Four-Color Color-Blindness: Black Iron Man

blkirnman

I went looking for this panel. I knew it was from Secret Wars, but I remembered it differently. Back in in 1984/85, when this 12-issue limit series was being published, it was only Marvel’s second major cross-over event (the first being the similarly themed 3-issue Contest of Champions). While Secret Wars II, would be Marvel’s first shot at the all-too-common practice of incorporating the universe-spanning theme to most if not all of their titles, Secret Wars actually handled it intelligently. All the events in this series happened between issues of the regular series of heroes included therein. So, for example, in Amazing Spider-man issue #251, Spidey is seen entering the strange construct that transported him (and all the other heroes) to what would become known as “Battleworld.” In issue #252, he returns and all the events of Secret Wars happened in-between. No need to purchase a bunch of filler tie-in issues only designed to prop up poorly selling titles to get the whole story.

Anyway, this panel is from Secret Wars #8. It stuck out in my mind because I remembered it as another superhero (in my mind Spider-man) acting surprised to see a black man in Iron Man’s armor—at the time Tony Stark was busy recovering from alcoholism, and James “Rhodey” Rhodes had taken over the mantle of Iron Man. This was before the days when Tony Stark had revealed his identity as Iron Man, so as far as anyone knew the same person was in the suit (though as we shall see in my next post, some folks had their suspicions). I remembered it as this uplifting and resistant moment—like “fuck yeah, there’s a black man in this armor. Your all-white club of adventurers can’t keep me out!”

But, as you can see, Rhodes asks Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four if he was surprised to see “a black man under the metal,” and we are supposed to be impressed with Reed’s color-blindness: “Hmm. . . No, I never gave it a thought! I knew there was a man under there. . .” But Reed Richards is supposed to be the smartest man on the planet. . . Is he not observant? It doesn’t take a genius to see the stark under-representation of African-Americans (and other people of color) in the Marvel Universe (especially among superheroes). He should be surprised. Rhodey’s blackness matters, both in the fictional world of Marvel Superheroes (where among the top flight heroes meant to take part in Secret Wars only three are black and none are Latino) and in the world of its readers, like 13-year old me, who were looking for characters to identify with, even if that identification ends up being a misprision, or to use a term from queer theory, a disindentification: “How those outside the racial and sexual mainstream negotiate majority culture, not by aligning themselves with or against exclusionary works but by transforming these works for their own cultural practice.” (Munoz, Disidentifications)

It is no wonder that in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz writes, “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacle growing out of your chest.” The X-Men, as the bad-ass outcasts, were the closest thing we had to aspire to. Hell, there is even a scene in Secret Wars where Storm’s concerns are dismissed as “angry black woman talk” by Professor X who threatens to mind control her if she doesn’t unquestioningly obey his commands, despite her ostensibly being the leader of the X-Men at that time.

Storm-X-control

Professor X disrespects Storm and threatens to mindrape her and the rest of the X-Men (Secret Wars#6 – Oct 1984)

Color-blindness of the kind that Reed Richards asserts in this panel just reinforces a white supremacist status quo of which the mainstream comic world is among the most obvious example. To claim to not be surprised is to fail to acknowledge a reality that needs addressing. In my memory the scene addressed it through Rhodey’s defiance, which goes to show that regardless of how much a comics fan I was (or am) that defiance was part of how I interpreted a world that makes white supremacy manifest in four-colors.

28 thoughts on “Four-Color Color-Blindness: Black Iron Man

  1. Pingback: Captain Marvel & More Black Iron Man | The Middle Spaces

  2. Of course, as I recall from reading reprints of the earliest X-Men stories, Professor X was a demanding dick with the original all-white X-Men too. But then, they were also all teens. It wasn’t until the era of the “All New” X-Men that he had to deal with very independent minded adults in the group.

    • Hey! Thanks for commenting!

      I would be really interested in seeing evidence of Xavier threatening to mind control or mind wipe the original X-Men. I am not saying it didn’t happen, I just not familiar enough with that initial run.

      This was also in the era where Xavier got use of his legs back (or was just getting them back) and thus was a real dick about asserting his authority now that he could be “in the field” so to speak.

