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

February 20th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

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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10 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #20: It Ain’t Hard To Tell”

  1. I never read White Tiger’s series, but I’ve read Vixen’s and I thought it started strong, then dried up. Instead of just being Vixen’s book, they just HAD to make the whole JLA show up – multiple times (and somewhat poorly). The cliched “the power was in you all along” felt like just what it was – unoriginal and somewhat condescending. I felt like she should have known where her power resided, considering how experienced she is.

    Maybe Vixen’s series or character seemed better as compared to that of White Tiger, but that makes me almost afraid to ever stumble upon the latter.

    Also, I don’t have a problem with the type of “foreign” speech that people associate with Claremont’s characters. If I spoke another language well, I’d expect to still say some stuff in English when surprised or pissed off. I could see it getting old, but I don’t see it as an invalid choice.

  2. Paper Puerto Rican is the greatest phrase I have heard all week. That was inspired.

    West: I lived with primarily Spanish Speakers and people who speak Spanglish hardcore. No one talks like Claremont’s characters. No one goes, “What are you doing with that vania?”, they go “What are you doing with esta vania?” It’s a slight but important difference that turns me off. Vixen was pretty paint by numbers but it’s pretty much Willow’s 4th comic world and the second time she’s told a story in the DCU. It’s not as strong as her other work.

  3. I see what you’re saying, Pedro, but that still speaks to the idea that Claremont’s choice is a valid one. Perhaps his execution lacks a certain something but, as has been said in these columns a number of times, writers are going to get the details wrong sometimes. That shouldn’t stop them from making valid choices in their representations.

  4. I get what you’re saying West, but I’d like to know how much research Claremont actually put into character dialogue. Pedro’s example was just like one of many Latino students I hear when I tutor them in my college. Now, while it’s unreasonable to think writers should move to Mexico or Africa to write such a character (though some do, and that’s great), if they are just writing what they THINK a character sounds like, or even worse, works from character dialogue heard on tv, then I wouldn’t consider those valid choices in representation. Like David said before, sure, you can try, but if it comes off silly, fake, or uneducated, then that guy’s gonna be called out on it.

  5. I come down on Pedro’s side here– when I lived in Spain and was actually functional in Spanish, no one talked like a Claremont comic. I knew people who were English as a 2nd language and Spanish as a 2nd. If there was any word replacement going along, it wasn’t a one for one thing, like tovarisch for friend or “verdammt” or whatever Nightcrawler used to say. It’d be a full phrase, and it’d be once, because after that, someone corrects you and now you know the phrase. Or, it’d be something like “blah blah blah, blah… ehh… como se dice…?” on the English to Spanish side.

    The stuff Claremont and Pierce did was really fake-y ESL stuff. Like, okay, you want to show that these people are “foreign” (even though Angela del Toro was born and raised in NYC), and that’s the best way to do it? Nah, I can’t get with that at all.

  6. If it’s wrong how can it be valid?

  7. Valid choice. Poor execution. That’s how.

    I was reminded of this conversation, earlier, when I was reading some freeware literature, online. It was apparently written by someone who speaks a Germanic language. I noticed that s/he would occasionally substitute “oder” for “or.” There were other such Claremontian examples.

    I don’t know how much research he did, either. I’m not saying all the examples were great, but I don’t feel their flaws were as bad as some think.

  8. Hey Mr Brothers – I think capturing voice authentically is one of the hardest things to do in writing, whether in novels or comics. You’re so right that when it’s not really done well it’s jarring, and makes you not trust the writers that they actually have a character’s interests in mind. Part of what makes an enjoyable read is a character who engages you, not just a story which has exciting events in it. It’s like eating soup and consistently finding a marble in every bite. It’s not just jarring, it’s painful and you really shouldn’t be trying to ingest THAT.

    I think my least favorite example is another Latina – Tarantula in the Nightwing books. She spouted off “vato” and crap in such a haphazard and inauthentic manner that even if the character hadn’t ended up being ‘bad’ in so many ways, I would have disliked her for being a racial caricature.

  9. @West: Your point re: choice vs execution is a keen one, now that I’ve thought about it. My issue is that I’m very, very into dialogue.

    I made it through all of Preacher, a book I don’t particularly like very much, just off the strength of Garth Ennis’s skill at writing characters. I could hear the rhythms and voices clearly, and that sort of thing fascinates me.

    It’s like ACK says– screwing up when capturing a voice is jarring. While every reader is not necessarily good at writing dialogue, we all know how people talk. It’s how we pick up on hints and cues and lies and double meanings. When I run into a character who isn’t quite right, it’s like hitting a speed bump at 60mph. There’s a lurch, and then the bottom falls out of the whole works.

  10. I see where you’re coming from. I think believability and authenticity, when one is talking about the fiction is a function of both the knowledge of the writer and the ignorance of the readers.

    The problem here is quite simple. You’re just not ignorant enough.* 😀

    The same is true when comics touch on matters of law or science. Those with more knowledge of or interest in those areas, the science fiction causes science friction and the legal language feels legally lethargic.

    Good convo, either way. Thanks.

    * – Or I am too ignorant. I think the dialogue is less jarring for most, but maybe not. I certainly haven’t participated in any scientific sampling, lately.