Sunday Roundtable: How dangerous are stereotypes in comics?

JLA Roundtable stereotypeSundays are known for folks gathering around tables on television and pontificating about some of the hottest topics out there, offering their expertise. We bring that tradition to Graphic Policy as the team gathers to debate in our Sunday Roundtable.

On tap this week?

How dangerous are stereotypes in comics? Can you think of some examples where they were used well? What examples make you cringe?

Daphne: I know that coming from the black trans girl this is going to sound odd, but I think that in some cases – very specific cases – stereotypes in comics aren’t as dangerous as they are in other mediums.

I could be speaking from a place of ignorance as I distanced myself from comics for such a long time due to the aggressive gatekeeping, but sometimes I see something super blatantly offensive and stereotypical and instead of being upset I start laughing. Like, the idea that someone in the world is backward and ignorant enough to think real people talk or act that way just strikes me as really funny sometimes.

Lately I’ve noticed comics genuinely trying to be better about race, even if it comes off really hamfisted and they usually backtrack right away because customers whine, but trans characters are showing up more and they’re the ones that are getting the brunt of the offensive treatment. Dialogue is more the culprit than art direction in my experience, but it’s definitely there. And I don’t mean to say that Racism In Comics Is Over or something – what I DO think is that racism is more subtle now in terms of writing out or killing off characters who aren’t white, because those old artistic stereotypes look as ancient and laughable as they are, and it’s easier to spot transphobia or homophobia through the language and visual queues of the medium.

So what I think is happening is that visual stereotypes are dying out in mainstream comics and we’re moving more toward ignorance, well-intentioned or otherwise, that isn’t outwardly stereotypical but is much more damaging.

Alex: Yeah, I agree with you there. I think that ignorance has the potential to be far more damaging than an overtly stereotypical trope.

Javier: Alex’s timing on this topic is impeccable. I’ve been trying to get through Sonny Liew’s 300 page graphic novel: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I’m about 2/3s the way through, and I’m aiming for a long review hopefully within a few days. It’s a fantastic book (published by Pantheon, same outfit that published Art Spiegelman’s Maus). In the early chapters there are references to Osamu Tezuka. I had heard of his manga work (most notably Astro Boy), but I’ve never read it; and then late at night I got onto surfing the web and Amazon, and decided to buy one or two of his books. I settled on ‘The New Treasure Island’ (because it was suppose to be his debut work) and Buddha Vol. 1 (because I’m into Eastern Philosophy).

To my surprise, I could not find an English version of ‘The New Treasure Island’ nowhere, not even on Ebay. All I could find were Japanese, Korean, and Spanish (from a Barcelona Publishing House) versions–and rumors of a French version. Lucky for me I can read En Espanol, and sent away for it. It was a bit pricey with shipping and handling from a European third party seller.

About two weeks later (this morning to be exact), the book arrived. It looked innocent enough, and I started to read it. About half way through, I came upon these images, and was like … oh … that’s why this book will never see the light of day State Side.

I kept reading it, but now I had mixed feelings. I did not walk away believing that Tezuka was trying to be offensive or discriminatory; everything I read about him so far was positive and I feel comfortable saying there probably isn’t a racist bone in his body. At the same time, I cringe every time I look at those drawings. The book even has an epilogue by the publisher that serves as both an apologetic and rationale for their decision to publish this book. It argues that Tezuka is a world renowned artist, whose work is studied and pored over by academics, and as his debut work it is an important historical artifact that should not be judged by today’s eyes. I agree with that. Furthermore, censorship is a slippery slope.

What’s ironic is that I learned that this book (it has a very detailed introduction and epilogue, together with excerpts from Tezuka’s diary) was out of print even in Japan for a number of years. Also, Tezuka was not supportive of its republication, since the original publishing was a bastardized 180 pages of his original 250 page manuscript. Then later in the mid 1980s he agreed to have it republished as part of a collection of his complete works. The original manuscript (which was publish in post WWII Japan 1948) was no longer extant, so from memory he redrew the work, so it could be made available again to his fans.

I thought it was well handled by the publisher, but still, I cringed. It will probably go on my shelf not to be opened again.

Brett: My thing with stereotypes is I think writers often rely on them out of laziness. They have trouble creating an interesting and unique character, so fall back on them.

Javier: Maybe, but I also think some writers produce what is expected of them, and cater to the market. I picked up this week’s issue of Defender (CBLDF) and they had an interview with Reginald Hudlin, discussing the resurrection of Milestone Media ( Milestone 2.0). One of their titles from 1993 was Blood Syndicate. I remember thinking it was cool back then. Also around that time “gang” movies were popular with the likes of Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Juice. Blood Syndicate I’m sure was a result of those then trending 90s films. Now that I’m a little older, I’m like why did they have to be a “gang” instead of just another super team? I’m looking forward to see what Milestone does in its latest iteration, but if they bring back a stereotypical character like Tech-9 (a gang leader), is that progress?

Madison: I sometimes think we’re slipping into a new set of stereotypes.
Like, okay, everybody knows we’ve had years of terrible representation of female characters in comics, and while I do genuinely think it’s getting better (slowly, but supplemented by the sheer volume of creator-owned work out now) there are some other trends I’ve noticed lately. First, I feel like a lot of mainstream books with female MCs are kind of…not dumbed-down, but almost…cutesy-fied. This isn’t to say that the books being put out now aren’t fun or are without merit, but I’m struggling to think of even one mainstream book that has the same level of “gritty” or whatever you want to call it as, say, Midnighter.

The other thing is that I think the Strong Female Character (TM) is kind of its own stereotype now. While stories about women punching things are always fun to read, I think people who write only these kinds of women are falling into a trap. Strong doesn’t always mean physically strong, it means a well-rounded character with a developed personality and interests besides butt-kickery. It’s a prevalent stereotype or trope or whatever, but the danger of both of the above is debatable.

