Sexualization, Minority Representation, And Gender Identity: How Comics Are Tackling The Big Issues

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DMZ via Brian Wood

Over the past decade comics have taken center stage as a force in pop culture, and as the audience diversifies so do the stories that can be told. Even the debates around over-sexualization, minority representation, and gender identities in the classic “big two” pantheon exist because there is a understanding that comics still have creative ground left to explore. One way that comics are advancing into this new territory is by confronting important social issues head-on.

Although comics have been tied to politics since the first time Captain America punched Hitler they’ve matured in the way that they tackle heavy themes. Where we used to have the X-Men as stand-ins for any group outside of what was considered “normal” society we now have Archie hanging out with his openly gay friend Kevin. The dynamic has shifted to a place where even the most wholesome mainstays are no longer exempt from mirroring the realities of everyday life.

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Persepolis via Amazon.com

Only in the past decade has the cultural relevancy of controversial graphic novels become a hot commodity for mass-audience consumption. In the 1980s Art Spiegelman’s critically acclaimed series Maus lit a fire under the industry for its radical take on real-life holocaust tales, but to this day it hasn’t reached far beyond its core audience; Contrast this against Marjane Satrapi’s early-2000’s autobiographical comic Persepolis which took less than seven years to be released as an Academy Award-nominated feature film.

Comics, as a medium for change, are also taking hold at the grassroots level. Since 1997 the organization World Comics Finland has been teaching people in the developing world how to make comics about issues they face in their daily lives. This home-grown movement of issue-centric illustrations is flourishing online. Social media is is exploding with powerful work that begs to be shared, like Michael Em’s heartbreaking depiction of the death of homeless schizophrenic Kelly Thomas at the hands of the Fullerton police.

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The Beating of Kelly Thomas by Michael Em

To get an inside perspective on how comics are incorporating social activism I reached out to three top talents who are on the forefront of this movement.

Brian Wood is the writer / illustrator of the acclaimed series “Channel Zero” and “DMZ”, which both revolve around fictional activist revolutions. His on-going series “The Massive”, from Dark Horse Comics, chronicles the adventures of environmental activist trawler Kaptial as the crew struggles to understand their place in a post-apocalyptic world while searching for their missing sistership, the eponymous The Massive.

Molly Crabapple is an illustrator whose work with the Occupy movement has been heralded by Rolling Stone, CNN, and New York Magazine. Her work has been published by IDW in the “Art of Molly Crabapple” series and by Marvel in their “Girl Comics” series. Artistically, she continues to follow the lives of everyday people in extraordinary circumstances through projects like her heartbreaking portraits of the Syrian Civil War.

Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple via

Joshua Dysart’s break-out comic “Violent Messiahs” followed the story of police detectives hunting vigilantes in the fictional city of Rankor Island. More recently his work on DC’s reboot of the 1960s character Unknown Soldier took on a starkly realistic tone. Set in modern war-torn Uganda “Unknown Soldier” depicted pacifist Dr. Moses Lwanga in his crusade to right the atrocities he’d seen.

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Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart

Dekker: What draws you all to politics in your work?

Brian: Well, there’s a couple things.  Its not so much the politics that draw me in as social issues, and specifically how I can use them to expose, abuse, conflict, and otherwise put a character through the paces.  It’s just very ripe, very relevant story-rich material.  I can keep going back to that genre, if you can call it a genre, and find new things to explore.  Also, this sort of material has been a part of my creative life since my very first project back in the 90’s.  So its become part of my identity as a creator, and that helps it stay near and dear to my heart.

Josh: I’m just a citizen of the world I guess. And I really love people, despite all or our flaws and irrationalities. So I’m drawn to human stories. And to the many ideas about how we should live and treat each other. So that means I think about politics a lot. I know many people, especially in comics, turn to stories for escapism, but I’m just not an escapist by nature. I don’t even believe that escapism is a real thing, anyway, to be honest. Every time you choose to engage in a piece of art or every time an artist chooses to create something, they’re revealing something about themselves. The buried jingoism of a Michael Bay “Transformers” film is just as telling as the leftist slant of an Oliver Stone film. Whether it’s overt, or unintentional, it’s all politics to me. So it’s not really a choice. I just don’t know where else to look for my stories.

Molly: In 2011 the world changed.  From Wikileaks to Occupy to the revolutions from Tunis to Tahrir, the future started pressing hard against the present in ways thrilling and horrifying and unexpected, and it was the most vital thing in the world to try to capture that in a sketchpad.

