Top Ten Treatments of Race in Comics

A column article, Top Ten by: The Comics Bulletin Staff

10. Truth: Red, White and Black by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker

Lest you get too patriotic, American readers, remember that the Good Ol' U.S. of A committed some serious atrocities on its own people -- especially the non-whites. We could list them (slavery, Japanese internment -- need I go on?) but the relevant horror of American inhumanity is the Tuskegee Experiment, where the US Public Health Service studied poor black men with syphilis just to see how the disease worked. Without telling the men they had the disease. And while knowingly withholding any treatment.

This exercise in questionable ethics is the inspiration for Morales and Baker's six-issue Marvel Comics miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black, in which black soldiers in World War II undergo experiments against their will to replicate the lost Super-Soldier formula that created Captain America. The attempts kill or otherwise disfigure some of them, but the survivors, including hero Isaiah Bradley (occasionally called "the black Captain America") are turned into giant muscular men and deployed on secret missions against the Nazis. Amazingly, it's a dramatic revision of a superhero's origins that actually stuck, with several of Bradley's descendants taking on careers in star-spangled vigilantism.

The first five parts of Truth follows the soldiers' experience from the pre-war days to military life to the experiments and the mission, depicting soldiers from various walks of life -- the socially conscious rich boy, the everyman with the burgeoning family, the World War I vet -- while the final two issues take a dramatic shift in direction to the present day, with the more famous iteration of Captain America (read: "the white guy") investigating the aftermath of the whole thing, learning about the disregard for humanity that lurks beneath his "fighting the good fight" comic book origins. More than just a healthy dose of realism injected into a Captain America comic, Truth makes the case for education. It's not just that the story needs to be told -- it's that people need to learn.

- Danny Djeljosevic


9. My Darling is a Foreigner by Oguri Saori

When Japanese comic artist Oguri Saori married American Tony László she got more than just a wedding -- she got a career. Since 2002, Oguri has been writing and drawing the hit series Darling wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner) based on the day-to-day headaches and antics of the improbable situation of being married to a white guy in Japan.

There is no plot or story to My Darling is a Foreigner. It is more of an occurrence diary written by Oguri as she tries to reconcile her romantic notion of what an American husband should be like with the reality of the big, hairy guy in her living room. She gets mad when Tony doesn’t call her "honey" and "sweetie pie" like on American sitcoms. They fight about things like the proper way to fold laundry or who should be doing what chores in the house. Sometimes she just writes essays on his bizarre (to her) facial feature -- like the depth of his eye sockets and how she can see "meat" in the corner of his eyes. At the same time Oguri carries on a dialog with all of her readers about what it is like to share a life with an American, and does some stereotype busting of her own.

Tony László has taken heat from the expat community in Japan for letting himself be made a fool of, but as has been shown many times Oguri’s simple, romantic, funny comic has done more to improve race relations in Japan and acceptance of interracial marriage than any number of serious works, demonstrations, and lawsuits. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the differences.

-Zack Davisson


8. Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Shortcomings opens with an excerpt from a fictional movie about being Asian American. In the fake movie, a young Chinese woman has realized that her grandfather is much like a fortune cookie and is able to reconcile with him. As the lights come up and a theater filled with people of Asian decent praise the film, the book’s protagonist, Ben Tanaka tries to hide his disgust.

Ultimately, this is what separates Shortcomings from being another work that is restrained by race and obligation. Instead, Adrian Tomine uses race to further flesh out Ben Tanaka. He is paranoid about the size of his penis, recounting a vulgar joke he heard in his youth. This leads to Ben feeling optimistic about sleeping with a white woman who up until that point was a lesbian. "Maybe she won’t be so uh... size-conscious," Ben states hopefully.

