Archive for February, 2009


Black History Month Interlude: Illmatic

February 24th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Nas’s Illmatic is basically my favorite album. It’s ten tracks are essentially perfect, and it’s one of the few albums that I can listen to in order over and over again over the course of a day. I woke up to find scans of XXL’s feature about the making of the best record of all time. It’s must-reading.

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In Honor Of The Oscars: Casting

February 24th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Any hint of a comic book movie coming out provokes a flurry of posts on all the message boards suggesting actors to fill the role of superheroes.  It’s a fun and frustrating experience, squeezing real-life people into comic book personas.  There are always a few surprises.  (I, after considering the matter, think that someone should cast George Clooney as Batman one more time, but not yet.  Wait ten-ish years and then make him play Batman in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  Not only do I think it would work but it would make for a fantastic piece of meta; his work in Batman And Robin approximating the Batman comics of the sixties while he plays a more modern, dark Batman in DKR.)

Keeping in mind that the movies are probably never going to be made, I’m going to give my picks for Wonder Woman and Green Arrow.  Or,  ahem.  Excuse me.  Supermax

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Black History Month ’09 #24: Ready for Whatever

February 24th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’ve always liked Robbie Robertson. He’s both reminiscent of my grandfather and basically the prototype for a successful black supporting character, for good or for ill.

Robbie is, at his heart, a surrogate father figure. He was the only kind man who worked at the Bugle for ages, and served as both a confidante and a source of advice for Peter Parker. In essence, he was the conscience of the Daily Bugle and, to a certain extent, the Spider-Man comics themselves.

The thing about Spider-Man is that he’s extraordinarily self-absorbed, even by superhero standards. That’s the thing that made One More Day work as an idea (not as a story) for me. Peter takes everything personally, and what he can’t take personally he takes on his shoulders. Robbie is there to be that voice of reason that Peter so desperately needs. He provides perspective to a guy who clearly has no sense of it.

Robbie’s got a kind of soft-spoken intelligence that isn’t all that common in comics. Reading between the lines makes it clear that he knows that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are one and the same, but he never brings it up or calls in a favor. He just understands that Peter is fundamentally a good kid at heart and wouldn’t do it without a good reason.

At the same time, he provides a valuable check against J Jonah Jameson’s worst excesses. He’s there to tell him when he goes to far, and he’s there when Jonah has a rare moment of vulnerability. He’s a mentor to most of the Daily Bugle’s staff, as he’s a veteran news man who knows his way around both the business and ethics.

Deep down, though, there is steel. His hard line on ethics is due to a failure early in life, when he squashed a story after a beating by Lonnie “Tombstone” Lincoln. He’s encountered him a few times since, and stood up straight. He used to race cars as a child, too, showing him to be a bit more street smart than you’d expect. He seems like a gentle professor or a grandfather, but everyone was a kid once, and kids get into trouble.

I know a lot of people think of J Jonah Jameson as being the best supporting Spider-Man character, but really, Robbie is where it’s at. Jonah’s got one note and very little range. Robbie has range. For my money, Robbie is the best supporting character, with Mary Jane close behind him. Robbie’s a rock for anyone who needs it.

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Black History Month ’09 #23: We Gonna Make It

February 23rd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

One thing that is vital in expecting blacks in comics to get better is having black voices in comics. Off the top of my head, we have three black writers regularly getting work at the big two right now: Kevin Grievoux, Dwayne McDuffie, and Reggie Hudlin. Christopher Priest is retired. There are a good number of artists out there, but artists generally don’t get to decide the stories of the books.

Something Spike Lee makes it a point to do is to employ up and coming and already famous black actors. If you’re going to pull from the community, you might as well give some back, right? So, his movies over the years are a who’s who of black actors and, to a lesser extent, Spike’s friends. In an industry which has made a habit of ignoring black voices, Spike has been an island who pushes the other side as hard as he can.

