Racism in comics is a subject that has seen a surprising amount of ink in recent years. What started out as power fantasies for teenage white males has become a worldwide phenomenon that represents a cross section of socio-political and cultural demographics. Simply put, everybody loves comics. Since people invariably want to see themselves reflected in their entertainment choices, diversity in comics is a topic at the forefront of the comics discussion.
Comic creators have made great progress in that area, and have thusly created distinct and fully realized characters that are as vibrant and varied as the people who read their stories. But even with all the strides made toward inclusion, stereotypes still manage to find their way into the mix. While the xenophobic images of times gone by remain a thing of the past, there are elements of racism and stereotyping that persist to this day. Here are 15 Racist Stereotypes You Didn’t Know Were Still In Comic Books Today.
15. The Death Of Ryan Choi
Ryan Choi a.k.a. the Atom heads home after defeating the Floronic Man and his control of all plant life. Upon his return, Ryan is attacked by Slade Wilson and his new Titans team and brutally murdered in cold blood in Titans Villains For Hire Special #1. The death is pointless; it’s not connected to any greater story thread, and it’s meant solely to kick off the Villains for Hire storyline by illustrating just how vicious and capable Slade and his rogue team of ambivalent meta-humans are.
One of the most clichéd tropes of the last two decades has been the killing of beloved but relatively obscure characters to emphasize how bad or sadistic the antagonist of the story really is. The problem here is that Ryan Choi wasn’t really all that obscure a character. He was one of the very few Asian heroic leads in all of comics, much less DC. The fact that DC was able to so blithely write out a character who represented far more than just a foil for Ray Palmer, the “real” Atom, shows a pretty sizable lack of awareness, in addition to poor writing. It’s the variation on the “girl in the refrigerator” trope that is doubled down on here — with a side of racial insensitivity.
14. Sooraya Qadir – “Dust”
In New X-Men #133, Wolverine carves up a cadre of Middle Eastern terrorists to liberate a young woman who is being sold into the mutant slave trade. After taking a hellacious amount of gunfire, Logan tracks the unknown mutant to a camp in the mountains of Afghanistan. There he finds the super-soldier Fantomex holding a burka-clad young woman who happens to be the mutant in question. Later, when the New X-Men return to their Mumbai headquarters, they find Wolverine sleeping off the effects of his healing factor on the obscene amount of damage he took, but the young mutant nowhere to be found. Ultimately, the mutant is discovered, as she reforms from the sand scattered around X-Corp headquarters, saying only “Turaab” over and over. Wolverine murmurs that the word means “dust”, and that it’s all she says. He then rolls over with an admonition for them to keep it down while he sleeps.
To begin with, creating a Muslim character that has a power that allows her to actually become sand may have been ill-advised. It’s a questionable move at best. At worst, it’s a bad joke. While surely unintentional, it’s a tone-deaf gaffe that got lambasted by the fans. The wince-inducing White Savior and Male Gaze tropes that infect Marvel’s approach to this character, plus dubious representations of both Natives and Asians in this particular comic, add up to one uncomfortably hot mess.
13. Black Protégés
Issues with comics and Black representation go back to the beginning of the common era of comics. In addition to depictions of Black men that consistently played to racist overtures, African-Americans as a whole in comics continued to have mostly supportive roles for Caucasian stars. Sam Wilson, the (formerly Black) Falcon played sidekick to Steve Rogers for over forty years, never quite moving out of the shadow of Captain America.
In 2014’s All-New Captain America #1, Sam Wilson did step up to become the new Star-Spangled Avenger, after having filled in for Rogers several times in the past. The event is generally considered a positive move by the predominantly left of center comic book hive mind. But there was an outcry playing primarily along predictable racist lines. Whereas Dick Grayson was more than sufficient to fill the cowl of Bruce Wayne with nary a hiccup, the idea of Sam Wilson, (black) Captain America was anathema to some fans.