In the last chapter of the book, Ben discovers his kind-of/kind-of-not Japanese girlfriend has been sleeping with a white man. This leads to a compelling conversation while Ben is drunk. "Come on, you know there’s something creepy about a big white guy who’s horny for little skinny asian girls," Ben probably slurs. The other side of the table, Tanaka’s Korean friend and her girlfriend, who has a white father and Asian mother, argues whether or not Tanaka’s desire to be with a white woman is a sign of desired assimilation.

Tomine doesn’t give a solid answer nor does he take a side, because the race issues within the book serve the character instead of the other way around. 

-Andrew Tan


7. The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos & Nate Powell

Racism is a subject that unfortunately never seems to lose its topicality, but this year Mark Long, Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell saw their insightful The Silence of Our Friends gain a tragic new level of relevance. Released at the beginning of 2012, The Silence of Our Friends is an intelligent story about a portion of Mark Long's childhood, as his family moved to Houston, where his news broadcaster father Jack had landed a new job and finds himself immersed in what becomes one of the most explosive arenas of the civil rights struggle. And as is the case today with Trayvon Martin, misperception and confusion result in deadly tragedy.

But what makes The Silence of Our Friends such a standout work is not that its violence still rings true but that it positions itself as a story about all sides of the equation, from the Long family, who want to do the right thing but also want to stay safe, to the Thompson family, struggling for identity and righteous in their cause but divided by the stresses of the times, to the police and fellow newscasters who play an unfortunate role in the events that transpire. Through the perspective of young Mark Long, the true collateral damage of racism becomes clearer and we're given an unbiased filter through which to judge the decisions of the adults. Long is similarly unbiased in his latter day perspective, illustrating the ways both fathers fail -- Jack with his reliance on drinks to get through the stress, Larry Thompson's occasional acts of violence against his son -- but also showing how the situation they're in makes victims of more than just the direct recipients of its violence.

Powell illustrates everything in his signature style, making the work as visceral a viewing experience as it is a reading one, giving Long's memories a powerful energy that brings them fully to life again. Even without the unfortunate new relevance, The Silence of Our Friends would be a bracingly powerful personal work but that the message of events that transpired nearly half a century ago are still so topical further emboldens the sad necessity of the work's intent.

-Nick Hanover


6. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson

The X-Men can be written to represent any minority group that the writer wants to discuss. While that's recently come to mean homosexuality, with storylines in which a disease is passed around which mutants come to be associated with, or in which the government attempts to take away the X-Men's right to have sex, one of the most known allegories is that the X-Men represent race. A group of people from all around the world, with different minds, ideas, personalities and hopes, the X-Men are united by one thing alone: their genetics, their biology, something they never chose to be. And unfortunately for them, that's the only thing some people are willing to look at. God Loves, Man Kills is probably one of the smartest stories about race ever written, as Chris Claremont teams with Brent Anderson to kick straight at one of the most controversial elements of racial intolerance: the religious aspect.

In the story, the Reverend William Stryker forms a breakaway ideology from a surface reading of the Bible. It becomes his belief that mutants are devils, demons sent from God whom humanity must strive to remove from the Earth. To this extent, he preaches genocide to his followers, who are dubbed "Purifiers." They hunt down mutants and kill them, leaving their bodies as an example to those who find them. The bodies are left hanging. It's rivetingly powerful material, and Claremont is brave enough to never hold back on the full brutality of the movement. Not only do we see how the Purifiers murder in the name of their religious beliefs, but we see their message rippling across America, passing ideas into the minds of anyone who hears it. You might react in favor of their ideas, or against them -- but it's impossible not to react. The story hits hard, and often, as the X-Men slowly come to find out about Stryker's ideals and unite to face him down on national TV. And that's when the core point of the story is driven in. Stryker, surrounded, holding a gun, gestures to Nightcrawler -- the sweetest, most gentle and kind member of the X-Men, a Christian himself who believes totally in the power of faith and compassion -- and cries out "You dare call that thing -- HUMAN?!"

