Art, Race, and Gender: An Interview with Son of Baldwin

Devon Douglas-Bowers I Society & Culture I Interview I May 20th, 2016

Below is a transcript interview I had with the founder and operator of the Facebook page, Son of Baldwin, where we discuss comic books as a political medium and also as it relates to and in many ways reflects the current racial and gender structures we see in society.

What made you interested in comics? For me, personally, comics were an extension of my interest and enjoyment of animation.

My father bought me my very first comic books when I was four years old and I was hooked instantaneously. At that point, I had already been introduced to super heroes via the 1973 Super Friends cartoon and then the 1975 Wonder Woman television series. I was fascinated with the idea of these larger-than-life characters with incredible powers who used those powers to protect defenseless people from the evil and corrupt. That resonated with me on a primal level. Forty years later, it still does.

Comic books are the reason I'm a writer today. My earliest writings were me attempting to create my own superhero stories. Additionally, two superheroes in particular played a major role in the shaping of the very unsophisticated political consciousness of my childhood:Wonder Woman and her black sister, Nubia. Wonder Woman comics were filled with stories that touched on very basic, elementary feminist principles. And with the introduction of Nubia, a very clumsy race awareness was brought to the fore. Both impacted me in ways that I can't fully articulate, but suffice to say, they were my first child-like understandings of identity.

The fact that these were female characters was quite important. I wasn't drawn to Superman orBatman, or even Black Lightning and Black Panther in the same way. I believe that I was rejecting, on some subconscious level, the narrowness and rigidness of a particular brand of masculinity and the increasing and needless violence that came along with it. Wonder Woman and Nubia-with their bold strength, unabashed femininity, and desire to teach first and punch only if they had no other choice-seemed more balanced and free. The escapist fantasies I had with them allowed me the room to safely explore other, queerer aspects of myself, aspects that I was only beginning to become aware of and understand. At four years old, I couldn't know that this is what was happening, but looking back, it makes a great deal of sense.

Given the fact that so many movies and shows are flourishing due to diversity, why don't you think that companies don't have more diverse characters, if for no other reason than to cash in?

There are a great number of experts, theorists, and thinkers who believe racism, sexism, and other forms of institutional bigotry are tied to economics. The prevailing wisdom goes something like: to rid ourselves of these evils, we must disconnect them from their economic incentive; we must make bigotry unprofitable. But what that class analysis fails to contend with are the psychological benefits of bigotry. Bigoted ideology helps oppressive groups feel good about their actions, beliefs, practices, and thoughts. It warps their perception of reality so that any evidence contrary to their false ideas of supremacy are discarded and discounted. They'll invent flimsy excuses to uphold the status quo in the face of utter ruin. This benefit is separate from economics. It lives in that mental and emotional realm that allows poor white people, for example, to say: "I may be poor, but at least I'm not black!" or straight black people to say, "I may be black, but at least I'm not queer."

So when the research shows that inclusive media is actually more profitable than exclusive media , they regard that data as suspect and reject it. Simultaneously, when the exclusive media they promote fails financially, they behave as though they're baffled in regard to why that might be and continue to make more of the same stuff in the face of utter failures. As a last resort, they might test the research by releasing inclusive media, but that's always a game of gotcha. If the media does well, they say it's a fluke. If it does poorly, then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It doesn't matter if what they thought was inclusive was actually tokenism dressed in offensive stereotypes. It doesn't matter how many inclusive forms of media do well or how many exclusive forms of media fail. The bigot isn't operating from a logical, rational, common-sense perspective. Even the capitalist bigot will choose losing money over allowing marginalized peoples and perspectives centralized locations in the production of media-especially marginalized peoples and perspectives they can't control.

Would you say that comics can be used effectively as a means of political engagement on some level?

Absolutely. I'd be loath to give my nieces and nephews a comic book without first reading it and then reading it with them, though. Many comic books contain really toxic messages about race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, etc. I think comic books politically engage children in ways that I find abhorrent. Most comics teach kids that physical violence is the way to solve most problems; that women should always be subject to the gaze and whims of men; that queer people don't exist, or if they do, it's as the strange punchline or comic relief; that being disabled is the worst thing in the world to be and must be "corrected"; that all races should be subordinate to the white race, and so on. It's very, very rare that I come across comics that I would give to the children in my family (Princeless is a pretty good one). But I do find that my adult friends and family are politically engaged with the comic books they read. Mostly though, they, like me, find themselves in opposition to the overt and covert sociopolitical messages in them. Most mainstream comic books, I'm convinced, are created for white, heterosexual, cisgender, non-disabled men-which makes sense since that demographic, by and large, is the one creating them.

