It’s E3 week. For gamers around the world, this is like first Christmas in June, where among the lights and smoke and mirrors, we receive small little nuggets of sunshine in the form of game announcements and updates. This year was no different, with various companies announcing some big games, like Halo 5 and Mass Effect 4. But, in my opinion, it was Sony that stole the show this year with a pre-show press conference with the announcement of three highly-anticipated games. The first two, the Final Fantasy VII remake and The Last Guardian, were definitely welcome surprises, with the former a long-stated desire of fans and the latter long-since dead, but it was the third announcement that seemed the most shocking and exciting: Shenmue 3.
I want to talk about representation. I know what you’re saying: Chris, you’ve already written two columns on representation. Isn’t that enough? Why do you hate this horse so much that you gotta just keep beating it? Well, because it’s not enough, that’s why. And when you are fighting nearly a century of comic books that have featured one group primarily (white males), followed by the diminishing othering of marginalized groups through gross stereotypes, two columns isn’t even the bare minimum. It’s not even enough to scratch the surface. So, I want to talk about representation, but I want to talk specifically about how not to do it.
When I wrote my column about Miles Morales, I argued that representation is important, and I laid out my hopes that Miles would continue in some capacity, and later when it turned out that he would find his way into the normal Marvel universe, I was super excited. I praised Marvel for the decision, as I did for the recent revelation that Bobby Drake – Iceman, if you’re nasty – is gay. In both instances, I praised Marvel because I firmly believe these two characters have interesting and unique stories to tell, stories that I feel many readers can relate to. It’s important to tell these stories, and I’m very, very happy that’s happening.
Which brings us to the topic on hand today, though. How do you handle it when an attempt at representation ends up doing more harm than good? Enter Red Wolf.
Over at Comic Alliance, James Leask already wrote a fantastic article on the issues with the recent promotional art featuring this latest iteration of one of the earliest Indian superheroes. If you haven’t done so yet, please go read that column before you proceed. It has important information on the history of Native representation in media, specifically on the physical design of such characters. It’s important to understand some key concepts which Leask brings up, concepts like the “Dead Indian,” the historical accuracy of stereotypical dress, and “savagery” vs. “civilization.” Needless to say, this topic is quite charged, and there are some deep-rooted historical ideas at play here, not just in comic books, but all media, and in this little thing we call real life.
All of what Leask writes is valid and important, and he’s not the only one. Since Marvel’s announcement, and the promotional imagery was released, many people have voiced similar ideas specifically around Red Wolf’s dress. He looks like a stereotypical Indian, like he’s waiting just off screen, ready ready to fire his bow and arrow at John Wayne. The outcry has been so strong that editor Tom Brevoort recently freaked out at a fan’s reasonable question on Tumblr, stating that Marvel “thought that when people read the story, as opposed to judging wildly from a piece of promotional art, they would understand the character.” Aside from the idiocy of assuming that we can’t make judgments about characters based on promotional imagery that the company is releasing to promote the character, it also shows a lack of understanding of what such stereotypical imagery brings to light.
To understand this, one must first dive into the history of native characters and the problematic representation within. The big issue with the imagery isn’t just that it’s stereotypical, but more importantly, what sort of ideologies those stereotypes reflect. The buckskin pants and the bone necklace create an embedded connection to nature for the character, something that is backed up by his name, Red Wolf. This association with nature is something that has long been present within the depiction of Native characters. From the old western trope of the Indian listening to the ground to determine how far away someone is, to the more modern presentation of the mystical Indian shaman, Native characters are inexplicably linked with nature. In comic books we see this in a number of ways. All four iterations of Red Wolf all received their power from a wolf God. The classic X-Men Thunderbird was first shown chasing down and wrestling a buffalo to the ground. Even the origin of Apache Chief, from the old DC Super Friends TV show, involves him fighting off a bear. In addition to all of this, Indian characters are often shown to be great trackers, an attribute that is again linked to a mystical kinship with nature.
This isn’t an isolated incident, and it’s certainly not only a historical problem. Even modern Indian super heroes exhibit this, and from the looks of the promotional material, Red Wolf doesn’t look to change that pattern.
