For the past five years, Comics and Cola has been a reliable source of information, connection and reflection upon… comics. Very little Cola content.
But Zainab Akhtar has had enough of the Islamophobia that’s permeated comics so blazing since #jesuisCharlie, and before and after that, and all through everything. She doesn’t want to be a voice any more, and she has closed her blog.
I didn’t want to let it just fade away, and neither did anybody else I asked. (This was gonna be up in April, but behind the scenes things made it seem sensible to wait. Here it is, now, though, in mis-matched tandem with a Kim O’Connor piece at HoodedU.)
This isn’t a collection on testimonials that suggests nobody within it ever did anything wrong. It’s not precisely to Zainab and it’s not exactly about her. This is her impact, her marks in our ledgers. This is a collection to serve as a fire at our backs, and a well we can draw from. It matters that Zainab is no longer vocal in the grand conversation. It matters because she personally is valuable, and because she is not unique in her value — it matters because we lose people every day, and we don’t open the door wide enough for a lot to get in in the first place. Comics aren’t for everyone yet. We have to make it so that they are. We have to work until its too hard to work any more, and once we give up, we have to be remembered.
You can still benefit from the Comics and Cola archive, and you can still benefit from Zainab’s spectacular eye for quality; she’s co-curating ShortBox now. But that’s something that would have happened anyway — this is not an evolution of somebody’s engagement with the larger scene, to be celebrated without reflection. It’s continuation, despite loss. To be celebrated in harmony with reflection.
If you read Comics&Cola, if you’d just heard of Zainab Akhtar, critic, or if you never did either… this is for you.
I asked critics, creators, readers, professionals to reflect on the loss of C&C — these are their words.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed,” so begins Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which, I think is really summing up what I’m seeing in comics right now, with the closing of Comics & Cola being the sharpest edge of it. I was up, too late as usual, when Kim O’Connor’s piece Don’t be a Dick, that presaged Zainab’s announcement, went up. I read every word, but I already knew most of it by heart because I’d seen it on her Twitter account as it unfolded, which reminded me I hadn’t seen her tweet lately. She hadn’t since the end of February. Of course, was my only reaction to that fact, which was also my initial reaction to Zainab saying that she’d be shuttering C&C.
I don’t know what to say to anyone who didn’t see this coming. She’s never been shy about the pressures of being a muslim woman of color in a field that is shot through with unapologetic sexism, racism, and islamophobia. Several of the reasons that Zainab’s work is valued are the same reasons that pushed her out, but her persona as a reader and critic, to me, is one grounded in whimsy and playfulness. It’d have to be in order to extract as much joy from things like Stokoe’s Godzilla work as she does. That’s her Twitter icon at the mo, a Brandon Graham doodle of her in big stompy Godzilla boots. I don’t think many of our great passions or even opinions about popular current work mesh well, but that’s precisely why I value her work. Anyone who can give me pause on a topic and make me reconsider it, whether my initial impression holds or not, is of particular value to me, and should be to us all.
Her work at Comics & Cola though, was one of the few inviting windows into what I guess you’d call lit comics, the arena that Kim went into detail about in Don’t be a Dick. I have no idea who the guy whose work kicked off the dispute central to Kim’s piece is and I haven’t felt compelled to find out. The atmosphere around The Comics Journal, The Hooded Utilitarian, and, imagine I’m making an expansive hand gesture, all that, dulls my inquisitiveness immediately. I circle those places cautiously now because I’ve been exposed to someone who was willing and able to illuminate it in a fresh light for me. I’ve grown immeasurably as a critic, creator, and reader just by taking in Zainab’s work and daring to venture into places I never would have considered otherwise.
Comics and Cola was my goal. It was there in my periphery always, the landscape of success: if I could get on Comics and Cola, I would have Made It. I didn’t know who run it and I didn’t read much from it because I would get a bad case of the inadequates. Then I wrote that Amar Shonar comic on a day I was too depressed to do anything else, I inked it and put it online more as a vent than anything else. Ananth reblogged it so it got traction and then the Comics and Cola fricken posted about it on their twitter holy fricken shit. I followed them and “they” became a singular person: Zainab. One day I babbled on about how caught up in my own shit I get making comics and she sent me some of the nicest messages anyone has ever sent me, not just about my work but about myself. She supported me when I needed it and I barely knew her. So to me this is personal, and I also feel like maybe I fucked up, like maybe I wasn’t there for her when she needed it. But at the same time I know we’re both just trying to swim, and while my empathy might help in a human way, how the fuck am I going to change the whole fucking world with it?
I’m angry at our positions on the playing field, and that our careers and lives have been structured as a competition at all. I’m angry in general and I’m angry that my anger is met with fear and dismissal by community members who are supposedly on our “side”. But in terms of Comics and Cola leaving us, I’m just sad. And I hope even if Comics and Cola leaves, Zainab stays, because I’m selfish.
In 2014, or maybe sometime before that or I guess maybe after, I saw Zainab being nonplussed on twitter. I used nonplussed because it means two oppositional things, depending on where you read it: in Britain it means “so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react”; in North America it means the opposite. Not disconcerted. Zainab, like many of the women I particularly admire, has a way of turning straightforward when the going gets old. Why are these voices being ignored? Well, they are being ignored, and I don’t see the reason in it. So I’ll just state that. It’s pure and it leaves no room for well because-es or no you see, that-s. Is this wrong? Is it? Yes.
It was about an awards show, I think, or maybe it was the time that somebody made a list of people who write about independent comics and left out most of the women. It could have been, basically, anything. It was just something bad, that Zainab saw, and Zainab mentioned. I wanted to be her friend.
Coincidence had it that she wanted to be mine too, so we were. I got to admire her out loud and feel like she heard it. I appreciate that that makes me lucky as balls.
Zainab wrote about comics for five years because she had things to say about them and she knew how. That innate self-awareness of her value and legitimacy is the same one I see and adore in zines and small-press, in webcomics and independent comics, in all the books she covered — it’s what we look for in comics, and it’s what’s been covered, by comics, in grime. Microaggressions and overt aggressions, bad behaviour, careless speech, repeat offenders and repeat shrugs. “Comics is just like any other area of entertainment, or society!” Well does it have to be? Is it? Do we have to let it be? What’s so funny ‘bout striving for utopia, you joyless fuckers?
Comics and Cola is shutting, Zainab is leaving comics. Is that wrong? Is it? No, that’s not the question. The question is: (here I have to take two different tacks at once — first of all if comics is marginalising you then I hope you will expect friendship from me, as well as professional backup. I hope that you will call on me. If I fail to answer, I am wrong. The second, for the rest of you, is) shut up and listen.
Comics is this bad. Dialogue is that weak. Our combined psychic storm cloud is that ugly. Our scene is pathetic, it crushes what it perceives to be witches, and everybody who doesn’t stop someone else when they act to add a stone to that deathly pile (the pile that rests on marginalised speakers, marginalised readers) is watching their peers die.
In Kendal on Zainab’s dime last year, we had a conversation about some asshole with a very nice white male cartoonist. “Ohhh… I try to be nice to everyone,” he said. By the end of the conversation he was saying we were right, and he should have listened to the rumours, if he’d heard them (which he had). All we really said was, “you should listen though”.
Think about how many goddamn times Zainab has had that conversation. In person, face to face, and how many times it’s come into her house or place or work or leisure time via email, twitter, Facebook. And that’s not even about how people treated her. Cartooning has been Islamophobic as fuck since- when? That’s not “just how” anyone is.
You love comics? The people comics are by, for, and relevant to are your responsibility. Treat the scene like you’d treat something you actually loved.
Maybe the hardest thing to do if you’re a critic is the duty to judge value while carefully investigating how the art in question works. It’s important (or at least I think it is), but it’s never been easy for me: List too far in one direction, and you find yourself demanding artists produce on your terms and not theirs; in the other, and you risk excusing stupidity and cruelty in the name of technical skill. And yet Zainab Akhtar appears to strike a balance between those two competing concerns effortlessly (though of course writing that looks effortless is the hardest kind to produce), with an appreciation of color and form matched only by a fearless sense of fairness. Barring her wonderful posts about new work, my favorite piece of hers from Comics & Cola is this examination of Bill Sienkiewicz’s humanization of the Kingpin through his patterned waistcoats in Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Love & War. I don’t know Akhtar personally and I’m a fairly recent admirer of her writing, but I do admire it tremendously and I’m deeply sorry there will be less of it now.
Zainab and I both worked for The Beat for much of 2013, which meant that for much of 2013 I learned an awful lot about aspects of the comics medium I had never encountered before. I had previously realised that I was missing out on many great art and indie comics but lazily attributed much of that to geographical location. But then here was another British writer fully engrossed in that world! I learned my lesson.