Dekker: Is there such a thing as an “activist comic creator”? Brian, Josh, do you think of yourselves as activists?

Josh: I do think that there’s such a thing as an activist creator, but I don’t identify as one myself. Ultimately, I’m not trying to change anything with my stories. I’d rather explore a question than provide an answer, and an activist, it seems to me, has to have answers. I just want to draw from life. I didn’t become a writer to change the world. My sole agenda when telling a story is to create compelling characters and situations and then tell that story the best way that I can. I don’t think an activist creator has that luxury. I think sometimes the agenda has to overwhelm the narrative if you’re an activist storyteller. But I’m also not interested in stories that aren’t tethered to real world concerns. A few years ago I wrote a graphic novel in Jim Henson’s fantasy world of the “Dark Crystal”. I made it about immigration and the difficulty of displaced communities. But hopefully that’s deeply submerged in the narrative and hard to notice. I obviously don’t intend to affect the immigration conversation with my silly little fantasy book.

Brian: I don’t know if I find the act of making a comic to be an expression of activism… we’re just sitting in a chair writing or drawing something and it becomes a piece of product that enters the money stream.  I think what comics can do is reflect and amplify examples of activism that happen out there in the world, taking a message and helping to spread it.  But when I look at what I do… I would never put myself on the same level as someone putting their life and livelihood on the line, literally, to fight for what’s right.  This is something I think about a lot, something I carry a lot of guilt about.  I look for ways to help, to make a difference, that is separate from writing stories.

Dekker: Molly, your Occupy work is a real touchstone of the movement. How did you become involved with Occupy?

Molly: Occupy Wall street happened outside my window. It was the moribund left springing to life in a way that was urgent and beautiful and dangerous, and I wanted to help however I could. I’m an artist, so I drew posters. I also raised money, turned my loft into a pressroom, donated tarps and clothes and books and supplies, got arrested, provided showers to people just out of jail, and did whatever practical things I could.

Dekker: Brian, Channel Zero, DMZ, and The Massive all focus on different types of societal collapse. Do you consider them to be cautionary tales?

Brian: I don’t ever think I’m predicting anything.  What I try and do is exaggerate what I see out there in the world for effect.  Channel Zero is an interesting example, because that story is based on the 1990’s when New York City had Rudy Giuliani as mayor.  And he did a lot of very negative things that had a whiff of fascism to it.  He was really pushing boundaries in a way that really raised alarms in a lot of people’s heads.  So Channel Zero was an attempt to show how close I felt we were by taking the extra couple steps and making NYC a fascist state.  This was 1996, and now, post-9/11 and post-Bush, it all seems somehow quaint in comparison.  What I did without meaning to predict anything, was predict Rudy’s crazy policies writ large on a national scale.  These “predictions” are accidents I wish I was never right about.

Dekker: Molly, I’m fascinated by your drawings of snipers in Tripoli. What do you think is unique about sketches that traditional war photography doesn’t capture?

Molly: Art is slow. Photos are fast.  Photography, despite the million lies embedded in the media, is presumed to be true.  Art is defiantly subjective. You take photos. You make drawings.

Dekker: Josh, For Unknown Soldier you had inspiration from a visit to Uganda. How did that visit craft your perspective on the story?

Josh: I went to Uganda after my pitch for Unknown Soldier was accepted. My pitch took place in 2002 on the Ugandan/Sudanese border, so I had already built my narrative before I ever left for East Africa. However, the trip to Acholiland enriched that narrative in every way. Every detail, every political subtlety, was influenced by my time in the region and among the people. There are some really, really horrible depictions of Africa in Western media. And if I managed to avoid that trap (which is questionable) than it was solely because I took that trip. Before I left, the story was very much a war story, which is what DC wanted, I guess. But when I got back, the story had become more about the civilians. About how being caught between two opposing forces can crush a people and their civilization. How it bleeds it of its art, its dignity and its future. I think that change happened mostly because I fell in love with the Acholi while I was there. Without that love, the book would’ve been a total post-colonial piece of shit. Assuming it isn’t, of course.

Dekker: Tell me about what inspired you and how your work reflects that connection.

Molly: There’s a book called “Explosive Acts” that posits Toulouse Lautrec as an anarchist radical. Its bullshit of course, though Lautrec embedded class war into every absinthe colored stroke of his drawings.  But the idea of it- that you could draw showgirls and be engaged in subversive politics and sketch depraved old Oscar Wilde- that there were no divisions in between things, that your art could consume the world. That stuck with me.

