What if Peter Parker was black?

what if Spider-man was black

This is a great idea that I wouldn’t trust Disney/Marvel to not fuck up if they tried it:

I keep thinking how much more powerful the Spiderman origin story would be if Peter Parker was an African American kid, whose Uncle Ben was shot by police while being arrested for a minor parking infraction. There is no formal investigation, and Peter decides to put himself on the line to prevent it happening again. He tackles the white crimes that go unpunished, punishes POC criminals fairly. He is the leveler, always fighting to be without bias, to be just. To protect people like his uncle.

But oh the stories you could tell. You’d need to be careful though, it’s so easy, especially for non-African-American creators, to fall into the stereotype trap. (Which is why I have issues with Noah Berlatsky’s proposal for a black Antman). Take Peter’s origin frex. Most of that could stay of course: bitten by radioactive spider, a loner and nerd in a high school that doesn’t appreciate it (but careful there, don’t get into anti-intellectual black stereotypes), Peter gets his superpowers and want to use them for his own benefits, uncle Ben can still give his speech, but you cannot make Peter responsible for his death in even the indirect way he was in his real origin.

Because that undermines the point you’re trying to make, that the system is broken, that black Americans are always at risk of being murdered by their own police forces regardless of how they behave. if Peter was involved in an altercation with the cop who murdered uncle Ben earlier, that provides an out to explain why it wasn’t really a murder. Nobody would argue that uncle Ben deserved to be killed because Peter let the burglar escape; but as real life proves, a lot of people would argue that Peter giving lip to a cop explains why his uncle was shot.

Spidey accuses Jameson from haunting him because he is black

The other thing is: would it be general knowledge that Spidey is black? Because occassionally that does come up as a throwaway gag like the above with the real Spider-Man, that because he wears a full body costume people cannot tell his ethnicity and so he can pretend to be black. Does anybody buy that? It would be interesting if he was, as such a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, though wildly feared and mistrusted at the same time by the public at large and some of his fellow heroes, even when white: how much more so if he’s black?

Or the murder of Gwen Stacey, if she remains white? And what about the Punisher, who must look very different from a black Spider-Man’s perspective than a white one, with his killing sprees of mostly street level criminals and drug dealers? Or his relationship with J. Jonah jameson and The Daily Bugle? The easy way there would be to make Jameson just another racist, but the interesting thing about him was always that he was highly principled even if obsessed with Spider-Man and at times you could argue that he had a point about the menace of superheroes. Not to mention Robbie Robertson, the Bugle‘s black longtime editor, often the voice of reason arguing against Jameson’s crusades. He could be a great viewpoint character for a more conservative black view of Spider-Man, a counterpoint to Peter’s radicalism.

So much interesting stuff there, but it would’ve to be done as fanfic, cause I can’t see Marvel ever going for it. Or doing a good job if they did.

Sex Criminals: Best Graphic Story Hugo

Suzie discovers her time stopping orgasm powers


Matt Fraction is a writer who’s made his reputation doing clever work for hire series for Marvel, most recently Hawkeye, not to mention his own Casanova for Image. Sex Criminals, co-created with Chip Zdarsky on the artwork, is his latest hit series, having been optioned for television already. It has had significant online buzz and of course was nominated for the Best Graphic Story Hugo. Like Rat Queens it’s a series I was thinking of buying myself, so pleased to be able to sample it this way.

Sex ed the US high school way

And I don’t really like it. Not raunchy enough, not weird enough, basically just another clever twist on the superhero story. Not bad, just a bit meh. It’s not as funny as the hype led me to believe (though the sequence the above panels are extracted from are hilarious) nor nearly as edgy. For some reason though Sex Criminals got a reputation as being a feminist comic, arguably because it’s so rare to see female sexuality be treated so positive and non-exploitative as it is here. Which is a sad goddamn state of affairs.

Suzie and jon meet cute

The story is simple. Suzie discovers she freezes time when she orgasms, thinks she’s the only one until she meets Jon at a party, they have sex and both are shocked to discover they’re not alone. They both tell each other their origins, or how they discovered their particular gift, then they team up to save Suzie’s library, in the process discovering they’re not alone and in fact there’s a police force patrolling their orgasmic pocket universe…

Sex police

Like Ms. Marvel this is basically an one issue origin story spread out over five, with a few neat storytelling tricks to liven things up. It’s well done, a neat idea but in the end I still think it’s meh more than awesome.

