The Art vs. Their Creators: What Do We Do Now? [Opinion]

By | November 20th, 2013
Posted in Longform | 16 Comments
Ryan Ottley

Once upon a time, I was very into music. I know, I know — everyone is into music. But what I’m talking about here is very much every stereotype you can probably imagine in your mind of what the high school scenester version of me looked like a decade ago: idiotic fashion sense, idol worship of musicians, inane loyalty to the local music scene and my own dreams of making it big playing guitar — all of it.

I embraced the trends, and they embraced me.

Because music was such a colossal part of my life, things that happened in the various scenes that I subscribed to had a direct effect on me. Band break-ups hurt, line-up changes confounded and various Inside Music-Equivalent-Of-Baseball trivia and events were my currency. So when it turned out that someone whose music I respected, whose lyrics had connected with me, was using their fame to take advantage of their fans and mistreat those around them, I took it personally.

I didn’t know then and will never meet the musician in question, but I threw away all their new records and swore the full band off, not even bothering to pirate that leak of their new song because how could I support that?

(You’ll forgive me if I don’t name a name; I’m not sure it’s relevant anymore, and there’s no need to sling old mud in this instance. You get where I’m going with this by now assuredly.)

But this is where the problem that I want to talk about comes from: I’d throw away the new records. I still keep all of the old ones.

Ryan Kelly

There has always been, at least to me, a very difficult internal debate with art and our ownership of it. Aside from how we ourselves view the things we purchase or appropriate, what do you do when your opinions of their creators change? How do you deal when your heroes fall from grace? When you allow the work of others have an effect on you — the music, the art et al — what do you do when outside actions sully it?

In music, I had to justify it at a personal level. Keeping an album from my freshman year of high school that mattered to me infinitely more than an album from my sophomore year of college was a concession I would make, and it would ultimately only matter to me; I’d already paid for the albums and if I could be allowed to let myself remember “a better time” for the artist then that’s on me. Because really, it was too personal of a connection to just let go — those songs mattered, in one way or another.

I didn’t, and I still don’t, want to lose that.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from swearing off what the musician and the band had come to represent. Others would tell me at the time of controversy that I needed to hear the artist in question’s side of the story, but it didn’t matter anymore; I’d heard enough at that point that my relationship to the band was ruined, the former fondness perverted, and that’s the case for a multitude of different acts who allow fame to go their head. We all get to that point of horrible recognition where you “accept” that your role models may let you down, and it ultimately just … is what it is, I guess.

That sounds like a defeatist point of view, but I think we’ve all been there before with something that mattered to us.

And now we are in a situation with comics, and I find myself in a similar debate.

I’m not going to presume to tell you how to feel about the recent Tess Fowler/Brian Wood controversy (which I’m sure you’re caught up on, but if not check the links) as that would be entirely inappropriate, I feel. There has been much debate on the subject, especially with the increase of stories that have since come to light, both directly related or situationally related.

I do not want to discuss the same things others currently are. It’s not because I don’t think it’s something worth discussing — far from it, in fact; it absolutely is. Rather, I want to go a different route because others are already doing a better job contributing to that dialogue than I think I could.

Continued below

With the controversy, though, inevitably comes fallout. And the fallout can take different forms, positive and negative.

A positive thing to have happen so far is that the discussion of inherent and institutionalized misogyny and sexual harassment in comics (let alone other medias or fields where it dominates) has been reignited tenfold as more women come forward with stories about disgusting behavior. We all have to look at it and say “We let this happen, we can’t be OK with this anymore,” and we have to look at it not because it’s thrust in our faces but rather because it’s our responsibility as a group to be aware of how we treat each other and how we let others be treated.

While elements of this discussion always come in waves and it’s probably too early to figure out how this instance specifically will impact the comic industry in the future, we’re talking about it — on social media, in blogs. That’s a good thing; I sincerely hope that doesn’t change.

But one thing that we also have to now ask is: so what do we do with all these comics? Because, and I’m going to make an assumption here, I bet you own a comic or two by Brian Wood. I know I do.

