Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rape, comic books and why your words matter.

Last week, my friend Janelle Asselin ended up the subject of some incredibly vile attacks, and I feel compelled to speak out about it.

I'll preface by saying we don't know each other incredibly well.  I had the good fortune to interview her as a potential intern years ago, but she got scooped up as an editor at DC before we could hire her.  She's a professional for whom I've always had a great deal of respect.  She was a comic book editor during an incredibly competitive time for our industry, so I know what she's been through.

The job of comic book editor is an incredibly challenging one.  There's not much money in it and there is a lot to do.  As legendary Marvel editor Tom Brevoort often says, creators get the credit while editors get the blame - and that's as it should be.  Anyone who has a reputation for being unflinchingly honest while remaining well liked and in demand to work with clearly knows what they're doing, and such is the case with Janelle.

Janelle recently wrote an article taking DC Comics to task on what she found to be a sexist piece of artwork.  I'm not really concerned with the artwork here.  I don't think I've met the artist, Kenneth Rocafort, but I've heard good things about working with him.  Any fair reading of Janelle's piece would concur she wasn't singling him out but rather the company's direction as a whole.  Comic book covers are certainly art, but they're also an advertising tool.  Many departments have a say in what's drawn, especially when it's a new #1 as is this piece.  Sales, editorial and the creative staff generally have a hand in the creation of this artwork.  It's obvious that Janelle was taking that process to task and not Kenneth's artistic choices.

For my money, it's a pretty ballsy piece.  Too often the comics press takes a hit for what's perceived as holding back in it's criticisms of Marvel or DC Comics, and with good reason.  There's no real governing body for these organizations.  Their access to stories, interviews and previews are based on professional relationships they have with the folks at these companies.  Janelle's criticisms, whether you agree with them or not, took guts to write.

Naturally, not everyone was pleased.  Comic artist Brett Booth in particular took great offense, referring to the article as an attack piece. You can read their Twitter exchange here.  I don't know Brett personally but I'm an admirer of his work. Moreover, I can appreciate his position.  When you feel like a friend or colleague has been smeared with a term like "sexist" it's natural to react strongly.  As someone who's worked on the other side of the table, I've rolled my eyes aggressively when a rushed out cover, reviewed and approved by everyone under the sun, rubs someone the wrong way and that someone takes to the internet to air their criticisms.  Brett's entitled to his opinion, as is Janelle.  Personally, I think Brett's being unfair because, as I said before, a fair reading of Janelle's piece says she's criticizing the process, not any person.

Anyway, as is the case with the internet, jerks got involved and said some stupid things.  Easy enough to ignore.  But then some folks decided to send Janelle rape threats.

When you put your name out there for any cause, there is an attitude from some that you should just "take it."  The "it" in question is vaguely defined but generally it's become accepted that if you can't grin and bear it through any number of vile, contemptible comments, you're weak.  As that definition has grown,  we've all become so desensitized that we consider threats to be acceptable discourse.  Make no mistake about it, even if you think your intention is a "joke" or something, if you write something like this, you're making a threat. And it's wrong. You are wrong.

So many people are asking what we can do about such behavior.  While pondering this question, I thought about three people in my life - my mother, my sister and my girlfriend.  I wondered how I'd react if someone wrote something like that to any of them over such a harmless thing like a critique.  And that's when it occurred to me how lucky I am, because I don't have to worry about receiving those kinds of threats myself.  I have to think about how it would effect someone else.  I have to because I'm a man and none of these gutless scumbags would even consider saying something like that to another man.

A woman who worked her ass off for years to create the same product these people love now lives with a sense of fear, fear that she might be physically attacked simply for having an informed opinion and the generosity to share that opinion.

Can you tolerate that? I sure can't.

Janelle has a great survey on sexual harassment in the comic industry. If you're a professional, I encourage you to take it. It's right here.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Michael DiRoma Moment of the year

On March 3rd, 2006, Michael DiRoma, my best friend since childhood, died in a car accident while driving home for spring break from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Every year on this date I write something about him.  But I'm tired of writing something sad or serious.  It's a strange thing I've noticed about death -- once someone dies, all we seem to be able to do is talk about the circumstances of their death and how it affected us.  We forget some of the moments of their lives.  If I've learned anything in the past eight years, it's that the mark of a true best friend is when you find the most routine, mundane events to be memorable.  So memorable that they'll stay with you for the rest of your life.  With that said, I present a flashback to one of my favorite moments in my friendship with Michael DiRoma, first published on this blog back in 2007.  I don't care how many typos it will likely have.


