Los Angeles Review of Books

Image © UnicornBlack.com.

 

“I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”

 

YES, SOMEONE ACTUALLY SAID THIS. Hitler — a man responsible for the murder of 11 million people and for rearranging the world map, standing in Nuremberg with his mustache before tens of thousands of screaming, indoctrinated fans — was a beginner, a novice, a devil incarnate–wannabe compared to the writers of stories of cleft-chinned men in colorful nylon underpants. This was the scientific opinion of Dr. Frederic Wertham, a then-well-respected psychiatrist whose work on media and juvenile delinquency was frequently cited by academic and government authorities during the 1940s and 1950s. To Wertham, comics corrupted impressionable young minds. He warned parents that Superman, the caped crusader of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, was actually a racially pure superhuman fascist who should change the symbol on his chest from “S” to “SS.” Batman and Robin were closeted gay lovers, Wonder Woman was a lesbian, and all sorts of other dreadful stuff was happening in the pages of those flimsy, aggressively colored comics. Wertham claimed they encouraged violence and “abnormal” sexual proclivities.

Wertham spent seven years analyzing the effects of comics on juveniles and published his findings in 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent, in which he accused comics of being, among other things, “anti-educational” — not teaching children anything while contributing to their overall moral decline. His book led to an appearance before a Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, marking the moment in history when comics officially changed status from frivolous kid stuff to preeminent component of pop culture.

Today, we know Wertham fabricated data and why Seduction contained no citations. And how tame comics seem compared to the violence and sexual content in immersive video games and apps. (And at least comics mean kids are reading something.)

But back then, comics were the definitive form of entertainment for kids, with 100 million copies sold monthly. One of the hottest publishers at the time — and Wertham’s main target at the hearings — was EC Comics, purveyor of such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. EC traded in the freaky, the decayed, the mutilated and blood-splattered. Big-bosomed ladies trapped within the clawed, ashen grips of ravenous werewolves. It was sadistic content, and EC’s publisher, William Gaines, admitted as much — he even engaged a senator in a discussion about severed heads during the hearings. In the end, Wertham got what he wanted: in a desperate attempt to placate worried parents and distributors, the comics industry instituted the Comics Code Authority as a self-monitoring system, placing little white stamps on their covers that certified the books were kid-safe. (These appeared on comics all the way up to 2011.)

But perhaps rather than attack comics publishers, Wertham should have explored why juveniles, or the many adults reading comics by the mid-’50s, might be lured to a sadistic story about a wife dismembering and barbequing her husband in the first place (“Garden Party!,” The Haunt of Fear #17).

EC Comics was a reaction, a backlash against the dominant postwar images of white picket fence suburbia — the fake, passionless, and homogenized “gee Wally!” existence flickering on the sepia-toned screens of more and more household television sets every day. EC’s contempt for these popular images was creatively channeled into the production of counter-images of depravity, gore, and terror. These counter-images resonated with readers who also felt smothered in the atmosphere of repressed thought and sexuality. So popular was EC that it could afford top-notch writers whose twist-ending stories paved the way for The Twilight Zone, and illustrators who could transform a man’s face from handsome to ghoulish in a single panel. One of EC’s comics became the enduringly influential Mad Magazine, a publication that mounted a more overt attack on the phoniness of the decade’s pop culture. “Starchie,” for example, was an obvious parody of Archie that featured high school as the writers really saw high school — with a sexually perverse principle, horny students, and a chain-smoking protagonist.

It was also in this era that the writers and illustrators at EC Comics used the medium to communicate their contempt for something else: Jim Crow racism. African Americans had been typically drawn in comics as minstrels or as minor characters, or endowed with stereotypically limited vocabularies. But the team at EC felt they had a moral obligation to include non-white characters in their work. One of the first comic books to portray an African American in a positive light was EC’s noirish 1953 sci-fi title Weird Fantasy #18, which not only ended with the surprise twist that the noble astronaut Tarlton is black, but also depicted him as physically attractive in a concluding image whose caption read, “And inside the ship, the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars.”

It’s no surprise that Wertham and the Senate Committee didn’t like — or more likely, didn’t understand — a comic whose content was largely dedicated to satirizing and subverting the establishment. But it is unfortunate that they could not appreciate such gestures of racial tolerance, especially given that Wertham was a vocal opponent of school segregation whose testimony was cited as part of Brown v. Board of Education, and who was the subject of an admiring essay by Ralph Ellison.

In their zeal to shut down the comics industry, Wertham and his adherents seemed to recognize the power of comics, but they failed to understand why they were so powerful.

 

The Power of Comics

Comics have been, and continue to be, an unequivocal tool used by outcasts to narrate, often through metaphor, their distinctive experiences. Comics are the table in the high school cafeteria safely out of reach of the jocks but close enough to watch them, and anybody feeling marginalized in some way — anybody feeling alienated by the outside world, or rejected, ridiculed, or judged — is welcome to a seat. From this perch one can enjoy acceptance while engaging in unfettered observation of and expression about the world around oneself. A safe haven for subversive, sometimes unpopular ideas to flourish, comics have tackled issues such as racism, sexism, domestic abuse, crime, political corruption, authoritarianism, and sometimes just the banality of suburbia. With the benefit of almost 100 years of hindsight since the 1933 publication of Famous Funnies, the first American comic book, it is clear how extensively comics have been used to address societal ills rather than contribute to them.

Let’s take a look at the biggest superhero of all time — Superman, Wertham’s Nazi dream child. Superman was actually created by two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and the superhero himself, whose “real” name, Kal-El, suggests a Hebrew origin, is seen by many as the emblem of early 20th-century Jewish existence — an immigrant always having to hide his true identity. Jews pretty much created comics — they founded Marvel and DC Comics, and are behind just about every superhero from Batman to Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four. It was, moreover, a tale of an Auschwitz-surviving mouse that legitimized graphic novels in the eyes of the literary establishment with a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Why have Jews, historically, played such a large role in the history of the medium? Originally, the Depression and rampant anti-Semitism pushed bright, talented young Jews into comics as a site of stable employment. Even though many creators changed their names to sound less Jewish before a bigoted reading public (Stan Lee was born Stanley Leiber, Jack Kirby was Jacob Kurtzberg — their new names the identity-cloaking equivalent of Kal-El becoming Clark Kent), this was work through which they could unleash their creative juices while getting paid. But there could also be some wish fulfillment here: if Siegel, Shuster, and Captain America’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby couldn’t hop on Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter planes and go fight the Nazis themselves, well, they could create fantastically attired, super-ripped characters able to do so without fighter planes.

But the war’s end meant the end of the Golden Age of patriotic superheroes. That’s when EC Comics took over with their jagged font and stories of crime and terror, inspiring other alternative comics creators to bypass the Comics Code Authority and root their work underground. The so-called comix scene, widely viewed as being launched after the 1968 publication of Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, so heavily reflected the counterculture themes of the late 1960s that it was also referred to as a movement. These independent publications, sold in headshops next to bongs and psychedelic T-shirts, featured drug-inspired stories and artwork, and antiestablishment political commentary reflecting the country’s divisiveness over the Vietnam War. Silent Majority Comix #2: Uncle Sam Takes LSD, whose title was a nod to Nixon’s term for the older generation of Americans quietly in favor of his policies, was an antiwar comic distributed at anti-Vietnam rallies.

The equal rights movements of the ’60s served as additional breeding ground for progressive themes, and, therefore, the creation of some compelling stories and characters. The recent batch of X-Men movies are fun summer blockbuster material, but it’s likely lost on most ticketholders that Professor Xavier is Martin Luther King, Jr., Magneto is Malcolm X, and the students, each struggling with their own mutant-inspired problems in a hostile world, must choose between the gradual reform advocated by one mentor and the direct confrontational style pushed by the other. In a 2000 interview with The Guardian, Stan Lee noted,

It occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.

As multiculturalism hit a stylish high in the 1970s, Marvel introduced a more exotic cast of X-Men characters: Storm was half Kenyan, half African-American; Thunderbird was a Native American; and Colossus was Russian — a coterie of genetically different beings united in a single struggle for tolerance and acceptance.

