Jamison Ashley: When did you first begin observing and commenting on the troubling aspects you noticed in western culture?
Alexander Adams: I am an artist and art critic. I only started to get seriously concerned about the impact of politics in culture after the massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamists in 2015. Lots of influential people in politics and the arts were saying “The attack was wrong but…” They were saying there was freedom of expression, but on the other hand people should not exercise that right. Rather than defending freedom of expression, you had very senior people finding excuses for violent retribution for speech. That feeds into ComicsGate. If someone says something controversial, there are politicians and creators supporting actions taken in order to silence and persecute dissenting voices on the basis that “freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of speech”. To me, that looks like a license to intimidate and induce a climate of self-censorship.
So, I started writing essays on the intersection of politics and culture in 2015. To be honest, I’m not a political person. Out of 500 articles I’ve written, less than 10% are political. I wish it was 0%. I love looking at – and making – art. It’s a privilege to write about art. It’s a chore to write about politics.
JA: I concur. Since 2015, have you seen things improve in any areas or do you see them growing progressively worse?
AA: The situation seems to be worsening. The growing polarization in politics (both in the US and here in Europe) is driving people apart. Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and IDW have let their creators get away with the most astonishingly abusive speech. Creators (and their activist allies) see they can push the envelope every week with no consequences. Claiming that creators are “freelancers” and therefore beyond the influence of companies is absurd. You’ll find that film studios and advertising companies have clauses in contracts with actors, celebrities and athletes that penalize actions that bring the organisation into disrepute due to an individual’s poor conduct. The penalty is termination of their contract. It seems that comics publishers aren’t tough enough to discipline even their editors, let alone freelance contractors.
I think there will only be moves along those lines – strict social-media guidelines, contracts with disrepute clauses, disciplining (including firing) full-time staff – when something really serious happens, maybe an assault on a ComicsGate creator or if there is evidence proving company collusion with harassment.
“ComicsGate is the most abundantly documented case of “cultural entryism” that I’ve ever witnessed”
JA: I’m inclined to agree with you. Let’s talk about your book “Culture War.” There are 7 essays contained therein, of which 5 that were published before in one form or another in Jackdaw, but the other 2 were written specifically for the book. Why did you feel ComicsGate warranted inclusion as one of those new essays?
AA: ComicsGate is the most abundantly documented case of “cultural entryism” that I’ve ever witnessed. So, it was an obvious example to discuss. You have all the stages of cultural entryism: moderation of message boards, editorial control, co-opting much of the specialist press, misrepresenting opponents through hit pieces, condemnation of consumers, provocative changes to lore, ignoring canon and continuity, a patron-client system of support in hiring policy, purity tests for creators and consumers and a willingness to put politics above professionalism. But remember this isn’t a plan or a conspiracy. It is a case of people sharing a political outlook and wanting to “do their bit”. Slowly, actions and people join together to form a pattern. I haven’t seen it so blatantly in other fields. These situations are accelerated and heightened in new media and pop culture. You’ll see similar things in fine art and theatre and so forth, but it’s less intense. The revealing aspect of ComicsGate is that you’ve got sales figures dropping and stores closing. That’s tangible evidence of failure. In the fine-art world sales are confidential and firm data hard to get.
“…you’ve got sales figures dropping and stores closing. That’s tangible evidence of failure”
People are appalled to read about ComicsGate. I included one page of Twitter quotes from artists, writers, editors and executives; it’s one page of filth and hatred in a very moderate book. It really shocks readers. I knew it would be the best demonstration of how tribal things are in the anti-ComicsGate group.
JA: How did you first learn of the ComicsGate consumer movement that’s been happening in the comics industry? And was your first impression accurate?
AA: Around 2016 or early 2017 I started to watch videos by Cap’n Cummings, Douglas Ernst and Diversity & Comics. Later I watched Just Some Guy, Yellow Flash, That Umbrella Guy, Sweetcast, and Ethan Van Sciver. Novelist David V. Stewart was talking about the political content of the new Star Wars films, so it linked up with that. I read online articles. Pretty soon I realized that I could spot trends I recognized from other media. The surface-diversity issue and quota hiring are what you find in the public sector in the UK. Also the fact that American superhero comic publishing is somewhat isolated from the market by cross-subsidization from parent companies, IP maintenance, merchandise, licensing and so forth means that creators can take an anti-consumer stance. You get that in all industries that are insulated from the market. We get it in publicly subsidized arts venues. The creators of Post-Modern art exhibited in empty museums and publishers of Ms Marvel comics that were going unsold on shop shelves don’t care about failure. Rejection doesn’t lead to consequences, reflection or correction. The makers get to beat people over their heads, telling them that they are too stupid or prejudiced to understand the product. By that logic, failure always lies with the consumers…
JA: Many creators, editors, and even Marvel Comics’ COO have repeatedly bashed ComicsGate consumers and creators. Why do you think so many comic book professionals are willing to go on the attack against CG? Fear, foolishness, righteous indignation?
