What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?

by Ryan Kirksey

Cap-Marvel-212x300 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?If there is anything that the past few weeks have taught us about our country, it’s that there is no individual, entity, or organization that shouldn’t be taking a long, hard look in the mirror at their past (and present) to determine what biases did and do exist. Everything from governmental departments, the military, companies, nonprofits, universities, and countless other aspects of our daily lives are under the microscope as they are finally reckoning with their past actions and current reactions.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the comic book industry is not immune to this self-examination. Let’s explore some comics with seemingly racist overtones and discuss what should be done with them.

More recently than any of us probably care to admit, comics were a breeding ground for stereotyping, whitewashing, and generally stomping out the idea that people are equals – even as some of them have powers beyond our imaginations. For an industry that has existed in this country for more than 100 years, you can only imagine what types of content exist.

How Should Comic Collectors Respond to Racist Comics? 

As responsible comic book collectors, investors, and speculators, it should be up to us to help repair (not erase) that part of this hobby and make it clear that we don’t stand for that type of treatment of superman-indian-217x300 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?characters within the pages of our favorite books.

With that in mind, I want to point out some of the more egregious and prevalent comics from our past with an eye towards removing these symbols of ass-backward thinking from current and future comic book lovers. Many of these are going for a decent amount, although I would not consider any of these books as major keys.

I am decidedly not a book-burning advocate. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and I understand the dangers of censorship. But I personally feel strongly that we should be removing these symbols of racist comics from our collections. Do they represent a different time, a part of our past that was culturally different? Yes. But in 2020, they likely belong in the trash, not praised.

(Much of this list comes from writers who have wonderfully researched these issues including articles from Complex, Guff, and Ranker.)

Racist Comics From the Past

While some of these offenses show up in single issues, several also span the entire series. The following are merely a sample of the comics that fit this description.

The Depiction of Black Sidekicks in Young Allies and Captain Marvel

It won’t surprise you to learn the 1940s and 1950 were not a time that was generally kind to African-young-allies-212x300 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?Americans in print. Exhibits 1A and 1B would be the Bucky Barnes’ led group Young Allies and Captain Marvel’s run, both published at the height of World War II. I suppose the publishers at the time thought these were redeemable and acceptable characters because they were fighting the evil Nazis, but in hindsight, they ended up being racist caricatures that were all too common in those years.

Bucky’s ally, Whitewash Jones, not only had a superficially racist name but was drawn in a way that made him look more creature than an animal. He was sloppily dressed and had a protruding mouth and lips, he spoke broken English and was generally represented as a simpleton. Whitewash was often a device that forced Bucky to have to overcome additional obstacles instead of just assisting in the fight against the Germans. Marvel would later denounce the whole series, but it doesn’t wash the pages clean of this ugly representation.

Elsewhere in the industry, the early Captain Marvel had a sidekick named Steamboat. “Sidekick” may be too generous of a term because he essentially served as Captain Marvel’s de facto servant until 1945 when, on appeal from school children, the character was no longer used. Whatever awful features were used to depict Whitewash Jones were amplified with Steamboat, and he carried himself with the same poor English and bumbling persona as his Young Allies counterpart. To say these depictions of black characters were uncommon at this time would be a lie, and it is useful to understand that while we were fighting injustice and oppression on one side of the world, we were buying it up left and right on our own soil.

I use these two examples as representative of a larger problem that existed in that timeframe. Whether it was these two derogatory sidekicks, Batman frequently calling Asian foes “Chinamen”, Captain America battling “yellow” Asian foes,, Green Lantern’s Eskimo pal “Pieface”, or Superman and Jimmy Olsen working alongside red-skinned Native Americans, this period of comic history has more than its share of repulsive images.

Black Goliath – Power Man #24

The comic industry, unfortunately, has a long history of labeling African-American superheroes as “Black” Something. Familiar names such as Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Black Racer come to mind immediately, but Black Goliath, introduced by Marvel in 1975, is a particularly interesting case study.

