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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: December 2021

I learned the term “tronie” from Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing. It likely comes from the French word “trogne,” which rougly means a grotesque or comic face. When applied to Vermeer and other 16th and 17th century Dutch artists, the term is a way of distinguishing the depicted figure from a portrait of a specific person. Which is how I’m using it. The images below also continue my “textured” series because they all include text from the last chapter of my next book, The Comics Form: The Art Sequenced Images (I submitted final copyedits the last week of the semester). Sometimes the text is obvious and (almost) legible; sometimes I layer and manipulate it until it devolves into a thick gray (and sometimes unexpectedly purple and blue) pattern. As usual, all of the marks originate in the technologically obsolete yet creatively inspiring MS Paint. I completed a couple of them while quarantening after Thanksgiving with Covid. It was a long semester. I’m hoping for a better 2022.

According to a May 2021 Pew poll, 59% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 39% think it should be illegal. A June 2021 Gallup poll asked a more specific question, but found almost the same results: 58% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, while 32% support. Gallup has been asking that question for over thirty years, and a majority, from 52% to 58%, has always opposed overturning.

And yet the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case challenging Roe v. Wade, and the lopsidedly conservative majority seems poised to strike down or severely weaken the 1972 precedent.

What exactly does that mean?

Roe v. Wade established the following system for state laws:

  • First trimester: no restrictions.
  • Second trimester: reasonable health regulations.
  • Third trimester: any restrictions (unless a woman is endangered).

In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey replaced that system with a similar one:

  • Pre-viability: no restrictions.
  • Post-viability: any restrictions (unless a woman is endangered).

Current infant viability is roughly week 24 and so in the second half of the second trimester. Infants born at 28 weeks or earlier are “extremely preterm.” A 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that even with major technological interventions:

  • Infants born at week, 22: 5% survived (3% without severe impairment).
  • Infants born at week, 26: 81% survived (76% without severe impairment).

Fetuses delivered before week 22 do not survive.

The Roe decision was also based on viability, adopting the assumption that, while variable, it most often began at the start of the third trimester (between week 24 and 28). That was fifty years ago, and despite major technological advances, viability has barely shifted.

Now look at the CDC’s statistics for percentages of abortions performed at various weeks. In 2016:

  • Week 8 or earlier: 65%
  • Week 13 or earlier: 91%
  • Week 21 or later: 1%

In 2018:

  • Week 9 or earlier: 78%
  • Week 13 or earlier: 92%

In 2019, Kevin Drum compiled the CDC statistics into a chart: “Using state data, it’s possible to roughly estimate the percentage of abortions performed in weeks 21-30. Above that, no records are kept, but the numbers are so tiny that they register as 0.00 percent.”

This clarifies what the abortion debate is about, and what both the 1972 and 1992 decisions protect. Pro-birth advocates often disregard the above facts to argue falsely that restrictions are necessary to prevent late-term abortions–even though over 99% of abortions are performed on non-viable fetuses incapable of sustaining life even with the most extraordinary technological interventions.

When the House or Representatives passed the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, pro-birth advocates responded: “This bill would impose abortion on demand nationwide at any stage of pregnancy through federal statute … Congress should not advance a radical ‘abortion on demand until birth’ policy that is completely out of step with our country’s principles.”

Would the bill allow “abortion on demand until birth”? No. The bill reinforces the viability rule created by the Supreme Court in 1992, and with the same single and explicitly stated exception: “A prohibition on abortion after fetal viability when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

The law also would not require doctors to perform abortions “on demand.” It states: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services.” It’s the doctor’s choice, but not the state’s. 

Why lie about abortions?

Ask Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In 2006, she signed a newspaper ad opposing so-called “abortion on demand.” There’s no such thing. Barrett either knows that or she doesn’t. Either possibility is disturbing.

The Mississippi law that the Supreme Court is currently evaluating bans abortion after week 15, prompting Chief Justice Roberts to ask an opposing lawyer: “If you think that the issue is one of choice, that women should have a choice to terminate their pregnancy, that supposes that there is a point at which they’ve had the fair choice — opportunity to choose — and why would 15 weeks be an inappropriate line?” 

Because 15 weeks would be arbitrary. Planned Parenthood v. Casey’s viability standard is the only meaningful and long-tested standard for regulating abortions.

Judging by Kevin Drum’s CDC chart, a national 15-week abortion cut-off would affect fewer than 5% of cases. Except with the 1972 and 1992 precedents eliminated, the constitutional right for an abortion would also be eliminated, allowing all restrictions. Texas has already enacted a ban on abortions after 6 weeks (with an especially disturbing enforcement system of paying private citizens to take offenders to court). According to Drum’s chart, if the Texas law were enacted nationally, it would block 66% of abortions. Total bans are even likelier. Twelve states have already passed laws that will automatically take effect if the Supreme Court overthrows Roe v. Wade, and another ten would likely follow. Only fifteen states have laws that would protect abortions in the absence of Roe v. Wade. 

