Marvel Sketch Cover Madness: X-Men: Gold… in Black and White!

This was a huge chore to do.

I chose to do this variant version, which was a compositional nightmare, instead of homaging the man cover. I like the main cover, but I just could not bring myself to emulate the admittedly beautiful artwork of Ardian Syaf. “X-Men: Gold” and Mr. Syaf have been in national news since the comic shipped last Wednesday, and Marvel Comics announced the termination of his contract on “X-Men: Gold” today. Even the New York Times ran an article.

So…what’s going on with “X-Men: Gold”? That’s what today’s post is about. I’m going to keep it as brief as possible, because it is pretty complicated and hard to sort out. I also feel really badly for Marc Goggenheim…a friend who used to shop at Comics Ink. He wrote the book, and had no idea at the controversial messages being plugged into the artwork. Thankfully, Guggenheim says that the fan base and internet has been nothing but supportive, as well as Marvel.

So…let’s dive in, True Believers.

Let’s be fair about the roll call here…the X-Men have battled evil mutants, killer racist robots and alien invaders. They traditionally are a team about tolerance…since they are composed entirely of a fictional minority, “mutants”, and also are a multi national, mutli ethnic group. Now, however, the X-Men have a problem from outside the Marvel universe and are embroiled in a new — and unexpected — conflict: the religious and political tensions in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

On Saturday, Marvel said that it would remove artwork from the first issue of “X-Men Gold,” part of their hard push to make the X-Men sales figures rise again. This was after readers in Indonesia raised alarm bells on Reddit and elsewhere on social media about what they said were anti-Christian and anti-Semitic messages in some panels of the comic. Since Marvel made that statement, speculators ran out to stores to purchase large numbers of the “anti-Semitic book,” and resell them at larger cost on sites like eBay to other speculators. Nice, huh?

The messages that jumped out to readers in Indonesia appeared to refer to political frictions over Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is the first Christian governor of Jakarta, the capital, in more than fifty years, and is up for re-election this month. Some images in the comic appeared to refer to hard-line Islamist opposition to Mr. Basuki, who is also known by the nickname “Ahok.” Other references seemed to have less to do with Indonesian politics and more to do with anti-Semitism, the critics said. The artist who sneaked the messages into the images was Ardian Syaf, an Indonesian citizen.

This hits Marvel just after the publisher was criticized deeply after one of its executives seemed to blame a sales slump on reader disdain for female and nonwhite characters. Definitely not a good couple of PR weeks for Marvel Comics.

Obviously, Marvel was surprised that references to religious intolerance had appeared in the pages of “X-Men Gold.” In a statement, the company said the artwork “was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings.”

The statement continued:

“These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation,” the statement added. “This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken.”

Marvel has a very believable stance here…those references were specific to the tension in Indonesia. It seems pretty unlikely that someone who did not follow the country’s complicated politics would have understood them. I’m betting that Marvel’s editorial staff isn’t that well read in world politics, and the editorial oversight was legitimate. Heck…I would not have understood the references either…it would have just seemed to me that Colossus was wearing a stupid T-shirt, for one of them.

What’s that? What do I mean?

Oh…right. In one panel of the comic, Colossus is wearing a shirt with “QS 5:51” on it. Indonesian readers said that was a reference to a verse in the Quran that Mr. Basuki’s opponents have used to argue that Christians and Jews cannot be trusted. Last year, Mr. Basuki was charged with blasphemy for speaking of that verse in a way that some viewed as disrespectful. And…there we have it. That’s a lot to unpack from an obscure t-shirt.

In another panel, the number “212” appears on a store front. Readers in Indonesia said that was a reference to a large anti-Basuki protest held by conservative Islamist groups in Jakarta last December. Also something that would have slid by editorial, I would think.

That SAME IMAGE also depicted the X-Men’s leader, high-profile Jewish superheroine Kitty Pryde, in a way that some readers found upsetting. It showed her standing in front of a jewelry store sign so that the letters “J-E-W” were displayed next to her head. You know…literally labeling her as a Jew. I’m kind of surprised THAT got by editorial, but there was a lot going on in that busy city street panel.

G. Willow Wilson, the writer of “Ms. Marvel,” which stars a superpowered Muslim-American teenage girl, criticized Mr. Syaf’s actions and apparent political beliefs in a post on her own website. She also worried that his actions might hurt other Muslims working in the industry. “This is all to say that Ardian Syaf can keep his garbage philosophy,” she wrote. “He has committed career suicide; he will rapidly become irrelevant. But his nonsense will continue to affect the scant handful of Muslims who have managed to carve out careers in comics.”

Sadly, that’s probably very true.

Today, amidst this major controversy over hidden political and religious messages, Marvel has officially announced that Ardian Syaf is no longer that series’ artist as his contract with the company has been terminated, “effective immediately.” One doubts that he will be working for Marvel again, or DC for that matter.

This is a pretty thorny issue for me. I’m all about free speech, and honestly, almost all, if not all of those references would have flown RIGHT BY me. Free speech isn’t something that you can be choosy with…everyone has it. At the same time, we need to be pretty vigilant about the things that are said with free speech. Marvel didn’t set out to publish a religious piece, or comment on the situation in Indonesia, or even be anti-Semitic. They wound up publishing a piece of work that might be all of those things, however.

Mr. Syaf can publish all the comics with his philosophy that he wants, provided he has the money to go to press himself, with his views. Taking his views to press via Marvel…and in a hidden fashion…I have to be very, very critical of that kind of thing. If Marvel had known…they could have approved, or declined. They would have had agency in the matter, and it probably would not have gone to press in that way.

I have to believe that Mr. Syaf knew this, otherwise he would not have gone the “hidden message” route. There would have been some more deliberate collaboration with the writer (who feels awful) and editorial, who had to clean the proverbial mess up.

The pencils, sans trade dress.

The process for the art in this post was a huge chore. First, I needed to draw the X-Men and Cap, in that triangular space that you see above. Then…since Marvel did not do a blank sketch variant for this book, I had to take the “X-Men: Gold” with similar trade dress, scan it, convert to black and white, and then digitally merge the two images, to produce the ambitious sketch cover variant that you see at the top of the post.

The process was worth it…the final art looks pretty great.

Despite the controversy, “X-Men: Gold” is pretty good. Pick up a copy of the second printing, or of the trade paperback, to support Marc Guggenheim, a nice guy and a good writer, and get a sort of “return to basics” view of the X-Men. that second printing will be free of secret messages, ‘natch!

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