The 5 Most Unintentionally Offensive Comic Book Characters
Comics, like any art form, are a product of the generation that created them. In some cases, it's nice to see Captain America channel American patriotism to beat Nazi ass. In other cases, Indian Chief.
Still, like society comics strive to move forward and away from the sins of the past. Sure, they've made some slightly bad racial decisions ("We should call every black superhero 'Black SomethingOrOther,' so everyone knows how black they are"), but at least they tried to progress. Even if their attempts at racial sensitivity are misguided or poorly thought out, you can't fault them for trying, right?
Oh wait, of course you can.
Marvel Creates a Gay Hero Presumably Based on Will & Grace Reruns
Homosexual characters have been featured in comics prior to 2003, but usually he (it was always a he) would be a mincing effeminate poof who would be either the butt of constant jokes, or beaten up, or both. (Or, you know, Robin.) But the mainstream comic scene had not yet seen a gay title character in a comic, which is actually pretty shocking, when you realize that they'd made room for the roller-disco demographic. So, Marvel decided to team veteran comic artist John Severin with writer Ron Zimmerman to help correct that oversight.
The plan was to revamp The Rawhide Kid, a tough, quick-gunned cowboy from the 50s. They were going to keep his toughness and attitude, just with a gay twist. By making a gay character that was both a hero and a cowboy--typically uber-masculine roles--it was a great opportunity to break away from stereotypes and show the comic-reading audience that not all homosexuals were screaming hairdressers or over-the-top caricatures; they could be just as tough and badass as your favorite action hero. If handled properly, this could be a very important comic series.
So, How'd That Go?
Not, uh... not great.
Rawhide Kid was every negative, damaging gay stereotype dressed in a cowboy hat. Sure, he was still a good fighter and a great shooter, but he was also a nancing, effeminate goon and the exact kind of character people didn't need to identify the gay movement with. He's the title character, but he's still the butt of the joke. Additionally, his antics made him, and we say this respectfully, annoying as shit. He says things like "toodles" and calls out "meow" when he's being bitchy. He gives out douchey fashion advice...
...he speaks in lame double entendres and cracks himself up while confusing everyone around him...
...he practices being a cowboy in nothing but his chaps because he likes the feeling of the "wind on [his] cheeks."...
And what kind of a superhero calls fighting bad guys "boring" in a fucking comic book?!
Marvel could have created a character that positively impacted the homosexual image in the eyes of the mainstream comic audience and maybe given some folks a fresh perspective. Instead, they wheeled out every corny stereotype and made an aggressively annoying character that no one under any circumstances would want to read.
Still, the worst thing that came out of all of this was probably Marvel's reaction. It's bad enough that they lazily embraced every gay stereotype in the creation of their character, but they also slapped an "explicit content" warning on the cover. Now, nowhere in the comic will you see nudity, sex, kissing or even the Kid explicitly admitting he is gay. The fact that he was acting overtly gay however was, according to Marvel, for "Adults Only."
Marvel Wants an Irish Superhero, But Also Hates Ireland
The Irish people deserved a hero. The closest thing they had to a mascot was the Lucky Charms leprechaun, and he was hardly representative of Ireland's rich culture. He was just a green-loving, red-headed little bastard named "Lucky." No, Ireland needed a hero to let the world know there was more to the Emerald Isle than just clovers and superstition.
So, How'd That Go?
Well, her name is Shamrock, and she's a red-haired, banshee-fueled chick whose superpower is that she's really, really lucky. As in "Tony Stark lost his keys but Shamrock found them first because of her superpower!" And we mean it when we say she's banshee-fueled; her power comes from displaced poltergeists and spirits wandering around Ireland. It's like Marvel's only research into the character involved drinking whiskey and watching Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
Thankfully, her well-crafted disguise helped retain dignity.