By now, you may be wondering why all of that matters. Who cares if Indian characters are linked to nature? To understand the answer to that question, you must understand the link between nature and savagery, as present in the American frontier ideology. This dates back centuries, but it is best stated in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner. A historian, Turner presented this essay in the late 1800s in an attempt to explain American exceptionalism. Specifically, Turner believed that American individualism was forged on the frontier. We left civilization and entered the frontier, where we tamed the wilderness on our own, and eventually we became something wholly separate from our European forefathers: American. Turner’s theories rely on one specific aspect: the frontier (nature) is uncivilized and savage.
So, where do Indians fit into this thesis? While Turner doesn’t spend much time on the subject of Indians, they are usually reduced to members of the savage wilderness, no different from a grizzly bear or a wolf. They are members of this nature, savage and untamed, and it is up to the American to tame them, which he eventually does. At best, he “civilizes” them. Barring that, he makes them disappear. In the real world, we tried to do this through the Indian boarding schools and reservations, two concepts that are as terrifying as almost anything white people have ever come up with.
While Turner’s thesis has long been shooed away by modern theorists, the ideas were so prevalent for so long that they infected pop culture for over 100 years. They still do. In western fiction, the frontier is presented as a dangerous and terrifying place, where residents are always on the very brink of death. Only by the grace of God go they. Even towns – bastions of civilization – are not immune to the threats of the frontier. Lawlessness reigns supreme, and a man’s only salvation is his gun. Etc. Etc.
And, of course, the savage Indian, whose inexplicable link to nature is evidence of his savagery. Circle the wagons, the injuns are attackin’! Whoop! Whoop! Paleface speaks with forked tongue.
While I doubt that Marvel is not going to go full-bore into this classic Native representation, let me ask you a question. If they did, would it seem off to you? If you saw that character walking around parroting Apache Chief lines from 1975, would you bat an eye?
“Indian… legend… tells of… a… great eagle…”
If you saw a character dressed like Red Wolf saying that, would that seem out of place? I would argue that for most of you, it wouldn’t. Most of you wouldn’t even realize what was happening.
That’s the power of this ideology. Based on the outfit that Marvel has trotted out, they intended to evoke an imagery of Native savagery, and in doing so, they have invoked long held perspectives on Native people. And that’s why it’s problematic, Tom Brevoort. That’s why there’s all of this “wild” speculation over a promotional image. Because it doesn’t matter how you portray him as a character in the comic; by pulling out this stereotypical imagery, you have guaranteed that almost every reader will come into this comic with preconceived notions about the character based on deep-set ideology created by over a century of portrayals in pop culture.
Can you use these preconceptions to counter these ideologies in a ironic way? Absolutely. But, in order to do that, you have to have already established a history of understanding that such portrayals are wrong. And, judging by how mainstream comics have handled Native characters, we are far, far from that point. Let’s try to get it right a few times first before we try to shake up the system.
This weekend was a great one for the nerds, for the freaks and the geeks and the socially disjointed. It was the weekend of Free Comic Book Day, and for the first time ever, I braved the road and the crowds and stood in a line at two shops to get my hands on said free comics. It was a whole contingency of Rhyses that came from our little Scotts Bluff County hamlet to the big Cheyenne city, to get books from The Loft, and from Gryphon Games and Comics. There were staff and participants in costumes; there were nerds of all ages. There were cosplayers and comic up-and-comers. It made me wish we had our own products ready to go.
It was a lot of fun, and between the two shops and the many of us, we were able to get most of the 51 books available, plus, I laid down some cash for a few of the DC Convergence titles, and Cardboard a graphic novel by the towering Doug TenNapel. I have spent more time in the last 48 hours reading comics than I have in the last two months. It has been surreal.
But really, none of that was what I came here to write about. See, today it May the Fourth, the official/unofficial Star Wars day, and being a huge fan of Star Wars, I wanted to do something I’d decided on before I even started comic-blogging. See, back in the waning days of 2013, I began picking up the monthlies of The Star Wars, a limited comic series based on George Lucas‘s original first-draft screen play for a film of the same name. It was a similar tale, but a different one, and I was excited to check it out. And then I was excited to review it!
