Sunday, April 1, 2012

Comic books and stereotypes

Don't worry - we'll be back to half-assed reviews tomorrow. But a good friend of mine made a remark on Facebook last week that got me thinking. He posted a link to a Cracked article that reminded him that "comic books are not (as) warm as fuzzy as I recall." He went on to say that there was a lot of racist, sexist and creepy stuff written for "young, accepting minds." That got me to thinking about my own way of dealing with that sort of material.

Comic books have been around since the middle 1930s. And in that eighty-plus years,we can see that they have evolved steadily into an art form. As with any art, throughout that evolution they were a mirror of our times, or at least our times through the eyes of their creators. The majority of comic book creators had been, let's face facts, white males. The genesis of popular comics came during the troubled days of World War II, and those white male artists and writers did their part to help their country's propaganda machine. Germans were almost always brutish and murderous killers. The Japanese were depicted as "the Yellow Peril", drawn as barbarous animals whose only thoughts were to kill Americans. This "Yellow Peril" aspect clouded the origins of a whole continent of people: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans. there was only one brush for the Orient, and the racist writings of Sax Rohmer certainly provided the paint. Considering that the next two major conflicts the US was involved in were set in Southeast Asia, just those wartime-inspired stereotypes persisted for nearly thirty-five years.

It wasn't all just war propaganda. Native Americans were depicted in comic books in similarly racist ways. Unless a the comic book was about a white man raised by "Indians", Tonto was the closest we really came to a positive Native American role model. And as noble a character as he was, he was still usually relegated to the role of getting the beatings and getting captured instead of the Lone Ranger, just like any kid sidekick would do for a super-hero. To my knowledge, Tonto and Turok, Son of Stone were the only Native Americans to star in comics in the decades following World War II. I suppose this was all for simplicity's sake; after all, the stilted history that children were taught back then (and in many places still are taught) completely ignore the Red Man's contributions to the world and the White Man's shame at his own conduct toward them. It was always much more easy, and profitable, for things to be simply cowboys versus Indians.

African-Americans had it just as bad, or even worse. Even in comic books of that era, they were relegated to the subservient Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best roles that dominated motion pictures and television. African-Americans in comic book of the forties and fifties were always depicted as lazy, easily scared, and rather low-brow. For every noble African chieftain you read about, there were a hundred stereotypical "booga-booga" natives. Luckily as sensibilities changed in the sixties, this sort of racist garbage disappeared. The strange exception to that statement came in the form of  legendary comic book creator Will Eisner, who insisted for some moronic reason in continuing drawing the Spirit's sidekick, Ebony Blake, as a caricature, as shown in the corner of the Spirit cover I've posted to the left. He used this depiction all the way into the nineties.

I don't think I really need to go into the many disservices the medium did to women, since they paralleled what was happening in every other medium. Sex sold comics much as it did other things. And women were meant to be window dressing in most comics. When one of the most powerful beings on the planet, Wonder Woman, is relegated to the role of secretary in the mighty Justice Society of America, and a guy in a gas mask and a bumbling kid with a pet genie get sent to the front lines ... well, that didn't even make sense to me back when I was reading reprints in the early seventies. Did Phantom Lady have to be in bondage on EVERY single cover she was on?  And Lois Lane? An independent woman who is so confident her boyfriend will save her, she falls out of skyscraper windows with an alarming regularity just to get his attention? Did no one think to tell her that there were maybe some safer ways to get a date with Superman? Comic books up until the late sixties pretty much thought that a woman's role was in the kitchen, following her man's orders and looking pretty.

Racism and sexism are obviously more evil than anything a super-hero will ever go up against, and I suppose to many in today's more multicultural society, it begs to wonder how someone can even read those dated stories. Comic books are both art and a living chronicle of the changes that have happened in our modern society. You can't, and I firmly believe you shouldn't, hide that chronicle. The old saying that those who forget their history are doomed to relive it comes into play here.

Being pasty-white and I hope open-minded, I only have my own viewpoint to work from; I can't imagine how seeing something like Ebony would affect an African-American, or how an Asian-American would feel reading a comic advertisement on how Wheaties helped American soldiers "slap a Jap". I'm quite certain the ones who were imprisoned in camps on the West Coast would not feel too kindly toward that.

I like to think, and ardently hope that the Japanese soldiers Captain America and the Sub-Mariner fought were depicted in that inhuman way because the creative forces were trying to inspire young people during a long and costly war. A common enemy is easier to hate if they look different from you, especially when they act evil.  Back then, it was easy to categorize one's enemies by pointless criteria like skin color. The complexities of the modern world don't allow that anymore, at least in mass media. I'd love to say that the creators who caricatured African-Americans didn't know any better, but let's face it, they quite obviously did. They were going for lowest common denominator humor and easy, one-panel jokes.  We still haven't come close to doing anything about the sexism angle. Wonder Woman and Phantom Lady are still around. The latter is even more scantily-clad but at least she's usually not engaged with the ropes and chains anymore. Lois Lane ... well, at least her latest incarnation so far has had a lot more common sense.

I've loved reading comic books since I could focus my eyes, and I love reading comics from every era. As I've gotten older and my sensibilities have developed, I've learned to read old comic books - along with listening to old-time radio shows and the like - by remembering that they are products of their own era, and have to be viewed with those sensibilities, and not the politically-correct lenses everyone has to wear now.

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