As someone who reads a lot of books & comics, who watches television & movies, who listens to music, from time to time the question arises: can you appreciate a work of art purely on its own merits, even when you do not like the artist who created it? If you know that person is unpleasant, or sexist, or racist, or holds an extreme political view that is anathema to your sensibilities, are you still able to enjoy the products of his or her creativity?
That question has once again reared its head for me in the last couple of days. It concerned independent comic book creator MariNaomi, author of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22. I learned that MariNaomi, while she had been participating on a panel discussion on LGBTQ issues at a comic book convention, had been, in her words, “sexually harassed” by a fellow panelist. It very soon was revealed that mainstream comic book writer Scott Lobdell was the individual who had harassed her. I do not want to get into the unpleasant details of what MariNaomi experienced, or discuss Lobdell’s apology, but you can read both of them for yourselves via these links. I’ll still be here when you get back:
Are we all caught up now? Good.
When I was in high school and college in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of Scott Lobdell’s writing on books such as Excalibur, Marvel Comics Presents, and Uncanny X-Men. I found his stories to be both extremely funny and emotionally moving & poignant. Aside from a couple of issues here and there, I have not read his more recent work on DC’s New 52, simply because I’m generally dissatisfied with the tone of that whole line, and the top-down creative style where editorial micro-manages their writers, leading to a lot of lackluster material. I’d heard people complaining that within the pages of Red Hood and the Outlaws, Lobdell had turned Starfire into a nymphomaniac or something like that, but I just shrugged and figured it was something that his editors had directed him to do. It didn’t really matter to me, since I wasn’t reading that book.
Now, though, having found out about Lobdell’s behavior at that comic convention, the manner in which he treated MariNaomi, suddenly I’m wondering to myself if I can now go back and re-read his Marvel work from a couple of decades ago and still enjoy it. In the pages of Uncanny X-Men, he often wrote about how mutants were outsiders or outcasts, very effectively continuing the theme of mutants as metaphors for minorities such as Jews or blacks or homosexuals. Lobdell would script powerful scenes where characters such as Charles Xavier would encourage tolerance & acceptance towards people of all backgrounds. Is all that just going to seem hollow and hypocritical now?
I realize that Lobdell is only human. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe he’s a practical joker with poor judgment who acts like this around everyone. Should he be crucified for behavior? Yet at the same time, we definitely cannot just casually brush aside all of the mental and emotional anguish MariNaomi obviously experienced because of his behavior.
So, getting back to my question, can I still, personally, read Lobdell’s work and enjoy it? Thinking it over, there are numerous examples of creative types who had all manner of glaring flaws & defects, who behaved badly but who were brilliant writers or artists or musicians or actors. Is anyone familiar with Ty Cobb? He was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. He was also, according to numerous sources, an extremely nasty individual who treated other people like crap and who would get into violent arguments with anyone & everyone at the drop of a hat, on or off the baseball field. His teammates often hated his guts, but they wanted him up at bat because they knew he could help lead them to victory.
H.P. Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, and Robert E. Howard was probably something of a racist. I still very much enjoy the fiction of both men, although if either of them were still alive, I doubt I would want to be in the same room with them. Looking at a much more recent example, after September 11th Frank Miller seems to have gone off the rails, turning into an ultra right wing reactionary who demonizes Liberals and the Occupy Wall Street protestors as traitors. Am I still able to enjoy his work? Yes… sometimes. I still think that Batman: Year One is amazing. But I am totally repulsed by the extreme xenophobia and the idolization of fascism & violence on display in both 300 and Holy Terror.
So, yes, sometimes I can enjoy the works of controversial, offensive figures, as long as their ideologies do not permeate their creations. But on other occasions, their upsetting behavior has become so associated for me with them that I find it distasteful to look at their works, even if their art has nothing to do with their beliefs.
What I really need to do is give this some time, and see how I feel about Lobdell’s writing a few months from now. Maybe distance will give me a better perspective. But right now, in the present, I really do not want to look at anything he’s worked on.
There is one last thing. I see that the usual Internet trolls have, predictably, come out of the woodwork, either to defend Scott Lobdell, or to attack MariNaomi, arguing that she is “oversensitive” or “cannot take a joke” or whatever. To those people, I have this to say: Imagine that was your wife or girlfriend or daughter or mother or sister who had been subjected to Lobdell’s poor, tasteless attempts at humor. Would you have found his behavior towards your loved one to be acceptable? Would you tell your significant other that they needed to “get a sense of humor” about what happened? For your sake, I hope not.
As for myself, I’m not perfect. God knows I’ve made mistakes. When I was in my teens and twenties on a few occasions I said or did things that were sexist. And there was this one kid in Junior High who was always being an asshole & treating me like crap, someone who I’d heard rumors that he was gay. So one day I just got so pissed off at him that I shouted a homophobic slur at him. And even to this day, from time to time I will put my foot in my mouth and accidentally offend people without meaning to because sometimes I’m still socially awkward. Looking back on all those incidents, I realize what I did was wrong, and if I saw any of those people today I would absolutely apologize for my behavior.
I guess we can all take this incident as a lesson that we should be careful about what we say to others. Even when we mean no harm, if we choose our words poorly we can unintentionally end up really hurting other people.