But in all this diversity there was still one problem — too much testosterone. The boy-driven superhero universe and male-dominated staff at Marvel and DC Comics had a fratty undertone that did not jibe with the women’s lib movement. In an effort to free themselves of the tyranny of mainstream publishing, female comics creators joined the underground scene of the 1970s, which had its own strain of misogyny, but which nonetheless enabled them to establish their own independent titles. Female writers and illustrators could explore feminist issues for a female readership and not worry whether distributors would care or the Comics Code Authority would monitor them. It Ain’t Me Babe, started as a monthly feminist newspaper, became the first all-women’s comic book in 1970. The stories embody feminist themes of sisterhood and connection to nature, and the cover itself is a declaration: it shows a group of female comic characters including Wonder Woman, Olive Oyl, and Sheena running furiously from their patriarchal world, fists clenched, toward liberation. The team behind Babe went on to launch 1972’s Wimmen’s Comix, an all-female comics anthology containing the first comic strip with an openly lesbian character. Feminist ideals even ran the office — rather than having one stalwart, untouchable editor overseeing lowly staff writers, there was no hierarchical structure at the Wimmen’s Comix Collective. Editors were rotated, everyone was welcome to submit work, and a supportive environment was fostered.

Looking back on comics’ engagement with socioeconomic, political, and cultural events, it’s no surprise that as we step into this century, brown, mustache-twirling terrorists have begun stirring up trouble in the comics universe. And Captain America isn’t the only one fighting them.

 

Enter the South Asians

“Don’t mess with the lady in black when she’s on the attack!” the bad guys are warned in a slick video accompanying Pakistan’s Peabody Award–winning 3-D animated television series Burka Avenger. The first animated superhero series ever in Pakistan, now airing in Afghanistan and India, Burka Avenger centers on a schoolteacher by day who dons her slick black burka when fighting for justice at night. Though a cartoon, Burka Avenger follows the familiar narrative of the comic book superhero — the protagonist, Jiya, is an orphan who discovers her powers under the tutelage of a mentor. And she has a disguise: a burka that covers her from head to toe but that is fitted around the upper half of her body, lending her a sinewy, ninja look. But Jiya doesn’t need Bruce Wayne’s fancy vehicles, gazillion-dollar gadgets, or bulletproof rubber breastplates. Her weapons are books and pens — simple tools any Pakistani girl or boy would have access to. Jiya needs these weapons to fight one of her biggest foes: a Taliban-like figure named Baba Bandooq who is continually trying to shut down her school.

If you read the news in 2012, this storyline should sound familiar. One morning that year in the contentious northwest Swat region of Pakistan, a 14-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousafzai was shot by masked Taliban gunman while trying to go to school. The incident made headlines and inspired a worldwide movement advocating educational opportunities for girls in developing countries. It also highlighted the disenfranchisement of the growing middle class of younger Pakistanis from the extremist version of Islam filtering into their country through the northwest province bordering Afghanistan. Burka creator Aaron Haroon Rashid had already been penning the Baba Bandooq episodes when the Yousafzai shooting occurred. “I read about girls’ schools being shut down by extremist elements in Pakistan. Like most people around the world and in Pakistan, I was appalled,” he said, calling Yousafzai a “real-life superhero.”

Two months after the Yousafzai shooting, a 23-year-old medical student named Jyoti Singh Pandey and her male friend had just finished watching Life of Pi when they boarded a bus in New Delhi. It was dark out, and Pandey’s very presence with an unmarried companion justified, in the minds of the other four men on the bus, an extensive beating and gang rape with a metal rod while the perpetrators took a joy ride around town.

In a milestone moment for a country with a limited penal system for gender-related crime, after Pandey died of her wounds, thousands of Indians took to the streets in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, and Bangalore to protest this horrific act and to demand that the perpetrators be caught and tried.

One of those protesters was Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni. In his 2014 graphic novel Priya’s Shakti, the Hindu gods go to battle over the price humans will pay for the gang rape of a character named Priya while she shops alone at a fruit market. The powerful Lord Shiva, so disgusted by the behavior of humans, vows to destroy all men. Other gods fight back, some arguing that the absence of men would also punish women, and the Goddess Parvati eventually convinces the Lord Shiva that humans are capable of change. With the help of a tiger and some of Parvati’s powers, Priya gains the courage to confront her town, starting with her own family. She persuades them that instead of blaming her for the rape, they should seek justice.

“Priya is influenced by Jyoti Singh Pandey,” Devineni told NBC News. “She is the reason why I wrote this comic book.”

