Friday, October 14, 2016

BAME! POW! Comics get diverse (part 1)



A brief history of black and minority ethnic characters in 2000AD
(Where ‘minority’ is defined by Britain, for good or ill). I’ll try to keep the commentary to a minimum, but you can bet on me to fail!

Like grandfather like grandson

It starts from the very beginning, with the final strip in Prog 1 (in full colour on the back page!):
The Harlem Heroes

Words by Tom Tully; Art here by Massimo Belardinelli
An obvious debt to the Harlem Globetrotters, something of an international phenomenon in the 1970s and even 1980s. Certainly I knew the name and vaguely knew who they were, despite having no interest in or access to basketball on TV or in comics or even in discussion on the school playground.

The characters themselves:
Giant (a nickname, not his actual name, which was John Clay. I guess he was a little taller than his teammates, but more a ‘giant of the game’ than a physically imposing giant.)
Hairy (bald, obvs)
Slim (not especially skinny or fat, who knows how he earned his nickname)
King (actual surname, not a nickname)
Louis (who becomes first a brain in a jar, then a brain in a transparent synthetic body.
Zack – the young hothead point-of-view character, who never quite earns his own nickname.
-and indeed some others too, with names and everything, although there’s quite a death count so not many last for long.

The story itself suffers from a certain amount of cliché, but the characters, across more than a year’s worth of episodes, acquit themselves pretty well. Which is impressive given that all the rival aeroball teams the Heroes face are entirely populated by the most overt stereotypes that can be assembled. The villains, not surprisingly, were all white.

Art by Dave Gibbons
And let’s be proud of the fact that this strip ran for as long as it did (re-named Inferno from Prog 36), retaining its largely all-black cast (Giant, Louis and Zack remain the central characters til the bitter end). It even managed the trick of both ignoring racial concerns but also addressing them directly when it was relevant. 

Words by Tom Tully; Art by Dave Gibbons
I guess the obvious example coming bear the start, when Zack is scouted and recruited from a poor neighbourhood. It’s strongly implied that black communities are associated with poverty even in far-flung 2060. Escaping poverty through sport is seen as a genuine and perhaps most likely option – a common thread running through sports dramas today, 40 years on.

So, hooray for the Harlem Heroes. Could have been championed on the cover a little more obviously, though.

Spot the Hero
On to Judge Dredd. A bit of a tangent this, but it’s always worth noting that Mick Mahon, main artist on Dredd for the first few years, for a while imagined that Judge Dredd was a black character - largely based on the drawings he saw from Carlos Ezquerra. Here’s McMahon’s version of Dredd from Prog 2:

Words by Peter Harris via Pat Mills; Art by a young McMahon' doing his best impersonation of Ezquerra
I kind of wish they’d run with it – I can’t see it having any impact on the character’s future, especially give that racism seems to have been completely superseded by anti-mutant prejudice in Mega City 1. In fact, we know next to nothing of Dredd’s ethnicity, and I choose to believe that, being as he’s meant to be a genetically awesome specimen, he’d have DNA from the full range of peoples found in 21st century USA. Culturally, of course, he reads as Clint Eastwoodesque white.

Staying in Mega City 1, here’s (cadet) Judge Giant, son of John ‘Giant’ Clay from Harlem Heroes, who first appeared in Prog 27 in The Academy of Law.

Words by John Wagner; Art by Ian Gibson

Compare and contrast McMahon's textual black man
with (a by now textual) white man.
This move immediately normalises the idea that there’s no obvious racial barrier to becoming a Judge. Although one can’t overlook the fact that it’s relatively rare to see other black Judges, even today.

Giant was a recurring character for the next few years. He played a major role in the Judge Cal saga, a strip in which one can’t help but wonder at his speech patterns. 

Words by John Wagner; Art by Brendan McCarthy and Brett Ewins
They’re not exactly in keeping with someone who was inducted in the Academy of Law at age 5. You’d think all Judges would essentially end up with the same accents and turns of phrase. Although that’d be boring to read, and it may perhaps hint at a hidden facet of every cadet’s life that they cling to their background, in the hope of retaining some individuality (see also, for exmaple, Judge Anderson’s dropped ‘g’s at the end of her participles).

Travelling around the world a bit, we have Buck Dollar, the ecologist and self-described so-called ‘half-eskimo’ from Shako (Progs 20-35)

Words by Mills n' Wagner;
Art by Ramon Sola
And also Unk, a young eskimo boy who somehow befriends the rampaging polar bear. Both are largely played as decent people in a sea of outrageously horrible white folks, as befits a Mills co-production (everyone is evil except for the most socio-economically / situationally downtrodden person in the story). I know next to nothing about Alaskan / Canadian name politics, although I've an idea that the word 'eskimo' has gone in and out and in again as far as political correctness goes.

