Black Future Month ’10: The Stereotype

February 9th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , ,

What do Black Panther, Black Lightning, John Stewart, Black Goliath, Luke Cage, John Henry Irons, Sam “Falcon” Wilson, and Martha Washington have in common? Easy: they were created in whole or in part by white (or Jewish) dudes.

Your boy John Shaft? His origin lies in a novel written by Ernest Tidyman, a white guy from Cleveland. Foxy Brown, the meanest chick in town, was written and directed by Jack Hill, another white guy. Are there any black pop culture figures that have been homaged, swagger-jacked, referenced, and emulated more than Shaft and Foxy? Maybe, maybe James Brown or Muhammad Ali?

Consider the importance of Gordon Parks as director of Shaft. Shaft‘s New York City is grimy, dirty, vibrant, black, and beautiful. We see opulence and poverty, violence and peace, and in the midst of all of this is Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, head held high and in control of the situation. Shaft presented black characters who didn’t feel inauthentic and a world that had depth. It’s fair to say that having a black director, and an actor as talented as Roundtree, served Shaft well. Parks got it.

I love Jack Kirby and I dig his Black Panther, but it took Christopher Priest to make me a believer. I found Reggie Hudlin’s take on Black Panther to be fascinating, at least in part because it pushed a very specific, relatable version of Panther. The two of them brought an aesthetic, or mindset, to the book that hadn’t been there before, and it worked. The character clicked for me for the first time.

Let’s talk about diversity.

When Graeme McMillan said that James Rhodes is comics’ ideal black hero, he wasn’t saying that Rhodey was the platonic ideal of a black hero. He was saying that, above all other black heroes, Rhodey is the one who ticks the most boxes for Stereotypical Black Dude In Comics. If you want to look at what’s wrong with black characters, Rhodey is going to be all the research you need. He hits the sidekick, angry, subordinate, insubordinate, background, replacement, social issues, and edgy boxes all at once. I mean, his entire gimmick was Angry Black Iron Man With Guns in the ’90s. Way to go.

Go down the list. Bishop, John Stewart, Luke Cage, Nighthawk, Captain Marvel, Night Thrasher, the other Night Thrasher, Rage, Chapel, Cyborg, John Henry Irons, Sam Wilson, and several villains have all managed to check one or more of these boxes since they were created. At first, I thought T’Challa didn’t, but the very first story I read with him had him fighting in South Africa. It was a good story, but still- there’s your edgy social issue. If you were to put all the black characters at Marvel or DC into a box, shake it, and then pull a character out at random, odds are good that you can correctly guess what trait that character is going to have.

That is, to put it nicely, not a lot of diversity. When you add in the relatively low number of black females (Glory Grant, Misty Knight, Monica Rambeau, Natasha Irons, Rhodey’s mom), you’re looking at even less.

The thing about mainstream comics is that the writing team is white by an overwhelming majority. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can sometimes result in a situation like the one we’re stuck in, where expecting any kind of racial awareness out of Marvel and DC is a sucker’s game.

People tend to write what they know. The sassy black girl or the angry black guy are a couple of very well known, and very well worn, stereotypes. They’re easy to slot in, they come with built in stories (racists attack the team and the colored fella is the only person left standing), and they’re such cliches that you don’t really need to establish a backstory. All you need is a grimace and an edge.

Having a Gordon Parks on the scene, someone there to chime in with his own input, is the best way to keep things fresh. Four white guys will have four different experiences, but they’ll share the spectrum of a white experience. When your staff is composed of a white guy, a white lady, a black guy, and a black lady, you’ve exponentially increased the amount of experience in a group, and therefore, the number of stories that they can tell.

That can turn a typical tale into something wonderful, groundbreaking, or authentic. There is a spectrum of black experience. It goes deeper than anger and racism and sadness. Even more than that, it’s bigger than black. Black culture is a vital, fundamental part of the group culture of the United States. Until superhero comics reflect that, they’re going to continue to come up short.

Diversify your staff and watch the stories follow. Bring more voices into the mix, tell different stories, and push a different agenda. Do better than you have been doing, is what I’m saying. Learn from Gordon Parks.