In doing so, he’s put forth the idea that the black voice is just as valid and interesting as the default Hollywood voice. Though he was robbed for the Best Picture for Malcolm X, he’s kept at it and kept making sure that someone out there is keeping that voice going.

I’m not sure why black writers in comics are so rare, but there’s a similar situation with women. Louise Simonson, G Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kathryn Immonen are the first names that come to mind when I think of “women writers at the big two.” Interestingly (or perhaps not), I can’t think of a single black female.

Anyway, a side-effect of the lack of these voices is a lack of representation in the books themselves. You end up having a black experience as told by outsiders. The “black story,” such as it is, ends up filtered and probably even unrealistic. At one point, I had a list of Marvel superheroes who were either born in, operated out of, or had serious ties to Harlem. I don’t have the list any more, but off the top of my head, there’s Black Panther, Falcon, Storm, Robbie Robertson, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Tombstone, and Randy Robertson. That’s basically all of Marvel’s biggest black names right there, so I’m not exactly making things up here.

And I mean, no knock on Harlem at all, but I’m pretty sure black people are from other parts of New York City, or even the rest of the country. I do believe that Rocket Racer is from Brooklyn, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only fan of RR alive. What about the black folks from the south? Brother Voodoo has Haiti and NOLA on lock, but what about Atlanta? Texas? Where are they at?

An infusion of black writers wouldn’t have more of a negative effect on comics than hiring a bunch of new white guys would. You’d be more likely to see authentic or different stories about black people, which I think is only a good thing. Even better, hiring good black writers can only lead to good things.

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Black History Month ’09 #22: Shake This

February 22nd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I really like Adam Warren’s Empowered. I’ve been a fan of his since Gen13, and Empowered, though pretty pervy, is one of the best superhero comics out. I can’t get enough of it. Though the art would make you think that it’s a T&A-focused title, and that isn’t necessarily untrue, the book has the kind of character work and evolution you don’t usually see in mainstream books. There’s no chance of a character suddenly reverting to a personality from decades ago because it’s Warren’s own work. You end up with well-rounded characters who can go through surprising changes.

One of the more interesting characters in the book is Sistah Spooky. She’s a black member of the Superhomeys, which is basically the premier super-team of the Empowered universe. Empowered is her rival, for lack of a better word. Here’s a few pages that basically explain their relationship. Scans mildly NSFW.


This thing that’s afflicting Spooky is something that I think affects all black people on a certain level. For years, though things have changed to an extent now, white was the default race in pop culture. Cartoons starred almost exclusively white people, and what black people existed were either sidekicks or garbage (Black Vulcan). TV and movies showed white people as the main characters, even if they lived in the middle of New York City. You never see anyone like you in a position of positivity.

This sets up a series of domino effects. If all you see are white heroes, white women presented as beautiful, white people as upstanding members of society, and very few black people of substance, it associates the idea of “white is right” in your head. This ties into the trend of black guys getting rich and going for white girls, black girls who hate their hair and their skin, and bias against people lighter or darker than you are. I’m always surprised when non-blacks tell me they didn’t know about intra-race racism. The darker you are, the further from white you are, the less good you are.

I find this video fascinating, and it helps illustrate my point very well:

If you want to see the full video (yes, you do, even if you think you don’t want to) you need to click this link and spend 7:15 on Youtube 4:50 is heartbreaking.

And I mean, that’s the long and short of it. It isn’t anything malicious. There aren’t evil marketers out there wearing Klan robes and planning on turning a little black girl into a roiling ball of self-hatred and no self-esteem. It’s how things have shaken out. It’s the saddest thing in the world. It’s that first couple verses of Saul Williams’s Black Stacey.

I remember being a kid (and this is something that I’m ashamed of and disappointed in myself for now) and being very uncomfortable in my own skin. I’d go to sleep daydreaming about having hair like Zach Morris or the other white guys on TV or in comics. When they’d jump or flip their hair would bounce. My hair didn’t even do that after I got dreads. It was too nappy, too thick, and too black. Even trying to dye my hair is an ordeal.

