On Friday, June 24, I visited Midtown Comics in New York City and picked up the batch of seven comic books I reserved two days earlier.
One of them was Dark Horse’s “Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out” #6, featuring Lady Danger: Agent of B.O.O.T.I., written by Alex de Campi, illustrated by Mulele Jarvis and colored by Marissa Louise. The second part of the introduction of the Black female superhero secret agent Lady Danger, the tongue-in-cheek story used various references from Black culture to help inform and support the lead character’s ethnicity.
Another book was Valiant Entertainment’s “Imperium” #5, the science fiction series written by Joshua Dysart. Illustrated by Scot Eaton and colored by Brian Reber, one of the more mysterious and dangerous characters in the story is Angela Peace Baingana, the Chief Science Officer for a government organization called Project Rising Spirit. Angela is seemingly killed and invaded by an alien intelligence, and reborn/repurposed as a superbeing devoted to scientific exploration without waste or morality.
Angela is Black, quite possibly Ugandan, as her last name may be a nod to Doreen Baingana, the author and editor. Doreen is Ugandan, and the writer of “Imperium,” Joshua Dysart, lived in Uganda for some time.
A third book was DC Comics’ “Grayson” #9… but I’ll get back to that later.
On Saturday, June 25, when my friend, DJ Ben Hameen from The Fan Bros Show podcast suggested I pick up Marvel Comics’ “The Infinity Gauntlet” starring a Black family armed with the technology of the Nova Corps, I decided to do it.
Within two hours, I visited my neighborhood store Bulletproof Comics, and picked up the first issue. The store had already sold out of the second issue, which was released only three days before.
The store’s owner, whom I blame for getting me hooked on Image Comics’ “Southern Bastards” by creators Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, convinced me to buy the second volume of the Image Comics series.
He didn’t have to try hard, because I love the series.
Spoiler alert ahead, because it’s the right thing to do.
After sweeping through “Southern Bastards” in record time, I was thrilled to see that Roberta Tubb, the Black daughter of the main and slain character of volume 1, Earl Tubb, was prepping to head home to see her father.
Roberta’s parentage was slickly revealed in one panel of the first volume of “Southern Bastards,” in a way that catches your eye, speaks to the real point of view of memory, and enhances the cliffhanger shocks of Roberta’s presence in the storyline populated almost exclusively by White characters.
But the real event of that day, Saturday, June 25, 2015, happened in the morning, before I had the time to acquire and read all of the aforementioned comic books.
Writer, musician, and activist Bree Newsome climbed up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia, SC, and pulled down the Confederate flag. In response to the mass murder in Charleston, SC on June 17 of Black churchgoers, on the part of a man with admitted racist ideologies, and the aftermath of that murder, a Black woman who believed in the power of action took action, and became a hero to many and a symbol.
This confluence of events, in the real world and the fictional world, the repeated exposure to Black woman in comic books produced by the three top American comic book publishers, resonated with me…
…and took me back to DC Comics’ “Grayson” series co-starring Helena Bertinelli, the Afro-Italian assassin.
In the ninth issue of the series, Helena reveals herself to the secret powers running the world as the head of Spyral, the secret organization for which she works. She killed the former Spyral leader in a previous issue.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I expressed doubt about Helena Bertinelli’s ethnic background as an Afro-Italian woman.
I read every issue of the series and saw no mention of anything telling me that was so, or anything in her life helping to support that.
I expressed my belief that the publisher of “Grayson” was taking advantage of the character aesthetic as a way to be both non-committal and exploitative of the growing marketability of interracial couples.
The day my column hit the net, “Grayson” co-writer Tim Seeley reached out publicly on Twitter, where we had a debate that moved off Twitter to e-mail, in an attempt to lead to a phone conversation.
Tim and I never had that conversation, but our correspondence revealed two men who were respectful and casual with each other, but with lives too packed to easily connect.
During this time, I thought about the need for exposition on character and ethnicity.
A few weeks previous, an editor from a website made a great point about the recent revelation of the DC Comics’ character Catwoman being bisexual.
As a former Batman editor and huge fan of Selina Kyle, the woman under the costume, I felt I knew she was bisexual years ago.
The editor’s point is that it was important for this to be on stage, to be shown and not just figured out.
I agreed without hesitation.
Images are important.
Two women kissing each other in a comic book, interestingly enough months before the United States Supreme Court legalized marriage between two people of the same gender, is a significant image.
A Black woman pulling a flag off of a pole, in front of a government house, a flag that represents prejudice and hatred, is a significant image.
Is the image of a woman that is apparently Black enough?
Is there need for exposition, and is that realistic? Is exposition of culture a crutch that limits the writer?
Is the expectation of such exposition in a series of mysteries, lies, deception and the power that image has on all three realistic?
For many people yes, for others, no.
Do I still believe that the publisher is capable of and, indeed, exploiting the visual iconography of an interracial couple to enhance sales?
Do I believe the publisher allows for the visual impact of diversity as, in part, a means by which to increase profits during a time when diversity is peaking?
Whether or not I believe the publisher has a moral ethos that supersedes its corporate ethos doesn’t matter right now.
I may not believe in the publisher.
But I do believe in Tim Seeley, the writer.
I believe in his effort and intentions, in his desire to use an opportunity and platform of visibility to expand the diversity of the landscape.
So to Tim Seeley, I apologize, and to co-writer Tom King, and artist Mikel Janin and colorist Jeremy Cox.
You know the road of Helena Bertinelli better than I, and so I’ll stick around for a while and let you lead me to wherever it goes.
If I make it to her origin, then I’ll be back, right here, and I’ll write about the revelations of the mysterious woman with power and excellent aim.
And I won’t hold back.
After all, I’m a comic book fan.
Holding back is not in our DNA.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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