Saturday, 25 March 2017

My Future Reviews of Roy Thomas' Justice Society Comics Following His Offensive Response to Cultural Appropriation and Asian-Americans Regarding Iron Fist

I've been wanting to address Roy Thomas' offensive response to Asian-American criticism of Iron Fist appropriating Asian culture since Tuesday of this week. In fact, I spent--literally--all week processing what I read. This is unquestionably the hardest post I've had to write all week.

From my point of view, it was NOT possible that the same Roy Thomas who wrote some of the best Justice Society stories during the Bronze Age--even wrote some of the best stories featuring women as protagonists--could respond to a very legitimate criticism regarding one of his Marvel creations with such contempt and arrogant disregard for a marginalised community, in this case, Asian-Americans.

What's more is that Thomas even demonstrated contempt for women when he dismissed the need for trigger warnings (commonly used when discussing rape, war, abuse, and other traumatic experiences) as "crap" that only "intellectual babies" need. I could NOT fathom for a second that a man I--for so many years--have had tremendous respect for could be this bloody racist, even misogynist in person. I simply could not register that in my mind.

Then I read his response to the criticism again. Then I read it for a third time. Then I read it four, five, six more times until it finally donned on me that the man I considered to be ahead of his time during the 1970s and 1980s--even thought of him as an ally all this time--was really not the person I thought he was. It turns out the man many of us celebrated as being one of the best creators and editors in comics is in fact racist. His participation in diversifying comics in those earlier decades was really all done as part of a trend at the time, and not necessarily out of a sincere desire to make comics more accessible to diverse readers. I can't help but feel a sense of betrayal in that alone.

Then, if there was any doubt (and trust me, I had them) that Roy Thomas was as racist, misogynist, and ignorant as he sounded in his Inverse interview that inquired him about cultural appropriation in Iron Fist (incorrectly addressed in the interview as whitewashing--which is a related, but different issue), we had another former DC and Marvel editor and creator, Larry Hama, who is a Japanese-American, weigh in on his experience with Thomas during that same era in a facebook conversation with Deadpool co-creator Fabian Nicieza. What he had to say validated the concerns younger Asian-Americans already had regarding Iron Fist:

Fabian Nicieza:
I hear you Larry -- and I don't know him very well personally, certainly not as well as you might -- but do we give even the slightest benefit of the doubt to his age (76) and the fact he might not do as many phone interviews now as he used to? 
Larry Hama:
Fabe, he told me I couldn't really do anything other than "that martial arts stuff" when I was on Iron Fist and sniffing around for other work. That was 1974. He also sent a letter to an editor telling him to fire me off a book so he could write it. The editor gave me the letter, and I still have it.

No one was more devastated to learn and accept this disturbing truth than me. Because it wasn't just the fact that Thomas demonstrated he has no understanding of racism and sexism as systems that create inequality, it was also the fact he actively participated in them as well. It was also the fact that he went out of his way to gaslight Asian-Americans with "your anger is misplaced" in response to a very real problem that they face on a daily basis.

It was also the fact that he knew "oriental" was a derogatory term against Asians (right up there with "spic" against Latinos and "nigger" against Blacks) and used it to describe Asians anyway. It was also the fact that his response in its entirety was a goldmine of every derailment tactic marginalised communities hear all the time from white men and women who don't like to be called out on their participation in maintaining systemic inequality:

"My God! it's just fiction!" negating the fact that stories are powerful, influential tools that both create and reinforce culture, in addition to coming from a place of real human experience. "You have too much time on your hands!" "You're too emotional!" "You're so entitled!" "If you don't like it, go make your own!" all of which negate the fact that part of the reason members of marginalised communities have trouble moving upward in society--and especially the entertainment industry--is all consequential of these existing stereotypes, microaggressions, othering, and dehumanisation.

The opportunities for marginalised communities are simply not there compared to the ample opportunities white men and women get all the time in pretty much every capacity. If we did, believe me, we would all be course correcting on all these existing problems by giving ourselves more visibility instead of taking to social media to express our outrage. But when the opportunities aren't there to start with, the only way we can make our voices heard is by expressing our thoughts and feelings on social media.

Given those realities as they are, the anger expressed by Asian-Americans regarding Iron Fist (and every marginalised community at that) is certainly not "misplaced" nor are they wrong to feel anger at all the different ways the American entertainment industry continues to erase them from their own stories and cultures to give those things to white men and women, aka the group that already gets the most opportunities in the first place.

It's bad enough popular Japanese stories like The Ring, Ju-On, Dark Water, Dragon Ball, Speed Racer, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell have all been stripped of their cultural significance and context by resetting them in America, and replacing all of the Japanese characters with white characters played by white actors when adapted for the American audience. The least Marvel could've done to not continue this trend of Asian erasure was to make the TV adaptation of one of their own properties about an Asian-American to eliminate the problem with cultural appropriation. That was really all the Asian-American audience was asking for!

What makes this entire debacle even worse, however, is the fact that Thomas acknowledges in the same response that the problems Asian-Americans expressed in regards to Iron First are very real problems that affect them in their everyday lives (including opportunities for employment) and his response was still very much a case of "I don't care. Your thoughts and feelings are not worth my time or consideration."

This is frankly embarrassing and completely indefensible coming from someone who was at the forefront of initiating diverse representation during the 1970s and 1980s. But it is also reveals another unfortunate truth about the push for diversity at Marvel and DC during that time: it was all part of a trend and not necessarily out of a sincere desire to course-correct a problem with diverse representation that has always hurt comics.

