Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stereotypes

Doug: Happy Sunday, all. Today we're discussing minority characters, and the writing thereof. It seems to me that often non-Caucasian comic book characters serve only as stereotypes of the larger pop culture depiction of said race or ethnic group. Case in point: After Sunfire joined the X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1, he left very shortly. But while he was there, we got earful after earful of his anti-imperialism, take-your-Open-Door-Policy-and-shove-it attitude. He was grating on the nerves. Lately the Black Panther has been portrayed as an angry black man; back in the Swingin' '70's, Sam Wilson's lady Leila fit the angry black woman bill. John Proudstar, Thunderbird? Yep, you guessed it -- non-trusting Native American.

Doug: OK, so could you argue that these personalities are real, and are perhaps political statements made from the writers' points of views? Sure you can, and I'd not for a second say that any of my above examples don't stem from real situations. I'd also never suggest that various minorities should not be angry for the treatment they've received from the larger white political majority. American history is rife with instances of social injustice.

Doug: That being said, is it an injustice in itself to portray minority characters as only angry? This is what I'd like to hear our readers sound off about today. Thanks in advance.




13 comments:

david_b said...

One of my greatest joys was writing Steve Englehart a few years back (ah, the wonders of Internet..), and I shared with him my appreciation of how he wrote the Cap&Falc stories back in the early 70s. He shared about writing Sam Wilson as a 'real character', not reducing him to 'just a sidekick' like Bucky or some jive-spouting caricature. (Funny how he later scripted 'Luke Cage'..). He didn't delve into Leila and other ghetto situations he wove in, but he did bring a sense of love that lifted what would have been two-dimensional faces into thinking, breathing beings.

Not to be biased, but I felt Marvel invested far more into exploring these ideas than the Distinguished Competition. I haven't frankly done that much extensive research to accurately say. DC kept the status quo with their major stars much longer before following in the footsteps..

However convuluted and over-blown it ended up being, Marvel did introduce the 'mutant-as-hated-minority' in order to explore biases and bigotry in a more subtle manner into our comic universe for decades, so that scores points as well.

Redartz said...

In Avengers 181, Henry Gyrich dictates the roster of the group (over Iron Man's strenuous objections). He (Gyrich) bases the membership upon governmental policy, including the Equal Opportunity clause. Iron Man makes the point that mutants, androids, and super-heroes themselves are minorities. This was a particularly interesting exchange in the Avenger's then-current conlict with the government.

As David said, Marvel seemed stronger regarding this type of social commentary. The Avengers, Englehart's Cap, Wein and Claremont's X-Men all dealt with minority roles and issues of social acceptance; usually very effectively.

dbutler16 said...

I used to love the Black Panther. He was what I'd call a "cool nerd" (reading poetry to relax in one Avenger issue) and he had the nobility and honor I'd expect from a monarch. Too bad Marvel is wrecking the character. I actually think they're trying to turn him into Marvel's version of Batman. Anyway, I would hope that the view of the minority characters in comics would reflect the views of real life minorities. For instance, of 25% of African-Americans are "angry black men" then 25% of the characters (more or less) should also be "angry black men". Of course, it's tough for mostly white creators to know how various minority communities feel about various issues, so it would be very difficult to implement what I've suggested. Also, I'll admit that showing these characters does bring certain issues to light, so we do need some angry minorities to help explore these issues. Finally, yes, Marvel was clearly more progressive than DC regarding minority characters.

Piperson said...

I really enjoyed Bill Foster's appearance in the Son's of the Serpent" story line that appeared in Avengers #32 and #33 way back in 1966. He was a black man who WASN'T angry AND a scientist. It addressed racism in a tactful and interesting way.
You've got to give Stan and Marvel a lot of credit for not shying away from "hot" topics of the day!
They also created the Black Panther who was what many African-American's wanted to be, a noble black king!
I find the stereo-typing of women particularly interesting. In the early days Marvel's women were not very realistic. In the early 70's they tried to develop interesting women like Black Widow in Amazing adventures, the Valkyrie in the Defenders or the Cat, or Shana the she devil. None of these characters or comics were great but you have to give Marvel credit for trying! My favorite of these was the Cat by Linda Fite, Mary Severin, and Wally Wood! This had a really strong first issue but they couldn't seem to keep the same team on it for very long and eventually the titled died with the 4th issue.

William said...

Luke Cage responds:

Sweet Christmas, Doug! Whatchu talkin' about you jive turkey? There ain't never been no racial stereotype characters at Marvel. Take me for example. After I got powered up and broke out of prison... (Yeah, I was in prison, that don't mean nothin') I returned to the mean streets of Harlem and decided to sell my super hero services, instead of just giving them away for free, like that honky chump Spider-Man.

Archie Goodwin really had his finger on the pulse of the black community. The way we talked, the way we acted, what made us tick. Sure, I was angry sometimes. O.K. I was angry pretty much all the time, but you'd be angry to if you were constantly being hassled by the man! Stupid jive turkeys!! Always tryin' to keep a brotha down!!! Sheeooot, now I feel like goin' out and bustin' some heads! Luke Cage ain't nobody's whippin' boy! You hear me suckas'?