But that's the thing about Shamrock: She could have been totally awesome. Her power is that she is possessed by the ghosts of dead soldiers who have unfinished business. The potential with a power like that is limitless, but Marvel decided they wanted it manifested as "poltergeists which affect probability within a 20-foot radius of her, altering situations so that she is given an advantage." Because that's what a displaced war veteran wants to do. Affect probability.
Shamrock, whose real name was the overbearingly Irish "Molly Fitzgerald," was not a popular character. She was so pointless, in fact, that Molly eventually retired from being a superhero and became a hairdresser and no one else gave a crap. She didn't turn evil. She wasn't killed off. She just figured that being the vessel for thousands of displaced souls was better suited for cutting hair and she was fucking right. When Spider-Man wants to call it quits, he's reminded by everyone that, "With great power, comes great responsibility." But when Shamrock wants to hang up the tights to give perms, the hero community just says, "Yeah, that's probably for the best."
Racist Comics Editor Creates Black Superhero, Goes Exactly As You'd Expect
Led by Superboy, the Legion of Super-Heroes was a club of superpowered teenage do-gooders that banded together to form a sort of ultra-police, like a young Justice League that occasionally time travelled. Since several members were from the future, of course they had members from various species, including a blue-skinned woman and an orange skinned boy. Suspiciously absent from this team? Black people. In fact, in the entire run of the Legion of Super-Heroes comics before 1976, there had not even been a single black character depicted even once.
All white people.
So, DC vowed to rectify this inequity by adding an African American superhero to the Legion. This was a full year before Black Lightning entered the scene, so it was a pretty big deal. His name was Tyroc...
So, How'd That Go?
...and he was a racial separatist. It turns out, (as a way to explain the total lack of black people in the Legion's universe), that all of the black people exiled themselves to an island off the coast of Africa and lived alone, to be away from everyone else. Also, the island disappears every once in a while.
If the idea of a disappearing island that houses all of the world's black people sounds like a racist's wet dream, that's likely because it is. To really understand this move, and everything else about Tyroc, you need to understand Murray Boltinoff, the editor of Legion at the time. We don't want to say anything as libelous as "Murray Boltinoff is a racist," but he's the reason no black people ever made it to a Legion comic and he once ordered the colorists to change a black background character into a white character for no stated reason. And it was because of Boltinoff that Tyroc couldn't be a hero who happened to be black; he needed to be a former slave turned racial segregationist. Also, the disappearing island thing? Because Blotinoff is OK with the idea of black people, as long as they stick to their island that is totally unreachable.
Jim Shooter, one of DC's artists at the time called the depiction of Tyroc "pathetic and appalling" and co-creator Mike Grell described Tyroc's segregationist backstory as "possibly the most racist concept I've ever heard in my life." Grell was so disgusted with the insulting way the character was being handled that he intentionally designed Tyroc to look like a shithead:
Grell says "I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis' Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing."
Yep. That is exactly what that is.
Tyroc rarely had anything to do in the Legion, and eventually went home to Marzal and disappeared again. When writer Paul Lezitz spent 15 years on a Legion reboot, Tyroc, unique among pre-1989 members, never appeared.
Lois Lane Goes Black and, Shockingly, Goes Back
In issue #106 of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane, DC attempted to solve the racial problem once and for all. Lois goes to Little Africa, Metropolis' answer to Harlem, to report on... something. It's never really clear, just that she's going to go there and learn about "black... ness" and hopefully earn a Pulitzer for doing it. "Gosh, my readers would love how oppressed and poor you are. Whattascoop!"
Lois gloats, while Clark wonders if "Black people" can technically be considered a thesis statement.
Lois travels around Little Africa, but everyone either avoids her or calls her "Whitey, the enemy."
Lois concludes that this has nothing to do with her waltzing around asking people to tell her what it's like to be all black and stuff, but simply because she is white, so she has Superman change her skin color for a day with his Transformoflux, that way she can get a better understanding of what it means to be black.
