Posted By Forrest C. Helvie on October 21, 2013
What is Wrong With This Picture? Thoughts on the 2013 New York Comic Con
This past weekend, I had the unique privilege to attend the 2013 New York Comic Con as a member of the press, and it was a fast-paced span of time that exceedingly surpassed my previous experiences in the premiere NY comic show. Due to family obligations, however, I was only able to attend Thursday and Friday, so I missed what I know to be the most hectic day of the entire four-day event. Still, those two days were busily spent covering the “Editors on Editing” panel, the “LGBT & Allies in Comics” panel, as well as interviewing Scott Snyder and Scott Allie – amazing experiences all around.
In addition to more formal journalistic duties, I had the pleasure of roaming Artists’ Alley and connecting with many of the brilliant creators whose work I am continually reviewing week to week. In many cases, I found I had to tear myself away from certain creators’ tables for fear of driving away other fans as we engaged in various topics all over the comics spectrum (apologies to Chandra Free, Bryan J.L. Glass, Jim Zub and Frank Barbiere to name only a few such victims). I would have to say that, in spite of my feverish enthusiasm for all things comics, the many creators who tolerated my presence really were the highlight of the convention for me. My legs might have grown tired from the constant movement, but I left my two days at the Javits Center with my passion for comics fully recharged.
Unfortunately, it seems my experience – though by far not unique – differed greatly from a number of other people sharing space at the convention.
Over the weekend and into the early part of this past week, reports of sexual harassment, bullying, and generally unacceptable behavior began filtering out of the crowded halls and onto the internet. One report came from a Facebook post with a female cosplayer reporting sexual harassment from a supposed television crew. Yet another report of the same crew – from “Manbanter” on Sirius XM Radio – appeared here. Then I read additional reports not just from other fans – people who attended the show with many of the same intentions as I did (to have fun) – but from the very creators whom I have come to admire for their entertaining, incredibly smart, and often awe-inspiring work.
There are a handful of comic creators out there who, if you’ve read any of my reviews of their work, can apparently do no wrong. Becky Cloonan is one such person. While her work on Conan is what first caught my eye, it is her ability to craft some of the most haunting and yet beautifully crafted short stories out there that kickstarted my love affair with her work (documented for posterity here and here). On various social media outlets, Becky makes herself readily available to her readership and this is exactly the sort of creator fans are lucky to have behind the pen.
So to say I was disappointed in certain fellow male fans when I read this blog post is putting it mildly. When I hear a creator, let alone one who has regularly been recognized as one of the best in the business (multiple Harvey Award nominations and an Eisner Award winner), put down in words that “I feel alienated and uncomfortable at a convention like I did,” then there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong taking place. To think that anyone was made to feel this way is incredibly wrong. But let’s face certain facts: These conventions are events where comic book creators should have the opportunity to tear themselves away from the artist’s tables or the laptops from which they labor for hours every day to enjoy some recognition from the very people whom they work so hard to please. And so, I have a very difficult time believing Becky made the trek from Canada down to New York City to have “too many people up in my personal space, and far too many of them being guys tell me things like “Hey baby,” “What are you doing tonight?” and “Come on, be nice!” among other things.” I have a world of respect for Ms. Cloonan as a professional, and I seriously doubt she needs me “coming to her defense.” But in all honesty, no person should have anyone approaching them in that manner – whether she is a guest of the show or just another fan excited to be at one of the biggest comic conventions around. It’s unacceptable behavior – no one way about it.
But here’s the rub: This is not just a case of fans behaving badly. It seems that some of the New York Comic Con sponsors were less-than-indirectly reinforcing negative stereotypes of both female behaviors and representations of male desire. While I was busy running around and covering panels or talking to some of the many talented writers and artists, there was apparently something else taking place before every panel in “The Empire Room” in the form of Arizona Iced Tea’s “I Heart Big Cans” advertising campaign. Now, I will readily admit that – in case my previous statement about being occupied elsewhere didn’t get the point across –I did not see any of this, and I was only initially made aware of Arizona Iced Tea’s “Big Cans Jenny” from this article from The Beat. But I’ve rarely heard Heidi MacDonald being called out for egregious errors in fact checking in the time I’ve been following her comics news site, so I’ll take her at her word in this instance.