Ming Doyle

On a smaller scale, I’ve seen a lot of debate on the subject — mostly in one-off throwaway remarks on social media and in a few blogs. Many people are quick to remark that they will destroy the work of his that they already own, removing it from their lives in what I assume is a sign of solidarity, and that they will no longer support Wood’s work. There have been many to criticize Wood in the past week, quick to denounce his supposed feminism and to call out books like “Channel Zero,” “Local” or “Mara” as disingenuous, and it seems easy for many to simply decide that the only way to respond is to erase the past, boycott the future and otherwise ostracize Wood.

But is it really that simple?

Destroying what you already own won’t change much of anything outside of your own home, and it can only reflect on you and your relationship with the material. Once these artifacts enter your lives, in a way they respond only to you no matter what outside force ostensibly impacts them. You may be forced to look at them in a new light with facts that distort or vitiate the work, but there is always an aspect to it that will exist based on your initial contact with it and that can’t exactly be changed.

I can understand the reasons for severing ties, as I admitted to throwing away CDs earlier in the piece. I just don’t think getting rid of things necessarily helps the greater issue.

Additionally, while I understand and will not oppose those who wish to boycott his future work (having done similar things myself in the past), I’m not sure if a boycott will necessarily work either — or that it is something that has ever worked specifically in the comics medium. A boycott should be about sending a message, but with Big Two comics those in charge understand only a specific message that come from their sales. There were those that boycotted “Before Watchmen” but it still sold well enough for the boycott not to matter to DC, and there were those that boycotted the Avengers based on Marvel’s treatment of Kirby and his heirs while the film did tremendously well and nothing changed.

While I’m happy to be wrong about this, I can think of zero instances of any Big Two major superhero title being cancelled due to anything other than low sales that are born primarily out of indifference to the title rather than fan reaction to the behavior of the creators.

I will not presume to tell anyone how to spend their money, but those kind of solutions honestly only works for you on an individual level — and I speak from personal experience. I look at it very much the same way I look at recycling, which Penn and Teller effectively ruined for me: it’s something that is done for personal satisfaction, not actual (or at least immediate) change.

Continued below

I say this as someone who has abandoned DC Comics. I could not stand how they treated their creators, some of whom I personally knew, so I jumped ship and sold some of what I’d already bought — but I didn’t end up feeling any better. And last I checked? Just about everything I abandoned on personal principle is still going. My quitting of DC’s line ultimately only matters to me; Multiversity still writes about, discusses and gives favorable reviews to their books from other staff members on a regular basis, and I fully support everyone’s right to do so here. I write the opposing side and I feel better about it.

My action — or inaction, depending how you want to define it — is ultimately a futile gesture on the greater stage. I can lie and pretend that I’m a martyr to some cause if I want to, but you and I both know I’m not. When I leave, there are plenty happy to take my place.

One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my all-time favorite films: “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” We are told to vote with our dollars, and I do. You should as well. But just like with actual voting, it often feels like you’re making very little difference.

So to bring it back to Wood, I fear that people abandoning a book like “X-Men” enough to take the book down will find Marvel looking at the lack of sales and seeing it as little more than their audience just not interested in team books starring female characters — not that their audience wants a different writer. And that’s no good.

It seems to my untrained eye to be a bit of a Catch-22, no?

Another concern I have about the fallout of this situation is based on how opinions of one creator could roll over onto the work of the others also putting their blood, sweat and tears into the creative endeavor.

Forget “X-Men” for a second, but Wood has worked with a bevy of extremely talented female creators: Becky Cloonan, Rebekah Isaacs, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, Fiona Staples, Marian Churchland, Emily Carroll… “Demo” alone is a book I’ve recommended to many people and I still think it’s a fantastic series; Cloonan’s artwork in it is beyond belief. Those who discover Cloonan’s work in “Killjoys” or her recent award-winning minis shouldn’t be deprived of seeing the talent she displays in this series or “Conan” or “Northlanders,” should they?

I would hate to see an appreciation of their past collaborations be lost because of the present situation (not to mention any creator he may work with in the future, of course).

So while I have issues with everything that has been discussed about Wood — every facet of it: the misogyny, the exploitation, the behavior as a whole — I ultimately can’t escape the fact that his work means something to me as an individual.

