Jackie Robinson and the Mythic Black Superhero
by J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)
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.
We are supposed to find this heartwarming. Robinson’s impact would find no measure in bases stolen or pitches hit; it’s impossible to quantify social progress’ glacial pace in baseball statistics. But he would change things, so long as he played the game without defending himself from hate. All the private fear and public loathing, all the racial epithets and death threats, all the verbal abuse and segregated accommodations and physical assaults offer mainstream White America an ongoing lecture in racial harmony, in the common humanity of all, so long as Black suffering persists without redress. Jackie Robinson only teaches that otherworldly patience and impossible stamina can fight racism if his antagonists and the mainstream observers who refuse to intervene witness torture without self-defense, terrorism without revenge. Unmask Jackie Robinson’s historical gift as White America’s introduction to nonviolent civil disobedience.
42 ignores the police dogs and freedom songs and screaming marchers and church bombings; that all comes later, and this is a baseball movie. But 42 deftly summarizes Movement theory about John and Jane Q. Public. Moderates on America’s race question then and now simply avoid the everyday inequities people of color endure, so when racial minorities illustrate American brutality their fellow citizens will (so the thinking goes) confront their imaginations just like the young White boys playing stickball in the street. The price is violence. On the long journey toward the Obama Presidency you encounter a man who ambles shakily across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, bleeding copiously from terrible scalp lacerations, skull fractured, barely conscious, moaning. You want him to speak about the 16th Street Baptist Church, you demand to know more of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, but the man collapses. He doesn’t boast extraterrestrial physiology or mutated chromosomes; no special injection or radioactive insect bestows superhuman strength or preternatural agility. He’s not a rich man’s son. Billy clubs bruise, bricks concuss, dogs rip flesh. His march for justice cannot have a happy ending.
And yet, are we not entertained? 42 ends with a video montage on the historical Branch Rickey and his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers that reinforces Major League Baseball’s lasting commitment to integrated play based on athletic skill alone; today, professional baseball players are as likely to hail from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Japan as from suburban diamonds and Little League dugouts. Even though the National Football League’s blood and circuses eclipsed Major League Baseball as America’s national pastime long ago, it’s argued that baseball’s regional popularity should not be overlooked, even as it’s national popularity wanes, according to Nielsen ratings. But demography damns the bold. Major League Baseball is the professional sports equivalent of the quadrennial Republican National Convention, where elderly White Boomers pantomime cosmopolitan tolerance and listen inattentively while Black, Latino and Asian conservatives preach traditional family values in jingoistic speeches designed to rally a monochrome faithful the speakers never resemble. The only meaningful difference between David Ortiz and Mia Love is the fact that no one would dare cue Jay Z’s “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” as Love’s theme music.
The comic industry today parallels Major League Baseball’s past bigotry toward Black talent. Commentators decry the continued indifference to diversity displayed by the industry, within its talent pool and character base. Superhero comics float above their peers both in single issues sold and in towheaded squarejaws shown. Metropolis is as diverse as Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn. The progressive Left’s comic aficionados scream for more female and racial minority talent, more female and racial minority characters, and more female and racial minority protagonists for upcoming superhero movies. Just inject estrogen and melanin wherever possible, like an identity politics azidothymidine to cure chronic cultural malaise. Idris Elba is Heimdall in the Thor franchise? Great! Jamie Foxx plays Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Rejoice! Michael B. Jordan is Johnny Storm for the Fantastic Four reboot? Huzzah!
But behind this multicultural veneer lies the obvious: superhero comics are and shall remain White male power fantasies penned by White men, Establishment FUBU rendered in sequential art. Modern Black superheroes signify conventional heroism to majority White and Asian male audiences, middle and upper class adolescents with disposable income who lack consistent immersion in today’s African American cultures. And yet, when compared to video games or popular music over the last three decades, the comic industry’s market share contracts like a Charley horse. For worldly children raised on Eminem’s impish anarchism and Call of Duty’s high definition crimes against humanity, Black superheroes present modern readers with anachronistic integrationists empowered by extra-normal abilities, Andrew Young riding lightning in Jim Lee’s sketchbook. What motivates John Stewart and Luke Cage more than fighting alongside Superman and Captain America? Insipid blaxploitation catchphrases like “Sweet Christmas!” do not imply authentic darker nation attitude; they demonstrate that every Black superhero promoted by DC and Marvel Comics reinforces White male power fantasies to retain a dwindling suburban youth readership whose parents still blame the Great Recession’s subprime mortgage crisis on generational Black poverty and George W. Bush’s ownership society.
