Snoopy Jenkins

A critical interrogation of American popular culture. @snoopyjenkins

Figures of Empire: On the Impossibility of Superhero Diversity

“But before I be a servant in White heaven, I will rule in a Black hell.” – Killer Mike, “God in the Building”, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, Vol. II

Promotional poster for Belle, directed by Amma Asante

Promotional poster for Belle, directed by Amma Asante

Early in Amma Asante’s socially conscious romance Belle (2013), audiences spy a British nobleman walk with purpose through a lower class section of an unnamed port city. Humid, overpopulated streets obstruct the uniformed Royal Navy Captain’s passage.  The nobleman enters an attic dimly lit by a small window and sparse candles where a middle aged Black woman waits for him. Dressed in everyday homespun and a worn apron she stands alongside a quiet tan child with brilliant brown eyes. Prepared and dressed by the matronly woman, the silent girl holds a simple doll and stands impassive, unmoving, and observant; her simple hairpin struggles to contain an infinite cascade of light sienna locks. After the untimely death of her mother, the nobleman plans to whisk the little brown girl away to his family, to her birthright. To privilege. The nobleman kneels, and offers chocolate. Reluctantly, the girl accepts. The year is 1769.

“How lovely she is,” the nobleman exclaims softly. “Similar to her mother.”

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Superman is a White Boy

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So here’s what you already know.

American superhero comics today present White male power fantasies in sequential art for meager and dwindling profits. When television production companies and feature film studios greenlight action dramas that feature mainstream superheroes, the visual narratives they offer display muscular Anglo-Saxon men upgraded with special abilities who oppose nefarious, off-kilter Eurotrash to preserve public safety. Token women and people of color bestow selfless assistance, and our protagonists foil their deranged nemeses’ dastardly plans. Roll credits. Stunt sequences that feature Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will no doubt add amazing grace under assault rifle fire in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Chris Evans’ brawny blond Captain America plays the Hero, the last best defense freedom deploys against global catastrophe.

Pretty standard, right?

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Jackie Robinson and the Mythic Black Superhero

Jackie Robinson, stealing home.

Jackie Robinson, stealing home.

Everything foul about the comic industry today already happened to Major League Baseball.

In the historical drama 42, there’s a touching scene where Brooklyn Dodger Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, recuperates in the team locker room, lying on a low table on his stomach, as he receives needle and thread medical care from a balding team physician to repair a torn and bleeding calf. A gaggle of post-war sports reporters flash camera bulbs and pepper the injured first baseman with questions to tease out a damning and belligerent quote about racist White opponents in the Major Leagues.

Does Robinson believe he was intentionally spiked? Does he hold any ill will toward White baseball players who do not support his inclusion into America’s pastime? Robinson, incensed by his latest indignity at the hands of American prejudice, responds with trademark politeness before Branch Rickey, played by a lively Harrison Ford, barrels into the locker room, dispatches the prose vultures, and dismisses the team doctor. Rickey then relates a short story about a group of young White boys playing stickball in the street, spied on Rickey’s morning commute. The healthy, dirty, beautiful boys whoop and holler their gaiety, content in their athletic posturing, hitting the ball and running the bases while they announce their identification with their favorite Major Leaguers. Suddenly, one boy shouts, ‘I’m Jackie Robinson!’ and slides into home. A little White boy in America, 1947.

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Flame Off: The Case Against Black Johnny Storm

Your next Johnny Storm: Michael B. Jordan!

Your next Johnny Storm: Michael B. Jordan!

This is a success story. Twentieth Century Fox respected Michael B. Jordan’s body of work enough to cast him as Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Jordan’s a talented young actor, and his casting here should encourage cautious optimism toward yet another superhero franchise rehash. But like all superhero movie casting news, this latest official tidbit on Johnny Storm reenergized the usual conversation on cross-racial casting in superhero movies that has now metastasized into the expected pre-production publicity that whets core comic fan appetites for the next IMAX comic property treatment, through controversy.

Comic fans kvetch and moan about every actor movie studios tap to portray their misspent youth’s caped crusaders and sociopathic nemeses, from Heath Ledger as the Joker to Ben Affleck as Batman, from Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle to Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, from Jessica Alba as Sue Storm to Idris Elba as Heimdall. Actors are considered too genial, too talentless, too young, too skinny, too Latina, and too African by core superhero comic fans to portray iconic comic properties defined by their decades-long presence in the American imagination, and by their irrepressible Whiteness. Add Twitter’s omnipresent overshare, and watch cross-racial casting opponents roar politically incorrect snark while progressive apologists cry Racism! at every abbreviated epithet.