Brian Wood

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how big a fan of “DMZ” I am. ‘Body of a Journalist’ is one of my favorite comic arcs of the last decade; the cover to issue #3 has been the lock screen of my iPhone since I got an iPhone. If this were a month ago I’d probably put the whole run on a list of series that I think everyone should read without any second thoughts.

Heck, my hat has a “PRESS” patch designed by Wood sewn onto it (I really liked “DMZ”), and has for several years. It will have that patch on it tomorrow when put it on my head as I leave my home. What am I supposed to do with that now? Am I supposed throw it away?

First world problem. I know.

So I guess my question is: at what point do we let the actions of the creator overtake the influence of his or her art? Where is that line drawn?

Truth be told, I do not know. I don’t think there is an easy, universal answer to that. There never was in the past, there isn’t one now.

People will react to something like this differently based on what they can justify to themselves. I think we’d all like for there to be an easy answer, but we’re all different; there is no one solution, there is no one way to deal with someone whose work you’ve respected disappointing you. We deal with people in our lives disappointing us everyday whether it be from a firsthand experience or in this scenario secondhand accounts. It becomes something else entirely when the person that has disappointed you has given to you something that matters, whether that be a personal memory or a creation to be shared with you and others like you, though.

Continued below

That’s why I have trouble reconciling this aspect of the whole situation. We still listen to and celebrate the work of Wagner and The Ring Cycle, do we not? (Apples, meet oranges.)

I don’t think something like “DMZ” necessarily belongs to Wood alone anymore. When we take something like this into our life and allow it to matter to us for any reason, it essentially becomes ours. This can be said about any work of art by any creator, but the comics and music and movies that matter to you ultimately have a place that don’t really operate on regular lines of logic anymore.

“DMZ” is my example; if you are or were a fan of Wood’s the book may be different, but it all comes down to the same boiling point: even if you give up on his future work, you don’t have to let go of what you already own.

I think the solution is not to destroy the past or just give up on the future. The solution is to make the future better.

In a way, looking at all of this and keeping it within comics, I’m reminded of “Cerebus” by Dave Sim and Gerhard a bit. It’s slightly apples and oranges again, but sometimes two entirely different fruits suck for similar reasons.

For those unaware, after passing the halfway mark of his 300-issue run on “Cerebus,” Sim spoke in the first person in issue #186, discussing at length how the Female Void devours the Male Light — something that some thought was an extension of the narrative, others claimed was a joke and others still reported it to be the result of mental illness based on drug use born out of a broken marriage (which Sim had written about in past issues of the book in the opening letters) or other excuses to not just acknowledge what it was: an insanely misogynistic diatribe. It was not a story told by someone, it was something contained within the text and is something still contained within the text.

And when I say that this was controversial, I really want to emphasize that — there are still entire websites dedicate to discussing this aspect of his work, and it has become a defining element of the series. Some people will never read “Cerebus,” and they’re in the right to do so. Time has passed, but the series has never escaped this element of it.

Cerebus #186

But “Cerebus” as a whole is an incredible work of sequential artistic fiction. Unbelievable, even. I was floored when I got to the end of “Church & State II”, and “Jaka’s Story?” For someone that many write off as a misogynist, Sim’s storytelling in “Jaka’s Story” is unbelievably heartbreaking and I’d say even beautiful.

I’ve not finished reading the entire series (which I had been chronicling my reading of here on this site, though I had to stop because of reasons not related to the series), but having passed the halfway mark I can note that I really honestly believe that “Cerebus” is a series that everyone serious about appreciating the art of comics needs to read at least once, and I can’t wait to finish it. “Cerebus” is up there with “Sandman,” “Bone,”  “Watchmen” and every other comic series held dear by all comic fans in my mind.

We can’t escape Sim’s controversy, though. It’s forever a black mark across the entire series. And because of that, this book may never get the credit it deserves among a wider audience that feels no need to tolerate Sim’s intolerance. And why should they?

What happened with Dave Sim, to me, stands on a similar plateau of what Wood is now accused of. And unlike these increasingly appearing stories about Wood and his behavior, the content of “Cerebus” is raw and in our faces; you can pick it up tomorrow and see for yourself what I’m talking about first-hand. Both creators have had their works devalued and re-evaluated due to their actions.

