by Patrick Ehlers & Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: What are we doing here? I mean, here, reading (or in my case, writing) a piece critical of a work of art? The art itself, issue two of Glitterbomb The Fame Game, is an exploration of emotional voyeurism, and is openly critical of the people profiting off the vulnerability of others. The risk associated with saying anything about this issue is always going to pale in comparison to the risk the creators take in actually expressing the story therein. Writer Jim Zub and artists Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell lay their own fears of fame out on the page in naked, sometimes groaningly obvious, ways. I can point this out and say “look how obvious this is”, but this is always going to be a weaker product than the story that actually says something.
The panel that lays out these risks is a collage of internet hate that Kaydon gets in response to being on Newswire. Twitter and Reddit and even our own comment sections can be shitty places for reasonable discourse — I’ve been told to “get fucked to death” for not praising a Godzilla comic highly enough — and Zub et. al let their worst impressions of the internet run amok on the page.
There are the classics within the deluge: both the ubiquitous “KILL YOURSELF” and the pithy, one-word message “CUNT” make all-caps appearances. But so do the messages that start off sounding like uncomfortably aggressive compliments and quickly morph into rape and death threats. This is the public’s reaction to Kaydon sincerely expressing emotions on television. Chelsie, the Newswire reporter who put the whole thing together is probably also going to be the target of some similar vitriol, but as she’s not the one offering her own emotions, she’s not nearly as concerned. It’s a damn chilling moment when her producer puts forth the concern “we’re going to get complaints,” only to be met with a cold “what else is new?”.
Where Zub, Morissette-Phan and Russell differentiate their message is in how they actually present the emotional moments of this issue, and by extension, the same manipulative moment of Chelsie’s segment. Russell’s colors soften and Morissette-Phan’s design of Marty morphs into an intensely adorable version of itself. It begs the question: who’s creating this saccharine moment? The TV crew or the comic creators?
There is, of course, a layer of artifice no matter how we answer that question. The emotion the reader responds to belongs to one party (Marty and Kaydon) but is packaged by another. Both the agent and the reporter are necessarily more guarded throughout this process than Kaydon is.
Zub and Morissette-Phan telegraph the danger of Kaydon’s vulnerability early in this issue. There’s a poster on her bedroom wall on page one for the Darren Aronofsky flick Black Swan. The movie follows a young ballerina’s meltdown as she eventually gives all of herself to the lead role in Swan Lake. Spoilers for Black Swan: the exercise kills her. Nina, as portrayed by Natalie Portman, gives one hell of a moving performance, but she pays the ultimate price for it.
Drew, I know I’ve driven us to this “what’s the point of criticism?” conclusion before, and I never totally manage to convince myself that there’s no value in what we do. We are frequently vulnerable, offering readings that say a hell of a lot about what we fear. I guess the vulnerability I’m showing right now is my own insecurity about the value of my craft. In fact, maybe it’s damn myopic of me to even turn my reading into a commentary on how I engage with art. But the issue invites that kind of self-exploration, and is extremely honest about it to boot. Perhaps to a fault, but, hey, who am I to judge?
Drew: I think the difficulty is that we live in an age where “criticism” has expanded to include things that have nothing to do with critical discourse. There was a time when critics had read enough Barthes to draw a hard line between the critique of a work of art and a personal attack of the artist — you know, in addition to being decent human beings and being accountable to their publications. But the the internet has allowed amateurs with no accountability, familiar with The Death of the Author only as the subject of a threatening tweet, and emboldened by anonymity to call themselves “critics,” often feigning disbelief when artists push back on this stuff, suggesting that they are too sensitive to take “criticism.” Obviously, we’re most cued into this phenomenon in the comics world (where the confusion of serious analysis and ad hominem attacks cheapens what we do here), so it’s hard not to see a little bit of Zub’s own twitter feed (and Tumblr Q&A) reflected in that flood of hate Kaydon receives.
The difference, of course, is that Kaydon is a sixteen-year-old, whose entire sense of self-worth relies on the opinions of others (even anonymous trolls). Where Zub doesn’t seem daunted by jerks being jerks, Kaydon reads those messages and comments just after being kicked out of her house — these are the only connections she has to humanity at that point. It makes her easy prey for the hate monster at the heart of Glitterbomb.
The thought of getting revenge on all of these people — some kind of internet karma — reminds me a great deal of the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation,” where the villain seems to be stoking the internet’s worst tendencies, only to then punish users for their inhumanity. But as much as Kaydon may want to see these people suffer, this monster clearly isn’t offering catharsis. It may seem like the monster has Kaydon’s best interests at heat, but all it really wants is to keep her misery all to itself.
In that way, I think the commentary this issue makes on the internet’s weird way of dehumanizing people is a lot more complicated than it might seem. We might be on the monster’s side for holding Chelsea accountable for her actions — though we’ll hopefully agree that head-eating takes it a bit too far — but the monster’s motives to luxuriate in Kaydon’s misery forces us to question our own. Are our we virtuous for virtue’s sake, or do we get some kind of perverse joy out of feeling like saviors (thus requiring that there be people to save)? Are the monsters better or worse than the people they’re killing, or are they all just part of the same cycle?
Lest we get too philosophical, let’s talk about that head-eating for a second:
First off, I love that Zub and Morissette-Phan have come up with a totally different design for this monster — it suggests a larger, weirder mythology behind whatever is going on here. But the thing I love most about this sequence is that, in it’s eagerness to eat Chelsea’s head, the monster also eats most of the headrest. That little detail sells the violence and viciousness of the attack more than the arcs of blood or dangling spine. This monster isn’t even delicate enough to eat only heads.
