Friday, July 11, 2008

About The Memin Pinguin Controversy

Adalisa gives us a bit more background on the cultural significance of Memin Pinguin -- recently pulled off Walmart shelves -- in Mexico. A good point she makes is that this character was created in the 1940s and was never revamped or updated, surviving to the present day on nothing but reprints.

Now, obviously, Memin Pinguin is an offensive-looking character. I can speak nothing regarding the content of the comic, having not read it. But his design, and the design of his mother, are clearly based on harsh stereotypes.

That said, what do we do with the instances of Memin Pinguins in our own backyard?

Do pockets of our community find themselves feeling nostalgic and forgiving over a character like Ebony White from The Spirit -- since it's a part of our own American pop-culture past? How about the portrayal of the Japanese in some comics during WW II? Or the cult over cheesecake bondage covers from both the comics and pulps of an earlier era? I've heard/read impassioned defenses of all these things by fans.

I've read as many defenses of Ebony White as I've read condemnations. Certainly, the character had his moments of self-sacrifice and heroism, often helped The Spirit solve cases, and was an integral part of that comic strip. On the other hand, he was drawn in a very stereotypical manner -- not unlike Memin -- and there was a lot of humor had at his expense.

From the Wikipedia entry on Ebony White:

"Eisner later expressed mixed feelings about his portrayal of Ebony White. He acknowledged that he was conscious at the time that he was using a racial stereotype and was unapologetic about it, but defended doing so by stating that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity.""

The difference, it seems to me, is that The Spirit's current publisher, DC Comics, does not try to push the Ebony White of the 1940s onto our mass market shelves (though he remains intact in their specialty archive editions). Instead what we have is a revisioning of the character (as depicted in the Darwyn Cooke drawing below) -- something that Adalisa says in her article Mexican publishers are too cheap or dismissive of comics culture to invest in.

I am glad that Memin Pinguin was taken off the Walmart shelves. Whatever its pedigree in Mexico, I really don't think it has a place here.

It's just that before we pat our backs a little too firmly over how much more "PC" we are in America than Mexican comic book readers, we need to revisit our own past as well. To defend the golden age Ebony White or exaggerated portrayals of Asians in wartime comics or blatant sexism in a variety of comic books on the basis of "nostalgia" and "a more innocent time" (a tactic that, as I get older, I'm having less and less patience for) and then condemn Memin Pinguin as racist is hypocrisy.

Yes, Will Eisner was a genius and awesome, but in the 1940s he used the stereotypical pop-cultural shorthand of the day to design the look and character of Ebony White. So did the creator of Memin Pinguin. The thing to do now is to acknowledge the past and create something far better in the present.


  1. In my country Memin pingüin is as famous as mickey mouse or pikachu!.

    He is not racial for love of god
    everyone here had read or has been a fan sometime in their lives.

    sometimes I dont understand USA.
    Censored Mr. Popo in dragon ball and erased chocolove lips from shaman king manga

    Memin pinguin is better than the civil war thing that marvel sell to kids today , it shouldnt taken from wall mart.
    it has messagues of frienship and social critique that still apply today.

    And we will have the same controversy in 5 years like we did with the memin pengüin postal stamps a while back.

  2. I'm reading the Best of the Spirit trade with the original Ebony White character, and it is disturbing. At the same time, it would have been disingenuous for Will Eisner to offer an apology for something he deliberately did years before, even if people were less sensitive or more ignorant about these things.

    Or perhaps we're just better at covering up our racism these days, or channeling it into more "acceptable" stereotypes. I mean, racial typing and coding are still alive and well in other less naive and more insidious forms. Spike Lee's made an awesome film-making career pointing these things out- I love the guy, and even he's goofed up in other areas by trading in other forms of negative stereotyping.

    Anyway, all these mea culpas tend to create a certain cynicism in me anyway. Scummy provocateurs like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh are about as sincere as... as... some totally insincere and hateful thing I can't think of a comparison too right now... when they apologize. And all these other media-driven public self-lacerations (Michael Richards, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Charlie Sheen) are like a line of flagellants in Medieval time, taking the sins of the world upon themselves, but for personal or professional gain.