There were scattered outbreaks of fan rage, with some apparently forgetting that the super-soldier serum was originally tested on Black soldiers, and the original Captain America was, in fact, a black male. Even so, Sam Wilson was still considered a stand-in, a placeholder to hold down the fort until the “real” Cap came back. Steve Rogers has returned to the role of Captain America as of the time of this writing, with Marvel striving to continue their forward momentum by having two separate Captain America titles, one with Sam Wilson and the other with Steve Rogers.
12. Indigenous Characters Are Always Connected With Mysticism
When it comes to characters that are native or First Nation, betting that character will have powers derived from spirituality-based sources or even just a strong inclination toward nature will usually win you some money. While every single comic company has at some point run afoul of this tired and offensive trope, Marvel has gone to that well so many times that they’ve just about drunk it dry.
If the character is native, expect spirit animals, totems, feathers, or some leather fringe to show up at some point. The native character is never an auto mechanic who likes cheeseburgers and happens to fire energy bolts from their pinkies. Red Wolf, Puma, Thunderbird, Shaman, Wyatt Wingfoot — if the character is of indigenous origins, their characterization and depiction is indelibly tied to their ancestry. Much like Sooraya Qadir, such stereotypical treatment reduces indigenous identity and spirituality to gimmicks or parlor tricks, as if they are somehow outside the realm of common human experience. While parallels among non-indigenous characters do exist, they’re a small percentage by comparison.
Representation is something that is becoming increasingly important, not just in comics, but in every aspect of popular entertainment. People want to see their reflection in depictions of their environment. After an initial seventy year run of straight, white male leads, the viewing public has demanded to see leading men of color, female leads, and even the disabled as primary characters. Still, other groups have found themselves marginalized, if not eliminated completely, by an industry that prefers to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of fans, as opposed to not so vocal minorities.
Some are conspicuous in their absence, and almost an inverse trope. The only Pacific Islander known among the entirety of Marvel characters is Mondo of Generation X, and he turns out to be a traitor before being murdered in Generation X v1 #25. He returns later on, with the traitorous Mondo having been a clone sent to infiltrate and destroy the fledgling mutant team. The real Mondo turns out to be an actual antagonist in Generation X #61. Awesome.
10. Streetwise, Antisocial Black Characters
When readers were first introduced to the new incarnation of Wally West in DC’s New 52 reboot, people weren’t quite sure what to expect. Wally West had been the Flash for almost three decades, and to some younger readers who didn’t remember Barry Allen (especially those who grew up on the Justice League cartoon), Wally was the Flash. He was the hero who had grown up with them, one whom they identified with, and was his absence had been noted by many.
Everyone was waiting for the new incarnation of the man who had been the third Scarlet Speedster to make his appearance. There were a lot of ways DC could’ve gone with the reintroduction of such a well-known character, and what fans got wasn’t any of them. In an effort to introduce more diversity to the New 52 universe, DC had fumbled their way into pandering racial stereotypes. When readers meet Wally West in The Flash (2014) #35, he’s a “troubled” Black youth and a cornucopia of Black tropes. From wearing the ubiquitous hoodie, to scrawling graffiti on a wall and getting in trouble with the law, Wally is a mélange of tired “urban” clichés. While this was surely intended to make him relatable, it actually does nothing but suck the energy out what should’ve been a defining moment in this new DC continuity.
9. Havok And “The M-Word”
The X-Men have traditionally stood as metaphorical placeholders for an endless string of marginalized and oppressed groups. This is an ongoing theme among the pantheon of mutant characters in the Marvel universe, and, rather than being a cliché, it’s proven to be an effective way to explore complex social issues. In Uncanny Avengers v1 #5, Alex Summers addresses a crowd of reporters after the events of Avengers vs X-Men. Alex speaks of his brother Scott, who had lost both his way and sight of Charles Xavier’s dream. He talks about his identity as a person with superpowers and how he doesn’t want that to define him.
