The Tangled Web of Racial and Gender Progress in Comics

smtw7-tombstoneSpider-Man’s Tangled Web (SMTW) was an anthology series that ran for 22 issues from 2001 to 2003, focusing mostly on characters from Spider-Man’s supporting cast, members of his colorful rogue’s gallery, or the stories of people whose lives are affected by interactions with the wall-crawler. The series was a showcase for writers and artists who typically did not work on Spider-Man comics, and as such was as uneven as most anthology series tend to be. SMTW was one of the first series I started collecting when I got back into buying comics around 2002 (going so far as seeking out what back issues I could), drawn to it by excellent stories like the Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso’s Eisner-nominated “Severance Package” in issue #4, and Bruce Jones and Lee Weeks’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” in issues #7, #8 and #9, which had been lent to me by a friend.

There were other issues/stories, however, that left me unsure that getting back into reading superhero comics was such a good idea. This series was supposed to be the kind of thing that allowed creators a little more freedom to explore and experiment outside of the pressures of the flagship books like The Amazing Spider-Man that maintain the brand. This freedom, however, also led to the excesses  common to the Bill Jemas era of Marvel Comics, allowing garbage stories like “Heartbreaker” in issues #16 and #17, and “Double Shots” in SMTW #13 to pass muster.

Kangaroo refers to African-American, Tombstone, by a slur for Black indigenous people of Australia (SMTW #16)

Kangaroo refers to African-American, Tombstone, by a slur for Black indigenous people of Australia (SMTW #16)

“Heartbreaker” is a two-part story written by Daniel Way with art by Leandro Fernandez. It features Spider-Man villain and African-American albino, Lonnie Thompson, aka Tombstone. I’d never heard of the character when I first picked up these issues because he first appeared in a 1988 issue of Web of Spider-Man (created by Gerry Conway and Alex Saviuk), which was the tail end of my original comics-reading period. In the intervening years and through to today, however, Tombstone became a classic gangster villain of the franchise and most recently appears in David Walker and Sanford Greene’s revival of Power Man and Iron Fist.  However, it seems like Tombstone also fills a role as a subject of ridicule, or at least that is the impression given by how he is introduced and treated in these two issues of SMTW. He is used as something of a joke, which would be fine, if it weren’t a joke relying on racialized stereotypes, caricature, and gay panic.

The story begins with Tombstone’s arrival at a hospital having had a heart attack in the middle of a bank robbery. This becomes the cause for a running joke about the effects of eating soul food and the high incidences of heart disease and hypertension among African-American men. Throughout the story, white men in positions of authority from the local doctor who is happy to not have to try and treat Tombstone, to the FBI who arrive to take him to the maximum-security prison for supervillains, to the militarized corrections officers who run the place, judge Black life as without value. “Heartbreaker” might be the kind of story I would try to read against the grain—a chance to envision Marvel’s version of Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—except that of course there is no nuance here to dig into, no possible depths to reconsider. Fernandez draws Tombstone and his prison crew with outsized lips, and either hulking simian statures, or diminutive weasel-like physiques. That the crew are made up of D-list Black villains like Hypno-Hustler and Rocket Racer reinforces a notion of lesser status. Tombstone’s main foe in prison (aside from the head CO himself) is another in a line of losers from Spidey’s rogue’s gallery, Kangaroo. The outsized white Australian is rendered bigger than I’ve ever seen him in any comic before or since, and he is written to make casual reference to raping Tombstone—“Reckon oy’ll take me evening stroll up ye tube-o!”—to show his dominance. He repeatedly calls Tombstone “Abbo,” an Australian slur for aboriginal people. A little more research also led me to discover that this version isn’t even the original Kangaroo, but an American who idolized the deceased original, though the thick accent suggests either a pathetic degree of performance or confusion on the part of the writer. Putting Kangaroo above Tombstone in the pecking order is just another way to ridicule him, which happens throughout, both within the story and by the story itself. For example, when the prison medical staff is discussing Tombstone’s case the head doctor explains that he didn’t realize that Tombstone was black (which doesn’t make sense given he is the one who makes the “soul food” comment the panel before), to which another doctor replies, “He’s albino, which makes him gray!” and then they all burst out laughing. It is not clear what the joke is. Is it Tombstone’s albinism? Is it simply that he looks “weird” because of his coloring? Are we supposed to be sympathizing with Tombstone here? It certainly doesn’t read like anything more than Daniel Way writing the cheapest joke possible at the expense of the character’s intersection of race and disability.

“Heartbreaker” also includes every prison cliché you can imagine, like Way had watched too much of HBO’s Oz. The head CO is never explicitly called racist, but he supports white Kangaroo’s position of power among the inmates, and refers to Tombstone as “uppity.” There’s an attempted shanking in the shower scene, which then leads Tombstone to hide a pair of scissors up his ass with vaseline. There is repeated prison sex panic, ranging from innuendo to actual rape. When Kangaroo challenges Tombstone’s “manhood” by threatening to be his tossed salad man, Tombstone responds with repeated kicks to his groin—“Me beeries!”  Kangaroo cries, clutching his junk—but Lonnie ends up getting the shit kicked out of him anyway when his heart seizes—too many chitlins, I guess. In addition to this brand of homophobia, there is a group of over-the-top fem gay men caricatures whose running joke is they are attracted to Kangaroo, but can’t tell through his thick accent if he is flirting with them. Later they punk him when he is trapped ass-out in an air vent. This scene is the climax of the Kangaroo subplot, since he ends up stuck there through Tombstone’s machinations. Ha! Ha! He is sodomized against his will! Rape sure is funny when gay men are involved!  Prison rape may be a common subject of “jokes,” but this comic goes one step further and makes fem men the perpetrators instead of the ones most likely to be victimized.

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The top panel’s perspective from over the crack of Kangaroo’s ass, and the panel below it suggesting his violation tells you what you need to know about this story. (SMTW #17)

This stuff is garbage, and looking through other comics work by Daniel Way, I am not surprised. This was the first thing he wrote for Marvel, but he made his name a little later writing Deadpool (of course), and most recently (that I could find), worked on creator-owned stuff like Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack!, so I think it is pretty clear that this kind of puerile nonsense is right in his wheelhouse.

Yes, in the end Tombstone ends up victorious. Underestimated and ridiculed, he works the system to manage his escape, punking Kangaroo and killing the head CO in the process, but any resistant reading that focuses on his cunning does so at the risk of ignoring everything terrible baked into the story, including the very way Tombstone re-inscribes pernicious ideas about black people and black criminality in undertaking his plan. He has to simultaneously play the role of the black savage and the debased figure at the mercy of white supremacist institutions. Furthermore, despite multiple strong examples of deft cartooning and inkwork by Fernandez (complemented by Steve Buccellato’s colors), overall his art dehumanizes black characters through caricature that seems neutral when rendering white characters, but is overtly racialized when applied to blacks.

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This is supposed to be funny (SMTW #16)

Ordinarily, I’d probably just ignore comics like these. I wouldn’t even find them worth writing about. There are tons of crap comics in existence, not only Big Two superhero stuff, but endless reams of racist, sexist, and/or just plain boring indie stuff as well. But I also think it’s important to shed light on not only the ubiquity of this kind of stuff, but to historicize it. In other words, the banality of the racist and homophobic attitudes and “humor” in these books, help to contextualize how Marvel Comics have superficially changed in terms of approach to content and consideration of its audience, but nevertheless continue to not take criticism seriously

In considering how a story like “Heartbreaker” feels virtually impossible in the current comics culture we have to think about the difference in reaction to this material today. The response on Twitter alone would not be worth it for Marvel’s public relations. Then again, we shouldn’t be too easily lulled into a belief of straightforward arc of progress. Reality and representation are a lot messier. Part of the reason that “Heartbreaker” disturbed me when I first read it was that at some level I assumed that comics in 2002 would be better about depicting race than the comics I grew up on. I was wrong. “Heartbreaker” is a lot more racist in its attempts at provocative humor than the tone-deaf but well-intentioned inclusion of many Black characters in the 60s or 70s, and recent releases like Genndy Tartakovsky’s throwback CAGE! comic demonstrate the degree to which the white-dominated field remains woefully ignorant at best and willfully offensive for their own chuckles at worst. And somehow, while there were a handful of negative reactions to CAGE! it did not seem to get the same degree of backlash as when Rick Remender wrote Falcon’s hook up with Jet Black Zola. Maybe this is a sign of reader fatigue, or about the demographics of those objecting to comics content, but you just can’t know what is going to have some gravity to readers.

