It’s the late 1980s – chosen as a transition from one set of codes, meanings, confrontations, confusions, and stereotypes regarding American black people during the mid-late 1970s to another set which settled hard into place by the mid-1990s.
I was living in South Chicago, and having been re-introduced to comics by black friends (see Moses and the Mosquito), with a girlfriend of color, watching no TV and few movies, I was dizzied and confused by the mid-80s media redefinition of black Americans to this dichotomy:
- “inner city” as the term was, meaning crack-smoking, war-zone living, absent-dad, criminal-culture, homicidal-hysterics
- next-door, lawyerly-and-doctorly, attentive-parenting, “what politics?”, serene-and-sassy, broadly-smiling wits, with just that tiniest lilt and head-tilt going on
Superhero comics bleached throughout the decade. Most very-70s black characters simply disappeared, e.g., all memory and mention of “Panther’s Rage,” and Misty Knight and Stevie Hunter from the X-pages. The 70s and early-80s looks had to go, e.g., Storm retreated further and further away into a nonhuman Barbie realm, and Black Lightning and Luke Cage seemed, to my eyes, mellower, less confrontational, firmly buddied up with white characters. * editing in John Stewart as the most complicated case, but I think my generalization loosely stands
Yet at the same time, somehow, like no one before then or since, two new characters appeared – the most uncompromising, present, and above all discussable black women in comics history to date. Note too, that their identities are coded not by gaudy super-title either, but by real human names: Monica Rambeau and Amanda Waller.
Relevant posts so far include: Man of steel, The Coal Tiger, the Black Panther(s), and US, Puh-leeze!, and The new blackface. Summary: I’m always saying, “problematic” is good, and vastly preferable to co-opted, silent “nothing to see,” because when something is a problem or question, then dammit, the fiction we make should bloody well display it. And if the display is itself messed-up, at least that in itself is visible now, open to discussion.
Black women baffle everyone else, politically, always have – and the response has always been to seek to control. It’s a thing you can observe from 900 perspectives, all seeking to define and enlist how this demographic views and reacts to the perspective in question. There is not one, single feature of a given fictional character – economic, psychological, semiotic, social, verbal – that does not get co-opted into this attempt at control.
I don’t demand that a creative product should reach the heights of “enlightened non-racist virtuous white person,” for everyone to congratulate. I’ll shoot instead for a whiff of basic decency.
The baseline criterion for that is clear to me: whether a character, any character, is grounded in an authentic location and culture, rather than conforming to what others say it’s like. Given that, and only then, the issue is whether the character is written as his or her own person, rather than shouldering the weight of “representation” for any person in the demographic. Let’s get this outta the way right away: the former is why Storm doesn’t count, and to shift issues slightly, the latter is why Cyborg is more often than not cringe-inducing.
These concerns are not attached to a character in an ontological sense; they’re highly specific to a given writer, and in these cases, creator, and also, in these cases, two white men: Roger Stern and John Ostrander. I suggest that each writer transcended the attempt to control or to keep the respective character in a comfort zone, but that once in others’ hands, the character fell directly into those traps. Let the discussion begin.
“An Avenger? Me? But I’ve had my powers only a few weeks!”
I have no idea whether introducing a new Captain Marvel with no Kree history in the Avengers was author-up or editor-down, but I’m willing to bet that assigning the name to a black woman was Stern all the way. For context, I didn’t read these stories as an issue-by-issue purchaser, but rather as a stack in the mid-late 80s.
Start right in with context: she’s from New Orleans, hence the Mardi Gras costume and French surname. This happens to correspond with a contemporary Hollywood obsession with the city, and like it, doesn’t tap into the long-standing discrimination and poverty there. Monica’s straightforwardly upwardly-mobile professional class.
Let the record show: it is awesome that she’s (i) powerful, (ii) heroic, (iii) competent, and (iv) socked right into the Avengers, soon to become team leader. As written by Stern, there’s nothing backhanded about it; “a few weeks” or not, she does super-hero, does it well, and does Avenger, also well. At the personal level, she is not mopey, uncertain, hesitant, over-confident, or any of those damn things, oh, and not amnesiac either. This is, I may say, revolutionary in itself. Confronted with sexism or patronizing, she’s not defensive and obnoxious, but rather, cool-headed, unflinching, and entirely fair in setting boundaries. When Iron Man calls her “babe,” she says, “You don’t call me ‘babe’ and I won’t call you ‘bozo,'” without getting cranky or weepy about it. (See Thunderbird for the contrasting case.) (Also, I’m not putting down militancy – that’s not cranky or weepy either.)
