Comics are for Children
by J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)
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.
Association does not change reality: if Daddy says you can only play in your yard and the neighbor’s, the boundaries are not demilitarized. But the influence on imagination comics injected into my youth cannot be underestimated. Alternate realities, parallel worlds, solar cells, and mutation were all consciousness-expanding concepts that comics exposed before textbooks in science classes. Hell, Ray Palmer and Pamela Ivy probably inspired a generation of botanists and veterinarians just by offering children close-up perspectives on the natural world. I needed comics; anything that fueled my fantasy brought joy. My mother bought Lego every Christmas, huge thousand-piece sets back in the Eighties, before George Lucas and J. K. Rowling perverted the plastic. I’d run though our one-story house, face distorted with frantic happy, flying some predatory spaceship replete with imaginary photon cannons and starlight drives on hairpin turns though suburban hyperspace. Under the twinkling evergreen hard plastic yellow men wait patiently for my return to assist with quantum mine upgrades.
I was superhuman once. Long ago, before federal taxes and property & casualty paperwork, I could fight criminals and protect my city. Somewhere around the fifth grade, I wrote an origin story for my own personal superhero. With lightning and nanotech, with martial arts and Kevlar, I dismantled drug syndicates and jailed the criminally insane. The name embarrasses now, but at twelve I developed a hero I could respect when my mind’s eye saw his face in the mirror. Heavily influenced by Robocop and The Dark Knight Returns, my hero began as an inventor who used his talents to oppose the thugs who offered opiates to children, who peddled prostitutes in schoolyards, who paid law enforcement to gaze elsewhere. It wasn’t just about violence or sex. My character’s stories were filled with aggressive women and unyielding men; blood flowed from jagged lacerations, guts protruded from mortal wounds, and the cacophony quieted only when the frame widened to include sleek blue titanium armor. I imagined the comics I wanted to read, and read the comics that were widely available. There are worse ways to grow up.
It’s a credibility issue – I realized early on that mainstream superhero comics, these tricks of sequential art and hyperbolic narrative, were not intended for young Black boys, ever. The overwhelming epidermal monochrome mirrors the writing’s unrepentant middle American cultural sensibilities, where overwhelming force conveys authority, and plucky busty supermodels always require crew-cut Olympians to save them from distress. In comics, normality is White, and tyrannical. What’s worse, comics achieve racial diversity with computer-aided brushwork – quick sketches to widen noses and darken complexions deliver identical visuals to any American university campus after forty years of affirmative action jurisprudence. That’s too damned easy. At some point, melanin should cost you something.
I submit that the reason American superhero comics routinely fail to offer compelling stories and art with racial minority characters involves the medium’s general aversion to complex narratives and complicated characters. Put another way, comics are for children. Take any oppression issue – anti-Semitism, homophobia, structural poverty – and try to explain it to the closest three-year-old. The inevitable frustration one would reasonably experience with an earnest attempt at this illustrates the parallel. Only among the young can those gifted with extraterrestrial birth enjoy anti-gravity and cultural privilege. For the rest of us, it’s just silly to pair horn-rimmed spectacles with a spitcurl. I’m an adult. There’s no time to lounge on warm grass.
What I most often fail to appreciate about superhero comics is the desire among its patrons for escapism. I forget – people read comics for the fantastic, the otherworldly, the wonderful. Superman’s insignia, translated in modern comics as the Kryptonian symbol for hope, reminds readers of youth’s invincibility. We’re all bulletproof when we’re seven. We bounce around in warm footie pajamas with Superman’s likeness reprinted gratuitously, all arms and legs and energy. Bright-eyed and beautiful, avoiding bedtime, pretending we can fly. As children, we don’t inhabit a world where young people can be stalked and shot walking home with Skittles; where a loud gray rattle makes our classmates vomit death in dark scarlet and grandfatherly legislators respond with concerned gridlock. I get it – as adults we want to be young again. We want to buy back our unappreciated youth for $2.99 plus tax every Wednesday.
But I can’t shake it – as a child, I knew Superman and his ilk could not exist in my neighborhood. There is a stark division between reality and fiction, and Clark Kent could not cross that Mason-Dixon. So it’s infuriating to watch so many invest so much in the project of injecting our world into his. I want complex comics that reflect real-world themes; I’m a fan of V for Vendetta, From Hell and The Nightly News – I want graphic novels to examine totalitarianism, serial murder, and journalistic ethics. I want philosophical conflict in my comics, not just another mindless brawl. But I don’t want palette swaps, where brown fists collide with yellow faces and nothing else about the superheroes change. Superhero comics promote White male power fantasies to audiences who crave simpler times and simple thinking. Nostalgia. Any diversity that injects my melanin into that canvas can only respect my skin by conveying the truth: my melanin changes the nature of the canvas. Race is inherently complex, painful, and violent. Race is conflict. Race is not innocent. Race has no business in a world for children.
From my perspective, there’s a irrational futility in the ways modern superhero comic fans clamor for increased racial and gender diversity in mainstream comics. The guys who returned Power Girl’s uniform ‘boob window’ can’t justify their art direction with sex-positive feminism. It’s drawn misogyny, so asking DC Comics to make talent like that focus more on female characters strikes me as absurd. Casting Black and Latina actors as historically White superhero comic properties may offer movie studios’ stale material cost-effective modernization before suburban White movie audiences, but it’s offensive to pretend that color-face without makeup can provide cultural authenticity on-screen. Diversity is never as simple as adding the darker nation to your garden party.
We don’t all wish to attend, frankly. I read comics as fiction in my parents’ backyard, but I never imagined myself a six foot four inch Caucasian Übermensch, and no little White child ever denied my imagination because of my genetics. X-Men comic profits advocate for decades that adding powers to racial minorities benefit both the comic industry and its multicultural audience. Over time, this cosmopolitan capitalism diminishes race to just another human variation, like left-handedness, or mid-digital hair. For many, that’s nirvana, the post-racial change we’ve been waiting for. Not me. I am a Black man, and superhero comics have yet to render any facet of my experience with the deserved nuance, depth, and complexity we should expect, even when pioneers illustrated the way forward. In a medium where moral ambiguity was normal and emotional strength was prized, it’s conceivable that writers could examine race with respect for the subject matter. That’s not comics, where Similac simplicity overrules literary sophistication.
Comics are for children. Time to put away childish things.
- Stretching Spandex Over Melanin Won’t Make Comics More Diverse (thenerdsofcolor.org)
- Why I Read Comics (thenerdsofcolor.org)