Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Card and Superman and Counterproductive Campaigns

I was somewhat amused to see that one of the big news items today is that DC Comics has hired Orson Scott Card as author for a new Superman series, and a campaign has begun to try to get him fired for being anti-gay:

The news has sparked a furious backlash from Card's critics. Card is a long-time critic of homosexuality and has called gay marriage "the end of democracy in America". In 2009 he became a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that campaigns against same-sex marriage.

There's no question that Card is a vehement opponent of gay marriage, although if anyone bothered to check facts, they would know that what Card called "the end of democracy in America" was not gay marriage but courts determining issues that should be left to legislatures; but I understand that this is the sort of issue on which people don't want to be bothered with nuances, because it interferes with simply treating their opponents as evil. The article continues:

"Superman stands for truth, justice and the American way. Orson Scott Card does not stand for any idea of truth, justice or the American way that I can subscribe to," said Jono Jarrett of Geeks Out, a gay fan group. "It's a deeply disappointing and frankly weird choice."

Disappointing it may well be, especially given how uneven Card is as a writer, but it's obviously not very 'weird': Card is one of the best-selling science fiction authors of all time; he has had a recent resurgence, perhaps due to rumors of that the Ender's Game movie will come out this November, and Ender's Game, published in 1985, was the best-selling science fiction book of 2012, outselling the next two books combined. It is currently #23 on the New York Times Best-Sellers list for mass-market fiction. Card is the only author ever to have won both the Hugo and the Nebula two years in row. It honestly does not require any deep thinking to figure out what DC Comics was thinking in hiring him.

Petitioning is itself reasonable behavior, and shouldn't be disparaged, but the problem with this sort of campaign is that it is necessarily generic. Privately owned businesses can be swayed on principle, but corporations only pay attention to petitions like this when they see clear warning signs of profit loss. Mere controversy will not suffice, for the obvious reason that controversy is good for business. Electronic Arts Games, the video game maker, was caught a couple years back faking protests against its Dante's Inferno game; they hired people to pretend to be Christians upset with the game, carrying around signs saying things like, "Hell is not a game". The whole point was to stir up controversy, so people would hear about the game and perhaps be curious enough to buy it. It's possible they were also calculating that there are potential customers who are more than happy to buy something just to stick it in the eye of Christian fundamentalists. And it seemed to be working quite well until reporters stumbled onto the fact that it was staged. A campaign like this is far more likely to increase DC's profits and Card's reputation than it is to threaten them in any way; more people have heard about Card writing Superman due to the campaign than due to DC hiring him. Merely by hiring him, for that matter, DC has, because of this campaign, guaranteed that more people will hear about its new digital Superman series than would ever have otherwise heard about it. Comic books are not a high-profit product; any increase in sales is a big win. And the only way this campaign can possibly not increase their sales is if it grows so big as to become a nationwide backlash, which it will not, because, quite frankly, the number of people who care about who writes Superman comics is very tiny, and the number of supporters of gay marriage who will think it productive to devote that much energy to a single person is also very tiny.

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