My original plan was to write an issue by issue review as it came out, but two things happened: 1) I am terrible at doing anything on a regular basis, and 2) I actually missed issue #7 when it was in the shops (remember, of course, that here in Scottsbluff, we have no regular comic shop, so our only in town access to new comic books is the newsstand!). Well, it was a few months ago that I chose to forgo my years long avoidance of the direct market shops, and ventured into the aforementioned Loft. Surprise, surprise, they had the missing ish, and I figured that a review of the entire volume of The Star Wars seemed more than appropriate for a May the Fourth special!
Now, on with the story — A vast and technocratic society ruled by a less-than-benevolent dictator sets its collective sights on an another world. This other world is ruled by a king and is dedicated to preserving its old ways — ways mocked by the mighty Empire, who sees in this other other world only a resource to exploit. As the kingdom is threatened by a giant space station, so is the king’s only daughter and rightful heir. To the rescue comes a stiff necked and impulsive man and his rag-tag band of misfits; who are able to save the day only when the space station is destroyed.
Can you tell what story I described? Uncannily, it more closely resembles Spaceballs than Star Wars, does it not? But that is the unadorned plot of The Star Wars. No Kidding. Now, I have to stop myself for a second here, because while I intend to make more of the “Spaceballs Corollary,” I really like The Star Wars. It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I noticed the parallels, and it doesn’t really take away from the story.
So, our tale proper begins on the desolate desert planet of Utapu, where our hero ANNIKIN STARKILLER lives in hiding with his father KANE and younger brother DEAK. They are among the remnant of the Jedi-Bendu, a class of warrior monks with a broken relationship to the despotic Empire.
The STARKILLERS’ life of survival and discipline is broken when the young one is killed by a Knight of the Sith. In grief, the STARKILLERS decide to return home to the planet Aquilae.
Unbeknownst to them, Aquilae stands threatened by forced assimilation into a Galactic Empire based on Alderaan (who is after Aquilae’s cloning technology). Standing between Aquilae and oblivion are KING KAYOS and QUEEN BREHA, and an aged General LUKE SKYWALKER, here playing the familiar role of Old BEN KENOBI. As SKYWALKER scrambles to address the coming threat, he is met by KANE and Son. ANNIKIN becomes LUKE’S padawan and is sent across the ‘Barsoomian’ wastes to collect Princess LEIA. LEIA plays a real PRINCESS VESPA, “Not without my matched luggage” until a left cross makes her a lot more compliant.
I have to stop the train for just a second here. I cannot find a better time to put this in, so here goes. If I have one HUGE complaint about this story, it is the shoe-horned romance between the Princess and ANNIKIN. (Yeah, not to spoil anything, but there is a romance between ANNIKIN and LEIA.) It is forced, and fake and shallow. In short, everything you might expect from a Lucas-style romance. Just imagine a mash-up of Indy and Willy from Temple of Doom and Anakin and Padme’ from Attack of the Clones. Yep.
Anyroad, back to the show.
Meanwhile, Aquilae is attacked by a moon-sized battle-station, and her forces are no match, especially after the king is killed and the legislature votes to quit fighting and join the Empire. Of course, SKYWALKER and the Queen aren’t willing to roll over so easy, and so make plans to spirit LEIA and her two brothers away to safety, thereby preserving the monarchy to later rise again! Enlisting the SWAMP-THING-looking HAN SOLO, SKYWALKER and crew escape Aquilae, only to find themselves crashing on Yavin — a Yavin populated by Ralph McQuarrie-designed Wookiees!
While on the planet, LEIA is captured by Imperial forces, ANNIKIN is elevated to the station of Wookiee-god, and Luke preps the Wookiees to play “Ewok.” In the final movement of the miniseries, LUKE ANNIKIN flies to rescue the princess while HAN and BEN LUKE and the Wookiees storm the DEATH STAR battle station. Hoo-boy!