All Nightcrawler has done to earn this ire is to be more a mutant, a condition which gives him blue skin and makes his appearance scary. Stryker's loftiness holds no merit for the reader, because we've witnessed the care and affection Nightcrawler has for humanity. How could we ever side with a man who has no interest in the man, but only interest in the image? Chris Claremont has said that the story was influenced by the famous Martin Luther King quite: "I dream of a world where my children and their grandchildren will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And therein lies the entire point of the X-Men. When Chris Claremont nails a point, he does it with a verve and anger that nobody else can match. God Loves, Man Kills is an attack on humanity's lack of compassion for itself, the arbitrary hate people can hold over something so simple as skin color, and it still maintains a brutal sting, even now. This year, it's 30 years old. And we still haven't moved past it. That's telling.

-Steve Morris


5. Incognegro by Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece

Seemingly a muckraking adventure story at its start, Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's Incognegro swiftly reveals itself to be something darker, more turbulent and less optimistic. Incognegro is structured around the experiences of Zane Pinchback, an investigative journalist who writes the titular "Incognegro" column for a local paper, which is he about to discontinue in favor of an editor position. Johnson based Pinchback on Walter White (no, not that Walter White), an executive secretary of the NAACP who would use his light skin color to go "incognegro" and investigate lynchings in the deep south.

Pinchback is initially portrayed as a journalistic swashbuckler, someone who seems to get off on the thrill of the masquerade, but Johnson and Pleece quickly show the darkness of both the era and the location that Pinchback immerses himself in. Drawn to one last column concerning uncovering the truth behind a murder that has been pinned on his own brother, Pinchback becomes a more fascinating figure as the story progresses. Pinchback's relationship with his twin brother Alonzo is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story, as Alonzo was born dark skinned and Zane is light, which leads to tension and questions of racial acceptance amongst peers. Though it works extremely well as a twisty, exciting pulp story, Incognegro is also a standout work on an unfortunately underexposed era of American history, revealing the horrors of a time that stand out as the true 20th century successor to the better known witch trials that plagued the East coast centuries prior. 

-Nick Hanover


4. Scalped by Jason Aaron, R.M. Guera and others

The depiction of Native Americans in media is usually heavy-handed, poorly researched and largely assumptive, but Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra's Scalped is the furthest thing from it. A neo-noir set in the modern day Third World, and its opening page has lead character Dashiell Bad Horse calling his brethren "prairie niggers," but throughout its run the book has taken the time to really dig into the meat of the Native American experience. Aaron's interests in developing the world of the fictional Prairie Rose reservation is commendable, as he treats his characters as people, not with any kind of obligatory regard, but with an open and honest eye. 

A self-contained issue, "Listening to the Earth Turn," focuses on Manee Boaz and his wife Hazel, two Native Americans who live on the outskirts of Prairie Rose, suffering through their longest winter together. A scene in which Manee is forced to visit food assistance and sign his name for groceries is as tense and difficult to watch as ultraviolence, and the wallop it packs from only a few words is simultaneously effective as narrative as well as being demonstrative of the universal plight of pride versus necessity. 

Another done-in-one, "Dino Poor Bear," features a young kid, Dino, who is fully aware of his surroundings and the statistics of life on a reservation. As we begin the story, Dino has made it clear that he is leaving -- he has saved the money, cleared his schedule and he just has to collect his $2,000. Dino has several meaningful conversations and even says some painful goodbyes... but the real hurt comes in the final pages, when finally, cash-in-hand, he puts it off until tomorrow and walks back into his friends' den shouting "Who wants pancakes?

Aaron and Guerra have a story they want to tell, but they're aware that the best way to make the story count is to make the people matter, and Scalped's depiction of a very real world where people make choices and suffer for them is rewarding. He captures the culture with the right amount of esteem, but these characters never feel like they are conveniently Native American -- they just feel alive.