The Court’s decision is due in June—just in time for mid-terms and so control of both the House and the Senate. The Supreme Court’s current conservative supermajority was manufactured by Senator McConnell preventing Obama from replacing Justice Scalia after his death on February 13, 2016, nine months before the presidential election, and then allowing Trump to replace Justice Ginsburg after her death on September 18, 2020, six weeks before the presidential election. As a result, two-term President Obama selected no Justices and one-term President Trump selected three—with the explicitly stated intent of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Though in 1999 Trump said, “I am very pro-choice,” during a 2016 debate he declared the opposite: “If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, [overturning Roe v. Wade] will happen. And that will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” Though that radical campaign promise is completely out-of-step with our country, six years later the McConnell-packed Court is working to make it true.

I became comics editor of Shenandoah in fall 2018, and except for happily stepping back for a guest editor last spring, I’ve had the privilege of selecting works for what is now six issues. The first couple of issues were all solicited, but the journal has garnered enough of a reputation for publishing literary comics that I find my job is more about being introduced to new names from our increasingly impressive submissions than seeking out names I already know. That’s a happy change. Better, the range of styles and narrative approaches I keep meeting are eclectically eccentric. One of the works in our new issue (which went live Friday!) was originally a poetry submission (you’ll have to guess which one), so ‘narrative’ isn’t even the right word. I spend an improbable amount of my scholarly life debating the definitions of ‘comics’ (at least two definitions are necessary, one for form, one for medium), but ‘literary comics’ (and its sibling ‘poetry comics’) poses an even greater riddle. But here’s the simplest approach: when defined by medium, a literary comic is a comic published by a literary journal or press, and since Shenandoah is most definitely a literary journal (we just entered our 71st year), the six news works linked below are most definitely literary comics. Though the category ‘Shenandoah literary comics’ is self-explanatory, I also wonder if that category is developing its own recognizable aesthetic. I both hope so and hope not. You can judge for yourself:

Aidan Daniel’s “How to Do the Scorpion”

Maggie Queeney’s “A Ghost Story (Women)”

Coyote Shook’s “The Gospel According to Opal Foxx”

Kristen Emanuel’s “Mothra x Godzilla”

Taku Ward’s “A Cheeseburger Sushi’s Experience”

G.H. Yamauchi’s “Decoding”

I thought I had coined the term “outrage machine,” but then I read a 2019 Atlantic article by Jonathan Haidt describing how the 2009 social media innovations of “Like” and “Retweet” transformed what appears in user feeds. One of the inventers felt instant regret: “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

I also thought I coined the term “outrage porn,” but no, C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams described it in a 2019 New York Times article:

“When you read your Facebook newsfeed and soak in all the reports of morally outrageous events, and you do it just for the satisfaction of feeling outraged, then Facebook has become your porn stash. You’re not trying to fix problems or make morally balanced judgments. You’re just after the pleasures of moral outrage: the smugness, the self-satisfaction, the delightfully hot feeling of righteous indignation.” blogged on the topic the same year:

“When not talking about sexual content, porn can be used to mean content that’s meant to ‘cater to an excessive, irresistible desire for or interest in something’ …. There’s moral outrage porn, which is when people seek out and view content that makes them angry.”

Both articles also note the same problem. concludes:

“At the heart of how we use the word porn in the generic sense is gratification without investing in what it takes to obtain or upkeep what’s being described. It allows people to interact with an object or idea without any of the struggle that it takes to do things…”

Nguyen and Williams go further:

“The pleasures of moral outrage are maximized when morality is simple and the world is starkly divided into good and evil. So the consumers of moral outrage porn will seek out the most cartoonish depictions of the enemy. They will want a newsfeed full of unambiguous stories of the other side’s wickedness. Over time, they may even develop a less nuanced and more easily inflamed sense of right and wrong, to increase their moral outrage. … its consumers, having simplified their moral systems for the sake of self-righteous pleasure, will take that cartoon morality with them when they engage with the real world. We may already be seeing the results.”

Ah, yeah, I definitely think we might be seeing some results here.

QAnon Shaman' Jacob Chansley, face of pro-Trump Capitol riot, pleads guilty  | The Seattle Times

And the outrage porn machine is hardly limited to social media. Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote last week:

“It will come as no thunderbolt to even casual TV viewers that when you consider all the news and commentary the cable networks serve, they regularly give it a political spin. … The networks often behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the ‘enemy’ — than they do independent news organizations. By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.”

Shafer also identifies the same porn effects on viewers:

“A riled viewer is a devoted viewer. … This devotion to serving the political passions of viewers may increase ratings, but it’s a hell of a way to run a news organization. When the networks ignore or overplay a story to appeal to their viewers’ prejudices, they give them little info-silos in which they can safely cocoon from the real world.”

