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Black History Month 14: The Sambo Samba

February 14th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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art from dc comics’s firestorm
This is besides the issue that some white comic creators create bland African-American characters.

Where is the African-American Guy Gardner? Where is the African-American Batman? Where is the African-American Joker? Booster Gold/Ted Kord Blue Beetle? Oracle? Wolverine? Spider-Man?

DC’s African American characters are either created to be the only person of color on a team (JSA, JLA, Teen Titans, Green Lantern Corps), or by editorial fiat to fill a diversity need (Firestorm).
–Valerie D’orazio, Three From WWII: The Twelve #2, JSA #12, Project Superpowers #0

When I was born, I was black. When I grow up, I’m black. When I’m ill, When I die, I’m black. But you – When you’re born, you’re pink. When you grow up, you’re white. When you’re ill, you’re green. When you go out in the sun, you go red. When you’re cold, you go blue. When you die, you’re purple. And you have the nerve to call me Colored?
–Malcolm X

I’ve got a habit of getting into arguments on the internet regarding race. I can’t help it, man, someone says something dumb and I feel compelled to respond. Next thing I know, it’s a week later and I’m waking up in a ditch.

Anyway, this post is about something that bugs me to death. I’m sick of hearing the word “token.” I don’t mean that I’m sick of “token” black characters.

I’m sick of people using it to describe black characters.

Token, quota hire, affirmative action case, all these words have the same root and work to the same point– the black person did not work for his position, he is less qualified, and he should not be where he is because he doesn’t deserve it. He’s only there because it’s politically correct, or editorially mandated, or because the team has to have a black character, doesn’t it?

Protip: Shut up. All you’re doing is reinforcing those ideas. Having one black guy on a team does not a token make. An editorial creation is just as valid as one from talent. It’s in the execution.

I’m gonna be honest and say that Val’s post up top there is what prompted this one. I had one all lined up about Deb Tiegel from Hitman (the best half german/half black character in comics), but I’m pushing it off for a day so that I can get this done.

In her post, she reviewed JSA #12 and said this:

The sequence with John Irons was also in need of some editing/quality control; John’s opening dialog with his wife sounded like pure exposition devoid of any human quality.

John Henry Irons is not in JSA #12. That is Jefferson Pierce, a black man with no facial hair and a wife and a grip of kids apparently (welcome to NEW EARTH). Irons is single, has a goatee, no wife, and no kids. He’s got a niece, though she’s already an established heroine in her own right.

When called on it, she said this:

I think the problem is that Johns wants to make the JSA the catch-all group that every other DC team is rolled into/connected with. Actually having Irons & the Infinity Inc cast make an appearance would make sense to me, as the two titles were historically linked to each other. But to bring not only JLA but Batman and the Outsiders…you need to have a realllly skilled hand to work within such a scope. I’m thinking a little past Johns and more like Busiek.

I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t confuse the two. It’s just that the book would have been better with John Irons, right? ’cause he is in a book with a cast of all new characters who don’t actually have a connection to the JSA. Also Geoff Johns is a bad writer and Kurt Busiek would write this story better.

Okay.

The conversation continues and we get the gem above about bland black characters created by white dudes, and how we need the black Spider-Man, Wolverine, Joker, and so on.

The bland thing stuck in my craw. What is that about? White people can’t create interesting black people? This means that DC’s blacks all suck? Editorially created characters are bad? Yeah, sorry– no. Not the business. She closed the thread when Pedro from FBB asked her questions, which meant she didn’t get to answer any of mine.

However, I have a blog of my own and I just did my taxes tonight so I’m in a raw mood so I decided to do this post. Pedro responded to her earlier, but that kid is just trying to get some e-cred so don’t read his blog at all. He definitely doesn’t make any good points about re-appropriating characters, writers of a different race writing characters, and comics quality.

Let’s go down the list.

John Henry Irons (TV’s Not Jefferson Pierce): He’s about as editorially mandated as it gets, isn’t he? He started out as the only one of the four replacement Superman to not claim to be Superman. He was carrying on in his name because it was the right thing to do. He graduated to being one of Superman’s best friends, an integral member of the JLA, buddies with Plastic Man, and one of the foremost thinkers in the DCU. Here’s his blandest moment:

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Did I say blandest? I lied. Dude has not only fooled an enemy who has taken over a decent portion of a city, but he has picked up on a plan from a teammate with little prompting, and come up with a way to take out that enemy.

