So… I kinda really, really, really dislike the writing of J. Michael Stracyznski.
For those not familiar, he’s a TV show and comic book writer. For TV, he’s probably best known for his personal project Babylon 5, which broke TV tradition in being the first serial drama to have it’s total, complete story arc planned in advance. And actually successfully told the complete story before being prematurely canceled.
He also was one of the head writers on The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Which, if you’re around the same age I am, you undoubtedly remember. It was the one with Egon, Peter, Ray, Winston, Janine and Slimer, even though they didn’t look anything like the actors who portrayed them in the movie (the cartoon was unable to acquire legal rights to those actors’ likenesses). Not the stupid other one with the gorilla.
His current project in comics is working on the Before Watchmen series. He’s doing the Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl mini-serieses, if I recall correctly. I won’t be reading them. I’m only following Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen (because Hollis Mason is my favourite Watchmen character, and Cooke is a great writer) and Silk Spectre (because I love Amanda Connor’s art, and really enjoy comics with well-written female protagonists). I might take a look at Brian Azzarello’s Rorschach and Comedian, though. MAYBE.
But, for J. Mike (all J. Mikes are horrible), I never saw Babylon 5 (I liked Deep Space 9 better), and aside from Ghostbusters, my first encounter with him was reading his comic Rising Stars.
Rising Stars happens to PERFECTLY embody one of the mentalities I most dislike, and consider most dangerous, that often emerges from living in a position of privilege and entitlement. Namely, the attitude that whatever ideas you came up with after five minutes of thinking about some social problem you’re completely disconnected from, and have less than a bare minimum of knowledge and understanding about, would totally “fix” those problems if ONLY people would just LISTEN to you and stop being so irrational.
Before providing examples of that, I’d first like to indicate the level of research Straczynski put into this book. His protagonist, his primary character, on whom he presumably would have spent the most time and effort, has for his occupation the job of “poet”. Just “poet”. Not a teacher or editor or publisher or professor or critic or theorist who also writes and publishes poetry. Just “poet”.
And it’s implied that he’s not particularly successful at it. But still makes a living?!
In real life, there are probably only about two to five (tops) people in the entire world who actually earn their full income from writing poetry and giving readings. Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Seamus Heany, those kinds of people. The vast, vast, vast, majority of poets, to the point that one might as well say “all poets”, hold other jobs, typically as creative writing professors or publishers. Only the absolute most successful will even be able to earn a minor, supplementary income from their publications.
I make more money from this blog than the majority of poets do. Even the successful, well-respected ones. For poets, the payment you typically expect to receive for your work is a free copy of the journal you were just published in (maybe 2 or 3 if you’re lucky), or 25 – 100 free copies of your book that you can then sell at readings.
“Poet” is not a job that people have. It’s a passion that people pursue.
Clearly, Straczynski put absolutely no effort into researching this element of his protagonist’s life. He just thought “Oh, it’ll be cool if he’s a poet! And he’ll be called Poet! And be all sensitive and deep and stuff! And have, like, badass long hair and a trenchcoat! Yeah… SO COOL!”
The premise of Rising Stars is that a few hundred kids who were in utero as a magical meteor crashed into a small Wisconsin town were born with superpowers. They’re called “specials” and eventually they set out to make the world a better place.
But how they do this is in the most ridiculous, insulting way imaginable. War between Israel and Palestine is magically solved by giving them arable land. Just like that, peace is achieved. Nuclear war is “fixed” by a few of the “flying brick” style heroes stealing all the nukes and throwing them into space or something. Somehow these Americans invading Russian and Chinese nuclear silos DOESN’T trigger World War III, for fuck’s sake. And most painfully insulting, the problem of inner city crime and drug use is “fixed” by a bunch of a superpowered masked white vigilantes busting into crack houses (remember who real life’s masked white vigilantes imposing their “morality” on impoverished black communities were?) and beating up a bunch of addicts and dealers and other people trying to survive the f-ed up social conditions that had been imposed on them.
Somehow, it works. Somehow, this idiotic, poorly researched, privilege-blinded approach to the world actually “saves” everything. As though all we need to do to make the world a better place is just listen to what all the middle-class, white, straight, cis dudes on the internet are angrily all-capsing at us in the comment threads.
What it makes me think of is all the times people have patronizingly cisplained to me how I could just “accept” myself. How I’m “really” only “cosmetically female” and will never be “scientifically” female. How I could just be a feminine man, that I don’t need to “box myself in” to patriarchal gender roles. Etc. etc. etc. Always said as though they were the very first person to ever realize these profound, shocking truths, that I’d never, ever, ever considered before. If I just listened to their brilliant insights, culled from the half hour of cumulative thought they’ve ever given gender issues, THEN I would suddenly understand and my problems would be fixed.
