She Can Fly: On Writing (and Borrowing) Race

As is the cyclical temperament of comics news, there often seems to be a thematic nature to topics covered by the media; sometimes it’s harassment in the industry, other times the use of religion or sexuality. More often than not, some aspect of the conversation rotates around the presentation, and representation of gender and race.

Race has been the most recent hot button issues, and not without good reason. Both Marvel Comics and BOOM! Studios (among others) have been dealing with harsh criticism, the former for the upcoming hip hop variant covers for a number of #1’s for the All-New All-Different Marvel, and the latter for a title about racism in the Southern 1920s that’s created by two white men and has been heavily critiqued online.

Mark Waid is one of the two creators behind BOOM!’s Strange Fruit, set in Mississippi in 1927, alongside JG Jones. The first issue was released earlier in July and caused a bit of an uproar online. Many questioned if it was right for two white creators to be writing: could it be considered appropriation? Are these men able to do justice to a story so mired in a cultural heritage that neither one possesses? Still others asserted that the first issue of Strange Fruit, and likely the story as a whole, is less about the black (superpowered alien) main character and more about the white men around him, and in that lies the greatest fault of the series: it’s a story being told by people who have never had that kind of racial life experience. Some journalists who reviewed the first issue negatively even said they were blocked on Twitter by Waid after attempting to converse with him about the series.

In an interview at SDCC, Waid responded to some of the controversy:

We’re in a social media era where there are so many people who didn’t have a voice for a long, long time, and suddenly they have a voice, and they’re eager to use it, and that is awesome…What I say about this is not what’s important. What’s important is what other people who don’t have the privilege that I have want to say. That’s what’s important, and I have to listen. And I would be lying to you if I said it’s easy, but I’m willing to try.

Waid has thus far gracefully avoided the accusation of his blocking reviewers on Twitter, as well as any direct acknowledgment of the critique of JA Micheline of Women Write About Comics, who later stated, “it’s black people who suffer when white readers think that racism is only enacted a certain way.”

But it’s not just the more independent publishers that are facing criticism regarding their handling of race when it comes to creators and content. Many online have cited Marvel’s hip hop homage covers as tone deaf, when you consider the fact that no black creators (a statement that is actually factually inaccurate) were involved in any of the titles. When this point was raised to Tom Brevoort on Formspring, Brevoort essentially responded that the two were unrelated:

Anonymous asked: Can you explain why Marvel thinks that doing hip hop varients is a good idea, when absolutely no announced writers or artists on the new Marvel titles, as of now, are black? Wouldn’t correcting the latter be a much better idea than the former?

Brevoortformspring answered: What does one have to do with the other, really?

It’s there that the intrinsic problem lies: hip hop is historically a huge part of black culture. Hip hop would not exist if not for the specific racial cultures from which it was born.

One fantastic opinion piece by CBR’s Joseph Illidge offers up that this blindness to such an iconic part of specifically racial culture is derivative of the fact that Marvel’s upper management never had real personal experiences with hip hop as an art or culture. Hip hop is not a genre of music that only one race or culture can enjoy, but it is something that has to be experienced individually to be understood (as with all music).

And, yes, white rappers are a thing (as are white jazz musicians), but they exists as artists who are referencing those who came before them with sincerity and love. Most rappers, race-regardless, cite artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, NWA, Public Enemy, and Run DMC (to name a very, very few) as their inspirations and a driving force behind creating art. While there still is an aspect of appropriation to consider—it’s a fine line that many artists tread, and some may continue to wonder how Miley Cyrus twerking is appropriation while Nicki Minaj is not—the overall issue really seems to be that Marvel’s hip hop covers, regardless of how much one might appreciate the artistic aspect of them, seem to be missing that sincerity and that love of people who have a closer connection to that music.

That said, Marvel’s move with the hip hop variants is a money making one, which begs the question, can you market and sell culture? (The honest answer may be yes, as even hip hop itself is often based on selling product—records, clothing, drinks, identity—nowadays.)

Furthermore, in the light of these situations, some may wonder something like: Why doesn’t Kelly Sue Deconnick get flack on a title like Bitch Planet? A subversion of 70s exploitation films that features primarily women of color, Bitch Planet is penned by a white woman, who, while she does represent a minority (albeit a white one), does not have that experience of the racial culture she is writing about.

Except, Deconnick has taken measures to engage in dialogues about her work:

Deconnick is engaged in a dialogue with her artist, Valentine De Landro (a person of color), the women who write essays in the back of each Bitch Planet issue, including activist Assata Shakur, writer and editor Danielle Henderson, and opinion editor Megan Carpentier (many of whom are women of color), and the fans of the comic, both male and female, and of various races.

Unlike Brevoort or Waid, Deconnick appears to engage in critique, and responds to it through various social media platforms. While the women of Bitch Planet may not all be white, the story is entirely about them, and not focused on their oppressors (which seems to be the major complaint about Strange Fruit). The women are presented in a way that respects their identity—they are show with different body types, different skin colors, and different personalities—while still pointing out the struggles they face, and the flawed system in which they live.

Bitch Planet pointedly works to involve people of color in the book. A comic book, at its basest, is the sum of its parts; and while projects like Strange Fruit and Marvel’s variants seem to lack parts that connect with the characters, or culture, that is being presented, some might argue that the stories and art are being presented respectfully and offering exposure to something that isn’t always seen in comic books, presented by a party of privilege.

The debate is an emotional one, and, ultimately, there is no easy or hard-and-fast rule to who has a right to tell the story, or create the art, that they want to. However, it’s important to take into account the significance of culture and race when it comes to art. “I do it to support the art/What good is learnin’ from some record/When y’all only listen to 15 seconds?”

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