Truth: Red, White AND Black

By | Monday, March 19, 2007 Leave a Comment
The Toronto Star recently recruited Brad McKay to write an article about the plight of black heroes in comics. Evidently, what The Star published was not what McKay wrote and McKay expressed some frustration at the edits since they skew the points he was trying to make. Now, I could get into a discussion about editorial interference or journalistic sensationalism or whatever, but I'm going to set that aside to focus on some of the problems in McKay's original article.

In the first place, as Stuart Immonen pointed out, the numbers cited don't really jibe. Black Panther #24 came in at #28 on ICv2's charts, and Blade #5 is at #40. While I haven't studied the sales numbers in a while, most books like that are relatively stable and, if anything, have declined in sales. More than likely, those are LOW points for those two titles, sales-wise. What about the previous month's New Avengers, a book that features Luke Cage regularly? That came in at... well, lookie here: #3 with over 122,000 copies sold.

Next, there's no mention of other current black characters like, say, STORM. You know, that popular black woman played by Oscar-Award-Winning Actress Halle Berry in three rather popular X-Men movies? Oh, and didn't she just finish her own self-titled limited series? And where's Photon? Until recently, the lead character in Nextwave. Samuel-Jackson-lookalike Nick Fury in nearly every issue of Ultimate Spider-Man? Misty Knight leading the troup in Heroes for Hire? That's just the stuff I happen to know about offhand.

The next point I'd like to raise is one of quality. McKay notes that Black Panther's sales aren't stellar. There's some subjectiveness there, but it's not a hard arguement to buy into. But what he doesn't note is that the previous volume, written by Christopher Priest, was MUCH more well-received. So could one not reasonably assume that a black character is only as well-received as s/he is well-written? That a black character's book could sell much better if it were simply well-done? I think that's a fairly reasonable arguement to make. Priest's Black Panther was cancelled to make way for an (in my mind) ill-conceived limited series called The Crew.

Another example of quality I'd like to note is Truth: Red, White and Black, the limited series that proposed that Steve Rogers was NOT the first candidate for the super-soldier serum. That it was tested on African-Americans -- with sometimes horrendous results -- before being perfected and presented to a white guy. I think it's a brilliant concept that speaks volumes to what kind of racial divide the U.S. faced in the 1940s and how something like that would be kept quiet by the government for decades afterwards. There's a lot of potential for saying something really significant. The problem was, of course, that the execution was poor. Can you imagine that concept in the hands of a really great creative team? Put a Christopher Priest or Dwayne McDuffie on the writing with a Darwyn Cooke or Georges Jeanty on art duties? Man, that'd been great!

I'd also like to point out that racial issues ARE being discussed in comics. The last half of The American Way was largely about race. It's been brought up in Thunderbolts as recently as last week. (Despite my note about the African-American character being a stereotypical "angry black man" he still points out that the one notable casualty of "Civil War" was Black Goliath.) And I daresay that it wouldn't be surprising at all to see it crop up in Fantastic Four now that Black Panther and Storm have joined the group.

Finally, even if the point was wholly valid and well-intentioned, wouldn't it have made much more sense for the article to come out in February? You know, Black History Month? In the U.S. and Canada? According to Wikipedia, "Part of the aim of Black History Month is to expose the harms of racial prejudice and to cultivate black self-esteem following centuries of socio-economic oppression. It is also an opportunity to recognize significant contributions to society made by people with African heritage." So even if you wanted to exclusively highlight the problems, the time when people were actively listening to those types of arguements was last month!

Don't get me wrong here; I'm not suggesting that there are no longer racial tensions in comic books, or that it's an issue that doesn't need to be discussed any more. I'm just saying that I think The Star came to the table with a decidedly overblown, bias sense of the issue, and modified McKay's already overblown sense of the issue to pound their point into the ground. I don't know that comics are really any worse off than any other media form right now. And if they are, I'd like to see it come from someone whose arguements aren't so readily refuted, preferably from someone inside the industry.
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