Tag: Race

Important Comics

Today's the anniversary of a couple of things.

It would have been Jack Kirby's 96th birthday.

And, more importantly -- as the King himself would surely have acknowledged --, it's the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

I was at a loss for precisely how I was going to tie these two events together in the same post -- and then I remembered Congressman John Lewis has a comic book out.

Stephen Colbert interviewed him a couple of weeks back:

Lewis discusses not only his new comic trilogy, March, but a comic that inspired him in 1957: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. An excellent summary by Andrew Aydin at Creative Loafing Atlanta says:

Richard Deats, [the Fellowship of Reconciliation]'s Director of Communications in the 1990s, laid out FOR's motivation and purpose behind the comic in a 1997 letter, saying, "The comic book was originally intended to convey to semiliterate persons the story of nonviolence and its effectiveness as seen in the Montgomery movement. The medium of the highly popular comic book was believed to be the best way to reach masses of exploited African-Americans."

And that's what comic books were: they were a way of reaching the masses. They were literature for the illiterate.

And as with all mass-media means of distributing information to the poor, this upset the elites.

When comics first appeared in American newspapers around the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as gutter trash. In the decades that followed, they were scapegoated for society's ills, culminating in Senate hearings, the Comics Code Authority, and the devastation of an entire American art form.

In a way, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was exactly what the elites feared: it upset the social structure. It gave teenagers like John Lewis ideas.

It's ironic that the comics medium's greatest foe, Fredric Wertham, was also an ardent progressive in the Civil Rights Movement -- if he had never written Seduction of the Innocent, he would instead be best remembered for the doll study used in Brown v Board. Wertham was right, in a way, about comics' potential as a disruptive force, as a powerful tool for influencing young people -- but he chose to fear the imagined impact of fictional crime and horror stories, rather than see the true potential of comics as a force for good, for education, for organization, for social justice.

Kirby, of course, saw boundless potential in comics, in a way few people ever have. He used comics to advocate for social change, too, though he preferred fiction and metaphor, and is best remembered as a superhero artist (though his work crossed all genres and invented some). He saw superheroes as modern mythological figures -- as New Gods -- as aspirational avatars.

In the 1940's, Kirby co-created Captain America, advocating for US intervention in WWII when that was still a controversial position. In the 1970's, his Forever People were technologically-advanced, alien hippies. In the 1960's, The Fantastic Four gave us The Hate-Monger, a supervillain in a Klan hood who turned out to be Adolf Hitler himself. It also gave us this guy:

The Black Panther

That image is courtesy of Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed, which notes that the Black Panther didn't look like that in the final published comic -- his half-mask was replaced with a full mask, making it less immediately obvious that the Black Panther was, in fact, a black man -- indeed, possibly the first black superhero. (Inevitably when you refer to a comic book character as "the first" of anything, that's going to lead to debate -- sometimes that debate can miss the point entirely and turn into mere nitpicking over comic book trivia, though other times, as in Who Was the First Black Superhero? by JV Halliburton II, it can explore the richness of comic history and highlight all the important characters who have helped to build and shape it and make it more diverse.)

Today Mark Evanier wrote a lovely remembrance of his friend and mentor, and among many other things he had this to say:

Jack was all about something new, something exciting and something that took whatever he was doing to the next level. [...] Jack was first and foremost interested in producing something that would take comics to some new plateau, creating new opportunities and new possibilities.

Kirby believed in comics. So did Martin Luther King and Alfred Hassler. So does John Lewis.

And so does Jillian Kirby. I've written before about her Kirby4Heroes fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps struggling comic creators. As we celebrate her grandfather's birthday, don't forget about the less fortunate who have helped shape the comics medium over the years and decades.

Private Prisons

I wrote something yesterday that forumgoer Mothra referred to as "a Thad mic drop", so I figured it might be a good idea to repost here. For posterity and stuff.

Mothra had brought up the Kids for Cash scandal, which has been in the news recently due to the Third Circuit's rejection of Mark Ciavarella's appeal.

The short version of the story is that two judges accepted bribes from the owner of a private juvenile detention center, in exchange for sending as many children there as possible.

I'm not a religious man, so when I say that there is a special place reserved in Hell for them, what I actually mean is "a minimum-security prison".

Anyhow, here's what I wrote yesterday; originally posted on Brontoforumus.


There are a lot of industries I hate. A lot I see as hopelessly, incurably corrupt, as industries whose very function is to profit from human suffering.

Health insurance. Investment banking. Oil and coal. Weapons. Newscorp.

But the private prison industry is the very worst.

