Stop Now, Get Original

December 2nd, 2010 by | Tags: ,

Here’s the bio of the only black American Girl, Addy Walker, created in 1993:

The novels were written by Connie Porter, and she ended up doing eleven of them over the course of ten years. And I get it, I really do–if you want to show that a character that has courage and the ability to overcome circumstances, an escaped slave is pretty good.

I just can’t imagine ever wanting to buy something like this for anyone’s daughter. It’s gross, it’s another reminder that being black in America sucks. It’s like the news pieces that told me I’d be more likely to be dead or in jail by twenty-five than to make something of myself, that rap music was poisoning my little colored brain, or that I’d be a bad person because I came from a broken home. It’s the same thing that made me a credit to my race as a child because I was smart, rather than smart, period.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Ron Wimberly hit the nail on the head when he said, “Yeah, it’s kinda bugged. but really, what’s new?”

Listen to this for the next couple minutes while you read this post. It’s Gil Scott-Heron’s “On Coming From A Broken Home Part 1,” and it is deeply relevant.

David Wolkin is a friend of mine, and we had a conversation a while back about the portrayal of Jews in cape comics. He made a very strong point that it tends to revolve around shame and guilt and the Holocaust, often at the expense of any other possible subject matter. Gotham Central has a Jewish guy who usually appears just to talk about kosher donuts and persecution, rather than, say, anything else.

It’s similar to blacks in cape comics, where they are either from the hood, pretending to be from the hood, inexplicably spending time in the hood, or, in the case of Storm, who I like less and less on a daily basis because her history is disgusting, actively separated from and placed above the hood, because colored folks, am I right, fellas?

It’s all about narrative. It’s storytelling. Whether through laziness or malicious intent, this is what we get from pop culture and the media. Jewish characters get to come to terms with the Holocaust or their own Jewishness. Black characters get to talk about how there’s no justice, just us (a phrase that, if I ever had to say it aloud, would make me blow my brains out). It’s the same garbage, day in, day out. “Remember this horrible thing your people have gone through? Well, as far as we’re concerned, it’s the only fuel that matters to our storytelling engines. Don’t worry, we won’t let you forget or ever progress past it.”

Another example? “Look at how weird this thing from Japan is!” Chip Kidd, author of Bat-Manga, indulged in it when he touched up translations in the book to “We are certainly not trying to make fun of the Japanese grasp of English, but at the same time, here and there we wanted to preserve its undeniable charm.” That’s the narrative about Japan: It’s cool and different and weird and charming. Which is patronizing and ignorant.

Wolkin is doing this thing he’s called 8 Days of Wolkin and one of his posts is about a recent issue of Ragman. Stick with it all the way through, because it flashes into something else partway through. It’s good, and he talks about the stories we tell ourselves, or allow ourselves to be told, in the post. He’s also got a killer line about the intro to All-Star Jewish Superman.

This is the kind of thing I think that it’s important to be cognizant, and wary, of when consuming culture. It’s always deeper than what’s on the TV or in comics. A lot of cape comics are unbelievably basic and unwilling to grow up, and this is the sort of pap we’re fed nine times out of ten.

Put shorter: there are more stories to be told, so stop telling these tired old tales.

One of those other stories can be found in Ann Nocenti’s “Goudou Goudou” series on HiLoBrow. She’s been teaching film in Haiti for a few years, and now, after the quake, she’s still at it. It’s a nice counterpoint to the almost pornographic attention to the death and destruction that we got shortly after the quake and the deafening silence we’ve had since.

“Goudou Goudou” isn’t about how awful life is in Haiti right now. It’s about the things her film class has seen, her own reactions to them, and the people of Haiti that she’s met. It’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s life through their open window, rather than digging through their trash for goodies. There are three out–one, two, three–and they’re all good. They roll out weekly, and you can grab the RSS for just her posts here.

I’ve talked before about how Nocenti is one of the most interesting comics writers ever, mainly here and here. I still think she beats the pants off all but maybe two or three writers working today. But at the same time, it’s really nice to see that she’s a good journalist, or just plain writer, really.

Long story short, screw Storm and be careful what you put into your head. Don’t believe the hype.

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30 comments to “Stop Now, Get Original”

  1. Your mention of Gotham Central makes me think of Rucka’s Dectective Comics run.
    Is his use of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in Batwoman’s origin the same kind of patronizing stereotype? Or does the fact that it’s still an issue, and that he got another 7 issues to flesh her out make it more excusable?

  2. @CasinoGrande: It was easy to see coming, but well-executed. It’s not the stereotype (or whatever) that’s the problem with anything. It’s the lack of variety.