There used to be a diner across the street. It was named the Park West Cafe. It was a shitty little place -- food was fine, the surroundings were faux-50's. It's been knocked down for the un-Godly construction project, but from the late 90s to about 2005, Michael and I used to go their all the time. We engaged, as most young people on the Upper West Side would, in an Obnoxious Seinfeldian banter. But ours must have been funnier than most because we'd often make people at the competing tables burst out in laughter. I suppose, in hindsight, that it must have been the image, too. This hilariously huge boy expounding on everything and nothing to his best friend who could only react in a playful sarcasm. We'd go after the movies, for lunch on weekends, and had a yearly tradition on Election Day to grab breakfast and then go vote at the junior high school gymnasium around the corner.

One day we wrapped up our meal and settled our check. I placed a pepper shaker on the tip to keep it in one place. As I started to leave, Michael looked at me in shock.

"What are you doing?" He asked.
"Leaving." I replied.
"No, I mean the pepper shaker. You can't do that."
"They don't like that. It's a bad sign."
"It's a bad sign to put money under condiments?"
"No, under the pepper. The pepper means you didn't like the service, the salt means you did. Put it under the salt."
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah, this is big in Europe and Latin America -- and take a look around, all the waiters are from one place or the other. Salt is bright. It means the service was good. Pepper is dark -- it means you thought the service was a waste."
"Wow. What if you put it under the Sugar."
"You don't want to know what happens then."
"Are you making this up?"

And then we left to go vote.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

This is how I feel.

A few months ago, my friend Ned Vizzini killed himself.  Ned was an incredible writer whose book, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, inspired me and countless others to not be afraid to seek help for their depression.  Ned traveled the country speaking to teens about suicide and their fears.  

I wasn't extremely close with Ned but I knew him and I liked him.  I liked him a lot.  I'm still stunned by his loss and even more saddened by the fact that mental health awareness lost such an important voice.

I suffer from clinical depression and general anxiety.  I have for about seven years.  This isn't a secret among my friends or family, and it’s something I find myself oddly comfortable discussing openly among colleagues and acquaintances.

I’m throwing this out to the world because I feel that this is nothing to be ashamed of but rather who I am, and that the shame associated with it for some people might be eased by the knowledge that it's something anyone else could currently be going through.

For years I was able to explain my depression away as the actions of any dumb young guy in his 20s – moody, sloppy, a little irresponsible and more than a little late to things.  But as I've hit 30, it’s become very apparent to me that a few behaviors I wrote off as personal shortcomings were, in fact, a pattern of a man who struggles with coping.

It’s been really bad recently.  One recent morning, I couldn't bring myself to get out of bed.  So I took the day off of work and called in sick.  This may have been the most demoralizing moment of my life.  

I've always had those pits in my stomach, the desire to avoid stress, but somehow I've always found a way to straighten my back and face the day.  But there I was, physically unable to do something as simple as get out of bed.  I'm ashamed and embarrassed just writing this sentence.

I don’t know why this happens.  To anyone.  But I do know this – I know that I've had some days where I’d hope for something bad to happen in my morning commute.  I know I've had some days where I've had incredibly self destructive thoughts.  And I know I've had some days where I go to bed so happy that nothing bad happened and happy that I’ll live to face another day.  

And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

So if you’re out there, if you’re awake right now, terrified of what tomorrow brings; if you’re crying in public on your lunch breaks, or laying into a punching bag at the gym harder than everyone else in the room because you have too much anger inside you, if you’re on the edge and you don’t know what comes next but you’re convinced the moon, the stars and all the planets are about to fall down on your head, believe me you’re not alone.  There are countless of us trying our best to just get through the day and amazed when we do.  And we've got your back. 

I've got your back.

A few months before he died, Ned Vizzini visited me at my office and gave me an autographed copy of the audio book adaptation of It's Kind of a Funny Story.  The note he wrote on the cover reads, "Rock on, be strong."

