The Artist as Criminal: The Frank Cho Spider Gwen Controversy

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This is a cross post from the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE website:

You see, this last week the internet exploded.

Yeah, I know, the internet is exploding all the time. The most recent big explosion has been all about the Hugo Awards and the Sad Puppies. That explosion has caused lots of aftershocks that are still going on. But I’m not talking about that internet volcano.

Frank Cho is a brilliantly talented comic book artist. As well as drawing and writing his own comic strip, Liberty Meadows for five years in National Syndication and still today under his own banner, Cho has worked extensively for Marvel Comics and Dynamite comics. Cho is noted for his figure drawing, precise lines, and depiction of well-endowed women.

Cho maintains his own website, Apes and Babes where his award winning Liberty Meadows strip can be seen and where he posts images of works-in-progress as well as quick sketeches, many of them humorous.

It was one of these sketches that recently caused the internet to blow up.

Let’s back up a bit. In 2014 Marvel Comics announced that they would be releasing issues of certain titles with variant covers drawn by Italian artist Milo Manara. Manara is a world renowned artist who has created work for Marvel before as well as other comics in America. Manara also produces comics, mostly in Europe, that are highly erotic and, in some cases pornographic. That kind of work raises few eyebrows in Europe, but in America it is not tolerated.

Manara produced a variant cover for Marvel’s Spider-Woman #1.

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And the reaction was… intense. So intense, in fact, that Marvel ended up pulling Manara’s cover and using another artist.

But the damage was done. The image flew around the internet followed by angry tirades and accusations of sexism.

So, last week Frank Cho, in his off-time, created a cheeky drawing based on Manara’s cover. He depicted a character called Spider-Gwen, an alternate universe variant of Spider-Man that has become popular with younger readers. Cho did a quick sketch and posted it to his own website.

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Cue the internet explosion. This time it was led by Robbi Rodriguez, the lead artist on the Spider-Gwen title. On his twitter feed Rodriguez uttered a vague threat against Cho for besmirching the virtue of his character. “Your (sic) drawing dirty pictures of one of my kids. Be lucky your (sic) never around me.” The twitter post implied physical violence but Rodriguez later stepped back from that in a longer post on his Facebook, saying he would only have given Cho an earful with a lot of cursing and then proceeded to give Cho and the world said earful in a profanity laden rant. In his rant he states that there is a place for drawing like that (on an artist’s own website, perhaps?) and that it isn’t about censorship but then exhorts Cho to stop doing it and change with the times. The internet then proceeded to crucify Cho for daring to sexualize a comic book character.

Although apparently posting art of that sort is okay for Rodriguez when he does it on his own website:

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The irony of this (and there is so much irony to go around) is that many of the same voices decrying Cho’s art were likely the same people who plastered their Facebook pages with “Je Suis Charlie” in sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo artists who were massacred by extremists.

And that is where the irony lies in it for me. Free speech is a right that must be defended and defended vigorously. But it is not always an easy thing to do. When you defend free speech some of that speech is going to come from opinions and world views that are different from your own. Sometimes that speech may seem to you to be verging on hateful. Nevertheless, if you are committed to free speech than you must be committed. You can’t cherry pick what free speech you champion and censor what you don’t like. If you do that then you are NOT championing free speech.

Free speech means that there will be lots of ranting and raving. Cho is free to express himself. Rodriguez is free to respond. I defend his right to do so. But then I am free to take Rodriguez to task for his reaction, his inconsistency, and his vague threats.

As for Frank Cho, his response was this:

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and he wrote: “To be honest, I was amused and surprised by the uproar since it was, in my opinion, over nothing. It’s essentially a small group of angry and humorless people ranting against my DRAWING of a pretty woman. It’s utter nonsense. This world would be a better and a happier place if some people just grow a sense of humor and relax”

As the infamous underground artist Robert Crumb observed years ago: “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”.

Addendum: The internet changes fast. After I had marked this post as “Ready to Go” Frank posted another drawing. Clearly the man is incorrigible. The flames of burning internet have not made him lose his sense of humor.

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He’s having fun with the outrage. Don’t stop, Frank!

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Civil Hands Unclean

I have tried to write this post several times since the 2015 Hugo Award nominees were announced and the fan community lost their collective minds over it. In order to have something relevant to add I have tried to figure out how this situation has come about and in doing so, in reading the words of participants from both sides, in moving from anger and despair to shaking my head in bemusement, I have come to the only conclusion that makes sense to me.

If you don’t know what is going on I will refer you to Matthew M. Foster‘s recent blog post where he outlines the situation far more eloquently than I ever could. You can read part one of his overview here.

Honestly, when politics of any kind enters any organization it always leads to this sort of situation. When an organization (or a country for that matter) becomes so polarized the resultant tug-of-war will inevitably bring out anger, outrage, resentment, name calling and the kind of disruption that can lead to a lifetime’s worth of bitterness and disappointment.

Other than being a reader of science fiction and fantasy since I learned how to read, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am an author, but I am not now nor am I ever likely to be eligible for a Hugo Award. I am not involved in the fan community. I am not a member of any official fan organization. I am the equivalent of an armchair quarterback shouting epithets at the players during the game. Take my words with a grain or two of salt.

Pundits from both sides have been guilty of abominable behavior, from name-calling to spite filled threats of voting “no award” (the equivalent of picking up your ball and going home). Some have claimed nobility by refusing nominations but have done so in such a demonstrable fashion as to put the lie to those claims. Civil discussions on Facebook quickly degrade to knee-jerk reactionism from both sides and the inevitable name-calling starts to happen. I made a simple, unbiased statement of fact in one forum and was roundly accused of “drinking the Kool-aid”.

Both sides claim to care only about the literature and not the politics but the politics seem to keep creeping back in. Perhaps it is merely a reflection of the larger schism that exists in America at the moment. Perhaps a civil consensus will be reached  at some point. As someone who sits on the sidelines (and across the border from the whole affair, figuratively and literally) I do not see an end anytime soon.

I have loved science fiction and science fiction fandom all my life. This will not change that. It has changed my opinion about people whom I have admired for a long time (some for the better, mostly for the worst) and it has introduced me to people of whom I formerly knew nothing. I hope that in the end good will come out of this contretemps. When the dust has settled I hope that tomorrow we will have a Hugo Award that is better for all the shouting that is being done today.

Until then I am saddened and dismayed at the whole thing. A plague on both your houses.