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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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I wrote a series of posts (one, two, three, four, plus codas five, six, and seven) about the Warhol v. Goldsmith case in 2021, before the second appeal went to the Supreme Court in October 2022 (which I discussed here and here).

I offered two guesses about the outcome:

“SCOTUS sides with Warhol, but fails to explain in a manner that will clarify infringement for potential future cases. Alternatively, the Court sides with Goldsmith and still fails to explain in a manner that will clarify infringement for potential future cases. Either way, I predict they dodge the needed work of determining a standard for meaningful transformation.”

The Court has now ruled:

Sadly, the 7-2 decision against Warhol proved my core prediction true: the majority dodged the needed work of determining a standard for meaningful transformation, failing to clarify infringement for potential future cases.

Instead of analyzing Warhol’s transformation of Goldsmith, the majority focused on the fact that both Warhol and Goldsmith sold their images to magazines. Sotomayor explains:

“As portraits of Prince used to depict Prince in magazine stories about Prince, the original photograph and AWF’s copying use of it share substantially the same purpose.”

Gorsuch penned his own concurring opinion, which Jackson joined, emphasizing the extremely limited focus of the decision:

“while our interpretation of the first fair-use factor does not favor the Foundation in this case, it may in others. If, for example, the Foundation had sought to display Mr. Warhol’s image of Prince in a nonprofit museum or a for-profit book commenting on 20th-century art, the purpose and character of that use might well point to fair use. But those cases are not this case. Before us, Ms. Goldsmith challenges only the Foundation’s effort to use its portrait as a commercial substitute for her own protected photograph in sales to magazines looking for images of Prince to accompany articles about the musician. And our only point today is that, while the Foundation may often have a fair-use defense for Mr. Warhol’s work, that does not mean it always will.”

Kagan and Roberts (a surprise given his skeptical questioning during oral arguments) dissented. Kagan writes:

“Like most artists, Warhol did not want to hide his works in a garret; he wanted to sell them. But as Campbell and Google both demonstrate, that fact is nothing near the showstopper the majority claims.”

Kagan continues:

“The silkscreen and the photo, the majority claims, still have the same “essential nature.” The description is disheartening. It’s as though Warhol is an Instagram filter, and a simple one at that (e.g., sepiatinting). “What is all the fuss about?,” the majority wants to know. Ignoring reams of expert evidence—explaining, as every art historian could explain, exactly what the fuss is about—the majority plants itself firmly in the “I could paint that” school of art criticism.”

She even employs my favorite philosophical strategy:

“A thought experiment may pound the point home. Suppose you were the editor of Vanity Fair or or Condé Nast, publishing an article about Prince. You need, of course, some kind of picture. An employee comes to you with two options: the Goldsmith photo, the Warhol portrait. Would you say that you don’t really care? That the employee is free to flip a coin? In the majority’s view, you apparently would. Its opinion … is built on the idea that both are just “portraits of Prince” that may equivalently be “used to depict Prince in magazine stories about Prince.” All I can say is that it’s a good thing the majority isn’t in the magazine business. Of course you would care!”

In short, Kagan concludes about the majority decision: “From top-to-bottom, the analysis fails.”

Though Sotomayor’s Opinion appears first, it includes quips at Kagan:

“The dissent thus misses the forest for a tree.”

“The dissent would rather not debate these finer points.”

“These claims will not age well.”

And Kagan quips back:

“I’ll be happy to discover that my “claims [have] not age[d] well.” But that would require courts to do what the majority does not: make a serious inquiry into the follow-on artist’s creative contributions. The majority’s refusal to do so is what creates the oddity at the heart of today’s opinion. If “newness” matters (as the opinion sometimes says), then why does the majority dismiss all the newness Warhol added just because he licensed his portrait to Condé Nast?”

Kagan’s dissent also employs visual arguments, including an expected comparison of Warhol’s transformative Marilyn to his transformation of the Prince photograph:

The inclusion of Francis Bacon is more surprising:

There’s also an atypical number of nudes:

Most importantly though, Kagan recognizes the larger issue:

“Still more troubling are the consequences of today’s ruling for other artists. If Warhol does not get credit for transformative copying, who will? And when artists less famous than Warhol cannot benefit from fair use, it will matter even more.”

Artists need to know what is and what is not adequately transformative when developing artwork from a source image. Without a standard, parameters for copyright infringement will remain ambiguous, and threats of lawsuits will continue to control artistic behavior.

Consider these examples.

I’m guessing that all of the far-right images are transformative enough to avoid infringing on any copyrights from the images on the far left. (Blanch v. Koons (2005) seems to establish that: “When, as here, the copyrighted work is used as ‘raw material,’ in the furtherance of distinct creative or communicative objectives, the use is transformative.”)

But I have no idea about the three in the middle column.

Or, if these three middle photographs were copyrighted, would the images on the left and right infringe?

Returning to Goldsmith, I have no idea if either of the two transformed images are sufficiently transformative to avoid infringement.

If a work is “transformative,” nothing else matters. A transformative work can’t infringe on the copyrighted worked it transformed, regardless of other factors. While focusing on Warhol’s “use” of his Prince image on a magazine cover, the majority is indirectly declaring that Warhol did not sufficiently transform Goldsmith. But they do not provide the visual analysis needed to explain why that is and, more importantly, to establish any sort of standard for future cases.

Recall that in 2014 Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation and Underground Printing, the circuit judges ruled in the opposite direction. The defendants downloaded a photograph from a city website to use for a t-shirt ridiculing Mayor Peter Soglin:

“Defendants removed so much of the original that, as with the Cheshire Cat, only the smile remains. Defendants started with a low resolution version posted on the City’s website, so much of the original’s detail never had a chance to reach the copy; the original’s background is gone; its colors and shading are gone; the expression in Soglin’s eyes can no longer be read; after the posterization (and reproduction by silk-screening), the effect of the lighting in the original is almost extinguished. What is left, besides a hint of Soglin’s smile, is the outline of his face, which can’t be copyrighted.”

That description also suits Warhol’s transformation of Goldsmith’s photograph:

Does the (scant) visual analysis of Warhol v Goldsmith now replace the visual analysis of Kienitz? Or is it true that the elements of original photographs that remain after a silkscreen process “can’t be copyrighted”?

Even without that unaddressed contradiction, the decision deepens the ambiguity. The Court states:

“To preserve the copyright owner’s right to prepare derivative works, defined in §101 of the Copyright Act to include “any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted,” the degree of transformation required to make “transformative” use of an original work must go beyond that required to qualify as a derivative.”


“Such transformations may be substantial, like the adaptation of a book into a movie.”

So where is the line between an owner’s copyright-protected derivatives and a second artist’s fair-use transformations?

Warhol v Goldsmith tells us nothing. This is what Kagan means when she sharply criticizes the majority’s refusal to “make a serious inquiry into the follow-on artist’s creative contributions.”

The majority skipped step one:

“Before today, we assessed “the purpose and character” of a copier’s use by asking the following question: Does the work “add[] something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [original] with new expression, meaning, or message”? When it did so to a significant degree, we called the work “transformative” and held that the fair-use test’s first factor favored the copier (though other factors could outweigh that one). But today’s decision—all the majority’s protestations notwithstanding—leaves our first-factor inquiry in shambles.”

Though I don’t agree with everything in the dissent, Kagan recognizes the central challenge that the majority ignored. Instead of providing clarity, the decision deepens confusion.

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If you have three pieces of paper, you can make a twelve-page comic:

If that schematic is confusing, start with this one:

These are slides I made for the most recent iteration of my and Leigh Ann Beavers’ ENGL-ARTS 215: Making Comics class. I never lecture in any of my other classes (they’re all discussion-based seminars), but our comics course is closer to a lab: we explain a bunch of stuff, and then our students apply the concepts hands-on.

This presentation was titled “Multiple Pages” and followed homework reading “Chapter 4: Pages” in our textbook Creating Comics. It also followed the previous day’s presentation “Layout & Paths” (which I recently updated here). I’m also comics editor at Shenandoah, which we’ve been using as our online anthology.

The first question to ask when planning your own comic: will your pages follow the same layout?

Check out Rainie Oet and Alice Blank’s Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness for an example of a five-page comic that never varies from a regular 3×3 grid:

Coyote Shook’s seven-page The Gospel According to Opal Foxx follows a regular 2-panel column — until the final page switches to three panels. I call that a “page accent” — a way of giving certain story content greater emphasis by breaking from an established layout pattern:

Grey Wolfe LaJoie’s eight-page Unfished Unfinished does something similar. The irregular 2×3 begins to breakdown on the sixth page:

Taku Ward’s six-page A Cheeseburger Sushi’s Experience instead varies every layout — though with a full-width panel starting each page, including the final full-page:

Fabio Lastrucci’s five-page From the Garden varies every layout with no repeated similarities:

Marguerite Dabaie’s twelve-page excerpt from her work-in-progress The Silk Road reveals all kinds of connections: pages 3 and 5 both use regular two-panel columns; pages 2, 6, and 7 are variations on a 2×2 grid; pages 3, 8, and 12 feature full-page images with ending (and usually opening) insets. I term those kinds of layout repetitions “page rhymes”:

Miriam Libicki’s 14-page excerpt from her work-in-progress Glasnost Kids instead reveals “page phrases”: consecutive pages grouped as a unit. The first five are connected by her green penciling; the next five emphasize red; the penultimate pair create a dark woodblock effect; and the final pair break the z-path rows with n-path columns.

We include a couple of examples in Creating Comics too, including a former student’s:

I term that a “page scheme” because it looks like a poem’s rhyme scheme: AB CD CD CD BA. The example also emphasizes the importance of paired paged. Unlike all of the above online comics, the physical twelve-page comics our students make are defined by two-page spreads:

That means that instead of thinking in terms of single pages, you need to have pairs in mind. I used my own own work-in-progress for an example. The layouts are the same for each pair, but vary between pairs:

Some use the gutter to create a mirror effect:

When planning, note that one 2-page spread stands apart. The middle is also the centerfold:

Middle positions are an important concept generally, but here the key difference is physical. Pages 5 and 6 are the only paired pages that share a side of a piece of paper. That means the two pages can be drawn as a single image. You can create a similar effect with other spreads, but the middle gutter will be a challenge when you combine pages in the physical comic book:

The next part of the class presentation focused on combining narrative sequences with page breaks, which I hope to return to later here too.

Meanwhile, we enter Week 4 of our four-week spring term today, and our students are done listening to me lecture and are focused on finalizing their pages by Thursday.

Wednesday Addendum (because we forgot until we printed the first test comic):

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for further instructions, there’s plenty more in the textbook:

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It’s strange teaching a class from your own textbook. Leigh Ann and I are co-teaching the fourth iteration of our ENGL-ARTS 215 right now. The first year we divided the course into creative halves, with students writing scripts first and then executing them second. Second year we reconceived an image-first approach (draw first, letting characters and stories emerge), while culling student art for illustrations as we simultaneously drafted the book. Third year we taught from Creating Comics for the first time, following our own lessons chapter-by-chapter. We’re using it again this year, but with adjustments: like assigning the last chapter first (because it helps to get an overview of all the creative options, not just image-first).

We also tweaked our “Using Photoshoots” exercise:

It’s still a good exercise, but instead of a producing a comic strip, partnered students made whole pages, combining photos of themselves with photos of tiny plastic toys. The new additions nudged the best results yet (and from only the third day of class!):

Moving “Exercise 4.4: Value Variations” to day two helped a lot too.

Week three begins today.

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I teach Eve Ewing’s 12-issue 2018-9 run of Ironheart: Meant to Fly in my first-year writing seminar, so I’m especially pleased to see Ewing scripting the new Monica Rambeau: Photon series. Cover-dated February 2023, #1 was released last December, and the June #6 is already on stands now (I find the increasing gap between cover dates and release dates odd, but the fact that I still think in expressions like “on stands” is probably part of the problem).

I’m even more pleased to find that Carlos Lopez is coloring. Lopez is not a well-known name in comics, but I discovered the new series while googling him. He colored the 1994 Captain Marvel I discussed last week.

I assume the character has undergone significant revision during the three-decade gap (especially since the MCU Rambeau is now linked to the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel in ways that the 1982 character was not), but I’m more interested in changes in comics color technology and how they altered the decades-long norms for representing race and ethnicity in the comics medium.

A lot changed in the 90s as four-color processing gave way to experiments that culminated with Photoshop redefining coloring norms by the end of the decade. Though working with essentially the same limits as all of the previous colorists of Sons of the Serpent stories I’ve been looking at (1966, 1970, 1975, and 1991), Lopez’s work reveals changes in visual representation.

On the opening page, Lopez assigns two Chinese characters identical skin color, a light yellow-orange rendered in two tones to suggest naturalistic shading not indicated by the line art.

During the previous three decades, Asian characters were typically assigned the same skin color as White characters — an improvement over the literally yellow skin of the World War II and the Korean War periods. The characters are being chased by two Sons of the Serpent who, when arrested and unmasked, have paler faces.

Though at first Lopez appears to be continuing the norm of using skin colors monolithically as racial and ethnic codes, he instead emphasizes variations between Black characters.

Rambeau’s skin is a dark brown, but not as dark as FBI Agent Freeman’s.

Individual skin color is also not permanent. In a later panel within the same scene, Lopez assigns Rambeau a darker brown than Freeman, followed by Rambeau in the next panel with a brown identical to Freeman’s.

Lopez varies hair color too. Instead of the standardized blue for Black and Latino hair, Lopez assigns a dark red for the non-black areas of Rambeau’s cornrows, while an additional brown highlights or caps Freeman’s hair.

The intent is presumably naturalistic, as later described by colorist Ronald Wimberly changing a single character’s “hue depending on whim and light source” (2015). M. D. Bright and McKenna’s line art alters impressions of skin color too. Breaking with the more simplified style of the comic and the genre generally, one rendering of Rambeau’s face includes unusually detailed stippling that alters the shade of Lopez’s brown.

Lopez assigns Freeman’s nephew Ray Washington an additional shade, reminiscent of the non-human taupe used for Black characters before 1968. Washington’s hair is also blue, a further throwback to earlier racial coloring norms.

Because Washington is first introduced in a photograph, I considered whether Lopez was suggesting that the less naturalistic skin tone was a photographic distortion accented by Rambeau’s dark brown hand in the same panel. But a figure within the photograph has the same coloring as Rambeau, reducing the possibility.

Lopez later assigns Washington the same taupe in person, contrasting both Rambeau and an unnamed Black police officer.

Lopez also extends color variations to other racial and ethnic groups.

A crowd of students includes two shades of dark brown skin, but also two shades of orange skin, one repeating the Asian characters from the opening page, but the redder brown of two background faces are more ambiguous because of the absence of blue in their hair. The emphasis on visual differences within group identities aligns with McDuffie and Coye’s narrative of multi-cultural diversity growing stronger through “I’m of me” individualism.

McDuffie’s Milestone Comics, however, was already advancing further. “The company,” reports Justice A. Whitaker in his 2022 documentary Milestone Generations, “revolutionized the way comics were painted and printed by creating the Milestone 100-process to better represent the richness and variety of real-world skin tones.” Instead of acetate color separation, Milestone colorists such as Noelle Giddings used colored pencils and watercolors to create color art that was reproduced directly.

As co-founder Denys Cowan tells Whitaker: “there isn’t one Black skin tone” and “we were able to show the full range.”

Lopez appears to have had a similar goal — though Marvel’s color technology remained a barrier. I’m not sure if Lopez was limited to the 64 colors that Marvel had been using for decades. Marvel published their color chart in 1984:

Or if by 1994 Marvel had expanded to 124 colors — the range that had been available since 1973 but had largely gone unused since the darker colors printed poorly on comic books’ cheap paper stock. Eclipse had started using the wider range by 1983:

Neither was designed to represent the naturalistic tones of human skin. I’m guessing Lopez prefers the range of digital colors he’s using in Monica Rambeau: Photon.

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Since 1966, Marvel has published over a dozen stories featuring the KKK-based supervillain organization Sons of the Serpent. The double-length one-off Captain Marvel #1 (February 1994) stands apart as the first and only created by Black authors: writers Dwayne McDuffie and Dwight D. Coye, and penciler M. D. Bright.

McDuffie worked at Marvel as an assistant editor in the 80s, becoming a “touchstone” for race issues. (He had to explain to executive editor and Captain America writer Mark Gruenwald that “buck” was a racist slur, resulting in the new Black hero Bucky introduced in Captain America #334 (August 1987) being redesigned as Battlestar in #341.)

Bright began penciling at Marvel for the four-issue mini-series Falcon (November 1983-February 1984), and when McDuffie transitioned to writer, he partnered with Bright for Captain Marvel Giant-Sized Special (November 1989).

When roger Stern and John Romita, Jr. introduced the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (August 1982), Romita based her afro on 70s blaxploitation film actress Pam Greer’s hair, which Bright altered to shoulder-length cornrows.

After working freelance at Marvel and DC, McDuffie co-founded and edited the Black-owned Milestone Comics, which launched its first four titles in 1993, including Icon, which McDuffie wrote and Bright penciled. The two continued their partnership for the 1994 Captain Marvel issue, though McDuffie is credited only for plot, and Dwight D. Coye for script. Coye had worked as a letterer at Marvel and was also scripting Meteor Man, a short-lived series featuring the Black superhero created by comic actor Robert Townsend for the 1993 film of the same name.

Though the story was developed specifically for Captain Marvel (likely for Marvel to retain rights to the name), the character seems secondary to the multicultural message, which the Black hero and the White supremacist villains serve. The cover features the phrase “Free Your Mind” equal in size to the title logo, and the Marvel Comics corner banner includes a no-hate symbol in the rectangular space typically reserved for a title character’s image. For his series Icon and Deathlok, McDuffie alluded repeatedly to W. E. B. DuBois, and the Captain Marvel story “Speaking Without Concern” takes its title from poet Audre Lorde’s splash-page epigraph:

“I speak without concern for the accusations, that I am […] too much myself […] through my lips come the voices of the ghosts of our ancestors […].”

McDuffie expands the target of White supremacy to encompass Asians for the first time. Coye gives the two college students fleeing the Sons of the Serpent on the opening page full names, Philip Pyun and Fie Kwan Lau, and brackets their speech with an asterisked footnote: “Translated from the Cantonese.” The Sons call them “Jap parasites” and a “Nip,” though they explain, “We’re Chinese, not Japanese!”

Though the Sons consider Captain Marvel an “inferior,” they do not target her or other Black characters, reasoning that Asians “hurt Black folks, too, buying up the country, taking all the university spaces away from average students.” After the two Sons are revealed to be students, Captain Marvel laments: “It’s hard to believe this kind of ignorance exists on a college campus.”

Another student mentions that the “Afro-American Studies building was blown up recently by a group of skinheads,” a reference to Web of Spider-Man #56-57 story (November-December 1989), in which penciler Alex Saviuk depicted the skinheads wearing identical gray business suits, white shirts, and black ties, while burning a twelve-foot cross on campus, an atypically explicit allusion to the KKK. (Coye’s use of the adverb “recently” to describe a five-year-old event is likely not ironic but an indication of the ambiguously condensed nature of time in Marvel’s story-world.)

McDuffie and Coye are responding to a broad national racial context, especially regarding college campuses. Though “only 9.6 percent of all full-time freshmen in 1990 were black” (Phillips 1994), a 1990 New York Times article reports that “racial discord has risen with the percentage of minority students,” citing “two firebombings and the spray-painting of racist graffiti on a wall of a black-student center” at Wesleyan (Rierden). Several colleges had faced accusations of unfairly limiting Asian enrollments during the 80s, with Berkeley publicly apologizing and Brown acknowledging the role of unconscious bias (Takagi 578). Black students at Brown also faced racist graffiti, “Niggers go home,” painted outside their dorms (“The State of History”). Charles Lawrence lists similar incidents at over a dozen other schools, including: “Racist leaflets in dorms … White Supremacists distribute flyers … Bomb threats … Shot fired … “(431-3).

Coye condenses nation-wide events into a single day at Marvel’s Empire State University: “Last night there were about a dozen RM attacks, including an explosion in the Women’s Studies department – several beatings of leaders in the Asian, Black and Jewish communities,” plus “hundreds” of Sons of the Serpent rally flyers: “Wake Up White People! Fight for your rights!”

Early 1990s racial debate extended well beyond campuses. Dana Takagi observes how neoconservatives used the issue of enrollment to shift national conversation “from one about discrimination against Asian Americans (1983-1986) to one about diversity in the University (1987-88), to, most recently, one about how affirmative action programs systematically disadvantage highly qualified Asian American students (1989-90)” in order to oppose affirmative action generally (579). The 1978 Supreme Court decision U. of California v. Bakke established that, while race could be considered as part of admissions decisions, racial quotas violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In the 1989 decision City of Richmond vs. Croson, which invalidated a requirement that 30% of construction subcontracts go to minority-owned businesses, Justice O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion: “The dream of a Nation of equal citizens in a society where race is irrelevant to personal opportunity and achievement would be lost in a mosaic of shifting preferences based on inherently unmeasurable claims of past wrongs.” President Bush cited “the destructive force of quotas” after vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which would have strengthened the anti-discrimination employment measures of the 1964 Act. In 1992, William L. Taylor and Susan M. Liss concluded: “Affirmative action is under siege in the 1990s. The courts are no longer a friendly forum for deprived and powerless citizens who in the past were often able to find redress when it was denied in the more political arenas” (35).

Coye lampoons anti-quota rhetoric with the Sons member’s accusation that Asian students are “taking all the university spaces away from average students,” since the anti-Asian policies achieved the opposite. Coye also frames the national debate in pro-American terms. While his narrator calls Sons of the Serpent “one of the most dangerous hate groups in recent history,” Coye’s Captain America calls them a “terrorist group who would deny others their fair share of the American dream” and is unable to imagine a “larger offense.”

McDuffie and Coye present a potential riot between students and Sons of the Serpent as the most serious threat, when Captain Marvel thinks: “This is a really sticky situation. Anything could spark a riot!” She also later scolds a Black student for organizing a counter-demonstration: “Ray, this is irresponsible and potentially dangerous for everyone!”

However, Ray tells the Sons leader: “I didn’t come here to fight — — none of us did […] We’ve all got our different agendas – and God knows we all have problems with each other now and again. But today we agree –the biggest problem is you.” When the leader calls a White student a “turncoat” and “one of them,” the student declares, “I’m one of me,” triggering all of the other Sons to unmask and disband.

The non-violent tactic appears to be effective for two reasons: a White male student supports it, and, rather than unifying around shared multi-cultural principles, the message champions individual self-interest. McDuffie and Coye’s script emphasizes paradoxically unifying “problems” between racial groups, accepting limited racial conflict as an acceptable alternative to violent extremism. Though the Sons attempted to commit multiple murders, Ray declares on the final page: “Hate consumes the hater and the hated equally.”

