Black History Month ’09 #04: Never No In-between

February 4th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , , , ,

Anyway. New King Kong. It’s not so good. You probably heard that from, y’know, the rest of the world.

They get to Skull Island where savages feed virgins to King Kong. And, while remaining faithful to every aspect of the ’33 Kong, bajillionaire director Peter Jackson populates the place with, as our fisherman in Casanova calls the citizens of Coldheart, “ooga booga bone-nose nigger savage motherfuckers.”

Now, I’m about as sensitive to race issues as the next middle-class white guy. But- really, Peter? Really? That’s the best you could do? You can show us the monkey and the girl ice skating in Central Park but you can’t manage to update the D.W. Griffin-level of stereotypical Savage Nergro Monster? Were there no assistants or friends, colleages or freakin’ P.A.s that took his Grande Hobbitness aside to point out that, hey, maybe we’re spending two hundred million dollars and short of top hats and canes, we’ve just filled Skull Island like it was the Isle of Misfit Al Jolsons?

It wasn’t re-envisioning, re-mastering, reinventing, or re-presenting anything but bigotry; Jackson and co. trucked in racism and wrote it off as an act of fidelity and faithfulness to flawed and ignorant source material.

And anyway it just pissed me off. So when, a few months later, I read about North Sentinel Island for the first time, the two thoughts collided with one another.

Fuck that guy. Here are savages to save the world.
-Matt Fraction, Casanova #5 (back matter)

I can’t help but feel like Matt Fraction, though obviously well-intentioned, missed the point.

Black Panther has Wakanda. Superman’s got Vathlo Island. Tyroc has Marzal Island. Casanova has Coldheart. They all have a few things in common. Remote or isolated countries filled with technologically advanced black people, untouched by the evils of colonialism.

If I had to put my finger on it, I guess it’s born from some kind of political correctness gone wrong. In an effort to avoid creating stereotypical black or African savages, the creators overcorrected in the opposite direction. They put the black characters on a pedestal, turning them into paragons of virtue and exemplars of everything good about humanity.

The thing is, the noble savage portrayal really isn’t better than the ooga booga bone-nose nigger savage stereotype. Both are equally unrealistic. Both of them treat black people as something outside of the norm. “Look! They aren’t stereotypical! They’re super-advanced! They’re sci-fi savages!”

There’s a line from Black Star’s Thieves In the Night that applies here. Mos Def says, “I find it distressing there’s never no in-between- we either niggas or Kings, we either bitches or Queens.” It’s a sign of the gulf between blacks in comics and blacks in real life. You’ve got your unrepentant villain or mugger (more likely the latter) and then you have your heroes, who do it because it’s right.

You don’t have that in-between guy, who tries to be faithful to his girlfriend, but man, he can’t quite make it. You don’t have the girl who strips to pay for her degree in botany. You don’t have that guy who comes home from his high paying job, rolls a blunt, and zones out for a couple hours.

No, you have virtuous-to-a-fault musclemen and super scientists. You have angry black men turned BFFs and haughty queens. You have a bunch of not-stereotypes that end up being just as bad as the stereotypes.

See what I mean?

I think that Casanova is one of the best comics in recent memory, but the Coldheart stuff was pretty eye-rolly. Just another bunch of super savages, here to save us all. Super or not, they’re still savages. Savage or not, they still don’t reflect anything but a distorted view of political correctness.

When Fraction says, “Fuck that guy. Here are savages to save the world,” he basically sums up his motivation for creating Coldheart: revenge on racism. Racism is such an ugly and hated thing that it becomes way too easy to overcorrect. It becomes a battle of extremes. For every bone-nose savage, you create a hyper-advanced doctor. For every street thug, you create a king. For every neck-rolling sass-mouth chickenhead, you make a queen. And in doing so, you get further and further from anything resembling a black experience.

It’s really easy to fall prey to unconscious racism when you’re trying to avenge a racist act. “He’s very well-spoken!” and “You people are all right!” and “All black people aren’t like that!” aren’t racist in and of themselves, but they definitely fall into that realm of “Hang on, what do you mean by that?”

I like a couple of those super savage cultures. Wakanda is pretty awesome, due in large part to Kirby throwing everything at the wall and having it stick, and like I said, I love Casanova. Tyroc’s home is pretty much the only thing I really know about the Legion, because I had a comic with him when I was a kid. Even still, the two extremes are, like most extremes, not reflective of how things really are. If you really want to fight racism, you’ll answer that extreme with something in-between.

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11 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #04: Never No In-between”

  1. Wakanda was always an interesting topic because it was about an isolationist African Country that stayed free from colonialism. What would a place like that be like? What if the Mayans had been allowed to run parallel against European cultures? A juxtaposition of traditional naturalistic cultural and sci-fi level science. The techno jungle is glorious. Priest completely plays up this concept in so many fantastic ways on his run.

