On Grayson, fandom, problematic media, and the drive to “defend” popular male characters

Content notes: This post mentions and/or links to descriptions of sexual assault and harassment as well as racism.


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If you were to listen to a certain group of Dick Grayson fans on the internet, you’d probably come to the conclusion that comic book fans are frighteningly intense and that the Grayson series (written by Tom King and Tim Seeley with pencils by Mikel Janin and colors by Jeromy Cox) is rife with orgies and plagued with issues of consent on every single page as Dick is forcibly separated from his friends and family to fight in the war against SPYRAL.

If you were to listen to that weirdly vocal group of fans, you’d also be just as wrong as they are.

A fun comic that deconstructs several tropes that revolve around secret agents, superheroes, and the Batman mythology, Grayson might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s not actually a super problematic comic.

The premise of the book is that in the wake of 2014’s Forever Evil bombshell and Dick Grayson’s “death”, Dick consents to go undercover in order to get the scoop on a mysterious organization called SPYRAL. Throughout the course of the series, we see Dick dealing with things like differences in mortality, a lack of privacy, and the impermanence of identity through the lens of a superhero-turned-spy comic. At the same time, we witness his developing interactions with a cast of both familiar and new characters.

Grayson is a clever book and genuinely funny with art that makes everyone look super attractive and the characterization for many of the characters in the book is on point. (Seriously, I kinda think that this is the best Dick Grayson’s been portrayed in years!)

And yet there are a small and incredibly vocal group of people that seem to view Grayson as a few steps away from being the worst thing in comics today.

Despite the fact that thousands of people have been reading and enjoying Grayson since 2014, there are people who have spent over a year campaigning against it! With every new issue that comes out, these anti-fans (some of whom have created blogs that revolve entirely around “defending”  Dick Grayson from his canon) write essays and tweet angrily about things in the issue that they view as problematic.

Anyone that disagrees with their “proof” or enjoys the comic is also problematic and yes, that includes the creators on the comic.

One recent debacle involves several of these anti-fans dogpiling on writer Tim Seeley following the release of Grayson #13 in October. After a preview for the issue was revealed with Dick Grayson naked and being examined by the series’ faintly perverted answer to James Bond’s Q, Frau Netz, these anti-fans went off on tangents accusing Seeley of everything from triggering them to ignoring the needs/making light of fans who are triggered by sexual assault and harassment.

The only problem with their accusations?

Grayson has yet to have any incidents of sexual assault and the content in the series is largely subjective as far as harassment goes. They were tweeting angry (and frankly, abusive) content at Seeley over something that didn’t exist in the actual canon and trying to force him to enter a discourse over it while he was out in his free time. It was a dark and unbelievably embarrassing moment in comic fandom and I honestly don’t see where Grayson warrants this much outright anger.

Maybe you don’t think it’s a good comic.

Maybe you think it’s problematic.

Maybe it is.

But certain things are subjective and even the most well-meaning opinions can be wrong.

And of course, the way that you frame an argument and try to utilize call out culture can be wrong as well. I’m definitely not here for respectability politics or victim blaming, but I recognize that even when it’s wrong, people definitely react in certain ways to how specific arguments are framed.

This post is going to look at (and deconstruct) some of the arguments used by these anti-fans of the Grayson series and talk a bit about why those arguments aren’t exactly holding water.


1. Dick Grayson is (sexually) objectified by the canon

Helena and Dick

I think everyone who’s even mentioned liking Grayson has had to deal with the anti-fans and the comments that the series objectifies Dick endlessly.

I disagree. I seriously disagree.

Now I’m actually not usually the kind of person to trot out dictionary definitions at a moment’s notice, but let’s look at what we have for “objectification” from this definition gleaned from Stanford University:

Objectification is a notion central to feminist theory. It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. In this entry, the focus is primarily on sexual objectification, objectification occurring in the sexual realm.

This definition also points out the necessary features that are involved in someone being objectified. Let’s look at the some of the features and how they largely do not apply to Dick Grayson’s portrayal in Grayson.

First, we have instrumentality which is defined as treating a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes. This doesn’t apply to Dick. (Like not even vaguely because Dick is treated as an employee or partner in the series. The few character that think to use him for their own gains or satisfaction wind up regretting it.)

Inertness, which comes next, looks at the person in question lacking agency. While a common complaint (to be addressed later on in the piece), Dick doesn’t actually lack agency in this book and he’s active in the plot. He’s also a male character leading up his own solo series and while he’s not always in control of the events in his life, he’s allowed to make his own decisions in the narrative.

