BHM: What can brown do for you?

I’ll make this one short and sweet. Originality is not achieved through color. Applying a pallet swap to someone else’s story does not qualify as a “new spin.” It’s a cheap trick, a shortcut to reach a previously untapped resource—minority audiences.

It’s not uncommon to want to pay homage to the stories that precede us, to revisit the myths that we will hand down to our children and grandchildren. An alien falls to earth. A vigilante haunts the streets. A patriot fights for justice. We repeat these stories like ballads in old watering holes, each incarnation shifting slightly to fit our culture and our desires.

But how that slight shift matters! And that shift must be more than just a variation in shade. Point blank? If you make the decision to create a black character pastiche, you best make that decision mean something. It should alter the nature of the work. We don’t need a black Superman. We have Superman. To make audiences sit up and take notice, to truly examine the theme of the alien beneath the lens of race?

You establish an Icon.

BHM: God bless the child.

As much as I love Idie, she isn’t ours. Luke isn’t ours. David isn’t ours. T’challa isn’t ours. Miles. Isn’t. Ours. Yes, they look like the men, women, and children in our lives, at our tables, and on our minds—and that is important—but they do not carry our voice. There are no black writers working on mainstream comics at DC. There are no black writers at Marvel at all. In the DC universe and in the Marvel universe, black people are voiceless. It is what it is.

I wish I could say I was concerned. At one point, I was very concerned. However, over time that apprehension has dwindled like the sales of books from the companies in question. Black people are voiceless at two companies that struggle to sell a hundred thousand copies of a single comic to a potential audience of billions. Black people are voiceless at two companies currently being admonished in the press for stifling their creative staff, submitting production and editorial to poor working conditions, and utilizing underhanded practices to swindle individuals out of their creations and avoid providing them proper compensation. DC and Marvel are no longer happy, hale, and hearty IP farms where a man could spend a lifetime spinning stories about established characters while earning a check that could provide for his family and benefits to keep that same family healthy and whole. Those days are over—and were only enjoyed by a select few to begin with. When white voices are being silenced, can we truly expect black voices to be heard? When white writers are losing exclusive contracts that once provided them with much needed safety nets, can we really expect those same contracts to be offered to black peers?

The pie is gone. It has been gone since the late ‘90s, continually consumed and regurgitated by the same small handful, and there is nothing left to get a piece of. You are not going to George Jefferson off Stan, Jerry, Joe, and Jack, my friends, hence the title of this blog post.

Hannibal Tabu referred to Image as a black writer’s last refuge. I’d alter that statement to include Kickstarter, other self-publishing methods, and independent publishers in general. However, the gist of the message is the same—“Have one’s own.”

I certainly don’t advise turning down paid work from DC or Marvel, but one cannot put faith in either company. When they call concerning that rare miniseries featuring a tepidly-received black character, get in, do one’s work, and get out. And don’t expect them to call again soon, no matter having provided them with one’s best work. A black writer is a rare necessity at DC and Marvel—especially now that established white writers are only too happy to take on projects featuring black characters. Green is an important color that can make a third-tier black sidekick seem quite interesting to those who once looked for whiter pastures.

The entertainment industry is an exceptional industry where one is able to own the company where one produces. Man is the farm and factory. The assembly line is composed of a writer’s fingers; his products, miniaturized worlds, are shipped to all four corners of the globe to be quickly devoured by eager audiences.

A writer can work on decorating delicacies from someone else’s assembly line—i.e., contract work—and there’s no need to feel an ounce of shame in doing so. It’s an honest (and fun) job. But without steady work and benefits—and black writers are not being provided these things—what is the point? To finally tell that Luke Cage story? Oh, sugar. I love Luke, but I’d rather be in for a World of Hurt if that’s all Marvel has to offer.

Aside from looking over one’s shoulder to peer down at the foundation of Kirby Inc., there’s nothing being presented at Marvel and DC that is unique to either organization. And the man who laid the foundation? I think he would have preferred to see a few more crates from one-man farms.

Isaiah is ours. Aya is ours. Miranda is ours—from the root to the fruit. These characters bear our features, carry our voices, entertain us, and—most importantly—provide for our welfare spiritually and financially. And I can think of nothing more delicious than that.

BHM: Hairs to you.

Straight, curly, relaxed, or natural—it really shouldn’t matter how you wear your hair. And yet it does. Simply put, when one particular type of hair (kinky, or tightly coiled) is repeatedly demonized in the media, those who alter their appearance to mask that type are going to be scrutinized. Does she hate herself? Is she trying to pass as something that she is not?

For those happy and well-adjusted black women who have long since come to terms with negative media portrayals and still choose to wear relaxers or press their hair, these questions are infuriating. Can’t one simply desire a different look? After all, it is rare to encounter a white woman who has lightened her hair subsequently accused of despising her ethnic background. It’s just hair. I still press my hair occasionally, and any poor soul who had the audacity to question me about it would need at least a full day of mental recuperation from the verbal assault that would ensue.

Over in Marvel’s Wolverine and the X-Men, resident ingénue Idie Okonkwo has changed her hairstyle from a large, black afro to an equally cute straight, brown pixie cut. Normally, for a well-adjusted black teen who loved herself, such a change would not draw any attention. Nor should it. However, Idie is not normal. She is broken and emotionally scarred. She has been shown to loathe her mutancy, an aspect of herself that is demonized in the media and in the parochial area where she grew up. If she has been shown to listen wholeheartedly when the world tells her she is a “monster,” would she not listen to the world telling her she is “ugly” as well? It is not farfetched that she would internalize negative comments regarding kinky hair. In addition, her change in appearance occurred on the heels of her receiving her first doll from Wolverine, who quite heartbreakingly and unknowingly merely reinforced traditional notions of what is “normal” and emphasized how “different” Idie is physically. It would have made for a fabulous scene—had it been later touched upon by Wolverine or other characters within the franchise.

It hasn’t been—and it is extremely frustrating to me to see a writer leave what could be such meaty content on the table. That no other character is willing to address what is a glaring problem with this child in regards to her mutancy and her appearance is difficult to accept. These are missing scenes from Idie’s life, and Marvel has chosen to dance around these lost stories in the gutters, while I want nothing more than to read them.

I hope these avenues are being ignored simply because the writer wants to tackle different topics and not because the writer is wary of handling themes involving race and gender. No subject should be off-limits to a writer simply because of the circumstances of his or her birth. And race and gender? Those are human topics that involve us all.

How interesting would it be if Quire took it upon himself to “fix” Idie—only to encounter an Idie as militant and arrogant as he? And should he be reprimanded by Wolverine? Well, at least someone cared enough about Idie to do something. It would make for a powerful, and humorous, set of scenes. And it would also allow for Idie’s mental growth, acceptance, and adoration of herself, from her straight pixie cut to the strands of her X gene.

Here’s to black love for 2012’s Black Future Month—not just for each other, but also for ourselves.

Another brick.

Suicide Squad #1 artwork

It’s not about reducing the number of visually unique characters. It’s not about sending a derogatory message regarding people who are fat. It’s not about the sexualization of all female characters.

It’s about making the decision to use a character that people are fond of—and changing the key attributes that made readers fond of the character in the first place. Listen, given how black women are devalued in the media in regards to physical attractiveness, I’m always happy to see a young, svelte, sexually attractive black woman in a popular form of entertainment. But DC’s editorial staff did not have to change the attributes of Amanda Waller in order to make that happen. Flint and Onyx are currently sitting in limbo and could have easily been adapted to assume such a role. Given Onyx’s role as a law-breaking vigilante, she could have appeared as a character within the suicide squad sans any character tweaking.

But Amanda Waller? Waller is a strategist. She uses her brain and technology, not brawn. In fact, she focuses so intently on her career and the intricate plots she so carefully constructs that she often ignores the body completely. She moves boldly into dangerous situations, blithely relying on whatever weapon she has at hand to subdue her foe. She enjoys creature comforts like good food and good drink—which has resulted in weight-related illnesses. She smart, she’s scary, and her only weakness is the fatty part of the steak.

And you know what? Fans love that about her. Fans love the fact that this insanely competent woman doesn’t fit the mold and yet is able to move men and women of steel around like chess pieces. It’s a key part of her character.