Superman goes on to clarify: "How could you accuse me of racism when I'm the only fucking alien on the planet?"
So, How'd That Go?
This comic clearly meant well. It was obvious that the creators wanted to teach a message of acceptance, and the idea of "we're not so different, you and I," is certainly intact, but it's the poor, ignored black people in the story who learn the lesson. Lois shows up as this well-intentioned white woman and gets ignored, turns into a black chick and gets invited to parties. She never acknowledges that showing up as a privileged white woman who finds black culture "neat" might be ignorant. She doesn't remark, "Hey, I guess my snooty, insensitive questions were in hindsight, rude," she just concludes that black people hate white people for no reason. That isn't sending a message of tolerance; it's saying "black people are racist." Also that Superman really needs to use his ultimate power on more worthwhile causes.
In her journey, Black Lois meets an impoverished family living that takes her in for a while. They're under some hard times, but they're some of the sweetest and most optimistic people in the world. Lois reacts thusly:
"Excuse me, I'm just so moved by how shitty your life is."
Sure, the woman is smiling and has a healthy baby, but that doesn't stop Lois from thinking about how truly awful their life is. She can't even stop crying just thinking about what a horrific life these black folks have...
Lois also comes across an improvised kindergarten and an activist (who, when she was white, called her "the enemy"). They are extremely friendly with each other, until he is shot by some drug dealers. Sidebar: Even though Superman makes it clear in the comic that, as an alien, no one knows what it's like to be an outsider more than he does, but that doesn't change the fact that he clearly could've saved the activist from getting shot:
"Don't worry, Lois, I got your back. The black guy he- he looks like he's got this under control. We cool?"
Lois donates her blood to save him and just as he's about to wake up, her blackness fades away, and she's back to being white.
This is where the big moment in this comic comes. Will this black man still call her "the enemy" after she so valiantly gave blood to him, even though she's white? She honestly wonders that. She's unsure if this man is open-minded and enlightened enough to see past her skin to the wealthy, successful, working woman who saved his life.
He can! He learned a valuable lesson today: Reporters who show up and think the way you are forced to live as a result of racially prescribed socioeconomic circumstances would make a quaint story for their white, privileged readers should be trusted and welcomed into your life. You never know when a white person might help you out if they feel like it so, you know... be nice to them and entertain their questions.
The Falcon Sets Black Superheroes Back 40 Years
Man, the Falcon looked like he was going to be the exception for black superheroes. He wasn't a former slave or drug dealer and, hell, he didn't even have "black" in his name. He debuted in the pages of Captain America #117 in 1969, and represented a giant leap forward in the treatment of minorities to that time. Falcon was even granted the ultimate tribute of being among the very first ever "comic book action figures" before that term even really existed.
They were dolls. Deal with it!
Falc was, almost immediately, Captain America's straight-up partner, sharing equal billing on the cover for years. They both relied on each other and were both extremely qualified superheroes working together. Truly, Marvel didn't need to do anything else to make this character inoffensive and not insulting or condescending. All they had to do was not screw it up.
So, How'd That Go?
Enter issue #186. With absolutely zero build up or foreshadowing, writer Steve Englehart revealed a heretofore unknown past life of Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon,
Aka "Snap" Wilson, super pimp.
"Weren't green no more?" Have these writers ever even seen a black guy before? All at once, with no prior indication that he had ever been anything but an average guy who could talk to birds, we find out that the stalwart Falcon was originally a Gangsta from da Hood or what-the-hell-ever, mind-fucked by Captain America's archnemesis, The Red Skull, into a dupe in a very long drawn-out scheme to kill Cap.
You're a total chode, Red Skull.
It couldn't have turned out that Sam was just an ordinary guy, or a hero like Cap who just wanted to do the right thing; he had to be under mind control. And even so, it couldn't have turned out that Sam was, in a past life, a cop or accountant or, frigging, anything; he had to be a thug. A superfly thug.
Bang up job, Englehart.
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