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Cultural Stereotypes in Comics: Fluxing Between The Negative vs The Positive

Written by Greg Anderson-Elysee on Thursday, September 10 2015 and posted in Columns
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Cultural Stereotypes in Comics: Fluxing Between The Negative vs The Positive

Following the announcement of Marvel's Red Wolf, from the thoughts of presenting a stereotype stems the question: what is the line between offensive and negative stereotypes versus positive portrayal in the sense of cultural pride.



A few days ago, Marvel Comics announced a new Red Wolf Johnny Wakelybook featuring a person of color by the name of Red Wolf, which was then followed by the response of "Who?" No worries, until the past few months I haven't been familiar with this character either. Red Wolf is actually the name of a few various Native American characters in the Marvel universe and is in fact the first Native American Marvel superhero. The original Red Wolf was created in the 1970s and even had his own on-going series that last for nine issues. He would make sporadic appearances since then, usually under different characters using the Red Wolf moniker. Essentially and unfortunately, Red Wolf didn't last the test of time when it came to being a prominent and important aspect of the Marvel universe. Recently, another incarnation of the Red Wolf character has been appearing in the recent Secret Wars event, in the 1872 universe of Marvel. The upcoming book, helmed by creators Nathan Edmondson and Dalibor Talajic, with covers by Jeffrey Veregge, who will also be acting as a consultant of Native American culture, will have Red Wolf as a man out of time (similar to Captain America) in the main Marvel universe, serving his own brand of justice.

As a reader who is constantly questioning the decisions of Marvel and DC when it comes to actual representation of people of color and sexual orientations beyond the heterosexual norm, I'm finding myself at a bit of a flux with this upcoming book. I'm not saying Marvel is in the wrong. I'm actually looking forward to Red Wolf. But my feeling of indifference comes from the portrayal of this Native American character essentially being, well... a stereotypical Native American. Stereotypical appearance with his exposed skin and applied war paint? Check. Bow and arrow and axe in hand? Check. Feathers? Check.

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It generally seems that mainstream media, whether it be movies, television, or comics, are unable to present a Native American character without any stereotypical imagery that screams Native American trope. It doesn't help that a power of Red Wolf is that he can communicate with wolves. Oh come on, now. Next he'll be an expert tracker! I'm looking at you, Hawk from Twin Peaks!

As I stated prior, I'm actually not saying that Marvel is in the wrong. This piece isn't actually to critique Marvel for this. Once again, I find myself in a bit of a flux. Why? Because while some may yell "STEREOTYPE!" I'm actually also asking, "Well... so what?" When you think about it, usually the typical Native American imagery is in a sense a portrayal of cultural pride. Who shouldn't be allowed to have pride in their history and culture and who they are? Why can't a character from a different background be portrayed with aspects of their culture without it seeming like, and being accused for, a stereotypical representation? I'm going to use Marvel's Brother/Doctor Voodoo as an example.

Now when it comes to Brother Voodoo, Marvel's Vodou Houngan Supreme, you'll hardly find anyone who's as much of a fanboy of the character as I am. I absolutely LOVE Brother Voodoo and he's one of those characters that I'll check out whatever appearance he has. While many people will laugh and 1244674-docvoodoo001 sketchjeer, I find the character to be a lot of fun and ripe with story potential. Do enough research on the Vodou religion and read Voodoo's original appearances written by Len Wein and drawn by Gene Colan from the Strange Tales comic book series and you'll be sure to see how much potential this character could have if given more chances to develop. Although I have mad love for the character, he is in no way exempt from my constant analyzing and questioning of his characterization and portrayal. In a sense, like Red Wolf, Brother Voodoo is also a stereotype. He is a man from Haiti who is a Vodou practitioner, filled with horror imagery in his appearances for dramatic impact and silly misrepresentation, a lot of which actually doesn't make sense after researching the culture and religion of Vodou itself. For example: why the hell does he carry around shrunken heads when they have nothing to do with Vodou? Furthering along, how often do we ever get introduced to a Haitian character that isn't in some way associated or tied to Vodou? Really think on this. Think of television characters where a Haitian character was presented; think of movies, comics, etc. Have there really ever been a good number of Haitian characters that wasn't involved or affected by Vodou? The only Haitian character I can even think of where Vodou was in no way even mentioned or hinted at was the character of Wes Gibbons from How To Get Away With Murder.