Fungibility is where a person could be replaced with another object and the plot would run smoothly.

Remember Kelly Sue DeConnick’s sexy lamp test?

At no point in Grayson can he be replaced with a sexy lamp. Neither can most of the women in the series. (The one instance where you think that a woman is not only introduced to be sexy and trigger Dick’s manpain at her death later turns out to be part of a long con set to immobilize SPYRAL and spark a coup.)

Dick Grayson sometimes appears to have violability with the way that Frau Netz comments about him and definitely makes comments that discomfit him. But really, that’s not a sign that his boundaries aren’t intact. Dick knows what he’s doing within the comics and makes decisions to adapt or change at will. No one can force him to use a gun to kill. No one can force him to have sex for a mission (a la James Bond).  People keep coming up against his morals and he doesn’t back down in the series.

Two of the more recent additions to the list involve reducing a person (well, a character in this case) to their body/body parts and appearance. I think that these are the two that this anti-fandom kind of clings to the most often because Grayson does reference Dick’s good looks relatively often

But let’s be very real here: It’s part of the spy shtick. Agents of international espionage are always really attractive in fiction despite the fact that it’d be better for them to be nondescript.

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Are some of the comments made about and to Dick inappropriate? Sure. They can focus on his body and his attractive features at an intense rate. There’s at least one comment about Dick’s looks per issue.

But that alone isn’t objectifying.

For something to be objectification, you have to have multiple things coming together.  It isn’t just other characters being attracted to a character or the artist drawing a male character as attractive.

Objectifying a person is to dehumanize them and the narrative, the entire narrative, doesn’t do that. Individual characters in the narrative do it either because they don’t know Dick as a person (the St. Hadrian girls) or because they know him and don’t necessarily see him as a person (Frau Netz).

There’s one last point that does need to be addressed with regard to the argument that Grayson objectifies Dick Grayson and is in some way harmful:

There’s a fundamental difference between what is going on in Grayson and what female comic characters and fans face. Providing a few out of context panels where he’s shirtless and other characters are kind of enjoying that to say that Dick has become this ultimate victim of objectification is both incorrect and insulting.

Dick has agency.

He has a personality.

He’s starring in a solo series where he is in charge and any confusion about being in a world he doesn’t understand is swiftly mitigated. He’s also shown as an adaptable character that grows and changes and moves forward while being aware of what he’s left behind.

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To say that Dick is objectified and therefore incapable of appearing as a three dimensional character shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the material in the comic. Straight up. And if you’re saying that it’s somehow harmful to real people—to real men?

Um… Probably not.

Even if Dick was straight up being objectified in his comic, that would be the end of it because society sexualizes people differently. You have to look at intersections of identity here.

Dick is a fictional male character. He’s not punished for his sexuality in the narrative and he’s also not punished for being attractive. The societal reactions to a (possibly) straight male character being shirtless in the way of the plot are so much different from what goes into getting a female character in the same position. Our creative team on Grayson actively presents the series through a non-male gaze. It’s far more accessible for fans than the typical male gaze that comics come in.

It’s not 100% accessible, but then, nothing is.

This one book series where he’s slightly sexier than usual (I guess) and shirtless every once in a while doesn’t change or affect the treatment of male fans in comics. On the other hand, women and feminine people get the brunt of objectification in media (like comics!) and they also see the most negative effects in the real world.

As a result of objectification in media which is normalized, real life women wind up harassed at nerdy events. They’re expected to perform the same kind of over the top sexuality by everyone from fellow fans to creators of the works they enjoy.

If you believe that Dick Grayson being shirtless on occasion and other characters pointing out his attractive features is objectification, okay.

But don’t for a moment act as if it’s not groundbreaking to have a comic with this level of casual sensuality that doesn’t turn women into objects. Tom King and Tim Seeley are working with Mikel Janin to flesh out these characters and we’ve gone fifteen books so far without having a female character exist only because she’s attractive.

Ask yourself what you’re fighting for in this situation and what you’re fighting against. (And please, don’t be like that actual tool that decided to coopt the #BlackLivesMatter movement to somehow prove that they were they were the ultimate awesome social justice person. Because that was fifty shades of fucked up.)

The real issue here for many of these “fans” both on and off Tumblr is that fellow fans are sexualizing Dick, not the St. Hadrian girls or random women in the series. The issue is that he’s drawn and written in a way that makes him even more charming, even wittier, and even more attractive and fandom at large is interested.

