Editorial : Thoughtless Bubble – On Zainab Akhtar, Frank Miller, Scapegoats, And Sacrificial Lambs

Normally, this is the sort of thing that I’d “save” for my Patreon, which is sort of where I just free-wheel it and write about whatever I want, but as I think this subject concerns a larger audience than my base of subscribers, and speaks to both the rapidly-changing nature of the comics “scene” and the potential pitfalls that can come a person’s way when they take a stand on “third rail” issues, I thought I’d share it here instead and let the chips fall where they may — which, I’m not fooling myself, could very well be be all over the place. If you find it of interest, then you’ll likely find more of interest on said Patreon, but I’ll link to that when all is said and done rather than at the outset given that, believe it or not, shilling for my own wares is not of primary concern here today.

What is of primary concern is the recent decision by long-running UK comics festival Thought Bubble to cancel the appearance of legendary creator Frank Miller at the show this year, as well as the chain of events leading up to this decision and the repercussions stemming from it. Simply stated : Zainab Akhtar, best known in the comics community as proprietor and publisher of critically-acclaimed small press Short Box, took exception to Thought Bubble extending an invitation to Miller based on his visceral and bigoted 2011 graphic novel Holy Terror, and announced via Twitter on July 27th, 2021 that, due to his appearance, she would not be appearing (and presumably tabling) at the festival herself. Miller was always a curious invite for a convention that prides itself on being a showcase for small-press and otherwise independent creators, given that his most celebrated work has been done for the “Big Two” comics publishers, but my best guess is that from a calculated business perspective, the show’s organizers figured he’d be a “big name” draw, and so the idea of fitting a square peg into a round hole made a kind of fiscal sense. That being said —

Does the phrase “know your audience” come to mind here? Because it sure should. Non-corporate comics festivals and shows have been putting forth an effort (with varying degrees of success) to be more inclusive to women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other historically-marginalized groups for some time now, and Thought Bubble itself has expressed its own desires/goals to be welcoming in nature; to be a place where, if you’ll forgive the cliche, comics really are for everyone. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that rolling out the red carpet for a guy who made a book about a bloodthirsty vigilante killing every Muslim he laid eyes on would be met with fairly vigorous pushback from some of the very same people the organizers of the show say they want to provide a (sorry to use the term, but) “safe space” for. Sometimes, sadly, actions really do speak louder than words.

On the subject of Holy Terror itself, I certainly can’t in any way take exception to the idea that any person with a functioning conscience would find it repulsive, particularly a Muslim woman such as Akhtar. Having read it shortly after its initial release, I can confirm that it both is and isn’t the book many of its critics characterize it as being (for instance, there are none-too-subtle critiques of American foreign policy in there as well as gut-wrenching violence aimed entirely at Muslims, offensive racial and cultural stereotypes galore, and heaping helpings of Miller’s trademark misogyny), but at the end of the day it’s precisely the sort of incendiary propaganda piece Miller openly stated he wanted it to be seen as.

Here’s the thing, though — if “all” it was “guilty” of is causing offense, I’d say people should simply buck up and deal with it. Speaking purely anecdotally here, I spent my formative years reading a ton of comics that ran entirely contrary to the values I was raised with, but guess what? Being stared down by humanity’s ugly side, its disturbing side, its sick side serves a purpose and challenges a person. Insomuch as art can be said to have “rights,” it has the right be confrontational — readers who only opt for work that reaffirms their worldview, or worse yet work that makes them feel comfortable, tend to be dull folks, in my view. Give me your S. Clay Wilsons, your Mike Dianas, your Joe Colemans, your Jim Osbornes, your Dori Sedas, your Johnny Ryans, your Phoebe Gloeckners, your Rory Hayeses, your R. Crumbs any day of the week. If I wanted stuff that was squarely in my “comfort zone,” I’d be one of those readers who faithfully forked over their pocket change every week to Marvel and DC in a pathetic attempt to make sure my extended adolescence continued forever.

I should be absolutely clear here, however : Holy Terror is something above, beyond, and far worse than merely offensive, sensationalist, or prurient work. In the wrong hands and absorbed by the wrong minds, shit like this can be flat-out dangerous. It not only says “Islamophobia is cool,” it celebrates it on almost every page. It not only says “Muslims are bad people,” it revels in their slaughter. It not only depicts the Muslim world as antithetical to Western Enlightenment values, it posits that wiping it out is the only way for said Western Enlightenment values to survive. If you were to metaphorically boil down its messaging to its most essential and equally-metaphorical kernel, if you were to strip away all pretense and obfuscation, what you would find is something that is, insane as this may sound, pro-genocide propaganda — and not even visually appealing pro-genocide propaganda, at that. This is Miller’s most poorly-drawn work any way you slice it, and the chances of it one day being praised for its aesthetic values while abhorred for its content, a la the films of Leni Riefenstahl, are slim to none.

Viewed in that context, then, the question really shouldn’t be why Miller isn’t welcomed at Thought Bubble, but why he’s welcomed anywhere at all. I mean, let’s face it : if he made a comic about a Batman stand-in character indiscriminately killing every Catholic, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist around, he’d never get a convention invite again in his life, regardless of one’s belief in the power of the human heart to change for the better (which, believe it or not, we’ll get to later) — and he’d more than likely never get published again in his life unless he was fronting the cost himself.

Which is not, for the record, me saying that Holy Terror shouldn’t be allowed to exist. I’m a free speech absolutist by nature, and believe that Miller has every right to either find a publishing home for this risible garbage (which he did, with the now-defunct Legendary Comics, after DC took a pass on it), or to publish it himself if he can’t. But once that work is published, the consequences of putting it out there are his to bear. The term “cancel culture” is over-used to the point of tedium these days, but in point of fact just because you can say something doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a platform to say it on/at, and so if Thought Bubble wants to “cancel” Miller, as long as they’re not breaching the terms of any sort of contract with him, they’re perfectly free to do so — and while that statement, along with much of what I’ve just said, may rub some people the wrong way, as a purely legal matter, it’s not even up for debate. So hold your fire, you may want it handy to scorch me for opinions still to come —

Later in the same day that Akhtar tweeted about her decision not to attend Thought Bubble, she let it be known — also via Twitter — that she had first contacted the festival’s organizers a whopping eight weeks prior to discuss her concerns about Miller being in attendance and, at least according to her telling, was assured that “action would be taken.” What action that was supposedly going to be is something we aren’t privy to, nor do we know whether or not the commonly-held inference that she issued a sort of “either he goes or I go” ultimatum is at all an accurate one. It’s important to note, for the record, that while Akhtar stated that she “cannot in good conscience attend a festival that deems it appropriate to invite and platform Frank Miller,” she did not say “I would never attend a festival that deems it appropriate to invite and platform Frank Miller.” That may seem like a small distinction, admittedly, but I assure you — it’s a crucial one.

For all we know, in her private communications with the Thought Bubble organizers, she may have requested some sort of dialogue with Miller or his representatives in order to address, and possibly even assuage, her concerns. After all, in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian published on April 27th, 2018, Miller said of Holy Terror that he’s “not capable of that book again,” that there “are places where it’s bloodthirsty beyond belief.” Admittedly, he also stated that he doesn’t want to “go back and start erasing books (he) did” or “wipe out chapters of (his) own biography,” but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s proud of this particular book.

I dunno, perhaps I’m being overly-generous toward Miller here, but it sounds very much to me that, like any artist, he considers the work he’s made to be a reflection of where he was at a given point in his life mentally and emotionally, for good or ill, and when pressed in that same interview about comments he made contemporaneously with the release of Holy Terror that saw (or should that be heard?) him refer to Occupy Wall Street as “louts, thieves, and rapists,” he flat-out admitted he “wasn’t thinking clearly at the time.”

