#8:The Grift Cycle
You know this phenomenon. You've seen it. You've lived it. Close your eyes and think back to any instance when a person who isn't a straight cis white man appears in Corporate IP Fiction. Whether it's a Star Wars or a Star Trek, a Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones, Marvel or DC, GTA or whatever else.
You know what happens.
You've seen this shit.
A billion Youtube videos flood people's feeds, and on Elon Musk's Twitter/X, a million blue-checks peddle their own brand of hate-fuel. All the while alt-right rags and sites publish their own iterations of the filth, linking it in their tweets to farm further outrage.
It all makes money, of course, that's the point.
And it's this constant, never-ending thing.
This Culture War. This Forever Culture War.
This unending assault by the right that keeps on chugging.
But where does that leave us? Where does that leave people like you and me, dear reader? Let's sit with that for a bit.
Picture the typical scenario that occurs in this phenomenon. Say, Marvel or DC feature a Black or Brown lead. It can be in film/tv or games/comics. Doesn't matter which exactly. The only thing that matters is you see some melanin there--the most clear marker for the bigots that things are all-wrong in their imagined white supremacist paradise.
The hate flows in, and it comes in hard. And it's not about the art or artwork--as some people will go on about how 'these people just don't get Marvel or DC and their inclusive meaning', because it's never been about the art. The right couldn't give a damn about art. Their only view of it is as a tool to be wielded for propaganda--thus the whole campaign. It's an assault not only on marginalized people, but on art itself. Art has no worth or value beyond how it advances their cause in the culture war against the perceived left.
And then the art featuring the people of color actually comes out--whether it be from Zaslav's Warner-Bros Discovery or Iger's Walt Disney Corporation--take your pick, doesn't matter. And it's never gonna be radical. It's never gonna be particularly 'woke' or mega-progressive or super-leftist or whatever. Hell, half the times it won't even be terribly better than 'fine' or forgettable. It will be acceptable at best. Exceptions exist, of course, but you get the point. This is the nature of Corporate IP fiction in this day and age, the nature of this Work-For-Hire enterprise. It's not a place of radical work.
But because of the hate-campaigns, as the culture war rages, many are forced to pretend it is. The very existence of non-white straight cis dudes and featuring them in these IP worlds at all in itself is framed as a radical act. Oh, queer people exist, people who aren't white or male exist? Dang.
We are forced into accepting a bar--a very very terribly low bar wherein the very existence or presence of what is frankly the global majority (sorry white dudes) must be defended as a radical act. And the corporations, of course, fucking love this. They just have to do the bare minimum, y'know? It's easy for them. Hire a marginalized person. Give them no support as all the shit comes at 'em. Then pretend to be mega-progressive and radical for doing it.
Diversity is only real and only counts if it's fed to you from your Corporate IP masters, you see?
It's how Disney can get away with doing the most cynical shit like 'Live Action Remakes of Animated Classics' as discourse around going to see Little Mermaid becomes a whole Culture War thing. The framing almost becomes, 'if you want to show those racist fucks, go watch and support this Disney IP!!'
And like, think about that for a second. What? How ridiculous is that? Wherein these mega-corporations and their IP slop are framed like underdogs of art crying out for our support. But this is the Big Mickey Mouse we're talking about here, y'know? And it doesn't matter if it's Disney or any number of other prime IP giants and players of their arena. The core point remains the same.
The culture war subsumes all and the narrative becomes about the Conditional Diversity of these companies. If you don't go support this thing, we might just pull the plug on all this marginalized people getting gigs thing. So you better!!
And it brings us to this weird position wherein you're expected to 'show up' regardless of quality, even though this IP slop will really be noted and meddled to hell from the white corporate execs and producers if it even has a marginalized person helming it, and if it doesn't, it'll likely fare even worse. You are expected to show up--in ways the culture war rarely expects you to show up for the actual original art made by marginalized artists and featuring them. That doesn't matter as much you see--because culturally we seem to have agreed that only this IP Representation Matters most of all.
And all this does is, to echo Toni Morrison--prove to be a distraction. A distraction from making good, meaningful art beyond just The Culture War. A distraction from engaging with art on its own terms and how it moves or doesn't move us. Art becomes not art, but rather a hollow vehicle for 'clapping back' at the bigots, while handing over money to the Walt Disney Company.
