I’ve Got So Much Trouble On My Mind: Race & Cape Comics

December 29th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

I wanted to start this post about race and comics with this:

because, cripes, that’s Hypno Hustler, hands down my favorite obscure comics character and Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta brought him back. It’s also a funny macro for black characters in comics. Do you get it? Next would be this:

Black Batman: Bruce Wayne won’t franchise in urban markets
Black Panther: Stuck in dumb, unforgiveably boring comics
The Boondocks: Gone forever
Brother Voodoo: Brother Who?
Chalky White: Not given nearly enough screen-time, inexplicable fascination with not building bookcases
Garterbelt: Drawn with stereotypically huge lips, pedo priest
Menace: Tragic Mulatto, single mother
Lebron James: Worse than Hitler
Luke Cage: Would rather hang out at prison than with his White Wife and Mixed Baby
Power Man: Does Dominican count as black?
Robin: Still not black
Storm: smh
Turk: Needs to stop snitching
War Machine: Who cares?

But, the thought of pretending like I care that Brother Voodoo bit it in some comic I didn’t read gives me a migraine and I’m all out of jokes. Instead, though, I’m going to do this:

was a hero to most

I can’t get into Will Eisner’s The Spirit. I’ve tried a fistful of times. I bought a trade, thinking that putting money down would force me to plow through it. It didn’t. I can’t get past Ebony White. He’s a roadblock that I can’t get around.

I get the excuses and explanations. It was the humor of the time, Eisner didn’t know any better, he didn’t really mean it, Ebony was actually helpful, he was heroic in his own way, and a credit to his race. Blah blah blah. Eisner is a legend, and you don’t really want to tar his past with accusations of racism, do you? The Spirit is a classic, a titan in the medium! It’s hugely influential, so surely you can let this minor issue pass? It’s not really racism, is it?

But if it talks like a duck and looks like a pickaninny and drives Miss Daisy? Then it’s a slap in the face, and who consents to being slapped?

The issue of Ebony White is minimized in favor of the ongoing stature of The Spirit. It’s obviously an issue, since the two most recent relaunches of The Spirit have adjusted the character to be more palatable. Miller didn’t even put him in the movie, presumably because he knew that Ebony was a hard sell. Brian Azzarello turned her into a sassy black girl for the First Wave books. (Better “Nuh-uh nigga I ain’t going in there you better ask somebody else to do that nuh-UH” than “Yessuh boss whateva you say, boss.” That’s progress, innit?) But Ebony, the character, is minimized in favor of The Spirit, the classic. Don’t let racism ruin this great thing.

puffin newports ’cause life’s a bitch, and it’s too short

You can see maximization in the cases of OJ Simpson and Mike Vick. You’d think those two guys were the second and third coming of Charles Manson the way the news and society keeps on about them. Their crimes are maximized to the point where Tucker Carlson can say on tv that Vick should’ve been executed for his crimes. America: where you do the crime and do the time, or get acquitted, and then you keep doing the time because you’re a filthy, filthy convict.

Unless you’re Johannes Mehserle, who got to shoot an unarmed father in the back, get sentenced in November, be eligible for release two months later, and be hailed as a hero and victim of… something.

everything is everything, what is meant to be will be

When I first started writing about race and comics, I feel like I focused on characters. I wanted to celebrate these characters I’d grown up enjoying or learned to enjoy as an adult. “Look! We exist! And we’re not awful!” Time went on and I started to point out the problems. This kind of tone deaf, “this is how black people act in movies, not in real life” sort of thing. I later learned to focus on context. Here is why this bit is good, here is how it relates to real life. Finding the way verisimilitude makes stories better. This year, I tried to focus more on the people creating the comics.

Next year is another Black History Month. Right now, I feel like if I approach any of it from the position of black characters in mainstream comics, I’ll be making a huge mistake. Storm, Black Panther, and Luke Cage can be a useful lens for thoughts about race and comics at times, but by and large? I don’t care any more. What matters are the people who make the books, not these dusty old trademarks.

The problem with superheroes and black folks is that superhero comics used to be children’s comics. The in-text morals and structure are still leagues behind everything else. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a military family, but “heroes don’t kill” is an absurd positon to have and borderline insulting. Plenty of heroes kill. Some of our favorite Americans have killed dozens of people. But, the childlike morality stuck around, so we’re stuck with it. A side effect is that characters have to be very easy to understand.