    I mean, which are Michael Richards' true feelings- what he screamed in anger in a comedy club, or the crying he did on TV later when everyone excoriated him? What about the Rev. Jesse Jackson's various apologies now? Sincere or expedient?

    Why should an apology be a "get out of social jail" card? Not that it always works to rehabilitate the person- Richards, again. Mel Gibson. But there's frequently an uneasy element of "What I'm REALLY sorry about is getting caught."

    Better still an honest and direct explanation. "Look, this is the kind of idiotic thing we did back then. None of us can take it back, we can't pretend it never happened, you can see it in print. Hopefully I'm a bit more mature these days but I'll probably screw up again at some point because I'm only human."

    Anyway, whatever the intent of Memin Pinguin in its original context, it just isn't acceptable in the U.S. Shouldn't be. The imagery is loaded and inflammatory, the same way Ebony White's original appearance is, whatever his positive qualities as a character.

  3. Val, thanks for linking to my post. I guess I should've made more clear that I agree with the issue of how Memin is drawn. If Manelick de la Parra (the owner of Editorial Vid and widower of Yolanda Vargas Duche) really wanted to prove a point when the whole controversy started, he should've changed his looks. It is a question of his facial structure, he can keep the clothing that is the most noticeable thing on his design (Especially if he was planning on importing it to the States! I wonder who was the genius behind that marketing move and then groan... It should've never been sold in the USA in it's current form, and in the current climate) I only try to put things in perspective, that's all, especially when I kept reading posts that said that the story itself was racist.

    @Algeya: With all due respect, I think you're missing the forest for the trees. The issue here is cultural understanding. We can't ask american people to see that the story of Memin is not racist, if we refuse to see why they see the image of him is racist. If we want to avoid this same controversy in five years, we *need* to find a neutral point in this discussion. And that's not going to happen if both sides start yelling at each other that the other just doesn't get it. Remember, Hergé (Creator of Tintin) had a similar situation with the now infamous Tintin in the Congo, which was pulled from publication in the reprints because everyone agreed that while Tintin itself is a great comic, that particular book is dripping with racism and privilege, not only in story but also in the art.

  4. Eisner talked a bit about Ebony in the intro to his Fagin the Jew graphic novel. (I'm not sure how much of it I can include without infringing on some copyright, but here are some passages anyway.)

    "Ebony spoke with the classic 'Negro' dialect and delivered a gentle humor that gave warmth to balance the coldness of crime stories. In my eagerness for readership, I thought I was on to a good thing."

    "As the rising civil rights movement became more prominent, I introduced a well-spoken black detective and treated my hero's black assistant in a more sensitive manner."

    "[I was alerted] to the reality that, while my stories were designed as entertainment, I was nonetheless feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image."

    "[As] I continued my career [after The Spirit ended], I never recognized that my rendering of Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature."

  5. Comics are stories like these are a visual medium. Images like these affect us in powerful ways. When I was a kid, I read excerpts of the Tintin adventures in BOYS' LIFE (yes, they still published that in the 1970s)and got a kick out of them. It wasn't until a few years later that I saw the racist portrayal of Africans. It just ruined the character for me. To this day, I can't pick up or look at a collection.

    We can scream "too PC" but the truth is, it's not only stereotyping, it's not NEEDED to tell a good story. You can't tell me drawing someone with gigantic lips or bizarrely slanted eyes is any more valid than drawing someone with gigantic shoulders and tiny feet like certain Image artists do.

    It serves nothing except racism.

  6. "I can speak nothing regarding the content of the comic, having not read it", you say. Then how on earth do you and others condemn it?

    In the 1940s, when Memin was created, do you know how the US treated its black citizens? My mother visited New York as a girl, in 1960. She was shocked, embarassed, and even frightened that Woolworth's had 'No Negroes' on their door. Do you know why it was so frightening? Because in Mexico we had nothing like that, and never had. It seemed alien and obscene to her, an act of barbaric and cruel people.