William Foster was born and raised in the ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles (stop me if you’ve heard this black-goliath-194x300 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?stereotype before). Marvel deserves credit for giving Foster unbelievable intelligence which allowed him to attend the California Institute of Technology and become a lab assistant for Hank Pym. After years of working with Pym, Foster decided to try the Pym Particles on himself, enlarging his stature to 10 feet. With Pym’s blessing, Foster takes on the moniker of Black Goliath and works his way to a life of crime-fighting. Before this happens, however, he does end up as a circus sideshow for the Circus of Crime for a period of time. Why? I don’t have a clue.

It’s interesting why Marvel and Hank Pym – who had given up the Giant-Man/Goliath moniker – didn’t just give Foster the Goliath name outright. That didn’t happen until four years later in 1979 when he would change to Giant-Man in Marvel Two-In-One #55. So for as much credit as organizations like Marvel and DC should receive for introducing strong black characters like Falcon and John Stewart’s Green Lantern, we shouldn’t forget that these publishing houses still found it necessary to give these characters the “Black” description, a label never given to any white heroes, as far as I can tell.

Sam Wilson as a Mobster – Captain America #186

Unfortunately, Falcon’s story across the 1970s wasn’t all that Stan Lee originally planned for it to be. In Captain America #186, Marvel essentially rewrote Wilson’s backstory, giving it a much darker influence. Wilson was originally described as a hard-working social worker from Harlem whose parents had been murdered and who had turned to birds as a passion and a hobby. His original backstory had his crash on a remote island while on a work assignment, where he was subsequently trapped by Red Skull. Eventually, with the help of Captain America and Black Panther, Wilson was able to escape and adopt the mantle of Falcon (and eventually Captain America).

But in the mid-1970s Marvel decided to redo that story and make Wilson a mobster who moved to Los Angeles from Harlem. Giving him stereotypical pimp outfits, this issue tried to recreate a character’s whole story, but a combination of backlash and common sense led to a retcon of this story as merely something Red Skull planted in Wilson’s brain to try and manipulate him.falcon-story-300x152 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?

It’s difficult for me in 2020 to try and justify a reason why this would be necessary for a popular character, especially one who helped usher in a strong decade of black heroes, but sometimes implicit biases and stereotypes creep in – no matter how hard we try – and we get stories where an upstanding black hero is reduced to a criminal.

Lois Lane is Black For a Day – Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #106

As you can probably tell, the 1970s were not a kind decade to the idea of progress in the comic industry. For every step forward there seemed to be two steps back. But sometimes those were leaps Lois-lane-203x300 What Should We Do With Comics Depicting Racism?back instead of steps, as in the story-line in this issue where Lois Lane – with Superman’s help – changes from white to black for a day to write a story where she can better understand what it meant to be black in the “Little Africa” part of Metropolis.

As a black woman, Lois encounters many hardships. She can’t catch a cab, for example, and is taught what she feels are valuable lessons about the differences between people of different races.

Where the story falls flat and proved so controversial is that it grossly underestimates what it means to live a life as black. Lois Lane can’t come close to comprehending what it is like after only a day or two, so while the creators meant well, it came off as lacking empathy and trying to whitewash a problem.

What Should We Do With Racist Comics Now?

For starters, we could all go full Michael Corleone and renounce these comics and images for what they are: racism. While it is helpful to understand how far we have come, we must not forget how far there still is to go. Your money is better spent on stronger, more well-rounded minority characters than these depictions of past stereotypes.

Here’s hoping you will join me in purging our collections of a dark part of our country’s past. What are you doing with these and other similar comics? Let me know in the comments.

 

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39 comments

Scott June 25, 2020 - 2:12 pm

I think intentions matter. The Lois Lane issue was inspired by the memoir Black Like Me in which a white man medically altered the color of his skin to look black and lived and traveled in the south for a significant amount of time. In the comic book world that kind of depth isn’t possible, but at least they were acknowledging the problem.

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Ryan Kirksey June 25, 2020 - 2:40 pm

I think that’s a great point, and it would have been interesting to see them flesh out that story more. I think their intentions were on the right path, just didn’t stick the landing, you know?

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johnwick June 25, 2020 - 2:37 pm

You make some good points but I don’t this is really a big deal. Going crazy over comic books and purging this for that reason is a little non-sensical. I’d venture to say no one has even thought about this for good reason. Those are of an older generation and not sure if anyone even cares about these old comics that seem to be few and far between. We all know what’s right and wrong. All this does is bring up topics of division where there is none in my opinion.

