I was frustrated to read online that one of the owners of Whatever, reportedly a very good comics shop in San Francisco, was threatening a boycott of Brian K. Vaughan, over the use of the word “faggot” in the first issue of his and Cliff Chiang’s new series Paper Girls. And speaking “as a gay man who owns a comic book store” he called out Image for allowing the creators to use that word.
As a gay man who makes comics, I am troubled by this reactionary outburst.
Cougarich* seems to take his inspiration from the old Comics Code, which categorically banned certain words and subjects from comics in a misguided effort to protect children from them. “Zombie” was banned. “Crime” couldn’t be in the title. Etc. “There is NO place for this word especially in comics,” Cougarich declares. But this draconian standard overlooks the important matter of context: immediately after one of the characters calls someone a “faggot”, another character says that you shouldn’t do that.
Under the original terms of Code, it wasn’t permitted to depict drug use, even to condemn it. In order to tell a story showing the dangers of illicit narcotics, Marvel was forced to publish an issue without Code approval. It was actively counter-productive, and the Cougarich Code, with it’s appeal to the Word Police, would do the same thing, disallowing this “teachable moment”.
In a less heated mood, perhaps Cougarich might permit this usage, in the same spirit that the Code would permit the depiction of robberies as long as the perpetrator was properly punished. But even that rule was wrong-headed, and harmful as a universal requirement.
I’m a bit baffled that one still has to say this in 2015, but: comics aren’t all for children. As an adult, I don’t need a publisher to teach me these life lessons, nor do I need a retailer to protect me from stories that don’t meet his standards of moral obviousness. I recently made a short comic about police brutality, which includes an officer calling characters both “cocksucker” and “faggot”. No one corrects him. He doesn’t get punished for it. Because it’s not that kind of comic. It’s a comic about harsh facts of real life, and it’s intended for readers who are prepared to read about that and to reach their own conclusions about it.
If I was writing for children, I’d avoid those words, because children may not fully understand that context. And if I was writing something for adults that was intended to inoffensive, I’d do the same. But when I’m writing a story for adults about serious matters, I’m going to dialog it with the vocabulary that serious adults use. If someone doesn’t like that, then they are not my audience, and they are invited not to read it… whether they are a puritan from my hometown in the Midwest, or a gay couple from San Francisco.
I am a fierce defender of free speech, but I’m not saying that anyone can write what they want with no consequences. If a retailer feels that someone’s work is offensive, they have a right to say so, and even not to sell it. But I would hope they would apply a more insightful standard than this. And I also have the right to speak up and say when I disagree, and in this case I do emphatically.
And I do this because I am a gay man, one who labors under burdensome rules saying that I can’t post (this), and I can’t sell comics containing (that). I would very much like to sell my comics in stores, but because of the explicitly homosexual content, the number who would carry them is very small. And it’s sadly ironic that, because I use the word “faggot” in dialog – because people do – a store owned by a gay couple would be on the side of those who would not.
* Since the statement was posted under an account shared by the owners I don’t know which of the two was the author, so I’ll refer to them by the name used on the account.