    Mexico never had racial segregation (class segregation is another matter). Mexico also never had slavery. The first act of the insurgent army during the war of independence was to prohibit slavery 'under penalty of death'. Also 'any foreign slave, by simply setting foot in mexican soil, will immediately be declared free.' This was 1810.

    And now we're meant to put up with Americans, of all people, claiming that we, of all people, are racist? Over Memin Pinguin - the good little poor boy who teaches life lessons to the other little boys? The son of the hard-working laundress? The character created to teach young readers not to judge others by how they look or how rich they are, but by the goodness of their hearts? Seriously?

    This is offensive to me. If I have to defend Memin at all, and I don't see why I should have to, it certainly will not be to the same people who wouldn't serve him at a diner when he was written and drawn. Racism is *your* charming cultural creation, not ours. We despised your ways then, and we still doubt you.

  7. From The New York Times:

    "A recent commercial on national television featured a dark-skinned man in a white tuxedo telling viewers that at Comex, a Mexican paint company, "they're working like n-----s to offer you a white sale."

    There were no complaints about the ad "because we don't have a racism problem -- that's the key to it all," said Marisela Vergada, an account executive at Alazraki Agency, the large Mexican advertising firm that produced the 20-second spot. "It is simply an expression that everyone uses."

    Such "expressions" pop up in a commercial for packaged toast that features a black baker boasting that his skin color gives him the expertise to recognize the right shade of toast. Aunt Jemima pancake mix goes by the brand name "La Negrita" here."

  8. Yeah, but Dorrie none of that explains why Memin Pinguin has to look inhuman compared to the other characters. You're still missing the point that many times what seems totally fine in one culture is a total no-go in another. No one- as far as I know- has said Mexico needs to censor this within Mexico, just that it's not going to be sold in American Wal-Marts because it offends here. We're more sensitive to these things because we've had exactly the experiencees you describe.

    I live in Japan now and I'm sometimes witness to things that absolutely would not be acceptable back home. Like the recent high school festival where hundreds of students did a "Billy Blanks' Boot Camp" dance wearing blackface. Did they have racist intentions? Doubtful. But without having more multicultural experiences, they're going to alienate allies or even ALTs and onlookers who are more aware of the significance of such displays.

    It all seems so innocent until feelings are hurt.

    So, in a racism-free society, just why DO artists depict people of African decent in such a racially coded fashion? Why does Memin have to look exactly like a racist, subhuman caricature when other races aren't similarly dehumanized?

  9. @Dorrie: Please, read what Val is saying. She's not condemning the story inside the Memin books. She's condemning and with a lot of reason, the image of Memin himself. The image has racist overtones for anyone who lives in the USA and that can't be up to discussion because it's the truth. Yes, our culture freed the slaves way back in 1810, BUT that doesn't give us a free card to ignore a real concern about graphic depictions of people now.

    @Val: The translation of the expression is wrong. It's not the N word, what the commercial says is :"We work like black people to offer you a white sale" and it was pulled out after a week on TV. I don't know if it was because it was offensive to anyone, or because it was such a bad commercial, but it was pulled out. La Negrita pancake mix is a different matter, because Negrita is not offensive in MExican Spanish. It's hard to explain, because a lot depends on context, but it's like saying 'My darling' in spanish. And yes, even white girls get called Negrita a lot of times here.

  10. So the defense is that the Memin image is not racist because its more like white folks hanging out together making jokes about Irish or Polish or Italians, or Scottish, or Iowans, since there isn't really inter-white racism, its ok.

  11. @Val: The Comex advert could not have said any such thing, because there is no 'N' word anywhere in the Spanish language. There isn't even a close equivalent that you coul point to. That's the New York Times, not for the first time, talking out of their arse.

    Of course, if there were really no racial discrimination in our cultural history, it would make us ethically better than the United States in at least one way, and that is impossible, isn't it?

