Superheroes R Us

So also in the realm of superheroes, the comics side of Marvel has been watching the collapse of its sales model, while dealing with a cross-over disaster that had a far right leaning writer making Captain America, the Steve Rogers version, into a Nazi/Hydra spy as part of a muddled multiverse idea. The collapse has not been a new thing; it’s been a process going on since the 1980’s that happened to then coincide with the great shrinkage of the wholesale market for magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and comics that took place in the 1990’s and helped pop the collectors’ hyper-valuation bubble in comics issues. Essentially, the big comics companies tried to increase monthly buys by staging big crossover stories that required buying from four to seven series at a time to follow, while comic prices went up, up, up. These crossover stories often made use of multiple universes to shake series up, allowing them to totally reboot characters and past stories with little regard for consistency.

This was certainly one of the reasons that my husband and I stopped really buying comics way back – it was too expensive to do and our child needed food. But the success of graphic novels, including bound omnibuses of monthly comic issues, and the emergence of highly successful live action superhero movies and animated t.v. series and movies from major comics helped keep especially Marvel afloat for a while. Now, though, retail markets are further squeezed and Marvel has made things worse with poorly planned stunt events, constant reboots and number one reissues to try to generate short term sales instead of reliable regular fans. Economic uncertainty in the face of controversial political events has further dampened sales recently.

When Marvel Comics held a retailer summit in late March with the comic stores, one of Marvel’s vice presidents of sales – a white guy – apparently brought up that some comics vendors were saying the diverse comics – the ones not about white guys and white guy led teams – weren’t selling and that maybe this was the reason for Marvel Comics’ poor comics sales showing the previous quarter. This was flagrantly untrue. Many of the “diversity” comics are Marvel’s top sellers and had clearly brought in more readers domestically and globally. And many of their white guy comics had sales in the toilet and were being axed. The race and gender of the leads in the comics neither guaranteed sales nor that sales would tank.

So why would a senior vice president of Marvel, with full access to the real sales figures, float a lie that was so easily disproven about his own company? And which he had to apologize for and take back not long after? Did some comics store vendors actually say this to him? Very probably. But the comics store owners also have access to sales numbers well beyond their own stores. So why would some of them push such an assertion?

Part of it was clearly deflection. Rather than admit that the problem was an unworkable production, pricing and marketing model, or admit that your store has adapted poorly to pushing your products under current market conditions, it’s an easier fix to blame the audience of the medium for being unreasonably bigoted, which then becomes the big talking point.

But as a form of deflection, it’s a poor one. The vice president’s trashing of his own company’s line was a PR nightmare for them. Presumably this same vice president respects and works with POC and white women artists, writers and editors at Marvel. Why would he then disparage what they do, and which helps pay his salary? Especially when he had said last year that women and kids as readers were a key component of Marvel Comics’ success?

In a word, reassurance. Marvel and the comics industry in general has been run by white guys, like most industries, particularly in the marketing and business end of things of course, but also on the creative front. While others were occasionally welcomed in, mostly they were blocked and certainly kept from obtaining leadership positions of influence if they were around. This has created a comfortable cushion of established and protected practice at companies like Marvel.

That’s changing a little bit. As they recognize the need for greater variety to hold on to and expand a global market, Marvel, like other comics companies, has been putting out more titles that offer a slightly wider range of characters and ideas. With that comes a slight increase in the variety of people who work there and create the titles. This allows Marvel in the long term to grow and expand its workforce and its product line – something that can benefit white guys too.

