Editorial : Thoughtless Bubble – On Zainab Akhtar, Frank Miller, Scapegoats, And Sacrificial Lambs

Normally, this is the sort of thing that I’d “save” for my Patreon, which is sort of where I just free-wheel it and write about whatever I want, but as I think this subject concerns a larger audience than my base of subscribers, and speaks to both the rapidly-changing nature of the comics “scene” and the potential pitfalls that can come a person’s way when they take a stand on “third rail” issues, I thought I’d share it here instead and let the chips fall where they may — which, I’m not fooling myself, could very well be be all over the place. If you find it of interest, then you’ll likely find more of interest on said Patreon, but I’ll link to that when all is said and done rather than at the outset given that, believe it or not, shilling for my own wares is not of primary concern here today.

What is of primary concern is the recent decision by long-running UK comics festival Thought Bubble to cancel the appearance of legendary creator Frank Miller at the show this year, as well as the chain of events leading up to this decision and the repercussions stemming from it. Simply stated : Zainab Akhtar, best known in the comics community as proprietor and publisher of critically-acclaimed small press Short Box, took exception to Thought Bubble extending an invitation to Miller based on his visceral and bigoted 2011 graphic novel Holy Terror, and announced via Twitter on July 27th, 2021 that, due to his appearance, she would not be appearing (and presumably tabling) at the festival herself. Miller was always a curious invite for a convention that prides itself on being a showcase for small-press and otherwise independent creators, given that his most celebrated work has been done for the “Big Two” comics publishers, but my best guess is that from a calculated business perspective, the show’s organizers figured he’d be a “big name” draw, and so the idea of fitting a square peg into a round hole made a kind of fiscal sense. That being said —

Does the phrase “know your audience” come to mind here? Because it sure should. Non-corporate comics festivals and shows have been putting forth an effort (with varying degrees of success) to be more inclusive to women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other historically-marginalized groups for some time now, and Thought Bubble itself has expressed its own desires/goals to be welcoming in nature; to be a place where, if you’ll forgive the cliche, comics really are for everyone. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that rolling out the red carpet for a guy who made a book about a bloodthirsty vigilante killing every Muslim he laid eyes on would be met with fairly vigorous pushback from some of the very same people the organizers of the show say they want to provide a (sorry to use the term, but) “safe space” for. Sometimes, sadly, actions really do speak louder than words.

On the subject of Holy Terror itself, I certainly can’t in any way take exception to the idea that any person with a functioning conscience would find it repulsive, particularly a Muslim woman such as Akhtar. Having read it shortly after its initial release, I can confirm that it both is and isn’t the book many of its critics characterize it as being (for instance, there are none-too-subtle critiques of American foreign policy in there as well as gut-wrenching violence aimed entirely at Muslims, offensive racial and cultural stereotypes galore, and heaping helpings of Miller’s trademark misogyny), but at the end of the day it’s precisely the sort of incendiary propaganda piece Miller openly stated he wanted it to be seen as.

Here’s the thing, though — if “all” it was “guilty” of is causing offense, I’d say people should simply buck up and deal with it. Speaking purely anecdotally here, I spent my formative years reading a ton of comics that ran entirely contrary to the values I was raised with, but guess what? Being stared down by humanity’s ugly side, its disturbing side, its sick side serves a purpose and challenges a person. Insomuch as art can be said to have “rights,” it has the right be confrontational — readers who only opt for work that reaffirms their worldview, or worse yet work that makes them feel comfortable, tend to be dull folks, in my view. Give me your S. Clay Wilsons, your Mike Dianas, your Joe Colemans, your Jim Osbornes, your Dori Sedas, your Johnny Ryans, your Phoebe Gloeckners, your Rory Hayeses, your R. Crumbs any day of the week. If I wanted stuff that was squarely in my “comfort zone,” I’d be one of those readers who faithfully forked over their pocket change every week to Marvel and DC in a pathetic attempt to make sure my extended adolescence continued forever.