The question is not, “should Michael B. Jordan (amazing African American actor) play Johnny Storm (historically White comic book character and science experiment victim) in the Fantastic Four reboot?” There’s only one logical answer to that question (Who cares? He’s an actor, it’s a role, glad to see he’s still working!) and it does nothing for the issues people glean from this faux entertainment controversy. The question is “how does casting a Black actor as a historically White comic book character advance racial diversity in comic character portrayals, both in print and on IMAX screens?” As always in a country defined by racial identification and resource scarcity, who benefits?

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Wonder Woman: kNOCking heads

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman polarizes the ongoing debate over live-action female superhero movies. Advocates for a Wonder Woman movie routinely pen supportive op-eds that offer suggestions to Warner Brothers and DC Comics, while detractors decry a live-action Wonder Woman movie as an obnoxious waste of movie funding better spent promoting other female minority superheroes.

To examine this debate, I sat down with Will West of williambrucewest.com. He’s forgotten more about popular culture than I’ve ever known, and he provides expert commentary on the history of Wonder Woman, financial pressures of superhero comics and the comics industry, the impact of feminist critiques of modern comics, and much more!

This is a discussion you do NOT want to miss! A half-hour of brilliant superhero comics commentary to answer the question: Why Wonder Woman?

Some choice quotes after the jump.

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Top 15 Other DC Characters Jason Momoa Could Play in Man of Steel 2

JasonMomoa

Written by J. Lamb and Jenn

Earlier today, Keith posted a strong plea for Jason Momoa — who is currently in negotiations to join the cast of Man of Steel 2to play the role of Lobo. Keith’s not alone; the internet rumour mill has been spinning full-force since yesterday’s announcement, with plenty of speculation about whom Momoa might play from Doomsday to, well … Doomsday.

After the jump, here are 15 other DC superheroes Jason Momoa could bring to life in Man of Steel 2.

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The Conversation We Should Not Have About Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Gal GadotZack Snyder cast Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, thereby ending months of speculation about the possible portrayal of DC Comics’ oldest nod to feminist virtue and grrl power. Previously seen by American audiences in the recent Fast & Furious movies, Gal Gadot’s casting has been met with equal praise and derision. My initial response is hearty, heartfelt, and honest.

I told you so.

Sexism alone will prevent the obvious casting of a fitness model under the tiara, a woman who can rival not only Superman’s power set, but his physique as well. Instead, we’d receive more of the Joss Whedon conceit — another ninety-two pound five-foot-one-inch lily-white waif who practices tai chi and knocks out six-foot-two-inch men twice her size and age with slow roundhouse kicks. The goons’ brawny, broken masculinity will fly across movie screens, launched from determined but weak punches by tiny, dainty fists, and all the men in the theater will pretend that the bad comedy on-screen makes sense, so they don’t screw up their chances at date-night sex. (I watched Firefly, loved Serenity, but let’s be clear — Summer Glau can’t kick my ass.) Women today lift exceptional weight, run ultra-marathons, and go hard in the paint — to cast Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers would need to channel Nike and reflect the active woman’s sweat and sacrifice. This the male gaze will not allow. – J. Lamb, “We Don’t Need a Wonder Woman Movie

Casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman does not preclude the display of an active woman wearing a golden lasso in the Man of Steel sequel; indeed many reactions to this casting news have hoped that she would increase her muscle mass for this role as actors like Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have to play superheroes on movie screens. But we now know that instead of a fitness model or Crossfit chick under the tiara, we have a standard issue Israeli fashion model with just enough Mediterranean swarthiness to read ‘dainty exotic’ to the Western male gaze. While I’d be surprised by anything more than a cameo for Wonder Woman in the upcoming film, it’s now clear that the ‘Joss Whedon conceit’ will inform practically all female superhero movie adaptations for the foreseeable future. Just replace the shaky tai chi with slow Krav Maga and switch Summer Glau for Gal Gadot and you’ve’ve got a Twenty-First Century Wonder Woman, a metahuman coat hanger that punches heavyweight hooligans through brick walls. Movie magic.

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Comics are for Children

ContagionI don’t remember the wonder anymore.

As a child, I did not collect comics weekly. At ten, I lacked the funds and access to a friendly neighborhood comic book shop. Travel to the closest store required leaving Black suburban safety, crossing highways and railroad tracks, and strolling through an alien White community three miles away to feed a Cable and Nightwing habit. No. Besides, graphic novels offered complete story arcs, so to read new comics I would cajole my mother into forking over twenty dollars American (not including sales tax) each time I wished to depart Waldenbooks in Chesapeake Square Mall with the Spider-Man Clone Saga, or Batman: Contagion.

