Sometimes we like to pat ourselves on the backs for being less racist than those before us. But I don’t know if we’ll ever overcome racism. I hope humanity can be better than that. Hopefully future generations will be able to remember us more kindly than we remember our grandparents’ generation. Here are some of the worst tone-deaf at best, insultingly demeaning at worst racist storylines and characters from comic book history. It’s important to remember that some of our favorite characters have such unsavory moments so that we are not inclined to make the same mistakes.
Superman, Indian Chief
In 1950’s Action Comics #148, an evil real estate developer buys land from Native Americans in Metropolis. In order to fix things the way he wants, Superman travels back in time and amazes the natives with his feats, ultimately… buying the land from them. Yeah, he wouldn’t dare leave it in their hands once things are cleared up. To make it worse, Clark ends the story by wearing feathers and calling it a costume for a ball.
The Black Talon, a Supervillain with the Hand of a Black Man
Wow. 1941’s Captain America Comics #9 introduces a new villain for Captain America: The Black Talon. He was a talented painter who had a diseased hand. His friend, a doctor, transplanted a black man’s hand onto him. He goes mad, calls himself the Black Talon and uses his newly found super-strength (just in the black hand) to battle Captain America. And this character showed up more than once. Terrible.
Whitewash Jones, Racist Caricature
The less said about Whitewash Jones, the better. He first appeared in 1941’s Young Allies #1, which featured Captain America and Human Torch’s sidekicks teaming up with some other kids. And one of them was the most racist portrayal you could make. Sad.
Captain Marvel’s Slave, Steamboat
Ugh, while Captain Marvel was generally a really fun comic, its characterization of his sidekick, Steamboat, was really offensive. Now, it could be argued that that was just a product of its time. And to a degree, there is truth there. But in 1943, Fawcett Comics (the publisher) issued a company-wide memo saying that they would not allow intolerant depictions of ethnicities. But Steamboat was still being used in 1945. It was ultimately a coalition of black activists that convinced Fawcett to immediately stop using Steamboat.
Marvel Turns Falcon into a Street Pimp
Captain America’s partner, Falcon, happened to be black. But in 1968’s Captain America #168, writer Steve Engleheart created a retcon, saying that Sam Wilson (Falcon) used to be a street pimp that Red Skull mind-controlled in a long-term plot to have him backstab Captain America. Engleheart may have had longer-term plans to steer that ugly revision in some sort of interesting direction but he soon left the title and that remained Falcon’s storyline past until a couple years ago when writer Rick Remender again revised the story to say that Red Skull actually created the persona of Sam as a pimp in an attempt to sully his good name.
Tyroc, a Segregationist’s Dream
By 1976, DC Comics desperately needed some prominent black superheroes. This was especially apparent in the future superhero team, Legion of Superheroes, who had a massive roster but it wasn’t very diverse. Creators including Jim Shooter and Mike Grell have gone on record that they were repeatedly blocked from introducing black characters into their comics. Then, at the direction of editor Murray Bolton, Tyroc was created. Set in the future, Tyroc explained why there were no black characters in the Legion: ALL black people had opted to live on their own island, separate from everyone else. Oh, and the island was usually invisible. The very concept of voluntary segregation was a big step backwards.
X-Men Heroes Aren’t All Progressive
The X-Men are overall a very progressive idea. They follow mutants and create an allegory where they are a minority who are persecuted. Most of the time, this has been handled very well and its long-term popularity is encouraging. But sometimes the individuals added are very shallow stereotypes. In 1975, a number of new mutants joined the team which reflected diverse backgrounds. Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine all stood the test of time. But a couple others, like Sunfire and Banshee weren’t as strong. Banshee dresses and talks like an Irish cartoon and Sunfire is even more problematic, dressing like the Rising Sun flag which the Japanese empire used during WW2. In fact, Sunfire was a mutant because his mother survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. But even more recently, superheroes in X-Men draw on stereotypes. Jubilee is a Chinese character who can make fireworks. Dust is a Sunni Muslim from Afghanistan who can transform her body into sand. Warpath is an Apache so of course he’s also an expert in tracking. While these characteristics aren’t inherently negative, they are all stereotypical and work against creating well-rounded characters.
Holy Terror Shows Us that Frank Miller is Terrified of Muslims
Frank Miller created some of the best comics in the mid-80s with Ronin, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, The Dark Knight Returns and more. But in 2011, he created an ugly piece of work, on every level, with Holy Terror. It has al-Qaeda bomb the fictional Empire City and its hero, The Fixer, just spends the entire book beating and murdering these people. While terrorists don’t deserve any kindness in literature, this book did nothing to make them an understandable threat and treated them like cartoons so they may as well be mustache-twirling James Bond villains. And it depicts Islam as a religion set only in the past with violent views. But if that were the case, we’d have millions of terrorists and we obviously do not. No, the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as the next guy. So it does a disservice to depict the entire religion in such a negative light. And this isn’t just my opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to find a positive review for the book anywhere.