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Wonder Woman Sails Into Shiny Waters

So obviously a lot has been going on in recent months all about, but I did manage to go see the long awaited and much speculated about Wonder Woman movie, starring Gal Gadot. I enjoyed it overall and give it about a B+ grade, which, given the DC multiverse’s film record the last few years, is quite good. The action scenes were mostly great, very cleverly done, the cinematography and use of color and audio with homages to the comics themselves was interesting and nicely shaped by the director, Patty Jenkins. The special effects were sometimes a bit uneven – some of them were great but a few looked a bit too electronic game animation-like. That’s going to happen, though, and it’s pretty amazing at how extensive a range of things they can CGI create now. There were a few points of the plot that didn’t make a great deal of sense – par for the course in action movies – and the ending had some very good dramatic stuff but also a fair amount of hokey stuff that didn’t quite pull it together as well as it might have been done.

But that also is a bit of a Wonder Woman tradition and they managed to set up Wonder Woman’s role in the up-coming Justice League movie quite well. There were a lot of shout-outs to the Wonder Woman comics, although the story and action were moved to World War I, the war that greatly changed both war itself and the idea of empire. They managed to jigger together the character’s many re-booted back stories to give her a cohesive background origin that worked with the movie’s main arc.

Gadot herself gave a very strong performance. She brought easy physicality to the role and handled the tricky mix of naïvety and smarts that is Diana first leaving her island about as well as could be managed. The main costume was still too Xena-ish but the movie may have started a new fashion trend of swords down the back of evening dresses (and the use of the sword was explained in the film.) Chris Pine showed his all to the audience as American spy Steve Trevor (and I do mean literally all.) He also had a tricky balance between playing a man of the 1918 time period trying to explain it to Diana and one who accepts backing her plays as leader in a changing world, as well as an island of warrior women, and I think he did a good job. Their canon romance was a bit rushed for the movie’s sake, but that really couldn’t be helped and they had good chemistry. The movie did a good job on the difficult issues of war and humanity that both of them have to grapple with, (though again the ending could have been stronger.)

Non-white representation in the movie was not great, which was a bit of a disappointment. Two major black canon characters were cut from the Amazons and WOC were token among them (though they did beautifully in their action scenes.) The main Amazon roles went to white, not particularly Mediterranean  appearing actresses — Robin Wright was steely sharp as Diana’s “fun” aunt and Connie Nielsen had the rather thankless role of Diana’s worried queen mom, Hippolyta. Two major supporting characters were non-white men and both actors, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock, did really good performances with what they had. Problem is that what they had were awful stereotypes, which may have been partly because their characters were actually drawn from the DC Comics, but things definitely could have been improved in the script. The film seemed to acknowledge itself on the sad state of Hollywood in this area, including one very pointed line of dialogue delivered by Taghmaoui. So here’s hoping DC does better in the other movies.

Ewen Bremner also had to deal with some stereotypes – Scottish ones for his part – and managed to also give a nice performance nonetheless. Elena Anaya and the renowned Danny Huston made interesting villains. And Lucy Davis, who I particularly enjoyed in Shaun of the Dead, is a national treasure here as Trevor’s British assistant Etta, stealing every scene she’s in. The movie was not a laugh riot, given the subject matter, but it did use healthy doses of humor very effectively throughout, which is again a considerable improvement on the dour, muddled DC film universe so far. If you haven’t had a chance to catch the film yet, I’d say it’s well worth your time even if you’re not the biggest Wonder Woman fan, for the action visuals alone.

If the movie Wonder Woman had been a regular big action film in our ideal world, my little review above would be the only things needing to be talked about. But of course the movie in the sexist system we still have was made the flashpoint of “will woman superhero movies ruin us,” with an enormous amount of pressure, including the responsibility to prop up sagging enthusiasm for the entire DC franchise in preparation for the up-coming Justice League movie.

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An Excellent Twitter Rant on Post-Apocalypse and Other World Building

Sigrid Ellis points out a basic problem in writers and of course, television/movie writers in doing post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s also applicable to pre-industrial secondary world-building as well in fantasy as well.

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The Force Is Strong in This One

I’ve been sidelined this week by a physical therapy issue, but in the meantime, here is one of the most adorable and powerful kids on the planet. Only wish Carrie Fisher could still be with us to receive the plans directly.

