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Superheroes of COLORS (addendum)

2013-05-22 07-49-42 - Green Lantern (2011-) 020-059So, as sort of an addition to my last blog post (about racial representation in superhero comics)… I’ve been reading a book called Dangerous Curves, by Jeffrey Brown. Mostly it is about gender and fetishization of female characters in action stories (movies mostly, but also comics, TV and novels). In other words, the kind of geeky stuff that I’m into, so I’m enjoying it a lot. Anyway, in the current chapter, he is moving into a discussion of intersection of gender and race with superheroes. In setting up the framework for his argument he made an interesting observation:

Superhero names tend to fall into one of four conventionally totemic categories. First are the names that emphasize the remarkable stature of the hero or heroine such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Ultra-Man, Power Girl, Mr. Fantastic, and so on. Second there are the names that align a character with animalistic totems such as Batman, Spider-Man, Hawkman, Wolverine, Animal Man, etc. Third are the figures whose names clarify the heroes’ powers in association with certain natural elements such as Aquaman, Iron-Man, Lightning Lad, and Storm. The fourth, and most curious, naming convention involves a color designation that has no relevance to either the heroes’ powers nor their skin color such as Green Arrow, Red Arrow, Blue Beatle, Green Lantern, Black Canary, Black Widow, Silver Samurai, The Scarlet Witch, etc., etc.

For these characters color serves simply as a, well . . . colorful means to jazz up their costumes and theme their weapons. The only time when color is used as part of a superheroes’ name to address their race was with the various characters produced during the blaxploitation era of comics including Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Black Goliath. While these names were an attempt to tap into the Black Power zeitgeist of the times, the direct reference to skin color also highlights the absurdity of singling out these characters based on their ethnicity, and makes it clear that white heroes were considered the unmarked norm. (Brown 171-172)

 

upyevipzrknid7rsmzasThis actually sort of links in to what I was talking about in the last post in some obvious ways. Basically he is saying that the black characters with Black in the name tend to be what I called Avatars there, and that’s not at all surprising. But I’m wondering if there are exceptions beyond the black characters he mentioned. I’m trying to think of any color referent for other races. It seems like there’d be some sort of “Yellow _____” that would be an Asian character, probably from the 50s or 60s, but the only one that comes to mind is the Yellow Claw, a blatant Fu Manchu rip-off who is offensive enough to modern eyes that he is almost never mentioned in modern comics and that I’m sure no one but me remembers (or someone else who was geeky enough to sit there and memorize the OHTMUDE page by page in the 80s as well because god willing someday people would give out phds for that nonsense and I wasn’t just wasting my life) or maybe the 10 people on the planet who actually read Agents of Atlas which tried to retcon away the offensiveness by saying Yellow was a mistranslation and his name is actually Golden Claw because … uh… better?!?!?. Oh and there was Red Wolf, a Native American superhero. But it feels like there just HAS to be more than that. And yet I can’t think of any.

You’d also think there’d be at least some “white” characters where the white is used to emphasized their whiteness and not just decoration, but I can’t think of any of those either. I’m sure there’s intentional shying away from it in the 21st century (when’s the last time Emma Frost was referred to as the White Queen), It seems like there’d be maybe a super villain or two running around from 70s attempts to be socially conscious and tie into the civil rights movement by being the White Dragon of the JJJ or something. But maybe Marvel, while willing to fictionalize the Mafia (Maggia) just wasn’t willing to go there with the Klan? I honestly can’t think of one though. Even the clear Klan analogs (Hate Monger and the Secret Empire) don’t use it. Maybe Stan knew better than to be that on the nose even in that era?

