Friday, April 10, 2009

Race in Comics: A Character Study Through the Decades

Rationale: Much like other forms of pop culture (television/film), comics haven't always embraced the idea of diversity. In American comics minorities where more often portrayed as antagonists to white heroes up through the early 1960s. While one of the first black heroes was the Batman-like Black Panther (tongue-in-cheek, anyone?), this character was relegated to supporting cast appearances in titles like Fantastic Four and Avengers up through the 70s. It seemed as though comics, like film and tv, were not ready to embrace the idea of minorities as protagonists in popular fiction.
All that changed in the mid-seventies with the rise of Black Cinema, or “Blaxploitation Films,” which featured characters like Shaft and Foxy Brown. These tough-as-nails, street-wise urban characters were often cited as both inspirations AND negative stereotypes.
America's two major comic book publishers (Marvel and DC) followed the lead of the film industry by producing their own minority protagonists in the vein of the aforementioned movie characters. DC Comics (home of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) featured Black Lightning- a passionate, and sometimes hot-headed, inner city teacher who dons a leisure suit get-up by night to combat the drug-pushers who haunt his students. Marvel comics (who publish Spider-man and Wolverine) produced their own leisure-suit wearing hero, Luke Cage: Power Man, who after doing time for a crime here didn't commit, gains super-strength and sets up shop in Harlem to handle the pimps and gang members...all while making a buck as the first “Hero for Hire.”
As fun and original as these characters were, many critics have argued that their stereotypical urban diction and exaggerated dress code only served to perpetuate the beliefs and assumptions many had towards urban blacks at this time in history.
What is interesting is that as film and television have progressed over the past 30 years to embrace minorities as well represented complex characters, comics have also mirrored the changing times by updating the origins and representations of their minority comics, taking them for one-dimensional stereotypes to well-structured heroes with their own rich mythologies. The leisure suits are gone, and while Black Lightning and Luke Cage are still heroes of the urban minorities, they are now presented as core characters in each publishers shared universe.

As a teacher of language arts, stereotypes is a concept I spend a lot of time talking about passed on the readings I do every year with my high school students. Many of us are familiar with talking about how stereotypes relate to Jews during WWII, or towards African Americans for the past 250 years, but what if you could supply your students with a more modern example? By using the original origin tales of these two characters students can see how American culture viewed our minority population only 30 years ago. If you combine these original stories with the updated re-worked origins, students can also see how popular perceptions have changed over time and influenced what we believe and value as a culture.

Grade Levels/ Content Area(s): Middle School, High School/ U.S. History, Civics, Language Arts- English

Objective: Students will be able to analyze how stereotypes are portrayed in pop culture and how they change over time.

Time Alloted: Depending on class length. One 90 minute class or two 45 minute classes.

Materials: Black Lightning Archives #1/ Black Lightning: Year One (both from DC Comics)
Essential Luke Cage/Power Man Vol. 1/ New Avengers Issue #22

Vocabulary: stereotype, origin

Direct Teaching: Ask students to consider the word “stereotype.” I often have my classes do a word association on the board which leads us into a discussion of majority and minority cultures.
Introduce either (or both) the original Black Lightning and Luke Cage texts and have students keep track of the representations of the main characters. You may have them consider questions like:

How would you describe Black Lightning/ Luke Cage's personality?
Do these characters seem believable (why or why not)?
Does anything seem different about these protagonists from others that you've encountered?

If you are a history teacher this would be the perfect time to move into a conversation about the media's perception of minorities during this time period.
After the original text has been read, ask student to consider how our cultures perspective on minorities (specifically Black Americans) has changed over the past thirty years. As students consider this question, have them read the modern re-tellings of the characters origins and respond again to the questions listed above.

After reading, have students create a chart where they compare the two tales and discuss how time and changes in culture have influenced our perceptions of minorities in fiction.

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