Similar Posts:

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon

25 comments to “Black Future Month ’10: The Stereotype”

  1. interesting piece. few thoughts:

    i recently went on a mission to read just about every War Machine comic i could get my hands on. it didn’t end up being comprehensive by any means, but it included: both Armor Wars, all of Len Kaminski’s run (i think 288-316), War Machine v1, an MCP story, U.S. War Machine, Sentinel Squad O*N*E, The Crew, Avengers: The Initiative, War Machine: Weapon of SHIELD, and some issues of WM v2. well, that and more. i say that to say this — to call Rhodey the ultimate black superhero stereotype is an extreme oversimplification. while you can easily go through and check boxes to make it fit on the surface, i think you’d be hard-pressed to say the same thing after reading many of his appearances. he’s had a number of different depictions, and i’m sure you could find a way to make any one of them fit a stereotype. but he’s also been written in some incredibly solid stories that break that stereotypes in exceptional ways.

    after reading chunks of Priest’s run, most of Don McGregor’s two runs, and all of Hudlin’s run on Black Panther (oh yeah, and most Thomas’ run on Avengers too), i then went and picked up the Kirby stuff. i don’t know if i was just burned out on serious T’Challa or what, but i found that Kirby’s work was by far the most refreshing and enjoyable. i feel like many later writers used BP to make a social statement (granted, often to the benefit of the story). but because Kirby’s stuff was less commentary and more (insane and imaginative) plot-driven, i found the stories more enriching.

    i agree that the best way to tell good stories is to widen the creator base in terms of background. i think authenticity of characters is often lacking with the current superhero offerings when it comes to diverse cultural depictions.

    interesting / odd that Storm wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the post. any particular reason?

  2. I am curious what you think of McGregor’s work on Panther, if you’ve read it. I really, really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get into Priest’s run at all. I appreciated all the side characters and the world McGregor built up in Wakanda, and I just couldn’t care less about Priest’s setup (especially the Michael J. Fox viewpoint character).

    I have to admit McGregor’s Panther was tough to read, if only because of how often T’Challa seemed to have the stuffing kicked out of him (can you tell I almost wrote “tar” before I thought better of it?).

  3. Nick and Sam beat me to my main 2 points about Rhodey and Storm.

    So I’ll just say that Rhodey had the “Blackest” hair I’d ever seen in a comic up to that point (just before Armor Wars, I think). That doesn’t add much but it meant something to me, at the time, and is one of the reasons I’m so fond of the character and the artist.

  4. @West: Yeah, that’s one thing I noticed about Rhodey, too. He even had the high top with the steps. I think it helps that Doc Bright was the artist, that guy is very solid. I think he joined the Bald Black Dude Gang at the end of his new series, though. I’d have to go back and check to be sure. Maybe he’s got a fade now, I dunno.

    @Sam: I like McGregor’s version. I kinda like having several eras and styles of Panther to choose from, where McGregor’s gritty style mixes with Priest’s poli-sci take and Hudlin’s populist version and Jack Kirby’s swashbuckler. That variety is very, very appealing. I haven’t read Panther’s Rage yet, though I’m looking forward to its hardcover Masterworks release this year, but the story that ran through Marvel Comics Presents way back when, Panther’s Quest, was probably one of the first few comics I ever read. I didn’t read it in full, but I had several bits and pieces of it. It was a little scary as a kid (didn’t he end up wrapped up in barbed wire at one point? I feel like he was bleeding in the desert for 20-some pages), but I dig it now.

    @Nick Marino: I’ve read most of those you mentioned, skipping only ONE, Weapon of SHIELD, and MCP, as part of a reading project a few weeks ago. I’m very familiar with the character, and he absolutely does embody the black comics experience. It’s not a simplification at all, and it isn’t reductive. It’s true, just like it’s true that Luke Cage embodies a certain stereotype. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of his character, but when you’re looking at what makes up a character, he hits all those points. The shoe fits, and it’s interesting to look at why it fits.

