Comics' Lack Of Progressiveness

By | Thursday, April 24, 2008 15 comments
Who can tell me what's odd about this cover I posted yesterday...
The answer is that it features a black woman kissing a white man. Why is that odd, you ask? Because it's the ONLY one.

Seriously, the only one.

Yesterday I was actively looking for comic covers that featured any sort of romantic relationship between a black woman and a white man, and this was the only one I could find. Star Trek was the first TV show to feature an interracial kiss, but there was not even a hint of that in any of the comics. The Star Wars franchise features a fairly racial diverse cast, but nowhere do they cross that line into interracial romances.

How about any of the Tarzan titles? The whole point was he was this white guy in Africa! Nada. Conan? Nothing there either.

Fantastic Four, the first title to introduce a black superhero? The first mainstream comic to even mention the idea of homosexuality? Nothing.

How about the amazing slew of underground comix? Stuff from Robert Crumb maybe? Vaughn Bode? Gilbert Shelton? Kim Deitch? The folks who ripped down the walls of comic book conventionality, ran over them with a steamroller, burned them to ash, and then buried them? Well, I'll admit that I don't have access to each and every underground comic ever made, but I sure as hell can't find any instances of any interracial couplings touted on a cover.

Well, what about New Avengers? Jessica Jones is indeed Caucasian and Luke Cage is indeed African-American, and I applaud Brian Michael Bendis for establishing that relationship. But that's an African-American male with a Caucasian female. And that, as I understand it, is more socially acceptable and a completely different animal.

"Wha...?"

As I understand things from a lady-friend who happens to be black (read as: well-informed first-hand on this subject), there's something of a hierarchy of social strata with regards to interracial dating. It's more acceptable, for example, for a white man to date a Hispanic woman than it is for a Hispanic man to date a white woman. Without getting into an extended description of all the permutations, I'll sum up by saying that, effectively, black women are at the bottom of the totem pole. White men have a tendency to pass them over because they're considered too far beneath his station, while black and Hispanic men strive to further their own selves by partnering upwards with Caucasian women. That essentially leaves black (and Hispanic) women with a smaller pool of potential partners, further shrunk by the fact that black men are about 25% more likely to wind up in the prison system than their white counterparts.

Obviously, I don't condone that thinking. Before having some of these discussions with my lady-friend, I had no real clue that such issues still existed. Call me naive, but I've always held to the notion that color, race or creed are simply non-issues. Trite as it may sound, it's what's inside that counts. "Peoples is peoples."

That said, there have been some white man/black woman relationships portrayed in comics. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright which features just such a relationship developing between Hiram and Angela as a sub-plot. Shard and Wild Child were an item for a while in various marvel books. More famous is the romantic interludes of Iron Fist and Misty Knight. And more recently, Yorick and Agent 355 developed a romantic relationship in Y: The Last Man. These types of character relationships are rare, indeed, but not unheard of. And I suspect that it's actually not far removed from the per capita number of real interracial relationships like that.

BUT it's still only been depicted on a comic cover just the once. Hardly seems appropriate for what should be a more progressive medium.

"A-ha! Sean, you're forgetting about Storm and Forge!"

Well, I have to admit that I did forget about them at first. But you'll remember that Forge is a Native American, not a Caucasian. On that social strata I mentioned earlier, that falls into a different category. (And, I might add, the relationship they began in Uncanny X-Men #186 doesn't even get suggested on a cover until #289, a dozen years later!)

Back to my point, though... out of over 150,000 individual issues over the course of the better part of a century, there's exactly one cover that features a black woman kissing a white man? I know that comics historically aren't particularly progressive compared to other media, but are they really that far behind on this specific issue? Somebody, please tell me that I'm just totally not seeing earlier and/or more examples!
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15 comments:

Pj Perez said...

Well, something else to keep in mind: of those 150,000 comic covers, the majority are likely superhero, monster, mystery, sci-fi or humor based. Which means a very low percentage likely to feature ANYONE kissing to begin with. Factor into that low number the socially-infrequent pairing you describe, and I'd say forget about it.

Hell, the only comic cover in my vast collection I can even picture with anyone kissing on it features two people made of orange rocks (that would be a FF comic from the late '80s).

On a related note, as a single white guy, I will say that in my experience, black women aren't attracted, generally, to white men. Or maybe it's just me they don't like. Sigh.

I guess I don't understand how showing a racially mixed couple on the cover is to be thought of as "progressive"? Like you, I have no strong feelings about this one way or another, but I feel that more often than not the cover of a comic book only illustrates a snap shot of what's going on inside the pages. Even then its usually tweaked or warped to catch you off guard so that you'll stop and pick up the book (like hinting at the possible death of a character when there isn't one). That snap shot hardly ever tells gives away any of the plot or the "meat" of the book.

Don't judge a book by its cover.

Anonymous said...

Did you care about this before you were dating a black woman?

Dav said...

