Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From Taboo To Mainstream

I must agree with those readers who feel Lois has become too oriented towards "social causes," "minority groups," and so on. A comic book must primarily be a source of entertainment if it is to sell, and it is easy to jeopardize its success in this respect by overemphasizing moral messages. This applies to Lois' Women's Lib convictions also.

--letter printed in "Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane" in 1972.

Here is a rehash of the old complaint that adding too much of the "social causes" of the day will wreck a comic book & alienate its audience. In this case, the complaints were about too much women's lib & "minority" issues in the "Lois Lane." You could easily hear such a complaint today about including gay characters in a comic.

Was it difficult for DC & Marvel to integrate characters of color into their books back then? Did they get complaints? Was the issue ever raised internally that expanding the diversity of their superheroes might alienate fans?

And once they had characters like Black Panther and the John Stewart Green Lantern in place, was there a taboo against having them in any sort of situation that might be construed as an interracial romance?

How did comics get to the point where Jessica Jones & Luke Cage could become a couple? It seems so normal in comics now, but was it a taboo twenty years ago?

Of course, twenty years ago you had Storm & Forge. Was there any controversy over their relationship? Why did it seem harder to have an interracial relationship in movies & TV at that time than in comic books?

I'm throwing these questions out to you now because I see a parallel with the way gay characters are handled in comics today.

Twenty years from now, will having gay characters in the Justice League & X-Men -- ones that are just mainstream high-profile members and don't get killed every issue -- be absolutely commonplace?

Is it all about the passage of time?

Or will gay characters, while included, still have that sort of metaphorical baggage in terms of being disproportionately killed off, having f**ked-up doomed relationships, etc.?

And while interracial relationships in current pop-culture seems somewhat mainstream, are they still suffering from the same metaphorical baggage?

The most overt example of this in my memory is the interracial couple in the "Dawn of the Dead" remake who have the demon zombie baby that has to be shot. And now you have Luke Cage & Jessica Jones's baby possibly Skrully.

Anyway, when will different types of people just be considered people in these pop culture narratives -- without baggage, without subtext, without things that undermine them built-into the script?

Or can that really be? Or do you need a wealth of diversity within the industry itself to achieve that goal?

Or can you really fully escape the baggage of a history of being misunderstood & discriminated against?


  1. As I'm sure you well know, the American Comics Industry changes verrrrry slowwwwly in regards to social awareness and diversity.

    Chrisopher Priest(/Jim Owsley)'s stories of getting his head rubbed for good luck by his co-workers at Marvel in the 80s is one that always sticks with me, as is Alan Moore's reported shock at realizing (due to a reader's letter thanking him) that Tom Strong's marriage to Dhalua was perhaps the first actual interracial marriage involving a lead character of a mainstream American comic book.

    It's also worth pointing out that to those people who are bigoted enough to look down on interracial romances, there is a big difference between an interracial romance and an interracial marriage, since one of the biggest core fears involved in that kind of bigotry is of mixed race children diluting the racial purity of a civilization.

    There is also a huge difference between a white man (Forge) romancing but not marrying a black woman (Storm) and a black man (Luke Cage) marrying and having a child with a white woman (Jessica Jones).

  2. I would like to see as much diveristy in comics as possible. Being a white guy married to a black woman, I'm thrilled anytime I get to see another couple that reflects my marriage in popular culture. I'm a big fan of the Cage/Jones marriage (though it is rumored that she will go through a race change for the proposed Cage film - but that becomes a whole other issue). My wife and I love Yorick and 355's growth in closeness (until the last issue).

    I'd like to see more gay characters in mainstream comics. Unfortunately, the subtlty of sexuality can be lost on many comic book fans. They'll complain when a charater is all "I'm GAY!" and say they're being hit over the head with a message. But when it is done in very subtle manner, as with the much debated Rictor from X-Factor, they don't want to even consider the possiblility of them being homosexual. Oh, the quandry.

  3. BTW, Forge is Native American, so mid-80s white America may have been more willing to let members of separate minorities mix it up with out batting an eye.

  4. I'd hardly say mainstream'ed for the modern day issues, but I like to think that the change is, glacially, happening.

  5. Was it difficult for DC & Marvel to integrate characters of color into their books back then? Did they get complaints?

    In the 80s, Marvel got bomb threats when Jim Rhodes replaced Tony Stark as IRON MAN.