Elana: That’s why I like All New Wolverine. We need some female characters who are easy to access— good for all ages too. But we need troubled female leads too. We need all kinds of female characters.

Our culture is shaped by the media we consume. This is a fact. And the media we consume impacts real world policies. Like it’s well known that Vice President Biden said that his exposure to gay couples in TV like Will and Grace helped him decide to be pro marriage equality.

Of course stereotypes are a problem in comics. They dehumanize people. If a reader has the self knowledge to not be offended by them, to just brush them off that’s fine but I doubt that reader is going to buy that comic. And those stereotypes have a real harmful effect on both the people who are stereotyped and the people who read them and internalize them because they don’t know any better. There have been studies showing how kids in particular are harmed by exposure to racist media. Kids are hungry for representations of themselves in media. Seeing yourself in the stories you consume confirms that you are seen by others. That other people treat you as fully human.

Stereotypes make you less than.

That’s not to say that every character has to run against stereotype. I want brainy, wordy Jewish, big haired Kitty Pryde from Chicago because that’s someone I recognize in my own life as a brainy, wordy Jewish person with big hair living in Brooklyn. But if someone wrote her as greedy, penny pinching, with grotesque facial features that would be really fucked up.

As Brett points out stereotypes are also bad writing. Look at Luke Cage when he’s given cheesy dialog written by a white guy who probably doesn’t know any actual black men from Harlem? It’s bad. Compare it to David F Walker writing Cage with knowledge, life experience and cultural competency? Guess which is a better comic.

Alex: Both Brett and Elana make an excellent point; many stereotypes are perpetuated by a writers ignorance of the person/culture/subject matter.

While sometimes a stereotype can be used to great effect (on a personal level, I do drink my body weight in tea everyday, something my friends attribute to my Englishness), it’s important to recognise that there’s a very fine line that is far too often crossed, whether because of bad writing or ignorance.

Ryan: Here’s the sad truth — how dangerous are stereotypes in comics? Only as dangerous as a stereotype perpetuated within a very small community of readers can be. I think we fool ourselves into thinking that comics have a wider cultural impact than they do simply because of the success comics-based properties continue to have in Hollywood, but by then they’ve usually — hopefully! — been stripped of any intentionally (or even accidentally and/or marginally) offensive nonsense. Stereotypes in comics WERE a shit-storm of nastiness for decades, but to say they STILL have much of a negative impact, we’d need to have more than 75,000-100,000 comic book readers left in the English-speaking world. And we don’t. Shit, that number might even be generous.

Madison: I’m sure they have something of an impact among comic readers, but I think stereotypes in writing are far more indicative of wider held cultural beliefs (that, yeah, can be dangerous) than danger from the comics themselves.

I don’t think I agree that stereotypes are stripped from the narrative by the time they reach Hollywood, though. Daredevil uses quite a few stereotypes, especially in season one.

Elana: Madison I’d say more so in season 2, what with the ninjas and inscrutable Asian femme fatale

Madison: I STILL haven’t finished season two, I’m horrible at binge watching, but I have heard that about it.

Ryan: Season one certainly reinforced the stereotype that mentally ill people are dangerous, given d’Onofrio’s curious choice to portray the Kingpin as essentially bipolar; season two layered it on even thicker with the already-mentioned tropes, as well as “combat vets are dangerous psychopaths” and “European women are inherently mysterious but ultimately untrustworthy.” It’s a veritable kettle of lame cliches, some more offensive than others, but because it has the Marvel Studios label attached to it, guess what? It gets a pass.

Madison: There were a lot of “villainous Asian” stereotypes too. Both of the Big Two definitely get a lot of passes in regards to that kind of critique.

Ryan: What perplexes me most is how much of a pass “Daredevil” gets for being a dark, gritty, humorless, ultra-violent bloodbath. One of the biggest criticisms of “Batman V. Superman” is how “dark” it was — which I don’t disagree with — but “Daredevil” is at least ten times darker, and many of the same people who hated “Batman Vs. Superman” for that reason just loooooove “Daredevil” and don’t seem to be bothered by their own hypocrisy in the least.

Madison: That’s one of the reasons I can’t binge watch it–there’s not a lot (if any) levity in the show. It’s technically very well done! But I could also probably count the number of times characters smile on two hands.

I also found that to be true with Jessica Jones, but thought that was draining to watch for totally different reasons.

Brett: Ryan, there’s a double standard by fans when it comes to DC and Marvel live action output. Don’t even get me started on that crap. What I see makes my head explode.

Ryan: I found “Jessica Jones” terribly offensive — talk about shit stereotypes, Luke Cage is portrayed as a sexually insatiable African-American man, Jones herself is a cipher for the sickening argument that mental and physical rape somehow make you a “stronger” person, it’s flat-out horrendous.

Brett the double standard is no accident, I address it in my BvS review, there’s an obvious DIs/Mar-orchestrated “whisper campaign” in full effect against the film, it’s made $800 million in three weeks and is being called a “failure” at the box office — it’s amazing the PR work that people are willing to do for Disney for free.

Madison: I see what you’re saying but that’s not really how I read her character because it never seemed to me like she did come out “stronger” from anything she went through.

Ryan: Maybe by the time it’s over I would agree with you, but to be honest I quit after episode 10. One day I might go back and finish it.

Brett: And that wraps up another discussion! What about you readers? What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

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One comment

  • I agree on the campaign going on against Batman v Superman. Someone went so far as to count how many words \Superman said in the movie. And aparently Robin was a murdering psychopath. I enjoyed the movie very much, as I am also looking forward to Captain America.