A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting Racism

by Jake Zawlacki

spirit A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting RacismThank 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?

whitewash A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting Racism

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?

captain-marvel A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting RacismBurn 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.

Our Community

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.

crack-comics A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting RacismThey 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.

spirit-1 A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting RacismA 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.

unknown A Humble Proposal for Comics Depicting Racism

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.

Your choice.

 

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10 comments

Ryan Kirksey July 4, 2020 - 3:38 pm

Jake – thank you for writing this blog. Your idea (as well as a few others who suggested this on the site and on FB) is likely the best way to go in this ugly situation. Looking back on the piece now, I think my biggest flaw was making such as strong recommendation when I, in fact, don’t own any of the comics I talked about nor any of the ones you reference in this piece. It’s easy for me to sit back and tell people to get rid of something when I do not have to make that judgment in my own collection. In the end, it’s a personal decision for anyone, but my hope is that people don’t use these like collectors will use a variant or a Mark Jewelers – as a method by which to profit from racist images. I appreciate your candor here…

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Steven Moore July 4, 2020 - 4:53 pm

Hi Jake,
Thank you for writing this considerate and well thought-out piece. Some great ideas about how to deal with these comics.
-Steve

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Jake Zawlacki July 4, 2020 - 8:43 pm

Hi Steve,

Thank you for the compliment. This one took a lot longer than I expected. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Best,

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Earl July 4, 2020 - 7:37 pm

I in no way shape or form getting rid of any books like that!You don’t have to agree with it to collect it!If it makes you feel better doing it then so be it;that’s you

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Jake Zawlacki July 4, 2020 - 8:36 pm

Thanks for the comment Earl. Of course, you can collect whatever you want: torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition, Gulag guard’s uniforms, American nooses, etc. It’s just a matter of what we as a community want to reflect. Should these be prominently displayed at conventions? Would you be proud to show these items to other collectors? To your friends? To your children?

The danger is in the objects not being understood. Speaking for myself, there is no way I know enough history on racist depictions in comics to own, collect, and contextualize them myself, which is why I recommend putting them in the hands of those that do. It’s not a matter of me vs. you vs. the next guy. It’s a matter of what we want to promote as a community.

Thanks again,

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Marc July 5, 2020 - 9:33 am

Hi Jake, This is a very relevant conversation in 2020. I appreciate you planting the seed of thought-provoking action. I love comic books for it’s openness and controversy. Go Go Collect!!!!

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steve centonzo July 7, 2020 - 7:27 am

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.
Even though I changed endless diapers, spent countless hours, gave countless hugs and kisses. caught butterflies and fish with them, once they find my Spirit and Uncensored Mouse comics, (from amongst 200 small boxes of comics) my legacy is destroyed… View these books within their historic context or put them down and go away. By the way, I was a history teacher for over 20 years. I have a soviet military medal with hammer and sickle, a copy of Mao’s little Red book written in Chinese, and a collection of Nazi coins within my collection of artifacts. Now what?

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Jake Zawlacki July 7, 2020 - 11:51 am

Thanks for the comment, Steve. Like I said earlier, you can collect whatever you want. I’m simply arguing that these items will not be viewed favorably by the current and upcoming generation. Thinking in terms or either/or is not helpful here. “Or put them down and go away,” is equally unhelpful. Will they discount all of the love you gave them as an excellent grandfather? I would hope not. Will they feel a little chagrin when poking through your collection? Probably.

After my great grandfather passed, we had to go through his possessions. In there was a photo of him painted in blackface smiling in a minstrel show. Did that photo discredit his entire life? No, and that’s not what I’m arguing in the essay above. But it certainly made me feel disappointed. Not because I now saw him as this terrible racist, minstrel shows were popular in their time, but they weren’t that popular when he was doing it in the 30s and 40s. I felt disappointed because he was on the wrong side of history and I thought he had more understanding than to perpetuate racist portrayals long after being in vogue. In short, I wish he would have done Vaudeville instead. Your grandkids will probably feel the same.

Again, as I wrote and commented already, the issue is that not everyone can contextualize these images like you can. Most people don’t have 20 years of history experience in their lives, which is why they shouldn’t be displayed in public events such as conventions or local comic shops and why they shouldn’t be celebrated as good examples of the Golden Age. Decontextualized representations such as these are harmful today, maybe even more so than when they were first created, and should be put into the hands of those that can properly historicize these items in educational settings, not glorify or covet them.

Best,

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Matt Ames July 21, 2020 - 1:48 pm

Great read. It is time to examine racism (and misogyny! Mainstream bondage covers NEVER seem to go out of collecting style!) in all aspects of American culture, and comics are higher profile than ever before. Black Panther, Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Spawn, Falcon… all characters created by white men. That is a strange sort of tension, particularly as these characters are still popular.

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Jake Zawlacki July 21, 2020 - 2:17 pm

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the comment. I agree, but considering how much pushback there is against addressing comics with racism, I think there’d be a revolt if I suggested we shouldn’t be collecting images with oversexualized displays of women with unnatural bodies. While there has certainly been a dearth of writers of color in the comic book industry, there is something to be said for those white writers who went beyond the traditional white superhero and incorporated those of other backgrounds in a genuine and human way. Without fiction, we’d all just be writing autobiography. Fortunately, we have more and more works from writers of color as the medium becomes more diverse (Ta-Nehisi Coates and Marjorie Liu come to mind as superb examples). And the future has more to come, I’m sure.

Best,
Jake

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