What are your thoughts on the fact that Scarlett Johansson is playing Major Motoko in an upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie ? Do you think that this is being used as a ploy of sorts to get people from criticizing Marvel for not creating a standalone Black Widow movie?

Scarlett Johansson to be playing an Asian character is blatant racism; it's yellowface. There's just no other way for me to view it. It's bold and proud racism masquerading as a necessary casting choice. Racists will always try to justify their racism and, in the justification, attempt to remove the racism label: "It was an economic decision! And Johansson is popular, so…!" They say that as though either of those plea cops shield them from the racist label. They don't. Racism is racism irrespective of the "justification."

There's just no way in the world I will see Ghost in the Shell without an Asian actor in the lead role. Period. The end. That goes for Doctor Strange, too. Ain't no way I'm supporting that film either. My response to Hollywood racism is to do everything in my power to ensure that their racist products fail. Not that they'd ever learn their lesson: How many Exodus' or Gods of Egypts have to flop before they get it? I learned that they don't want to get it. They dismiss my views by calling me a SJW (social justice warrior)-a term that they seem to think is a slur, which reveals much more about them than it does about me-and whining about how hard it is not to be a bigot.

So instead of trying to persuade bigots why it's wrong to be bigots, I give my money to those who already know why. That's why I make it my business to support ARRAY.

As far as a Black Widow stand-alone film , I don't think there's any way Marvel can protect itself from that criticism. There is no sleight-of-hand they can pull that could distract anyone from something so obviously and egregiously sexist.

Regarding the role of women in the comic book industry, would you say that there is some room for women in the industry in terms of women taking the lead in creating and producing comics?

I wish I could say yes. The industry is so incredibly hostile to women, though. Like openly hostile; so openly that it seems almost built into the industry's design.

For example, there's this situation at DC Entertainment where one of the senior editors has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment-for years and years, by many women-and only now, after one woman spoke publicly and other survivors of this man's behavior spoke up and social media got a hold of their testimonies-is DC "investigating." And they made sure to use DC Entertainment Diane Nelson to make the public statement about the investigation in an oh-so-cynical Public Relations 101 stunt move. Like that wasn't absolutely transparent. It's almost like if the public never found out about the allegations, DC would have been content with allowing it to continue, like sexual harassment is a normal part of their professional culture.

And it's not just the publishers; it's the audience, too. Women have complained of harassment and worse at comic conventions and other comic-related spaces including comic book retail stores. And don't venture into the comment sections at every comic book news site or message board. Misogyny is a staple. If you were a woman, would you feel welcome in such a vicious environment?

And it's a shame that this is the state of the industry because there are so many talented female creators and eager female readers who could help boost the industry's lagging sales-especially DC's, whose market share continues to shrink.

I find it strange in some ways (though in some ways not), that in many cartoons such as Justice League Unlimited that have strong, well-liked female characters such as Vixen and Hawkgirl and yet people seem to think that movies or shows based on those characters wouldn't succeed. Why would you say that is?

The answer is bigotry. Bigots cannot understanding centering anything outside of their identity sphere. It doesn't matter how many times Batman, Spider-Man, or Superman fail, they will be given multiple chances to succeed. Because they are perceived as having inherent value due to merchandising, etc. But if Vixen was given as many chances to find her stride as Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman have over these many decades, maybe she would eventually find her popularity as well. Though I must say, Vixen comes out of a kind of stereotype about black women's sexuality and womanhood; a white, patriarchal gaze which regards it as animalistic, base, degenerate, evil, and wayward. Vixen needs a black woman writer to redeem and revitalize her, and remove her from the clutches of the white supremacist sensibility that imagined her. There's a dope character in there somewhere, but a black woman's vision is needed to realize it.