And DC’s editorial department wiped that away because Angela Bassett is thin. And that’s silly. No one expects the comic to be a carbon copy of the film. Is Perry White now black? Does Catwoman have long hair? Does Batman have brown hair instead of black? No, of course not.

To make a long story short, there is no need to change what your audience expects and is comforted by unless it will (1) improve sales and (2) make for a better story. Appealing art aside, is a thin, young Amanda Waller going to bring in more fans than she has turned off? Is she going to allow for interesting new stories that wouldn’t have been available if the character had not been changed visually? Personally, I think subtracting from Waller’s weight and age makes her a bit bland and unrealistic. What woman in her twenties would be a high-ranking government official? Plus, one now has a character that is no different from Vixen visually. This is akin to Storm and Misty Knight looking the same.

On the other hand, this small change has received a huge amount of publicity. And changing the character’s weight and age to match the characters surrounding her has now opened up the possibility for new romantic arcs. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have handled that one. There are benefits and drawbacks to each option available.

But when it’s all said and done? I just plain miss “The Wall.”

White lines.

Ayo came through today with a quick piece on the history of the depiction of black people in comic books that should really be checked out. What’s interesting about the piece for me is that I firmly believe that those caricatures can be stripped of their racist elements in order to reveal the clean, powerful design beneath—even when depicting human beings. You can see it in Ayo’s work and in the work of artists like Frank Miller and Lance Tooks.

But a pressing question remains: how do you strip the racism from the trope? I think the first step is to apply the design elements evenly regardless of subject matter. Sharp contrasts and exaggerated features should not be limited to blacks alone. That is where the trouble resided in earlier comic books and strips. These design elements were reserved for one particular racial group in order to portray them negatively—and were later cobbled together as an unspoken instruction manual on how to draw black individuals (and only black individuals). Even when the prose had progressed and strained to show black people as human beings it was hamstrung by lazy art referencing earlier works borne from malice, segregation, and hate.

I think the second step to stripping the racism from the art is to respect the design elements as design elements and stop using them as artistic shortcuts to get away with not truly examining the subject matter. In order to draw an accurate caricature, you must first see your subject in order to exaggerate what is before you. And if you don’t see black people as fellow human beings, as a group of individuals who come in a delightful variety of shapes and colors, you’ll simply rely on a black circle containing two white circles and a red one. Each and every time. And that’s nothing more than the boring choice of a lazy artist. And a racist one.

We need more art archeologists like Ayo—educated and eager. We need artists who are willing to dip into the refuse and carefully brush aside the racist residue from our old relics so that what is true and worthwhile and of value can be spared.

Chromatic static.

I have to apologize for neglecting this blog, folks. It seems like it’s a lot easier to dish about the latest events in little 140 character segments on social media than it is to flesh out a full blog post. At least, that’s what happened today on when I came across the latest edition of the Chromatic Comics meme that’s been making the rounds.

“Y’know, Marvel does have a whole boatload of POC characters. Stuff like [Chromatic Comics] makes it seem like only the white ones are important and deserve focus. Y’know what would be nice? For POC characters to get the same promotion and devotion that white characters get so people don’t have to think of POC actors they’d like in the ‘important’ (white) characters’ roles.

“In other words, screw Batgirl and Jessica Jones. How about making Aquagirl and Misty Knight not suck? How about Jubilee getting some time to shine instead of shoving Emma Frost down my throat? It’s not just about seeing POC faces. There are histories and myths that come along with POC characters that deserve to be heard. And it treats whiteness as some kind of blank slate that you can just pour color on. It’s not. Daredevil was a working class Irish kid for a reason. And even though Marvel doesn’t say it, we all know Castle is a poor Italian kid from Brooklyn. I’m not just a color. I have a history. Tell it. I don’t want cinematic Photoshop.”

Cheryl Lynn Eaton

And just like I’m not just a color, that white kid isn’t just a blank slate. He isn’t the default. And acting like he is the default hurts both him and me. My stories get shunted to the side because they aren’t considered the norm and his stories are considered meaningless—something that can be easily divorced from his culture and handed to someone of another background for a cheap grab at diversity. An empty canvas to hang someone else’s image on. I get to be seen and not heard. He gets to be heard and not seen. And neither of us is honored that way.

No matter who you are, it hurts to have your stories stolen. And if you think whiteness doesn’t provide a character with color, you’re wrong. Because growing up Italian American in Bensonhurst during the ’80s and ’90s is a hell of a lot different than growing up African American in Harlem during the ’80s and ’90s. A white actor could not tell Luke Cage’s story. A story that involved anti-black racism and being railroaded into the system for a crime you didn’t commit. A story that involved being viewed as nothing more than an animal by prison guards. A story that involved growing up and becoming a man and realizing that your community has been damn near decimated by the same drugs you pushed for the mob in exchange for a pair of new Nikes and a knot of twenties—and deciding to finally make things right.

And just like a white actor could not tell Cage’s story, a black actor could not tell Frank Castle’s. A story that involved watching your neighbors hail common criminals as protectors and patrons. A story that involved watching the man who had Mr. Ancelotti’s leg broken treated like a king because he popped for fireworks for the neighborhood every year and made sure that he and his boys kept the blacks and Hispanics down in Sunset Park and Bed Stuy where they belonged. A story that involved finally realizing that those guys weren’t keeping the monsters at bay—they were the monsters. A story that involved realizing that tribalism is meaningless when your own family is lying in a pool of blood—spilled by people that you were raised to consider your own. And then you finally figure it out. It’s not us versus them. It’s you versus everyone.

And when you change the background, you change the story. Static and Blue Beetle are amazing and I want to see more of them. But neither character is Spider-Man. Each has his own story—wonderful stories that should not be separated from who they are and where they come from. And they can’t be.

So what do I want? I want to see POC characters getting more devotion from creators and more promotion from comic companies. I want to see fans supporting characters of color instead of just dreaming about what actors of color could be hired to portray the “important” white icons. Demand to be more than just window dressing. Our stories are phenomenal. Let’s get them told.

Trinity: The Black Reality.

“Baby, you can fall down in the mud, but you don’t have to wallow in it.”

“I’m tellin’ you. It ain’t easy.”

Two sayings. Two grandmothers. Both mine. Both true. One more saying from Martha. This one’s true too.

“This won’t kill me. I won’t die here.”

Martha Washington

Give Me Liberty artwork

Like my grandmothers, Martha Washington grew up in a hostile environment—America. More specifically for Martha, she was raised in an alternate version of the Cabrini Green housing development, which existed as a cordoned-off area of Chicago intended to house those that the government deemed to be undesirable. The Green was relegated to those who were black and those who were poor. As a child, Martha received substandard housing and substandard healthcare. She attended school in a decrepit building outfitted with exposed pipes and outdated school supplies.

Give Me Liberty artwork

What did Martha need with a decent education? To her country and to her government, she was simply fuel for a brick and mortar Ouroboros. Like her father before her, she was raised to live and die in the Green—nothing more than a lump of coal to keep society’s dirty engine running. Funny things happen to lumps of coal when you apply enough pressure. They get hard, durable, and sharp enough to cut anything.

Give Me Liberty artwork

Martha cuts her way out of the Green by stabbing a hook deep within the murderer of her teacher and mentor. For her violent act, she’s sent away to a correctional facility for the mentally ill. She moves from a metaphorical prison to a real one, but she is out of the Green. She is one step closer to freedom. The Black Reality is that freedom isn’t given, but it can most certainly be fought for. And Martha is the most skilled of fighters. The Green has honed her to perfection.

Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty artwork

And when Martha finally escapes the confines of the correctional facility, she does what she has been trained to do. She becomes a legally sanctioned fighter—a soldier. Her record is wiped clean and she takes one more step towards her liberation.

Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty artwork

“I’m telling you. It ain’t easy.”

Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty artwork

The Black Reality is that you have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. Martha works four times as hard and gets all of it. She saves her country numerous times. She exposes her detractors for the dangerous and deluded beings they are. She does not do this for glory, but because her will and desire for freedom is simply that strong. She is that special.

“Baby, you can fall down in the mud, but you don’t have to wallow in it.”

But just because it ain’t easy doesn’t mean that it’s always hard. The Black Reality is that joy can shine through like a jewel even in a setting of heartbreak and pain. And Martha is able to find love in the harshest of environments from her mother, her mentor, her lover, and her friends. Even when the weight of the world is upon her shoulders, in her small circle she is cherished and admired and appreciated.