Doug said...

Actually, William, I was having a hard time not hearing Mr. T...

:)

Doug

Fred W. Hill said...

Let's not forget characters such as Robbie Robertson, introduced in Spider-Man in 1967, and Wyatt Wingfoot, in the FF a bit earlier, both minority characters but neither characterized in a stereotypical manner. Robertson became the voice of reason at the Bugle while Wyatt became a good friend to Johnny Storm, but also a more dedicated student -- I recall an issue Gerry Conway wrote with the FF attending Wyatt's graduation from the university and Johnny wistfully wishing he'd stuck with it like Wyatt did, as they met on their very first day their in issue 50 in one of those little tidbits included after the conclusion of their epic initial encounter with Galactus.
To be honest, when I read the full story in the Masterworks series, I really appreciated those sort of tidbits that were fairly common in Marvel Comics from that era, showing the more human side of the characters. For me, non-stop action stories get tedious pretty quickly. And I'm certain Spider-Man became as popular for the parts that focused on what Peter Parker was doing -- interacting with Aunt May, his classmates and Jameson & staff at the Daily Bugle, as for the superheroics of his costumed alter-ego.
Moreover, it's difficult to write minorities with realistic personalities when your main characters are written as interchangeable cardboard personalities. Of course the worst stereotyping in Silver Age Marvel Comics was in the depiction of women. There was some gradual change by the late '60s, but it wasn't really until well into the Bronze Age that writers at Marvel more consistantly wrote women characters without resorting to ridiculous stereotypes.
Of course, in the post-Bronze Age era too many artists were depicting nearly every superheroine as sexpots with massive breasts and skimpy costumes. Taking one step forward, then two steps back.

Dan said...

Another one I'd add to Robbie Robertson, Cage and Black Panther etc is Storm. Sure the X-Men and acceptance is a 'goes without saying' topic, but Marvel not only had Ororo front the team, they actively promoted her as one of (if not the) key super-heroine of the company.

A Cairo street kid of African descent as opposed to a woman moulded on the Greek standard of beauty?

Plus there was the Vision. Marvel really put soul into explaining his plight to be accepted as an emotional being, so when they disassembled him it was a complete shock. That sort of thing can happen to the Red Tornado and other metal men but not Vision!

And finally Puck. I've never looked at people of his stature the same way again. But he proved not everyone in Marvel struggles for acceptance, some just demand it and dare others to try and take it from them.

Piperson said...

Dan brings up the interesting aspect of female African-American heroes. Actually one of my favorite characters is Misty Knight who predates Storm by 2 months Appearing in Iron Fist's Marvel Premiere #21 in March of 75. Unfortunately I haven't read many of her appearances but I just love the strong black woman who is also sexy. Interestingly enough Chris Claremont didn't create either her or Storm, but he was the writer who wrote most of their Bronze age appearances and popularized both of them, of coarse Storm more than Misty. DC didn't have a black female african-American hero until about 1980 with the creation of Vixen.

Edo Bosnar said...

Don't have much to add, everyone here has made some good observations. I'd add DC's Black Lightning as another positive portrayal - even though the 'black' in the name rankles a bit, the original series was actually pretty good, and Jefferson Pierce was a really well-conceived character (kudos to Isabella and von Eeden).
Also, I just have to agree with Piperson about the Cat series: it's so fascinating to me that Marvel had a female title character largely put together by two women (Fite and Severin). It's truly unfortunate the quality wasn't maintained, and it didn't hold out for at least enough issues (about 10) to become a cult favorite like Omega - then we'd at least get reprints...

J.A. Morris said...

I'm a big fan of Englehart, especially the Cap run, and in the early Cap-Falc stories, Sam Wilson is a real character, not just a caricature like Luke "Sweet Christmas" Cage.

But I still blame Englehart for helping to ruin the character with the retcon that occured in Cap #186. We learned that Falcon was created by Red Skull and sent to befriend Cap for the sake of betraying. And we got to see Sam as "Snap" Wilson, not a very flattering stereotype:
http://www.renderwrx.net/SQD%206/Snap%20Wilson.jpg

William said...

Doug,

Yep, I think I definitely got a little too Mr. T on that one. Hmm, you know, in his prime, Mr. T might have made a decent 70's Luke Cage in a movie.

Fred W. Hill said...

I've always wondered if Englehart had long-range plans regarding the "Snap" Wilson persona that might have made a lot more sense but got dumped when Englehart left the series, and from comments in the letters pages it seems he was planning on staying at least through issue 200. As it was, he essentially left in the middle of the storyline. Maybe Snap was the fake personality and the Red Skull was playing mindgames with the Falcon & Cap. If Englehart really meant for Snap to be the real persona, it would have certainly helped to have included a lot of foreshadowing about the Sam Wilson's mysterious past (ala the foreshadowing re the advertising campaign against Cap that preceded the Secret Empire Story for nearly a year. In Wilson's case, unless I missed something, I didn't see anything indicating there was anything strange about his past, only a reference to his "strange rapport" with Redwing.

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