Superheroes have been around for most of a century, and like most elderly people, they're pretty damn racist. Hi, this is the second sentence of my article about racism, so 10% of you have already left for the comments section to help explain it all to me. After all, how can I judge characters merely for being a product of their time? When Steve Rogers first became the fighting embodiment of our country's majesty, it was still legal to beat your wife if she was noisy or a llama. And when Batman first hired Robin, "underage anal" was simply a term used in the weighing of logging trucks.
Going all the way back to the '30s, I scoured hundreds upon hundreds of comics to find the most jaw-dropping examples of racial intolerance by Earth's mightiest heroes. This won't be like the day you first noticed they made the black Power Ranger black and the Asian one yellow -- these comics are legitimately fucked up.
One more thing, Internet. You've proven many times that when you see something vaguely ethnic, you can't tell if it's racist or if the racism was inside you all along. It's such a complex and subjective issue that only a truly brilliant mind could create rules to define it. So it really is quite something that I've done exactly that. Here are the three ways to tell if a character is racist:
1. If you take away a character's race and nationality, are there any adjectives left to describe him or her?
2.Is the character, you know, screaming blatantly racist shit?
3. Is dey s-scared a' G-G-GHOSTESES?
Now we know the rules, so let's get started:
It's unusual for an elite group of whites to be racist, but the Justice League had some problems with it. For starters, even their space aliens were Aryan. When Hanna Barbera adapted them into a cartoon in the '70s, animators had to invent four ethnic members just so they wouldn't burn through their supply of "flesh" paint in the first season. If you're not familiar, the racial heroes added to the Super Friends were:
1. A Native American named Apache Chief who wasn't either of those things.
2. A Japanese guy named Samurai who wasn't that.
3. Black Vulcan, who actually was one of those.
4. A Mexican named El Dorado, which wasn't where he lived.
Apache, Samurai, Black, and El were conceived with the best of intentions-- making money off ethnic children, but they ended up being half-naked idiots acting out half-remembered cultural stereotypes. So I guess I'm only making the case that they are as bad as a Dane Cook set. Let's see if I can find instances of Justice League members being more objectively offensive.
Batman as a character gets redefined several times a generation. He's a tortured loner, a campy joke, a barking sadist, and you'll love him as a cranky 9-year-old this fall on Fox! However, the one trait he always has across all media and reboots is his refusal to take a human life. Well, that Batlaw does not apply to Chinamen. If you come from the Orient, Batman doesn't care about you until he needs a crash mat or a place to put a massive falling statue.
"Chinese criminals are a cowardly, super smashable lot."
Bruce Wayne became a bat to strike fear into the hearts of Gotham criminals, but in China, bats are often considered good luck. So Batman may have decided to murder a few hundred of their people to clear up any confusion. And speaking of confusion, here's the kind of interaction Batman has with Native Americans:
"HOLD ON A SECOND, CHIEF. WHAT THE FUCKING SHIT IS THIS? LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT US! HOW IS THIS THE PLOT TO ANYTHING!?"
Race throws a monkey wrench into all of Batman's defining characteristics. He won't take a human life, but never mind that if you're Chinese. He's a master of disguise, but if you're an Indian, he'll settle for covering his face in lipstick and borrowing your hat. And most notably, he's the world's greatest detective... unless you're black.
"CITIZEN, YOU'D BE SHOCKED AT HOW MUCH DETECTIVE WORK INVOLVES HITTING BLACK PEOPLE THEN FIGURING OUT WHAT THEY DID LATER!"
Aquaman wasn't as subtle as Batman was with his racism. If Aquaman saw someone from Japan, he screamed racial slurs at them in every dialect of fish.
Though he knew some in English too.
Aquaman sometimes screamed racist shit for no real reason. He might have spent too much time speaking with animals on the far left of an evolutionary scale because here he is, by himself, shouting ethnically intolerant slurs at a lake:
"YOU'RE A BEAUTIFUL AND SERENE SETTING, HOMO!"
So yes, members of the Justice League were sort of awful, but Batman is supposed to be a loose cannon and if Aquaman didn't suck, he'd have nothing left to do. How about one of their most beloved and respected members? What about the very woman who came from Paradise Island as an ambassador of peace to all mankind? Surely Wonder Woman doesn't have a history of cultural insensitivity! Surely she was a bastion of purity her entire career! Surely no reader could possibly anticipate the next image being the complete opposite of this buildup!
