Batman and The Black Man

July 8th, 2008

I can only apologise if the title offends; it’s not intended to, but it does seem a little risque and I’ve kind of realised I’m not so sharp as I had thought on racial politics this week. The implications for me, sexual orientalism and gender bias are pretty disconcerting therefore. (Secret origin: my username is actually derived from the country of my birth.)

The notion here has its genesis in Douglas Wolk’s initial SavCrit review of the latest installment of Batman, #678 – it’s true! Mindless Ones covers really all your Batman and Grant Morrison needs several times over. Tune in shortly for more BatMoz coverage than you can possibly handle. I then get irked in the comments and Marc ‘I am NOT the Beastmaster‘ Singer talks me back off the ledge of flipping out, saying some shit I don’t even believe and schools me, unabrasively, on how it be. I invite him here to extend the conversation and it’s a blogversation or some other hideous neology. A blogover. In the interests of making it a blogevent, here’s Jog’s review (which I’ve already invoked not once, but twice) and our own amypoodle‘s. Here’s Tucker Stone’s, just for fun.

Frankly, I’m almost pathetically grateful to have the attention of the author of what’s (in my assessment -and I read a few) the best piece on the web about The Wire (a little more on which shortly) and not exactly short as a comics blogger either. It’s really up to him how he chooses to repond or add to the discussion – I’d be delighted if he ever updated his blog in relation to this or otherwise, but in comments would be perfectly adequate. As long as there is a response and I don’t look a total dick.

The controversy, such as it is, centres around Douglas’ citing of a piece on the Magical Negro and blunt assessment that Batman’s latest ish “is basically a straight-up Legend of Bagger Vance-athon.” I’ve not seen the film but it sounds pretty fucking terrible, as any mixture of golf and salt-of-the-earth homilising could only conceivably be, before even contemplating dubious racial portrayal overtones. Now, I got miffed because I – essentially – I really liked the issue and it didn’t even occur that there might be much wrong with it. It might have been when commenter Nick upped the ante thus:

Having just read Seven Soldiers, I was appalled at the way he handled Shilo Norman. It was just one cliche after the next; he clearly only knows African-Americans from MTV. This social and artistic mediocrity is all the more distressing because Morrison’s concepts in that series were so great otherwise.

that I got really annoyed. It’s a common enough event in comics fandom that you can see readers wanting to distance their escapism from troubling and worldly issues – the idea that one’s reading may be, in some sense, corrupt or that the ethical idealism of the text – I think this is pretty noteworthy given we’re talking superheroes – fell far short. I like to believe this generally comes from a good place, that it’s more difficult to deal with the possibility the story is tainted, ruined by its failings, somehow. For my own part, I do tend toward the heeldragging on ‘issues’ – see comments here for the most recent example. It is, of course, possible to acknowledge that e.g. The Wire is the best TV programme ever, even although David Simon by his own admission can’t write women. With that in mind, I’d like to try and offer a sober and delicate reassessment.

I began, initially, to adopt the posture of disavowing the concept altogether, which would be the first of a number of contradictory backward scattershot defenses – in my defence, my first encounter with the term was at the point when I decided I’d had enough of ‘Doom Patrols’ author Steven Shaviro for this lifetime and, additionally, I do kind of hate the sort of smug, case-closed definitive terminology fandom tends to offer up. Invocations of Mary-Sueism, in particular. Jesus, that shit makes me want to chainsaw faces. It’s not immediately clear from a 20 second Google the etymology of our term du jour; the wiki entry claims it was popularised by Spike Lee and, given that Shaviro is – I believe – a professor, it does seem to have penetrated the edges of academia. Possibly “Mary-Sue” has done the latter, too, though God I hope not. In any case, equivocating the two won’t serve because one is about authorial egotripping in fanfic and the other about (mis)representation the racial Other. As any fule who’s seen the Matrix kno (and there are millions, I am one such) – the earthy, mytic one-two Otherpunch of Morpheus and the Oracle is more than evidence enough that such a motif abounds, with – unfortunately – fantastical fiction appearing to provide more than its share. Because of the magic, obvs.

I’m going to examine Honor’s agency in the issue and offer up some similarish caveats, some new, hopefully somewhat cohesive, to the SC comments thread, initially in direct relation to the 5-point plan cited there. Looking at the list, initially, it does seem there’s a good chance that the character will probably score at least 70% against it:

  • He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.

Yup, 20%. Jezebel Jet is the only other nonwhite character – or certainly the only character coloured as markedly nonwhite (aren’t Ra’s al-Ghul, his family and cohorts supposed to be Arabian or something? This is also a fairly common problem at present with superhero books and another one that I never notice at first blush.)

  • He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.

Unfortunately, we’re well on our way here – Bruce Wayne is a stranger to Honor, but he does have a glimmer of recognition because Batman had Robin hand him $100 only two issues back after he’d said Bats had a “kind face”. That $100 is important, pay attention. Honor’s sole agency in the issue is escorting Bruce Wayne around town, introducing him to begging, buying cheap alcohol and ultimately – we must presume – heroin. This isn’t, on the face of it, terribly helpful (and this being midway through a serial arc, it may not prove the last we see of Honor Jackson – I’d not expected to see him after the initial cameo, but I’m not massively optimistic) but he clearly believes he has saved Bruce – viz, his final soliloquy:

See, I never did nuthin’ I could be proud of. But imagine I could know I’ve saved one life. That would mean I was worth sumthin’ after all

  • He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.

Well, yes. Immediately afterward, Honor goes for the hat-trick; again, it’s not clear whether he has actually handed Bruce the “Bat-Radia” or if this is delusion, but at this point we’re batting .1000. To be fair, one’s already in the bag because he died yesterday having dropped five Jacksons, acquired from see above, on a whole lot of horse. To a degree, this recalls Audrey Murray at the end of The Invisibles and her act of Samaritancy to the Undeserving, saving the man who killed her husband. The chronology is possibly more baroque here, but allows for brevity and compression.

  • He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.

Definitely the last, but I certainly – on reflection – feel invited to assume the previous two.

  • He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Being about when you’re dead is pretty magical – there is, throughout, a hallucinatory, liminal air which the other reviews linked uptop have covered better than I could hope to that does cast everything, not for the first time in a Grant Morrison comic (and, really, it’s my preference over ratified, hard plot mechanics.) There’s kind of an immediate fictional antecedent in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I think, although I gave up on that fairly shortly into it. Additionally, at their parting Honor has escorted Bruce to the siltline of the river that runs through Gotham, taking him quite literally as close to the earth as the essential Bat-milieu allows. Honor doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘wise’ or ‘spiritual’, except possibly in the case of actually being a ghost; we’ve already seen Morrison rooting this somewhat in spooky, urban Victorian and post-Victorian lit, with the Three Ghosts and Club of Heroes arc’s roots in Dickens and Christie – I do think, on the evidence of this, and the dockside stuff particularly in Final Crisis that he has almost certainly been watching The Wire (rightly so) and trying to process it in his inimitable and very different way; whether Honor’s trolley and habit are in direct homage to Bubbles‘… I’d like to think so, but this does seem – given what’s covered above – inept. I’ve offered fairly strident defence(s), but really the best out is the one Marc offered, that European understanding of, particularly black/white, race-relations is at “arms-length” if not retrograde.

I had also already suggested that Bruce’s culpability does, to an extent, undercut what’s clearly emerged as – moreso than I thought, pre-assessment – a cast-iron stock character; Morrison does occasionally interject class dialectic into his psychedelic and fantastic worlds, such as in the conversation between Alicia Masters and Sue Richards in FF:1234 or indeed last issue where Jezebel pondered out loud on the waste of the Bat-billions. I think I get that “We should make everyone a millionaire” line from back at the beginning of this run, now, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. They’d only spend it on H? It’s interesting that both black characters have pointed up Bruce Wayne’s financial irresponsibility, certainly, and I’m a little wary of how it’s going to turn out with Jezebel now – she physically embodies not only the black & red motif throughout the uberplot, but also really the two types of women Morrison fetishised in The Invisibles; I’m desperately hoping she and the Bruceman are the “two innocent lovers” from the Black Glove film now and that she’s not some vessel of bitter regret over objectification or something. I’ve also offered No-Beard and Tom O’Bedlam as analogous, in terms of agency, to Honor Jackson – you could quite possibly add Metron to Shilo Norman to make a full black/black, white/white, white/black, black/white quadrangle of protagonist/magic homeless helper but I’d think i) Batman will be read by more people than Seven Soldiers or the Invisibles (I don’t know at what point good-selling Vertigo trades eclipse mainstream superhero serials – I imagine Y the Last Man will probably be read by more folk than Busiek’s Superman but that might be way off, and I can’t imagine a massive audience for Seven Soldiers that precludes Batman here) and is thereby the most overground, mainstream book with the most pat pairing and ii) there’s really no decent way racial context or connotation is inescapable here.

I was certainly surprised that no-one thought this noteworthy at (primarily Brit) Barbelith – perhaps it really wasn’t worth the effort there? – but, God, thinking about some of Mark Millar’s incredibly stupid things he’s said about black people (memorably “they don’t get Down’s Syndrome”) it does seem very feasible that British (comic-reading, at least) people are not as nuanced in their understanding of African-Americans. It’s unsurprising, really, given our exposure to them is primarily as athletes, musicians or acting in, overwhelmingly, underclass roles.

Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.