Then, Alex says how he considers the word “mutant” divisive, and that to him, the “M-word” is a derogatory one. Writer Rick Remender enters dangerous ground here, and it turns into a public relations firestorm that paints both him and the scene in the worst possible light. Allusions to all forms of discrimination as being analogous to anti-Black racism is a painful cliché. The experiences are not in the least bit interchangeable. Regardless of how the scene was intended, it cannot be stated strongly enough that the term “mutant” is not and never could be considered a corollary to the N-word. Doing so reads as a lame attempt to downplay hundreds of years of inhuman oppression and genocide, now and always.
8. The “Black” Prefix For Black Characters
Thankfully, it appears as though this cliché has just about run its course. Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Mass, even Black Manta (though readers don’t discover he’s actually Black for years). The seventies and eighties were a red letter time for White comic creators reaching out to fans of color, only to smash face first into tone deaf stereotypes. Their ideas revealed as much about the views of the creators themselves as they did about the audience they were writing for.
There are only a few characters left that carry this moniker, but in its time, the “Black” prefix ran rampant through comics. Fairly recently, Robert Kirkman’s Invincible for Image Comics featured a Black male character named Black Samson that ran for a number of years before Kirkman killed the character off. Kirkman has had a questionable run when it comes to minority character representation in the past, and in fairness, he’s adjusted his approach in response. Another variation on the “Captain Ethnic” trope, this cliché still manages to rear its ugly head from time to time.
7. The “Default” Setting For Superheroes Is The Straight White Male
One of the biggest tropes in the history of geekdom is that of the straight, white male as the epitome of heroism. Djimon Honsou, who plays the villainous Korath in Guardians of the Galaxy, put it succinctly when he spoke of his son, an avid lover of superheroes. According to Honsou, his son told him one day that he wished he were light-skinned, so he could be Spider-Man — because Spider-Man has light skin.
Mr. Honsou’s kid speaks to a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of pop culture. Of course the hero is a white male, what else would he be? This trope has been chalked up to a lot of factors, but it always seems to boil down to marketability. From international box office numbers on superhero movies to action figure sales, the argument is invariably a take on lagging numbers for projects featuring people of color. It’s a safe bet, however, that given the billions generated by superhero franchises (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular), if the industry really wants to change this paradigm, they can certainly afford to.
6. Wong As Stephen Strange’s Manservant
2016’s Doctor Strange was another successful smash for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie and the character itself were not, however, without their fair share of controversy. The idea of white heroic figures becoming enlightened or enhanced by way of Asian influences is a cliché as old as the hills, and one that’s still being used today.
This trope isn’t even the most troubling one to be found in the world of Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. The character of Wong has been a sore spot among the ranks of comic book fans for many years. In the well-received cinematic adaptation of the Marvel character, starring Bumpercar Creamycrud, Wong is a guardian of the library of Kamar-Taj and a seasoned warrior in his own right. This stands opposed to the role of sidekick or even lowly assistant that Wong was relegated to in the comics for some time, and to some degree, he remains so today.
5. Amanda Waller – Angry Black Woman
One of the most enduring stereotypes in popular entertainment is that of the sassy black woman. This is no more clearly evident than it is in Amanda Waller’s boundary-breaking portrayal over the years for DC Comics. Borrowing from a wide array of stereotypes, Waller as a bossy ice queen has remained her standard depiction. Despite a tragic origin story that plays as a successful rags to riches tale, rarely if ever is Waller shown in a definitively positive light. The strong, black woman trope plays heavy with her character’s beginning as a widowed victim of violence in crime-plagued Chicago.
Even so, her character design has been revamped from older, plus-sized Earth Mother to a disappointingly typical “hard nosed bombshell” cliché. Sadly, this just plays into more stereotypes. Waller as a large woman at least moved away from a comic landscape littered with Mr. Olympia class male physiques and fashion model females, all decked out in paper-thin spandex whenever possible.
4. Daredevil And The Hand
From the wildly successful run by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson right up to the current popular Netflix series, readers are treated to a variety of Asian tropes in Daredevil storylines. Matt Murdock is a white male who has been immersed and steeped in the vagaries of Asian spirituality and fighting arts. Doubling down on the pseudo-Asian gimmick that Frank Miller used to propel the Man Without Fear to the top of the sales charts, his primary nemeses include an 800-year-old army of mystic ninjas known as the Hand.
