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Diversity in Comics? Rethinking Green Lantern #0

This is an adapted version of an article published on Reading with Pictures.

GL_Cv0_dsIn September 2011 DC Comics attempted to create their first major Arab Muslim American superhero, a new rendition of the Green Lantern, a staple character in the DC lineup dating to 1940. This new superhero, Simon Baz, made his appearance in Green Lantern #0, written by Geoff Johns with art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, and added a spark of diversity to the publisher’s largely white cast.

Unfortunately, they did so with a deeply troubling origin story in which Simon Baz stole a van that, unbeknownst to him, had a bomb in it. He was quickly arrested, taken to Guantanamo Bay and tortured. He was saved by the Green Lantern ring, which chose him as the world’s next protector. The ring allowed him to escape, whereafter he was pursued as a dangerous terrorist by the Justice League. All of this was published under the guise of authentically narrating the experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans.

Newspapers as respected as The New York Times reported on the Arab Muslim addition to the DC comic book universe, and interviews with writer Geoff Johns revealed his Lebanese ancestry — this, it was made to seem, gave him the credibility to write about Arab and Muslim American experiences.

Indeed, while it is critical that the experiences of racial prejudice, harassment, suspicion, and violence perpetrated almost daily against Arab and Muslim Americans be represented, there remains the damming potential for such representations to be the only way in which media consumers come to know Arab and Muslim characters. By default, these representations become the lens through which they come to view not only fictional people, but real lives.

The problem is one of character design: how the characters are created to be. This is a problem for all media, though it is particularly crucial for comics, since the industry is currently undergoing a push from fans and new creators to be more representative.

What this often means, as Green Lantern #0 shows, is checking off identities on a list of non-white/non-male categories, with the aim to please by name and number. Companies like Marvel Comics can now say, “Yep, we’ve got an Afro-Puerto Rican Spider-Man” and DC can say, “Yep, we’ve got an Arab Muslim.” But DC’s 2011 attempt at diversification also shows that diversity is limited, often to aggrandized stereotypical stories that, say, frame Arabs and Muslims as terrorists (even if by accident). So how about a little background on this issue.

To say that life has not been easy for Arab and Muslim Americans after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 would be farce. As literary critic and self-identified Arab American Stephen Salaita pointed out in his fantastic study of Arab American literature, Arab American Literary Fictions, the concept of Arab or Muslim Americans as a unified, racially distinct segment of the population emerged in response to fears of foreign Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and the need to control potential threats at home.

Even before 9/11, Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism — that brand of racial ideology that fetishizes the Arab world, the East as a whole, and its cultural products as an exotic, mysterious, and must-have Other (i.e. “not us”) — had long structured America’s view of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the U.S. In the 1950s-1970s they were regarded as a model minority alongside Indians and Eastern Asians. Regardless, they were not considered a distinct group with identifiable and discernible characteristics.

In other words, unlike Blacks and Latina/os, Arabs and Muslims didn’t bother white middle-class suburbia. You know, those gl0so-called “average Americans.” Arab and Muslim Americans were not disruptive enough to white society to need designating as a specific racial group.  This is in part because before 9/11 “The Arab” and “The Muslim” were doofy Ottoman costumery, children’s parodies (Aladdin), and occasional bad guys (Indiana Jones).

In the wake of 9/11, violence against Arabs and Muslims, whether American or not, increased exponentially and was governmentally sanctioned via the stripping of Constitutional rights for the purpose of national security. Arabs and Muslims were widely depicted in film and on television as the enemy. Scholarship on the issue of Arab and Muslim representation has finally reached a headway, a result of the growth of Arab American Studies as a discipline emerging out of the long-established field of American Studies, and is best exemplified in Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media (NYU, 2012).

The violence, in many cases, is often spurred by the inability to read beyond media representations and to think critically about the plurality of Arab and Muslim lived experiences. Sikhs, non-Muslim Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Muslim Arabs, and sometimes Jews are conflated with the identity of the singular, Otherized muslimarab-arabmuslim, a seemingly insoluble identity that is, according to government policy and popular belief, potentially engaged in fundamentalist Islamic activity or at least aware of such activity.

Not all Arabs are Muslim, not all Muslims are Arab. The United States hosts some 3.5 million Arab Americans, whose group identity is based largely in shared cultural and linguistic traditions which hail largely from the twenty-two members states of the Arab League.

Some are Christian, Jewish, atheist, Baha’i, etc. Muslims, on the other hand, number roughly 2.6 million, only 26% of which are of Arab descent. Many are from South(east) Asia, are black Muslims, white, or Hispanic, according to the 2006 American Community Survey, and in 2009 and 2011 they made up the largest percentage of immigrants to the U.S.

