Vincent S. Moore Presents:
Bring On The Black Good Guys (And Gals)
I am black.
I am also a comics fan, especially of superhero comics. Although I do try to keep my reading as broad as possible.
Again, that should be no surprise to anyone looking at this website. With a name like Comics Waiting Room, one would hope that I’m some kind of fan or lover of the comics medium.
However, there are times when the being black and the being a superhero fan aspects of my personality clash. Usually it happens when I’m at any comics shop or comics convention. I enter these places and look around and see so many bright colors, so many different kinds of heroes. Unfortunately, I also see that little of that 20th into 21st Century mythology applying to people who look like me. Even as the large scale DC event Blackest Night rolls onto to its epic conclusion, I see so many colors represented by the characters good and bad and ugly participating. Life in so many forms, human, humanoid, and outright alien. Yet the only way I see black at all is in the coloring of the truly bad guys and that’s only because it is used to represent death. As far as I can see the only black -- as in of African descent -- superhero involved is the stalwart John Stewart. Oh, and the alien Fatality who just so happens to be colored like a black person is somewhere in the story. I see plenty of aliens of more colors not seen on this Earth unless you are looking at birds or lizards, but not that many who share my coloring.
And that’s a problem.
Adding to that problem are ideas like the whole Chromatic Comics meme that crossed the internets recently. That somehow applying the boneheaded and wrong-hearted colorblind casting approach used by Hollywood to cover up the inequities of the past to re-imagine many Marvel and DC characters to reflect the many varied hues that make up the human race would someway, somehow make up for the apparent lack of superheroes of color. Just like the Hollywood these folks attempted to emulate, this Chromatic Comics meme not only conveniently ignored that there are a number of heroes of color already in existence, it also treated the lack of colored heroes as something to be solved by giving us poor black and brown and yellow folks essentially hand-me-downs instead of actually bothering to create new heroes. All that does is perpetuate the feeling amongst some but not all white readers and creators that giving equal time and room in the comics game to peoples of color is to be dealt with in the same manner one deals with a noisy, spoiled child.
Yes, as if to say the African American experience or the Hispanic experience or the Asian American experience has been just filled to the top with the overwhelming gifts and the milk of human kindness from White America. That we are like Oliver Twist daring to ask for more gruel, when the one pitiful bowl we were handed should have been enough.
But the Chromatic Comics meme and the responses to it do bring up an important issue in this so-called post-racial America and the ever-browning world at large.
And that is, what accounts for the apparent dearth of black superheroes and brown heroes in genre fiction?
This is a question that has been and will continue to be asked until either it is answered to the satisfaction of those asking or until enough heroes of color are present in comics and pop culture to make continuing to ask such a question look silly and unnecessary. It will also continue to be asked as long as the standard and tired responses continue to be given that do not really answer the question but only push the question down the road to the next person who may or may not answer it.
That standard answer being the lack of “breakout” characters that “transcend” race. That somehow those black heroes that have been created and failed have either been “too ethnic” for white readers or “too embarrassing” for black readers. If this sounds familiar, you are either a long time comics fan of color or you remember Erik Larsen giving pretty much this very answer when asked about black superheroes last year when President Obama was sworn into office. This standard answer is given by the Big Two so often that it almost sounds as if should be considered ex cathedra and sacrosanct.
As you can see, though, I put certain items in quotation marks. That’s because I want to take a closer look at them.
Such as the idea of a “breakout” character. What does that mean? What does it mean to breakout? Break out of what? Perhaps that makes to break out of the limited box black folks often find themselves put into by most of White America. You know that box, the one that says black people are criminals. Or are poor. Or are poorly educated. Is that the box a black superhero has to break out of? Then why do so many of these characters fit into the Black Superhero Algorithm and those are the heroes of which most white superhero readers are fans. And what is the Black Superhero Algorithm? Keep reading.
Now, why is “transcending” race so important? Is this another way of talking about that box I mentioned above? How does somebody transcend their race? Aren’t we all part of the human race, with our differences having more to do with environmental influences than any actual biological factors that would make us separate species? A black man can give blood to a white man without any damage being done. Right? Well, if that’s the case, then this need for black characters to transcend race has to reflect the need for the Euro-Amerocentric reality tunnel to remain as the default setting in comics and genre fiction rather than reality.
