Mental Health & Comics: Toxic Positivity & The Magical Power of Consensual Venting
Get ready for a lot of talking and very little pictures because man, it's hard to find relevant imagery to this type of content. Also, fair warning for language. As this is also sort of a therapeutic article, I let loose a little bit more.
This isn't particularly limited to the stresses of comic retail and is very applicable to most work situations, but there were some unique manifestations of this that occured during my last year in comic retail so I wanted to take a look at the subject of toxic positivity a bit more now that I have some distance. For a little bit of context, here's two things worth knowing:
1) As you can guess, 2020 has been a pretty stressful year for comic retailers, with one of the peaks being when DC Comics propped up two new distributors and then dropped their main distributor, Diamond Comics. This forced a lot of retailers to make a lot of changes really quick, and to work through the growing pains of these changes during a time of intense market stress.
2) There are a few online retailer forums and Facebook groups where comic book store owners and employees can communicate and chat about what's going on in the micro and macro scale. And boy, were these forums busy during the year.
So with those two things in mind, let's chat a little about the idea of toxic positivity. Mostly in the context of small businesses and comic retail, but it definitely applies to a broader reach as well.
A Not-So-Silent March Into Aggravation
As you can imagine, with retailers across the country being stressed and unsure of the future, the comic forums were full of people sharing what was going on with their stores. Every region was dealing with different issues as some stores were forced to shut down in some states while others were still running fairly normally. From stores not even being able to open to not being able to receive product due to shipping problems, we all experienced different issues in the new Covid19 landscape. It wasn't until Diamond Comics had to shut down completely that we were all facing the exact same problem, which was a lack of new incoming inventory.
Now for some stores this was not the worst issue because if we can't open to the public and we weren't allowed to do curbside pick-up then our hands would be tied and paying for new invoices would be illogical at best. The drastic loss of cash flow, even with mail order in place, would make any new shipments a burden and a risk. So while we were dealing with those issues, DC dropped the bomb that they were shipping comics out via their new distributors with or without Diamond. Soon after that, DC then dropped the bomb that they were leaving Diamond altogether, essentially forcing retailers to sign up with one of the new distributors. You can probably imagine that retailers had a lot of venting that needed an outlet during this timeframe.
There was a lot of anger and feelings of being betrayed being voiced, and in my perspective rightly so. While these were and are definitely unprecedented times which may call for extreme measures, the level of experimentation DC was conducting was ill-planned and badly timed at best and downright abusive at worst. The retailer community feels like a riled up nest of hornets on a good day, and now it felt like someone was tossing kerosene on the hive.
Now there have always been a wide array of voices in the retail community, and something I've noticed over the past few years were a couple more vocal individuals who often appealed to others to always make the best decisions for the customers. And I don't mean in just a general 'be good to your base, treat people right' manner. I mean a little bit more along the 'customer is always right' route but perhaps with a bit more gusto. Now please don't get me wrong, I fully believe that you should always be polite to your customers (as long as they are polite to you and others) and that you should always do your best to help them find what they are looking for. But if I had to reformat that phrase for my own use it would go more like:
A customer may be right.
More data needed.
Among some in the community, it felt like there was an undercurrent mentality that you needed to sacrifice your own personal well being for the sake of your customers. And indeed, I would say that the majority of comic book retailers subconsciously do this anyway. It takes a certain amount of sacrifice (of your time, energy, and sanity) on any comic retailer's part to stick with this industry. And yes there must be exceptions as it takes all sorts, but I would assume that those particular individuals wouldn't pay attention to your pleas of positivity anyway.
As the forums lit up with anger, I could understand that that much negativity could be disheartening and even stressful. And so as a direct result of that barrage of negativity, there were opposing voices that either supported DC Comics or spoke out to appeal to people to be more positive.
Except we would come upon some choices of phrasing such as:
Grow some balls.
Suck it up.
And then framed as their way of being helpful and trying to keep things positive. So....yeah.
In my experience toxic positivity usually takes a more insidious form, and the stupid bluntness of the above statements may seem more of a manifestation of toxic masculinity. For me this exists in that fun overlap of both as it was just the dumbest expression of the ongoing attempts to curtail what I feel were the very valid ventings of a community that had experienced an exceptional amount of stress that was coming to a head.
I tended to keep quiet in those forums, but that particular issue motivated a response out of me and while I wrote a detailed counterpoint I'll just summarize it with this cute dog meme:
Regardless of intent, when you are addressing a community of your peers it's important to keep in mind that everyone is dealing with issues differently. And while you can argue a lot about the values of venting (which, believe you me, I will do a in a bit), when the majority of an entire community (let's call it chunky 80% +) comes together to call bullshit it probably means that something is up and we all need the affirmation that it is not just us overreacting. That the situation is indeed crappy, and that our anger was valid. And while there are appropriate times to bring a positive vibe, there is also a time to shut up and not shame people for feeling frustrated, angry, and just plain shitty.
I Ain't Self-Sacrificing Myself for a Hawkman Comic
The more common attitude among the 'stay positive' crowd during the early stages of the Covid19 impact was to cheerlead other retailers into hunkering down and committing to working even harder for the sake of their customers. Now let me be perfectly clear in one of my beliefs about comic retail; unless you are a complete slacker, to survive in this business you are already sacrificing a significant chunk of your body and soul to your work. 40-50 hours a week is a minimum. During a peak a few months into our shutdown I easily hit over 70. I know of a retailer who worked over 90 hours during the week of their birthday.
So you can shut up about doing more work.
The very fact that we are doing comic retail at all means we are partially doing this for our customers. We believe in the community we are a part of and in bringing this material to people in the hopes of making them happy. We were still doing it during the shutdown phases when the pandemic hit, and many are still doing it now.