So where does this information, a context which we can use to critically read Green Lantern #0, leave us? Ultimately, it reminds us as readers who have market influence in comics more so than in almost any other format of Nerd media, that we need to demand more than stereotypes. I have not read Ultimate Spider-Man, but I have heard many fans attest to the sincerity with which Bendis writes Miles Morales. Gail Simone, likewise, writes female characters with an eye to their long history of being sexualized, fetishized, and abused by creators and fans.

We have to demand more than a story that, by all means, breaks boundaries but which simultaneously places other barriers to diversification. When “terrorist” and “Arab” or “hijab” and “Muslim (woman)” are binaries used to define an entire population of radically diverse lived experiences, we have to be willing to call bullshit. We have to be willing to exert the same kind of buying and petitioning power as when we got Orson Scott Card kicked off Adventures of Superman.

If anything good came out of Green Lantern #0, it’s the possibility to learn from a company’s mistakes and do “diversity” better. We’ll see how Marvel does with Ms. Marvel, and hope a lesson was learned.

The Bigger Picture of Superman, Politics and DC Comics

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Action Comics #900While many commented that Superman’s decision to give up his United States citizenship was anti-American and that he should be proud for where he’s from, a greater picture and a few questions were missed.  I’m sure many of those commenters didn’t read the issue, so I don’t expect them to understand the nuance of what was actually laid out.  As Andrew Belonsky points out over at Death & Taxes, by giving up his citizenship, Superman has become something better.

As I said in an earlier post, the story has Superman talking to the President’s National Security Adviser about his flying to Tehran to protest with the Iranian people.  The story is impressive in that it throws out the usual fake countries and leaders DC comics sticks to, but instead names the country and leader.  It also reflects the very real unrest occurring throughout the Middle East.  This action causes an international incident as Iran sees Superman’s stance as an action by the United States.  This causes Superman to think globally and decide to renounce his US citizenship.  He’s decided there’s an entire world for him to protect.  And only DC knows how far they’ll take this pretty comic universe shaking event.

As Belonsky points out:

Superman understands that his actual and symbolic power belongs to the world, to whom he must deliver a democratic life free from tyranny. It’s the same crusade the U.S. claims to fight, only on a larger, more powerful scale.

And that’s my thought too.  Superman still fights for “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” he just now does it free from the implications and restraints of the United States.  He can bring freedom quicker, easier and to a greater number without impacting American foreign policy.  Isn’t that what we want?  I think the average comic book reader understand the nuances of foreign policy.  Cal Thomas of Fox might not think so, he feels comic book fans don’t understand the word “construed” and we’re only familiar with the onomatopoeia of “biff,” “pow,” “bam” and “zap.”  I think it’s possible to fight for American principles without American citizenship, a concept Thomas thinks is too difficult for comic fans to comprehend.  Mr. Thomas, Superman hasn’t “abandoned” anything, unlike what you think.  In fact, he’s still very much an American and still very much fighting for American ideals.

There’s a deeper statement here.  While Superman has given up his citizenship, Clark Kent, his alter ego, has not.  Isn’t that an even more powerful statement.  Superman must make such a powerful statement and act, but in reality he’s still grounded and very much American.  His heart and life is still as an American citizen.  He is in essence grounded to America, not just due to his alter-ego, but through that alter-ego’s connections.  While he might be flying around the world spreading Democracy, his soul, his essence (Kent) is very much American.

There are bigger questions this creates and has major implications for other DC comic book characters.

  1. Wonder Woman is a foreign national.  Much like Superman, her actions in the United States or in any other country could be construed as an act by the country she is originally from.  Should she renounce her citizenship as well?
  2. Batman is currently traveling the world and setting up franchises.  Can we look at this as corporate colonialism.  Batman, even more so than Superman, is grounded as an American super hero, is this American colonialism?  How is this different the military bases being peppered throughout the world?  Batman has a world view, will he use these platforms to enforce it?
  3. On a galactic scale, the Green Lantern Corps. is literally made up of hundreds if not thousands of aliens.  How does the United States, or Earth for that matter, view these aliens enforcing galactic law and a universe view we might not subscribe to?  And when they visit the United States, aren’t they illegal aliens here?

You can see where I’m going with this.  This simple story in an anniversary issue presents bigger questions and problems.  Who knows if DC will ever address them, but it definitely has me thinking.

Superman, Citizen of the World. Right’s Head Explodes?


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I’m good when it comes to fighting apocalyptic threats.  But the everyday degradations that humans suffer? Dying of thirst? Hunger? People being denied their basic human rights? I’ve never been very effective at stopping things like that. And I want to be.

– Superman

I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship. I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy.

