Friday, 22 February 2013

Things I Worry About: Problematic Creators

Or things I would love to have answers to.

I think one of my favourite things about comics is that a lot of creators are super talented people who are also fairly nice. This makes it very easy to enjoy their work and to actively root for their success. But the unfortunate reality is that talent and being a terrible person are not mutually exclusive. Some really great comics and other media have been made by some pretty awful people. And this has me worrying about what a reader's responsibility is in the face of a problematic author.

Given the internet's reaction to Orson Scott Card writing Superman, his work might be a timely and appropriate lens to frame this discussion.

During an anual family summer vacation, when I was something like 12, I read Ender's Game for the first time. It kind of blew me away. I went on to read Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide and Children of The Mind. And I thought, 12 year old me, that Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide were intelligent and profound books about empathy and acceptance and the importance of rational thought. (Even my twelve year old self recognized that Children of the Mind was an unnecessary and pretty crumby book.) Of course, this was before I knew who Orson Scott Card was and what his religious and disgusting political beliefs are. Frankly, this is a time before I really had a stake in any of these debates anyway: my childhood world was pretty small and apolitical. So I quite enjoyed these novels without worrying about larger issues.

As an undergraduate I learned that Orson Scott Card is a devout Mormon, a homophobe, and a pretty disgusting bigot. (Although I didn't know about his activism yet.) Which actually lead to some pretty interesting conversations with my best friend, a queer feminist who loved Ender's Game while growing up, about jerk authors and the good books they make despite themselves. Out of these conversations I decided to revisit Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide with an adult viewpoint, some world experience, and some knowledge about Card's affiliations. And I'm conflicted to report that the novels kind of hold up for me. I mean, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide are not half as clever I thought they were and have some pretty problematic racial themes, some fucking awful Science, and characters who relate to one another in a bizarre and asexual way. But these books, flawed as they are, still have some good ideas and themes. More problematically, perhaps, Ender's Game itself really holds up. Despite everything I know about Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is a properly good Science Fiction novel. I have no idea how such a hateful, small man who has written so many profoundly underwhelming things managed to extrude a good novel... but I still really like Ender's Game.

Which is problematic, especially given that not only is Orson Scott Card a disgusting and outspoken bigot but also a member of the National Organisation of Marriage, an anti-gay activist group, where he actively lobbies against human and civil rights for homosexual people. Which is a whole other league of deplorable: hateful actions are worse than having hateful opinions (which are awful enough alone). And in this light I really don't know if it's okay to still enjoy Ender's Game.

Of course, good media being made by shit human beings isn't limited to Orson Scott Card. Cerebus, I'm told, is a landmark comic that I would love to buy and read if it ever gets printed again. Unfortunately,  its creator, Dave Sim, is a raving misogynist and bonafide crazy person. Frank Millar, who among other things is apparently a racist, has also made a ton of landmark comics, many of which I'm interested in exploring. Tony Harris, the artist of Ex Machina, a Brian K Vaughan written comic I really like, has some really troublesome and unhealthy ideas about women. And the list could probably go on and on.

I guess what my main question is, is it okay to enjoy media from a creator who you fundamentally disagree with? If the work is well made and isn't offensive in and of itself, does it matter what the authors views are? Can the work stand on its own? Or does a loathsome author with deplorable ideas completely invalidate the merits of a work regardless of its quality? I really don't know the answer to this.

In a similar line of questioning, do we as readers have a responsibility to not purchase works by loathsome authors? Does our buying the non-problematic works of an author with deplorable ideas validate those shitty attitudes? Or does our custom just mean that we want to read or like a particular work? Does a jerk author still deserve compensation for their worthwhile products? Is there a distinction between authors that vocally have awful opinions and authors who campaign or act on their deplorable stances? Is, say, buying the work of Orson Scott Card worse than paying to read Dave Sim's Cerebus? Again, I'm not entirely sure what the answer is.

At the end of the day, I think we as readers DO have a responsibility to hold the media we consume and the people who make it to certain standards of human behaviour. I just don't know that there is a clear cut answer for every single situation. And until I have those answers this will be something I worry about.

(I will probably continue to enjoy Ex Machina despite Tony Harris. I will likely one day read Frank Millar's Sin City and Batman work. If Dave Sim can ever play nice with a publisher, I will certainly read Cerebus. While I won't read Orson Scott Card's Superman or any of his new books, I will probably reread Ender's Game again one day. But if I ever need to replace my years old paperback of it, I'll be sure to pick it up at a used bookstore and I will definitely continue to tell anyone who mentions Card about what a jerk he is. )

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