Finally, can anyone think of a color name that isn’t merely decorative outside of referring to ethnic blackness (or the other rare racial mentions)? I think he has a good point for the most part. Color rarely means anything in the superhero names. Yes, I realize that the Green Lanterns control a green energy, but that’s not really anymore inherent than the green costume motif. There’s probably a couple of characters here and there that maybe control gold or something, Golden Glider… at least the TV version (the comic version has a totally different power set which makes her name entirely superfluous like other color characters). I think Brown’s taxonomy of names is probably a little simplified. There’s probably an additional category of completely undescriptive names and there is certainly a mixing and matching between his types, for instance the Arrows have a color descriptor (green or red) but the base of their names fits the third category he references of association with elements of their powers (he probably shouldn’t have limited it to natural elements). Similarly Blue Beatle, Black Canary an Black Widow fit the totem animal description of the second classification with he addition of a color and I’d probably extend that category to be all totems not just animalistic ones (so it would include your Captain America types). But is there any time where color means anything beyond what Brown came up with?

52 comments for “Superheroes of COLORS (addendum)

  1. avatar
    June 22, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    If anyone understand these stories it’s you,that I do know

  2. avatar
    June 22, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    “Black Widow” is the full name of an animal. It’s not equivalent to “Blue Widow”. Likewise, the “Black” in “Black Cat” isn’t random: it’s specific to the fact that black cats are considered bad luck and other colors of cat aren’t, so I don’t think either of those fit into the category. If they were “Blue Widow” and “Blue Cat” (which is about how they wind up having to get inked much of the time), they’d be very different characters, I would think. The other that comes to mind is Red Sonja where I’m pretty sure that Red is supposed to denote bloody (in addition to red-haired). Obviously other examples starting with red like Red Arrow or Red Tornado don’t generally denote bloody.

    • avatar
      June 22, 2016 at 6:43 pm

      The black widow thing I meant to denote when I mentioned her with the other color animals.

      Black cat is probably a good one though.

      I dunno about Red Sonja. I mean yes red evokes blood, but I still feel like they wouldn’t have called her that if they weren’t going for the hair motif. We don’t say Red Conan.

  3. avatar
    June 22, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    Black Manta is black, and an animal totem. But, as far as I can tell, he wore a mask for the first 10 years of his appearances from 67-77. So, his race was unknown. I think his costume was black, which might have given rise to the name.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:23 am

      Yeah, I’m not sure, but I think Black Manta was a character where they decided he was black after the fact.

  4. avatar
    June 22, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    Huh, the alien who gave the Power Pack kids their powers had a white horse’s head and was nicknamed Whitey. Dunno where that fits.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:24 am

      Whitey Whitemane. Certainly an interesting choice and like you, I’m not sure what to do with it.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:26 am

      Null. He was a reverse centaur, not a man.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:32 am

      It’s still a reference to his skin color.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:34 am

      Sure it is, but he has no racial what’s the word…context when talking about race and color.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

      Sure… but Louise Simonsson did and so did the readers. I mean, it’s like saying Black Racer from the New Gods isn’t black because he’s not human or that no one from K’un L’un is asian. Because of his skin pigment and his anthropmoprhization it makes sense for people to read him that way.

      None of the characters from Animal Farm are technically human, but we still read it as an allegory for the Russian revolution.

      I don’t know that Whitey has to be read as a statement on race, but it isn’t at all surprising if someone does it.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

      Man, I’d have to reach into the .25 box in order to see if Whitey McWhiterson had some sort of racial context.

  5. avatar
    June 23, 2016 at 7:27 am

    There’s no “yellow -” Asian superheroes because even back in the day they knew that shit was pejorative.

  6. avatar
    June 23, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Now I have an image in my head of Vin Diesel playing White Shaft.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:37 am

      Vin Diesel ain’t white.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:53 am

      Huh… given your views on race (and the way you usually reference it) I’m surprised you feel that way, Tim.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:54 am

      *shrugs* I’m just reiterating what Vin has said himself, “I’m definitely a person of colour.”

      If hapas identify with being not-white? I’m into that, and that aligns with my views of race perfectly. I’m “double-blessed” and I think of myself as a PoC for sure.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:56 am

      well, you’d say the opposite of Dolezal, for instance though. IIRC, Vin’s mother is white. And he’s unsure of his birth father. He makes assumptions based on his complexion.

