Monday, February 15, 2010

Chronic Soapbox: A Defense of Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four # 574

If you've been listening to the show at all lately, you know how much in love I am with Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four. I am engaged to this book, the wedding hits in June. (I should really talk to the printer about those invitations, now that I think on it!)

Fantastic Four currently features a letters page, which is a rare treat on its own in 2010. Not many comics are interested in taking up any of their page count to provide a forum for fan response. My guess is that editorial shies away from this for two reasons. A) That letters page takes away space from another potential splash page. B) The internet is now considered the fan response playground of choice, and the old school letters page is now obsolete.

If that's the case, I think editorial is making a mistake on both counts. I'm more interested in what other people are thinking about the book I'm reading than I am in another splash page. And while the forum boards can be useful/entertaining, I think there's still a place in this world for an editor to carefully choose something from a fan that is cogent; that captures something important or maybe just common to multiple responses. The online boards are populated with yammerings that make one wonder why comic fans are allowed to live. An editor can trim that out and get at something relevant.

Case in point: the letters column of FF # 575 featured two letters deeply upset about the use of the word "retard" in FF # 574. That issue was a done-in-one story depicting Franklin's birthday party, and how that kind of thing works for a family of world famous Imaginauts. Here is the panel that caused the issue for these readers:

As a card carrying and practicing Vulgarian and part-time Libertarian, you can guess how I feel about the issue. I'm going to side with the freedom to talk freely about any and all subjects, even those including words that are uncomfortable.

But the issue is much deeper than my freedom to say naughty things, and it's useful to walk through these things logically rather than just shove them under the rug and pretend they don't exist. This is one of the primary reasons why I do advocate word freedom; these problems don't get fixed unless we discuss them as a culture, and the idea that we should not use certain words at all prevents us from moving forward with the concepts they represent. And how is that helpful? The point being; this is not just about poop jokes. I want to talk about this and take the "other side" seriously so that we understand the implications here, and it's not just about my need to engage in juvenile humor.

Representation Does Not Equal Endorsement

One of the big problems we have in America, is that we have far too many simpletons who object to certain things; curse words, violence, alternative sexualities, etc. There are words and concepts and body parts that make segments of the population uncomfortable, and the operating theory in this country right now is that if these things are depicted in a book, comic, or movie, that medium is endorsing those uncomfortable things.

And this is the height of ignorance. Let me give you some examples from films. Nic Cage plays an alchoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas", and Jimmy Stewart plays an alcoholic in "Harvey". But those two films have very different messages about that illness. You cannot watch "Leaving Las Vegas" and think that alchoholism is an attractive thing, it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth psychologically for days. If you watch Jimmy Stewart in "Harvey", you are left with the impression that a drinking problem is the most charming thing in the world. Both films depict alchoholism, but only one film tacitly endorses it, or makes it seem "OK".

Let's lighten things up a bit and talk about rape. If you watch "The Accused" with Jodie Foster, rape is treated realistically, brutally, and with psychological consequences that demonstrate how devastating that crime can be. If you watch "The Outlaw Josie Wales", rape is the gateway to true love. Let's be real, here. Sondra Locke's character is forcibly raped, and her response is to realize what a good solid dude that Josie Wales really is and boy I sure do like him now that he punched through my silly female frigidity.

One set of writers depicts rape in a way that demonstrates its destructive powers. The other set of writers depicts rape in a way that should place them in a special pocket of Hell when they die. But the point is - depiction does not equal endorsement, folks. It's stupid and harmful culturally to try and shut those things down and refuse to talk about them.

Matter of fact, I'm not even suggesting that "Harvey" or "Josie Wales" should be censored. In order for a society to function correctly, the solution is to know when we should be proud of our expressions, and when our expressions need to be spoken back to. Because I don't know if you've noticed this....but there are bad ideas everywhere, folks. If you don't know how to defend yourself, you are open to attack. You cannot sterilize the world of bad influences, you can only (if you're smart) learn how to talk back to them. And that means that "Harvey" and "Josie Wales" and for that matter Chronic Insomnia need to exist.

To bring it back to Fantastic Four now, though. We need to ask ourselves: does the depiction of the word "retard" endorse something harmful? The answer to that is a bit tricky.

FF # 574: Is The Word "Retard" Used Appropriately?

The element that tangles things in this case is the speaker. Because we're not talking about Doctor Doom here, using that word as an established "bad guy", using it to hurt people. Were that the case, endorsement would be off the table instantly, because Dr. Doom is not a role model for behavior, quite the opposite in fact.

But this is a protagonist, Valeria, and she's aiming the term at her brother. A couple of important (to me) things to note about the particular usage here.

1) Look at the panel and analyze the expression on Val's face. That is a playful, loving expression. Just absorb the fact that this is no more a "weapon" than if she had hit Franklin with a foam bat. It's play, not war.

2) She's using the word "retard" as a backhanded term of endearment. Now, clearly it's used in a derogatory way, so we're certainly not off the hook yet. But the point again, is that sometimes kids (hell, sometimes adults) are uncomfortable with their fuzzier feelings, and they hide that behind something more coarse, to make it palatable. She's using that word to express affection, not intolerance.