I should be absolutely clear here, however : Holy Terror is something above, beyond, and far worse than merely offensive, sensationalist, or prurient work. In the wrong hands and absorbed by the wrong minds, shit like this can be flat-out dangerous. It not only says “Islamophobia is cool,” it celebrates it on almost every page. It not only says “Muslims are bad people,” it revels in their slaughter. It not only depicts the Muslim world as antithetical to Western Enlightenment values, it posits that wiping it out is the only way for said Western Enlightenment values to survive. If you were to metaphorically boil down its messaging to its most essential and equally-metaphorical kernel, if you were to strip away all pretense and obfuscation, what you would find is something that is, insane as this may sound, pro-genocide propaganda — and not even visually appealing pro-genocide propaganda, at that. This is Miller’s most poorly-drawn work any way you slice it, and the chances of it one day being praised for its aesthetic values while abhorred for its content, a la the films of Leni Riefenstahl, are slim to none.

Viewed in that context, then, the question really shouldn’t be why Miller isn’t welcomed at Thought Bubble, but why he’s welcomed anywhere at all. I mean, let’s face it : if he made a comic about a Batman stand-in character indiscriminately killing every Catholic, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist around, he’d never get a convention invite again in his life, regardless of one’s belief in the power of the human heart to change for the better (which, believe it or not, we’ll get to later) — and he’d more than likely never get published again in his life unless he was fronting the cost himself.

Which is not, for the record, me saying that Holy Terror shouldn’t be allowed to exist. I’m a free speech absolutist by nature, and believe that Miller has every right to either find a publishing home for this risible garbage (which he did, with the now-defunct Legendary Comics, after DC took a pass on it), or to publish it himself if he can’t. But once that work is published, the consequences of putting it out there are his to bear. The term “cancel culture” is over-used to the point of tedium these days, but in point of fact just because you can say something doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a platform to say it on/at, and so if Thought Bubble wants to “cancel” Miller, as long as they’re not breaching the terms of any sort of contract with him, they’re perfectly free to do so — and while that statement, along with much of what I’ve just said, may rub some people the wrong way, as a purely legal matter, it’s not even up for debate. So hold your fire, you may want it handy to scorch me for opinions still to come —

Later in the same day that Akhtar tweeted about her decision not to attend Thought Bubble, she let it be known — also via Twitter — that she had first contacted the festival’s organizers a whopping eight weeks prior to discuss her concerns about Miller being in attendance and, at least according to her telling, was assured that “action would be taken.” What action that was supposedly going to be is something we aren’t privy to, nor do we know whether or not the commonly-held inference that she issued a sort of “either he goes or I go” ultimatum is at all an accurate one. It’s important to note, for the record, that while Akhtar stated that she “cannot in good conscience attend a festival that deems it appropriate to invite and platform Frank Miller,” she did not say “I would never attend a festival that deems it appropriate to invite and platform Frank Miller.” That may seem like a small distinction, admittedly, but I assure you — it’s a crucial one.

For all we know, in her private communications with the Thought Bubble organizers, she may have requested some sort of dialogue with Miller or his representatives in order to address, and possibly even assuage, her concerns. After all, in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian published on April 27th, 2018, Miller said of Holy Terror that he’s “not capable of that book again,” that there “are places where it’s bloodthirsty beyond belief.” Admittedly, he also stated that he doesn’t want to “go back and start erasing books (he) did” or “wipe out chapters of (his) own biography,” but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s proud of this particular book.

I dunno, perhaps I’m being overly-generous toward Miller here, but it sounds very much to me that, like any artist, he considers the work he’s made to be a reflection of where he was at a given point in his life mentally and emotionally, for good or ill, and when pressed in that same interview about comments he made contemporaneously with the release of Holy Terror that saw (or should that be heard?) him refer to Occupy Wall Street as “louts, thieves, and rapists,” he flat-out admitted he “wasn’t thinking clearly at the time.”

Granted, none of this rises to the level of being an actual apology (and while, as stated earlier, I don’t think an artist ever needs to apologize for offending anyone, I do think an apology from Miller for contributing to a political and cultural atmosphere that literally put the lives of Muslim people in danger would absolutely be in order), and I’m not especially sympathetic toward the argument some have advanced that a rumored drinking problem and a supposedly acrimonious divorce in some way at least partially excuse the anger and bitterness that ooze off Holy Terror‘s pages — I mean, sure, those things might partially explain his anger and bitterness, but even if we assume both alcoholism and divorce to be contributing factors to his mindset at the time, neither of them is the fault of Muslims.