Granted, none of this rises to the level of being an actual apology (and while, as stated earlier, I don’t think an artist ever needs to apologize for offending anyone, I do think an apology from Miller for contributing to a political and cultural atmosphere that literally put the lives of Muslim people in danger would absolutely be in order), and I’m not especially sympathetic toward the argument some have advanced that a rumored drinking problem and a supposedly acrimonious divorce in some way at least partially excuse the anger and bitterness that ooze off Holy Terror‘s pages — I mean, sure, those things might partially explain his anger and bitterness, but even if we assume both alcoholism and divorce to be contributing factors to his mindset at the time, neither of them is the fault of Muslims.

However, it may also be worth noting that in the two-plus years since the Guardian interview, Miller allowed Holy Terror to go out of print, and he also wrote the decidedly anti-Trump satirical comic Dark Knight Returns : The Golden Child. From all appearances, it would seem that his worldview has at least partially evolved away from the hardened right-wing militarism of a decade or more ago, and that where he is today might be more in line with the “old” Frank Miller who lampooned Reagan so memorably in The Dark Knight Returns, and the Bush administration even more pointedly in The Dark Knight Strikes Again!

Whether or not Akhtar is aware of this potential change of heart and mind on Miller’s part I have no idea, nor do I know whether or not hearing words to this effect directly from him would have made a difference. What I do know is that, for whatever reason, Thought Bubble’s organizers didn’t address her concerns until she went public with them, and while this was certainly a massive fuck-up on their part (I mean, let’s face it, now Miller won’t be there and neither will she), it bears all the hallmarks of a deliberate one. After all, if they’d dropped Miller earlier, they’d have been the ones targeted by the right-wing hate mobs, the anti-“cancel culture” online hordes — but by parting company with Miller on July 28th, after Akhtar spoke out, it makes it look like they gave in to “pressure” from an “SJW” and that it’s ultimately Akhtar’s “fault” that Miller won’t be in attendance. I can’t say for certain, mind you, but the entire situation reeks of scapegoating. We’ll never know whether or not Akhtar flat-out demanded that Thought Bubble drop Miller, but we definitely know that from a PR perspective it was to the advantage of organizers to make it look like she did precisely that, even though the one action she definitively did take was the exact opposite — she disinvited herself.

Predictably — and depressingly — Akhtar’s Twitter feed has been bogged down with a veritable deluge of racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and just plain ugly replies to her statements, in particular from those affiliated with the reactionary “comicsgate” sect of fandom, and even her late-innings decision to run a block chain on these asshats hasn’t managed to completely dam the sheer onslaught of hatred. “Comicsgate” de facto head honcho Ethan Van Sciver even got in on the act himself, bizarrely telling Akhtar “go fuck yourself” even though he was the one inserting himself into her replies feed. I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out whether or not these retrograde nitwits operate according to any sort of coherent logical principles (after all, the very same “culture warriors” ostensibly sticking up for Miller right now were all over his case a little while back for his aforementioned Trump-savaging DKRTGC comic), though, so I guess such frankly weird, abusive bullshit is par for the course — as is the fact that the Richard Meyers and Ethan Van Scivers of the world are busily monetizing this controversy (one which, self-evidently, neither involves nor affects them personally in any way, shape, or form) for every “wingnut welfare” dollar they can scrounge up on YouTube. The “quality” of the books these guys put out, after all, has never been their main selling point — it’s all about stoking the anger of a perpetually-aggrieved subset of fans and riding that anger all the way to the bank. Like it not, a situation such as this plays right into the hands of grifters whose sales pitch is “toss money at me to own the libs.”

