Blogathon: 4th Hour

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.



  1. Walton says

    I’m very disappointed, since I previously had a high opinion of Straczynski. 🙁 While I’m not into comics and have never come across Rising Stars, I have to say that Babylon 5 is the best science fiction TV series – possibly the very best TV series – I’ve ever seen. It’s better than any of the Star Trek series, and I say this as a huge Star Trek fan.

    • William Burns says

      Babylon 5 had some good qualities, such as excellent set design, but I couldn’t get past the virtually all-white, raisin-in-a-snowbank casting.

  2. Jason B says

    So yes to collecting Batgirl then? and which batman title is this from?
    oh crap i’m going to start collecting again soon i know it.

    • says

      Big yes to Batgirl.

      Almost all the Bat-family titles include references to the Gotham revitalization thing. But so far I’ve noticed it being most significant in Batman, Batman: The Dark Knight and Batgirl.

  3. Erin W says

    Just picked up the run of Batgirl to date a week or so ago, pretty much because of your recommendation and that of my bestie (girl geeks unite!). Totally missed the implication that Alysia might be trans. Off to re-read! Or is that just based on Gail Simone’s saying that she plans to include trans-specific content in Batgirl?

    • says

      It’s a bunch of things. There are hints both in the comic and in meta-textual spaces that Alysia might be the trans WoC character she’s been mentioning including. It’s DEFINITELY not a sure-thing, but once you start looking for it, you can certainly notice some hints.

  4. says

    By the way, Rising Stars also includes a really tacky, patronizing and poorly written cross-dressing/trans arc. It’s exactly as poorly thought out, poorly researched and clumsily handled as everything else in that comic.

  5. wscott says

    Straczynski can be brilliant sometimes. But when he’s off, he’s awful. I adored Babylon 5; the feel was so different from Star Trek that you’ll either love it or hate it. Rising Stars was NOT his best work in comics; I agree it was pretty heavy-handed. Supreme Power was much better (tho very Iron Age). And you might check out Midnight Nation, which did a better job of asking interesting questions without trying to answer all of them.

  6. says

    I’m a government policy analyst IRL, and I am constantly frustrated by the tendency of some people to assume simple solutions exist to long-standing social and economic problems.

    My favourite quote on the subject comes from Adam Smith:

    The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

    Which is basically a tldr say of saying “people are people, they have their own desires and drives and if you don’t accommodate them in your Grand Plan you’re going to screw everything up”.

    • says

      That is a terrific quote! Thank you!

      There’s an old proverb that I love, I think Jewish in origin, that also applies to this:

      “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”

      • says

        One thing I like about Smith’s writing is that it has this elegant rhetorical flow to it that very similar to the American Founding Fathers. But then, he was a contemporary of them so that only makes sense.

        I actually have a copy of that quote posted up by by desk at work, as a reminder to not be that guy.

  7. says

    I’m not a comics fan, but this post contains some really excellent reminders on privilege and neutral positioning. Now, should anyone attempt to ‘cisplain’ anything in that fashion, I have a nice link to reply with. This Blogathon is going well thus far…

  8. ik says

    That is epic fail.

    That guy isn’t even trying to be like me, doing the greatest evil because only by that manner can the greater good be achieved. Almost just Mary-Sue type response to social problems!

    I’m convinced that ultimately, paternalistic detached problem solving will be what saves everybody but it’s not going to be either that simple OR that harmless. And idiots who think it will be that simple and harmless who actually try to do it, cause enourmous disasters. It’s like small-scale Vietnam War!

  9. says

    Prior to the relaunch, Straczynski had a run on both Wonder Woman and Superman. I haven’t read his take on Wonder Woman, but I have read the first issue of one of his Superman arcs and it was just…wow.

    The idea was that Superman felt he had lost touch with the people of America, so he started walking across the country to meet people and help them. Admirable idea, I guess, but then he got to a neighborhood with a drug problem and decided he could solve the whole thing by setting fire to the drug supply with his heat vision and telling the dealers he’d do it again if they came back. Some kid even pointed out that he’d just moved the problem “over there” and Superman’s response was “it’s up to over there to take a stand for themselves.” Uh, but you just forced the problem on them?

