At the beginning of the semester I had my expository writing students read a piece from the New Yorker entitled “The Scourge of Relatability.” In it, Rebecca Meade makes a convincing case for the distinction between “relatability” and “identification.” The former is a source for a common student complaint about some reading assignment they find boring. “It’s not relatable.” She defines “relatability” as the expectation that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Identification, then, is a more conscious engagement with a cultural production, “[the reader or viewer] is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.” Identification, she writes, “should not be where critical thought ends,” and I would go as far as saying that for many readers and viewers it is where the hope of critical thought begins. There is a possibility for tension and discomfort with identification that undermines “relatability.”
I’ve been thinking a lot of about this in relation to superhero comic books and the ongoing debate about racial and gender representation in them. It seems that the argument for greater representations of racial, ethnic, sexual, gender difference in superhero comics often takes the form of “relatability.” We (“we” in my case being people of color, and I am going to mainly stick with that designation, but I think what I am going to try to sketch out here applies to other subaltern groups)) need to see ourselves in our favorite forms of media. We, the common argument of proponents of more superheroes of color, need characters to relate to. But I want to put a slightly different spin on this idea. We don’t need characters to relate to. We need characters of color to identify with, and moreover so do white readers.
But let me take a step back before I dive in…
Recently, over at The Hooded Utilitarian there has been a flurry of discussions in posts (and in the comments sections connected to those posts) about the (im)possibility of the black superhero given the white supremacist underpinnings of the genre. I’ve written about this before, back in 2013, when I used a Trayvon Martin-themed strip featuring Miles Morales (the Ultimate Spider-Man) as a way to discuss notable erasure of black superheroes from the seminal critique of the form—Watchmen—to consider if such an erasure might be commenting on the impossibility of the black superhero given the racialized history of the American vigilante figure. It’s something I have given a lot of thought to, but that I also think can be overcome through individual and collective identification and its power to shape the expectations of genre and the industry.
J. Lamb makes the claim that “the question for any comic creator interested in developing a character of color should be ‘How does this character define their connection with this particular identity, and why should it matter to me?’” And I think I have successfully pointed out in posts about black superheroes like Black Goliath, Black Lightning and Brother Voodoo, these questions have not been sufficiently explored with those characters, robbing them of the potential I (and other readers) can imagine for them. But, when he goes onto claim, “But too often the desire to see oneself in panel and on screen, the hope that at some point a person can stride into a comic book shop or turn on the CW and find a person of color in the gaudy Lycra and skintight spandex of the superhero with neon strobes flashing from their fingertips overrides all other considerations among progressive comic fans” I am much more skeptical. How can we determine how “often” this really happens and to what degree?
Yes, the superhero concept is inherently racialized. Even if the merry-go-round of white supremacist notions of the idealized righteous defender of the status quo had never gotten spinning, at its inception Golden Age Superman was at its heart a racial project, a manifestation of the old claim that marginalized groups within a dominant culture have to be at least twice as good as the white guy next to them if they want to succeed. It envisioned a final assimilation of Jewish Americans that World War II would help complete (for the most part, anyway—shit can still be tricky with Jews depending on a lot of positionalities). But as Donovan Grant points out in “Chasing Utopia,” his response to J. Lamb’s post, “If the super hero (sic) genre has been inherently, historically white, it’s all the more important to note those moments when white creators and black creators attempt to relay the black experience. It’s also important to note where they go wrong and to examine how, despite their efforts, superheroes continue to present a narrative of whiteness.” He examines a scene in which Robbie Robertson (editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle) and his son, Randy, have a meaningful conversation about intergenerational approaches to being Black in America, and says, “those few scene with Joe and Randy suggest that meaningful diversity is possible in a superhero comic, however unattainable the whole of the genre appears to make it.” He points to the difference Robbie and Randy represent, acknowledging that while they are not superheroes, their presence in a superhero narrative suggests that a rethinking and challenge to the white supremacist framework of the genre is possible.
The diversity that Grant points out is meaningful because it is diversity within a represented group, not just individual examples of different groups standing in for entire cultures. What his comment obliquely points out is that much of what passes for “diversity” in comics is actually transparent tokenism. This is because the discourse of diversity in the quest to be diverse (i.e. to show a multi-ethnic, multi-racial group of characters) actually erases diversity within identity categories. It ignores the granularity between those who otherwise not only feel as if they belong to the in-group, but generally recognize each other as belonging across difference. In my post about Brother Voodoo, I quoted the late (and brilliant) Stuart Hall, who wrote “difference is constitutive of identity”—belonging is measured across difference, not only against it. Sure, it is common to think we know who we are by who we are not (and that is certainly part of it), but we also know this despite differences in the way members of our in-group occupy our shared identity.