To take it to pure comics-terms, she’s wicked good with her powers, which unlike the so-called powerful women in the X-Men, do not conk out and make her faint, or get stripped away, nor does she prove to be inordinately vulnerable to mind-control, a common feature for comics women and black people. It goes to the point that she indeed ranks as a member of the “Super Marvel Miracle” family of characters in more than name, meaning, the author’s biggest problem is keeping her from out-powering the scope of the stories.
So … now check out her middle-class, high-achiever, basically hassle-free life as I put on my cranky hat. That’s the “OK then” for an Avengers member – it’s perilously close to the second “the good ones” category in the white-defined dichotomy I outlined above. I can even wince-a-bit at how she’s pre-approved and welcomed in by New York Dutch aristocrat Janice Van Dyne Pym, which gives off a weird Affirmative Action insta-in vibe even as noted by Hawkeye. As borderline-bigoted as the famously obnoxious archer is in that scene, he almost has a point.
Here’s the standard reaction to cranky me: why is this bad? Isn’t the whole point of escaping racism to “become really American?” Nuclear family, picket fences, kids going to college, nice shiny mortgage, midwestern accents? Isn’t it revolutionary to show black Americans simply makin’ it, doin’ it, bein’ the dream? Plus, you know, “positive” rather than all that dreary anger? Isn’t that the ideal that Bill Cosby personified all the way back in I Spy and codified for
white audiences America in The Cosby Show?
That’s the thing, though – such a depiction quickly slips into fantasy, side-stepping mention of gerrymandering, discriminatory arrest and sentencing, police harassment, assault, and murder, outright oppressive (mis-)educational policy, and discriminatory lending, insurance, and real estate practices. It confirms the audience’s unspoken inner-value that current policy is perfectly all right, that the above dichotomy is true, so “Why can’t the bad ones, ‘those people,’ just do that like the Cosbys and then everything would be fine?” That value isn’t “problematic,” it’s a problem.
Wait, where does this white guy blogger get off talking about this!? I see that. So here, from To assimilate or not: the black person’s lament:
Assimilation is sort of this way to say, “No wait, but I’m cool” to white people who may or may not be prejudiced against black people. But it almost never works the way it should. It never goes “Oh, Danielle is nice. I bet most black people are just regular human beings and stuff.” It always goes, “Danielle is nice. She must be magic and special unlike the rest of those crazy black people who frighten me.”
Then read here in Assimilation is exactly what black gays (should) want:
Assimilation is defined as “the merging of cultural traits from previously distinct cultural groups, not involving biological amalgamation” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s in this spirit that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Now, I’m not so disillusioned as to believe we’ve arrived at this point, but if our conversation is any indication, perhaps the winds of change have blown even more fiercely in NYC. Should that be the case, it is imperative that we find a way to take NYC’s model and apply it to the rest of our great nation.
Assimilation is exactly what we should want. We should want to become part of a broader and more complete American community, instead of being content with our smaller, overlapping communities that have either hit the proverbial glass ceiling or are rapidly approaching it.
Work with me. There is no answer to provide, because this is a real-world question, and thus the job of a fiction-author is not to provide the One True Appropriate Depiction for any such character, but rather to raise that question fairly, and deal with it via good writing for this character.
In Monica’s case, it’s a broken argument to say either that there are no middle-class, professionally successful black people in the U.S., or that if there are, she can’t be one, as if she had to “represent” the average value for some reason. I’m not saying either of these at all. I’m saying that because Monica fairly brings up this question by her very existence, and is written as a solid superhero without resorting to any of the cheap, all-too-common ways to dodge the question, we can now discuss the question. Media-depiction-wise, that is not merely good, but great.
Nothing lasts forever, especially not for superheroes. What happens when a specific power-balance among ownership, editor, and writer occurs? Ask no further: cue the New World Pictures purchase in 1987, the editorship shift to Tom DeFalco, and not long after that, the writer change on the Avengers, so Roger’s gone in 1989 – and snap your fingers, like that, her emotions go all frail and funny, her powers go nova and get drained, and now she’s a withered hag, not the team leader any more, and outta having a default presence in the book. It’s as if Walt Simonson stored up the whole bag of 1980s Claremont , then sneaked up and hit her with all of it at once.
In Marvelous, meet Miraculous, I provided the context for Monica’s very existence, and in Super bad I mentioned how every character in the Super/Marvel meta-publishing family has a way of exploding into its own fractals. She’s a perfect example; the details are available at many summary and fan sites, e.g. The captain was a marvel and The unfortunate and obscure history of Monica Rambeau. Briefly, regarding almost thirty fucking years of comics publication after Stern, she keeps reappearing in the context of one-or-another claim to the name “Captain Marvel” and keeps not getting it back: forced to be Daystar, Photon, Pulsar, The Captain, Auntie Monica, Spectrum …
Let’s talk about hair, specifically, black women’s hair. It’s not “just hair,”it’s a big deal. What’s pride in one generation is stereotype in the next, what’s fashionable and/or professional is a smidge away from re-tagging as submissive assimilation, and there’s always the question of whether a woman can ever “do what she wants” with her hair absent of social interpretation. Keep in mind too, and review Ethnic differences in hair fiber and follicles if you need to, spiral hair is hard to take care of – so relaxing it vs. not relaxing it isn’t a matter of ease vs. work; there’s no default.