The Hand in and of itself is a treasure trove of stereotypes. Asian bodies are faceless cannon fodder that can be slaughtered with abandon by either the blind hero or his hyper-violent love interest, Elektra. Asian philosophy and spirituality play strongly into the myths of the shadowy band of assassins, and it is invariably the white, heroic figure that must stand up to the menace they pose.
3. Asian Characters Who Always Know Martial Arts
The idea of Asian people who always know martial arts is a stereotype on a par with black people who speak nothing but slang. Shang-Chi, Marvel Comics’ resident kung-fu master, has been defined by his fighting skill from the time of his inception. Most recently used to teach a spider sense-less Peter Parker how to use his innate talents as an efficient fighting skill in Amazing Spider-Man v1 #664, Shang-Chi’s characterization has remained fairly constant as Marvel’s answer to Bruce Lee.
Another glaring example is the X-Man Psylocke. From her start as a supporting character for Captain Britain, Betsy Braddock didn’t really have much going on in terms of hand to hand combat. By melding her character with an Asian assassin named Kwannon in Uncanny X-Men v1 #256, Psylocke was immediately able to kick tail with the best fighters in the Marvel Universe. To top it off, Psylocke is sexualized in a way that Shang-Chi never was, once again catering to the primary demographic of comic fandom – straight, white males aged 13-25 years old.
2. The Scary Black Male
No article on racist stereotypes in comics could be complete without mention of the gold standard of racial tropes, the one and only Luke Cage, Power Man. Cage first appeared in 1972’s Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1 , and was pretty much meant to be a cliché from the start. Luke represented an attempt to cash in on the success of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft and countless other blaxploitation archetypes that were selling movie tickets to both white and black audiences like hotcakes. In the years since then, Luke has been developed as a character with varying levels of cringe-inducement, depending on the writer.
At the center of the overwhelming majority of topics focused on race and “urban” scenarios, Luke Cage has been the ambassador for the black community in the Marvel universe for years. The epitome of the scary black male, Luke Cage “Sweet Christmas-ed” his way through the first twenty years of his existence. Since then, there have been more than a few attempts to address what Cage stands for in terms of racial stereotypes and the comics genre, some more effective than others. But the stereotype of the intimidating Black male with the shaved head and the street savvy attitude remains a solidly clichéd move that has been in play since Avery Brooks portrayed Hawk in Spencer: For Hire. It’s getting old.
1. Black Lightning
It’s hard to imagine Marvel, DC, and other comic companies making these insensitive gaffes on purpose. Particularly in the case of the Big 2, creating a more vibrant and diverse universe has been one of their primary focuses over the last few years. But to identify the problem, one only has to look at the makeup of the functional entirety of the writers and editors in comics since its earliest days. Comic book writers are, quite simply, overwhelmingly white, and often make missteps writing characters they don’t really understand.
One example of a white comic writer getting tone and theme dead on point is Tony Isabella’s Black Lightning. Originally intended as a white racist who would become a black superhero during times of stress, the character was handed to Tony Isabella to salvage. Instead, Tony implemented his vision of a reluctant warrior who responds to the suffering of his community even at the cost of his own happiness. The concept of the Black Bomber as it was pitched was patently offensive. So it was easy for Tony to sell the idea of his character to the editors at DC, who were looking for a Black superhero to feature. Jefferson Pierce represented the upending of those painful ethnic stereotypes. He played off them deliberately by using the jive talk and flashy costume to disguise his secret identity as a straight-laced school principal and former Olympic decathlete.
Comics continue to make great strides in creating universes that acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of the fans that love them. While there is a ton of work to be done, comics have made tremendous strides towards inclusion and away from racist portrayals of minority characters over the years. As comic creators of color continue to flourish, fans are anticipating more depictions of characters that look like them and reflect their experiences without being typecast or forced into boxes to fit white impressions of what these characters should be. What are some examples of unfortunate racial stereotypes that you’ve come across recently? Tell us about it in the comments!
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