In Search of Black Story(tellers)
I love comics.
Or rather, I love comic book paraphernalia. Movies, shows, figures, collectibles, you name it. I’ve spent more money on them than I ever have (or will) on comic books proper. Most of my comic book reading experience took place after my late teens and early 20s. That’s neither here nor there, though. Such is the case for many comic book fans, especially in the age of digital comics (and the variety of avenues to read said comics).
The point is, I was a little late to the party. And, as such, I was a little late to looking for Black representation in my comic books and comic related media/consumer items. For example I knew about Black Panther, but didn’t care until I was 18 or 19, when I saw the animated miniseries back when it was on Netflix. That was the age when I was starting to value representation in the media I consume, and when I first started my interest in sociology and social justice.
But after almost a decade, and much MUCH more political education, I realize that I’m… tired.
I’m not tired of representation, per se. Anyone who knows me well personally, even the few who follow me on social media, knows that I have been far more critical of representation of Black people lately. I resented, and still resent, having to choose between bad representation and no representation. Half-baked attempts at social commentary, dated scripts, or dialogue torn directly from years-old twitter conversation all have started to chafe me. So it’s not simply representation that exhaust me, I want to make that clear.
Instead I am tired of the kind of representation, and more specifically who delivers it to us. More and more, I’m noticing that if it’s not an overzealous, overstepping, and overconfident white liberal (see: Damon Lindleof), our stories are dominated by the perspectives of middle-aged, cisgender, heterosexual Black men. Exhausting.
I have mentioned movies and comics before, as those are the kinds of popular media I consume the most, so I’ll return to those.
Shortly before the Black Panther film premiered in 2018, I decided I was going to read through as much of the Black Panther catalogue as I could. Black Panther was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, like most Marvel properties. But the main writer for years was Don McGregor, and his book are where I started. He was a well-meaning white man (see above) who introduced some interesting characters and concepts to the Black Panther mythos, but ultimately fell into a lot of “Dark Continent” and “noble savage” tropes. Like many stories written by white men, the stories reveled in the violence done to and by Black characters. His stories constantly featured T’Challa being brutally injured, but also engaging or being complicit in brutal violence. That is the last time that either of those characters is ever seen in Marvel. It’s that strange fascination with Black characters and violence that commonly marks white liberal authors’ work (again, see above. see also: Mark Guggenheim, Brian Azzarello, Brian Michael Bendis, the list goes on).
So when I moved onto the Marvel Knights revival of Black Panther from the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was excited to see that there was going to be a Black writer finally helming the title: Christopher Priest. This author had been praised by both Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman as their favorite Black Panther author during the film’s press tour, so I looked forward to finally reading it. To my dismay and disgust, I was greeted with virulent and persistent misogyny/misogynoir for nearly 65 issues. For example, Priest is rightfully credited with creating the Dora Milaje, among many other Black Panther mainstays. But what is consistently ignored is that Priest introduced the Dora Milaje teenage girls, and proceeded to have his narrator character Everett Ross (and multiple other adult male characters) openly lust after them. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Every woman in Priest’s books is either servile, stupid, nagging, ungrateful, or (in the case of Storm) outright strange. Two female characters were so hatefully written that other authors killed them off, rather than try in vain to salvage their remains from Priest’s antipathy.
I haven’t even gotten to Priest’s less-than-subtle homophobia, and marked disdain for Black people that weren’t “respectable”. These issues only intensify when Priest moves away from the main cast and creates his own character in the Black Panther books, Kasper Cole. The main character sees his pregnant girlfriend and mother as annoying burdens, and is motivated to do the right thing only by the hypothetical future opinions of his unborn son. Supposedly Kasper is fighting police corruption, yet constantly refers to young black gang members as “mutts” or other derisive terms, and gleefully participates in police brutality. Priest continues in this vein when he writes his series, “The Crew” featuring several prominent Black Marvel superheroes.
