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Black History Month ’09 #13: I Could Forgive The Past, But I Never Forget It

February 13th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

You want to know the problem with doing A Very Special Issue of a comic book? Nine times out of ten, it ends up being stupid.

JMS’s Nighthawk is my usual punching bag for this sort of thing. He’s basically a black nationalist. A better way to describe him would be as a “high school rebel.” You know the kid that read a bit of Marcus Garvey, maybe a little Ellison, and now he’s all “whitey” this and “cracker” that? That’s what Nighthawk is. He’s ostensibly there so that JMS can make a point about race, but it’s been a few years and I have no idea what that point could be, other than something completely surface level. Racism is bad? Black people can be racist, too? One time a black guy called JMS a cracker, and JMS felt really guilty about possibly having a racist thought in response, so Nighthawk is his penance, always there to chastise him and keep him on the straight and narrow? I do not know.

I read Superman 179 recently, which was co-plotted by Geoff Johns and Jeph Loeb, with scripting by Loeb. It’s A Very Special Issue of Superman. It’s the one where he comes face to face with Race and conquers the fell beast. I’m going to let this excerpt tell it.

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So, what have we learned? That being an alien is just like being black? That sometimes black people get angry? That whitey is wrong AGAIN? That Superman is the smuggest jerk alive?
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Now raise your hand if you didn’t know any of that before you read this issue. In fact, raise your hand if this portrayal of the subtleties of black/white interactions and inner city social politics is deeper than, say, what you learned about that back in kindergarten. No hands?

What, exactly, are we supposed to take from this?

This kind of story goes nowhere, says nothing, and is just one of those books that get done just so someone somewhere can check off a box and pat themselves on the back, for lo, they have written about racism and found it good. Look, there are even references to things black people like! Muhammad Ali! Malcolm X! We put “Fight the Power!” on the cover, that’s some straight up Public Enemy right there, boyeee! Plus! Hold on, get this, man!

Muhammad X is from Harlem!

Black cred? Skyrocketing, baby! Another issue like this and I bet we can totally dap up our homies, smoke Newports, drink foties, say nigga, and dance with black chicks without getting funny looks!

There’s a few bars from an OutKast song that I’m overly fond of. It’s about authenticity and appearances. “Now, question. Is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw, so don’t get caught up in appearance.”

In short, Superman 179 is dressed up like it’s down for the cause. It’s a story that’s ostensibly about how Superman is beyond race. He’s a human being, and human beings aren’t racist to other human beings. Even then, Superman will look out for Harlem and spend some time thinking over race. He’s Superman, of course he’s just that awesome.

Don’t be fooled. This grade school, Mickey Mouse, chirping bird approach to race is foolish. No one learns anything, it gives the hero a chance to be either pompous or admonished, and in the next issue, whoops, Harlem’s gone again! Superman’s back saving a mostly white cast! Ron Troupe, Superman’s brother-in-law is now divorced and MIA!

Superman 179, and books like it, are lip service in the worst way. They are an acknowledgment that race is a Thing, with a capital T, that must be dealt with in some way that usually does not involve punching. However, it will involve speeches, navel gazing, and a healthy lack of perspective, not to mention the general low level of quality. It’s false representing.

“We’re down with you!” books like this seem to say, but its eyes are hiding a corporate cunning. “We’re going to hook you, and you will like it, because we understand what you, a black person, go through daily! We did our part, now read Superman monthly, $2.99!”

Please. It’s a strikingly cynical approach to the whole subject, and one that isn’t at all thought out, at that. We know racism is bad. I’ve known that on a very real level since kindergarten. And yet, the comic books that keep talking about it keep doing it on the level of a four year old, with a hard black and white philosophy applied to situations that are anything but.

The problem is that we aren’t stupid, and we might have paid for it, but we ain’t buying it. Try again, kid. Maybe you’ll get a cookie when you write a good book, instead of going for a cheap pop.

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13 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #13: I Could Forgive The Past, But I Never Forget It”

  1. This reminds me of every episode of Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, Hang Time, and C-I-T-Y Guys, where one of the main protagonist would date some blind, fat, poor, or asian girl after thinking about it for 20 minutes. Chick would be gone next episode. I also thought it was fucked up that it was some great honor to have blond haired Zack Morris grace you with his company… actually scratch that, that is kind of an honor.


  2. It’s always pretty hilarious when there’s a black character telling a white character that they have no idea what it’s like being black when the story is written by a white guy who has no idea what it’s like being black.


  3. Personally, I blame Jeph Loeb…then again, I blame Jeph Loeb for almost everything, from the housing crisis to Polio.


  4. So who is supposed to be the “chirping bird”–? Ms. Organic Spam, I hope…


  5. I saw part of that issue at Scans_Daily and I’d say the point was you can’t reason with someone who wants to hate you. Cause seriously Muhammed X came off as an angry jackass and Superman was doing the naval gazing because he’s to sensitive.


  6. @bellatrys: Organic Spam just has the transcript. The chirping bird was the woman on the original radio show who refused to think that there may be more than one side to the conflict in Iraq. I used to have the mp3 recording of it, but sadly lost it. She was basically the ultimate stereotype of a hippie peace protestor– all ideas, no facts or reality.

    @Pedro Tejeda: Yeah, Zach Morris is dreammmmmmy!


  7. Agghhhh, Muhammed X!!! I had almost forgotten.


  8. Oh man, I remember this issue. At the time reading it made me wonder if either of the writers involved had ever spoken with an actual black person, or perhaps were instead relying on second-hand accounts culled from history textbooks.


  9. Muhammad X has his own Wikipedia article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_X

    (Even this article seems to be subtly mocking the issue in question.)

    I am always ALWAYS the first to blame Jeph Loeb for everything. And I hate to absolve Jeph Loeb of ANYTHING EVER. But this episode may have been mostly Geoff Johns’ fault, as he wrote a rather embarrassing short story called Temper, Temper written for Jay Faerber’s Noble Causes: Extended Family book, that is almost identical to this story. In it Rusty attacks a paparazzi dude that had been writing defaming articles about him, only to realize how lucky he is to be famous (even if he is stuck in a cold unfeeling robot body like a brain in a jar [which the paparazzi reporter calls him a "monster" for being]), because the paparazzi in question is a jealous fame/credit obsessed failed superhero, and that he should therefor forgive the paparazzi for harassing him out of jealousy, as that is for some reason is apparently his obvious right.

    Basically, shorten Superman #179 to a less painful length, exchange Rusty for Superman, Paparazzi dude for Mohammad X, exchange being white for being famous, and being black for being ignored/not famous, and you have the exact same story all over again.

    Still, Jeph Loeb did put his name on it as script writer, so I’m sure he took AT LEAST some small part in making this atrocity atrocible. So…good work douche bag. That’s right I’m talking to you, Jeph Loeb. I hope you’re reading this, and crying.


  10. @Lynxara: History textbooks? What textbooks are you reading?


  11. [...] http://www.4thletter.net/2009/02/black-history-month-09-13-fast-from-the-hog-yall-and-grow-up/ (This is a review later written on the comic by David Brothers.) [...]


  12. @ComixGrrrl: Comixgrrrl, I understand you hate the guy or whatever, but please don’t be a jerk on here.


  13. Actually, this strikes me as an attempt at a response to that old “What have you done for the black skins?” issue of Green Lantern. Like that issue, however, it falls into the trap of trying to resolve in twenty-two four-color pages problems that haven’t even been fully examined in entire libraries’ worth of literature.