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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Random Ramblings: Flaws and Past Perspectives

Okay, in Manhunter 23, we find out the truth about Kate Spencer's ancestry. Specifically that she's the granddaughter of Sandra Knight and Iron Munro, with Al Pratt's name on the certificate.

Well, naturally given that I like legacies and family and I love the JSA in general, I think this is great. I particularly liked the flashback.

In fact the flashback had one bit I particularly liked and it's hard to explain why:

Basically, Sandra, after fighting with Munro goes to the bar, drinks a bit, then ends up spilling her guts to Al Pratt. We see her, very clearly, down alcoholic beverages at the start of the scene.

Now naturally, I'm not trying to advocate drinking during pregnancy, it's pretty common knowledge how dangerous it is. But back in the forties, people didn't know that, I think. So it would have been perfectly natural and normal for Sandra to have a few drinks when she knew she was pregnant.

It's hard to explain why, but I'm really glad they showed it. Because I really don't like the tendency some folks have to want to white-wash the past. To make it seem neater, cleaner than it really was. There was violence, there was sex, there was racism, classism, sexism and all sorts of social injustice. People did some stupid things sometimes that they didn't know any better about and other stupid things that they damn well did.

And portrayals of the past shouldn't falter at these depictions. Nostalgia is all well and good, but not when it ignores the negatives in favor of a fantasy land. Especially in cases where people are pushing their own beliefs on the past. More likely than not, all the rabid sanitation does is create this artificiality that hurts rather than helps the story.

Wherein I Ramble Incoherently, Do Be Warned
Take Young All-Stars, for example. I've complained about it before. Basically Roy Thomas used the character of Tsunami to explore racism in the World War II period. But the problem was, I think, that he couldn't really get past the idea that the characters were supposed to be heroes. So instead of a fairly realistic imagining where the average joe distrusted the girl because of her race, which would have made sense at the time, he instead had all of his heroes, all of whom were portrayed as relatively average youngsters for all their powers, immediately accept her in their fold. He chose a specific character to be the racist, and had every single other character denounce that one's vocal beliefs. Not even Dan the Dyna-Mite, littlest and most clueless of the group, showed any sign of being influenced by the racist character's beliefs or the propaganda of the time.

It didn't work. Especially as Tsunami's plight was so front and center, and the source was all from faceless bigots and the one token team member. It fell flat. And in the process, Thomas lost an interesting opportunity. He had the chance to give his characters depth as they, as again relatively average teenager type personalities, would be forced to examine their own ingrained assumptions and prejudices and move past them. Instead only the token racist got the development.

I can't help but compare this to a story I loved in one of the Secret Files and Origins books, where the old school JSA discuss class. Characters like McNider and Wesley Dodds expressed mildly classist sentiment to the irritation of Alan Scott (who it might be noted was still sitting with the "upper class" part of the JSA than the "lower class" part). In a single, very short story, we got more characterization than the majority of the YAS kids did in ten issues. The matter wasn't actually resolved either. But it didn't really matter. Wes and Charles were expressing ideas that they were raised with. Were portrayed as being in the wrong, naturally, from the outside writer/reader perspective. But it was okay. Because we know they're good characters, they're just also products of their time. Oddly they become more real to me because of this.

Another point for comparison might be the Per Degaton story in JSA, wherein a bunch of members, including Michael Holt, end up back in 1951. Michael in particular is brought face to face with the racism of the time. It's not pleasant. Now, like YAS, the actual main characters, the JSA members, do not seem to share the racist sentiments. But oddly it bothered me less. I think it's a combination of factors: first being that for Michael this sort of overt racism wasn't a part of his life as much as it is for Tsunami. Thus, the story could focus more on the novelty/shock of the experience, and didn't need the added pressure from the group to prove a point. Second, the characters of the JSA were adults and more...extraordinary in temperament/experience than the YAS kids were portrayed as being at the time. They had time to learn better, one presumes. Third, the events were always portrayed from the point of view of Michael the man, whereas Tsunami's tended to be omnipresent third person narrative. It was impersonal.

But that's a digression really. The thing is, in general, I like to see my heroes reflect their time periods.

Take a common complaint of Ragnell's about Judd Winick's Green Lantern. Basically how in the Terry Berg storyline, everyone was accepting of his choices except for his parents and attackers. Honestly, homophobia is rife in our time, it's sad but true. And even a lot of folks who consider themselves tolerant are not terribly comfortable with the idea. But all of the protagonists accepted Terry at the start. I'm not saying I want the heroes to be giant homophobes, but a bit of discomfort, naturally portrayed as misguided, would be suitable for some.

But let's think about that for a second. Kyle...yeah, Kyle's a very sensitive liberal college age young artist living in Greenwich Village. It's really hard to imagine him having even the slightest discomfort with the idea.

Jade, well, she's a woman and I don't mean to be sexist but women tend not to be raised with quite as virulent an aversion to homosexuality as men are. This is not to say that there aren't homophobic women of course, but it's pretty reasonable to accept that this upper middle class suburban girl, especially one that later became a model/photographer/actress, could be quite comfortable with homosexuality.

John's one that I could imagine being a trifle uncomfortable with the idea at first. But Mr. Winick skirted that of course by having him have a gay relative, if I'm recalling things correctly.

...and then there's Alan. Who was completely fine with it. Who really, really shouldn't have been.

Extending that, I love that in Manhunter, Alan seems mildly discomfitted over his son's choices, calling Damon "Todd's friend". It just rings true for me. He'll love his son regardless, but the going to take a lot of getting used to.

(Ragnell's post also addresses Hal's mild racist/sexist prejudices much better than I could. Suffice it to say, they felt natural to Hal, given his background and experiences, and growing out of them as he did, gave him a nice depth)

I'm not saying that this sort of thing should be applied equally to all characters. It makes sense for Wally to have been a little homophobic where it wouldn't for Kyle. It makes sense that characters like Jay or Sand or even Ted have much less ingrained sexist attitudes than Alan Scott, given their less rigid/more adaptive personalities. I'm just saying that when I think these sorts of cultural/generational factors are used well, (As I think they are in JSA or Manhunter), they become a really interesting part of the story.

(ETA: More observant people than I tend to be have said she's actually drinking ginger ale. Rats. Oh well, I can't be right *all* the time. :-))


  • At July 16, 2006 7:04 AM, Blogger Marionette said…

    Is it more heroic to be completely without prejudice, or to recognise that you have some prejudice and work to overcome it? I'm not sure, but I can tell you which makes for the more interesting character.

  • At July 16, 2006 7:06 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    *nod* It adds a depth to the character. Certainly growth and dynamic change. Far better than being static.

  • At July 16, 2006 7:34 AM, Anonymous Flidget Jerome said…

    Sandy was drinking ginger beer, wasn't she? Hasn't that always been non-alcoholic?

  • At July 16, 2006 7:36 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Really? Now I have to reread it. I could have sworn it was something alcoholic.

    Oh well. :-)

  • At July 16, 2006 12:29 PM, Blogger Jon said…

    It was ginger ale. Somebody's reading subtext a liiiiittle too hard.

  • At July 16, 2006 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I prefer the more innocent portrayls myself. In an old World's Finest issue a dejected Batman and Superman sit at a bar and order an orange juice and milk. I think that's clever and funny, and it was funny to me as a kid, too.

    I don't mind superhero stories being set in a flawed world but I'd prefer that the heroes themselves not sink into that kind of moral ambiguity.

  • At July 16, 2006 2:52 PM, Anonymous Boden said…

    It's not ambiguity, it's just how things were. Personally, I don't like the cheesy stuff, rather have a hint of reality than full-on idealized fantasy corny stuff.

  • At July 16, 2006 4:22 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    jon: Well, I can't be right *all* the time. :-)

    Still, it looked a bit more...amber...than ginger ale to me. Though I admit that could just be the lighting. :-)

    anon: Well, it depends on the character, I think. Superman drinking milk or orange juice is fine, but not every hero is Superman. Nor should they be. :-)

    boden: I like a combination of both myself. Corny stuff is fun too. But a faint dose of realism can go a long way.

    At the very least in storylines that are meant to portray something serious like racism, sexism or homophobia, the characters should be treated realistically.

  • At July 17, 2006 1:04 PM, Anonymous Dan Coyle said…

    Wait, if Kate is the granddaughter of Iron Munro, would that make her Damage's sister?

  • At July 17, 2006 3:18 PM, Anonymous Dan Coyle said…

    (Slaps forehead) Oh wait, Damage Al Pratt's grandson. Never mind...

  • At July 17, 2006 8:24 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    Well, dan, she's still the second cousin of Jack Knight.

  • At July 20, 2006 2:28 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    For my tastes, what's often missing from stories which deal with racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or any other form of bigotry, is nuance and subtlety. A lot of writers treat it as a black & white issue: either you're a bigot or you're not. And if you are, you're pretty overt about it; and you're either a bad guy or due for an afterschool special moment - possibly both.

    And certainly there are extreme bigots out there; and when dealing with our past, it's hard to avoid. But there are plenty of shades of gray out there too. There are folks who are fine with homosexuality in theory, but get a little uncomfortable when talking to someone who's openly gay. [And I think it's fair to say that guys are generally more uncomfortable than girls in this country when it comes to dealing with gay men, thanks largely to our nation's overweening sense of machismo.] There are folks who don't think of themselves as racist, but have unconscious stereotypes and presumptions nonetheless. There are guys who try not to be sexist, but don't realize the implications of some of what they say and do. And so forth.

    Addressing those subtle forms of bigotry and prejudice is much harder than, say, just beating up neo-Nazis. Because you're not dealing with bad people, you're dealing with decent people with bad ideas.

  • At July 20, 2006 6:05 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    dan: To be fair, with all the DNA in Damage, who can tell? :-P

    notintheface: Yep.

    ferrous: *nod* The complexity is really where the issue ought to be focused on.

    Comics have an advantage, their characters have a long time to develop, for people to see their many sides.

    Sure Hal's been racist and sexist, but we'd always known that's not all he was. Same goes for the other characters involved. It tends to give it a little more depth than a normal after school special.

    Besides, Alan referring to "Todd's friend" makes me giggle.


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