Archive for the 'black history month ’09' Category


Black History Month ’09 #28: You Can’t Stop Us Now

February 28th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

On Illmatic, Nas breaks off the intro to N.Y. State of Mind to say, “I don’t know how to start this.” There’s a pause, and with a “yo,” he goes on to kick five minutes of sublime lyrics. It’s not a studio gimmick or a punch-in. It’s real life. This little snippet of time, maybe three seconds at most, is Illmatic in miniature. It’s the biography of the young black male: simultaneously brilliant and unsure, arrogant and nervous, full of potential and lacking at the same time.

It’s a line that brings to mind Loop Hughes of 100 Bullets. Before the events of the series, he was the son of a single mother, running with faceless nobodies, and drifting through life. He had a life, but it was half of one. He was going nowhere.

Eventually, he meets his father, thanks to a nudge from Agent Graves, and that puts him on some kind of a road. He absorbs knowledge and experience from his father like a sponge. After his father dies, he learns that his father was respected a great deal by hard men, and he learns another lesson.

Over the course of the series, Loop pays attention to things and keeps learning. He’s trained in prison by a man with no conscience, and when they get out, he’s connected to more men who knew his father. As time goes on, he learns about life and killing. He’s a sponge.

Finally, toward the end of the series, he’s in a situation that is the ultimate mexican standoff. Two of the men involved have no interest in solving it any way but one. Loop sees another solution and takes it, trusting that things will align as they should. And they do. It’s another Illmatic line. “Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours.”

There’s a lot that I like about Loop, and a lot that I can relate to. I know about having a single mother. I know about being aimless. I know about needing a push to reach greatness. I can identify with Loop’s rise over the course of 100 Bullets, because it resembles my own.

Illmatic’s message is, at least in part, about potential. You are sitting at the top of a hill and full of potential energy. You can either waste that energy and fall, or you can spend it and soar. The thing that I, and a lot of people like me, understand is that the potential within me is limitless. The older I get, the more I realize I can do. Everything I’ve ever decided to do, I’ve done and done well. When someone asks me “Whose world is this?” the only appropriate response is “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”

At the same time, that arrogance only goes so far. Sometimes you have to sit back and whisper, “I don’t know how to start this.” You start out on the back foot, so you’ve got to worry about how you look to others and make sure that you’re on point. The moment you screw up, you become a statistic, a stereotype, typical, and generally just another reason for people to go “Ugh, I knew it.” There’s that little voice in the back of your head that says that you aren’t good enough, and never will be.

Once you get past that, the world is yours.

Loop’s been on my mind a lot lately, for both the reasons I mention above and the fact that 100 Bullets is about two weeks away from ending as I type. When I went to New York Comic-con, I had a chance to get a sketch from Eduardo Risso, artist of 100 Bullets. I thought about it for a moment and realized that I needed a sketch of Loop. So I got it.

Loop Hughes, by Eduardo Risso

I currently have two things on my wall. One is a page of original art from Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, featuring John Henry waking up from being lynched and walking off into the darkness to do what needs to be done. The other is the classic Muhammad Ali poster “First Minute, First Round,” with a triumphant Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston. The other is going to be this piece by Risso of Loop.

I’m very picky about what I put up on my walls. It’s got to have some special meaning to me or represent something, rather than just being a hot piece of art. Ali is the arrogance that is necessary, John Henry is about purpose and drive, and Loop is about potential.

It’s 2009. I’m 25 years old, and the world is mine.

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Black History Month ’09 #27: Life Is Illmatic

February 27th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Today is a short one. It’s from Icon #30, by Dwayne McDuffie and MD Bright. They say my overall point much better than I could, so I’m going to keep my talking to a minimum.

Really, though- I hope DC does right by Milestone. The company, its legacy, and its characters deserve to be done properly.

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Black History Month ’09 #26: The Message

February 26th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Even though I have problems with some of the treatment of black characters in comics, I think that things are looking better than they ever have. There are more black headliners, more black characters, and better stories featuring those characters than there were years ago. Vertigo, once the stronghold of stories aimed at goths, published Sentences and the Papa Midnite book, in addition to expanding to the point where they’ve got an entire line based around crime fiction. Marvel seems committed to treating Black Panther as a major player in terms of both stories and real world stature.

I don’t think that things are perfect, not by any means, but things are getting better. I still want to hear more black voices, see black characters that aren’t introduced and shuffled off to the sidelines or the background, and stories that do more than paying lip service to the idea of black culture.

