Earlier this year, I edited my second comic book (and third project) ever: Comics Festival! 2007. Fulfilling the dual duties of promoting the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and exposing the world to a wealth of talented Canadian Cartoonists, it featured over 20 comics strips from across the country and was quite well-received by all who managed to find a copy at a comic shop on free comic book day. But when the submissions started coming in earlier this year, I got cold feet on one of them, fearing the sort of insane and unreasonable reprisal that follows any comic store retailer being upset about things, let alone things that they are paying to give away for free. What was I so afraid of? Cock, or rather the reaction to cock. The cock of…
It’s J. Bone’s Jett Vector, a sexy intergalactic policeman in a leather pouch and spacefaring go-go boots. Now, this was before the Citizen Steele cocktastrophe, let alone slutty statues and tentacle porn, and hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but here’s the story of my own personal fear of cock.
J. Bone is an amazingly talented gay comics artist who’s worked on series including Jingle Belle, DC The New Frontier, and The Spirit. He contributed an awesome one page strip to our first Comics Festival in 2005 (and if you click here you can read it!), and so when 2007 rolled around, I knew I wanted him in the book and he was invited (albeit through his buddy and co-artist on The Spirit Darwyn Cooke) to participate. He turned around a two-page strip in no-time flat, and it was… is… great. You can actually check it out at J.’s blog, Bonesmen. He submitted it to me with a bit of a caveat; having shown the strip to his friends they wondered if it was maybe a little racy for an all-ages book, and what did I think? So I looked at it, and liked it, and then sat and thought about it. Which was a mistake.
Some background: Free Comic Book Day? WROUGHT WITH CONTROVERSY. I’ve no idea why the act of giving comic books away for free has caused so much fucking turmoil, but it totally has, and as the editor of a book being distributed on FCBD, I was very much aware of that…
2004: A child is distributed a mature-readers comic at a Georgia comic book store. It features non-sexual nudity (an excerpt from the recently-released “The Salon” by Nick Bertozzi) and the child’s parent, who apparently has a history of this sort of behaviour, freaks out and calls the cops/the D.A./anyone who’ll listen. This is now known as “The Gordon Lee Case” and the CBLDF is fighting it in court right now. You can help out at http://cbldf.org.
2005: We release our first Comics Festival, and two weeks later get an angry phone call charging me, Peter, the store, and TCAF with being Anti-Semites. Seriously. The reasoning is that we printed Leslie Stein’s comic strip in Comics Festival, wherin the author (Jewish) discusses her physical appearance (see strip here). We thought we’d get flak for Darwyn Cooke having Superman knock-off a local television personality in that issue, not for an autobio comic. Nevertheless, we hold our ground defending Lauren’s right to comment on her apperance and heritage, and nothing major comes of it, but being shouted at and called an anti-semite on the phone? Stays with you.
2005: In a book marked all-ages, a charming “Paul” short story by Michel Rabagliati features a young boy’s first encounter with a naked-lady calendar in a restroom. He is depicted peeing and being embarrassed by the calendar. You really don’t see anything, but retailers screamed bloody murder at the ‘all ages’ tag on something that wasn’t all-ages in… well, Georgia I guess.
2006: There was some cocktastrophe last year too, I can’t remember what it was. I know that the “all-ages” book BLUFF featured an advertisement with bare-breasts in it (that made retailers v. unhappy)… But yeah. Sorry. Anyway.
So, going into publishing the book for 2007? I was a little cockshy about the strip. We’d solicited the book as 13+, made the contents as widely-known as possible, and generally tried to be honest about everything. But I honestly wasn’t sure if the strip skirted into mature-readers territory by virtue of the costume and context of the story… or not. So, and I’m not proud of this, I asked J. if he wanted to cover-up Jett a little more. Maybe a pair of bicycle shorts, or a less-prominent bulge? “If not, I understand, and we’ll run the strip as is and hope for the best,” said I. But I did ask him to change his work. J. said that he’d rather not run the strip if it meant altering it, and I started to feel shittier and shittier about the whole thing… until the book’s designer Chip Zdarsky had a brilliant idea.
“Let Diamond handle it.”
2007 is the first year that Diamond made participating Free Comic Book Day publishers submit their books, in PDF form, ahead of time. I’m honestly not sure why… they don’t seem to have done much with them. But Chip had a good idea. Submit the strip, and if Diamond didn’t say anything about it being ‘inappopriate’ in an ‘all ages’ book (really “Teen” but…) then we’re good to go! J. thought this was a good idea too, and I felt much better knowing that I wasn’t forced to censor or silence a gay creator out of fear of overreaction from the fan and retail community. Did I mention all of this made me sick to my stomach? It did. Anyway. We submitted the book. Heard nothing back. Sent it to press. Diamond got copies. Retailers got copies. No one said anything… until!
CONTROVERSY OVER PHALLUSES AND VAGINAS IN FREE COMIC BOOK DAY BOOKS!
Luckily though, it wasn’t our book. :)
Apparently, Image Comics’ Wolfman by Robert Kirkman featured a back-up story with another Kirkman character named “Brit” and the end of the story features a panel with a bunch of dildoes in it. And then? If you flip the back cover of the book upside-down, and squint, and think dirty thoughts, a picture of a vagina might appear. Seriously. This happened and it sent people into a rage. It was fucking stupid, but then so is the idea that seeing an illustration of a flacid penis might seriously damage a little boy forever, and that one’s in court. So yeah, there was tons and tons of controversy this year… Rich Johnston covered a bunch of it in his Lying in the Gutters column, go check it out.
But not our book. I mean, sure, Diamond sent out a warning to retailers that stated that Comics Festival! 2007 (among 20 other titles or so) had material some retailers might not want to distribute to kids, but they didn’t say why. Then, when Kevin Melrose at Blog @ Newsarama linked to the Jett Vector story at J. Bone’s blog, the first comment on the piece was from a “Christian Illustrator” who described the two page story as being inspired by “gay porn”. But he’s a prick, so who cares?
In the end, we had one of the highest-selling “Silver” level free comic book day books, made tens of thousands of comic fans new and old happy, and everything went off without a hitch. It’s now just-about a month after the event, and no one said shit, apparently too distracted by the cocks, tits, and tentacles present elsewhere on the internet. Which means that my own fear of cock was ultimately unfounded.
If you go check the original “Afraid of Cock” post, you can see Darwyn Cooke in the comments section giving me shit about railing on Don MacPherson when I had come very close to censoring an artist for similar reasons. Why was I giving Don shit? Well, mostly for the yaoi comment actually, and for not knowing what an erect penis in spandex looks like… but I digress. I was giving all the “men” who were “creeped out” by the original image shit because I’d been there, if to a lesser degree. I had 20 other artists in Comics Festival, 1000 retailers who ordered the book, and 25,000 fans who might take objection, and under that pressure I strove for a compromise rather than standing 100% behind an artist who I had personally invited to participate. Put simply: I totally fucked up, and looking back, I see that. All I can say is I’m a convert… for cock. If people are gonna see it even when it isn’t there, then by fuck, lets put it out there in future.
I’ve already apologised to J. in private and we’re cool, more or less, but I did want to take the opportunity here to apologise again to J. for not standing up for a strip I enjoyed, by a fabulously talented artist. If anything, I’ve posted this here not only to air out the skeletons in my own closet, but also to try and draw some attention to J.’s work, to Jett Vector in particular, and maybe let prospective publishers know that there really isn’t anything wrong with this material. It’s sexy, yeah, but it ain’t slutty (see: Marvel Comics, DC Comics). It can be tough dealing with a property that skirts the line, particularly the scary male sexuality line, but it can be done and I’d hope that anyone reading there would trust J. Bone to be the guy to know the difference. I didn’t at first, but believe me, I’ve seen the light. Hopefully some smart editor out there will too, and we’ll all get more Jett Vector in future.