Tackling Racism In Comics

By | Monday, January 19, 2009 3 comments
Today, here in the U.S., we're celebrating Martin Lurther King, Jr. Day. And with the inauguration of America's first black President, there will undoubtedly be any number of pieces written about racism and prejudice. Indeed, there has been a notable increase in racial discussions since Barack Obama's election day victory.

The question I find myself asking, though, is: is it really a dialogue at all? A dialogue requires two or more people trading thoughts and ideas. Most of what I've seen/heard has been simply one person spouting off their opinions. I'm not complaining about that, mind you, just that I have to wonder how much it's helping.

See, the thing is that people generally know that racism is wrong at a conscious level. If you sit down and read most comics discussing racism, the issues that are brought up tend to be at the Archie Bunker end of the scale, where the character is blatantly racist. Even the graphic biographies of Dr. King and Malcolm X spotlight the more intense moments of racial tensions in their lives. What you see very little of is this type of thing...
That's the face of racism that still hasn't really been addressed: the fact that most of the heroes are white males, with a disproportionally small number of minorities. Aside from American Born Chinese, I can't think of another comic from the past few decades that's really addressed racism in a more reflective manner like that. It's all Nazis and the KKK and fistfights and lasers.

Granted, it wouldn't make sense for EVERY book to be about the subtler aspects of racism. But it would make sense for characters living in large, heavily populated areas like New York and Metropolis to encounter more minorities than they do. And it would make sense to see more of them in positions of power, and not just innocent bystanders in the street saying, "Look! Up in the sky!" Sure, comic fans have Robbie Robertson, but not a whole lot else. How about a city mayor, or a corporate CEO who tries to take over Lexcorp, or an independent genius inventor who's hired by Tony Stark, or...?

I think a lot of the issue isn't racism as it's classically known and discussed, but just one of lazy thinking. Why can't the next semi-recurring character to be introduced be a minority? Jack Kirby had this radical idea years ago that started off with a thought not unlike, "Why can't the next superhero to be introduced be black?" And, while Black Panther still isn't quite the household name that Superman is, he's had a long life in comics and is set to be the star of his own show on BET this year. It just takes a slight shift in the head-space of the creator to not just spit back what they've been doing. Who is the next MacGregor in High Moon? Who are Cloak and Dagger's friends and supporting characters? Who are members of Atomic Robo's team? Don't strictly emulate the bubble around your little world, but flip on the news from time to time and get a sense of the bigger picture. Then put THAT into your stories. I think that's what Dr. King was ultimately hoping for...
Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
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Marc Sobel said...

Gilbert Hernandez's story, Love & Rockets X, is all about racism in Los Angeles in the early 90s.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait till you read First Second's upcoming STUFFED, by Glenn Eichler and art by Nick Bertozzi. Definitely not Nazis and KKK but it gets into the very things you're on about here.

Jason Green said...

Sure, comic fans have Robbie Robertson, but not a whole lot else. How about a city mayor...?

Actually, in Amazing Spider-Man right now, a black man, Bill Hollister, is running for mayor, and his daughter Lily is dating Harry Osborn. None of this is treated as anything special, just two characters who happen to be black.