Thursday, July 10, 2014

Black and White

White Guy #1

White Guy #2

White Guy #3
Billionaire heir philanthropist playboy civic leader wealthy person

White Guy #4

White Gal #1

Black Guy #1

Black Guy #2


Black Guy #3

Football player

Black Guy #4
Loud Black Lad/fashionisto

Black Gal #1

Now, I'll admit I'm not being entirely fair. Jefferson Pierce became a teacher.  Marines aren't stupid (that's what the Army's for) and Jon Stewart is an engineer.  Plus, I'm omitting such characters as the brilliant technologist John Henry Irons. 

Here's some balance, then:

Bonus Black Guy:
One of the smartest people on the planet

Bonus White Guy:
Klutz/congenital idiot.
And yet...

I still say that for various reasons our society, even if only subconsciously, values black people for their physical prowess and attributes, rather than their intelligence and acumen.  I believe it's a vestige of American slavery, where slaves were valued for their use as laborers.

You could make a case that:
(a) most black characters were created later than most white characters, at a time when heroes were more likely to have humble origins;
(b) if you start including more characters, such as Steel, in the list above, that the disparity between the treatment of white and black characters diminishes; or
(c) as more new characters are created any such imbalance will lessen.

You could make those cases. But I'm not sure I'd buy them.  

You may find my theory about the ingrained "slave labor values" ridiculous or too distasteful to accept. Okay. Then let's pause to look at the exposed thighs, abs, and cleavage of black men:

Size matters.

Shocking, really.
Oooo, artsy.
Oh, Tyroc.

You almost never see this kind of costume treatment for white male characters (excepting Plastic Man).  Of course, you DO see it for female white characters.  Almost as if our society were valuing women mostly ... for their physical attributes.

I don't mean to make too big a deal out of this.  But I do think it's a real thing, and something we need to pay attention to, lest it continue indefinitely.

You're welcome to dismiss or contest my theory.  But at least think about it, in the process.


Bryan L said...

Well, let's expand our pool to Marvel, shall we?

Black Panther: royalty
Falcon: Social worker, former thug (wait ...)
Luke Cage: Mercenary, former inmate (Dammit!)
Storm: Orphan, thief (Now this is getting weird ...)
Gabriel Jones: (Yeah, I'm going back some, so what?) Musician, soldier. (Hmm ...)

Never mind. Marvel doesn't provide any good counter-examples. It actually makes things look even worse.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to dispute your theory, Scipio, though I think it doesn't hurt to insert some steps to carry us back to "slave labor values". The stereotype of blacks as uneducated does indeed stretch back to the days of slavery, but of late has more to do with blacks never having been granted true equality in our society, and as a result being perceived as mostly blue collar / poor / criminals. In a lot of ways it's a self-fulfilling prophecy I might add; for example, a black person is more likely to go to jail for possession of weed than a white person, and somewhere in there is the perception that blacks belong in jail and aren't people who "just made a mistake".

Which is the thing that really bothers me about the newly-black Wally West being taken under Barry Allen's lily-white wing: Wally West has shown criminal tendencies already, so at some level this mentorship is about a white guy teaching a black kid to transcend his black tendencies. Jesus, DC. I wouldn't mind if Wally were just a kid who could use a father figure or something, but you had to go the "black kids will turn out black unless we do something about it" route.

Anyway, yes.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I'm not sure we can count Tyroc's costume either way, because it was a Mike Grell design, and by those standards it is completely typical. That said, I once read that the LSH editor was a complete racist and wanted an angry black person from an ideal future where blacks at long last separated themselves from white society, and Grell thought the idea was so ludicrous that he made a deliberately ludicrous costume. I think Grell's plan worked, in that Tyroc was so impossible to take seriously that he was forgotten for decades.

John said...

Anonymous has a valid point that, today, it's only indirectly about slavery, but of course this is right.

Not only is it right, but here's the secret corollary: All black characters trend towards an athletic ideal.

Steel? Brilliant engineer, but dude, black guy with shoulders that wide has to have been a college football star. Sorry, I think "gots to" was the appropriate verb, there.

John Stewart was also an architect. That was too white-collar, I guess, so maybe he was an engineer, too. Or instead. And a marine.

And don't forget that Mr. Terrific has multiple black belts and and has also won...either a gold medal or a bunch, I forget. (Terrific is also notable for getting a tagline that specifically calls him out as specifically being not as smart as other people.)

Even when they're ivory tower geniuses, someone will come along and fill the athletic void eventually. Or, as Bryan and Anonymous point out, they're criminals in need of a (white) guiding hand.

And it's worse still, because none of these characters gets on the A-list. DC isn't going to make Cyborg happen any more than Firestorm or Plastic Man. Stewart is Hal's second also-ran, after Guy. Mr. Terrific led the team nobody cares about with the geriatric characters.

Any time race in comics comes up, I flash to Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths, where Marv Wolfman's introduction bemoans the fact that, despite his desires, Crisis didn't make the major heroes more diverse.