Which is why I think, at least on a purely strategic level, “cancelling” Miller from Thought Bubble is a mistake — you never want to give these right-wing “digital soldiers” an easy layup (not that many of them can actually jump) or a slow pitch over the middle of the culture war plate. More significantly, though, I think it might also prove to be a mistake ethically and morally. I mean, I absolutely want the comics community — in particular the small press and self-publishing community that I’ve spent so much time both advocating on behalf of, and personally being a part of, these past several years — to be a place where marginalized people not only feel, but literally are safe and welcome. But I also think change, growth, evolution, and (at the risk of sounding grandiose) redemption are possible, and I think Miller gives off welcome indications of at least being in the process of going through some of those things. If you don’t want assholes at your con, that’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with giving former assholes — or, if you prefer, assholes in recovery — a chance? With encouragement, Miller could actually go on to become a positive force on behalf of the very same people he’s hurt in the past — but with ostracization, that becomes a lot less likely.

Unfortunately, as things stand today, we’ll never know what could have happened with regard to this specific situation thanks to the actions and inactions — whether accidental or, more likely, deliberate — of the Thought Bubble festival organizers.

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Oh, and if you’re still here and still interested, my Patreon can be found at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

How To Succeed In Comics (At Least Financially) Without Really Trying : Meyer And Canales’ “Iron Sights”

If you’ve been following the comics mainstream on social media (particularly Twitter and YouTube) at any point over the past year or two — especially if “industry drama” is your bag — there’s no way you’ve been able to avoid at least a few passing references to a purported “movement” calling itself “comicsgate.” More than likely, you’ve picked up on the fact that there is plenty of controversy attendant with it, as well, but what it even is — well, that depends on who you ask.

While those who have little to no time for “comicsgate” view it as an inherently reactionary cesspool of retrograde social and aesthetic sensibilities complete with all the racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry you’d depressingly expect from such a, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” to those who have either aligned themselves with it or are sympathetic to its frankly amorphous aims, it’s ostensibly a consumer revolt against perceived “SJW gatekeeping” in comics, particularly at the “Big Two” publishers. It’s about cleansing the medium of vaguely “leftist” political messaging and “making comics great again” by going back to basics. Differences may arise at the margins as to what “greatness” is, of course, but by and large the artistic tastes of most who either label themselves “CGers” or share their general view of what the medium of comics should be in the business of producing are almost pathologically uncomplicated : big action, big guns, big villains (or monsters, or both), and big boobs. If that sounds a dismissive summation, it’s not meant to be — after spending way more time than any well-adjusted adult should poring through the Twitter feeds and YouTube comments sections of various “comicsgate” folks, I’ve noticed the same things being put forward as “high-water marks” in the medium by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of them, to wit : these guys love early ’90s Image stuff and they love Larry Hama’s run on G.I. Joe. Some of ’em like sci-fi, some like Silver Age capes n’ tights, some like a lot of different things — but they almost all seem to hold a special reverence for the two things aforementioned, and want comics to “get back” to the ethos established by those eras/titles/creators, etc.

Now, I’m actually old enough to remember that stuff as it was coming out, and even though my own tastes were in a far more formative stage at the time than they are now (hey, I was a kid), I knew garbage when I saw it, and so it probably goes without saying that  I fail to see any sort of nostalgic glow emanating from the dollar (or less) boxes that a lot of the books the “CGers” hold in high regard are found in at countless comic shops to this day — and frankly I find the idea that comics should only, or even primarily, concentrate on a very particular brand of storytelling to be both absurd and vaguely offensive. Still, for the purposes of this review that’s neither here nor there. All that really matters here is whether or not, once the opportunity presented itself and/or was foisted upon them (depending on whose view of the “evolution” of this “movement” you put credence in) to make their own comics, the “CGers” producing said book were able to create a decent representative example of — or at the very least an “it’ll do in a pinch” approximation of — the kind of thing that’s, well, their kind of thing.

