Zeus Comics and Collectibles on a Friday night is a flurry of activity – probably not unlike a busy day at the Daily Planet. Customers buzz in and out of the kaleidoscopic store, brimming over with questions about pre-orders and pull lists. About two weeks ago, the Dallas store became a lightning rod at the forefront of a nationwide debate – but tonight, it’s business as usual.
Behind the counter and at the center of it all is Richard Neal, who for the past 12 years has been owner and operator of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award winning comic shop. With Neal at the helm, Zeus Comics became one of the first stores to decide not to carry the controversial Orson Scott Card written Adventures of Superman – a decision, he explains, that had several elements to consider – but one inevitable conclusion.
“Orson Scott Card has a history of using negative-, or hate-, speech, towards the gay and lesbian community in terms of writing articles and essays, and being an outspoken advocate,” Neal said. “Over the last decade or more, he’s gone from just kind of having one negative opinion [about homosexuality] and moving into this pure on hate speech. It’s to the point where it’s not even something that you can ignore. You’re like, I really can’t support this.”
Neal, along with a portion of the Zeus audience, is gay. The decision to put Card, an outspoken anti-gay activist who once described homosexuality as “reproductive dysfunction,” behind the voice of one of the nation’s most iconic superheroes was a betrayal on multiple levels – as a gay man, as a comic book fan, and as a retailer.
“Over the weekend that the news broke, I emailed my contact at DC Comics and said ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable supporting this, what can we do? Can you guys change anything, is anything going to happen?’ And I basically got a reply back saying ‘There’s nothing we can do, but we can pass the comment on to the Superman team,’” Neal said, describing what lead him to decide not to carry the book.
“So then, by Tuesday, I’m really coming to understand that I just can’t carry this issue. It’s already got a negative connotation to it, it’s attacking me, it’s attacking my community.”
Zeus Comics, Neal explained, is plugged into the needs and wants of its audience, whom he describes as well read, forward thinking and progressive. “I made a Facebook post, just going into why I’m not carrying this one comic, written by this anti-gay bigot. And I received nothing but 100% endorsement from our audience,” Neal said. “Did I receive any negativity? I did – I saw it [coming from] outside of our audience. I saw it on comic blogs, people mentioning that they ‘never really liked’ our store, ‘wouldn’t shop’ at our store, those kinds of things. But I felt confident that I’d made the right decision.”
Neal was shocked when other stores around the country began reaching out to Zeus and following suit. “I was very encouraged by the support that I got from other stores, even though I wasn’t really advocating that for them. That’s a decision they have to make on their own. It’s a decision I’m making,” Neal said, stressing that he never encouraged other stores not to carry the book. “If DC really wants to publish this book, it will be on a shelf, and if somebody really wants it, they can go get it. Or, they can go buy it digitally – they can do whatever they want to do. It is not my power to deny somebody a comic book if they really want to read it. It is my choice, as a retailer, to decide what products that I want to stock in my store.”
It was a choice that rippled through the comic community faster than a speeding bullet – and left fans divided. Critics of the boycott likened Zeus’ decision to an attack on Card, and in some cases, even censorship. “It’s grossly unfair to try to threaten someone’s livelihood simply because they believe marriage is the union of husband and wife.” Thomas Peters, Director of the National Organization for Marriage, of which Card sits on the board, lamented in an article for the Baltimore Sun. “He has a right to his personal beliefs. It’s good to see DC Comics is standing by him.” Neal, who makes a conscious decision not to carry numerous products in his store for a variety of reasons, doesn’t happen to agree.
“Orson Scott Card is a popular science fiction author. He’s writing one issue of Superman,” Neal said. “This has absolutely nothing to do with his livelihood. This more has to do with the store, as a consumer, making a choice on what products it wants to carry. For example – I don’t carry pornography. Zeus has made a choice not to carry pornography. Am I censoring pornography? Am I denying them their livelihood?”
“If it’s ‘censorship,’ then I ‘censor’ several hundred things every single month when I order [books for the store] from previews,” Neal continued. “I censor things when I decide not to stock Pez. I censor things when I decide not to stock a publisher whose quality of comic books is poor, who doesn’t sell in the store. I mean, censorship is a very intentional word that [critics] are trying to apply to one thing, when technically it could apply to any of my actions. I put stuff in the store that I know is going to sell. That’s what I stock. And Orson Scott Card has become so toxic that his comic book would not sell at Zeus.”