When comics readers and superhero fans of color are evaluating a character, looking to identify with a character “who looks like them,” they are not looking for an overarching sameness, a particular tint of brown, shape of the eye, reference to a particular geographic community, the cadence of slang, or sprinkling of our mother tongue—though all those things contribute to identification—but for a difference that also identifies belonging. We are looking for more than any of those aforementioned features put together in any particular combination, but for a space to imagine that person as sharing our lived experience of race or ethnicity while remaining more than simply a stand-in for an entire identity group.
A great example is DC’s Xombi. I recently got my hands on a copy of the trade collecting the short-lived New 52 version of the series that has its origins in Dwayne McDuffie’s Milestone Comics. It’s good. It’s quirky. It’s weird. It stars Korean-American, David Kim. His Korean-American identity is neither central, nor ancillary to his character. It is clearly a part of how he identifies himself, but he is not used in the story to implicitly stand in for all Korean characters. His increasing feeling of being an outsider, shoved into a world on the margins of the dominant culture, manifests itself through the usual superhero trope of his powers that simultaneously keep his friends safe and in peril, but it resonates with a lived experience where any individual difference of the subaltern subject is racialized.
Of course, not all comics are as great as Xombi. Returning to the roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian, I posted my own comment early in the long discussion that followed Grant’s “Chasing Utopia” post. It was mostly ignored, but I (clearly) think it needs a lot more consideration. I wrote: “We also cannot forget that the way (sic) fans of color engage with characters and stories can re-circuit and re-interpret those stories in ways that provide the kind of productive identification that challenges that tired old repetitive and thoughtless representation.” What I didn’t go on to say, and am trying to say here, is that long-time comics readers of color can do this because we have a lot of practice at it, and it is that practice—literally a reading practice— that is crucial for a community of readers to learn to navigate the problematic tropes embedded in superhero narratives. Lamb’s claim that that “too often [a desire to be represented] overrides all other considerations among progressive comic fans” underestimates the savviness of readers/fans of color in being able to both critique and identify with those characters. I may not be as optimistic as Adilifu Nama in his book Super Black (2011), who suggests that “racially remixed superheroes offer audiences familiar points of reference that…suggest a range of ideas, cultural points of interest, compelling themes, and multiple meanings that were not previously present,” because as written those characters too often operate in a framework that marginalizes black and brown racial identities that goes unexamined, but maybe, Nama’s optimism is prophetic…
Comic books today are undergoing a dramatic shift in audience that demands inclusion of that diversity of readers into the demographics of creators. Look at Tumblr, look at Twitter, check out podcasts like Fan Bros and Black Tribbles and sites like Nerds of Color and Women Writing About Comics. More and more, readers of color are not only engaging with comic book superhero narratives (joining a sizable, if usually silent, demographic already present), but their demands for representation have the ability to shape that representation into something reflecting the heterogeneous reality of any identity group. Yes, no matter how these representations are constructed someone is going to object, to claim it not authentic to their understanding of their racial/ethnic identity, but that skepticism emerges not from some inherent lack of satisfaction with whatever results, but from two sources: 1) the way that white-dominated media has botched the job repeatedly, and 2) those insiders with a penchant to assume their way of experiencing their identity is the only authentic one—which brings up its own essentialist problems. I am reminded of post-colonial theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s claim, “What can be more authentically other than an otherness by the other, herself?” But that is a topic for another post, or for a much more thoroughly in-depth academic article. I can’t chase down that rabbit right now.
Anyway, in my estimation the way to handle this seemingly perennial dissatisfaction and harsh critique is not less representation, but more…much more—enough to allow for a range of diverse black, Latino, Asian, female, queer, what-have-you characters, and to allow for mistakes, misprisions, challenges to notions of racial, ethnic and gender identity.
