I traveled home to Omaha, NE for my mother’s 50th birthday earlier this year. While out we discussed Darlene, a favorite late aunt, a great aunt in my case although I have never used that modifier. To both my mother and I she remains an example of the best sort of the person that the Midwest had to offer: kind, generous, honest, and warm. As we spoke of her the word “naive” arose. The person who mentioned it meant no harm, but I vigorously disagreed. In this instance the word “naive” was being confused with “innocent”. Those two adjectives may seem synonymous, but they could not be further apart in describing the truth of a person.
Naiveté implies foolishness or a lack of understanding. It is a word you use to describe children and idiots. Innocence is a positive quality on the other hand, providing an aura of being without sin or malicious intent. You pity a naive person; you envy an innocent one.
This distinction is a key one when you are raised in the Midwest and around small town America. It’s a region that bears many of the negative connotations of naivete to those who grew up elsewhere, meaning a majority of Americans along with the rest of the world. Hard working, honest folks is a cliche often intended to mask derision. It could not be further from the truth. Midwesterners are no more simple or naive than any other group of people. Yet the rural lifestyles, differences in speech and attitude, and various other regionalisms have constructed a simplified image.
It is that image the lies at the center of Mark Millar and Rafael Alburquerque’s Huck.
Huck is the newest series from Millar’s Millarworld imprint, a line of creator-owned comics covering a wide-variety of genres and tones often packaged for translation into Hollywood films like Kick-Ass and Kingsman. It focuses on the titular Huck, a Superman homage without the costume. He is implied to be a mentally challenged man who uses his extraordinary abilities each day to do good deeds in his hometown. Once exposed that kindness and strength is exploited by politicians and journalists who take advantage of Huck’s kind nature.
While I love that Superman comes from Kansas (and was created by two teens in Ohio) and represents so many positive Midwestern qualities, I abhor what Huck represents. Huck is not a character like Superman, but a caricature. He is simple. This not as a euphemism for a lack of intelligence, but a statement about his lack of depth. His understanding of the world and even his own actions can be reduced to a black and white morality that can only comprehend the most immediate set of action and reaction.
When Huck becomes aware of Boko Haram kidnapping of about 200 young Nigerian women, he immediately tracks them down, punches the Boko Haram leader in the face (after asking him to remove his glasses), and then gives the girls candy before they return to society. It’s the sort of solution that might feel cathartic if you did not inspect it in the slightest and requires laughter the moment you do. Huck’s reaction comes without any awareness of consequences or the facts surrounding the situation.
If Huck were going to stop a maniacal super villain set on stealing young women, this scene might make more sense. However, Millar has chosen to set the situation in reality using a well-known incident, and Albuquerque has done his best to accurately depict the clothing and setting involved. When Huck sees the situation in question, he decides the best course of action would be to simply punch one man in the face and assume that fixes it. It’s a scenario that makes both Huck and his actions appear deeply ignorant, unwilling to acknowledge the complexity of what he is attacking or the need for a more significant solution. In this he is shown to be unaware of the larger world, as if his small hometown in the Midwest has been captured in a bottle away from the rest of the planet.
This conflict with Boko Haram is not a singular, tone deaf installment of how Huck addresses real world problems either. Again and again, Millar and Albuquerque set him up to face off against very real ills of the world ranging from homelessness to drug abuse. Each time he is shown to not only be unaware of the existence of these problem, but incapable of addressing them with anything besides good will and a band-aid of a fix.
When Huck sees two homeless men sitting in the alley after leaving a ball, he is genuinely shocked to learn they have not eaten. They ask if they can have some of the food he is feeding to homeless cats and he asks, “Haven’t you guys had dinner tonight?” They respond with the groan inducing line, “Well, that depends if you count mints, or bubble gum peeled from the sidewalk.” Huck’s fix for this problem is as short sighted and superficially fulfilling as every other one he has. He gives them the key to his hotel room and encourages them to take advantage of the free food and bar, before running back to the utopian security of a small town.
Huck is asked by an elderly couple to find their daughter their daughter who they fear may have “got into drugs.” Their sweater vest and polka dot dress match the same small town aesthetic Huck projects. That simplicity is not constrained to their mode of dress either. They do not know what has happened since their daughter fled after an argument, but assume the boogie man of drugs has something to do with it.