  3. I dunno. It seems a scene of “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t”. If that panel had Reed losing his sh*t that Iron Man was black, I’m sure a dozen blogs would be jumping up and down in outrage. Probably the best course by far would be for the writer of the story to have not pretended to be hip and cool and just left any racial observation aside.

    On the specific level of the story, though, it would be ridiculously out of character for Reed Richards to notice mere skin colour. He has spent years trying to convince his best friend that “appearance doesn’t matter” and that being orange rock doesn’t make him less a man. Reed is has close, almost familial, relations with aliens and Inhumans.

    For Reed Richards having any concern for Iron Man’s skin colour is about the relevant as wondering if Iron Man prefers Pepsi or Coke.

  4. Thanks for commenting, but I think even your choice of words points out what I am trying to get at here. Sure, for Reed Richards to have that concern can seen as superficial as choosing between Pepsi and Coke BECAUSE HE IS WHITE and has that privilege.

    Reed’s attempts to assuage his friend’s isolation and horror 1) does not preclude his understanding of the experience of race in our culture, and 2) didn’t stop him from trying for many years to reverse the Thing’s condition (an on-going plot point). Furthermore, black people are not aliens or inhumans – as I have written about before, the habit that sci-fi has to use those as analogies for race is also problematic as it continues to obscure people of color and/or fail to include them.

    However, that aside, I do think your point about it being difficult to breach the subject in comics is a good one. Since American superhero comics operate within a very obvious system of white supremacy, any individual scene of engagement regarding race is very likely to fail if does not verbalize that systematic problem, but cannot do so without derailing the genre itself and becoming ABOUT that and probably in a not very entertaining and didactic way. it is a conundrum.

    You are right in the sense that I would not trust Jim Shooter or any of the Marvel writers at the time to directly (or indirectly) address issues of race (or gender) with any kind of nuance, delicacy or real understanding.

    Thanks again.

  5. It’s hard for a person like me not on the receiving end of minority issues to get ahold of the deepcore feelings. But, I can say that comics (long before the mishmash of “Secret Wars” and its peers) depicting the ongoing message that Ben Grimm was very much human under the rocks and that green-skinned kids could be in the Legion of Superheroes and mutants had rights to and so on and so forth, well…they prodded a white kid in a 99% white rural farm town to ignore skin colour and accept folks as folks.

    Marvel or DC writers wrote a grand two-fisted space opera/pulp adventure story, but they really had their limits. I may be muddled on the veracity of how they depicted minorities, but I sure can extrapolate on how dismally they usually depicted teens back in the Silver/Bronze Ages. If that’s how they thought “groovy hep” kids of yesteryear acted, I shudder to think what would have happened if they really tried to write minority action.

    • I am not denying the “humanity” of The Thing (he is actually one of my all-time favorite characters) or even trying to point out this specific comic as “bad” – but rather these analyses are meant to be evidence of the patterns of how race is handled/not handled in comic books. There is nothing wrong with rock-men or mutants, but when they are allowed to replace representations of actual minorities through their role as analogues that is problematic.

      I also think it is possible for these kinds of stories to help to open people’s minds, but there are limitations and even pitfalls to that kind of thing. Part of the point of this post (thus the title) is to help explain that color-blindness is not a virtue, b/c it is an excuse for the status quo where institutional inequalities continue to exist

      Again, thanks for commenting. I appreciate the dialog and wish I had more with my readers.

  6. Oh, and again, I think you are right that attempts at “authentic” minorities would likely have been dismal – but that is also a problem of how white the industry was/is. This might be mitigated somewhat by more people of color working as writers, editors, artists.

  7. I see no point where Professor X dismisses Storm’s comments as angry black woman talk. I do however see him dismissing them in a way in which Claremont would not have him do; frankly Shooter’s writing has always been terrible and his Secret Wars depiction of the X-men was particularly bad.

    However, I see no need to place a racial insult where one does not exist. Do you have any evidence Professor X is dismissing Storm’s way out of character behavior as angry black woman talk?

    • Thanks for commenting.

      The context of the exchange and the dynamics it portrays demonstrate to me the kind of dismissal and undercutting of her position as leader that is acceptable to a comics audience because of Storm’s race.

      Xavier’s accusation that she is just being emotional and needs to “control herself” (or he will control her) is not only common to how men frequently dismiss women (as too emotional, regardless of the legitimacy of their concern), but the whenever you have interactions between people of different races that interaction is colored (no pun intended) by race – meaning that form of her emotion (in this case, anger) has a particular stereotypical connotation that should not be ignored.

