Thursday, 5 September 2013

Neoliberal Consumer Cults (aka Fandoms) and the Politics of Inclusion

I had a professor who would argue that capitalism, while it certainly enables a number of social catastrophes, also provides a certain number of social benefits. For instance, in the pursuit of capital, businesses will cater to affluent members of the gay community. In Canada, the rainbow symbol of Pride is posted up at restaurants and shops in order to say "Spend your money here. You are included." It is a valid argument, although it only seems to have teeth if excluded minorities manage to accumulate enough extra spending money to be worth the pursuit.

A recent conversation over on Verity! reminded me of that professor's position. Verity! is a Doctor Who-related podcast hosted by a small group of very dedicated female Doctor Who fans. The recent unveiling on a new Doctor, to be played by Peter Capaldi, had stirred up the usual pre-Doctor debates among fans. Could and should Doctor Who be female? Black? Otherwise non-white? Old? Given Capaldi's age, that last question was especially pertinent. I have it on authority that when the newest Doctor was announced a large number of seemingly female, seemingly young Doctor Who fans complained about the choice of Capaldi. They'd gotten all hot and bothered over young, handsome Matt Smith. This older fella just wasn't going to do it for them anymore. Apparently older, 'hardcore' geeks, that predominantly male category of fans who survived the so-called 'wilderness years' when Doctor Who was no longer a viable televisual property, did not appreciate the attitudes of those female fans. If 'fangirls' didn't like Doctor Who for its essential Doctor Who-ness then they could fuck right off.

The entire situation is silly. I'm embarrassed to even have to report on it.

Anyway. In their roundtable discussion, the members of Verity! cited a blog post entitled "A Creator's Note to 'Gatekeepers'." The argument of that piece is that geek culture is a product meant to be consumed. People make money from watching things like Doctor Who. Gatekeepers, those fans--often called 'fanboys'--who, through the nature of their discourse and rhetoric, attempt to exclude or delegitimise the fandomness of others, particularly females, non-whites, or LGBTs, are keeping money from the pockets of rights-holders and contract labourers. Among members of Verity!, this appears to have been a very persuasive and familiar argument, one that they assert should unify Doctor Who fans by silencing those suffering from an undue sense of entitlement. Can't we all just enjoy, share, and pay for merchandise related to this property, using our disposable income in peace and har-money?

It is not uncommon for critics to point to the corporate-owned nature of consumer cult objects. Disney owns Marvel Comics and Star Wars; Warner owns DC Comics; CBS owns Star Trek; the BBC owns Doctor Who.* Consumer cults, or 'fandoms,' name the mass of unnervingly dedicated fans (short for fanatics) who base their conversation, social life, and vacation time around a particular corporate-owned property, sometimes going so far as to permanently mark their bodies or conduct their rites of passage in rituals of identification. We see a similar sort of behaviour in sports fandom, which is equally corporate-owned. Some will respond (cannot find the link!) that sport fandoms are more corporate than geek fandoms since there is more creativity and independent craftsmanship in the later than the former. Doctor Who fans will dress in unofficial, non-BBC designed outfits when identifying themselves with their chosen corporate property; hockey fans will buy the officially approved Red Wings jersey.

You can split hairs all you want on that front.

When you consider the twin facts that fandoms represent persistent, organised forms of consumer enthusiasm, and that the objects of those forms of enthusiasm are predominantly owned by media conglomerates who no doubt lobbied for legislation such as SOPA, it becomes a little troubling to think about. The act of obsessing over things like Spider-Man's new costume or the mysterious identity of that new Star Trek villain, is entangled inextricably with the wider socio-economic, political world. This is to put aside the basic notion that if you ask someone about the batting average of some pituitary case you're likely to receive a semi-knowledgeable response. But if you then ask about the latest in world news you'll get a blank stare. Fandoms are, in essence, harmful to informed thought regarding the world at large.