Does that negate the potential hurt a retarded person might feel upon reading such a panel? No, not necessarily. But there is a clear distinction in my mind between specifically using a derogatory term to do damage to a particular group, and a little girl expressing affection for her brother in a way that not everybody would approve of. It's just different.

So while I don't think Valeria should be proud of her use of the word "retard", I don't think it makes sense to level a charge of willful malignance toward Valeria, Hickman, or Marvel. This is how kids talk. We may not be in love with it, but in order to affect people, you have to meet them where they live, not in "fuzzy bunny fantasyland" where nobody says anything troublesome. That's just not how life works.

Even so, if this were all that was in play here, I think Hickman might be culpable for setting a bad example. Valeria is a child yes, but she's also whip smart and somebody we're supposed to look up to. And the good news is, as Hickman points out in his response to these letters, is that she does live up to those standards if you read more carefully than just skimming over the "mean" words.

Because in the course of that issue, both Valeria and Franklin show compassion for people with disabilities. They invent a device that allows Artie to communicate, because he's lost his ability to speak. And rather than exhibit intolerance, both Val and Franklin invite Artie and Leech into their family with warm and open hearts.

So. If the question is: what sort of behavior is Jonathan Hickman endorsing in Fantastic Four # 574? My answer is: naughty language combined with giving hearts and open minds. No, Valeria did not behave perfectly, but I think a reasonable person can see that the villagers can leave the flaming torches and pitchforks at home.

So is the word "retard" used appropriately? Perhaps not perfectly. But the message endorsed is perfectly healthy. In my opinion.

What Censoring The Word "Retarded" Really Accomplishes

The first thing I'd like to point out in this section is that there is nothing intrinsically hurtful about the word "retarded". It describes a condition where cognition is slower or less complex than peak human potential, and really, what's the big deal?

Assigning human value is dodgy business, and I don't have a super good way to measure that. For myself, I measure my own value by the impact I have on the people around me. When I die, I would like people to remember me and say to themselves "Life was a little better because Ryan was around." And I've made lives better (at least I'd like to think that I have) using my intellect, exposing people to ideas or thoughts that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

But I say this as a man who defines himself largely via his cognition: it aint everything. In terms of value, I think I'd be better served overall if I exercised more kindness than calculation. I don't think it's a stretch at all to think that under my definition of human value, most retarded people have more value than I. They touch a lot of lives, bring a lot of joy to a wide variety of people.

What happens when you try and take that word away, make it so powerful that the very word "retarded" is off limits, an insult that should never be uttered? That a comic book should be scolded for using it? You've told the person with that condition that their existence is so unacceptable that it shouldn't be spoken of. Now THAT is hurtful.

This well intentioned need to hide uncomfortable truths and minimize people expresses itself in the most absurd ways. Letter writer Rudy Buehler actually says in his letter to Hickman about FF # 574 that "...these people are frequently more kind, caring and intelligent than anyone else around."

Now, Buehler there was lumping a broader category of "disabled" people, and didn't specify exactly who he was talking about. But the topic at hand was Hickman's use of the term "retarded", and Buehler certainly seems to be saying that we've got it all wrong, and that retarded people are actually quite smart if we could only get our heads out of the sand.

And this is the madness that kills, because I don't know how to tell you this, but advanced intelligence kind of disqualifies you from the retarded category. It's sort of a defining characteristic, OK?

And what the Randy Buehler's of the world don't realize is that when you deny someone's reality, (retarded people are actually quite brilliant) you're telling them that their state is too unbearable to accept. Do you understand what I'm saying? It's one thing to say "You won't be joining MENSA, and that's OK." Disappointing, but ultimately validating.

To say "I won't acknowledge your retardation or allow anyone to even use that word" is to imply that their condition is so off-putting, so disgusting, that it's existence can't even be recognized. We will "fudge" your reality because the truth is too painful. I'm trying to think of something more emotionally crippling than that, and I just can't. There is nothing on this earth more cruel than that sort of kindness.

Final Thoughts

So listen. I want to be clear on something as I wrap this up. I do not condone intentionally hurting people, with words or otherwise. It's not a good policy or anything to be proud of. But that's not what happened here.

A healthy culture absolutely requires the freedom to say things that will undoubtedly be uncomfortable from time to time. This is nothing to be afraid of, folks. This is how life gets addressed and gets better. Denying reality stunts growth, sad to say.

I think Valeria Richards is an outstanding role model. Maybe she's not perfect, but she feels like real life. She speaks her heart, and her actions show warmth and caring for all people. No apologies necessary for that, Mr. Hickman! And he didn't make any apologies in his reply, which you should definitely read for yourself. And if you're not reading Fantastic Four right now, you need to get on that!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh my Lord,
No one got hurt? You were with everyone who ever read this comic? Probably not, no.
The problem is this: nigger is hurtful so we don't say it, kike is hurtful so we don't say it, retard is ALSO HURTFUL! Don't say it.
Freedom of speech has nothing to do with this. Go do some research on kids who have had to put up with being called that horrible word.
"Most people would never call a kid with cognitive disabilities a "retard" to his face (and if you are a person who would do that, step away from this blog and go search for your soul). If you wouldn't say the word to my child because you know it's offensive, you should avoid using it elsewhere, too. Either way, it's demeaning. Either way, it hurts my child."
-Ellen, mother of a son with special needs and owner of the LOVE THAT MAX Blog.