White Scripts and Black Supermen
Welcome to Noteworthy. I’m Will Scott and it’s my job to highlight projects, publications, and artists that Sequential Highway believes, due to the quality of their work or the creative message they’re sending, warrant more attention from the comic book market. This installment: White Scripts and Black Supermen.
I don’t think that there is a single person of the age of majority who has not heard the phrase, “If you want to know someone, walk a mile in their shoes.”
There is a lot of talk in the media about race, and terms like “hot button” are coined left, right and center when trying to identify a controversy. But for me, it’s about human beings wanting their voices to be heard. To deny that the Black community has suffered great indignities at the hands of the white majority is just plain ignorant. It wasn’t that long ago that a person of colour could not enter a hotel by the front entrance, or even share a washroom or water fountain with people who were white. Think about that for minute. Imagine being denied the simplest courtesy due to the colour of your skin. Now imagine that in every movie or even in comic books almost all of the heroes are white. And if there is a hero of colour, he often has the prefix of Black in front his name and lives in the ghetto with the rest of his friends who are maybe pimps or drug dealers. Do you not think that that sends the wrong message to generations of kids and consciously or subconsciously affects them? Of course it does.
Yes, times have changed. We are becoming a better and more tolerant society. Yet, there is always room for improvement, and one of the ways to make such improvements is to examine what caused the separation – the wound – in the first place.
White Scripts and Black Supermen is a documentary by Jonathan Gayles, an Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University. The genesis for the film came about rather innocently. Gayles explains: “I was shopping with my wife and I picked the trade paperback featuring the first Luke Cage/Powerman issues. He was one of my favorite heroes during my adolescence. A few days later, as I was flipping through the trade paperback, I was stunned by how offensive many of the images and storylines were. Stunned. I was doing work on the representation of Black masculinity in popular culture and wondered if anyone had done any critical work in the comic book genre.”
Will Scott: It can be said that your aim in making this documentary was, in part, to bring to public attention the uphill battle that African-Americans have had in finding heroic role models in mass entertainment media. What more can you tell us about your intention?
Jonathan Gayles: An additional intention was to identify and critically attend to specific representational patterns of Black masculinity in comic books. I also wanted to attach these patterns to historical and present-day narratives about Black men. Doing so places comic books within the realm of popular culture and as a result, we should understand that comic books do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they reflect the kinetic social contexts within which we all operate.
WS: I understand that as a teenager you were an avid comic book reader. Are you still an avid comic book reader?
JG: Too expensive! No, I pick up a trade paperback here and there. I follow Black Panther and I find Mr. Terrific to represent an important moment in the representation of Black men in comic books. I am also digging the new Moon Knight Series and Batwing as well.
WS: Were you offended by the fact that every black hero had to be called “Black Something” while the ethnicity of the white hero was always taken for granted and, as it were, went without saying?
JG: Offended? I guess I was a little offended but as a young person I did not think very critically and so it did not bother [me] quite as much as it does now. In the documentary, Mark Singer describes a moment in which Superboy is attempting to convince Tyroc to join the Legion of Superheroes and he points out everyone’s skin color expect his own – even identifying Karate Kid’s yellow skin. It is a great moment in the film. The “Black-prefix” dynamic really reflects the general presumptive whiteness of herodom. Still, I acknowledge the intention of writers like Tony Isabella, creator of Black Lightning, who tells us that Jefferson Pierce regards his name with pride. Indeed, Stanford Carpenter reminds us of the moment in Crisis when Black Lightning and Mr. Terrific trade jabs about their names, reflecting the fact that Black Lightning is a Black Superhero and Mr. Terrific is a superhero that is Black. Interesting stuff.
WS: Do you feel that there has been a deliberate resistance within the comic book industry and other entertainment media to presenting black heroes in a positive light or (alternatively) that the absence of strong, educated black heroes in comics and other entertainment media is the result of ignorance on the part of programmers? Would you go as far as to say that there has been a persistent prejudice against black heroes and black creators?
JG: There is no use in ignoring active racism in media. From Birth of a Nation forward, the representation of people of colour has never been controlled by people of colour. We are, thankfully, a long way from Birth of a Nation but the representation of Black people in media is still primarily a product of white male constructions of Black people. To call it deliberate implies an intentionality with which I am not completely comfortable. It might be more accurate to say that people do not want to stretch or be stretched when they read comic books. For many, comic books represent a space that is safe from such concerns. As a result, if we are socialized to think of superheroes in a particular way, we will generally turn away from representations that are disruptive. Even if some novel representation is introduced, a variety of devices are used to make this representation less disruptive. The documentary addresses many of these devices.
WS: Is there a sense in which you would say that African-Americans are better represented in comic books today than they were in the 60’s and 70’s? Do we still have a long way to go?
JG: Yes and yes. We have come a long way since the buck-eyed and pink-lipped Whitewash. I referenced Mr. Terrific earlier. A character like Mr. Terrific (in his current iteration) would have been impossible in the 70’s. Dell Comics couldn’t get Lobo distributed – how do we think a series about a Black man with multiple Ph.D.s would have fared? DC’s commitment to Mr. Terrific is laudable. The same goes for Batwing. The same for the Black Panther. Luke Cage leads the Avengers.
We have come a long way.
Still, there are precious few African-American superheroes with their own titles and this remains a problem.
WS: Who would you most want this documentary to inspire?
JG: Everyone. Absolutely everyone.
WS: From the point of view that White Scripts and Black Supermen can make a difference, can be instrumental in making changes to culture and society, what do you want those changes to be? What kind of difference do you want White Scripts and Black Supermen to make?
JG: I want the film to encourage people to consume media more critically. I want people to think more broadly about representation and resist the temptation to accept the notion that media representations reflect some objective reality instead of a reality that we, all of us, construct.
WS: Is there anything you would like to add about White Scripts and Black Supermen that we have not touched upon in the questions?
JG: I would like to mention the important work of those associated with the Black Age Movement (Turtel Onli, Yumy Odom, Bill Foster. Omar Bilal, Andre Batts and others). This movement represents independent artists, writers and creators that are actively responding to limited representations in the genre. Their work is important but more, it is really good!