DC’s African American characters are either created to be the only person of color on a team (JSA, JLA, Teen Titans, Green Lantern Corps), or by editorial fiat to fill a diversity need (Firestorm).

Blow by blow:
JSA: Jakeem Thunder is a member, and I guess Amazing Man is now, too. Jakeem is a kid with a magical wishing genie who didn’t have the benefit of a Bruce Wayne or Hal Jordan upbringing. He’s got an attitude, a rough edge or three, but he’s also trying to do right. That’s bland?

Mr. Terrific is a guy so smart that Batman copied some of his designs and regularly treats as an equal. He’s apparently the third smartest man on earth, too. Having trouble seeing the bland here.

Teen Titans: Ain’t no black people on this team.

JLA: I already went over Steel. John Stewart and Vixen are I guess who she was referring to? John Stewart is an equal GL with Hal, Guy, and Kyle. He’s portrayed as the most level-headed and may even have more willpower than his buddies according to a scene in GL where his willpower is too much for his ring in GL last month (month before last?). A guy with a wishing ring and that kind of skill? That’s pretty interesting, innit?

Vixen? She’s a question mark right now. Meltzer’s slipshod plotting left the story of what’s going on with her powers to Dwayne McDuffie, but suddenly she can duplicate the powers and skills of any superhuman she’s nearby. She can fake a Green Lantern ring. That’s a big deal, isn’t it?

Finally, Firestorm.

Poor, beleaguered Jason Rusch. First he’s seen as a ghetto-bound drug-dealing quota case and now he’s bland. Except… he’s a college-age kid who may be the most powerful metahuman on the planet. He’s got father issues, he’s inexperienced, he lost his best friend because of his powers, and now he’s searching for the mentor to the old Firestorm so that he can better learn how to take care of himself. He’s Spider-Man meets Phoenix.

Yeah. I’m not seeing the bland, boring, editorially-mandated black characters here. All of these people have been blessed with quality writers lately. Even before the past year or so, these characters never sunk to “token” status beyond what mouthbreathers on message boards had to say.

I’m not even a DC encyclopedia. I barely even like most DC books. I’ve read enough to know a little bit, though. I’m not talking out the side of my neck here. You can look all this up with a minimum of time on Google or in a comic shop.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this issue with somebody. Around a year ago, I got into an argument with a different blogger. I’d link it, but she’s since updated her layout and that hosed the 140 comments across two posts where the relevant part of the conversation was. Long story short, she came out with the line that “all black characters are mandingos and cannot be rescued from their horrible origins.”

I wish that comments thread was still there so, so bad. You don’t even know.

Her reasoning is terrible and horrible in a few ways. First, it supports the idea that you can’t reclaim or improve something. Going by her logic, I got some family members who’re gonna be hoodlums their whole life and are going to be worthless because of that fact. You go to jail and come out a different man? Who cares, dog, you’re still a criminal.

Get outta here with that. You’re gonna look at Bendis’s Luke Cage and tell me he isn’t an improvement, in terms of realistic representation and suchlike, than the one from the ’70s? Falcon is always gonna be a sambo? Bishop is just there to make white women scared? *smh*

When you get down to calling black characters bland, mandingos, tokens, or whatever, and you aren’t naming names? You’re doing wrong. You’re painting a whole bunch of characters with an ugly, ugly brush.

I’m having trouble coming up with some tokens who still appear in comics. Triathlon, I guess? I’ve read like half a comic with him in it, so I don’t even know there. Honestly, who are some “token” characters?

You think that there are “some bland/token/boring/racist black characters?” Call out names. Otherwise, some of us get to play “Guess who” while the rest of us are just going “I knew that Luke Cage was a token! What’s he doing on the Avengers anyway?”

Leave the subliminals at home and call out names. Be specific and know what you’re talking about because someone (probably me, at this rate) will call you on it. At worst, you might learn how he isn’t a token. At best, you might gain a new appreciation for a character you never paid attention to.

Stop looking at them as “black characters.” Treat them like characters instead of pieces in your “This Is How Superteams Should Look” puzzle set. Superman isn’t a white character, why is Steel a black character? Why is Priest painted as a “black writer” instead of a “writer?”