Brian: Well, NYC in the 90’s was what started it for me, and like I also said this sort of socially-aware storytelling is a part of me.  I like to think that I’ve helped evolve comics (me and dozens and dozens of others) by not going the typical route.  Channel Zero was a deeply unusual comic at the time, both visually and in terms of its storytelling style and subject matter, and it was up against books that were just trying to find new angles on the same old superhero or genre books that already existed.  So I do think I am a small part is what has been an ongoing, and still ongoing, process of forward-thinking creators helping to grow the medium.

Josh: My inspirations are pretty vast and hard to pin down. But in comics I am a direct product of two different eras. The Underground comics that emerged out of the late sixties, with Robert Crumb being the leading force of great change in that movement, and the British invasion of the mid-80’s, helmed, first and foremost in my mind by Alan Moore. The former movement experimented with wild deconstructionism and a total freedom of aesthetic, while the later resulted in a wave of high quality, literate pulp that seemed aimed at a more thoughtful and demanding audience. Both movements changed everything for comics. The first comic I ever read was a reprint of “Zapped” #1 by Crumb that I found in my dad’s stack of Playboys after my parent’s divorce. I recognized Crumb’s style because my parents also had a copy of the “Big Brother and Holding Company” album that he had done a cover for. So Crumb was the first artist who’s name I knew. From the start my idea of comics was smeared with the contagion of sex and rock-n-roll and secret adult pleasures. Then came “Watchman” and “Maus” and “Cerebus” and “Love and Rockets” and it all felt so much more interesting to me than typical superhero fare. At the same time I was, and am, a huge documentary film buff. I’ve always found real drama far more engaging than amped up fictional drama. I was the only child of a very young family and so grownups also fascinated me, since there were no other kids around for me to emulate. I read a lot of Science Fiction growing up too, and that pushed me toward literate pulp as well. So I guess that what I do is some confluence of all those things.

When I was far too young my mother took me to see the film “Raging Bull”, then some time after that she took me to see “Alien”. “Alien” terrified me. I was so young that I had to be filled in on the fact that movies were fake, and that the monster was just a dude in a suit. But the point is this, those two, very visceral, very driving, very highly crafted, very different films merged in my little overwhelmed mind. I didn’t see a difference between a furious masculine family tragedy about a pugilist at war against the world and a dark sci-fi piece about the unrelenting horror of nature. They were somehow metaphorically applicable to each other. They were the same story. I guess I’ve been trying to create some marriage of high art and low pulp ever since.

Dekker: What do you consider to be the most pressing global issue of our time?

Josh: Oh man, well, as a people we need to find a balance between the struggle of the individual and the needs of the collective. It’s a strange and tricky thing, but we have to deal with it, because the conflict between individualism and collectivism is tearing us apart. Neither one works completely on its own. Also, in general, I’d like to see the end of fundamentalism. I’d like to see an aggregate tendency to be more pliable with our ideas and our solutions to problems. But apart from all that vague bullshit, I’d say that climate change is the biggest issue right now. Without being an alarmist, I do think that the life of everyone on the planet is going to be altered drastically so as to cope with huge shifts in weather and temperatures increases in the world’s oceans over the next several hundred years. This is the great encompassing issue of our time as it will impact all other socio/economic issues. We just need to all become better at looking after our environment and one another. Until that happens, the conflicts that define us will steadily undo us. And that would be sad to me. Because I think humanity is such a strange, beautiful little burp of the Universe, it’d be a shame for us to never reach some greater potential.

Molly: The conflict between the individual and the state/corporate complex. I don’t just mean kids in America getting their emails read by the NSA. I mean Syrian refugees living in tents who won’t be able to work in a country that isn’t a war zone because of their passports.   I mean Amazon warehouse workers getting yelled at by trackers to lift boxes faster. I mean black kids getting felt up by cops cause of the drug war. I mean Chelsea Manning in her cell.  I mean an opposition to systems that see rules and boxes as more important than human lives.

Brian: The class divide, the rich/poor gap. I think in time it will be the underlying irritant in ANY global issue.

You can follow the work of these talented creators at brianwood.com, mollycrabapple.com, and joshuadysart.com. For more information on World Comics and to find out how to become involved visit worldcomics.fi. TC mark

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