India, with its burgeoning status as a superpower and young population (65 percent are under the age of 35), has seen the exponential growth of a cosmopolitan, social-media connected, urbanized demographic. In 2014, 150 million Indians were first-time voters. Similar trends hold true in Pakistan: the year 2013 saw 36 million new Pakistani voters in an election where the youth vote was deemed pivotal. This globalized, activist-minded generation of South Asians is brushing up against the backwardness of their complacent, less-educated parents, and publicly confronting traditionally taboo subjects like rape and gender disparity. Like their counterparts in the West, South Asians are using comics and its superhero genre to challenge cultural norms and construct alternative narratives. But, exploiting the versatility of the comics format, they’re doing it in ways that uniquely appeal to the audiences directly affected by these issues. Of Priya’s Shakti, Devineni said he was inspired by Western comics but wanted his graphic novel to be “about India, by Indians, and for India.”

Given that almost half of South Asia remains illiterate, moreover, there are few more powerful tools creators could use to reach mass audiences. A mostly female comics workshop in Pakistan encourages “comics activists,” using the medium to address gender inequality, environmental issues, and political corruption in uneducated regions of the country.

 

History in the Making

None of this is to imply that comics and superheroes are new to South Asia. Pulpy titles centering on the culture, mythology, and history of the region have been around for decades. And Hindu gods, with their myriad powers, have neatly filled the superhero slots for years.

But it’s only within the last few years that we have seen a supernova of homegrown South Asian comics, resulting in many exciting firsts for the region. India’s first Comic Con was in 2011. Bangladesh launched its first comic book company, Jamil’s Comics and Collectibles, in 2010. This was followed by the country’s first-ever comics convention, which pulled in an impressive 10,000 attendees. Pakistan’s first comic book company, KGC, was launched in 2011. On the heels of Burka Avenger comes this year’s 3 Badahur, Pakistan’s first full-length computer-animated film, in which a trio of Pakistani 11-year-olds with amazing sight, speed, and hearing abilities fight corruption in their village.

The tech-savvy creators of these stories have gone beyond comic strips and animation to use every multimedia tool at their disposal. 3 Badahur is also Pakistan’s first thematic smartphone videogame. Priya’s Shakhti is available free with an app enabling users to anonymously share their own stories of gender-based violence. There is also an “augmented reality component” — street art based on the graphic novel converts to animation and videos when scanned using the Blippar app, and using this app you can also make a picture of yourself alongside Priya and post it to social media with the hashtag “StandwithPriya.”

This is cool, cutting-edge stuff. But South Asian comics creators incorporate some of the more subtle, old-school techniques in their work as well.

Consider the Burka Avenger. When some people hear the name of the cartoon — just the name — they will be shocked — unsettled by the idea of marrying one of the most recognized symbols of oppression with a cartoon superhero. But this is exactly why Rashid’s creation is so brilliant.

Jiya’s burka has something important in common with Spider-Man’s tight, web-covered, red-and-blue costume: it offers complete anonymity. Minority boys have always been drawn to Spider-Man more than any other superhero for the simple reason that — unlike Superman, Green Arrow, or even Batman — Spider-Man’s costume covers his entire body, so he can be anyone of any ethnicity (including Indian, Japanese, and half African-American, half Latino). Burka Avenger adheres to this tenet of superhero cloaking but reconstructs it to pack an even more powerful symbolic punch — no longer a tool of a sexist, patriarchal system, the burka becomes a universal portal through which any girl can transform herself into a serious ass-kicker.

 

South Asians: Days of Future Past

If we look to the West, we see that South Asian and other Muslim characters have been sporadically appearing in comics ever since Kismet, Man of Fate (described as “a mighty tower of valor and justice with the mind of a prophet”) made his debut in 1944’s Bomber Comics fighting Nazis. More recently, in 2002, a Bangladeshi mutant named Tara joined Spider-Man to fight corporate malfeasance in a storyline possibly inspired by the tragic chemical gas leak in Bhopal, India, and an Afghani woman named Dust joined the X-Men club. In 2008, Marvel introduced Faiza Hussain, a Pakistani doctor who could disassemble a human body, diagnose and treat the problem, and patch the body back together. None of these precursors made as big a splash as Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey, the most buzzed about superhero of 2014. This incarnation of Ms. Marvel effectively blends teenage angst, curfews, schoolgirl cattiness, Islam, and superpowers to conjure a realistic portrait of what a teenage Pakistani-American girl who received powers might be like. Kamala’s existence in the almighty Marvel universe flips the predominant Western narrative of the Muslim woman as one of the world’s most prized victims. Kamala scoops the drowning girl from the lake, she snatches the kidnapped boy into her arms, and she breaks through brick and concrete to free him. This was a bold move for Marvel and could signal the publisher’s desire to include more content about this traditionally underrepresented demographic in comics.