Now, the religion of Vodou itself has been bastardized and turned into a source of horror stories when it comes to its representation in the media. Usually a villain uses it for selfish and terrifying means. It's not often you see the African-based spirituality portrayed in a positive light or for good. HudlinVDThere are some showcases out there but compared to the number where the black magic and abuse of the religion is the centerfold, it doesn't come close. And therein lies one of the reasons I'm a Brother Voodoo fan. While he does fit the stereotype of the Haitian being a Vodou worshipper and practitioner, he is a good guy, a superhero, using Vodou for good, as a Houngan Supreme should. While I may not be a practitioner of the religion, I've done quite some reading and research on it and as a Haitian-American, the fact that there's even a Haitian superhero at all automatically gets my attention. It's also not often that we get a different nationality of a black character in comic books aside from them being African-American or African. Brother Voodoo is one of the rare black characters that are actually of another nationality, from the Caribbean at that. New York City is FILLED with black citizens of Caribbean backgrounds. Yet you'll never see that presented in these mainstream books.

1593282-daniMarvel has a few Native American characters in their roster: Dani Moonstar, American Eagle, Wyatt Wingfoot, Shaman, Forge, Warpath, Echo. These are the ones that automatically come to mind. A lot of them have aspects of stereotypical Native American tropes attached, from a storytelling standpoint and visually. So Marvel does have a small handful of Native American characters aside from Red Wolf, most of them (practically all of them) not really being used in anyway with pretty much no new Native American characters being created. One thing that will forever and ever be a pet peeve of mine is when a character of color is pushed in some way as a new and added member to a team or gets a new book, a good portion of the fandom suddenly sees them as the sole representer of that character's race. The same goes for a character of a non-hetero sexuality. This brings up a problematic issue now, especially when readers respond with, "Why is Cyborg on the team? I prefer Static" or "Why does Red Wolf get a book when I'd rather read American Eagle?" or "They're already pushing Wiccan. Why the need to push Northstar also?" Fandom, readers... I desperately urge you to please... PLEASE!... stop pitting characters of color and non-hetero sexuality against each other for the role of "the token"!! It is actually very offensive and disrespectful.

"Oh, hey! We only have one spot in this book for one of your kind, so why don't you, you know? Duke it out to see who actually deserves this spot along with all us white, straight hero folks. And GO!"

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Writers, creators... I urge you: challenge yourself to showcase more than one of those types of characters because you can present so many different viewpoints and can actually challenge these problematic stereotypical issues between the characters. By having more than one black person on the team, by having more than one Native American have his/her own book, more than one story line focusing on an LGBT character, you avoid the pressures of having that one sole character become the defining representative of their background. Then it becomes more commonplace to see these representations of diversity. True diversity and not tokenism. Speaking from experience, I know gay readers who see a gay character who is presented as a "flaming" feminine man who loves and worships "Divas" and would vogue at the drop of a hat. To a particular set of gay people, they would find it to be an offensive stereotype and would be annoyed, especially if that character was the only gay character in the book, or being pushed for the company. But what about gay people in real life who are in fact feminine and loves to vogue and would shout out "Yaaaas, bitch! Yaas!"? Are they not allowed representation? Should they feel wrong for seeing a character similar to them? A character of the sort can help them feel accepted and happy to be themselves and not be stigmatized with already an aspect of themselves they're struggling with. Keeping all that in mind, what if you then created another gay character for this book that was the total and complete opposite of the previous gay character? Now this gay character is masculine and can be seen as reserved and quiet and maybe can't dance to save his life. Do you see where I'm going with this? Two different characters that remove the pressures of representing a particular set of people and also clear way for some very interesting and potential stories.

Something that comes to mind for me with having that one sole "representer" of a type of people is the Jamaican character of DeeJay from Street Fighter. DJHe is a fan favorite in the series and is personally one of my favorites to play with and I think he's fun as hell. My partner, on the other hand being from Jamaica, actually detests the character and finds him to be very offensive to the point of absolute annoyance, especially when hearing his awful Jamaican accent. It doesn't help that DeeJay is the sole and only Caribbean character in the whole game series compared to the extremely varied set of American and Asian based characters. In addition to that, aspects of the character, like his celebratory musical instruments of choice, seems rather inauthentic to the culture the creators were having the character represent. (I'm still waiting for a Haitian Street Fighter character by the way, Capcom! Although I'm sure s/he be Vodou based filled with horror imagery and possibly a machete.)

I don't know if the book will be good or what's going to happen with this book leading to it's release, especially concerning the rising controversy the book is facing due to accusations of Edmondson allegedly being a serial predator and a bigot, which would stem as a big negative against checking and supporting the book, especially for me. I am pretty happy to hear that the book's cover artist himself is Native American and as stated earlier will be acting as a guide and consultant. So okay, Marvel, I'll give you some props for that. But I do hope the addition of a Native American voice to the team will further the prospect and potential of various and different Native American voices in this book and hopefully more to come. I hope that it isn't just a token book and isn't a typically stereotypically portrayal or that while showcasing cultural pride, it opens up and challenges them in a respectable and entertaining manner. I hope that I'm not asking for too much but generally... I'm just hoping for the best.

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