Still, I bet you weren't expecting "COME ALONG LITTLE YELLOW DOGGIE."
Wonder Woman fought in the Pacific theater against America's sneak-attacking, Rape-of-Nan-Kinging enemy, so her racism was pretty understandable. However, she always took it to a weird place. Wonder Woman didn't dismiss her Japanese enemies as inhuman trash-- she zeroed in on specific parts of their culture so she could better mock them while they died. For example, when she discovered the Japanese had a term called "save face," it opened a whole new arena of trash talk.
"I HEARD YOU DICKS ALSO LIKE ROBOTICS AND CONTEMPLATIVE ART. WELL, FUCK YOU FOR THAT."
There were people on the Justice League with racism that didn't even make sense. Green Lantern is a space policeman. Most of his coworkers and friends are jellyfish or cosmic squirrels, and yet he had no idea what to do when he met a real-life Earth Eskimo.
"P-please... please don't, Green Lantern."
Yes, Hal Jordan had an Eskimo sidekick he called "PIEFACE." And that nickname fucking stuck. Thomas Kalmaku walked around for decades answering to PIEFACE. It was such a bizarrely offensive character that when Filmation created a Green Lantern cartoon in the '60s, they replaced him with a blue (probably) alien boy named Kai Ro. Hal wasn't as aggressively racist towards him, but their relationship was far from appropriate.
"Boss, maybe you can make me a little spaceship? I mean... isn't that your power? Aren't I literally the only sidekick who has ever lived who should never have to do this?"
"YOU'RE RIGHT, BLACK MAN. I... I GUESS THE ONLY BLACK I EVER MET WAS A KETTLE. TELL YOU WHAT, HOW ABOUT IF I CALL YOU KETTLEFACE?"
Aside from some poorly handled run-ins with white guilt (above), the other members of the Justice League managed to get by without major racial incidents. Usually it involved writers trying for cute and missing wildly, like the time The Flash ran into a Japanese colleague...
DC COMIC SO SOLLY FOR DISHONORABLE CAPTION.
So I've covered all the big ones, right? Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash... the whole Justice League! I'm not forgetting anyone?
You've probably seen that before. "SUPERMAN SAYS: YOU CAN SLAP A JAP" might be the most famous racist comic panel of all time. It's included in nearly every discussion of WWII propaganda and is found on Mel Gibson's computer in the folder "Tattoo Ideas." But to Superman's credit, he was probably trying to stop that printing press. Superman never talked like that. I mean, you don't call someone racist when he owns a coffin that can make his girlfriend black.
"I HAVE AN IDEA HOW YOU CAN LIVE THE FIRST 2 OR 3 OF THOSE HOURS, BROWN SUGAR."
Superman handled most racial situations perfectly. He made it through WWII and Korea without calling anyone names and he didn't even ask to touch Black Lois' hair. If he had one cultural kryptonite, it was that he wasn't great with Indians.
In a story called "Superman, Indian Chief!", Superman was called in to settle a property dispute in Metropolis. An evil mogul discovered, through distant Native American ancestry, that he owned all the city's land. He instantly began extorting the citizens of Metropolis and proudly bragged about it right to Superman's face. It was almost suicidally evil, and here's how Superman handled it:
Superman had any number of option-- everything from diplomacy to super hypnosis to super ventriloquism to punching the evil dick into the sun. He went with: running back in time to screw the Indians out of their land 300 years ago. He didn't even have to think about it. He was already jogging through the 1800s before the guy was done with his threat. Say what you want about Aquaman and Wonder Woman shrieking "Jap!" for the better part of a decade; Superman wove his racism into the very fabric of his universe's chronosphere.
"YEAH, KEEP THROWING STICKS! MAYBE I'LL GO BACK IN TIME AND TAKE AWAY YOUR ABILITY TO METABOLIZE ALCOHOL!"
It's probably strange to accuse the X-Men of racism since mutants are sort of an allegory for civil rights. But should they be? They exist in a world with actual races, gays, and bigotry-- it's possible laser eyes and adamantium are an extra layer of abstraction the reader doesn't need. You know, what? It doesn't matter. Whether their intentions were good or not, the X-Men writers declared themselves the voice of minority rights, and they didn't handle it well.
