Monday, January 17, 2011

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day with comics

I’ve never been shy about saying I grew up in a primarily white, primarily Jewish suburb where, despite what the posters at our high school may have said, there wasn’t a terrible degree of racial diversity. I barely had any Christian friends, let alone friends of color. My buddy and X-Men sketchbook collaborator Husani was an African-American kid who lived closer to Boston and came to our school via a program, but we unfortunately did not stay close long. It wouldn’t be until I attended summer camp both as a camper and particularly as a counselor that I became close with a wider range of people from different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds. Into college and on through today, I’ve certainly come to appreciate richness of relationships with those different than you, perhaps in particular because it was not something I enjoyed when I was younger.

Even when I was young though, Martin Luther King Day always seemed important to me. Part of that was—to be fair to the community I just kinda bashed—because my elementary school in particular always went out of its way to impart upon us its importance. Another part though honestly wasn’t that I was some great advocate for equality as much as inequality didn’t make any sense to me. Maybe that was a side effect of not having any real difference around me and thus not having really been exposed to bigotry, so when I read about it, it seemed as fictitious and nonsensical as anything I’d see in a comic book. I mean, The Hulk had green skin and Superman was an alien but they were good guys—why would I have a problem with a brown-skinned person or somebody from another country as long as they were nice?

And that, as always, brings us to comics (and thankfully the end of me trying to do some sort of socially aware PSA or whatever that was—thanks as ever for indulging me).

The comics industry has a history filled with many flaws and there are still plenty today. I love this business and this medium, but even its most ardent supporter will admit to you things can and have often been dark behind the scenes. However, more often than not, I’m proud of what comics can do, and one area where I feel like we’ve got a lot of other genres of entertainment beat is racial diversity.

I wish I could say comics has always been ahead of the curve when it came to the promotion and appreciation of minority creators, but unfortunately, that’s a far larger issue than our little corner of the world. Though some of the true legends of the game have been and continue to be today especially folks of all colors, creeds and so forth, the bigger flaws of society held back those who were different in comics just as they did pretty much anywhere else. Thankfully, as in most places, this is no longer the case and talent rises to the top regardless of superficial factors.

But we can say as an industry that at the very least when it came to the fiction we created over the years (and yeah, I’m probably unfairly saying “we” here, but it’s a pride thing), we made strides to be more inclusive than the world around us. Whether it was The Black Panther on the Avengers, blacks being as accepted as anybody in the Legion of Super-Heroes, comics both mainstream and underground tackling the issue of racial inequality head on all the way to Milestone Media or The Truth, comics has always attempted to create worlds where not only could men fly, but they truly were all created equal. Smarter folks than me could probably poke the preceding paragraph full of more holes than Swiss cheese, but I like to let my optimism fly in this case.

To celebrate Doctor King’s dream, I thought I’d take the opportunity real quick to examine my own personal history with a couple of black comic book characters who I really liked. However, it’s important to note I never liked these characters simply because of the color of their skin, but because they were great characters whose skin happened to be that color. Because in the end I think celebrating races that were held down for way too long is crucial to this day, but the dream is for a world where none of that matters and we judge people not by how they look or where they’re from, but to put it in CKT terms, how rad they are.

As has been documented many times on this blog, my first true favorite comic book was the first volume of New Warriors, and it just so happened that the titular team that starred in that title was led and founded by a black man: Dwayne Taylor, aka Night Thrasher. Being a young Nova fan at the time, it was somewhat natural that I didn’t love Thrash at first, given that was kind of the Cyclops to Rich’s wannabe Wolverine, but the difference there was that Dwayne was pretty much always more of a badass than even my favorite, a fact I respectfully accepted. I was used to dull, boy scout team leaders in the vein of Scott Summers or Leonardo on the Ninja Turtles—did not like him—so I took some pride in the fact that the dude in charge of my team could actually back up his bluster; Night Thrasher was that older brother who was always in your face, except for when somebody else was, and then he had your back and you were really proud.

In many ways, Dwayne Taylor was a pretty blatant Batman/Bruce Wayne rip-off: a wealthy young man whose parents were killed, leading him to dedicate his time and resources to doing good and fighting crime. What set Night Thrasher apart was that he still had a major chip on his shoulder—youth will do that—he learned to fight by taking down street gangs rather than traveling the world and, yes, that he was black. But a lot of what made Batman cool made Night Thrasher cool, and then the stuff that made him different—he actually wanted a team of friends for one—made him cool in his own way.

I think it’s understated what an important character Victor Stone is in terms of his historical significant to and impact on the DC Universe. A lot of things made Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans one of the best and most successful works of the 1980’s and perhaps of all time, but Cyborg was among the most vital. He gave the Titans an edge they had lacked in previous incarnations and opened up new worlds for them to explore. Where they had once been a team of sidekicks nobody took entirely seriously, they now counted among their ranks power players like Raven and Starfire, but especially Cyborg. Beyond his raw strength and cybernetic abilities, Vic also brought to the table a level of experience in dealing with hard times that exceeded his age—he was the first Titan to turn 20—and brought other characters like Robin and Changeling into their own then helped them deal with their maturation processes.

I like Cyborg in that golden age of the Titans because he’s so multi-layered. If you barely scratch the surface, you only see the kid pissed off at his father and the world for losing a life he loved and being forced to survive as a freak, however if you go deeper you see he’s not only somebody who wants to be loved, but a guy capable of impressive empathy given his own trials. He was the hardened heart of the Titans who not only made them a force to be reckoned with in the DC Universe, but who you knew would get in the face of anybody who said otherwise. There was a reason he got the call up to be part of the Super Friends on TV; great character.

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