Vincent S. Moore Presents:
A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own Part One:
As promised last week, I will devote the next three columns to my musings and ramblings on race, comics, and fantastic fiction. In truth, I do not know if any problems within the rank and file of the comics industry will be solved by this series. Or if I will reach some kind of deeper truth by exploring this topic. I will raise more questions than I will answer. And I may come back to this subject again and again, as my negritude shows no signs of leaving me. Yet this is something I need to say once and for all, something that has come up in many conversations with friends within and without the comics industry.
The overall title of the series obviously borrows from Virginia Woolf’s classic essay, “A Room Of Her Own.” I had thought to reread the essay in preparation for writing my own. I decided against it in the end as I didn’t want to be too influenced by her ideas and thoughts. However, I still remember the premise: that women writers have had little to no support from society as a whole, that any anger or other such emotions that lack of support may end up coloring a woman’s writing to the point of rendering such efforts moot and useless, and that it would only be if a woman had enough financial freedom to create her own space--a room of her own--could she be able to create works of writing without having to fight the fights of her gender.
At least that’s how I remember it. College was a long time ago. I’m sure someone will correct me if I got it wrong.
The 40 acres and a mule spin on Woolf’s title comes from Special Field Orders #15 which granted freed slaves land to possibly build a future live upon. The facts that the amount of land granted was a quarter of a quarter section of the then standard size of a homestead and that the order was revoked by Abraham Lincoln’s successor, leaving the slaves with nothing to build a future upon says a lot about the American character in such circumstances. The phrase itself has come to mean the promise of reparations denied yet desired nonetheless. I’m choosing to think of the mule and the 40 acres as that space Woolf talked about as well as the ability to stand on one’s own, to be one’s own person.
My essays are inspired by Woolf’s but not fully beholding to hers, as there are plenty of works of African American fiction on bookstore shelves as I write this. Yet black comics are few and far between. Why is that and what can be done about it? Those ideas are what I hope to explore this week and in the weeks to follow.
The subtitle for this week’s installment comes from the biography of Reginald Lewis, America’s first black billionaire, “What Should White Guys Have All The Fun?” Mr. Lewis said the title to his grandmother in answer to her question about what he wanted to do when he grew up in the face of discrimination. It reflects my own feelings about the disparity between some of my favorite heroes. Disparity that goes beyond genre. Disparity that goes beyond mere race.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado . . .
Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?
Growing up I had so many heroes.
Mostly of the four color kind.
Heroes like Superman with his powers greater than those of us ordinary mortals. And Flash Gordon, saving the Earth from the threat of Ming The Merciless while winning the heart of his beloved Dale Arden. And Doc Savage and his Amazing Five, crisscrossing the world to fight evil in all its forms and help those in need. And Doctor Who whose adventures spanned space and time. And many, many others.
These heroes on TV, on movie screens, and in comics and books filled my imagination with possibilities and wonders and magic all throughout my childhood and still into my adulthood.
In addition to the joy these characters brought, there is one other important factor to their make up:
They are all white.
And I was a black, middle class kid growing up in Los Angeles in the decade of the 1970s.
Oh, sure, I had black heroes I loved as well.
My father was my first and last hero, for finding himself in the rare position of raising his two sons after his divorce. But there was also John Shaft that bad motherfucker, the black private dick who was the sex machine to all the chicks. And Priest from Superfly, the dude who had the plan to beat The Man. And Black Belt Jones, kicking ass and taking names and getting all the ladies. And other blaxploitation heroes.
And even the Black Panther when I finally encountered Jack Kirby’s run on the character. Oh, the wonders and magic there was to be found in those crazy and wild Kirby pages.
Yet, for as far out as comics could be in those days or even nowadays, the kinds of adventures Kirby sent the Panther on was a rarity. During the 70s it was more common to see Luke Cage chasing down Doctor Doom to collect money owed and fight various ghetto crime lords ad infinitum than it was to see him doing all of the cool things his fellow Marvel Universe characters were doing. Even a very short stint in the Fantastic Four did little to take a black man were none had gone before in comics.
As I grew older, it dawned on me the black heroes never did any of the really cool things the white heroes did. Travel through time? Only the white heroes. Save the world? Only the white heroes. Be the best at everything? Only the white heroes.
It dawned upon me that black heroes were limited in ways the white ones weren’t. But I never understood why. Was it difficult or even impossible for the predominantly white writers and artists to imagine black heroes being just as or, heaven forbid, even more powerful and knowledgeable than the white heroes? When I was a kid, my father often joked the lack of black people on shows like Star Trek was the white writers imagining there were fewer black folk in the future, that they weren’t planning on our being there. I couldn’t believe that as a child yet as an adult, standing in my local comics shop and knowing what I know about the comics business, I wonder if he was right all along.