At the moment, fans are generally splintered along categorical lines reminiscent of religious institutions. There are ultra-Orthodox, orthodox, reform, radical, and ecumenical types of fans.** I've commented that Verity! falls under the ecumenical category, with a hint of orthodoxy. What this means to me is that they represent the element of corporate property enthusiasm which seeks to unite races, genders, and creeds through the liberating virtue of money, through the shared participation with spectacle. As such they perhaps represent the most pernicious, albiet paradoxical, aspect of neoliberal consumer cult behaviour. After all, what is the logical conclusion of their ideology? A world in which everyone loves Disney, but no one knows what is going on.

*I'll admit that in the case of Doctor Who, the money is used to support things like the right-of-centre BBC news.

**In their latest episode, Verity! even--without really dwelling on the fact--likened the establishment of a religious canon with that of corporate-owned property storylines and products.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Racism and the Rifts

Rifts is an RPG designed and largely written by Kevin Siembieda (micro-managed, some would say). Siembieda continues to publish the series under the banner of Palladium Games. The game is about a future in which the previously invisible lines of magic crisscrossing the globe became not only visible, but manifest with a destructive fury. Magic came back, and it destroyed everything. In doing so, it also opened up rifts in space/time, depositing demons, vampires, werecreatures, monsters, and extradimensional humanoids of all sorts. Technologically advanced human nations were almost all wiped out, save for chunks of America, Canada, Britain, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and South America. Atlantis re-emerged, colonised by offspring of the Great Old Ones, who now use the forgotten landmass to host a vast inter-dimensional marketplace. Characters must navigate the dangers of this changed world, trying to eek out a living or hold back the evil in whatever small way that they can.

It’s an interesting place. The blend of fantasy, mecha, adventure, and horror allow players almost limitless options. You could pretty much do anything on Rifts Earth. As a kid, I GM’d a lot of campaigns, and loved every minute of it. But in a recent fit of nostalgia enabled by boredom, I’ve been re-reading the line’s various world books and sourcebooks. And, looking back on this stuff, I have to say that it was pretty freakin’ racist. Indeed, on Rifts Earth, all politics is racial, and all non-Western societies are filtered through a shamelessly Orientalist lens. Monsters and noble savages invariably stand in for non-Western cultures. Stereotypes and caricatures of 1990s world politics are projected into the future without complication or nuance. Only humans associated in some way with Western civilisation have any sort of technology—magical or otherwise—worth devoting page space to. Which is interesting because, at the same time, Rifts explicitly denounces racism and xenophobia, placing a multicultural ideology at the moral centre of its universe.

In North America, the villains—conveniently sporting a black skull motif—are Nazi analogues; the hero is a compassionate, literate, and tolerant woman, famous for her exploration of other lands and affiliated with a city born from the remnants of Canada’s multicultural capital. It boggles the mind to think, with such villains and such a hero, that Rifts could be racist. But this is only if you read the word ‘racist’ as the word 'prejudice'. The two words are not strictly speaking the same. A racist is someone who thinks in terms of biological difference. Often, this results in prejudice; sometimes, in xenophobia. Yet it is nonetheless possible to conceive of an individual who is racist, but not prejudiced. I think that Rifts is the product of the imagination of such a person. Nothing about Rifts extols prejudice, yet nearly everything is racialized. When it isn’t racialized, it is filtered through a popular imagination which is akin to racialization.

Germany is an efficient, technologically-advanced, expansionist, and human supremacist nation at war with the primitive monster hordes of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Africa is a deserted, primitive wasteland, threatened literally by the Four Horsemen, each spreading starvation, plague, aggression, and skeletal death. Japan is the home of a technologically-advanced collective of cities defended by men and women wearing armour and employing weapons patterned after samurai, ninjas, and dragons. England has witnessed the rebirth of Arthurian legends, Celtic gods, and fairy folk. Mexico is flooded with human parasites that menace the lands once controlled by the United States. Quebec, that perennially stubborn and wilful province, continues to assert its prerogative. North American aboriginals have returned to a way of life similar to that of the fifteenth-century or earlier. They are medicine men, shamans, and noble warriors. In a rare moment of self-awareness, Siemieda apologises directly to the reader for any possible offence.