Mills, Wagner and Sola again
A year later, there was the unnamed Anteater from Ant Wars (Progs 71-85), who sort of slips between being a very out-dated depiction of what was once referred to as a ‘savage’, but also manages to be fairly progressive as a character since he becomes the protagonist, and generally is the only sensible human being in the strip, in diret contrast to the rather obviously hateful racist Catpain Villa (himself a caricature of sorts of the South American elite)

Words by Gerry Finley-Day; Art by Lozano
Taking a definite step back, let’s briefly touch on RoboHunter. It’s one of my favourite series ever, but it’s pretty much the poster child for the bad old days of casual racism. Thankfully, largely absent from 2000AD. Witness an early epsiode sequence from Verdus (Progs 76-82, 100-112) showing Sam’s initial handler Mr Chan, who isn’t drawn badly but has overtly Oriental speech patterns for someone living in far future New York.

Words by Wagner; Art by Jose Ferrer with Ian Gibson
This is actually almost progressive next to a dream Sam has a few episodes later, featuring slave-like robots who code as black, and an exaggerated vision of Chan.

Words by Wagner; Art by Gibson
and of course nothing can ever make up for the presentation of Japanese football fans from a few years down the line in Football Crazy (Progs 283-288) which story does at least manage to be horrible to every nationality, not least the English – although they’re usually portrayed in robot form, not as human beings). Oh, and please note I'm really not intending to shame any creators here. Wagner and Gibson provided way more positive represntations of multiple ethincities across their careers than many creators, and the RoboHunter examples are, sadly, entirely in keeping with popular media of the time (in Britain), rather than bizarrely racist outliers.

Enlarge this image at your peril...
Looking forward again, the baton of leading black man is passed from Giant to Blackhawk. His time in Tornado (Issues 4-22) as a historical figure from the days of Rome had a little to say about race, as well as telling thrilling yarns. The reprint collection is recommended!
Words by Gerry Finley-Day; Art by Alfonso Azpiri
His 2000AD adventures in space (Progs 127-161) surrounded by alien monsters were pretty much apolitical, but the man himself remained front and centre, even on the cover a couple of times.

Words by Grant and Gosnell; Art by Belardinelli

2000AD’s tricky relationship with the Far East gets another look-in with the VCs (Progs 140-175). Swordsman (and, technically, a man from Mars) Hen Sho is of Chinese extraction. And, alongside a bit of orientalism, he gets to be a bad-ass who ultimately sacrifices his life for the greater good. And yes, he probably was supposed to remind readers of Sulu from Star Trek,despite being Chinese rather than Japanese.
Words by Gerry Finley-Day; Art by Garry Leach

Shortly after, Judge Dredd continues to lead the way in diversity, introducing the first black villain in Prog 209, Body Shark specialist and mob boss Remington Ratner:
Words by Wagner and Grant; Art by Colin Wilson
 and later on, cadet Mingus joins Dredd and Giant on a Hotdog Run (Progs 233-235).
Words by Wagner and Grant; Art by Ron Smith
Judge Giant (the first) was notoriously killed off during the very next story, Block Mania. In some ways it’s a big shame for such a popular character - except we’re still talking about it today. I wonder if he’s actually had one of the more memorable and meaningful deaths in 2000AD history, precisely for the reason Wagner/Grant wanted – Judges get killed in the line of duty all the time, even the good ones, and it’s not always a noble sacrifice.

Jumping ahead (mostly over the top of RoboHunter), we reach Harry Twenty on the High Rock (Progs 287-307), a space prison full of ethnic stereotypes. Too many, in fact, to list them all here, but just to give you a flavour...

One character comes through relatively well, Harry’s best buddy Genghis 18, hailing from Mongolia.
Words by Gerry Finley-Day via Alan Grant; Art by Alan Davis
Given that the space prison functions as a place fro undesirables from all over the world, it actually makes sense that Genghis 18 wouldn't speak perfect English.
 with a nod to the Prog’s second Scandinavian:
 

(Thanks to Sheridan Wilde for pointing out that I had forgotten everyone's favouire Viking...)
Wulf reacts harshly to being overlooked by a blogger

-and a couple of cheap joke names attached to ethnic minorities in what seems to me to be a harmlessly amusing fashion:
 

Wagner, Grant, Ewins
Back in the world of Dredd, diversity is becoming increasingly normalised.

We meet 2000AD’s first Indian-heritage characters, in the Haunting of Sector House 9 (Progs 359-363): Psi chief Omar and non-Psi Judge Patel.

Wagner, Grant, Ewins




























And soon after, we meet the first undercover Wally Squad Judges (Progs 390-392), specifically Fast Pino and Silvan Shea. Wally Squadders of varying personality types would go on to have an illustrious, if less ethnically diverse, time in the Prog and Meg.

Words by Wagner and Grant; Art by Brett Ewins

Psi chief Omar, who I guess comes from Sikh ancestors, judging by his turban, is pretty awesome. He went on to commit the supreme sacrifice in battle against Shojan, an evil Chinese wizard and ‘yellow peril’ character who I can’t not mention in this column but would really rather ignore. (not least because of my own shame at laughing uproariously at the cover straplines that accompanied the ‘Warlord’ saga, Progs 451-455.)

