For far too long, mainstream comic book superheroes were all white, or occasionally some exotic alien color like green or orange. The only time people of color showed up were as comedic sidekicks, or as victims of crime or perpetrators of it — they were never characters in their own right, and they certainly didn’t get to be heroes. Fortunately, this began to change around the mid-’60s, and racial diversity in comics continues to increase and improve to this day. It has not, however, been a smooth journey, and this list showcases some of the more heinous displays of racism from throughout comic book history.
To be clear, this list is not about profiling poorly portrayed characters of color; it is all about white heroes — heroes who have sworn solemn oaths to protect all life and who you’d expect to be more thoughtful than most — who have chosen to interpret “all men are created equal” rather more loosely than modern audiences are comfortable with. We absolutely do not condone any of the words spoken or actions taken by the characters in this article, but we do feel it’s important to remember where we’ve been to help make sure that we never go back there.
15. THE PUNISHER’S ANTI-RACISM PSA
We’ll admit that the Punisher does not have the squeaky-clean image that superheroes tend to, but generally speaking, we’re still supposed to look past his ultra-violent tendencies and support him in his mission to avenge his family’s deaths and end crime in New York. What we cannot look past, however, is the time he got plastic surgery that temporarily turned his skin black.
Punisher immediately uses this deeply uncomfortable turn of events to teach the readers about how much tougher the police tend to be on black people versus white people. Because obviously this type of story is better told with a white character in blackface than an actual black character, even though Luke Cage was a guest star in these issues and probably would have been happy to tell us the exact same thing without the bonus racism.
In Batman #56, the Dynamic Duo is visited by the president of the fictional Latin American country of Mantegua, who wants them to stop the notorious bandit El Papagayo, which translates to “the Parrot.” How does the president want them to do this? Fly all the way to Mantegua, train a Manteguan man to be a crimefighter, call the new hero Bat-Hombre and stick him in costume that looks exactly like the Batman costume, but with what may or may not be a Mexican serape draped over it instead of a cape. Naturally, Batman has no problems with this completely practical plan.
As for the icing on the cake, it turns out that the man who was trained to be Bat-Hombre, Luis Peralda, was working for El Papagayo the whole time, and to take them both down, Batman has to don the utterly ridiculous Bat-Hombre costume himself.
13. GREEN ARROW MISSES THE MARK
The war bonnet is an incredibly important object among Plains Indians and should only be worn by those who have earned the right to do so. Too bad no one told that to Green Arrow. True to his image as a champion of the little people, in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79, GA takes a stand against land developers attempting to steal lumber belonging to the local Native Americans.
While Green Lantern puts his faith in the government to smooth things over, apparently unaware of the government’s abysmal track record when it comes to protecting indigenous rights, Green Arrow dons an all-yellow bodysuit and a war bonnet to physically fight off anyone who gets too close to the contested land. It’s clear Green Arrow means well, but there are far better ways of sticking up for your beliefs than cultural appropriation.
12. WONDER WOMAN HATES THE JAPANESE
Witty banter and clever insults are what we’ve come to expect from a superhero during any halfway decent fight. But sometimes, especially at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the ’40s, those insults could turn into something a whole lot uglier. No hero was immune, not even Wonder Woman, who is seen here merrily contributing to the pervasive dehumanization of the Japanese by referring to her opponents as yellow dogs.
We understand that war is not nice, but using war as an excuse to indulge in racism and perpetuate the idea that an entire ethnic group is comprised of nothing but malicious subhuman monsters is inexcusable. Hopefully, Wonder Woman and every other superhero who stooped to this kind of thinking has since realized that racism and xenophobia are not acceptable ways of contributing to a war effort.
11. NAMOR ALSO HATES THE JAPANESE
During World War II, virtually every superhero in existence devoted at least a few issues to assisting the Allies. This included the Sub-Mariner, who agrees to help the U.S. Navy identify the source of the fake periscopes that keep popping up around their ships and forcing them to waste ammunition on non-existent submarines. To accomplish this, Sub-Mariner knocks out a Japanese sailor and pretends to be Japanese by pushing out his front teeth.