It's really a shame that they didn't make him one of the three or four core architects of the post-Crisis DCU, right? Maybe someone who had writing duties on one of the most prominent superheroes in the world...? Oh, except for the part where that's exactly what happened and he wrote white folks anyway.

When minority characters are marginal, they're going to become stereotypes or fetishes. When one of the original Justice Leaguers is rebooted as (not replaced with, assisted by, or any other variation) a person of color, with the same identity and supporting cast, I think we'll see them change in the right direction. Until then, I don't know that anybody is going to see the need to change...

Scipio said...

" it was a Mike Grell design, and by those standards it is completely typical"


Scipio said...

" Oh, except for the part where that's exactly what happened and he wrote white folks anyway."

But... he gave us a Vic Stone! A jock. And also street thug lawbreaker who rebelled against his father, who represents education and intelligence! Oops....

Anonymous said...

"All black characters trend towards an athletic ideal."

Oooh, that was the part I forgot to speak to; thanks for the save. White people work with their minds; black people work with their bodies. I think that's more blue-collarness than slavery in the 21st century, but the two are certainly intertwined.

Murray said...

I do have give a hearty "nay, nay" to your assertion that white super males don't get the exposed flesh treatment.

You start with Black about Goliath II, aka Clint Barton? Some sort of shoulder harness thing and that's it. Less coverage than B.G.

Hercules. Trunks or skirt-thing and some token chest strap arrangement. Rippling muscles on parade.

Have comic book memories faded so quickly to forget that Namor the Sub-Mariner spent the majority of his career in nothing but green speedos?

How about Mr. Purple Pants, the Hulk? And often wearing nothing but trunks, the Thing? Their skin may be bright primary colours, but they're not gentlemen of colour...

Ah. Iron Fist's former split to the navel costume. Likewise Shang Chi's red and gold gi pyjamas.

Nick Fury losing his shirt was such a running gag in the old Silver Age, that Marvel even made fun of their own trope in "Not Brand Echh".

As to the deeper claims of personality and background...that'll take some deeper thought.

John said...

Heh. In his defense (why!?), it's hard to single out Cyborg in the New Teen Titans. Between the sidekick with the identity crisis, the sidekick moping that his powers are killing him but is there for the girl, the not-a-sidekick so ill-defined that her plots would soon be marked by conflicting back-stories, the fetish stockpile, discount Phantom Stranger with a manipulative father, and Survivor Guilt Lad, making him a reasonable concept would've stood out like a sore thumb!

It was sort of an entire team of placeholder ideas. However, they're very diverse cliches and placeholders, so maybe that's what he meant...

But my point was that none of his editorial muscle went into rebooting DC's icons as anything but the same white guys they've always been. Even if a black Clark Kent just had to be a football star (which he did, at that time, for some reason) who grew up to be unemployed and on welfare or something similarly offensive, it would've been a huge step towards diversity, and the bugs would've gotten worked out in the past thirty years as other writers found it objectionable.

Heck, Wonder Woman can't even be Turkish, and to the extent that the Amazons were real...

yrzhe said...

Another element of this that I've noticed is how many black superheros, regardless of their origins and/or powers, end up spending a lot of their time in urban slums dealing with inner city crime. Like, that's how Steel was introduced, even though his origin is otherwise basically Iron Man's and no one ever suggests we need to see Tony Stark fighting more pimps and drug dealers.

It just has this whole "watch the BLACK heroes deal with BLACK problems!" feel to it, IMO, that rubs me the wrong way.

SallyP said...

Oh Tyrok. How can anyone take you seriously in that outfit? Of course the same might be said for Rokk.

But John is the SMART one! Alas, yes, Hal is stupid. Pretty...but stupid.

But I certainly agree with your premise.

Bryan L said...

Point of order, Murray. Green and orange are secondary colors, not primary. Red, yellow, and blue are primary. Secondary colors are formed by mixing primaries (orange=red+yellow, green=blue+yellow).

I'm being pedantic, yes, but it has a point. Many heroes and villains are denoted by their costume's status on the color wheel. Major players (Superman, Spider-man) are in primary colors, while second-string and villains are in secondary colors (Aquaman, Green Goblin). One mustn't blur the color hierarchy.

And yes, I'm aware there are also technical reasons behind the colors chosen, BUT symbolism is important, whether intended or inadvertent. Else why are we here?

Murray said...

I felt myself in a no-win position there, Bryan. I knew if I misused "primary", I'd risk being taken to task on it (that being the internet's job). If I put the correct "secondary" in the sentence, anyone not immediately familiar with the colour wheel terminology would stop cold in their reading and go "wha..??"

And, this being a comment board and not a mid-term essay, that was as much compositional thought I spent on the matter.

Your primary colour-primary character theory has a bold flash and bang appeal, but quickly collapses in debate and hair-pulling. The Hulk is a "second stringer"? Batman is often depicted in black and grey, but even his usual combination is blue and grey. "Grey" ain't no primary colour. The Green Goblin and the purple-suited, no primary colours Joker are not major league villains?