The main issue with “male objectification” (which really isn’t the right term to use, go with sexualization instead maybe) in the Grayson series and fandom is that the creative team not only pinged to what we’ve wanted but are giving it to us with no strings attached and little to no male gaze in the works.

We don’t have to wade past endless machismo or T & A shots of Helena to get to Dick being shirtless, sexy, and functional a la Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. The eye candy is right there for the taking and it’s not just eye candy at that. In Grayson, Dick is hot, sensitive, and clever and that triple threat is still too much for some people to handle being aimed directly at them.

So’s the fact that many of the series’ fans are women.

Like, it’s something that thoroughly freaks people out despite Dick being lowkey marketed towards female comic fans for literal decades.

(For an amazing article about Dick Grayson and objectification, check out “In Defense of Dick Grayson: Objectification, Sexuality, and Subtext” over on Women Write About Comics!)

2. The series isolates Dick from his family and friends

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The point of a comic character getting a solo series is that they are on their own.

It’s a solo book, you see.

Not a team book.

There might even be an ensemble cast in this solo series, but the focus is on whatever character is on the title.

In Supergirl, the main character is Kara.

In Midnighter, it’s Midnighter. Duh.

In Robin, Son of Batman? Damian takes center stage.

The character on the cover tends to be the focus. Solo series exist to let these characters shine on their own without their established cast of characters backing them up.

When you have a character like Dick Grayson who tends to show up in team books and in the background of like Batman on a regular basis, taking him out of that comfort zone of established characters challenges everyone.

It challenges the writer to stop relying on characters that other people have written into a semi-permanent existence. It challenges the artists to create new looks for characters. It challenges the character to evolve in their new status quo and survive.

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And of course, it challenges the reader to look at this image of potentially iconic characters and their familiar friends and forget everything that they know.

Trust me, that’s a good thing.

One repeated comment about Grayson that I keep seeing is how the book is BAD because it takes Dick out of Gotham and away from his family. Um… The past two series where Dick has been in a solo series, he was so far away from his family that it was ridiculous and he was distanced from them emotionally as well as physically.

In the first Nightwing ongoing (the longest running one), Dick was in Bludhaven for much of the series and the different writers focused on expanding his cast of characters and developing Dick as a character outside of Batman’s influence.  In the second Nightwing series (the one that started with the reboot and ended on issue #30), Dick was in Chicago. Halfway on the other side of the country from the Batfamily and he rarely saw them outside of comic crossovers.

And yet much of the first series (excepting Devin Grayson’s latter run on the series) and all of the second are currently lauded as amazing for their portrayal of Dick’s relationships with his established cast.

While I agree that it’s important to keep characters connected to their origins, there’s nothing about Grayson that says that the series’ creators aren’t remembering or referencing Dick’s origins or his previous relationships.

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This was an entire issue about Dick returning to Gotham and reconnecting with the people he left behind while referencing the Batfamily’s close bonds.

Seriously!

 

From the start of the book we’ve had references to Dick’s past and his origins. Seeley and King show us so clearly that Dick’s family and friends influence his characterization. They’re Dick Grayson fans too and it shows in the way that their Dick Grayson is a sum of his experiences rather than a fresh slate with no resemblance to the past.

Solo series are good for characters like Dick Grayson because it forces us to look at them through a different lens. Despite his solo series and his role as Batman after Bruce’s “death” Dick still kind of stayed in the shadows as a sidekick.

Grayson as a solo series looks to reinvent the way that we look at Dick Grayson and how we perceive him as a character.

Two years ago, no one could believe that Dick would be able to be a successful spy type character helming his own book.

But look at us now –

This reinvention gives us a new look, not only at Dick, but at the cast of characters around him. Helena Bertinelli and Midnighter were both updated in this book. There are references and guest appearances to other, older characters.

As of issue fifteen, he’s made multiple appearances in Gotham City and he’s literally interacting with all of the characters that fandom wants him to.

the hug

HE HUGGED DAMIAN!

Okay.

Like that was like three years in the making and it happened in canon.

Right now we’re hip deep in the Robin Wars arc and Batman and Robin: Eternal, two books that put Dick back in Gotham and surrounded by members of the Batfamily while providing us with expanded relationships and clues to how the family dynamics work. And yet, I’m still seeing people say that Grayson is a bad comic because of his family connection.

Dick may not be interacting with the characters you want him to all the time, but he isn’t alone.

3. Dick is sexually assaulted/harassed in the book

Juan and Jim

Not the names I’d give to Dick’s butt cheeks, but hey, Lotti’s not me.

