We made it cool to wear medallions and say “Hotep!”

March 24th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , ,

Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver, two very talented creators, are the creative team on Marvel’s new book SHIELD, which is easiest describe as historical fiction in the Marvel Universe. Here’s the pitch:

Leonardo Da Vinci was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. So was Issac Newton. So were Imhotep and Zhang Heng and Galileo and many other geniuses throughout time. They were the first heroes to defeat Galactus and the Brood and turn Celestials back. They saved the world long before Captain America or Iron Man were ever born, but what does this mean to our heroes of today? What does this mean to Nick Fury? Do not miss this Marvel Comics masterpiece that fans will be talking about for decades to come. All the insanity is courtesy of JONATHAN HICKMAN (FANTASTIC FOUR, SECRET WARRIORS, Nightly News) and DUSTIN WEAVER (X-MEN).

It’s a neat idea, the sort of thing What Ifs are made of, and while I’m not super excited about it, I’m a little interested. Sort of thing you skim to see if you want it, or maybe just cop the hardcover a ways down the line. CBR recently posted an exclusive unlettered preview of the first issue, with nine story pages and one cover. We get a look at (and these are educated guesses going by the text above the issue) Zhang Heng staring down a Celestial (maybe Gammenon the Gatherer?), Da Vinci strapping on a flight harness, and Galileo getting ready to face Galactus and his herald. That leaves one guy facing down the Brood. He’s dressed in Egyptian garb, which makes him Imhotep. Here’s what he looks like:

Here is the problem with that image: he looks like a generic white guy. Imhotep, to my understanding, was worshiped in Greece in the form of a brown-skinned man. Much of the art I’ve seen, or books I’ve read (granted, this was years ago), supports that idea. I don’t know whether he was black or not, but I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t white, either.

The subject of the race of ancient Egyptians is an intensely frustrating one, and one likely to not see any closure ever. I’m reasonably sure that everything I have read says that the Egyptians were not white, but they weren’t black (as we know the term), either. They were somewhere in-between, some flavor of brown.

The thing about the race of the ancient Egyptians is that the water is severely muddied by past racism. Egypt was essentially claimed by white scholars and separated from the rest of Africa, which served to further the idea that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.

(Another similar instance of this is the story of Ham, Shem, and Japheth, the three sons of Noah. The three sons theoretically represent three races: African, Semitic, and European. As Ham was cursed in the story, and blacks were descended from him, they were also cursed. This is taught in black churches and is the worst kind of self-loathing there is. If you believe this, please, wake up. Don’t be ignorant of your own history.)

Later, Imhotep as a black man was fully embraced by afrocentrists, people desperate to rebuild a culture that had been stolen from them. Having the father of medicine and architecture be a black man is a huge boon to the self-esteem of an oppressed people.

You can see how this can get very complicated, and very touchy, very quickly.

I’m not here to say that Imhotep was blacker than the nighttime sky of Bed-Stuy in July. I don’t know, I can’t say, I’m not qualified for that. I do feel confident in saying that he was probably brown. He was definitely African. He was an amazingly smart man.

But, he wasn’t white. And the rest of the Egyptians on that page– they wouldn’t have been white, either.

I’d like to enjoy SHIELD. But honestly, stuff like this makes me a lot less likely to pick it up. Maybe that’s just me.

edit: I emailed Dustin Weaver to ask, and he said that the coloring is a mistake, something that just slipped through the cracks. Hopefully it’ll be fixed in the trade. Either way, Weaver is a cool dude, so I’m trying the first issue at the very least.

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29 comments to “We made it cool to wear medallions and say “Hotep!””

  1. I’ve had problems with SHIELD being mostly white and mostly American in an even more general sense. Most of the main characters in SHIELD are white Americans, when the organization, to my understanding is supposed to be International. DC’s Checkmate does it a lot better.

    But going back to trying to enjoy a good book when racial problems like this happens: I feel you. I have similar feelings about The Last Airbender movie. I’m boycotting it because characters who are clearly Asian are replaced by a bunch of White folks, but I’m torn because the movie looks like it could be awesome.

  2. I thought Imhotep was blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle…

  3. God damn this is much better than any of the stuff I’ve seen from him before. If SHIELD coming out bimonthly leads to this kind of art, I’ll live with it

  4. You know, I hadn’t noticed until just now, but Apocalypse is there in the second panel.

  5. How is En Sabah Nur the only dude of color in that page. The only white dude should be Kang as Rama Tut.

  6. And the guy in the mouthwraps and headdress is probably Khonshu, right? The Moon Knight fellow.

    And that looks like an eagle on the centre-chap’s shield. Like, the American Eagle. I guess it’s supposed to.