Superhero comics don’t do nuance well. They do twenty-two pages of fights, yelling, and basic romantic drama well, but subtlety? Nah. And if you expect to be represented as a person, you’re going to need a certain degree of subtlety.

the violence in me reflects the violence that’s around me

It’s not all strange fruit and Al Sharpton in cape comics. Fred Van Lente and Mahmud Asrar’s Shadowland: Power Man was a breath of fresh air, and it’s actually kind of sad that that’s true. Regardless, Van Lente and Asrar knocked the book out of the park, cleverly working in socioeconomic and racial issues that enhanced the story, rather than distracted from the tale. They treated certain things as a given and created something worth reading.

The more I think about it, the more that Bendis’s Cage strikes me as an amalgamation of various black dudes in movies. It’s like an impersonation. A good one, but just off enough to be noticeable. He takes stands that don’t make sense, is bad with money, and is seemingly written as a Strong Black Man. You know how writers do that, yeah? Like there’s a checklist? Stands by his crew, loves his family, would die for his kids, on and on and on.

Jeff Parker’s work on Thunderbolts consistently impresses me, though. Like Van Lente and Power Man, he writes Cage in a way that clicks for me. When he busts out the black dudeisms like “What’s my name?” it’s not just an empty boast or black braggadocio. There’s a point to it. The bluesman in the Shadowland tie-ins was on point, too, and so was the way Cage deferred to him. It rings true in a way that Cage refusing Captain America’s money doesn’t. It’s about Cage, but it’s bigger than him, too.

These should be the rule, not the exception, but it is what it is.

take sun people, put ’em in atlanta snow

Chris Sims wrote an essay a few months back he called “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling”. To sum it up, and I hope I’m not doing him a disservice by paraphrasing his argument, DC’s thirst for nostalgia has had the unintended side effect of scrubbing some of the non-white characters out of their universe. I think Sims has a point in there, but I don’t know that I agree with the why.

I don’t think that DC is working of nostalgia at all, especially not for the Silver Age. The Silver Age, running from the ’50s up to the early ’70s at the latest, was a time when superhero comics turned soft and transient. Characters changed shape, gimmick, and styles issue to issue. The Silver Age is generally viewed online as being wacky and out-there, super weird and goofy. It isn’t known for Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and Ray Palmer so much as for that time Superman had an ant head and Jimmy Olsen married a gorilla. Jordan, Allen, and Palmer date from those times, yes, but they aren’t emblematic of those times.

If you skip across the street to Marvel, there’s an interesting parallel. Over the past ten years, several characters from the ’70s have made a return. They haven’t replaced anyone, but Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Werewolf by Night, Moon Knight, Spider-Woman, Nova, Iron Fist, Ghost Rider, Shang-Chi, and even Howard the Duck have made returns, no matter how completely unmarketable they may be. Does that count as nostalgia for the ’70s?

I don’t think that either situation counts as nostalgia. There is certainly someone’s fond memories of a character involved in the process, but nostalgia is a yearning for, and sometimes emulation of, the past. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a love letter to blaxploitation films. The casting of Pam Grier, the soundtrack, and all the overt references to blaxploitation is proof positive.

If you look at Bendis’s Cage or Geoff Johns’s Hal Jordan, and I mean really look at them, you’d see how they aren’t really fueled by nostalgia at all. The stories aren’t even remotely the same. They star the same characters, sure, but casting Pam Grier alone does not a blaxploitation movie make. Johns’s Green Lantern is deadly serious and never boring. The goofy ring structures, the giant boxing gloves and baseball bats, have largely given way to airplanes and detailed rifles. It’s realistic, rather than whimsical. His Flash comes a little closer to emulating the Silver Age style, but even then, he’s taking one part of the past (the Flash Facts/science) and applying it to something new (giving us stories that let Francis Manapul show us how cool superspeed is). The characters are old. The stories aren’t.

I haven’t read the recent stories with Ray Palmer and Hawkman, but I imagine that those are the same. Old characters, new stories. I know Hawkman in Brightest Day is caught up in some kind of insane recap/readjustment of his history, like Grant Morrison’s “Every Batman story is true” mandate. That doesn’t sound like nostalgia to me. It sounds like cape comics. It sounds like entropy. And with the way the comic industry is right now, it’s inevitable.

Cape comics are a closed system at this point. They cannot grow. This means that the only place left to go with these characters is to flip them. We’re in the remix era of superheroes, and we have been for years, probably ever since Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Morrison took every crappy old X-Men concept, from sentinels to the Phoenix to Magneto to the New Mutants, and made it brand new. Superheroes have to take a page from William S Burroughs and create cut-up comics. Take this bit of history, match it with the other bit, and make something new. The fanbase is fiercely conservative and only want known quantities.

Disagree? Look at Paul Cornell’s Action Comics, Morrison’s Batman, Johns’s Green Lantern, Bendis’s Avengers empire (especially Prime and whichever one JRjr was drawing), Brubaker’s Captain America, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, and Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men. All of those are pulling ideas that are thirty, forty, sixty years old into the modern day and telling new stories with them. Taking the past and remixing it, updating it for a new era.

Cut-up Comics! The cover of New Gods 1 with “Kirby Is Here!” scratched out and “DJ Premier Is On The Wheels of Steel!” written in. Spider-Man twisted and turned through a new lens! Watch as the past is reinvented by way of public execution on the comics page!

This is something that only cape comics can do. If you take Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and try it, do you know what you get? Re-hash. It’s too small, too new, for that to work. Superheroes, though, are perfect for it. It’s the only way they’ll survive. Consumers don’t want new heroes. The market has proven its hostility to books that don’t fit within a certain shape. Fine–play with what sits inside that shape. Four walls can be a prison or a lab. Choose one.

y’all probably done forgot about her. but i ain’t gonna ever forget.

Remember earlier this year when the new Aqualad was announced and half the online commentary was, “Oh, so now we get BLACK Aqualad? Blaqualad?” and the other half was “Oh, so he’s AFRAID OF WATER, huh, he CAN’T SWIM? Is that how it is?”

Yeah. I see you. Do better. Be better.

a colored life still ain’t worth but a few ducats

Right now is still the best time to be black in cape comics. Cage is headlining a couple of books, Black Panther keeps getting tries at bat, Steel is kicking off and probably dying in an event next year, DC’s new Aqualad seems cool (he was dope on the show and pretty straight in the comics), Black Panther’s little sister has her own miniseries… things don’t suck. They could be better, though.

I got a letter from a third-tier company’s PR rep a few months back. Not a personal one, just your usual PR crap. It mentioned that there had been criticism online about there not being enough “diverse characters,” so they were launching a series starring a black guy.

Point: Cool, someone’s trying to listen to what people are saying.
Counter-point: Man, it’s all just business in the end, isn’t it?

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18 comments to “I’ve Got So Much Trouble On My Mind: Race & Cape Comics”

  1. Nostalgia involves an invention of the past as much as a yearning for it, right? In those terms, you could call the comics of Johns-Didio DC nostalgia pieces–they seem informed by a vague sense of How Things Are Supposed To Be, and that informed by a vague sense of How Things Were. It’s this weird collaborative reimagining of DC’s history (at least which parts were important) from Johns, DC editorial, and people who buy Geoff Johns comics.

    Also: Showcase #4? Is Barry Allen’s first appearance not synonymous with the start of the silver age?

    (Longtime reader, first time commenter, etc.)

  2. @Greg: But is it “how things are supposed to be?” I mean, let’s be honest–the current run on Green Lantern has, in the past year, run through vicious murder, sexual assault, wife beating, sexy space aliens, emotional trauma… if you gave it to somebody who digs Silver Age GL, they’d probably be pretty surprised on a “Is this really Hal Jordan?” level. I think it’s more that they know people want to read Hal Jordan stories or had a hunch people would read Barry Allen stories rather than trying to recapture that old Silver Age swing. These comics are so of today and aimed at the fan of today that the Silver Age influence is minimal at best. I can see how nostalgia might be an element, but not in any way you can actually quantify.

    Barry and Hal heralded the arrival of the Silver Age, but I wouldn’t call them the first thing people think of when you go “Silver Age comics.” It’s like how if you go “zombie movie” people go “Night of the Living Dead,” even though they date to thirty or so years before that. They’re part of it historically, but stuff like Superman shooting little people out of his fingers or whatever are probably more of a touchstone culturally.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. I think there’s business and legal sides to the big 2 recycling their old characters. From a business side, I don’t think nostalgia gets new sales of comics, but I think the age of a character can carry more weight when you’re trying to pitch a movie or other development. From a legal side, I want to say that there’s something about the copyright and ownership of a character. Either a writer gets a larger cut when they create a character for the company or the copyright is just more vulnerable to challenge on a new character.

    Those are pretty thin reasons, but I’m just throwing them out there because the nostalgia angle makes no sense to me. I guess Didio and Johns pushed through Jordan and Allen because of their own nostalgia, but for it to be happening so much and at both companies points to a real common cause. And like you say, these are not nostalgic stories.

    In the end, as long as the writer writes the character they want, it doesn’t matter so much if the character is new or old. Just part of writing in a shared universe.

  4. Just a side note David, but I like the center formatting on the quotes. Makes them pop more than they do on the Cypher posts. Of course YMMV. I really enjoy your writing and wish I could contribute something more material, but thanks for writing, man.

  5. Hi, also new here.

    I do think it’s nostalgia, but one that seems exclusive to comics fandom. As you mention, it’s not so much a reliving of the style of the past, but a reinvention of it for today’s tastes. I think it has everything to do with the attitude of growing up with the characters but wanting stories about them that cater to the concerns and interests of a 30, 40+ year old. It ties into the proprietary feelings fans have for the characters they grew up with, and basically how they want the characters to grow old and die with them (if not literally, at least thematically), and also with the obsession over continuity. The desire for “grown-up superheroes” breaks the genre in so many ways, but it’s demanded every time–as opposed to Silver and Bronze age pastiches like Thor The Mighty Avenger that are doomed to die on the vine. But that’s still a form of nostalgia.

  6. @Ben: That’s valuable feedback, man, and I do appreciate it. I couldn’t tell when writing the post, but when I scroll through, I can definitely see what you mean. I think I’ll keep them.

  7. Oh, and BTW, thanks for doing what you do, in bringing nuance and a reality check to the discussion of race in comics.

  8. I think the superhero rule of “do not kill” is indeed immature, at least in the way it is currently portrayed. That kind of moral restraint is actually found in the real world, particularly in radical political activists, like those against the death penalty or prison abolitionists. How much more interesting would the “no killing” moral aspect of superheroes be if it reflected a more adult conversation? What if Superman took a cue from Angela Davis?

    They might not always be right, but I think it would be far less perplexing to readers.

  9. @A.L. Baroza: Couldn’t have said it any better. Happy New Year DB

  10. The do-not-kill rule may be immature, but it isn’t *childish*, since it represents adult concerns about morality. Children have no problem with good guys killing bad guys, because children see morality in black and white.

  11. I’ve never been sure who Will Eisner hates more: blacks or women.

  12. @Dan Coyle: That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

  13. Great piece. I hope you’re writing a book by now.

  14. Word. Has Turk ever appeared when he’s not snitching?

    I love Will Eisner but I’ve honest to god never read The Spirit. Mostly for monetary reasons, but his A Contract With God trilogy is pretty much one of my favourite comics. And there are pretty normal-looking black people to boot.

    And I remember Didio saying that when he and Johns met they shared the common goal of reinstating Hal Jordan and Barry Allen as the Green Lantern and the Flash respectively. And it came across to me that the only reason they wanted to do this was because this is what they grew up with. They wanted to make things into what they saw as “right”. Now I haven’t read either series and I’m sure they might be different, but if that isn’t fueled by nostalgia then I don’t know what is. Whats more is that they (in timely Marvel/DC fashion) kicked death in the nads once more, making him even more worthless, to do it. That’s just how it seems to me, but what do I know?

    Man I’m glad I gave up on superheroes.

  15. Yeah, I think the resurgence of bronze-age faces [the mostly silver holdovers from when Johns, Didio (and I) were kids] has to do with nostalgia for the characters (“I wanted to be Hal Jordan when I was a kid.”) combined with adult perspectives. The content that sizzled for us as kids doesn’t sizzle now. What might sizzle now is ultra-violence, intense (yet juvenile!) sexuality, moral gray areas, etc. So that’s what we get. Hal’s back, and Star Sapphire dresses like a stripper.

    On the no-kill policy: It’s not that unrealistic. You know who else doesn’t kill when fighting crime? The police. (Wow … I live in Oakland and I still typed that. Let me clarify:) Cops aren’t supposed to shoot people except as a last resort. Yes, that goes wrong, and when it does, the system and its embedded failings don’t always do handle it right, but everyone agrees on the rules: killing only in self-defense and defense of other lives. And no one thinks that’s a crazy scheme.

