I recently read the digital galleys for a comic called Super Human Resources by Ken Marcus and Armando Zanker. It’s a great premise — what would the HR department that manages superheroes look like? — and I enjoyed the characterizations and plot immensely. And then, like a hipster watching Season 2 of True Detective, I lost interest in a good idea instantaneously, but in this case it was the moment when one character casually, and without any framing, drops the R-word to describe derisively another character. Ugh. Ugh forever.
I spend my life on the internet begging comics to be better at everything, from feminism to racial politics to ableism, so I immediately tweeted my disgust, with a screen shot of the comic. I thought that was it.
It wasn’t. Instead, the writer of the comic responded to my tweet admitting that he had made a callous mistake. I was shocked. I am angry about comics professionally and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a creator take responsibility for a gratuitous error in representation. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
I had the chance to ask writer/creator Ken Marcus about this, so I didn’t pull any punches. But he didn’t duck them, either. Here’s our chat in its entirety.
So I have to say first and foremost, I love the concept of this comic. Love it. It’s clever and new and funny and bright. I was completely primed to love this comic. And then I got to the panel where the character drops the R-bomb and I physically recoiled. Can you tell me from your perspective as a creator why you made that choice?
Thanks for taking the time to read our book. And for the kinds words. Here’s some background. The book you read was our first volume of Super Human Resources. It was published seven years ago. We’re reprinting it now in advance of our new, second volume from Action Lab Entertainment.
In our first volume, a character uses the “r-word” or a variant of it three times. It’s what he called our super-heroes in a derisive manner. He was our primary villain. So if I had to imagine my thought process at the time, I’m sure I wrote it to convey that this guy was a vile character. And he said vile, insulting things. Now this sounds like a defense. But I know using this r-word in this context is indefensible.
Context is everything.
Now I do believe writer should be able to use any word to achieve the goal of reflecting what a character would say or do. I have this argument with my wife all the time. Just because a word or action is depicted in a film or book, it doesn’t mean the author advocates or condones that behavior.
But again, context matters. My book isn’t Southern Bastards or Fun Home. It isn’t some exploration of race or identity prejudice. Super Human Resources meant to be a fun and light humor book. Viewed in this context, the r-word seems like a flippant, off-color joke. Okay, not seems. It is.
Words have meaning. They have impact. And using slurs even to reflect “reality” validate their usage. So they must be used with careful consideration. Which I did not do. The use of the “r-word” in my book was lazy and careless. And I deeply regret doing it.
Worst of all, this is a reprint. I had the ability to change it. To correct this mistake. The thought had crossed my mind years ago. And I simply forgot it, with so much of my focus on the new volume.
After I saw your twitter comment, I reached out to my editor to see if it was too late to change. Our pre-ordering phase is over and our book is at the printer. I do think we can make the change for Comixology however. We’re still exploring our options.
When I got to that point in the comic, I tweeted my disgust and stopped reading. Can I ask if you received similar feedback from other readers? At what point did you realize you’d made a mistake?
Years ago, a friend and fellow creator had mentioned that the r-word seemed unnecessary and stuck out a bit. And I agreed. But I simply forgot about it. And this is what I’m most ashamed of. I just didn’t give it any thought.
This was written seven years ago. I’m a different person. Years ago, I know I used words without considering their impact. “That’s r-word-ed” or “That’s so gay.” Not that I’m homophobic or prejudiced. But simply out of thoughtlessness. Which is worse, really. But I’m not that person anymore. I try to be more considerate of the words I use. As a writer and a person.
The thing that impressed me was that you responded to my tweet and didn’t make an excuse or accuse me of censoring you — you simply apologized and addressed the error. What was your reaction when you first saw my tweet? How did you come to the point of regretting the choice you made?
I saw your comment. And admittedly, my first reflex was defensive. Like “it’s not so bad. “What’s the big deal?” But deep down? I knew the truth. Using the “r-word” and insulting the disabled was inexcusable. And that’s the most important criticism a writer can receive. When deep down, if you’re being honest with yourself as a creator, you know it’s just plain true. And I knew this pretty much instantly.
Our first volume largely had a good response. One review did stick with me however. It was from Kelly Thompson, aka 1979 Semi-Finalist. She struggled with how our women heroes were depicted. Now would argue I depicted all my heroes equally badly, but this still bothered me. Because again, I knew there was truth to it. It changed me as a writer and it made me more thoughtful of how I treated my female characters for our second volume of Super Human Resources.
Is there anything else you’d like Panels readers to know about this situation?
That I do appreciate the “movement” (lack of a better word) in comics that Panels is largely a face of. We need better representation of diversity, of women and of identity in comics. If we want comics to grow and reach new audiences, we can’t keep doing the same cliché, and stereotyping stuff. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Thanks for having me and discussing this subject. It’s certainly more interesting than the usual interview questions. And more important than just hocking my wares. Hopefully this can be a teachable moment. It was for me. Whether someone likes or doesn’t like Super Human Resources, that’s fine. But I do appreciate someone taking the time to read it and want to talk about it.