I don’t look at liberal porn. I don’t watch MSNBC or CNN. I don’t read Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Daily Beast, or Daily Kos. I stopped my online subscription to the Washington Post a while ago, but I keep renewing New York Times—though I ignore the op-eds and I balance it with the Wall Street Journal. Those are the extremes of my centrist swath: slight left lean to slight right lean. Reuters and Associated Press are consistently ranked least biased, and so I look at them too. TheHill, another most-centrist, is my favorite.

I don’t look at conservative porn either: Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, Drudge Report, Breitbart, Daily Caller, etc. I certainly don’t listen to Carlson, Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh, etc.

I started and have moderated (with occasional breaks) a Facebook page called Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society (I didn’t name it) for over three years. It’s designed for conservatives and progressives to talk. I’m currently on one of my breaks (unannounced), because I am (once again) exhausted by the Republican outrage porn machine.

I spent the first couple of years trying to convince everyone that it matters where they get their news and that having real political conversations requires committing to non-partisan sources. That didn’t work. And it keeps not working. In exchange for modeling self-moderation news intake, I get conservatives openly and wantonly addicted to their partisan porn. And the results are exactly what Shafer, Haidt, Nguyen and Williams, and predict.

Here’s a recent example. When I began a post about the increase in violent rhetoric (specifically death threats targeting election workers), another member responded:

“We have created an environment where we feel required to ‘fight’ for our identified group’s perceived piece of the pie. Heck, we now see infighting inside the same party. Disappointment that the ‘wrong’ minority color was the first female mayor of Boston. That’s *crazy*! That came from supposedly ‘centrist’ NPR.”

So, two things: 1) I know this individual doesn’t listen to NPR, and so 2) their reference is almost certainly to a conservative pundit who spun the content for their consumption. I had no idea what they were talking about, so I googled and found a November 16 Morning Edition article that begins:

“For the first time in its history, Boston is inaugurating a newly-elected mayor on Tuesday who is not a white man. Michelle Wu – who’s Asian American — is the first woman and first person of color elected to lead the city. While many are hailing it as a major turning point, others see it as more of a disappointment that the three Black candidates in the race couldn’t even come close.”

The five-minute article interviews a range of Boston residents, including Black community leader Rev. Eugene Rivers who said: “We can only play race card for so many occasions. I mean Black leadership failed to produce success even with an incumbent. We failed. Now that’s not on white people.” Imari Paris Jeffries, who leads an MLK memorial organization said that “a candidate’s race should not be the determinant in any race”: “In this anti-racist discourse, I don’t think we’re going to find identical twins of our experience in order for [candidates] to empathize. I think we have to start creating a larger tent and find common ground together.”

Does the page member really think that’s “*crazy*!”? We’ll never know because they’ll never read it. They continued:

“Along the same lines, the absurd over the top allegations that vast swaths of Americans are racists is adding fuel to the fire. It takes a lot of discipline to not get emotionally energized when you are accused of being a bigot when you know full well that you aren’t. This last Virginia election is a prime example. National media telling the entire country that the reason I voted Republican was because I’m a racist is quite aggravating.”

I responded: “When you say ‘national media’ is calling you a racist, do you know that because you’re coming across examples yourself, or are you following conservative pundits who have cherrypicked individual examples for their audience?”

They responded: “You seriously didn’t hear anyone suggest that the Virginia results were an expression of racism?” They included a link to an article titled “Racism alive and well in Virginia election” from an Australian website (which after multiple google searches I can’t now find).

I responded: “I read a lot of ‘national media’ and much less frequently I look at some further left sources. I’ve literally never heard of Green Left. Your preferred sources are literally banking on this fact: ‘It takes a lot of discipline to not get emotionally energized when you are accused of being a bigot when you know full well that you aren’t.’”

(I did not respond: That’s like watching actual porn and then bragging about your self-control for not masturbating.)

Their response: “If I understand you correctly, it’s not the liberals’ fault for originally saying it, it’s the conservative’s fault?”

I gave up.

Maybe I should have said: yes, sometimes people say things that outrage you. If you come across such a thing in your normal course of life, you are certainly permitted to express outrage in response. However, if you frequent places that search for and amass all-things-outrageous and deliver them to you for the partisan pleasure of your self-righteous indignation and continued patronage, then it’s become something else.

This was hardly the only exchange like this. The same week when someone else cited the Department of Homeland Security’s recent assessment (“the most significant terror-related threat facing the US today comes from violent extremists who are motivated by white supremacy and other far-right ideological causes”), the above member responded:

“The same group now says moms at school board meetings are domestic terrorists.”

There is no part of that sentence that’s true. For evidence, they linked to a Christopher Rufo tweet that quoted a sentence from a letter written by the National School Boards Association to the Attorney General urging the Department of Justice to treat threats of violence made against school board members as a form of terrorism.

I won’t bother quoting the rest of our exchange.

I could provide other examples, but unlike porn, this blog isn’t about gratuitous excess.

Unfortunately, like actual porn, the Republican outrage porn machine is not about to stop. Their addicts certainly aren’t. I actually like the page member I quote above. They are one of the most intelligent and considerate people in the group. Which only adds to my exhaustion and horror.

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