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Sam June 25, 2020 - 8:42 pm

There’s a significant market for platinum and golden age comics and this becoming a significant consideration between both vendors and buyers. Should vendors continue to market and profit from content that, while created 70-80 years ago and reflects a bygone era, generates even more pain today?…the hope of progress is quickly overshadowed by the reminder that racism is alive and well.

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Just Pele (@Just_Pele) June 26, 2020 - 12:22 pm

How would anyone stop them? People are going to buy and sell those comics, no matter the subject matter, even if it just moves underground (increasing their value exponentially). I personally own dozens from WW2 that depict Germans and the Japanese in an unfavorable light, not because I agree with it, but because I’m a WW2 buff and those books are historically significant.

You can’t ban those comics, at least not in the USA, and seeking to “cancel” people who sell them is absurdly toxic and only creates even more hate and animosity. (Besides, we’re already seeing cancellations lose their bite, as the public gets tired of the emotional stress of it, plus it makes them wonder if they’re next, no matter how slight any previous infraction may have been.) The libel and defamation lawsuits over being “cancelled” without evidence are already flying, and without protections some social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, not to mention the “cancellers” themselves, are going to be decimated.

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Just Pele (@Just_Pele) June 26, 2020 - 12:26 pm

It isn’t a big deal, people are feeding off the rage and getting themselves in a lather to feel like they’re doing something good. When in reality it only leads to very bad things, like book burnings, destruction on public property, and violent attacks on others. History is important and the comics in question are important, if we forget the past we’ll repeat previous mistakes.

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Ash on Comics | #1984WasAWarningNotAHandbook (@Ash1138) June 26, 2020 - 1:08 pm

We already are repeating those mistakes.

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Robert Pickerill June 25, 2020 - 2:48 pm

Wasn’t there a story arc of the Punisher where he became black??

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Ryan Kirksey June 25, 2020 - 2:56 pm

I was not aware of this, but just looked it up. Yes, in 1992 there was a three-issue run where he was black. He teamed up with Luke Cage and was pulled over while driving within one day of being black. Very interesting.

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Earl Thomas June 25, 2020 - 3:19 pm

I most definitely am not throwing any comic books away.That was another time by people of that time and in no way will I destroy or run from history because of the people and beliefs of any politically incorrect thinking at a particular time in history.

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chris June 25, 2020 - 3:55 pm

although a good question the answer to any destruction of comics or media in any form is wrong. nazis burned books and printed their own propaganda. we live in times where racial discrimination is placed in the spotlight. comics outline the thoughts beliefs of the times they were created. we wouldn’t have popular characters like black panther or luke cage if weren’t for their times. just like the view of illegal aliens. superman being the ultimate illegal. forged adoption papers and social security card. he even fought nazis and Japanese. to forget the past is a way to repeat it again.

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Sam June 25, 2020 - 8:51 pm

Really glad to see this topic being addressed within the comic community; thank you for being willing to take it head on. I believe you framed it well. This isn’t an issue of book burning or censorship but a call to think about how we can change to move forward…there could/should be a shift in the community where both vendors and buyers consciously take steps to end the proliferation of racist content by no longer making it available.
Great topic and conversation that is far from over (which is a good thing). Looking forward to continued change.

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Just Pele (@Just_Pele) June 26, 2020 - 12:27 pm

How would you plan to “no longer make these comics available”?

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Paul June 25, 2020 - 10:26 pm

You say, “I am decidedly not a book-burning advocate.” You also say, “Here’s hoping you will join me in purging our collections of a dark part of our country’s past.”

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Maze June 26, 2020 - 9:55 am

He’s not suggesting censorship, he’s suggesting that collectors willfully eliminate these from circulation. It’s not a terrible idea. I wouldn’t purposely add something to my collection that causes others pain, whether it’s “historical” or not.

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Ryan Kirksey June 26, 2020 - 10:11 am

I think this is a fair assessment of what I’m saying. Several people on social media have suggested donating them to museums that preserve these things. I think my primary issue is I don’t want to, nor do I want others to profit off of them.

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Just Pele (@Just_Pele) June 26, 2020 - 12:28 pm

Then you would need to change the 1st Amendment.

