Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The X-Men Are A Little Racist.

You may recall that Marvel ran into a little trouble back in 1998, when an issue of Wolverine had been inadvertently misletterred so as to include an ethnic slur.

I’ve heard a few versions of the reason behind the introduction of the insult, which interrupted the flow of the dialogue so suddenly and out of left field that it seemed less like any sort of intentional race-baiting and more like a particularly malevolent text message auto-suggest feature gone horribly awry.

The most common variation of the story was that Wolverine’s equally savage nemesis Sabretooth had been described in the original script as “the assassin known as Sabretooth”, which had then been corrected in the margins to read “the killer known as Sabretooth”, and the letterer had been rinsing his eyes with lemon juice and managed to read the scribbled note as “the kike known as Sabretooth” at which point he rather amazingly decided “oh, okay, got it, let me just add that in there la-de-da”. And then everyone at Marvel editorial went to bed for the afternoon so it slipped past all the proofreading that was supposed to be going on there but sure as hecky hay wasn’t.

No one would have said anything and everyone would've laughed but,
shit, they didn't notice that Kitty Pryde was in the room until it was too late!
The publishing of the unintentional slur ended up raising less of a stink and more of a snicker, although Marvel was a little red-faced at having the impeccability of its editorial reputation rather openly hindenburged (mind you, this was no surprise to those of us who read the inside-cover issue summaries which were running around the same time, and which were rife with misused homophones, grade-school grammatical and punctuation errors and so many noun-verb disagreements that it could’ve counted as the most contentious company-wide crossover in Marvel’s history).

Also, I may be misremembering this, but didn’t they bring in a rabbi to preemptively absolve the company of any wrongdoing? This was contemporaneous with the whole “Superman saves the Jews but forgets to call them Jews and what is a ‘Hall O’Cost’ anyway” debacle over at the Distinguished C, so there was a lot of potentially ruffled feathers conceivably requiring speculative smoothing.

For my part, I was less surprised by it happening if just because the X-Men were a little bit of a politically incorrect bunch long before this, and there had been some slurs flung around having nothing to do with lettering errors and crossed wires. Basically, what I’m saying is “Warpath? Really, Warpath?” and also “Wolverine hates black people.”

Going back to the early days of the All-New, All-Different X-Men, the characterizations of the individual X-Men were still being settled (rather delightfully, for instance, those early stories were setting up a rivalry between Wolverine and Iceman, of all people). In one early appearance, Wolverine escorts Storm to her old stamping grounds in New York’s Harlem. Concerned about her safety in such a rough neighborhood, Wolverine is frustrated that Storm has refused to allow him to accompany and protect her from conceivable danger, and he makes no bones about from whom precisely he was expecting to protect her:

"Buck Henry, for instance."
Not to worry, though, as when Ororo finally wanders into her old apartment and finds it converted into a shooting gallery for heroin addicts, it’s luckily one of those comic book drug dens populated entirely by white people.

Wolverine is a couple hundred years old at this point, so I’m not surprised that he’s comfortable busting out archaic slurs – I’m gonna buy a round if I can find evidence of him using the terms Gyppo, Quashie or Sawney. I mean, Marvel trotted out the same slur a few years later before realizing that dubbing the black sidekick to their new Captain America “Bucky” might have been a tetch insensitive.

There’s very little profit in figuring out the answers to this ponderable, but if you did sit down and try to determine which ethnic group most consistently gets the saw in mainstream comics, I think Arab culture is going to give you a run for your dinar.
It’s only within recent memory that all Arab characters were represented in comics without being dressed up like Jamie Farr in Cannonball Run, or that they weren’t colored with a charcoal-purple skintone better suited to Goofy Grape or a scratch-and-sniff sticker.

Keep in mind, too, the relative culture-blindness involved with creating Arabic super-heroes and super-villains, such as Marvel’s The Arabian Knight, who wore a Sikh turban and flew around on a Persian carpet and oh who was Egyptian. Likewise, the super-villainess The Asp, an Egyptian “exotic dancer” (I haven’t read her origin story, but I bet they mean “belly dancer”), colored a lovely slate-grey, whose real name was “Cleopatra Nefertiti”. This is like naming an American character “HOT DOG YANKEE HOLLYWOOD” or “MARILYN MONROE WHITE HOUSE”, it’s just cultural reference in an expulsive rush.

The X-Men also don’t let’em get off easy, specifically during this adventure from X-Men Annual #2 (from the pre-All-New All-Different days, when they were just the Same-Old, As-They-Were X-Men) involving the Living Pharaoh/Living Monolith.

Scott “Cyclops” Summer goes to Egypt with some of his fellow X-Men to rescue his brother, Alex “Not Quite Yet Havok But Working On It” Summers. Attracting the attention of the local constabulary, the X-Men are confronted by a camel-riding cop who rather sensibly orders all participants in this midnight hootenanny of the weird to return to HQ for some pertinent questions about who laser-beamed the pyramids in half. Cool, level-headed Scott Summers make such-and-such a reply, something along the lines of “Well, as much as I see your point of view, I must respectfully disagree” or “Now now, before tempers begin to flare”, or something more like:

Tune in next week where I complain about how bad the Scottish were portrayed in the classic Captain Marvel vs The Monster Society of Evil (not really*).

*I mean, they were, but so was every ethnicity in the Golden Age ever, so I'm not gonna talk about it here.


Calamity Jon said...

I was putting the finishing touches on this article when news started to trickle in that Dwayne McDuffie had passed away.

McDuffie was a remarkable writer responsible for at least two of my favorite series, and a tireless advocate for wise and realistic depiction of under-represented ethnicities, cultures and gender orientation in comics.

So, while this article wasn't written as a tribute to Dwayne McDuffie - and while I won't be dedicating it to him, on account of it's an inappropriately flippant and vulgar article (welcome to my blog) and he deserves better - I'd like to encourage you to check out
his body of work AND ALSO this biting and infamous zinger to the Marvel editorial staff regarding their high percentage of skateboarding black superheroes:

I'd also like to suggest you take Tom Brevoort up on his rather grimly named "While They Live Wednesday" project, designed to encourage fans to let their favorite writers and artists know how they feel about them before it's too late:

Thanks folks
-Your Humble Editor

Teynor said...

I've been reading Power Man & Iron Fist from the late 1970's. Luke Cage is referred to as a Buck many times, but always by the criminals.

The whole thing reads like a blaxploitation movie. And, the way that Cage acts around women is ridiculous.

Wooly Rupert said...

HOT DOG YANKEE HOLLYWOOD, man I wish I still had a City of Heroes account.

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