I learned many lessons from reading Zainab’s work, particularly on her own site Comics & Cola. I learned about comics and creators I had never heard of. I learned how to appreciate comics that I may never have given a second glance to otherwise. I learned that the best comics are often not to be found in comic shops. I learned that it was possible to enjoy good criticism regardless of whether or not I liked the work being focused upon. I learned that my own definition of comics was far, far too narrow.
Zainab is not a teacher, she is just really fucking good at what she does. She is the best critic comics has and I do not say that lightly – a read of any piece on her site will confirm that what I say is true. And like too many people I have known, I have watched her enthusiasm and passion and talent be burned and frustrated and thwarted at every turn. The anger. Upset. Exhaustion.
The closing of Comics & Cola is awful, but it is not surprising. Zainab has been transparent and open about the obstacles she has faced as a muslim woman of colour, not only pointing to the issues that poisons the comics industry and community from within but taking on the thankless task of being inspiration to many others facing similar problems. Her honesty and straight-talking is inspiring. But it should never have been necessary.
How many of us have left? How many don’t come back? How many are still burning out trying desperately to claw to their love of the medium in the face of a community that turns their backs? How many of cried tears of recognition and trauma and anger at Kim’s Comics & Cola piece? And how many more ignore the spectre of racism and Islamophobia that threads its way throughout the entire comics industry?
I hope to see more of Zainab’s work, she deserves a far larger audience and a far better community. There is no other writer that I have recommended to every single editor I have ever worked for, yet the industry strives to encourage critics that we are all in competition with one another, and even that critics are in competition with creators.
So much has to change, and so many are so exhausted.
Comics & Cola is packed with writing that makes wonderful comics accessible to countless readers, a veritable treasure trove of wonders – a site that enthused and delighted us all. Thank you.
Criticism is a tricky business. It demands much of the individual. First, a critic must have a complete understanding of their own aesthetic/political convictions. Second, they must be able to judge the subject of their critical gaze objectively based on that understanding. Finally, they must endeavor to lucidly express how the subject stands as either a shining example or stumbling failure of that which the critic believes to be important.
A critic must be open to a breadth of opinions. They must be willing to evolve in their thinking. But above all else, they must always communicate why what they are offering is valuable, significant, affirming.
That’s a lot of “musts”. Sorry. Criticism is full of musts.
Zainab embodies what is, for me, that which we call “A Critic”. In the years I’ve been following and digesting and reflecting and contemplating her beautiful sentences in reaction to challenging art, never once did I doubt the sincerity, enthusiasm, intelligence, and certainty of her response. Zainab has something to say about art and culture and politics and power from her perspective. She doesn’t tear down to legitimize herself. Rather, what she takes down, she does so in order to build up, to move the dialogue forward, to point to that which we aspire to be.
And she does so while talking about, of all things, comic books. And not even, for the most part, mainstream comics. Zainab uses her critical eye on a niche within a niche within a niche to appeal to our better nature. She champions and advocates for that which is spectacular in this little cranny of comics. She takes us by the hand and points to the artistry behind that which is beautiful and reassuringly tells us why it matters. She also points to that which is ugly and commandingly exclaims why it is appalling and the damage that it does.
This is not a voice that should be demeaned or derided or silenced. Zainab’s is a voice that should be engaged and debated and heard. Her choice to shutter Comics & Cola is a loss not just for the world of small press comics, but also for that aspect of ourselves that expands when we shut up and listen.
These small moments reflect such larger issues. Our response to them gets mirrored a thousand times on the larger stage. If Zainab doesn’t feel safe talking about comics because of who she is, not what she says, then our progress has stunted and withered. I’m reminded of something Virgina Woolf wrote nearly ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO in A Room of One’s Own, “All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.”
We can do better. We must do better. We are all lessened when those voices we most need to hear are chased out. Zainab is one of those voices.