But just know that when you’re calling someone a token, you’re denigrating their skills, their past, and their accomplishments. You’re treating that character as inherently lesser than his teammates, due solely to preconceived notions and the make-up of his team.

Be specific or don’t speak up at all.

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30 comments to “Black History Month 14: The Sambo Samba”

  1. Who are the 5 greatest internet bloggers of all time?

    David Brothers, David Brothers, David Brothers, David Brothers, and David Brothers.

    Cuz He spit Hot Fire.

    Note: I think in regards to Teen Titans she was referring to “bland” brother Cyborg, whose biggest weakness right now is that his costume isn’t bland enough. He needs his Teen Titans Go jump off.

    I have to say, remembering those comments you refereed to about reappropiating characters really upset me. I walked away thinking for a second that we could never reclaim these characters. I was so upset myself for allowing that thought to sit in my mind. I think what made Malcolm X such a shining example of black pride is the fact that he brought himself back up from the lowest point a man could be to becoming one of the greatest heroes of all time.

    Not to get all religious, but there is a neat parable about how saving the person who is lost is a greater celebration than anything else. It’s a lesson I think any person regardless of religious faith or atheistic beliefs can still get behind. There are few things more beautiful than bringing a person who is lost back home and helping them become a better human being. I got something like that going in my life right now, and there are still missteps, but everyday I have with this person when they are on the right path is something that I treasure.

    Don’t let the haters trick you for a moment. That shit is beautiful. Every change is a victory.


  2. Wow, way to try to show up David on his own blog, Pedro.

    But for real, great post/comment. It makes me glad I only read sane comic blogs and let you guys try to deal with the riffraff for the rest of us.


  3. Excellent points, D’orazio throws every black character under the bus trying to be some kind of activist, but her argument is moot. Perhaps Luke Cage, Jeff Pierce or Bill Foster were created in the name of tokenism, but years of quality storytelling have outweighed that. Let’s be real here, was Steve Rogers a fully-developed, three-dimensional character when he was first introduced?

    Frankly, it’s a little insulting for D’orazio to suggest that black characters are only fully developed and interesting when you can draw a direct parallel between them and non-black characters. Is John Irons the “black Iron Man,” or is he a blue-collar supergenius with a strong sense of family who’s also one of Superman’s most trusted confidantes? Is Mr. Terrific the “black Reed Richards,” or is he the world’s third-smartest man who built himself up into a superhero after the death of his wife and struggles with a lack of faith in a higher power? Are those bland characters? In the wrong writer’s hands, any character can be boring, but that’s not the character’s fault.


  4. People don’t seem to notice that the white writers who write bland black characters also write bland white characters. And that the black writers who write kick-ass stories about black characters could also write a kick-ass Batman or Wolverine comic if given a chance.


  5. People don’t seem to notice that the white writers who write bland black characters also write bland white characters. And that the black writers who write kick-ass stories about black characters could also write a kick-ass Batman or Wolverine comic if given a chance.

    Cosign 2008%.


  6. Note to self: for the sake of increased awesome, somehow convince david brothers to do your taxes.


  7. I’m sure there are probably ‘token’ characters left in comics. They’re just bad comics that nobody reads.


  8. Gavok, I’d go with Cheryl Lynn for general “increased awesome”, but I don’t know about anyone on taxes. ;)


  9. Cheryl is right. Writers are writers. Bad writers are bad writers. Good writers are good writers. A good writer will know how to write accurate and interesting characters no matter their race, gender, sexuality or social status, because good writers pay attention, do their research and are capable of writing in more voices than their own. If there is some unspoken rule that white writers can only write interesting white characters and black characters should write black characters, should we then limit female characters to female writers? Gay characters to gay writers? Wealthy characters to wealthy writers? Kryptonian characters to Kryptonian writers?

    Both David and Pedro’s articles are totally on point. Do I smell a team-up coming up? Babylon Four anyone?


  10. I’d like to see them work together to bring more attention to the issue, that’s for sure.


  11. Both David and Pedro’s articles are totally on point. Do I smell a team-up coming up? Babylon Four anyone?

    I have brought up the idea of three of each site’s writers doing a review for the six issues of Countdown Presents: Lord Havok.