It’s a cliche to say that “black history is American history,” but it’s true. America would not be the country it is today without the input of black people, be it forced or voluntary. Slavery led to economic prosperity, but contributions from black people didn’t end there. There’s the Harlem Renaissance, slavery-era literature, 20th century music, novels, movies, and dozens of others. You don’t have to dig very deep at all to find something of value.

I’d like to be able to say the same about comics. Milestone is back in what could be the perfect time for its resurgence. A company that blazed trails in portrayal of non-white characters, transgender characters, and coloring can go from a well-regarded footnote to actually having the stature and respect it deserves. Gay characters in comics don’t begin with Perry Moore and end with Northstar. Islam in comics didn’t start with GW Bridge or The 99. There’s a lot out there that has gone forgotten simply because the material isn’t easily accessible.

There are a bunch of extremely talented black artists out there who will one day be up there with the greats. There’s fascinating panel designs, fusions of influences from Kirby to Otomo to Moebius to Tezuka and back again, and new and exciting ways to approach comics. I’m sure that there are plenty of writers waiting in the wings, too, with fresh ideas and perspectives to bring to things.

What do I want out of blacks in comics? I’ve got a list of things. I’d like to see black characters on an even keel with white ones, more research, more variety, and more respect.

Really though, two words: good stories.

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Black History Month ’09 #25: Re-Definition

February 25th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Bishop had the strange position of being one of exactly two black X-Men when I was big into the comics. He was on the cover of the first issue of Uncanny X-Men I paid for with my own money (I remember this because it was behind the counter on a display as the first appearance of Bishop.) and he seemed pretty cool. Whilce Portacio made him look pretty mean and scary, and his power was, and is, dope.

But, he doesn’t work all the way for me. It isn’t that he’s inauthentic or not “black” enough or whatever– he’s from the future. It’s also not necessarily his origin or his underlying story. The X-Traitor stuff was fascinating, his ties to Gambit were interesting (the Boysenberry pie scene from X-Men is still one of my all-time favorites), and the hero worship he originally had for the X-Men was really very cool.

He just hasn’t clicked yet. He’s been through a few different variations. His original version is probably the most interesting to me, though the costume and hair left much to be desired. The idea of the X-Men living on into the future and inspiring people even then is, well, inspired. It’s a nice twist on the idea of a superheroic legacy, and Bishop being awestruck the first time he meets Storm or Cyclops was fun. There’s an unspoken undertone of authoritarianism to the whole works that adds a bit of sauce, too. After a while, he just turned into a generic X-Hero, but it was interesting while it lasted.

Bishop went through Age of Apocalypse and ended up with his mind turned inside out. He tripped from that into Onslaught and a series of increasingly uninteresting adventures that went from New York to the future to outer space and back again. When he landed, Claremont reinvented him as a bald detective guy, which could have been an interesting idea. Instead, it turned Bishop into a generic guy who makes deductions and sometimes fast-talks cops. District X was a series which threw Bishop into the midst of Mutant Town, New York, but it was similarly bland.

Messiah Complex added a new wrinkle to Bishop’s past. It explained that the dystopia he hails from was caused by a certain mutant baby. Messiah Complex was essentially a crossover that is at least in part about Bishop trying to kill a baby. This situation escalated in Cable’s solo series, where Bishop is chasing Cable and that baby through time.

While it’s actually kind of a gross-sounding hook on paper, I think it would have been way more interesting if Bishop were presented as at all sympathetic. If the baby actually did cause the death of millions, then Bishop is genuinely trying to do the right thing and you have a real dilemma. Instead, Bishop is eliminating entire eras in his attempt to pop the baby. It makes him pretty unlikeable, I think, on top of the whole “I need to kill this baby” thing.

Bishop’s a character that I want to like, but, like Nightwing, he’s never had a Frank Miller come along and turn him on his head and make him interesting. He’s run through a gauntlet of characterizations at this point, and none of them really seem to click. He’s always missing something. He needs a good hook and a good arc to make him worthwhile.

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Black History Month ’09 #24: Ready for Whatever

February 24th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’ve always liked Robbie Robertson. He’s both reminiscent of my grandfather and basically the prototype for a successful black supporting character, for good or for ill.