There's a special time in each white person's life when they make their first black friend. This white person always suspected they were one of the good ones, but now they have confirmation-- a real relationship. They feel like they are special enough to be trusted with the n-word by the n's themselves. It's liberating! There's a real social change happening and they're leading it! Then, armed with their new n-word pass, they sit down to write a comic book where Kitty Pryde delivers a speech at a funeral:
"Before he died, Larry bet me I couldn't chain together six offensive slurs in his eulogy. Well, suck it, Larry. You lose again."
Like the Justice League, most of the X-Men's cultural diversity came in one explosion of poorly thought out ethnic characters. For example, James Proudstar. He's a Native American with the power of being pretty tough and tracking. Almost as if a racist thought, "What super powers would be handy if you had to, like, be an Indian all day?" And sure enough, when we meet him, he's having a wrestling match with a buffalo. A wrestling match with a buffalo.
"WHAT'D WE DECIDE ON FOR MY CODENAME? TEEPEE MASTER? CASINO RAINDANCE? WAIT, DID YOU SAY THUNDERBIRD? WARPATH? I-- OKAY, THOSE ARE ACTUALLY PRETTY SWEET."
So James Proudstar is an Indian who does Indian stuff, only super hard. Describing that character without mentioning his Native American heritage is like trying to maintain a student-teacher relationship with Helen Keller while you teach her the word for lapdance. It's a weird combination of impossible and inappropriate.
I'd say Warpath's lack of depth indicates dullness more than racism, but he's not an isolated incident. Let's talk about Jubilee.
"SOMEONE IS TALKING ABOUT ME? THIS CAN'T BE GOOD!"
Not only did they make the Chinese mutant the worst one, when they sat down to think up her abilities, they came up with "make fireworks." That's not a super power. That's more like the actual occupation of millions of Chinese kids. It's not as bad as giving her laundry powers or the ability to squirt oyster sauce, but it's still one of answers on a racist Family Feud board, "Things Chinese People Do."
Knowing what you now know, take a moment to guess how they dealt with the Irish X-Man. Why, you're exactly right: Banshee grew up in a castle filled with leprechauns and has trouble with alcohol. That's real. And so is this: the greatest 12 seconds of cartoon ever:
Ethnic mutants all seem to have been created by someone thinking about a race of people then giving them a power based on the first thing that pops into their head. Did Stan Lee institute some kind of five second time limit on creating each X-Man? I mean, what if someone decided to make a Japanese mutant after too many WWII documentaries and created a superhero just covered in atomic fi-- oh. Oh, no.
The Justice Society was the very first superhero team, and they have the antiquated views on race to prove it. Their gargantuan roster was made up of Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Starman, Sandman, Hawkman, Johnny Thunderbolt, and The Atom! With all those heroic crime fighters on one team, wouldn't it be something if one brave comedy writer could find a panel of every single one of them screaming offensive things?
Dr. Fate liked to put different types of racisms together to see if they would make a baby.
The Spectre is the all-powerful manifestation of God's vengeance. Good luck, yellow punks!
Look! Up in the sky! It's a parrot, it's an Elton John! OWW!! It's a dick!
Between Justice Society adventures there would often be Biff Bronson gags. Let the record show that THIS --wearing blackface and screaming mammy-- is the beginning, middle, and end of an entire Biff Bronson joke.
The Sandman says, "Real heroes always find time for intolerance, kids!"
When an artist draws Asian features this perfectly, no one notices Hawkman's wings are a gelatinous bag of nonsensical scribbles.
"TELL THEM JOHNNY THUNDER DIED FIGHTING SIAMESE TWINS, SCREAMING RACIAL SLURS AT AN ELECTRIC GENIE!"
If you've been keeping track with your Justice Society Unfortunate Quotes Checklist, there's only one member left to go-- The Atom. In the '40s, his only powers were shortness and punching, yet his tiny body held enough pressurized intolerance to capsize a hundred gay cruises. He wasn't clumsy with it, though. Like Wonder Woman, he studied Japanese culture in order to refine and enhance his racism:
"YOU LIKE RAMEN NOODLES? HOW ABOUT YOU GET TO RAMMIN' NOODLES! AND... AND... SHIT. I ALMOST HAD ONE FOR TENTACLE SEX. OH, I GOT IT! YOU LOVE TENTACLE SEX? HOW ABOUT YOU... OH. OH, YOU GUYS ARE DEAD."