As it turns out, though, we may have to wait on that, because the first of the purportedly “big” books to make it from the minds and hands of “comicsgate” -linked creators into the hands of “comicsgate”-aligned consumers is neither the much-balloyhooe’d Cyberfrog by former DC comics “A-lister” Ethan Van Sciver, nor the just-as-much-ballyhooe’d Jawbreakers by popular “CG” YouTube “personality” Richard C. Meyer (probably better known by his social media “handle” of “Diversity & Comics”) and one-time Marvel artist Jon Malin, but a curious item to place in the role of “best foot forward” entitled Iron Sights, scripted by the just-referenced Meyer (with a co-plotting assist from one Carlos I. Silva, which I suspect may be a nom de plume, not that it particularly matters) and with — errrmmmm — “art” by a Spanish “comicsgate” partisan named Ibai Canales.

I say “curious” because this is, apparently, an attempt at a semi-topical modern “border noir,” a rather tiny sub-genre that evidence (in the form of their comic) indicates neither of these creators is terribly familiar with. Which is fine, I suppose, in and of itself — it’s not like Francis Ford Coppola cut his teeth on a bunch of smaller gangster pictures before doing The Godfather, he simply jumped right in, and if there’s one thing (and, I take pains to stress, it’s one thing) I kinda respect about “comicsgate” in general, it’s that when it became clear that the major publishers weren’t going to buckle under to their scattershot and not entirely tangible demands/requests (pro tip — harassing and browbeating writers, artists, editors, etc. may not be the best way to ensure that your collective voice is heard), a handful of them simply decided to make their own damn comics. As a small-press reader and critic myself, not to mention a staunch philosophical opponent of Marvel and DC (although not for the socially and politically backward reasons most “CGers” are), I’m all for anyone and everyone hanging up a shingle and simply doing the writing, drawing, and even publishing of the kind of comics they want to see, and create, themselves. DIY is where it’s at, and has been for a long time — and no, contrary to what many in “comicsgate” seem to think, it’s not new. Nor is crowd-funding an “indie” comics publication.

Still, any way you slice it, the amount of money that the first few “comicsgate”-affiliated books took in by means of crowd-funding has been impressive : Cyberfrog raised something in the neighborhood of $600,000, and Meyer’s two projects tallied up totals in excess of $400,000 (Jawbreakers) and $100,000 (Iron Sights). My understanding is that subsequent “CG” crowd-funders have done a small fraction of the business of these “big three,” but if they’re following the “Meyer method” as exemplified by this first book, they needn’t fear — they could take in six hundred bucks each and still be “in the black.”

Which, yeah, is my way of saying that Iron Sights bears all the hallmarks of an exceedingly cheap publication — I don’t have a physical copy, but tweets and photos of the flimsy, glued-binding paperback have been all over the place, with a fair number of customers justifiably bitching about the fact that their books (for which they paid a whopping $20, plus shipping) are already falling apart after just a few weeks. I’m guessing that Meyer, being new to the publishing game, simply went with the cheapest printer he could find for this debut release of his new “Splatto Comics” imprint, but come on — when you take in $100K, you can afford to splurge on at least a semi-decent product. Unless, of course, your definition of “success” lies in how much money you take in, rather than how good the end result of your labor is.

What’s even more inexcusable, though, is that this commitment to “quality” carries over to the scripting and illustration — in fact, “shoddy” and “embarrassing” are the two words that pretty much exemplify not only what Iron Sights looks and feels like, but is. Kelsey Shannon’s cover artwork is at least passable, even if the “sexily”-posed woman looks more like she suffered some sort of back injury, but once you get to the interior contents — all bets are off. This is “next level” bad.

As someone who’s spent over a decade reviewing “B”-grade films, I have a high tolerance for “bad,” though. In fact, I like quite like “bad.” But there’s a big difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it never passes go, never collects its $200, and just stays bad” — and this is the latter, on steroids. It’s risible, sub-amateur, artistically bankrupt stuff that might at least be able to masquerade as a Ben Marra-esque partial spoof on macho, hard-boiled bullshit, but lacks the self-awareness necessary for parody. In other words, Meyer and Canales appear to  have earnestly believed they were making something really fucking cool here — but were too lazy to put much effort into it, trusting instead to some inherent level of competence that neither of them possesses.