  12. I thought the reasoning behind ‘white male writers can only write white male characters with any degree of proficiency’ to come from the belief that white guys don’t know what it’s like to be Black, Asian, First Nations, Gay (unless the writer in question is gay), Female, Jewish, or any other group, and that they can never know, no matter how much research and attention to detail they put in, because it’s not something that can be learned from a book or by sitting on the sidelines watching; it needs to be lived.


  13. This is a brilliant post, David. I’m glad you called Valerie on her cowardice. I only wish someone could make her see the implicit racism in some of her supposedly noble statements. To say that a white writer can’t write an interesting black character is JUST as racist as saying that a black writer can’t write a convincing white character. It’s just nonsense. A GOOD writer will write a GOOD character, regardless of the writer or character’s skin tone.
    It all rings especially false these days, since the market is chock-full of terrific black characters. And some of them are even written by white guys! Scandalous!


  14. (Warning: Clueless But Well-Meaning White Guy Shit Forthcoming)

    To be fair, Steel has been the victim of a LOT of really shitty storytelling. After his ascension under Priest (in STEEL) and Morrison (in JLA) ended with his book’s cancellation and his leaving the JLA, he was turned into a background character and frequent victim (his membership in the Suicide Squad and subsequent “death” made me crazy)–they made probably my second-favorite DC character after Wally West into someone I didn’t want to see show up because it hurt too much. 52 went a long way toward redeeming him, though; Infinity Inc isn’t really my thing, but at least Steel is acting like Steel. (An aside: whatever market issues and popular tastes pushed Priest out of the industry qualify as a massive crime, IMO.)

    As for the general cry of “tokenism”, it really felt WRONG for so many heroes to go missing or end up dead and be replaced by a rainbow coalition all at once. At the same time, though, I like Jaime Reyes and Jason Rusch. I LOVE Ryan Choi. Renee Montoya works as a replacement for the post-O’Neill Question, but I’ve always preferred the original Ditko version, and she’s no Ditko Question. That said, though, I can kind of understand the average white male fanboy, who’s not racist beyond the “everyone’s a LITTLE bit racist” point, feeling threatened, not because of the replacement of beloved-but-rarely-seen B- and C-listers, but because of the heavy-handed way it was done.


  15. Ok, I double checked the issue just to make sure I wasn’t crazy – and I’m not. Mr. Terrific calls Pierce JEFF multiple times in a conversation discussing his daughter Thunder and his teaching career. How the hell do you get that confused with John Henry Irons? Furthermore, how do you even try to answer a correction with anything other than “oops, my bad” when it’s OBVIOUS that is, indeed, YOUR bad?

    She blows my mind sometimes.

    Also, Judo master is, in fact, hot and asian. Is it really so odd for a hormone-fueled teenager to refer to her as an asian hottie?


  16. Kevin: Yeah, because me doing your taxes will so not result in awesome. Unless you think audits are awesome.


  17. Man, I haven’t heard anybody use “hottie” in years. And thank God for that.

    I wish they’d bring “buster/busta” back though. :(


  18. You know what I don’t want them to bring back? “Butter.”

    “Oh, man, that song is straight up butter!”

    I’d be down with calling people sucker ducks/ducks, though.

    You know the last time I heard hottie? When I was on the Apple.com trailers site and saw that Paris Hilton had a movie called “The Hottie and the Nottie.”

    Paris. Hilton.


  19. I think it’s silly to debate about something subjective like thinking a character is interesting or not.

    I think the reason I perceive DCs black characters as un-intersting, is that there aren’t many real imperfections in their personality, they’re usually straight laced, cool headed, role models. Which is well and good, but really, who would buy a comic about that? Crap, make MR Terrific OCD-ish, Henry Irons a misanthrope, SOMEBODY PUT SOME PANTS ON CYBORG!


  20. “I think the reason I perceive DCs black characters as un-intersting, is that there aren’t many real imperfections in their personality, they’re usually straight laced, cool headed, role models.”

    Isn’t that the case for most DC characters? DC has always been more about celebrating their heroes. And they still have more human, relatable black characters in Firestorm, Jakeem Thunder, the Manhattan Guardian…


  21. well, even in nuance. Hal Jordan is a narcissistic showboat, Guy Gardner a hardass, John Stewart is a very smart architect YAWN.

