Thank you fellow GC writer Ryan Kirksey for asking the question, “What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?” I’d like to offer an answer.
Censorship of Comics Depicting Racism
As Americans, a lot of us see censorship as the most dangerous threat to freedom. There are also strong correlations between oppressive governments, in the form of North Korea or China, and the many human rights violations taking place in those countries. Censorship and oppression go hand in hand.
I hadn’t thought about censorship in terms of comic books until I read What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism last week, so I thought about it. Then I started writing a comment, and then I realized it was getting so long I should probably just flesh it out into a blog all by itself. What should we do with overtly racist depictions of non-white characters? How can we address a medium that began in an era where these harmful stereotypes were plentiful? And how do we navigate these objects as collectors and speculators?
Keep Them All
That’s always an option. What’s past is past and these are simply artifacts of those past moments, right? Who cares as long as they’re solid condition Golden Age goodies? Maybe. While it is true that these objects come from a historical past and must be understood within a specific historical context, the racist content is still racist and causes division. These comics still perpetuate the stereotypes initially drawn and written decades ago.
As a collector, you can do whatever you want. But do you really need Crack Comics #1 in your collection? The Spirit #10? Does looking at them make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Will you be able to survive without it? Is it an inconvenience to ignore these types of depictions and NOT buy them?
Burn Them All
We could always burn them. And after looking through a couple Captain Marvel books with the racist portrayal of Steamboat in them, I was about ready to lead a comic burning crusade. But I took a breath and entered back to reason and logic. As a society, we can’t burn things we don’t like. It sets a precedent for censorship and opens the Burj Khalifa-sized can of worms of what to burn and what not to. It’s anti-free speech. It’s dangerous. And it’s a fire hazard.
We’re not going to burn or destroy them.
Then what can we do?
I’m glad you asked.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see comics with racial stereotypes displayed at conventions. I don’t want children seeing awful and harmful depictions of non-white people in our beloved medium. And I don’t want these types of books set as examples of quality Golden Age comics. Because they’re not. The comic community is an inclusive one (although it can always be more so) and we simply don’t have space for that kind of stuff in it.
But Wait A Second, Does This Actually Matter?
Yes. At the time these comics were made, black men were hanging from trees. Children attended segregated schools. African Americans weren’t allowed to enter certain premises. These objects represent a zeitgeist of a time. The continued preservation of these objects in decontextualized settings perpetuates this zeitgeist. This is not a matter of being politically correct, this is a matter of black men still hanging from trees.
And no, this is not like Nazis depicted in comics. Nazis have never been depicted as the “good guys” or as “normal.” Their morality has always been constructed as wrong. African Americans depicted in comics, however, are represented as “normal.” THAT is the problem. These are not normal representations. They are caricatures of “regular” people in a superbly racist fashion. African Americans in the Golden Age are often intellectually, physically, and morally inferior than their white counterparts.
They Could No Longer Be Comics
As a speculator, these are the LAST comic books in the world you want to invest in. There is nothing redeemable about them. They don’t have key characters, aren’t key storylines, and offer nothing but stereotypes and prejudice. In a way, these objects should no longer be considered just comic books.
Instead, they should be delegated to the dark realm of objects that includes Nazi and KKK memorabilia. Maybe that’s harsh, but they’re in the same ballpark. They’re objects representing violence, prejudice, and discrimination. I can’t think of a good reason to covet these types of comics.
They’re historical? So is a Klan member hood or a Nazi general’s armband. So is a Eugenics manual.
Can you think of why YOU would want them in your collection?
No. Because we don’t need these books in our community and we don’t need them in our collections.
But there are people that do.
A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting Racism
What can we actually do with them? First of all, there aren’t that many out there (Although there are reprints of these problematic Golden Age books such as the 1974 series of The Spirit. Some with brand new racist covers). Most of us don’t have 70+ year-old Golden and Platinum Age comics lying around. But if you do, you should give these cultural artifacts to the people that need them most: researchers.
Academics, librarians, and historians can use these objects within a historical context. They can be curated to tell a story. And archivists will treat these comics right.
But, how is this different than personal collections you ask?
The difference is if your grandkids come across these old comic books you left them in your Last Will and Testament, they’re going to be disappointed that grandpa or grandma was a racist. In the same way they would if they found a Nazi swastika pendant.
If you provide them to University Libraries and Public Museums, however, not only will you have a nice tax write-off, you’ll become an active part of the solution. These books can be leveraged to tell important stories and history framed by experts in their fields. They can be used to help us understand our past and our present. And they’d be a lot more useful in the hands of researchers and academicians than sitting in dusty longboxes and regarded as “important historical objects.”
So, if you are in the position to provide much-needed material to the experts that can use it, please do. It will only further the cause of justice and equality.
Or, you can leave them to your grandkids.
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