Zeb Larson reviews Airboy #2…
Are the drugs wearing off, or just kicking in? After a night of debauchery, James and Greg have a hell of a hangover in the form of 1940s comic book character Airboy. The aviation hero is curious to learn what the future has to offer. Hey, you try denying a reality you’ve already altered.
What happens when a book that you like takes a weird, offensive turn? In this issue of Airboy, some interesting and funny material is undone by some offensive jokes. Robinson and Hinkle try to understand their charge, even if they’re mostly convinced they’re in the middle of a very bad trip. It’s no trip, though, and Airboy isn’t too happy with the world of the second millennium. This leads to an unfortunate aspect of this issue involving transmisogyny, which I will discuss a bit below. I will be discussing spoilers in this review, so consider yourself forewarned.
Hinkle and Robinson take off running (genitals swinging as they take off down the street) when they see Airboy, but he catches up to them. They manage to convince themselves that he’s some kind of hallucination, but he’s having the same worries in a world much drabber than the one he left. After some really convoluted double talk, they finally crack and tell him he’s from a comic book. After wandering through Dolores Park and introducing him to “brownies,” they wind up in a drag queen bar. Some of Robinson’s neuroses are aired, blowjobs are had, and Airboy has finally had enough. Calling them both degenerates, they suddenly wind up on a war-torn street somewhere in Europe as Airboy takes them to his home.
I wish I could spend this review talking about the things I like with this book. Much of the humor from Issue #1 is still here. I love the man-out-of-time concept being delved into here, at least when it verges on Airboy’s social attitudes which are wholly out of place in contemporary society. And Greg Hinkle’s art is great, and I love contrasting the 21st century look with the 20th Century Golden Age aesthetic.
But I would be remiss if I did not address the controversy brewing about this issue’s take on transsexuality. Better reviewers than myself (Emma Houxbois’ article here comes to mind) have pointed out that the repeated use of the word “tranny” and the sexualized depiction of transsexual women is offensive. The word itself is bad enough, and as Houxbois points out, nobody in 2015 can pretend that it’s anything other than a slur. Far worse, the depiction of the women in the bar reduces them to a kind of freakshow sex act.
What do you do with a book that you like, but which has some seriously offensive material? I don’t claim to have a perfect answer, although people calling for a boycott raise some compelling points. In any event, I’m not the best person to ask; I have far too much privilege to claim to know. It’s not fair to make humor at the expense of a vulnerable group that frankly has enough shit heaped upon them already. Sure, the book has merits. I disagree with Houxbois that the book seems to celebrate boozing male authors: if anything, these two on the page are fundamentally pathetic, unable to create and instead covering up their insecurities with liquor. You shouldn’t walk away from this book thinking, “Wow, so that’s how I become a comic book writer.” I like the book’s raw honesty and graphic humor as long as it’s not happening at the expense of somebody else…but about a third of this issue happens at somebody else’s expense.
None of the charms I mentioned will cover up the ugliness elsewhere. It would have been possible to explore Airboy’s transphobia in a humorous way without making fun of the women: if anything, he should be the easy target in this situation. He’s the man out-of-time, carrying all of that sexist baggage from the 1940s. The privileged white male being taken down: that could be good comedy. In his own way, he could be as shitty as Robinson and Hinkle, just in a more explicit way. But now the book has taken this other turn, and it can’t be undone.
And in fairness to Robinson, I don’t think he aimed to make offensive jokes. (Not that makes much of a difference). He uses the correct pronoun for the women and seems comfortable in their presence, although he shouldn’t be using “tranny” regardless. His character doesn’t act as a bigot exactly, though the comments aren’t sensitive either (the comment about pre-op women does not read well). What this comes across as is a guy making jokes from a place of sexual and gendered privilege, maybe (I hope) not realizing just how mean they would be. That doesn’t excuse it or take it away, but that would at least mean that Robinson might hear these criticisms and try to learn from them. He’s since released a statement apologizing for the depiction of the transgendered women, stating that he “fucked up” and will work harder to make future depictions of trans characters are portrayed more thoughtfully.
After Jonathan Demme made Silence of the Lambs, the criticism surrounding the Buffalo Bill character led him to realize the very-real paucity of positive LGBT characters in cinema. The next movie he made was Philadelphia. This isn’t to say that this was all for the best as a learning experience or that now that he’s apologized Robinson should be completely forgiven. No, but creators can sometimes learn from criticism and improve on their mistakes. Perhaps some good can come of this.