"WITH A STRATEGIC SQUINT AND SOME YELLOW PAINT... HOLD ON, THIS MIGHT BE FUCKING CRAZY."
"THAT ASSHOLE DIDN'T EVEN THANK ME FOR AMERICA'S SPACIOUS INTERNMENT CAMPS!"
The Young Allies were a team of children led by Bucky and Toro, the sidekicks of Captain America and the Human Torch. This technically made the rest of the team sidekicks of sidekicks, so if you can picture four children designed to make Jar Jar Binks or Snarf look competent, you've got it. They were four children with no powers, talents, or abilities: Knuckles the wildcard, Geoffrey the nerd, a fat kid named Tubby, and a chemical spill of offensive black stereotypes called Whitewash Jones.
He was bitten by a radioactive Jerry Bruckheimer supporting character.
His face was mostly hemorrhoid pillow.
Whitewash Jones panels are hard to look at, but I take a weird satisfaction in knowing racists can't draw fish.
It's important to judge Young Allies as a work of comedy. For example, sometimes Tubby's fatness and Whitewash's buffoonery would come together to create outrageous comical situations:
"OWOO, LAWDY! WE IS BUMBLIN'!"
And wait until you see the antics of Toro and Knuckles!
Hmmm... maybe the old "CHASE THE YAP" gag doesn't hold up.
Hold on, I don't think this one is supposed to be funny. This may only be a hate crime.
Young Allies had the comic sensibilities of Gallagher finding a colon tumor. Racist and stupidly wacky, but haunted by the tragic frailty of human life. That's because the Young Allies were constantly surrounded by death, and they themselves killed almost indiscriminately. They were unimaginable assholes who seemed to always have access to flame throwers, high explosives, and some squealing Japanese caricature to use them on.
It's hard for a joke to land right after a child calls for the ritual suicide of an entire people.
"PALS! I'M PRETTY SURE THIS IS JAPAN!"
"LOOKS RIGHT TO ME! WHAT SAY WE BOMB 'EM, CHUMS?"
"KEEN! LET THE FAT OF THEIR DEVIL BABIES CRACKLE IN OUR RIGHTEOUS FLAMES!"
The book quickly became a dumping grounds for bad propaganda. If a writer at Timely Comics wanted to channel his impotent Pearl Harbor rage into a story, they pointed him at Young Allies and gave him a pencil. Some of them are such pathetic wish-fulfillment nonsense you'll start rooting for Hirohito.
"AND I'M A POOPY HEAD! AND PEOPLE WHO STAYED BEHIND DURING THE WAR TO WRITE COMICS ARE COOL! AND HEATHER WAS AN IDIOT FOR NOT GOING TO THE PROM WITH THEM!"
It's hard for a comic to get more racist than having the spiritual ruler of Japan turning to the reader and announcing, "ALL MY PEOPLE ARE A LOT OF YELLOW, UNDERHANDED RATS!" Well, it does. Black Talon was the Young Allies' deadliest foe, and his super power makes Whitewash Jones look like an NAACP Spirit Award winner... Black Talon was a white guy who had a black man's hand.
"TELL ME, HERR BLACK TALON, DOES ZE CARPET MATCH ZE WASH CLOTHS?"
So a black murderer donated his hand, complete with traditional African claws, to science. Then, once it was attached to the recipient, its African corpuscles infected the entire body with evil while leaving it with the strength and cunning of nearly one white man. That's not how you write a super villain origin. That's how a writer comes out to his Ku Klux Klan family as retarded.
Most people call Captain Marvel "Shazam" because that's the magic word he screams to transform from young Billy Batson to a superhero. Aside from having a little boy inside him, he was basically Superman, or at least close enough that Superman sued him and won. Oh, yeah, there was one other trait that set him apart from Superman: Captain Marvel owned a slave.
You may be shocked to learn this slave was scared of ghosts.
