #3? Nope. Same thing.

  6. Tijmen said:

    “Because ultimately, I do want art to reflect how the world actually is, warts and all. I just don’t want that viewpoint to be terminally one-sided on the part of cisgender white men….The content isn’t the problem, as I said. It’s that you never get any sense of the humanity of the people being treated poorly.”

    I understand that, but then you’re not critiquing a piece of art for *what it is*, but for *what you would like it to be*. Rather than judging a story or a scene about a tortured artist in a seedy bar on its own merits, you’re basically saying: “for various moral and political reasons, I find my positive, life-affirming story of the people in this bar more interesting and worthwhile than the one James Robinson wanted to tell about himself at one of the lowest points in his life.” But artists shouldn’t be expected to be loyal to anything but their own perspective, their own experiences – after all, James Robinson can’t help it he was born white, male or non-transgender and he’s under no obligation to present each and every group in society, oppressed or not, that appears in his stories in the way *you* think would benefit society the most. Two people *can* have a conversation in which offensive words are
    casually used without a member of the offended group showing up to a)
    point out their pain and suffering as a fellow human being and b) kick the offender in the nuts/ovaries. And that’s okay: people are perfectly capable of recognizing bigotry without every bigot getting his or her immediate and direct comeuppance.

    Furthermore, I find it especially odd that you would claim that ‘you never get any sense of the humanity of the people being treated poorly’ in the case of Airboy #2 when in the very same scene, the protagonist correctly genders a transgender woman, calls her beautiful, acknowledges her own perspective on her gender and finally presents a bathroom blowjob from a transgender girl as no big deal. How is that anything but a tolerant and non-judgmental representation of a transgender woman, and how is that invalidated by the use of an offensive word, a word incidentally I’ve heard quite a few transgender people use to describe themselves?

    Finally, you (and others in this discussion around the the ‘net) spend a lot time underlining the issues that transgender people face today: high suicide, hate crimes, legal discrimination. Let me be clear on this: I sympathize, and I think these are important problems that society should deal with. However, as my examples re: violence, sexism, antisemitism, etc. above have shown, I don’t think that you can effectively prove a hard causal link between ‘negative representations of a group’ and ‘societal problems said group collectively experiences’. Law & Order: SVU didn’t cause transpanic laws, Airboy #2 doesn’t make bigots beat up transgenders, playing GTA won’t cause adults to go on murder sprees, reading Catcher in the Rye doesn’t make me want to go out and shoot John Lennon or Ronald Reagan, and so on.

  7. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, first off, an admission. I absolutely agree that I did include something in this piece (which is frankly more than a review) that I normally never would: that nads suggestion. It still does make me uncomfortable that I focused, even briefly, on what a story should have included instead of just what it did. I’m not sorry I did, because otherwise I don’t think I could have expressed my point as clearly, but it’s not something I ever like to do. But I feel like if I didn’t include it, as well as other broader points, this article would have been nothing more than me saying how shitty that scene is, and not being able to explicate why,

    And to be fair, I am not trans and my reaction to that scene is one of empathy not first person placement. Two other writers spoke far more eloquently about why this scene is in no way humanizing at: http://www.therainbowhub.com/james-robinson-transmisogyny-is-a-black-eye-for-image-comics/ and http://www.comicbookgrrrl.com/2015/07/02/airboy-comics-transphobia-and-deafening-silence/

    In short, what you describe as presenting a blowjob as no big deal is the commodification and sexual exploitation of transgender women. It’s not about showing how liberated the James character is. It’s not about showing how free the woman is with her sexuality. She has no dialogue. She barely has a face. She’s being used and tossed aside with no sense of agency and then referred to as a prime example of how sick and twisted the world is. That is not positive. And any references the protagonist makes about the women, as you say calling them beautiful, how a blow job is no big deal, only references HIS perspective.

    And FYI, whether a transgender person chooses to use the word Tranny does not mean EVERYONE gets to use the word. The N-word is debated as being acceptable in artwork BY Black persons, but there’s zero debate that it’s ok to use by White persons. IT IS NOT. And neither is Tranny by any cisgender person, as the protagonist is here.

    Yes, you can say that an author is only responsible for considering his own motivations and perspective, but as someone who spent six years in art school critiquing work, I can tell you that if an artist does that, we consider it LAZY. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be an asshole. And it’s not transformative or informative or compelling at all. And I could have just written this entire issue off as lazy, but I know James Robinson is not a lazy writer, so herein lies an opportunity to figure out why this happened, and how we can make sure it doesn’t happen again, particularly by someone (as James has spoken since) who never intended its meaning.

    But make no mistake, this issue is informed by and informs an entire cultural oppression of transgender individuals that has a correlative (and maybe causative) effect on the way actual human beings treat transgender persons. I know you don’t think that’s true, but imagine this: you spend every single day being told that you are a liar. That your gender is fake and that you trick men (or women) into sex. That you are inhuman and do not deserve medical treatment or basic employment and housing protections. That every time you walk out the door, you’re at risk for being killed, or at the least harmed, for who you are choosing to be.

    Yes, obviously Airboy #2 did not create this situation. But it feeds into and off of it. And why is that something to be proud of? Why is that something we have to ignore in criticism just because the artist CAN say anything he or she wants? James’ right to free speech is as protected as mine, and I respect that right. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect the speech itself. I don’t.

  8. Sturgeon's Law said:

    It may indeed be wrong for people to have a prejudicial, or even hateful, reaction against transgender individuals. However, it is stupid to deny the fact that many people do so. This comic book takes note of that, and is being condemned for reflecting reality.

    Oh, and did I mention that this is a comic book, and not a statement made by one of the three dozen Presidential candidates? I repeat , , , IT’S A COMIC BOOK! Judge it on its merits as that, and not for its political correctness, or lack of same.

  9. Tijmen said:

    Ehhhh, I don’t know. I find myself disagreeing again with a lot of your fundamental assumptions and conclusions, but I think we’ve defined our respective positions on this matter fairly well by now. And as I said in my initial reaction I respect the desire for a better, more inclusive society that’s undoubtedly behind your views, so if it’s okay with you I’d like to just leave it at that. Besides, if we continue like this we’ll still be debating this issue when the next one comes out 🙂

    Anyway, I remain unconvinced that Airboy #2 deserves to be judged so harshly or that the mini-shitstorm it generated was justified, but I have enjoyed our discussion. I look forward to reading your next review(s)!

  10. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Thanks! Same here. And rest assured, I will be reading Airboy #3. 🙂

  11. Hot Sea-man said:

    Get the sand out of your snatch.. the book is hilarious No one is “beat down” Everyone’s equal now, so everyone’s fair game.. to do otherwise is to be trans-art-phobic..

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