Speaking truth to power in the comic book industry is a difficult dance at the best of times. And these, are not the best of times.
If you speak up, if you speak out in the wrong tone at the wrong person, that’s it. That’s your career.
It’s a line that I try to be careful of, because I know in my heart that my potential value to the industry, the quality of my work and what it can do for under-served audiences, is many times more than any one racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted cartoonist. Potentially ending my career before it truly begins in order to ensure there’s some kind of consequences for one man among many who are a blight on the industry is not just unfair, it’s a bad trade off. It’s also how men like that stay in business, the perceived risk of mutual self destruction at best, and self immolation at worst.
Sometimes, a situation gets so bad that the personal consequences have to take a back seat, and Image Comics choosing to publish a Pakistani man wearing a nametag with a racial slur on it — lynched and his genitals mutilated — as the cover to The Divided States of Hysteria #4 is exactly one of those situations.
[This image can be seen here. Please be aware of its intense graphic nature before clicking through.]
Which is why I’m personally boycotting Image Comics. I won’t be buying, reading, reviewing, or tweeting about a single comic published by the company until Eric Stephenson resigns as Publisher.
What needs to be understood is that this is not an isolated incident. Beyond the ongoing cruelty of putting out a pride variant benefiting Human Rights Campaign on the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria, which featured vicious transmisogynistic violence narrated with breathlessly erotic glee, it’s one of several examples of an institutional problem at Image that can only be resolved by institutional change that Stephenson has shown himself to be unwilling to undertake.
Two years ago, I spearheaded a campaign against James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s Airboy, the second issue of which hinged entirely on humiliating and slurring trans women. Like The Divided States of Hysteria, it was published during pride month, during which Image Comics decorated their social media accounts with rainbow flags. The eventual resolution was that the pride icons were quietly removed and an apology from Robinson, published by GLAAD was negotiated.
At no time was a public statement issued on behalf of the company.
The lasting impression of that incident seemed to be that the company felt it was an issue for the creators to address that they had no responsibility for, despite the fact that Stephenson himself appeared in the preceding issue of the comic, and the company was identifying itself specifically as an ally to the LBGTQIA community, which, represented by the “T,” includes transgender people. Image trades on its non interference in the creative output of its creators, choosing to behave as if it’s a printer with no stake or involvement in the content, when it is definitely a publisher.
It’s an important distinction to make, because as much as it tries to position itself otherwise, Image Comics is a profit-driven enterprise that uses all of the same emotional appeals as any of its competitors to exploit a sense of brand loyalty. It’s that impulse that drove them to drape their social media presence in rainbow flags without exercising any oversight over Airboy, and to take it even further by introducing a line of pride themed variant covers, heedless of how the values the flag represents clash with what Chaykin chose to put on the page in The Divided States of Hysteria. All this despite the fact that every decision that the company took regarding Chaykin’s comic — under Stephenson’s leadership — directly contradict the rousing speech he gave to retailers at ComicsPRO in 2016.
“We need to stop,” Stephenson told the assembled crowd. “Variants don’t build a lasting readership on the books you’re trying to sell. At best, they pay short-term dividends; at worst, they deprive fans of something that is limited in nature. All comics should be for everyone. Not just collectors. Not just whoever has the most cash on hand,” he said, a year before announcing an entire year of variants on a number of themes, including June’s Pride variants, of which The Divided States of Hysteria would be one.
“If you are a creator – a writer, an artist, both – the legends of yesteryear have done their work. For decades now, we’ve all been standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s time to stop. Let them have their rest. Now is the time to create new characters, to explore new worlds, to tell new stories. Our industry – our medium – has a long and magnificent history, but the past isn’t going anywhere. The future is an open road,” he also said, a year before hitching himself so tightly to Chaykin’s inarguably faded star that he defended it thusly in the announcement for a second printing of the debut issue:
“Rooted in the worst aspects of reality, this is indignant, rebellious fiction, designed to make readers both angry and uncomfortable, but more than that, it’s intended to provoke thought about how and why things have reached a state where the tools for progress—discourse, understanding, cooperation—are shunned in favor of treating anyone with an opposing viewpoint as an enemy combatant. If The Divided States of Hysteria prompts just a single productive conversation about the present state of our society, then it has succeeded in its goals and is a story worth sharing.”
Stephenson should have heeded his own advice and let Chaykin have a rest. He also should have taken his own advice about variant covers and not brought the pride flag into the equation. Stephenson’s statement that a single productive conversation coming out of the comic justifying it is an absolutely lousy perspective for an ally to have.
No profit driven enterprise, which Image Comics is, and no straight cartoonist, which Chaykin is, are entitled to the use of a pride flag for self promotion. It’s a symbol of resistance and resilience that generations of queer people, most of them trans women of color, fought and died to bring into the mainstream along with the civil rights struggles that it represents.