    @Adalisa - You seem to believe that this is a cultural misunderstanding, made in good faith, that can be discussed rationally. It isn't. It's a PR smear. The moment you begin to defend and explain you've already lost, because it's as good as admitting that you need a defense and an explanation. It doesn't matter what you say, or how reasonable you are, there will always be a 'yes, but..' and the end result will be that the subject has been tarred with the brush of doubt. It's swiftboating.

    I believe that it is deliberate. 2005 was the year that the so-called 'minutemen' project began, the border wall proposal was started, the 'threat' of illegal mexican immigrants became the issue du jour in all the media, and our fruits and vegs were declared 'unsafe'. It was also the year that Memin first drew controversy, even though he had been around for over 60 years without any bother. Do you not find this the least bit suspicious?

    We fall into the trap of trying to explain that Memin is not about intolerance, but the exact opposite. Of course he is, they already know that. That's why they're attacking him, and through him, our national image. That's the whole point.

  12. @Dorrie: In other forums, I've not only managed to make the point that it's not the story of Memin what's problematic, but his looks, and reach an understanding with many commenters from the USA, so I do honestly believe it's not only a cultural misunderstanding. Regarding the timing, yes, I find it very suspicious. But not in the direction you mention, but in the exact opposite. Our press are masters on using diverting tactics. I told Val once how the whole Chupacabras myth was created to hide certain economic issues here, and this? Is a bit more of the same. Or do you think is just by chance that when we, the Mexicans, should be worrying about the latest economic crisis and the new tax laws, we're discussing a 60 year old comic book? Or that last time was just in time for our elections?

    (Val, I'm very sorry if it seems we're commandeering your post. If you want, I can take it to email or private messages)

  13. Dorrie, as a fellow Mexican -- or, at least, as someone who was born and raised in Mexico -- your posts strike me as terribly myopic. Of course there's an N word in our language. Or are you conveniently forgetting the connotation of the word mayate?

    Moreover, saying that Mexico lacks racial segregation because the letter of the law forbids it is a very limited way of addressing the issue. It's never been a secret that indigenous or indigenous-looking people in the country are prejudiced against. Where do you think characters like La India Maria came from? Or that seemingly everybody on the country's state-controlled television has very European features? So for you to play the victim card because of complaints against Memin Pinguin strikes me as disingenuous at best, and ... well, really, I can't find much worse than that, so we'll let it go there.

  14. Art, at the very least don't disseminate misinformation. 'N__' is an epithet against black people. 'Mayate', as you well know, is an epithet used against gay men. It isn't nice and it isn't right, but it isn't the 'n' word. I said that there is no equivalent to 'n___' in Spanish, and you bring up homophobia.

    They're actually a type of very annoying beetle, by the way.

    Finally, have a care. In two paragraphs you manage to call me - me personally - 'myopic', 'disingenious', and accuse me of 'playing the victim card'. That's not an argument, it's picking a fight. Shall I remind you what Octavio Paz said about those who were 'born and raised in Mexico' but obviously don't live here any more, and why their attitudes are suspect? It isn't fair, it's ad hominem, and it's personal, but you're the one starting broncas.

  15. Let's maybe worry about accurate history before worrying about, say, Japanese in comics. Lots of people are acting like the Japanese are some sort of victimized people and a nation of great honour and integrity . . . but they allied with the Nazis and did horrible, horrible things out of an proportion to what happened to Japanese citizens of the United States and Canada.

    The Japanese burned prisoners of war alive. Rescued POWs resisted their resuce by American and Philipino forces because they genuinely though it was a Japanese ruse to slaughter them all. Japan denies its war crimes in continental Asia. They get away with holocaust denial.

  16. Japan denies its war crimes in continental Asia. They get away with holocaust denial.

    May I recommend Adolf by Osamu Tezuka?

  17. I think it makes an awkward fit, at best, to impose American racial politics on other countries. Not to be overly relativistic with the idea of discrimination (a burqa is a hateful thing, regardless of cultural context), but I don't think you can look at a country that abolished slavery (without a nation-rending civil war) in 1811, and have no history of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, or Tuskegee Institutes, and talk shit about the racism of their popular culture.

