Black people! Comics! It’s been a while, but I’m back for my crown.
There’s tendency in comics to write pretty generic black guys. You occasionally get the Samuel L Jackson Fight the Power Angry Black Fella types, but more often than not, you’re looking at a slightly watered down version of that same type. Sanitized Shaft. Diet Dolemite. Toothless Tommy Gibbs. Put Bishop (pre-mega murder spree), most depictions of John Stewart, Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Mr. Terrific, and Steel in a room together. First, note their hair. Second, note their personalities. They’re all kind of really moral, upstanding human beings… but with an edge. Maybe they used to be mad at the man. Maybe they sometimes have flashy nods to whatever standard of blackness they were born into. Who knows, who cares, but a bunch of black dudes with basically the same moral compass is boring.
(Fully half of black women in cape comix, excepting Storm who has been kept in safety away from all things black up until recently, tend to pop into the snakecharming neck, nuh uh I know that chick didn’t just do what I just saw her do, tell me I didn’t just see that, super ghitto around the way girl stereotype a little too easily. The other half of black women in comics is Vixen, who is like Animal Man, but stuck in boring stories.)
There are no rules for writing black people in comics, and anyone who’d tell you otherwise is someone not worth listening to. In my family alone is a vast range of characters, some less than positive and some exemplary. Everything counts, everything is true. The thing is, sometimes people trip into pitfalls when writing black people, and black guys in particular. You could easily make a list of mis-steps.
One is slipping in slang. Slang is an intensely regional thing with several outside factors. I don’t talk like people from New York talk, but we do share some slang because of shared history or culture. Have you ever seen somebody write “crunked?” I can almost guarantee that person isn’t from the south, because “crunk” is its own past tense. You didn’t get crunked last night, you got crunk. Slang shifts and warps depending on where you are. You wouldn’t catch me dead saying “hella,” but I can’t quite scrub “might could” or “one more ‘gin” from my vocabulary. You seriously can’t just urbandictionary this stuff and expect to get it right.
Another way is by showing how ROUGH and TOUGH these guys are by throwing in some of that old “urban flavor.” Since they were raised on the streets they’re a little harder than some milquetoast whiteboy like Spider-Man! So they’ll slang it up, call somebody a @#$&()&, and then fist bump another guy right before hitting a villain with a yo mama joke or something. And sure, there’s that thing black people do where they nod at each other on the street (don’t front like you haven’t seen it and/or don’t do it on occasion) which makes our white friends ask “Do you know that guy?” in a hushed whisper. I can see how that’d cultivate this crazy idea that there’s a quiet coalition of people with a thug just waiting to jump out of their skin. But (wait for it) not everybody is from the cold, hard streets. Some folks are from the suburbs. Some folks are country.
The biggest offender in my mind, though, is something that probably got widespread appeal back during the blaxploitation era, resurrected by Snoopy Doggy Dogg, and then it caught fire and died when Destiny’s Child dropped a single. I’m sure you know it–some variant of a guy going “SAY MY NAME!” It’s raw dog alpha male braggadocio, a way of humiliating someone by forcing them to acknowledge the fact that you’re better than them. If you’ve ever played Madden NFL 2004 and broke out an eighty yard run to TD off a ridiculous quarterback sneak with Michael Vick, you know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve done it yourself (I know I’m guilty).
It’s corny, it’s stupid, it’s cliche, and people do it, but I don’t necessarily want to read about it. It’s shorthand for Cool Black Guy, which really just means Black Guy Who Threatens People Other Than Me And Maybe My Friends, and that’s offensive, Mr. Charlie.
Thunderbolts 147. Jeff Parker, Kev Walker, Frank Martin. Here’s two pages and the two spreads that follow them.
And well… they did my least favorite thing and they pulled it off. It’s not forced, it’s not awkward, and it’s honestly the most flavor Cage has had since the Azzarello/Corben CAGE mini from almost ten years ago. The setting, the timing, the violence, all of this is dead on. It’s perfect, it’s believable, and it’s fantastic. It’s not just “Hey, by the way, this guy is black, remember?” It’s a show of authority, it’s a big dog showing his charges exactly who the alpha male is around here.
I like Cage, but I haven’t like liked him in ages. He’s been pretty bland and neutered under Bendis’s run. It’s not that I want the old Cage, the Kurt Busiek/Jo Duffy Cage back, but I kind of do. This thing that Parker and Walker are doing here, though, is the best of both worlds without ignoring either of them.
Every story is true. But, if you’re going to tell some of them… at least put in the work and get it right, like these guys did.
All right? Peace.