Of Blacklists and Freedoms: DC, Superman and Orson Scott Card

DC Comics recently announced that they had put a Superman title that was to be authored by Orson Scott Card in abeyance; the artist – Chris Sprouse – having decided to remove himself from the project;  Chris said “It took a lot of thought to come to this conclusion, but I’ve decided to step back as the artist on this story. The media surrounding this story reached the point where it took away from the actual work, and that’s something I wasn’t comfortable with.” (NYT)

This followed a petition to DC to remove the comic that has already garnered nearly 17,000 signatures and statements by a number of comics retailers who said they would refuse to carry the title.

The furor centers on Orson Scott Card’s often inflammatory anti-gay marriage statements in numerous essays, as well as his membership on the board of the National Organization for Marriage which states that it was “Founded in 2007 in response to the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures, NOM serves as a national resource for marriage-related initiatives at the state and local level.”

DC has apparently opted to try and side-step the issue, rescheduling Card’s book while seeking a new artist.  In the meantime, DC issued the following statement:“As content creators we steadfastly support freedom of expression, however the personal views of individuals associated with DC Comics are just that — personal views — and not those of the company itself.”

The furor over Card has even edged its way into the film version of Ender’s Game, with studio marketing execs seriously concerned over using Card himself to help promote the film and trying to decide whether he should be in attendance at the roll out at the upcoming San Diego Comic Con – “I don’t think you take him to any fanboy event,” says one studio executive. “This will definitely take away from their creative and their property.”  Another executive sums up the general consensus: “Keep him out of the limelight as much as possible.” (Hollywood Reporter).

The issues raised within the SF community center on the question of whether or not an artist’s works should be held accountable for the artist’s beliefs.  Many question the rightness of attacking the comic and the film, the calls for boycott of Card’s works in general, the pressures brought to bear on others associated with various projects.  Much of the furor seems to be related to confusion over the broad reach of free speech/expression, a misunderstanding of blacklists and inexperience with relatively new modes of political expression.

Orson Scott Card is well within his rights to express his views on gay marriage and homosexuality in general; he is also well within his rights to exploit whatever platforms he feels will help him spread his message as widely and effectively as he can.  The true test of our right of free and open expression only comes with the airing of unpopular, even odious, views.  Card’s thoughts on gay marriage – extending even to veiled calls for the overthrow of the Federal government – are the embodiment of our Freedom of Expression.

The writers and signers of the petition to DC are also engaging in the embodiment of the Freedom of Expression.  Many seem to forget that protests in favor of LGBT rights were met with the same kind of derision and scorn that is being heaped on Card and DC now – with one major exception: DC and Card are not being beaten up by the police, they aren’t being firebombed, or arrested, or subjected to real blacklists concerning hiring, business licenses, school acceptances and more.

(Blacklisting is a term that is being misused in this context:  made famous during the McCarthy era, the Blacklist preventing known and accused “communists” from obtaining work in many fields had the imprint and approval of the Federal Government and was a real effort to seek out and destroy anyone who had ever expressed so-called communist sympathies:  many careers were ruined over insinuated thought crimes.  As of this writing, there are no known Congressional Committees that have been established to root out citizens with anti-gay marriage leanings. The relatively unorganized protest against Card is hardly a Blacklist.)

As the expression goes “money is the mother’s milk of politics”.  Given the spending seen during the recent presidential election one hardly need explain this.  Legitimate protest can take many forms and using money as a tool – either raising it or attempting to curtail its flow – are completely reasonable forms of the Freedom of Expression that in this day and age ought to be expected.

The central question though, seemingly raised primarily by those who are uninterested in this particular contretemps, is whether or not there is or should be a dividing line between a work and its creator.  To put a finer point on it, the question in this particular case is really whether or not works created for entertainment can be separated from their creator and the creator’s other works that are not entertainment.

An over-looked factor in this particular debate is the fact that Card himself has breached the dividing line with his publicly distributed essays on the subjects of homosexuality and gay marriage.  His views are not those of an author expressing his opinion to friends and family, they are the views of an author who has achieved some fame and notoriety and has not been ashamed to use that in furtherance of expressing his beliefs. (If only in the bio accompanying such essays;  nevertheless, the association of his success as an author lends the imprint of authority to his writings that would otherwise be absent.)  If a dividing line between artist and work ever existed, Card himself wiped it out.

