Thee Comic Column #121: Why Spider Gwen is Important

spider-gwen-1-cover-robbi-rodriguez-109184 (1)First: there will be some who will roll their eyes at the title I chose for this piece. That’s fine. However, the fact remains that nothing is “important” until we choose to assign that value to it. Under different circumstances I might have rolled my eyes at an article bearing this title. As you read this piece you’ll see that initially I wasn’t the most receptive person for a title with a decades-deceased character re-packaged with familiar super powers. However, several things happened that changed my mind and in the process made Spider Gwen suddenly feel very important in the context of the comic book industry and Geek culture overall. It is this importance I’d like to discuss now, so whether you’re one of the folks who LOVE this new character or a skeptic, follow me down the rabbit hole and let me make my case for why I feel Spider Gwen is a watershed for much-needed change in the comic book industry.

I mentioned a confluence of events that changed my mind. Let me lay these out for you as they occurred, in order to (hopefully) better illustrate that I am not digging in with a fad but looking at a much larger game board.

First, I discovered that Spider Gwen was created by three creators who I like very much: Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi. This information served as the impetus for my giving the character a second look, and it was during that second look that I learned this new take on an old favorite was the result of a kind of “elseworlds” type set-up. This naturally sated my ever-diligent defense of pre-established continuity, especially for such a defining character as Gwen Stacy in the classic Spiderman mythos.

Next, I have been focused of late on a myriad of different perspectives from around the comic book industry and the broader world of “Geekdom” that feeds into it. This began several months ago when I attended a screening of Marisa Stotter’s excellent documentary She Makes Comics at The Comic Bug. Then, a few weeks ago I read Alisha Grauso’s article “The Battle for the Soul of Geek Culture” and it further served to illustrate the imbalance in both comics and Geekdom at large. Finally, on Drinking w/ Comics this past Monday my co-host Mike Wellman described the experience of attending the recent comic retailers summit in Portland, a business gathering where he described bearing witness to a nearly across-the-board shift in focus by the major comic book publishing companies, a shift away from what has come before in favor of a new focus on diversity. Taken independent of one another any of these things might be perceived as singular voices in a tempest of status quo, however it is my contention here that that is not the case, and that the break-out success of Spider Gwen is the proof that change is gonna come.

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Spider Gwen was unexpected – note she is absent from earlier promotional art for the storyline that introduced her

I posit Spider Gwen as the crest on this proposed wave of change because it is the unexpected success of Latour, Rodriguez and Renzi’s one-off character – a character created in a frenzy of alternate Spider-based heroes in the storyline Edge of Spiderverse – that has caused the “Financial Machine” that is the comics business on the highest level to take note and finally listen to the underground that has clamored for change, representation and diversity for decades. I know, I know – leave it to the almighty sales dollar to really open the eyes of the gatekeepers, but you know what? It doesn’t matter, because in our media-controlled, profit-above-all-else age change comes from where it must, so if it takes a smash hit to pry open the doors to Castle Geek and force the issue of change, then that’s what it takes. And I do think this has been coming for a while and I don’t mean to make this sound like there aren’t already a healthy dose of diverse characters and books out there. I for one read a number of ongoing titles that focus on all kinds of people: Larime Taylor’s A Voice in the Dark follows characters of different racial backgrounds, sexual orientations and body types; James Tyion IV’s The Woods does this as well, the cross section of high school students he and artist Michael Dialynas chose to tell their tale with is as diverse as it is insightful into what it means to be a teenager in 2015, when society as a whole is more open and accepting – but not yet as open and accepting as they should be. And for my money, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus has just about the deepest, most-well constructed and frankly bad-ass female protagonist since Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But these are indie, creator-owned books and frankly, in 2015 this is exactly where we would expect to see this type of diversity. What we’re talking about here is primarily the Big Two and the status quo they have adhered to – more or less – since the first strong man put on the first tights and cape combo. Make no mistake, I’ll give credit where credit is due and by no means am I trying to say that Marvel or DC are purposely negligent, however they publish comics catered to their perceived audience. And the unexpected mega-success of Spider Gwen changes this. Spider Gwen hit and immediately created a frenzy of interest from all walks of life. This in turn showed the Big Two that, once and for all, it’s no longer just primarily white males who identify themselves as geeks.

art  by Rodriguez & Renzi, Modification by @erinoutrageous

art by Rodriguez & Renzi, Modification by @erinoutrageous

As Miss Grauso points out in the article linked above, that geek culture would end up a caste system of exclusion is ridiculous. The idea that a subculture born of those ostracized from conventional culture could itself be responsible for subsequently ostracizing others is as heartbreaking as it is maddening. I can tell you though, as someone who was regularly picked on in early school, it is not without precedent. When, as a geeky prepubescent I found I that I could defer my own torture at the hands of bullies by applying the same to others, I not only adopted this terrible policy as a means of survival but also eventually developed an appetite for it. Thankfully I was raised in a manner that promoted self awareness, so that these derisive tactics did not last long. I changed. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty, but I did. And that’s really the crux of any bigoted behavior – fear of change. People can change because people are change. And yet, people fear change above all else.

Why?

William Burroughs posited our language is a virus and that certain aspects of this virus serve to diminish us. “I am” can be a dangerous phrase because it promotes belief that you are static; an unchanging element. But in truth, human beings are are not these static, stationary things. We are processes through time. So why then do so many people cling to what “is” instead of what they can become? Because change upsets order, and when you upset order you come, to whatever degree, closer to the actual state of chaos that surrounds us at all times. Our entire western culture is based on this: routine, status, the reassuring embrace of the familiar. People find something they deem is a basic tenant of what they perceive themselves to be and they cling to it, fighting off anything that threatens change. This ties directly into Miss Grauso’s article – the old regime of primarily white, male geeks that adopted comic books, gaming, D&D, all the columns of “Geekdom” do not want to share their paradigm with anyone that threatens to change it, i.e. anyone that doesn’t look and act just like them. They fear that change will somehow lessen their relationship to what it means to be a geek.

Well, it’s time for that to stop.

I talked in a recent episode of Dw/C about how She Makes Comics really opened my eyes to the uneven balance women face in comics. Of course I know that the world around us has long been like this; that women’s rights are a very real issue that, despite having come a long way, still requires diligence. The same goes for race, sexual orientation, whatever. However, growing up with Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil and Spiderman work and Louise Simonson’s X-Factor among my favorite books, I had from a young age assumed what I think many of us assumed – that because comics were a place where we who were ostracized felt we could be accepted, that they were naturally a place that welcomed everyone else as well. And I feel stupid for feeling that way for so long, for being ignorant of the reality of the situation because, well, it’s this lack of understanding of my own chosen community that helped it fester in the prejudices that appear to be coming to a head now, as the companies usher in what Mike recently dubbed “The Inclusive Age” of comics and the dissenters escalate their backlash. But I am not going to wallow in my own perceived shortcomings in this area. I can talk. I can write. I can use the things that I put out into the world to try and make it a better place.

When Mike first said the words “Inclusive Age” (see clip below) I’ll admit I thought it was a bit pandering. I mean, nothing sours the act of righting a wrong more than doing it publicly and to serve an agenda. And to me, at first “Inclusive” definitely seemed a bit agenda-ish. Not on Mike’s part; he was merely trying to get down what he had witnessed at that retailers summit, where DC talked about their de-emphasis on New 52 continuity in exchange for a focus on diversity. Mike’s report that every retailer brandished ideas spun of this same silk means that this is a certified ‘movement’ or era – in comic book parlance “Age” – but is it merely sales driven? It’s my take that if it started that way – and I’m not saying it did, but you know, my cynicism retains the right to its own opinion – it definitely is no longer about that. In this time where corporate thought governs our lives more than anything else, the easiest way to make a change is to preface it with sales and statistics. The Inclusive Age may have begun that way, but it means the Machine is now in the hands of the people who want that change and have shown to our overlords that it is profitable. A million voices verse that of a few, you get the idea. So corporate agendas aside, in light of all of these facets to the equation Mike’s moniker for this new age of comics feels infinitely less pandering and unavoidably more an acknowledgment by the *ahem* guilty parties that there was indeed an unspoken exclusionary policy at play in comics previously, and that riding on the web tails of Gwen Stacey it is on its way out. What will the future bring? I’m not sure, but what seems a no-brainer to me is that with each new perspective incorporated into the way they tell stories, we are on the verge of having some really awesome comic books to read in the very near future!

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Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

 

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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