I have loved comics from a very young age. I have not often felt as though they love me back. Rejection from the indie side of things has often felt like the cruelest cut of all–even those rebelling against the norms of the medium don’t necessarily want me. There’s a little more discussion of this experience happening nowadays, which anyone reading this has probably seen: I am certainly not alone in feeling a little weird towards Sad White Dude Contemplates Suburbia and his Whore Mother: The Endless Parade–especially when I was a teenage girl, encountering them for the first time. The critics who loved those titans of ennui often felt as threatening to me as the creators. Their jobs (or concerted hobbies) were to know what was good, and worthy, and intellectual. I wanted to be good, and worthy, and intellectual. I wanted to know the right names. I wanted to be taken seriously. I treated every hour I managed to spend in a comic shop–not easy, as there were few near where I grew up–as sacrosanct. I had lists full of impressive names and titles. I asked about The Comics Journal. I’d heard a lot about some guy named Adrian Tomine–had the clerk heard of him? I spent years ignoring how uncomfortable I felt reading these books, how much it hurt to see the things I loved organically shat on by Those In The Know. It is tempting to me to cheekily reduce that era of my life as one of feeling hopelessly square. But I didn’t feel square. I felt very stupid and very small.
Zainab didn’t just make indie comics exciting to me–she made them a space in which I could exist. Of course you deserve a seat at this table, Comics & Cola seemed to say. Of course the things you love are worthy of discussion and analysis. Of course your discomfort is warranted. Of course there are creators like you, telling stories about lives like yours. Goodness, how could you ever think otherwise? And then she convinced me, with an avalanche of comics I’d never heard of, with serious contemplation of work I had, but had considered beneath notice because, well–I’d enjoyed it, and I was a rube, wasn’t I? Zainab introduced me to creators who are now among my favorites: Kerascoet, Jane Mai, Bastien Vives, Daryl Seitchik. Zainab deepened my appreciation of work I’d already read and loved. Zainab affirmed my fears and anger, as ardently as she celebrated my joys. She carved out a space for me in comics where I felt welcomed and appreciated and respected. And that confidence, that certainty, that sense she gave me, of being worthwhile–it will endure. And it has, and will, make all the difference.
Also, she has beautiful taste in clothes!
Well, I completely missed everything because I’ve stopped following all social media in an attempt to improve my quality of sleep and have more time to reread some Proust or other for nine hundredth time. So opening C&C once a month to catch up was a rewarding routine, and I’ll miss it.
But back when C&C just started, back when I wasn’t given up on the universe, Zainab seemed to me like a breath of fresh air, and I’m happy to have seen her readership and scope expand exponentially, and her writing pop up on AV Club, PW and the Guardian. I’ve no doubt that her work has a bright future, and I fully respect her decision to close C&C.
I’m very grateful for the exposure Zainab has given to my more experimental work and her openness to it. While many critics and readers immediately dismissed it as ‘difficult,’ she managed to cover it without pretending to understand every inch—I respect that a great deal. I also respect her outspoken attitude, even though we probably disagree on a few issues, and I think this attitude is severely lacking in modern times—the willingness to talk peacefully with those who don’t share your opinions, instead of bundling up with people who agree with you in a wooly orgy of self-congratulation.
Lastly, internet is a terrible place to have serious discussions. It brings out the worst in us, particularly on twitter, a platform which I believe to be best suited for constrained poetry, rather than debate. I find it impossible to hate anyone once I sit down with them face to face. I do hope for an environment where we can talk about all things that we agree and disagree on in a peaceful, good-humored way, although I see little likelihood of that happening within the lifespan of our species, but what can we do, other than try and fail and revel in the failure. Best wishes to Zainab in all her future endeavors!
This is an unfortunate casualty; I’ve wondered lately how many up-and-coming voices in comics lost the opportunity to grow and mature their craft in the face of too many slights and aggressions while the usual dominant voices are granted that space easily. I am sorry we couldn’t do better by her.
Zainab Akhtar is strong, smart, funny, insightful, compassionate – everything you could want in a reviewer, cultural critic and commentator. That she can no longer stand against the storm of stupidity should act as a wake up call to all who love smart writing by smart people, in whatever format they love best. The worst *are* full of passionate intensity, but the best do *not* lack conviction, to paraphrase bloody Yeats. We have conviction and no defences. How long can your power source maintain your deflector shields under constant bombardment? How many never get their shields up in time, taken out in the opening volley? Writing about or for creative endeavours should not be an extended EVE online war zone. I hope the shockwaves of this withdrawal can start an active dialogue about how we come together and create better systems better futures. I wish I had something constructive to offer, at the moment I just have rage.
Zainab’s somebody I consider a real friend, and not the first real friend of mine who has backed away from writing about comics because of abuse and hostility. I consider her a real enough friend that writing a eulogy for her site seems weird because, like, she’ll see this. She’ll probably tease me for it.