      At least I believe that’s the case

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 7:58 am

      I believe he knows stuff and is reluctant to share with the world because a man needs some privacy in his life. But I believe that he isn’t pulling a Dolezal (who is just a misguided white woman). I believe that he is bi-racial.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 8:01 am

      that’s possible. It’s not like I know him or even intentionally follow everything he says. That was just vaguely how I remembered him talking. But yes, it’s certainly possible that he knows and doesn’t want to talk about it. IIRC, his stepfather, who he considers his father, is black.

      But I was more just surprised by you saying if he identifies with being non-white who are you to disagree. That took me by surprise.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 8:03 am

      I hear what you’re saying, but Dolezal is demonstrably and provably white.

  7. avatar
    June 23, 2016 at 9:33 am

    I had a theory that the color “Pink” specifically denoted female and “Scarlet” would denote “female and sultry”. I could only find one character whose name began with “pink” which was “Pink Lady” so that one’s sort of trivially confirmed, but not really much of a rule. And the Scarlet one turned out not to be true at all. Scarlet was slightly more likely to be male than female. I figured I’d mention it as a negative result.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 9:54 am

      ah yes…

      So for clarity’s sake, the book in question deals far more with issues of gender (and things like you’re talking about now specifically) than it does with issues of race. In fact, the book is entirely about fetishization of the female body in action narratives.

      It’s only the one chapter that I was reading last night that goes specifically into race, but it sort of linked up with what I was talking about the other day, so I thought I’d mention it here.

      But anyway, yes… he talks a lot about the ways in which the female body is encoded as a sex object and I’d imagine color would be a big one.

  8. avatar
    June 23, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Another interesting observation Brown makes that I want to remember so I’m sticking it here:

    “Moreover, several superheroines in comic books are openly lesbian such as the Amazonian Grace, the lightning-powered Thunder, and the new Bat-woman who appear in The Outsiders, the title of the series doubling perhaps as an unfortunate comment about their status. But comic books remain the domain of a very specific subculture and is perhaps a medium more open to experimentation because of this.” (203)

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 10:44 am

      Following up with: “It is interesting to note that after Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series ended the stories continued on in comic books written by Joss Whedon, and it is here that Buffy herself eventually entered into a lesbian relationship. But direct connotations of lesbianism remain almost nonexistent within the mainstream narratives of the modern action heroine who is predominantly heterosexualized.”

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 10:52 am

      And this dovetails into an extensive discussion on alternative sexuality as written in fanfic that might be of interest to Laura Valentine.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 10:54 am

      “Thus, in fan fiction at least, action heroines like Buffy are not constrained by traditional heteronormative standards. Fans can, and do, use these heroines as a vehicle to think about sexuality in non-prescriptive ways. The persistence of alternative narratives envisioning Buffy and Faith as a viable, and often kinky, couple demonstrate the possibilities inherent in action heroines for challenging rigid sexual identities. Moreover, as Isaksson concludes, “the Buffy/ Faith fictions question [such] cultural assumptions about what women want from sexually explicit material designed to produce sexual arousal” (16). Physically strong, sexually attractive, and sexually active heroines seem to serve an important function of facilitating alternative fantasies.

      While action heroine fan fiction and art on the Internet covers an enormous range of sexual fantasies, the relatively anonymous production and consumption of these pieces makes it difficult to say with any certainty exactly whose fantasies these are. The same-sex scenarios could be as much an expression of the clichéd heterosexual male fascination with pseudo-lesbianism as it is of homosexual female desires to interpret the action heroine as “really” lesbian. And this may be moot since the stories and art may appeal to audiences from any range of subject positions regardless of the fan writer/ artist’s original fetish goal. The authenticity of the modern action heroine’s importance to lesbian viewers is, however, clearly substantiated by the attention she receives in the lesbian-specific press.” (205)

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Chris Maverick spoken like someone who did not do even cursory research into fandom

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 10:59 am

      although it’s novel and refreshing to see femslash discussed as similar to fake lesbian porn instead of the more usual m/m slash comparison to fake lesbian porn

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:10 am

      Well… I don’t totally agree with everything he’s said but I’d actually say he’s definitely done a lot. Way more than what most academic texts would afford it. To be fair to him that’s two paragraphs from a 300 page book picked pretty much because they were the ones I was reading when I decide to tag you.