Steamboat was Billy Batson's "valet," a combination secretary, cook, janitor, pilot, and slave. He was drawn so racistly that if you were unfamiliar with '40s stereotypes, you'd have no idea he was supposed to be human. He looked like a baboon crawling backwards out of a pile of laundry. If the world's greatest artist a card that said "MAKE THE ROOM UNCOMFORTABLE" in Pictionary, Steamboat is what he or she would draw.
"UHH, HI, CAP'N MAHVEL. IT SHO' SOUND LIKE MY BOSS MISTHA BILLY DONE EXPLODED OUT 'DER. YOU SEE 'BOUT A MILLION LITTLE BOY PAHTS ON YO' WAY IN?"
So a little boy owned a slave in 1940 and he was some kind of unfrozen Peking Man. Here's the bizarre part: Steamboat didn't know Billy Batson was Captain Marvel. The two were together 24 hours a day and Billy's transformation process involved screaming, lightning, and exploding. Wouldn't Steamboat start to figure things out by the second time a thunderstorm hit the office and replaced his boss with a superhero? The fact that he didn't put it together might be the most insulting thing about the Steamboat character.
Billy didn't even bother hiding it most times-- he turned into Captain Marvel right next to Steamboat all god damn day.
"I GUESS MISTAH BILLY MUST BE DEADIFIED! OH, HI, MISTAH CAPTAIN!"
He's looking right at him! RIGHT MOTHERFUCKING AT HIM!
"STEAMBOAT'S SIMPLE MIND WILL BE TOO BUSY HANDING ME THIS PIECE OF PAPER TO NOTICE MY TRANSFORMATION. SHAZAM!"
"IT'S STARTIN' TO GET INSULTIFYIN' 'DAT YOU ASSUMES I DON'T KNOW WHA'S OCCURIN' HEREABOUTS!"
"WAIT. CAPTAIN MARVEL, IS YOU MOCKIN' MAH DISABLED LEARNABILITIES?"
There's probably a part of you still thinking this could be some kind of misunderstanding... maybe Steamboat was some kind of magical talking muppet or a uniquely disabled child bound to Captain Marvel by a 5th dimensional imp? I thought the same thing... until I finally found an issue where Steamboat encountered other black people. Fuuuuuuck:
Is it offensive for a race of people to be drawn with life rafts for mouths? I can't even tell anymore.
This was obviously a comic for ignorant, terrible children, but there were enough of those to make it a hit. Captain Marvel was so popular they made spinoffs faster than the writers could think up good spinoffs. For instance, they created a Captain Marvel Jr, a slightly younger version with such an exceptional racism he could spot the Japanese on you through a hazmat suit.
Hmmm... now, what would a Japanese soldier say to a teen superhero... I've got it! "YOU WILL ALL DIE HERE, PLEASE!"
"THAT GIVES ME AN IDEA! PORPOISE-FLAVORED UNDERPANTS!"
Soon there was a cartoon bunny Captain Marvel, hillbilly Captain Marvels, and my personal favorite: Uncle Marvel. Uncle Marvel didn't have magical powers like the others; he was just a fat man who decided he was Mary Marvel's uncle. When I discovered he wasn't related to her in any way, I may have lost my mind because my notes say "NOT REAL FUCKING UNCLE!? The combined IQ of the Marvel Family is measured in jam." I genuinely have no idea what it means.
"MY I.Q. IS BLUEBERRY!"
Mary Marvel is the saint of the family. She may officially be the 2nd dumbest superhero of all time, but I never managed to find a single panel of her shouting a racial slur. Let's congratulate her:
"HIII! MY I.Q.S ARE HAAAAAM!"
Looking back on these comics can help us all learn the humiliating consequences of ignorance. Mocking another race for having hemorrhoid pillows for mouths or canary yellow skin is wrong. We need to find ways to relate to our fellow man-- to try to understand them. Why, here's young Billy Batson doing so now!
"OKAY, MISTAH BILLY, YOU BEST KNOCK IT DA FUCK OFF."
Seanbaby is a vibrant humorist and video game designer. Geniuses play his critically acclaimed game, Calculords, on their mobile devices. You can follow him on Twitter.
For more of his comic analysis, see 5 Batman Villains Too Lame to Survive a Single Issue or enjoy Man Comics Volume Punch, Issue Dick.