  7. Were you able to get a response from Mssrs. Hickman and Weaver? I really hope that this was an oversight. Capntightpants (!) makes a great point above. I know we all hate on DC, and the company has made its share of missteps, but Checkmate (and the Great Ten for that matter) put Marvel’s efforts at portraying the world as it exists to shame.

    One minor nerdy point – SHIELD is an American organization, and has at least two members of color, both African American (if my hazy recollections of the ’80’s are correct). One could argue that SHIELD’s lack of diversity is a poor reflection of the massive strides that our real-life national security/intelligence apparatus has made over the last two decades, but that’s for another comment page.

  8. @Matthew Craig: I didn’t even make the Khonshu connection, but sure enough he has the crescent moon scepter. I like how Charlie Huston summed up Mark Spector as Moon Knight– Son of a rabbi turns rebellious and hooks up with an Egyptian god. That just clicks. And yeah, the eagle imagery is totally on purpose. I figure it’ll factor into the series as iconography for SHIELD and probably re-contextualize Cap while it’s at it.

    @Jamaal: I twittered at Hickman, but I’m not sure how to email him without being all “Hey, what’s up with this? Is this historically accurate?”

    And yeah, Gabe Jones is part of SHIELD and a holdover from the Howling Commandos. He’s been dead, MIA, retired, old and young, but he’s recently seen a resurgence. Bendis used him in Civil War: New Avengers (he was the guy who kicked in Luke Cage’s door, which is ehhhhh), Loeb had him investigating something in Hulk (drawn by Ed McGuinness, no less), his son (a junior, i think) appeared in X-Men Forever, and he’s a regular in Secret Warriors. I’m having trouble thinking of the other guy– I think I remember him, but he may have just been a differently-aged Gabe.

    But the important SHIELD personnel, the ones with names, are generally some flavor of white. Fury, Dugan, Contessa, Sharon Carter, Sitwell, those generic guys who might as well be Sitwell…

  9. I thought Imhotep was “blacker than a trillion midnights…”

  10. I just picked up Essential Godzilla today and quickly flipped thru it. From what I saw one of the main SHIELD agents in that was black. I’m blanking on his name, but the guy who worked with the Agents of ATLAS and then joined them after HAMMER replaced SHIELD was black. He was also the agent in charge in FVL’s “MODOK’s 11″…

    I’m curious about the secret history of Marvel thing, if only to see how some of the longer-lived or time travel types fit in. Like Apocalypse or the Sphinx…

  11. Good thoughtful commentary as always David. I haven’t read all of his back-story but I always thought Apocalypse was portrayed as an Egyptian of undefined race. As for the rest of them, a white boy with a Mediterranean tan would be darker than these fella’s.

  12. I knew this series would suck. It’s just another bad entry in the ‘Historical Celebrity’ genre that’s arisen in the wake of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Why not include people like Elisha Grey, Mary Anning, Drona – people who aren’t as often in the public sphere, and about whom there would be secrets?

  13. @LurkerWithout: Derek Khanata. He has those weird tattoos on his cheeks, I think.

  14. Also: as long as we’re going with historical accuracy flaws, I should note that it’s nice to see how clean 15th-century Florence was in Leonardo Da Vinci’s life. Isn’t it nice to see EVERY SINGLE SURFACE shining-bright and spotless?

  15. G. W. Bridge is black, too. Although he’s been in and out of SHIELD. And is dead, according to Wikipedia, which is very disappointing if true.

    Egyptians were coloured darker in the Rise of Apocalypse series back in the nineties, but not now? That is extremely weak.

    I was wondering if it was because the colouring is washed out, but the Chinese people on the next page clearly got a different colouring despite a similar style being used. Besides, looking at the art close up the Egyptians are way too pink.

  16. @hermanos I was thinking of Gabe Jones and G.W. Bridge (thanks Mark!).

    @slig Wow, that is an excellent point. After Pax Romana, I was really hoping that Hickman would buck against the ‘celebrity’ trend, but I guess that was too much to hope for.

  17. @Mark Cook: Bridge died?! That sucks. Wonder when that happened.

    @Stig: I think they were ritual facial scarring rather than tats, though comics can make it hard to tell sometimes.

    Also, can I say that I love that I can throw out a rap reference and have you guys not only get it, but build on it? Y’all are the best.

  18. It might help to realize that there are not a few references to Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indians and whatnot by ancient authors? There’s even a comparison in Strabo:

    As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in color, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl), whereas those in the north are like the Egyptians.

    American Afrocentrist claims about how their Egyptian heritage was stolen from them is simply ludicrous. Even discounting the skin tone aspect, it would be akin to an Irishman from the Arran Islands laying claim to the civilization of the Persian Empire. It’s about one step away from claims about ancient Atlantis and their death ray technology.

