The “M Word” and Internet Controversy

As I have covered in several of my previous blogposts, the Internet is rapidly transforming various aspects of our everyday life. It should be evident now to our readers, that the Internet, and especially Web 2.0. technologies like social media, have changed the way we interact with each other, share our inner thoughts and communicate with the objects of our interest.

One of the areas that has been widely affected by the ever-growing power of social media is the world of fiction. Writers and publishers are now exposed to ongoing critiques and discussions that take place in a plethora of social media platforms, like blogs, twitter  and online forums. As a result, a discussion that might have stayed in the offline world during the 70s, has now been transferred in a very public and global platform.  Unfortunately, not everyone has realized the extent of this phenomenon  and once in a while a writer is engaged in a public debate with one of his readers or critics without realizing the repercussions of his actions. The following story is an example of one of these cases.

Mutants, Identity Politics and the Internet

Being one of the most celebrated American comic of the past 25 years, X-men published by Marvel Comics has often been praised by fans and critics for including in its context topics that allude to a variety of social and political matters [1]. As Steve Morris points out mutants in the Marvel Universe have been widely used as “a metaphor for the struggles of persecuted minorities round the world, be they of a different sexual orientation, gender, race, religion” [2].

Yet, in  March 27th 2013 their message for inclusion stirred some controversies among online communities. In the closing pages of Uncanny Avengers#5, Havok, the leader of a team with the sole purpose of uniting humans with mutants, made a statement that infuriated fans and critics alike. As it can be seen in the picture below, Havok thinks that the mutant term is divisive and represents everything that he hates. Instead, he would prefer to be called by his name.

From Uncanny Avengers# 5 by Rick Remender and Olivier Coipel (2013) © Marvel Comics

From Uncanny Avengers# 5 by Rick Remender and Olivier Coipel (2013) © Marvel Comics

The public outcry that followed this statement is unimaginable. Online article after online article and blogpost after blogpost were analysing how wrong was this message, while directly criticizing the writer of the aforementioned comic, Rick Remender. For Steve Morris of ComicsBeat, the message of this speech has absolutely horrible implications. It implies that minorities should be ashamed of what they are and attempt to become normalized. He states that if you swap the word mutant with the words gay, Muslim or African-American, the scene becomes “downright offensive” [2].  Andrew Wheeler adds to the topic that “the movement away from the terms “negro” and “colored” to identifiers like “African-American” wasn’t about rejecting labels. It was about rejecting the labels forced upon you choosing your own” [3]. Finally, he adds that Rick Remender’s message is not a message of inclusion but a message of assimilation and erasure [3].

remender-havok

Remender’s response on Twitter. The tweet got deleted the same day it got posted.

But, that was only the tip of the iceberg. While engaged in a heated discussion on Twitter, Rick Remender made a public statement that made even his sympathizers furious at him. In his twitter post, which has been deleted since then, he encouraged the people who didn’t like the character’s position to drown themselves in hobo piss. As you might imagine this was followed by a tsunami of blog posts and forum discussions. Specifically, MJ writes in her personal blog on Tumblr : “when faced with his rightfully offended audience, Rick showed charm and maturity in his response” [4]. Another blogger who was neutral regarding the original topic, writes: “telling people who are participating in a discussion that you invited to drown in hobo piss is aggravating. It’s contemptuous. This guys is writing Oppression Comix and when questioned on a fine point, he goes to “kill yourself?”” [5].

Public Apology and Acknowledgement of the Issue 

One week after his controversial tweet, Rick Remember gave an interview to Newsarama.com, one of the most popular sites for comic book readers, in order to address the issue and apologize for his offensive comment. As he states in this interview he wasn’t prepared for the initial reaction and the proportions that the topic would take. He was just trying, as a writer, to give a unique point of view to one of his characters [6]. Later on he address the hobo piss tweet by saying: “I deeply regret it. when I made those Tweets, I wasn’t aware there was a greater larger debate on the internet…I was just aware of a few people calling me names, or accusing me  of being a racist, on Twitter” [6]. While concluding that it was one of his lowest points, where he lost control and didn’t realize what he was writing [6].

