Fandom and the Fear of Representation
by Travis Hedge Coke
If I ever write X-Men, I am going to have Nightcrawler and Stacy-X hang out all the time in a very queer way. I will never confirm if they are having sex.
One of my favorite things about the jeans and t-shirt Superman DC briefly published, is that in his final canon appearance, he hugs a new superhero and says he will catch up with them, with us. Today, I see that some people online are worried about Superman embracing his son warmly and with full body. That Superman touches his son’s head while they hug.
“This is how a mother hugs an infant,” one person tweeted of Superman hugging his son.
My favorite Batman takes all have Batman hugging someone, usually – but not always – children. Batman is great for hugging children. Batman holding a Robin. Batman comforting the young victim of a crime or a scary night. Batman should love the people who carried him through his own youth, his own struggles. Alfred, who in most continuities raised him, especially.
I watched people lose their cool the other day, over Batman being Jewish, over anyone wanting to celebrate that Bruce Wayne is, canonically, in the main continuity of the comics, and in some other versions as well, Jewish.
But, I am an old hand. I have been witness to editorial diktats that Batman does not sit down.
You want to shake me by your fear that Bruce is canonically Jewish, that Bruce Wayne most likely has in his recent genealogy both Native American and Black ancestry, that Bruce Wayne is a mixed American man, you have to get up early in the morning and hit me in the face with a frying pan before you say your piece. The words alone, the idea alone, will not shake me.
Asking why queer characters are being celebrated during Pride month is never in good faith, but many of the highlighting characters will appear nowhere else that calendar year, they will not be featured or highlighted elsewhere.
One Black mermaid in a movie today means there will still be half a dozen or more new white mermaids in other products, other media, other stories, that same year. Huggy Batman or Superman is not going to deprive anyone of their chance to enjoy a grit-teeth no-hugs very serious superhero somewhere else.
We only made it one Predator movie into having a predominately non-Native cast, and most conversation is on how the franchise can be continued now away from Natives, away from Indigenous peoples or concerns.
Representation can mean the whole world to someone who does not often see themselves represented, and can change the way broader audiences respond to correlating people in their own lives. For someone outside that representation, though, or who does not feel those people deserving of representation – who may otherwise be very kind, caring folks – it may simply not matter enough for them to bother with and be such a bother they will deny it exists.
The negative response to Jewish Batman is not anti-Batman. It is not about fan purism. It is antisemitic.
Brian Azzarello once revived one of the greatest Indigenous characters in comics, the pirate Captain Fear, to make of him a parody cholo with a cartoon hispanófono accent.
Storm, of the X-Men, was portrayed so off-model a few years ago, people saw, instead, a young Debbie Reynolds.
I’d sing like a violin if I believed these missteps were the anomaly, but there is more concern for drawing someone’s chest symbol to model or how to decenter nonwhite people from their real true life nonwhite people stories by emphasizing a possibly made up white character a white actor can be cast as. Batman sitting or not sitting can have a stronger editorial regulation than Batman being a hero.
Would I care – famous character, niche character – if the takes were permitted to be wild? If adaptations and handling could swing for any fence anyone fancied and did?
Not a world we live in. We live in a world locked down by trademark law and copyright enforcement and ownership pressure and the pressure of ownership. The aggressive defense of control as a precursor to having any control.
Truth is, we are that world, they just bully the hell out of us until we cannot function as if it is in that world which we live. We are bullied into a false truth, and that false truth is that the canon version counts more, that the canonized version is real, that the corporate-owned truth is true.
We spend so long talking about “the Big Two” of comics, or, the Big Three, because particular publishers spent so much on making it take root for us. Marvel calling Nation their “Distinguished Competition,” blotted out the actual sales records of Harvey or Archie or anybody. Truisms took that day and take today.
Disney is going to own Winnie the Pooh the way Lovecraft’s body of work was owned far beyond the death of HP Lovecraft. Bullying. The way the Human Torch was taken from Carl Burgos. The way Medieval Spawn is an original character.
