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Comics and the Black Diaspora: New film may dispel stereotypes


That comic books are part and parcel of the coming of age to generations of adolescents is a given. Comics have played a part in the maturation of the marginalized in America as well, albeit in a round about manner. As with all forms of popular culture, depictions of minorities, be they Chinese, Hispanics, Japanese, or Jews, have been subject to the ruling class’ perception of a racial “other.”

Comics have never pretended to be an accurate depiction of life; indeed, their message is hinged on caricature and exaggeration. None-the-less, representations of the early 20th century newspapers almost exclusively imparted offensive images of people of color. With the century progressing on to a “kinder, gentler nation” (from George H.W. Bush’s Aug. 18, 1988 acceptance of the Presidential nomination), these ethnic renderings have taken on a more humane, politically correct approach.

Pop Foundations

Around the mid century, the comic genre of superhero adventures dominated by the twin titans of DC and Marvel comics evolved into the dominate offering of child/young adult leisure reading. In the process, a curious division of allegiance occurred between the two powerhouses within the inner city. Scores of youngsters indulged in these pastimes, with a select few retaining these interests which impacted their adult careers.

According to author Gary Phillips, who grew up in South Los Angeles during this time, Marvel comics resonated more with youngsters coming up south of Pico Boulevard. H remembers that “DC had “silly-ass adventures” involving characters that may have been suitable for kids in the white picket fence environs of West L.A. or Orange County, but failed to “meet the mark” to aficionados down in the ‘hood.

On the other hand, the plots devised by Marvel were grounded in reality, exemplified by Spiderman, whose alter ego Peter Parker worried about gainful employment to help support his elderly Aunt May, his inability to secure female companionship, and the relentless bullying by his nemesis, Flash Thompson. As Phillips remembers, these yarn9 attracted the attentions of he and his peers since “…even a super hero had his draw backs.”

In spite of the outlandish enemies they encounter, Marvel’s creations were grounded in reality in ways not immediately recognized. Its creative master minds, artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee contrived a group of outcast teenagers who differed from their peers by virtue of an alteration of the structure of the chromosomes in their DNA. To describe them, they borrowing a biological term, “mutants,” and titled the comic “X-Men.”

These mutations resulted in their possession of special individual abilities, which in turn made them superheroes, viewed with derision and fear, and ostracized and persecuted by the rest of humanity. These conditions spawned comparisons to the plight of America’s ethnic minorities and the Civil Rights Movement, and the leading characters, diplomatic Charles Xavier (aka Professor X), and his former friend, militant Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) were viewed as fictional counterparts to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Across the country in the now forgotten Edgemere Projects in the New York borough of Queens, Michael Davis came of age as a “latch key” kid. Finding himself alone with 30 cents and the desire for entertainment to ease his loneliness, he bought a copy of “The Avengers” #43, and purchased it (thinking it was an off shoot of the popular “Avengers” T.V. series starting Patrick Mcnee and Diana Rigg).

The start of this new literary pastime enabled the fourth grader to raise his reading level from the second grade to the eighth within the span of a year.

Marvel also introduced an addition to their best selling Avengers series, a king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda called T’Challa aka the superhero, the “Black Panther.” The Black Panther eventually gained his on self tilted comic, and married a member of the X-Men, African sorceresses named Ororo Munroe, aka “Storm” in May 1975.

Adilifu Nama, a Cleveland native, moved west to Hawthrone at the age 9, and also became engrossed in the comic medium. Like Davis, he was a fan of the Black Panther and “Captain America,” but also Marvel characters like the Falcon and Luke Cage. The transition into high school and its various social “clichés” gave way to basketball and the hip-hop culture.

Rites of Passage

Moving on to college at Cal State Long Beach, Nama’s tastes transitioned to science fiction and the writings of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. While enjoyable, his main gripe with this genre was the failure to identify,( i.e. one did not see one’s self in these books or films). Cris crossing the coasts for graduate school, first at Howard University, and then back home to USC, he set his sights on a doctrine mixing film, race, and media in general. In following these pursuits, he had an epiphany of sorts with the release of “The Matrix” circa 1999.

For Nama, this was the “…first Black science fiction film,” in that it spoke to him personally. The characters of Neo (Keanu Reeves), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Oracle (Gloria Foster) infused his career as a scholar on the college level, first at Cal State Northridge, and now at Loyola Marymount University where he is a professor of African American Studies. A successful author, his bibliography includes “Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film,” the first book to look at science fiction in terms of addressing the implications of racial discourse.

This was followed by “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes,” an attempt to look at the Black presence in main stream comics from a perspective other then that of the main stream. His third book, “Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino,” focuses on the filmography of this landmark director.

Next up is a treatise on the flamboyant cross-dressing, gender bending, hyper sexual musician titled “Prince and Race.” he eagerly awaits the premiere of “Black Panther.”

“Man, I cannot wait for that film to get on the big screen across the country!” he declares, admitting he plans to see it several times to properly critique its merits.

Phillips’ interest in the visual medium continued in his pursuit of a degree in graphics at Cal State Los Angeles. While there, he segued into the activist movement sweeping the country, contributing posters and what not in and around the campus. Moving on to the labor force, he engaged in several non-profit organizations while writing in his spare time. Outside of comics, a major influence was the pulp literature he devoured, including the gritty African American literature of the Holloway House Publishing imprint. Operating out of its Melrose Avenue. office, it marketed Black crime writers like Donald Goines, Joseph Nazel, and the iconic Iceberg Slim in a new genre called “urban fiction.”

He purchased these inner city gems locally at Hall’s Bookmark on Santa Barbara (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Rodeo Road, and at World Book and News in Hollywood.

Keeping his “day job,” Phillips’ publishing debut came with “Violent Spring” (1994), a political mystery infused by the turmoil from the 1992 riot/uprising with private detective Ivan Monk looking into the firebombing of a Korean owned business. Monk’s exploits have become a series, and Phillips’background in activism and social consciousness continues in his writings, in short stories, hardcover, comics, and anthologies.