The Cost of Free Expression

Something rather interesting happened in comics this month.  And it had very little to do with superheroes.

Ardian Syaf has been drawing comics for at least a decade.  He had an exclusive contract with DC Comics and had recently made the way to Marvel Comics.

At the same time, Marvel has been refocusing their efforts on the X-Men.  Theories abound as to why they were put on the back-burner for a bit.  But that is no longer the case.  Three new team books and several new single-character titles have made their way to the shelves.  One of the first that made its way to the comic shops was Syaf’s title, X-Men Gold.  (Traditionally, X-Men have been split into two teams; the Gold team, and the Blue team.)

What no one at Marvel knew, except Syaf, was that the artist had made a few personal alterations to the artwork.  The t-shirt of Colossus hid a message.  Street signs and ads were used to show inside meanings.

In short, Syaf used his artistic position to express his personal beliefs.  And he got into big trouble for it.

The comic went on sale Wednesday.  By Sunday, word had started to get out and people were in shops trying to snag up copies.  By Monday, Marvel had released a statement.  Tuesday, Syaf stated that his career in comics was over.

This is hardly the first time that things have slipped past an editor.  Their job is to be forgotten.  If everything goes perfectly, you hardly know they exist.  If something goes wrong, they are the ones that get charged with the error.  They are usually the first ones to pair a creative team and one of the last ones to look at the book before it goes to print.

Previously, Marvel has seen a copy of Wolverine go to print with Sabretooth referred to using a racial slur, a bookshelf has mocked the departing of a higher-up, and once a comic was recalled because the wrong quality of paper was used in the cover.  DC also has a history of problems.  Their most recent issue came when someone used the wrong shade to block out a word and the text was visible through the censoring block.

At one point I had a collection of these errors.  I find it amusing that sometimes things slip through.  We all make mistakes, but some are more public.  As a comic shop guy, I have easier access than many to recalled comics.  I made a call, found a copy of X-Men Gold, and had planned to keep it.

Back in the Syaf world, things were not going well.  Marvel came out and effectively stated that he was fired.  The first three issues would have his art, as they had already been completed, but fill-in artists had been announced and a permanent replacement was in the works.  I had assumed that Syaf would find a spot at an independent publisher.  Companies like Image or Fantagraphics tend to encourage strong views and political overtures.  Yet Syaf seems to hint that he will never work in comics again.

What I find odd is that comics is often viewed as a place where unpopular views and opinions are given free reign.  Gender issues, political statements, challenges of authority; these are all common staples of comics.

Amazing Spider-Man went against the Comic Code Authority and printed an issue on drug use that they did not get approved.  Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams spent several issues of Green Lantern/ Green Arrow on delving into political issues of the 70’s.  Preacher and Savage Dragon took delight in ripping religion a new one.  Way back in Captain America, the costumed hero was portrayed, on the cover no less, punching Hitler in the face.  Controversy and comics have always been pals.

So why is this any different?  Syaf expressed a view and was fired for that view.  I do not fully understand the logic.  I can only surmise that his references were done without approval.  He “snuck” in notions without letting others know that it might rubs some the wrong way.

Here is another factor.  All those other editorial issues and errors that happened, happened before Marvel was bought by Disney.  They happened before Marvel was making millions of dollars at the box office.  I am sure that the pressure on the comics is to appeal to a wider, easier to sell, crowd of people.  (Which is why, when Disney became their boss, Wolverine and Nick Fury were no longer allowed to smoke cigars.)

I had a copy of X-Men Gold reserved for me.  I put it back.  I decided not to buy it.  The issue is never going to be worth much.  In the ‘90’s, X-Men #1 sold roughly six million copies.  The comic industry is a fraction of that size now.  But for a new #1 X-Men title, sales of a hundred to two hundred thousand are rather assured.  Future printings will not have Syaf’s personal touches.  Collections will be altered.  The references will only be seen in that first printing.  The printing with “only” a few hundred thousand copies.  Calling it a collectible is a stretch.

Mostly, I like free speech.  I see no harm in expressing oneself, even if I do not agree with everything that Syaf was referencing.  Comics are filled with vigilantes.  Vigilantes break the law quite often.  So is anyone really surprised that a person working full time in that field did something that was not illegal, was not morally reprehensible, but just did something that many regard as unpopular?  I can hardly support creators over the decades and hold out on this one because he has a different past than I.

I stopped trying to “collect” comics a while ago.  I simply like to read them.  I am not interested in speculative buying, eBay-ing, or scoping out that one hit comic.  I just want to read.  The story I read in X-Men Gold was not the greatest, and not the worst.  It was a fairly solid story full of popular characters.  That is the only grounds on which I need to judge it on.  I would rather let others get worked up over politics and printing issues.  That stuff does not make for a good story.  And that’s all I am after.

 

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About anecdotaltales

He's a simple enough fellow. He likes movies, comics, radio shows from the 40's, and books. He likes to write and wishes his cat wouldn't shed on his laptop.
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