I dig that message. I offer it to you.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You can't spell TEACH without CHEAT!

Below is my letter to the future political leaders of America on why they should keep it in their pants:

Dear Aspiring political leader,

Bill Clinton is probably the best President of my lifetime and likely the smartest political mind of his generation.  And yet, he was caught cheating on his wife.  He was caught before the internet was the mainstream.  He was caught before everyone was on Twitter.  And he was caught despite conducting the affair in the safest building on the planet.  Even with all of that, he still didn’t get away with it

Do you really think you’ll be able to get away with it?  Do you really think that you are smarter than Bill Clinton?

Look, I don’t think a politician’s personal life is my business.  Leaders like Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani didn’t seem to let their inability to stay faithful to their wives affect how they did their jobs. What I don’t like is when you guys lie to me about who you are.

If Eliot Spitzer tells me he’s a crime fighter, he can’t hire prostitutes.  If John Edwards wants me to vote for him based on his moral compass, then he can’t father an illegitimate child.  If Mark Sanford wants to lower taxes, then he can’t spends tax dollars on an affair.  And If Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, and the countless Republicans want to tell me they're the party of family values, then they should probably shouldn't be dumping their wives while they’re in the hospital or regularly frequenting hookers.

That's something I always liked about Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani -- they never claimed to be morally superior people.  They always campaigned as flawed men who wanted to do good.  That's why I was willing to give Anthony Weiner a second look as a Mayoral candidate.  What he did in 2011 was weird and gross, but, then, he always represented himself as a jerk.  I'm didn't feel betrayed.

Moreover, I don’t get on board with the media line about how I don’t “need the drama” of an unfaithful person in office.  If they really thought that I didn’t need it, they wouldn’t plaster my city with crude headlines or read explicit messages aloud on talk radio. 

The media didn’t report on FDR’s endless affairs and he ended up being one of the top three presidents of all time.  So, they're right – I don’t need the drama.  So they should probably stop pushing it on me.

That said, young leader of the future, let’s remember something: it's unfair that the system works this way, but it still works this way.  So tough it out, Senator Horndog.

I have a lot of good friends who worked for Edwards and Spitzer –friends who are now embarrassed to say they worked for those men.  They shouldn’t be; nobody should be embarrassed to say, “I believed in a cause enough that I got behind a person who I thought could really get it done.”

(And in terms of Spitzer and Edwards, they didn’t just end their own careers – they silenced two of the Democratic Party’s most passionate voices against corporate corruption and for the poor.  Two voices we certainly could have used in the past four years.  And make no mistake, fucked up as the system is, the blame for losing those voices fall squarely on Spitzer and Edwards themselves.  They knew what they were getting into.)

I’ve never been married, but everyone I know who is married has told me how much hard work it takes to make a marriage succeed.  I don’t doubt them.  I don’t doubt that it’s a challenge to resist temptation.  But I don’t believe it’s impossible.

If you expect me to vote for you, or to knock on doors for you, or even raise money for you, then you’d better be playing by the system’s rules.  You better keep it in your damn pants until you leave office.  You’re not just putting your name on the line; you’re putting your beliefs on the line and you’re putting the names of the people who supported you on the line.

So you want me to put my name on the line for you?  Then you owe me something worth my name.  And my name is not worth someone who isn’t smart enough to understand the rules of the game they're playing

After yesterday, I will not be supporting Anthony Weiner in this fall’s election.  If he couldn’t have been smart enough to clearly get this out there at the start of this campaign, then he doesn’t care enough about what he’s asking of myself or the voters of New York City.

So, future leader, if you want my vote, remember that you’re probably not smarter than Bill Clinton, and that you’d better be smarter than Anthony Weiner.

Tom Brennan

Monday, February 25, 2013

Call me Liam Neeson because that joke was TAKEN!

About four years ago, I was at a party with some friends -- nothing too formal, just a bunch of friends hanging out, playing games, watching TV, etc.  One friend was a little drunk and made some racially tinged jokes at the expense of two friends who are black.  It didn't register to me, really, that the jokes had been made at all (I don't actually remember what the jokes were) and the two friends didn't seem to mind the joke.  The jokes seemed in the spirit of the evening, where a lot of people were made fun of for a lot of personal reasons.

