As The Middle Spaces nears its third year of existence (I moved a bunch of old posts over from tumblr on March 19, 2013, and the first new post was on March 20th), I have come to look forward to the year-end tradition of a meta post. This year, rather than looking at posts that never came to be, or ones I’m considering for the following year, I have been thinking of posts I would love to revisit, re-write, expand and/or correct. I got the idea when I stumbled across those problematic She-Hulk panels in Dan Slott’s Spider-Man/Human Torch and I wished I had found them before I wrote my She-Hulk as meta-comic post. Sure, I got a whole other post out of it, but I feel like I might have been less generous to Slott back then if I had all the evidence I have now.
And so, below I have included an overview of posts in need of revisiting—some for revision, some for additions, others for retractions. Who knows, maybe writing a few of these entries will lead me to follow-up on some previous topics in the coming year. Another possibility is that writing about what in retrospect needs further development will rid me of the feeling of dissatisfaction I sometimes feel when I think about those posts. It remains to be seen.
The posts I examine below are not just from this past year, but from the blog’s inception. Three years may not be that long a time in the grand scheme, but as a medium of public writing, I think blog posts about pop culture exist under a pressure of changing contexts (esp. in the realm of comics where seriality accretes change endlessly), not only from new developments and new ways of thinking, but from the discovery of the innumerable possible sources in conversation with our topics. So who knows, maybe this will become a new tradition, a triennial re-visitation of past blog posts that need a second look.
Fear the Walking Dead
My post on The Walking Dead spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, was written after just the second episode, and went live two days after the third, so there was no way I could know as I explored the show’s weak use of the current #BlackLivesMatter anti-police brutality zeitgeist, that it would not only drop the topic as quickly as it touched upon it, but that there’d be another deeply problematic plotline involving Ruben Blades as an El Salvadoran torturer. Leaving aside the disturbing post-9/11 trend in TV and comics, depicting torture as necessary and efficacious—from shows ranging from Lost to 24 to Daredevil to comics like the Secret Avengers and the Amazing Spider-Man—having the Central American character be a torturer (probably fleeing from the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador once military judicial immunity was rescinded) is a fucking tired cliché. The Walking Dead and its spin-off are reactionary shit, where the protagonists’ violence is always vindicated, and our worst assumptions about people are always correct. Surely the torture narrative could be an important avenue to postcolonial study, so the plot line certainly would have fit with my original inquiry, but it would have also opened up a whole complex sector in considering the legacy of colonial violence, and the precipitation of human rights violations our government supports and practices and that results from American imperial pretensions. So, maybe it is a good thing I didn’t wait. In time I will be coming back to the contemporary depictions of torture in popular media.
Writing the three posts on Storm and the “Lifedeath” cycle of stories (from Uncanny X-Men and her recent solo title—find them here, here and here) took me a hell of a lot of time, and still I felt like I had left so much untouched. I am hoping to turn the posts into a book chapter for an anthology on superheroes and gender (still waiting to hear back about the deets), but even in that format I doubt I’d get to cover all the possibilities (and as I have suggested before there may be an eventual book-length project out of this). One of these seems relatively easy to address briefly—the fact that Storm has blue eyes and long white straight fine hair. Certainly there is some well-intentioned misguided resistance to black caricature, but I think it is more likely read as trying to make her more appealing by giving her European features, and unnaturally white hair. Frederik Strömberg’s Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History (2012) only makes a very brief reference to Storm, and it’s her hair and eyes that it discusses without digging into possible meanings of the phenotypical incongruity, so it strikes me as something worth digging into.
Secondly, over on the CBR forums a user named Red Mask shared links to the posts, but commented that he or she did not agree with my desire to see which actual historical tribe Storm was playing goddess with back in Giant Size X-Men #1, when Professor X recruited her. I don’t recall making that claim, however. I did mention that in Storm #3, the character of Esther who remembers Storm from those days is depicted as a Maasai woman, though never explicitly identified as one. I am not sure that (not-so) oblique visual reference is superior to explicit reference, but this comment did make me realize that I needed to spend a little more time considering the consequences of approaching her tribal affiliation as wholly fictionalized or based in a particular culture.