However, it may also be worth noting that in the two-plus years since the Guardian interview, Miller allowed Holy Terror to go out of print, and he also wrote the decidedly anti-Trump satirical comic Dark Knight Returns : The Golden Child. From all appearances, it would seem that his worldview has at least partially evolved away from the hardened right-wing militarism of a decade or more ago, and that where he is today might be more in line with the “old” Frank Miller who lampooned Reagan so memorably in The Dark Knight Returns, and the Bush administration even more pointedly in The Dark Knight Strikes Again!

Whether or not Akhtar is aware of this potential change of heart and mind on Miller’s part I have no idea, nor do I know whether or not hearing words to this effect directly from him would have made a difference. What I do know is that, for whatever reason, Thought Bubble’s organizers didn’t address her concerns until she went public with them, and while this was certainly a massive fuck-up on their part (I mean, let’s face it, now Miller won’t be there and neither will she), it bears all the hallmarks of a deliberate one. After all, if they’d dropped Miller earlier, they’d have been the ones targeted by the right-wing hate mobs, the anti-“cancel culture” online hordes — but by parting company with Miller on July 28th, after Akhtar spoke out, it makes it look like they gave in to “pressure” from an “SJW” and that it’s ultimately Akhtar’s “fault” that Miller won’t be in attendance. I can’t say for certain, mind you, but the entire situation reeks of scapegoating. We’ll never know whether or not Akhtar flat-out demanded that Thought Bubble drop Miller, but we definitely know that from a PR perspective it was to the advantage of organizers to make it look like she did precisely that, even though the one action she definitively did take was the exact opposite — she disinvited herself.

Predictably — and depressingly — Akhtar’s Twitter feed has been bogged down with a veritable deluge of racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and just plain ugly replies to her statements, in particular from those affiliated with the reactionary “comicsgate” sect of fandom, and even her late-innings decision to run a block chain on these asshats hasn’t managed to completely dam the sheer onslaught of hatred. “Comicsgate” de facto head honcho Ethan Van Sciver even got in on the act himself, bizarrely telling Akhtar “go fuck yourself” even though he was the one inserting himself into her replies feed. I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out whether or not these retrograde nitwits operate according to any sort of coherent logical principles (after all, the very same “culture warriors” ostensibly sticking up for Miller right now were all over his case a little while back for his aforementioned Trump-savaging DKRTGC comic), though, so I guess such frankly weird, abusive bullshit is par for the course — as is the fact that the Richard Meyers and Ethan Van Scivers of the world are busily monetizing this controversy (one which, self-evidently, neither involves nor affects them personally in any way, shape, or form) for every “wingnut welfare” dollar they can scrounge up on YouTube. The “quality” of the books these guys put out, after all, has never been their main selling point — it’s all about stoking the anger of a perpetually-aggrieved subset of fans and riding that anger all the way to the bank. Like it not, a situation such as this plays right into the hands of grifters whose sales pitch is “toss money at me to own the libs.”

Which is why I think, at least on a purely strategic level, “cancelling” Miller from Thought Bubble is a mistake — you never want to give these right-wing “digital soldiers” an easy layup (not that many of them can actually jump) or a slow pitch over the middle of the culture war plate. More significantly, though, I think it might also prove to be a mistake ethically and morally. I mean, I absolutely want the comics community — in particular the small press and self-publishing community that I’ve spent so much time both advocating on behalf of, and personally being a part of, these past several years — to be a place where marginalized people not only feel, but literally are safe and welcome. But I also think change, growth, evolution, and (at the risk of sounding grandiose) redemption are possible, and I think Miller gives off welcome indications of at least being in the process of going through some of those things. If you don’t want assholes at your con, that’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with giving former assholes — or, if you prefer, assholes in recovery — a chance? With encouragement, Miller could actually go on to become a positive force on behalf of the very same people he’s hurt in the past — but with ostracization, that becomes a lot less likely.

Unfortunately, as things stand today, we’ll never know what could have happened with regard to this specific situation thanks to the actions and inactions — whether accidental or, more likely, deliberate — of the Thought Bubble festival organizers.

*****************************************************************************************************************************

Oh, and if you’re still here and still interested, my Patreon can be found at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse