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‘White Scripts and Black Supermen’

Professor discusses comic book characters at conference

Jonathan Gayles, a professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, gives a recent presentation, “White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books” at Northern Michigan University. The event was part of NMU’s UNITED Conference. UNITED stands for Uniting Neighbors in The Experience Of Diversity. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Comic books probably aren’t considered by many to be literary beacons of social conscience. Yet, there could be hidden biases on their pages whose intent is to entertain.

“White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books” was the title of a presentation given by Jonathan Gayles, a professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, Tuesday at the University Center at Northern Michigan University. The event was part of NMU’s 13th Annual UNITED Conference, with UNITED standing for Uniting Neighbors In The Experience Of Diversity.

Reading comic books was part of Gayles’ childhood.

“I felt that I was dreaming someone else’s dreams, imagining myself through someone else’s imagination,” he said.

Comic books also had provided him with a kind of escape as a young person.

(Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

As Gayles matured, however, the relative dearth of African-American superheroes frustrated him, and eventually he discarded his comic books because of the absence of this representation.

“The reality of my status as a black male brought me back to Earth, and comic books came to represent the weight of race and the politics of representation or the lack thereof,” Gayles said.

He discussed the character Luke Cage, “Hero for Hire,” a fictional superhero appearing in Marvel Comics that he discovered on a rack of comic books.

“He was immediately my hero,” Gayles said. “Not Thor, not Captain America, not Spider-Man, none of those guys. Not Flash.”

He connected with Luke Cage.

Luke Cage is a Marvel Comics character and was included in the presentation.

“He was a black male, and I was a black male, and this was empowering for me,” Gayles said. “Although it was difficult for me to get my hands on the issues regularly, Luke Cage was my first black superhero, and I loved him.”

In fact, the character brought him back to comic books.

“Luke Cage represented in many ways the genesis of my affection for comics and my re-entry as an academic to the genre after my adolescent frustration and departure from comic books,” Gayles said.

About a decade ago, he came across a Luke Cage publication in Atlanta.

Ten days later, Gayles was reading it at his kitchen table.

“I looked up and said out loud, ‘This “beep” is racist,'” Gayles said. “I was struck by what I saw in Luke Cage. I was stunned, even hurt.”

He now believes Luke Cage was a problematic character.

“First of all, he was a hero for hire,” Gayles said. “What’s Superman’s salary?”

Gayles pointed to a particular panel that demonstrated that point.

The panel quoted Cage as saying: “I’m even better when someone’s paying me.”

That, Gayles said, differentiated this comic hero from others.

“When others were fighting for the sake of the universe, he was worried about paying bills,” Gayles said. “He was bound to Harlem, which was represented as this black, urban, exotic wasteland.”

He attributed missing some of these points because of what he called his “black masculine blindness.”

“I wanted and needed representation in the superhero domain so badly that I ignored everything,” Gayles said.

He showed a video clip of Julian Chambliss, a teacher-scholar and Michigan State University professor of English, talking about the Falcon, an African-American superhero who had mechanical wings.

The Falcon originally was depicted as a savior of exploited villagers, but in the late 1970s, it was discovered the character was a pawn of the Red Skull, an enemy of Captain America, he said.

“I always feel like that at some point somebody somewhere might have said to these people, to the writers, ‘Look, you know, do you think it might be problematic to make the origin of the first African-American superhero a crazed Nazi white supremacist?'” Chambliss said.

Eventually, the Falcon and Captain America reconcile as a duo and fight the Red Skull, although Samuel Wilson — the Falcon’s real name — ends up having a parole officer, Chambliss said.

Gayles started to notice a trend among black and African-American comic book characters.

“Why we they being represented in ways that undermine their superhero potential and invoked common stereotypes?” Gayles said. “Why did Black Lightning live in a place called Suicide Slum?”

Racism was an insufficient answer for Gayles.

“White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books” also is the title of his documentary, and in preparing his documentary, he noticed the growing examination of the comics book genre.

Gayles mentioned an opinion expressed by Jeffrey A. Brown, author of “Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans,” that resonated with him: If the black male body is already culturally described as an example of proper masculinity, then the combination of a black male superhero runs the risk of turning into a “potentially threatening cluster of masculine signifiers.”

The misperceptions can intrude into the everyday world.

“The point is that comic books do not exist in a vacuum,” Gayles said.

So, how can those misperceptions of “black masculinities” in comic books disappear?

“The kind of vigilance that’s required to move beyond white scripts is exhausting and frustrating,” Gayles said.

He acknowledged there is progress, but people have a tendency to invoke the familiar.

Gayles is the father of two girls, giving him a sense of why this vigilance is important now more than ever.

“They have a right to their dreams, as do we all,” Gayles said.