  5. I just wanted to say that Gordon Parks is amazing. When I was in high school we watched the documentary, Half Past Autumn” about his life. I had never heard of him before, but it made me a big fan of his. If you haven’t seen it, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

    Also, you didn’t miss out on much by skipping O*N*E.

  6. What’d you think of Maberry’s stuff so far, or is it too early to call?

  7. I find it interesting that Monica Rambeau was the opposite of angry/sassy when she was introduced, sort of a goody 2 shoes always second guessing whether she was worthy of her Avengers position, until Warren Ellis started writing her as another sarky, angry Ellis character.

  8. Hudlin pretty much lost any good will from me when he established that Wakanda has the flippin’ cure for cancer and is just sitting on it because they don’t like the rest of the world.

  9. So does this mean I can’t like Rhodey?

  10. Rhodey’s just the black guy with guns? Doesn’t that overlook the period where he wore the regular Iron Man armor. And honestly, what I’ve seen of him, he’s a nicer guy than Tony, and when he does get angry it’s because of him.

  11. @DWC: Nope, you’re not allowed to like him. Thank you for correctly interpreting the cleverly hidden subtext of what I’m saying.

    @Jason: I specifically said “in the ’90s,” and again, the rest of it is about how, at various times over his career, Rhodey has had almost all of the major traits of black characters in comics. It isn’t the end-all be-all of his character. I stand by what I said.

  12. Rhodey’s frustration with Tony’s recording and J.A.R.V.I.S.’s attempts to help in Stark: Disassembled illustrates Jason’s point, in just the last few months.

  13. @david brothers: maybe i’m just a little confused about what you mean… so you’re saying that Rhodey in the 90s fits the superhero stereotype of a black male to a T? i’ve checked out Graeme’s piece to better try and understand your POV on the character, and i think it may have confused me more than it helped. i see what Graeme’s saying, but i think he’s basically going through and making characteristics of Rhodey fit his message rather than Rhodey naturally fitting the message. for example, he’s a cyborg? this is a stereotype / cliche for black superheroes? sure, a few black heroes have robot parts, but so do superheroes in general. the reason i call that logic out is because you used it as the basis of your argument and it just doesn’t compute to me. i can see how some of it lines up, but that’s like saying “superman is jesus.” yeah, you can make him fit the characteristics of that metaphor but obviously he’s not meant to be jesus nor does everything about him line up with that. that’s the main reason why i personally feel that you’re oversimplifying matters. however, i’m not saying you’re wrong. i’m just saying i disagree with you… and i’m willing to be convinced! how exactly do you see 90s Rhodey as a personification of what’s wrong with the stereotyping of black characters in superhero comics?

  14. @Nick Marino: So you’re saying that Rhodey in the 90s fits the superhero stereotype of a black male to a T?

    Basically, yes. It’s not a condemnation or a criticism, it’s an observation. Rhodey, over his decades of existing, has managed to embody the most common traits of all black superheroes. Graeme’s not making Rhodey fit his message any more than I am– Rhodey has actually done all of this. He’s even had a fairly long-running interracial relationship, another thing black characters tend to have in comics.

    I’m not sure what doesn’t compute. “Rhodey embodies this type of character, here are some examples of this type of character, here are several characters who share one or more of these traits, here is why that is not optimal.” That’s all I’m saying, and I explained why it’s a problem in the post.

    It’s not really any different than “Superman as Jesus,” though I think that “Superman as Moses” has more legs as far as interpretations go. It’s not really about making anything fit. It’s more like pointing to this, that, and the third and going “What’s up with this? Is there something here that’s worthy of examination?” It’s a valid, supportable, and interesting avenue of discussion.

    The cyborg thing is an off-the-cuff observation, “isn’t this weird? What’s up with this?”

  15. Sadly, it seems that the same thing is going to have to be true for companies: diversify your staff. There have been great strides, but a lot of white male creators are still unlikely to create new black female characters.

    The cyborg thing to me is spot on and my guess is that it indicates more how editorial considers these characters non-iconic, and so sudden changes to their image are okay. I think it’s much less likely that a story idea where a current, ‘known’ white character gets a limb replaced with a gadget will make it to the finished page (and there have probably been plenty that were DOA) than when a creator suggests the same for a black or other minority character – because non-white characters are generally seen as sidekicks, new versions, etc. that invite tinkering.

