So this week a panel from Mighty Avengers #11 has surfaced from the depths of the blogosphere, with a piece of Doom’s dialogue drawing harsh criticism:
Naughty language below the cut
You do understand? You mean nothing to me! You’re a fat piece of furniture I may need for trade! So shut your cow-mouth or I’ll remove your face by hand before I stop your whore heart!
Now, a number of people have fretted as to the nature of the dialogue, the judgments on Ms. Marvel’s body and sexual habits, because it is very clearly misogynistic. The dialogue itself is misogynistic, there is no doubt about that.
Now, is it INAPPROPRIATELY misogynistic? There is such a thing as characterization, after all. And Dr. Doom is a bad guy. So the attitude is proper. And I’ve heard, in even darker corners of the internet, that the “Feminists are overreacting here, because Doom is a dick.”
The problem is one of dialogue, though, and most complaints see this. As livejournaller Kali states, “Doom is never base.” It’s Doom swearing because it sounds “edgy” and “clever” to the writer. This sort of language is what a “badass supervillian” says in the world of Brian Michael Bendis.
Without making judgments as to whether or not Mr. Bendis feels that being a “badass supervillain” is admirable or not, there’s nothing wrong with an asshole sounding like an asshole. It’s indicative of a larger issue, and the problem is not the attitude towards women. The problem with this, as with the vast majority of what Mr. Bendis writes, is a lack of diversity.
Diversity in character, that is. Victor Von Doom speaks with the same meter and slang as an NYC street hood. Doom’s a very different sort of villain, from a different background, from a different country, from a different “school of evil” so to speak. He’s always been refined in his arrogance, and old-fashioned. I could certainly see the words “stop your whore heart” coming from this character (though “before I tear out your heart from your whore’s breast!” is more his style), but “shut your cow mouth”? Certainly not. Doom says cheesy things like “SILENCE, WOMAN!”
But Doom is, at Marvel, the prototype “Badass Supervillain” and to some writers “Badass Supervillains” say certain things. That’s how you know they’re badass. So the same sort of dialogue that’s given to the Hood goes to Victor Von Doom, perhaps with “whore” exchanged for “bitch” in an attempt to add character flavor.
I remember when I first started reading Mr. Bendis’ work. How fresh and interesting his approach to dialogue seemed. It was natural. We need people who talked this way, flowing and stopping to search for the right word. He put fillers and pauses and slang in there that gave the characters a very realistic feel. It worked well for Powers, Torso and Daredevil and other settings where everyone is from the same city and socioeconomic class. That they would all have the same speaking pattern makes sense, even people of different backgrounds had been living in the same area long enough that they acquired the accent.
And it was marvelous to read this sort of dialogue, particularly with characters like Luke Cage, who had been saddled with racist clichés in the attempt to portray “street speech.” It seemed, by comparison to some of the dialogue in comics, revolutionary.
Then Mr. Bendis expanded his portfolio to include the entire Marvel Universe. And the flaws in this dialogue style became apparent. An Eastern European dictator would not talk the same way as an American super-genius or a middle-aged NYC neighborhood hero or a teenaged urban trickster smartass. As people they are just too different to sound the same.
And this is the kiss of death at Marvel, a company where character’s dialogue says so much about their personalities. Spider-Man is known for running at the mouth, whining in the narrative and dropping insulting jokes every few minutes.
Reed Richards is the smartest man in the universe. He not only uses a big word now and then, his sentences are structured around them. He’s precise and scientific. I remember at least one miniseries where he had a three-paragraph speech about how brevity is the soul of wit. It’s not just that he’s intelligent, it’s that he is so brilliant he can’t think in simple terms. This is different from someone who drops a ten-dollar word to show how intelligent they are. It comes through in the sentence structure.
And Dr. Doom is not just Victor Von Doom, Biggest Asshole on the Planet. He is DOOM! Scourge of the Virtuous! Terror of the Masses! He is nothing short of MAGNIFICENT. He’s royalty. He is always refined and dignified. He may be cheesy, he may be cliché, he may be a walking talking stereotype, but he is the sort of person who would not be self-conscious about that. He’s larger than life and understands
Dialogue is tricky, because fiction is filled with stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes are particularly offensive, and they come with certain dialogue. In the hands of the wrong writer attempts at international diversity are only useful as an argument for education reform in the US, attempts at sexual diversity end up cementing entrenched gender biases, and attempts at racial diversity come off as slightly less enlightened than a minstrel show. Some stereotypes, however, are just personality stereotypes. Writers need to weed out the offensive bits without going so far as to drain the character of everything that makes them unique, interesting and lively. They have to straddle the fine line between character and caricature. That’s hard. But the difficulty is what makes the results worth reading.