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johnwick June 26, 2020 - 4:02 pm

I’ve gotta say, you’re so lost on this subject. This is how communism starts, and we don’t want to go there. Burn, destroy anything you don’t like or agree with and brainwash people into groupthink. SCARY STUFF

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Paul June 27, 2020 - 12:47 am

What’s your take on Nazi symbolism in comics? i.e.Captain America, War is Hell, Nazi Zombies, Hansi, The Fighting Yank, The Human Torch, Suspense Comics, Superman. Censorship or concealing content is a slippery slope because who will make the final call as to what’s acceptable or not?

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Dmoloth July 1, 2020 - 7:07 pm

Not wanting others to profit is a slippery slope. If we allow that, how long will it be before MOST comics are deemed a problem? (Seriously, if you look hard enough, you can find something offensive to somebody in nearly any comic.)

Are you prepared to lose every dime you have ever put in a comic? Because it could happen if we start going down that road.

And if it gets there, then this website becomes sort of useless.

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Tony C June 26, 2020 - 12:26 am

It’s an awfully slippery slope to ban or not make available literature that depicts any racism. Going further and destroying comics would be shameful and would accomplish nothing in fighting racial injustice.

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billy batson June 26, 2020 - 10:45 am

Holy Moley! How far is this PC stuff going. The art in the more recent stuff like 70’s and 80’s is garbage and uncollectable anyway, but Captain Marvel should not be discarded as he helped win world war II.
I think I recall there was one time a slave owner named Simon who favored the color Green. I suggest to be feeling and sensitive we need to eliminate the wording “green” from public discourse
If your surname happens to be green you can pick another name, preferably one that is NOT a color. No one should plant green grass or trees that have green leaves and be given a reasonable amount of time to correct existing blemishes on society.

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Just Pele (@Just_Pele) June 26, 2020 - 12:33 pm

Scary, isn’t it? This is how very bad things (like book burnings and property destruction) start, with good intentions, and then we’re living under authoritarian control, because you can’t just cherry pick what YOU don’t like for banning, because nearly anything will offend someone else somewhere. What about depictions of “toxic masculinity” or “sexy women” being banned? That would wipe out >95% of comics, but I’ve already seen it being proposed.

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johnwick June 26, 2020 - 3:56 pm

exactly

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James B. June 26, 2020 - 10:45 am

If you have any comics that you can no longer stand to have in your collection, just send them to me. I’m not condoning their depictions, but I don’t support destroying or censoring the past either.

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Ryan Kirksey June 26, 2020 - 10:52 am

In what is probably no surprise, I have had a lot of these offers!

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Dmoloth July 2, 2020 - 7:31 pm

Well if you are concerned about people profiting from them, then give them to me and I will even sign a contract that I will never ever sell them.

What few I have (a few Golden Age Captain Marvels) are probably going to die with me anyway, so the more the merrier.

I want the comics far more than I need the money that they could be sold for.

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Ryan Kirksey July 2, 2020 - 8:11 pm

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn I have had a lot of those kinds of offers!

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Pugilisticphilosopher July 16, 2020 - 12:22 am

Count me in on that as well. No reason to purge a collection.

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Ash on Comics | #1984WasAWarningNotAHandbook (@Ash1138) June 26, 2020 - 1:03 pm

What we should do is nothing. Just ignore them. Stop making a crusade to change the past. The past is not the present. Look only to affect the future. Focusing on the racism of the past is what keeps it around.

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Ash on Comics | #1984WasAWarningNotAHandbook (@Ash1138) June 26, 2020 - 1:20 pm

Someone please explain to me how making Falcon a pimp unacceptable racism, but turning Captain America in to a Nazi isn’t?

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ahnzeme June 26, 2020 - 2:56 pm

i too don’t believe in book, music, art burning (being raised by a preacher in the 70s, who said a lotta that material was of the devil and burned lotsa comic books, books, albums, 45s etc.), i refuse to continue that ignorance which is similar to the racist content we’re discussing. i collect that history for teaching what is (was) unacceptable stupidity that is not worth repeating. Sadly characters of color in comic books are (until the last month) HIGHLY UNDERVALUED and ignored; which is still a testament of how much more improvement is required to RESPECT (literally re-see or look twice to see the external & internal value) all persons.