I’m not going to make light of this matter (except for the header image which… kind of does that.).

Sexual assault and harassment are serious subjects and should be covered with that in mind. I’ve had to deal with both of those things and I know what does/doesn’t trigger me, but at the same time, other people aren’t me. I am not speaking for all survivors or even all women so please, understand that if you disagree with what’s being said here, I’m not going to debate either of our experiences.

That being said, parts of this argument from the anti-Grayson don’t hold a lot of water to me.

First – Dick is never sexually assaulted in Grayson.

Unlike Devin Grayson’s Nightwing run where fans to this day are still unsure as to whether or not Tarantula assaulted Dick after he was traumatized from Blockbuster’s death, there’s no ambiguity here. Straight up: Dick is never sexually assaulted or raped in any of the issues from one to fifteen.

Anyone that says otherwise has to be reading a book from an alternate universe.

(Like the one person that said that Mr. Mark “Rape is the only way I can show that my bad guys are truly evil or spice up my story” Millar was better at handling assault than a team of people who have so far refrained from using it in their story. TW for descriptions of CSA/molestation and an image from the comic at the link.)

Alia and Dick

So hot, so consensual. So not a big deal.

The only sex acts in this book have been consensual and largely off-screen. They were also like twelve issues ago in issue #3.

Nothing else involving sexuality have been shown in the series. If Dick is getting his groove on in Grayson, we don’t know anything about it post Alia. If there are characters who are being sexually assaulted as of issue #15, then it must be in that alternate universe version of that the anti-fans are reading.

Second – on the subject of harassment, I am a bit more hesitant to say that there is or is not any of that content. Why? Because it’s actually super subjective.

Where there is ZERO non-consensual sexual contact between anyone in the series so far, opinions actually differ on whether or not there’s verbal harassment in the series.

Personally, I don’t see every instant of comments about Dick’s body (to him or around him) as sexual harassment. I do understand where some people might have seen harassment in the past with the initial behavior of the St. Hadrian students and Frau Netz.

Let’s start with the St. Hadrian girls who show up properly in issue #4. A class of skilled future spies and assassins, these girls are precocious and forward thinking. They’re also very forward.

Paparazzi Shots

One of the girls, Lotti, is caught taking photographs of Dick when he was sitting shirtless on the edge of his window in issue four. In that same issue, she and her fellow future assassins go out with the intent of raiding Dick’s room and stealing his underwear in what they call a “man-ty raid”.

It’s basically the same kind of subplot that you’d see in any number of eighties’ comedies.

I didn’t take it seriously, especially when the girls don’t succeed. Not only do they fail at getting Dick’s “man-ties” but they wind up getting to play a game of chase with Dick.

College GirlsHonestly, the issue shows that Dick is only mildly exasperated by them.

He’s more amused than anything else because he recognizes that they’re young women (and younger than him) and that they’re legitimately harmless. Stuck in a school where they’re expected to do and exist in a certain way, they don’t have much outlets for expression.

They also don’t have much of a chance to have fun. And Dick throws himself into the game and into the chase.

There’s nothing sexual or inappropriate about any of their actions. At no point do any of the girls touch Dick or vice versa. They become focused on the chase and the fun of the hunt and the story really moves away from the earlier air to something light and fun and focused on Dick finding himself and remaining “Dick Grayson”.

From that issue on, when we see the girls in the same room as Dick, they’re quietly lusting among themselves over him. They never talk to him about his attributes (AKA – his great butt) but they do talk to one another about how attractive they find his figure. That’s about it.

St Hadrians Girls

Can the comments be a bit tasteless?

Yes.

Are these characters (not the series or its writers) objectifying Dick with these comments?

Yeah, they are.

Do they constitute sexual harassment?

I don’t think so.

Most of the comments that they make aren’t to Dick, they’re to each other. On top of that, he’s in a position of power over them both in his role as their gym teacher and as a SPYRAL agent that may eventually be training them. He’s their superior and that holds weight.

Frau Netz

Absolutely no one in this room thinks that any of this is funny. Hence the dead silence and lack of text in the following panel.

With Frau Netz though, things are a lot less murky because we see that Dick is like “um… okay” when she makes her comments.

She tells him directly what’s on her mind and says outright that she’s going to write what amounts to sexy fan fiction about him/his undercover identity as a St. Hadrian employee in issue #4.

While she did not touch him in any inappropriate way in the preview for issue #13 (confirmed by Seeley himself), she did make comments about his body that weren’t appropriate for her position as a senior member of SPYRAL or as the doctor currently checking him over.

