How to Talk Art and Entertainment 2020
by Travis Hedge Coke
We are not quite in the middle of 2020, but it’s close enough we need to start acting like it’s 2020. We live in the now and the future. It behooves us to be adults.
Everybody is a Fan
Everyone is a fan of something. We need to be aware that there are no fans vs normies or whatever regressive, malignant term some group of enthusiastic gatekeeper is calling fans of other stuff this week. Toshio Okada, co-founder of Gainax, author of Introduction to Otakuology, Little Creator: Love = Talent!, and You Otaku Are Already Dead, codified contemporary fandom as Audience, Fanatic, and Otaku. Audience is everyone who can experience or has experienced the work, the film, the comic, the concept. Fanatics are the traditional serious fans, the collectors and codifiers who feel a shared and private ownership of the work they have enjoyed. Otaku, in this argument, are able to have their shared and personal engagement, while remaining critically aware of the work’s distance from themselves and that other people have their own shared and personal engagement that is as valuable to them as ours may be to ourselves.
This distinction of audience/fanatic/otaku inspired Okada’s efforts in Gunbuster, a short animated series in the late 1980s, which deliberately emphasized the seriousness experienced by a fan(atic) and the frivolity that can be acknowledged more easily by the general audience, theorizing that otaku would need to be able to balance both in mind simultaneously. As he said on a panel at Anime America in 1996, “The only thing I could find to make a real space science-fiction was to make a parody film.” What, in any genre, the general audience perceives as parodic, is parodic, it is parroted from previous ventures, but what the fan sees as true, if divorced from the parroted or parodic elements, would cease to be a genre work and lose its appeal.
All work, all play, is genre play. Baseball, engines, science fiction novels, musical theater, pointillist paintings, dog breeding, fetch, religion, food preparation and food enjoyment all fall into genres. All have a general audience, fanatics, and those who can balance themselves healthily between their own fanaticism and the validity of other audiences and fans.
Pessimistic Gender Policing
There is no need for you to say anyone “would never pass as [gender].” Not real people, not fictional characters “if they were irl.” The times it’s been useful in the last twenty years can be counted on the fingers of the hands of a digital clock.
There is a comforting sense of self-superiority in pointing out an actor, a character, a person who does not present gender in the way you expect or desire. It is, in our unhealthiness, a comfort that is encouraged from an early age. It still does both us, and others, no good. Especially in terms of fictional characters, what is the net gain of saying that, for example, Oscar in Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles comic or (the live action film version) Lady Oscar (directed by Jacques Demy), “would never pass as a man”?
Demy died, of AIDS though it was called cancer for years, with his sexuality obscured because of rampant homophobia, biphobia, and paranoia. Ikeda’s body of work readdresses the intimate and integral nature of self-identified gender and the unfairness and damage of gender policing from outside and from internal toxicity. Within the comic and its adaptations, Oscar is able, for the most part, to pass. So, who, precisely, are you doing a favor by saying, “oh, she could never pass as a man”?
Critical Fans Care
Being critical does not make someone less of a fan. It can make them a very strong, passionate, or fair fan. As addressed above, with Okada, a healthy fan in today’s world must be able to recognize the multitude of interpretations from audiences other than themselves, and to be able to think and react critically, as well as emotionally and selfishly (different things), to the works and concepts of which they are a fan.
Anti-Fans Are Not Fans
Just because someone has an opinion about a character, a show, a comic, an artist, a detail in a panel on a page of an issue does not make them a fan, and their idiosyncratic, individual perspective cannot be in vacuum transfigured to “the fans say.” More importantly, someone who does not like a thing, and has not liked the thing, is not a fan. Passionately disliking a thing, even if it is a subset of a larger thing, a character in a shared universe, a movie in a series, does not make them a fan.
The Nazis are Nazis are Nazis
Groups that consistently make racist, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic comments, who engage in the creation and distribution of bigoted material, who seem to specifically target for harassment individuals from oppressed classes and shape the nature of their harassment along those lines are not good or goodnatured whether or not they truly “believe” the bigoted things they say or put into their work. Sarcastic tone or claims of irony do not defang or defuse bigotry or attacks. No amount of chumminess or business savvy makes ugly, violent sentiments any more embraceable.
All Canons Count
With many media now involving multiple mediums and a plentitude of canons, there is no longer any argument for a truest or realest canon amongst those owned and guided by the legal rights holders, and barely any to justify prizing them default as higher and truer than any other canons.
We are over fifty years away from the publication of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author. We are nearly two hundred and seventy years past Charlotte Lennox suggesting we can take in entertainment and narratives for their value, not their truth. Marvel Comics first published a series entitled What If…? over forty years ago, and has engaged us, the audience and the fans, to re-narrativize their comics’ stories, for the sake of No Prizes for over fifty years.
“Trans until proven other,” is a No Prize exercise.
If someone can make the case that a show or comic needs no black characters because the green Martian is black, then it is equally, if not more fair, to claim all aliens are black.
Judging Before Full Release
It is perfectly fine to judge a work based on what we know from promos, from descriptions given by the people working on it, from material provided by the publisher or distributor for us to judge. They, in fact, produce those teases and summaries and sample pages for us to get us to judge them.
Eat Yer Crow
If you prejudge, if you make a call before release or halfway through serialization and you are way off from what actually develops, eat crow. Accept you were wrong, admit it aloud, make retractions if you need to. Do not sit on it and hope no one remembers how you shot your mouth off. Own it and, along with everyone else, move forward.
Ageism and Era Hate
All eras have some good stuff. There are cool comics from every decade, every year, since comics came into regular production. “The Nineties” did not all look like one comic. The Seventies were not all one genre, one art style. Zap Comix #1 is published the same year as Action Comics #362 and they are both trippy as hell. Zap Comix is a Silver Age comic. As are, witzend and Dennis the Menace Fun Book. Image Comics launches a year before rival publisher DC Comics produces the Vertigo imprint and everything they produced in the Nineties is Nineties comics, as are Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes from that decade and Mike Diana’s Boiled Angels and that’s simply the American stuff.
Nor, does being out of fashion now make a comic, an artist, a writer, bad. A comics reader who prefers now out of fashion styles or methods is not, either, bad. Only preferring or utilizing contemporary styles and methods is not, either. Expecting or demanding that contemporary comics ape out of fashion storytelling techniques or characterization tropes, artistic styles or distribution methods because they appeal to you personally, however, is doomed and not a good look. Demeaning the fans of a comic because the comic does not appeal to you, personally, does not signify the truth of your fannishness or the integrity of your involvement in comics, just that you are more superfluous than you realized.
There is no natural diversity in art or fiction, and there is no natural lack of diversity. Fiction and fictional art is constructed, as are all ostensibly nonfiction tellings/retellings. We, as creatives, choose what to include, what to exclude, where the focus lays and what is changed to facilitate an emphasis. As audiences and fans, we are drawn to some mixes and we are turned off by others, but none of them are more natural or artificial, and it is enforced sameness that is more unlikely than any mandated or consciously developed diversity of cast and perspectives can be.