Just as saying something is “too ethnic” is code for anything that is of any ethnicity besides that of a generic white and/or WASP background. Just by a character being black or Hispanic is simply too black or too brown and too strong for many but, hopefully, not all white folks. And that is just ethnocentrism at work and play.
So the answer to the question of how much negritude can a character have is none or little to none. That old saw about the mere observable fact of a character being black is enough negritude. Slap on a few stereotypes (you know, being poor, being a criminal, winning the Olympics, etc.) and you have your black superhero. Right?
Except that leads to a character being embarrassing.
Although, I wonder, who is a stereotypical black superhero more embarrassing to: black readers or white creators? As a black person, I can honestly say that America has me so well trained that I will often accept even the most pitiful version of a black character just as long as I can see a black hero in some kind of action. So I would hazard a guess that stereotypical black characters are embarrassing to the white creators who, apparently, create them constantly.
And it’s no wonder those white creators would continue to create such stereotypical characters. After all, it seems to them that being black must only imply a ton of negative images and characteristics, like poverty, laziness, being uneducated, a predilection for violence, et cetera, et cetera. Right?
Given those qualities, who would choose to base a superhero or any other kind of genre hero -- which all too often ends up being an idealized version of humanity anyway -- upon a race associated with the worst traits a human could possess? No one, really. And perhaps that begins to explain the dearth of black superheroes.
Another standard answer given is the limited range of black characters.
After all, when one looks for blacks in genre fiction it is all too common to run into The Angry Black Man and/or Woman. Whether it’s Luke Cage or Blade, Tyr Anasazi from Andromeda or Ronon Dex on Stargate Atlantis, there seems to be no lack of angry black people to go around. (Yeah, yeah, I know my attitude while writing this column reflects some anger of its own. Don’t worry about that. I’ll tackle that in my next column.)
And I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion what I call The Black Superhero Algorithm, more properly known as The Black Hero Origin Algorithm. This simple map of the common traits nearly all black superheroes share was first conceived by Hannibal Tabu and myself years ago. (If you don’t believe me, you can check it out for yourself at http://operative.net/archive/columns/word/15-blackheroorigin.html) In brief, most black superheroes come from poverty, have criminal backgrounds, may have been Olympians (that is, come from a sports background that explains their physical prowess), and are inspired by or derived from an already existing white superhero. That’s it, that’s all.
So, being angry, being poor, playing high amateur level sports, being a former criminal, and looking up to and wanting to emulate white heroes are the only traits needed to define a fictional version of an African American, right? At least it is, according to what one sees on the stands and on television.
We black folk live in the city and out in the country. We are Northerners and Southerners, Westerners and Midwesterners. We are rich and poor and middle class. We are college educated and autodidactic. Black people listen to and make hip hop and rock ‘n roll. Along with many other human activities and characteristics and backgrounds.
The African and African American experience is incredibly varied. No two of us are alike. Unfortunately, the black superhero and black genre hero experience is not.
We black people know all too well the range of our experience.
What keeps white creators from knowing it as well? It’s not like one cannot pick up a copy of Ebony or Jet or Black Enterprise on the newsstands or via Amazon. It’s not like one can’t see Dreamgirls or The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. It’s not like there simply aren’t African American sections in the bookstore that carry books ranging from sistah girrl trash to classics of black literature. It’s not like there aren’t a number of black fans that can be spoken with and interviewed. And what about the usual saw of having black friends?
So what is it?
It’s the continuing belief, conscious and unconscious, in stereotypes about black people being permanent and all encompassing.
It’s also the fear of a “blacklash” falling down upon them if the white creators get the black characters they write and draw wrong.
Those issues are an awful lot with which to cope. And one has to feel sorry for white creators in having to even trouble with attempting to be fair and balanced to the actual reality by featuring characters of color in just as many dimensions as white characters. I imagine they should be forgiven if the task is simply beyond them.
Well, if white creators can’t be expected to create more black superheroes and genre heroes of color correctly or justly, what about black, Hispanic, and Asian creators?
Here I can only speak about black creators best.
Or the seeming lack thereof.
When I first thought about this, the lack of black creators, I wondered if this was a true or false situation.