It’s that toxicity that Neal says is already hurting DC Comics as a whole, simply by association with Card.
“If somebody becomes so toxic, or so negative, that it’s going to hurt DC Comics’ brand, they should let them go,” Neal said. “We see this all the time in sports endorsements – Nike would let go of Lance Armstrong, Nike would let go of Tiger Woods if they themselves become so negative that it was ultimately going to impact the brand negatively. We have to look at whether publicity on this one specific issue is going to give DC enough sales that it’s worth them risking losing the confidence of another audience. This goes beyond just making high sales on one issue. We’re already seeing in the Batwoman articles – about Batwoman proposing to her girlfriend – and it’s already [been] marred, because they talk about the positives with Batwoman and then the very next article is about how DC hired Orson Scott Card. It’s already infecting everything else they’re doing.”
While Neal says Zeus did carry Card’s Ultimate Iron Man in 2005, he stresses that it was before much was known by the public about Card’s beliefs. While he does have several books in the store – and in his home – written by authors whose beliefs don’t always line up with his own, it’s a combination of Card’s anti-gay activism and the character he’ll be writing for that make this situation different.
“I have a shelf full of writers and artists and publishers and marketers, and just products that I don’t necessarily know their political beliefs, or where on the spectrum of equality that they fall,” Neal said. “But at what point do you decide somebody’s gone crazy? At what point do you realize, okay – this is now incendiary? This is now too hot to touch. This is too important of an issue to ignore. I mean, he did this to himself. It wasn’t like an off comment on Twitter at 9:00 at night because he’d had too much to drink – this is consistent and habitual, to the point that it is repulsive.”
In response to the growing pressure from fans, DC released a statement on Card’s hiring, saying in part “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.” It’s a standard boilerplate response – and Neal isn’t buying it.
“If Card had said something negative about gender, if Card had said something negative about race or ethnicity and had been so incendiary for such a long period of time – DC would have fired him. DC would have let him go. So it’s a little offensive to me that they wouldn’t take that same stance even though we’re looking at an issue of equality,” Neal said.
“The message that it sends, in their statement, where they talk about creators rights and opinions – they’re basically saying ‘Sorry guys, we can’t do anything.’ That’s the real damning piece of evidence – when they came out afterwards and basically said ‘Oh, our writers have opinions about all this stuff, but it doesn’t reflect on DC.’ Well, no – that writer is writing Superman. And you want Superman to stand for everybody, you want him to stand for equality. You want him to stand for truth, justice, and the American way. You need to make sure that people who work on that are also, themselves, inspiring.”
And while the damage that Card’s hire has done to DC’s reputation amongst LGBTQ fans goes without saying, Neal also raised concerns about what the hire would mean for the Man of Steel – Superman himself.
“Having read comics for several decades, I know that when a writer first gets on an iconic character, they typically go through and try to redefine what that character’s meaning is,” Neal said. “So my fear is on Superman, we’re going to see some of [Card’s ideals] come through. Superman has always looked out for us. He was always the best of us. He was always strong, he was always caring, he was always trying to do what’s right. So it was really poignant in All Star Superman, where he’s talking to a kid who appears to be about to jump off a cliff, and his interpretation is that it’s maybe an attempted gay suicide. He’s just being kind, welcoming and just letting this person know that it’s going to be alright. That is Superman. Superman is that kind of caring individual. He’s not someone who sits on a board and denies people’s rights.”
Though the response to his decision may have been varied, Neal remains firm in his conviction, and his dedication to the Zeus Comics audience. He chooses to focus on the good that’s come from the discussion.
“What’s happened over the last week its that we have informed the audience – we’re at the point now where we’re making informed consumers,” Neal reflected.
“We make choices all the time to support certain types of causes or certain writers, we go to certain gas stations because they weren’t part of an oil spill, we buy organic milk, we go to a local brewery. What we’ve done with this issue is that we’ve informed the audience about hate, and hate speech, and how it affects us, and how we’re going to spend our dollars on things that are positive.”
Chaka Cumberbatch is a writer, cosplayer, and professional disseminator of anime news. You can find her on Twitter as @princessology.