But, of course, the fact that this thing consumes heads is important. As I suggested earlier, it’s a hate monster, fueled by internet trolls and misery, this thing will literally eat your head. Ascribing morals to it or to the anonymous posters on the internet might be hopelessly misguided — all we (or Kayden) can really do is either give in to its pressure or fight against it. This issue leaves her at the precipice of that decision, but I’m not sure Kayden has the emotional maturity to make the moral choice here. I’ll stop short of making any hard predictions, but it seems to me that The Fame Game might be more about explicating the cycle of fame than it is about breaking it.
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Patrick, have you ever played the video game the Beginner’s Guide? If you want an experience to really confront what it means to be a critic, to really challenge you and make you insecure about your craft and how you engage with art, that will do it.
And yeah, the insecurity is hard. I honestly hate it when I see an actual comics creator link to a post on this site that I have a comment on, especially when the comment isn’t all that positive. It is when you do harm to the creator that you fall into the trap of actually being exploitative/profit of the vulnerability of others. So when someone on twitter literally called Nick Spencer’s attention to my not entirely positive Secret Empire comment, that freaked me out. I have no idea if Nick Spencer actually read it, but the last thing I wanted was for a man who already got barraged with hate on social media to read me saying bad things about his work. And then someone literally told him to read MY comment. It really worried me, made me question what I wanted to do (I REALLY hope he didn’t read my Secret Empire 10 comment).
But ultimately, I think the focus is that you have to put every effort into the criticism as a creator does in their art. It is easy to say no work of criticism will ever mean as much as an actual piece of art, but I reject that. I think it can be, and we should aspire to that. That isn’t to say it is better, or that I am an example of someone who does better criticism than the work I’m critiquing. But I think we can do more than just repeat what the comic says by rooting it in something greater. Criticism is the art of contextualising a piece of work in a greater whole. And that is the part that makes it more than exploiting those who put themselves out of there.
The thing is, saying ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’ is a worthless act. Trying to explain why, to find some sort of insight or to provoke our own responses in our readers is the value. And that’s how we can different itself from those that are exploitative. I’ve seen criticism that will make you cry, or criticism that challenges orthodoxy and rethink history. In some ways, think more about the audience than the creator. Treat the text as a creator would treat the experiences and inspirations that make up their work. I guess that’s why I don’t like actual creators reading my work. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for the audience that will hopefully, is I do this right, learn something or see something in a different light. What can you say about a comic that actually means something. That actually teaches?
It can go wrong (The Beginner’s Guide is a great game in exploring how that can go wrong) but that’s what we should aspire to. How we differentiate ourselves from the crappy criticism that serves only to take advantage or even hurt creators. Help the audience to get something else out that they wouldn’t get before. Even when it isn’t nice (look, there is no way to adequately address Action Comics whitewashing real life war crimes and be nice), if I can try an aspire to do that, that’s how I can avoid being the sort of person you guys discuss in this comic.
As Drew said, it is the difference between reading Barthes, and being ‘familiar with The Death of the Author only as the subject of a threatening tweet’ (also, Drew, that may be your greatest turn of phrase ever. That is honestly amazing. Poetic in its wordplay. It also reminds me of that time a GamerGater was asked about his opinion’s on Death of the Author, and honestly thought it was about killing off authors. Which just proves your point further)
Oh, I totally agree that there is value to criticism — and by extension all the attendant activities and business that surround the creation of a work of art. The example from the issue is the producer that actually turns Kaydon’s emotional experience into a work of art (i.e., a television show). There’s value in it, and by extension, value in what we do here, but I think there is inherently less risk in saying “this is how I feel about a piece of art” than there is in creating the art. 9 times out of 10, when I write about Batman (even if I’m saying something controversial about him), the discussion around my piece will be about Batman, and not around my specific take on the issue. Artists don’t have that luxury, if we want to consider emotional projections a luxury.
All of which is to say that from a personal vulnerability perspective, if it much much harder to create than to do such about anything else in the arts. I don’t really believe that we are hurting artists — in fact, in a lot of ways, I think we boost some of their efforts and impose our own clarity on to work — but I know we do effect REAL HUMAN BEINGS with these pieces. The creative team of Angelic had a reaction to something we wrote this week, and I was filled with that momentary dead that we needlessly hurt the feelings of an artist that had already offered so much.
Oh and just because I haven’t had an opportunity to say it in a while: fuck GamerGaters.
I think inherently less risk is a bit of a simplification. It can be highly risky, but you have to put the work into it. I’d instead argue that it is easier not to be risky. I’ve seen someone use a World’s End critique to discuss whether they drink too much and a GOTG v2 review to discuss the final days of their Parkinson’s afflicted (I think) father. Are they riskier than the movies they were critiquing? Hard to say, when talking about two great movies. But while great works are an easy way to inspire great, risky criticism, it is possible to get similar results discussing other, less risky work and create something riskier. When someone really challenges the base assumptions of something, that can be a great way to do so.
I think criticism is easier and safer than actually making art. And harder to really take a risk and write something truly memorable. But it is possible, and we should always remember that so we can aspire to be that good.
And yeah, as someone who can usually hide under the cover of ‘they probably don’t read the comments’, I can’t imagine what it is like for you guys when you see a creator notice. Especially when you have to deal with things like your praiseworthy piece on Secret Empire 10 having me in the comments calling it utter garbage without value, and risk hurting the creators merely by providing a platform. The dread I felt when someone told Nick Spencer to read my work is nothing compared to how you guys put yourselves out there.
And because it can’t be said enough, fuck GamerGate