So, 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)
This 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?