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“Big” Ben, one of Tombstone’s prison crew, beaten up by Kangaroo, his out-sized lips are not a result of swelling (SMTW #17)

Still, the context of what else was going on at Marvel Comics in 2002 might provide a sense of the what makes these specific iterations possible. The ads for the poorly-considered series Marville in the back of Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #17 are a reminder of things to keep in mind when reading this comic fifteen years later.

In 2002, Bill Jemas was the publisher of Marvel Comics. If you are not familiar with the Bill Jemas era of Marvel Comics, I recommend reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2012) for a sense of it. Jemas served as publisher from 2000 to 2003, and he oversaw a turbulent time at the company (but is also credited with supporting the successful launch of Marvel’s Ultimate line). He’s a notorious figure among diehard fans for his unapologetic vitriol for “fanboy culture” and his stated dislike for the complex convolutions of burdensome continuity. While not technically in editorial, he controlled the overall editorial tone—replacing the much-hated Bob Harras with Joe Quesada—and reinforcing the absurd cheesecake-ification of superhero comic book women through recourse to the stereotype of “male readers who live in the basement of their parents’ house in Queens” for whom “an evening with Elektra is as good as it gets.” It was under Jemas’ auspices that—in the words of Howe—Elektra was brought back to life to go from “tragic heroine” to “cheesecake ninja pin-up” (410). It was Jemas who finally withdrew Marvel entirely from the watchful eye of the (admittedly outdated) Comics Code Authority, and he was willing to spar with fans online.

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Naked women, pizza, beer, porn and video games. The covers to the Marville comics didn’t try to obfuscate whose gaze they were meant to appeal to. (Marville #2 cover art by Greg Horn)

Marville was Jemas’s own comic, part of an ill-conceived “U-Decide” campaign that pitched three different titles against each other, the comic with the lowest sales would be cancelled. This resulted from Jemas’s willingness to openly criticize books and creators that worked for him, saying of Peter David that “[He] is a talented writer [for] maybe two or three issues of the year, but the rest is just inside jokes for fans who have been reading his comics for 20 years. He’s just feeding off his old work” (qtd in Howe 418). This accusation may not be far from the truth, but it sure seems strange to say it when you’re the publisher of the book, and to then make that employee directly compete with you for a title. Marville itself was no less (and probably significantly more) insular than David’s Captain Marvel series of the time, and you need only look at its covers to see that Jemas was using his low opinion of male fans—as looking for spank material—guide his vision for the book. I explain all this because when in a book written by your publisher includes scenes where Iron Man says things like “You can pay a Mexican a dollar an hour and they’ll work like a N—,” then stories like “Heartbreaker” are easier to understand as a result of an editorial environment encouraged from the top down. Sure, Marville was satirical, but that doesn’t excuse it sophomoric attempts to appropriate race for shock humor.

The third book in the U-Decide competition—a Batman-and-Robin pastiche called Ultimate Adventures—was by Jemas’s buddy Ron Zimmerman, who wrote the other issue of Spider-Man’s Tangled Web I want to briefly discuss here, #13. Zimmerman was a frequent Howard Stern guest, which probably tells you everything you need to know about him. Issue #13 features a story called “Double Shots.”

Zimmerman’s story is set in Marvel’s “Bar With No Name,” a supervillain neutral hang-out in New York City (though locations in other states/cities have been depicted over time). Here Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture), Kraven the Hunter’s son (let’s call him Kraven, Jr.) and a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat, face shaded by a fedora, share some drinks and discuss recent run-ins with Spider-Man and which female superheroes they’d like to sleep with (or claim they have slept with). The sexist banter and reduction of women to trophies is not only the main point of the story, but it echoes the discourse of just the kind of basement-dwelling fan Jemas mocked, while using it as a way to make comics appeal to that very demographic. I’m reminded of the opening segment of the very first episode of Kevin Smith’s miserable Comic Book Men, where he and his comic store buddies discuss which superheroines they want to sleep with.

smtw13-jeangrey

Supervillains discuss hot superheroines in SMTW #13.

