Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bare-Legs / Black Skin: Nostalgia and the persistence of liberal paternalism

Behold! I am a Racist Geek!

The latter, never in doubt. Just about every box that can be checked to determine one’s geekiness could be checked on me, and then some:

  • Comic books? CHECK. Ten full boxes. Mostly DC, but a long stretch of Daredevil, too. I’m proud of my complete set of Darkhorse Concrete.

  • Star Trek? CHECK. I agonize over who the best captain is. (Right now, Janeway has inched past Picard)

  • Star Wars? CHECK. Wedge Antilles is the true hero of the series.

  • Video games? CHECK . Pitfall 2 and Star Raiders in my youth. Halo and Eternal Sonata in my dotage.

  • Hate sports but has some appreciation for MMA and pro wrestling because it seems close to gladiatorial combat? CHECK. Love me some Jake the Snake vs. Ronnie Garvin. Cry every time Randy Couture loses. Believe Fedor will save us all.

  • Indifferent to fashion but gets panicky if my Mike Mignola “Sandman of two eras” Tee-shirt has Taco Bell hot sauce stain on it? CHECK. I suppose I will have to stop wearing it at some point.

  • Every sketch of every Monty Python episode memorized verbatim? (Not to mention scored and ranked!) CHECK. And that includes the awkward forth, non-Cleese season. It’s all about Mr. Neutron!

  • Toys? CHECK… and even beyond that, likes to modify action figures to make look like other characters? Oh… CHECK, true believers.
    The geek thing… well established. My pedigree is probably geek-nerd as I tended do well in school in non-math related courses and I own many, many books that have no pictures in them whatsoever. I think they are called non-graphic novels. I liked metal in high school and continue to admire its tenacity. So you can stick “metal” to that label, although I also loved (still love… wrote a 300 page book about ‘em!) Depeche Mode which would have gotten me tarred as a “fag” back in the good old days. I also make lists, yep, just like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity and have well-over 8000 songs on my iPod. So add harmless -obsessional to the label. I call it “cinema” and “speculative fiction” rather than “movies” or “Sci-Fi,” so add pretentious. You can also tack on atheist, liberal, skeptic, vegetarian, libertarian if that does anything to expand the social definition of your humble blogists.

    Fine. I embrace it. I am not sure what lives beyond the world of geek. I think it has something to do with working on cars and getting excited about “March Madness” and “Rocktober.” The lovely thing about NOT being young anymore is that you really can be DONE with being cool.

But it was only comparatively recently as recently that I discovered that my outer geek has been infiltrated by my inner white racist. You see, I collect toys. Specifically, action figures. MORE specifically, super hero action figures. EVEN MORE excruciatingly specifically, super hero action figures representing the long-running Justice League/Justice League Unlimited cartoon series (as well as a very similar line from The Batman animated series, which is stylistically similar). The line, which began with the release of the “big seven” (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Martian Manhunter) has expanded to include essentially every character, hero or villain, who has appeared on the show. The “essentially” hedge is important because it plays to a very important aspect of this mania – they haven’t done a figure for all the featured characters, only most. And on top of that, Mattel, the company responsible, recently started to release figures for characters never featured in the series. They may be well-known characters from the comic books or from other super hero cartoons. Which brings me to the focus of this confession.

Mattel released a three figure set comprised of three heroes who were created specifically for the 1970s cartoon, Super Friends. For those of you who preferred Smurfs at the time or who otherwise missed them when they were on, it was basically a kid-friendly version of The Justice League . At some point during the show’s run, the producers felt the show needed to be more ethnically diverse. The “Friends” were all lily-white. (The green-skinned Martian Manhunter was not used.) But rather than use established comic book heroes (like Black Lightening) the producers opted for “purpose built” characters. Hence, the Super Friends welcomed Apache Chief (Native American), Black Vulcan (African American), and Samurai (Japanese). (Later on a Hispanic hero named El Dorado, and a possibly-Brazilian hero called Rima made sporadic appearances as well. The more widely recognized African-American hero, Cyborg joined the “Friends” as a member of the so-called “Super Powers” era. )

