The whites, part 2
I’m lookin’ at the early 60s Marvel and seeing the names as a giveaway. One tell is the portmanteau of Anglo-Saxon first names into first names + surnames. Alliteration is a mild indicator, not obligatory but common, probably for simplicity of recognktion. The other is poetic meaning with very strong Germanic roots, “Grimm,” “Storm,” “Stark” (strong). The origin of these conventions is easy: straight from the pulps and magazine fiction dating back to the 19-teens and twenties. The line from Doc Savage, the oddly non-national yet clearly Germanic-Brit super-hero and his Euro-diverse subordinates, into comics is direct and indisputable. Right there you’ve got your white-but-not-WASP American as the fictional hero aimed at a broad street/working audience who are, themselves, not any too sure they qualify, but reasonably eager to imagine they are, and Superman was not far behind with both alliteration and double-first-names in tow.
The Marvel Comics characters’ more direct roots lie in the 1950s. Comics were high-volume, quick-consumption trash with all the virtues thereof, in a weird space utilizing the same baselines but free to wiggle more in it. This especially applied to Timely, lacking connections to radio, movies, and TV that had defined National Periodical from the outset. That’s why, I think, although this constructed whiteness in this specific comics is tied very strongly to America as a religion (see Super good), its range is wider from the relentlessly cheery and safe DC focus. You can see it in a lot of detective and science fiction, too, this weird pre-Tet notion of the free-thinker with “conservative values, liberal policy,” the roughneck intellectual. He’s coded by the 1960s in the character Travis McGee among many others. The American action-thinking hero is an indie guy, existing wholly in this non-ethnic yet-specific skin, and overtly uncomfortable in the cultural expectations that go with it.
It has an uneasy relationship with education, as the character is almost always very smart and educated, but talks and acts without identifying with it in terms of status, or shaking that off is part of his development. A lot of the basically-brute guys with almost-comically bad grammar are also bright and educationally-skilled; a lot of the basically brain-guys with almost-comically erudite verbiage are really good at leading with their fists -in the movies, Cary Grant nailed the combination, and in the comics I’m talking about, Ben and Reed fit these to a T.
This period also saw the rise of home-viewed TV, which added its own spin, even more than the movies. Here you see the fruition of “the hero,” almost entirely freed from old-school ethnic specifics, transformed into the Cold War American. It partakes of the military but not the military career, the Hollywood west which was a little edgier than I think is acknowledged, the white-collar workforce-man especially if he’s shaken out of it by odd events today, and the can-do but also mildly beleaguered dad. Less obviously, visible only in retrospect, is its perfect correspondence with the “you to be” promised by CIA recruitment to restless young college men, especially as its reach expanded from Yale into the Midwest.
War looms huge in the construct. Family prosperity, upward mobility, general social legitimacy in unspoken things like real estate – all are tied directly to having done your bit and to honoring the flag, as that flag is now tagged as having earned world-deserving respect and deference. Specifically, subordinating every other cultural practice to subset status, to a hat you wear rather than a core identity. Whiteness means being white doing that, and it also relies on the alleged melting pot of the military experience, when Tex and Scooter and Jim bond under fire, strengthened all the more when poor ol’ Ski takes a bullet in front of their eyes. No wonder the narrative of “we saved the world, twice,” became central.
All these things were refined into specific techniques in 1950s comics, especially in war and science fiction titles, especially at the pre-Marvel circumstances at Timely, i.e., the tight relationships formed among Stan Lee and four or five artists during the Code-driven industry crisis and the near-shutdown of Timely. Maybe that’s why this whiteness construct, while still present, was also highly nuanced in the early Marvel, unlike at DC, in not merely repeating the easy or middle baseline.
- Reed Richards, Donald Blake, and some others are close to the baseline, defined professionally and economically as skilled and well-earning, but with distinct, driving flaws that code for “a little unhappy.”
- There are a couple full-on uncompromising, perfect ethnic touchpoint characters, e.g., the Pyms and Warren Worthington III as I discussed in the previous post, and Matt Murdock (see Irish rage, Catholic guilt).
- More characters than not offer similar hints and touches here and there, as with Clint Barton whose name leans hick-ward to go with his carnie-criminal origin, and Tony Stark, still another genius bruiser, whose last name is perfectly pulp but whose first name glances sideways at something in the woodpile, consistent with his inspiration, that Aryan but slightly-shifty foreign-born Errol Flynn.
- Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner are their own whole category, as their absurdly perfect names are only a piece of the shocking gulf each one presents in only slightly different profiles, including weakling vs. outstanding physical performance, the WWII past vs. the Cold War present, and within a couple years of development, what amounts almost to a full-scale challenge of patriotism, law-and-order, and pulp heroism.
- Peter Parker and Ben Grimm are complex as hell. The names’ boilerplate is almost what they can never be, but could have been. They may be or “be” Jewish to whatever extent you credit, but I suggest that their ostensible lack thereof is significant even if that extent is great. They’re also strikingly New York geographic and non-affluent without being poor, and were unmistakably trying to be “on the way up” as American white people at the outset of their swerve into heroing. For the Lee years, each is repeatedly presented with the opportunity to stop doing so, and the reasons why they don’t are deeply engaged with romance and friendship, and those reasons undergo changes too.
So, just as with other not-quite-literary idioms, this hero is often a little bit “off,” more so than on TV, but what I’m aiming at is the perceived TV-white baseline from which he is off, and which is nevertheless validated and defended by his qualities. It’s a very big deal in defining the hero, in terms of after a given round of extraordinary conflicts and efforts, whether he returns to TV-white life or can never do so. So what is it?
Again, this whiteness is raw construct: to the reader, it’s something you strive for and fit yourself to when you identify as something else and want to be included. It’s more than just owning this much wealth and living however you want, it’s spending your wealth in specific ways, idealising certain things, and living where others accept you or at least can’t say otherwise. Obviously, it has a name, the American Dream, but don’t get distracted – this is the ethnic?-what-ethnic? visual image that codes to prosperous yet still down to earth, peaceful but tough, and above all, living here where “here” is apparently a soundlot, America, U.S.A, and your kids have no clear idea where Ireland or Lithuania even are.
It was born in the mid-1880s: the collusion of Yankee and New Netherlands federal dominance with Tidewater power, the latter of which instituted a powerful Anglophilia and almost total wagon-hitching to the late British Empire that erased the Yankee suspicion of the British forever. You may also find the rollback of Deconstruction and the literal re-institution of slavery via prison labor, the destruction of populism, the authorship of “American history” as would be force-fed for a century, the initiation of imperial force in Hawaii, the creation of a very bland and not-quite-named Christian blend that everyone respected but didn’t fuss about (with the Episcopalians benignly smiling at the top) … all to be established as unquestioned reality and identity by the mid-19-teens.
Even at the level of basic inclusions, it’s not “blank” in reality. Don’t overlook how automatically German-Americans fit into it, regardless of being “the enemy” in the very mythos that legitimised the status, and how “American” cuisine at the steakhouse restaurant is straight-from-the-old-country German, but no one says it. Don’t overlook as well how, despite the automatic inclusion of British-English ancestry, how tricky the actually-English relationship was until the 1990s, and how an English accent is still code for villainy when it’s not being cute. The French and Scots fit into it not only via WWII, but much earlier via the overlapping region and cultures in Canada.
Nice, huh? A benign ideology, after all, and what’s a little skating on the details? It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the response came from the 2nd generation of those seeking it: not if you don’t have it. Here I’m focusing on everyone culturally tagged as “arrivals” – Irish, Polish, Italians, Scandinavians, Mormons, evangelical Christians, Jews (later confounded with eastern Europeans of all sorts), Indians, Arabs, Koreans, Taiwan Chinese, Japanese … and these are just those which are recognised (if not well – e.g. constant confusion of Swiss/Swedish, two Irelands, two Koreas, how not very big Taiwan is, oh so you’re from “Africa,” wait what’s Persian, went down to South America and spent some time in Mexico, et cetera); others require lengthy explanation (where or what is Burma? think fast!). It’s all tolerated, not included, unless and until you buy in via hard-core Cold War patriotism, and prove it, and prove it again, via your kids. Note that paler skin is not actually the determinant, although darker skin is a factor, and that the tension of whether you’re in or not is real as hell. [Black, Native American, and Mexican Americans present a different issue, reserved for part 3]
Note the struggle with the Other – the perceived white person as not only the possessor, but the guardian of white culture and status. You have to defy/outperform them in order to convince them you can have it; but you have to convince them you belong enough in the first place, in order to compete. With reference to the early Marvel, one could get far into the Jewish-American ideal of belonging via professionalism and property-ownership inclusion. It’s tied to the fitting-in, very white but just-shy-of-Christian naming conventions of this period, like Andrew, Susan, and Monica. Perhaps it takes on more weight due to the demographic impact on mass media; I can only see the otherwise-absurd early-seasons Bradys as such a construct.
Given the New York lens and the age of Lee and Ditko at the time, the characterisation of their Osborns is quite edgy, being both provocative and sympathetic. Quoting myself from the comments in Flyin’ high:
Apparently, ever since someone made fun of the Osborns’ hair in the comics, fandom has been able to talk about nothing else. The “more cowbell” of Spider-Man. God I hate that SNL skit, everything about it.
Irish people often have coarser, kinkier hair than Anglo-Saxon people. Wiry, curly, whatever you want to call it – it was a deep ethnic marking factor in the 19th century and most of the 20th century. Everyone totally forgets that Irish were routinely called monkey-faced and considered profoundly nonwhite, or if they do, they think it’s some quaint thing from olden days.
The solution for Irish trying to assimilate – and no one in literature is a better example of assimilating into industrial-gentry Anglo-Anglican American culture than Norman Osborn – was to cut it fairly short (but you can’t buzz it; crewcuts were not fashion, being purely for military) and use gallons of Brylcreem to comb it flat. It didn’t really work, of course. You get these bumpy layers in rows.
(Possibly obscure reference: in the film version of Sleuth, Michael Caine’s Irish-Italian character has a similar hairstyle, and the other guy’s reaction to it is so nasty – because he underplays how “not really English” that is, he doesn’t have to rub it in because all of society already does.)
More Irish details … Osborn is close friends with Jameson, who also has wiry and difficult hair. Like a pair of whiskeys from the oul’ sod standing next to each other on the shelf. Note that both men are absolute fanatics about their sons being successful in completely unquestioned American status terms. In Harry’s case, he’s trying so hard to please his dad, and/or been so under his thumb, that he has probably worn the same hairdo his whole life – in fact, I think the flashbacks show that explicitly.
Don’t post here about the latter-day hair jokes. I don’t need citations or discussion about it of any kind. It’s not code for anything or a trick or a joke, or even “weird.” It’s a pretty accurate depiction. It’s pointed and significant content that our generation simply doesn’t have the context to understand.
This has not gone away, but it’s doomed, because it’s utterly fake – there is no such white person. The psyop’s on everyone.
Look, I’m going to be super-rude and speak to you personally – anyone reading this who identifies as American in this broad cultural sense, or feels close to it, yet also grasps-not-grasps another ethnic identity. This thing is pushed as catechism and reality-construct in kid-mythology and on TV, entirely staged, very often with significant contribution from Canadian production and actors. It’s an appearance and demeanor, but also certain economics and social options, and it knows what you want – you’re looking for both the absence of the discrimination or stereotypes you’ve experienced to any degree and the presence of something you’re supposed to get once those are absent.
You can look for the combo in reality, and look and look, and the people you mainly meet and look for it in aren’t fitting the mold well. That extra-economic security, family-cultural happiness, and “made it” quality is curiously not there. The so-called “average Americans” are faking being white just as you are, perhaps less desperately, perhaps more defensively, but just as impossibly. You’ve got white envy and they’ve got white impostor complex. Maybe you figure they’re hiding it from you somewhere or somehow, and as we all know from the mythology, the real/deserving/actual white American never gives up. So, here in the ‘burbs or the workforce or the middle or whatever you want to call it, you actually become the American believer and the guardian of whiteness, because you’re determined as hell to validate it, a hundred times more than the people you think are somehow harboring it and enjoying it when you’re not looking.
Don’t get me wrong! Ethnic discrimination at this level – again, not discussing black, Native American, and Mexican Americans yet – is real in the culture, particularly in real estate and in professional steering. But seeking this will o’ the wisp both within oneself and in the eyes of an Other is exactly how to miss addressing those very things.
Maybe you look elsewhere. You might bump up to the wealthy, “There it is, you see?” but wait – somehow this was supposed to be about not being extra wealthy, and as it happens, the people you observe there seem more ethnically coded, including regions of the U.S. as such, rather than less. Which is why you then bump down to the low-rents who don’t have identity issues, and at first you say, “There it is, you see?” but who wants that alleged privilege? See The whites, part 1 – yikes! The only Americans who identify strictly as such are exactly those whom the rest find disturbing. I hope now you can really see the not-like-the-others split between Greater Appalachians and the rest of “white people” I tried to get at in that post – they have no anxiety about being American, but they don’t have the coveted status either and are sometimes quite wretched. So when you look at them, you see not-really-white, or don’t deserve to be (“the deplorables”), coupled with an intolerable confidence that they actually are and that you’re not-really-American because you’re not white, blatantly voicing your own fear.