What Huck finds upon investigating her disappearance checks off every stereotype of inner cities and drug abuse that one might list. The comics only interaction with an urban environment depicts it as a squalor-ridden neighborhood with boarded up windows. It is also the only place where Albuquerque depicts people of color beyond a single unnamed women in his hometown. Huck marches into a shooting gallery, picks up the girl, and throws the man claiming to be her boyfriend out a window. Again, when confronted with a massive problem, his response is the most immediate and easiest solution available without considering how to actually help the people involved outside of the next few minutes.
Huck’s reactions to terrorism, homelessness, and drug abuse make him appear both foolish and ignorant. Every time he discovers one of these issues, he is shocked they even exist. Every time he confronts one of them, he jumps to the quickest resolution. Rather than engaging with the world or seeming to be part of it, Huck is a creature of the Midwest who only seeks to return to its comfort and safety. His small town is a place apart from the troubles of the world, neither aware of what is happening outsides its borders nor inflicted with the ills of the world. It is a place of naiveté.
That narrative fits the cliche of what it means to be from the Midwest, but it’s far from the reality. Midwesterners are neither ignorant of the outside world nor untroubled by it. We face massive poverty both in our cities and small town. We are affected by drug addiction and problems in enforcement, specifically with meth. We are not only aware of terrorism, but have lost hundreds of young men in America’s recent wars. Midwesterners are many things, but we are not and have never been simple, foolish, or naive.
Huck confuses naiveté with innocence. It presents a hero who is foolish, not wise or pure. The jokes in Huck are not composed to have readers laugh with him, but at him. Even as a grown man he cannot comprehend the evils of the world or be pressed to respond in a reasonable manner. He is a simpleton who we can smile at for his good intentions, but is ultimately incapable of functioning in the world outside of his hometown.
That Millar chooses to also allude to the idea that Huck may be intellectually disabled only further compounds this problem. Just like Midwesterners, or any group of people in the world, the mentally handicapped are not defined by ignorance or naiveté. Growing up in Omaha I found myself volunteering for Special Friends Prom in high school. It was there I learned of my own ignorance towards a community of people that I had very little experience with until that point. Everything I have said regarding the uniqueness of Midwesterners and their own lack of naiveté goes equally for the intellectually disabled. That Millar and Albuquerque would think it endearing to make their characters own foolishness and simpleness synonymous with this community as well is an appalling mistake in judgement.
When I think of my own experience growing up and of Darlene, I can understand where the intent for Huck may arise from. People from the Midwest present a unique attitude to the world and it is one that could be misunderstood as naive. Speaking generally, we hide the ugliest parts of the world and our own lives behind language, feign ignorance rather than confront cruelty, and push forward on tasks even after they have shown to be fruitless. We also present a tireless work ethic, protect our families (whether born or adopted) fiercely, and open our doors and homes even to those we have cause to resent.
We are every bit as strong and flawed as the rest of the world. There is no such place as Smalltown, USA. There is only our towns and they are filled with people, just like any other place. The presentation of this region and of a supposed ideal member of it in Huck doesn’t embrace the Midwest, it insults the Midwest. Millar and Albuquerque are presenting a caricature of a person and a people who have never existed. They are reducing an outsider’s cartoonish perspective on this region into a “loving presentation”.
Huck is an insulting comic. Midwesterners are well versed in detecting cruelty in kindness, and Huck is every bit as mean as the backhanded compliments your mother might make over Christmas dinner. The most naive thing about the series is its own depiction of a people it clearly knows nothing about.
So with that in mind, I’m going to do the most Midwestern thing I can think of, I’m going to welcome Mr. Millar and Mr. Albuquerque. I wouldn’t deny that what they’ve created in Huck is diminutive and insulting, but I also have a hard time closing my door to just about anyone. If they’re interested in coming to the Midwest and seeing what the region and its people are really like, I’d be happy to host them. We’re the area of the United States that gave the world its greatest superhero and plenty of real life heroes as well. I’d prefer they came to understand us as people rather than the simplistic cartoons found in Huck.