This is The Grift Cycle we are stuck in.
And it's a heartbreaking one, because truly these corporations/IP Farms could not give less of a damn about anyone like me. Or you, for that matter. The only thing they care about is their profit margins. It's how and why Disney can pretend to be The Progressive Champions and then if at any point it doesn't work out, they can pin it all on Nia DaCosta or whoever else they can find to throw to the wolves.
Hell, the fact that Scholastic was happy to screw over all marginalized authors for the sake of a few white supremacists this year should tell you all about corporate mainstream art.
But let us use an example from the medium of comics here to illustrate something-
What do Marvel or DC do when they need a non-white writer to helm something big or crucial for them?
They don't go out and just give the work to any of the numerous possible candidates who have been making comics for eons and can do great work. No, they instead look for someone Who Is A Name. So you either have to be accomplished and lauded enough like, say, a Gene Yang or a Mariko Tamaki in comics. You gotta be undeniable--a true Genius, as it were. Or you have to be lauded outside of it, like Ta-Nehisi Coates or N.K Jemisin, you get the idea. You either have to have a Hugo Award, an Oscar, a Grammy, a MacArthur Genius Grant, an Emmy, or what have you. And if not, you at least gotta be A Star or a Celebrity or a Name they can capitalize on.
That's the bar for people who aren't white, whereas the average white person writing a forgettable indie book can immediately leap to get all the big jobs in comics, while being bandied about and hyped like a rockstar. It's an industry that eternally ignores the Milestone legends while forever propping up the Vertigo icons and Image gang as rockstars. There are rare exceptions, of course, but they exist to prove the rule. They don't quite like to build you up. They just want you ready-made for them to squeeze the juice out of you. That's what you are to them.
In any case, this is how you get Iman Vellani co-writing a Ms.Marvel book instead of them going out and hiring any of the billion women of color in comics who'd KILL for that chance.
It's perhaps the only form wherein we do this--where in your Jemisins and Coates and Vellanis who've never written in the form before are made to learn on the job. People who've never written film scripts or directed a film or ever even been part of the film-making process do not get given major tentpole IP films- y'know? Because Film is a Real Medium, a Real Form and a Serious Art. They would never. Same with Prose. Both hold a level of prestige. But Comics? Comics are the bastard child, the disrespected trash kid, and so you have this phenomenon. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls Christopher Priest telling him:
When I got Captain America, he said, “Listen, man, look, I’m going to be honest with you.” I love this dude. He says, “I’m going to be honest with you. You’re in a bad spot, because comics is an art, and if they were doing you right, they would’ve gave you something a lot more low profile, get it figured out, and then you get Captain America later.” I think I had been all Black Panther for, like, two years. He said, “But that ain’t you.” He said, “That ain’t you. You’re in a tough bind here, to be a Black writer learning this as you’re doing it. I just want you to understand the challenge.” Not in a hating way.
It's this weird thing that's unfair to both the person you're bringing on (given the tough bind you're putting them in) AND the hard-working people in the industry who'll forever be passed on, because they are not A Marketable Name. Because they never get the chance or opportunity to be. Because Corporate IP Publishers do not actually care about investing in, supporting, and nurturing the existing diverse pool of talent. No, they are far more interested in names they can exploit and get good press from. It's all about Optics, this corporate endeavor.
Of course--some people take to the form naturally and kill it, and some take longer but find their feet and do well eventually. And on the whole comics absolutely should have new voices and fresh blood from across all mediums. That's good for any art-form. But not in the current framework that clearly doesn't give a damn about the people that exist and do the work, y'know? That doesn't really invest in them.
As they exist, these corporate IP farms do not meaningfully care about diversity or marginalized people. They pretend they do in order to make more money, to appeal to a wider, more global audience. But the second it's not profitable, you'll get quotes like the ones Bob Iger was spewing out after The Marvels's flop:
“Creators lost sight of what their No. 1 objective needed to be. We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.”
“We have entertained with values and with having a positive impact on the world in many different ways. ‘Black Panther’ is a great example of that. I like being able to entertain if you can infuse it with positive messages and have a good impact on the world. Fantastic. But that should not be the objective. When I came back, what I have really tried to do is to return to our roots.”
