If you haven’t heard of Nathan Pyle, you certainly know his works. He is an online cartoonist, famous for his series Strange Planet, which follows a group of aliens going about daily human business in a detached and absurdist manner; they are enormously popular on social media. It is an apolitical comic, and thus has wide appeal. I, for one, am a fan. The central conceit, of reframing the world via the lens of disconnected aliens, is gimmicky and a little unoriginal, but Pyle’s skill as a writer is such that he seems able to wring comedy out of incredibly mundane situations in a constantly refreshing way.
It is also drawn in a simplistic art style that is dominant in cartoon media for millennials and Gen-X’ers, very much in the vein of Questionable Content, Sarah’s Scribbles, Cyanide and Happiness, The Oatmeal, and so on and so on. The fact that this basic style is often overlooked in favour of the emotions and situations that they portray is telling of the way media is currently consumed. So long as something is ‘relatable’, then it doesn’t matter if it isn’t artistically valid (Sarah’s Scribbles seems to have this method down to an anti-art).
And this trend can’t be linked to the work of accomplished artists such as Phil Mulloy, who used low-effort stick-figures to provide stark commentary on the nature of media violence, or Don Hertzfeldt, who is perhaps best described as a profound existentialist thinker whose ideas are communicated best in cartoons.
Strange Planet has never, and probably will never, reach the levels of profundity achieved by Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, but there’s something incredibly cute, and consistently funny, about the comics. They turn simplicity into a virtue, instead of being simple for simple’s sake, and with their big splashes of pink and blue they have an art-style just distinguishable enough to avoid genericism or laziness.
And this would be it. This should be it. This is all anyone could possibly have to say about these cute, minor, well-crafted comics.
But today it ‘came out’ that Nathan Pyle is a believer in the pro-life ideology, which can be stated more broadly as an opposition to abortion, and now we all have to shoehorn these comics into a political context in which they don’t fit, and disown them for views that they don’t espouse, and pretend they were never all that good to begin with.
It is just another case of the left reacting with hysteria to something that they have policed as unacceptable, and the hand-wringing is coming in thick and fast. Nylon was quick to include in their byline that “we should be more careful with what we’re sharing”, because nothing exhibits a laissez-faire attitude more than running every single artist, personality, content creator through a fine tooth-comb for dissenting opinion, and then dropping them the minute they fall foul of the standards. Later in that same article, it states cavalierly that you should “make sure the content that you’re sharing was created by someone who views you as deserving of autonomy over your own body”; because the bellweather for these things isn’t a debate on women’s rights, or an attempt to engage him, but instead depriving the guy of ‘shares’.
And to be clear (because we all have to be clear, don’t we), I am very opposed to the pro-life ideology. In cases of rape, or where medical intervention is necessary, I don’t think it should even be ‘debated’, and more broadly I do believe that if a woman wants to get an abortion then that falls under the purview of her bodily rights.
However, I do not want to paint this as a simple issue, and there are no clear-cut answers. Thinking about it in the abstract poses questions that are worth considering, such as at what point the personhood of the foetus becomes a factor in pregnancy. The debate also calls into question the often appalling misunderstanding and policing of female bodies and reproductive systems, compared to the blanket understanding of the male. And we don’t know that Pyle has feelings about these issues; we simply know that he Tweeted support for the ‘MarchForLife”. That’s it.
So yes, I strongly disagree with Pyle’s opinion, and I also find it bafflingly out of step with modern attitudes; this was the kind of issue that was relevant and edgy when Kevin Smith’s Dogma came out twenty years ago. Hearing someone fall on the side of the pro-life side of the debate seems almost archaic and even a little retro, in the same way that people who are opposed to gay marriage seem these days.
But here we are. Actual and genuine concerns about women’s rights, and ire at the powers of Republican lawmakers who actually make it difficult for women to get abortions, fall to wayside in the wake of the outrage industrial complex, which has dictated that yes, the comic is bad, and from this point on enjoying it constitutes some kind of aberrant moral sin for which we should all be justly punished.
Is it not possible, for example, that two opinions can exist concurrently with one another? Can we not accept that Pyle holds views that we disagree with, and also enjoy his comics, which are (as mentioned), apolitical? In this particular case, I think the sudden turnaround of opinion has a lot to do with the fact that Pyle’s comics appeal to that very millennial way of thinking, in which everything must be relatable and cutesy and innocent, and nothing is more relatable than social dogma stripped back to the most objective statements possible, and delivered by aliens.
It seems almost trite to complain about identity politics these days, and the debate has been gone over so many times it almost seems futile to weigh in on it, but this whole saga is a perfect metaphor for the ways in which we no longer judge art or culture by its relative merits, or even by what it has to say about modern values (because all art is about values of some kind), but instead what the creator thinks, even if it is not reflected in the art itself.
It is, at the end of the day, your right to not engage with art, for whatever reason; I, for one, find the August Underground films abhorrent because they devalue human life to an extent that I think is irresponsibility on the part of the filmmakers. But it is not your right to argue that you should or shouldn’t watch of read X thing, or Y thing, because it doesn’t align with your values; this mentality treats everything as potential hate speech (which is an actual problem), and reacts accordingly, even when it seems preposterous to do so.
The battlegrounds for these conflicts aren’t newspapers, debates, or even the internet, but our very own opinions, our personal beliefs, our innate ways of thinking and seeing the world. The primacy of the individual would indicate a multiplicity of perspectives, but instead it results in a bizarre, constant, Biblical display where everyone’s soul is weighed, and everyone who isn’t up to scratch is banished.
Behaving in this way actually does a disservice to the issues that genuinely face young people, such as the rising cost of housing, an electorate that either refuses to engage with them or does so in a patronising manner, the colossal mess of Brexit, and the fact that entire, respectable, media institutions seem hell-bent on denigrating everyone under 30 as iPhone-addicted Neanderthals.
But for however long in the day, we have to set time aside to talk about how the good thing isn’t good any more; how it is bad; how we must condemn it. And then we must talk some more, wring our hands some more, and create piece of content after piece of content about how this happened.
Even this piece is doing it; forgive me while I stop it here.