Talking about black characters in comics puts me in mind of the old joke about newscasters. If they mention an armed robbery and not the race of the crook, it’s obviously a white guy– they would’ve said the race if he wasn’t. This is because being black is Different. It’s something outside of the norm. Basically, to put as blunt a point on it as possible, it’s The Other.
Once you create a book with an all, or mostly, black cast, and you acknowledge their race, marketing and advance word of mouth is given a chance to play up that aspect of the book, no matter how much it plays into the content of the book.
This is what happens when you treat black characters as special snowflakes. This is what happens when so many black characters have to address Racism, or The Streets, or The Struggle, or The Man at some point in their career. You begin to build certain expectations in your audience. You’re waiting for that bit of the book where you get hit over the head with race.
Before The Crew came out, Christopher Priest was already fighting the idea that it was a Black Book.
I briefly wanted to call this book The Black Avengers. It’s a terrible idea, but, the truth is, with this cast, race will speak the loudest. Having not said a whole lot about what this book is, the feedback I’ve gotten thus far has only confirmed that fear. Fans don’t know what THE CREW is, but they know it’s, “A black book set in the ghetto.” So, I figured, why not. Race is all some fans will see anyway, let’s just get to it. The book has a kind of Avengers vibe, anyway, with two archetypical AV characters in our black Iron Man (WAR MACHINE) and Black Captain America (JUSTICE). Moreover, Black Avengers really just nails What This Is in a way “The Crew” really can’t.
It’s kind of funny. If Christopher Priest had replaced the gangs in The Mog with, say, Hydra, you could’ve branded The Crew as The Avengers: The Crew and had the kind of story Hawkeye used to star in. With black heroes up against black gangs, though, it’s a Black Book.
This is essentially what I’m trying, and have been trying, to get at. Books featuring a cast of largely black characters become almost inherently political. They’ve got to be about Black People, rather than about adventures. No, that’s wrong. They seem like they have got to be about Black People, rather than adventures. It’s that perception and prejudice again thing- we’re trained to expect certain things out of these books.
Admittedly, I’m working from a small sample size here, and that’s part of the problem. Talking about this sort of thing is tough when you can only point to a fistful of books for examples. How can you talk about reasonable or offensive portrayals when your sources are lacking? We haven’t had enough books starring black characters to erase the idea that Black Books are always something to be gawked at or treated as a big deal.
The books, and characters, aren’t abnormal. Get your hands dirty, put them through their paces, and make them commonplace. I’m pretty happy about Luke Cage being in New Avengers, in part because that’s the highest profile position for a black comics character since Steel became one of the four fake Supermen over a decade ago. It’s a step in the right direction, at the very least.
I don’t want it to seem like the market should suddenly be flooded with dozens of black people, each with a different gimmick and backstory. You don’t have to “blackify” comics. At the same time… the more black characters there are, the fewer characters there are that will be expected to be official representatives of the race. You’ll have more variety, more characters to identify, and a wider range of experiences.
So, there it is. Nothing’s ever simple, right?