    I barely know anything about Vathlo or Coldheart, they do sound like pale imitations of that great and noble Kirby idea.

    Part of this is that few people have a basic understanding of what Africa is. Most people, Black, Hispanic, White or whatever, see it as one country. This kind of makes it hard for people to imagine Africa as a place with cities and running water. We normally only here of the terrible Aids epidemic, tribal warfare, or horrible famine. One of the more interesting parts of reading What is the What, is the part where the Sudanese main protagonists visits the city of Kenya and describes it similar to a US city.

    I also have to call a bit of bullshit on the lack of Black characters that are not Kings or Niggas. Comics rarely tend to have them in general but there are several Black characters who are just trying to make it and struggle. Jason Rusch and Kasper Kole are two specific examples of dudes who are exactly what you describe.

  2. I think this post appeared before, but I’m not sure. If so, sorry if I say whatever I might’ve said there or then.

    Anyway, I disagree with the idea that both extremes are equally damaging. I agree that neither hits the mark, but it’s another example of “over-correcting” to say that the negative stereotypes we saw in early 20th century American entertainment would’ve been just as damaging or just as offensive if they’d been Black saints instead of Black sinners.

    But overall, I get and agree with the point “never no in-between.” I first remember noticing an example when I was a kid in the 80’s and that Lil’ Rascals cartoon aired. Instead of Buckwheat saying “Oooo-TAY,” and looking idiotic, he had to be a super-genius, which made him similarly unrelatable, to me.

    One thing we need are a many more examples of Black characters, that way, each instance won’t “weigh” so much. There could then be all of these extremes (maybe not ALL of them) because they’d be balanced out by the in-betweens.

    Maybe someday.

  3. I agree with the comment that more charcters will give less weight to each character. I think the problem is that we only see extremes.

  4. @Pedro Tejeda: I agree with you on Jason and Kasper, but where are they now? There’s also Static, sometimes Night Thrasher, Cardiac, and the Prowler. The problem is that who is using these characters? We see Firestorm in McDuffie’s JLA, but what, was there a year between last uses? I remember his series getting canceled in the lead-up to Countdown.

    You make other good points and I agree with you, but I’m gonna have to revisit this post later, I gotta dash to work. Just wanted to get this in.

  5. you know what? i had this great response all typed up and then i suddenly realized that i misinterpreted a clutch part of your post. so f*ck it! i deleted all of it! suffice to say that upon further reading, i get what you’re saying and agree with you.

  6. @Nick Marino: Which part did you misinterpret, out of curiosity? No big on that, we’re all friends here.

  7. If you thing that the black stereotype is bad in the mainstream comic, please check the latino and asian. there is no asian that is not tech savvy or karate/ninja/kung fu expert.

  8. Also, I loved Jackson’s King Kong. To pieces.

  9. I apologize if this is too off-topic, but I feel something simliar is at work in the Invisible Woman’s portrayal. Contemporary, well-intentioned writers look back at the Sue Storm that Stan Lee wrote, who would cry when someone suggested she wasn’t an asset to the team, and want to repair the character.

    So they amp up her powers, make her really confident and well-adjusted — the “mother figure” of the team. Chris Claremont had her fight Iron Fist to a standstill once. They overcompensate for Stan Lee’s wilting stereotype by making her faultless.

    And that’s not fair. We can identify with the men in the Fantastic Four because of their human flaws — Reed for his tendency to get wrapped up in himself and his work, Johnny for his immaturity and temper, Ben for his gruffness and struggles with self-pity. But we don’t get to see ourselves in Sue?

    I guess what I’m saying is, I sometimes wish those self-esteem issues Stan Lee wrote her with were still there, but for a *reason* besides “she’s a woman.”

  10. You’re grappling with some important issues here, but it seems as though you want Black heroes to be flawed just to avoid what you call “political correctness.” But we don’t ask Superman to be “something in-between,” so why should we ask that of Icon? If the black heroes are just “something in-between,” would they really make very good superheroes? The superhero is, by definition, an outlier. John Irons woudn’t be Steel if he were just some schmo for the same reason Ray Palmer wouldn’t be the Atom if he were just an average scientist. Being exceptional is what makes them heroes. Same goes for the “super savages.” Wakanda isn’t the opposite of “darkest Africa;” it’s the equivalent of Krypton or Kalahia. These are as much genre conceits as they are political ones.

  11. @Justin: That’s interesting about the Invisible Woman– I liked Grant Morrison’s take on FF1234, where she was very capable and understand, and very much the spine of the team in a way that Storm or Wonder Woman or Black Canary aren’t. The team literally would not function without her being there to hold them together. And, sometimes, that sort of thing gets to her, because she’s her own person and needs time to herself.

    @Simon: I don’t expect Icon or Superman to be something in-between at all. I do think, though, that more variety between characters would be nice. I’d never want a character with a firmly established identity to be changed just for change’s sake. Instead of doing that, creating a compelling new one is the way to go.