How are cartoons used to enforce gender roles? I say this as the show Young Justice was canceled by DC as they thought that women wouldn't purchase toys of the largely male cast. ( )

It's funny you should ask this. I just wrote an essay about a superhero cartoon called DC Super Hero Girls for The Middle Spaces that explores, in some ways, the function of cartoons.

What I've come to understand is that most American media aimed at children is propaganda designed to enforce very conservative and harmful ideas about class, disability, gender, gender identity, nationality, race, sexuality, and Otherness in general. There are some exceptions ( Steven Universe may be one, though I have some minor issues with that show as well that I hope someone can correct; but that's the topic of another conversation). But for the most part, this media is attempting to indoctrinate children into becoming a very specific kind of citizen, a very specific kind of laborer, a very specific kind of taxpayer, a very specific kind of soldier, to practice a very specific kind of religion, to form a very specific kind of family-and all of those things lean noticeably to the right.

That's why we have toy commercials where only boys play with racing cars and only girls play with dolls. Shit, we even call boys' dolls "action figures" to ensure that the line between genders is solidly drawn. Cartoons, which are little more than 15- and 30-minute commercials for toys and games, are design to reinforce these outdated and limiting notions. And, unfortunately, adults have been indoctrinated far longer than children. So most adults act as the police force ensuring their children absorb these restrictive, reductive ideas.

Why do you think that so many people who are into comics want to keep the entire medium to a small few, denigrating people who are just learning about the comics or who became interests in them via the movies as not being 'true fans?' Doesn't that hurt them in a sense as a major reason comic book movies were/are being made is because of those people who haven't yet/don't read the comics?

People, I've come to understand, are afraid of change. We become anxious when we perceive that something might change because we allowed some other group to be included. The comic book fanatic that denigrates new readers because they think the new readers might cause the industry to alter its priorities and storytelling to accommodate the new reader has much in common with the xenophobe who wants to build a wall at the southern border to keep Mexicans out of the United States because they think the Mexicans will "steal their jobs." Those fears are family. They live together. And they will, thankfully, die together. It's inevitable. They're scared of that, too.

What comics/graphic novels would you say had an impact on you on a personal level and why did they have such a major impact? [For me, I would say Solanin, Blankets, and Not Simple.]

I love this question. There are a few. I tend to like comic books/graphic novels that make me think, that make me question things, that encourage me to envision a better world and a better way of life, and invite me to be a better human being:

Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear's Concrete Park is the very first comic book/graphic novel that I've ever read about people of color that wasn't plagued by the white gaze. It's the very first comic book I've encountered in which people of color are centralized, are the default, belong in the landscape, are the norm. It's the very first comic book that I felt didn't ask permission to exist in this state. It avoids stereotypes. It allows its characters the full realm of humanity and is unapologetic in allowing its Blackness to begin with a capital B. And it's a Blackness that wasn't imagined by white folks who listen to rap music and had a black roommate in college so now they think they're experts on black people even though all they can manage to conjure is black pathology. With beautiful writing and beautiful art, this comic, more than any other, provides a way for me to envision fully realized black characters in my own stories.

Phil Jimenez 's Otherworld was such a smart examination of sociopolitical hierarchy. The backdrop was Celtic myth and science fiction, but the heart of the story was about the lovelessness that defines contemporary conservative ideology and how it can only lead to human extinction. Art wise, every page is a masterpiece. Every detail is rendered meticulously. And the colors were outrageous. The series only lasted seven issues when it was scheduled to go for 12. So I never got to read the conclusion, but what I did read impacted my personal politics in a very profound way.

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers broke all of the rules in terms of narrative and visual storytelling, and did so with elegance, grace, and aplomb. They literally broke the boundaries of the panels in their stories-the art often allowed the characters to actually use the white space between panels as weapons! And then they broke one of the biggest boundaries of all: In their final issue, they revealed that every member of the team was queer. Basically, all the things the industry would have said couldn't be done because it would affect sales, they did. Their fearlessness bolstered my own.

Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned both his B.F.A. in creative writing and M.F.A. in fiction from Brooklyn College. His work has been featured in The New York Times , Gawker , The Grio , and the Feminist Wire . He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook , Google Plus , Instagram , Medium , Tumblr , and Twitter . His first novel is in the revision stage and he's currently working on the second.