    I got here looking up stuff on Lone Wolf & Cub and came across your reviews for the earlier volumes. Did you ever finish them?

  19. Am I the only one who looks at Imhotep in that picture and thinks he is brown? Not brown like caramel, but light brown? Don’t know about back then, but today there are millions of people from over there with that color.

  20. Actually, the Nubians were Pharaohs of Egypt for about a century, and they’re about as African as it gets. That’s not to mention whatever happened during the Intermediate Periods and the Nubian/Berber influence on Egypt’s 3 millenia long history, and not to mention the advances in Egyptology we’ve made since the 1970s, when it was more than reasonable to argue that Ancient Egypt had African roots and rulers. So their claims are not “ludicrous” by any stretch of the imagination.

  21. @cptnapalm: I’m not sure why you felt the need to clear that up for us, considering I said that the entire situation is complicated and loaded in my post. I don’t think that it’s as ludicrous as Atlantis and death rays. That’s just insulting.

    I got bored of Lone Wolf and quit. It’s a fine series, and I own most of it, but I wasn’t finding much worth writing about.

  22. You can blame quite a bit of this on the Ptolemy and his descendants. After Alexander the Great died, and Ptolemy, Alex’s righthand man and about as white as a Macedonian can be, took over Egypt, and his family ruled the country until the dynasty ended with Cleopatra about 300 years later. HBO’s Rome series, especially the second season, did an execellent job depicting this disparity between ruler and subject, and how messed up it was that the Greeks and then the Romans occupied the area and slowly assimilated bits of the two cultures to and from one another.

    But this was only from about 300 BC to 1 AD. A guy as ancient as Imhotep isn’t going to be white at all. Somewhere between the darkness of central Africa and the tawney brown of the middle east, if I had to guess, which is a HUGE range. But no way was he nordic or aryan or anything like that.

  23. The thing I noticed about the “Egypt” panel, is that it seems washed-over, like it’s being viewed from an outside source and the “lighting” looks almost faded, as if it was drawn on really old paper. I think before any harsh judgments are made on the skin color/race of Imhotep, we should wait to see a few more pages with him standing alone. Besides, it does look like his skin is taking a darker tone, just as I said, looks washed-over and colored differently to match the background.

    Could be wrong, of course, but we should all take a breather before getting too far ahead on our Jump To Conclusions Mat.

  24. @Ben Gebhart: The “jump to conclusions mat” is condescending. What conclusion did I jump to? I said “Imhotep is looking kinda light, there,” which is correct. What harsh judgment did I make?

    For what it’s worth, the background panels are faded, but Imhotep himself is not. He, and the other Egyptians save Apocalypse, look like stereotypical comic book Egyptians, meaning, white guys with wrapped up beards.

  25. @Stig:
    Yeah, this series is going to suck. Because uh, the colorist made Imhotep and the Egyptians white. The same way Final Crisis was complete fucking bullshit, because Shiloh Norman wasn’t a black guy for most of it. That fucking Grant Morrison, what a hack.

    Honestly, the book hasn’t even come out yet, and these are unlettered pages. Maybe these aren’t the final colors? The cover to the Reptil one-shot had him mis-colored pretty much right up until publication.

    Why not give Hickman some credit for utilizing a multiracial cast of Egyptian, Italian, and Chinese characters? It’s unfortunate that the Egyptians are inaccurately colored, and I hope it’s fixed, if not for the single issues then for the trade. But getting up in arms and making harsh judgments about what looks to be an interesting book is, speaking frankly, really fucking dumb.

  26. This kinda comes off as nitpicking to me, since Egyptians in popular culture(at least what I have seen) are usually a mass of white guys I don’t see how its fair to pick on a comic for doing the same thing.

    I know its not necessarily correct, but it doesn’t bug me nearly as much it seems to bug everyone else. On that note I like Hickman’s work and the art from the preview looks stellar I’m willing to give this a look on that front alone. I also don’t understand the LoEG comparisons its not like Mr. Moore created the secret history or anything he just used it well.

  27. @Rick: Sorry you’re cool with historically racist depictions, bro, can’t win them all

    For the record, and I’ll probably make a post about it later, but I emailed Dustin Weaver and he said it was a mistake, and one that will hopefully be fixed in the trade.

  28. Hey, check it, there’s a Kang helmet by Leonardo’s foot. Oh, and hey, it’s Phantom Limb!

    I’ll be a dork and nitpick, but if Apocalypse is hanging out with Egyptians, then shouldn’t Rama Tut be the man in charge? I thought that after Rise of Apocalypse, En Sabah Nur teched up, changed looks and left town.

    I think that people lashing back need to chill out a bit. David’s not out of line to call attention to this because that’s how it gets fixed. The tweet at the top is totally self aware. He’s not trying to make a thing of it.

  29. arnold vosloo!