  3. “It’s similar to blacks in cape comics, where they are either from the hood, pretending to be from the hood, inexplicably spending time in the hood.”

    This is bad, obviously, and caters to a stereotype that really doesn’t need any help being perpetuated. I’m trying to think of a way this type of storytelling can be avoided, rather than just replaced with another stereotype or making the ethnicity of a character an issue for the colorist (and the artist, if they’re competent enough. I think you’ve touched on at least a few artists that are actually able to draw black characters well, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm).

    I feel like a lot of the problem comes from the whole idea of normative whiteness that our society practices. I didn’t really think about it much until now, but whites in comics have a generic feel to them. What I’m wondering is if this is the goal, for race and ethnicity to be a thing handled by artists/colorists and not be an issue for writers at all. Should Invincible, for example, be any different of a book if he were black? Is there a pressure to portray the “blackness” of a character?

    There are rich cultures that are often tied to race that would be a shame to not even acknowledge, yet I don’t know that I trust many writers to not fall to stereotypes. Positive stereotypes may not be as harmful as negative ones, but they’re all bullshit and I’d rather read something about Generic McBland than a poorly handled background (race/ethnic or otherwise).

    I guess I’ve just kind of been writing without much of a question for you, but I want to know what you think should or can be done?

  4. The Detective Cohen thing in Gotham Central is a little bit different because he’s hardly a primary character. He’s on the periphery for at least the duration of the first three hardcovers. Yes, he wears a yarmulke, which is interesting to see, but the primary reference to his Judaism is when another cop says something about having the day off on Christmas, and Cohen angrily responds by citing 3,000 years of persecution. In 25 issues or so, that’s the most we get.

  5. This isn’t a comics related thing, but have you read the “Addy” American Girl novels? The whole ‘escaped slave’ thing is only a jumping off point, and the series doesn’t obsessively focus on black pathology or portray easy stereotypes. The novels aren’t really about how bad slavery was or the horrors of Jim Crow. I’ll come back to write in more detail, but I think you’re way off base here.

  6. @bairfanx: The only thing that should be done is writing better stories.

  7. I had to stop reading because you need to clear something up: what exactly is wrong with Storm’s history? Can you point to an specific example of how it is “disgusting”?

  8. @Two-Bit Specialist: I don’t need to clear anything up, I don’t think, but I’ve written about Storm before and Cheryl Lynn explained why she’s so gross here.

  9. @David – Thanks, but don’t just assume we all understand what you are talking about and then get your point without question.

  10. @Two-Bit Specialist: I do have to assume that, otherwise my posts would be drowned in compromise, explanations, and exceptions, rather than the things I’d actually rather write about. When necessary, I explain things in the post. When I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t. 4l! readers are generally pretty smart and either get what I’m talking about or are willing to ask for explanations.

  11. @david – Well, that was me asking for explanations. Perhaps “need” was a bit strong, though.

  12. “That’s the narrative about Japan: It’s cool and different and weird and charming. Which is patronizing and ignorant.”

    Isn’t that the positive narrative about most foreign cultures though and why people want to experience them rather than just considering them pieces of land that happen to be far away? It feels like it’s the opinion of Japan, the UK, Brazil, France to an extent From what little I’ve seen of foreign work about America I always felt like other countries did the same with the US.

  13. @Jason: You’re right–different and cool were poor word choices. I mean more in the sense of “Look how wacky this is! Japan is so weird!” sort of different, rather than “Comics are different there due to X, Y, and Z, here are some ways how.”

    I guess sensationalism vs basic facts, yeah?

  14. I’m trying to think of the black characters separated from the hood, and there aren’t many. You can count Spawn if you want, but his body is burnt up(!) and he’s homeless. War Machine and Monica Rambeau, maybe? I don’t know their backstory. Bishop, Shard, and Krystalin (X-Men 2099) are from the future, so the writers didn’t write them as using street slang. Oh, but one’s a violent anti-hero turned villain, and the other two are pretty much forgotten. Maybe there is a smattering of other minor characters.

    It’s understandable that white comic book writers from the ’70s would have trouble writing black characters; t.v. and movies weren’t exactly overflowing with well-written minority characters. After that, there’s really no excuse.

  15. @Mike Loughlin: I thought Bishop’s last few years were really interesting, from the mutant cop angle on to hunting Cable, but he desperately needed at least a shade of subtlety toward the end there. If the baby Cable was protecting turned out to be genuinely bad, that’d be dope, but as-is, Bishop went out like a punk and died an attempted baby murderer. Weak.

