Last week, Republican presidential hopeful and living caricature Donald Trump held a fundraiser to benefit veterans. During the event, Trump boasted that Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter donated $1 million to his foundation, and predictably, Twitter blew up. News outlets followed suit, as Perlmutter, a reclusive billionaire who hasn’t been photographed since 1995, started trending across social media. The rhetoric on both sides of the debate was predictable, with Salon’s Matthew Rozsa providing maybe the most incendiary example of the reaction from the left:
On a deeper level, [Perlmutter’s support for the Trump campaign] demonstrates that the reactionary ideals embedded in Trumpism are also promoted in our entertainment products… and that if we are going to oppose the former, we must also recognize and take a stand against the latter.
Rozsa continues, proclaiming, “it’s impossible to believe that Perlmutter’s reactionary beliefs aren’t shaping the properties he plays such a major role in helping to craft,” and concludes by effectively calling for a boycott of all Marvel properties, asserting, “when a consumer chooses to give money to Marvel after being made aware of these racist and sexist tendencies, they are implicitly expressing either sympathy for or indifference toward those problems.” He isn’t the only one suggesting this, either, with documentarian Michael Moore tweeting:
Trump announces head of Marvel Comics has written a million-dollar check for tonight’s event. Will think about that next time I buy a ticket
Now, I am a huge proponent of conscientious consuming. For close to a year, my girlfriend and I have completely eschewed shopping at corporate-owned grocery stores, instead buying our food exclusively from the local farmers market, community butcher shops, and locally owned bulk and health food stores. By doing this, we are supporting small-to-midscale farmers, independent businesses, and our local food economy, and almost as important, we are not supporting the damaging practices of large-scale food producers. When it comes to comics, however, I don’t think the matter is quite as cut-and-dry as Rosza and Moore suggest.
Regardless of which side of the debate one falls upon, most voices in this conversation have an unappealing tendency toward objectivism. Capital-O Objectivism was developed by Ayn Rand, and as such, it’s a worldview which is mostly associated with libertarians and the far-right, but an ardent defense of objective absolutes is a shortsightedness that anyone can fall prey to, no matter where on the political spectrum they stand. These debates usually look a little like this: “A is defined as this. B is defined as that. You are not A. Thus, you are B.” Take, for example, the whole Perlmutter debacle: Rosza’s argument goes that Perlmutter is the CEO of Marvel, and Perlmutter supports a known bigot, xenophobe, and misogynist. Therefore, Perlmutter must also be a bigot, xenophobe, and misogynist, and so must his company. This (flawed) logic is the same thing fueling the popular Tumblr trend, Your Fave Is Problematic, which exists to point out the problematic things which celebrities say or do. Just to bring it back to Ayn Rand, I’ll use the recent example of Tumblr digging up a 2009 photograph of Oscar Isaac wearing an Atlas Shrugged t-shirt, and trumpeting this as some sort of proof that everyone’s beloved Poe Dameron is a libertarian. The thesis, seemingly, is that if someone has said or done a single problematic thing, their work should not be enjoyed at all.
The key distinction, for me, is whether the individuals problematic act has much at all to do with their creative output. Oscar Isaac might be a libertarian; he might even (shudder) vote for Trump. I don’t know – with only a t-shirt from seven years ago touted as evidence, I very much doubt it, but he might. Did that influence his performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ex Machina? Not even a little bit. Of course, it’s easier to dismiss such qualms with actors, but concerns about an individual’s personal and political views can be a little more persistent when considering writers or content-makers. Ideas are their bread-and-butter, after all, and personal biases and viewpoints are much likelier to play a role in crafting a narrative than an actor’s performance.