Ever heard of somebody who “got that good hair?”

Nowadays, I hate that I felt that way. It’s so stupid and ignorant and juvenile, but I didn’t know any better. I just knew what was cool and handsome and wanted to be like that. I realize now that I’d bought into something I shouldn’t have. It was self-hate, and it’s disgusting, but I was a child. Children learn quickly and absorb knowledge like sponges. I didn’t know why I had those feelings, but I knew that I had them. It burned.

If I had to pin a name on it, it’s an implanted inferiority complex. These implications are never stated outright, but they build up inside your brain like cholesterol. This kind of thing can ruin a person without them even realizing it. Even recognizing it can, rather than opening your eyes, smother you in bitterness. It’s really an amazing trap. Not recognizing it can destroy what you could have been, and recognizing it can do the exact same thing.

It’s what Sistah Spooky fell prey to above.

Cheryl Lynn of Digital Femme is a big fan of Empowered. When I mentioned that I was writing about Spooky, she hit me with a few comments that I wanted to address here.

But what’s so sad about [Sistah Spooky] is that she never had to make a deal with the devil. She would have been hot anyway. When she loses her powers and reverts in the last Empowered volume, none of the bystanders make any mention of ugliness, they only mention how young she is. She would have likely grown up to be that same beauty, she just couldn’t see her own potential, which is a running theme in the book, actually.

Cheryl says it better than I can. Sistah Spooky, and everyone else who has fallen prey to this kind of self-hatred, had no idea of her own potential. But, because she’d lived a lifetime of seeing bottle blondes held up as the only standard of beauty, that idea had set inside her mind. She was blind.

And that’s what makes this self-hatred thing so terrible. It makes you blind to your own worth and potential. How are you supposed to even suspect that you’re beautiful when every standard of beauty around you says the opposite? You don’t even get a chance.

Again from Cheryl:

What’s really interesting is that SS could have easily made herself white and blonde. She could have taken the Lil’ Kim route and didn’t. Why not?

I have an idea, though it’s half-conjecture and half-wish fulfillment. I figure that going the full Lil’ Kim route is giving up completely. It’s taking what Spooky was and could have been and throwing it into the trash. By keeping herself black, Spooky was making a statement. If the world were fair and everyone was on an even keel, she could be just as pretty as the rest. While taking the deal, she’s giving in, but she isn’t giving up, if that makes any sense at all. She made a concession, but she drew a line in the sand and said “no further.”

I’d like to think that it was her subconscious telling her that to go further than she did would be committing a great sin against herself. Like I said… conjecture.

This sort of implanted self-hate is one of the reasons why I care so much about seeing black faces in comics. How are you supposed to shake this off you if you never know about an alternative?

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Comic Book Morality

February 21st, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

The latest issue of Batman/Superman has Batman announcing his absolute control over Gotham and much of the world.  This doesn’t surprise me.  Batman is self-righteous, is a control freak, is someone who balances, not always well, his sense of responsibility with his sense of entitlement.

What does surprise me, at least as far as the character is concerned, is that he does this after brutally beating Catwoman and Nightwing.  Considering the fact that the character is emotionally involved with both of them, that comes off as him beating his girlfriend and his son.

Why this sudden reign of terror?  Because he acquired the powers of Superman.  I’ve said before that Superman/Batman is the comic to watch, and I meant it.  I mean it now.  I just find it interesting that this comic follows a very common literary idea: excess leads to disaster.  Read the rest of this entry �

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Black History Month ’09 #21: Ether

February 21st, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’m trying to figure out how to approach this one. I almost didn’t want to talk about it because it seems like such a “No duh” situation to me, but I have clearly missed something.