  18. Hi, I am mexican and I've been posting all around about this subject.

    It is kind of weird how both cultures approach this subject 'cause a debate about whatever is or isn't racist on the character becomes a debate about whether every single mexican is racist or not. Americans use Memin as "proof" that mexicans are a racist bunch and mexicans use the racism within USA to "prove" that Memin's OK.

    I recommend you watch this:

  19. I also was raised In Latin America
    reading memin pinguin and my grandparents are black. And although I might be categorized as yet another fan unjustifiably defending a"racist comic" I will stay write what I have to say. The problem is that the people who never read Memin Pinguin don't understand that the character is "meant" to be drawn that way because of the story about him being an ugly kid, with a good heart. But if I say this then people are going to jump on me saying "so you are saying that it is ok to draw black people ugly or the comic is saying that black people are ugly". OR another defensive tactic sating "so is it ok for the rest of our banned comics and cartoons that drew black people in a racist approach ok?

    The biggest problem is that because the United States had such a long racist past, People are too sensitive as to what is racist. Over latin america, racism wasn't something as offensive as here. For God's sake hispanics are made out of Blacks, Indians and spaniards. As to the people who say "His Look is Racist" The kid is meant to be drawn that way for god's sake!! IT has nothing to do with portraying black people,It is part of the story when people say "that kid is ugly" then they find out how good a kid he is. "now I asume people will say " this comic is still stereotyping black people"
    A lot of friends of mine who read Memin are black and they understand the story and know what's in it before pointing fingers. They are not making these detailed arguements saying stuff like " if the authors are not racist, why didn't they draw him in a non-racist way or better looking? Jesus, If you understood and were able to read the story then you wouldn't point fingers. It's like asking why wasn't the hunchback of notredame drawn with a straight back and drawn good looking? IT is a stereotype against people who have back problems...WhY? because that is the freaking story!!! IF a White Kid and a Black Kid fight, someof people will start saying" it's a race fight" Couldn't it be because the kids just don't like each other. Although I came to the us from a foreign country, I am a citizen of the US and I love this country, But at the same time, I wish that people stopped being so sensitive and perceiving everything as racist.

    If these comics were translated to English, I would love to ask once of those people who perceive this comic as "racist" to read at least the first 20 issues of the comic to understand what it is about before making these misjudged reactions and detailed "defense against racist content" arguments

  20. Dorrie and Arlington are prime examples of why this is racist and must be fought on EEVRY front.
    Yes, it DOES prove Mexicans are racist when we see a stampede of hombres going on a jihad to protect...a BLATENTLY racist cartoon character.

    Dorrie comes out and says she's not going to admit there;s anything wrong with the character because the instant she does she's admitted it is wrong and she must then do something about it.
    Instead she keeps her head in the sand and tells us that the sky really isn't blue.

    I stopped reading Arlington's nonsense when I came to, "People are too sensitive as to what is racist." Oh yes, if only blacks could simply smile and laugh it off. And in time learn to laugh off "Nigger," and "porch monkey."

    Say, will Arlington laugh off Chris Rock's next comedy routine? Maybe he'll tell people to shut up next time they get ready to climb their moral high horse over Al Sharpton?
    Or will he claim there's suddenly a difference?

    I think we know the answer. Few people like a moron and NOBODY likes a hypocrite. In the ignorant comments we've seen defending this garbage we've witnesses people who are a combination of both.

    And Adaliar is wrong. There is no "middle ground" here. If you use racism then only a fool would want to meet you half-way. Racism is TOTALLY wrong. Adaliar keeps talking about "updating the character." I guess Birth of a Nation would be all right if they didn't show the blacks as threatening white women or buffoons?

    This is why blacks decided to take this issue up. Racism has an army of defenders. It needs and army of opponents. And in the black community there's now an army to fight for the truth instead of making excuses for racist lies.