Anyway, yolo: She’s too modest about her work and craft, which is something I’ve noticed in myself and a lot of friends. But frankly, she’s good, better than most by my reckoning, and more than worthy of the praise she shies away from. I like Zainab and Comics & Cola in part because she’s got a strong point of view and good taste. Not good taste in the “I like all the same stuff she does” sense, but good taste in the “she knows what she likes and has cultivated an approach to discussing it that works.” Zainab’s a writer who I know will tell me everything I need to know about how she feels about a work, and do it in such a way that it doesn’t matter if the work is good or bad to me. Just reading about it is pleasure enough.
Z left because of abuse, and what boggles my mind is that it wasn’t even necessarily behind closed doors. I don’t want to re-fight old battles, but imagine if we approached actually discussing issues of diversity or…anything that actually matters with the same passion as whether or not Superman should kill people. Right now, we allow old dudes with long histories of blowing up in anger at anyone with a dissenting opinion to be valued and respected parts of our community, rather than cranks, but still consider anybody brown with a strong point of view that doesn’t crumble under pressure to be too angry to listen to.
Comics is silly and dishonest. It’s embarrassing.
I’m blessed to know Zainab. She’s good at what she does.
I’ve been paying attention to Comics and Cola for a while, and only met Zainab last year, but what a delight it’s been to know such a person and experience their writing. A delight and a challenge.
I’ve been hesitant to add anything to the existing discussion about her quitting because a lot of what I saw just felt so… empty. A whole lot of “Sorry”s drowning out the discussion. When people are forced out of something we always say “I’m sorry”. It’s far too simple a phrase to sum up how we SHOULD feel about Zainab’s situation, but perhaps that’s just my skewed view of a phrase that must have been uttered so many times to her without much meaning, as an excuse even. So I’m grateful to Claire at WWAC for giving us a platform to be a bit more coherent than that. “I’m sorry” is too short, too quick. What we should be saying is “We fucked up. And that’s something that sorry doesn’t cover. We’ve got to do better.”
There are still a lot of people out there that need to figure out that reading comics, making comics, and enjoying events about comics, is for EVERYONE. I want to be part of the people that change that. I first wrote “try to change that” then I realised that would be stupid. Zainab’s been trying for years! To make a shitty star wars joke, DO, OR DO NOT. There is no try. Not anymore. Things have got to change.
I mentioned at the start that Zainab and her work is delightful. It’s true! Her taste in storytelling and gorgeous artwork really caught my attention, every time she covered something new I hadn’t heard about I was always doing further reading to find out more. She did fantastic comics coverage, and there’s going to be a terrible gap left by Comics and Cola shutting down. Hopefully she is moving on to something even better, and hopefully it won’t cause her as much suffering.
I also mentioned that it was a challenge. Yup, I’m gonna make this about me for a sec, apologies. When I first started reading Zainab’s work and her commentary on her experiences on C&C and on twitter, I felt… uncomfortable. She already seemed so angry and tired a year ago. Every time she got mad at the comics community I felt a stab in my gut – wasn’t she meeting the same welcoming people that I had? Weren’t people appreciating her incredible work? I didn’t get it. I also asked myself way too many times “How do I pronounce her name? Zay or Zai, this should be obvious… Fuck what if I meet her and I get it wrong, she’s going to hate me…” I did a lot of thinking. And I thought some more. I went to more events, made more comics. All the while keeping an eye on what Zainab was experiencing. And I opened my eyes. And they stung. I’d been an idiot.
Zainab seemed angry? She WAS angry, and she had (and HAS) every right to be. There is so much we need to change. I was pretty blind, but I’m making an effort to see and hear exactly what’s going on. As a white creator it can be easy to miss the oppression of important voices in the comics community, but that’s no excuse. As Claire and Zainab have said, and has been mentioned by others here, WE NEED TO LISTEN. And we need to acknowledge when shit happens. No sweeping it into the gutter.
That was a comics joke. I’ve talked a lot here about how I feel about Zainab quitting, but I’m gonna shut up now. Shut up and LISTEN to the people that need to be heard. Zainab challenges me to keep being a person that listens, and that’s the legacy of Comics and Cola for me.
I’m writing this on Thursday the 24th of March 2016. So I’m going to be the one who mentions the elephant in the room. But let’s lay some foundations first.
