On -isms: Sincerity

By | Thursday, April 07, 2016 1 comment
I had a conversation a couple weeks ago with a comic creator who is a white male. He's done more than a few stories over the years featuring other white men, including brief takes on Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hulk, and Iron Man. He does prefer working on his own creations, not surprisingly, but those aren't always guaranteed sales, so he sometimes does work-for-hire pieces as well.

But when it came to one of his co-creations, his collaborator -- also a white male -- wrote in a Black protagonist. He raised a metaphoric eyebrow because the story was set in the late 1800s and he didn't feel either of them were qualified to tell such a story. Although this was a few years prior, he was afraid of a reaction not unlike what Mark Waid saw when Strange Fruit came out last year. He felt that, as two white men, they had no real place to tell the story of a Black man in the 1800s. It was a topic that they couldn't have any insider knowledge on, and thus they'd be seen as mis-appropriating a history that wasn't theirs.

I think this is something a number of creators struggle with. In light of so many creators getting their work ripped to shreds when they attempt to include some minority character(s), those same creators are reluctant to make further attempts at inclusion. They'll be content to "write what they know" and stick to their own white-privileged experiences, rather than try to bring a spotlight on some other group.

And since the industry, in general, doesn't do a very good job including minority creators, we're left with a glut of stories about white cishetero men. Which obviously doesn't help matters any since it just continues to promote the status quo.

Here's the thing about that story with the Black hero, though. Ultimately, there was no backlash against it. Now, granted, these guys don't have the name recognition that Mark Waid has, but they have been published by Marvel and DC so they're not exactly unknowns here either. Their story came out, tons of people read it, and there was no great outcry screaming, "You don't have any right to tell this story!"

Part of it came down to research. The writer here spent a lot of time -- literally, years -- doing his homework on the era. He was very well-read when it came to how life was different for Blacks versus whites at that time and place in history. Naturally, he drew on that research when writing the story, and that informed how their character talked and acted, as well as how others talked and acted around him.

But almost as importantly, he was making a sincere effort to understand where that might put his protagonist emotionally. He wasn't simply lifting some words and phrases he'd come across, and he wasn't trying to overlay his experiences on top of his characters. He was trying to show the character as a real person, and he was trying to sympathize as much as he possibly could with the circumstances the character was in and to portray that in as an emotionally honest way as possible.

Now, whether or not he was entirely successful is a matter of opinion, but the point is that he was making a very sincere attempt to get to the "truth" of the character and his circumstances through a great deal of research. And that sincerity shows through. The results of that research show through. It's not a matter of watching 12 Years a Slave and saying you get it. I think it's a matter of trying to be honest and sincere with your approach. I think that, even if you get it wrong, if your attempt is genuine, you'll get corrected but not flayed.

My point is that creators shouldn't shy away from Black or Latino or gay or trans or any sort of minority characters because they're afraid of a backlash. A backlash will only come if they seemingly haven't made a genuine attempt to portray the emotional honesty and truth of those characters. In short, just make them people, not stereotypes.
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Anonymous said...

Or... consider what Alpha Flight became after the Canadian John Byrne left the series. Any sense of Canadian-ness simply disappeared.
The problem is with the cultural upbringing of creators, who many times do not have any knowledge of foreign cultures. Even one as close as Canada!!