Martha Washington Dies artwork

“This won’t kill me. I won’t die here.”

Martha Washington Dies artwork

The Black Reality is that sometimes the fruits of our labor will be the ones to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Yes, technically, we do die. However, we live on in the ones we leave behind. Every freedom I enjoy was fought for by my mother, and my mother’s mother. And so on. Never ending. Immortal. Martha does not get to see peace in her homeland, but she knows that her progeny will take her wisdom and one day forge a peaceful nation with it. She endures the Black Reality so that her descendants may become the Black Ideal. And a new Reality will be formed by those who follow the blazing path Martha set before them. She shines like a diamond. Because she is one.

Trinity: The Black Fantasy.

A while back, David Brothers wrote a fantastic series of posts over at 4th Letter about the Black Trinity and how it relates to comics. He examined three concepts found not only in comics, but in other artistic forms as well—the Black Reality, the Black Fantasy and the Black Ideal. If you’ve clicked the links I’ve provided for you, and you should, you’ll notice that David used only male characters as examples for these concepts.

David and I had talked for a bit off-blog about how some of the comic industry’s most popular black female characters could fit into his concept of the Black Trinity. He had even attempted to talk me into doing my own series of blog posts examining the Black Trinity from a female perspective, but at the time I was more than a bit weary of talking about comics at all. Until today. Until I was presented with the following image:

Uncanny X-Men #253 artwork

Today? Today we are going to talk about the Black Fantasy from the female perspective. And the Black Fantasy is Storm. Storm is what black women want, or are constantly informed by the media that they should want, but are also told that they never will achieve. To be loved and to be beautiful. To be free. To be special.

Beautiful.  Beauty is perhaps the most notable of Storm’s attributes. After all, her birth name, Ororo, is said within the pages of X-Men to mean beauty in Swahili (instead of uzuri, the actual Swahili word for beauty). Her stunning features are often remarked upon by other characters that come into contact with her. Her eyes are of the bluest hue. Her white locks are pin straight and luxurious. Truly, hers is the epitome of the “good hair” that our media proclaims all black women should desire and strive for. Even Claremont knew and reinforced this.

Uncanny X-Men #159 artwork

But who could blame Harmony? What black woman wouldn’t envy Storm? Storm had no need of relaxers or sunny Saturdays spent beneath the searing metal of her grandmother’s pressing comb. She never sat patiently while a beautician sewed blonde ringlets to her head to hide her tightly woven brown cornrows from view. Her hair was naturally straight. Her hair was naturally light. She was born conforming to the majority of our society’s beauty norms. She was born not looking like all the other little black girls. And because of that, she was lauded as beautiful. Because of how not black she appeared to be. How sad. How sad that the black fantasy presented to little black girls is to be able to shed not oppression, but to shed one’s blackness.

Storm: Worlds Apart artwork

For fans of the character watched while the features the character did have in common with many young black and brown girls—brown skin, full lips, almond-shaped eyes—all features that Storm has never been complimented on, slowly faded from view as many colorists selected light tan hues and artists preferred sharp angular features to depict Storm.

Uncanny X-Men #102 artwork

Special. The specialness of Storm has always been repeatedly reinforced within the pages of Marvel comics. Storm was born special. Her powers are special. Her physical features are special. She is so special that the character is apparently too special to be simply black. And so Storm becomes a mutant with a capital M. No intersectionality for the goddess. It’s all Xavier’s cause, all the time. Aside from brief contemplations of her heritage, of course. But is that ethnic heritage something she wants? Survey says no. Not the African-American part, anyway. Nor the Kenyan side, as well. Storm seems to have wholly embraced her husband’s culture with her betrothal to the King of Wakanda.

Loved and Free. And what of Storm’s husband, Black Panther? With her marriage to T’Challa, Storm has been given what many covet, a land where one can escape white supremacy and an adoring black king to stand steadfastly by her side. Storm has successfully claimed every aspect of the fairy tale. But is it a fairy tale worth reading? Black women cannot live vicariously through Storm. She is the Black Fantasy Marvel spent more than two decades telling us we could never be. The fantasy is useless, for there is no comfort in engaging it. The character only serves to remind us of how short black women fall from the racist norms society demands we aspire to.