Noted comics writer Bill Willingham recently wrote an essay in which he responded to Attorney General Eric Holder’s position that we’re a nation of cowards in terms of discussion and treatment of race. Holder’s speech (transcript here) says, boiled down, “use black history month to genuinely discuss race and learn from each other, instead of self-segregating.”

From Willingham’s own mouth:

According to the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, speaking today at the Justice Department, we’re a nation of cowards because we don’t talk about race enough. I have several responses to that grotesque statement, most of which aren’t printable. But I will say this much: If the past discussions about race in which I’d participated (voluntarily and otherwise) didn’t always – not often, not most of the time, but always – devolve into name calling, where I was denounced as a racist (usually as a starting point for said conversation), then I might today be more willing to continue to have discussions on the subject. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In my experience, anyone who doesn’t immediately and enthusiastically subscribe to the idea that all American whites are active oppressors against other races is an irredeemable racist. Of course if you do agree you’re still a racist, just one of the self confessed variety.

In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I’m apparently also a misogynist, a homophobe, and a Nazi, this according to folks (some of whom were friends and colleagues) upon finding out that I have problems with feminism, gay marriage, and gun control. There were other accusations I could list, given time, but the truth is such incidents are too common and never important enough to be worth devoting too much of my time and memory.

Willingham is running into a lot of things here, among them extremism, either/or politics, and (wait for it) cowardice. He also makes a lot of statements (“Name-calling is the proprietary weapon of the left. There’s no equality of blame, no comparison. We on the right aren’t “just as bad.”“) that are just completely stupid to anyone with half a brain and indefensible to those with a full one. I’m going to stick to the first three, however.

Extremists exist on both “sides” of the political spectrum. The people who scream about how Bush is Hitler is no different from the people who suggest that single mothers are the downfall of society. I find DailyKos just as aggravating as Ann Coulter. These are the people who are going to shout at you for thinking differently and they exist on both sides of the aisle. News flash: jerks are jerks, and will be jerks according to their opinions.

Just to give Willingham the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to assume that he’s talking about outrage-based discussion. When something bad or offensive happens, people blog/talk/write about it and either discuss their outrage that it happened or suggest ways to fix it or ensure that it never happens again. I can see how that would be daunting to join that discussion, as it involves a lot of raised emotions, anger, and pure helplessness.

If every discussion you’ve ever had about race has ended in name-calling, you’re either a racist or arguing with fools. You aren’t going to get in touch with extremists of any stripe. The people who matter, and the people who actually think about things, are the people in-between. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people who were racist in thought and deed, and I’d like to think that we both came away better for it. When Holder said that we need to do better in discussing race, this is what he was talking about. A frank exchange of ideas.

Building on that point, I think it’s important to say that I disagree with either/or politics in general. I think that reducing someone’s political views to Repub/Dem or Liberal/Conservative is a loser’s game at best, as no one is actually that simple. I’m conservative or liberal on some things, but not others. My grandparents run conservative, but they voted Obama. Politics isn’t as easy as black and white, and approaching it on that level, and only that level, just means that you lost before you even started. It isn’t just liberals who want to discuss race. There are plenty of conservatives who care about equality and becoming truly integrated. Caring about race, or even just talking about it occasionally, doesn’t make you liberal.

The main thrust of Willingham’s post, however, is that since people were mean to him when discussing race (or other “liberal” issues), he is going to take his ball and go home. He isn’t going to discuss it with liberals because they have no interest in reasoned discourse and are only interested in name-calling. He’s only going to discuss it with those who are interested in actually speaking. While I can understand the spirit of the sentiment (you can’t get through to some people), the way he’s applied it is extraordinarily myopic. Anyone can tell that both sides descend to name-calling on a near-daily basis, but for some reason, only liberals count? But, okay, let’s treat it as if it were a reasonable choice.

The problem with making that choice is that it makes you a coward. Someone hurt your feelings by calling you a name, so you are going to tighten up and kick the dirt and flip over the chess table and kick the ball over the fence and go home, because screw them. Making that choice, and making a point to explain your position in opposition to Holder’s speech, makes you a coward.