I think PJ makes a valid point, that there just aren't that many covers of people kissing. After a few minutes thought, I can think of maybe five. Given longer, I probably couldn't come up with more than a handful others.

That said, I think you're making a valid point about interracial relationships in comics. I remember Alan Moore saying he was astonished to find that his own Tom Strong was the first (only?) comic book lead to be involved in an interracial marriage.

Two final points: Not counting the Luke Cage/Jessica Jones cover is "finessing" the argument a little. Also, I think I'd count this as an interracial kiss: http://tinyurl.com/647qra

Pj Perez said...

Dav -- That Superman cover is HOT. Thanks for posting it. And with Bogandove art. Love it. What ever happened to that guy??

Thanks for linking to that Superman cover, Dav. I knew I must have missed something!

I think folks generally forget, though, that superheroes aren't the only game in town. There are thousands of comics featuring romantic covers. Do a search at ComicBookDB.com or Comics.org for any books with the words "Love" or "Romance" in the title, and you'll get easily gets dozens of titles, many with 150+ issue runs. It doesn't really surprise me that I couldn't find a romantic cover featuring Conan -- that kind of works against his milieu -- but, as I noted, I had a huge difficulty finding one cover at all.

To address a couple more specific points...

It IS significant that I wasn't counting Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. As I noted in my original post, there's a social strata in place and it's much more socially acceptable for a black man and a white woman to be together than a white man with a black woman. That's essentially the same argument I use for discounting the Storm/Forge cover. The distinction is worth noting because of how the relationships are viewed in our society.

Was this an issue I cared about prior to dating a black woman? Not really, no. But that was born out of ignorance, rather than indifference. As I also noted in my original post, it simply was not an issue that I believed still persisted in the 21st century. I'm not blind to racism, but I've only really known it in terms of (if you'll excuse the pun) black and white. The nuances and subtlety that it can take, especially with regards to interracial couples, was lost on me.

Which is in part what led me to make the post in the first place. I figure that part of the problem is just one of ignorance, so bringing up the subject and discussing it will shed some light on the matter. Which can only be a good thing.

Pj Perez said...

One thing to remember about romance comics (and this is why I omitted them from my list in the original comment): A majority came out in the 1940s - 1960s, during a time when you sure as heck would NEVER see intercultural ANYTHING.

Thanks for posting such a great topic that's generated so much discussion. This is why us comic book readers are smarter than everyone else. ;)

Anonymous said...

I think the mere fact is that this young man has woken up to realize that there is a hierarchy when it comes the social norms of whom dates whom. I think that comics often if not most often reflect whats happening in society. and the fact that there is this still taboo idea that a white man and a black women should or shouldn't be together. I do feel that white American has to wake up when it comes to racial issues just because you are not bothered by it or you have friends of different backgrounds there is still conflict occurring. so wake up to the fact things in this country are still not as equal as you may see them to to be, i think if people are educated on the true , and i mean true struggles of people who are of non white back grounds the comic book world would explodie into a totally different social changer. but until then just be happy that you get what you get. p.s good luck with your lady friend if yuo guys have kids raise them to be aware and not to have to choise one or the other but both.

menshevik said...

Two comic-book romances involving a white man and a black woman:
Misty Knight and Iron Fist (Danny Rand)
Charlotte Jones and Archangel (Warren Worthington) (X-Factor late 1980s/early 1990s)

In the current incarnation of X-Factor, Madrox the Multiple Man had a fling with M, a dark-skinned Algerian. Does that count? Probably not that important, as nothing much seems to have come of it.

And of course not everything happens according to the American context (for instance, the Brazilian superhero Sunspot is the son of a white mother and a black father, but the mother was from an established upper-class family while the father was a self-made man, so the social barriers involved are likely to have been the other way around in this particular case).

menshevik said...

Oh, to complete the picture here re. the couples I mentioned: Warren Worthington and Danny Rand come from upper-class families while their love interests are from a middle-class background (Misty Knight is a former police officer, Charlotte Jones was a simple cop (widowed, one son) when she and Warren fell in love). Monet St.Croix (M) is from one of those Old World (semi-)aristocratic families so beloved in comics writing (her father was a diplomat), while Jamie Madrox is middle-class (son of a couple of scientists).

It is interesting how gender and race/ethnicity can interplay here. This is a purely subjective impression, but it does seem to me that in the case of mixed relationships involving people of an East Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese) background, these seem to be more frequently female than male (Wolverine/Mariko, Wolverine/Yukio, Flash III/Linda Park, etc. vs. Spider-Woman I/David Ishima and ...?)

And of course stuff becomes really complicated is when you add things that scare comic-book publishers even more than interracial romance, such as religion (I'll just note that AFAIK it was not until 1979 that we got to see an openly Jewish superhero, Kitty Pryde) or homosexuality. In Spider-Girl, Felicia (Black Cat) Hardy was shown living with Diana, a black woman, but apparently that caused so much homophobic reactions that they decided not to have Diana appear for ages now because Spider-Girl is always teetering on the edge of cancellation anyway).

menshevik said...

