The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Race, Gender, & Mainstream Comic Books OR Why Elisa Maza Was So Cool


First of all, let me state for the record that no one supports diversity in comic books and media more than I do. Unfortunately, especially in comic books, most of the iconic characters were created and established before the civil rights movement. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the original X-Men, Hal Jordan, even the ones that are aliens look and behave just like white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The exception on that list is Ben Grimm, who wasn't revealed to be Jewish until much later. Ever since then there has been a push to diversify comics. Luke Cage and Black Panther are great characters now, even if they were introduced at the time as stereotypes. The Green Lantern, John Stewart, got a strong showing in animation, not so sure about his use in comic books... but a friend of mine who is a huge Green Lantern fan has called him boring.

However, every time the mantle is passed to a new hero, who doesn't happen to be white, it gets applauded. But in recent years, with a desire to return to the Silver Age, all of these Caucasians characters were taking their capes back from those who have since assumed them. Now, let me state for the record again that I do not believe race factored into this, as I can definitely understand and appreciate a desire to use the classic characters. Unfortunately, this has resulted in some very unfortunate implications.

Speaking of unfortunate implications, let's discuss the newest Arab-American Green Lantern. I am all for the idea of this, especially since there is sadly a lot of bigotry being directed at Arabs these days, so creating a character to be a positive role model, who just so happens to be an Arab-American is a good thing. Sadly, DC comics had to jump into the most stereotypical back story imaginable. If they wanted to be original maybe they shouldn't have had this new Arab-American GL origin be that he lost his job so he steals cars, then one van he tries to steal has a bomb in it so he drives it into his former place of business where it blows up, then he's falsely charged with terrorism and sent to Guantanamo Bay where Hal Jordan's broken ring finds him.

When I first heard this, I laughed. I did not think this could possibly be real. It's like if a Seth MacFarlane show introduced an Arab-American superhero. I do not mean, or even want to denigrate Geoff Johns, who is a good writer.... but damn, subtly is not his strong point. And yes, his heart was in the right place, but why not create a character and not define him by his ethnicity. He just happens to be an Arab-American. I understand why minority characters created in the 60s and 70s had these heavy handed origins, but this is 2012. Do you really need to do this? And to put him in a ski-mask and have him carry a gun? Why? Here's an idea, he's a police officer, he becomes a Green Lantern, and if you want him to carry a gun in addition to the ring, it's his service pistol. There, in just one sentence I justified that gun.

Marvel is just as guilty of this sort of thing. Most recently, at least in the books I've read, Peter Parker was given a hispanic female roommate named Michelle Gonzalez who was the epitome of the crazy, pissed off latina. She was a raging psychopath... like a rejected "South Park" character. It was offensive, and outright disgusting.

This will surprise no one who reads this blog, but in this genre, I think Elisa Maza is the best example of a character introduced who happens to be a minority. Her father is a Hopi Native American, and her mother is of Nigerian descent. You never get beaten over the head with this, when she is first introduced, no big deal is made about it. She is obviously not Caucasian, but nothing else about her ethnic background is mentioned, and you don't even see her parents until the eighth episode of the first season, and then you're not beaten over the head with it, they're simply introduced as her parents. Her ethnic background doesn't come into play until two episodes more than half way into the show's second season during the Avalon World Tour when two of their stops are Nigeria, and Flagstaff, Arizona where the local legends come into play and we also get to know about her family history. Two episodes out of sixty-five. And her ethnic background does not define her in the slightest. What Elisa Maza most definitely is is a New Yorker. She was introduced as a person first, and she just happened to be of mixed descent. 

There was nothing stereotypical about Elisa. Nothing. Sadly, if Marvel or DC created the character, this would most likely be her background: When we first met her, she would be stealing car stereos to support her kid, she'd  be a single mom who doesn't know who the baby's daddy is, while living off welfare and picking up garbage off the side of the road and making holistic medicines that are better than anything actual doctors can come up with. She would be a walking, talking stereotype of both cultures instead of a person who just happens to be of these two races.

I know that over in "Ultimate Spider-Man," Brian Michael Bendis has replaced Peter Parker with a kid who is half-African American, half Latin-American. I have not read it though, so I hope Mile Morales doesn't follow the unfortunate trend.