The figure of the Vulture, a hunched, bald, old man is used as a focus of ridicule for his expression of sexual desire and his apparent lack of self-awareness about his own relative attractiveness (or lack thereof). This is especially notable when compared to Kraven, Jr. who is depicted as the quintessential slick ladies’ man: long black hair, broad shoulders, handsome. In the course of the story we learn he has slept with the sexy blond waitress (who Vulture calls “stuck up” for rejecting him) and with the likes of Silver Sable and Black Widow. He even name drops Alyssa Milano (who was at the height of Charmed TV fame in 2002). If the Vulture represents what stereotyped comics fans are, then Kraven is what they imagine themselves to be (or least desire to become) peacocking pick-up artists who measure their manhood through sexual conquests. The shadowy figure, on the other hand, remains aloof and polite, drawing responses out of his companions, but not quite contributing to their “locker room talk.” They also clearly respect and fear him, and when we learn that he is Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin in his civilian guise, the fear make perfect sense. This revelation serves to bring the objectification of women to its natural consequences. The story’s punchline is Osborn’s explanation about killing Spider-Man’s girlfriend­—Gwen Stacy, though she goes unnamed—in front of him. His companions are left in awe. The ultimate macho move.

smtw13-kraven

Kraven, Jr., lothario.

This is gross stuff that appeals to the “bad boy” desires of fans who identify with villains and questionable anti-heroes, not because of complex feelings or a compelling representation of gray mortality, but because of the “coolness” factor. In his preface to I Wear the Black Hat pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman claims,

“that there’s a natural evolution to how male audiences respond to the Star Wars franchise: When you’re young, the character you love the most is Luke Skywalker (who’s entirely good). As you grow older, you gravitate to Han Solo (who’s ultimately good, but superficially bad). But by the time you reach adulthood…you inevitably find yourself relating to Darth Vader.”

The veracity of this evolution is beyond my ability to confirm (personally I went from liking Luke to liking characters like Artoo, Chewbacca, and Obi-Wan), but even if it is true, then it relies on relating to a mass murdering, emotionally immature, half-machine with an anger problem in order to identify with his competence. In other words, I think such perspectives suggest that how adults engage with pop culture tells us more about meaningful notions of adulthood, than what they engage with. The cool appeal of villains is a male adolescent fantasy, and the attitude towards women, transforming them into instruments in a contest of masculinity, is the easiest way to enact that in real life.

The contest of masculinity in “Heartbreaker” on the other hand is a racialized one, but no less predicated on oppression. Tombstone’s blackness is simultaneously a symbol of unchecked primal masculinity and a target of ridicule to use in reinforcing white supremacy. The story’s attitude towards his albinism just further complicates the picture by making his disability into a kind of failed whiteness to be mocked. Tombstone is a little too thirsty to be cool, which puts him quite a distance away from coolly-detached Norman Osborn. Let’s just say, it’d be hard to imagine an entire Marvel crossover event about Tombstone going seemingly legit and taking over, like 2008’s Dark Reign was for Osborn.

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The Norman Osborn reveal in SMTW #13 (art by Sean Phillips)

In “Double Shots,” Osborn claims to never “date anyone in the business,” but a couple of years later the notorious ret-con that made him lover to the much younger Gwen Stacy (and father to her twins) would challenge the claim. She might not be in “the business,” but seducing Spider-Man’s girlfriend certainly muddies the waters between the personal and “professional,” while also securing the perverse relationship between fucking and killing women as a way to establish power, and reducing Stacy’s sexuality to an instrument in his war against Spider-Man. Zimmerman did not write the “Sins Past” story (found in Amazing Spider-Man issues #509 to 514), that is J. Michael Straczynski’s burden to bear, but all these stories do have one thing in common (beside Spider-Man), they were all edited by Axel Alonso, who’d go on to become Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 2011.

I am not trying to claim that all of this garbage is Alonso’s fault, but it is certainly his responsibility. A good editor needs to have an eye and an ear for these kinds of problems and work with creators to address them. Imagine the situation Jemas describes in his “open letter” response to those who objected to Iron Man’s use of the n-word. In it he explains how Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, tried to warn him about readers’ reactions. Sure, Quesada tried to frame it as a problem of “people going nuts over words” and not the cheap use of the words themselves, but at least he had presence of mind enough to know there would be a problem. Of course, perhaps if the writer was not also his boss Quesada might have been a little more assertive in, you know, editing. It’s an editor’s duty to have these conversations.

The fact that these troublesome stories I examined here got printed under Alonso’s watch back then might help to explain the incongruity of Marvel’s broader approach to diversity and representation under his watch as editor-in-chief now. Just as Jemas’s combative and staunchly “politically incorrect” attitude trickled down into the comics of his reign, Alonso’s willingness to tout diversity from one side of his mouth (especially when it has promotional appeal), while disingenuously dismissing the thoughtful concerns of an artist on depictions of race, and calling social justice-minded fans “haters” from the other, explains why an amazing comic book like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel can exist at the same time as something like CAGE! or why a critically-acclaimed book like David Walker’s Nighthawk, which directly takes on social ills in the black community (like police corruption and brutality) can be cancelled after six issues, while other struggling books are given more of a chance. There is simply no actual coherent editorial policy for considering these issues, and the inability to take criticism seriously and the penchant to ascribe ulterior motives to those who speak out or ask questions, makes this clear.

marvillepanel1

Iron Man stopped from using the n-word by Black Panther in Marville #2 (art by Mark Bright and Paul Neary)

Belief in an arc of progress shapes our analysis of culture, and as such, because comics “are better about race and gender and sexuality than they used to be” is accepted as a general truth, the multiple simultaneous realities around how those identities are put to use are not only obscured, but the cognitive dissonance in editorial claims frequently goes unrecognized, and the more complex histories at work at any given moment in comic production are erased. As such, even 15-year old comics that are not particularly “important” in terms of critical reaction or influence can tell us about the normalized attitudes acceptable in the editorial environment in which they were developed, and thus highlight the recapitulation of comics’ continued problems. Even worse perhaps, is the possibility off a counter-progress, in which the race and gender problems that continue to undergird this work become more deeply embedded in sophisticated and less obvious ways, especially when considered in relation to the hypervisibility of racial difference and sexist assumptions in earlier comic books. The settings of both “Heartbreaker” and “Double Shots” serve to reinforce a “realness” that obfuscates their problems. The depiction of blackness within a prison narrative serves as its own confirmation of stereotypes through its parallel with more mainstream depictions of prison life. The masculine-space of a bar full of male criminals drinking and talking about women echoes the veracity of the neighborhood bar where similar conversations are going on somewhere even as you read this. It is easier to note and dismiss the over-the-top representations of race in a figure like Yellow Claw or the gendered devaluing of a character like the Wasp in early Avengers, than it is to note and begin to question what is normalized through contemporary social encoding. As such, the shifts over time in what is acceptable representation require constant interrogation and reflection.

8 thoughts on “The Tangled Web of Racial and Gender Progress in Comics

  1. While Ms Marvel may have something to do with religious diversity, I’m not sure what it may have to do with larger issues of diversity that aren’t focused on religion, ie, race. You mention Ms Marvel in the same sentence as CAGE!, implying that Ms Marvel has something to do with race. It does not. Islam is a set of beliefs; it isn’t a race. You need to make that clear because it is not.

    • Thanks for the comment, but even if I was trying to make a direct comparison regarding race (I wasn’t, I was trying to compare a strong example of identitarian representation to a weak or offensive one), the racialization of Islam and the fact that Pakistani and other South Asians are brown people in relation to the white racial imagination makes the comparison appropriate in my eyes.

  2. I am so glad that I didn’t buy any of this crap when it came out. Thanks for the warning to avoid these in the back issue bins.

    Nowadays I hardly read anything from either Marvel or DC, so I didn’t even hear about David Walker’s Nighthawk until it was already getting cancelled. I’m interested in reading it, so I’ll see if I can find the back issues. Any idea if there’s a trade paperback planned?

  3. I suspect that CAGE! is shielded by PMIF’s existence. If you’re liking PMIF and you’re put off by the previews and cover of CAGE!, you don’t buy CAGE! because you’re not dying for Luke Cage content, so you don’t know how bad CAGE! gets. I think that dynamic is recreated linewide, so you can read a very progressive Marvel or you can read a reactionary Marvel, and not really have those things crossover unless you are unfortunately twisted into an event. (And much of progressive Marvel is partially or fully shielded from events; my guess would be because so much of the progressive Marvel books are are looking at strong trade sales, as opposed to single issues.)

    • You might be right about that. Certainly, Marvel did not hype CAGE! as much as you’d think they would give the popularity of GT’s cartoons. Also, I may be mistaken but CAGE! was like 10 years btwn when it was first announced and when it came out. I wonder what that’s about?

      Anyway, if you haven’t yet, you should read Joshua Plencer’s article for Black Perspectives on it: https://t.co/NVq6Ew8Z0W

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Pingback: Striking Back: Black Lightning and Reading Race (part one) | The Middle Spaces

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