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Tigerfists Comics July 2, 2020 - 7:32 am

If we judge past materials by today’s standards, we will literally have a basis for destroying almost everything from the past. If the materials themselves aren’t a problem by today’s standards, then the views or lifestyle of the creator probably are.

One thing we used to agree on in this country as it relates to art and literature is that they represent a road map of where we have been and where we may be going, and should be preserved and given context. There are things from the past we want to leave behind, and things we want to recover. One thing we can be certain of is that 50 years from now, we will all think differently about some topics.

I believe in systemic racism, I believe that we need to strive to be as free from bigotry and unfair bias as possible, and I strive to be an ally of minorities in our country who encounter obstacles outside their control.

If the author’s conviction is that he should not own these books, that is fine. But I personally think it is an ignorant, censorious, chronologically arrogant, self-sabotaging, puritanical, culturally backwards and anti-intellectual approach to contending with cultural relics.

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Pugilisticphilosopher July 16, 2020 - 12:28 am

This notion of purging collections of racist storylines or images is ridiculous. Let’s remember what we are all doing here people. We are hobbyists, not crusaders. Comic books are far from a breeding ground for hatred and prejudice. Learn from the past, dont jump on this bandwagon of attempting to erase ugly periods of human history etc.

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Quantus5 September 11, 2020 - 3:07 am

The author states “…these publishing houses still found it necessary to give these characters the “Black” description, a label never given to any white heroes, as far as I can tell.”

Am I missing something — there are tons of non-african american heroes and villians with the “Black” label in their name.

Probably the best known that immediately come to mind: Black Canary, Black Cat, Black Widow, Black Adam, and Blackhawk.

Here’s just a partial list of non-African Americans superheroes and super villians that have the “Black” label. Note most of these are heroes:
Blackhawk, Black Bolt, Black Canary, Black Adam, Black Alice, Black Widow, Lady Blackhawk, Black Terror, Blackwing, Black Mamba, Black Cat, Black Knight, Black Queen (almost all versions), Black Beetle, Blackout, Black Tarrantula, Black Tom Cassidy, Black Mask (Roman Sionis), Black Jack (Prime Earth), Black Zero (Superboy), Blackbird (Image Comics) — and this is not a complete list.

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Quantus5 September 11, 2020 - 3:33 am

Not sure if the author looked up the prices to some of the issues that he uses in his examples. Go Collect lists Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106 in CGC 9.8 as worth $4,400, and a copy of Captain Marvel Adventures #23 that is also used as an example is easily worth over a thousand in high grade.

If any of you owned Lois Lane #106 in CGC 9.8 would you destroy it ? I really wonder if the author owned Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106 in 9.8 if he would really destroy it ? Maybe sell it and give the proceeds to a charity ?

Don’t own anything that valuable, but I do own the Jungle Action: Black Panther versus the Klu Klux Klan story arc in high grade, probably worth around $50 each (total value of around $200). Is this a racist comic series? Black Panther going up against the Klu Klux Klan. Should I destroy my copies ? keep them ? or sell them ?

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Quantus5 October 15, 2020 - 10:02 pm

Yes — in the end the author’s argument doesn’t make sense if the comics are worth a significant amount of money and all of the examples are worth a good bit. I’d agree if they were not worth much — but golden and silver age comics in good condition are worth bank. Yeah – just doesn’t make sense to destroy comics that are worth good money. I am keeping my copies of Jungle Action and Black Panther — and will sell them down the road. Yeah, if I was going to take the author’s advice I might as well take a few $100 bills and burn them… not taking that advice.

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Walyst October 17, 2020 - 11:43 am

Adam Glass _Teen titans shared on instagram that the decision to have Damian wayne lose the mantle was already made before he started his TT run. He was given the directive to write Damian’s fall to the dark and the loss of Robin.

He was forced out.

The title wasn’t even subtle in the execution. It was just a series of how bad can we make him

or a company that pledged to be more inclusive allowing for the first character of colour to be robin to have the title stripped from him in a book that has previously done some pretty racist shit… that’s not good

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Matt March 2, 2021 - 11:40 am

If anybody wants to willfully eliminate old racist comics from their collection you can send them to me. I’ll carefully dispose of them on eBay.

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