      Sure, Shooter was writing this and was very likely writing the characters somewhat differently than Claremont would, but that does not change the fact, that intentionally or not the exchanges fits into a trans-racial skein that dismisses the concerns of people of color.

      Also, I don’t see this characterization as THAT different. Professor X has always been kind of a dick and Storm has frequently been depicted as getting angry and the weather reflecting her mood.

  8. Ridiculous. Your are projecting themes onto the comic that don’t exist. Xavier might be a dick, but he wasn’t depicted as a racist or misogynist during that time period at all (I can’t speak to the original series).

    I’ve seen (read) Xavier criticize other members of the team as too emotional and/or out of control as well.

    In short, the supposition upon which you base your opinion, that Xavier was dismissing Storm because of race/gender, is not supported by the facts in any way whatsoever. If Xavier had only been a dick to Storm or asked Storm to calm down while letting others rant, I could see your point. However, you’ve offered absolutely no evidence other than these few panels conform to your idea of how “an angry black woman” would be treated. You need a lot more before making such serious allegations.

    As for the weather reflecting Storm’s emotions, that was the way she was (and maybe still is, I don’t know) depicted. Again, that is no different than the multitude of other characters whose powers reflect emotion.

    I appreciate your opinion and enjoy your work, but it seems to me that the one who is guilty of stereotyping in this circumstance is you and that you are using Storm and Xavier’s skin color and sex to try and make your larger point.

    My point with respect to Shooter is that he wrote the Xmen (and particularly Storm) out of character during the Secret Wars series, however, I still don’t see the “angry black woman” stereotype here. Storm is angry with Xavier because he is being a dick. Xavier is dismissing her protests because he is the ultimate leader of the team. You’re projecting something onto these panels that is simply not supported by the work to make a larger point (Which I agree with, I just don’t see it here).

    • First of all thanks for commenting!

      Secondly, I am not “projecting” anything. Rather, I am reading the scene in the skein of American racial politics. I am not suggesting that Xavier’s dismissal of Storm is because of race and gender. Instead, I am saying that her dismissal falls into a pattern of _how_ black women are dismissed. The fact that he threatens to rob her of agency, just reinforces the underlying assumption of white supremacy that is a part of American superhero comics and that informs transracial interactions.

      What this kind of critique is doing is not looking for intentionality on the part of the writers, rather it seeks to elucidate the patterns that enscribed into the genre based on the cultural assumptions that go unquestioned.

      On the other hand, this kind of analysis is not meant to suggest that this scene _only_ means something from this perspective. Clearly, it means something from the perspective of the narrative of Secret Wars and the broader continuity of X-Men, but is also means something in lieu of the narrative of the representation of relationships and dynamics of power between white men and black women.

    • I know what your critique is doing; you don’t need to explain it to me, I took undergraduate classes too. And you are changing what your argument was now that I have pointed out that your original critique is ridiculous. You clearly say in the above, “Hell, there is even a scene in Secret Wars where Storm’s concerns are dismissed as “angry black woman talk” by Professor X who threatens to mind control her if she doesn’t unquestioningly obey his commands, despite her ostensibly being the leader of the X-Men at that time.”

      So, yes, you did say Xavier dismissed her complaints based upon race and gender. “Angry black woman” is a usage of both race and gender.

      However, “angry black woman” is not a term I see Xavier using, or thinking, at any point in time.

      Xavier’s comment has nothing to do with “white supremacy” and everything to do with Xavier establishing himself (And Shooter’s terrible writing). If white supremacy was the “underlying assumption” of the X-Men, Storm, an African female, wouldn’t have been the leader of the X-Men instead of Cyclops, a white male, in the first place.

      Simply put, you are taking two panels out of context to fit your preconceived notion. I see a lot of that from my undergraduate students.

      What your critique is elucidating is the tendency for folks to jump to conclusions with little to no evidence. Just because one character is white and the other is black doesn’t prove any “underlying assumptions” about white supremecy especially when the black female has bumped a white male (Cyclops) out of his role.

      Xavier’s comments to Storm were not his dismissing Storm as using “angry black woman talk” and there is no evidence it was. What you have done is find a couple of panels of a comic book that fits your preconceptions and then make a claim for which you have no support.