Despite how incredibly obvious it is, it just does not occur to them that I’ve spent a hell of a lot more time thinking and reading about gender and transition and the definitions of sex and stuff than they have. That I’ve spent my whole life researching, discussing and contemplating this. Because I HAD to. But still, they arrogantly think that their hastily cobbled-together, ill-informed opinions are going to hold the key to everything.
That’s one of the things that privilege does. You get positioned as the neutral. Your perspective isn’t marked, therefore “objective”. You don’t have to fight to get your opinions, perspectives, voice, insights, research, and so on actually heard and listened to. Your opinion is instead treated as automatically worthwhile. So gradually, over time, you stop realizing that maybe other people might understand some things a whole lot better than you do. That there might be key insights, nuances or complications that haven’t occurred to you. That your little proposed solution has undoubtedly already been tried and didn’t work.
So we get writers like J. Mike writing as though they know all the answers to all the world’s problems. When they can’t even be bothered to spend 30 seconds researching what a “poet” is and does, they still think they know how to solve violence in the middle-east, inner city drug epidemics, and the still looming threat of nuclear war.
Fortunately, this kind of attitude in comic books is gradually fading. And much more encouragingly, it seems like this kind of attitude is beginning to fade from the mainstream itself.
Awhile back, there was Watchmen, which dealt with the question of privilege white male American “heroes” trying to “fix” the world in a very interesting way. One character, Ozymandias, comes up with a “solution” to the threat of nuclear war by staging an alien invasion, uniting the United States and the Soviet Union against a common enemy. But in the process, he kills millions of innocent lives, becomes something VERY unheroic, and the plan probably isn’t even going to work. He might have actually doomed the planet by arrogantly thinking HE could fix it.
And that plan was a hell of a lot more well-thought-out than anything Straczynski ever came up with.
But Watchmen was a semi-underground comic, deliberately written as a deconstruction of superheroes. Mainstream heroes continued behaving like mainstream heroes.
What interests me now, though, is that these questions are becoming a part of what mainstream comics talk and think about.
In the most recent issue of Action Comics, Superman calls the Justice League together because he wants someone to adopt two orphaned hampsters that belonged to someone he just sent to jail. While there, he also says they should be more proactive. Instead of just waiting around for the next alien invasion, they should do something NOW to try to help make the world a better place. Like try to help out with starvation in Somalia.
Batman replies, to paraphrase, “I don’t want us to become a group of deployed American living weapons, going out into other countries to ‘fix’ problems we barely understand!”
That’s a terrific dialogue to occur between them. And in one of the three flagship titles for DC comics? That demonstrates that we’re finally getting somewhere in understanding that these questions are nuanced, complex. What you can come up with in an internet comment is not going to “solve” things. The world is unpredictable, chaotic, fuzzy, filled with complications and ambiguities and things we couldn’t expect and didn’t take into account, things we missed.
Also, in the current Batman stories, Bruce Wayne has realized he can’t just keep using the fortune he acquired from Gotham’s class division to go out beating up the criminals that emerged from the poverty on the other side of that class division. You can’t punch social ills into submission. So he’s investing in a massive “revitalization” project to help Gotham and address its underlying issues. Make it a better city, for everyone.
BUT… at the same time, there are protestors. People who feel Bruce is just gentrifying Gotham, and potentially makings things worse. Bulldozing over the communities that have formed, built through cooperation and togetherness and survival. You can’t punch social problems into submission, but you also can’t just throw money at it either.
Batgirl’s roommate, Alysia (who is an anarchist, and may in fact be trans), is involved in these protests, and her insights, although she’s opposed to Bruce Wayne, are clearly meant to be considered sympathetically. She’s NOT a “bad guy”, even though she disagrees.
And meanwhile, in the most recent issue of Batgirl, Barbara herself questions what she’s doing in her vigilanteism. Is she hurting people who are just trying to survive, in the name of protecting the material wealth of Gotham’s tiny elite? Whose wealth is partially earned through maintaining the disparity that drives people to crime?
These are really, really interesting questions. And I’m excited to see them being addressed in mainstream comics. Because that suggests that maybe the arrogant, privileged, entitled attitudes embodied in Rising Stars are finally giving way to something a bit more hesitant, intelligent, critical, skeptical and, ultimately, more compassionate.