Black History Month ’09 #06: The Fear of Mandingo

February 6th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

(apologies for this post going up almost six hours late– i’d had it scheduled for tomorrow for some reason!)
One thing you can’t help sometimes is looking at black characters with a critical eye. Do they measure up to whatever standard of quality that black characters have to meet? Are they stereotypes? Are they insulting? It’s not even an intentional thing, sometimes. It’s part of that same line of thinking that leads to idle thoughts like, “Man, there weren’t any black folks in that movie” or “I was surprised the black guy didn’t die first.”

Barracuda’s one of those characters that you can call “problematic.” “Stereotypical.” “Ignorant.” “Racist.” He was created by Garth Ennis in the pages of Punisher MAX in a story about corrupt businessmen. The businessmen hired him to get rid of a couple of problems before they unveiled their big scheme.

Barracuda is essentially the essence of the mandingo: hypersexed, hyperviolent, and just waiting for a chance to put his hands on everything you hold dear and taint it. He is every “black male” on your evening news, every “big black guy” your friend ever told you about fighting, every bogeyman who ever broke into your house or stole your car, and every dude that ever made your mother clutch her purse in an elevator. You remember all those stories about the Superdome after Katrina? He was behind all of it. He’s even built like a big gorilla, all muscles and glower.

The problem is that Barracuda is probably the best black villain in years. That may be damning with faint praise, since I can’t think of another single significant black villain in mainstream comics, but it’s still true. He’s appeared in a total of three stories since his inception, the last of which ended with his death.

Frank Castle’s entire gimmick, at least under Ennis (a.k.a. “The Good Stories”), is that he’s singularly focused and prepared for his war on crime. He’s using his Vietnam-era training to put criminals to bed. Barracuda is also a vet, but he’s coming from Reagan’s wars in South America, rather than Vietnam. He found a taste for money, now his skills go to the highest bidder.

At first glance, Barracuda is just another big dumb tough guy, but that isn’t correct at all. He’s extraordinarily quick-witted and resilient in addition to being one of the meanest men alive.

He got a standalone story of his own that showed what happened between his beginning and his end. It was, what, a dark comedy? It showcased a morbid sense of humor and obscene levels of violence. It also showed even more of Barracuda’s character. His lack of social graces was obvious beforehand, but the series makes it clear that he’s full of pride. Frank Castle embarrassed him and hurt him and he can’t let that stand. So, he takes a trek down to South America to stage a coup and stack cash so that he can finance his revenge. He manipulates what, three or four different factions into all-out war? All on his own? Barracuda is no joke.

Barracuda is a big ball of negative stereotypes, but, man, he’s positively a breath of fresh air. We’ve got a comics world with a squeaky clean Luke Cage, a character born out of the blaxploitation tradition. Sure, sometimes he speaks in ASCII characters, but he spends the rest of his time doing things like being faithful to his wife, worrying about his daughter, and trying to make the world a better place. What part of the game is that?

Ennis creating an unapologetically negative and vicious black villain who isn’t some super scientist or freak of nature is a brave move, since most people don’t seem to have bothered. Ennis dives in with relish and man, it pays off big time. You get an interesting and exciting villain, someone who can actually stand up to the hero of the book, and a story that, even though you know Barracuda is going to bite it because he’s going up against Frank Castle, is thrilling nonetheless. “The Long, Cold Dark” was a story that took both characters to the edge in a way that you just don’t see often enough in mainstream books. You know that it’s going to end messy, but the devil’s in the details.

So here’s to Barracuda, an excellent example that we all cannot be, and should not be, Robbie Robertson when it comes to comics. Drop the kid gloves and give me a savage every once and a while. If I can’t get a savage, at least let me get a Bodie.

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9 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #06: The Fear of Mandingo”

  1. A number of good points there, but I still think ‘cuda embodies too many of those stereotypes for it to not be deliberate. If it were deliberate for some discernibly worthwhile purpose, that might be another story. So far, I don’t see that purpose. He could be despicable and capable without being quite so many other things.

    But you’ve clearly read more about him than I.

  2. I just saw one of your comic panel scans (at the top of the front page) with a “4th planet” box on it, instead of “4th letter.” Was that the site’s original or originally intended name?

    Btw, it’s the scan of Ares using Iron Man armor boot jets to fire on the army of Iron Man armors attacking him and others.

  3. YES. Barracuda was one of my favorite characters from the MAX series, and you stated all the reasons why. He had the best lines in the whole series. He had a bit of a Joker scenario around him, because the stuff he would do would be so out of line, you would laugh, but probably feel bad afterwards.

    But that’s the other thing. After the first two issues of that corporate crime arc (which was actually a weak arc in the series), I realized Barracuda was funny, but no joke. In every arc he was in, he was manipulating corporate sharks, the military, political interests, and dozens of mobs. And his last arc had him do honestly despicable things, not just the normal laundry list like “kill underling” or “be abusive to loved ones.” It was interesting to watch people on the Punisher message board learn to like him over time. We saw there was more to him than “hood rat” and more “warped Frank Castle.”

    I get why people would say he was a stereotype right off the bat, but if he really was a mandingo to the letter, he wouldn’t have lived as long as he did or have been as successful. It’s a shame he had to keep yanking Frank’s chain.

  4. This reminds me of a quote I read from Morgan Freeman about how he doesn’t get to play villain roles nearly as much as he’d like to, since modern “politically correct” Hollywood is afraid of casting a black guy as the villain.

    Incidentally, in my opinion, his best performance was as a thoroughly unrepentant villain in Street Smart. So there ya go.

  5. @West: Ares is the 4th planet 🙂 There’s a few other puns in there– I think one of the Cap pages has “4th July!,” there’s a few “4th world!” bits. I could never resist a bad pun.

    Everyone else, I’ll respond this evening– I’m at New York con so it’s hard to find time!

  6. @LtKenFrankenstein: I know what you mean, I thought the same thing when I saw the promos for American Gangster. Denzel Washington is so much the role model guy, I kept thinking it must have been really great for him (as an actor) to play the villain protagonist role.

    I also thought about it when I read the first meta-arch of Runaways. I still don’t know how I feel about that, I guess.

  7. Now that I’ve got a bit of time–
    @West: Cuda is basically Frank Castle’s mirror image. Goran Parlov even draws them with similar builds, even though Cuda is obviously younger. That’s what makes him so interesting to me. I wouldn’t call it color-blind casting so much as putting the story first. By showing us Barracuda, Ennis is also reminding us that Frank Castle is only good at one thing and could have easily refocused his efforts on us normal folks.

    @Lea: I love Alex from Runaways! I thought it was weaker when he kinda almost came back later, but him being the villain was both a surprise and a treat, because the motivation was so great.

    Denzel as villain in American Gangster was so much better than him as villain in Training Day, too.

  8. Oh my god, Morgan Freeman as a villain? That would be one sinister mofo. What an exciting thought; all that earnest assurance, but with dark intentions. ..

  9. […] ‘09 #04: Never No In-between • Black History Month ‘09 #05: Make the Cipher Complete • Black History Month ‘09 #06: The Fear of Mandingo • Black History Month ‘09 #07: These Are Your Shoes, These Are My Shoes, We’ve Got […]