While I don’t think that the series does objectify Dick, Frau Netz certainly does.

Constantly.

Her repeated comments about his looks and his physical features can also constitute workplace harassment because she is in a position of power over Dick and has access to him in a way and on a level that the St. Hadrian girls could never attain.

So sexual assault? Not actually a thing in Grayson.

Sexual harassment? Kind of, sort of. I won’t ever disagree with you for reading that into Netz’ response to Dick and her reactions to his body. She’s creepy as hell and only part of that is because of the coup she’s staging.

But for many readers, it’s not at all so simple and they don’t all see the scenes the same way.

To many readers, the interpretation of the humorous content in the book is subjective and they don’t see it as a work that champions or makes light of harassment. That doesn’t make anyone right and it doesn’t make anyone wrong because ~subjectivity~!

The thing about subjectivity is that everyone feels differently about different things. What I see as triggering, you might not. What I find hilarious, you might be triggered by. Neither of these things, by the way, might be even close to what the creators intended for their work but that’s because really, no two people see the same thing the same way.

I don’t think that the critique of Grayson has a book that makes light of sexual assault is even close to being a valid one. I do think that depending on your experiences, you might feel a certain way about the harassment that is/is not in the book and how it’s handled.

Subjectivity.

4. The characters in this series are “out of character”

Speaking of subjectivity…

The idea of a character being “out of character” in canon truly boggles the mind.

Characters evolve through the course of their respective narratives, but they also change based on the people writing them.

I, a queer Black femme, will not write Lex Luthor the same way that a straight white man will. Someone who is disabled and uses mobility aids will look at Oracle and flesh her out in a way that someone who doesn’t need mobility aids might not think to do. A man who spent time working in the CIA will write his spies differently from someone that didn’t.

You see it all the time in fandom. Headcanons clash. Identity informs what we write and how we do it.

In comics too, there’s definitely not a uniform approach to writing characters. Maybe there should be a character bible for these big comic characters, but as far as we know, there isn’t such a thing. That means that everyone that writes Dick Grayson, Helena Bertinelli, and/or Midnighter in the comics will write them a certain way.

It might not be your way, but we’re fans. We’re not writing the comics.

Everyone has their favorite writer for their favorite characters.

Some people like Chuck Dixon’s Nightwing work better (despite his problematic everything). Other people only like it when Gail Simone writes Dick because of her ships and generally positive portrayals of the character. Others still like Devin Grayson’s work on the character because she viewed the character as bisexual and tended to write a greater sensitivity into the character.

And of course there are people who enjoy the characterization in Grayson.

But we’re all different fans.

We look at different things and look for different things in our chosen canon. The thing about comics is that we do have seventy five years of canon to choose from and the world that exists in these pages is one that we can mold and create. If you have your very own favorite writers and a canon that works for you, that’s fine.

But understand that your favorite canon isn’t sacred, especially if it’s by an older writer or part of a less recent series. And something that anti-fans and canon purists don’t seem to understand is that you honestly aren’t a better person than anyone for liking or disliking a specific writer’s canon because of how authentic it feels.

You’re allowed to like a comic creator without needing to lord them over the fans of other creators or harassing the creators. No one is entitled to the perfect comic. And no one is entitled to have the frankly dated canon they enjoy pushed into the twenty-first century. And they’re not entitled to the creator’s time or attention.

We can say that a canon portrayal of a character is out of character all we want, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones writing outside of canon. As comic fans, we’re automatically predisposed to like things that are like what we’d create if we could. When canon isn’t satisfying, it’s still canon and only canonical retcons render it out of canon and out of character.

Looking at Grayson and holding up a mirror to other Dick Grayson-centered series and their creators robs you of the chance to enjoy the book for what it is. If you go into the series with the thought that it’s not like your favorite Dick Grayson series or annoyed that the writers aren’t your favorite writers, how can you say that you’re looking at the canon from an unbiased lens.

Many of the people critiquing Grayson are coming from a place where they held Dick Grayson up as Nightwing and as Robin. He became a character that is integral to their childhood.

Because they’ve attached so much specific meaning to him in a specific stage of his fictional life, any change is met with anger. They feel as if their childhood favorite is being maligned or betrayed and therefore, any fan or creator that’s comfortable with the changes to the character, are seen as betraying him.

A serious issue with the discourse sprung up amongst Grayson‘s supposed problematic nature is that the people arguing that the series is so very terrible are also obviously biased towards other parts of canon and creators and thus ignore their favorites’ problems.