Since most D-Bees (short for Dimensional Beings) on Rifts Earth are depicted as categorically evil, and most conflict in North America, Europe, and Russia occurs between humans and D-Bees, it is difficult not to accuse Rifts of inadvertently racializing politics. This is especially the case when the dividing lines between human and non-human societies so often mirror those between twentieth-century 'developed' and 'developing' economies. Likewise when the social ideal is presented as the harmonious so-existence of humans and D-Bees, as with the example of Lazlo, situated in the ruins of Toronto, Canada. Rifts' treatment of religion also makes this difficult. There is a notable lack of religious or cultural antagonism. Reading Rifts: Africa, you would never know that Islam and Christianity had been the predominate religions on that continent in the twentieth century. Indeed, aside from a few depictions of crosses in Rifts: Vampire Kingdoms, you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the innumerable strains of Christianity in North and Central American society. Nothing resembling a culture of faith remains on Rifts Earth. Instead, there are only worshippers of gods, revealed as D-Bees of immense power. Religious affiliation is racial affiliation.

Not that any of the above detracts from my nostalgia for Rifts. I cannot bring myself to think any less of it. This is largely because Rifts is, even without its racism, a hot mess of needless rules, power creep, and convoluted game mechanics. Thinking less of the series is the wrong way to go. Instead, we should take a moment to view Rifts as one would view Dave Sim's Cerebus; it is the outward manifestation of the mind of a uniquely weird and troubled man, one who--against all probability--managed not only to give birth to his vision, but to foster it over the course of decades. We should all be so fortunate.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Authority and the Illusion of Change

The Authority, Volume One, Issues 1-4

Written by Warren Ellis
Illustrated by Bryan Hitch
Coloured by Laura Martin
Published by Wildstorm Comics, 1999

The Authority kicked my ass when I was nineteen. Here it was, I thought--aping the opinions of others at the time--the unveiling of superheroes as the straight-up fascists that they are. Not that I was looking for fascist heroes, but it was nice to think that the façade was being removed, that we would at last see for ourselves the hard brick underneath all that false ornamentation. These characters--Jenny Sparks, The Engineer, Jack Hawksmoor, The Doctor, Midnighter, Apollo, and Swift--they were going to save the world, like it or not. Because how else could anyone even try to bring about change when the most powerful governments were corrupt and the U.N. was a joke?

Looking back now, without having revisited the issues in a decade or more, I am surprised to discover how tame this series is in comparison to my memories of it. What to my late-teenage mind appeared as the dispelling of an illusion was in fact simply the creation of a new kind of ornamentation. This comic talks a lot about change, but that change never comes. Instead all we get is a bitchier, more forceful brand of superhero in stories that are not afraid to show entire cities being decimated during energy-blast-fist-fights. The villains are as mindlessly villainous as ever. And the heroes are as mindlessly determined to overcome them through the application of force.

That said, if you want to tell a rip-roaring superhero story with balls-to-the-wall action, it isn't a bad idea to give your villain a simple motivation. Ellis and Hitch accomplish this by taking a Golden Age DC villain, complete with racial stereotypology, and dropping him into a twentieth-century North American action flick. Then, to keep things moving, they dispense with needless backstory. Kaizen Gamorra is a Fu-Manchu-esque bond villain with this own island nation. He wants to destroy major cities such as London and Moscow in a bid to brand the Earth itself with his corporate logo. When asked why, he responds: "Terror is its own reward." But when you start to think about this character, you wonder whether or not his use serves the implicit aims of the series. I don't think for a moment that either Warren Ellis or Bryan Hitch were attempting to embrace racial stereotyping in this story, but they weren't exactly subverting it either. It's a strange choice. At the same time that they employ Gamorra, they take time from the story to point out the ridiculous elements of superheroes, especially with regard to Midnighter and Apollo, analogues for Batman and Superman. Those characters lack the "proper names" held by everyone else on the team. They are the "dynamic duo." So on the one hand you have a retrogressive story element and on the other a critical engagement with similarly retrogressive elements.