  16. @Thanos: That’s a fair point- black characters are not generally used as leading or iconic characters. Being part of a supporting cast means that you’re subject to a shaking-up while your star character more or less stays the same, barring a temporary new gimmick or two. There’s probably something to run with there.

  17. @david brothers: i’m not gonna lie — i think we’re gonna disagree no matter what! but anyway here’s another shot cause i’m still not totally following you. when i said “how exactly do you see 90s Rhodey yadda yadda” maybe i wasn’t clear with my question. what i meant was: what criteria are you using to say Rhodey fits the idea of the ideal black superhero stereotype? what are these “most common traits” that he embodies? are they the same as Graeme’s, or do you have your own set of stereotype criteria? i feel like your last reply was basically you saying “yes, i’m right because i’m right!” but you didn’t really name anything specifically save for the interracial relationship (BTW, which one are you talking about? i can only think of one interracial relationship Rhodey had in the 90s and it didn’t last for more than about a year and a half worth of his solo series). i’m not saying you have to prove anything — i’m just curious as to what things lead you to your assessment of WM’s character.

  18. @Thanos: I know one example doesn’t disprove it, but what about Frankencastle?

  19. David, You liked Hudlin because of the “sitting on the cancer cure” and the “stupid retcon of Cap and T’Chaka’s first meeting” ? Or despite those elements?

  20. @TobyS: That’s a stupid question.

    @Nick Marino again!: More or less the same as Graeme’s, yes. He has done the edgy thing (killed dudes in the ’90s, felt guilty, still piloted a mobile arsenal), the interracial thing (it began in Iron Man, and if it was half his series, his series is 25 issues long, it still counts), he’s been a sidekick, he’s been subordinate, he’s angrily denounced being subordinate (in a very good issue), etc etc. I could go into specifics, but Graeme already named several. And I did name specific stereotypes that he has been at various points in time, but not exactly how. If you’re familiar with Rhodey, I’m sure you can look and go “oh this is when he was shuffled to the background” or “this is when he was subordinate to Tony” or “this is when he fought [social issue].” I don’t understand how you can go “Rhodey has never been these stereotypes” when it’s right there in the book.

    I’m not saying he’s worthless or denigrating his character. I’m saying “He has been these things that are common traits for black superheroes. Rhodey has been more of them than probably any other black hero, for whatever reason, and that is remarkable.”

    At this point, man, I’m saying the same thing in different ways, and it’s entirely beside the point of this essay.

  21. @TobyS: Ooh, yeah, I forgot about that bit with Captain America. Man, it irritates me when writers spit on continuity. Hell, he re-wrote the Panther’s whole freaking origin story!

  22. @david brothers: yeah, okay, i see where you’re coming from better now with your examples. i guess i still feel like applying that criteria to the character is oversimplifying how he was written, but that’s neither here nor there — i follow what you mean even if i don’t agree with you.

    sounds to me like more than anything you take issue with the stereotypes (or just cliches in some instances) that you see in Len Kaminski’s characterization of Rhodey. sorta ironic cause Len did more than just about any other creator to take Rhodey out of his implied sidekick role and move him into his own.

  23. Side note: Amanda Waller is still one of my favorite characters.

  24. @Joe England

    I agree with that one (although African/European history would give the Wakandans a bit of a bye on that piece of selfishness.) It would have been easier to make a comment on the expense of the cure (say, that the cure involves possessing large amounts of vibranium) than making the entire ruling class of the country act and sound like small-minded pricks.

  25. @Evil Abraham Lincoln: Yeah. I’ve heard some people speaking in defense of Wakanda suggest that the cure simply can’t be given to outsiders for some reason, or that the technology would be dangerous in the wrong hands. Of course, the former point is invalidated by their actually discussing selling the cure, while the latter disregards the crime of inaction which the Wakandans are guilty of by allowing hundreds of millions of people to die slow, painful deaths. Pick your poison, I guess.