And a few remarks mostly on Sean's post in the comments:

AFAIK, romance comics were mostly a phenomenon of the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when there weren't any interracial romances to speak of in any media. (Wasn't the Kirk/Uhura kiss on Star Trek an instance of mind-control and not actually romantically motivated?) And from what little I know of the romance novel genre, most of that seems to avoid interracial romances (there does not seem to be much of a market for this).

Also, I'm not sure about mixed-race couples being socially more acceptable generally if the man is black than if the woman is black. Historically the idea of a white woman having sex with a black man is a much bigger taboo among whites (white racists), with the image of an "innocent white lamb" being ravished by a hulking black predator (or being unable to resist his "animal magnetism" and large genitals) had blood pressure rising much higher than that of a white man having sex with a black slave or whatever. Hundreds or thousands of black men were lynched on suspicion of having sex or wanting to have sex with white women, but if there were black women lynched for having sex with white men (and I'm not saying there weren't any), I have yet to read about it.

Another big problem is of course that there are so few recurrent black characters in comic-books in general. (Very often there is e.g. just one black member to a super-team). While it is true that there are not that many interracial couples, the number of intra-racial romances among blacks is also not that great. I recall complaints that there were too few of them in relation to interracial ones, implying that the black persons involved in such a relationship considered themselves too good for black partners. There were some vibes of this among comments of people who approved that it seemed that Storm might be starting to get involved with Bishop and when she and Forge broke up.

dav:
One contributing factor to Tom Strong being the first comic book lead involved in an interracial marriage is of course the comparative rarity of married characters among comic-book leads. In most genres they like to keep their leads single, even to the point of preferring them to make a deal with the devil than continue being married. Add to that that for many of the more classic characters the established romantic relationships go back to pre-integrated times.

I can't think of many covers featuring any characters kissing. And honestly, I find that there's no shortage of black female characters who have been with white male characters in comics. In fact, I'd like to see a few more instances of black women involved with black men. Or other men of color. And this is coming from someone who would throw the biggest fit you've ever seen if someone broke up Misty Knight and Danny Rand.

Misty and Danny. (Iron Fist)
Warren and Charlotte (X-Men)
Nate and Threnody (X-Man)
Victoria and Ben (Stormwatch)
Voodoo and Hadrian (Wildcats)
Voodoo and Maul (Wildcats)
Moonday and Ollie (Green Arrow)
Vixen and Bruce (Batman)
Jezebel and Bruce (Batman)
Bruce and Amina (Batman)
Tom and Dhalua (Tom Strong)
Storm and Slipstream (X-Treme X-Men)
Morpheus and Nada (Sandman)
Tommy and Arthur (Welcome to Tranquility)
Wallace and Esther (Sin City)
Jamie and Monet (X-Factor)

That's just off the top of my head. Honestly, I'm having a hard time thinking of major black female characters appearing in mainstream or well-known books who have actually been with black men.

Ororo and T'Challa (Black Panther)
Vixen and Bronze Tiger (JLA)

Um, that's all I got. I guess you could toss Luke Cage and his old girlfriends in there too, but those relationships are kaput. And Vixen and BT are kaput too. I've actually heard complaints from black men who read comic books about this. Black male characters seem to get involved with wonderful female characters from a variety of backgrounds whereas black female characters are rarely involved with men who aren't white. And even more rarely is the suitor black. Weird.

menshevik said...

Is Voodoo black? I've recently read a thread on voodoo-related characters where she was mentioned as a white practicioner.

Re. all-black couples:
Let's see, the Falcon had a black girlfriend whose name escapes me and before he married Storm T'challa had been engaged to Monica Lynne. Both of course notable mainly for being their partners' respective girlfriends.

Now I'm really reaching department: The last time I've heard, I believe Glory Grant was involved with Randy Robertson in the Spider-Man books, but she's hardly a major character.

You know, I'm not exactly sure! :) I've always thought Voodoo was Creole or African-American (http://community.livejournal.com/torchbearers/22231.html) though.

menshevik said...

What do you mean by "Creole" here? As a historian whose main focus is on the 18th and 19th century, I tend to see "Creole" as a word for the whites born in-country in the Carribean region (including Louisiana) and adjoining parts of Latin America, such as Empress Josephine of France (born in Martinique). But according to my Webster the word is also used in the meaning "of mixed Creole and Negro descent" - is that what you have in mind? I have to ask because I never got into WildCATS and am thus pretty unfamiliar with the character.

Oh, I remembered a couple more all-black couples from the comic-books:
Claire Temple, ex-wife of Bill Foster (Black Goliath, Giant-Man), who later dated Luke Cage
Mindy McPherson and her boyfriend, later husband, Hobie Brown (the Prowler)

And the Falcon's girlfriend was called Leila Taylor.