A Moment for False Nerds


One of the weirdest, most angry-making discussions in comics fandom, an admittedly angry fraternity, is the outrageous flag-planting on the whiteness of beloved heroes when it comes to casting the movie versions of those characters. There are lots of reasons to be upset about this kind of absurd I’m-not-racist-but tantrum-pitching, so I think I’ll list a few of them here, working my way up to my favorite.

1. Readers and viewers of color are underrepresented in both production and depiction in a lot of media. I’d go so far as to say that most artistic media are so exclusive of black voices as to be de facto hostile—tokenism, flat-out racism and appalling stereotypes are the norm on television and in film. It would be nice if that wasn’t true, but it is. The little corners of those worlds accorded to people of color are hermetic, low-rent and regarded with suspicion and condescension, and the voices they tend to champion are frequently unworthy of the platform (looking at you, Flava Flav). This is changing, especially on television with shows like Scandal, Black-ish and Empire, but we’re still a long way off.

2. Heroes and creators of color are certainly not everywhere in comics, but they are somewhere, and that place is not in a kind of regrettable artistic ghetto. Gene Ha is one of the most in-demand artists in the industry thanks to his work with Alan Moore on Top 10; it is very rare, by the way, that in an interview he is asked what it was like to be a comics artist of Asian descent. The president of DC Comics is Jim LeeKyle Baker’s work is universally acclaimed, particularly his graphic novels Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show; his race goes more or less unremarked unless he produces work addressing it (he may see fit to correct me on this, but I think I’m right about that) and he is widely praised for his work on mainstream superhero books like Plastic Man. Among the hundreds of heroes and villains in the Marvel Universe, the many Black and Asian characters are sources of incredible popularity—it would be really dumb to assume that the reliably high sales of X-Men comics and movies has nothing to do with the fact that Jubilee, Storm, Psylocke, Bishop, and probably a dozen others are much more representative of the readership than, say, the Justice League, where the only skin color variant is green. Some of these creators had the balls to name their Black characters Power Man, Black Panther and Blade.

3. Black superheroes work on screen. This is proven. There’s the Blade franchise, of course. And the popular Warner Bros. Justice League cartoon, produced during a period of time when the two white characters named Green Lantern were being fought over in boardrooms, just quietly gave the mantle to a character named John Stewart (no relation), subject of a series of heavy-handed stories written in the 70’s by Dennis O’Neill and illustrated by Neal Adams. The network has had for seven seasons a Black hero on its Teen Titans cartoon named Cyborg. His defining characteristic is not that he’s Black. It’s that he’s a cyborg.

4. Here is my favorite point: These people, these nasty little trolls having conniptions over the idea of a Black Spider-Man or a Black Human Torch or a Black Superman are comics ahistorical, which is the worst kind of ahistorical. Race-bending is like the very first gimmick used on any superhero, dudes. There’s a great Captain America story in which a black man takes up a the mantle of Cap; the current Spider-Man is Black and hugely popular, there’s a cringey Black version of Wonder Woman named Nubia  and a much more interesting parallel universe in which the whole fucking Justice League is Black; that version of Superman is prominently featured in both the terrific Grant Morrison run on Action Comics (art by Gene Ha, by the way) and the same author’s universe-defining miniseries Multiversity.

Shorter: there are infinity superhero universes in the imaginations of the writers and artists who create and recreate these characters every week. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native reworkings of them are not merely established so well that they should raise no eyebrows, raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway that the eyebrow-raiser is a Fake Geek Boy and only goes to the movies or reads maybe one book a month. True Nerds should out them by shaming them with arcane trivia or something.

Rant over.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Is Good and Also It Is Not Stupid About Race


At the risk of starting a whole thing, I was watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine the other day and I realized I was seeing something I’d never seen on television before and it made me really, really sad. 

