Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on August 20, 2019 @ 8:02 pm CT
What does this pithy anecdote, describing a phenomenon that has come to be known as "the Streisand Effect," have to do with the business of geek culture? Well…
If you’ve paid any attention to comic-based media over the weekend, or opened your ICv2 Daily Insider newsletter Monday morning (see "Spiegelman Withdraws Intro to Marvel Collection"), you probably saw the controversy involving British prestige publisher The Folio Society, Marvel, and Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.
Short version: The Folio Society commissioned Spiegelman to write an introduction for its new collection of Marvel Golden Age comics. Spiegelman complied, offering up a standard historical narrative of the sociological and economic origins of superhero comics, which is inextricably entwined with the experience of first and second generation Jewish creators and publishers during the era when Nazism stalked Europe and anti-Semitism was commonplace in the U.S.
In pointing out the widely-acknowledged role that anti-fascism and social justice sentiments played in the development of characters like Superman and Captain America, Spiegelman drew an obvious parallel to the current political climate in the U.S., using a reference to the "Orange Skull" currently presiding in Washington. This was a relatively innocuous line in an otherwise straightforward essay. Even Spiegelman himself, on further consideration, thought it was kind of glib.
If the story had ended there, the odds that anyone would have noticed or cared about a single remark in a scholarly-sounding intro to a collection of 80 year-old comic book stories published in a fancy expensive edition are pretty close to zero.
But no. Marvel made known to The Folio Society that it objected. Folio broke the news to Spiegelman, who pulled the intro and went public with a long story in The Guardian and substantial coverage in mainstream media, including Newsweek.
"A regretful Folio Society editor told me that Marvel Comics (evidently the co-publisher of the book) is trying to now stay ‘apolitical’ and is not allowing its publications to take a political stance," wrote Spiegelman. "I was asked to alter or remove the sentence that refers to the Red Skull or the intro could not be published. I didn’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travellers, but when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realized that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction."
Seriously, Marvel, can anyone here play this game?
First, your prestige publishing partner hires Art Spiegelman, of all possible people, to write the introduction. Art Spiegelman is not known as an authority on Marvel or Golden Age comics. He’s known for writing an award-winning graphic novel about fascism and its consequences; for publishing a transgressive avant-garde comic series that brought all kinds of controversial politics and aesthetics into comics; and for being the spouse of the woman who organized and published comics’ first political response to the election of Donald Trump, Francoise Mouly’s Resist, which was handed out at anti-Trump rallies around the country in 2017 (see "’Resist! Volume Two’ Returns for Independence Day").
So, um, notwithstanding his self-deprecating remarks about "not being political," what exactly did you think he was going to write? And what exactly did you think his reaction would be toward being censored in this way? Did it occur to anyone that a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist might have a platform that could draw some media attention if they got pissed off about some kind of obvious affront to his integrity?
Even odder is Marvel’s insistence that they are trying to stay "apolitical." Yes, it’s a tough time to be a consumer brand trying to sell to both sides of a polarized culture, but come on. A company whose product deals in stories of good versus evil, whose heritage goes back to a comic depicting its hero slugging Hitler eight months before the outbreak of war, and whose brand of escapism has always been successful by being at least a little bit rooted in the real world, wants its writers to sit on the sidelines during the most turbulent social and political upheavals in this country since the 1960s?
Sorry, no. In this environment, not picking a side is picking a side. And it’s not entirely clear how it’s "apolitical" to try to silence one of comics’ most articulate ambassadors to the world of letters for making a lame "Orange Skull" joke, when it’s pretty clear that story is going to get out. Disney usually handles these things better.
Now it’s well known that Marvel chairman and former CEO Ike Perlmutter is a Trump supporter, and even a member of the informal Mar-a-Lago cabal that has allegedly been directing the Veterans Administration outside of normal channels. In fairness to Ike, it’s a free country; he can support who he likes. And if Trump has any natural constituency at all, it’s a fellow New York billionaire with the same outsider’s grudge toward the Establishment. They probably bond over stories about how the hired help is ripping them off.
But considering Perlmutter does have a major role in one of the most influential and successful pop culture enterprises on the face of the earth, and he is known as nothing if not an exceedingly practical, even flinty, businessman, this might not have been the best hill to die on. The famously reclusive billionaire seems uninterested in being famous even for the admirable things about him. And if he is a political ally of Trump, probably the very last thing he wants to be is a footnote to Barbra Streisand.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
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