A little background…

This started as a comment on the Benjamin Marra interview over at The TCJ Website, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t get buried under the contract negotiations with Dave Sim. The danger of posting it here is that it’s going to get mixed in with the whole “Hate Week” thing, and I don’t want people reading this as inspired by hate. (That said, by the end you’ll see some self-hate in action, so if you’re here for hate you can just skip to the last paragraph or two.)

In actuality, two decidedly non-hateful things inspired the comment. The first was an aside made by Joe McCulloch some time ago, I think during one of his “This Week’s Comics” features over at TCJ. Bascially, he wondered why there wasn’t much controversy over Marra’s work given the content. The other inspiration was Darryl Ayo’s thoughtful post about Marra on his blog. Ayo’s piece moved me to read the interview, which in turn led me to write this post.

If I have these story ideas, I can’t censor myself or else I won’t do them, because I won’t think that it serves the artwork in the end if I try to water it down based on this illusion of how I think people will react. That’s not a viable gauge to base decisions on, because it’s not real. It’s only real after.

Benjamin Marra, from the tcj.com interview

Here’s the thing, when a person writes and draws a comic they have to make choices. They make choices about what to put into a panel and what to leave out. They make choices about how to present information within a panel. Marra understands this. At one point he says that a profile-shot at eye level is a good way to convey action. He’s basing this assertion on the imagined reaction of an audience. Yet later he says that anticipating reaction is not a “viable gauge” for making decisions about whether or not what goes in might come across as racist. Contradictions like these suggest intellectual laziness, and this laziness is particularly problematic when the goal is satire. It is problematic because the difference between effective satire and just playing stereotypes for shits and giggles largely comes down to careful consideration and execution. Based on this interview, Marra is committed to the execution but not to the consideration. However, he also realizes that for his work to come off as anything other than racist, it needs to come off as satirical:

“Gangsta Rap Posse is underground comics, it’s not on a lot of people’s radar, but the things is, I’ve never gotten anything but a positive reaction to it. I’m sure if it was distributed to a much wider audience it would get a really negative response, if people took it seriously — not as satire, not as a comment on myself as a white suburban artist making a comment on black urban culture from a specific time period. I think people might react negatively.

Note that Marra explicitly calls Gangsta Rap Posse a work of satire. It is, by his account, a self-referential commentary on commentary. This might very well be Marra’s intention, but it doesn’t really show up in the work itself.  This is because Marra’s stated goal of making comics that read as though they were created by someone who didn’t know what he was doing is at odds with the meta-commentary he’s after. Put another way, if you strive to make your work look earnest, then you can’t expect people to see it as self-reflexive commentary.

And Marra seems to recognize this tension, hence his over-the-top author photos designed to convey a “Hey, I’m only sort of serious about all this” attitude. However, even he seems to think that this sort of paratextual gesture might fall short of the goal. Note that in the same quote he imagines that given wider distribution Gangsta Rap Posse would get more negative responses. I think he’s right about this, and I think that this should be a red flag for us.

What Marra is saying is that we’ve failed as readers of and writers about comics. We’ve completely passed on the opportunity to discuss his comics from the perspective of race, gender, or any other political or ethical lens. Instead, we’ve decided to discuss them from the perspective of other comics. We’ve skipped over the tough questions about representation to play facile games of spot the influence. As a result, we’re missing out on some good conversation, something that gets beyond the usual “you’re so great, you’re so cool” stuff that gets passed off on us as a long form interview. Aren’t we bored of that by now?  That we don’t seem to be bored suggests a certain intellectual laziness on our part. Ah, self hate, the purest hate there is.
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