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Disney, Marvel, and What Can Be Done

Comics, FYI
Disney, Marvel, and What Can Be Done
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #19 • View online
Disney won’t make a public statement addressing bigoted laws. Can Marvel creators?

Yesterday saw the Florida Senate pass what is officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, which bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” for students in kindergarten through third grade.
The bill also prohibits lessons on the topic “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,“ something seen as a signal that the bill will also be applied to students in all grades. Even more worryingly, it also allows parents to sue school districts if they feel that their children have been offered “inappropriate” lessons, a choice almost guaranteed to be abused by regressive, bigoted adults determined to repress anything that isn’t their definition of the norm. 
The bill – nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay bill” by critics, who point out that it’s clearly targeting the LGBTQIA+ community and preventing kids from having access to information and support that will allow them to be themselves – was described by Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Democrat, as “a direct attack on the Florida’s LGTBQ community, and that is not okay.” Nonetheless, the bill passed by 22 votes to 17, and as I write, awaits being signed into law by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis*. 
Many hoped that the Walt Disney Company – which, thanks to Walt Disney World, employs tens of thousands of Floridians with plans to bring even more in the short term, making it a particularly loud voice should it decide to speak out on any given topic in the state –  would, at the very least, release a statement condemning the clearly bigoted, repressive bill. As it turns out, that hope was for naught.
“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek wrote in a company-wide memo sent out on Monday, explaining why Disney wouldn’t address the topic publicly. He went on, “Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor. These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements – and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort**.”
It turns out that Disney is okay donating money to those supporting bigoted measures, if we’re actually talking about lobbying efforts on behalf of the company. According to Judd Legum’s Popular Information, “in the last two years, Disney has donated $197,162 to members of the Florida legislature that have already voted for the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. This figure will increase after the full Florida Senate votes on the bill.” 
Chapek’s memo prompted a number of Disney employees – particularly on the animation side, curiously enough – to speak out in protest. “This bill is going to hurt kids, and that’s why I’m asking Disney to please take a position on the Don’t Say Gay bill and say that it’s wrong and say that you’re going to stop donating to the politicians that vote for it,” said animation writer Benjamin Siemon in a video posted on Twitter. “Never been quiet about my love of Disney over the years but being loud about my own identity as a queer human took YEARS. Breaks me in pieces that a company that literally pays me to speak is paying to keep me silent by funding puritanical Anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians,” wrote voice actor Brock Powell.
Halt and Catch Fire co-creator Christopher Cantwell, who’s been working on a number of Marvel projects in recent years – most notably the current Iron Man series and an upcoming Star Wars: Obi-Wan mini – took to Twitter to announce that he was planning to donate his fee for The United States of Captain America #1 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to “inspir[ing] individuals, organizations, and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.”
The US of Captain America issue, he explained, “featured the debut of Aaron Fischer – the first LGBTQ+ person to ever call themselves Captain America. I am honored to be a part of this character’s creation, and will always be.”
Other Marvel creators, meanwhile, have been more quiet on social media, in part because of a sense of malaise over what impact any protest or public statement could have. 
“I’m tired of Twitter expecting marginalized creators to fall on their swords for futile moral stances,” one creator told me on the condition of anonymity. “I could quit as loudly and proudly as possible and the end result would be one less working queer creator. (In fact, I could name a few who’ve done just that and paid for it.) The percentage of comic creators who have the genuine security to stand up to their employees is in the small single digits, and most of them only have that thanks to Hollywood and other non-comics sources of income. It’s great when a busy TV showrunner can make a sweeping gesture, but it sucks when some fan account expects all of us to follow when most of us don’t have those safety nets. Every current Marvel creator could put their pencils down tomorrow and it would barely register on Disney’s bottom line.”
Such frustration was shared by multiple creators, who expressed upset at Disney’s stance but also acknowledged that there was little they could do about it on a personal level. A common thread in talking to creators was the idea that any public statement or grand gesture was unlikely to make any positive difference to the situation, but almost guaranteed to make matters worse for them professionally and, given the financial stress involved, likely personally as well.
There is almost certainly a line of thinking from some reading this, along the lines of, “Just go and work at other publishers, then!” There are two substantial reasons why that doesn’t really work: Firstly, it’s not that easy to jump between publishers; it’s not as if there are a ton of open spots elsewhere for creators to jump into upon leaving Marvel. 
Secondly, Marvel is the leading publisher in the Direct Market, and as such pays a page rate that few other publishers could match, meaning that someone leaving a mid-range Marvel book for an indie publisher – even something like IDW or Boom! – would be making significantly less money as a result. 
(There is always the possibility of crowdfunding or creator-owned material as an alternative, with the hopes that said projects would catch fire and end up earning out on the back-end, of course; that’s not necessarily anything that would pay the rent in the short-term, even if it did work out down the line. Not everyone can be a Spike Trotman or a Brian K. Vaughan.)
Those who wish to send a message to Marvel, and therefore Disney, about its tacit support for anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation could look to their own pocketbooks before asking others to surrender their careers, of course – but even then, it’s worth wondering if either company would consider any kind of organized boycott anything other than standard sales attrition even if it happened, especially in light of the traditional downward sales trajectory of most books in the direct market these days. 
More productive right now would be donating to non-profits working to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Florida: for example, Equality Florida, the Transgender Law Center, or the Trevor Project. Give them the equivalent of a year’s subscription to Marvel Unlimited; you might not get to read as many Hulk stories as a result, but in every other respect, it’d be money better spent. 
Today is the day of the Walt Disney Company’s 2022 investor meeting, which begins at 10am Pacific – an hour after this is being mailed – which Bob Chapek is expected to address investors and the media. It’ll be interesting to see if he talks about the company’s social responsibility, and addresses the reaction to his memo… and if he backtracks in the face of the criticism the company has received from its own employees. It’s unlikely, but we can only hope.
* Florida wasn’t alone in passing repressive bills impacting queer kids on Tuesday; Idaho’s House also passed HB 675, a bill that makes providing gender affirming care to trans teens a felony; it also criminalizes parents leaving the state with their trans children in order to provide them with care. Given that Idaho’s Senate is overwhelmingly Republican, it’s almost guaranteed to become law at this point. It’s horrific. 
** It’s depressing to me that, even though Chapek is in theory writing in response to an anti-LGBTQIA+ bill, his examples of Disney’s “statements” includes seven projects featuring a racially diverse cast versus three queer-centric stories; it feels very dismissively “oh, diverse is diverse, right? It’s all minorities, whatever,” if that makes sense. It’s also ironic/depressing that he cites Love, Victor, a gay romance series for teens that was moved off Disney+ prior to its launch for being too “adult” for the high profile streaming service. (It ended up on Hulu, which Disney also owns.)
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Graeme McMillan

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