When you consider the course of diverse representation in comics in the last four decades, you notice another disturbing trend: it always happens in waves. For example, one day Batman will have a daughter and be the centre of DC's marketing and promotion. The next day, she will be retconned out of existence because she is then seen as an inconvenience for the direction DC wants to take her father in. Then, another day, Batman's daughter is brought back into mainstream DC continuity, but is then kicked out of her own story in favour of a new man in a bat suit because DC doesn't believe the daughter of Batman and Catwoman is as highly profitable as the literal man in the bat suit. It doesn't matter if that person is her supposed-to-be-deceased grandfather, or some random lad who happens to have a name in common with Dick Grayson. As long as they can market at new BATMAN, that's all that matters.

The overall message of diverse representation in comics of the last four decades is that it's very surface level at best, and proves the point of why comics (and media in general) need more structural diversity, especially at the decision-making level. No one said this better than Chinese-American comics writer Marjorie Liu when she pointed out that as long as members of diverse communities are not working behind the scenes to tell these diverse stories, the optics of diverse representation will only be nice, but the narratives themselves won't last. And she's right because we've seen it happen consistently over and over again for four decades.

Having said all that, what does this mean for my future reviews of Roy Thomas' work on the Justice Society during the Bronze Age? I feel pretty conflicted about that, to be honest. Because there is still a lot that I like about those stories from a narrative standpoint, and many of those stories were illustrated by one of my favourite artists, Jerry Ordway, who is in fact a very nice person. Past conversations I've had with him on social media, I can safely say Jerry does respect the thoughts and opinions of diverse comic readers like myself and he does actually listen. I wish that the writer that he worked with in the earlier part of his career did the same. Because now? I can no longer talk about his work the same way I did in the past. I'm not sure that I'll even be able to find the energy to review them now knowing what I know about Roy Thomas as a person.

I originally had Wonder Woman #292 to review this week as part of my Women's History Month reviews. But after reading Roy Thomas' very disrespectful dismissal of a real problem with Asian representation in American media, I no longer know what to say. I had the post ready for writing, but I was literally speechless. How can I continue to talk about this one story that he co-wrote with Paul Levitz as progressive for its time on the front of female representation after he showed his true colours this past Tuesday? How can I still argue that his work shows respect for women when he doesn't respect women in real life? It would be disingenuous for me to do so, especially now that I know that progressive Wonder Woman story that I like is only progressive on the surface.

At best, I'll go ahead and finish reviewing this Wonder Woman crossover because I already started, but I will no longer do so as part of Women's History Month. I will instead discuss another work that truly celebrates women and diverse representation from creators I know actually respect women and diverse communities. Once I do finish reviewing the Wonder Woman crossover, I equally doubt I will be revisiting any of Roy Thomas' other JSA work any time soon. If I do end up revisiting those works in the future, it will namely be to talk about what I liked about the stories themselves and because I still love Jerry Ordway's art in those books. But I will no longer talk about them as progressive works of fiction because they really don't possess that level of authenticity, and because the optics of progress is not the same as real progress.

If Roy Thomas reflects on his words regarding the Iron First criticism, acknowledges their innate racism, their harmful impact on the Asian-American community, and apologises for his disrespectful and harmful behaviour, I may reconsider. But there is nothing in his attitude and behaviour that suggests that he will, and I'm not sure I'll still be able to look at him the same way again even if he does. Even if I am not an Asian-American myself who is directly affected by the appropriation of Asian culture, I do know and understand where they are coming from as a member of other marginalised communities, in this case, queer, Latina, and female.

I know what it's like to see myself represented as a "hot trend" in media, and to be stripped of my humanity and reduced to a mere plot device when it conveniences white male stories. I know what it's like to have white men tell me to my face that I don't understand the very problems that affect me daily. I know what it's like to be told I "should be grateful" every time white men in entertainment think of me when they decide to include my culture in a story, even if they decide to exclude me from both that story and decision-making process. I know what it's like to be told to shut up about ongoing problems like racism and misogyny in media if I want to be heard, taken seriously, and even afforded basic respect.

I know that any dismissal of one of us is dismissal of all of us. Because if white men in the entertainment industry can't afford Asian-Americans basic respect as human beings, who am I to kid myself into thinking they will afford it to me or anyone else who looks differently? That is a question for the entertainment industry itself to answer.


  1. Oh wow, I actually had no idea any of this happened. Kinda makes you question that whole era, but my feeling on it is, in the end, does it really matter how or why we got those stories? Isn't it more important that we did? Mind you, for the reasons they did them, the people behind them deserve WAY less credit as a result, but the stories themselves can still be applauded.

  2. I see that nobody has leaped to Roy's defence? To be fair, he is from a different generation where perspectives are viewed differently. When the Huntress came out during my teen years, I remember the locker-room banter with my mates about a lawyer dressed up as a dominatrix fighting crime - heck, where do we sign up as criminals? Does that make us chauvinists? Anti-feminists? Nah - we were just kids being kids coming out of puberty. I actually think all these whitewashing brou-ha-ha has gotten out of control. I feel sorry for Scarlett Johansson - the real reason why she was casted is just 'business' - plain and simple. The studio will never trust a minority actor (with the possible exception of Denzel Washington - and he can play any race in my book) to carry a movie with that kind of budget- heck, even the Chinese casts Matt Damon as the lead in their first international blockbuster. If you go back in cinematic history, you have White Tarzan leading the black savages. Does that mean there is a white supremacist conspiracy? Nah - it just means that it is a story of its time just the way Iron Fist is a product of its time.