All in all it was a great series. I first read most of the book when the thing was fresh off the newsstand, but it failed to bowl me over. The art by Mike Mayhew (with colors by Rain Baredo) was amazing, and the way they redesigned and re-purposed elements from the films was remarkable. The whole thing is gorgeous. Nevertheless, on my first reading, I was overcome by the stilted dialogue and awkward scene changes, but reading the whole eight issues in one sitting, the whole comes together wonderfully. There is a familiarity about it, but the story is still very different from Star Wars proper. Most remarkable yet is the universe feels very very comfortable — almost like a home. Truth be told, some of that familiarity may even stem from the awkwardness, as the writer J. W. Rinzler was able to preserve something very “Lucas“-ey in the work. It is new and very old. Shiny, yet shabby. It is everything it ought to be.
So, while I’ve waited a while to review this here, I’m glad I did. On the one hand, I’m glad we got the Star Wars films and universe we did. But at the same time, I would not mind taking another trip, ‘Longer ago, in a galaxy even further away.’
Next Monday — hoo-doggie. Next Monday is May The Fourth, and I have got a treat for all of you in seven days: a tasty, Star-Wars-y surprise. I figured, however, I would use this week before to crack open one of the oldest books I have: John Carter of Mars #2 from 1965 (Reprinted from 1953)! I am not even certain where I got this book (though I might blame Andrew Grant), and it is in pretty rough shape. Definitely a ‘reading’ copy, and that is just what I did!
In an unplanned bit of synchronicity, like TUROK from last week, John Carter had a home at Western Publishing’s Gold Key imprint. (In a planned bit of synchronicity, it is something of an open secret that John Carter was one of the prime inspirations for George Lucas and Star Wars. That’s right, breathe deep and taste the rarefied air!) Sprung from the mind of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Borroughs, John Carter was based on the most “with-it” and the most “out-there” ideas about space travel, solar power, anthropology, cosmology, and, of course, Mars. The setup goes like this: Civil War veteran JOHN CARTER awakes on Mars (or Barsoom to the locals), having been astrally projected there. Being an earth man, and raised in our heavier gravity, Carter is stronger and faster than the average Martian, and he has soon played the hero and won the heart and the hand of DEJAH THORIS, princess of the Martian city-state Helium.
This is all background for us today, as we pick up in the midst of a titular graphic serialization of Borroughs’s second John Carter novel Gods of Mars which was itself originally serialized in All-Story magazine in 1913 (collected in 1918). I say “titular” because the events in this particular comic seem more drawn from Warlord of Mars, The third John Carter novel. Regardless, we begin with a chase, as Cater and crew (DEJAH, TARS TARKAS, and the rescued THUVIA) flee the Black Pirate THURID and PHIADOR, another Martian Princess of the Thern, or White Martian peoples. (Really, Borroughs laid his racial context very thick in these tales. So thick with races and peoples, it would be hard to address in a blog. So, I probably won’t.)
As I said, it begins with a chase, but during this chase, an event happens that I almost never spot in modern comics — expositional dialog. Now, allow me to clarify a skoche. Lots and lots of comics use dialogue to forward the narrative, but that is not what I mean. I am talking about the way comics used to be written before the direct sales system. You never knew for sure what issues you were going to get where, and so monthlies had to fill-in the kids that missed out last month. With this story, I more than got the gist of the first issue (mainly that John had killed Issus, the false goddess of the Martian ruling classes) from the first three pages of this one, and all while NEW stuff was happening!
Thurid, having a faster ship, overtakes the Carter’s and sends them from the sky. In a ploy involving carnivorous plants and nerve gas, John and Tars Tarkas are left for dead, while the ladies are kidnapped into the mountains. One rescue later, and John Carter hunts down his wife on his lonesome, only to see her taken by Thurid again! This time Thuvia is left behind to tell Carter that the pirate has escaped to the far North! The two friends must venture into a place where legend has it know one returns from!
Meanwhile, Thurid stands captured before Salensus Oll, the Jeddak (king) of the forgotten and hidden Yellow Martians of the North Pole, whose Pole connected super magnet has kept all flyers from returning southward for some time. This king has decided to take Dejah Thoris as his Queen, and the only thing in his way is John Cater!
There is more political intrigue and plotting to be had, plus characters and monsters; but you wouldn’t want me to ruin it all, right? All in all, it was a right fun read that packed a lot of content into it. Unlike many newer books, I actually had to read this one! No writer’s artist info were given, and while not the best of either I’ve read, it was still pretty good.
I did not grow up with John Carter. In fact, my first exposure to the character was in the back of Allan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That and the afore mentioned Disney movie. Well, I really love the world Burroughs built for Carter. It is rich and textured, and I cannot wait to read a bit more. This comic was a little like Burroughs-lite, but it was a great primer for the Sci-fi engine as we taxi toward Monday next!
I don’t normally start out my column with a spoiler alert, but since the nature of today’s column is from this week’s issue of New X-Men, I thought I would state one here, especially if you’ve lived under a rock and haven’t been on like Facebook or anything. Of course, now, I’m just typing enough text so that I know the little textual preview on Facebook won’t spoil the first official line of the column, which is coming…
This week, Bobby Drake came out of the closet. What’s most impressive is that he managed to do so without the typical press release hype and fanfare that traditionally accompanies such controversial “events.” (For an example, look no further than the time the mainstream press spoiled the death of Captain America the day before the comic was released.) This information, however, was not provided by a press release, but leaked to the Internet through a couple of pages that most likely originated in a review copy of the issue, or a direct email from some marketing manager who was disappointed because he couldn’t write a press release to announce this.
What’s slightly less impressive, but still impressive though, is how well the reveal works, from a historical, cultural, and literary perspective.
The reveal itself comes about in an interesting way. Within the story, Beast goes back in time to bring the original five X-Men to the future to stop future Cyclops, who is kind of acting crazy. The original X-Men meet up with their future counterparts, and wacky sitcom antics ensue. During one particular scene, telepath Jean Grey pulls young Bobby Drake aside and essentially outs him. She points out that she can read thoughts, and she knows he’s gay. The conversation is a little hokey, but ultimately ends in a hug, albeit one in which Bobby says he has no idea what he thinks of all of this.
(You can read some of the pages over here.)
As with most events like this, the reaction from fans has been mixed. Some people are praising this decision, especially since Iceman IS one of the original X-Men – this is as OG as you can get, in this regard. For these people, this announcement also follows years of speculation as Iceman’s personality and relationships have always come across as more bravado than anything. Overcompensating much, maybe? For these people who speculate on a fictional character’s sexuality, this confirmation has been very much welcome.
Other people haven’t been so excited, however, as many people see the move as further pandering to a political correct society that is trying to force us to be tolerant of others, a novel concept I know. Others still see this as nothing more than another publicity stunt designed to snag the brief surge in sales that inevitably follows the announcement hitting the mainstream press. (It has hit the mainstream press, by the way. It remains yet to be seen whether this will affect sales or not.)
I went back and forth on how much I wanted to write about all of this, because I think that plenty of people have already written about it, and most likely, they’ve written about it more eloquently than I can. I do, however, feel compelled to talk about how awesome I feel all of this is, and why I think this particular story arc works so well.
First, on a cultural level, representation matters, guys and gals. Was this a publicity stunt? Maybe. Was it done to increase sales? Probably. Corporations rarely do anything that isn’t intended to make money in some sense. However, none of that really matters. This move increases visibility, diversity, and representation within comics, and all of that is important. Additionally, it’s representation of a group of people that is rarely represented in comic books. Bobby Drake suppressed his sexuality years ago, because it wasn’t accepted. Additionally, it wasn’t accepted in a time that humanity hated him for being a mutant. As his dialogue shows, it might have been too hard to be both, and one was certainly easier to put away than the other.
How many people over the past few decades have made this very decision, because they felt like they had to? How great is it that they now have someone in comics that represents them and their struggle? How awesome is that? Publicity stunts, and pandering, and etc, etc, etc, aside – how great is that??