Apparently Meyer is a military veteran himself, but that doesn’t mean that his protagonist, a former solider named Ramadi, is written with anything like a whiff of authenticity — bizarrely, his dialogue reads like what a guy without an ounce of experience at being “tough” thinks that a “tough guy” would or should sound like, which again means that in the right hands it could be something like even an entirely unintentional pastiche, but here it just comes off as every bit as contrived and stupid as it is. Ramadi also has no real personality to speak of, but at least he’s in good company there, because the same goes for basically every character in the book. They do things they’re supposed to do in accordance with the sorts of people they’re supposed to be, and that’s about it. Calling them “two-dimensional ciphers” is giving them too much credit — whether we’re talking about Ramadi, late-arriving sidekick Woods, head bad guy Old Man Rodriguez, ethically shady accountant Cancel, or literally anyone else, they read like were written by a 16-year-old with an Elmore Leonard novel in one hand and a gasoline-soaked rag in the other who makes it to page ten, decides “hey, I could do this!,” takes another huff, scribbles some shit down on a yellow legal pad, and then passes out. In other words, we’re not in “burn after reading” territory here — you wanna burn this shit well before you read it. The samples I’ve included with this review are in no way “especially bad” compared to the rest of the comic, I assure you — they’re blandly representative of all of it.

As for the art — damn, where to even begin? Canales seems to bob and weave between sort of trying (but not, crucially, having any actual ability) and flat-out not giving a shit — not only from page to page, but from panel to panel. I get that Meyer was probably only paying him a pittance and that he put forth the level of effort commensurate with what he was being compensated, but seriously — a lot of these pages don’t even appear to have been fully pencilled, much less inked. The one constant running theme is that they look like the sort of thumbnail sketches that many artists do on their first “pass-through” of a writer’s script in order to figure out how they’re going to approach things when they actually draw the pages — it’s just that, for whatever reason, some of these “rough outlines” have a little bit of ink added to ’em, and some don’t. Backgrounds are largely non-existent, anatomical proportions are all over the map, characters aren’t placed in relation to one and other (or even to objects) within space in ways that make any logical sense, facial expressions are either blank (hell, in some cases entirely absent) or overly-exaggerated caricatures, shading effects are haphazardly applied with no thought as to where or why they would be there — honestly, it looks like as much “effort” went into drawing this book as went into writing it, by which I mean : if either of these guys spent more than one or two drunken afternoons “working” on it, then there’s really no excuse for how utterly shitty it all turned out.

And while we’re at it, “shitty” is a more than fair descriptor of the attitudes on display here, as well — anyone who’s watched any of Meyer’s rambling, elliptical, steam-of-unconsciousness YouTube mouth-foaming will know he sure loves him some racial and sexual hyper-generalizations, and when a guy with a worldview that retrograde decides he’s gonna make a comic book about Iraq vets taking on the drug cartel down on the border (with a pretty girl caught in the middle!), what you end up with is less a “story” than a strung-together series of excuses to indulge in archaic stereotyping. Mind you, my best guess is that Meyer probably didn’t actually set out to churn out a series of overtly offensive cliches here — it’s just that he doesn’t know any other way to write, because he doesn’t know any other way to think.

Obviously, at this point any readers pre-disposed to defend either of these creators could be forgiven for saying “you’re just biased because you don’t like their politics,” but that’s utter nonsense. I’ve written detailed appraisals of Steve Ditko’s work for any number of websites over the years and am a major fan of both the man and his art despite finding his Objectivst political views laughably absurd. If you can’t separate art from artist you have no business being a critic and if Meyer and Canales had made a good comic here, I would suck up my pride and admit it, even if I had to do so through decidedly clenched teeth.

And I dearly hope that clenched teeth is precisely what both of the creators of Iron Sights will have when they leave comics behind forever, and embark on their next career with the words “welcome to Wendy’s, may I take your order”?