Comics and Cola is closing, and that’s big news for a certain type of people who care about comics. I don’t know Zainab Akhtar, and here’s a shameful confession: I barely read Comics and Cola. But that’s because I barely read any comics blogs at all anymore; ten years ago I had a daily routine of at least a dozen blogs I’d check, and I even did a bit of writing about comics myself. But as I got more involved in making my own comics I found I couldn’t do that anymore– the reasons for that are many and complicated and this isn’t about me. Long story short, I don’t regularly read many comics critics but I follow an awful lot of them on twitter, and occasionally click the links to writing that they post. In the last five years I’ve probably clicked more Comics and Cola links than any other. There’s a reason for that. Partly it’s that the writing on the other end of that link is always smart, insightful, concise and entertaining. Partly it’s that, while we don’t tend to read the same things, we do seem to share similar tastes insofar as what we want from what we do read, and we definitely share a love of some very specific and important things, like Alan Grant Batman and the work of James Stokoe. A big part is that Akhtar is one of the most consistently funny and charming people in my twitter feed.
Mostly though, it’s that she’s part of a small group of people that I consider to be a kind of moral yardstick- this is a thing for me, there’s a few people online who just seem to me to be almost always right, which looks ridiculous now I’ve typed it out but bear with me– there is a thing that comes from consistent and honest self-reflection, when combined with open-minded and clear sighted engagement with social politics; when big and thorny problems present themselves and everyone seems to be acting like idiots, there’s always a few individuals who become like little beacons of calm, cutting wisdom. I imagine these people as having brains made of lasers, focusing on issues and ideas and lighting up the details while cutting through the bullshit right to the heart of the matter. My friend Jay Edidin is one of these people, David Brothers is another. Zainab Akhtar is a person with a laser brain.
What I’m saying is, I pretty much always agree with her, and when I’m not sure what I think about something, she’s one of the people I look to for guidance. Which if she’s reading this is probably very strange to read from a stranger, but there you go. It’s the truth.
And now she’s closing Comics and Cola. Because of islamophobia. Because of racism. Because comics is fucking awful in this regard. Because there’s only so much shit one human can take.
Oh, look, there’s an elephant. Like I said, I’m writing this on March 24th. Islamophobia is really popular today. Two days ago, there was a bombing in Belgium, apparently carried out by IS. My first response, on hearing about this, was fear. Not for myself, but for Muslims. I spent several years working as a porter in the A&E department of Lewisham Hospital in south east London, much of that on the night shift. I have seen first hand what happens to innocent people in the wake of these events. I have seen things I will not describe, but that I will never forget. As a white man who’s spent most of my adult life working unskilled manual jobs, I have often been in rooms where it was unsafe for me to even suggest that Muslims aren’t all evil terrorists. I am acutely aware of the links between casual racism and real violence. When you’ve spent time among “real” racists, you have no excuse not to see the full continuum, not understand how an “equal opportunities” “satirical” cartoon and a petrol bombed family home are all part of the same big, ugly thing. One is fuel and justification and permission for the other. I have zero tolerance for this shit. And today, this shit is everywhere. It’s wall to wall on tv, on the internet. The racists have an excuse today, and they’re making hay while their nasty sun shines. Today I am very angry.
And there’s a thing: I’m angry. I’m allowed to be. I’m a straight white man in comics, I get to bellow my displeasure about whatever I like whenever I like. And oh, I do. Very occasionally someone will take issue with this, tell me I should calm down about things. I don’t take kindly to it. “Once you get angry you’ve lost the fight” is a childish way to think, an approach to the world that’s all about scoring meaningless points rather than engaging with reality. I move fast with the block button, cut these playground people out of my line of sight immediately. But I am very lucky to be able to do that. Were I a different colour, or faith, or gender, things would be different.
Yesterday, there was a “twitter storm” around an idiot in Croydon who claimed to have “confronted a muslim woman” about what happened in Belgium. He was, rightfully, widely mocked. I joined in pretty wholeheartedly. I lived in Croydon for four years, it’s a horrible conservative place; overwhelmingly white. This troglodyte is depressingly representative of a large part of it’s population. Within hours, I was seeing tweets from middle aged white men about “bullying” and “how quickly power dynamics shift”. Now, I was already angry, as you can probably imagine, but this had me seething. This suggests some kind of parity between the actions of this man and the actions of those mocking him on twitter. That a white man having a bad day on the internet is comparable to a Muslim woman being verbally threatened in public. And let’s be clear: holding a Muslim person accountable for terrorism is a threat. In a society where they are regularly targeted for violence with terrorism used as the justification for that violence, it is a threat.
What does this have to do with comics?
