5/08/2010

Why Does This Insanely Racist Thing Happen in Spider-Man: Fever?

Brendan McCarthy's return to comics for the first time in a while is delight, and it's a kind of smarmy, contrarian comics nerd's wet-dream--a superhero comic in a defiantly throwback style, and also it's bubbling over with tripped-out, next-level art and ideas. Not a superhero comic and not not a superhero comic, you know?

Really, no "diss" on Ditko or nothing, but Spider-Man: Fever is what I wanted Ditko's work to be like before I ever really saw Ditko's work. See, back when those shits were sorta hard to find and I had like my Comics Journal issues and maybe one or two dusty-ass collections from my local, suburban library and that's it, the idea of Ditko (or Kirby or Moebius or even, Frank Miller) bubbled-up into something no artist could never live up to.

Same way, say, descriptions by Scorsese and a single still in some crappy International Cinema book turned Bresson's Pickpocket into something "bigger" than the patient, brooding, kinda erotic crime movie it actually is. Point is, Spider-Man: Fever is something else, it's close to the kind of insanity I drummed-up from other people's descriptions of Ditko's work. That's great!

Spider-Man: Fever also helps me cope with a more recent comics-related disappointment: Mike Allred's steady downward trajectory into suckiness. It's something I've discussed with my fellow writers here and we all confessed to, on some dark, bored night, re-opening those first two volumes of Madman to make sure they were still perfect because well, his work's fumbled from confused, high-concept kinda cool stuff to dopey, too high-concept, digitally-colored pop-art garbage.

McCarthy certainly isn't aping Allred here or anything, but he's stumbled upon a lot of the things that made Allred's work really invigorating: A genuine love of comics, un-ironic chintzy humor, some heady stuff here and there, and a confident but wacky art-style that bounces off in twenty different directions at once.

How awkward but real Spider-Man looks sitting on a windowsill checking to see who's on Letterman. That Spidey tells Vulture, a page later, to "Cut that out!" when dude's sticking his grubby birdy mitts in his eye. That the villain of this is named Albion Crowley. That the whole bug world in issue #2 is so gritty and weird you kinda wanna vomit looking at it. It's just really good and really bizarre. But I almost didn't buy the second issue this week because of this one weird tangent in issue #1. I'll remind you real quick...

Spider-Man and Vulture are fighting and they crash through a window. McCarthy's brilliantly cuts-away from it for two pages of Dr. Strange weirdness and when we return, Vulture's all tied-up in a web and mad and shit. And then, out of the corner of the panel, a speech bubble reads "Hey, thass my phone!".


The next panel reveals a black guy (sideways hat, medallion hanging from his neck, baggy jeans and shirt), the owner of this apartment, and he's really worried because Spider-Man called the cops with his phone, and well, black people are all criminals, so the cops coming would be real bad. It's a weird, bad punchline. A page or so later, you get some more of this unfortunate "urban" patois ("You the guy who wrecked my pad!", "You the guy who brung the cops!") and it's just really, really awful.


First, it's just weird. How, in 2010, a clearly smart knowing guy like McCarthy could write such ridiculous coon-ish dialogue is baffling. Second, it's confusing because the guy's dressed like say, a De La Soul or Souls of Mischief fan from the early 90s, not a thug at all. Third, it's a buffoonish black character dropped into the narrative for some incredibly cheap laughs. This kind of stuff happens in comics all the time, like casual sexism, and it's just sort of jarring and weird and worst of all, innocent. McCarthy clearly doesn't think this is a big deal, right? He finds it humorous or maybe somehow, accurate to real life? What the fuck.

Well, it is a big deal. On the humanist tip, I prefer not to see people and peoples degraded like this. But frankly, more important than the "this is racist and it's bad" argument is that it really kinda derails the whole comic book and makes you look at the piece of art and artist behind it quite differently.

Real quick though, a rant about artists and ideology, so you see where I'm coming from. One of my favorite records of this year is Burzum's Belus and unlike many other metal fans, I don't think the quasi-Neo Nazi, Odinist ideology that fuels Burzum's work is to be ignored or laughed at, but just part of the package. Dude does what he does well and there's something fascinating and in a weird way, sincere, about an all-out racist rattling out these insanely thrilling metal songs. There's no bullshit behind the undeniably bullshit ideology and I can kinda sorta respect that. You know what you're in for and dude goes for it.