Obviously, Monica’s uncompromising full natural is way not typical for a late-80s character; shoot, even Luke Cage had been buzzed close a whole decade before then, and never mind whatever that is Storm has on her head. If semiotics is to be taken seriously at all (and I think it is), then check out Monica’s braided-down look upon her intermittent post-1989 reappearances. Does that “mean something?” Beats me. Let the data show it started after the de-powering and qualified return, with name-change, that’s all.
How about after that? The image above would go second in the sequence to the left. Again, briefly because it’s not my main topic here, Monica received a major reboot through appearing in a NextWave, Not-the-Marvel-Universe spinoff by Warren Ellis. It was popular – Ellis is consistently entertaining – and the concept stuck. Does it look good? Hell yes, the natural came back with minor updating in style (until it didn’t, recently; contrast the 4th/5th images), and she has both a serious post-millenial longcoat and a body-outfit that I confess I find … watchable. The important thing is her new characterization: take-no-shit, pragmatic, mouthy, tough-as-nails, ruthless when provoked, tied to a certain extent to her disenfranchisement from the Company Title name … so this is good, right? Um – almost.
The author of Top Five Dead or Alive: Monica Rambeau (from which I got the compiled image) is fine with it. I’m kind of not – but not because it’s “racist! racist!”, but because it’s too solidly lodged in the comfort zone: the half-orc buddy, a role way too common for black characters. Add to that the equally comfortable role of sassy black friend, a snark queen just as every other “cool” character is written now, but with cuz and yo, because, uh, verisimilitude or something …?
Cool, yes. Hot, yes. Easily adopted from writer to writer, yes. Box office, yes. Reliable story role, yes. Safe. Nothing to discuss any more.
“I’m fat, black, cranky, and menopausal. You do not want to mess with me.”
I’ve written about the Ostrander + Yale + McDonnell Suicide Squad a lot: A thousand years more, O Kali, Sheba knows her daddy, Ollie ollie oxen free, and Jihad, exclamation point optional. You’ve probably spotted that I’ve stepped around mentioning Amanda Waller, and the reason for that is that she’s the main character. I had to get the listed posts done first to set this one up. To remind you of some context, as discussed in Kim Yale, I was close to the authors during the time I’m writing about, and sometimes discussed the in-production scripts and artwork. I am not guessing when I say that the character concept was not an editorial mandate, but fully due to John and Kim, and visually established with great care by McDonnell.
She has a completely grounded geographic and historical identity: from Cabrini Green in Chicago, with a history of violence and then professional achievement. Even more so, she looks it: a mostly scowling, heavy-set woman in early middle age. Her speech is authentically blunt with heavy bass-hits on specific syllables (John’s playwright background always serves him well with subtle, accurate geographic speech cues). But miraculously, none of it’s played for either pathology or pathos, and there’s no hint of ain’t and dint and gonna.
To continue with other 80s-movie plot roles she might have fulfilled, nor is she a blustering, stupid chief for the heroes to ignore, and not a sassy black lady rollin’ her eyes with witticisms from the sidelines.
Here’s the most important one: Amanda is 180 degrees from the Magical Negro, do not pass Go. That’s a big deal. It is standard Hollywood operating procedure to writing black characters, when not psychopathic, specifically for them to provide the moral gold standard for everyone else.
Instead, she provides a whole dramatic ecosystem full of moral crisis, all by herself, to the point of potential classical tragedy: she’s achieved considerable social power, yes, but in an amoral, even exploitative position for a cause she doesn’t buy into, which brings out the worst in her and from which there is nowhere to go. The defining moment in the first “Personal Files” story in Suicide Squad #9, when Simon rightly states that she has too tightly embraced anger as a source of strength, and surrounds herself with people of conscience in order to have a conscience, as hers slips away too easily from her in the heat of a power-and-strategy struggle. That very thing is the heart of the entire Ostrander run on the series, and fictionally, it’s situated in Amanda’s emotions and thoughts.
One of the finest moments is when her instructions are defied by several Squad members on moral grounds in just this way, and in a dialogue-free panels sequence composed of glances, she goes so low as to leverage shared blackness upon the Bronze Tiger and Vixen to try to split the resistance – and they completely won’t let her.