This whole Perlmutter issue isn’t even the first time it’s entered the conversation about comics: in 2014, Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, bemoaning “modern comics’ descent into political correctness, moral ambiguity and leftist ideology.” Chuck Dixon co-wrote one of my absolute favorite superhero comics, Batgirl: Year One, and while I disagree with his personal politics and his editorial as a whole, I found it didn’t impede my enjoyment of his books because his conservative views had no bearing on the story he was telling. This, as it turns out, was a very intentional decision on Dixon’s part: “I try and leave my politics at the office door when I write comics. I’m not here to spread any ideology,” he said in an interview with Multiversity Comics a year previous. “I’m here to provide escapist entertainment. When I wrote Batman I had Bruce Wayne and Batman speak out against gun ownership even though I’m long time NRA member.”
This raises another good point regarding the uncomfortable intersection of comics and politics. The characters owned by both Marvel and DC are much bigger than the petty billionaires who own them, or of the politics of the individuals writing them. Their creation long preceded their current ownership, and will outlast it as well. At this point, both companies have a greater commitment to staying true to their characters than they do to using those characters to advance a personal political agenda. It’s worth noting, too, that both companies have a long history of being operated by men of dubious moral standing – most of the magazine publishers who first started putting out comic books were owned by gangsters, who acquired the businesses during prohibition as a means to conceal alcohol within shipments of paper from Canada. Isaac Perlmutter might have repugnant political views, but he still isn’t the worst man ever in charge of these properties.
Which leaves us, then, with the question of how much does Isaac Perlmutter, as an individual, actually contribute to Marvel’s creative output? Well, Michael Moore can buy his ticket for Captain America: Civil War this summer without any guilt, because the answer to that question, at least in regards to Marvel’s films, is next to none: Disney restructured Marvel’s film division last summer, so that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige no longer answers to Perlmutter, and instead reports directly to Disney chairman Alan Horn. This effectively removes Perlmutter from having any clout when making decisions as to what makes it into Marvel’s movies. This can only be a good thing, not only due to Perlmutter’s problematic politics but also his decidedly old-fashioned views toward female-fronted superhero films.
Of course, he still sits at the head of the company’s comics division. But how involved is he in making the comics and determining the direction of our favorite characters? Again: probably not much. He’s the CEO – his focus is the big picture, which, as befitting his political affiliation, is managing the bottom line. This is a job he’s done very well, mind you, taking over the company when it was near bankruptcy and steering it to the success it’s enjoying today. This offers a glimpse of a silver lining: a man who is concerned with the bottom line will be determined to offer what consumers want to buy, and with the runaway success of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, and the anticipation surrounding Ta-Nehisi Coates’s upcoming run on Black Panther, it seems pretty clear that what Marvel’s readers want right now is entirely at odds with Trump’s platform.
This is why Rosza’s black-and-white cry for a boycott of all things Marvel, based only upon the independent actions of its CEO, is so wildly ill-advised. As Marvel editor Jordan D. White was quick to point out when the controversy erupted across Twitter, Perlmutter made the donation “on his own, it has nothing to do with the job he does for Disney.” In subsequent Tweets, White cautioned that “buying or not buying a comic is not a vote for the CEO, it’s a vote for the comic,” and that a boycott would likelier get him fired than it would Perlmutter. He is absolutely right; while the success of a certain comic is celebrated by the entire company, the failure of a certain comic is usually pinned directly upon either the creative team or the book’s immediate editorial team. Thus, a boycott won’t do any damage where it counts, keeping Isaac Perlmutter comfortably sitting upon his current $3.7 billion net worth, while the writers and artists, many of whom are outspokenly left-leaning, would get ousted from their jobs for failing to make a comic that sells.
I, for one, want to see more comics like Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire’s The Vision. I want G. Willow Wilson and her collaborators to continue to have a venue to tell stories of a positive and nuanced teenage Muslim Pakistani-American heroine. I want to read the story that a Pulitzer prize winning African writer will tell about one of comics’ only African superheroes. While Rosza might be right to observe that we vote with our dollars, to simply not buy any of Marvel’s comics will affect positive change only as much as not voting will; which is to say, it won’t.