James Robinson Responds To Transgender Controversy Over Airboy

A week-and-a-bit ago, Justice League 3001 #1 by JM DeMatteis, Keith Giffen and Howard Porter, published by DC Comics, featured the following exchange between a cloned Superman and a cloned Batman in the future. Like they do. They both have very different personalities to the originals. And Superman is, to be frank, a thoughtless boorish moron.

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It caused some controversy and discussion, the point raised that even having a moron say such things can give them credence.

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This past week saw the publication of Airboy #2 by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle, from Image Comics. Which features similar discussions, for a longer period without even the contradiction given by Future Clone Batman. A superheroic figure from a World War II parallel fictitious dimension living in an equally fictitious slimy, dirty reality, with comic book creators Robinson and Hinkle portraying themselves as adulterous, promiscuous, drug taking degenerates.

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Who are quite happy to knock around the word "trannies", treat women like scum and generally live worthless lives.

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Much of what they are discussing, also happened on panel but there's only so much I can get away with reproducing on Bleeding Cool. But it was the language and the attitude rather than the visuals that caused most concern.

a6So there was considerable disquiet expressed online in a number of articles, that seemed to mirror the issues with the Justice League issue. It's just that Airboy continued in the same vein for longer, didn't have any kind of opposing or identified voice (aside from the reader) and was, frankly more graphic in its offense.

There was also an issue that in Justice League, the characters of a cloned idiotic Superman was saying these things. In Airboy it as literally the creators themselves. And while these are caricatures of the authors, it did blur that line between fiction and reality, itself a theme of the comic book that sees the chracter the pair are considering telling stories about appear to them in a very real way, straight out of nineteen forties pulp fiction, with the attitudes to match.

James Robinson, realising this was an issue, didn't take to Twitter to address the controversy as JM DeMatteis did. Instead he talked to the media organisation and pressure group GLAAD to work through the issues being addressed, and released this statement.

I thought long and hard before writing this response, with the time it's taken me to do so I fear having been misinterpreted as indifference on my part to the ire this sequence has caused for some.  Often public figures just issue a quick apology, a snippet of contrition, in the hope that the light of scorn will then shine away from them.  But those apologies often feel inauthentic or meaningless, and I didn't want to do that.

It was with much regret that I learned how I had angered and offended members of the transgender community with a sequence I wrote in the second issue of the Airboy mini-series I am currently doing.  As anyone who has read the first issue will know, this series is a semi-autobiographical piece of meta-fiction that shows me at a self-destructive and unhappy time in my life before I sobered up and entered a better place in both my work and the world as a whole.  To illustrate this, I portray myself and my artist Greg Hinkle as two blithe idiots pin-balling through a succession of stupid and self-destructive actions, doing and saying stupid and thoughtless things.  I intentionally portray myself in the worst light possible and as the worst kind of person.

Stepping outside of myself and the work, I can see how, while my intention when writing the scene was never to defame or harm the trans community, I did indeed fuck up and for that I sincerely apologize.

In my intention to create an ugly version of me and my world, I have inadvertently hurt and demeaned a community that the real non-fictionalized version of myself truly respects and admires.

It's a sad and terrible fact that the transgender community is one that is often misunderstood and mocked.  And that honestly, truly, breaks my heart.  It is a beautiful community full of shining souls, which in a different work on a different day I would proudly show in all its variety and wonder.  Honestly, that is the truth.  Anyone who actually knows me, knows my feelings on such matters, and anyone who doesn't will just have to take my word for it.

And yet here I am, in my eagerness to create a scenario that mocks my own moral worthlessness, I do no better than the worst kind of person, blindly marking the transgender community with the same sullying brush I chose to paint myself — instead of giving it the dignity and respect it deserves and is so very often denied.

This is a work of deliberately ugly satirical fiction.  One part of me believes a creator has the right to tell the story he feels the need to tell.  There's a part of me that feels that it's acceptable for a work of fiction to hurt or offend.  That at the very least the work elicits feelings.

Then there's the other part of me — the major part, I might add — that is truly saddened that the transgender community, comprising men and women who carry the burden of an ever-hostile society, should have me adding to their load.

There is minor solace — very minor — in the fact that I note the discourse I'm seeing on-line about this, is at least allowing an exchange of views that I think is open, healthy and ultimately a good thing. I hope comic book fans and creators will think more critically about the way trans characters are portrayed.

I consider myself an ally to the LGBT community and I promise to work harder in the future to ensure that any trans stories or characters in my work are portrayed in an thoughtful and accepting way.

I know this response won't satisfy everyone, but it comes from the heart.  I love all people.  I wanted this statement to convey my complete feelings on the matter.

It has become more common, since the success of Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, for celebrities to appear as ridiculous versions of themselves, saying and doing the most offensive things. In some ways it acts as a shield, to show themselves as good sports and self deprecatory but also to paint this ridiculous version of themselves as clearly something that is very far from the truth. No one actually thinks that Patrick Stewart spends his time writing screenplays in which women's clothes keep falling off "but it's too late, I've seen everything". Of course if he did, going on Extras and saying he did would be the perfect cover.

But in a world where irony is fast becoming the default setting, for some it becomes too easy to skip over what someone might see as the surface response. And for people to get away with jokes and attitudes by shrouding them in the excuse "I didn't mean it, I was being ironic", something I know I have fallen foul of as well.

British media seems to have a longer history of creating popular monsters, Alan Partridge, Al Murray The Pub Landlord, Alf Garnett and the like. People who say the most atrocious things, but the joke is you are not meant to agree with them, you are entertaining by their ludicrous leaps of logic that lets them continue to believe what they believe.

Except that a percentage of the audience are going to simply agree with the monsters. And they may find self justification in that. And then use those arguments to attack others themselves. It was Alan Partridge who popularised the "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" phrase in the UK. And few seemed to care that by quoting him, they defeated their own argument.

I don't think there is an easy answer to this. I want Image Comics to publish the work of their creators unabated, even if it descends into the worst racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic bile – which I didn't believe this was. But then that's from the perspective as a white British overprivileged straight male. I'm equally welcome to such work being critically dissected, and social media can be a great place for this to occur. But it can also be a witch trial.

It's a hard line to tread. No one wants a world in which creators are unable to express their work artistically wherever it may lead, and these kind of discussions can have a chilling effect. But equally there are some agreed limits, even at places like Image Comics which publish a number of titles a few short years ago would have been relegated to the Previews Adult Catalog and would have had retailers in uproar. The line regarding what is acceptable, what is not, and how society reacts to those who step over it is changing, and every viewer has a different line in mind.

But right now we are very far from a consensus.

Aside from the observation that there's probably no danger of James Robinson writing Justice League 3001 any time soon.


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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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