The very proposition of creating a profit incentive for putting people in prison and keeping them there is one that should result in only two reactions: laughter that the notion is farcical; disgust at the realization that people are serious about it.

Have I mentioned the private prison lobby's role in crafting SB1070 lately? Because here, let me just link this again:

Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law, by Laura Sullivan, NPR, 2010.

You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

On the Zimmerman verdict, I give these words by another man named Zimmerman.

Manchester, 1965; uploaded by godriczimmerman.

(A footnote: via Brian Cronin, Dylan took some creative liberties in the song. But the point remains: Zanzinger got off light.

But not as light as George Zimmerman.)

Maybe I'll have more on the Zimmerman story later. Or maybe I won't, because it's just too goddamn depressing.

Quantum and Woody and Complex Feelings

Quantum and Woody was something I loved when I was a teenager -- and then it went away. 13 years later it shows back up, but under less than ideal circumstances. It's not the book I remember, and I don't know if I should be happy it's back or pissed about it being something less than what I expected and hoped for.

Even if you've never read a Quantum and Woody comic before, I'm guessing that the previous paragraph was suitably unsubtle that you realized it was a metaphor for the plot of the comic.

I posted about the status of Quantum and Woody previously. The gist: the original comic was published by Acclaim, and the creators, Christopher Priest and Mark Bright, had a reversion clause in their contract that should have allowed them to buy out the copyrights to the comic after it went out of print. But Acclaim went bankrupt and the rights were sold at auction instead. They were eventually bought by a new company, Valiant (which takes its name from the Valiant Comics that Acclaim bought out in the first place, but is not the same company), which has opted to start a new series written by James Asmus and drawn by Tom Fowler.

Priest has said nothing about the new series, and Bright has said little -- but he did say that their relationship with Valiant is "amicable", and that was good enough for me to go ahead and pick up issue #1 of the new series.

It's...well, it's good, but it's not as good as the original.

First of all: it's not very funny.

I mean, I laughed a few times. But the biggest laugh was at a running gag from the old series. Technically it still counts as a joke -- they're invoking a running gag, not merely doing a Family Guy-style "Hey, remember that thing from that other thing?" -- but it's not Asmus and Fowler's joke, it's Priest and Bright's.

And the whole thing feels a little like that, really. The book doesn't just borrow the premise of the original, it borrows Priest's specific storytelling techniques -- it's got chapter titles with white text against a black background, and it jumps around and tells the story out-of-sequence. Yes, that's one of the things the original Q&W was known for -- but it wasn't a Q&W thing, it was a Priest thing. He used the same technique in Black Panther and Deadpool. For my tastes, this strays a little too far from the notion of a loving homage to the original series and too close to stealing another guy's bit. It's uncomfortable.

And it's also absurd, given that Valiant chose not to ask Priest and Bright to do the new series themselves, ostensibly because they wanted to do something different, that the new book hews so close to the old one stylistically.

And yet, for all that, page 2 passes up a perfect opportunity to use "noogie". What the F-word? I just don't understand how Asmus can crib so shamelessly from the original series (and Priest's general comics vocabulary) and yet draw the line at noogie, of all places.

...okay, that got a little inside baseball. Point is, the book, at its worst, feels like a cover tune that's uncomfortably close to the original without ever hitting the same notes quite right.

But at its best?

It's got heart, man.

Asmus may not have a good grip on Priest's gift for satire -- and couldn't get away with his brand of pointed commentary on race in America even if he did -- but what he does get is the relationship between the leads. It's real and it's raw -- these are two guys who really do love each other (but they're not a couple) but are so fucking furious at each other over something that happened a long time ago that it takes a near-death experience to even acknowledge it -- almost.

Asmus gets that. And it just so happens to be the emotional core of the book. More important than the jokes, and certainly more important than "Hey look you guys we put the goat on the cover!" -- it's the heart.

Aside from that, the plot actually hews pretty close to the original, despite an important change in apostrophe placement -- now, Eric and Woody are reunited after their father's murder, not fathers'.

That's been the change fans of the old series have been most nervous about -- well, the story change that fans of the old series have been most nervous about. But it works.

Ultimately, Eric and Woody's fathers weren't important to the original story; they were the McGuffin that got everything started, but we knew less about them than we knew about Uncle Ben (and only slightly more than we knew about Thomas and Martha Wayne in the original version of Batman's origin). Woody's father is only important because he's what got him to come back to town -- it's his mother who we see is mostly responsible for what shaped him as a child, for better or worse.

And all that would seem to be intact -- in this version, Eric's father took Woody in as a troubled foster child. And, while the circumstances of Woody's departure from the family are left as a mystery for now, I wouldn't be surprised if they were similar to what happened in the original series: he went to live with his mom, things went south fast, and he wound up living on the streets.

