In his essay for The New Republic, “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” author William Giraldi traces the history of outraged reader response from its origins in the nineteenth century to its fast-paced twenty-first-century permutation, arguing that hate mail is an inevitable consequence of public self-expression, and not just inevitable but desirable:
Part of a writer’s job should be to dishearten the happily deceived, to quash the misconceptions of the pharisaical, to lure the hermetic from whatever bolt-holes they’ve built for themselves—to unsettle and upset. If someone isn’t riled by what you write, you aren’t writing truthfully enough. Hate mail is what happens when you do.
It’s a perspective that’s shared by many writers, myself included, but in the last week I’ve come to see it as an overly simplistic perspective—one in dire need of critical examination.
See, I tried to let the HydraCap thing go. I really, really did. “Say your piece and then let it go,” I told myself. “Don’t feed the media machine any more than you have to.” And I said my piece, and then I did my best to let it go.
And over the course of the week came a barrage of smug, patronizing op-eds from the comics media establishment: if you understood how comics worked you wouldn’t be upset; and—even more infuriating—the fact that you’re upset and want to voice your opinion in a public venue means that you’re the problem. It didn’t come from everyone, but it came from enough sources to seem significant. There’s a tyranny of narrative that exists in the court of public opinion, one that depends in large part on the ability to dismiss any and all negative feedback on the basis of gatekeeping, oversimplification of the situation, and outright bullying. I could easily have let the HydraCap controversy go—I’m pleased with my articulation of the issues surrounding the narrative choice to make Steve Rogers a member of HYDRA and have nothing more to say on the matter—but I can’t let the condescending dismissal of not just legitimate criticism but the very right to engage in criticism go. I just can’t. So here we are.
As I see it, there are three main problems at work in the standard media response to the HydraCap controversy: a misdirection of ire, an age-old desire to keep certain people out of the party, and an underestimation of the value of outrage as a critical tool.
As I pointed out last week, though the lengthy list of articles that have rushed to remind everyone comic books are a wait-and-see genre would have you believe the problem lies with inexperienced fans who are all just taking this much too seriously, Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort are the ones who made this mess. In their zeal to stir up a profitable controversy (an undertaking that was highly successful, I might add), they stopped the wait-and-see game directly in its tracks. Rather than allowing fans to indulge in potentially endless speculation about what might actually be going on, Spencer and Brevoort told us all—in no uncertain terms—that Steve Rogers was, and always had been, a member of HYDRA.(1) Consequently, the ordinary rules simply don’t apply in this instance, and its disingenuous to pretend that they do. Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort all but demanded the fans take them at their word; it’s neither appropriate nor accurate to blame said fans for doing just that and getting upset about it.(2)
And yet that is exactly what is happening.
“It’s the modus operandi of online yokels to be outraged, every few minutes, by some trifle or another,” opines William Giraldi. It’s an elegant yet scornful putdown, predicated on a concept that is well-documented in comic book circles—that people who offer up negative criticism do so because they are uneducated and therefore unqualified to speak on the topic—and it’s a viewpoint that has been repeatedly expressed throughout the HydraCap controversy. Since this kind of thinking is calculated to protect the status quo and the old-school fans who cannot bear to see it changed, it’s not all that surprising to see it crop up here. It’s gatekeeping, pure and simple, and gatekeeping in comics is nothing new. But this is gatekeeping of a newer and more insidious sort. Where once they simply told us not to play with their toys; now they tell us we can play (they want our money, after all)—but only so long as we do it quietly and in approved-of ways.
But let’s go back to Giraldi for a minute. “Should you become a writer,” he says, “brace yourself for the analphabetic rantings of the anonymous, the frivolous, the platitudinous and crapulous. Prepare for a cataract of derision and self-righteousness should you dare pen anything perceived as too left or too right, as too pious or too profane, as possibly ageist or racist, sexist or classist, each ‘ist’ word shot like a silver bullet intended first to take you down and then to wake you from your own beastliness.”
Over and above the gatekeeping that is endemic to comic book culture, there’s a tendency—particularly in the social media era where all outrages (no matter the cause) look strangely alike—to dismiss any and every display of anger that comes down the pike as flippant, and that dismissiveness is tied to this concept of the inevitability of hate mail. No matter what you do, someone is going to hate it. Ergo, there’s no point in paying too much attention to the haters. Right?
Not so fast.
In my view, the issue should not be that a group of people have the temerity to have a problem with something, the issue should be who it is that has the problem. The question who? needs to become the go-to concern when these waves of outrage hit. Who exactly is angry with you over what you’ve said or done? Is it a group of people who you (right or wrong) find repugnant? Or is it a group of people who you generally respect (and whose respect you crave)? This question of who, and how you respond to it, constitutes the difference between standing firm for something you believe in and checking your goddamn privilege. Because if you find yourself dismissing the outrage of groups of people who you thought would align themselves with you, then you probably don’t really hold the ideals that you have told yourself you do.
So who’s really upset about HydraCap? On the whole, the majority of people who are truly hurt by this plot twist are Jewish, a traditionally- and still-marginalized community who have a particular stake in the hero who was created by two Jewish men to be a symbol of the fight against antisemitism. Given that the lion’s share of criticism is coming from this marginalized community, what does it say about the ideals of Nick Spencer, Tom Brevoort, and the many other members of the comics media establishment who have dismissed their concerns outright and painted them as an uninformed or inappropriately entitled mob to boot?
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
1) For an excellent breakdown of how Spencer and Brevoort’s handling of the Captain America: Steve Rogers PR directly contributed to fan outrage, check out this excellent post by Tea Berry-Blue. ⇧
2) It should go without saying that I am not, in any way, suggesting that harassment, online abuse, and death threats should go uncensured. Such behavior is never acceptable, but neither is it acceptable to lump legitimate criticism in with such behavior for the purposes of ignoring it. ⇧.