When DC first announced new distribution before ending their relationship with Diamond, we had the option to create new accounts or just wait for Diamond to resume. So when DC announced that the releases they were starting out with were Daphne Byrne and Hawkman, can you guess what our reaction was?
If people can't chill and wait a month during a global pandemic for goddamn Hawkman then I have other worries coming into play for humanity as a whole. Still, the argument was still there on forums about switching from Diamond or sticking with them. Some said it was about sucking up your pride, but to me that was just a brush off (and an attempt to pomp themselves up). What always stuck in my craw though was the desire for some people to talk down to the crowd as we were all processing what was the best course of action.
When DC formally cut ties with Diamond then the only option was to choose a new poison. If you sell superhero comics you can't not have Batman. In my mind though there is no positive spin to that situation. You are being forced into a retail relationship with partners you may not want to have during a time of major social chaos. You may have to accept that, but you don't have to be happy about it.
There is a time where the only possible mindset you can and should have is negative because you are being shat on. This is literally your brain telling you, "Hey, none of this is ok and you deserve better." The very notion that there are people who may try to shame you for being in a negative mindset during these situations baffles me.
Come, Let Us Hate TOGETHER
Before we get too far and you just declare I'm a Sith Lord, yes there are negative aspects to venting. You'll find some interesting research on the topic, but there's a lot of common sense aspects that I feel are ignored. Like for instance, make sure the person you are venting to is down with it. Check with them, make sure they're cool with it and so on. Offer them to vent to you as well. Vent in moderation. Try to figure out what the problem is and if it can be solved, y'know, basic crap that just needs to be handled.
But if you haven't worked retail and specifically customer service, maybe take into account that you might not have a firm handle on the constant level of stress people may be under. And when a person is under that constant barrage, the act of a consensual venting sessions can do a lot to help figure out what the fuck just happened. I mean that very literally, because retail workers get confronted by such a colorful and ranged litany of bullshit that we may not actually be able to process what just happened in a situation and we need some sort of grounding. Did this thing actually happen? Did I perceive the customer interaction correctly? And it's not just me, is it? That person was in the wrong? Can I move on, or do I need to take a look at my behavior? No? So at what point would a court say what's about to happen is justifiable homicide?
And you better believe that also applies to dealing with issues with vendors, publishers, and distributors. It's such an uphill battle, and you never know when that shit canoe Robert Kirkman is going to do something obnoxiously stupid, or when your distributor will charge you $2000 in shipping due to their own mistakes, or when a publisher will actively sabotage your business. When faced with that much constant crap, you'll get so worn down that one of the most valuable treasures you'll ever have is just knowing you have allies.
The act of venting can also be the act of finding common ground and just a simple affirmation of your own goddamned sanity. Because often times it's been drilled into us to just ignore or move past negative stimuli without taking into account if we actually can, therefore creating a bottling affect. When you're drowning in a sea of stress and you move past all the stimuli, you may still be too buried in the shit to properly deal with it all. And yes, therapy may be helpful, but keep in mind it might not be accessible due to a number of factors.
This is why in my mind venting is like guerilla therapy. It's not ideal, but in a cinch it's what ya got and if properly handled it can help you to work through the immediate stress before it can become too overwhelming.
Seriously, sometimes you straight up have to let the hate flow through you because it might be the only opportunity you have to identify the issue, recognize the cause and its effects on you, and determine an appropriate response in handling the situation. It's the Emperor Palpatine method of self-actualization and harnessing your inner power.
And maybe you'll develop some wicked force lightning powers, who knows.
The main reason I wanted to tackle this as a subject is that over the past couple years it's become a bit more obvious that toxic positivity can be pretty oppressive in our social media culture and has become sort of a half-assed replacement for proper self-care. It can actually be pretty fascinating seeing where it spreads faster and is more prevalent, such as in the physical health niches where 'no pain, no gain' can be a core motto. Anywhere that there are celebrities and successful people trying to force you into accepting that their positive attitudes and methods are the only way to succeed in life. Or even those horrible little Youtube infomercials about how to become your own boss and earn ludicrous amounts of money.
But man, you flip the channel over to a more art centric social media feed? Seriously, try following as many artists as you can on Instagram and you will immediately notice the difference. If there's a section of humanity that knows what it means to just try and keep your head above water during an onslaught of mental stress, it's fucking artists. Especially comic artists. And yet you'll also come across a very supportive and positive attitude. You will see more messages about accepting that it's ok to not be ok, more messages about how to cope and how to seek help, and overall more messages about the value of true self-care.
And when it comes to toxic positivity, there are a few things about self-care that I believe it flat out misses:
Self-care is not ignoring that everything may be shitty. It's about understanding that everything may be shitty, and that you need to find ways to cope with and recover from the shittyness.
Self-care is not about putting on a mask of positivity in the hopes that a false 'better' attitude will help the situation. Sucking it up and putting on a smile isn't even a band-aid, it's straight up denial.
Self-care is not about killing yourself with a larger workload because you need to 'toughen' up to overcome the fact that everything is shitty. I can't even with this one. You work more because you may have to work more, not because it will make you feel better about working more. The self-care part comes in when you are recovering from having to work more.
Self-care can be about learning when and how to appropriately vent and uncork the bottled frustrations so that you don't explode and hurt people.
Regardless of whatever positive platitudes you may hear, there will always be shit and there will always be negativity. Sorry, that's just the truth. But instead of denying your negative emotions I truly believe that if you listen to yourself and work through what you're experiencing as best as you can however you can, then you can hopefully figure out what the best course is to some self-care. Because in the end, self-care is what you need it to be so that you can cope with the world and learn to process and deal with negative stimuli so that you never lose what it means to be yourself.