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September 6, 2013

Go, Read: Rachel Edidin On Why She Won't Be Attending PAX

There's a forceful, well-articulated essay here from Rachel Edidin on series of events beginning with a 2010 installment of the comic strip Penny Arcade that eventually led to a recent, very odd sort of public stand at the major gaming convention that has spun out of that comic strip. As I understand it, the creators of Penny Arcade ran a strip with a joke about gaming culture -- that is their primary area of concern -- that used a rape victim to get to the point about the distorted values of goal-oriented, in-game storylines. Some folks found this joke upsetting, including victims of rape, and communicated that to the creators. There was pushback, both from elements of the wider community surrounding the strip and from the creators. Some of that reaction seemed contemptuous of the subject -- that's my reading of the 2010 apology cartoon Edidin has reprinted, for instance -- and apparently some of it was direct, hostile and alarming. Then it got weirder: there was merchandise created that referenced the original strip, an in-joke aimed at those that protested the joke. This merchandise was pulled after complaints and then, more recently, put out again. The decision to do so was framed as a fight for free speech.

Edidin constructs her own take on it, which you should read. The key to me seems to be the withering contempt that emanates from the strip and some of its defenders for those that complained. I'm sure there's some of that same incredulity and dismay and fury headed towards the strip, and might have been at an earlier stage, but the reaction that feels most alarming to me is the one headed from the creators -- festering around and in many cases it seems driven by PA co-founder Mike Krahulik -- towards the critics of that specific strip and that side of the issue more generally. There's a difference in degree and tone and the power stratification that makes the flow in that direction seem very different: there's a bullying aspect to it that holds weight and power. I get free speech, and while there would have been people dissatisfied with the strip no matter what -- as is their right -- I think most people, myself included, would have understood a baseline-sympathetic acknowledgement of the criticism. With newspaper strips, it's the kind of thing an artist might opt out of including in the reprint book and have no regrets in doing so. Making merchandise out of the thing seems like a whole different beast, and subsequently making an issue of doing so only increases the heat and discomfort experienced by those that felt threatened by the original joke. That crosses a line making art, even problematic art, doesn't come near. Not taking part in the show seems like a logical decision to me, and I like how Edidin's essay moves from her perception of those events and the decision she's made because of them, as well as her acknowledgment that she's privileged in some ways to have that response available to her.

The interesting side-issue for me here, and maybe one that hits on a lot of these similar issues lately, is that the Penny Arcade strip and its convention outgrowth are very much connected to a community of like-minded people who on some level perhaps enjoy the strip, share common cause with the creators and the business enterprise they've put together, and/or have an interest in the gaming industry show and its specific reflection on/engine of that culture. It seems like a new element to a lot of these discussions is that status in community plays a role; it is not 100 percent how you interact with a work of art. This also allows for more options in terms of one's reaction. It should be fascinating to see how things progress. Hopefully this will include a modification of the outcome that led Edidin to make her decision.
posted 5:45 am PST | Permalink

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