Art by Cam Kennedy
The soldiers being squeezed are magical constructs from a mythical old times,
not meant to be real Chinese warriors
Art by Cam Kennedy
By coincidence, the same story led to the appearance of Mega City 1’s second prominent black Judge, now elected as Chief, Silver, in A Chief Judge Resigns (Prog 457)

Words by Wagner and Grant; Art by Cliff Robinson
A follow-up series makes up for some of those yellow peril wrongs by introducing Stan Lee, who famously defeats Judge Dredd in a straight fight (Prog 484; although he loses the rematch later in Progs 540-541). Sure, he’s basically an evil Bruce Lee, but he’s not treated as a joke character.

Art by Barry Kitson
Meanwhile, in Slaine of all places – a series about a celtic barbarian ostensibly based in 1st century France/Britain/Ireland (where the sight of any ethnic minority would have been pretty rare) - Pat Mills manages to deliver two great characters of colour during the Time Killer / Tomb of Terror epics (Progs 411-434; 447-461), Mogrooth and his daughter Tlachtga. They are of course from Atlantis, ticking the ethnicity box labelled Rmoahal.
Words by Pat Mills; Art by Glenn Fabry

Words by Pat Mills; Art by David Pugh
Halo Jones travelled across the galaxy before stepping outside of her base ethnicity when she joins the army in Book 3 (Progs 451-466), encountering first Sergeant Myrmidon (who looks black to me, but perhaps is meant to be Greek, based on the name?),
Art by Ian Gibson
 then romantic lead and super handsome latino General Luiz Cannibal,
Words by Alan Moore; Art by Ian Gibson
and a brief encounter with replacement Sergeant Wo, who is insanely beautifully under the pen of Ian Gisbon I might add.
Moore n' Gibson again
 Much closer to home, Camden-set strip Sooner or Later introduces Clinton, at first merely Mickey Swift’s best mate who is left at home while Swifty has the adventure, but follow up series Swifty’s Return was basically a two-hander featuring both men prominently. 
Words by Peter Milligan; Art by Brendan McCarthy

Art by Jamie Hewlett - and look, Clinton gets to be in the logo and everything
This strip was also (I think) the first series to feature work credited to a creator of colour (again, making a guess here), Tony Wright aka Riot.*

Judge Dredd delivers another memorable black antagonist in Witness (Progs 500-501), in the form of poor messed-up Miss Belchard, who is also psycho-killer Keef. Not the most progressive story from a mental health point of view, but she’s a great character and the story has lingered with me beyond many other Dredd classics.

Words by Wagner and Grant; Art by Brendan McCarthy
And I’ll end this initial round-up on a high note. Contemporary series Bad Company (Progs 500-519) waves the diversity flag harder than any series since the original Harlem Heroes.
There’s a pair of best friend types: Malcolm, who provides fuel for Danny’s angst by dying,
Words by Peter Milligan
Art by Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy
and Mac, who provides banter and manages not to die, or to ever feel like a stereotype of anything other than a soldier.
Milligan, Ewins, J. McCarthy
(this sequence from Book II)
 Heck, both characters even make the cover of 2000AD twice each, which is no mean feat. And, on the sidelines, there’s the dandyish Shrike, plus small-time wannabe badass Marshal Bonehead.
 

Milligan, Ewins and J. McCarthy

Just time for a quick tangent: I’m not sure how to acknowledge the vast number of alien/robot/mutant characters who either have no actual race, or one that is not possible to parse from either their look or their words. (With notable exceptions such as Andorran cigar-bot Stogie, who is literally an angry robot Carlos Ezquerra).

Some such characters may have been intended by their creators to represent a particular ethnicity. Even more so, some readers may well have chosen, consciously or not, to identify such characters with a particular ethnicity, for good and/or ill. Just to give an example, not a very nice one I’m afraid, I used to read Feek the Freek as Chinese – although in fact he’s a) an alien and b) has a look based on a South American deity.

So, that's part 1! Don't be shy of telling me who/what I've missed, and what I have grossly misrepresented.

Part 2 here

 

*I’m not comfortable talking about creators’s ethnicities, basically because I don’t know who / how individuals identify themselves and I’d surely be asking for trouble. But it will come up from time to time going forward.

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3 Comments:

OpenID sheridanwilde said...

Re: Eskimo - as I'm doing a prog slog, including blogging about it and updating a wiki as I go along I was uncomfortable about the use of the word eskimo so did a bit of research. Turns out that a) it's not as clear-cut as the media would have you believe and b) calling somebody from an indigenous population of a certain polar region an inuit is a bit like calling someone from Ireland a Scot.

12:55  
OpenID sheridanwilde said...

(about Swede Sixteen) "with a nod to the Prog’s first Scandinavian:"

I think you're missing out a certain Happy Stick-wielding associated of a bounty hunter!

13:11  
Blogger alexf said...

Goodness me! That's an oversight; rectified now.

13:42  

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