“I’ve worked hard since I’ve been back to reminding the creative community who are our partners and our employees that that’s the objective. And I don’t really want to tolerate the opposite.”
You know what 'Message' is code for. You know what that M word means.
These corporations do not care--particularly not Disney, who is still going forward with its Apartheid Hero for its MCU film. None of these entities can even muster up the spirit to acknowledge that a genocide is being perpetuated against Palestinians. The sheer dissonance between the cultural response to Ukraine's suffering vs the absurd silence and active complicity in the case of Palestine throws into sharp-relief how willing these posturing pricks are to be blatantly racist because it's a bunch of brown people in the middle-east this time around. These mega-entities and the industrial hierarchies they run, whether it be in comics, games, film,tv, whatever you pick, are deeply entrenched in nothing but personal benefit and personal profit over anything else. They benefit from the status quo of our collective suffering and pain, while they party about perfectly well. They are not and have never been terribly progressive.
And yet despite all this, the culture war is waged, and will continue to be waged. Despite how deeply conservative and regressive these institutions are, the whole 'woke' accusation and grift runs on. For we all cursed to live in a world of the worst crybullies. People who have only ever constantly won--but for whom it still just isn't enough. And the outrage economy and grift keeps on getting more fuel because we all respond to the sheer absurdity of the claims, which generates engagement, which in turn gets the grifters money. This is all the grifters really care about--making money off being bigoted towards us. And it won't stop until it stops being profitable to be bigoted.
They count on our response to further fan their flame, because when we see this shit we all wanna take a swing at the piece of shit who's spouting this bigoted horseshit. This nonsense that couldn't be far off from the truth. We all feel that impulse to dunk or clown on the losers. And tragically, the shitheels count on that. They're soulless ghouls. They are simply shameless.
This is the reality of the mess. It's always the same ol' white dudes running this shit. It's the reality that even Scott Snyder's recent newsletter was forced to concede to:
If you look at the main books amongst the Big Two—Superman (Joshua Williamson), Batman (Chip Zdarsky), Spider-Man (Zeb Wells and Dan Slott), Avengers (Jed McKay), Hulk (Philip Kennedy Johnson), Wolverine (Ben Percy), Wonder Woman (Tom King), Shazam! and Batman/Superman: World's Finest (Mark Waid). Down the line, the books that continually top the charts because they contain the biggest superheroes and the ones mentioned in that list are generally written by very established writers. They're also written by writers who are, you know, predominantly straight white guys.
Whenever anyone is hired, whether new, established, to do Batman or to do Superman, they're not going to be given a chance to do a massive self-insert in some way, regardless of who they are or where they're from or any of it. It's a criticism that gets leveled a lot of times at the mainstream superhero industry—“it brings in too many new people that try too many new things and they put themselves or their politics in the books.”
And the truth is, if you look at these books, that's not the case. Like, it's actually an extremely conservative industry. The people on the books across the board, when it comes to the biggest superheroes, are not new people, are not people who are being given a chance to speak to things that are not traditionally in the books in some ways.
It's a reality that I figure is hard for Snyder to admit, as someone who teaches Comics Writing, specifically how to write for such IP work. The talent pool refresh just has not happened meaningfully. It's just the same ol' White People Musical Chairs.
Take a look at the Eisner Awards and it's even more evident as how white this industry is and who it rewards repeatedly. This landscape is not terribly 'woke'.
Mark Waid in 2023 is A DC Architect. He's doing like 3-4 books or what have you and is Central. He's the vision leading things forward. Is that progress? Is that the future? Or is it rather a complete inability to imagine a future beyond the guys who were doing it 20-30 years ago?
Think of how many women of color meaningfully get serious shots. Who get the real big books or runs or jobs just like all their white peers. You'll know how dire things are.
No, instead we get a legion of well-meaning white people doing 'diversity', that often feels like this comic by Megan Nicole Dong:
And often these writers will write things that frankly can only be dubbed Pamphlet Comics.