Tsk and tsk. Back to the drawing board and wax crayons for that theory.

Bryan L said...

No, no. Goblin and Joker are simply villains, and thus have to have secondary colors. You can't rank villains by color. They are bad guys and are thus subordinated to good guys.

Black and white aren't part of the theory -- their symbolism is overt and long-established, as is gray (bad, good, and I'm not sure). You'll recall the Hulk started as gray, and he's more of an antihero than a hero. Batman started as a vigilante (morally ambiguous to the public) and was black and gray, but as he became more accepted by the public and law enforcement, his color scheme shifted to blue, and he picked up the yellow oval. As he moved back to vigilante status, his color scheme darkened again.

The theory really falls apart as we move toward modern comics and the much better coloring and reproduction techniques. Still, it's an interesting shorthand.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no.

Some of this has to do with the fact that comic fans are so tied to the past. These characters were created during periods when our understanding of racial identities were influx. It's a problem that extends beyond race. Lots of comic characters have names and jobs that are rooted in their origins in the 50s. Barry Allen just got lucky that CSI put a fresh coat of paint on "police scientist."

You also get into this complicated question of what minority characters should represent: should they be reflections of the black experience or should they be "idealized". Look at the real word - the black artists and athletes that embody these same issues - they are just as (or more) popular with black audiences as white audiences.

Back to comics, the problem is that comic writers tend to go to extremes - black characters tend to be extremely urban with some criminal or violent element in their background or they are brilliant scientists. I can't say I've read much of Milestone so I don't know if those books produced a third stream approach or struggled with the same issues.

I do think it is interesting that modern animated shows have often done better by African-American characters. "Justice League" and JLU had a significant impact on John Stewart's development and profile. DCAU also created the most viable version of Vixen (Scipio's objections aside; the character was given a workable visual and although clearly the losing party in the romantic triangle, they never forced her into the cliché bitchy "other woman" role that the comics surely would have).
"Young Justice" also did well by Bumblebee who was more interesting on that show than any version from the comics.

r duncan said...

It may be off topic, Scipio, but I wonder what you think of Black Manta. Wasn't it ingenious to make him black?

Slaughter said...

Yrzhe, as a Steel fan I must disagree.

The reason Steel started fighting drug dealers and gangs in slums and such is not because he was black, it was because thanks to his work at Armetek, he felt responsible for the fact that youth in slums (both in Metropolis and in D.C) were fighting gang wars using energy weaponry (made by Steel) and fatal strength-enhancing drugs (made by his former bosses). It was even worse because the place his family home was became the frontline of a gang war, including his nephews and even a stepnephew. So it wans't just "BLACK ISSUES!" (which amuse my brazilian mind to no end, do white people in USA see slum gang-fights as a black-only issue? Lol foreigners)

Steel's origin ins't Iron Man. They're totally different people aside from the "genius guys who can into science and use power armor" thing. Iron Man is a millionarie playboy scientist, Steel is a engineer who is afraid of technology grinding man and using the blood as lubrification.

Actually, Steel is reverse Unauthorized Biography Lex Luthor. Seriously.

Luthor: Raised in a unloving family of failures and miserable people in Suicide Slum. Kills his own parents and starts his bussiness, makes lots of unscrupulous science, becomes his own boss and rich. Hates Superman and sees him as his rival and a impossible paragon that makes humans feel useless.

Irons: Raised in by a loving family of good, decent people in a D.C Slum. Studies a lot and gets a good job in Armetek so he can take his family out of a deteriorating slum and give them a nice life. Keeps moral until he runs into shady bussiness at his former place. Abandons it and fakes his death when said job turns out to be unscrupulous weapon selling. Sees Superman as a moral example that can be reached by any man dedicated enough to bettering the world.

Luthor wants to grind humanity beneath HIS machine, Irons wants humanity to benefit from the machine.

As I see it, both are actually spins on "The American Dream" (which Superman's origins are partly seen as, too) except Luthor is the dark spin and Steel is the bright spin. Flip a few things on their origins and I could totally see a parallel universe where Lex Luthor is a hero and friend of Superman while John Henry Irons is Superman's archfoe and dominates the Military-Industrial Complex with alt-Armetek (Irontek? Ironcorp?).

Damn, now I've seen a good story seed there.

Slaughter said...

Also: Am I the only one who doesn't like making older characters suddently become black? (Black movieverse Johny Storm, anybody? His siter is white and blonde, he's black and black-haired, coinflip genetics?) Its like some time-travelling black man decided to cuckold famous people's dads through the timeline or something for teh lulz, its now up to Booster Gold to save the timeline before he gets cuckolded out of the timeline!

(my good christ, that looks like some wacky story idea!)

How about, instead, make NEW black characters, interesting characters we could like to read? Hmmmm? Affirmative Action Legacies are growing to be a bite trite (don't worry a woman/black/asian/homosexual/alien/all the above will take up his legacy) already but at least its a new or older estabilished character rather than "lol this guy is now black here's our diversity quota for teh day kthxbye", that's just lazy.