    Krystalin, wow. X-Men 2099 used to be the jam. I reread a lot of it last year, I think, maybe earlier this year, and it was… definitely a comic book. I dig Ron Lim, though.

  16. I liked District X, but lost track of Bishop (i.e. stopped reading X-books) after that. Baby maybe-Phoenix being bad? Sounds way more interesting than what I’ve read about the X-books. At least he died in X-Men, so he can come back any time.

    Yeah, X-Men 2099 was exactly the kind of comic I wanted to read in my early teens. It was also the last time I liked Lim’s art. I don’t know what happened after that, or if my tastes just changed. Seems his work got looser after that, maybe he had a better inker on that series.

  17. @david brothers: Did they even get around to explaining WHY Bishop thought Hope was so dangerous and why he thought he could convince everyone of that fact?

  18. Dan, not really…although at one point they did have Bishop do classic supervillain speak as to why he had to do it….

    ….which of course made NO sense given his history prior to Second Coming and also that his storyline was essentially done (and the X-storyline that made the most sense) during the Onslaught Saga.

    As to the Storm thing, I like the idea of her character however that is a far cry from the love I used to have for her when she first debuted to my comic reading. As I have grown in my sensibilities, I see her akin to a Will Smith circa 2004-2005 or a Halle Berry… a “safe” black character for the masses… but out of touch with being “black”…

    If that makes sense?

  19. @Dan Coyle: I thought they declared Hope the reason that mutants were locked up in Bishop’s future. They showed that future briefly in X-Factor, called the event the Six Minute War, or something like that.

    Of course since Bishop’s future was created by onslaught I hope they retcon him into being an alternate Bishop who replaced the one who’d been around since the 90’s.

  20. […] Comics | “There are more stories to be told, so stop telling these tired old tales.” [4thletter!] […]

  21. “That’s the narrative about Japan: It’s cool and different and weird and charming. Which is patronizing and ignorant.”

    This is something that I’ve really struggled with, especially in trying to explain it to others. There’s this real sense of “No, no, it’s okay, because look at all these examples of hilarious Engrish on the internet!” I really got a load of that when I tried to complain about my biggest sore point of Final Crisis, the Super Young Team. Heck, I’ve been guilty of it in the past until I talked to my Japanese friends about it. Their view it as Japanese that can actually speak English in the same light as Americans do that can actually read Japanese and knows that hypothetical tattoo doesn’t REALLY mean happiness like you think it does. Sure, it looks cool, but people in the know think it’s kinda stupid. So to give every character a name like “Most Excellent Superbat” is kinda like giving every American character a kanji tattoo. It’s kinda insulting.

  22. I remember the librarian in my elementary school reading the Addie book when this to us when it first came out. It was actually my first exposure to the idea of slavery.

  23. @Jason: Maybe, but the way Swierczynski wrote Bishop initially it seemed like he was building toward some crazy shock reveal that would be a huge game changer… because Alonso’s all about that shit, the WHATTA TWIST! thing, which is why he’s such a Daniel Way fan, because Way’s all about WHATTA TWIST!

    But no twist came in this case. I think Axel forgot or something.

  24. Yeah, I was about to give you a piece of my mind for linking to a Tucker Stone-esque bile spew in Wolkin’s Ragman essay there, but it really did become something great, especially the end. I guess there can never be a Jewish character who doesn’t have anything to do with the Holocaust or Call Your Mother™ guilt. It’s pretty stupid, especially in comics, which were largely molded into what we know them today by us Jews.

  25. Hey speaking of ‘ol Tuck, anyone notice how he completely disappeared up his own ass in that review of Osborn?

  26. What does Tucker Stone have to do with anything in this post?

  27. All I have to add is that when you play “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” back-to-back with “On Coming From a Broken Home, you can hear the years AND the mileage in Gil Scott-Heron’s voice.

  28. @Lugh: I can’t possibly imagine how you read the first half of my post as Tucker-esque bile-spewing. Tucker writes coherently. And if I could write like him, I absolutely would.

  29. @david brothers: Nothing. I was just using him as an example of a style of comic blogging that I’m particularly tired of right now. Just venting my spleen.

    @Dan Coyle: That’s what I’m talking about. He was completely on the money about Ellis, but that review, ugh. I kept thinking about that essay David Uzumeri wrote a couple years ago on Funnybook Babylon about how snark is the most important thing online these days.

  30. @david brothers:
    Sorry for the late reply, finals and all. I feel kind of like an idiot when you answer my paragraphs with one sentence that just makes sense.