It seems Leah Cornish also addresses this blatant appeal to heterosexual men’s baser urges in her appeal to convention organizers (and the world of comics as a whole) on Leaky News. And while I appreciate what seems as though a concession on her part to have a good sense of humor about things and not appear prudish when she says, “I would have appreciated the Big Cans joke on its own. I would have even been OK with Jenny the Booth Babe bouncing around on stage – it’s a Con and I’m used to it,” I have to respectfully disagree.
I am not okay with this constant barrage of women as sexual objects (and I do not mean to construe Ms. Cornish as being okay with this either – she is more than able and capable of expressing herself quite clearly as her article demonstrates). Looking past the obvious problems this type of image poses for women, it’s also quite condescending towards and damaging to men. When faced with years of being barraged with images of this sort and seeing women behave in this manner, is it unreasonable to assume it could somehow inform the way a man both views and behaves towards women? Maybe those who are unsure should take a tour through contemporary mainstream media followed by a close look at the too-numerous-to-name reports and statistics on male-on-female violence versus those of female on male. Maybe there’s a strange correlation between men being regularly portrayed as assertive and in control while women are often depicted in subordinate positions in media at the same time there is a real world concern over discrepancies in pay and promotion rates in the workplace in spite of the greater number of women with higher levels of education than men nationwide. There’s a clear problem with the way many men are operating in society as it relates to the way women are treated, and although promotional events like this one are not wholly responsible for these greater iniquities, they are certainly are reinforcing a certain wrong-mindedness.
As I said, I’ll grant that that the Arizona Iced Tea issue is but one instance of many playing out in mainstream culture. How can we see it as contributing to the problem? Considering the prominent stage it acted out on this weekend and the ever-increasing numbers attending this show, it is at least worth considering. I mentioned it’s damaging to men because marketing efforts like this can contribute to a warping of men’s minds. But let’s be clear: It’s also incredibly condescending. These sort of messages communicate the notion that a man will really only respond to is something that involves some sort of pleasant experience for his penis. And while there are numerous Facebook memes that I see regularly that corroborate this notion and remind me that I am little better than the dog dry humping a telephone pole along the sidewalk, I beg to differ. I’m uncertain most women I saw at Comic Con want men viewing them in the way Jenny invited the viewing audience to see her, nor do I think every man is seeking such a two-dimensional representation of womanhood – assuming a woman is the object of a given man’s desires.
I recently had the immense pleasure to speak with one of my favorite writers (who arguably writes some of the best dialogue in comics today), Kelly Sue DeConnick. I’m going to paraphrase something she mentioned in our discussion from a few weeks back when she said that it’s not prudish to not want to objectify women. This sort of writing – this form of communicating ideas – is damaging to our daughters and our sons. And she ended the point by emphatically stating, “it’s lazy writing.” As a father of two little boys, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve learned rather quickly that those two little people look at me for an example to follow – to learn how they, too, should behave as “boys.” What I do, what I say, are all things they want to emulate. It’s no surprise, they’ve seen me reading comics, and now, they also want funny books of their own to read. So what I put into their hands – therefore, their minds – time and time again can very easily have an impact on their worldview years from now. Maybe that sounds like an exaggeration, but here I am writing about comics decades after the first time my father put a comic in my hands. I think of it less as being prudish as it is being a responsible caretaker and father. I want them to have a healthy and balanced view of the opposite sex – not this warped view that they will no doubt be assaulted by when I am not there to turn off the television, or explain away a certain billboard sign.
Again, I did not experience any sort of problems with juvenile cameramen or heavy-breathing fans who failed recognize a distinct lack of interest in them on my part. But as a guy who chose to attend in sneakers, jeans, and a boring blue polo, I guess I wouldn’t. It is an element to going out in public places that never factors into my thinking. I have that luxury, it seems, as a man. It is just a shame that every person who came to the show any of those four days – either creator or fan, plain Jane like me or as a cosplayer – couldn’t also enjoy. But as I tell my students: Even if you simply overhear some racist or sexist remarks and you quietly disagree with those sentiments, your silence still condones those words to the one who spoke them. As a comic fan, as a guy, and as a father of two comic-loving little boys – I do not accept this form of behavior, and it needs to stop now. If you are a fans of comics, love this medium, and want to see it be a similar source of refuge, joy, and excitement you’ve enjoyed for later generations, then we need to step back and make it a place where every person is free to celebrate it in his or her own way.