Robbie is, at his heart, a surrogate father figure. He was the only kind man who worked at the Bugle for ages, and served as both a confidante and a source of advice for Peter Parker. In essence, he was the conscience of the Daily Bugle and, to a certain extent, the Spider-Man comics themselves.

The thing about Spider-Man is that he’s extraordinarily self-absorbed, even by superhero standards. That’s the thing that made One More Day work as an idea (not as a story) for me. Peter takes everything personally, and what he can’t take personally he takes on his shoulders. Robbie is there to be that voice of reason that Peter so desperately needs. He provides perspective to a guy who clearly has no sense of it.

Robbie’s got a kind of soft-spoken intelligence that isn’t all that common in comics. Reading between the lines makes it clear that he knows that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are one and the same, but he never brings it up or calls in a favor. He just understands that Peter is fundamentally a good kid at heart and wouldn’t do it without a good reason.

At the same time, he provides a valuable check against J Jonah Jameson’s worst excesses. He’s there to tell him when he goes to far, and he’s there when Jonah has a rare moment of vulnerability. He’s a mentor to most of the Daily Bugle’s staff, as he’s a veteran news man who knows his way around both the business and ethics.

Deep down, though, there is steel. His hard line on ethics is due to a failure early in life, when he squashed a story after a beating by Lonnie “Tombstone” Lincoln. He’s encountered him a few times since, and stood up straight. He used to race cars as a child, too, showing him to be a bit more street smart than you’d expect. He seems like a gentle professor or a grandfather, but everyone was a kid once, and kids get into trouble.

I know a lot of people think of J Jonah Jameson as being the best supporting Spider-Man character, but really, Robbie is where it’s at. Jonah’s got one note and very little range. Robbie has range. For my money, Robbie is the best supporting character, with Mary Jane close behind him. Robbie’s a rock for anyone who needs it.

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Black History Month ’09 #23: We Gonna Make It

February 23rd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

One thing that is vital in expecting blacks in comics to get better is having black voices in comics. Off the top of my head, we have three black writers regularly getting work at the big two right now: Kevin Grievoux, Dwayne McDuffie, and Reggie Hudlin. Christopher Priest is retired. There are a good number of artists out there, but artists generally don’t get to decide the stories of the books.

Something Spike Lee makes it a point to do is to employ up and coming and already famous black actors. If you’re going to pull from the community, you might as well give some back, right? So, his movies over the years are a who’s who of black actors and, to a lesser extent, Spike’s friends. In an industry which has made a habit of ignoring black voices, Spike has been an island who pushes the other side as hard as he can.

In doing so, he’s put forth the idea that the black voice is just as valid and interesting as the default Hollywood voice. Though he was robbed for the Best Picture for Malcolm X, he’s kept at it and kept making sure that someone out there is keeping that voice going.

I’m not sure why black writers in comics are so rare, but there’s a similar situation with women. Louise Simonson, G Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kathryn Immonen are the first names that come to mind when I think of “women writers at the big two.” Interestingly (or perhaps not), I can’t think of a single black female.

Anyway, a side-effect of the lack of these voices is a lack of representation in the books themselves. You end up having a black experience as told by outsiders. The “black story,” such as it is, ends up filtered and probably even unrealistic. At one point, I had a list of Marvel superheroes who were either born in, operated out of, or had serious ties to Harlem. I don’t have the list any more, but off the top of my head, there’s Black Panther, Falcon, Storm, Robbie Robertson, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Tombstone, and Randy Robertson. That’s basically all of Marvel’s biggest black names right there, so I’m not exactly making things up here.

And I mean, no knock on Harlem at all, but I’m pretty sure black people are from other parts of New York City, or even the rest of the country. I do believe that Rocket Racer is from Brooklyn, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only fan of RR alive. What about the black folks from the south? Brother Voodoo has Haiti and NOLA on lock, but what about Atlanta? Texas? Where are they at?

An infusion of black writers wouldn’t have more of a negative effect on comics than hiring a bunch of new white guys would. You’d be more likely to see authentic or different stories about black people, which I think is only a good thing. Even better, hiring good black writers can only lead to good things.

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Black History Month ’09 #22: Shake This

February 22nd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I really like Adam Warren’s Empowered. I’ve been a fan of his since Gen13, and Empowered, though pretty pervy, is one of the best superhero comics out. I can’t get enough of it. Though the art would make you think that it’s a T&A-focused title, and that isn’t necessarily untrue, the book has the kind of character work and evolution you don’t usually see in mainstream books. There’s no chance of a character suddenly reverting to a personality from decades ago because it’s Warren’s own work. You end up with well-rounded characters who can go through surprising changes.

