State of the Artist

Doug TenNapel is a pretty talented artist who first came to my attention when I read his graphic novel Creature Tech a few years ago, although his greater claim to fame is creating the character of Earthworm Jim.   Creature Tech is filled with some really striking black and white artwork and brimming with imagination, so when TenNapel started up his new webcomic Ratfist, I figured I’d go along for the ride.

One of the more recent strips shows the title character being brought before the Board of Fairness, who talk about how “individuals can’t be trusted to be fair,” and how “we will remove the unfairness … by force!”  They’re clearly set up as misguided bad guys, and of course our hero resists.  So far, so good.

But it’s in the comments where things go off the rails a bit.  It seems TenNapel is not only convinced that freedom is a concept “alien to Canada and Europe,” not only credits the U.S. being 78.5% Christian as “why we kick ass,” but, when pressed on the issue of gay marriage, calls his argument against it “the same argument I have against letting a man take a dump in the ladies room.”  Now it’s hard not to read this “Board of Fairness” as a veiled attack on those who support marriage equality, who want to “force” their fairness on those who disagree with them, and to see those against it as this poor, put-upon minority fighting against an oppressive bureaucracy.

Now it’s not my intention to get into a discussion of TenNapel’s views here.  The relative ease and eagerness with which he leaps to comparing gay marriage to a man defecating in a women’s bathroom — as well as his other comments on the page — makes that discussion pretty cut and dried:  he’s against it.  And I don’t agree with him.

So I’m not going to read his webcomic anymore.

That’s where I think the meat of the discussion lies.  I’ve already seen a few other blogs on this where the argument of separating the artist from the art and even freedom of speech have been raised.  Well, let’s get one thing straight right away:  this is not a freedom of speech issue.  No one is denying TenNapel the right to publish his webcomic or express his views in the comments.  But a reader has just as much right not to read those comics or views, and to say as much.  Freedom of speech is a two-way street; it doesn’t protect you from pissing people off; in fact, speech that pisses people off is probably the kind most in need of protection.

But the argument over separating the artist from the art isn’t as easy.  As someone who values creative expression, it’s hard to turn my back on someone who’s doing just that because of something not directly expressed in that art.  But this isn’t just a matter of him espousing a religion or political philosophy I just happen to disagree with, or being caught in some embarrassing social situation.  This is him actively supporting the denial of rights to an entire group of citizens of the country he says kicks so much ass.  And if people can write off Mel Gibson over “sugartits,” I’m certainly entitled to write off TenNapel for comparing the idea of my brother-in-law wanting to marry someone he loves to that of me making a pit stop in the girls’ room.  As if “It’s just not polite” is good enough an argument against a person spending the rest of their life with someone they love just like everybody else can.

Yet I still listen to Wagner, who was a notorious anti-Semite.  And I’d still watch a Roman Polanksi film, even though he allegedly committed a crime from which he’s fled prosecution for over thirty years.  And I can’t help but feel like a bit of a hypocrite.  Sure, in Wagner’s case, there’s no living person to benefit from my patronage.  Polanksi is tougher to reconcile though.  Can I justify it by saying his supposed crime was against one person, while TenNapel would consign millions to second-class citizen status?  Or that there are hundreds of people involved in the production of a film who shouldn’t suffer because of the past behavior of the director?   Or even the fact that it’s one incident we’re talking about as opposed to an expressed belief that doesn’t seem likely to change?  I don’t know.  I guess it’s good that I can see the hypocrisy, but it’s still something I struggle with.

On the other hand, TenNapel isn’t struggling in the slightest about taking a stand against people who don’t want to do anything but be happy in the way everyone else is allowed to be.  And that makes him someone I don’t want to support anymore.  Not someone I hate or wish ill towards, but someone whose work simply won’t be in my orbit anymore.  He can even crap in the ladies room for all I care.  He’s got every right to pursue his happiness as he sees fit.

I just wish he was willing to extend the same courtesy.


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