Holder’s position is that people are still too tight-lipped about race. Not even racism: just race. This isn’t an indictment of conservatives or liberals. It’s an indictment of both. There is too much shouting and not enough listening going on. When your idea of a reasonable response is to go “I’m not listening, because screw them,” you lost. That’s a child’s reaction.

At the same time, if you’re that scared to talk about race, maybe you should pump your brakes and just sit in the corner while grown folks talk at the grown up’s table. Race isn’t something you can boil down to right and wrong, so it is something that is difficult to talk about. It’s easy to screw up on either side of the argument, and race is sensitive enough that screw-ups can be intensely frustrating.

Okay. That’s fine. That’s why Holder says, “[A]n unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force.” You should discuss race because it is something that impacts all of our lives, and until we push through it, we can neither get past it nor understand it. Holder wants the races to talk to each other and share. I think that’s an admirable goal, and it’s one I’ve discussed over and over this month. Conversation is key. We’re not that different from each other, but we are different.

Bill Willingham lost. He fell right into Holder’s trap. Holder says that people don’t honestly talk about race enough, and put up so many barriers that race has remained a touchy subject for far too long. Willingham’s response? “Nuh-uh, don’t even talk to me.”

I’ve had people tell me that they don’t talk about race because they know that they’ll just screw it up or because they don’t have anything to bring to the table. And you know what? That’s a fair and intelligent response. Being able to recognize your own shortcomings is just taking responsibility. Some people don’t know how to dig in and get their hands dirty, and recognizing that fact is something to be respected.

But, being that guy that’s like “I’m not a racist, but people keep calling me one, so screw liberals and forget any idea of talking about racism?” That makes you a coward.

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Black History Month ’09 #20: It Ain’t Hard To Tell

February 20th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

G Willow Wilson and CAFU’s recently completed Vixen: Return of the Lion miniseries is an interesting little book. It’s not quite part of DC’s Year One initiative, where characters have their origins revamped and retold for a new audience. At the same time, it isn’t quite something like Huntress/Question: Cry for Blood, where an already established character is just thrown at you with little to no context. It exists in this in-between state, since it re-introduces Vixen to readers of the DC Universe and firmly establishes her place in, for want of a better word, continuity. Marvel pushed out a similar miniseries a couple years ago called White Tiger, written by Tamora Pierce, Timothy Liebe, and drawn by Phil Briones. It wasn’t so successful, and I’ve got a few ideas why.

There are more than a few similarities between the two books. Both were written by women, with White Tiger being co-written by Pierce’s husband. Both spun out of events in Justice League of America or Daredevil, depending on the character. Where Vixen had to rediscover her center and learn new things about her powers, White Tiger had to figure out her heroic identity for the first time. The difference, and I think the largest part of why Return of the Lion is a successful story and White Tiger is not, is in the portrayal of the two heroines.

(As an aside– there is a tremendous difference in art in the two series. CAFU is a true talent, and draws people with distinctive faces, backgrounds, sizes, and so on. Vixen: Return of the Lion is one of the best-looking mainline DC Comics in ages. To put it bluntly… White Tiger isn’t. The art is uninspired, poorly laid out, and overall very dreary.)

One thing I love about G Willow Wilson is that she does research. The care she takes when writing shows in her work, as the fictionalized Africa that serves as the setting for Return of the Lion feels just as authentic as any story about real Africa. The people don’t speak in pidgin English. Instead, they talk like regular people. The cadence or rhythm of their speech may be different, but that’s a more skilled way to do accents than throwing in random words or phrases of “African.” Even the clothes and characters in the series, courtesy of artist CAFU, look great.

Pierce’s White Tiger is on the opposite side of the spectrum. A college-educated, veteran FBI agent, and grown woman falls back on Claremontian ways of showing just how foreign she is. “Estupido!” and “Puto!” abound in the series. I could buy the occasional “tio” or “tia,” as people tend to talk differently around family than they do in public, but when the Japanese characters show up, it’s pidgin Japanese and talk about honor and seppuku all over the place.

If you compare the two characters, White Tiger feels cheap. She’s a cardboard cutout, a Paper Puerto Rican. Setting aside how confused and directionless the series was, White Tiger, as a character, was weak overall. She never rings true on any level, except maybe “woman.” Vixen, on the other hand, feels much stronger. She’s focused, she reads as an experienced adult, and her personality comes through clear as a bell. Wilson has a very solid grasp of dialogue, and she gives Vixen the kind of personality that clearly portrays her as a tough person, but still human. When she is weak, she is weak for very specific reasons.

Vixen feels authentic, White Tiger doesn’t.

Writing black characters, or any characters, isn’t as simple as dropping in a few buzzwords, a backwards cap, and “yo.” Having the speech down is the first step, but that’s just surface level stuff. You need to have the structure of a firmly realized character to hang that surface level writing on in order to make someone worth reading.

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And Now, Comic Book Math

February 19th, 2009 Posted by Gavok

That’s what it is according to the images of the toys for Wolverine: Origins. So far there’s a Superhero Squad figure and this guy:

“So who is this Deadpool guy?”
“He looks like Freddy Krueger and has Wolverine’s healing, but no claws.”
“We’re going to give him claws because it’s a Wolverine movie.”
“But, sir! If he has claws, that makes him too similar to Freddy Krueger!”
“Then we won’t make him look like Freddy Krueger anymore! Make him look like Zartan or something. What, do I have to think of everything?”

I seem to hate this design considerably less when I remember that Alex Hayden existed.

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Birds Of Prey: Ending Low

February 19th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

While Robin ends with Tim Drake coming into his own as a hero, Birds of Prey finishes with Barbara Gordon losing her identity.

At the end of the series, Babs has to blow up her second headquarters in two years.  She’s faced the Joker again, only to get knocked around.  She’s faced Calculator and seen him literally attain new heights while she’s left in the dust.  Her team is hated in their new town, and while they manage to disperse the criminal syndicate they were running, they can’t shut it down.  She’s lost a friend, possibly permanently.  All in all, this is a low point for her.

The different approaches to the two series make sense.  Tim is a young hero and former sidekick, so his series need to see him reach a new level of independence and maturity.  Babs is well-established, and has to find some new direction.  Her new direction is hinted at in the upcoming mini-series, Oracle: The Cure.  I know, I know, the name is supposed to be a reference to curing a sick little girl.  Still, either Babara Gordon is going to record a cover of Boys Don’t Cry, or DC is teasing us with the possibility that Babs is going to walk again and Cassandra Cain is going to have a little battle for her own cowl.

I hate being brought face-to-face with my bias as a comics reader.  The Robin series ended in a way which I didn’t approve of, but which made sense dramatically.  Tim Drake became a competent and autonomous hero while having to give up some of the things he’d loved as a child.  Couple that with the death of his last parental figure and you’ve got a strong, archetypal coming-of-age story.  I hate it.

Barbara Gordon quitting the team she established and nurtured, leaving a kid she semi-adopted, walking again, giving up her identity as Oracle and possibly stepping back into the shadow of the bat is wrong.  It’s backwards motion, it’s erasing her identity, it’s losing her place in a larger universe.  And yet I cannot find it within myself to hate it.  I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.   I need it.  I love it.  I want it. 

I want fun!  I want the original Batgirl and her adventures.  At the very least I want more mini-series!

There is a lot to be said for comics that are committed to a story, rather than bowing to popular opinion.  But honestly, I don’t want to take my comics the way I take multi-vitamins.  If there’s an Oracle mini, I’ll be there.  If it breaks in the middle to make Barbara Gordon Batgirl again, I’ll be there and tearing at the shelves.  Pander to me, DC.  Pander to me.

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