Shouting from My Chair of Privilege

By | Friday, November 22, 2013 Leave a Comment
One of my "problems" is that I want to know so much about comics that I can't focus on a single aspect of it. I love a good Jack Kirby adventure story, and old Krazy Kat strips, and modern webcomics like Sinfest that don't neatly fall into a single genre. I'm happy to do research on forgotten 1940s creators, modern superhero analogies, and licensing issues that Richard Outcault ran into. The craft of excellent linework is as intriguing to me as the history of the direct market. Because of this, whatever passes for my reputation depends largely on context. I learned first-hand last weekend when I would be meeting people with the first time and their recognition of me ranging from my column in Jack Kirby Collector to my book on fandom to my articles on webcomics for MTV Geek. That I wrote on all of those subjects was decidedly less well-known.

I say that it's a "problem" only in that it makes it difficult to be a go-to resource for any one of those topics. If I wrote only about webcomics, for example, I'd have a better reputation for it since, theoretically, any time I didn't spend on Kirby or fandom or whatever would be devoted to webcomics.

And I have that problem because I can have that problem. I'm a white male, so I'm effectively a blank slate upon which I can present any sort of authority I want. To whatever extent that I'm an expert on webcomics is because I wanted to write about webcomics.

By contrast, women and minorities tend to have issues thrust upon them. If you happen to be a gay writer, your sexuality will be as much a focus as your work and many people will find it difficult to not view your work through a "oh, he's that gay writer" lens. Same thing if you're Black. Or Asian. Or Hispanic. Or female.

Here's a quick list of creators who spoke at the recent Billy Ireland festival: Brian Bassett, Matt Bors, Marc Boutavant, Eddie Campbell, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Henry Jenkins, Dave Kellett, Kazu Kibuishi, Patrick McDonnell, Dylan Meconis, Stephan Pastis, Paul Pope, Hilary Price, Fred Schroeder, and Jeff Smith. Do you know who was asked about how their cultural background influenced their work? The Hernandez Brothers and Kibuishi. The only three non-Caucasian folks up there. Even Scottish-born, Austalian-based Eddie Campbell didn't field any questions like that, even though it would be arguely more relevant since he willingly packed up and moved across the planet, forcing a new set of cultural circumstances on himself. (Also, I'd like to point out that the Hernandez Brothers and Kibuishi primarily cited decidedly more American influences like Jack Kirby and Jeff Smith.)

I was asked recently what types of comics I'm into these days. (Different than the usual question of what titles I'm reading.) What I've been trying to read more of lately are books that provide a different voice than what is typically dominant in the media these days. What I typically see/hear. What I typically see as a pretty direct reflection of myself. But I've had plenty of that over the years. I don't need to see myself in the mirror all the time, so I look for books that share with me some thoughts that provide a different viewpoint on the world as a way to expand how I see it. My most recent comic purchases include a book by a contemporary African-American artist, another by a modern Finnish artist, a story about a Japanese businessman written by a Spaniard, a French graphic novel, and several manga. Plus I picked up one of Trina Robbins' books on women in comics.

I can write here about how awful the treatment of women at comic conventions is, or how the industry doesn't do a good job of providing voice to African-Americans, or whatever. But it rings a little false to me, since I'm sitting here in my chair of privilege. It's something with which I can only sympathize, but never really empathize. What I instead try to do is look for the best works from these often overlooked voices and say, "Hey, this is cool! You should check this out!" I like to think it sends a more constructive message to both readers and the creators. It tells readers that there's more work out than what they're normally seeing, and it tells creators that their work has merit, even if it's removed from the cultural baggage we, as a society, have given them. I'm not concerned with, "Hey, this is a great book by a gay artist!" but rather, "This is a great book regardless of who made it!"

Whether that has any impact or not, I don't know. But given my chair of privilege here, I don't know that I can be geuine if I'm the one yelling at people to set aside their prejudices. I mean, it's easy for me to say that because my skin color, gender and sexuality are all considered human's "default" setting. (It's not, of course; that's just a social construct we've convinced a good chunk of the world to believe.) I fully admit that I miss instances of racism and sexism because I've been wired not to see it. So rather than call out the handful of instances where I don't miss it, I find it more productive to just try to praise those for their efforts, and set aside any issues of -isms.

At least, it's mentally healthier for me. I don't think I could wallow in trying to figure out how bigots think, and how to convince them to change their minds. I'd rather just check out the good stuff, and try to convince others that its worthwhile for its contents. Maybe shouting from my chair of privilege will reach someone else's ears as they sit on theirs.
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