Our fear that the only alternate use of Winnie the Pooh will be edgy horror is belied by the entire lack of edge in the horror version of Winnie we are receiving, but that will not curb the anxiousness. We respond with royalist zeal to the notion of a championed and protected Winnie or Superman. Thank Rao and honey for ______, who understands and loves Character X, who will defend, support, and and steward Character X for another generation.
“If Peanuts goes into public domain, they’ll gay Peppermint Patty!” as if Patty was not based on Patricia “Patty” Swanson, a relative of Charles Schultz’s who was both gay and had a long-term partner on whom much of Marcie was, as well, based.
Schulz did not publicly out his relative nor his character much in the same way Jack Kirby drew the Thing more obviously Jewish in private and for family than he did for publication. Schulz’s widow has confirmed this of both Pattys. Those who argue it are calling out Jean Schulz as a liar. Not that they care.
If the steward is our opponent, even if – and mostly always – in our head, we calculate the long odds of their corrupt influence on character and market, wafting and wefting an incompetent blanket we dread to have anyone dressed in even though we know the blanket is not for us. Worse, if we choose to put it on anyhow. And, some will.
Some of us will go to any length to have our character and eat it. And, inevitably, when we do eat it, we pick ourselves up off the curb, bike lying on the pavement, and in our best hard edgy Pee-Wee voice, declare, “I meant to do that!”
When someone claims a Spider-Man as trans or a Spider-Woman as queer, we know this will likely never be made canon by a publisher or film distributor. Trans Spider-Man is not meant for canonicity, it is meant for what even the proposal brings to the world.
Trans Peter Parker. Anglo Parker. Jewish Parker. Teenaged Parker. Middle-aged Parker. Disabled Parker.
Cop Patty. Student Patty. Hockey-player Patty. Stand up Patty. Girlfriend Patty.
Cop Storm. Goddess Storm. A Storm who loves Africa and a Storm who exhibits infantilizing disdain for every African. A thief from Cairo. A teacher from upstate New York. Dark. Very dark. Lighter. Lightskin.
In one Batman comic, Bruce Wayne might have Black ancestors. In one Batman comic, Bruce Wayne wears blackface. In that comic, Wayne gets in a fight with sex workers. In another Batman comic, Bruce Wayne is very chill with sex workers.
Those are not even headcanons or stretches of interpretation.
Peppermint Patty has her girlfriend with her all the time.
Snoopy is a weird kid.
We have to know, all of us, how unconvincing we are, when we declare our canons of characterization or handling, that we are as unconvincing as anyone else but especially those who are not in control. It is well to declare you meant to bite the dust, you meant to eat pavement, it is a moral stand, ethical thing, a stylistic choice, showing the darkness of your soul, showing the shining brightness of heart, but, “I’ll build my own casino,” has been done, it can be done, and if you are not doing it, all you are doing is kneeling beside your bicycle talking twenty-one and pimps.
Batman can be Jewish and pay fairer taxes than any real life American billionaire. A capitalist with Black descendence and a belief in not killing. Batman is both a superhero and a terrible person. There are about thirty thousand versions of Batman. Superman and the X-Men and Patty and Marcie are just characters. Just characters. As trademarks and institutions, they can carry a weight beyond themselves, but it is not the weight of real human lives.
Harvard fellow, Aaron Schwartz, committed suicide in 2013, threatened with a fifty year conviction for availing himself of open access policies in regards to owned information. In 2022, various shadow libraries and mirrors – libraries which make a variety of texts and visual compilations available particularly to parts of the world which otherwise would not have functional access – were shut down by not even, especially, intellectual property holders, but the distributors or self-elected arbiters of IPs they do business with. Major streaming services have tightened their copyright violation watch so intensely, that they have blocked or reprimanded themselves, while other commercial streamers have aired review or screener videos to the public as commercial content.
Corporations and publishers are not people. Legal fictions be damned. I mean be damned.
We live in do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do corporatism. They really do want to firewall your thoughts until they pingback enough to make static. They want to gentrify imagination. They bought the Red Car to dismantle it.
Fandom and the Fear of Representation
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