  6. Having not really been reading X-Men during that time, I didn't realize that Forge was a Native American. That's a good point to bring up.

  7. You know, I never once considered the (potential) skrull Cage/Jones baby to be a metaphor for mixed-race offspring -- mainly because it seemed to me to be more a metaphor for the the potential for any parent to take a look at their kid and think, "Who is this?"

    Children are alien lifeforms, in that they are inevitably more than the sum of their parts.

  8. A few years ago, a certain DC Comics writer left a message board post bemoaning that Green Lantern had become gay (misunderstanding that it was only one of Kyle's close friends who had been gay-bashed) and that Beast was gay (ol' Hank McCoy screwing with the press in the Morrison run at that time). Or maybe it was the rumours about Iceman. I know it was GL and an original X-Man that bothered him. The implication was his kids shouldn't have to read about gay characters.

    The reason I remember which characters (more or less) that he was griping about was that I thought in 1976, someone could have said exactly the same thing about having a black character, Storm, join the X-Men and about the John Stewart version of Green Lantern. Of course, today those complaints would rightly be seen as racist. But this writer's legion of fans were giving him a free pass on comments that struck me as very homophobic. (I made it a point to stop buying comics from this writer.)

    But aside from that, the implication was that gay characters suddenly make comics adult and sexualized. And I wonder why that is. Why is, say -- Reed and Sue -- not sexualized (even though they produced two kids) or Clark and Lois deemed okay? Some degree of straight romance can be shown in mainstream comics and be considered normal and wholesome (well, at least before the Didio days). But even having a gay character in the same situations is labelled as mature.

    It's a weird double-standard.

    Harper's Magazine just did a Women in Refridgators style piece about all the gay heroes in comics, and also mentioned that there are only 7 regular gay characters on mainstream TV.

    I remember Neil Gaiman was once asked why there were so many gay characters in Sandman, and he said it's because he knew a lot of gay people. And then he added that he's never met anyone who dresses up in tights and fights crime, but no one questions their appearance in comics.

  9. Oh, and about the character being seen as people, I remember an issue of Alpha Flight (v. 2) where someone briefly summarizing the heroes. He called Northstar "the gay one". Northstar responded that no, he was the "one with light powers". (Actually, I thought Jean-Paul's primary power was superspeed, but that's me quibbling.)


  10. They're going to make Jessica Jones black for the Luke Cage movie?!?! How fucking stupid is that? But then again, Hollywood also wanted to change all the main characters in Anansi Boys to white, including Anansi himself. Fortunately, Neil Gaiman simply declined to sell the film rights.

  11. Allen, your post reminded me of something that Charles Schulz said in the book "Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz ".

    He says that, when he first introduced a black kid to the cast of Peanuts, he actually received a letter from someone asking him if he could please not show the white kids and the black kid in the same school together.

    I also remember the Tom and Dalhua Strong episode, I think the letter was printed in the second or third issue of Tom Strong.

  12. "I'm a big fan of the Cage/Jones marriage (though it is rumored that she will go through a race change for the proposed Cage film - but that becomes a whole other issue)."


    I can see if they just want to make it a Luke Cage movie out of continuity...

    But his relationship with Jessica Jones has a lot character & sweetness and it would have been interesting to explore.

  13. "Forge is Native American, so mid-80s white America may have been more willing to let members of separate minorities mix it up with out batting an eye."

    This is true. I didn't even think about that with Forge.

    A lot of times movies & comics & whatnot will team an African-American with someone of Asian heritage.

    Looking at the current crop of mainstream TV & Movies, I don't see them as being soooo very progressive in this way.

    I mean, at least in Britain you have "Doctor Who" where interracial relationships are very commonplace. Another British show, "Hustle," also featured interracial relationships with their main characters prominently.

    But then you've got a movie like "The Pelican Brief" where the Julia Roberts & Denzel Washington characters can't be overtly romantic with each other, though I think Roberts said in an interview that they "snuck" a clue in the movie's ending that the two end up with each other. Why the need to "sneak" it?

    And how about "The Tuxedo" with Jackie Chan & Jennifer Love Hewitt? Why weren't they a hot romantic couple in that movie? Why does this barrier of chastity have to be placed if the leading man is of color?

    Jackie Chan is cute!

  14. Interracial dating in comics is nothing new. Cyborg had a white girlfriend back in the Wolfman/Perez Titans days, apparently, and Danny Rand dated Misty Knight for years.

