2019 has just barely put on its socks and we already have our first whiff a controversy in the comics-corner of the world. To wit: the first issue of the new Image series Gunning for Hits, written by first-time creator Jeff Rougvie (apparently a rather noted fellow in the production side of music business, having worked with the likes of David Bowie and Elvis Costello) and drawn by the steady hand of Moritat (he has lots of credits, but I’m very partial to his work on Elephantmen) has drawn some considerable flack online for a rather skeevy looking image depicting a greedy lawyer. A greedy lawyer with a long nose named “Irwin J. Shyster.”
Now, the greedy lawyer and the long nose are notorious Jewish stereotypes; the letter “J” as middle initial is likewise less than encouraging. I’ve heard some people mention the word “shyster” being associated with antisemitism as well, though that appears to be a case of false etymology. It seems more likely that this is a generic negative word that often came to use against Jews due to its connotation with unscrupulous behavior. It is still a rather bad choice in the context, but even if we discount it, the whole thing looks bad, smells bad, and seems bad.
Without having seen the script, I cannot tell who exactly is responsible to the design choice – did the writer ask for a long nose or did the artist make it on the spot? I’d like to think that none of the creators involved (there is also Casey Silver, who does the colors and lettering) are antisemitic and this is a case of terrible and lazy choices rather than object hate. Whatever the case, “intention” is not a magic shield; if you present a racist caricature, well… you present a racist caricature. Things can work in context; the sexualized cover for The Wicked + The Divine #13 comes to mind. It was used as part of the issue’s exploration of how women are often denigrated online simply for existing. But in the case of Shyster in Gunning for Hits, the context adds nothing positive. Shyster is part of a long lecture the main character (a music industry professional hunting for new bands) gives to the reader about the nature of industry.
Gunning’s main character is presented as kind of a prick, in the long established tradition of 21st-century-charming-bastards-that-you-love-to-hate. He is laying down the law for the reader; his POV is our POV. This isn’t a racist guy we are meant to reject, this is someone we are meant to cheer for.
And to be honest, the person that I believe to be most responsible for this situation is not the writer or the artist or the colorist (though they all should’ve probably noticed this stuff). No the problem lies with the credit that is not there: an editor. Image comics are noted for their lack of editors; unless the creative team chooses to hire one, a title is made solely by its creators with little to no outside interference. David Brothers, who worked as a branding manager for Image for four years (including producing the Image+ magazine), noted once in a tweet (that I can’t manage to find now) how small Image’s operation is. For one of the bigger players in the American comics market, there seems to be no one higher up making decisions. It’s almost more like a printing/hype operation than an actual company, which is probably great if you manage a hit through them; you keep more of the profit than any other major company, and they can give you a good push in their relative position in Previews and amongst the comics-media. But it’s not so good in terms of actually managing the brand.
There’s a pinned tweet on the Image Twitter account: “Just a reminder: Creators are not employees of Image. They are independent and speak for themselves.”
This is true and also bullshit. It’s true because the creators don’t work for Image, they cannot be fired in the traditional sense. But it’s also a bullshit cop-out, because Image chooses who to publish. Someone at Image made a choice to re-publish a collection of comics by the homophobe Doug TenNapel. (The new Creature Tech edition was released this very month.)
Doug TenNapel won’t write a gay hero because of “write what you know” – but he would write a worm hero, which I guess says all you need to know about him.
Anyway, Gunning for Hits #1 isn’t even a case of someone making noise in an outside context – this is a series published by Image Comics; their name is on that caricature. And I’m guessing (hoping) that is really a case of no one noticing. Obviously, if the writer of the series decided to put that caricature on the cover with name “Irwin J. Shyster” in extra-large font, someone would probably notice and stop the presses. But nobody noticed it buried in the pages, because nobody edits.
This is not the first time Image has published stuff that could be charitably called “in bad taste” and uncharitably called “hateful.” United States of Hysteria is not as forgotten as some would probably prefer it to be. And once again this is a case of lack of responsibility, lack of effort. This is one of the biggest forces in the market (granted a rather small market) – the publishers of Saga, The Walking Dead, Deadly Class. The comics they publish become movies and TV shows, and they win awards. You just can’t have all that power and pretend you don’t have any responsibility.
The question involved is bigger than this particular situation. It matters little to me how Image deals with this thing right now (whether they ask the creators to remake that page, or if they refuse to publish any further issues, or if the people involved step forward and apologize profusely). What really matters is if they learn something, if they understand the problems with their approach to publication. Unfortunately, recent cases indicate that little has been learned. This stuff keeps happening.
Image might not speak for their creators, but slapping that Image “i” on offensive material taints all other products that wear it, on top of degrading the relationship with readers.