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Dwayne is the writer of Justice League now until he doesn’t want to write it anymore. – Dan Didio to NEWSARAMA in an interview in 2009
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Well. It had to happen. Anyone who knows me knows there are certain buttons you probably don’t want to push on me unless you want the hurricane.
I don’t like when people behave unfairly, cheat or rip other people off. I don’t like hypocrites. And I’m not a fan of race hatred, whatever color you happen to be. I don’t believe in “soft” racism. I get hot when my buttons are pushed and not the Luther Vandross let’s-turn-down-the-lights kind of hot.
Right now, for the last months, DC Comics (as distinguished from DC Animation which is different people doing different things that mostly don’t piss me off at all), has been pushing my buttons.
They’ve wedged themselves very nicely into a space that seems to hit all of them in some fashion, simultaneously. What it is, in a nutshell, is this: I think DC comics is evidencing a policy of racism and sexism both in their output and in their hiring practices. More on that later.
What’s bugging me more than that, what is relevant to this blog, is typified by the quoted statement at the top of the page. That statement was a lie.
A short time after he’d been brought in to work on the Justice League, after months of constant meddling and undercutting by the very same people who claimed he’d have carte blanche to write the book as he wished (a courtesy generally extended to people like Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski and industry greats like Alan Moore or Frank Miller) Mr. Didio terminated Mr. McDuffie’s contract.
Not or poor work output. Not for missed deadlines. Not for excessive expense account billing (or any at all) but because he had the temerity to speak honestly about his treatment at the hands of DC editorial and that not even in any sort of an aggressive way.
He was asked questions in public forums and, as was his wont, he answered them truthfully. For which he was, as I said, fired.
“Yes, Geoff,” you will say. “But Mr. McDuffie has passed away and his treatment at the hands of DC editorial was well-documented by McDuffie himself as well as the good people at POP CULTURE SHOCK, CBR and BLEEDING COOL to name a few. Why bring this up now?”
Funny you should ask.
Dwayne McDuffie was and remains an icon in comics despite the efforts of a number of people to keep him from being in comics at all. There was a concerted effort on the parts of the so-called comics news media in the time of MILESTONE Media’s initial run as a comic book publisher, to paint the company as a “blacks only” business. For Us, By Us, according to the
press” of the day. This was, of course, a lie.
Milestone was formed, in part, to address a giant hole in the mainstream comics world, one that exists to this day. It was a positive response to the question “Where are all the [insert minority] in your comic book universe?”
DC’s traditional answer was, “Hey, look, the Martian Manhunter is green! How much more diverse can we get?”
After we all laughed in their faces, we realized that was their actual answer and, barring a few valiant attempts by individual creators (who, to the individual, got their attempts erased, removed or shafted) DC wasn’t going to change. By “we” I mean the non-white members of DC’s audience, the ones that are paying attention.
The four co-founders of MILESTONE chose to respond to that ignorance and racism by taking an affirmative step, by lighting a candle instead of a pyre. They founded MILESTONE not to be a blacks-only company but a diverse company with a diverse product that addressed the fact that there are LOTS of human beings out here and the majority of us are not white males with blond hair and square jaws. If the company could have had a stated ethos it would have been “We’re all in this together.” E Pluribus Unum? Think it’ll catch on?
Except, as it turns out, “we” in the comics industry, and I’m including a great many of the fans in this, maybe even most, really doesn’t mean to include blacks, latins, women, Asians, the handicapped, homosexuals, or people of non-Christian faiths. The message was and remains clear: there is one model for the Heroic Human Being and that model is a white male, preferably straight.
“But, Geoff,” you say again. “This is also old news. DC has been DC since before you were born. Don’t you remember Pieface and Tyroc and Extrano and blah, blah, blah?”
Oh yes, I remember. I also remember the odd attempt to do Right made by individual creators that has been habitually undercut or erased by DC Editorial. Even now they are touting their “DCnU” (a spate of new #1 issues that partially reboots their universe) as a more inclusive, more “diverse” iteration of what had come before.
They have on their current roster of comics, STATIC SHOCK (not truly a DC character but one used by permission of MILESTONE MEDIA), MR. TERRIFIC, the 3rd smartest man in the world, BATWING (an African Batman, set in the DRC) as well as featuring VIXEN (in Justice League International) and CYBORG (in the new Justice League). They are continuing the adventures of FIRESTORM, a so-called legacy character rebooted as black (more on that later). There is also VOODOO (stripper with superpowers), a transplant from another formerly independent publisher.
It sounds good, right (well, except for Voodoo)? They are certainly making sure we know it sounds good by pointing big waggy fingers at how “diverse” they suddenly are. But, when you examine DC’s track record in this arena, both over the long run and in the more recent term, it is pretty much impossible to accept their pronouncements at face value. And I don’t.
STATIC SHOCK – Initially co-written by John Rozum and Scott McDaniel (why McDaniel was needed is unknown as Rozum is a fantastically gifted writer with a long history of work with Milestone, having created their Xombi character), is now being written solely by Mr. McDaniel or, possibly, by another co-author who is as yet unnamed.