The night ended rather abruptly when the two black gentlemen left and I got the sense that something was amiss -- it was just the sudden way that they departed.  You know how sometimes the way someone leaves might not *seem* off, but you can just tell someone's upset? It was like that.

I don't remember how I got word that they were both angry about the jokes, but I know I got it second hand. I reached out to both of them to apologize.  I told them that even though I hadn't made the jokes in question, I let it happen unanswered. I wasn't sensitive to their feelings. I hadn't been a good friend.  They both accepted the apology, but one went onto say something that still affects me four years later:

"It's okay -- you don't know what it's like to be a black person in a room full of white people. You can't know. That's not your fault, that doesn't make you a bad person. You just can't understand how I felt."

And that brings me to the Oscars.  I watched the Oscars with one friend.  We're both guys.  We loved it. We laughed our asses off at Seth MacFarlane's jokes.  Only hours later when I got home and read the reaction on Twitter did it even occur to me that his jokes could have been sexist. 

The more I think about it and the more intelligent, funny women I know who can most definitely "take a joke" have spoken out about it, the more I accept that I'm up against something I can't understand because I'm not a woman. And I'll bet a woman would be a far better judge than I in terms of what's sexist.

So with that in mind, yeah, Seth's show was sexist.  I don't think that was his intention, but that was his result.

To explore what I mean by "his intention", I'm going to go back in time four years once more:  In 2009, David Letterman angered the right wing with a joke about Sarah Palin's daughter (not the one of legal age, the younger one) having sex with a baseball player.  When he apologized, he offered an incredibly profound statement:

"I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception.  And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault that it was misunderstood."

(Anyone who wants to point out Letterman's recent comments that he's not sure he should have apologized can bite me. This quote remains true, delivery's motivations be damned.)

I've never gotten 100% on board with the "people have to learn how to take a joke" crowd for a number of reasons, most of all that it implies that an audience owes something more than the price of admission.  I'm told again and again by funny people that "nothing should be sacred", but apparently the integrity of a joke is always sacred?  That doesn't line up.

I get what Seth was going for with the "Boobs" song. I don't need the joke explained to me.  But it seems the mass audience didn't.  That's the audience to whom the Oscars telecast is selling their show, and that's the difference.  Out of my male-centric tunnel vision (we ate sausage!), I can recognize that.  The Oscars are not a comedy show.  They feature comedy, but they are not a comedy show.  MacFarlane wasn't the right host for that show.

(Incidentally, I don't think he owes anyone an apology.  The Academy owes an apology -- they knew who they were hiring.)

 Comedy comes under enough fire from people who don't "get it," and I don't think that this should lead to a widespread discussion of "what's funny," as if a society could ever come to agreement on that.  I certainly don't think a comedian in a comedy club or a performer on a comedy show or what have you should have to censor themselves.  The venue demands honesty.  If someone sought out comedy, they shouldn't be surprised when they're offended (though laughter's the sound of surprise, right, improv nerds?!)

But by the same token, let's not pretend that every time someone gets offended it's because they "can't take a joke."  If comedy's all in the delivery, then doesn't that assume shared responsibility between the performer and the audience?  Why is the onus on them alone to be understanding?

There are a zillion reasons why that person could be offended, and some of them are perfectly valid.  Maybe it's something the rest of us can't possibly understand, and as show business's customer, they are allowed to overreact.  Particularly when it's during the Oscars, a show they might be watching for something other than the host.

I think Seth MacFarlane is an incredible comic talent.  But as an Oscars host, he was all wrong, and his show ended up being sexist.  I think that's too bad, because I've heard great things about him as a boss and collaborator from people who have worked with him (and not a one of those people were white males) I also feel badly if this cost him some fans who might otherwise love his work in the right context.

That said, the Lincoln joke was gold.

(P.S.: Two months after the incident at the party, I sat with one of those same friends and watched Transformers 2.  There are two excruciatingly racist characters in that movie, and I was embarrassed watching it.  My friend had to stop me from walking out of the theater by saying,  "It's just a movie, calm down.")