A Marvel Black History Lesson Pt. 2 | Marvel Heroes | Comic News | News | Marvel.com
I'm a fan of Marvel comics. This fact is never in doubt. Indeed, I suspect my sneaky attempt to make my childhood hobby into a plank of my professional life is ticking somebody off. Still, my love of the material does not keep me from asking questions about it. Marvel's decision to run a story detailing the history of black characters for Black History Month is no surprise. I myself have bowed to the pressure over at VOICES, the blog Africa and African-American Studies Program at Rollins.
Still, in this(I assume) second and finally installment I have been struck by a particular approach to thinking about African-American characters. You know that my own research into comic book characters uses them as means to explore the American experience. Minority depictions are one point of interest. Therefore, I was very interested in this "official" history of black characters. Is it, in fact the "official" history? My feeling is no, these articles have tried to celebrate Marvel's diversity, but they are incomplete and lack reflective intent.
In more than one place, I disagree with the description of the characters in question. Gabe Jones wasn't the first African-American character? Who was the first? I suspect character from TIMELY and ATLAS are being worked into the Marvel history. This is another example of something I refer to as, cross narrative bleed. In fictional universe like Marvel's the collective narrative incorporates many characters. While examples of different dimensions, time travel, and alternative history are common, those events are part of the narrative. The cross narrative bleed, is the interposition of narrative elements from wholly different narrative universes created at different times to create a new narrative universe. Since every narrative universe has a set origin point that we can link to a historical period, the decision to take elements of cold war inspired narrative and combine it with a post 9/11 narrative and put it on film for a new generation of consumer is something we should study closely.
If we allow for the effect of cross narrative bleed, then Gabe Jones is not the first black character in the Marvel print universe. The honor would go to Waku, Prince of the Bantu from Atlas Comics' Jungle Action series in the 1950s.
This is a point of contention for me, in part, because I recognize the narrative universe created in comic books is linked to the real world. The relationship is symbolic, but important. These characters represent aspirations, reflect values, and promoting a sense of community. As popular entertainment they must link to society in a way contextualize the world the reader knows in a way they understand. The superhero is an extension of established heroic forms. The changes in that form tell us how society is changing. So the introduction of minorities by an artist or writer hoping to appeal to the popular audience screams--the world is a changing. The idea of Gabe Jones, introduced in 1963 as part of a WWII elite commando unit (when the military was not integrated), is very different social commentary versus a 1954 Jungle tale with an African prince. One is rightly, a challenge to the assumption of character linked to race (African-Americans are worthy of being associated with the patriotic success of WWII), the other is not (A tale of a jungle prince plays all to easily to stereotypes about primitive culture and the animal nature of black bodies).
In a similar vein, an extended discussion of Night Trasher's origin as a commentary on the impact of rap music on the 1980s seem at best odd and at worst bizarre. Plus, in my opinion the real commentary on 1980s culture was represented by Cloak (of Cloak and Dagger fame). I have spoke of C&R in the past, but more can and will be said. Black History Month is great and I appreciate Marvel's effort to engage with it. Still, there is more to be said about race and representation in comics. To be fair, if you are given a job by your employer to write about black people related to your company during Black History (or any month) you had better say nice things (I do).
This effort highlights the need for scholarship exploring these characters. Indeed, Jonathan Gayles' new documentary Shaft or Sidney Poitier explores depictions of black masculinity in comic books in the 1960s and 1970s and call attention to these issues. All of these issues are made all the more pressing with the recent death of Dwayne McDuffie. An innovator within the comic industry, he represented ones of the strongest voices calling for greater diversity.
It is a complex business to think about comics, if you try very hard:-)