      Finally, Xavier isn’t just threatening to “rob Storm of agency” he is threatening to rob any X-Man of “agency” who doesn’t do what he says. Storm, as the field leader of the X-Men (instead of the white man she supplanted) is the logical individual to challenge Xavier (though, I doubt the entire scene would have happened with a different writer).

      Sometimes a panel is just a panel.

    • We seem to be going in circles. So will say one last, time I am not reading them “out of context,” I am reading them in the context that all of American superhero comics exist in.

      The culture of white supremacy I am talking about is not a zero sum game, wherein Storm’s gain and Cyclops’ loss make them perfect equals. In fact, that is often the insidiousness of how it works. If the reaction in many quarters to presidency of Obama teaches us anything it is that.

      The writer does not matter – at least not for what I am talking about.

      I am not changing my argument one bit, but am trying to clarify it for you. Furthermore, while I do appreciate your comments, I do not appreciate your snark. So please refrain from your thinly-veiled “undergraduate” remarks.

      Thanks.

    • Yeah, I never said it was a “zero sum game.” Again, you are projecting. I am just citing a fact that weighs against (though I admit is not dispositive or anywhere near dispositive) your argument.

      Also, my undergraduate remarks are not “thinly veiled”; they are out there for all to see. I made them because your projection is the type of thing that I see in those papers all of the time: an individual taking a small part of a story and projecting something onto it that simply does not exist. They often do this in racial and sexual context just based upon the color, race or sex of the individual(s) involved.

      It is the worst kind of argument. You need to have some kind of context other than the color of an individual’s skin (or their sex).

      Especially in the context of a group of characters recognized for diversity (Although I will admit that this factor doesn’t weigh as heavily because of the fact that Claremont is not the author and Jim Shooter’s commitment to diversity is questionable at best . . . yes, the author matters-a lot).

      Again, you claimed that Storm’s concerns are dismissed as “angry black woman talk” by Xavier. There is absolutely nothing to support that claim other than the color of her and Xavier’s skin and their sex.

      Just like the many times Storm has dismissed the concerns of those under her command it does not mean she is dismissing those concerns based upon race or sex (though I recognize there is a difference here: re: the history of racism and misogyny from white males against African American females and people of color in general; both in society and comic books)

      At the end of the day, sometimes an argument is just an argument.

      Frankly, your complaint against the Reed Richards color blindness is supported by a much better argument. I had never given that panel a second thought until reading this article.

      Anywhere, you’re right, we are going in circles, soI think we will have to agree to disagree. I apologize if my undergrad comments were snarky and thank you for the argument.

      I did enjoy the article. Peace.

  9. Just a few nits to pick:

    Narratively, Storm didn’t subsume shit from Cyclops. He walked away after the death of Jean Grey and someone needed to be promoted to leader in his place.

    In terms of Claremont shaking things up in mainstream comics, who was Xavier going to chose? Wolverine? Colossus? Angel would be the usual choice I imagine if his membership were not so tentative and his presence so obviously temporary.

    Dirty wrote: ‘However, “angry black woman” is not a term I see Xavier using, or thinking, at any point in time.’

    How is this sentence supposed to be interpreted? Are you really meaning to say one cannot infer meaning from a text but rather only highlight and discuss what is explicitly stated? I doubt this is what you mean but much of your commentary on this article has given me the sense that this is what you believe. I don’t know what further discussion can occur in the context of interpreting any cultural artifact.

    Jim Shooter indeed comes off like a pushy dick and so does the dialogue he writes. I have not re-read Secret Wars since it first came out but I wonder if there are any other examples of that leader/teammates dynamic among heroes with a white male being on the receiving end of that degree of dismisiveness and threat used by Xavier.

    I question whether Shooter would write a scene like that between 2 white males. But the text says nothing about their race or sex! Okay, but I still wonder if Shooter would have written it the same way. There is plenty of research out there showing that people act out the dynamics of systemic racism ALL THE TIME and most often with no awareness of this fact at all.

    And if Dirty thinks that the context of an exchange never changes no matter the race, age, sex, etc. of the participants, then this should be a short argument.

    • Here is a nit to pick: Storm and Cyclops had a battle over who was going to be leader . . . and Storm won. And I never said context never mattered.

