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Black History Month ’09 #02: You Can’t Win

February 2nd, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

Here’s a few tips if you want to write black people in comics.

1. Find a quiet place to write
2. Use a laptop– they’re easy to get comfy with and you can research and write at the same time. Also? Music.
3. Keep a hammer by your laptop
4. Hit your laptop with the hammer, and then your hands, because you’re gonna get it wrong.

Still with me?

You’re going to piss somebody off. That’s just the way love life goes. If your character is too thuggish, he’s an idiot gangbanger thug mandingo. If he’s too bookish, he’s an Uncle Tom. If he’s not black enough, he’s just a white dude with black skin. If he’s too black, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes.

You can’t win. This is the unspoken rule of creating or writing black characters. Someone, somewhere, is going to hate what you do and how you did it. It could be something in your approach, dialogue, or technique. It could be nothing at all, you might have just pushed someone’s buttons on accident. You’re co-opting, appropriating, and destroying.

With that said, all of that’s no reason to not do it.

If you’ve got half a brain, you’re smart enough to write black people. You know that every black person is different, but that there are still similarities in all of us. If you’re really unsure, you’ll run it by a black friend or two. If you don’t have any black friends, go find some.

faizaPaul Cornell is a pretty smart dude. When he created Faiza Hussein, a British Muslim, he consulted actual Muslim women. Why? Because he knows that there are intricacies or in-jokes or experiences that he may not know about. It was an amazingly respectful, honest, and (to be frank) obvious move. When you’re writing detectives, serial killers, crazy people, or scientists, you do a bit of research to make sure that your ideas are sound. Same goes for race. I respect G. Willow Wilson for similar reasons– it’s clear that she’s willing to do the research necessary to make the story real. A little research goes a long way.

Scared money don’t make money. If you’re so scared of criticism that you’re going to choke when writing black people, you shouldn’t be doing it. If you’re going to seize up at the first sign of criticism, you shouldn’t do it. You’ve got to have the smarts and guts to be able to plow on through and pray that you’re right. It’s a touchy subject, and with good reason, but if no one ever tries, it will never stop being a touchy subject.

Sometimes, creators turn out to be so great at it, no matter their race and upbringing, that I’m willing to read anything from them that involves touchy subjects. Garth Ennis is probably number one on that list for me in everything but religion. He dared to try and tackle things that other people glossed over, and turned out to be pretty great at it. The man has an honestly startling grasp of character, be it white, black, or whatever. The Slavers arc of Punisher MAX was one of the saddest things I’ve ever read, and probably one of the best stories to ever come out of Marvel. It’s something that a lesser writer would have bumbled and botched. Under Ennis, it was honestly terrifying in a very sad sort of way. It makes the stupid superhero fights the Punisher is going to be getting into for the next however many years look worthless.

And that’s how you do it. You do it right, you do it well. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Put in some work, do some research, and get it done.

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21 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #02: You Can’t Win”

  1. Thanks for writing this. As a writer, I do worry about these things, sometimes going as far as to wonder if I even have a right to be writing characters not of my own race. It’s funny you mention Garth Ennis, because I look up to him when it comes to really touching character moments, regardless of who they are or where they come from. He just does it so well. I’ll keep reading and practicing.


  2. Sound advice for any enterprise, and not just the specific topic of writing a comic about the experiences of black people.

    I notice you exclude religion from Ennis’ win column – good move. He seems to have an axe to grind with (Irish) nationalist catholicism in particular, but is nowhere near as savage in his criticism of loyalist Presbyterianism beyond ‘well, they’re terrorists too and it’s all a bit silly’. All the same, at least he can tell the difference between Irish nationalism and catholicism – not many who tackle Northern Ireland (even those who live or originate from here) bother to make the distinction, and it’s lazy and insulting.


  3. thank you for posting this.


  4. Speaking as a whiter-than-bread dude, this is solid advice for anyone who wants to write from a perspective not their own. If you don’t know, ask. If you don’t ask, read. There’s nothing lazier or more insulting than cobbling pop-culture cliches and buzzwords together and passing that off as an accurate depiction of someone else’s cultural experience. And speaking of lazy and insulting…

    The perfect case study to accompany this article is Jeph Loeb’s Superman #179, the first and to-date only appearance of Muhammad X, the black superhero who’s so black that when he go to night school, teacher mark him absent. Not only does this story imply that Superman unconsciously ignores black neighborhoods on his patrols, but also that he’s practically clueless about the black superhero community. Natasha Irons schools him on a bunch of black heroes who presumably exist in name only, and the scene plays like someone’s old white dad in a record store asking where the new Eagles LPs are and why this Nas guy is all over the place.

    Adding insult to injury is the scene where Superman tracks down Muhammad X (I guess we should be glad Loeb didn’t name him “Meadowlark Jordan”) and gives the white-guiltiest speech ever about how he doesn’t see color. Of course he doesn’t, dude can read your gahddamm DNA! In the end, however, Muhammad X is just too black and too angry to give a damn. It’s so tone-deaf and by-the-numbers that it would be hilarious if it wasn’t doing actual damage to the idea of black superheroes as a whole.

    Pardon the rant.


  5. @SplintChesthair: Split, I seriously read that book for the first time yesterday and ranted about every single point you just said! Ha!