    Superman has to deal with the guilt and pressure of trying to protect everyone and always failing, Supergirl is an immigrant trying to live up to Superman’s example, STEEl is a very smart engineer with a daughter he wants to protect YAWN.

    Robin has a tragic history and a huge legacy to live up to, aside from his young age, Impulse was flash’s descendant from the future, Cyborg is an athlete and genius that got maimed and “repaired” with cyborg parts, but really he’s ok with it and doesn’t make a fuss he also likes wearing shorts YAAAAAAAAAAAAWN.

    MR TERRIFIC CAN DO EVERYTHING CORRECTLY, I’m comatose.

    Diversity should be interesting, not because black people are always punching people in the face and jumping off buildings, but because it brings a different point of view to every situation. DC needs to stop being afraid of exploiting their mintority characters backgrounds, Jaime Reyes is a good start.


  22. Juan Carlos,

    Superman fails at almost nothing. It’s an immigrant theme, not a striving for perfection one. Hal Jordan’s narcissism is rarely (if ever) shown as a negative character trait (particularly in Johns’ books, where he engages in a creepy kind of hero worship).

    Stewart is perpetually wracked with guilt over his involvement in the destruction of an entire world (which was recently referenced in GL Corps, I believe), Steel constantly struggles with his relationship with his daughter (see 52), and Mr. Terrific is far from perfect (see Checkmate). Cyborg is so ridden with angst, he’s like a Bronze Age Thing.

    Not to mention the fact that I don’t think that heroes don’t need to have feet of clay to be compelling.


  23. For what it’s worth, Valerie responds here: http://occasionalsuperheroine.blogspot.com/2008/02/extreme-jump-in-logic-of-week.html


  24. […] @The comics blogosphere: Race and Superheroes! Here, here and […]


  25. Just found this blog today and I think it’s fantastic. Keep up the good work, David Brothers! :D

    I thought the reasoning behind ‘white male writers can only write white male characters with any degree of proficiency’ to come from the belief that white guys don’t know what it’s like to be Black, Asian, First Nations, Gay (unless the writer in question is gay), Female, Jewish, or any other group, and that they can never know, no matter how much research and attention to detail they put in, because it’s not something that can be learned from a book or by sitting on the sidelines watching; it needs to be lived.

    If we follow that logic, then black writers can’t write white characters, female writers can’t write male characters, gay writers can’t write straight characters and Jewish writers can’t write characters of other religions. Which is why I think that argument makes no sense at all.


  26. I can defuse the “white male writers can only write white male characters with any degree of proficiency” argument with only two words:

    Grant Morrison.


  27. “Which is why I think that argument makes no sense at all.”

    Your reasoning ignores how omnipresent and accessible “white culture” is, and the degrees of inaccessibility that other groups are. The argument’s more sophisticated than I reproduced, but it includes the basic assertion that “white culture,” and white males in particular, do not possess any depth that cannot be readily grasped through watching Fox for an hour (and I am being generous in my paraphrasing). It privileges authors who are not white or male with greater insight than white males can ever possess.

    And it’s not me who needs to be told. I’m a white male, so I just accept the argument as true because I don’t want to see racist or sexist by saying it doesn’t make sense or point out how hurtful it is to be told that I cannot ever understand anything other than what it is to be a white male.


  28. Val D’Orazio is not the only one confusing Jefferson and John Henry:

    Natasha is Steel’s NIECE, not his daughter.


  29. Your reasoning ignores how omnipresent and accessible “white culture” is, and the degrees of inaccessibility that other groups are. The argument’s more sophisticated than I reproduced, but it includes the basic assertion that “white culture,” and white males in particular, do not possess any depth that cannot be readily grasped through watching Fox for an hour (and I am being generous in my paraphrasing). It privileges authors who are not white or male with greater insight than white males can ever possess.

    Haha, I still stand by my argument, but that’s a good point. I wouldn’t go to the extreme of the last sentence, or even the Fox thing, but “white culture” is, to put it lightly, certainly very easy to find.


  30. […] David Brothers at 4thletter!: This isn’t the first time I’ve had this issue with somebody. Around a year ago, I got into an […]