And that’s the last Society Squad strip!
While I don’t have any specific plans to revisit these characters, I really liked writing and drawing them, so if I think of another good reason to use them – and trust me, I’ll be trying to – expect to see them sometime again.
Something I knew I didn’t want to ever show was a proper superhero fight scene. (I figure you can forgive the last panel, though, as they’re just leaping in and it’s a nice group shot and resolution. Plus, you finally see why Captain Mormon has that visor thing.) There’s loads of comics showing superheroes punching each other, and I don’t need to add to that stack. There’s also a lot showing superheroes using their powers for silly things in their downtime. What I thought would be funny was to show superheroes doing clerical superhero work. I mean, at some point, they had to have a round-table discussion about the name ‘Justice League’, right? Did Batman have to register their URL? What sort of paperwork do they have to file?
I want more comics about superheroes doing their paperwork.
A specksynder was a position on a whaling ship, and was already considered archaic when Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Being completely outdated and irrelevant even by his own time, Melville only dedicated one entire chapter to explaining it in minute detail. (I’m just joking; read the unabridged version.) In fact, he could have plum made it up for all I know; I’ve never heard the word used outside of that novel.
“Akimbo” means standing with your hands on your hips, incidentally. Like the traditional superhero power-pose.
The three members of this superhero team – whatever they may be called – were very deliberately chosen for the dynamics of the different groups they represent. Most superhero teams have a bunch of white dudes with a single woman and usually an alien, sometimes a black guy and maybe one of them knows a gay dude. Comics are getting (gradually) better with this, which is encouraging, but I wondered what it would be like to create a superhero team specifically designed around incorporating different types of diversity. You’d certainly end up with characters in conflict with one another, in interesting ways that aren’t necessarily antagonistic. That’s where the idea of Society Squad originally started.
I wanted to include:
- A character who was incidentally a minority and went unremarked upon for it (Parrot-Man)
- A character whose minority status was recognised by the characters and dealt with directly (Emperor Moth)
- A non-minority character who was a legitimately good ally (Captain Mormon)
Often, diversity is tucked away in the sidelines and never touched upon, only shown incidentally. Like that guy is gay or that woman is a Native American, but we’ll never mention that, they’re just there and they happen to be those things. In some ways, I think this is good to have in media, because it absolutely normalises these minority groups. But in other ways, it can be quite destructive, as it pushes the “we’re all the same” message instead of the much more accurate and helpful “we’re all different and that’s not a problem” message.
I think this is fine as long as it’s not the only form of minority representation in the work, which unfortunately it usually is. You need to have characters whose minority status you recognise, otherwise you’re just palette-swapping, which doesn’t represent a real-world group any better than any other character.
I made Parrot-Man a black teenager, because having a different skin tone is easy to identify him as a member of a minority group. But I didn’t want to (in this particular story) directly tackle issues that young black people face via him; I just wanted him to be there, and black. Because a minority character doesn’t always have to revolve around their minority status.
I also intended for Parrot-Man to be queer, but I never found a time to bring it up without it sounding forced and awkward. So I’m just Dumbledoring him now, which is either ironic or appropriate. Which brings us to…
As I said, you can’t have the above type of incidental representation be the only type of representation. So I pointedly made Emperor Moth’s nonbinary gender identity a topic of discussion by the characters, so I could tackle an issue head-on. I talked about it in a bit more depth in the annotation for the previous strip, but in a broader sense, I wanted to show an example of how discrimination (in this instance, cissexism) isn’t just some cartoon villain* to point out and revile in other people: it’s something that exists, usually without intent or malice, inside all of us, because those were the societal values we grew up surrounded by. As Avenue Q said, everyone’s a little bit racist, although I really don’t like that song, because it implies that simply recognising it is enough, and that we don’t have to do anything about it to change ourselves. Which yes we do each need to do.
For example, as I said the other day, I was accidentally cissexist to a friend. And just because I recognised that doesn’t mean I can shrug my shoulders and do nothing! It means I have to work harder in the future to overcome that programming. And I wanted to put that organically into a comic.
Also: Emperor Moth may be my favourite character to draw now. I’m particularly fond of them with Parrot-Man in panel 2.
*I am aware of the irony of using a cartoon to try and convey the shallowness of something “cartoonish.”