And, I’m sorry if it feels forced, but sometimes we have to force diversity. We have centuries of literature that has been filled with characters that are remarkably white, male, and straight, and that doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon, as evidenced by any media that ever comes out, ever. We are all consumers that have been surrounded by and indoctrinated by that ideology, and made to believe that this is all normal, and that ideology is difficult to overcome. Sometimes, it has to be forced, because if it’s not, it will never change. (Thankfully, you can think of “forced” diversity [which I think is in itself a problematic term, but that’s a debate for another column] as a pendulum. As diversity increases, so does representation and visibility, and eventually, we can overcome that embedded ideology, and it begins to lessen and lessen, and the pendulum can swing back to a more level and adjusted pace. Until it does, though, “forced” diversity is a necessity. It just is.)
And, because they’ve chosen this route, how awesome is this on a narrative level? Suddenly, you have a younger Bobby who is processing all of this, while you also have an older Bobby that is still trying to suppress it. That is a unique take on this conversation, and while I have a lot of problems with Brian Michael Bendis, he needs to be praised for this move on a literary level. This is interesting.
Additionally, he’s written the reveal in such a way that doesn’t ruin the past fifty years of continuity. Those stories still happened. Bobby still had all of the heterosexual relationships he has had. He has still been a man-whore for all of these years. But, man, doesn’t this make all of those stories that much more interesting? Because of this shift, we can suddenly re-read these stories in a whole new way, and that is awesome. We have fifty years of continuity that can suddenly be re-read, and in doing so, the text can present entirely new meaning and analysis. On a strictly story level, this is fantastic.
(Now, I’m not saying that the retcon is as smooth as, say, James Robinson’s Starman, but let’s face it: No retcon is as smooth as Robinson’s Starman. This is still pretty darn great, though.)
And, really, guys, if this doesn’t belong in the X-Men, I’m not sure where it belongs. This is a comic that has never hidden its “agenda” of social progressivism. The writers haven’t always been great at it (I have a grad school paper on Thunderbird I should post sometime), but they have always tried. And they should always be commended for at least trying to increase diversity in comics and bring about social change, regardless of whether or not they succeed.
Now, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said by other people, and honestly, writing this, I think I’ve echoed other people a bit too much. So, I do feel a need to add something to the conversation. So, I think I want to talk about Jean’s role in all of this.
To be fair, there has been some valid criticism of the entire dialogue, and that has centered around how Jean brings all of this about. Specifically, she reads Iceman’s mind and badgers him until he admits it. Essentially, she outs him, which is very problematic. There is also some troubling dialogue concerning gay versus bi. And I think criticism of this dialogue is absolutely valid. (And, really, should be laid at the feet of Bendis, whose dialogue has always felt stilted to me.) However, I think there is another consideration that must be made. This is a Jean from the same period as the young Bobby, to whom all of this is happening. This Jean has been raised in the same environment and culture that has created the need for Bobby to suppress his sexuality.
While her part in the conversation is awkward and troubling, she has also been raised in a time in which the appropriate conversation has not yet been established. In this sense, Jean becomes an analogue for the very world that has forced Bobby to become what he has become over the past fifty years. So, while yes, outing someone in the way that Jean Grey outs Bobby is never okay, in doing it in this way, it becomes a snapshot of the hegemonic status quo that existed at the time (and still exists today). While she can be praised for her acceptance and tolerance, her actions and dialogue also reveals the depressing lack of understanding at the time, and the desperate need for such an understanding, a need that continues fifty years later.
Maybe I’m giving Bendis too much credit, but I like to imagine that this was all intentional. Even if it wasn’t, though, it continues to create additional layers on this already awesome narrative cake. Hooray!
Ultimately, I don’t know where this will go. Maybe Iceman has this moment and promptly forgets about it. Maybe his younger self helps his older self come to grips with his identity. Maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that the events of New X-Men #40 are important, and I think they’ll have a pretty potent impact on the future of diversity in comics. And for that reason, I am excited.