We suppose you could try to argue that, as a member of a different culture, Subby didn’t realize that his actions were spectacularly offensive to us landlubbers, but the fact that he spouts racial slurs the entire time pretty much puts paid to the idea that he’s an innocent in all this. He knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t care one bit.
10. CAPTAIN MARVEL, AKA RASTUS WASHINGTON BROWN
In Whiz Comics #12, Captain Marvel, in his civilian identity of Billy Batson, attempts to get onto an American-bound refugee ship that the “gnatzis” have threatened to blow up en route. Rebuffed by the man in charge of the refugees, Billy decides to disguise himself as a passenger and slip aboard.
This would be a perfectly fine idea, if said disguise did not involve Billy smearing his face with cork and calling himself “Rastus Washington Brown of Alabam,” complete with a cringe-inducing fake “black” speech pattern. Gee, it’s too bad Billy didn’t already have a built-in ability to disguise himself… one that would completely alter his appearance without the use of racist jokes… one that he would only need to shout a single word and find an overcoat to employ… oh, wait.
9. WASP WANTS YOU TO SHUSH
You don’t need to do something as egregious as blackface to be racist. Sometimes, all it takes is a single insensitive comment. In Avengers #73, that comment came from the Wasp after she witnesses a debate in which racist TV personality Dan Dunn belittles, insults and talks over his opponent, Montague Hale, who is black. Dunn then praises a black female guest for “knowing her place” when she expresses disinterest in politics.
Wasp complains that Hale was “less than civil” to Dunn, even though, again, Dunn spent all of his air time insulting Hale and black people in general, while Hale managed to keep relatively calm. Hale even visibly bit his tongue at least twice to keep things from escalating. Wasp may not share Dunn’s violent tendencies, but she clearly shares his vile opinion that black people should shut up and accept whatever abuse racists dish out.
8. “BATMAN, INDIAN CHIEF!”
In Batman #86, Batman and Robin meet their Native American counterparts, Chief Man-of-the-Bats and Little Raven, who were so inspired by their exploits that they decided to become bat-and bird-themed crimefighters themselves. Their secret identities are in jeopardy thanks to a nosy fellow named Black Elk, which is unfortunately also the name of an actual person, specifically, a Lakota holy man who died four years before this comic came out. Because there wasn’t enough questionable content in this comic, right?
To protect his identity, Batman agrees to pose as Chief Man-of-the-Bats. He does this in precisely the way you’d expect, with a war bonnet and red make-up that is presumably meant to mimic his counterpart’s skin tone but instead makes him look like Man-of-the-Lobsters. Somehow, Black Elk is fooled by the blatantly white man in the hideous face paint and ceases his campaign to figure out Man-of-the-Bats’ identity.
7. B’WANNA BEAST: WHITE SAVIOR
There are a depressing number of comic book heroes who fit into the White Savior trope—the idea that people of color can’t function without a white person swooping in to save the day—but few exemplify this trope quite so well as B’wana Beast.
As his origin story shows, his real name is Mike Maxwell, a white guy who crashed his plane in Tanzania and almost immediately became magnitudes more powerful than the locals, to the point where he was dubbed the White God of Kilimanjaro. Eventually, Maxwell seemed to realize that it was not his place to be a “white god,” so he turned the source of his powers over to a black South African named Dominic Mndawe, who chose the moniker Freedom Beast.
6. HULK WEARS BLACKFACE
Lest you begin to think that superheroes were only racist in the distant past, here’s an example from 1995. Desperate for money, the Hulk agrees to join a baseball team, the Sunville Pistols, in exchange for a quarter of a million dollars. Up to this point, he’d been concealing his distinctive green skin with bandages over his face and hands.
