Black History Month ’09 #14: Simple, Ain’t It? But Quite Clever.

February 14th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

I don’t read comics because of Jack Kirby, but I do enjoy them more than I would because of the ones he created.

There are a few hero pairs out there, groups like Superman/Steel, Captain America/Falcon, Iron Man/War Machine, Scott Free/Shilo Norman, Captain Marvel/Monica Rambeau, Hal Jordan/John Stewart, and maybe a few others. Generally, I’m talking about either the black replacement or the black sidekick.

madbombMost authors tend to set up a situation in which one hero is better than the other, sometimes even to the point where one hero defers to the other just based on stature. Other times, the black heroes are left to languish for years. John Stewart is kind of clearly the red-headed step child of the Green Lantern Corps, being the only one without regular panel time. Shilo Norman was in limbo for years and Monica Rambeau still hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s almost always a little off balance.

Kirby’s treatment of Captain America & the Falcon was pretty amazing. Even though Captain America is an icon and a war hero, their relationship was one based purely on friendship. Falcon wasn’t consumed with hero-worshipping Cap, nor was he just on sidekick status. They were just friends. They would hang out, do things together, and get into adventures. It was a buddy movie, rather than anything involving sidekicks.

I mentioned it last year, but Kirby invented Gabriel Jones, Black Panther, Flippa Dippa, Vykin the Black, Black Racer, Princess Zanda, and Mr. Miracle over the course of his career. I’m sure that he created more, but these characters alone are impressive. What Kirby did was push forward a diverse cast of characters. He was a guy who did the stories he wanted to tell, and those stories weren’t all-white.

In an email, Tucker Stone from The Factual Opinion said this to me:

Wouldn’t it be better if you hired a writer who pitched a black story because that’s the story he wanted to tell? I flat out refuse to believe that there’s nobody with one. There’s a million douches with fantasy stories about Power Girl. There’s somebody with a black Firestorm story. Wouldn’t you just be starting from a cleaner point? A point where you say, hey, this guy is black so fucking what. I have a story I want to tell. Instead, you get: this guy’s black now. Figure it out and make it work.

That’s what Kirby did. He wasn’t given an order to create a Black Superman or Black Firestorm. He just wrote about black characters because he thought it’d be a good story, not because there was a need for a New Diversity Initiative. No one in a board room was sitting over his shoulder, telling him to make his books ethnic or urban or whatever fake word we are using now to mean “black.” He wasn’t trying to fix anything. He wasn’t trying to be anti-racist.

He just did it because he wanted to.

That’s how it should work.

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6 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #14: Simple, Ain’t It? But Quite Clever.”

  1. Yes to everything you said.

    The secret is actually incredibly simple, but our collective insanity makes it seem otherwise. You need to know people. Lots of people, of all different types. You don’t even necessarily have to like them but you have to know them. Then you say “I think Jim would make an interesting character, I’ll base this character on Jim.” And if Jim is black, you’ve got a black character. Jack Kirby knew lots of people and loved meeting more people. He knew black people and white people and Indian people and Japanese people…so when he put people in his stories, that’s what came out.

    A comics writer, fairly prominent and successful at the time, once admitted to me he was reluctant to write black characters because he didn’t know any black people and didn’t understand them. And I thought, guy, you’ve got a way more important issue to deal with than your comics writing.

  2. Well he is the KING. He also made the awesome sauce that is Sonny Sumo too. How many Japanese badasses were around back then.

    So far the only creator that I feel just writes a minority character for no special reason is Morrison.

    Also John Stewart had years of cartoon time, I think in reality that means more than a comic these days. I’d say right now Green Lantern hierarchy is
    John (long running cartoon and many action figures)
    Guy (new hotness cartoon and new action figures)
    Hal (longest dude and some random “the batman” apperances)
    Kyle (no media love at all, just two DCAU apperances)

  3. but…what about intellectual panties?

  4. @Tucker Stone: Monday! #16, as scheduled, has you covered on that point.

  5. I think another one of the writers who falls under this category is Matt Wagner. Edsel and Joe Phat from his comic Mage just happen to be black. I never remember any special emphasis being placed on that.

  6. Your point is interesting, but I think we should be careful to include actual black people in the creation, production, and consumption of comics as well. As long as white people write from an exterior position, we’re only making so much progress as a community. Of course, there are black people involved now (Mat Johnson, among many others), so we’re hopefully moving along the right track.
    I’d also like to point out that Monica Rambeau was awesome as the de facto team leader in Nextwave.