September 15, 2010

Minorities in First Wave universe

I recently reread BATMAN/DOC SAVAGE SPECIAL #1 and FIRST WAVE #1, the first two books of DC's First Wave universe. Based on this rereading, I can talk about the new universe with more authority.

  • In the First Wave preview ad, Rima the Jungle Girl is described as "Native South American" and "clearly native." Really? With her white hair and Caucasian features, she doesn't look clearly Native to me. In fact, she looks like every white man's fantasy of a "Native woman": someone who's Hollywood beautiful, sexy, and dressed in revealing clothes. And remote and exotic enough to make her even more tempting than the typical white-bread starlet.

  • In an interview, writer Brian Azzarello says First Wave's Black Canary will be a person of color. The preview ad implies she'll be an Asian Indian.

  • First Wave's Blackhawks feature a new generation of hotshot pilots. They include Henry Biggs (African American), Ant Manson (Australian aborigine), Wu Cheng (Chinese), and Jenny Cloud (great-granddaughter of Johnny Cloud, Native World War II flying ace).

    These characters actually appear in the last panel of FIRST WAVE #1. the preview ad, Jenny Cloud is holding a hawk, which seems stereotypical.

  • The preview ad describes Doc Savage as "mixed race" to explain his bronze skin. What's he a mix of: the dark-skinned Caucasians living around the Mediterranean? Unless the comics identify and explore his ethnic roots (African? Asian?), this is pure tokenism.


  • The comics have an Art Deco/noir look and feel, which I think is meant to obscure their timeframe. Despite this, the stories are set in the present day (or close to it). The key indicator is the technology on view: cellphones, color TVs, and cassette-tape players. These scenes wouldn't have been possible before the 1990s or thereabouts.

    The only counter-clue comes when a reporter asks Doc Savage, "Your latest breakthrough--you really believe space flight is doable?" But it's not clear what this refers to. To any manned space flight (which began in 1961 in our reality)? Or to something more ambitious like sustained space flight to Mars and beyond?

  • The clincher is Jenny Cloud. She can't be the great-granddaughter of a WW II fighter unless the comics are set in the present or near past. Or unless she pulled an "X-Men" and traveled from a possible future to the WW II era.

  • Therefore, Micah Wright's comment:That's not Batman of today's Batman, it's Azzarello's version of 1939 Batman hanging out with 1939 Doc Savage, 1939 Crimson Avenger, and the 1939 Spirit (or whatever year) point being this series takes place in THAT era, NOT in current sadly off the mark. This is an alternate version of 2010 or thereabouts, minus most of the computer technology, not 1939. It's Azzarello's version of the old Batman in a new setting.


  • Azzarello obviously felt the need to update Black Canary and the Blackhawks with ethnic roots. Since this is basically an Elseworlds situation, he could've done the same with Batman and the supporting characters. Make First Wave's world as multicultural as it really is in 2010 (not 1939, again).

  • No doubt licensing issues prevent DC from tampering with Doc Savage or the Spirit. But Azzarello might've done what Howard Chaykin did with the Shadow in 1986: downplayed the old supporting cast in favor of a new supporting cast. It wouldn't hurt Doc Savage to have a few assistants who aren't Anglo-Saxon men.

  • Since the timeframe is the present rather than 1939, the half-naked Amazon Indians with bones through their noses are more stereotypical than I thought. Were these Indians dressing up for tourists before meeting with Avatar's James Cameron or using Google Earth to fight rapacious corporations? News flash: Most Amazon Indians are not headhunting savages from an old movie serial these days.

    To give you an example people are familiar with, look at today's cop shows. Most have a substantial number of minority characters: as law enforcement personnel and as criminals. Why? Because the field of cops and robbers is pretty well integrated these days. If an era of Irish policemen chasing Italian gangsters ever existed, it ended 50 or 75 years ago.

    Micah Wright says DC is striving for a "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" milieu, where the best pulp heroes come together in new/old stories. Problem with that is that it exalts pulp's white-dominated racial politics along with its white-dominated architecture, fashion, and slang. Going back to a pseudo-1939, even if it's really 2010, is like going back to the Jim Crow South. Unless you deconstruct the era's race, gender, and class issues, you're basically touting the white status quo. That wasn't good in 1939 and it isn't any better in 2010.


    To be fair, Azzarello is trying to make First Wave more multicultural. But he could've done much more than he did in the first two issues. Having read Chris Claremont's X-MEN and Roy Thomas's ALL-STAR SQUADRON, I'm not particularly impressed with the results.

    Sure, the comics that focus on Black Canary, Rima, and the Blackhawks may be better. But it seems the big (white male) three--Batman, Doc Savage, and the Spirit--will predominate. Since the first two issues were mediocre at best, I won't be around to see if the series improves.

    For more on the subject, see Cameron's and Weaver's Anti-Dam Films and Comic Books Featuring Indians.


    dmarks said...

    "But it seems the big (white male) three--Batman, Doc Savage, and the Spirit--will predominate. "

    Well, if they were serious about something groundbreaking, they'd reboot these 3 as non-whites.

    Rob said...

    Right, but if they're only licensing (borrowing) Doc Savage and the Spirit, changing them may not be possible.

    For more on the subject, see Black Batman in First Wave Universe?