But what does the future hold for South Asians and comics? Will South Asian comics characters, both Western-produced and from the continent itself, have staying power? To answer these questions, it’s worth examining one striking difference between many of the recent South Asian comics characters and their Western counterparts, at least since the early Marvel comics of Stan Lee and his collaborators. We don’t see South Asian characters with many inner conflicts. We don’t see them, for example, battling demons from childhood, resenting their superpowers, or doubting their pursuits of justice. By the time we are introduced to many of the South Asian characters, they are largely self-actualized, psychologically sound, and sure about their missions — they just need some superpowers to help them along. There’s little of the layering that we see in contemporary Western comics or the use of flashbacks to build up their narratives. Kamala Khan’s adolescent turmoil is often compared to Peter Parker’s, but her immigrant-induced insecurities feel mild compared to Parker’s guilt about failing to prevent the murder of his uncle or his need to help his financially insecure aunt.

If the characters of South Asian comics aren’t that complex, there are several good reasons why. Obviously a comic aimed at kids can’t be particularly dark or elaborate. But this new crop of South Asian characters are also being drawn amidst the scattered remnants of Bush-era “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” platitudes, of good-brown-person vs. bad-brown-person rhetoric. Islamophobia, for example, trades in the simplistic notion of all Muslims being terrorists. Using the same device as EC Comics to push one image to counter another, comics creators use flatly positive Muslim characters to serve as correctives of flatly negative images of Muslims.

Again, it’s understandable why this is happening, and it’s probably a good thing. But once this corrective, this alternative image of good Muslims fighting for the good of the world has been in our collective psyches long enough, maybe we’ll begin to see something more … twisted. Something more unexpected. For instance, a Muslim character who is frightening or evil in a way unconnected to terrorism or political motivations, or a South Asian superhero displaying a more ambivalent range of emotions and character traits. Sometimes she’s honorable, sometimes she’d rather dismember and barbecue her enemies than see them on trial. Sometimes he wants to don his cape and be the hero, and sometimes he’s too saddled with grief and regret to get out of bed. This is just the beginning — the evolution of South Asian characters will likely continue, and I am hopeful that the next incarnation of South Asian characters will yield something deeper than what we see now. In order to claim a permanent spot in comics lore, these characters will need to bear the hallmarks not just of good superheroes, but of good literary characters.

What would our bespectacled Dr. Wertham think of all of this if he were alive today? Not only did his efforts at censoring comics ultimately fail, but the last 60 years have lured more people of differing colors, genders, and religions into the comics world than he could have ever imagined. As vilified as poor Wertham has become, however, he was always right about one thing: comics have power. It is their versatility and accessibility that enables anyone of any background to adopt them as a narrative form, and it is their transgressive use of metaphor, fantasy, and otherworldliness to address socially relevant issues that makes them powerful boundary-pushers. Comics will continue to sell millions of copies and to inspire movies and 3-D cartoons and apps and who knows what else in the future.

Such is the paradox of comics: they’re the medium of the marginalized, yet they remain wildly popular. Perhaps that’s because in some way, at some point, everyone will feel marginalized and need a seat at the table in the cafeteria away from the jocks. Even the jocks.

My first comic book was a used, tattered copy of Mad Magazine that I bought when I was 12. The cover hooked me: “Mad Looks at Our Sick World,” it said, with Mad’s avatar, the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, holding the globe upon his shoulders like Atlas. The first page featured two men reluctantly peering out their kitchen windows with a caption that chided: “It’s a shame for the neighbors in our sick world.”

Yeah, our world is “sick.” As a Cold War kid routinely hiding under my desk during classroom nuclear annihilation drills, I didn’t need Mad to teach me that. Comics don’t teach, Wertham complained — but they don’t have to. What that issue of Mad did for me is what Burka Avenger likely does for a little girl watching in Lahore, or what Priya’s Shakti does for an assault victim anywhere in the world. It helped me feel less alone.

¤

Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan. She lives in Washington, DC, where she is working on a graphic novel about a short terrorist.

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