First article: War Crime Comics: The Hood, a Nerding Day adventure in which I look into the Golden Age of superhero comics to examine not all that glitters there. It turns out there was a superhero who was racist even by the standards of the 1940s, an era when our most successful left-wing President was creating concentration camps for Japanese people, and segregating Black soldiers was military policy.
I don’t think history will look with exceptional favor on our current state of affairs, either, and the sheer number of people cool with racism’s tenacious grip on our society: the pushback on securing basic human rights for–cripes, everybody right now–is depressing. Latin American families are getting separated and caged at the border, Black people have to plea not to be murdered while many white folks are more concerned that they’re protesting their killings in the “wrong way,” Asians are getting randomly attacked by idiots, Middle-Eastern and Muslim folks are entering their third decade of institutional mistreatment like they’re not “real” Americans.
White folks…well, a lot of us are trying to do the right thing and support everyone else’s bid for fair treatment, but then again, a lot of Nazi dickheads are enjoying a moment. The whole damn world’s more insane than ever. So click above for jokes at the expense of racists and below for sober musings on comics’ long (and modern) history of racism.
The summer I interned at DC, one of the editors had an astonishing collection of racist memorabilia on his wall. He was Black, and I recall his collection was meant to mock the small minds who had produced it. Each item was like a bagged trophy, one more invasive species pulled out of the mental landscape and detained forever.
Or maybe he just thought it was hilarious how wrong people could be, I don’t know. He was a cool guy and it’s amazing that a midtown office would permit such a thing in the 21st century, but Warner Bros. was only vaguely conscious of DC at that time, despite Bat-bucks rolling in through the ‘90s. I don’t recall anyone having a problem with it; everyone knew it was, one way or another, meant to show how wrong the original intent was.
I also wonder if it wasn’t a solid declaration of intent in a very white space and an old boy network. I think at the time there were more Black creators than Black characters, and not many of those, either. Christopher Priest has written about the kind of casual racism he endured, and Harvey Richards, whom I spent more than a few happy afternoons chatting with and learning from, absolutely languished at the assistant level far longer than I’d seen other editors do. I remember wondering about it at the time.
It’s worth noting that in Priest’s essay, he mentions Larry Hama as a bastion of humanity, based on his own experiences. I had the good fortune to meet Hama at a convention a few years back and we had a lovely chat about G.I. Joe. I’ve never been lucky enough to meet Priest and chat with him about his work on Green Lantern.
I don’t know. I’ve said and done a hundred things I’m mortified to think back on, and I’ve been lucky enough to apologize for some of them, but I like to think I’ve at least tried to grow as a person and question my sense that I’m a good guy, at least enough to stress-test my self-image. There are times when I think being somewhat frozen out of comics is a mark of good character. The people who have had custody of our heroic ideals for decades often seem more like villains lurking among the heroes.
It’s inevitable we all do bad, dumb, wrong things. I think the difference is it’s not okay to not question those things if someone tries to point out to you they’re wrong. I’ve been called out for stuff I’ve written. Some I’ve stood by, some I’ve realized my error. Sometimes the former reaction grows into the latter. But you have to keep trying to grow yourself.
Anyway, like Batman with his cave trophies, these racist relics were stripped of some malevolence in the aforementioned editor’s possession. He controlled them now. To display them was to boast of their defeat. Any interlopers into the Bat-Cave would have known to beware; their gruesome ideologies were thin.
Or maybe I’m just spitballing, I dunno, it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen him. I’ll ask him about it if I ever do again. Maybe he just thought they were funny because they showed how stupid their authors were.
DC gave interns compilations of all its releases, including The Spirit collections featuring Ebony White—whom I didn’t even recognize as supposed to be human the first time I encountered him in The Smithsonian Collection of Comics at age 10. I thought he was an imp or some other type of Mxyzptlxian creature. That same collection featured Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and Impy, who was an imp but whom I definitely recognized as an archaic stereotype, even at that tender age.
(Although I did recently find out that the word impi means war regiment in Zulu. Zulu warrior garb seems to be the visual basis for the character, so there’s that. If Darwyn Cooke turned Ebony into a normal kid I guess any reboot is possible.)
They also passed me a reprint of Detective Comics #1, where a white dude goes to a restaurant and just starts beating up Asian people because he thinks they look shifty. Its cover was astonishing in its caricature of a Chinese villain as a gargoyle. In a tightly framed headshot, the book has nothing to declare, no selling message other than “here there be dragons.”
All of which is to establish that you can’t study comics without encountering a lot of racism in its native environment. All of this stuff is still out there, and while less is being produced, it’s also embedded in the otherwise greats like Eisner and McCay. So I wrote this piece on a particularly egregious example for 1-900-HOTDOG. The Hood spent a couple of years espousing hateful opinions, before crescending into full-out war crimes. All of it is presented as heroic. These days, it’s an artifact of an uglier time, but not one as dead as I’d like it to be.
DC’s bringing back the Milestone line as I write this. Though I read them somewhat late, I remember clipping all the newspaper articles about them at the time—any article about comics was validating in the ’90s. I read a few of my cousin’s and related most to Hardware, a more realistic-tech Iron Man with a great premise that his civilian identity’s mentor was his superhero persona’s arch-enemy. When I finally revisited them, I was old enough to appreciate the subversions of tropes. A particular standout was Icon, who finally gets woke about injustice and saves the day, only to end his first issue surrounded by policemen who are convinced he’s the criminal.
Just before Dwayne McDuffie passed away, I was having drinks with Ivan Cohen, who had hired me for my DC internship. I was talking about belatedly reading the Milestone line, and how it showed all of the man’s talent for creation that blossomed on the Justice League animated series. Just how consummately great he was. We toasted him in absentia, a comic writer I’d never met, but one I could admire enough to envy. A few days later he was gone. It’s one of comics’ greatest losses, and it grieves me I’ll never get to say thanks for the stories. But his influence and works have rippled, and I think, if I can end all this on an upbeat note, he proved why diversity matters for comics: how many great stories have to be told that can only work from certain character’s perspectives.
Cheers to you, Mr. MacDuffie. I hope we can live up to your vision for the industry and its output.