The problem with an increase in characters of color, whether they be new characters, re-imagining of existing characters, or legacy versions of older characters, are not the characters themselves or how they change. In fact, I reject the notion that (mostly white) self-identified geeks just dislike change and that the racial nature of the changes are immaterial to their objections, because the history of serialized superhero comics is a history of unending change and re-change. Any claim otherwise is disingenuous or a sign of such severe lack of self-awareness as to be concerning to me. No, the problem is that white people are frequently made uncomfortable by the subject of race, especially by the notion that something remains to be done about racial justice and representation in the current era. This is especially true when it is a person of color bringing up the objection to their own representation or the attitudes reflected in art/entertainment controlled by the dominant culture. The “white fragility” that comes to the surface when this this discomfort threatens is possible because of a convenient erasure of the frequent—if not ever-present—discomfort and abject anxiety suffered by people of color in America. We are all too aware of the capriciousness of white codes, laws and attitudes that shape the way we can express their identity, let alone occupy and pass through public heterogeneous spaces, whether they be physical spaces or virtual ones. And even in our own homes and communities, whiteness retains the right to intrude in their safe spaces, both passively through TV, media, toys, literature, and through direct confrontations like police and municipal regulations and authority figures.
It is because of the inextricability of cultural threads in a heterogeneous American society, that we (PoC) learn both explicit and implicit ways to read against the grain—to find ways to both identify with and through those representations even when they are problematic and others in our in-group might object to them. I can’t help but think of Robert Jones, Jr’s sympathy for those kids who loved Cyborg even in the midst of his uncompromising critique of the character. The thing is that even if at its most basic formulation the genre is racialized in such a way to idealize and mythologize whiteness and assimilation into it as an attainable and beneficial goal, what choice do we have but to find ways of reading that upset and subvert that hierarchy? In a comment on Jones’s guest post last week J. Lamb asked “Knowing characters like Cyborg exist in the fashion you describe, why support superhero comic diversity at all? What’s the point?”—but I say, since the alternative is total erasure, we have to.
The thing is that even if at its most basic formulation the genre is racialized in such a way to idealize and mythologize whiteness and assimilation into it as an attainable and beneficial goal, what choice do we have but to find ways of reading that upset and subvert that hierarchy?
Take for example The Walking Dead TV show with it revolving cast of black male zombie-fodder. I think anyone who has given up on this show because of its apparent cheap appraisal of black life is certainly justified in doing so—I wouldn’t try to talk them out of it, but simultaneously, plenty of viewers of color love the show despite being aware of the problem. (And trust me, viewers of color were more than aware of the “black guy dies trope” in TV and cinema long before it became a recurring joke in the white media mainstream). However, enjoying the genre also means continuing to watch, not only to remain cognizant of this continued recapitulation of racialized tropes, but to continue to refine our engagement with media as to critique it, to develop the close-reading skills to draw out the implicit things that remain invisible (or worthy of a joke) to the mainstream. And, to continue to get what enjoyment we can out of it.
There is a double-consciousness among many readers of color, queer readers, women readers, disabled readers (and in all readers in which those identities intersect)—an engaged reading that re-structures characters, fills them out, re-imagines them in ways where we can (hopefully) instill a fullness of humanity that we know our communities have, while continuing to critique the flatness of these characters and places associated with us. Furthermore, the simultaneous pleasure in reading and critical engagement is a form of empathy for those characters, for how they are written to talk or drawn to dress, or forced over and over to play second-fiddle in their own stories, when we are lucky enough to see those stories take shape. To retreat from comics or action movies or fantasy novels because of how the white gaze distorts us is to disengage with one of the primary ways at our disposal to subvert and re-code the signifiers that plague us both individually and collectively.
In fact, the truth is that people of color are at the heart of all these so-called “geek” genres. I think Junot Diaz put it best on an episode of the Fan Bros podcast:
Look. Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as people of color, nothing about fanboy and fangirl culture makes sense. What I mean by that is, if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the extermination of so many indigenous nations, most of what we call “first contact” stories don’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understand that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible. We are… in the Green Lantern Corps? We are the Oath. We are all of those things. Erased, and yet without us? We’re essential. This is an incredibly important project, because it puts front and center, not only a community that has long consumed and given power to these practices and consumer categories, but it’s a community without whose suffering and struggles, none of [these narratives] would make sense.
By “this,” Diaz meant the project of people of color writing about so-called geek culture in general, but also to Fan Bros, the podcast he was appearing on, more specifically. His point being that unpacking the assumptions of this genre work reveals it to be predicated on racialized notions. Many white people may not want to admit people of color into their preferred narratives, but the reality is we are already there, we give them form and shape and meaning. It only makes sense that the time would come to revise these narratives, even as history needs revision to write over that erasure that has been the false foundation of these stories.
And that erasure runs deep. So deep that even when black characters (for example) are written into serialized superhero narratives their blackness is simultaneously incidental and central to relating to the character. When white comics readers claim that they did not need white characters to relate to and enjoy comics (as a way to argue against positive race-bending), that point to their love of Luke Cage or Spawn as evidence of their ability to enjoy characters across race, what they are failing to note is how black, Latin@, etc… identities in the superhero genre are framed by a system of white supremacy. White readers don’t have to consider and re-frame those characters to consider them their own. As white readers they can relate to anything they want because they have been instilled with an entitlement to access whatever media they want. Returning to Rebecca Meade’s scheme in that New Yorker piece, they are used to the superhero genre catering to them, to the power fantasies they already have—“a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” For a person of color to identify with a character of color in the comics requires more than idiosyncratic admiration of, and thus relation to, a character, but transformation of that character by that reader of color into a character who is a person who shares the experience of belonging to the same identity category (ranging from narrow imbricated examples to broad and amorphous identities positioned as central or ascendant at any given time)—a form of closure that gives that identity coherence, while moving along a continuum whose increased resistance to that closure leads to sharp critiques and potentially provisional (or even outright) rejection.
And before anyone shows up to argue with me by pointing to how comics readers of color can also identify with white characters, let me say—NO DUH! We’ve been doing it for decades (and if not limited to mass culture, then centuries). That is not the problem. We’ve been taught by the very system of white supremacy that we want to reject to look to, value and idealize whiteness. Of course we have found ways to make those characters stand in for our understandings for ourselves and our communities—from Dwayne McDuffie, who saw in Thor’s ongoing problems with Odin and his play-cousin Loki reason to think of the thunder god as “the blackest character” among Marvel superheroes, to me, who loved characters like Machine Man and ROM because their not-quite-human status resonated with my own feelings of being outside the ethnic and racial mainstream I was meant to admire and assimilate into, despite the impossibility of the project. It is great that fans can think of Spider-Man as black, that’s good and that’s healthy, but it is unhealthy for the culture if that is all that is available to identify with.
This is what I mean when I say that white cis-gendered males need characters unlike themselves to identify with, because of that empathy I described above, being able to deeply engage in the pleasure of reading by putting yourself in the position of the characters whose experience and thus their choices chafe against your own. Much like Noah Berlatsky explains in in his book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, part of what made Marston’s original Wonder Woman stories so wonderful, was his expectation that girls and boys would identify with the heroine, to value and idealize her compassionate strength and victory through submission, rather than through cyclical and ultimately futile fisticuffs of male dominion.
The problematic foundations of the superhero genre, the ongoing framework of white supremacy, the lack of real support by the major companies to diversify their stable of writers and artists, and for titles that feature characters that reflect that diversity, that have some of the same collective concerns as they do as artists of color and we do as readers of color, all bear ongoing repeated and rigorous examination and analysis. I mean, fuck, that is what this whole blog is basically about. That being said, we can’t dismiss what readers are capable of through their very reading practice, nor the possibilities that emerge from that practice. Fan culture is a participatory culture that is well-situated for a wide range of critiques articulated in a range of styles and from a variety of critical lenses. As worrisome to me as the issues of race and gender that are already part of the way many subaltern fans engage with comics, are the pernicious effects of the corporate framework on the ability to make lasting change in the comic (or any) industry, which mostly goes unquestioned. I am not so naïve to think, despite my optimism for what readers can accomplish individually and collectively, that to whatever degree meaningful diversity is possible, it is not severely delimited by the notion of what is profitable, and what can be mined for more profit. We can’t forget, much like Donovan Grant points out in “Chasing Utopia” and his examination of the new black Captain America, that that kind of character change remains a gimmick—a way to inflate the sale of title temporarily until the status quo returns—that is unconcerned with the quality of the stories about these characters, so when sales drop, so does any concern for social justice. However, as American demographics change, the conception of the profitability of diverse consumer groups will change, and just as readers of color have had to make do with re-imagining the characters that look like them and learning how to identify with the ones that don’t, so too will white readers have to learn to do the same. We will all be better off for it.