Amanda’s depiction negotiates the same harsh pitfalls of competence as Monica, from the other side: the “normal” relative to super-powered characters. She has to be strong or the whole thing shatters. Again, MCI provides the gold standard: in this variable, she has to be equal to a super-character, or more precisely, to a validated super-character, and the only way to do that is to resist MCI. Luck and ass-pull explanations are OK, but raw will is best – and you can see what I mean in the panels. The more so because she was actually tempted.
Maintaining this mental, emotional, and motivational parity with the more-than-usually intense Squad members takes more than one symbolic act, though. In order for not only a scene or given story, but for the whole series to work, her psychological strength (and its problems) must be believable, intelligent, engaging; plots + characterization + dialogue. During the first year or so, this tended toward her yelling and threatening, but that wasn’t good enough. That’s why I think the story in which she outsmarts Batman, including the famous cover with her scolding him, is actually a weak example.
As the series matured in its second year, Amanda showed a wider, even extensive emotional and moral range, developing distinctive relationships with every other character, placing everyone’s actions into a consequential matrix. That called for a corresponding range in expressions and body language, and that’s not something mainstream comics art is good at. Even with a consistent penciller (Luke McDonnell), the inkers’ varying treatments create a gestalt. I especially like this image, which captures her intellect, her drive, her isolation, and complex uncertainty about what she’s doing.
There are pitfalls here too: just as Monica could be too perfectly assimilated to the point of “see? black ain’t no thing,” Amanda could be the perfect victim, literally cursed by her ethnicity and social class, upon whom woe is piled forever, i.e., misery porn. But she doesn’t fall into that either, because a bit more than half the time, in the swamp of skulduggery, betrayal, and personality disorders that is the Suicide Squad, she wins. As written by John, anyway, every so often, some good gets done and she knows it.
Why look, though, there’s that hair again. I have no idea why, or whether there was a specific “why,” but remember – it’s never “just.” That Amanda favored a tied-back natural at first, and then didn’t, is part of the text, that’s all. (The reddish tint to her hair is almost always there and is presumably her own.)
Nor is there an easy answer like “relaxer is racist, period.” Vixen, a key Squad member, is black, and a very beautiful professional model. It works for her to mess with her hair all the time in high-effort ways. It manages to be good characterization specific to its period, especially in contrast with other characters not doing so. Whether Amanda’s businesslike relaxed bob is the same – she is, after all, a Washington D.C. bureaucrat – is open for discussion.
Actually Vixen deserves more in this post, especially concerning romance and with whom. However, to stay focused, the relevant point is that the series includes several black characters, each with his or her own history and outlook, such that Amanda doesn’t carry all the blackness (“representation”) on her, allowing characters to be who they are.
But now look. This here is about way more than hairstyle, and it is some bullshit. Yes, that is supposed to be Amanda Waller there on the right. So we’ve got Hot Relaxer Babe Amanda now too, to set next to the most recent Monica. How is this possible? I dunno. Feel free to trawl the internet for commentary; there’s plenty, from people way more positioned to do so than I am.
If you don’t mind, I’ll simply block out all the slick focus-committee reboot imagery for both characters, and keep the anomalous, intriguing, and above all discussable late-80s Monica and early-90s Amanda evergreen, mentally.
A recurrent reader’s fantasy, occasionally indulged in by writers as well, is a meeting between author and character. Sometimes it’s confrontational, sometimes it’s comedy, whatever … but in this case, I find it genuinely moving to contemplate – and not to eavesdrop upon – such a meeting, this time doubled, among Roger, Monica, John, Kim, and Amanda. It’s a combo that had never occurred before, and hasn’t since.
Special comics history bit: The first black superheroine was the Butterfly, appearing in backup stories in Hell-Rider B&W magazine, 1971. It wasn’t a Marvel or DC publication, but the names involved across its features should rate a blink: Gary Friedrich, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Syd Shores, Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, John Celardo, and Bill Everett.
Links: Girl Wonder (history of Monica Rambeau), Writeups.org (summary of the Ostrander-Yale Waller, this is where all the good art clips are), The comics moment that most inspires me, Black female superheroes I, II, III, IV, Black female superheroes (Tumblr), How Luke Cage went from cutting-edge to caricature, and then back again, Vixen: which version do you want?
Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 4 (November 1); One Plus One, Two, p. 7 (November 3)
Next column: Seeing it (November 6)
Posted on October 30, 2016, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit, The 80s me and tagged Adilifu Nama, Amanda Waller, assimilation, Auntie Monica, Avengers, Bill Cosby, Black Women in Sequence, Bronze Tiger, Butterfly, Captain Marvel, Deborah E. Whaley, Hell-Rider, I Spy, John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell, Magical Negro, Monica Rambeau, New World Pictures, Roger Stern, spiral hair, Suicide Squad, Super Black, Tom DeFalco, Vixen, Warren Ellis, women. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.