Where is Our Culture’s Racial Subconscious? In Comic Books

Gene Demby and Alexander Chee detail the industry's past efforts to include people of color.

By Channing Kennedy May 13, 2011

This week, the internet’s been graced with two excellent essays which illustrate the role of comics as both cause and effect in our culture.

I’ve written here before about how the comics industry is unable to dig itself out from its own ugly racial history and entrenched patterns of exclusion. So I was stoked to read along at the American Prospect as Gene Demby, founder of the tastemaker politics-and-culture blog PostBourgie, details the industry’s past efforts at diversity, inclusion, and a broader truthfulness in narrative.

And honestly? It’s got more sunny spots than I was expecting. Here’s one — well, obviously, the paragraph that follows describes an incredibly un-sunny story. It got printed, though. That’s the sunny part. Demby:

In 2001, Marvel Comics asked a writer of color, Robert Morales, to tell a Captain America story inspired by the notorious Tuskegee experiments, in which black men were used for four decades, from 1932 to 1972, as guinea pigs for scientists studying the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. Morales’ story, Truth: Red, White and Black, focuses on a group of black soldiers in a segregated battalion during World War II. They are forced to participate in secret experiments by the U.S. government, which is attempting to re-create the super-soldier serum that augmented Captain America. In a memorable scene, military officers stare out at hundreds of black soldiers assembled at fictional Camp Cathcart. A visiting officer explains that he’s shutting down the camp. "Camp Cathcart never existed," he says and then shoots the white man in charge. He orders a subordinate to round up 300 black soldiers onto trucks to be taken to an undisclosed location. Then he orders that the remaining soldiers, who don’t make it onto the trucks, be disposed of. As some of the black soldiers are driven away, one asks, "Is that shooting I’m hearing?"

[…] "It was so depressing I didn’t think they would approve it," Morales says. "But it was depressingly realistic. And likely."

Morales says that there was push-back from fans who thought Truth made Cap a party to racial atrocity. But he rejected that criticism. "It’s a book where every single person is complicit, one way or another," he says.

Demby opens his piece with the casting of white-action-lead du-jour Ryan Reynolds in DC Comics’ upcoming Green Lantern movie, a superhero role that young comics fans think of as black. Why is DC taking a step backwards here? Money, of course, is half the answer — DC and Hollywood are presumably sticking with ‘safe bets’ while facing the villains of recession and internet.

For the rest of the answer, we turn to novelist Alexander Chee’s ‘Fanboy,’ at the Morning News — half psychopolitical analysis, half memoir of a mixed-race nerdy kid who longed to be a more fictional mutant.

Freud recognized, Chee says, that comics and dreams occupy similar lines of communication. So in a time when whites feel more persecuted than ever, and when white-populist conservatives are trying their damnedest to attribute the killing of Osama bin Laden to the programs of the previous (non-black) administration, perhaps DC and Marvel are simply showing us the status quo’s tormented dreamstate. After all, Captain America hit the stands before WWII broke out.

Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw is Captain America knocking him across the room with the weight of the culture. The X-Men going from multiracial to white to needing a white Messiah is the weight of the culture. The Avengers becoming black-ops agents is the weight of the culture. Thor, Captain America, and X-Men movies coming out simultaneously this summer is the weight of the culture. If a comic book can get us into World War II, can one get us out of Afghanistan? When can a hero be someone without a mask, who ends a war?

A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Green Lantern is a Marvel property, rather than DC Comics’. The author is embarrassed on a number of levels.