    There have probably been more interracial relationships in comics than black with black relationships. Storm has certainly had her share, while her tally for black lovers is at... one. Maybe two if you count Bishop.

  15. I don't think Misty Knight even dates black guys at all.

    Comics aren't necessarily this progressive format but there are many different interracial relationships.

    I realize there are a lot of them are dating and hookups, but rarely do superhero comic book characters get married. It can be a big change in the status quo that readers are more put off on.

    I imagine that even if Jessica Jones had been black and appeared during the heyday of Luke Cage, they still would not have been married since writers would not like telling stories were Luke Cage could not be involved in another tryst.

    Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were not even the first couple to get married and have interracial babies.

  16. No, Lois, they're not staring at you as if you're a freak. They're staring at you as if you're a well-known white celebrity parading around in blackface. That minstrel thing might have played in the 50s, but, come on, it's the socially relevant 70s now.

  17. Jeez Val, you asked a lot of questions...

    "Was it difficult for DC & Marvel to integrate characters of color into their books back then?"

    Yes and no, I suspect. Both companies got grief about it, but at Marvel the lunatics took over the asylum, so they were going to be as liberal as they wanted to be. DC was always the more conservative company, and they had far fewer social crusaders (as I recall, O'Neil, Isabella, and maybe Skeats.) Both companies suffered from institutionalized racism, but at least Marvel bothered to hire people of color, and even promote them under Shooter. DC seemed happy to just outsource the occasional job to the Phillipino studios until what, the 90's?

    "Was the issue ever raised internally that expanding the diversity of their superheroes might alienate fans?"

    Possibly, but let me tell you this: I ran two comic shop in Pasadena, TX for eight years from the mid-90's to early oughts. My customers were at least evenly divided between white and hispanic with healthy black representation. For all those years, I tried to pimp DC, because I was a fanboy. Thing was, every now and again, it was pointed out to me that where exactly was the quality minority representation at DC. All they had was the black version of ________, who was always weaker and under utilized. Among Latinos, I sold more Image and indies than DC. Over the long haul, Marvel really prospered for investing in the social ideals of Jews and liberals.

    "And once they had characters like Black Panther and the John Stewart Green Lantern in place, was there a taboo against having them in any sort of situation that might be construed as an interracial romance?"

    T'Challa didn't really start dating white girls until fairly recently, but speaking as a fan of both characters, John Stewart isn't into black chicks. There was a non-starter black romance for John in the mid-80's, but all others have been Caucasoid aliens (late 80's) or white (early 90's.)He even "stole" a girlfriend of Hal's on the Mosaic world.

    "How did comics get to the point where Jessica Jones & Luke Cage could become a couple?"

    MAX? Luke Cage and Jessica Jones? It's not exactly Captain America shacking up with Storm, is it?

    "Twenty years from now, will having gay characters in the Justice League & X-Men -- ones that are just mainstream high-profile members and don't get killed every issue -- be absolutely commonplace?"

    No, because all races seem united in their homophobia, and still consider it a deviant behavior. It's not like Baptist are going to find a piece of scripture that makes them go, "wait-- the queers have to rebuild the temple before Jesus can come back. Let's try to tolerate the kikes for Christ's sake!" Sadly, my experience with the black community makes it clear to me it is somehow less tolerant of homosexuality than even my own. Quite a feat!

    As for the interracial/special Skrull baby, doesn't that go more toward comics' hatred of marriage, children, and adult behavior in general? This is an industry founded on the prospect that the best solution to most problems is to hit it with a gloved fist. Kids are a liability in that environment, and worst of all, they take heroes right out of the all-important "single 28-year-old-arrested-development" mold.

  18. David Brothers, Storm and Bishop were never an item. For half a second it looked like the editoral office was going to put them together shortly after his introduction, but thankfully they never followed through.

  19. While I'm not disputing that mainstream comics are behind the curve in terms of racial politics, that doesn't really distinguish them from other forms of popular entertainment. No one really blows a gasket when primary protagonists have an interracial relationship in TV or movies, probably because it so seldom happens (outside movies that are, in some sense, about interracial relationships).

  20. People still blow gaskets. I remember when the 4400 first aired and some people were up in arms about the interracial relationship on that show, deeming it "in your face" and "only there to make a statement".