-Rafael Gaitan


3. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese manages to capture the second generation experience. Whereas most adolescent literature focuses on Caucasian characters going through generic issues, American Born Chinese deals specifically with issues relevant to children of immigrants. Using three different storylines, the book deftly sweeps through cultural and social stereotypes. 

The most powerful of the three storylines, "Everyone Ruves Chin-kee," is a gloriously racist sitcom that serves to parody aging (but, if you have ever watched 2 Broke Girls, far from dead) cultural stereotypes. Chin-kee represents every imaginable Asian stereotype and of course becomes an oppressing force for most of the novel.

The book’s protagonist, Jin Wang, suffers all the usual adolescent minority issues: Getting asked stupid questions, getting bullied regularly, having an impossible crush on a white girl, going through a period of intense self hate and then encountering a legendary monkey warrior.

American Born Chinese succeeds at using the comic form to give Jin Wang his wish, to become white. And the book successfully deals with what would happen if one got that wish. Jin Wang, reformed as Danny, is in constant fear of Chin-Kee, a reminder that at his core, Danny is still Chinese.

-Andrew Tan


2. Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

Despite being named one of the "100 Best Comics of the [20th] Century" by the Comics Journal, Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby is often overlooked in conversations about the most important graphic novels of all-time. Which is unfortunate, since Cruse's masterpiece also functions as one of the best portrayals of both the homosexual experience in America and the peak of the civil rights era. 

Following Cruse's fictional stand-in Toland Polk as he sheds his religious roots and begins to accept his homosexuality, becoming more involved in the civil rights struggle, Stuck Rubber Baby is about both self-acceptance and the acceptance of those who are different from you. Polk's self actualization comes about largely because of his continued association with Sammy Noone, who comes back from a Navy stint and helps introduce Polk to the counterculture at large. Surrounded by people from groups and subcultures and philosophies that he'd previously never been exposed to, Polk starts to develop his true identity and understand better the situation of others. That's not to say that Polk undergoes a miraculous transformation into the elder Polk that is telling the story of Stuck Rubber Baby, in fact for much of the work, Polk is confused and uncertain. But that's a significant part of the value of the story, since it goes beyond mere "tolerance" of others and shows how our identities are formed not just inwardly but outwardly; it's a messy process, to be sure, but by trying new things and interacting with people who aren't like ourselves, we're able to build a stronger personal identity. 

Cruse's personal experiences help Stuck Rubber Baby feel more intimate and alive, and the sexual identity angle makes it something more than a story of equality, contrasting the increasingly more complicated consequences of Polk hiding his sexuality with the increasing tensions of the civil rights struggle on the local and national level. Though it's a refreshingly frank and complicated work, that duality allows Stuck Rubber Baby to transcend both race and sexuality and more fully encompass the human experience.

-Nick Hanover


1. Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez

One of the most beloved alt-comics of the 1980s, and still running today (albeit in a different format from its original single issue presentation), Love and Rockets generally follows two mutually exclusive, ongoing storylines: Jaime Hernandez's "Maggie and Hopey" stories about two young punk friends/occasional lovers and Gilbert Hernandez's magical realist "Palomar" stories. Each of Love and Rockets' two sections has a distinct feel and flavor, with Jaime's instantly identifiable study of relationships and aging offsetting Gilbert's stranger, more idiosyncratic chronicle of Palomar's denizens.

Notice I avoided mentioning that Maggie and Hopey are Mexican-American or that Palomar is a Latin American village. That's because you don't even have to mention race to talk about how great either section Love and Rockets is. It's awesome that, in a medium run afoul with white male perspective, one of the certifiably great works focuses on Latino culture -- but it's also not the only interesting thing about the comic.

There's a lot going on in both parts of Love and Rockets, all of which speak to the human condition: romance, sex, life, death, violence, hearbreak, growing up and about a dozen other things -- themes not limited to one race, nationality or culture, but that which we can all identify with, no matter who we are.

-Danny Djeljosevic




Community Discussion