One of the more interesting characters in the book is Sistah Spooky. She’s a black member of the Superhomeys, which is basically the premier super-team of the Empowered universe. Empowered is her rival, for lack of a better word. Here’s a few pages that basically explain their relationship. Scans mildly NSFW.


This thing that’s afflicting Spooky is something that I think affects all black people on a certain level. For years, though things have changed to an extent now, white was the default race in pop culture. Cartoons starred almost exclusively white people, and what black people existed were either sidekicks or garbage (Black Vulcan). TV and movies showed white people as the main characters, even if they lived in the middle of New York City. You never see anyone like you in a position of positivity.

This sets up a series of domino effects. If all you see are white heroes, white women presented as beautiful, white people as upstanding members of society, and very few black people of substance, it associates the idea of “white is right” in your head. This ties into the trend of black guys getting rich and going for white girls, black girls who hate their hair and their skin, and bias against people lighter or darker than you are. I’m always surprised when non-blacks tell me they didn’t know about intra-race racism. The darker you are, the further from white you are, the less good you are.

I find this video fascinating, and it helps illustrate my point very well:

If you want to see the full video (yes, you do, even if you think you don’t want to) you need to click this link and spend 7:15 on Youtube 4:50 is heartbreaking.

And I mean, that’s the long and short of it. It isn’t anything malicious. There aren’t evil marketers out there wearing Klan robes and planning on turning a little black girl into a roiling ball of self-hatred and no self-esteem. It’s how things have shaken out. It’s the saddest thing in the world. It’s that first couple verses of Saul Williams’s Black Stacey.

I remember being a kid (and this is something that I’m ashamed of and disappointed in myself for now) and being very uncomfortable in my own skin. I’d go to sleep daydreaming about having hair like Zach Morris or the other white guys on TV or in comics. When they’d jump or flip their hair would bounce. My hair didn’t even do that after I got dreads. It was too nappy, too thick, and too black. Even trying to dye my hair is an ordeal.

Ever heard of somebody who “got that good hair?”

Nowadays, I hate that I felt that way. It’s so stupid and ignorant and juvenile, but I didn’t know any better. I just knew what was cool and handsome and wanted to be like that. I realize now that I’d bought into something I shouldn’t have. It was self-hate, and it’s disgusting, but I was a child. Children learn quickly and absorb knowledge like sponges. I didn’t know why I had those feelings, but I knew that I had them. It burned.

If I had to pin a name on it, it’s an implanted inferiority complex. These implications are never stated outright, but they build up inside your brain like cholesterol. This kind of thing can ruin a person without them even realizing it. Even recognizing it can, rather than opening your eyes, smother you in bitterness. It’s really an amazing trap. Not recognizing it can destroy what you could have been, and recognizing it can do the exact same thing.

It’s what Sistah Spooky fell prey to above.

Cheryl Lynn of Digital Femme is a big fan of Empowered. When I mentioned that I was writing about Spooky, she hit me with a few comments that I wanted to address here.

But what’s so sad about [Sistah Spooky] is that she never had to make a deal with the devil. She would have been hot anyway. When she loses her powers and reverts in the last Empowered volume, none of the bystanders make any mention of ugliness, they only mention how young she is. She would have likely grown up to be that same beauty, she just couldn’t see her own potential, which is a running theme in the book, actually.

Cheryl says it better than I can. Sistah Spooky, and everyone else who has fallen prey to this kind of self-hatred, had no idea of her own potential. But, because she’d lived a lifetime of seeing bottle blondes held up as the only standard of beauty, that idea had set inside her mind. She was blind.

And that’s what makes this self-hatred thing so terrible. It makes you blind to your own worth and potential. How are you supposed to even suspect that you’re beautiful when every standard of beauty around you says the opposite? You don’t even get a chance.

Again from Cheryl:

What’s really interesting is that SS could have easily made herself white and blonde. She could have taken the Lil’ Kim route and didn’t. Why not?

I have an idea, though it’s half-conjecture and half-wish fulfillment. I figure that going the full Lil’ Kim route is giving up completely. It’s taking what Spooky was and could have been and throwing it into the trash. By keeping herself black, Spooky was making a statement. If the world were fair and everyone was on an even keel, she could be just as pretty as the rest. While taking the deal, she’s giving in, but she isn’t giving up, if that makes any sense at all. She made a concession, but she drew a line in the sand and said “no further.”

I’d like to think that it was her subconscious telling her that to go further than she did would be committing a great sin against herself. Like I said… conjecture.

This sort of implanted self-hate is one of the reasons why I care so much about seeing black faces in comics. How are you supposed to shake this off you if you never know about an alternative?

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Black History Month ’09 #21: Ether

February 21st, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’m trying to figure out how to approach this one. I almost didn’t want to talk about it because it seems like such a “No duh” situation to me, but I have clearly missed something.

Noted comics writer Bill Willingham recently wrote an essay in which he responded to Attorney General Eric Holder’s position that we’re a nation of cowards in terms of discussion and treatment of race. Holder’s speech (transcript here) says, boiled down, “use black history month to genuinely discuss race and learn from each other, instead of self-segregating.”

From Willingham’s own mouth:

According to the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, speaking today at the Justice Department, we’re a nation of cowards because we don’t talk about race enough. I have several responses to that grotesque statement, most of which aren’t printable. But I will say this much: If the past discussions about race in which I’d participated (voluntarily and otherwise) didn’t always – not often, not most of the time, but always – devolve into name calling, where I was denounced as a racist (usually as a starting point for said conversation), then I might today be more willing to continue to have discussions on the subject. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In my experience, anyone who doesn’t immediately and enthusiastically subscribe to the idea that all American whites are active oppressors against other races is an irredeemable racist. Of course if you do agree you’re still a racist, just one of the self confessed variety.

In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I’m apparently also a misogynist, a homophobe, and a Nazi, this according to folks (some of whom were friends and colleagues) upon finding out that I have problems with feminism, gay marriage, and gun control. There were other accusations I could list, given time, but the truth is such incidents are too common and never important enough to be worth devoting too much of my time and memory.

Willingham is running into a lot of things here, among them extremism, either/or politics, and (wait for it) cowardice. He also makes a lot of statements (“Name-calling is the proprietary weapon of the left. There’s no equality of blame, no comparison. We on the right aren’t “just as bad.”“) that are just completely stupid to anyone with half a brain and indefensible to those with a full one. I’m going to stick to the first three, however.

Extremists exist on both “sides” of the political spectrum. The people who scream about how Bush is Hitler is no different from the people who suggest that single mothers are the downfall of society. I find DailyKos just as aggravating as Ann Coulter. These are the people who are going to shout at you for thinking differently and they exist on both sides of the aisle. News flash: jerks are jerks, and will be jerks according to their opinions.

Just to give Willingham the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to assume that he’s talking about outrage-based discussion. When something bad or offensive happens, people blog/talk/write about it and either discuss their outrage that it happened or suggest ways to fix it or ensure that it never happens again. I can see how that would be daunting to join that discussion, as it involves a lot of raised emotions, anger, and pure helplessness.

If every discussion you’ve ever had about race has ended in name-calling, you’re either a racist or arguing with fools. You aren’t going to get in touch with extremists of any stripe. The people who matter, and the people who actually think about things, are the people in-between. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people who were racist in thought and deed, and I’d like to think that we both came away better for it. When Holder said that we need to do better in discussing race, this is what he was talking about. A frank exchange of ideas.

Building on that point, I think it’s important to say that I disagree with either/or politics in general. I think that reducing someone’s political views to Repub/Dem or Liberal/Conservative is a loser’s game at best, as no one is actually that simple. I’m conservative or liberal on some things, but not others. My grandparents run conservative, but they voted Obama. Politics isn’t as easy as black and white, and approaching it on that level, and only that level, just means that you lost before you even started. It isn’t just liberals who want to discuss race. There are plenty of conservatives who care about equality and becoming truly integrated. Caring about race, or even just talking about it occasionally, doesn’t make you liberal.

The main thrust of Willingham’s post, however, is that since people were mean to him when discussing race (or other “liberal” issues), he is going to take his ball and go home. He isn’t going to discuss it with liberals because they have no interest in reasoned discourse and are only interested in name-calling. He’s only going to discuss it with those who are interested in actually speaking. While I can understand the spirit of the sentiment (you can’t get through to some people), the way he’s applied it is extraordinarily myopic. Anyone can tell that both sides descend to name-calling on a near-daily basis, but for some reason, only liberals count? But, okay, let’s treat it as if it were a reasonable choice.

