As I’m sure you’re well aware, yesterday was Star Wars Day (that and Cinco De Quatro).
As I’m sure you’re well aware, yesterday was Star Wars Day (that and Cinco De Quatro).
Comic book fanatics are a special kind of nerd, a breed that’s both ravenous and fanatical. As have so many American boys across generations, I inhale my comics by the dozen; jumping from story to story quicker than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man loses loved ones. I’m a superfan; one of those anti-life zombies totally enthralled by all things caped or crusader. I’m a loyal slave to two masters: Marvel and DC. More importantly, I’m a prime example of exactly the demographic these companies have pandered to since your grandparents were kids. I’m a young, white, middle-class, American man, one of the genre’s chosen ones, and I can’t ignore the ridiculous prejudice and exclusivity that hides so frequently in the pages of my literary drug of choice.
Sometimes laughable, sometimes genuinely offensive, comic book representations of people who aren’t testicle-wielding Anglo Americans are often downright problematic. Comics have carried this prejudice with them since the genre first dragged itself out of the bubbling viscera to emerge in the white washed golden age of Superman’s 1939 debut- A time when nary a brown face could be found on the page. And, despite some progress, it still hides between the lines today. While the causes of the problem are multiple, complex, and (unfortunately) the stuff of an entirely different article, its more light-hearted results are here for all to see and appreciate.
So, without further ado, here are three of the most laughably offensive and awkward (but not hateful) characters in mainstream pulp; champions of truth, justice, and the white-male-American way.
During my meditation on offensive superheroes, El Gaucho was probably the first that came to mind. This bandanna aficionado is a hot-headed Argentinian hero and a frequent cohort of Batman’s. As one of the Dark Knight’s most trusted Allies, you’d think he’d be a pretty solid character -and in some ways he’s actually kind of cool- but he looks like he should star in the crossover sequel to “Easy Rider” and Cheech and Chong’s “Up In Smoke”. Of all the members of Batman’s global boy’s club of heroes as seen in comics like “Batman Inc.”, this failed attempt to inject diversity into the genre is the one most likely to make you do a double take while reading. El Gaucho makes you wonder if any of the writers have ever actually met a Latino person, or if they’re just guessing that they all ride motorcycles and have ‘that’ kind of mustache.
The Invisible Woman
Within the skin-tight bodysuit of Sue Storm, The invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four, exists a potentially even more shocking example of super-prejudice. A much more popular character than the “Machete” stunt double above, Sue’s practically a house-hold name. But her popularity never bought her much respect. In her appearances in FF comics from earlier, less equitable decades she set the precedent (and a pretty high bar) for sexism in the world of superheroes- that’s saying something in an industry in which a good two thirds of the female characters fight in heels, and 99% of them look like Hollywood sex symbols were gene spliced with Barbie dolls- only sexier and more unrealistic. Even here, Sue Still takes the hegemonic cake. For one, this blonde bombshell is utterly defined by being a wife. Always submissive and supportive of her much more important (and much, much smarter) husband, she’s basically treated like she’s actually always invisible. Not only does she shut up when Reed tells her to, she was often left behind when the men went on dangerous missions so she could keep vigil over the frikken domestic sphere- really, she’d stay home, watch the kids, eat some Valium, dust the teleporter, that kind of thing. After all, a super-powered science fight against alien nano-people (or wherever the fucking FF go on any given mission) is no place for a woman. I mean, unless you have, I don’t know, SUPERPOWERS or something. They excluded a woman from their dangerous adventures who can make things totally invisible. And, you know, no big deal, she could also make a nigh unbreakable force field or insta-kill a charging elephant with a twitch of her nose like she was a violently anti-environmental ‘I Dream of Genie”.
But in the early days she couldn’t even do that. Her only power was literally to turn invisible- she didn’t even get the force fields until years and years after her debut. Now, thank god, she gets a little bit of more than overdue recognition. In actuality, she’s really fucking bad-ass. She can create a force field in your heart, brain, or the head of your misogynist dick just by thinking it, and she’s generally accepted as the most dangerous member of the otherwise male team. Still, she was (and probably still is) most widely recognized not as ‘that cool superhero chick’, but as ‘Reed Richards’ boring wife”.
Oh, also, ‘The Invisible Woman’ sounds like the title of a Margaret Atwood book.
Although he may be a more mildly offensive example than these first two face-palm inspiring heroes, one last crime fighter has to be mentioned -and I don’t think I should have to elaborate too much on why. John Henry Irons, ‘Steel’, was a tech genius possessing, battle-suit wearing, hammer swinging, bad mamma-jamma; and if you can’t guess his race by his name, you should stop reading now. He was supposed to be the Black cross between Black-Superman and Black-Tony Stark and we the public were supposed to fucking eat him up. DC thought everybody was going to be all “Finally a strong, positive black role model who isn’t a sidekick or something stupid like that! Look he’s a main character in a major Superman Comic!” Instead, predictably, everybody was like “Uh, wait, what was his name again?’. Not quite the sensation DC had in mind, Irons wore overalls in his downtime, and basically made people who read “The Death of Superman” uncomfortable more than making them proud of how far we’ve come as a nation on the issue of Black people wearing capes.
Actually, he really was a good role model: born in the rural south and raised in the ghettos of DC, he studied his way out of poverty, into a college engineering program, and then a big government contract. He became a wealthy scientist, and then a hero who ends up saving Superman’s famous white ass. Still… I mean, his name was actually John Henry Irons for chrissake. He played second fiddle to Kal El, carried a big iron hammer when he could have designed something much more high-tech, and he was frequently proselytizing -spouting lines about how bad things are in the projects. The writers could not have seemed any more painfully aware of this hero’s race; he wasn’t just a cool superhero like he could have been. He was the Black superhero, with a super-capital B. At least once he was referred to as a ‘steel drivin man’, and to top it off he was undone by the seduction of a (gasp!) older white woman.
I don’t know if that last part was actually all that racist, but it does remind me of “Pootie-Tang”, so there.
Peter Johnsen is a self-styled expert on just about everything with concentrations in comic books, mythology, and role-playing. A recent college graduate, Peter aspires to one day have adamantium bones.
Whenever I play Mario Party, I always choose Luigi. This is not because I think I am Luigi, but rather because I want to work with Luigi. I see us as partners, with me to handle the button pushing in the real world, and him to handle the luck and navigation of the digital world. The thing that first piqued my interest about him, interestingly enough, was the deep sadness he appears to experience when he loses. (Next time you play, take a really good look at Luigi’s loss animation.) Luigi is an emotional guy. He’s the kind of guy who brings you flowers just because and cries at the end of E.T. When I watched the despair in Luigi’s eyes after a loss, I felt certain that he was playing not because he wanted the chance to name Mario Land after himself, but because he had some alternative motive. Maybe he’s secretly in love with Peach, and wants the chance to show her what kind of man he is. Maybe he’s a humanitarian who truly cares about the plight of the Koopas. Maybe he has a wife and kids at home who depend on his hard-earned gold coins to buy food for the family. Whatever the reason, I wanted to help Luigi win. I chose Luigi then, and I’ve been playing with him ever since.*
Over the winter, I happened across this NPR interview and its longer companion piece about the nature of competition. The guest authors (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”) point to several interesting findings about the human brain as it relates to winning and losing, but two things in particular stood out to me. First, that people who play to win (risk-takers) tend to experience a greater percentage of wins than losses. Second, that more men are risk-takers than women. My boyfriend, listening with me, immediately synthesized those facts into “That’s why you don’t win when we play games!”
My first reaction was anger. Anyone who heard the story would know his words were a gross simplification of the facts, a joke. But some combination of my sense of feminism and the smarting of the personal slight combined to make a raging lunatic out of me. (“You’re telling me that I don’t win because I’m a woman!?”) But since that time, I’ve done a lot of self-evaluating. I’ve asked myself, Do I play to win?, and found that the answer is overwhelmingly- No. My quest with Luigi, for example, becomes immediately gendered. When I play with Luigi, my goal is not necessarily to win because I think winning is objectively good, but to win because I want to see my partner succeed. I do this all the time. Like many non-risk-takers (or perhaps like many women), I find myself playing for reasons other than a desire to win. I play because I want to have fun, because I enjoy spending time with my friends, or because I like the story arc or the art of the game.
At first I experienced a lot of anxiety about my game-playing style. Should I be playing to win?, I thought, Should I care? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the more I think about it, the less I care. I love playing games, so what does it matter what my personal goals are? If my goal is no longer to win, then winning is only a bonus, not a prerequisite for having fun. I enjoy myself so much more if I don’t stress out about winning than if I do. It kind of takes the pressure off winning, when you think about it.
Of course I didn’t just self-reflect, I also observed the women and men I play games with (or, you know, against). First of all, I know all kinds of people. I think we all do. Men who play to win, women who play to win. Men who play for fun, women who play for fun. I’ve seen men who dispense advice to others, even to their own detriment. I’ve seen women deliberately throw games in favor of prolonging the fun or appeasing a grumpy opponent. Then again, I’ve played both men and women with bloodlust in their eyes. Some people make a competition out of everything. Is there something inherently masculine about winning? Maybe, maybe not. I think it’s safe to say, though, that whatever the reason, those people who play to win are getting something more out of winning than I am.
It’s not that I don’t care about winning. I do care. But for me an important factor is the authenticity of the win. That is to say, a game among equals is infinitely more pleasing to win than a game in which there is a great disparity of skill. I have to be good at the game to win, but in order for me to feel good about the win, my opponent has to be good too. In the same way, I don’t mind losing in a fair fight. It’s much easier to admire skill in an opponent when you truly understand that skill. In this way, I enjoy a game not necessarily because I win, but because I feel I have a chance at winning.
But are the men in my life playing by different rules? Do they see winning as the only objective in a game? Consider this- not too long ago, Luigi and I were in the lead in a game of Mario Party when a fellow player (a male playing Yoshi) stole a star from us! I felt betrayed. Shouldn’t he have stolen from someone else?, I thought, Shouldn’t there be some kind of PC vs. NPC solidarity? But from a win/loss perspective, he did the right thing. I was in the lead, and he took me down a peg. What’s more, as a PC with the ability to reason and think ahead, I was a better target than an NPC would have been. Nonetheless, stealing that star was something I never would have done.
Perhaps I should try to be a little more ruthless. Maybe one day I will, but if I do, it will be like a character I slip on. Winning is all right, but it’s not the most important thing. To date, Luigi and I have won only one game of Mario Party, and yet we truck on. He has his reasons, and I have mine.
Plain Jane has never played D&D, but writing this article has made her want to try on Chaotic Evil for size, just to switch things up. She fervently believes that Luigi is her soul-mate.