BATWING – Written by Judd Winnick, at best, a hit-or-miss writer who, according to his own words, had to do extensive research in order to even attempt to write a story involving an African man living in Africa. And he turned out the expected humdrum, facile fare one would expect. And this one did expect.
MR. TERRIFIC – written by Eric Wallace, DC’s only black writer and, I think, currently, the only black writer working for either of the Big Two. I wanted to love this because Eric’s day job, writing for the hit show, EUREKA, told me to expect great things. We didn’t get those great things and I believe we didn’t for the same reasons Dwayne McDuffie had such a bumpy ride on Justice league.
VIXEN – part of JUTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, written by Dan Jurgens whose track record when writing minority characters is, at best, lackluster. Vixen, despite the obvious market potential of the character, has garnered only a single mini-series and has never been more than a secondary or tertiary player in the DCU. If this book survives I predict it will do so without Vixen.
FIRESTORM – sometimes referred to as a “fan favorite” but never able to sustain a presence in the DCU after his initial run was done. Laying fallow, some brave soul said, “Hey, let’s bring him back and, maybe, since nobody’s using him or has been in more than a decade, let’s make him black.”
The “fan” response to this was cries of tokenism and a sudden, almost rabid need to see the “real” Firestorm back in the saddle. The only problem was the original was dead. So they brought him back, first inside the head of the current Firestorm (long story) and then, now, as his own physical character. This was done, apparently, to assuage the hurt feelings of those who don’t want their Firestorms to be black. Courting the racist audience? Really? Are we that desperate in 2011 that we need the support of racists to keep our books in print, DC?
Which brings us to Cyborg and the Justice League. If you need to use the facilities or get a snack, do it now. This will a take a minute.
For years the most well-known Green Lantern, indeed the only face anyone outside of the comic book industry would associate with the name Green Lantern was a black man called John Stewart. Initially created during that time of flailing around to compete with Marvel’s black characters, Stewart was literally the Angry Black Man (as seen by his white creators and editors of the day). He was the back-up Green Lantern to Hal Jordan’s primary.
And, despite several attempts by various creators to make him more than that, DC Editorial always returned him to the backfield or to invisibility. Until the televised version of the Justice League on CARTOON NETWORK, John Stewart was the “screw-up” Green Lantern, having actually murdered an entire planet of people due to his own “arrogance.”
But the cartoon changed that, presenting to a wider audience of fans a better, well-rounded, truly heroic John Stewart that only fans of DC comics had a problem with (and not all of them). John lasted in this role until the series was finally cancelled and the last frame wasn’t even finished playing before DC began a concerted effort to return John Stewart to the backfield and return Hal Jordan to his “rightful place” in the front.
Why is this all significant?
Because of the new Justice League #1 – written by Geoff Johns who, in addition to being the writer of this book and several others in the “new” DC, is, not coincidentally, one of the aforementioned editorial Powers That Be at the company. Some might say all this is his vision being carried out, in fact. Yes. Some might say just that.
The Justice League is meant to be the “big guns” of the DC universe; its core membership is comprised of the most powerful iconic heroes in that universe. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. The Flash. Green Lantern. Hawkman. Aquaman/ Martian Manhunter.
On television those big guns looks like this:
The animated version replaced Hawkman with Hawkgirl and the white Hal Jordan with the black John Stewart. It was, by any measure, a PHENOMENAL success. Far more successful, in fact, than ANY iteration of the Justice League that has ever existed in comics or on television. The obvious lesson for anyone who can’t keep up is “diversity expands your audience.”
Obvious. Obviously. Except…
The new DC comic book, portraying their adventures looks like this.
Green Lantern is white again. Hawkgirl is gone in favor of Aquaman and the token black character, no doubt included to keep people like me quiet, is Cyborg.
CYBORG? Really? Cyborg.
All right. Fine. Not a terrible choice, on paper. He’s been around a while. People know him. Kids might remember him from the animated Teen Titans. So far, so good.
Except here is what Cyborg looked like when he was introduced, decades ago.
As you can see, he was a mostly human man, with some machine parts. It was sort of a riff on the Ben Grimm character in Marvel’s Fantastic Four i.e. a character who should be filled with rage at his condition, setting aside his personal tragedy to be a hero. And it worked. No problems.
Except Mr. Johns has taken pains to show that now, instead of being mostly human with some machine parts, Cyborg is now mostly machine with, basically, just part of his upper body and head still being flesh and blood.
In this Justice League he is not only redundant (everyone else can do everything he can better than he can) he is also not a “real man” anymore. He has, literally, been castrated by Mr. Johns and then placed front and center with the most powerful white icons in the DCU. And please, note, if you will, the not-so-subtle placement of Green Lantern’s big, ahem, weapon, in this image.
Ugly. I’m sorry. Either this was intentional or it’s the result of things some people need to work out on their own time with a psychiatric professional. In either case: ugly.
But, initially, I was comfortable letting it go. After all, who the hell am I? Nobody, right? Nobody anyone at DC cares about. No one they would ever listen to, whatever my tone or approach. And I’m not stupid. I know DC’s track record. It’s not like it’s a big secret or anything. I know with whom I’m dealing here and I really would have let it go until I saw this.