      Read a bit more carefully and check your facts, please.

  10. I am a college professor currently writing and reading about black female superheroes in the comics today and I also find your analysis of this particular panel to miss the mark. The “angry black woman” trope of which you speak does not seem to be illustrated by this example. It could be read that way, but yours is not an especially compelling interpretation. I’d love to see an entire article on this, however! Your work is quite interesting and I could learn a lot. Thank you.

    • Hi Yvonne! Thanks for commenting.

      Where do you teach? What’s your field? Do you have a particular area of inquiry regarding black female superheroes?

      As for the panels, I guess the quick drive-by of a blog post doesn’t do the topic justice (though they often don’t and are meant to be a placeholder for an idea that needs development). However, I still maintain that in the context of American superhero comics assumption of white supremacy and the problematic ways that even the most popular of black superheroes are treated/written that this exchange with Storm takes on that dint. That being said, I think it may not be best example.

    • Hi there, that was quick! I am glad that I got your attention.
      If we can talk less publicly that would be better…in short I am (re)discovering an atavistic appreciation of this great literature/art form AND trying to get a research angle out of it…I study religions and magic, and the mythical nature of the comics genre keeps bringing me back. As a scholar of American religions, I am also interested in representations of the “religious” and the “spiritual” in this material. I think that black women are worth looking at too. :) Let’s talk when you can. Your work is so good to read…thanks!

    • I am out of town visiting the in-laws with my wife, so am killing a lot of time on the computer, thus was on the computer around to reply – but in general I try to respond to comments quickly as I am trying to foster a decent discourse here.

      There is plenty of religious/spiritual/magic stuff in comics, so I am sure you will find a lot to sift through, even the afore-mentioned Storm was “worshiped as a goddess” in Africa before joining the X-Men” (I know, it makes me roll my eyes, too) – I am currently trying to track down the first appearances of Brother Voodoo (these days called “Dr. Voodoo”), as I am curious about the representation of both a Haitian character and the spiritual beliefs that go along with the stereotype he represents.

      You can find my email in the contact link above, if you would like to continue this discussion off-blog. I’d be happy to suggest reading if there is anything specific you are looking for.

      Thanks again fro reading and commenting!

    • Thank you, Yvonne. Osvaldo is clearly trying to project a trope where it doesn’t exist and considering the history and inclusiveness of the X-men, he (or she) is picking a a very bad place to project it.

  11. I realized something. Aside from the fact that the issue of the Storm/Professor X conflict distracting from the main point of this post (instead of reinforcing it, which was my intentions), the two panels included here are NOT the entire scene from this issue. I put two panels together that at the time I thought showed the important part of the scene. There is one panel before the first of these two, two between them and one after it.

    The thing that made me think that Professor X was dismissing Storm as “emotional” is that admonition to “control yourself” – which makes it seems like she is out of control, and making it difficult for Cyclops and the others to take off, but in the next panel (not included above) she says “Let them wait! __I __did not order them to take off!” which I read as her knowing exactly what she was doing – not being out of control, but being IN control and trying to take control of the situation from a potentially misguided Professor X who was trying to prove himself a battle leader with the return of the use of his legs.

    That may not be sufficient “evidence” for some readers, but I figured it was worth adding, since it influenced my reading of the scene – an originally I made the reference as a simple allusion to the lack of respect Black characters often get in these comics.

    I can post the full scene if anyone likes.

  12. Reed Richards’ response was “in character” for him.
    His only thought was if the armor housed a human or android/robot, which would have dictated how he repaired the armor, minimizing discomfort for the wearer if he were human.
    Reed Richards admires and respects intelligence above all else, no matter the color of the person’s skin.
    He considers few people his intellectual equal, but among them are both friends like Tony Stark and T’Challa and enemies like Doctor Doom.

    • It may have been “in character” for him, but it doesn’t change his myopic view and a flaw in his ostensibly genius thinking – if anything, it reinforces the idea that scientific & technical knowledge and forms of intelligence are no shield from the deep-seated cultural attitudes present both within the comic book superhero universe and in our own world – as the repeated examples of “science” using its tools to reinforce its already held assumptions about “the races.” Stephen J. Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man does a great job of exploring this in terms of scientific “measuring” of “intelligence” and race.

      Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s