Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The State of Black Comic Book Characters: Conclusion
I'm not sure if I made it clear when I started this blog series, but I'm white. I know Rodney was quick to point it out when he shared my first article on Twitter. I'm not certain if it makes me disingenuous to forget to remind my readers of my social context, but some readers might note that a white person is the only person who can just decide to end his racial criticism of the comic books that he loves. I'll be the first to admit it: if comic writers and artists are giving me great stories that I can connect to, I honestly think I could get away reading books that are entirely composed of white characters. This may have something to do with the severe lack of minorities in some of the places I've lived, but it also has a lot to do with what privilege and whiteness do for a person. I honestly think that it would take me out of a story if all of our good and upright protagonists were white and all of our villains were black gang members who spoke only in broken English, but beyond that stark of a distinction I could get by.
I think this probes at a deeper question: Is this sort of reaction all right? Can we call literature good if it has no sense of justice, if it ignores the things that the status quo already find much too easy to ignore in the first place? This is the line between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty and justice, if ever such a thing could exist. Is art even considered art if it has no content that challenges, if it only placates and brings comfort? Or is that something else entirely?
My home town of Grand Rapids decided that it wished to develop a strong sense of culture while I was enjoying my travels. I am often hearing national news items about things like Art Prize, where art installations are featured throughout downtown Grand Rapids for a span of several weeks or about Heritage Hill which is considered one of the best historical neighborhoods in the country. When I was young, the only thing I ever heard about Grand Rapids was that it was the second cloudiest metropolitan area in the nation behind Seattle. While this fact could lead to providing a handful of artists with motivation for a blue period, it was rarely anything to be proud of.
In order to kick off Art Prize this year, Baltimore film director John Waters spoke at the Civic Theater and my girlfriend - who brags about her step father Cliff seeing one of the first scratch-and-sniff film experiences Waters ever put on - was quick to get tickets. Waters was introduced as a film maker but also as a collector. I didn't know if this meant that he collected strands of hair from his victims in his strangely successful second career as a serial killer or if he simply enjoyed his attic full of pogs, but after thinking for a moment I became aware that the announcer wanted the audience (many of whom were artists themselves) to know that Waters likes to buy art. Waters explained that he has never bought a piece of art that didn't originally repulse him. This might be an overstatement of art's connection to what is good and clean and moral and conservative, but I think it is a good starting point. I believe, with Waters, that art should trouble, disturb, move or de-center you.
I absolutely could get by reading comic books without thinking about issues of race. But it would be a little ironic to read the stories of superheroes constantly dealing with complex issues of justice without forcing myself to think of issues of justice, be it social, economic, racial or otherwise. At the end of the day, however, I would be reading comic books for the same reason my mother reads romance novels: it helps her pass the time between work and sleep and it conforms to an easy-to-predict formula. That just wouldn't fly for me. I am one of those armchair revolutionaries. When I see how much time I've spent watching reality TV on Netflix and think of all the adventures I could have gone on and art I could have made, be it literature or music or whatever, I hurt, and I want to rebel against myself. If I am going to be spending my time reading a comic book, one of two things has to happen: the book has to challenge me, or I have to challenge the book, preferably both.
I may have teased the idea of going back to a life where I can ignore issues of race in comic books, but I feel like the people who know me know that I could never do this. If it were possible before I began this short-lived blog series it certainly wasn't afterwards. I was able to humbly enter into a dialogue with people who don't have the option to check out when it comes to these characters. They will be made fun of if they dress as black Wolverine for Halloween. And I do believe that is a worst fate than being made fun of for being fat Spider-man, although I have only experienced the latter. In addition to this, I did an audit of every current comic book by the big two, Marvel and DC, from the New DCU/X-Men: Schism until present and gave all of these comics an incredibly subjective grade. I know where all of these comics stand when it comes to their black characters, and although it is a much better place than that of Asian, Latino/Latina, and individuals who belong to the dreaded "other" checkbox, it is not a good place. If I'm allowed to quote The Jeffersons, these people need some "movin' on up", and they need it fast.
If depression and white guilt weren't enough, the final reason that I need to end this project is because I have grown to despise articles where I find myself as the arbiter of what is good and bad. With an issue of race it is especially bad to place yourself on the top of the food chain, as judge, jury and executioner, because here's a gruesome fact: there have been white people who have made this decision and black people who have been lynched, enslaved, tortured and oppressed as a result. And that can't be me.
Continue the conversation. Bring questions and statements to this blog in the comments section. Challenge me on my Facebook. Hit me up. I want this to go on either forever or until everyone is hunky dory and there are no divisions of power. Look at your comic books differently. Learn to enjoy them not just for the intrigue of their plots, the development of their characters and the beauty of their illustrations - learn to love comics for their justice.