The simple answer to the question of whether there is or should be a dividing line in these days (and forevermore) is “No”.  There isn’t, hasn’t been and can no longer be a separation of the artist from their works.  That some believe there was ever a time when artists haven’t been held accountable for their personal beliefs with attacks on their art are ignoring the past: in relatively recent times we have Robert Maplethorpe’s photographic exhibit in 1989 (BOTH the works AND Maplethorpe, not to mention the National Endowment for the Arts and several galleries and museums, their owners and patrons, were held equally accountable);  more recently, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan (precious cultural artifacts) because of the beliefs held by their creators.  These are but two examples.  Others are very easy to find.

But there is another aspect that is being ignored as well: the internet.  Search capabilities and the permanent storage – somewhere – of virtually everything everyone has ever said, written, commented on, pictures they’ve posted, video they’ve recorded, remain available to be mined.  The destruction of many fine would-be beauty queen careers is testament enough to demonstrate this effect.  In politics (which protest of any kind is), money may be the mother’s milk, but anything is grist for the mill.

We need to realize that at this point in time, anyone may be held to account for anything they’ve said or done throughout the course of their entire lifetimes..  Fairly recently, authors have been held accountable for the ways in which they respond to negative reviews – their works being attacked in ratings and blog posts along with threats to never purchase that author’s works again because of the way they (mis)handled criticism.  The commentary and responses aren’t the work, yet we hear general approval of the negativity and admonitions to the author to “do better”  How is this, in a fundamental way, any different than the attacks on Card?  The difference is only one of degree and import, not substantive.

By all means, take a position – for gay marriage, against gay marriage, for Orson Scott Card or against him, for DC or against them, for the comics retailers or against them, for the artist or against him – but do so with the knowledge that this entire debate is taking place in a normal, customary and historically vetted manner, not in some unusual, unprecedented and unfair way.  As they say, all’s fair in love and war.  And in politics.

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  1. One reason why social and political discourse is in such sad shape today is that too many people have adopted the 1960s dictum "The personal is political." Without a dividing line between the personal and the political, we are in danger of destroying people for sport simply because we disagree with them.

    I'm no fan of Card, but I plan to read Ender's Game" soon because many folks whose opinions I respect love it. Meanwhile, I found the late Gore Vidal repellent on many levels but adore his historical novels, such as "Julian," "Burr," "1876" and "Creation." ("Messiah" was pretty good, too.)

    The Mapplethorpe case is a whole different matter. The government hasn't given Card a penny (to my knowledge) whereas I and every other federal taxpayer subsidized (through the NEA) his photos of men with bullwhips up their ass and other atrocities.

  2. I think that Card's viewpoint would be more dangerous, in a way, if it were hidden in his fiction rather than expressed explicitly in essays. The latter marks him as a bit of a nut-case while the former might be more subtly influential.

    For example, racism (lightskin=good, darkskin=bad) occurs throughout Tolkien's work, Lovecraft uses physical deformity as a "marker" for moral degeneracy, and Jack Vance's homosexual characters are invariably evil.

    I really love the writing of all three of these authors, but I do find myself constantly "correcting out" the distasteful political and social views that crop up in their work.

    In other words, I think it's easier to identify and reject, say, Lovecraft's anti-semitism (which appears in his letter and essays) than his prejudice against the handicapped, which is implicit.

    To this point, does Card's bigotry express itself in his fiction? I don't know because I'm not all that familiar with his work. I do not, though, that given his beliefs, Card would be highly unlikely to write something as nuanced as the treatment of homosexuality in The Watchmen.

  3. Typo report…..

    ….San Diego Comic Con – “I don’t think you take him to any fanboy event,” says one studio executive. … Should read ' I don't think you CAN take him..'

    Believe me my writing is so sloppy if I caught it, everybody else did as well

    It's cool if you want to fix it then delete my reply.

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