Less strange, but refreshing nonetheless, is the choice to depict the heroes as people who enjoy their job. Created in an era when gritted teeth and silly, anatomically-impossible posturing was the norm, The Authority features heroes that smile and joke with one another. They even engage in the same sort of playful name-calling that you'd find in the relatively unsupervised atmosphere of a blue collar workplace. Today exchanges like the one to the right are embarrassing to read, but I have to admit that you'd be hard pressed to find a twenty-first century superhero comic with a similar scene. Yes, it is common for Bendis to have his characters poke fun at each other, but over cigarettes? And using extremely mild profanity? It is a sobering reminder of how sanitized superhero comics have remained post comics code.

Speaking of mildness, I was most surprised by the lack of explicit violence in this book. Ultimately I don't think that this was a bad choice on the part of the creators. In fact, the more I think about it, the more intelligent it seems. A good deal of the fighting and devastation are depicted in a manner similar to what you see in the left hand panel and in the panel below. In the case of Midnighter's epic battle against some unnamed, generic-yet-still-superpowered police man, we are given a Hollywood action sequence reminiscent of Van Damme or Seagal. The hero takes someone apart with a minimal of bloodshed. And in the panel below, instead of missing limbs or broken bones, the creators opt for a silhouette of ruin and misery. This too is something you might expect to find in a Hollywood movie, a moment likely meant to ground action superheroics in the 'real world' where people have feelings and experience loss during natural disasters.

When the story does get around to showing the sort of gory violence one would expect from people who can punch their fists through walls, it is usually delivered by the hands of Jack Hawksmoor. I'd like to think that it is because his normal-ish appearance contrasts most strongly with the ultra-violence committed. Whatever the reason, the scenes on the left comprise the totality of over-the-top physical brutality that punctuate the first four issues of The Authority. Again, such brutality, delivered by the ostensible heroes of the story, is something you will never see in a twenty-first century comic book, even one written by the perpetually blood-thirsty Geoff Johns. Scant as they are, these scenes represent the true promise of The Authority, revealing when happens when fascist power is joyfully wielded against alien forces, unadorned, and uncontrolled. 

It is a shame that creators restrained their ambition, settling for half-measures. Instead of following the logic of The Authority to its limit, enabling more scope for a sub-textual exploration of the series' theme, we are left with vague statements like the one below. Jenny Sparks is happy with her team's victory because the villain's "bioreactor" and "teleport system" have been left in the hands of the U.N. rather than the Americans, British, Russians, or Chinese; "give it five or ten years of testing and bidding and building, and, well... the world will be a better place." Essentially the heroes, walking tall after the Big Victory, congratulate themselves for enabling the incorporation of super-weapons into the world's economy. Or something. It's not even clear how a "bioreactor" is going to make the world a better place. Is it because the technology will allow mankind to grow more identical, superpowered, exploding babies? Indeed, contra Sparks, there is every reason to think that these biotechnological and matter-energy converting technologies will serve only to massively disrupt the status quo, leading to the elimination of biological difference and the consciousness of time/space. But then perhaps that is what she means by "a better place."

Which brings us back to the subject of change. What kind of change is really depicted in The Authority? Some might say that it is a form of progressive change, one leading toward social-material improvement. Furthermore, some might say that the story of such change is delivered in a seemingly progressive action adventure comic, depicting playful criticisms of the dominant superhero sub-genre and dealing with 'realistic' violence. However, those descriptions mistake the façade for the building itself. No element of the story, aside from the words of Jenny Sparks, lead one to conclude that the changes wrought by the heroes are necessarily progressive. Nor are there any elements that address the story's blatant depiction of a 1930s-era racial stereotype. Indeed, if "magic is nothing but change," then the corollary must be true, and is true with respect to The Authority. All change is nothing but illusion.