“Invisible (Watch)Men: The Impossibility of the Black Superhero”

miles-trayvon

The comic panels above—which are from a webcomic called Let’s Be Friends Again—are clever and poignant. They work to associate young black/Latino Miles Morales, one of our contemporary heroes (at least in the insulated comic book fan world) with Trayvon Martin, and in doing so make use of the anonymity of the superhero figure to remind us that Trayvon could be any young black or brown man. Shit, the crazy irony to me about this whole thing is that in another time and place George Zimmerman himself could be the “suspicious” brown man in a neighborhood in which “he does not belong.”

But I think the panels also work to point out that Miles himself “does not belong” in the superhero tradition. He, like most black and brown superhero characters in mainstream comics, is an outlier. In other words, people like Miles or Trayvon are unfortunately more likely to be victim of a “heroic” vigilante than to be one.

It is the “superhero” that stalks “suspicious” characters in their comic medium. It is a real-world racial sense that is transformed into a spider-sense that intuits that something must be wrong and only the hero can step outside of the normal legal framework to set things straight through use or threat of violence. Of course, what is true in the superhero universe is also true in our own, which is that most often despite operating outside established legal frameworks, the vigilante can only succeed with the tacit approval of the powers that be. Sure sometimes the police try to arrest Spider-Man, but more typically they let him go on his way, much like Zimmerman was originally not charged for his killing of Martin—and when there is an effort to make the superhero legally accountable, more often than not, it is a show. We know the eventual outcome—the “hero” moving through whatever legal challenge to emerge into the status quo on the other side. The superhero, like Zimmerman, is acquitted, his actions justified by a public fear.

This is all to say that the association made in the comic above reminded me of a paper I never got to write on the lack of black superheroes in the seminal work of superhero comic book as commentary on superhero comic books, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. It was to be called Invisible (Watch) Men: The Impossibility of the Black Superhero.”

While frequently lauded as the first and best serious treatment of superhero comics, the absence of black superheroes in Watchmen is a glaring omission that has rarely (if ever) been noted by readers and critics. It is my contention, however, that such an absence can be read as an example of what Judith Butler would call a “performative contradiction.” That is, the fact that the critique of the superhero genre’s limitations and problematic representations along political and gender lines made explicit in much of Watchmen still fails to address (or even mention!) the troubling representations of blackness common to superhero comics brings to light the lack of any unproblematic space for blackness in the superhero tradition. In other words, transferred to the quasi-real (or at least “gritty”) setting of Watchmen black “superheroes” cannot exist.

"Black Unrest" is one of the unspoken reasons that Captain Metropolis tries to put together the Crimebusters in the 1960s

“Black Unrest” is one of the unspoken reasons that Captain Metropolis tries to put together the Crimebusters in the 1960s

There are two elements to Watchmen that appear to interrogate this absence. First, details in the backgrounds of panels (see inset panel) and supplemental material appended to each chapter (including an apologia for the Klan  from the pages of the reactionary New Frontiersman) provides clues to this problem, implying an awareness of this absence on the part of Moore and thus an intentional exclusion. As such, the normitivity of such invisibility is appropriated “to oppose [its] historically sedimented effect, [which] constitutes the insurrectionary moment of that history, the moment that founds a future through a break with the past” (Butler 159). As Watchmen breaks with the superhero comic tradition, it suggests that the tradition it critiques (however well-intentioned) has more in common with the masked and hooded figures responsible for reinforcing racial invisibility through intimidation and violence (i.e. the Klan and serial lynching) than with the liberatory values with which superheroes are popularly associated.

Second, Dr. Malcolm Long as one of two African-American characters in the graphic novel (neither of which are “heroes”), plays an important role as a prison psychologist interviewing the white working-class Rorschach, characterized as the most anti-social and reactionary of the Watchmen characters. The middle-class and self-admittedly “fat and complacent” Dr. Long is increasingly disturbed by his sessions with the “hero,” coming to grips with the impossibility of curing the man as a result of the deep social dysfunction from which the superhero tradition arises, and frightened of the violent projection of a moral framework on a nihilistic landscape (punching state power into being)—a framework that too often is invisibly constructed around racial notions. In a world where black, brown (and queer and poor) unrest due to lack of access to power and agency threatens the status quo, anonymous and systematic violence is necessary to maintain white supremacy. To whatever degree Dr. Long prospers depends on his participation in that systemic violence as an agent of state power in his role as an employee of the state correctional institution.

drlong-ror

Dr. Long and Rorschach – a white face and black face side-by-side – wondering what made the latter into what he became.