Eric Stephenson and Howard Chaykin are interlopers on LBGTQIA issues and those facing people of color and religious minorities. It isn’t up to them to decide that they get to lead the discourse, and the flag that they so cheaply exploit to look progressive to the general public is a symbol that was created to take that power away from people like them and give queer people agency over our own lives.
Stephenson also has no claim to provoking or maintaining any kind of discourse around this or any other title he publishes. Stephenson has shut down every attempt at creating a genuine discourse since the Airboy incident in 2015. To wit, Image Comics is currently replying to all press inquiries about the cover to The Divided States of Hysteria #4 with a terse no comment. That’s not a discourse, a dialogue, or a conversation.
I got in touch with Image about the Divided States of Hysteria cover.
“Image Comics has no comment.” pic.twitter.com/lEI9lDB2nS
— Kieran Shiach (@KingImpulse) June 30, 2017
It’s probably unlikely that either Stephenson or Chaykin understand the dimensions of what they’ve done, or that they believe that the pride flag has any more significance than the Nike swoosh. Putting a pride flag on a comic means that you’re communicating a specific set of values, and the values of that flag do not include exploiting transmisogynist violence or the brutal murder of a Pakistani man for a voyeuristic thrill. There is no discourse that The Divided States of Hysteria could possibly present that isn’t already being handled by queer and POC cartoonists
There’s nothing thought provoking about the lynching depicted on the cover of issue #4. Chaykin chose to put a racial slur on the dead man’s name tag. Not spray painted on the wall by him, not written on him in blood. On his name tag. Chaykin decided that the value of the life of the victim he was portraying was so little that he didn’t even deserve an actual name. Just a slur. There’s a vicious cruelty there that no satire could ever hope to ameliorate.
This is Chaykin being playful on the cover of a comic being published by a company headquartered in a city where, very recently, two men were murdered and one was critically injured attempting to defend a Muslim girl on a train. This is Chaykin being playful as waves of Islamophobic violence are sweeping not only the western world, but India as well, where Muslims are being beaten, stabbed, and lynched to the astonishing silence of its Prime Minister Narendra Modi. None of this constitutes the opening of a conversation.
That the image is the cover is what fundamentally separates it from any hope of being an attempt at honest engagement. There’s no chance to decide whether or not to engage with the subject matter, which is what Chaykin and similar provocateurs like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo aim for, but there’s nothing novel or subversive about it. The news media bombards audiences with maimed or dead brown and/or Muslim bodies on a daily basis. All Chaykin can succeed in doing with this cover is to extend the trauma that much more, make the spectacle of brown bodies exploited for monetary gain that much more ubiquitous in American life.
Chaykin raging against the “Balkanization of the left,” extolling them, whoever “they” are, to be “fucking Americans” isn’t new, novel, or productive either. The only reason that it isn’t a quote directly attributable to Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley during the 1968 Presidential campaign is that Yugoslavia didn’t begin breaking up until 1991. It is, however precisely how outdated and counterproductive his rhetoric is. Chaykin’s antics are what Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman referred to as “heightening the contrasts” when he urged protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention to goad police into violently attacking them.
It’s the same kind of polarizing tactic that Richard Nixon exploited to fragment the left and ride into office during that same campaign, and it remains the fundamental tactic that the far right typified by Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon shares in common with extremist groups like ISIL. Both the Trump administration and ISIL openly champion the strategy of making life as untenable as possible for Muslims in the west, and cartoonists like Chaykin are their willing dupes, not canny operators.
What Hoffman called “heightening the contrasts,” ISIL refers to as “eliminating the grey zone,” as explained by The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain, relating a statement in the terror group’s online magazine Dabiq in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
“The attack had “further [brought] division to the world,” the group said, boasting that it had polarized society and “eliminated the gray zone,” representing coexistence between religious groups. As a result, it said, Muslims living in the West would soon no longer be welcome in their own societies. Treated with increasing suspicion, distrust and hostility by their fellow citizens as a result of the deadly shooting, Western Muslims would soon be forced to “either apostatize … or they [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens,” the group stated, while threatening of more attacks to come.”
Chaykin clearly styles himself a liberal, the same way that Charlie Hebdo did until they outed themselves as breathtakingly Islamophobic in the now infamous How Did We End Up Here? editorial that, just like their ideological enemies that cheered their shooting, also attempted to force Muslims into a single ideological category incompatible with France’s secularism by singling out Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan:
“No matter, Tariq Ramadan has done nothing wrong. He will never do anything wrong. He lectures about Islam, he writes about Islam, he broadcasts about Islam. He puts himself forward as a man of dialogue, someone open to a debate.