Name one white man who has stopped working in comics because of a “twitter storm”. Name ONE. Because the list of marginalised voices we lose gets longer every day. There have been so many scandals over the last few years. I recall seeing Rick Remender condescendingly lecturing then editor of Comics Alliance Joe Hughes (who is black) about race on twitter in the aftermath of his boneheaded “m word” issue of Uncanny Avengers. He followed this up by posting a NOFX video. He told his critics to drown themselves in hobo piss. He’s still working. He’s fine. Brian Wood sexually harassed multiple women. He’s still working. He’s fine. Nathan Edmondson is a convicted criminal with ties to extreme right wing homophobic campaign groups. Frank Miller is openly fucking racist. Scott Allie *bites people*. Guess what?
Power dynamics do NOT shift. Not in an afternoon on the internet. If only they did! Imagine, what a century of civil rights activism has struggled to achieve put in the shade by people idly thumbing their phones. If only a few thousand mean tweets was all it takes to fix the wealth gap and institutional racism. Jon Ronson wrote a book about this stuff, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It’s an interesting read, and I like Ronson, but he learned all the wrong lessons from information that is right there on the page of his own work. He presents a series of cases where someone said or did something that provoked the ire of the internet, and shows us the fallout from this. A few of them are white men; the rest of them are women, one a woman of colour. When you look at the repercussions for each of them there is a clear pattern: the men have to change jobs but other than that emerge unscathed. None of them apparently has trouble finding another job. One of them is actually paid thousands of dollars to deliver a public apology. The women all lose their jobs, and are unable to find new ones, with the exception of one woman who has her online reputation “rehabilitated” via a long and expensive process that she would not have been able to afford herself. All of the women receive rape and death threats, not just publicly, but privately. The woman of colour is targeted by a full on gamergate style hate campaign and has to flee her home. Their lives are destroyed. The men have a bad few weeks. The power dynamics do. not. change.
Comics culture is full of this shit. White men acting like their fear of a little criticism is equal to others’ fear of being literally killed. If a white man says “the wrong thing” he may have a bad few days online. Meanwhile women are getting rape threats on a daily basis, murder threats, having their home addresses posted online. A critic with the wrong colour skin can make a completely fair criticism of a company’s policy with regard to rotating art teams on double shipping books and become the target of an extended smear campaign by a high profile (white, male) editor at that company. A trans woman critic can criticise another (white, male) comics journalist and then find their private emails posted online. Everybody I know who writes or talks publicly about comics and isn’t a straight, white man talks about the fear that accompanies the publication of any piece that could possibly be construed as challenging the white, straight, male status quo. Every single one is on a countdown clock, just a matter of time before they can’t take it anymore; when they never should have had to take it in the first place. Never should have had to fear being the target of such overwhelming, societally sanctioned hate just for talking about fucking comics.
I cannot begin to imagine how the impact of widespread, popular islamophobia must magnify this. Zainab Akhtar has been running Comics and Cola for five years. I doubt I could have lasted five days.
I want to write something pithy to finish this, some kind of call to action for us to be better as a community, and a much deserved thank you to Akhtar for sticking it out for so long. Something snappy, maybe a little poetic. But I’m just angry.
We should all be angry.
I just wanna write about how much I appreciate what Zainab’s support has meant for me and for Peow. I honestly don’t think we would have made it this far without her. She was one of the first to discover us and the comics we published and she wrote about them in a way that felt sincere and in a serious way. I had no idea if she had a big audience or not, I didn’t read any comic-news websites or blogs but Zainab has become by far the most influential person over what comics I’m reading over the last couple of years.
I’m so, so grateful for her support. I have had the feeling that we were growing together. We surely did grew because of her, and she grew only because of herself. For me, drawing comics is a constant struggle with self doubt and not-good-enough feelings and ”why do I even do this”. When she, out of nowhere, did a review of Náva and actually said it was one of her best reads that year … I don’t think I can explain exactly how much that meant to me. Of course this is probably true of anyone who gets a good review, but now it was Zainab. And I don’t think that was a coincident. She cares as much for someone’s self made zine as for a Batman trade or a luxurious limited edition publication, and if you read her blog you knew this and that it would be well worth looking into, no matter what. It saddens me a lot that this has come to an end, and how it has come to an end. It’s a big failure and it feels shitty.
–Olle Forsslöf, Peow Studio
She is and will always be an inspiration to me wherever she goes. Zainab deserved better. Zainab deserves the world.