AA: It’s complex. You have “true believers” who are ideologues. Then there are people who pride themselves on being moral. In a situation where it is “diverse creators v. vicious bigots” then “being on the right side of history” looks like an easy call. But if you actually listen to what customers are saying, you can’t maintain that view for long. Yes, there are ComicsGate supporters who have written dumb things (anonymously in comment sections for instance), but you’ll find plenty of reasoned criticisms. D&C has had some really sharp criticisms in terms of story, artwork, dialogue, character, canon and so on. If you broke those down into point form and put them in a dry editorial memo, that criticism would be tough to dismiss.
You’ve also got outsiders who want to get into the industry. You’ve got creators who want to stay in with their cliques. You’re right to mention fear. Group identities are reinforced by purity tests and there are people who don’t believe the anti-ComicsGate line, but they want a quiet life. So they retweet and keep their heads down. But there are true believers who think that systemic racism/sexism/transphobia is society-wide and literally killing people. As far as they are concerned, those activists think they are on a moral crusade. True believers and those really invested in identity politics form less than 15% of the profession, but you only need 10% ideologues to dominate a docile majority. A small set of dedicated online activists willing to harass and dox will act as the zampolits (Soviet political police) who keep your opponents quiet and your allies compliant. Again, this is all informal and unplanned. It’s an organic self-regulating system – until the industry collapses.
JA: Have you seen similar phenomena in other areas of culture that mirror what you’ve seen in CG?
AA: I followed GamerGate fairly closely as it unfolded. In the book I mention GamerGate, the Sad Puppies campaign (in sci-fi) and MagicGate. I mention in passing the political messaging and marketing of Star Wars and Marvel films, but I didn’t have space to cover those in any depth. These are all pop culture events that your readers will know. ComicsGate was so clear as an example of “cultural entryism” that it seemed the best to discuss in the book. Obviously, the problem is that it is still evolving. I’ll be writing about the outcome of the Meyer v. Waid case for Spiked Online magazine, whenever that concludes. If there is a second edition of Culture War (in five or ten years’ time), I hope I’ll be able to say how ComicsGate turned out.
JA: Is there any pattern you’ve noticed where reason and dialogue may prevail in these sorts of culture wars? Is there any strategy you’ve seen that works to give one side the upper hand?
AA: It seems that these situations intensify because no one sees an advantage in backing down. People become so invested in being part of a tribe that it is hard to de-escalate and find common ground. They are speaking different languages. Readers say; “This is a shoddy product. Do a better job and please keep your politics out of the mouths of characters I’ve known and loved for decades”. Activist creators say: “This criticism is cover for race hatred and homophobia. Who are you to tell me I can’t use characters as I choose? How dare you tell me how to do my job!”
People could pull together to save the industry, but that won’t happen because the big publishers are insulated from low profits by cross-subsidization. Also, they are being held hostage by in-company activists they hired. Activist creators don’t care because they’d rather burn the industry to the ground than compromise. They have no loyalty to a company or to fans. The committed professionals are – by and large – too cautious to cross lines.
The best way out is for companies to apply strict social-media policies, clear out directors who knowingly hired social activists, pay off editors to leave if they can’t keep their mouths shut, encourage creators to state publicly they aren’t in the “guilt-by-association” game and invite some ComicsGate creators to do occasional freelance work. Hire on merit – get in some new blood, drop creators who can’t sell. Fans may have said “I’ll never buy Marvel again,” but I think after a year or two of creators keeping their mouths shut and keeping politics out of books with established characters, many fans will come back – but only if the product is good.
The big companies owe it to the readers, creators and retailers to make an effort. If they don’t, they deserve to go out of business.
JA: Thanks for your time Alexander. Best of luck with the book. It sounds like a fascinating read.