I’ll tell you about the episode—it’s the B-plot to S01E07, “48 Hours.” Terry Crews’ character, Terry (I get it!) admits to his superior, Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher, who is kind of the best thing going on TV right now) that he’s having “trouble at home.” His brother-in-law is forever teasing him, making him feel small. The gag here, of course, is that Crews is the size of the Incredible Hulk, but of course his brother-in-law is played by Crews’ 6’8" fellow former NFLer, Jamal Duff, who is the size of Giant-Man, if we’re going with an Avengers theme here. Terry won’t go home for two solid days, even though the Captain keeps trying to make him, so eventually the Captain makes Terry look good in front of his brother-in-law by loudly giving him fake orders to take on the Russian Mafia by himself and lets Terry sack out on his couch.
Anyway, it’s a good episode of a great show but it occurred to me about halfway through that due in large part to the mere existence of the show’s half-white, half-nonwhite cast, I was watching a really funny, normal series of gags about annoying relatives and sleep deprivation and authority figures played out exclusively with actors who are enormous black men (let the record show that I am as white as the driven snow and this may not be a novelty to viewers of color who watch different stuff than I watch). I even seized up a little bit when Terry told the Captain there was Trouble At Home. Oh, no, I thought, are his daughters getting into trouble at school? Is there infidelity/domestic abuse or the suspicion of infidelity/domestic abuse in his marriage? How can this possibly be funny? I may be giving myself too much credit but I don’t think this is necessarily because I’m personally a particularly vile racist (I don’t believe I make those assumptions about the actual black men I know); I think I’m just programmed to expect a certain level of stupidity when it comes to the depiction of black men, and particularly, I’m incredibly sorry to say, black men who look like Crews, Braugher and Duff, on television. Guys like these are usually at best cannon fodder for condescending teachable moments who get to learn life lessons while everybody else is off in the background, bein’ wacky. At worst they’re, you know. Muggers or drug dealers or whatever horrible else. Brooklyn Nine-Nine hasn’t done this yet. May it never.
I realized I’d literally never, ever seen anything like this subplot before. Tough, bullet-headed black dudes whose characters are cops with bodybuilder physiques because at least one of them is literally a bodybuilder, all doing Fawlty Towers-esque farce together. Why is this a novelty on broadcast TV in 2014?
Much has been said (and rightly) against the television industry, but it is really, inarguably fantastic at one thing in particular, and that thing is patting itself on the back. Nitwitted musical drama “Glee” garnered award after award for telling us that no one, not even jocks, should be allowed to call attractive young gay men mean names, until eventually critics realized that the show was kind of bad. 
Oh, wait, I have literally forgotten until this point in the essay to mention to you that the Andre Braugher character is gay. Scout’s honor; it slipped my mind. But frankly it’s less important that the character is gay—black people are still represented terribly on television and gay people are represented comparatively well. I suppose you could speculate about the relative stations of both groups in the entertainment industry if you thought about this long enough to get bitter, but there’s not a finite amount of whatever it’s called when you treat a person like a person and not some kind of weird performing animal who knows how to roll over, play dead, and teach valuable life lessons.*
Part of the weird racism of the entertainment world is that it’s somehow totally cool in broadcast sitcoms to make racist jokes ironically, even if the only irony is that people think they’re allowed to find them funny because they think they’re progressive, but part of it is also that writers of whatever race tend to refuse to write people as people for broadcast TV. It’s also been really shockingly okay to write awful, awful caricatures in highbrow, prestige-y series like The Sopranos. I mean, people can say whatever they want but it’d be nice if it didn’t always pass without comment when black men specifically were involved. Frequently, it’s only when you get a critical mass of black actors (see also The Wire, among others) that you start to get this kind of less tentative, less nervous writing. Maybe this is a new renaissance of writing competently about a huge segment of the population—I haven’t seen Scandal but people dig it. But it also drives home why people like Tyler Perry have huge audiences and why a bunch of my friends went bonkers when Spider-Man was a Domincan kid for six issues last Fall: people want to see themselves represented. I mean, they’d love to see themselves represented well, but sometimes they don’t have that luxury.
Is this a call for more black writers? Or more black casting? Or better understanding between the races? Uh, sure. Yes. All those things. No problem. But mostly I just wanted to ask this incredibly complex question of why America cannot manage to produce art in which White is supreme, and you can bet I picked that word on purpose, except in the rarest circumstances. I just wanted to ask. You get to answer. I’m watching TV.

*Love? Compassion? This is also your job to figure out.