  6. @david brothers: How about that? I know you want to keep the overall tenor of these articles positive, but is there any chance Superman #179 gets an official mention during BHM? It could be the least effective “very special story” in comic book history and the best example of how not to write a story and character from a racial perspective. It makes me angry just thinking about it and made me hate Jeph Loeb before it was cool.


  7. Oh no, I’m not going to stay positive overall at all. I’m going to go in at some point this month for sure, I think probably late next week.

    I thought about mentioning Superman, but it’s just so unsubtle and overall lame that I don’t know what I could get out of it.


  8. Argh Splint I just realized where I can fit Superman 179 into my posts so now I have to write about it >:|


  9. Good stuff. I can’t disagree with one point…not that I’d want to anyway.

    You’ve got me thinking about creators (black, write, etc) who can write every character well regardless of race. Not a lot of them, but enough to use as a reference for other writers.


  10. Ennis’s take on religion is bad because it’s silly. An angel had a baby with a demon and now it is stronger than God. Oh me oh my.


  11. The point of the baby was that it was a mixing of two diametrically opposed ideas and it made God question the current state of the universe. The baby was so powerful because it was outside of the realm of heaven or hell.

    Of course, I have some criticisms of the Preacher series myself, as that idea, compelling as it was, was not expounded on at all toward the end of the series.


  12. Yeah, Preacher is one of the few Ennis works I have no interest in buying. Punisher MAX is by far the better and tighter book, and Hitman was twice as enjoyable. I love the man, but his take on religion rubs me the wrong way.


  13. Awesome post.


  14. While I’d agree with the take on Ennis and religion to an extent, there’s portions of Just a Pilgrim 2 and True Faith especially where I think you can see how much of a personal response so much his writing on the subject is, how True Faith started a theme of “I’m going to try to explain why I hate what this does to people” that bounces around and leads up to what I would consider the ultimate climax of it in his writing, where Just A Pilgrim concludes by saying “I can’t talk about this anymore” and just rejects it in a complete wish fulfillment, cutting Christianity right out of the future of mankind completely. Since that comic, everything he’s written on the subject has been humor or just…well, I guess Crossed is humor.


  15. Other Dane, I’d chock that idea up as being even more indicative of Ennis’s inability to handle religion properly. The idea of God as a crass Old Testament vs. New Testament man-child is neither original nor interesting. Ennis approaches the problems of theodicy in a really lame way: it turns out God’s a non-omnipotent jackass, so an angel-demon baby can, like, totally destroy the false duality, of, like, Western religion. Even Kevin Smith handled the idea with more maturity (if not much more).

    It resembles the exchange Ennis has over the government villain character in the letters section of the same series, as he tries to convince his readers that it’s not offensive to gay people to have a character suddenly start craving gay sex after he’s raped by a man in an alleyway. Ennis is one of my favorites, to be sure, but there’s some topics where I hope he’s learned some things.


  16. This is the last time I’ll respond to this, because we’re getting dangerously close to arguing what I’m afraid are subjective points and moving away from the main points in David’s post.

    Dane_Moniker, I’m uneasy with the phrase “handle religion properly.” What rules are there to religion when you’re satirizing/mocking it? If you don’t find it interesting, that’s your call, but I felt Ennis was humanizing God in that series. The guy loved his creation, but often didn’t give them enough credit either, so when he abandons the human race to do his own thing that sets off Jesse’s hunt. And how do we know God’s omnipotent anyway, and not just a really powerful divine being? People need to place their faith in that as much as the belief of God himself.

    And my memory’s a bit fuzzy on this, but I believe in the Starr special (I’m guessing that’s your gay government villain character) it showed he was exploring his kinks with a hooker before the incident in the alleyway. It didn’t suddenly turn him gay. He had those tendencies well before that run-in with the sex detectives or whoever they were. But yeah, Ennis has a tendency to have his villains be gay, deviant, or repressed in some manner. It’s one of his themes, and sometimes it’s explained, and sometimes it’s an inexplicable character trait. Maybe it’s something to humanize the evil bad ass, or maybe it’s shock value.

    But really, if you don’t like the ludicrous religious aspects of Preacher, there’s still plenty else it can offer. For one, I thought it gave the most accurate idea of America, especially the South. It showed the country has its warts, but it also has the potential to be the greatest place on earth due to its core values of liberty balanced with personal/community responsibility. Preacher was more than just a cowboy shooting the devil in the head, is what I’m getting at.


  17. I took your advice and now my hand hurts.

    Seriously, though, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I’ve decided a lot of it comes down to learning to deal with criticism. Yeah, race and religion are touchy issues, but that doesn’t mean one has to take criticism with a gut reaction of “oh god, oh god, they called me a Nazi.”

    So… yeah.


  18. Yeah, learning how to deal with criticism is a bear and a half. One thing I hate is when people immediately fold– there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t say “No, hang on now, that isn’t it at all.” At the same time, realizing that you aren’t perfect is pretty good, too.

    It’s a self-esteem thing, I think. Being able to go, “Okay, somebody hated it and I’m okay with that” is essential.

    If only there were an easy answer or instant advice that’d fix it all, huh?


  19. As an aspiring writer and comic book artist that’s whiter than Rob Van Winkle, I greatly appreciate this article.


  20. @SplintChesthair:

    I am very glad you wrote this! Damn, that is hilarious and horrible and typical of Loeb, I was unaware that that was out there. You seen what he did to the Black Panther in Ultimates?


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