Sunday, October 16, 2016

BAEM! POW! Comics get diverse (part 2)

A continued history of BAME/BAEM representation in 2000AD
(read Part 1 here)

Art by Riot
Into the late 1980s, Britain (and the world in general I suppose) had moved on enough that the media was wise to the fact that there was (and still is) a problem with representation. They even wanted to do something about it! Two key concerns seemed to be a) There’s not nearly enough diversity on the page (or screen, for that matter), and b) what there is too often falls into lazy stereotyping. 

Ignoring, of course, root problem c) There aren't nearly enough people of colour in relevant creative jobs, and more especially, in jobs that get to commission and publish creative work. (I mean, anyone can be a creator, but you gotta earn money and get your work seen).

The initial solution, as tried at this time? Just make more characters black, asian, whatever. An imperfect solution, to be sure, relatively rapidly improved upon by remembering that no one is generically ‘black’ or ‘asian’ – all people do actually have specific roots and personal stories. Even white people! Sometimes a person’s ethnicity doesn’t matter to a story, but sometimes it does, and finding this balance is a challenge that today’s creators are generally getting better at. Says the over-privileged white boy.

Anyway, here’s how 2000AD, Crisis and the Judge Dredd Megazine attempted the tightrope walk in the 80s and 90s.

Strontium Dog gets its first black character, Prime Minister Leroy, who crops up in the Royal Affair (Progs 532-536). (I’m willing to be there were other minority characters before and since, but for the life of me I can’t think of particular examples; and perhaps wrongly I'm overlooking those titans of UK/Irish mutanthood, Middenface McNulty, Spud Murphy and Evans the Fist).

Words by Wagner & Grant; Art by Carlos Ezquerra
(and the second in a soon to be long line of Wagner-penned black men in leadership roles)
Books II and III of Bad Company (Progs 548-557; 576-585) introduced a new wave of characters, this time including Sheeva, who presumably has Indian heritage of some sort, or else is appropriating something rotten.
Art by Ewins and J. McCarthy

Tribal Memories (Progs 585-588), in part a riff on Brave New World, delivers a host of black characters, notably protagonist and narrator Mohamed Robinson and the unnamed Maasai he brings to show off to his friends. Proper grown up if typically pretentious storytelling, and sadly over all too soon.

Words by Peter Milligan; Art by Riot.
And so to Crisis, editor Steve MacManus's attempt to sell comics to grown ups and Americans. It also had a reputation for being 'right on', which was in part a reference to its efforts, noble ones I think, to bring in some ethnic diversity to its pages.

New Statesmen (Issues 1-12) had a deliberate ethnic mix across its superhero Statesmen (with one for each US State - it’d be outrageous otherwise), and puts two of them, Cleve and Meridian, front and centre on the cover and in the pages.
Art by Sean Phillips
Third World War (pretty much in every issue of Crisis) stars Eve, on the cover of issue 1 no less. And the story itself was about multinational, but basically US/European companies exploiting third world countries, so lots of characters from all over crop up.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra

Words by Pat Mills; Art by Carlos Ezquerra
(in case you’re curious, Eve also showed up in 2000AD many years later in Finn (specifically, Progs 924-949), another character originally from TWW).

Words by Pat Mills; Art by Paul Staples
Book 2 of Third World War (Issues 20-36), co-written by Pat Mills and Alan Mitchell (one of a very small number of black authors in Thargian publications), went many steps further. It was less about gathering diverse characters (which TWW book 1 had pointedly done) and more about depicting the experience, or rather, an experience, of black British youth in London. The bits of it that I’ve read were confusing as hell, but I wouldn’t accuse it of being worthy or boring. It’s certainly a strip I’d love to see collected so I can read it again in one go, which might lend it more coherence.



Back in the prog, by this point it’s becoming more common to see BAME faces in the background of strips, especially places like Mega City 1 which is full of crowd scenes. Too many, I think, to highlight every last one, but here are some specific major characters:

Inspector Sadu, from Our man in Hondo (Progs 608-611), who in himself is a proper character representing a future Japan which is realized reasonably well. It’s the narrator of the story that cops some deserved flak for the ‘so sorry’ patina. Again, I enjoyed this at the time; feel guilty about that now. Sadu went on to greater glory in Judgement Day.

Words by Wagner; Art by MacNeil
(Glossing over the generic South Americans from Cuidad Barranquila, from the unbelievably named tale Banana City (Progs 623-625), whose raisin d’etre is to be a city governed by hideously corrupt Judges. Mind you, this original story is 98% less racist than the Sugar Beat, a second Cuidad Barranquila tale from some years later)

Three significant young black heroes debuted at the same time, all under the pen of John Wagner: 

Young Giant, son of (don’t ask) the previous Judge Giant. His opening story (progs 651-655) is one of my all-time faves, and his exploits continued into Necropolis, and then periodically ever since.

Words by John Wagner; Art by Carlos Ezquerra
Yassa Povey, friend of the Dead Man (Progs 650-662), seen here smiling (a rare bit of levity), and then being comforted by his mum and dad after being scared half to death (his normal state as this chilling tale goes on.)
Words by John Wagner; Art by John Ridgway

And finally Sonny Williams, the British tyro who gets to be a hero (of sorts) in Song of the Surfer (Progs 654-665):

Words by John Wagner; Art by Colin MacNeil
The same story also features Smokie, an aborigine buddy of Chopper’s, who can’t quite avoid being a ‘magical negro’, but just about manages to be an intriguing and funny soul in his own right. (See also Wagner’s earlier work on Monster, which features a far less stereotypical native Australian at the end),

Wagner 'n' MacNeil
as well as Stig's right-hand woman.
Wagner 'n' MacNeil
and a host of ethnicities from around the world foolish enough to compete in Supersurf 12.

Around this time readers were ‘treated’ to a revamp of the Harlem Heroes (Progs 671-705). I guess it was a good idea not to go back to the Harlem Globetrotters / future sports well, but it seems a little sad to take a team of six black characters and come back with a team featuring just one black character, Deacon, (even if he is the leader) or possibly two, depending on who was drawing Patrice at the time.
Art by Steve Dillon

Art by Kevin Walker
Art by Kev Hopgood
I’ll also give a shout out here to Armoured Gideon’s Frank Weitz (series 1 in Progs 671-681), who I’m guessing is the comic’s first openly Jewish hero (I can’t remember if that’s actually made explicit, but based on the name, being a New Yorker, and the Old Testament symbolism inherent in the Gideon/Jerubaal storyline, it’s strongly implied.)

Words by John Tomlinson; Art by Simon Jacob
Indigo Prime delivers Director Vista in Prog 678 (later to return in the much more recent Anthropocalypse story)
Words by John Smith; Art by Chris Weston
Tharg was trying so hard to be diverse he even got in on the game himself. Or maybe he was just caught up in that thing around 1990 when white people of a certain age very much equated 'being black' with 'being cool'. (Of course Tharg’s Quaxxanian really, and in many ways all things to all Earthlets).

Art by Zac Sandler

At long last, the far East gets its due with a real person: a protagonist and cover star no less, Thai dancer Tao de Moto (Progs 723-749). And a proper villain too, in sleazy Japanese (I think?) businessman Sopalco. Shame the story attached to all of it was just a bit too slight.

Words by Myra Hancock; Art by David Hine

Over in Africa (not sure if it’s our Earth Africa or Nu-Earth Africa), Friday hangs out with a bunch of muscle men from the Sahara, or at least some non-specific part of Africa that used to be hot but is now an ice-belt (Progs 730-741).

Words by Michael Fleisher; Art by Simon Coleby

Back in Britain, Revere (Book 1 Progs 744-749), whose ethnicity is hard to parse, is seen here taking advice from the living severed head of his mother (because of course). Not sure if she’s meant to be his birth mother or more of a magical guide mother, but she’s clearly meant to be Afro Caribbean.
Words by John Smith; Art by Simon Harrison
and Harry Exton is led astray by best mate Carl, one of the few Button Men (Book 1 in Progs 780-791) who seems like the sort of guy you’d want to have a drink with.

Words by John Wagner; Art by Arthur Ranson
Meanwhile, Crisis (and its uber trendy cousin Revolver) had died, making way for the Judge Dredd Megazine. When it comes to representation, this publication sure was trying its hardest, give it credit for that. (And, you know, for being a deservedly long-running publication with ace stories and great new creator finds).

Issue 1 begins the story of America Jara, pointedly the daughter of Hispanic immigrants.
Art by Colin MacNeil

Issue 9 saw the start of Armitage, usurped almost from day one by trainee Treasure Steel (in general, the more interesting character by virtue of being not a copy of Inspector Morse)
Art by Charlie Gillespie
Art by Sean Phillips

Words by Dave Stone; Art by Charlie Adlard

Issue 57 (aka 2.37) saw the debut of long-running series Shimura, in which virtually all the characters are Japanese. Yes, the story is all about Yakuza and systemic sexism and other somewhat clichéd (but probably true) concerns in modern-day Japan, but at least the characters, chiefly Shimura himself and his rookie Inaba, are varied in their appearance, their speech patterns and proved pretty great for hanging stories on.
Words by Robbie Morrison; Art by Frank Quitely