However, that wasn’t the only official acknowledgement of the issue by a representative of Marvel Comics. Three months after the public apology of the writer, another writer decided to take matters into his own hands and address this discussion, by using another comic book character. In June 26th 2013, Brian Bendis, writer of All-New X-Men, had Kitty Pryde, a mutant character, comment at Havok’s statement, in a way that can be interpreted as an explicit commentary directed to Rick Remender. In a monologue that mirrors Andrew Wheeler’s statement [3], the character claims that not only she doesn’t agree with Havok’s opinion but she wants to be recognized as a Jewish person and a mutant, since she is proud of both of this labels.  In other words, as many of Rick Remender’s critics would say, it’s identity politics done right.

All-New X-Men# 13 by Brian M. Bendis and Stuart Immonen (2013) © Marvel Comics

From All-New X-Men# 13 by Brian M. Bendis and Stuart Immonen (2013) © Marvel Comics

Conclusion

This case study helps us understand how social media is transforming the world of fiction. In another era, an Internetless era, the topic would have never been discussed to such an extent. Worst case scenario, a couple of angry readers would have mailed the editor of the comic in order to express their disappointment, without expecting to be heard. This does not apply in the Digital Age. Today, readers and critics, newly empowered with digital tools, are not afraid to speak their minds and express their dissatisfaction.

At the same time, writers find themselves in the awkward position of having to respond to their critics. And if Remender’s example taught us anything, is that not everyone is capable of handling such a delicate issue on his own. What Remender probably didn’t realize is that on the Internet one can’t sweep something under the rug. The information one shares or the messages one sends will stay there forever, even if they are eventually deleted (e.g. Remender deleting his tweet). In the long run that person will have to face reality and take responsibility for his/her own actions.

As a final note, it is evident that online critiques have an impact on the strategy of publishers. The fact that Brian Bendis decided to include the aforementioned monologue in his comic can be interpreted as a form of apology by the publisher. It is a way of saying: “sorry for the misunderstanding, not everyone in this company shares Remender’s opinion regarding this issue”. What is left now is to see whether this strategy will be fruitful and the publisher will eventually manage to turn public opinion, or Remender’s name will always be associated with this controversial story. However, one can definitely be certain  that the social media is changing the dynamics of the relationship between reader and writer and as result the comic industry has to face new challenges.

______________________________

References

1. Shyminsky, N.. 2006. Mutant Readers , Reading Mutants : Appropriation , Assimilation , and the X-Men. International Journal of Comic Art, 8(21), 387–405.

2. Morris, Steve. 2013. Uncanny Avengers Introduces ‘The M-Word’. ComicsBeat, March 28. Accessed October 28, 2013. http://comicsbeat.com/uncanny-avengers-introduces-the-m-word/

3. Wheeler, Andrew. 2013. Avengers Assimilate: Identity Politics in ‘Uncanny Avengers’. ComicsAlliance March 29. Accessed October 28, 2013. http://comicsalliance.com/uncanny-avengers-5-rick-remender-identity-politics-mutants/

4. MJ.2013. “The M Word,” Aka Rick Remender is a Fucking Dick: A Rant on Privileged Ignorance. Off Center Fold Blog,  March 28. Accessed October 28, 2013. http://offcenterfold.tumblr.com/post/46532524175/the-m-word-aka-rick-remender-is-a-fucking-dick-a

5. David Brothers. 2013. Uncanny Avengers, X-Men, Rick Remender, and Oppression Comix. 4thletter.net Blog, March 9. Accessed October 28, 2013. http://4thletter.net/2013/03/uncanny-avengers-x-men-rick-remender-and-oppression-comix/

6. Ching, Albert. 2013. Remender Responds to Uncanny Avengers ‘M-Word’ Controversy. Newsarama, April 2. Accessed October 28, 2013. http://www.newsarama.com/17328-remender-responds-to-uncanny-avengers-m-word-controversy.html

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