– Superman

Action Comics #900

Action Comics #900 made news this week, not because of it’s the nine hundredth issue of the series, instead it was one of the numerous stories contained within.  It wasn’t the story featuring Superman taking on God that was the problem, instead writer David Goyer’s (Batman Begins) The Incident was the one that got the right’s panties in a bunch.

The story has Superman talking to the President’s National Security Advisor about his flying to Tehran to protest with the Iranian people.  The story is impressive in that it throws out the usual fake countries and leaders DC comics sticks to, but instead names the country and leader.  It also reflects the very real unrest occurring throughout the Middle East.  This action causes an international incident as Iran sees Superman’s stance as an action by the United States.  This causes Superman to think globally and decide to renounce his US citizenship.  He’s decided there’s an entire world for him to protect.  And only DC knows how far they’ll take this pretty comic universe shaking event.

Superman Renouncing Citizenship

But, this has sent ripples through the news and internet with the right denouncing the action.  The American Spectator joked he won’t be voting in 2012 and one of his creators was Canadian.  While the comics industry took it with humor, the right were a bit more serious.  Geek Week for instance looked at what they thought were some of the better highlights.

Most comic books have been on the far left fringe for decades now. There is no surprise or shock value in it anymore when they promote extreme left wing causes like socialism/communism, nor when they attack America or western values.

But, what’s interesting is Superman isn’t actually giving up the “American way” he’s been fighting for.  If anything, he’s becoming an even bigger instrument to bring those values to the world.  Is standing up for democracy in Tehran not American?  It seems that part has been lost on people and for once it’s not Fox News which had decent and even coverage.  The blog The Mary Sue actually had to make things up (with humor) over Fox’s non-story.  Even the conservative New York Post was pretty level with their coverage.  Instead, they used their article to present the facts and took a dig at Donald Trump and birthers.  The Examiner looks at the “growing call for a boycott.”  Having read a lot of articles and comments, I don’t see it and think the Examiner is attempting to turn a match into a raging fire.  Entertainment Weekly just overlooks the controversy and focuses on the main story, which was less than stellar.  This article by the Daily Caller (and linked to by Big Hollywood) I think is an attempt at humor, claiming Superman’s action under a black President is racist.  Um, ok.

Level headiness wasn’t the case for Fox’s commentators which involved the usual lunacy.  But, in fairness that wasn’t limited to just their site.  Canada’s National Post had this one comment by Batman2010:

Screw you Superman, fly off and find freedom and integrity in some other country, try China or Syria!

The usually predictable conservative website Big Hollywood has only taken a shot with the title of their coverage “Left’s Crusade to Destroy Our Heroes Marches On: Superman Renounces God, American Citizenship.”  That article just links and copies Wired‘s article about the subject.

On NewsBusters (and reposted at numerous other websites), writer and managing editor Ken Shepard labeled it “leftist crap.”  Further into what is mostly a recap of the story he writes:

…simply saying that “truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough anymore” is a pretty startling statement from the one man who has always represented those values the most.

But, Superman isn’t saying the “American way” isn’t enough.  If folks actually read the story, he feels he’s not acting globally enough.  He’s not against the “American way,” he actually plans on spreading it globally by helping on an international level, not just being confined to Metropolis.  To do so as an American citizen has global implications.  It would look to be an extension of American foreign policy and cause further international uproar.  Instead, by acting as a non-citizen he can spread the American ideal without further implications on America’s stance and relationships.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the right should have utter disdain for Superman to begin with.  While some bloggers and commentators touched upon it, Superman is a literal alien, not born in the United States.  He couldn’t have ever been a citizen to begin with, so there’s nothing to renounce.

John Hawkins at Right Wing News has issues with the actual plot and it’s implications, more so than the statement it makes.

Let me go full nerd on you and point this out: It would be impossible for someone like Superman to get involved in geopolitics and remain a good guy long term. There are dozens of governments across the planet abusing and murdering their people on a daily basis. If Superman is going to start getting involved when it happens, then he’s setting himself up as global judge, jury, and inevitably, an executioner — because that’s what it would take to stop some of these governments from raping, robbing, and butchering their populaces. Then, when Superman couldn’t be everywhere at once, the next step would either be giving up or building his own army to overthrow governments and enforce his moral code on other nations. By that point, every government in the world would be nervous enough to try to develop weapons powerful enough to kill Superman for their own defense.

Many predicted the “rage” including Nerdage, The Portland Mercury, Bleeding Cool and Comics Alliance.  Not all the coverage was bad, in fact the reaction was very subdued from what I expected it to be.  The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Herald Sun, News and Sentinel and many more covered the event without opinion.  I’m sure that coverage has spurred sales for the anniversary issue of which I expect numerous printings.