Lastly, I can’t believe I totally forget to mention the Heroes for Hope X-Men one-shot that Marvel sold in the 80s to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Here we have Storm and her team visiting Africa to deal with a real-world humanitarian crisis of the type that unfortunately too-often central to the Western image of the continent. I have not read the issue since the 80s probably (maybe in the 90s just before I sold off my entire collection, which I have nearly rebuilt, btw), so I don’t remember too many details, but Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men cover it in episode #68. Regardless, I need to get my hands on a copy and maybe do a follow-up to the post series.
Back in April of 2014 when I wrote about the first four befuddling issues of Brian Wood’s all-women X-Men book (a book I don’t think is coming back post-Secret Wars), I don’t think I spent enough time reading and researching the women involved in making X-men and their related titles as popular as they were. I think Ann Nocenti’s work as editor cannot be diminished, but Louise Simonson as both editor and then writer of X-books like X-Factor and New Mutants in the late 80s really shaped the mutant franchise. So, while I unfortunately undervalued their contribution to the franchise in my haste to critique Wood’s hackish work, I do still stand by my claim that X-Men needs a well-supported flagship re-launch with top-notch queer and/or woman writers. G. Willow Wilson did a good job those last few issues she wrote at series’ end, and would love to see a similar book with a writer like her given the time to develop it. If nothing else, it’d give me an excuse to revisit the topic in the form of putting a new writer in conversation with the work shaped by Simonson and Nocenti. I guess to be thorough I’d need to find a way to check out Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men as well.
One of the earliest posts on The Middle Spaces was my overview of the short-lived Black Goliath series from 1975. At the time that I wrote it I did not have access to Bill Foster’s appearances in Marvel Two-in-One (a team-up book staring Fantastic Four’s The Thing, which was frequently a home for second-string characters). Changing his name to Giant-Man, Bill Foster is working in his civilian identity at Project Pegasus—the kind place where they experiment on Cosmic Cubes and keep supervillains imprisoned. While Foster’s role in that run of Marvel Two-in-One #53 to #58 was mostly a recapitulation of his unconfident hero schtick, I have lately found that the series’ penchant to team Ben Grimm up with second-string characters means that a lot of marginalized characters and broad stereotypes found their way to those pages. So, it’d be interesting to consider Bill Foster in that light, and perhaps spend some time considering Thundra—who comes from a man-enslaving matriarchy version of the world—and is also part of the six issue run as a straw feminist.
Speaking of Marvel Two-in-One, my search for more issues featuring. Brother Voodoo, the character I wrote about in March 2015, led me to get my hands on MTiO #41, which has the Houngon-hero appearing in the second part of a story that started with the Thing teaming up with Black Panther. Writing about these comics has taken on a life of its own, and I will be presenting a version of what started as a blog post at the 2016 International Comic Art Forum conference this coming April, though ultimately it is not really about Brother Voodoo specifically. It is possible that this material may end up on the blog eventually, but it is also possible I may spin it into an academic article about how these comics “exploit the spectacle of race, enacting a hypervisibility that obscures the idiosyncratic possibilities of individual characters through the surveillance enacted by both the medium’s visuality and the opportunistic pressures of comic continuity.”
So You Say You Want a…
I’ve written a couple of posts about popular culture and the affect of revolutionary action sans the action. My look at Brooklyn Funk Essentials’ “The Revolution was Postponed Because of Rain” earlier this year explored consumerism and Black liberation politics, and way back in a 2012, in a post that was migrated over from the tumblr that spawned The Middle Spaces I wrote very briefly about Public Enemy as the commodification of black radicalism. But if I were to re-write my critique of the Beatles “Revolution,” I’d probably include this great video of Theodor Adorno talking about the problems of the protest pop song. He may completely dismiss it as offensive, which I am not willing to co-sign on, but I do think his examination of how the culture industry sells a simulacrum of revolutionary affect that effectively undermines revolutionary action is on to something. “Revolution” is the apotheosis of this phenomenon, as it sells a fairly middle-of-the-road anti-revolutionary perspective as revolutionary.
