Jun 6, 2011

That Hilarious Racism and Xenophobia in Old Comics!

I'm glad you can tell they're not Korean or Chinese, Bucky.
There's a kind of strange attitude that I've noticed when people are reading old comics that says, "Well, they're old comics, of COURSE they're like that!" Sometimes this attitude is levelled against the structure of the plots, the art, and sometimes it's levelled against the social values represented in those old comics.

Of course they're racist! It's old comics!

This attitude tends to render these comics camp -- we laugh at the racism and xenophobia represented because, well, they're old! When talking about comics from the Super Hero 'Golden Age' (we'll talk about why I think the term 'Golden Age of Comics' is bullshit at another time) this dismissive attitude becomes heightened

It's hilarious when Superman tells us to slap a Jap, because it was World War II and that sort of attitude was acceptable back then. Of course it was okay to say all Germans were bad, or all Italians, or all Japs. After all, we were at war, weren't we?

This is fine, to a point. It is genuinely fun to look back at those old comics and to laugh at how ignorant they seem. Don't think we won't be doing that here at 80 Page Giant, boys and girls. Of course we will!

Still, one should remember that these comics are always reflective of the society they were created in. When you dismiss the racism of an old issue of Wonder Woman, you're dismissing what that kind of attitude led to. Throughout the west Japanese, Germans, in fact anyone suspected of being 'too much like them, and not enough like us' were rounded up. Internment camps were created in 'free' countries, and people were locked up just because of where they were born, or the colour of their skin (y'know -- yellow, damn Japs!). It wasn't considered SAFE for those people to be a part of society! After all, we're at war, right?

Reading in a Blaxploitation accent is required
These attitudes, especially in multi-cultural, migrant-built societies like Australia and Canada and the USA, are horrible and destructive. What's more, they haven't gone away. The same attitude that led Iron Man to claim that all Communists are dirty liars in the 1960s was levelled against Muslims post-911, giving rise to the patently false belief that they're all terrorists.

While it's fun to laugh at the fact that Iron Man hates Commies (really fun, let's be honest), or the horribly stereotyped villains from an old Power Man comic, it's important to remember that these attitudes came FROM somewhere. The reason Luke Cage isn't very nuanced and doesn't even remotely reflect real black people is that he was written by a bunch of white guys who were just trying to cash in on an already racially questionable fad. (Blaxploitation is the fad I'm talking about, for those of you who found that allusion too subtle.)

Nowadays Luke is still written by a bunch of white guys, and they're so embarrassed about his origins that he's not even allowed to have a super hero costume any more (all the white guys get one), or to use any of his old catch phrases without some sort of nod or wink to the camera. Is this better than the days when he was a cheesy Blaxploitation character? Being another of those white guys maybe I'm not the person to answer that. (The person to answer that was probably the late, lamented Dwayne McDuffie.)

The further away we get from any given era of comics the easier it is to laugh at the old stuff. It's easy to forgive the attitudes that led to them as being 'of that era'. Of course Iron Man hates Commies! It was the 1960s, EVERYONE was fighting Commies, right? It's okay for Etta Candy to call Japanese people 'Nips' in a 1940s comic because we were at war with them, right? No. No, it wasn't right then, and it's not right now, dammit! Just because it was 50 years ago doesn't make it acceptable. Just because the comics are old doesn't mean they're not goddamn xenophobic!
Damned lazy Nips. No wonder they're getting bigger!
If you think that perhaps I'm being a little unfair to American comics, singling them out as racist, I don't mean to be. British comics, Japanese comics, in fact all comics, reflect the culture they were written in. War time British comics were just as vehemently anti-German as anything the Americans were putting out. Even American printings of old Astro Boy comics now include an introduction that asks you to overlook how racist some of the depictions of black people seem to modern eyes.

It's a fair call by Astro Boy, too. If you dismiss these old pieces of entertainment just because they reflect old-fashioned social values then you can miss out on some wonderful, powerful and interesting pieces of entertainment. You can't just throw out the baby with the bath water. The temptation then is to either just laugh or be too forgiving. Of course Luke Cage is embarrassingly racist! It was the 1970s, right?

I think actually, most of the time that's fair enough. Certainly we'll be posting a bunch of ridiculously racist, sexist or xenophobic comic stuff here on 80 Page Giant in the future solely so you can laugh your pants off at it. (Please don't literally laugh your pants off. Especially not at anything drawn by Dan DeCarlo. That'd just be creepy.) But while you're laughing I want you to remember... this stuff doesn't just disappear and go away. Modern comics are racist and xenophobic (and sexist, especially sexist, let's be honest) too. It's okay to laugh, but sometimes just remind yourself what these attitudes actually lead to, all the exclusion and the persecution.

Which brings me I guess to the thing that spurred this whole rant. I was reading an issue of The Beano I got recently and I came across something that I just couldn't overlook. (The Beano is a lighthearted British humour comic aimed squarely at children, for those not familiar.) This was one of those times when I couldn't just laugh at how things had changed, or dismiss it as silly or old fashioned. This comic was uncomfortable to read, and rather than amuse me it just made me reflect on racial attitudes, on the way our society has changed and improved.

So, uh, "enjoy" this Lord Snooty story from 1953.
I... have no words.
People thought this was funny. It wasn't considered wrong, it wasn't considered racist. This was light-hearted humour aimed squarely at children.

Sometimes we should laugh at these old comics' out-dated attitudes. Sometimes we should shake our head and feel superior. But sometimes we should allow ourselves to be confronted by what we're reading. Lord Snooty was never meant as biting social commentary on the treatment of blacks in British society. The fact that, 60 years later he's become biting social commentary almost entirely by accident actually makes this comic more valuable as a work of art than it was originally.

In the end my message is pretty simple, laugh when you're reading your old comics, but also think about where they come from while you're at it.

--Andrew Sorohan
(Maybe it'll make you think in ways you wouldn't have expected.)

Check out Dwayne McDuffie's website (I already linked it above, I'm linking it here again). Dude had a lot to say about racial politics in comics. You might agree with him, you might not, but it's interesting stuff.

Check out the Mental As Anything song, "The Nips are Getting Bigger" if you didn't get my caption on the Wonder Woman panel.

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