To call to the earlier metaphor, we have an apple with a worm in it and an orange that been in the sun for a week — they’re different, but you don’t want to eat either of them. (And thank you to Walter Richardson for that analogy.)

Continued below

And yet… the overall impact and importance of “Cerebus” stands the test of time. From where I stand in regards to that series, I have no problem recommending it and defending why it should be read, if not the expressed opinions of the creator. “Read the first 5 collections,” I’ll say. “They’re amazing on their own.”

I have to take each items as separate entities, and reconcile it on my own.

To help me do that, I’d like to point out that one his greatest critics. Heidi MacDonald of the Beat (someone whom Sim referred negatively to within letter pages of “Cerebus” itself, especially with her reviews of “Church & State”) has written in defense of Sim, calling him one of the world’s greatest living cartoonists. I’d like to share the ending of Heidi’s article (which is very much a recommended read despite being a half-decade old) to help bring my own to a close:

Dave Sim is no general in a war against women. He’s not even a foot soldier. He’s a talented man with a dark side. He’s also, as far as I can see, someone whose hypocrisy is a foundation of his philosophy. The ultimate irony is that Sim’s work ends up being the greatest repudiation of the hateful and/or ignorant views he’s expressed. The tenderness and wisdom of Jaka’s Story will last longer than any bullshit philosophy. I hope so, anyway.

I’d like to think that applies with what happened with Wood and to his work too. In a different fashion, of course, but to an extent.

Ultimately, and I think this is important, I do not think that art need necessarily be judged by its creator.

Tess Fowler

It’s personal every time, needs to be judged on a situational basis and is not a universal statement by any means. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. There’s no hiding from the controversy, either, and there’s no point to; we should all be better than this.

But no matter how you personally choose to deal with it, I think what is important to take from this is how we should endeavor to be better, rather than abruptly changing where we were mentally a week ago. That seems unnecessary to me, and I think you should be allowed to like what you like.

Some of you will boycott Wood’s work from here on out, or at least keep it off your pull lists. Others will still be reading “X-Men,” “The Massive” or any other current work by Wood. Whatever you choose to do with your pull list is ultimately up to you, and only you have a say in that.

And I’ll still recommend people read “DV8,” “Demo” or “Mara.” For varying reasons, some of which I’ve written about while Multiversity has existed, all of these works stand on their own as beautiful or important stories. There’s even a Multiversity pullquote on the “Mara” trade (though from David Henderson, not myself).

We can not change the world outright, certainly not alone, but we can make our own dents. Together we can do more. What is necessary here is that we stop letting these things happen again and again and again, that we stop standing by and allowing it. Our art will survive us all in the end and take on lives of their own, so let us take our efforts elsewhere and demand more from each other.

We need to be better, and we need those we respect to be the best. That which we have is ours now, though, and you don’t have to let anyone — not even the creators themselves — take that away.

I think Tess Fowler’s statement in response to Wood’s own is the most important:

I’m going to give [Wood] the benefit of the doubt here and say maybe he really just has no clue that his behavior was wrong, or could have such a lasting affect on someone who once looked up to him. I can believe that. And I can believe a lot of men reading this, in positions like Brian’s, might feel the same way.

So how about we use this opportunity to link arms and work towards finding ways to fix this? Open discussions, and a devotion to never letting such behavior stand. Forgiveness for those men who can admit the wrong doing and want to make a change. Togetherness. One tribe. One family.

Because I think everyone reading this wants the same thing. For those funny books we grew up on to be a thriving, healthy modern business full of all kinds of creative people and personalities.

//TAGS | Multiversity Rewind

Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."


  • Feature: Hellboy in Hell V2 SDCC Podcasts
    Robots From Tomorrow – Episode 361: Mike Mignola

    By | Jan 4, 2017 | Podcasts

    Continuing Multiversity’s weeklong coverage of the Mignolaverse is a conversation with the man himself: Mike Mignola. The conversation kicks off with a discussion on collaborating on such a huge canvas and continues on into some very interesting places. It was a fantastic discussion and we couldn’t be more grateful to Mike for sharing some time […]

    MORE »