Priest made his characters his mouthpiece, voicing his resentment toward having to write a book for Black people because Marvel wanted a Black author (Priest had wanted to write Daredevil instead). But this resentment, derision, condescension toward Black youth, women, and queer folks did not end in 2003. It appeared again when he was asked to write for Marvel’s Black Panther annual in 2018, and again when he wrote “Five Fingers, Five Toes” the next year. The latter was thinly veiled potshot at young Black people for being excited about a Black superhero because he was Black. Priest’s vitriol at the very people that gave him any recognition for the last 20 years is appalling. He is an extreme example, but also an excellent one in that he exemplifies the uncritical praise that middle-aged Black men receive for simply writing/directing/playing Black characters with no attention paid to how those characters are written.
Priest is by far the worst example of this in the mainstream comic book industry. The man hates (Black) women like Spike Lee hates (Black) women. But he’s not the only one. Reginald Hudlin (who took over in 2005) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (who took over in 2016) are far more bearable than Priest, but are not at all exempt from the pitfalls of their position. With them and others, I realized that almost all of the stories told about Black comic book characters, if given to a Black author, are written by middle-aged men with very specific ideas about race and racism. Namely: “racism, white supremacy, and police brutality are bad, but young Black people who are stupid enough to join gangs, use drugs, or do sex work give them reason. Racism is your fault too”.
Different authors communicate this in varying degrees toward specific sections of the population, but it persists all the same. David F. Walker sends this message in both his runs on Luke Cage and Nighthawk. He literally has Nighthawk, a rich black man, pin a younger Black gang member to a wall two feet from an explosive, in a book that is explicitly critiquing the powerful abusing poor black people. The same character later finger-wags at members of a local gang for participating in gang violence and killing other Black people. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?
Moving on to television and film, I’ve already spoken at length about how Cheo Coker’s Luke Cage shows visible disdain for young Black people, women, and vanishes queer people from Harlem. I dropped Black Lightning after one season for treading similar ground. Spike Lee’s politics, up to and including his deeply rooted misogynoir, have remained unchanged in his work for three decades. And he won’t change. None of these men will change, because they are praised almost uncritically and rewarded with continued platforms.
Not just because almost every Black story is told from the perspective of barbershop mid-life crisis, but also because the rest of the Black experience and perspective gets crowded out or smothered. Even when included, it’s often tainted because so many up and coming queer, non-male, and/or young Black voices were “inspired” (again, uncritically) by these same dominant voices. So their voices and perspectives are just as reductive, shallow, or even harmful. Once again, I feel pressured to choose between no representation behind the scenes (ie white liberals) or bad representation (ie middle aged cishet Black men).
But I know there is better for us out there. Nnedi Okorafor’s Wakanda feels like a real African country, and not the ugly Play-doh ball of random poorly-researched Africa trivia that McGregor, Priest, Hudlin, and Coates made it (I will be discussing them at length soon than later).Eve Ewing’s Riri Williams feels like a real Black girl in a real Chicago, rather than the crass and unsympathetic impression of both that Bendis and Walker made them. I’m noticing that queer artists of color are really making their stamp on the comics industry. I would hope that the same could soon be said for the comics industry, and related industries. Showrunners of superhero tv being Black women, or queer Black people. Superhero movies directed and written by disabled Black people or trans Black people. Of course, this extends beyond comics, into all creative and academic spaces. Imagine a creative and intellectual atmosphere where other smarter, stronger, younger, older, more textured voices are crowded by out by those of the myopic and disdainful male 40/50-something.
Some caution to myself and others, though. I know experience does not equal expertise. Being Black does not automatically mean that what they say/write/produce/do for or about Black people will be helpful, or at least not harmfull. Queer, or any kind of Black “other”, does not guarantee engaged, well-researched, careful, or empathetic product (see: Lena Waithe; Justin Simien).
That being said, I’m willing to try something different. Black people are so much more complex and incredible than… this. From now on, I will actively look for it, and I encourage others who may read this to do it too.
Not every time middle-aged, male, cishet, and short-sighted. Sometimes something new.
(EDIT: I began writing this on 2/29/2020. On 3/1/2020, news broke that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 4 year run on the main Black Panther book would be ending in June 2020. Hopefully, this provides opportunity for someone new and fresh to take up the book, and other books like it)