It is false, given the number of black comics creators, black genre writers, and black comics companies one can locate via the internets and such websites as blacksuperhero.com and africomics.com. Writers like Steven Barnes and Walter Mosley and many others are out there just waiting to be discovered. Folks like Dwayne McDuffie and Jason Pearson work in the comics field. So we black folks are out there, are creating black superheroes and genre heroes.
Yet, it is true to the extent that, as far as the comics industry and comics fandom are concerned, the number of black creators and editors working in mainstream and independent and alternative comics companies is small.
As is typical of the black experience, we are both there and not there. Or not seen as being there, which amounts to the same thing. The black comics and genre creator as the postmodern Invisible Men and Women, per Ralph Ellison.
Besides, are black creators really necessary to guarantee a better range of black characters? Maybe, for the reasons already given as to why white creators don’t easily go beyond their stereotypes of the black experience. Maybe not, because all too often black artists find themselves placed on projects to act as the “negritude judge” for cover the collective asses of white creators and editors. The problem with that is, if a freelance artist is presented with the choice between continuing to receive work from an editor and questioning every inconsistency in the portrayal of a black character, I would bet that artist would choose to keep eating over their racial pride.
Which speaks to another reason for the dearth of black characters. Namely the lack of support of such characters from publishers.
Now, I am mostly focusing on superhero comics here. Which means I’m mainly talking about the Big Two, Marvel and DC here. That by no means lets independent and alternative comics publishers off the hook as they aren’t that much better. And this extends to the world of book publishing as there are still cases of novels featuring black characters whose editors are hoping to bring in a wider audience by putting white photos on the covers. What is that saying about not judging a book by its cover?
Back to the Big Two.
For a number of years, if one attended a comics convention as an aspirant looking to break into the comics game, one might come to the conclusion that the comics industry is basically like any other business or community. Where entrance is controlled by a few. Such a situation ends up being referred to as an Old Boy Network. Well, it could be more fair to refer to the Big Two as an Old (White) Boy Network. One needs only to read some of the stories of Marvel during the 80s by Christopher Priest on his weblog or a recent interview of Trevor Von Eeden in The Comics Journal to learn of the games played at the expense of black creators and editors. Not to mention the attitude, as best expressed last year by now Marvel Vice President Tom Brevoort, that the only real successful characters to be launched by any company are white male characters. If this is just a sampling of the mindset entrenched in the offices of the Big Two, no wonder there are so few black characters. It almost makes one have to be happy with the few that do exist.
Yet, as if this isn’t enough, Marvel and DC all too often take the approach that if they create black characters, the audience will come. And then what? Where is the promotion to black media? Where are the interviews and features in Ebony or Smooth? I mention Smooth because this black men’s magazine regularly reviews comics and graphic novels. Other black magazines will talk about just about anything black if given the chance. So promoting to this outlet would help to bring black audiences to black superheroes. Right?
Oh, yeah, that’s right. Black people don’t go into comics shops. Ergo, Black Books Don’t Sell. Which is what many in the comics industry believe and as I’ve mentioned in other columns. Black Books Don’t Sell. But why is that? I’ll tackle that later on in this column.
So, if Black Books Don’t Sell and if black readers are considered to be only a small percentage of the total audience, then why bother to promote to black media. It won’t do any good.
What about white readers then?
Surely they would support more characters of color. After all, it wasn’t black Americans alone that elected Barack Obama. It isn’t black youths alone that support the hip hop part of the music industry. It’s only natural to assume that the liberal white fans of superheroes and other genres, those folks who say they believe in the IDIC philosophy at science fiction conventions, would be the ones to help some fictional brothers and sisters out, right?
See, another reason for the dearth of black superheroes is the fear of a white backlash. For this is the age of political correctness, where charges of reverse racism are sometimes made by some but not all white folk. If it isn’t black readers giving white creators a hard time for doing black characters badly, then it’s white readers giving anybody a hard time for doing black characters at all.
The very idea of black superheroes and brown genre heroes may be too much for some but not all white fans. It may be too unrealistic to their minds, no matter how liberal and philosophical advanced they may think themselves to be.
White readers may ask: ‘Why does there have to be more black superheroes anyway? Aren’t there enough already?” They may say this all the while conveniently ignoring the vast multitude of white superheroes and genre heroes being published. Or feeling that black characters someway, somehow diminish the field by their presence. One need only to recall some of the message board responses to plans to place a mostly black and brown and yellow membership into the Justice League by Dwayne McDuffie (plans that did not originate with him). Or how the revival of the Milestone Universe didn’t take too long to bring the worst out of the internets. Or how some fans wanted to cry foul when Reggie Hudlin chose to base aspects of his take on the Black Panther on the real history of Europe and America’s involvement in Africa, despite the written record of the impact of slavery and colonialism. I must stop here with examples or else I will turn off my white readers all the more. I believe I’ve made my point.
One last reason for the dearth of black superheroes may simply be indifference from the culture at large to the happenings in pop culture.
For the black superhero may simply be an oxymoron.
After all, Black Is Bad, as seen every night on the evening news in your local town anywhere in America. As well as being celebrated by far too many hip hop albums.
And Black Is Pitiful, as the acclaim and the number of awards being showered upon the movies Precious and The Blind Side appears to show.
And Black Folk Just Don’t Do That. We are not heroic in any field beyond the sports field. That suits plenty of black people who feel it’s just fine to think that way. Being heroic is such a white thing anyway. We have our own version of heroism, see two paragraphs above.
So the idea of a black superhero may be beyond fantasy. It may be too unrealistic. It may be too impossible, as if there was such a concept. Black people being heroic or kind or wise or intelligent or wealthy or powerful or any combination of such traits is just something that does not exist. Pay no attention to that family living in the White House. Or those media giants, one in Chicago and one in Atlanta, that shape public opinion and make lots of money. Those aren’t black people. They are just figments of your imagination. After all, they have transcended race, haven’t they?
Even if the black superhero isn’t an oxymoron, everyone knows that Black Books Don’t Sell. Just as the comics industry knew that Girls Don’t Read Comics. We all know how that belief still holds sway, right? I think it’s time to tell the real truth. The real reason Black Books Don’t Sell is that WHITE FOLKS DON’T BUY NONWHITE BOOKS OR GO TO NONWHITE MOVIES! As long as there is no financial benefit to putting out black superhero comics or creating more black superheroes, then there is no reason to do so. And there is no reason to do so as long as the bulk of white readers feel that anything pro-black is automatically anti-white. Black readers are a minority, just as we are in this country in general. If the bulk of white readers choose to ignore any book featuring any take on black and brown characters that don’t fit their expectations, then that book will fail.
And we know by now what those expectations are.
Those expectations are why Luke Cage is currently enjoying a renaissance while the Black Panther is forever undergoing relaunches and reboots. Luke Cage fits those expectations and the Black Panther does not.
And that’s sad.
What’s sadder is that for some but not all of Black America holds those expectations as well.
Meaning the indifference in the culture at large to black superheroes may ultimately be one thing both White America and Black America can agree upon.
Which is the saddest statement of them all.
Now these are some of the reason I feel may account for the dearth of black superheroes and brown genre heroes.
One may ask, is there anything that can be done to turn the tide?
Perhaps better outreach by the Big Two to bring in new voices and to reach out to new audiences.
Perhaps actually paying full attention to what the audience going into the comics shops and attending comics conventions really looks like across the country as a whole.
Perhaps being brave enough to put the full resources of a company behind a project featuring black and brown characters until it can stand on its own.
Perhaps a bigger and louder (I am aware of the dangers of this tactic) presence online and at shops and shows by black fandom and by aspiring black creators and companies. It isn’t enough to be there. We black fans have to be seen and heard. If it has worked for the feminist fangirls, it can work for us.
And perhaps more thought being applied by non-black creators in creating black characters. For simply making a character black isn’t characterization. It is the sort of laziness black people have found themselves all too often accused of possessing for a couple centuries. I would hope white folks are better than that. After all, nearly all media keeps giving my people and I that very message every minute of every day. Is it wrong?
Ultimately, it may be time that fixes this dearth. America is growing more and more brown and black and yellow. White superhero comics fans and creators and editors are growing older and dying off, only to be replace by a more multiethnic looking group. Superhero films are reaching wider and wider audiences, including people of color of all ages. Simple economic necessity will eventually push comics publishers and publishers of all kinds to, at least, try more black and brown superheroes. It will happen. It can just feel like it is taking far too long for the change to occur.
As our first African American President of the United States has said, change isn’t easy or quick.
And he should know.
And maybe we have to follow his example.
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