  21. Did anyone complain about the Green Lantern/Hawkgirl romance on the Justice League cartoon.

    I certainly know there were a lot of people complaining about the tokenism of including John Stewart and Hawkgirl, versus Kyle/Hal or Hawkman. I always thought the JL cartoon was smart in including those characters, and avoiding the Apache Chief/Black Vulcan syndrome.

  22. the baby isnt skrully it has been drinking skrull milk from the skrull cows dating back to f4 #2

  23. Its surprising that someone who demonstrates so much interest in issues of race, sexuality and class doesn't understand the massive difference between a relationship between a black man and a white woman and the opposite. In America that difference is much bigger than apples and oranges. More like apples and volkswagons. For you to honestly compare Jackie Chan and JLH to Luke Cage and his white chick is ridiculous. The entire catalog of twentieth century American Culture can literally be reduced to "variations on the white man's fear of the black man's penis." With a very few recent exceptions, asian men have remained both completely marginalized and completely desexualized and aren't a threat. why do you think castration was a regular part of lynching? The Jeffersons had an interracial couple on tv but of course it was a white man with a black woman. White men aren't threatened by this and so the power structure isn't threatened, so innocent men don't get hung from a tree and have his genitals burnt off. In the Pelican Brief, if he was white and she was black they would have been fine, but the other way around? No way. Not in America. One of the reasons that the recent King Kong was so awful was that it was made by an australian who clearly did not understand that the original was in fact a powerful metaphor about the white man's fear of the black man's penis (as well as a fascinating discourse on clothing).

    And Cyborg's white girlfriend was only introduced after his "accident", the one that manifestly replaced his penis and genitals with metal underpants. His whole storyline in the Wolfman years was about him not being a man anymore (obvious castration issues to me when i was twelve). It was perfectly acceptable to show black men having white girlfriends when they no longer possess penises and testicles with which to batter blonde labia apart...

  24. ummmkk... that stereotype is so overdone too...

    most black guys i know have average penises, its the skinny young white blonde guys with the huge ones, i know cause i have put many a black man to shame, so i highly doubt its all about jealous over black dick.

  25. Being arguably the biggest prick to regularly comment on this blog, as well as being possessed of three years experience in the sex industry, I feel uniquely qualified to play MythBuster/CockBlocker on this tangent...

    The Mandingo Myth:
    This goes back to the slave days and continues in the locker room. White folks see a flaccid African dong, compare it to the Caucasian counterpart, and cringe. However, and this is purely anecdotal, black men seem to be "showers." It plumps when things are cookin', but there isn't as much variance in length from limp to eager. Not that it matters because...

    Average Penis Size:
    Worldwide, 5-5.9 inches. Rarely below 3.7" or above 6.2". I Wiki'd that shit. Obviously, studies vary. Masters & Johnson came up with 6" back in the day, but last I heard, the U.S. average was only about 5 1/4 inches (which totally owned Canada's 4.75", so take that, socialized healthcare!) I doubt penises have gotten smaller over the decades, and my brief nursing home experience definately weighs into my opinion. One assumes a greater proportion of the population just felt more comfortable letting researchers whip out a ruler, and that would include a more racially diverse sampling.

    More personal case history:
    Members of my family are hung. 9" and up. I missed those genes by more inches than I care to discuss. Now that's cracker mongrel DNA, and it's an aberration. In my experience based, on information gathered from a wide pool of sources within the Houston metropolitan area, here's a rough genital comparison by race accounting for length/accomodation in both genders...

    Asian (non-Semetic)

    There are spoilers in all races, and human genitals are not proportionate to their bodies. I've known Mexican boys barely over 5' in height who were a good 7" in length, and white girls who stood over 6' who couldn't take more than 4". Thing is though, it seems there's no more than a quarter inch difference on average from race to race, and I don't hear nearly as much about the vastly more important girth, so let's not get overheated here.

    The one that always got me curious though were the East Indians. I rarely encountered them, but the ones I did were vastly disproportionate vagina ruiners. I'm much more interested in gathering more data in that department than seeing Aryan boys and proud Negroes start a pissing contest with one another. However the porn I've seen suggests that yes, dots aren't all that much different from feathers, and on through all the colors of ass.

    Finally, King Kong was about fear of a black penis. It remains hilarious to me that while black and white Americans still view each other as opposities and enemies, they're far closer culturally to one another than virtually any other two races (or even domestic and European honkies. Can't we all just recognize the truly insidious race that we must all band together to stop... those goddamned Eskimos!