Wondering what I mean? Here:
Imagine this pamphlet but as an actual in-story dramatic scene or moment or dialogue. And it's this very basic, obvious thing delivered in a tiring caption from this well-meaning progressive writer. But it doesn't make for good art. It's boring. It's shallow posturing without depth. It's got no meat to it. I do not mean the nonsense of 'virtue signaling' that the right bandies about. I mean the difference between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons making Watchmen deeply, explicitly political, imbuing their expression into every facet and aspect of the story and exploring it in-depth, thoroughly, as opposed to throwing out buzzwords or doing comics that feel like Twitter Threads.
If you're making a work of art--it's worth asking yourself why is this a work of art in the form I've chosen to make it in? Why isn't it just a blog or an essay or a tweet or a thread? Why art and in this form of art? You have to justify it--justify it in the work itself.
20th Century Men is one of the best comics of the past few years and it's a deeply, deeply political text about Western Imperialism. Set in an alternate history 20th century, it's about a conflict that wages in Afghanistan between the Americans and the Soviets. It's searing, specific, and rooted in research that flows with a naturalism and strikes like thunder. It's a comic about perspective, history, power, and how ideas morph into systems that then devour people and enslave them. It's about love and loss and a dream of freedom in the face of oppression. Every facet of it is designed to purely be a comic, a way to express something that could be expressed no other way, in no other form. And its exploration of its ideas and political realities feels so comprehensive, layered, and satisfying that by the end it's impossible not to be moved and shattered. That, to me, is art. Not gesturing. But commitment. Absolute effort. Not just reducing a cause or a belief to more easy consumption slogans--but sitting with the discomfort and the mess of our world to let us reflect on our humanity. Art, not content.
Art requires artistry. Pamphlets don't really--they only prioritize The Messaging. They don't require the same kind of effort.
And that's the depressing thing--with these shallow nonsense comics, we reduce art to a sort of shitty progressive equivalent of Culture War vehicles, too.
And of course, when the rightwing shitheads and grifters screech and scream about it, people double down and insist this is good work, because it says Racism is Bad, Homophobia Sucks etc. It's good because the rightwing manchildren are mad about it. We should accept this bar--because we're 'owning' these losers, yeah?
That's what it often feels like.
And in the end--the soulless corporations profit and win, the grifters who perpetuate their rage-bait continue to mine money, and the mediocre white establishment gets to chug on while doing the absolute bare minimum.
'They make us eat crumbs and then tell us to call it cuisine' is what comes to mind.
The Rightwing Grift and The Corporate Grift are sympatico here. They feed each other and both benefit. They're symbiotic, holding us in stasis of almost-somethings and barely-anythings, expecting us to cheer and clap and be content and accept the station they provide us. They all win just fine. So do their boring workmen who can make money off our identities, reducing us to consumable brands and constructs.
They don't want you--they want your name, your fame, your construct, your aesthetic. It's why they're all so fucking obsessed with A.I.
You know who loses? You and me. All of us who are stuck in this shit show and care about art and want good art. Art that speaks to marginalization, to queer identity, the many intersections of our lives and identities. Art that isn't centered in whiteness or white povs. And art that is also fucking good. Art that has craft--that has execution, not just Content. Because art isn't just a Content Delivery Mechanism like A.I bros want you to think.
It's a person or a group of people crafting something.
Art is the language by which we express that which is otherwise inexpressible. It is an empathy engine of humanity, wielding profound power.
It's why it's never been more important to support and back and read/play/watch non-Corporate IP art, to support independent work and artists. To try and center it and challenge the supposed centrality of this IP fare and its 'canon', as many marginalized artists continue to 'make their own' rather than rely on the patronage or machinery of these systems.
But still, when we do talk about these big mainstream IP works, I wish the conversation wasn't so often what it seems to morph into.
I wish we could talk about art in all its nuances, in all its messes, what we feel is good, what we feel is not, what could be better, without the shadow of this crappy Culture War. I love talking about art and the craft of it. But we don't get that so much these days, do we? Instead we get this crap. This deeply tiresome crap. Everything is culture war. Now add fandom/standom to this poisonous mix, and it's all gone to shit. It sucks the fun out of so many things.
I wish it wasn't so.
I wish we weren't all caught in this endless grift cycle. This ouroboros that eats away at us all.
I wish things were better.