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Black History Month ’09 #05: Make the Cipher Complete

February 5th, 2009 by | Tags: ,

You know, this is one of those things that I’ve seen over and over, but have trouble coming up with specific examples for.

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I’m sure you know just what I mean, though, and it isn’t exclusive to black characters in comics. It’s that bit where, say, a white man rebukes a black person, or a woman, or an asian person, or someone who is white, but maybe not rich, and then the white guy gets a face full of “Well, I don’t know where YOU’RE from, but around here…” or “You don’t know how it is!” It’s that scene where a person thinks some variant on “As a ______, I have to work twice as hard!” or “I have to show these people that I’m just as good as they are, even though I’m _____!” I don’t know if you read it, but Huntress Year One was riddled with that kind of thing.
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I totally understand the motivation behind the idea. I’ve been given advice that amounts to “People are going to hate you for who you are, so you better work twice as hard.” It’s a common train of thought that comes from being in a situation where you’re the underdog.

However, it got super old pretty quickly. I’ve been thinking of it as “The Big Getback.” “Finally!” whichever character is thinking to himself, “I get to show this white guy that he doesn’t know anything about being a black guy! I get to throw all the injustice of the past four hundred years right into the face of my oppressor!”

Uh, then what?

What happens after that? After the character gets his getback, it’s like a little book is closed. “This character has gotten revenge for racism, and now we can move on to stories about other things.” Captain Marvel has shown those racist sexist pigs that she can beat them up with lasers, Luke Cage has gotten all up in whitey’s face and yelled, and Superman has been told off for not looking out for the people in Suicide Slum and has looked a little chagrined. Ladies and gentlemen, we have spat in the face of racism and can now move on to other stories.

It’s a little silly, really. It’s cheap catharsis. What does it really bring to the story, except “Racism exists and sometimes people get angry about it?” That sort of thing is obvious. It just seems cornier and cornier every time it happens. It’s another symptom of “black characters are special.” “Let’s hit this checklist of Black Issues so our characters will feel authentic!” “Look man, black people got it hard! Let’s hit these marks!”

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And no, I don’t know what’s up with Kitty Pryde, either. Easiest examples for me to find.

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11 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #05: Make the Cipher Complete”

  1. Osborn is whitey.

    also, “Dark Reign” launches as Obama takes office.


  2. heh @ mack

    I agree with the post, although I also get where Kitty is coming from.


  3. I had no idea the n-bomb got dropped so frequently in the X-Men.


  4. I’ve seen that Kitty Pryde thing, but yeah: always a charmer, that panel. I’ve never seen the surrounding context…it has, of course, been explained to me by reading people fighting about the context, although I can’t be bothered to pretend that I find further explanation of it necessary. It’s just classic dumb. If they really wanted to impress me with the racial commentary, they would have put used big Kirby style lettering.


  5. Interesting subject matter for BHM & I applaud your courage to even address it – especially over several entries where you have the opportunity to look at different aspsects. As an aspiring comics creator who is african-american, I intend to add this rich layer of american-culture-tension to several of my story arcs. It has been missing from most mass-media entertainment media (not just comics) for a while. The only thing I disagree with is the idea that making someone upset is “inevitable.” Mixing racial diversity into plots need not be problematic, because, honestly, from a writer’s point of view, an ethnic character is no different than any other if you have multi-layered characters. The problem is just that comics have a balancing act to perform between being an escape from regular life and drawing on the reader’s experiences to make the story interesting without being too serious. Again thanks for even broaching the subject. I’ve added you to my daily blog list!


  6. I generally agree, but I think that you’ve got to count the GA/GL issues some slack because they were the first superhero comics (at least that I know of) to really deal with these things directly. There’s no denying that they come off heavy handed and cheesy, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.


  7. uh.. CUT them some slack, I mean.


  8. Not entirely related, I just have to say, your site is pretty much the only place I’ve seen with a consistently intelligent, in-depth discussion of comics. Treating it like a real art form worth exploring is hard to come by, and greatly appreciated.


  9. @Liz Davis: Thanks!

    @Moses: Yeah, that’s a fair point, but I don’t think it’s too out of line to look at it with a critical eye. I’m not saying it’s entirely terrible, but man is it clunky!

    @Knifight: Thanks Knifight, though I wouldn’t even call it brave. Honest, maybe, but I’m not really risking anything by talking about it! Regardless, thanks for the praise and reading.

    @Tucker Stone: Man, I am all about some amazing and overt racism. “Are you ready for the world that’s here?! I HOPE SO!”


  10. @The Beast Must Die: Those panels with Kitty going nuts are from the Marvel Graphic Novel, one of those oversized like 50 page albums from the 80s, called “God Loves, Man Kills”, which was kind of a “very special episode” of X-Men. I think they loosely based X-2 on it.

    It begs the question, what was Claremont thinking? Yeah the X-Men are a futuristic sci-fi metaphor for racism, but having Kitty yell “NIGGER” every five pages isn’t hard-hitting or mature, it’s cartoonish.

    The idea of a team of actually wasn’t new, there was a book from the 30s called Slan about a bunch of psychic mutants who were hated by the society they lived in. A lot of classic comic tropes are cribbed from old school science fiction, actually.


  11. [...] of Kitty Pryde unleashing a racial epithet (found by David Brothers) in a misguided effort by her to do the perceived right thing: [...]