They prefer Marv Wolfman’s Dick Grayson or Chuck Dixon’s.

The very idea that Tom King and Tim Seeley are daring to write their favorite character in a way that they don’t like 100% (more because they have a problem than because it’s truly problematic, by the way) sets them off because they’re not these old school dudes.

And they’re not interested in looking at the comic on its own merits rather than immediately comparing it to (dated) comics from years, even decades ago.

No substitutions wanted.

But they don’t tend to think about the fact that this shift in canon isn’t a substitution. It’s not a replacement.

It’s an evolution.

5. Dick Grayson is a passive character in his narrative

Flips and Awesomeness

Dick Grayson’s passivity in Grayson is apparently a thing that people have issues with.

I have no idea how this particular complaint came about because he’s the least passive character in the series, but I’ve seen it in some of the weird fandom PSAs that swing across my dashboard every once in a moon.

We’ve talked about this before, about how Dick has agency in his narrative and frequently takes charge, but let’s look at how he’s an active force in his life.

Despite the fact that he’s been manipulated into behaving in certain ways or working towards certain goals (from Bruce at the earliest part of this mission with Bruce manipulating him and continuing onward to Alia), Dick still is in charge of his story.

On top of that, he’s actively working to thwart manipulations that come his way.

Let’s look at instances of Dick showing his active participation in the canon because Dick’s passivity is such a non-issue that I’m always shocked when people bring it up as a mark against the series. Because once again, it’s something that does not happen.

In issue one, Dick figures out how to use his Hypnos implant without frying his own mind and takes charge in order to get Ninel Dubov out of harm’s way. He takes the initiative to learn how to use a device that could literally kill him while doing flips and dodging bullets.

Where’s the passivity in this issue?

ScreenHunter_181 Dec. 18 20.27How about issue five where Dick literally walks through the desert towards an uncertain fate because he can’t give up when there’s a little life depending on him?

He doesn’t give up until he freaking collapses and he leaves everything behind because nothing matters but keeping that wee little baby safe.

There’s literally NOTHING passive about Dick or his actions in that issue.

I think part of the problem here is that these anti-fans are doing that thing where they try to bump up the trajectory for bumping up language evolution while also kind of… not paying attention to tropes. In spy fiction, the spy is almost always “on”. He has to move the plot along because there’s never anyone else capable of doing it in his franchise.

But Grayson isn’t like that. Despite it being a solo series, the ensemble part of his ensemble cast are integral to moving the story along. Where would Dick be without Tiger? Or without Helena? Or members of the Batfamily giving him information he has no other way of obtaining?

What is Dick supposed to do? Fling himself into every single situation as if he doesn’t already show up on most of the pages in the book. By somehow reading Dick as passive (and passivity as a problem), you’re assuming that the action and plot happen both to and around Dick. You’re not actually looking at the book as a cousin to spy comics. You’re assuming that because Dick isn’t on the ground finding clues in every situation, that he’s not helping his own plot around.

Erroneous assumption much?

6. “Diversity for diversity’s sake”: the importance of a racebent Helena Bertinelli

Helena in Charge

Despite being in fandom for a huge chunk of my life, I was somehow surprised at the negative (and frankly, racist) response to the news that Helena Bertinelli would be showing up in Grayson with an entirely different look and backstory.

Somehow, I assumed that comic fans wouldn’t be elitist and racist jerks about Helena Bertinelli’s new 52 appearance as a Black Italian woman who is obviously and irrevocably brown.

I was wrong.

It’s been over a year since Grayson came out and there are still people out there who refuse to view her either as a valid and significant character of color or as the “real” Helena Bertinelli.

Yes, you’ve heard that right. Fans of series where there are shapeshifters running rampant across the multiverse are refusing to recognize this Helena as the one true Helena because she’s black in Grayson.

One of the first things that I had heard anyone say about Helena’s new look in Grayson was a comment about how Black women aren’t attractive. Because that was a thing. As were the endless comments about how Helena wasn’t really Black (including a really ridiculous article on CBR that was essentially fifty shades of bullshit). Racebending just freaks certain people out.

On top of that, fandom itself is doing that thing where women of color tend to get more crap than male or white characters. Every time that Helena doesn’t fall for Dick’s charm or that she doesn’t laugh at his jokes, fandom assumes that she’s terrible. That one panel where she smacked the sucker out of his mouth? Fandom reacted like she set him on fire or something.ScreenHunter_180 Dec. 18 18.04

There were legitimately people going “Helena’s abusive” despite the fact that Dick himself said that he had been trying to get that specific response from her.