But the bottom line is that when you create a character, make them a person first. Who are they? What are their hopes, their dreams, their fears? Their ethnic background should factor in after that. Don't create a character that is a minority just to have that minority, that's called tokenism.

You know what would have been something? If they were being really ballsy, when DC did the new 52, they would have made the Kents immigrants from Iran or Lebanon, make Kent short for something quite long. I think Clark could pass as a Lebanese immigrant with his black hair so it wouldn't really affect how he looked but in a snap it would affect how people viewed him. Does the world's greatest hero really need to be a WASP? He can still stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way while being a practicing Muslim. If anything it would represent the best of America, the melting pot, where anyone regardless of your race, background, or creed can be anything. Plus, for all those who say that his being an alien shows the immigrant experience, now the metaphor would be all the stronger. He'd still be that guy, but he would also just happen to be a practicing Muslim.

12 comments:

  1. Hey, I support race and diversity in comics too.

    Concerning Miles Morales I don't think they have followed the stereotype trend.

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  2. What an odd backstory. I thought Green Lantern rings were supposed to choose people who demonstrated great willpower?

    Elisa Maza is a great character! I hope they handle Tye Longshadow in Young Justice well. His grandfather was annoyingly stereotypical.

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    1. Jaime was too. The Spanglish made me cringe a bit, specially since he never talked like that pre-New52.

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    2. Greg on this complaint: http://www.s8.org/gargoyles/askgreg/search.php?qid=16037

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    3. Yes, I read it. But no where in the initial post did I mention YJ.

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    4. I didn't say you did. I was replying to Anonymous.

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  3. There's another comics character I know that didn't follow the stereotype trend.

    M. Real name: Monet St. Croix, she was introduced in the 90s (not as a uber badass character), she became an superhero who happens to be Muslim. In the 2011 X-Factor series by Peter David, M's faith allowed for comparison to be drawn between real-life anti-Muslim sentiment and the fictional anti-mutant sentiment of the comic book setting, adding Muslims to the list of minority groups which X-Men stories and characters have been interpreted as providing allegory to.

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  4. This came up on a different blog a while ago, so I'm just gonna repost what I said then:

    I don't think it's wrong to have a character act out certain stereotypes, as long as there's more to the character than just that. For example, I'm currently writing a story and have just introduced a black character who has kinky hair, loves fried chicken, and uses a local dialect. I'm also going to have her be a major character who accomplishes a lot of good on her own. The reason I'm doing that is because I know people like that. I've worked in a rural black community, and I know many people really act that way. It doesn't mean they all act that way, but saying you can't ever have a minority embody some stereotypes is saying real people like that don't exist. Otherwise, it starts to sound like you're saying "it's okay to have minorities in your work, as long as they act white," at which point their race is nothing but a box to check off. I've seen the same argument that it's okay to have some flamboyantly gay characters, because that way you're giving real people like that someone with whom to identify. So, bottom line: I don't think you have to avoid all stereotypes, just as long as the characters are also noticeably human. I think what we want is balance in our characters- some act one way, some act another, none of them are entirely defined by their race, but their race should be a part of their character that influences their background and personality.

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    1. *Claps hands.*

      You win for that analysis.

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    2. Yeah, but what does "Acting white" mean, anyway?

      I agree that a character's race could influence their portrayal to a degree, but there are no hard and fast rules for it, and using potentially offensive stereotypes with the justification, "But it's TRUE" is a fast way to get in deep shit, and a lazy way to make characters distinct.

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  5. Going back to this in terms of gender, I saw Dredd the other day and Olivia Thirlby's character Judge Anderson is quite possibly THE or one of THE best female characters of the current decade or the past 20 years.

    She's not sexualized, her gender's not an issue, she's practically second lead. And the body armor looks like it'd protect her body. No breasts, or anything that would expose them.

    She was that great of a character.

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  6. "If they wanted to be original maybe they shouldn't have had this new Arab-American GL origin be that he lost his job so he steals cars, then one van he tries to steal has a bomb in it so he drives it into his former place of business where it blows up, then he's falsely charged with terrorism and sent to Guantanamo Bay where Hal Jordan's broken ring finds him."
    I face palmed reading after reading, no exaggeration.

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