 

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The New World Fantasy Award

The new design for the World Fantasy Award has now been officially announced and it’s gorgeous! Really impressive job by artist Vincent Villafranca.

 

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I Can’t Even

So I was going to write about some books, really I was, and I will soon, but in the meantime (not counting all the really nasty horrors going about the planet,) we had another one of those incidents. The one where the people running a SFF convention turn out to be bigoted asshats who retaliate against women, POC, queer authors, etc. and fans because they think a crimp is being put in their old-fashioned party. This time, it’s the Odyssey Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, which not only put two known, notorious harassers on their convention committee, but when one of their GOH authors who had been a victim of one of the harassers complained about being forced to deal with the man at their convention, twice, they proceeded to accuse her of lying, lied to her in turn, scolded her for having no legitimate complaint, and when she withdrew as GOH, doxxed her private email address on their public Facebook page while ranting at her with a level of sexism that was high even for the usual rhetoric in these things.

While some of them are attempting to make amends at the moment, that any of them thought they had the right to behave this way in the first place is a shining example of the problems SFF fandom has been tackling head-on the last 5-10 years as the people who routinely get told to suck up abuse say no and are sometimes forced to go public about it to try and help others out. The enough is enough line started getting drawn in the 1980’s and people have been pushing conventions to become safe, inclusionary fun places for everybody, which is a message that should have really sunk in by now, even with convention volunteer organizers who are still trapped in the 1970’s.

The Odyssey Convention hasn’t been doing that well apparently, and it’s not very surprising, given that some of the people waving their harassment policy around as proof of their virtue are the very people the harassment policy was written for. The GOH isn’t the only person who has turned away from this convention — quite a few authors and people were reportedly already not going because of the harassers’ presence, and others have now joined in the exodus in support, because of the concom’s behavior.

I vented a bit on Jim C. Hines’ blog on this one as he is doing a decent round-up of links with the details of this mess, which you can check out if you want: http://www.jimchines.com/2017/04/odyssey-con-frenkel-and-harassmentA number of other authors have been talking about it on Twitter or their blogs, with great sadness.

But in short, if you are a con-runner, here are things you don’t get to do:

  1. Tell guests and panelists who have a problem with the convention that they don’t have a problem.
  2. Tell women and marginalized authors what they should and should not have as safety concerns about the convention workplace.
  3.  Accuse those making reports of harassment of being liars and mentally unstable whiners who will be ignored.
  4. Publicly expose authors’ private contact information and personal information without their consent.
  5. Claim that somebody might be abusive to others, but everybody at the event, who are paying money and time to be there, has to put up with that person because reasons.

This is a lesson that many con-runners have been slow to absorb. And the sad thing is, not simply what that’s going to do to their conventions over the long term, but that whenever one of these incidents occur, we have so many people — mainly women and POC — saying that they’ve never been to a convention and now don’t see how they can try attending any SFF convention, as it seems like they are run by horrible people and aren’t safe to visit. And that is not because of the people who have brought up the issues of abuse and tried to get changes. It’s because of the people running the conventions who announce that they are okay with the situation and who go after those who bring the issue up. Many conventions are not run by such people and can be great experiences.  Some of them have had problems in the past, but have learned and often gotten new people in to run them. But when the people running a convention embrace a con culture that ignores and enables abusive behavior — and engage in it themselves — then it ends up reflecting poorly on the entire SFF network of fandom events and opportunities are lost.

Quite simply, authors — and their fans — aren’t going to go to conventions where they are abused and further abused by the con-runners. They have plenty of choices and it’s not worth their time or their careers to deal with such behavior. If you behave in this manner, surprise — people don’t want to work with you or hang out with you. And if you put people who behave in this manner in charge of your convention and let them speak for you, again, you are going to lose customers and authors who can draw in customers. Far more than the abusers themselves — who are a minority — it’s the people who help abusers and abuse their authority to do it who cause a systemic problem. This one might sink the Odyssey Convention or not, but it would sure be nice to have fewer problems in this vein.