If It WAUGHS…
In part four of my series reading Howard the Duck two issues at a time (one from the original run, one from the new series), I mentioned how the uber-popularity of Marvel billion dollar properties makes Chip Zdarsky’s take-down of Marvel Universe absurdities and self-seriousness a form of social commentary, and thus an echo of the social commentary of the original series. I just don’t think it is enough of one, and the comic would do better to make use of that insular absurdity of 50 years of continuity, while still moving beyond it. Anyway, I listened to an episode of The Orbital: Conversation podcast, in which Zdarsky did a presentation going through an issue of his Howard the Duck page by page. It is long, but if you’re into comic creators talking about their work it is worth the listen. Zdarsky is funny and weird, but he basically comes out and admits to the approach described above, i.e. that taking the piss out of the Marvel Universe is his way of sticking a pin in a cultural touchstone. I am not sure I buy it, but it was affirming to get confirmation that I hit it on the nose. I wish I’d had access to the recording when I wrote “If It WAUGHs Like a Duck” #4 in order to quote it.
Representation Through Erasure
I can’t recall when or where someone recommended an article, “The Position Of The Unthought,” an interview with Saidiya V. Hartman, conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III and published in Qui Parle, 13,.2 (2003): 183-201, but I do remember it was in response to my post, “Robocop: Representation By Erasure & The White-Washing of Detroit” from last January. The Robocop post was a development of an idea I first explored in part in my post on “The Death of Jean DeWolf” storyline from 80s issues of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, the idea that the erasure of race from narratives of urban crime provide a reactionary subversion of an anti-racist impulse to not represent blackness as equivalent to criminality. Of course, the problem is that contemporary urban crime narratives are inherently racialized, so the removal of black representation allows for the uncritical focus on the supposed white victims of this crime that drives them to flee urban neighborhoods. In this schema Black communities are a symptom of urban crisis and blight, not also a victim of it and the policies that engender it. This idea is not the focus of “The Position of Unthought,” but in the transcript of the conversation between Hartman (professor of African-American literature and history at Columbia University) and Wilderson (a professor of Drama and African American studies at UC Irvine), they do briefly touch on the subject through a discussion of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (based loosely on the short story by Philip K. Dick).
The film enacts a similar erasure of race from the narrative of crime in America, but Hartman points out “the state machine” that runs judiciary and criminal institutions “is a racializing machine.” In other words, those institutions invisibly invent blackness, or at least a version of it, so the apparent erasure constructs a narrative of color-blind justice, ever as it reinforces a fear of crime that in the real world is associated with Blackness. Since the interview is more wide ranging than simply the film, Hartman and Wilderson do not delve very deeply into it, but I think the notion of pre-crime present in the film (and source material) enacts a science fiction manifestation of racial profiling, suggesting that black and brown America already lives in that dystopian future, and gives another shade of meaning to the term “minority report.” While I think Detroit as a setting makes the absurdity of the Robocop’s erasure blatant, I think Minority Report might provide a richer site for reading the phenomenon. I may have to go back and re-watch it, though I do recall absolutely hating it and I felt it to be the last stone on the scale that tipped Spielberg into my overrated director’s list. Oh, and there is a TV series version now, too, which I never gave a second thought to, but now I may need to. Sigh. Anyway, the double-bind of inherently incomplete, if not outright warping, representation versus erasure resounds with Wilderson’s “Afro-pessimism,” a term that I had never come across before, but that writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates seem to be in line with.
And so ends 2015. Perhaps 2016 will see me revisiting some of the topics above and expanding on them, or re-considering my ideas—or better yet, I’d love for guest writers to respond to or build upon past posts. Until then, remember to read with a pen in your hand. I always do.