On -isms: Steamboat

By | Thursday, March 23, 2017 1 comment
I was never an especially big fan of the original Captain Marvel. Nothing wrong with the character, but the limited exposure I had to him in my childhood did little to capture my interest. As an adult, though, I'd periodically run across stories of someone with very fond memories of Captain Marvel, and I kept thinking, "I don't get it." I eventually picked up a couple of the Shazam Archives to try to figure out what the big deal was.

Which is a preface/explanation as to why, until a few weeks ago, I had no clue that some of the stories featured a character by the name of Steamboat. Cap's Wikipedia page makes no mention of him at all; I only just read about him in Brian Cremins' recent Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. (I'll have a full review of the book on another site later.) Given that he first appeared in 1942, it should come as no surprise that a Black character like Steamboat was saddled with all sorts of offensive stereotypes, his Blackface-style appearance being the most immediately obvious.

What I found interesting, though, in reading Cremins' examination of the character was that he calls out both why the character was introduced and why he was later removed from the book. He quotes creator C.C.Beck from an interview from Hogan's Alley: "Steamboat was created to capture the affection of [N]egro readers... [Steamboat] was always a cartoon character, not intended to be realistic at all... he was taken seriously by some, sadly enough."

The intention, it would seem, was one of inclusion. As if to say, "Look, we're not racists; we have a Black character." Of course, the actual depiction of Steamboat was incredibly racist and, to no surprise, some people took offense to it. So much so, in fact, that a group of junior high school students went to editor Will Lieberson to complain. Lieberson noted that a lot of their characters were portrayed in all sorts of ways for the sake of humor, but these kids smartly pointed out that, as the sole Black character in the book, Steamboat wound up representing all Black people. "This is not the Negro race," they said, "but your one-and-a-half million readers will think so." They went on to explain that it wasn't just Steamboat that was a problem, but how race was portrayed in comics would have an impact on how people (especially impressionable kids) thought about race. It was fine to try to attract Black readers with a Black character, but making a mockery of the character would suggest to white readers that that treatment was acceptable.

They made a convincing argument, and Steamboat was dropped in 1945 with no explanation. Although no new Black characters were introduced; apparently, none of the creative team felt comfortable wading into those waters again.

What's noteworthy are some of the reflections from years later. In the quote above, Beck seems to have not really gotten the point. He seems to think that he was just doing something funny, and someone took it as a serious commentary. Writer Otto Binder reflected, "I was all in favor, actually, of anti-discrimination so [dropping Steamboat] didn't bother me, except that we did sigh once in a while because it was fun to depict such dialect groups. We never meant to degrade them, merely play them for humor."

We never meant to degrade them, merely play them for humor.

One of the keys to humor (in general) is to never punch down. You can make fun of those above you, or at your level, but making fun of someone in a lower station than you, someone who has less power than you, is inherently degrading. You're mocking what you have and they lack, and they don't have the power or ability to even defend themselves.

What Binder and Beck never seemed to realize was that Blacks have never been in a position of power and authority in the United States. They were considered the least of all races, and were (unfortunately) treated accordingly. Especially in the 1940s -- Brown v Board of Education was still a decade away, and the Civil Rights Act another decade-plus after that. Jim Crow laws were still very much on the books, and Black people were simply not welcome in large swaths of the country. How can you not see mocking a group who's been forced into that position as punching down?

That seems somewhat obvious in hindsight, but it's sadly dreadfully difficult for some people to see that kind of disconnect in the moment. People have an uncanny ability to hold blatantly oppositional beliefs simultaneously, and can be blind to the discordance even if it's pointed out to them. And I don't point all this out to besmirch Binder and Beck; I'm merely using them as an example of how good intentions can still be damaging and how simply talking to some people in the position/role you're writing about will help to shed a better light on how your character might be received.
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Phil said...

Brings to mind Ebony White. The Spirit is the greatest comic ever in my opinion. But it's saddled with the stereotype. Yes Ebony had his positive points to his character that wasn't the problem. His depiction was the problem. Eisner realized it and addressed it several times later.