All of which is still entirely possible if Mr. Henderson was his adoptive father. Mr. Van Chelton is completely unnecessary to the story.

Through all this chatter, I guess I've focused on Asmus's writing over Fowler's art. Fowler's art is like Asmus's writing, I suppose -- it's solid but it hasn't blown me away, and unfortunately a whole lot of it seems to be just recreations of scenes from the original series (like the opening of Q&W falling out a window while the news media mock them).

Still -- it's good. It's not what I'd hoped for, but it's not bad.

It's good enough that I'll pick up #2. And hope that this generates enough interest that maybe someday we'll see something new from Priest and Bright. New Quantum and Woody, the release of the completed-but-unpublished issues of the original series, or something else entirely -- it doesn't matter, I'd be happy to see anything by them that I haven't seen before.

Because that's the real point, here -- yeah, I like Quantum and Woody. But not nearly as much as I like Christopher Priest and Mark Bright.

Star Trek into Idiot Plot

Major spoilers follow, I guess, albeit mostly stuff everybody's been expecting since roughly the end of the last movie.

So let me get this straight.

Eric Bana travels back in time and kills Kirk's father.

And this causes Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Did that happen 300 years prior to the era Bana actually traveled to, or did it cause an already cryogenically-frozen Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Like, was he really surprised when he woke up?

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the real Khan to be the guy in the pod they had to open up to save Kirk.

I mean, it's not like the plot reasons for Khan's ethnicity and national origin changing are that important. There is a rather strong argument to be made against the Hollywood trend of recasting minority roles with white guys (and no, trolls, casting Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is not "the exact same thing", because you see making a film's cast more diverse is not the exact same thing as making it less diverse), and, moreover, there are some rather regressive overtones in making the ultimate genetic model of a human being a pasty white guy. But as for the plot reasons? You could really handwave all that stuff. Whatever; it's just a movie; they recast the guy. Don't think too hard about it.

Which would be much much easier to do if the last act of the film weren't spent beating you about the head and shoulders with Wrath of Khan references.

After the first couple, I thought, You know, I'm getting way more out of this than people who haven't seen Wrath of Khan recently.

By the end of the film, I thought, You know, they're much happier for not getting all those damn references.

Hell, I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when Spock yelled "Khaaaaaaaaaaan!"

Anyway. I'm a casual Trek fan. I've seen a few episodes and movies here and there; I generally enjoy them.

I can definitely see the fans' gripes that the new movies are dumbed-down action flicks -- but what the hell, they've been pretty entertaining, and impeccably cast.

I still love Benedict Cumberbatch. Even if I don't think they should have cast him as a Mexican.

Arpaio Wriggles Free Again

The bad news is that the Arpaio recall effort has failed to collect enough signatures.

The good news is he's been convicted of racial profiling in Melendres v Arpaio.

The bad news is that so far his only punishment is a judge telling him he's not allowed to racially profile people anymore.

Additional punishment could be forthcoming. But at this point, I'll believe it when I see it.

Lost Interview Part 2

Continuing thoughts on McCarthy, and then a right turn to Elvis. And from there to the origins of Elvis's music in R&B and "race music" and the pernicious effects of good old-fashioned 1950's-vintage racism. Then Duck and Cover and politics in general, and more later...

Watch the Bigoted Shit Squirm

Heading south on the 17 tonight, I passed not one but two billboards exhorting me not to sign the recall petition for Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Too late, asshole.)

This is a good sign. It means he thinks it's a real threat.

Hell, he seems to be taking it more seriously than I am. I signed the petition but I still expect him to wriggle out of this one, just like he's wriggled out of all the other attempts to hold him accountable at the ballot box or in the courts.

Obviously he's not really expecting anybody to choose not to sign the petition based on a billboard. He's just getting his ads in early so he'll be prepared for the real fight when it comes.

Still, seems like it might backfire -- how many people didn't even know about the petition until they saw one of those billboards?

And, not to put a fine point on it? The billboards are just south of Guadalupe, a town populated entirely by people who would vote to recall him. Seems like it might not be the best idea to put a reminder of the petition right in their backyard for them to see every day.

Nite Life, Part 1

Nite Life, David Brenner's talk show, 1986.

The reference to the Crusades is interesting -- there's an old Simpsons where Roger Myers Sr., defending Itchy & Scratchy and cartoon violence, points out that the Crusades happened before animation was even invented. Knowing what a Zappa fan Groening is, I wonder if he picked up that comparison here.