2000AD kept pace, somewhat, with Purgatory (and Inferno’s) Bundy (Progs 834-852)
Words by Mark Millar; Art by Carlos Ezquerra

and co-lead Truly from Really and Truly (Progs 842-849),

Art by Rian Hughes
immediately followed by Mean Arena’s Armstrong Jones (Progs 852-863), 
Words by Alan McKenzie; Art by Anthony Williams
before swinging the other way with Big Dave’s assault on Iraqis and Spaniards (to pick two examples). Forgivable for the intended satire, even if it wasn’t funny. Less forgivable are the no-longer Muslim Egyptians in Book of the Dead, chiefly Judge Ramses -
Art by Dermot Power
a sin deemed so egregious it more or less led to the appearance in the Megazine of Pan-African Judges (series 1 in issues 2.44-2.49), featuring Treasure’s little sister Becky Steel and hardman hero Assengai, (not to mention the first major work from Nigerian born artist and writer Siku). And, naturally, an actual muslim or two.
Art by Jason Brashill
Art by Siku

In the Megainze run of Dredd, we get another Hispanic character, Judge Castillo, one of the more nuanced non-Dredd judges who went on to have quite the distinguished an involving career across various Dredd strips. (First introduced in the prologue to the Wilderlands epic in Meg.2.57)

Words by John Wagner; Art by Trevor Hairsine
as well as SJS chief Niles, who one could uncharitably call the token black member of the Council of Five. (From the same epic, but he may have been introduced earlier somewhere)

Words by John Wagner; Art by Peter Doherty

David Bishop, newly shunted over from the Meg to the Prog soon after this point, keeps up the Meg's mission on diversity. Here's Gabrielle Lincoln from Kid Cyborg (Progs 972-979):

Words by Kek-W; Art by Jim McCarthy

And then there's Dredd epic The Pit (Progs 970-999), which features Castillo and Giant as well as a huge cast of new and lasting characters, and plenty of background characters of colour, again too many to list them all which is kind of the point. Worth highlighting for sure:

Wally Squadder Guthrie, who would go on to become a sort of cyborg, and be best buds with Giant.

Words by Wagner; Art by Ezquerra

Struthers (and the Priest)
Wagner n' Ezquerra
and another Judge Patel, who has a somewhat tragic run-in with his father.

Words by Wagner; Art by Alex Ronald

And while this was going on, 2000AD discovered its most high profile black and hispanic character, twofer legend Ramone Dexter from the pages of Sinister Dexter (first series in Progs 981-994).

Words by Dan Abnett; Art by David Millgate

Words by Dan Abnett; Art by Simon Davis

Originally intended as a bit of fun fluff, the series proved so reliably and consistently popular that it's been in the Prog more often than not ever since. Ramone Dexter himself has also kept the presence of black faces on the cover, too, as often as not pointing guns at the reader in a way that Americans today might find provocative. More on the series as a whole next time.

Art by Jason Brashill
 See also near contemporary Outlaw, another gun-toting black hero, Who at the time was trailed as if he was going to be the much bigger deal, once intended to be a movie star but in the end never got beyond a first series (Progs 1000-1013).

Context by Paul Neal; Art by Simon Davis

Art by Clint Langley

We'll pause here to take in another tangent: Russians!
2000AD has a long and not entirely noble history of representing this vast country. Wave hello to the Volgans, generic baddies and very overt Russian stand-ins, who have been terrorising readers since Prog 1, page 1, with Invasion.
Savage dispatches Volgans with the most glee.
Words by Gerry Finley-Day; Art by Mike Dorey
(And still today in Savage, although nowadays we get individual characters and a great level of sophistication).

Dan Dare sort of starts the apology for declaring all Russians to be evil with the character of Bear, Dare’s trusty right-hand man.

Words by Jack Adrian; Art by Dave Gibbons
Only to see more bad-guy pseudo-Russians in Judge Dredd, with the Sovs
(to be fair, including some cracking characters such as Orlok the Assassin, and, in time, earning their own series including The Inspectre and Samizdat Squad)

Art by Brian Bolland
and again in Rogue Trooper, whose Nort foes are somewhere between evil Nazi Germans and brainwashed Soviet Russians, in their speech patterns and naming conventions at least.
Words by Gerry Finley-Day; Art by Colin Wilson
Again, still menacing the readers today, but now with added sophistication and actual characterisation in, e.g. Atalia Jaegir.

Art by Paul Davidson

And then there’s Nikolai Dante, half-Russian noble, half-gypsy pirate, all badass (First series Progs 1035-1049).
Art by Simon Fraser
I don’t know if the series has/had many Russian readers, but I hope they felt well represented across 15 years and hundreds of characters (plus a couple of aliens and a pair of British twits).
And let’s not forget Marguerite, Dante’s mum’s first mate.
Words by Robbie Morrison; Art by John Burns
and of course Elena Kurakin, swordswoman extraordinaire -
Words by Robbie Morrison; Art by John Burns
 – and, bizarrely, 2000AD’s second Mongolian sidekick. How many comics can boast that?

Part 3 here


Blogger Jock Savage said...

McDonald, the Tech in charge of the laser drill on Dredd's Apocalypse Squad, is black.

He's Ezquerra black, which is a very particular look.

TWW's articulation of a metropolitan black British experience seemed very hip to a white schoolboy from rural Scotland.

Blogger Aaron S said...

Brilliant blog! Keep up the good work...


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