“A debate about secularism which, according to him, needs to adapt itself to the new place taken by religion in Western democracy. A secularism and a democracy which must also accept those traditions imported by minority communities. Nothing bad in that. Tariq Ramadan is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting. Nor will he ever cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse.
“Others will be doing all that kind of stuff. It will not be his role. His task, under cover of debate, is to dissuade people from criticising his religion in any way. The political science students who listened to him last week will, once they have become journalists or local officials, not even dare to write nor say anything negative about Islam. The little dent in their secularism made that day will bear fruit in a fear of criticising lest they appear Islamophobic.
“That is Tariq Ramadan’s task.”
Chaykin and Stephenson are under the impression that the discourse they’re entering into is with a fragmented left that needs to learn to engage with political ideas on their and no one else’s frequency, but this is the actual public discourse they’re wading into.
The fundamental mistake that Stephenson and Chaykin have made is that they believe they have something to add on topics that they clearly have not studied in any significant depth at all, either within their native medium of comics or elsewhere. The discourse about Islamophobia and the exploitation of black, brown, and queer pain for entertainment and profit in comics has been raging in earnest for years. It’s evident in Darryl Ayo’s critique of Benjamin Mara, J.A. Micheline’s critique of Mark Waid and JG Jones’ Strange Fruit, Robert Jones Jr’s critique of Cyborg, and my own critique of Berliac, among many others.
Yet Image, under Stephenson’s leadership, despite his urging retailers to broaden their personal reading and understanding of the changing industry, has published an escalating amount of cruelly racist, Islamophobic, and transphobic content ranging from Airboy and The Divided States of Hysteria to Dilraj Mann’s blackface cover to the final issue of Island. All of these occurred with no oversight and little to no remedial action, despite each incident making it explicitly clear that Image requires more oversight of its output, especially when it runs completely counter to the “diverse,” progressive, LBGTQIA friendly branding it cultivates.
Of course this isn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last time that a comic book company exploits an LBGTQIA oriented non profit for positive press while behaving in a completely opposite, retrograde way within the industry. There is, of course, Image pawning off responsibility for Airboy on James Robinson to issue his mea culpa through GLAAD without even publicly acknowledging why the pride icons were removed from their social media accounts.
There’s also Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso’s tacit refusal to acknowledge the queer romance in Angela: Queen of Hel to the comics press while simultaneously seeking out a GLAAD media award for it and the several gaffes and alienating language he used towards LBGTQIA fans over the same time span. There’s a very real sense of entitlement from publishers to leverage LBGTQIA imagery for PR purposes without putting any serious thought into upholding those values on anything but a superficial level.
The Islamophobia and exploitation of broken black and brown bodies is a problem too overt and pervasive to bother enumerating, and it’s a state of affairs that plagues the industry from the small presses all the way up to Marvel and DC and is sustained by a pathological unwillingness by creators and publishers to confront or critique each other.
As critic and creator J.A. Micheline observed on Twitter, the Overton Window has been jammed open to allow precisely the kind of imagery that The Divided States of Hysteria trades in for quite some time, and the popularity of the phrase among creators means there’s a clear understanding of just how wide the net of complicity is in creating a space where this cover could be considered fit to print.
Chaykin would have us believe that it was Trump who took a crowbar to the Overton Window, opining that liberals are to blame for “allowing this nihilistic shithead to mainstream and legitimize the racist, sexist, bigoted and flat-out moronic sensibilities that have always been there, but were held in check by a common understanding that one doesn’t get away with that shit in the United States of America.”
Donald Trump didn’t compel Frank Miller to create Holy Terror, nor did he compel Bob Schreck to make it the first graphic novel he published at Legendary. The ambient level of permissible Islamophobia in comics that made it possible for The Divided States of Hysteria to be considered acceptable has not changed significantly since the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
Clearly Stephenson’s resignation is not a panacea for the reckless exploitation of queer, black, and brown pain in comics. However, his obstinate refusal to engage in any kind of dialogue with the comics press or readership about these incidents and unwillingness to institute any kind of oversight to keep them from happening again make it clear that this is not a problem caused by rogue creators compromising the work of their peers. It’s a deeply ingrained culture of lassitude and impunity that cannot be reformed with him at the helm.
I also know that I’m only one woman, one critic who won’t pick up another Image comic until Stephenson resigns. But I’m also the one quoted on the front cover of every copy of the Motor Crush trade paperback currently in print, the back cover of the latest volume of Sunstone, and thanked in Bitch Planet. I know my worth to the industry. Several of the creators Image publishes do too. Eric Stephenson, however, would rather publish work that demeans me and mine than admit fault, so I won’t be reading anything with his name on it. It’s that simple.