Crass Commercialism

Recently, there was a post on Gail Simone's Tumblr. A reader said:

I'm all for the new surge in gay/lesbian characters in the DCU. So when I ask this, I don't wanna sound like I'm against it, but is there perhaps too much of it? I just kinda feel like it's being thrown everywhere. Even though now it's totally cool to have that stuff in comics (God knows we've needed it for awhile), it just seems like now that the gates are open, let's throw as much of it out as possible.

Gail responded with a well-deserved "WTF?" (I'm paraphrasing). But I got to thinking about it. I don't know what the fan meant with his "being thrown everywhere" comment, but I do sometimes find the introduction of gay characters to be sensationalistic. And I think it comes down, as so many things do, to the collision between art and commerce.

Standard disclaimer: I'm a straight white male. I'm speaking from a position of privilege and I have the good sense to know I am. When I see something as sensitive or insensitive to a group I'm not a member of, well, I'm quite clearly observing as an outsider with an outsider's perspective. If anyone thinks I'm off-base, well, I acknowledge that's a distinct possibility.

But from where I'm sitting, anything that appears in a press release just feels crass. It feels manipulative. When a company introduces its new gay character in the exact same way it introduces an upcoming storyline where Spider-Man/Batman/Johnny Storm dies and the series starts over at #1, then it feels like it's the same kind of thing -- a cynical marketing exercise that is meant to boost sales for a few months but will ultimately be meaningless in the scheme of things.

A creator can introduce a minority character for all the right reasons, out of a legitimate desire to thoughtfully and tastefully increase the diversity of a universe that desperately needs it -- but when the marketing machine gets ahold of it, that can be hard to tell.

Here's an example. When I saw all the fanfare leading up to Batwoman's debut, here's what it looked like to me: a token character introduced to generate press and free media publicity. Oh, and she's a sexy redheaded lipstick lesbian in spiked heels -- that didn't look to me like a character designed to appeal to the LGBT community, it looked like a character designed to appeal to the very worst stereotypes of the comic book fan community. And she's Renee Montoya's ex? Of course she is! How could there be two lesbians in Gotham City who didn't sleep together at one point or another?

I was delighted to find my initial impressions to be pretty much dead wrong. While I wasn't sold on Batwoman's original arc in 52, by the time she headlined Detective it was clear that Rucka and Williams had crafted a complex, interesting character, who owned her sexuality but didn't exist simply to satisfy some marketing push for More Sexy Lesbians. (Plus, she ditched the heels for much more sensible boots.) In the years that have followed, Detective and Batwoman have been consistently excellent comics, and Kate Kane is one of the best new characters to come out of DC or Marvel in the new century. I was wrong about her and I couldn't be happier.

But that introduction, with all the fanfare and press coverage, didn't make her inclusion feel organic, in those early days. It felt like a marketing stunt.

By contrast, I was four or five issues into Cornell and Neves's Demon Knights before it actually hit me that this was a superhero team that included a disabled character, a Muslim, and a transgendered character -- Cornell and Neves included them without fanfare, without promotion; they never felt like tokens, it was just a case of "Here are these characters, and here's their background."

There's a downside to that, of course. Comics is, after all, a business, and there's an argument to be made that if you don't promote the diverse lineup of your book, you may very well fly under the radar. People looking for a book featuring a disabled, Muslim, or transgendered hero might very well have no idea that Demon Knights even exists -- and that's bad for them because they don't know that such a book is out there, and it's bad for DC, Cornell, Neves, and everybody else who stands to make money from the book, because that's a sale they're missing out on. Marketing a book based on the presence of minorities in its cast may seem crass -- but it does what it's designed to do, which is to sell the book. A sensitive, thought-provoking book with a diverse cast is a great damn thing -- but if nobody reads it and it gets cancelled, then not only does it fail to reach an audience, it also sets a bad precedent -- like, say, both Static Shock and Mr. Terrific being among the first books cancelled in the New 52 has got to have DC thinking twice about books with African-American leads. Which of course misses the point -- those books sold poorly because they were bad, not because people don't want to read comics about black people.

The press can be complicit, too -- last year, when the new Alan Scott was introduced as a gay man, lots of readers accused DC and Didio of sensationalizing it. But that's not really what happened. James Robinson decided to make the new Alan Scott gay as a genuine effort to maintain diversity in the DC Multiverse; Dan Didio, when asked point-blank about new gay characters, teased that there would indeed be a big-name character reintroduced to the New 52 as a gay man. From there, it wasn't DC that sensationalized the story, it was comics news sites.

At any rate, I do think that more diversity is an inherently good thing; I don't always agree with the way the publishers go about it, or the way the press covers it, but I think most creators' and editors' hearts are in the right place. I don't think there's "too much of it" -- I just hate press releases.