–K. L. Ricks
Comics&Cola was (is) the site I had searched for since diving into the heart of comics. I can’t help but feel I’ve arrived at the party late with most discussions worn by the uninviting spaces they occur in. There is an undeniable sense of fatigue, even among the most talented of writers. More than anything my biggest regret is not looking hard enough because Zainab Akhtar spoke about parts of the industry often lost in the saturation of the Internet. It’s one thing to talk about ‘small press’ comics; it is another thing to break them down and bring them into the spotlight. Awareness is letting people know something exists and then explaining why it exists. It’s easy to talk at comics but I feel very few ever talk about comics. Zainab is one of those few.
Looking back at my own foray into comics journalism, I know why I left. I lacked a vision and sense of identity as a writer. That was never the case for Zainab. She supported so many and gave them the confidence to build their own identity. I just wish this place gave her a reason to stay.
Comics & Cola was a welcome part of the comics blogosphere (remember that term?), with Zainab’s work providing a distinct and thoughtful new perspective on comics. Lithe and nimble and not having to worry much about business interests, she provides (present tense, as I hope fo a return!) a honest and earnest look at new outisder work as well as more popular work but in a different way.
Readers can see comics on their own, but critical thinking and critics such as Zainab help process and understand it — even if she provided opinions you disagreed with.
There’s room for all opinions in commentary, but I’m saddened that some of those with a louder voice played a part in robbing the community of Zainab’s work.
I came across comics & cola only in May 2015. Someone I chatted with at MCM London told me to check it out. I did and I was immediately hooked by both the topics and the style of writing. It was the piece about Jake Wyatt’s Necropolis. From then on, I’ve more than appreciated Zainab Akthar’s writing as a valuable source both for recommendations and criticism of comics. The covering of ELCAF (Jane Mai’s comic!) and Thought Bubble, the comics shelfies, the interviews – her blog has been rich with nifty, witty and self-reflective pieces.
Take for example the article about Thought Bubble: Not only did she present a report about the festival as a whole and some selected creators, but she also pondered about the reporting itself and its value for both her and the reader.
Another example which stood out for me was her piece about the Kingpin in Daredevil: Love and War by Miller/Sienkiewicz. It gave me a completely new perspective towards the comic and I came back to her piece when the Daredevil Netflix show aired.
These are just two of many interesting readings for me and now that comics & cola shuts down I feel sad that there won’t be pieces like those anymore. This sadness turns into flaming fury on the note that Zainab was driven to this decision. She did not quit because she wanted to, it happened because she had to. Because some self-regarding, arrogant dude couldn’t take criticism. And think about what message that sends to anyone who might think about starting to write themselves.
That makes me really angry. Hulk-like angry. AND HULK WANT SMASH SOMETHING!!
I’ve been lucky enough to meet and chat with Zainab at a few festivals. She would champion, recommend, enthuse and enlighten – in the name of Good Comics. To me Comics & Cola has been a reflection of Zainab’s infectious passion; a place to discover and learn and be inspired, to read more, to make more. So I was gutted to hear that Zainab will be vacating that place, for saddening and understandable reasons. I wish her the very best, wherever her writing takes her. If she ever needs a collaborator for a multi-format bat-fan-zine, count me in.
In comics as in life, there’s too much white male opinion out there. I should know; I’m part of the problem.
Zainab was a voice we desperately needed. She pointed out faults we pretended not to know existed and made us contemplate them. She also helped broaden perspective on the types of comics that get talked about on the Internet.
In the vast, vast majority of comics blogs and forums out there, you usually only find one genre: superheroes. Fair enough–Ron Marz once called the genre “comics’ bread and butter.” But there’s so much more than the stuff the Big Two pumps out and Zainab knows it.
If you scan through C&C, she talks about Ben Gijsemans, Loic Locatelli-Kournwsky and Valentine Gallardo. She takes time to thoroughly break down artwork and places each work she reviews in some sort of wider context; it’s the kind of cultural criticism so many want but we so seldom get.
One last thing: I love to no end that, at the top of the site, there’s a link to a huge list of comics for kids that goes beyond the usual suspects and lists stuff like the retro Pippi Longstocking comics and Luke Pearson’s Hilda comics. That post alone–with its huge variety of content and thought-provoking words about each book–is a huge part of why I value C&C and why I’ll miss it.
So thank you, Zainab. I’m sorry we failed you. But thank you for everything.
Or: Find your fave!
Read’em and weep.