I hope not.
But, still, the question lingers in my mind:
Why should the white guys have all the fun?
I don’t know why that would be the case. Yet it is. Which is very sad. Especially considering the times in which we live.
For the better part of the last two decades, the audience for American comics has been shrinking. At a time when comics of all kinds are everywhere, where comics have become media darlings and have entered the mainstream of American culture, whether it be superheroes, artcomix, or manga, the number of readers who frequent the independent comics shops continues to drop. Top selling books that break 100,000 are lauded as if they were box office champs earning $100 million plus. Numbers that five or ten years ago would have found a book being canceled with no questions asked are accepted as average sales. The audience is grower older and even dying off, with no signs of replacements coming into the comics shops.
You would figure that being faced with those facts and those numbers, the major comics companies would be doing whatever it takes to grow new audiences. Some initiatives are being done, of course, such as DC’s Minx line and Marvel’s adaptations of literary works such as The Dark Tower and Anita Blake. Those efforts are going well and are reaching new audiences. But what about the large black and hispanic audiences out there? Both groups are massive consumers. Both groups are in need of positive images, a need that would appear to be a perfect match for that segment of the comics industry that does heroic fiction the best. Yet those groups are being ignored. Even though magazines such as Smooth and King have covered comics-related products in the past and present, no effort has been made to reach out to those readers or to create characters that might bring that desperately needed new audience into the comics shops.
One of the reasons given as to why is that “black” books don’t sell in the comics marketplace.
The recent cancellation of the new Firestorm book could be used as an example of this long held industry axiom. Or the difficulties in maintaining a series featuring the Black Panther, something Christopher Priest has said numerously haunted his run with the character.
But who were Marvel and DC selling these books to?
To potential black readers, reading Vibe or Essence or Ebony or Jet and watching BET and TVOne?
Marvel and DC were selling these books to the same audience they have been selling to for years: a predominantly white male audience. An audience that reacts in knee-jerk fashion to a powerful black hero by claiming it isn’t meant for them or that the contents sight unseen will prove to be anti-white or any of a number of other excuses.
And when the lack of sales to this white fanbase leads to the book’s inevitable cancellation, the feeling is, say it with me, that black books don’t sell.
And so the axiom is proven, QED.
Yet, black comics readers do this funny thing the white ones don’t.
Black comics readers read comics filled with heroes not of their own race, not looking like them, and can accept and even love these white heroes. I can attest to a love of the Fantastic Four that defies logic and has outlasted many a bad creative team on the book. I can transcend and embrace fully all of the white heroes of my youth and then some. All black comics readers do this, whether they recognize these feelings as such or not.
Black comics readers can transcend their race and accept white heroes. Why can’t white comics readers do the same and accept black heroes?
I would hope that this doesn’t mean black comics readers are somehow superhuman in ways whites ones are not. I mean, that would be silly to think so, wouldn’t it?
No, black people are just as human as white people are, despite what a Nobel laureate said and recanted recently. Black people have the same desires and needs as anyone else. We want to see ourselves being heroic and romantic as much as white people do. Is that truthfully so alien to understand? Is it too fearful a thought to think?
It must be because at the end of the day, no matter how many people have marched and fought and died and struggled, the viewpoint of the white male is the default viewpoint. Such a viewpoint is wrong only because it is contrary to the facts. The world isn’t filled with a vast majority of white men, hiding in underground caves that no one else can see, right? That thumping I hear in the night is just opossums, right? Right. So we all live in this world, a rainbow of colors and sexes, peoples of different kinds all mixing together. Acknowledging that, it would only seem fair for heroes of all kinds to be given an equal chance, right?
My friends often tell me I’m a dreamer and an idealist.
Which I am.
Is it too much to ask to see heroes that look like me and so many other black people? To see these heroes be treated the same way the so-called majority white heroes are treated?
In many ways, it must be too much to ask for because too often what we see are anything else but.
Such as the number of Magical Negroes in books and movies. Such as John Coffey in The Green Mile. Or Mother Abigail in The Stand. Or Uncle Remus in The Song Of The South. All there to show those poor white folks the way to truth and light, and if they happen to sacrifice themselves along the way, well, those are the breaks.
Or the colorblind heroes preferred in superhero comics. Like Storm whose negritude is often the last aspect of her character normally discussed or displayed; many of the artist who’ve drawn her in the past showing little to no knowledge of African features. As if tons of photos of Iman or Naomi Campbell are not out there in the ether. Or Bishop whose obvious appearance would mark him as being African American even with the slicked back shag hairstyle, only to have his color be attributed to Aboriginal roots for no good reason. As if the intelligence displayed by Bishop couldn’t have been possible if his background were fully of African origins.