In the end though, it doesn’t matter as Superman is already a citizen of the world.  In 1974 a Superman comic depicted just that.  He’s always been global, he’s now just acting upon it.

Choice Quotes


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Each week we bring you quotes from the comic books of the last week to show off it’s more than spandex and guns.

Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #4

Patriot – This is terrorism.  People could die.  And if we let that happen, then we become terrorists, just like Magneto.

Bring the Thunder #2

Wayne – They came from every branch of the military.  They weren’t recruited for their ability to work together.  They were recruited to kill.  That’s the side of war that gets obscured by the chain of command and the red tape.  In the end, the goal is to kill your enemy.

Ultimate Comics Captain America #1

(Redacted Spoiler) – You’re not a hero to them.  You’re just another blunt instrument the American government uses to bludgeon its enemies into submission.

Choice Quotes


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Each week we bring you quotes from the previous weeks comic books to show today’s books are more than just tights, big guns and silly stories.

Deadpool #30

A dracula – And you do know what a coup is?

Deadpool – Hells yeah, I do!  I’ve been involved in dozens on ’em.

Superior #3

Superior – Well, I prayed every night that my multiple sclerosis would go away and Mom was always praying that America would get fixed again too.  So what if that magic wish was the answer to both our prayers?  What if Ormon was an angel?  Did he turn me into a superhero because America really needed one right now?

Choice Quotes


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Klaws of the Panther #2

AIM Agent – You can’t just stand there and let her torture me.  What happened to America’s vaunted policies against torture?

Wolverine – I’m not American, Bub.  Neither is the lady.  Sucks to be you.

Choice Quotes


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The Killer: Modus Vivendi #4

Killer – What do you think of all this shit in Venezuela?

Katia – The CIA helped those army sobs overthrow Chavez because he nationalized oil, but they didn’t expect that kind of reaction from the people, and they don’t know what to do.  Shows times are changing.

Killer – How’s that?

Katia – A few years ago, they would’ve killed him right off, like Allende.  They haven’t killed him yet; they’re not sure what step to take next.  They’re afraid the whole region will rebel.  That’s good.  They can’t do what they want anymore.

The Royal Historian of Oz

Jasper Fizzle – I believe in it the way one believes in Santa Claus, or peace.  It’s something that should exist as an ideal.

Choice Quotes


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Here’s this week’s batch of quotes that prove comics isn’t just for kids these days.

Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers #2

Captain America – I think this war will cause a lot of Americans to rethink their attitudes.  You can’t go to war with a bunch of jerks who call themselves the master race and turn around and do the same thing back home.

Black Panther – Evil is only allowed to flourish when good men do nothing to stop it.  As a symbol of your country your actions take on great weight.  The true test of your ideals come when the war is over.

Captain America – What do you mean?

Black Panther – A nation at war has an enemy to unify them.  A nation with no enemy… often looks for one within it’s own borders.

Superman: War of the Supermen #1

Alura – Reactron is a prisoner of the state, and he has information necessary for the protection of our people —

Kara – “Our people”?  Have you lost your freaking mind?  You’ve been torturing someone down here, mom!  Someone you sent me to Earth to bring back to New Krypton.  That makes me responsible for him.  Just as it makes me complicit in a war crime.

Alura – If I have to go to extreme measures to get information out of him — information that will keep our planet safe — it’s worth it.

Choice Quotes


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Captain America #605

Captain UnAmerican – You really don’t see, do you?  This country’s at war, and most of you don’t even know it.  And I’m not talking about the Middle East, I’m talking right here in America.  I don’t even recognize this place anymore, and you shouldn’t either.

G.I. Joe #155 1/2

Zartan – They managed to get right up to the steps of the Capitol, where they read their manifesto… the usual clap-trap about abolishing the Federal Government and taxes, deregulating darn-near everything, and instituting a completely unfettered free-market economy.

the Invincible Iron Man #25

Justine Hammer – A quarter of a million Euros of expense to create an autonomous, anonymous, asymmetrical declaration of war.

Iron Man/Thor

Scientist – The moon is the new Club Med, the new Monaco, the new Dubai.

Tony Stark – Yeah, Dubai’s not doing so hot these days.

and

Tony Stark – Ever hear the expression that you go to war with the army you’ve got?

and

Scientist – This is a sovereign state!  You’re trespassing on private property!

The Last Days of American Crime #2

Paul – …the anniversary of the day of infamy, when six American cities fell victim to cowards with dirty bombs.  We lost ten million humans, Nancy.  You and your elitist “progressives” would prefer what, that we continue to live with those types of threats constantly hanging over our heads?

Nancy – You hold this anniversary up as a justification for mind control?  There is no such thing as security, Paul.

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