Friday, August 5, 2011

Thinking: This is why we don't deserve anything nice.

Sometimes I think the internet is one of the greatest inventions since the Printing Press. Sometimes I think I could spent the rest of my life swimming in the digital depths and never run out of things to read, or see, such is the breadth of material available. Sometimes I think its capacity for free conversation, the equality of access for differing viewpoints, and the opportunity for people of similar interests to find common cause has the potential to reshape how human society itself functions. 

Sometimes however it makes me want to unplug the internet in despair.

This last couple of weeks there has been a couple of similar incidents that have made me smack my head on the desk in frustration and in many ways they are worrying similar. The first is the “Black Spiderman” story. In case anyone missed it, Marvel killed off Peter Parker in their Ultimates Universe a while back, and just announced that his replacement will be Miles Morales, a half-black, half-hispanic teenager. Unsurprisingly reaction has been “mixed” partly due to rampant traditionalism, a good helping of missing-the-point and a nasty undercurrent of flat-out racism. Yeuck.

The second event is that Bioware, the makes of the really rather excellent Mass Effect series, announced that (finally) they were going to use images of a default Female Commander Shepard on Mass Effect 3’s publicity and box art. Hooray. As part of this they ran a “choice” campaign and the internet chose a sort of angry blonde version, and you guessed it, a proportion of fans are up in arms about how demeaning it use to use a “sexy blonde”.  I don’t think she’s that sexy, to be honest. And I think if I tried to patronise her blonde-ness she’ds punch my face off. 

Will Seriously Kick Your Ass.
So to address the actual issues – yes, there is a sense with poor Miles that he is designed by committee a little to check some boxes and get some good headlines about “modernising” superhero comics. You know something? They bloody need it. We went through exactly this when DC/Warner launched the Justice League series using Hawkgirl and John Stewart leading to similar arguments that it was all about ‘tradition’ and ‘doing it properly’ and how that fact that it ‘appeared’ racist and sexist was just some sort of quirky co-incidence. There is nothing in the superhero rulebook that says if they’re not power fantasies for teenage white boys they’re doing it wrong. Black kids and Hispanic kids and yes, even girls, deserve their heroes too and it’s just bonkers that these sorts of moves to make the “club” inclusive aren’t welcomed. 

The Mass Effect thing is, if anything, even more bizarre. As low as it is, I can rationalise that comic fans can be, like the rest of society, narrow minded and prejudiced, but after many people complaining that “FemShep” wasn’t given any publicity for the earlier games are some of the same people that now complaining that she looks wrong. Given that you can completely customise the look of your Shepard (male or female) it’s just such a bizarre thing to object to I’m not even sure my brain can properly process it. 

(As an aside, it’s not seemingly limited to geeky fandom – at time of writing there is a story going around about e-petitions calling for the debate on capital punishment to be re-opened. I can now find articles from people who formally called for an e-petition system as a way of opening up the UK Parliament to direct democracy, now being very concerned that this means Parliament may now debate the “wrong” things. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of either Capital Punishment or indeed e-petitioning itself, it’s a pretty odd set of positions to hold.)
The Scary, Scary, Face of Change, Apparently Wait, what?
Underneath this though we have the same old tension that seems to dog any sort of fandom as long as I can remember. These seem more stupid than the average (although I may just be getting less tolerant of it!) but we seem stuck in a never-ending loop between wanting something new and exciting and being terrified of change. In an age of reboots and reimaging it’s a constant background hum to the geeky parts of the internet – this actor doesn’t look right, this costume is wrong, what are they using that villain for? And on the other side the counterpoint – any criticism, any reservation makes you one of the haters, any dissent is treason to the cause. Charting a middle-ground can be hard, and I suspect a lot of people who try just give up, turn off the flamewars and just do their own thing regardless. And good for them. 

It must make creators tear their hair in despair. There is a lot of commentary about the lack of risk-taking in the creative industries at the moment – in games, in movies, in comics – and in my view rightly so. It’s called the creative industry for a reason and the mainstream you get the bigger the stakes you playing with. To stick with Spiderman, I think the “Brand New Day” reset a couple of years back is a sign of that fear of doing anything too new with the big brands or more specifically the fear that they move too far away from their “safe” core, and I think a lot of the criticism of it was valid, if not always delivered in the best way. This is the opposite – a big change, a big chance to try something new on a mainstream brand – and it’s really disheartening to see some of the reactions. 

Because in the end, Miles Morales will live and die as a character based on the quality of the stories that he is in, not because of his skin colour. I know that FemShep will be an ass-kicking badass because she’s written by the same people as before and voiced by the same actor as before, and besides, she’ll look like “my” Shepard from the earlier games. Making Starbuck a woman was a great idea. Casting Heath Ledger as the Joker was brilliant. John Stewart is a great character.  The proof of these decisions was the use of those characters and the stories they told. Pre-judging them was stupid – pre-judging even if these turned out to be terrible ideas was stupid, even if we are all guilty of it from time to time. 

Now, to keep all this in mind whilst I go rant about how terrible this new Superman costume looks….