I once wondered to myself and to my business partners, how much negritude is enough to scare off white readers? Apparently any amount that goes beyond the simply rendered brown skin on the comics pages. Any amount that shows pride in being of African origins or shows black heroes not fitting easily into stereotypes.
Speaking of stereotypes, a few years ago Hannibal Tabu and I came up with the Black Superhero Algorithm (http://operative.net/archive/columns/word/15-blackheroorigin.html). In the years since some of the ideas present there have been refuted or adjusted. But the overall facts still remain: a majority of black superheroes fit these patterns. Yet it would be difficult if not impossible to come up with such a model for white superheroes. Why is there such a limited set of variables for black superheroes? Are white comic creators as well as white comics readers merely projecting their own limited understand of black folk onto the comics?
One might be tempted to think so.
Particularly when faced with the concept of those few Black comics creators being accused of racism or racist agendas in their work, if they attempt to do strong black superheroes. Both Reginald Hudlin and Christopher Priest during their respective runs on The Black Panther have been called racists, mostly by white comics readers. An accusation made of Dwayne McDuffie during his current run on the Justice League of America as well. For what? For using European and African history to provide verisimilitude in the case of Hudlin and his early issues of Panther? For having 3 out of 10 members of the JLA be black, a situation inherited from the previous writer, in McDuffie’s case? Did we enter the Bizarro World without my knowledge? Where wanting to create black heroes if you’re black is considered racist by some fans? We must be in the Bizarro World then. Because I don’t understand why writer creators are not accused of racism if they work on books that are nearly all if not entirely white.
Again, I ask, why?
Now, I may idealistic. That does not mean I am naive. For any white person who might be reading this and saying to themselves they are not a racist, it is they who are being naive.
Of course, they are being racist.
Not in the sense of putting Whites Only signs over water fountains or trying to keep black and hispanic students out of their schools.
In the sense of being very pro themselves, which is white.
As I said above, the white male viewpoint is considered the default view. That didn’t come about by accident. There were many factors that led to that view dominating the world. Go read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond to see for yourselves. Many circumstances allowed Europeans to dominate the world in many ways for many, many years. Not that Asians or Africans or various other native cultures were ignorant, but they neither needed to develop, nor had the means to develop, the same way technologically. Yet that difference fed a philosophy that considered those not white to be inferior and those who were white to be superior. Such ideas and thoughts are not going to disappear quickly or easily simply because a few laws have been passed, hands were shook, whole countries have been “freed,” and apologies have been given. It may just be impossible for a white person to fully envision a strong black hero without showing some bias. As much as I love Marv Wolfman for creating Cyborg in The New Teen Titans, the character was the angry black man, with a criminal past and Olympic aspirations, before we learned of his being a genius raised by his scientist parents. This deeper racism--more ethnocentricity, really--may play a part in how a white male mind approaches creating a black superhero. It is not necessarily to blame per se, but neither is it an excuse. Or are such ideas even thought about or discussed.
Discussion that is well nigh-impossible in these days of Political Correctness.
Because white creators use Political Correctness to their advantage when it comes to deal with race.
By hiding behind it when not even attempting to create black heroes or black characters, for fear of offending potential black readers.
By claiming it when a black hero is included, no matter how stereotypical or not given equal time in the spotlight. As if the act of putting one black character onto a superhero team of 8 or 18 members is some great act of being progressive.
And, as I said above, wielding it as a weapon when “too” many black heroes show up or, heaven forbid, no white characters show up. With cries of racism and racist agendas burning up the Internet.
All of which act as ways to ensure that the status quo remains. That the white guys get to have all the fun.
But the world is made up of other skin colors besides white.
And I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
If not for the white heroes I grew up with, I wouldn’t want to create comics and stories of my own, featuring characters that look more like me than not.
In that goal, I am not dissimilar to all the other black creators crafting comics out there.
We all want to create heroes that look like us but have all the fun the white guys have. We don’t want to take anything away from those heroes or from their fans. We black readers and creators really just want to have our space under the sun. We want that mule and 40 acres of our own to create with and to share with everyone. Not to deprive anyone of their creative space.
After all, wasn’t that somebody’s dream once?
I mean, whatever did happen to being judged by the content of one’s character rather than merely by the color of one’s skin?
That sentiment should apply to our heroes as well.
This brings to a close part one of A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own.
Next week, I will bring you folks part two, entitled My People. Not to tip my hand too much as to what I will discuss next time, I will say that I do my best to share the love I started sharing this week.
And I apologize to my regular readers (all two of you!) for running late this week. No CPT jokes, okay. I’m sensitive about such things as you’ve seen.
As always, any questions, comments, rants, and otherwise can be sent to my email address. Please put the name of the column you’re responding to in the subject line or the email will go bye-bye.
Thanks for reading.
See ya next week.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved