Snoopy Jenkins

A critical interrogation of American popular culture. @snoopyjenkins

Tag: Batman

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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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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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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