    In the same issue he also encountered a suicidal woman and somehow talked her out of committing suicide by countering her argument of “Life’s not fair” with “It’s not fair, but it isn’t unfair either.”

    Between that issue and your post on his work, I’m thinking I don’t want to make the effort to check his stuff out again.

    • says

      Oh my lord.

      Yep… THAT is Stracynzski all right.

      I swear he’s the living avatar of the entitlement of every ultra-entitled white middle-class internet guy who spends way much more time writing his opinions on the internet than actually trying to understand the issues in question.

      It’s weird too in that Superman is one of the few characters who I don’t mind being written as a bit naively idealistic. I love Supes, but that’s sort of one of his character traits, and one of his weaknesses. I like him when he’s written as idealistic, kind, compassionate and wants-to-help to a fault. But when that’s done well, the world shouldn’t magically become as simple and easy as Superman wishes it were. I like stories where Superman is sort of like a representation of our struggle to remain optimistic and idealistic and hopeful and stuff when trying to deal with all kinds of tough, tricky things… and in the end he should “win” and we can all put down the comic feeling a little less cynical. But if Superman just kind of bullies the world into compliance with ideals, and everything all neatly falls into place, and the writer just forces hir own naivete on the setting to make it work, it just ends up being icky and awful, and Superman ends up feeling like a representation of fascism, entitlement, ignorance, and world-policing, rather than idealism, hope and compassion.

      • says

        Yeah, I’ve always felt it’s Superman’s idealism and his struggle to figure out how much he should intervene and when that makes him a compelling character. I think that’s what I found most depressing about the “walking across America” arc: it could have been a really cool exploration of his character and his dynamics, but if the rest of it was anything like that first issue, then it failed miserably.

  10. alliecat says

    I’ve just read that issue of Batgirl, and for the most part I think it’s brilliant… but am I the only person who read quite strongly implied transphobia/transmisogyny in the way Barbara addressed the bodyguard who, while not explicitly trans, the artist seemed to take great pains to portray as the image of what Julia Serano described as “the pathetic trans woman trope” (ie, tall and muscly with a femme presentation), as “miss” with quotation marks in the speech bubble?

    • says

      The bodyguard isn’t trans at all. To me, she seemed explicitly written as a cis woman who happened to be very strong, with a heavily muscled, bodybuilder body-type. The fact that seeing tall, muscular women immediately leads the mind to “trans” is itself a byproduct of cissexism, but no, nothing about that issue, the subsequent issues (where we see more of her), or my own conversations with Gail Simone, has led me to believe that character was at all intended to be trans or to even imply that. She’s just buff, that’s all. Cis women can be buff.

      The “pathetic transsexual” trope is usually a lot more obvious, and is NOT simply a muscular, femme woman. In cartoons, it’s the broad-shouldered ‘linebacker’ with a five-o-clock shadow, hairy legs, a floral dress and big hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. “Obviousness” is EXACTLY the point.

      • alliecat says

        Okies 🙂

        It’s interesting to note that the issue was around the same time in-setting – after Night of the Owls and before any other crossover event involving the Birds of Prey that can be used for timekeeping – as the Birds of Prey arc in which the team hesitate to help Ivy take down corporations involved in fracking etc, on the basis that the plan itself involved killing. While Barbara herself has never killed except in extreme and personal circumstances, Katana and Starling both killed craploads of sleeper agents before she joined the team, with Black Canary’s tacit approval. And of course when Ivy pointed out the hypocrisy of being willing to kill sleeper agents who aren’t even in control of their own bodies but not corporate execs who wilfully and systematically destroy lives for profit, they didn’t seem to think the criticism was worth asking. I wondered if that experience might have contributed to Barbara questioning her own motives. Any thoughts?

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