OK, rudeness /off, I’ll stop talking about you-you-what-you-think now. For me, the late 60s through the late 70s saw much, rich spoofing and dissecting of the American White Man, which for several historical-moment reasons I soaked in instead of the mythology. Picking a few almost at random, Robert Crumb’s Whiteman, Darryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail, and Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male. Growing up without faith in this thing, and with constant input critiquing and ridiculing it, has been an interesting experience, in retrospect separating me from much more of the culture than I understood at the time. For your information, women believe in it wholeheartedly too. I had to construct my own manly sex-and-violence almost from scratch, which I don’t recommend (see Who was Coyote).
But before my life history kicks in beyond merely being born, going back to the mid-1960s, the original X-Men present a useful case study. With the exception of Warren, they are not like Lee + Kirby characters at all, being TV-white as hell. Most of the naming is pure pulp: Bobby Drake, Scott Summers, Jean Grey. A recent commenter mentioned the Beast’s name, Hank McCoy, as a possible indicator of stealth Appalachia, but I’m not sure. Maybe? The character is clearly based on the team-member established all the way back in Doc Savage, also evident in many comics like the original Suicide Squad, the Blackhawks and in earlier Kirby work like Challengers of the Unknown. McCoy was well-established as a generic Hollywood western name, originally based on but by then, I think, stripped of its historical/feud connotation and made into a “good” TV white name, much like Cartwright at that same moment. I think it might just as well have connoted western toughness as a variant of TV-white. A certain science fiction TV physician named McCoy would appear a couple years later, for example, reinforcing that precise quality in the show.
My argument is that this almost dedicated TV-white has meaning for the comic, perhaps in concept more than long-term execution, as powers-as-disability. Quoting myself from the comments at Today is for taboo part II:
[T]he remarkable whiteness of the original X-Men … has always puzzled me – … Scott, Jean, Bobby, and Hank are frightening white-bread voids, with only Warren’s blatant WASPiness serving, and I mean this, for “color.”
But I think I get it now! It relates to an idea I’ve always wanted to develop more, and mentioned only briefly in the post, that the original X-Men’s powers are only powers because they work at it and had to find ways to control or manage socially. They’re turning disabled features into super-abled ones. The danger room isn’t just combat training; it’s physical therapy. Therefore it’s important to show that disabled status (and the potential to make it great) happens to “anyone,” and you can either do that by making it full-spectrum diverse, probably not an option in 1963, or more subtly by showing that classic generic whiteness, and its “apex,” Anglican wealth, are subject to disablement. Hmmm!
That’s not to say they still aren’t powerful symbols of minority re-empowerment at a generic level either, but I think disablement is the touchpoint.
If that’s so, then Warren makes perfect sense as the single ethnic inclusion. Yes, if you’re TV-white, you can still be disabled and struggle with that – and get this, even if you’re real white, top of the heap – to the New Yorker author and reader, WASP-white, lily white – angelic – that means you too. I think The Doom Patrol did it a hundred times better, concurrently (see Bless me DC, for I have sinned), but I think that’s the strongest reading of what the original X-Men were and why most of them were so oddly bland-white, especially for Lee and Kirby work.
… Whew! This post is long and tough! I still want to talk about the big change-up at Marvel during the early to mid 1980s, when most of the reasonably-interestingly ethnic characters were bleached into TV-white. You can review Context! for the ownership and commerce issues that underlay it, and I point with some force at the G.I. Joe franchise as the 1940s “war” justification of inclusion resurrected almost whole cloth (see G.I. Who). Miller’s Daredevil offers an interesting contrast between the title character, whose Irishness was uniquely foregrounded and made into a plot point, and his popular guest star, the Punisher, whose uncompromising original Italian-ness was sandblasted off entirely (see Eat hot lead, comics reader). I confess I’m a little worn-out with trying to explain the utter co-option of Marvel, as a cultural phenomenon, just before and during the New World Entertainment purchase, so I’ll get into that more in the next post.
Links: Hey readers, suggest a few. I think this topic would gain from some group intelligence.
Next: The whites, part 3 – the big con pulled on black Americans, and how comics actually tried not to participate, for a while. If you thought I was pulling any punches, you won’t any more.
Posted on December 10, 2017, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit and tagged Cary Grant, Darryl Ponicsan, Herb Goldberg, Jack Kirby, Norman Osborn, Punisher, Reed Richards, Robert Crumb, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, The Brady Bunch, The Last Detail, TV-white, white, Whiteman, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.