McDuffie and Coye also reprise the Sons of the Serpent unmasking trope by retconning Gerry Conway’s swastika-tattooed “Eddie the Cross” from Web of Spider-Man #56-57 (November-December 1989) into Eddie Cross, son of Rabbi Chaim Cross. The former skinhead leader is now the Sons of the Serpent leader, but with a secret Jewish identity. Coye scripts the rabbi father’s explanation: “I’m afraid that it is all my fault that Eddie turned out this way — — my pride in our heritage made Eddie feel like an outcast — — it is what made him hate himself and led to him becoming a skinhead.”

Captain Marvel disagrees, quoting the Audre Lorde epigraph and identifying the poet as an “African-American lesbian,” while insisting “the sentiment speaks to every American – no one should have to be ashamed of their culture.” Eddie’s father pleads to Eddie: “Let your hate go,” but it is Coye’s additional element, “Love yourself,” that transforms him from a blob-like monster literally consuming himself and others.

Captain Marvel offers Eddie a parting handshake, which he refuses.

It is one of Monica Rambeau’s final gestures as Captain Marvel. Marvel renamed her character Photon in 1996, after assigning the name “Captain Marvel” to a new character in 1995.

Bright draws her flying off in the final panel, thinking: “We’ve all got work to do …,” but it is unclear what that work would be for her, Ray, or the two nearly murdered Chinese students from the opening page. Though the genre requirement of lethal threats contradicts the thinly veiled reference to real-world circumstances, the authors emphasize Marvel’s message of political moderation consistent across decades.

[Other Sons of the Serpent episodes: 1966, 1970, 1975, 1991, 2008.]

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Specifically wordless political cartoons, since all my examples are from Politico, which I read daily (and not in a good way since it has questionable results for my mental health). I’ve written elsewhere about the various relationships possible between words and images in what are appropriately termed image-texts, including (many but not all) political cartoons — but my favorite relationship is no relationship because the image stands alone.

Here are five:

By representing the stripes as dripping blood and the stars as bullet holes, the image conveys the visual metaphor that the U.S. flag stands for gun deaths.

By arranging a set of coffins in the shape of an assault rifle, the image conveys a visual metaphor comparing guns and funerals (though I’m not sure which direction the metaphor flows, since the rifle could be “like” funerals or funerals could be “like” the rifle).

Moving on to Trump’s legal woes…

Remember the jokes back in 2016 about Trump’s small hands? Even if you don’t, the visual metaphor is clear: the legal system (as represented by handcuffs) can’t hold him.

This one stands out because it relies on an unstated verbal phrase: “The chickens have come home to roost.” If you don’t know the old saying, the image can only be understood literally and so nonsensically.

Similarly, the unwritten word “crooked” is implied, but with two meanings: the visual and so literal crookedness of Justice Thomas’ figure and gavel communicates the sense of his also being dishonest.

Other cartoons use minimal words, while still relying on images to do the primary work:

Personally, I think “US Schools” is redundant (crayons are enough to suggest children and so elementary school too), but the visual placement of a bullet in the crayon box is what matters.

Like the chickens image requires a viewer to have cultural knowledge of an old saying, this cartoon requires some visual cultural literacy: the viewer needs to recognize the statue as a (very common) representation of justice to understand that “justice” has been (literally and, more importantly, figuratively) replaced by MAGA.

I admire this one because it operates on a pun — and the coincidence that Stormy Daniels’ first name happens to be an adjective with an unrelated meaning, one that the image makes literal. Also, “2024” is an effectively minimal way to evoke the next presidential race.

While the phrase “separation of church of state” is well known, it is only sometimes called a “wall,” making the words on the literalized wall useful. Still though, I think the religious clothes on the figures (especially combined with the labels “Treasury,” “Public Schools,” “Tax $$$,” and “Religious Schools”) makes the label on the wall unnecessary.

Here’s my revised version:

Here’s an example of just one unnecessary word:

While the docket/pocket rhyme is nice, it would be even more fun if the rhyme happened in a viewer’s head after recognizing that Justice Thomas is literally in the billionaire’s pocket.

Like this:

Political cartoonists also fish from the same cultural barrel, producing some of the same visual metaphors.

Again, I appreciate the minimal use of words in the first two (only labeling individuals or groups), but the third cartoonist seems anxious that viewers won’t recognize the visual reference to “fishing expedition” and so throws it into a speech bubble.

Here’s my revision:

I apparently am not a fan of dialogue in political cartoons — or at least unnecessary dialogue.

Here’s another:

I’d still say the cartoon is effective because it doesn’t use words to explain its main point: by throwing out two state legislatures, the GOP majority made them “bigger” (again the visual metaphor literalizes the figurative meaning). But notice how the two speech bubbles don’t add any meaning not already expressed through the figure’s gestures and expressions?

Here’s my revision:

I realize my revisions could be cheats since you are seeing the original versions first and so already have their verbal content in mind. So let me reverse the process

Here are two revised cartoons:

And here are the two originals:

Are any of the words I removed necessary or helpful? In my opinion, no. I also think they reduce the effectiveness of the cartoons by preventing the images from their doing their job visually.

But unless I seem entirely anti-word, I also appreciate cartoons that use words as objects — that is, rather than as dialogue or captions, as physical letters that exist as part of the represented content of the image.

Here are three:

I wouldn’t revise any of those words. Coincidentally, all three cartoons use their words as representing revisions.

[Few things age more quickly than political cartoons, but I looked at related effects last August and September too.]

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Matt Baker is best know for his Phantom Lady art in the late 40s — which Monalesia Earle and I analyze in our chapter from Desegregating Comics out next month from Rutgers. We have lots to say about Baker’s layout techniques and how they relate to his being a gay Black man in the mid-century U.S. comics industry.

But first, a history lesson on a completely unrelated character:

Tyroc was one of DC’s first Black superheroes, premiering in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 (April 1976). He was preceded only by Jack Kirby’s Black Racer in New Gods #3 (July 1971), Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams’ John Stewart in Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow #87 (December 1972), and Robert Kanigher and Don Heck’s Nubia in Wonder Woman #204 (January 1973).

Tyroc’s first appearance over three years later coincides with Jeanette Kahn taking over from Carmine Infantino as DC’s publisher in January 1976. He featured prominently again in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #218 (June 1976) and #222 (December 1976) before vanishing for three years.

He reappeared as a member of the assemble cast in #250 (April 1979), in #263 (May 1980) and #264 (June 1980) of the retitled Legion of Super-Heroes, and in the three-issue limited series Secret of the Legion of Super-Heroes (January-March 1981). He vanished again for a decade, then reappeared as a member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes in #16 (March 1991) of a new Legion of Super-Heroes series, with sporadic appearances there and then in Legionnaires until 1994. He made no appearances until cameos a decade later, and then as a recurrent character in the 2011-13 Legion Lost.

One of Tyroc’s creators, artist Mike Grell, regretted his involvement. “Tyroc was sort of a sore spot for me,” Grell told an interviewer. When Dave Cockrum left DC to draw The X-Men at Marvel in 1974, Grell took over Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes. The series was set a thousand years in the future, and Grell didn’t understand why there weren’t any Black people. As discussed previously, when he interpreted a police rookie as Black while drawing his fifth issue—the script didn’t specify race for the one-off character—his editor made him change the artwork, promising him that a new and permanent Black superhero was in development. Grell received the script nine months later. He hated it.

He disliked the character’s superpower (“the world’s stupidest … By screaming really loudly and making different noises, he could cause different things to happen”), but more importantly Grell objected to DC’s explanation for why no other Black characters had appeared in the series before:

“far worse in my mind—as a writer, as a reader, as an artist, as an inhabitant of the planet Earth—was the concept of the explanation as to why there had never been any black people in the 30th century: they had all gone to live on an island, which sounds like the most racist concept I have ever heard.”

Grell complained similarly to another interviewer:

“Their explanation for why there were no black people ever featured in the Legion of Super-Heroes up until this point was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. I was dumbfounded. It’s possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, it’s a segregationist’s dream, right?”

Grell wanted to do something in protest:

“So I cobbled up a costume that was a combination of Elvis Presley Las Vegas shows and old blaxploitation movies. I drew it, but I didn’t take credit for it” (9).

He explained in another interview:

“I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis’ Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing… I modeled him somewhat after Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, who was a movie star at the time [and] a football player …” (89-90).

I had to google Fred Williamson (Hammer was released in 1972, a year after Shaft). The resemblance seems clear:

Grell references Elvis twice, but the open-shirt costume design was disproportionately common for Black male characters (including Lothar, Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage, Blade, and Black Lightning). Grell also gave Tyroc Robin’s bare legs and ankle-exposing winged boots, a visual allusion that places the adult Black male in the position of a White adolescent sidekick. The voiced-focused superpower may follow another 1970s trend of giving Black male superheroes traits associated with White female characters, in this case DC’s Black Canary and Marvel supervillain Lorelei.

Despite its unflattering elements, Grell’s costume design did not concern his co-creator, scripter Carey Bates, or their editor Murray Boltinoff. This presumably was Grell’s intent, since an overt parody would have been noticed, rejected, and replaced. Though protesting the shortcomings of a Black character by adding more shortcomings is a questionable strategy, Grell may have employed an additional strategy that also slipped past his colleagues:

He draws misdirecting layouts.

Fellow comics scholar Monalesia Earle and I recently co-authored “Misdirections in Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady” for the collection Desegregating Comics edited by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers 2023). We explain in the essay: “misdirection functions as a series of performative feints” that “seeks to effect perceptual shifts.”

Matt Baker was a gay Black man working in a overwhelming straight White industry in the 40 and 50s. What he “demonstrated through his drawings was not just a deterministically inscribed awareness of his secondary status in the U.S. (hence, drawing at the margins), but most certainly a deliberate de-centering of the White gaze upon his Black body by drawing from the margins– i.e., drawing empowerment from his marginal status.”

This is especially apparent in his layouts: “His idiosyncratic approach to viewing paths may be his most significant contribution to comics and also his most salient self-expression in an industry and culture doubly biased against his race and his presumed sexual orientation… By employing misdirection in his layouts, Baker effectively mounted an implicit critique of White norms.”

To understand what’s so disruptive about his layouts requires understanding the norms he was quietly overturning. Z-paths and N-paths “assume that contiguous panels are viewed consecutively as determined by their placement in approximately straight horizontal or vertical paths, and that when a path segment ends, typically at the physical border of a page, viewers skip to the beginning of the next row or column. Such skips are termed saccades in vision science, and they typically create a backward, page-wide, diagonal leap over a lower horizontal gutter dividing the next row (or over a vertical gutter dividing the next column). Forward viewing movements within segments (either rows or columns) typically involve no leaps because images are contiguous and parallel.”

We identify five layout misdirections that, while not unique to Baker, emerge as his signature style. While we were writing the chapter, I assumed the misdirections were essentially limited to him. But now I see that Grell uses them for Tyroc too. Of the five we discuss for Baker, three matter for Grell:

  • Misdirecting appendage: a portion of an image drawn as though extending beyond its frame and into another panel that is not next in the viewing path.
  • Reversed path: a path that moves from a right image to the next contiguous left image.
  • Parallel saccade: a backward but non-diagonal leap over a middle image that has not yet been viewed to reach the beginning of a next row or column.

In a previous blog I discussed the most notorious panel from Tyroc’s premiere issue, where Superboy and his fellow Legionnaires explain that they are “Color-blind,” revealing to Tyroc that he has been wrong for feeling “only hatred and contempt” toward them.

The panel appears in the center of the page:

Note the unframed third panel of the first row. It features Tyroc’s and Superboy’s full bodies and extends down the right edge of the page for three rows. Though the depicted moment is the third in the sequence of images, Tyroc’s legs are to the right of the fourth image, and Superboy’s feet are to the right of the fifth image. Viewing the complete image produces a reversed path. Viewers must move right to left to reach the “Color-blindness” panel. Like in Baker’s Phantom Lady, the misdirecting appendages are legs, but they don’t break frame because Grell includes no frame edges for the third image (a strategy Baker never employs).

Baker uses the techniques often, but in the Superboy issues Grell drew, from #204 to Tyroc’s premiere in #216, this is the first time he uses either a reversed path or a misdirecting appendage. If that seems coincidental, look at a page from Tyroc’s second appearance in #218:

Again, Grell draws Tyroc and a second character in an unframed, right-edge image that extends below the next row. Because the third row has two panels instead of one, the result is parallel saccade instead of a reversed path: viewers need to leap over a sequentially unviewed panel to reach the correctly ordered panel.

I’m looking at the reprint Showcase Present: The Legion of Super-Heroes volume 5, which includes issues Grell’s #193-220, plus the one-off Karate Kid #1, for a total of seventeen comics. The only pages that include either a reversed path or a parallel saccade are the two Tyroc pages discussed here. (There is one other minor misdirecting appendage, but it is only a single boot extending into another panel.)

Did Grell know Baker’s style of layouts and imitate them to silently protest Tyroc? Maybe. Parallel evolution may be more probable: both artists innovated disruptive layouts for similar reasons. Grell was disturbed by a racist script and embedded a visual flow disturbance into his rendering. Baker was disturbed by a racist and homophobic industry and regularly embedded his signature disturbances into his art.

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Last week I wrote about a self-described transphobic speaker who was invited to my campus to give a talk titled “What is a Woman?” The speaker is an extreme rightwing political entertainer, a genre I defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt’ term “bullshit” (roughly: making claims with disregard to whether they are true or not).

I have nothing more to say about the speaker (who cancelled for reasons unrelated to my school), but one of the two outside organizations credited for funding the event offers a further opportunity for genre analysis.

The secretary for the Generals Redoubt, an alumni organization promoting continued reverence for my school’s confederate namesake, released a mass email on March 27. In terms of genre, it is a fundraising advertisement. It concludes with an overt request for money: “Please donate to The Generals Redoubt … Thank you in advance for your support.” 

Like political entertainment, advertising is a genre especially conducive for bullshit, because its defining goal is not to make truthful statements but to make profitable ones. That intention and its accompanying indifference to facts shape the email.

It begins: “The question “What Is a Woman?” has vexed society for centuries …”

As I think anyone who has taught WRIT 100 at my school will tell you, that’s an example of a funnel introduction – a technique my first-year students grow past after their first papers (the author graduated in 1964, and I know nothing about the quality of writing instruction at that time).

Is it true that this question “has vexed society for centuries”? Seems doubtful, but, being bullshit, the claim is not intended to be weighed seriously. So I won’t.

The email expands the claim, stating next that the question has “led to spirited, but civil debate” and that the “Hallmarks of those discussions have been courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.”

Again, seems doubtful. But the opening sentences are not meant to be taken literally – they’re more akin to a speaker clearing his throat as he approaches the podium.

But they’re not rhetorically irrelevant either. The author uses them to set-up an actual claim, albeit a hyperbolic one: “Apparently, the concept of civil and courteous discourse has disappeared at Washington and Lee.”

After referring to the extreme rightwing political entertainer as a “noted commentator,” the email clams that the scheduling of the event “has sent the far-left members of The University Community into an emotional meltdown.”

Has it though? Let’s set aside that further hyperbole and instead explore the irony of the claim.

The “noted commentator” has a show on the extreme rightwing political entertainment platform the Daily Wire. One of his most recent episodes is titled “The Pride Flag Deserves our Disrespect.”

The “noted commentator” also told the Loudoun County school board in 2021:

“You’re all child abusers. You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult. A cult which has many radical views, but none so deranged as the view that boys are girls and girls are boys. By imposing this vile nonsense on students, to the point where girls are sharing locker rooms with boys, you deprive these kids of safety, and privacy, and something more fundamental too, which is truth. If education is not grounded in truth then it is worthless. Worse, it is poison. You are poison. You are predators.”

Are these examples of civil and courteous discourse?

Do they display the hallmarks of courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints?

The email continues to its most central claims: “Totally disregarding the First Amendment rights of all members of this Community, a group of students has been circulating a petition demanding Mr. Walsh be prohibited from speaking.”

I’m not sure if this is bullshit (a statement made without regard to whether it’s true). It’s possible that the author is lying (making a statement he knows is false with the intent of it being mistaken as true). Or perhaps the author is simply ignorant (making a false statement that he has mistaken as true).

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment limits the powers of the federal government. It has no bearing on a student petition addressing a private university’s administration. No community member’s First Amendment rights have been disregarded — or could be in this context.

Whether from ignorance or deceit, the author next mocks students and professors for not understanding the First Amendment: “Many of the petition’s signatories are law students (who presumably have read The First Amendment) and some law professors (who likely have taken and/or taught courses on The First Amendment).”

Though this is a factual statement (I also assume the students have read and the professors have taught the First Amendment), the implication is absurdly false: that it is the students and professors who do not understand the First Amendment.

The author does offer one correct assertion: “Circulating a petition is indisputably protected by The First Amendment.” This is true. Congress cannot pass a law prohibiting students from petitioning their university administration to disallow the speaker’s event.

But then the author highlights the depth of his confusion in the next sentence: “Demanding Mr. Walsh be banned from speaking because some students and a limited number of faculty disagree with his views or his message is not protected.” In fact, it is. Congress shall make no law abridging that freedom of speech.

Why is the author making these false claims?

That brings us to our next genre.

I mentioned Binder and Kidder in my previous blog. I’ll quote their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today again:

“The answer to why supporting vile speech has become such a ubiquitous part of college-level conservatism is that student-led groups are operating within a larger outside channel of activism. Many national organizations on the right see the First Amendment as a valuable tool for disrupting liberal hegemony in higher education.”

Binder and Kidder continue:

“national organizations and wealthy benefactors set the tone for what types of activism are appropriate for club members, and they provide a ready-made and consistent script that right-leaning students use to defend their provocations.”

I also referenced Henry Farrell last week. He explains:

“The reason why so many campus controversies seem to follow the same script is … that they are following the same script. A conservative group invites a figure onto campus who seems guaranteed to provoke outrage, leading to protests, and likely headlines about campus illiberalism. This is not a reaction against purported wokism so much as a means of weaponizing it for the other side’s political purposes.”

The Generals Redoubt is parroting the script that Binder and Kidder outline:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.”

I’m not sure what to call this genre. Something like “outside extremists woo students into supporting vile speech to provoke other students so outside extremists can cry wokism”?

Whatever you call the genre, it’s depressing to see it performed at my school.

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I teach genre theory.

Currently, my course North American Contemporary Fiction focuses on what I term “literary genre fiction,” the Venn diagram overlap of “literary” (which is itself a genre) and traditional “genres” (which include, for example, mystery, horror, romance, science fiction, post-apocalypse, and alternate history). My Advanced Fiction Workshop has the same focus, but from a creative-writing perspective.

I do not teach nonfiction, but nonfiction falls into subgenres too. For instance, a speaker appearing soon on my campus works in what I would term “extreme rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

I’ll try to clarify that.

Rather than Venn diagrams, picture circles inside circles, beginning with the largest outer circle labeled: “entertainment.”

Entertainment includes all kinds of overlapping subgenres, but focus on just one of those inner circles: “political entertainment.”

I use the term to distinguish content from political news. While it’s possible that all political commentary falls under “political entertainment,” and that all news sources suffer some level of bias (albeit in some cases minor), I define the category primarily by audience and so audience expectations, which are shaped by and in turn shape production intentions.

The goal of political entertainment is to please a specific political audience. This means that it is not primarily designed for accuracy or truth. That doesn’t mean that claims made within political entertainment are necessarily inaccurate or false. It means the claims are made without any regard to accuracy or truth. In philosophical terms, it’s bullshit. (If you haven’t read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” please do.)

Here’s an example from the genre of legal studies. When Tucker Carlson was sued for slander in 2020, his defense team successfully argued that Carlson is playing a TV persona who no “reasonable viewer” could take seriously and so is therefore incapable of committing slander. The court agreed that, as a political entertainer, Carlson “is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.” He is “simply bloviating for his audience.”

Most political entertainment is partisan, but there are probably exceptions. I don’t watch Bill Mahar’s Politically Incorrect, but it may be an example of political entertainment that doesn’t fall clearly into the next subdivision. Mahar has been described as “liberal” at times and “conservative” at others and, from what I can gather, his style of comedy and commentary cuts in multiple political directions.

Mahar’s neighboring circle, “partisan political entertainment,” is much larger. It divides into two further circles: “leftwing partisan political entertainment” and “rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

The first includes comedians such as John Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Michael Moore. It also includes non-comedian pundits addressing similar leftwing audiences. I don’t watch MSNBC, but I believe there are a number employed there, perhaps most prominently Rachel Maddow.

The second, “rightwing” circle includes fewer comedians (I can’t think of any with weekly platforms), but the list of pundits is much longer and includes, for example, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck.

Both of the two circles within “partisan political entertainment” include one further inner circle each: “extreme leftwing” and “extreme rightwing.” Perhaps some of the names listed above belong in those innermost circles. While Fox News and MSNBC are explicitly and sharply partisan, they tend not to be rated as extremely biased as Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN, and Daily Caller on the right, or HuffPost, Daily Beast, or Daily Kos on the left.

InfoWars is so extreme it may deserve its own even further inner-innermost category, but certainly any commentator working at Daily Kos or Daily Wire falls into the genre of “extreme partisan political entertainment.”

That includes Markos Moulitsas on the far left and Matt Walsh on the far right.

In 2015, my small liberal arts university adopted the Chicago Principles, which state that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” and that “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

I strongly agree with those principles.

Which is why I dislike partisan political entertainment.

I happily admit that I have watched and enjoyed Stewart, Oliver, and Bee, though none recently. I got bored by each of their comedy styles. That means that as an audience member I understood myself to be consuming comedy. As a genre, comedy does not foster “deliberation,” let alone “in an effective and responsible manner.”

Neither does political entertainment generally.

So while my university’s administration evokes the Chicago Principles as reason for having to accept an extreme rightwing partisan political entertainer on campus, the invited speaker violates those principles. He impedes the ability of members of the University’s community to engage in debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner.

To be clear, the issue is not whether the invited speaker expresses ideas that are “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” He does. But so does philosopher Kathleen Stock (who believes “many trans women are still males”). Stock, however, expresses offensive ideas in a manner that does foster deliberation. That’s because she’s working in the genre of philosophy, not political entertainment. If the student organization that invited the speaker actually wishes our campus community to deliberate the question “What is a woman?” (the title of their speaker’s presentation) then they have failed overwhelmingly. Their spectacle instead achieves the opposite.

And, disturbingly, that is its goal.

The presentation is funded in part by Young America’s Foundation, an organization that Amy Binder and Jeff Kidder discuss in their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs…. Ultimately, it is the influence of outside players—such as the Leadership Institute, Turning Point, Young America’s Foundation, PragerU, and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as local donors helping to fund their preferred campus clubs—that make speech uniquely effective in reactionary mobilization.”

(Please read Henry Farrell’s “Conservatives on campus” for more on the above.)

Young America’s Foundation, the invited speaker, and the student organization (to the degree that its members accepted the outside funding to host the speaker) are intentionally undermining the principle of careful and meaningful deliberation that is at the heart of their institution’s educational mission.

And there’s nothing to be done about that.

The next question before that student organization, the university administration, and the overall campus community is:

What practical steps can we begin now so that this doesn’t happen again?

Or, in terms of genre, can we please cut the bullshit?

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