*Up-date: I’m going to add this link to Brianna Wu’s guest column on Hines’ blog because it does speak to the wider systemic problem that created this situation.

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An Annoyed Rant (Put the Warning Right There in the Title for You)

Kyle Davies, Paramount’s domestic distribution chief, had this to say about Ghost in the Shell, which white-washed its lead role and failed at the box office: “You’ve got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it’s based on a Japanese anime movie. So you’re always trying to thread that needle between honoring the source material and [making] a movie for a mass audience.”

This quote is everything that is wrong with the people (mostly white guys,) running Hollywood. 1) First off, calling the fans of this long-running franchise “fanboys” — this reflects the demographically incorrect belief that the fans for SFF and in particular for Japanese manga/anime are mainly young white males, and that those white males are interested in the material only for the sexy babes, so you have to have a sexy actress. In actuality, the majority of western fans for manga and much of anime tend to be young women and female teens and have been for over twenty years. There is a huge number of Asians and non-whites in the West who are big anime fans. And white male fans are actually usually more interested in the action sequences, noir violence and special effects than they are in sexy women. Paramount literally had no idea who their audiences was, in the East or the West. They cared nothing for the source material that was giving them that audience. They engaged in rampant sexism on a feminist-positive franchise, and it helped tanked their film.

2) The belief that the source material — Japanese Asian anime/manga — could not have “mass appeal” in the West if fully honored. Anime/manga has been huge in the West, a mainstream phenomena particularly with young people for well over thirty years. Some of the biggest global franchises, including merchandising and fashion, are from anime and manga. And yet, because most of it is created from East Asia, and because Hollywood is convinced the global and particularly U.S. audiences are rabid bigots, Hollywood continues to pretend, ignoring actual statistical numbers, that “Asian” material cannot sell unless you place a white, preferably American or American-sounding actor at the center.

Only with a white lead does Hollywood believe a film has “mass appeal.” It is a fairy tale based on the fact that working with a white actor, particularly a male one, boosts the social status of executives in the industry and their financial backers. It’s a drug they don’t easily give up, and instead blame the audience — the “masses” are bigots and must be cosseted to supposedly lower the risk. And yet, no matter how many flops this idea currently produces, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. No matter how many movies do really well without white leads or white-washing, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. It’s not about money, but fear of power shifts and an inability to believe that all white people don’t want only stories of whiteness, whatever the cultural source material, and a belief that non-white audiences are small and niche and unimportant. Because that’s the world they were taught and think should stay in place, even if it’s not real.

Dr. Strange from Marvel succeeded but benefited from only white-washing a supporting character and mainly from being part of the Marvel-Avengers franchise that places puzzle clues to the bigger overall story in each of its movies, encouraging people to keep up with all of them. But most big action movies don’t have those incentives. The Last Airbender, Gods of Egypt, etc. have not fared well.

Kyle Davies is a clueless, mediocre, incompetent white guy who if not for systemic institutionalized bigotry, would be out of a job for that quote alone. Throwing up one’s hands and murmuring that they were forced to make changes to white-wash is a lie. It’s always been a lie, and most of the time now, it’s going to fail. And that goes as well for the folks at Marvel who played the same game recently about their comic books. They’ve been strategic in their roll-outs, but individual films can still start failing if they don’t get a lot smarter.

This thinking is dinosaur thinking. It’s poor marketing and stagnated vision. If you are in any kind of industry, and you start spouting this same kind of drivel about mass or mainstream appeal of products, by which you mean supposed white people appeal, you’re wearing your prejudices on your sleeve and no amount of hand waving is going to spare you. So stop acting so surprised or pretending to be exasperated when you get angry push-back. We know what “mass appeal” means — and there’s nothing appealing to the masses in it.

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