      The Buffy argument in particular is predicated on his earlier reading of canonical Buffy as explicitly heteronormative and safe good girl vs faith being more transgressive in her sexuality. His stance seems to be that outside of the standards and practices norms of network tv, Buffy as protagonist can explore less normative views of sexuality (in the comics and fan fic).

      He tries to illustrate this with example about Buffy’s relationships with spike and faith in the show vs the characterization in the later texts (canonical and non). But I agree he has to make some concessions in order for that to work. His view of the Xena/Gabrielle relationship that he plays it against is far cleaner.

      He’s goes on to make an argument about the duality and tension of attempting to be progressive towards non-normative sexuality vs. scopophillic titilation for the male gaze… Which is one of the central premises of the book.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Oh. And there was a whole chapter devoted to depictions in porn that was also pretty interesting. (Hence the tweet from a couple days ago)

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:20 am

      Also also. Do you have specific article that compare m/m slash to lesbian porn? I’d love to read up on that.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Chris Maverick I’ll find you some. Meanwhile this might be of interest when it comes out next year: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/announcement/view/28

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Thanks.

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Also, while I’m thinking about, I am going to address the specific phrase that makes me think that research into fandom was cursory at best: “the relatively anonymous production and consumption of these pieces makes it difficult to say with any certainty exactly whose fantasies these are.”

      HAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH *breathe* HAHAHAHAAHAHAHHAA ok sure like did he just. notice we use pseudonyms and give up?

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:34 am

      No. He that’s what I meant by the “two paragraphs from a larger work”

      He’s responding to someone else’s criticism. He actually probably more agrees with you. He’s saying that other people argue that “it’s just girl on girl porn for dudes” and he’s saying “ok, I can’t prove that EVERY writer on the internet who claims to be a lesbian is but I can assure you enough are and because literature is polysemic(he loves that word) it doesn’t matter anyway”

    • avatar
      June 23, 2016 at 11:46 am

      heh. ok.

  9. avatar
    June 25, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    This is something of a diversion, but I think it relates in an interesting way.

    In the Ducktales / Darkwing Duck universe, ducks are the equivalent of white people in Duckville and St. Canard. Oddly, though, the biggest duck heroes and villains have duck in their names (Darkwing Duck, Negaduck, Gizmoduck). This is equivalent of calling yourself Darkwing White Guy.

    This is especially notable because there are villains like Megavolt, who is not a duck (rat, maybe?), who doesn’t have his race in his name. Non-duck characters are rare in both series (and usually villains), making them similar to POC. The Beagle Boys and Taurus Bulba do have their race in their name, but they are basically the exceptions. Many more duck characters have goose, duck, quack, beak or something similar in their name.

    It is all cartoon animals, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but it is there.

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      So I’ve not done a lot of research into animals allegory in comics/cartoons but it is something that I’ve thought about a bunch and have considered looking into more. In fact I almost certainly have to because I probably want to address it in the class I’m teaching this fall (how do you address sex in comics and NOT talk about Omaha the cat dancer).

      So I kind of agree with you on the usage of species as race in Disney cartoons and the Duckverse in specific. I think you can definitely read race into it and assume that the dominant/white race is the ducks — assuming a shared universe that would explain the bears as a dominant race in the more savage and civilized jungle of TailSpin.

      I think the problem is that isn’t a one to one mapping. In names they aren’t using Duck in the racial identifier sense. They are using it as a signifier of their humanity (duckity?). So where we say Superman and Batman they have Gizmoduck and Negaduck. If those characters were moved to a human world they wouldn’t call them Gizmowhite and Negawhite. They’d be Gizmoman and Negaman.

      Of course one could also argue that the privileging of Duck as an identifier further illustrates the dominance of one species(metaphoric race) over the others. In the sense that their names don’t even allow them human association, the beagles and rats are marginalized even further as an under-race.

      But again, that’s just me spitballing and rolling with your idea. I don’t have the theory background to back it up because it’s not really my area. But it’s out there. There definitely studies that talk about comic anthropomorphization in everything from Disney to Maus.

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