But he now decides that’s not good enough for some reason, so his girlfriend Betty suggests he darken his skin with makeup. Why? Well, apparently darkening is easier than lightening, and Betty doesn’t feel like putting in the extra effort right now. It’s a shame, because this issue could have been quite fun if not for the terrible and pointless “ha, ha we’re so politically incorrect” gag.
5. GREEN LANTERN IS A BAD FRIEND
As we mentioned before, in the ’60s comic books started adding more characters of color. Sadly, the writers’ adherence to age-old stereotypes often ruined these attempts at diversity, and that includes the addition of Tom Kalmaku to Green Lantern’s cast of side characters. Kalmaku, who is of Inuit descent, works as a mechanic at Ferris Aircraft. He knows about Hal Jordan’s superheroics and not only keeps his secret, but also helps him on various missions.
And how does Green Lantern thank Kalmaku for his discretion and assistance? By continually referring to him as “Pieface”. Why does he do this? Because hearing that Kalmaku was Inuit reminded Jordan of Eskimo pies. And here we would have thought that Kalmaku’s long history as a hard worker, a noble hero and, you know, a human being would have earned him the right to be called by his actual name.
4. IRON MAN VS THE N WORD
In Marville #2, both Iron Man and Black Panther show up to stop a man who stole money from the time-traveling son of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Please don’t ask why — this is Marville and there are no answers. During the fight, Iron Man talks about how great it is that he can underpay Mexican factory workers.
He then starts to say the N word, but Panther stops him — not because Iron Man was about to use a racial slur but because others might take offense at his language. Yup, that’s the entire joke. Fortunately, this happened in Marville and is therefore not canon, but that doesn’t change the egregiousness of the offense, or the fact that Black Panther isn’t up in arms at the knowledge that his long-time friend and fellow Avenger is okay with mistreating people both in word and in deed.
3. THE LEGION OF SEGREGATIONISTS
One would hope that, by the time we get to the 3oth century, racism will be, if not eliminated, much less of an issue than it is today. Sadly, the future presented by the Legion of Super-Heroes shows a very different, considerably less pleasant destiny for humanity. In Superboy #216, we learn that, one thousand years from now, all black people will be living by themselves — segregated, if you will — on an island barred to white people.
The hero of this island is Tyroc, whose main claims to fame are his hilarious outfit and his hatred for all white people. Much has been made of the fact that the first black person in a Legion comic was a racial separatist, as well it should, but we should also remember how the Legionnaires seem to have no moral qualms about their racially divided society and no real desire to change it.
2. BATMAN: RACIAL PROFILER
Batman really doesn’t like people of color, does he? We’ve already seen how little he thinks of Native Americans and Latinos, so it should come as no surprise that he has zero respect for African Americans. In this example from the Golden Age of comics and/or racism, we see the Dark Knight bashing in the heads of a couple of black men and then kicking them off a moving train.
When asked why he did so, Batman replies that they were walking on top of a railway car and that this was enough to warrant investigating, and by investigating he means killing them without even asking what’s going on. As it turns out, the Africans were trying to rescue “Goliath,” a massively tall caveman that a white man kidnapped and dragged back to America for science. The World’s Greatest Detective, everyone!
1. WOLVERINE DISSES ALL OF AFRICA
In Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis, the X-Men head to the fictional African nation of Mbangawi to investigate the appearance of a potential new mutant. This prompts Wolverine to start griping that Africa, a continent consisting of over one billion people and over 50 countries, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He even says flat-out that every single African leader in history has been a crazy person.
While it would have been amusing for Black Panther, King of Wakanda, to pop by right about then and demand an explanation for this nonsense, Wolvie does give his blatantly xenophobic spiel within hearing distance of Storm, who spent much of her life in Egypt and Kenya and should therefore be perfectly aware that Africa is not the monolith of misery that Western news media and Christmas charity singles make it out to be.
Which of these offenses are the worst to you? Let us know in the comments!
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