With Spider-Man: Fever, McCarthy's not even some insane racist dropping in some quick propaganda, which I can accept that way say, Dave Sim's misogyny or Ditko's Objectivism kinda "works", this is just some dopey white asshole who doesn't even realize he just put some insanely racist shit in his comic book! It's distracting because it's a bummer and it's distracting because it forces you to think about the guy behind the comic, and well, exposes him.

Thankfully, none of this returns in issue two and I guess it's better it was in the first issue and just out of the way than a boner-kill two or three issues in, but really, I just wish it wasn't in there at all.

32 comments:

facelift said...

'worst of all, innocent' = very well put.

i wonder though, if there is a kind of structural imperative for these lame representations to be always lurking in comics (or of course on the periphery of other entertainment fields), which would mean that the expectation/disappointment of canny, knowing author transcending lameness/utterly failing to transcend lameness is a bit beside the point.

brandon said...

facelift-
"structural imperative" indeed. I think it's totally incidental as far as McCarthy's concerned but to me, it has the same effect as a writer who just botches a plot or has some poor plotting in there--it undermines the good aspects of the work in a lot of ways.

julian said...

I definitely noticed this, and I definitely had a "Whoa, what the fuck?" moment. But I took it to mean something a little different I think?

Could it be possible that the writer was completely aware of how insane his outdatedly stereotypical portrayal was? You describe it more as him being hopelessly out of touch and insensitive. But I felt like that moment in the comic added to the overall strangeness.

Like, I'm reading a brand new comic, that has throwback art, totally insane trip out sections, and this weird racist shit; I'm totally being signaled that I'm reading a different kind of comic, and its freaking me out. Which is the whole point of Fever.

Personally, I don't care if racism plays some role in my art, and I don't think you do much either (i.e. Burzum). I think, wether he meant it or not, that scene adds to the overall feel of the story and the unreality of it all. The "this could all be happening somewhere in some alternate dimension" feeling that a lot of Marvel comics have is just gone in this story. I think that the over the top stereotype is sorta the icing on the cake.

brandon said...

julian-
It certainly adds to the surreal elements of it all, but it's just too loaded to really not being distracting and a little depressing.

If say, it were some spunky turn of the century Irish man or something, an equally odd stereotype, but not one still very loaded, and still very damaging, he'd get away with it.

I do think there's a difference between Burzum and McCarthy and it has to do with Varg being like, "yeah these are my beliefs" while McCarthy just wandered into this horse shit racist stereotype and would no doubt, not respond with "yeah indeed, I am a racist and this was one way to portray black people as I see them."

Also, it's bad because the comic is this "hip", "cool" alternative to most Marvel books Marvel book and as a result, it being, in certain ways, as square and out of touch as whatever Bendis writes, has the weird effect of undermining the style, tone, etc.

brandon said...

re: Structuralism.

I'd also add that what makes McCarthy's racism here unfortunate, and less connected to the typical structuralist type reading or anti-reading, is that it's 2000 and fucking 10, and so, this isn't the same as looking at Conrad or Shakespeare and being like "ah ha! racism!". It's far less forgiving and most certainly not grounded in the mores of McCarthy's times. Or rather, he should know better.

julian said...

I guess all I'm saying is that McCarthy probably doesn't think this is an "ok" way to portray black people, but rather is consciously using an outrageous stereotype to falsely date his comic to an era that it was not created in. Which I think is pretty fucking clever. That would explain why in 2010 something so insensitive would make it to major publication. I can imagine that some editor at Marvel probably at least shot him an email and said "Hey dude, explain to me why you did this."

The way one portrays a subject in art doesn't necessarily reflect his opinion on that subject. Racial stereotypes are used all the time to further the mood of art (especially comedies, which is kind of what this comic is).

It just comes down to how you respond to stereotypes in art, or racism in general. It really doesn't elicit much of a reaction out of me other than "Whoa, what a crazy thing for someone to do/think."

I would be interested in hearing McCarthy state why he chose to put this scene in the comic.

facelift said...

brandon, i know what you mean, though i would ask if you think many cool writers/artists actually manage to avoid these pitfalls better than mccarthy. this is definitely a notable example, but perhaps more notable for illustrating that fwd-thinking aesthetic or skewered off-kilter worldview does not equate with non-cringey representation, whether it is trying to consciously 'deal' with it or not.

or, if i had time to think about it a bit better i might say that the work of mccarthy and peers from late-80s 2000ad stock (like milligan and morrison), who did at one time 'deal' with problems of identity and representation, now contains a kind of haunting superficial echo of these issues (cos of the material they find themselves working on, or cos of how comics are in 2010, or cos they become tics of the creators, or i dunno) which makes their anachronistic cringeyness more obvious than in many other comics.

rich said...

"...this is just some dopey white asshole who doesn't even realize he just put some insanely racist shit in his comic book..."

Actually, it's a portrayal of some dopey black asshole.

I live right at the edge of Trenton, NJ and see guys like this all the time. In a comic book, it's funny ... in real life, it's exasperating, especially since they'll usually looking for trouble.

Where do you live?

brandon said...

Julian-
Thing is, this shit is in comics ALL the time. Not even trying to start shit, especially because I know you in real life, but you probably haven't read enough to notice this. Are you going to tell me Bendis is also doing this? That Mark Millar is doing this? No.

That's sorta my point. If McCarthy is consciously doing what you suggested--and I'd bet everything he isn't--then, Bendis is doing something similar when Cage talks like this? Just like, no.

Also, if the comic had anything to do with race or portrayals of race, then this would conceptually fit. Instead, it's the kind of dumb kinda racism you see in comics all the time. Like, it isn't that out there or anything to, in any way be seen as outrageous. It's how most aging white dudes see black people.

Like I said, if this were some totally out-of-date Irish stereotype (especially since McCarthy's Irish) it would be surreal, but as it is, it's a scary black guy in New York City.

You can like the comic and not defend this part of it. I like the comic.

Rich-
I'm from Baltimore asshole. Trenton is full of guys dressed like they're fans of the Hieroglyphics crew? Really?

You should probably write mainstream comics, rich.

rich said...

Brandon,

I'm from Trenton, asshole.

It may very be a negative stereotype, but there are people out there who act and behave like this. Just like there are people who act and behave like repsonsible adults like Mr. Robertson, the Daily Bugle City Editor.

(He is still the City Editor, right?)

You're liberal use of profanity doesn't make you correct.

brandon said...

Rich-
I'm really sorry you're from Trenton.

I kid, I kid...

It's clear you were asking me where I was from to try to paint my post/point into some kind of "clueless P.C guy whines about racism" thing when that's clearly not what I meant. Painting you as the guy who has to deal with black people and knows what some of them are like: "I'm from Trenton! I'm in the shit!"

And it that wasn't your point, you're as clueless as McCarthy as to how you're coming off.

Re: Stereotype?
What does the "Stereotype" in the issue do besides speak like a complete buffoon? Your "racial realist" defense doesn't work in this case because the guy is a coonish, dopey black guy, used for a punchline. If ONLY he were as well-rounded as a stereotype!

The character would be fine as just a thug who is black, I probably wouldn't comment, but as poor english espousing black comedic relief? That's just offensive.

Since you brought up realism ("there are people out there who act...like this"), we could send this down the comics nerd wormhole and how, Spiderman is so clearly in Manhattan in the scene and on a huge building and how, no black thug or white trash cracker or dirty mexican could afford to live there and in that case, McCarthy eschewed reality to make some kind of racial realist point?!

Rich really, you see guys wearing Karl Kani jeans and Cross Colours and they're "looking for trouble"? I doubt it.

It's a fun game being played by Rich, and to a lesser extent Julian, to play this off like "this isn't a big deal" (of course it isn't, it's comics!) or as a misreading of racism in comics, but well that isn't what it is.

You'd have a point if say, this were a rant against Marra's "Gangsta Rap Posse", or Corben's "Cage", or Crumb's stuff--as in, I'd be fundamentally misreading what's going on--but well, that's clearly not the case.

Facelift-
Very good point. Indeed, for a guy noted in the 80s for doing punk style, transgressive, authority-deflating comics, to now writing "thass"...this guy worked on "Skin" for chrissakes!

julian said...

I mean, you got me on not reading enough comics to really know how wide spread it is. I just suppose these kind of casual stereotypes don't bother me, and I always look for the reason why they're not a big deal rather than why they are. I wasn't really trying to argue or defend, just add my opinion on it. Certainly not trying to start shit.

Matt Seneca said...

I wrote a while ago that I thought this guy was more of a typical STONER stereotype than BLACK stereotype. Like, as in the two stoner guys (one white, one black) at the end of McCarthy's Solo. I definitely saw the bad English as crappy dialogue, but all the "you called the cops on my phone?" stuff didn't strike me as racial profiling but as druggie humor. Maybe I'm the only one who assumes everyone in a McCarthy comic has a lot of pot in their house?

I don't know, if you do read the "criminal" aspect as a drug thing not a black thing, the scene just turns into another example of terrible "black" dialogue in a Marvel book, like a while back when Bendis had Luke Cage calling people stuff like "mutha stepper" or something.

I admit there's a problem even then (why's it got to be a black pot smoker?), but honestly, I would have expected the same scene if Spidey had busted into a white hipster guy's apartment -- just minus the ridiculous "ethnic-speak".

brandon said...

Julian-
Chill, I just responded and feel like you're stretching it a bit, which you know, you admit by saying when you see a stereotype you try to justify why it's there?! Confused.

If you mean, you don't have a knee-jerk reaction to it, I'm with you, but my point is, I thought long and hard about this (indeed, this was from issue one out a month ago) and still can't find a solid reason for it being there.

Matt-
I think for me, it was the cops, plus the dialogue, plus the "you the guy" as he holds a bat which he will procede to beat the Vulture with that kinda moved it out of the stoner realm. Not very stoner-like.

My main issue is the dialogue, which is always annoying in comics (Bendis as a great example), but is even more broken, idiotic here.

Please link to your piece on the comic, would love to read it.

Matt Seneca said...

Here you go: http://deathtotheuniverse.blogspot.com/2010/04/comix-surgery-spider-man-fever-1.html
Just a scattered little "thoughts" thing, but you know. I liked your post a lot.

brandon said...

Matt-
"lysergic Lisa Frank pastiches"

Glad you liked the post, I liked yours a lot more though. The Steranko connection is one I totally didn't see and you clearly know Ditko better than I, and it's fascinating the way you highlight where he looks like Ditko and where he sorta diverges. And good call on those Ditko panels. There's a more obvious one in issue 2--of Ben and May--but man, totally didn't see these.

Anonymous said...

I live in baltimore, too. I swear I saw this guy on the news this week. Andrew Jackson? Shot his girlfriend over crack or something?
Huh, weird. Coulda sworn!

Maybe you live in a different Baltimore. I live in the one where people hang out on street corners selling heroin to kids. Huh. maybe MCCarthy watched The Wire and wrote this guy. Looks like he belongs in this shit hole city.

julian said...

Word on the knee jerk reaction bit. That's basically what I mean. And then I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt since playing devil's advocate is my nature. You definitely spent more time with it/have a better perspective on it than I do.

Brian said...

I would argue that the character's dressing in bright colors, while it might bring to mind Buhloone Mindstate and seem dated as hell, is sort of fitting with McCarthy's general coloring choices and tendencies.

brandon said...

If you want to know why McCarthy's drawing was problematic, it's because we've gone from a black stereotype to arguments about street cred to this ridiculous image of drug dealers selling heroin to kids. Drug dealers sell heroin to anybody who wants heroin, sometimes they are kids. There's certainly nothing in the art to suggest the guy's a drug dealer, so jesus christ people.

Julian-
It's cool, I think that's what I was responding to, the devil's advocate thing. I think there are plenty of times where "racist" is tossed out unfairly and worse, lots of times where something that isn't at all racist is misread as racist, but this isn't one of those.

Of course, it isn't a big deal, it's a comic book, what I was trying to get to is how I'm not bothered that McCarthy's at least kinda conventionally prejudice, but what that says about his art whether he likes it or not.

Brian-
I was thinking that and that could be part of it, though the style of clothes too, is very 1992.

brandon said...

Everyone is also kinda conveniently leaving out the sheer absurdity of having NO ONE IN THE COMIC SPEAK IN SLANG/FRACTURED ENGLISH EXCEPT FOR THE BLACK GUY.

Jay Smooth said...

"Oh come on, some Black people really do use slang and sell drugs!"

It's amazing how thoroughly some people miss the point of your critique. By amazing I mean predictable. Great post.

Michael B. said...

Well, yea there are dudes on 'the block' that would speak and act just like that guy. I dig your point brother, I really do. But let's call a duck a duck. If ALL of us (meaning not just you or I) had our shit together, we'd have some ground to stand on here.

The fact that we all of us have seen people like this in the area in which this takes place kinda removes the whole "racism" tip from it. It's commentary if anything, and as mentioned by Rich, there is Robbie Robertson.

P.S. I'm not big on the whole interchangeability of the words bigotry and racism. I mean they are completely different things. If anything this would be bigotry not racism, but I digress since (at least to this Black man) it is neither..

You cry wolf enough times and no one listens. This is what has happened to the so called pulling of the race card. Folks don't give a shit anymore because (as in this case) it's really done in situations where non exists.

david e. ford, jr said...

michael-

so, i've been watching this whole conversation, pointedly not participating because i think brandon is doing a fine job defending his criticism, but i guess you've stumped me here. i'm not at all being facetious or ironic, but i can't really figure out if your comment is ironic.

assuming that it isn't, i guess i'm not really clear on what you are saying here . . . did i miss the moment where we all agreed to the proposition that there are these 1990s-era Rip Van Winkle black dudes hiding out in America's cities? is that why he's so upset about the police having been called, he's afraid he'll be detained and subjected to interrogation à la sleeper?

also, can you unpack this sentence for me: "If ALL of us (meaning not just you or I) had our shit together, we'd have some ground to stand on here"? i know it might seem like i'm busting your balls here, but i'm really not. i'm not sure if you're trying to say that we're all a bunch of racists and thus completely incapable of recognizing racist stereotypes or if there's something else going on.

i seriously don't even understand how what brandon's has written here is in the least bit controversial. take it from me, none of us here is exactly what you might refer to as politically correct, which is not to say that we're more racist than other more enlightened folks; we simply realize that political correctness is probably the best cover for racists out there. i realize that i'm sorta swaying from the point here, but think about this as though it were a movie. for the analogy to be germane, you've gotta picture a weird, sorta indie superhero film with a lot of subtle ironic sophistication and the visual aesthetics of a wendy and lucy. now imagine that the movie is entirely peopled by vaguely hip looking white people speaking a vaguely hip american idiom and then right out of nowhere this black dude appears in the film, looking like he crawled out of an audition for school daze or, better yet, the video for "911 is a joke" and starts complaining that you've called the cops, because "THASS" his phone . . . if you think that would not strike you as incongruous and ultimately racist, then you're lying to yourself.

in regards to your parsing of the terms "bigotry" and "racism," as any 4th grade teacher worth her salt will tell you, racism is a form of bigotry . . . you know the thing about squares and rectangles, right? well, if you think that this is bigoted, but in a way that is not racist, i wonder what you mean . . . clearly it's a cultural stereotype, but it's a stereotype specifically of african american urban culture, albeit one that is rather anachronistic at this late date.

finally, your association of brandon's observation about this particular comic with the phenomenon of pulling the "race card" is utterly inapposite . . . i'm loathe to begin parsing myself, but the notion of the race card is one that is associated with deflecting criticism or rejection by changing the nature of the argument into one that centers on the ostensible racism of the critic or one doing the rejecting. it has nothing to do with pointing out problematically obtuse racial representations in popular culture. just sayin'

brandon said...

Jay!!!
Man, thanks for the comment.

Michael-
Dude, I have NEVER SEEN A GUY LIKE THE GUY IN THIS COMIC BOOK. A moronic, poor English speaking, West Coast nerd-rap fan, in New York?

No. No. No. It's just not really a type. It would be a like a white redneck mafioso hipster or something. It's just jamming all these stereotypes together.

ALSO ONE MORE TIME
Nothing IN THE COMIC suggests he's a drug dealer (Matt S's point about McCarthy and drugs is a good one, but it's like off to the side of my point) and this whole invocation of "the block" and drugs and black people is just like, on some other shit.

'sharpyoungbull' said...

I'm so glad we have race watchdogs for comic books now. And it's not like anyone needs to pay you because you've clearly got nothing better to do.

brandon said...

Yeah man, it's really bullshit when people take something in comics book seriously and maybe criticize it.

Ulises Farinas said...

This little bit in the comic is what actually made sure i didn't pick up #2.

Terry said...

Hey, have you guys seen Issue 2 of FEVER? McCarthy's got another black character in it, and yes, she's got a silly "accent" too! This time she's an Aboriginal Australian, portrayed in the usual sexist fashion, naturally.

And frankly, I was pretty uncomfortable with McCarthy's portrayal of the Vulture too. Didn't he look kinda like a Jewish stereotype? I mean, a vulture with a big nose? WTF?

brandon said...

If the Vulture was like hoarding money or doing AIDs experiments in the Congo, you might have a point Terry.

frankie23 said...

Complete stranger here, got directed through Neilalien's blog. (/intro)

You know, I completely understand what you're saying, and I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing now, but frankly, upon first reading it, I just took the guy as a stoner. His race had nothing to do with it. Considering the drug-trippiness of the content of this and the second issue, I still view it as a bit of foreshadowing; (individual in an altered state (pot/psychic spider poison) who is suddenly forced into a situation he does not want to or cannot deal with (superhero activity in my place/evil spider dimension). I still think that's what he was going for, hard to tell what else he meant by what you point out.

randomkid said...

Brandon, this is a great post and just want to say that your multiple accurate descriptions of this character's bizarre early 90's clothes are hilarious.