The on-panel diversity conundrum comics face does not involve inclusion or integration; Jackie Robinson triumphed long ago. The feminist clamor for gender parity without sexual assault in comics has to my mind overpowered the more interesting comic writing diversity debate; namely, how much should estrogen and melanin alter the nature of the comics themselves? Can the comic industry retain anemic suburban revenue streams when challenging their readership with authentic minority storytelling? Whenever the Justice League repels another Parademon invasion, several million dollars of commercial property damage results. (Darkseid never attacks Wichita Falls, Texas.) It’s telling that comics legend Dwayne McDuffie wrote one of his earliest properties about the people who repair that damage. In the Black community, those guys matter. They are our brothers and cousins and friends, and a comic industry that understood the lessons Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson taught Major League Baseball would reflect recognizable Black humanity within the stories themselves. Today, Black superheroes confront Thanos but never challenge the Tea Party. Black superheroes wear skintight lycra and colorful spandex on 125th and Lenox, without comment from passerby Harlemites. Black superheroes are more likely to pursue happiness with Wolverine or Sasha Bordeaux or Jessica Jones than with anyone gifted with wide noses or full lips or burnt sienna skin.
Comics are entertainment. Comics exist when most people wind down their focus and relax their brains. It’s juvenile media, and as such most comic fans do not require identity politics and macroeconomic debate in the same pages where green rings project hard-light constructs and green women smash tanks with irradiated fists. But this refusal to evaluate comics as literature bequeathed an empty, dying medium, unable to challenge itself enough to entice new audiences. Today’s comic industry reflects the sadistically inane situation comedies popular on broadcast television, where comedy needs racial jokes, colorface, and scatological humor to stay on-air. In contrast, the closest comic analogue to the episodic genius of today’s Golden Age of Television was first printed in 1986. The simple truth is that any authentic inclusion of estrogen and melanin within comics must convey gender and race and class in vivid, unrelenting cultural detail. Before her Justice League communicator pings adventure, Wonder Woman should explain her Jane-come-lately ambassadorship to Man’s World to skeptical Ms. Magazine and Jezebel interlocutors who interrogate her knowledge of and respect for feminism’s activist waves. In-panel, these journalists should question her halter-top’s nod towards sex-positive feminism and her Lasso of Truth’s public exultation of the sadomasochistic underground. When Wonder Woman suddenly terminates the interview after someone requests an explanation for the League’s abysmal gender imbalance, we will finally know what a feminist comic looks like.
But make no mistake – Geoff Johns cannot write that comic. Jay Z “dumbs down” for his audience to “double his dollars”, and mainstream superhero comic authors imitate this boorish behavior when they generate revenue from elementary plotlines punctuated by unnecessary superhuman combat scenes, stretched over several issues. Why? Dwindling market share for printed American comic entertainment translates into fewer monthly titles; top earning properties dominate bestseller comic lists through cultivated nostalgia saturated with violent nihilistic excess, and a simple narrative potion concocted to excite children’s immature reptilian brains for profit develops. In Johns’ Trinity War, three distinct superhero teams unite to chase Pandora’s Box, a magical bejeweled gold skull MacGuffin, in order to prove that Superman’s murderous belligerence toward Dr. Light was magically induced. Numerous free-for-all battles between members of the Justice League, Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark ensue, and the reader quickly knows that this comic miniseries exists so that costumed heroes can pummel one another indefinitely, as if schoolyard brawls magnify public interest when participants wear gaudy leotards. Reading Trinity War, it’s no secret why superhero comic movie scripts abandoned development hell for greenlit pastures en masse in the last decade – Hollywood’s shrinking global market share markedly increases the worldwide profit pressure from blockbuster action thrillers. Automatic assault rifles, massive explosions, reckless sportscar chases, blue-eyed behemoths’ eight-pack abdominals: the mathematics of violence is a universal language, easily understood and cost-controlled. Hollywood recognizes that the comic industry literally wrote the book on mindless property damaging violence. The cost is dramatic intelligence, but if you enjoy Baldwin and Milton, you probably don’t read Bendis and Tomasi.
Comic sequels abound in IMAX, complex dramas recede to Sundance. Comics‘ progressive Left loves this development, so long as non-White and female actors assume top billing in America’s withered global movie market share tent-poles. Hire Zoe Saldana for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and wait patiently for the NAACP Image Award to arrive. But mocha faces and almond eyes do not signify communities of color; they are deoxyribonucleic acid’s phenotypic tricks, human biology’s Industrial Light and Magic. No member of the darker nation should be complacent with the reduction of our melanin to another random special effect. When movie studios employ actors to mirror your skin and your genitals to cull your disposable income, the movie is no longer the product.
Cultural detail and conscious thought does not impede leisure. The comic industry will slide past Truman-era social dynamics when it reverses its aversion to complex, mature storytelling. Until then, it’s just another country club where members sip fine wines, play golf on immaculate courses, and completely miss the funky artistry of Brooklyn’s half-combed afros and syncopated backbeats. Art and drama and life are alive and well in America. When comics decides to join the block party, we’ll be waiting.