    Trouble is, today’s superheroes are facing such untenable moral positions. Villains always bust out of jail, and they kill by the busload, so that’s when “no kill” becomes absurd, even an immoral stand. Maybe superheroes and their moral code weren’t designed for dealing with mass murderers in a world where prisons are made of Jell-O.

    I know there are caveats (among them the cavalier attitude to criminal survival in those earliest Superman and Batman stories), but here’s a simple way to make good heroes: Treat death like it matters, like killing a villain’s a last resort, like it has consequences and weight, and maybe don’t write the heroes into so many “I must snap your neck to save the world” scenarios.

    Especially considering DC ain’t gonna let Batman murder his trademark-value rogues gallery anyway, that seems like a viable way to go.

  16. This probably isn’t a terribly deep thought (I seem to have a sinus infection at the moment, so my level of focus is not exactly peak), but it seems to me there’s a difference in danger between your average superhero and a real life soldier or police officer. If Superman is facing down a man with a gun, he is in no danger whatsoever. In fact, being “faster than a speeding bullet” means he doesn’t even have to worry about somebody else getting shot. Superman is in complete control of the situation. A soldier on a battlefield? He shoots and kills that man, because otherwise that man will surely kill him or someone he wants to protect. That is all the control he can exert.

    Speaking of control, this is probably also an issue. Even characters like Batman, who don’t explicitly have super powers, are still presented as impossibly competent. They can control a situation to the extent a real person cannot. To take that further, because these heroes have this power, they tend to be outside the control of government or law enforcement. Using Superman as an example again, the very reason he decided to become a hero was because of his morals. He can’t break the rules he’s set, because he knows no one can stop him if he does. In order to continue being Superman, the person he wants to be, he has to stop himself.

    I suppose a simpler way to put it would be that there is a fine line between a superhero and a monster. If someone with the power of Superman doesn’t have lines he will not cross, rules you know he would never allow himself to break, he becomes terrifying. After all, if a man approaches you with a gun, but you also have a gun, you know that you may kill him before he kills you. If Superman means you harm, what can you possibly do?

  17. I’m not sure I agree on the nostalgia issue. While I’d agree that the modern comics aren’t really attempting to emulate the old silver age (or bronze age) stories with the characters, I think that there’s still a yearning. Many of the big-name creators want to tell stories about the characters they grew up with. They have memories of what those characters were like and, even with research, memories are going to paint an imperfect picture.

    There’s also a vast difference between a boy of six reading a comic and a man of 36 writing it. The stories they tell are going to be filtered through the differences of the times, the changes to themselves, and so forth. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t still fueled by nostalgia. Few of the writers out there are good enough to do a true homage or pastiche to comics of yore without coming across as corny. So what we’re left with is a thin veneer of the old characteristics pushed through the dark and serious 00’s sensibilities.

    As an aside, what about Darwyn Cooke’s Ebony White? Good? Bad?

  18. Your statement about how Hal Jordan/Barry Allen as they are currently portrayed in comics is not really how they were back in the Silver Age reminds me of a post I wrote about the way that toys made for adults based on their childhood favorites tend to try to make up for a loss of childhood imagination and wonder with sheer craftsmanship, i.e. something that would appeal to a more discerning adult.


    I see a similar thing occurring with this return of older characters and the way they’re portrayed. While we can look at Silver Age comics now and see all of the odd body modifications that seemed to permeate the comics of that era, it comes from our distanced and likely adult and possibly Flex Mentallo-influenced perspective. How exactly Hal Jordan actually was isn’t as important as how the mind’s eye of the child who read about Hal sees him, whether that child is real or a construction fueled by nostalgia for “better times.” So if Hal is remembered in the greater history both in-universe and among fans as the hotshot pilot who takes no guff and is a hit with the ladies, it’s going to be presented as such, with the script and art making up for the assumptions of the child.

    It’s kind of like when the “original” hero meets their newest iteration, and you expect them to act a certain way or say certain things even if they never did so previously. Lacking a good example off the top of my head, in the Power Rangers “Forever Red” crossover, which had characters from the show’s inception to the most recent iteration at the time, Jason (the ORIGINAL Red Ranger) says things along the lines of “Let me show you how it’s done, newbie!” Jason never talked this back when he was on the show, but because he’s that first and original, you kind of want him to have that authority and veteran attitude, if only to affirm what Jason was “supposed to be” within the greater context of the franchise.