Hey Marvel Comics, you can’t take a stand in the passive voice

Artwork: Marvel Comics via io9

When Marvel Comics artist Ardian Syaf secretly inserted Indonesian political images into his X-Men comics, Marvel fired him. Its passive statement about the incident isn’t fooling anyone.

Ardian Syaf inserted secret messages into comic art

In the Muslim-dominated nation of Indonesia, some Islamist groups are now in conflict with the Christian and ethnically Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama Tjahaja. These groups opposed his election, have claimed that he criticized the Quran, and staged protests calling for his arrest on December 2 of last year.

When the Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf illustrated the Marvel comic book X-Men Gold #1, he included secret political messages about Indonesian politics. One character’s shirt reads “QS 5:51,” referencing an anti-Christian, anti-Jewish Quran verse that Tjahaja and the Muslim protestors are arguing about. There’s also a building visible above a Jewish character that features the number 212, possibly referring to the 2 December date of the protests.

While it’s not clear what these references were intended to accomplish, Marvel’s response was swift: it issued a statement and fired the artist.

Marvel’s statement is passive-aggressive

It’s clear that Marvel doesn’t want to get drawn into controversial politics, but its statement about the incident is curiously passive. Here’s what it told the comic-industry publication comicbook.com (passive voice in bold):

The mentioned artwork in X-Men Gold #1 was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings. 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. This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken.

One way to identify a passive statement is that the subject of the sentence is not the actor. In this case, the actors are Syaf and Marvel, but the subject of both passive sentences is “the artwork.” When you restore the active voice, you get a clearer idea of what Syaf did and what Marvel did to punish him:

Ardian Syaf inserted artwork in X-Men Gold #1 without explaining its secret meaning. 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. Marvel will remove this artwork from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and will discipline Ardian Syaf.

Active voice can be harsh, but clear

Is the passive voice appropriate here? Consider the purpose of this statement. Marvel wants everyone to know it doesn’t take political stances and opposes religious intolerance, and that its creative staff cannot insert secret political messages into its work.

The active voice version of the statement makes this clear.

The original passive version fools no one. We all know that Marvel is disciplining the artist, and that Marvel doesn’t permit secret political messages. So why hide it?

In controversial situations, public relations people instinctively use passive voice to avoid assigning responsibility. This is transparent and dishonest. Rewrite these sentences in active voice to understand who you’re accusing of doing what, and what the company is doing in response. If you’re not comfortable with those statements, then the problem is with the actions the company is taking — and making the language squishy only makes things worse.

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