The problem with making that choice is that it makes you a coward. Someone hurt your feelings by calling you a name, so you are going to tighten up and kick the dirt and flip over the chess table and kick the ball over the fence and go home, because screw them. Making that choice, and making a point to explain your position in opposition to Holder’s speech, makes you a coward.

Holder’s position is that people are still too tight-lipped about race. Not even racism: just race. This isn’t an indictment of conservatives or liberals. It’s an indictment of both. There is too much shouting and not enough listening going on. When your idea of a reasonable response is to go “I’m not listening, because screw them,” you lost. That’s a child’s reaction.

At the same time, if you’re that scared to talk about race, maybe you should pump your brakes and just sit in the corner while grown folks talk at the grown up’s table. Race isn’t something you can boil down to right and wrong, so it is something that is difficult to talk about. It’s easy to screw up on either side of the argument, and race is sensitive enough that screw-ups can be intensely frustrating.

Okay. That’s fine. That’s why Holder says, “[A]n unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force.” You should discuss race because it is something that impacts all of our lives, and until we push through it, we can neither get past it nor understand it. Holder wants the races to talk to each other and share. I think that’s an admirable goal, and it’s one I’ve discussed over and over this month. Conversation is key. We’re not that different from each other, but we are different.

Bill Willingham lost. He fell right into Holder’s trap. Holder says that people don’t honestly talk about race enough, and put up so many barriers that race has remained a touchy subject for far too long. Willingham’s response? “Nuh-uh, don’t even talk to me.”

I’ve had people tell me that they don’t talk about race because they know that they’ll just screw it up or because they don’t have anything to bring to the table. And you know what? That’s a fair and intelligent response. Being able to recognize your own shortcomings is just taking responsibility. Some people don’t know how to dig in and get their hands dirty, and recognizing that fact is something to be respected.

But, being that guy that’s like “I’m not a racist, but people keep calling me one, so screw liberals and forget any idea of talking about racism?” That makes you a coward.

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

February 20th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

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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Black History Month ’09 #19: Bridging the Gap

February 19th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

A book that I’m enjoying quite a bit is Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s Unknown Soldier from DC’s Vertigo imprint. I first found Dysart via Mike Mignola’s BPRD series, and Ponticelli’s entirely new to me. Together, the two of them have created one of the more interesting books to come out of DC Comics in more than a few years.

Previously, the Unknown Soldier was just that- an unknown soldier. Depending on the version, his identity was kept secret from the characters he interacted with or even the reader. He was often tied to World War II, but the new one is more closely associated with the war-torn land of Uganda.

It stars Dr. Moses Lwanga, a normal man and relief worker who has come to Uganda with his wife. He’s a good man, and a kind one, but this kindness backfires when he runs out of the camp to help someone and is ambushed by child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army. A voice whispers in his ear and he knows exactly what he has to do in order to kill the children and save his life. He does it and is immediately overcome with despair. He destroys his face with a rock and lays down to bleed to death.

After a curious series of events, Moses has found himself in a situation where he is traveling under a false name and danger lurks around every corner. Eventually, push comes to shove and he has to listen to that little voice in his ear to survive, even if surviving means the death of multiple children by his own hand. Add in the trials of Moses’s wife, who does not know what happened to him or where he is, and you have a startling picture of modern-day Uganda.

Unknown Soldier, when it’s on, is a gripping comic. The end of the first issue is a pretty good depiction of despair and fear as any, and was what originally hooked me on the series. Dysart has clearly done his homework, as both the work and his supplemental material shows. Ponticelli’s art isn’t realistic in a Bryan Hitch kind of way, but still does a great job of getting across exactly what it needs to. The violence is ugly, wounds look painful, and damage goes further than “ripped shirt, scuffed cheeks, bloody nose.” When Moses destroys his face, there’s a panel where the rock catches on his lips. “Beautiful” is the wrong word for it, but it’s a little touch like that that sells the book.

I think that if Unknown Soldier keeps up, and the quality stays high, it could be one of those classic Vertigo books that really captures people’s hearts. It’s not high fantasy for dreary goths, and it isn’t an irreverent spin on American culture. It’s just the story of a man who is up against a wall, knows exactly what to do to escape, but finds the solution so reprehensible that he can barely stand to do it.

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