A lot has been said about what allies of minority groups should say, do, or be, and I don’t want to get into that here. But I think it’s safe to list two things that they shouldn’t do: redirect the issue to be about them (thereby turning a space for discussion about a minority group into a discussion about their majority status), or constantly remind everyone how they’re not personally responsible (see previous parentheses). With that in mind, a good ally is what I wanted Captain Mormon to be: a white, straight, cis man who is happy to learn new information about a minority group from one of its members, without making it about him.
(Although, obviously, he’s not as polite as he could have been in the previous strip, but then the comic wouldn’t be as funny. Plus, real people speak in different ways. Better overall to have him sound naturalistic than like a perfectly-educated robot, I figure.)
Captain Mormon seems like an odd inclusion unless you think of him in this way. Someone said to me the other day that it’s like he’s a non-social-issue-related character, which as an ally he kinda should be.
Incidentally: I went with Mormonism because it’s a religion that I know enough about to comfortably theme a character around, without worrying I’m going to offend someone (although if I have anyway – I’m sorry). Plus, Mormon cosmology is just fascinating. There’s a cliché about Mormons all being lovely people, and as far as clichés go, I’ve found it to hold up surprisingly well – at least among the Mormons I’ve met, anyway. The Patreon jokes came from thinking about a Mormon superhero, actually: a strong sense of community plays a large part in Mormonism, and Mormons aren’t usually luddites. I reckon they’d get it done.
I said that I’d had Society Squad kicking around in my head for a while, but it took a specific catalyst to turn it into something I could write.
A while ago, I was talking to one of my friends who is nonbinary, and I misgendered them. And beyond feeling bad for doing so (I apologised), I felt weird. I’d known this person for ages, and I truly didn’t associate them with either gender, so why had I said it? It was like being in primary school and accidentally calling the teacher “mum.” You have no idea why you did it, you’re instantly embarrassed, and you wish you could just hit an “undo stupid mistake” button, but you can’t and now it’s out there.
So, as is my wont, I got solipsistic about it. And I figured it out.
Society, as an amorphous whole, is a highly gender-normative place. It trained me from birth that men have male-secondary-sexual-characteristics (eg. adam’s apple, stubble, etc) and women have female-secondary-sexual-characteristics (eg. breasts, round hips, etc). Even though I saw no useful reason for those distinctions, I still grew up having them drilled into me, so I absorbed them like a tabula rasa sponge. And, of course, nonbinary people weren’t even acknowledged as existing.
As an adult, I’ve since realised how arbitrary and largely unhelpful those distinctions are. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still nesting deep inside me, even if I don’t understand or agree with them, from how deeply those (often toxic) seeds were sown. I mostly talked to my nonbinary-friend-in-question online at first, so in my head, they automatically looked like a drawing of a bird-person. (That was their icon; I’m not just mad.) In person, though, they’ve got the secondary sexual characteristics of the gender they were born into. And I realised, that one random time, that’s what triggered that deeply-learned and inaccurate response. Like calling the teacher “mum,” my mouth moved in a way my conscious brain hadn’t meant it to.
Which is not an excuse, by the way. It just means I have to try harder to override what was marinaded into me.
I realised something else: at least in the media I’ve seen, the (very few) times nonbinary people are depicted, they’re visually depicted as having neither male nor female secondary-sexual-characteristics, or ambiguously so. And in a way, maybe that’s a good thing – it certainly helps normalise the idea that nonbinary people aren’t ”actually” male or female. But it also doesn’t represent all nonbinary people. And that’s why I’ve drawn Emperor Moth the way I’ve drawn them.
I wanted to deliberately give them either male or female secondary sexual characteristics, and noticeably so. I went with female ones, for the very selfish reason that I don’t often get to draw curvy female bodies, the characters I usually draw for Zunfa Comics being two cis men and a skinny cis woman. Emperor Moth is nonbinary, but they have the body they were born into, and they like the way they look. That’s why I gave their costume a lower neckline. Emperor Moth likes their body! And that doesn’t make them any less nonbinary, in the same way that gynecomastia doesn’t make a man any less male or facial hair makes a woman less female.
I think if I’d had more exposure to that representation of nonbinary people as well, my brain probably wouldn’t have slipped into those old and erroneous ways. While it’s not the only conceit I’ve written into Society Squad, that was the catalyst which started the whole thing falling into place. At least as a cartoonist, I can leave something behind, to help do my bit in transforming society into the place I wish I’d grown up in.