This is just a little treatment or abstract for something I had hoped to develop (and may still develop in the future), but the LBFA comic above I think resounds with a profound contradiction, transforming the idealized vigilante hero into the victim of racially-informed vigilantism. The comic panels highlights a paradox that opens up a space where we can hope for a different kind of superhero tradition that makes room for people of color and not be based on violent reinforcement of the status quo and its narratives of criminality which uphold a culture of tacit white supremacy. I want black and brown superheroes that don’t need to be invisible or silent, that don’t need to prove they are “one of the good ones,” but that address the racial underpinnings of the tradition they are a part of. I want social justice superheroes.

7 responses to ““Invisible (Watch)Men: The Impossibility of the Black Superhero”

  1. Without in any way claiming they are unproblematic, or free of the tensions you suggest, I do think it’s interesting to consider where Marvel’s “Civil War” event, which centered on bringing legal control to the world of super-heroics.

    The most notable Black heroes involved were Luke Cage, and the then newly married Super-hero “power couple” of T’Challa the Black Panther, and Ororo Munroe the X-Man known as Storm. These heroes all opposed the registration and bringing under government control of super-heroes, and explicitly framed their opposition in terms of how the state power of the US has not been an ally to Black people at most times.

    The US government was indeed so intent on opposing resistance to the registration efforts embodied (in this instance) by powerful Black people that they attacked directly and indirectly T’Challa despite his being the head of state of a (fictional) nation which has significant technological and military power

    This flip side, which is more of a complement than an opposition to what you discussed seems a natural point to bring into the conversation.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting!

      A close examination of the treatment/representation of black and brown characters in Civil War could be an interesting project.

      It is noteworthy, however, that not one black superhero (not even Luke Cage), that I remember anyway (and I recently reread the main issues of what I think was a shitty story) objected to the superhero registration based on the fact that the state uses such power to oppress people of color – that is, if you make Luke Cage into a (super) policeman, he is expected to follow the state’s policies which include the singling out of POCs by police agencies for selective enforcement, harassment and brutality. Instead, it was presented from an oversimplified perspective of freedom vs. security.

  2. This takes actually reading the comic book before insulating Miles to be similiar to Zimmerman. The difference between Miles’ actions or even Peter’s actions as a whole between Zimmerman’s is that they usually save the day during Crimes in process and they investigate crimes of supervillains. In other words, they stop perceived wrongs as they are happening and not on the pretense that they could happen. Spider-man does not stalk people for looking suspicious as he may stalk people that are reasonably connected to a crime. Second, Miles hardly ever is allowed on his way anymore because he was connected to the murder of his Uncle Aaron(long story short, it was an accident). So the police actively disparage Spider-man’s actions. And finally(this is the most important), Miles Morales does not use lethal force as he readily recognizes that he is a vigilante hence killing is a no-no. Even in a world of superheroes, George Zimmerman’s actions would be demonized.

    • For the record, I read Ultimate Comics Spider-Man for the first 15 issues or so. . . So I am familiar with the particularities of his story (at least to that point).

      Anyway, I am not trying to make a direct comparison between Morales and Zimmerman. Clearly, characters like Miles Morales and Peter Parker are meant to clearly be heroes from the perspective of the reader. Rather, I am suggesting that in taking the guise of the superhero and participating in that tradition black and brown superheroes are reinforcing narratives of urban criminality that readers know are associated with blackness in our world, even if comics themselves do not depict them that way (thus the insidiousness of it).

      You can’t tell me that in the history of Spider-Man (and countless other superheroes), he never saw someone “sneaking” or “looking suspicious” (or his spider-sense went off) and he went following them into a warehouse or wherever. Of course in the comic world is (almost) always leads to his foiling a crime – that is my point exactly! The narrative is controlled to reinforce the idea that way people are profiled is correct and just,

      I think I covered the attitude of the police to spider-man sufficiently. . . As I said, any temporary conflict between the law and spider-man is exactly that temporary and cyclical. In the long run, the superhero comes out okay.

      Violence (or more commonly, threat of violence) is all that is needed to cow and silence people – not actual lethal force – though again, in our world such lethal force is frequently used by those we are supposed to think of as heroic, whether it be the police domestically or the armed forces abroad.

      Thanks for reading and responding. Ultimately, I am trying to foster a conversation about the superheroic comic tradition as it intersects with narratives of race, gender, violence and urban spaces.

  3. Pingback: Comics+Religion+Race: Superman VS. the KKK, The Watchmen, and Deadpool | Political Jesus·

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