Then in issue #13 (the one where Dick was fully naked and receiving a debriefing from Helena while Frau Netz made comments), fandom outright accused Helena of being complicit in sexual assault and harassment. Because nuance just goes right out the window with fandom and no one even stopped to think about what the new leader of SPYRAL might be going through as a young woman of color suddenly dropped into a serious leadership position and how  Frau Netz  –the woman whose father started the agency Helena is currently leading — might still be in a position of power over her.

Nah.

So nah.

Badass Spyral WomenAnd really, I think that there should be some serious thought and meta into the fact that Helena Bertinelli is one of the most powerful Black women in the DCU right now.

She’s the leader of SPYRAL, a powerful agent in her own right, and a woman capable of caring for a school-full of students who are willing to wind up fighting against heroes on the world stage.

Helena, as we’ve seen her so far, is multi-faceted.

She’s not just a nurturer.

She’s not just a badass.

She’s a character who is

interesting and witty and still very mysterious. As much as people are ready to defend Dick from being manipulated in this book (which is something he handles on his own during the series), no one really says anything about how many different characters are roping Helena into their plans without her knowledge or consent.

Where’s the #HelenaBertinelliDefenseSquad (that isn’t preoccupied with returning her to a white character)?

Where are the meta and baseless endless accusations of her portrayal being problematic?

Oh wait. That would require fandom to care just a little bit more (or at all) about women of color. Which is never going to happen. Am I bitter? Oh yeah. But not with the creative team, but with fandom.

Ladytron my love.jpg

At the same time though, Grayson is incredibly amazing about portraying women who are actually strong and who are in positions of power.

Out of all of the female characters we’ve gotten to see from Helena to Ladytron to Alia, none of them are really stock characters.

I think that there’s just so much focus placed on Dick by the related anti-fandom in their attempts to make Grayson the most problematic comic that ever was, that they don’t really stop to think “maybe we’re the ones in the wrong for how we’re focusing on Dick exclusively at the expense of female characters being portrayed in interesting and different ways”.

The way that fandom treats Helena means that they basically ignore her until they need to have someone serve as Dick’s “straight man”, the horrible boss forcing him to behave and think in a certain way, or a veritable monster cackling as Dick is manhandled in front of her.

I mean, so many people are super busy trying to pretend that they actually care about social justice and just… people in general, but when it comes to actually putting their money where their mouths are, the fall silent.

7. Queerbaiting

Dat Ass.jpg

Queerbaiting is an actual issue in media and in fandoms. It’s a way that media controls the way that LGBTQ rep is handled and how they can profit off of diverse characters without actually providing any.

Seriously, here’s the definition from Fanlore (which is the actual most widely recognized definition, by the way):

In a fannish context, queer baiting (or queerbaiting) is a term used to describe the perceived attempt by canon creators (typically of television shows) to woo queer fans, but with no intention of actually showing a gay relationship being consummated on screen.

You get lots of clever hints and overt “harr harr, aren’t they boning” jokes but never any queer characters onscreen or queer relationships showing up beyond background characters or jokes. Despite tons of sexual tension and (usually) intense and incredibly intimacy, these characters inevitably wind up being heterosexual and never end up together.

But the jokes never cease and neither does the hope that just once, the banter will lead to onscreen queerness that isn’t handled as a joke.

Unfortunately, it rarely is.

That’s not what happens in Grayson (or the Midnighter crossover issues where Dick and Midnighter work together). At all.

Former Wildstorm heavy-hitter Midnighter (and openly gay superpowered badass) shows up in Grayson #1. With his usual banter and an interest in Dick that edges just a smidge of the way towards the unprofessional, Midnighter’s appearance basically launched the shippiest of ships. I didn’t even mind that my ultimate ship of Apollo/Midnighter was put aside for a bit because it’s a great ship with lots of potential.

Midnighter Banter

Midnighter and Dick have this lowkey flirtatious banter and it’s funny throughout.

But it’s not queerbaiting.

I mean… not at all.

For one thing, Midnighter is actually gay.

This isn’t an instance of two men making ambiguously flirtatious comments at one another before going off to be unendingly heterosexual.

While we may never get Dick as anything other than heterosexual in canon, Midnighter has been out and proud since I was in elementary school. What is he supposed to do? Not vaguely flirt with someone that he thinks is attractive and that has a great butt? Like it’s a canonically fantastic butt and has been such for like ten years.

(The Grayson creative team isn’t doing something new here, by the way. Almost all of your writerly faves? They’ve mentioned the fact that Dick Grayson is canonically the sexiest thing on two legs and that everyone is aware of it at some level.)

Midnighter Banter 2In the real world, people do flirt aimlessly with one another.

It’s a thing.

I’m asexual as hell and I flirt with basically everyone (in my own uber awkward way).

It’s fun and for some people, it’s second nature. They’re not expecting to get anything out of it, but it’s a thing that people do.

Dick and Midnighter’s faintly flirtatious friendship (allyship??) isn’t even close to queerbaiting.

I’m still not sure how anyone got “queerbaiting” out of the comments that they’ve made to one another.  Midnighter’s comment (to himself) about recognizing Dick’s butt? That’s not queerbaiting. That’s him recognizing true beauty.  (Or apparently objectifying Dick because that’s anti-fandom’s biggest buzzword.)

Am I Straight

“Am I straight?”   Yes, Dick you absolutely are (in canon).

The only thing I can see being queerbaiting is that one panel in issue nine where Dick finishes getting dressed and then turns to ask Tiger if he’s straight because all of the queer DC fans were probably reading that page and rolling their eyes because it’s very hard to imagine that Dick will actually be queer in canon before we all die.

The thing is that basically all of the other comments that fandom views as queerbaiting hinge on Midnighter being vaguely flirty with Dick or comments that the creators make to one another.

Seriously.

There was an interview around the time when Midnighter #4 came out that had been floating around on tumblr where the last response was held up as this like ultimate example of how horribly queerbait-y the creative teams are and okay –

I’ve got to say that accusing the bisexual writer of gay superhero Midnighter of queerbaiting is in such bad taste.

Like… Steve Orlando did not give us the gift of a well written Midnighter solo series for you to crap on it and accuse the man of queerbaiting because he makes a joke about having a competition between him, Tom King, and Tim Seeley over innuendo.

What’s wrong with you fandom?


Okay, at the heart of it, the issue with this tension between Grayson fans and Dick Grayson fans that hate Grayson is that there’s no winner.

At the end of the day we’re all subjecting our friends and followers to long essays and snarky comments about a fictional character. No amount of social justice buzzwords on either side is going to make our arguments more valid. Sure, Grayson fans already kind of win by virtue of not having tweeted hysterical accusations at the creators of willfully mishandling triggering content.

But okay –

What are we winning?

Why are we having this argument?

Why has fandom been so divided over a book that isn’t one of the top sellers in comics? Dick Grayson’s a great characters, to be sure, but why are we doing this?

(I mean, I’m literally writing this post so that I can get it out of my system and never speak of this “controversy” again, but even I know that’s not the best reason behind anyone spending over a year of their time complaining about a comic or the people that hate it intensely.)

I mentioned earlier that no two people see the same thing in the same way. That goes for books as well. No two readers or comic fans read the same comic and get the same thing out of it. Disagreeing on something like that is normal and natural.

The huge problem here is trying to paint people who like the thing or create it as super problematic to validate your subjective argument. Everything is problematic on some level, but the lengths that people are going to in order to prove just how problematic Grayson is is also unnecessary. Problematic =/= a problem.

Anyone can provide images and text out of context and prove a point.

That doesn’t make you right or your content accurate.

No one’s going to win here.

At the very least, fandom’s going to wind up with another mediocre Bleeding Cool “article” making fun of it for freaking out about a legitimately harmless comic that is really interesting. At the worst? Comic creators are going to give fandom a very wide berth because they’re being accused of things that they didn’t do or that they didn’t write into their creation.

And do we really actually want that?

Do we really want to make fandom a hostile space not only to fellow fans, but to the people creating the content we’re building off of?

I don’t think so.

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
This entry was posted in DC Comics, Fandom and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Grayson, fandom, problematic media, and the drive to “defend” popular male characters

  1. God bless America, I want this tattooed on my face. Everything here is like all my thoughts on it but actually coherent. <3333

    Like

  2. A well thought out and executed piece, especially point number 4. Series naturally have to reboot and have canon updated. When I was younger and older children and adults asked me about the comics I read and were confounded by new plotlines and twist in character development, they simply scrunched up their faces and accepted it.

    In some ways this problem has to do with the fact that reboots are occurring before an original cohort of fans have outgrown the story. This has to do with the fact that technology is making society change faster than ever before, this coupled with the fact that automizatio and outsourcing is stretching out adolescence, you have an increasing number of people who won’t except that the future is happening.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Grayson #20 and WOC as the “Wrong Choice” Love Interests | Stitch's Media Mix

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