So, naturally I had to pick up “The Diversity Trio” to complete my collection. They are, after all, unique to an era and, in their own way, represent the rather slow evolution of awareness within the worlds of animation and comics. However, they arrived at a time when that shelf space for my figure was at a high premium. Currently, there are about 180 figures but space for only about 170 without cramming. There are “teams” of figures, like the Green Lanterns and the Legion of Super Heroes, who cannot be shifted from their perch and main-line figures (like Booster Gold, The Question, Captain Atom) that, frankly, played such an integral role on the show that their absence would create a vacuum. The “Trio” didn’t easily “fit” because they would need to be displayed together. Three other figures would have to move.

So Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, and Samurai have been living far away from general population. They’ve lived on my book case alongside Proust and Nabokov; on my printer, on the window sill, being batted daily by curious felines; then finally they took up residence on my desk where they stared at me accusingly, asking why the entire Batman family (five different Batman figures, various Robins, Batgirls, Nightwings, etc.) have their own shelf, while three figures representing the family of man have to move ghetto to ghetto?

Messrs Chief, Vulcan, and Samurai returned my desk, wondering what their fate would be. Segregated and cut off from the mainstream where even a Martian, a demon, a dead guy, teenage girls, and a robot have been afforded space.

(UPDATE: With some creative positioning, the “Trio” now have a permanent home back alongside the Patrolers and the Guildsmen)

This is not to say that ethnic minorities are not represented at all in the mainline of my display. To wit: Vixen (African American), Vibe (Hispanic). Fire (Brazilian), Mr. Terrific (African American), Atom Smasher (Jewish), Green Lantern (John Stewart – African American), Steel (African American), Black Adam (I think he is supposed to be Egyptian), and Devil Ray (aka Black Manta, African American) have long since taken a space of the narrow black shelves. But the inclusion of Chief, Vulcan, and Samurai to the collection has more to do with nostalgia for 70s’ political correctness rather than genuine concern for racial diversity. The three are only recognizable to Generation X-ers and possibly very late Baby Boomers who remember those Saturday mornings epics . Every season of the Super Friends was more evolved both in numbers and sophistication. The 1970s were a time of imperial guilt and maudlin liberalism which had the not altogether unpleasant or undesirable effect of making American popular culture over as more multi-cultural and outward looking. An “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” kind of vibe. On kids TV this was the time of The Big Blue Marble, Via Allegre, and an ethnically diverse Justice League.

But the weird thing is… the “Diversity Trio” figures all have something else in common besides non-whiteness: They are all bare legged They are the only male action figures in the JLU line (except for B’Wana Beast, who wears a tribal loin cloth and a cheetah-spotted boots. HELLO!) presented this way. In comics, bare flesh suggest a degree of vulnerability. Think of young Robin’s spindly legs, letting the reader know that the Boy Wonder was ultimately subservient to his “guardian” Batman. Think Wonder Woman’s Amazonian bathing suit, forcing the medium’s mightiest female hero into infantile cheesecake fantasies. Adult male heroes, by contrast, are wrapped up tight in gaudy, Technicolor shrink wrap from head to toe, and though some may show off their buff, bare arms, only a select few are stripped of dignity below the waist. Even Aquaman, who presumably would enjoy an au naturale trans-Pacific swim, gets a lovely pair of finned green tights to cover his lower body. (Aqualad? Not so much.)

What can we make of this? Who gets bare legs? Female super heroes, kid sidekicks, and the “Diversity Trio” of the Super Friends. The nudity suggests a negotiated proviso: you may be powerful, and you may have dominion, but know your place. The world of super heroes is one of hierarchies, unspoken and otherwise. And though times have changed – one needs only consider the ultra-powerful Steel in his metallic armor, Barda with her Kirby-styled whole-body uniform, the new Blue Beetle’s magic battle suit controlled by a young Hispanic boy - nostalgia has a powerful grip. Geeks in their late 30s and early 40s remember the Super Friends with fondness, and whether they care to admit it or not, a part of the appeal of the show was the unspoken and un-subverted power hierarchy that indicates itself in the exposure of skin.

No comments: