Comforting the Comfortable
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. (Elie Wiesel)
I’m not especially familiar with the work of Scott Kurtz. Cursory investigation reveals that his webcomic, PvP, is quite successful, though, which may explain why his recent post regarding creator’s rights and the Avengers movie shows such a staggering lack of empathy and an inability to understand why anyone might seek redress for an injustice. This is America, after all, land of Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, where everyone assumes that success is a birthright and that any protest against the powerful is nothing more than the hurling of a bunch of sour grapes. What is harder to understand is why Kurtz wraps his argument in robes of nobility and altruism, as if he is doing quite a wonderful thing by exhorting his readers to abandon the very notion of pointing out injustice. Every self-flattering moralist likes to dress himself up in a mantle of optimism and faith in the goodness of mankind, but Kurtz’s bewildering deployment of the concept of cynicism suggest that his biggest problem is not one of belief, but of simple comprehension.
Kurtz gets entangled in definitions right away, when he characterizes as “slacktivism” the notion that it would be a good thing for anyone who enjoys Avengers to donate the cost of a ticket to the Hero Initiative. ”Slacktivism”, as it is commonly understood, is the process of mounting a protest or sponsoring a social cause by doing something that costs nothing in terms of money or time, such as retweeting a feel-good statement or tinting your Facebook icon a meaningful color. Donating money to an organized charity, conversely, is just plain old activism, since it requires both action and expense. Perhaps Kurtz is angry at the Hero Initiative plan (started, by the way, by my good friend Calamity Jon Morris; you can read more about it here) because, benefitting as it does hundreds of comics creators in financial need, it blows a hole in his already-flaccid argument that this is all about Jack Kirby, who at any rate is too dead to enjoy it.
Kurtz really tries to push the unmade-by-anyone point that this is just about Jack Kirby getting credit for creating the Avengers, when it is, of course, about the fact that artists and writers for all Marvel books are routinely cheated out of money, credit and a decent degree of compensation for the success of the characters they helped shape. He does this, oddly enough, by displaying panels from the original Lee-Kirby Avengers and the Millar-Hitch Ultimates and asking the reader which more resembles the version of the team they saw on screen. This doesn’t make the profound point he seems to think it does; indeed, it’s hard to tell what point it’s intended to make at all. Baz Luhrmann stranding Romeo Montague in South Beach and equipping him with a silver-plated handgun does not stop the play from having been written by William Shakespeare; and, more to the point, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch no more own those characters than Jack Kirby did, and will receive no more compensation from the film’s gargantuan profits than I will. (They may, indeed, someday find themselves in financial need, and will no doubt be met with sneers from Kurtz telling them they’ve got nothing coming.)
It only gets worse from here: once again mischaracterizing the argument of the compassionate defenders of creator’s rights that so infuriate him, Kurtz notes all the other people — Walt Simonson, Bob Layton, Jim Steranko — who helped define the characters we think of as Thor, Iron Man, and Nick Fury. This is fine so far as it goes, but no one is arguing that Kirby and Kirby alone be compensated for his work on the characters. Those of us who are repulsed by Marvel’s treatment of its writers and artists would be just as happy to see Simonson, Layton, and Steranko get a bigger slice of the pie as well, something that is in no way incompatible with the simple factual admission that the characters were originally created by Jack Kirby. His examples are somewhat bewildering on their face, as well; Steranko frequently feuded with Marvel, Simonson is a board member of the Hero Initiative, and Bob Layton has recently struggled in the indie comics field that Kurtz cites as evidence that creator’s rights is no longer an issue. All three are outspoken defenders of creator’s rights.
The attempt that follows to argue that creator’s rights issues are no longer worth our attention is beneath mention. Especially coming from a successful webcomics producer — one of the few — it smacks of successful women who spurn feminism, or bourgeoisie blacks who argue that racism is dead. The I-got-mine argument is essentially irrational and selfish, and ignores the greater shape of the industry in which everyone must work. Citing things like Kickstarter and the B&W comics movement of the 1980s is arguing that a minuscule portion of the overall business excuses the egregious abuses of the two companies that dominate the industry, and doesn’t even address the central issue, which is that Marvel’s creators still do not own their creations. Pretending that things are much better now is quite daring in light of recent developments; the case of Alan Moore and the “Before Watchmen” books alone should argue that the multi-million-dollar corporations that control the vast majority of paying comics work are in no way ready to give up one inch of their control of the material that fattens their bottom line to the people who make it.
Now that he’s really wound up, Kurtz ends his nonsensical tirade by really going for the gusto: ”It’s not as simple as ‘Give Jack’s estate some money, Marvel. You can afford it.’ That’s not pragmatic thinking. That’s cynicism. And I’m so tired of the cynicism.” Actually, it is as simple as that — that is the very definition of pragmatic. Take a small amount of money you don’t need to correct an injustice that was all your fault; you score a huge public relations coup that will buy you enough goodwill to weather the next 20 years of screwing your employees, while still coming out hundreds of millions of dollars ahead. It’s as practical as can be.
As far as the line about cynicism, I’m frankly flabbergasted. Supporters of the Hero Initiative and creator’s rights advocates are attempting to get comics fans to donate money to the creators of the books they love, to compensate for how they they were routinely underpaid, overworked, and cheated out of the financial gain their bosses got from their hard work. Kurtz, meanwhile, is arguing that it doesn’t matter who got screwed, because things are better now probably, and besides who cares, the Avengers movie was awesome, so everybody shut up about who screwed who. And we’re the ones being cynical? What we’re asking for has nothing to do with cynicism. It has everything to do with justice, or at the very least decency, which are the opposite of cynicism. Cynicism is saying what Kurtz says: this has always happened, it will always happen, we can’t do anything about it anyway, let’s all shut up and pretend it’s fixed and move on. That is precisely cynicism.
Having thoroughly ensured that the boots of people he doesn’t even work for are well and truly spittled, Kurtz ends his flailing around by telling us who the real villains are: internet commenters. (As Calamity Jon pointed out, this is a man who calls it childish to define the Marvel vs. Kirby feud in terms of good guys and bad guys, but he ends his essay by comparing people who disagree with him to a comic book supervillain.) People who want Kirby and other creators to get what’s due them aren’t decent people looking for justice; they’re “worms” trying to “make themselves feel powerful”. (Never mind that virtually all the power in this scenario is held by wealthy corporate executives, as it pretty much always is.) The real bad guys aren’t big business shot-callers or billion-dollar movie studios, it’s internet cowards “getting in a good dig” because they never had the courage to create anything themselves. (Never mind that hundreds of the people supporting Kirby and the creator’s rights movement in general are themselves comic creators, making the quite rational decision that if they don’t stand up for creator’s rights for others, no one will bother to stand up for them.) Scott Kurtz bases his whole argument on the idea that he is trying to break free from a hurtful cynicism; but there is nothing fresh, new and optimistic about defending the bosses when they try to step on their workers for the millionth time. He may think he’s letting sunshine into the room by telling us all to stop living in the past and just take what we’re given, but the real cynics — the big shots his argument will ultimately benefit — have heard this song before; because they’re the ones who wrote it.