I loved those comics. Time-travel maxiseries like 1991’s Time and Time Again hurled Superman though linear time, stretching the limits of invulnerability and relativity, while Elseworlds like Superman: Speeding Bullets questioned our familiarity with the World’s Finest origins by neatly merging their narratives. (That’s right: the Waynes find the rocket from Krypton, but Joe Chill still finds them. What’s not to like?) I’d spend long hours on a unrolled forest green foam mat in my backyard, broiling under unrepentant sun, inhaling freshly cut grass, reading voraciously. Dogs barked, mosquitoes feasted, friends and foes alike traded concussions on manicured gridirons, and a stack of dog-eared and comfortable trade paperbacks proved my only companions.

I retain those memories, but lost the passion. Details, not desire. I don’t read superheroes that way anymore. When you follow characters as a child, immaturity confers humanity. Reality and fiction did not blur in my mind; no manner of computer-aided pencils and India ink could make Wally West outrace Carl Lewis. But there was an innocence when I was young! Back then, comic characters shouted and ran and jumped and fought, they foiled the dastardly and protected the innocent, they managed corporations and wrote opinion columns and discovered unknown elements – they stole the texture of life, if not it’s flavor. They did things! Childhood aches – we constantly reach for increased freedom as children, without the patience to care about dangers we can’t fathom. For superheroes, danger is not relevant. Save the day, win the girl, defeat Darkseid – that matters.

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Stretching Spandex Over Melanin Won’t Make Comics More Diverse

thor the dark world posterSometimes being a Nerd of Color is difficult. Often, the sci-fi you watch marries awesome next-gen splatterpunk visuals with horrid White Man’s Burden political sentiments, or the games you play offer wickedly fun three-dimensional gameplay with healthy servings of amoral misogyny and racial epithets. But often it’s pretty easy – each and every Wednesday new worlds reveal the secrets of earthbound metahumans and iron-masked despots and immortal ronin and sentient bacteria and techno-organic telepaths and rubber geniuses and fighter pilots with imagination rings. The comic industry may not accurately render tomorrow, but it can always take you somewhere you never thought you could go.

But let’s admit, the price of the ticket is Whiteness. When most people close their eyes and imagine a Superhero, the vast majority envision a strapping White male, muscular and determined, with steely blue eyes and biceps that can curl Ford pickups. That’s the starting point. That’s what nearly a century of comic art imprints on the Western mind. Even as every other facet of the shared global experience publicly acknowledges non-European populations’ economic and political contributions, the American comic industry and its burgeoning film components routinely place the same pale Olympian specimens on the power fantasy as global hero altar. Millions of people pay to watch sweat bead under a stringy, half-braided blond mop while a bodybuilder bleeds under a scarlet cape, writhing in agony below an unforgiving world’s cloudy grey sky, the treachery of his wayward trickster brother foremost in his thoughts.

I watched two young women in the audience for a local showing of Thor: The Dark World. These portly, pockmarked brunettes guffawed at every tasteless joke, swooned with every Chris Hemsworth half-smile, and embraced the silence of attraction whenever Thor exposed his shirtless glory. You could pen a long treatise on the tyranny of conformity these images promote, you can YouTube a discussion on the irresponsible corporate socialization inherent in selling a film about a White male god who runs around planet Earth hammering foes into submission, but none of this will change the heady lust in those girls’ eyes. That gaze is uncritical of Thor’s geopolitical implications, his brazen sexism, even his indifference to high school physics. Hell, that gaze could care less that the movie sucked! Taut muscle, metallic spandex and Australian features sold admission. The obvious objective of Thor: The Dark World is capitalist: sell as many movie tickets and as much official memorabilia as possible. All of it — the sweaty masculinity, the computer-generated effects, the human deer impersonation Natalie Portman called acting, the annoying Kat Dennings camp – contributes to that objective. The end result was a terrible forced lobotomy of a movie, devoid of narrative coherence, enjoyable characters, and compelling visuals. Thor: The Dark World is, quite possibly, the worst thing Marvel has ever done.

And I can’t imagine what would improve about that film if they made Thor Black.

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The Walking Dead Recap: “Infected”, Season 4, Episode 2

Walking-Dead-Season-4-PosterThe Walking Dead, AMC’s smash-hit zombie apocalypse action-drama, owes much of its success to the general interest in and support for gore-infested violence by American audiences. This season’s premiere raked in 16.1 million viewers, and devoured more 18-49 year old view attention than this season’s N.F.L. games. Thanks to Jenn Reappropriate’s conference commitments, I watched and live-tweeted “Infected!”, last-night’s episode , and my perspective and mild spoilers follow.

Robert Kirkman’s dystopia appealed as a comic because, during most of its run, the narrative focus highlighted human survivors. Rick’s post-traumatic insanity, Sophia’s alternate mental universe, Carl’s sociopathic nihilism, and even Michonne’s clumsy sexuality all fell within what reader would recognize as human responses to the unreasonable events presented by The Walking Dead. One of the most useful moments in the comic happens somewhere in the Prison, when Rick, in a frenzied monologue, explains the nature of the new world no meek can inherit.

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