There’s a lot of complaints—justified ones—that in the current superhero movie boom, black characters have been given short shrift. It was pretty glaring when two awesome black characters played by two awesome black actors, Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, are in Avengers: Age of Ultron for maybe two minutes and then only as sidekicks.
But in another sense, black people are all too well represented by comic books. Throughout the history of the medium, comic book characters have rarely been black. But black people have been all too often represented as comic book characters.
Take the Joker from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Frank Miller’s paranoid right-wing fantasy version of Batman is a man devoted to law and order who is thwarted at every turn by clueless bleeding-heart liberals who don’t understand the true nature of evil.
Said evil is personified in the form of Frank Miller’s version of the Joker, who is so twistedly devoted to anarchy and destruction for its own sake that he somehow manages to break his own spine in order to frame Batman for his murder, thus turning the public against Batman and making it impossible for Batman to clean up the streets.
This is the kind of plot point so absurd that it’s a stretch even for a comic book. It’s one of the most bizarre and grotesque plot points in Frank Miller’s oeuvre, an oeuvre chock full of bizarreness and grotesquerie.
And the Baltimore Police Department’s defenders went ahead and tried to sell us that exact series of events as fact.
Yes, conservative pundits went ahead with the idea that Freddie Gray, while handcuffed in the back of a police van, accomplished the anatomically improbable feat of snapping his own neck, which is almost as impressive as the young man from Louisiana who supposedly shot himself while handcuffed.
Even more impressive than these black men possessing natural Houdini-like escape-artist skills is their willingness to use them to commit suicide while in police custody. As with the Joker, it’s not clear whether these suicidal black men were spitefully trying to make the cops look bad or were just too irrational and crazy to have any motives for their actions at all. Just like no one can explain why in police reports black men are always bullheadedly charging directly at an armed police officer or trying to grab a cop’s gun or taser (except of course in the rare, embarrassing instances when the cop is videotaped putting the taser next to the black man’s dead body).
It doesn’t seem to be important. The question of what possible coherent motive black people could have for killing themselves while in close proximity to a cop doesn’t need an answer, for many people. Black people are just assumed to be self-destructive, just like black poverty and marginalization is assumed to be the result of some collective cultural decision to avoid success.
Whether it’s the benevolent Magical Negro who has no needs and no desires or it’s the scary black thug who feels no pain and no fear, the common factor in stereotypes of black people—in all racial stereotypes—is dehumanization, deciding that black people’s own experiences and perspectives don’t exist, imagining them as flat comic-book characters who exist to be sidekicks or villains for white protagonists.
There’s the belief in the black Hulk, where we imagine black people as physically invulnerable, to the point of failing to recognize that black people experience pain. The trope of the scary black enforcer guy in every action movie, the one “thug” whose animal rage makes him unbreakable. The looming threat that the “Magical Negro” stereotype was invented to be the benign, harmless inverse of, thus creating a Scylla and Charybdis any successful black person in America has to walk a tightrope between.
It’s such an ingrained stereotype that it sometimes becomes literal. Sometimes in the heat of the moment a trained police officer will see an unarmed black teenager as a “demon” (and fringe right-wing Christians will then argue said teenager was literally demon-possessed). The incoherent-but-somehow-compelling belief that black people can literally “hulk out” will lead to a trained police officer using the Marvel-Comics-worthy phrasing that the unarmed teenager was “bulking up to get through the bullets” to explain why twelve bullets were needed to kill him.
Just like, in my hometown of Cleveland, it apparently takes 137 bullets to subdue an unarmed black couple. One officer apparently felt moved to stand on the hood of their car and empty his magazine through the windshield at point-blank range, as one does when desperately trying to dispatch the final boss of a video game on Hard mode. These cops would then go on to file a lawsuit on the premise that it was racist to imply that their actions were racist.
Does that not trouble you enough? What about the black Captain Marvel? (From DC Comics, not Marvel Comics, who is now technically known as Shazam, for the nerds in the audience.)
Captain Marvel’s shtick is that he’s a little kid named Billy Batson who can magically become an adult superhero at the utterance of a magic word. It’s a fantasy that appeals to any little kid impatient to grow up.
It’s less of a fun fantasy for black children who are subjected to it against their will. Black children are routinely judged as older than they are, given less benefit of the doubt, much more likely to be tried and sentenced as adults.
Our culture likes to imagine black people as wise old mentors or as scary thugs—neither stereotype has much room for childhood innocence. We associate innocence with whiteness, so strongly that even when a beloved fictional character is clearly described as black, the fact that she’s a cute and innocent little girl causes many fans to imagine her as a blonde white girl and loudly object when she’s black in the movie. It can make an interviewer momentarily forget that a young black girl isn’t an adult even when he’s looking her right in the face.
And it doesn’t stop at people putting their foot in their mouth in interviews. Sometimes it leads to a trained police officer arguing with a straight face that he saw a twelve-year-old with an air gun as an armed grown man and that therefore jumping out of a police car and shooting him without warning was justified.
That’s the whole problem with the vaunted progressive message of X-Men having “mutants” stand in for black people. Professor X is a psychic. Wolverine is an amnesiac immortal with adamantium claws. Toad is…well, he’s a human toad.
X-Men accurately demonstrates how members of a majority race view members of a minority race—as strange inhuman creatures with terrifying powers. But in the fantasy world of comic books “mutants,” to some degree, are strange inhuman creatures with terrifying powers.
Mike Brown had no ability to bulk up to make himself bulletproof. Tamir Rice had no magic word that could transform him into a grown man. And Freddie Gray was not gifted with the Joker’s demonic ability to escape from any prison.
But they got treated like they had magic supervillain powers anyway. And they died for it.
It’s funny how we invent superheroes to fill gaps in the world. When you’re a little kid it’s Santa Claus who watches over the world to make sure good kids are rewarded and bad kids punished; when you get a little older, Superman takes over that role, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
Is it hard to reconcile the actions of the real country America with our mental image of American ideals? We make up an imaginary hero, Captain America, to live up to those ideals for us. Is it disheartening that money, technology, and manpower don’t seem to do much to reduce suffering in the world? We make up Batman and Iron Man, wealthy gadgeteers who can solve social problems by punching them in the face.
And we make up heroes who are physically invulnerable like the Juggernaut, or who are duplicitous shapeshifters like Mystique, or who are incurably insane and incorrigibly evil like the Joker—so that when our heroes use excessive, indiscriminate force against “bad guys” it looks justified.
Hard as it might seem to swallow stories like “This man beat himself to death while handcuffed for no obvious reason,” people do it all the time.
The alternative is to admit there are no superheroes, just fallible human beings as blinded by prejudice as anyone else, no more fundamentally worthy of the right to deal out death than anyone else.
And no supervillains. Just scared, vulnerable human beings who bleed and feel pain as much as you or I, who desire and deserve to live as much as you or I, and who were killed for no goddamn reason.
I guess that’s why so many white folks seem to implicitly believe that all black people are unpredictable unstoppable mutant killing machines.
It’s less scary that way.
Arthur Chu is a bi-coastal Chinese-American nerd who's currently settled down in Cleveland, Ohio. An actor, comedian and sometime culture blogger, he somehow captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate but alarmingly ever-growing number of cats.