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Comics and the Paradox of Identity

Green Lantern's opening weekend won the race, but not by the margin Warner Bros. executives had hoped. Some of my observations on the nature of race and identity within the context of Green Lantern made the news. For many, the consideration of a "deeper" symbolism in comic books is complex exercise. While critics have been lukewarm to Green Lantern, for fans I'm sure it is fulfilling.

The place of comic books in contemporary discussion of race has been seen as space cultivating and perhaps, promoting stereotypes. The comic book genre, especially it most popular aspect, the superhero uses visual cues to reduce individual characters into representations of cultural ideas. From a historical standpoint, this makes perfect senses. The popular media that preceded the comic book, like the comic book themselves, held to the racial conventions that celebrated accepted values and attitudes related to white mainstream society. Like those media, comics have changed as shifts in U.S. society have push for greater equality. Still, there are a number of questions about racial identity buried within the comic medium.

My concerns about Green Lantern went beyond the reality that the character, in its classic form, was constructed in an era when minorities and women did not have standing. Green Lantern is chosen by external authorities. Superhero characters, for all the fantastic elements, are rarely chosen. They may be alien (Superman), obsessed (Batman), born (X-Men) or the result of an accident (Flash). Still, they are not often chosen to be heroes, and if chosen, the nature of the choosing tends to be mystical (Shazam) and/or dynastic (Starman). It is this fact, chosen by external power, that adds significance to the question of representation in Green Lantern. The fact that Green Lantern's contemporary mythology shows considerable diversity only makes the origin story structural racism all the more striking. Comics, like all media, struggle to incorporate diverse figure to a primarily white audience. Efforts to diversify media properties like comics book have been and continues to be a concern. Yet, the medium does have standout stories that incorporate an understanding of the complexity of race.

Recently, Dr. Jonathan Gayles posted a Robert Morales' TRUTH scripts. A classic Captain America story, TRUTH introduced the idea that African Americans were the test subject for the super soldier serum that gave Steve Rogers his abilities. This story shocked readers, but was lauded by critics. While some charges that linking Captain America to the very real tragedy of the illegal experimentation on African-American conducted in Tuskegee syphilis experiments between 1932 and 1972. For forty years between, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. For the most part illiterate sharecroppers from the poorest counties in Alabama were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. While the TRUTH story might have challenged readers' expectations, the benefit for reader and character were worthwhile. Creating a story that mirrored this historical incident raised awareness in a generation of readers who would likely not have heard about the story. In the aftermath of the story, Marvel continuity changed to incorporate the African-American descendent of the super-soldier experiment. Something to consider as the Captain America comes to the big screen next month.


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