“As widely accessible as possible?”
Really? This must be some definition of “wide” that is missing from the OED.
“We try to diversify as much as possible.”
Really? These must be some definitions of “try,” “diversify” and “possible” that- ah, hell. You get the idea.
What it really is is obfuscating language used to hide the fact that they are not interested in actually expanding their market share beyond the hidebound and racist oldsters who seem to comprise its core nor are they interested in hiring those of different genders or ethnicities than the approved straight white male, preferably one that at least one of them went to high school or college with.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same paradigm that prevented minorities from getting into the corporate world and then, once in, from rising above a pre-ordained “glass ceiling.”
(How many women are writing for DC right now? One? Excellent. That is one hell of a wide net.)
DC Comics is a nostalgia engine, looking ever-backwards to the period of time during which the current editorial powers personally discovered comics, namely the early 1970s, which is, to insiders, just after the end of the so-called Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze of DC comics. This notion that they are “always pushing diversity” is, very simply, a lie. It has never been true in their line of comics and it has never been true in their hiring practices.
This was a period of time when DC Comics was getting its ass handed to it by Marvel Comics largely, in my opinion, because Marvel’s creative model included inclusion, at least in the product, if not backstage. It was also a period of time when whites were a lot more comfortable with their fictional “negroes” in very small, easy-to-ignore doses because their real-world blacks were quite the opposite. Marvel chose, on some level, to embrace that new status quo. DC, as has been their pattern, chose to dig in and retreat.
At a time when Marvel was giving us THE BLACK PANTHER, LUKE CAGE, MSHULLA, THE PROWLER, BROTHER VOODOO, STORM, BLACK GOLIATH, DC was giving us TYROC, MAL DUNCAN and, their only decent attempt at a black superhero at that time, BLACK LIGHTNING.
Black Lighting was a good character, not only as a “good guy” superhero, but as a well-constructed character that was WELL within the tropes of superhero comics. His blackness was a flavor, something that made him not the average and yet was in no way exploitative or patronizing. Which meant, of course, DC couldn’t support him and he faded into obscurity for DECADES. There’s more to that story having to do with creators’ rights but we’re not on that subject today.
It should be noted, from time to time, individual creators working for DC did try to in inject non-whites into their universes without patronizing depictions- Mike Grell, John Ostrander, Tony Isabella, Gerard Jones, Marv Wolfman and several others, DID make valiant attempts at inclusion but those efforts were always undercut or erased by DC Editorial such that the net gain was nil and there was never any traction for any of these characters to last long enough to become “iconic.”
Fast forward to the present and fill in the intervening years with more of the same. Same pattern, over and over and over. Never deviating.
As usual, Dwayne McDuffie said it best.
And all of that is still true. It’s why being able to remember all this stuff, to actually describe the pattern is helpful. It shows a continuity of POV and intent that undercuts all the current hype about being more inclusive.
Of the characters that DC claims it means to become mainstays in the “new” DC, I predict none will actually survive in their own books and most will not survive elsewhere, except as the much-cited “token” characters DC traditionally prefers them to be.
At the end of all this, no matter what they say in public to the contrary, their pattern is the same one it’s always been: that of croneyism and, yes, of that “soft” sort of racism and sexism that pretend-liberals exhibit while they pat us on the head and tell us “these things take time.”
Time’s up, kids. It’s been up. Time to look elsewhere and, more importantly, SPEND elsewhere when it comes to getting comics that are not only excellent but reflect a better world-view than DC comics apparently can. You’ll find a short list at the bottom. Feel free to add any you think I missed.
And if anyone thinks I'm being too hard on the sweet folks at DC, please remember this: The smartest Africans in the DCU, “new” or old, are gorillas.
Not much more needs to be said.
Now, why does any of this matter to you? I doubt very much that it will. What do I want from you? Nothing. I have no illusion that anything I write here will sway you to stop buying Superman, or hunting down that one issue of Detective Comics that will complete your collection. Anyone who knows about this stuff is likely too addicted to it to put even a single one of these titles away much less the entire line of books as I have done.
But what you can do, what you MUST do, is support the efforts of creators who go against this tide. Not ALL of them; some of them are crap and I would never tell you to spend money on crap. But there are a lot of creators doing stellar work that need a bigger audience and your support.
Here’s that short list I promised. See how that works?
THE BLACK PANTHER
THE BLUE MARVEL
HEROES FOR HIRE
These are just off the top of my head, of course. Don’t expect me to do ALL the work for you. But you can trust that these books are as good or better than what’s being put forth by DC comics and, more importantly, anything that WILL be put forth by DC comics as it relates to anyone who isn’t a straight, white, male.
I’m not asking you to stop reading their stuff, lord knows it’s like asking a crackhead to put down the pipe. But I am asking you to step a toe or two out of your comfort zone and look at the work that is being done elsewhere and needs you to keep it alive.
If not you, then who? Right?
copyright © 2010-2011 Geoffrey Thorne
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