Rat Queens: Best Graphic Story Hugo

the Rat Queens: Betty, Hannah, Dee and Violet

I was thinking about buying Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery anyway, so I was glad it was part of the Hugo Voters Packet. It’s been having a bit of buzz in online comics circles last year, winning an Eisner Award for best new series, but sadly also for less positive reasons as artist Roc Upchurch was arrested on domestic violence charges, which resulted in him leaving the series. This volume however still has him on art. Very nice art it is too, cartooney but with a computerised, photo-realistic sheen too it.

best of friends

Storywise this is neither a fantasy story, nor quite a D&D parody, but rather a fantasy that takes D&D tropes and uses them semi-seriously, something I haven’t seen done much before. Combine that with a bunch of cynical, sex and drugs obsessed bad girls and you got the start of something decent. Each of the protagonists has just enough of a personality to be memorable, though it’s very much broad strokes here.

dissing an assassin

Being very much antisocial types, the Rat Queens, as well as the other adventurers of Palisade, are targeted for assassination by somebody, getting sent on very D&Desque quests to clear out the sort of low level enemies you’d encounter at the start of a campaign. Things escalate quickly and Upchurch is an adherent of the Robert Kirkman school of showing graphic violence. Lots of blood, lots of broken bones and almost snapped off arms…

dissing an assassin

On the whole this is an enjoyable romp but in hindsight not something I’d want to spent money on to read. It’s not that this is a bad comic, but rather that it’s a bit on the formulaic side. There are hints of something better here though.

Cruising the information superhighway

Tom Tomorrow cartoon from 1993 about cruising the information superhighway

That Fredric Jameson essay reminded me of something. I couldn’t find it on the interwebs anymore, but the advantage of twenty years or so of copying over unsorted crap from computer to computer is that it can still be available in your backup temp directories. That’s a 1993 Tom Tomorrow cartoon making one of Jameson’s points much more succinctly.

(not) Showcase Sunday: Jack Staff

cover of Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White

Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White
Paul Grist
Reprints Jack Staff V1 1-12
Get this for: somebody else’s nostalgia

A bit of a cheat this time, as I was getting a bit bored with Silver Age DC but didn’t want to skip another week. Hence this compromise. I’d gotten the first three volumes of Paul Grist’s retro nostalgic English superhero series at some con and had read bits and pieces of them, but not yet the first volume all the way through. This was a nice excuse to do so.

As I understand it, Jack Staff grew out of a proposal Paul Grist made to Marvel for an Union Jack miniseries, this being one of Marvel’s patriotic British superheroes created by Americans and therefore somewhat on the naff side. What works well for Captain America doesn’t quite work for British superheroes. So it’s a good thing it was rejected, which meant he didn’t have to adhere to American ideas about superheroes and could indulge in nostalgia for much more English sort of heroes.

Panel from Jack Staff #3

Because there is a sort of British superhero tradition, even apart from reworkings of American imports like Marvelman, a tradition coming out of the old IPC and Fleetway weekly comics anthologies of the sixties & seventies, full of weird not quite super, not quite heroes. This isn’t a nostalgia I share too much about, knowning about most of these comics only secondhand through well, projects like this. There have been a lot of British writers who have been indulging in this nostalgia, like Alan Moore in Captain Britain and Grant Morrison in Zenith, basically whenever they needed an army of superheroes to get slaughtered, and you pick up a lot of this by osmosis.

Half page introduction of Tom Tom from Jack Staff #1

So while the series is called Jack Staff and he is the nominal hero of it, quite a lot of it is actually devoted to all these lovingly done introductions of characters like Tom Tom the Robot Man (who is of course an expy of Robot Archie). Grist introduces a hell of a lot of characters, both expies like this, but also more original ones and every single one of them gets their own half or quarter page introductionary panel. This works well to give an old-fashioned feel to the strip, in effect dividing each issue as if was one of those old anthologies.

Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter from Jack Staff #7

When it works well, it’s great, but it depends a lot on creating atmosphere and the average comics nerd’s ability to fill in the missing pieces themselves through decades of experience with this sort of retro continuity. Reading it all at once, instead of issue by issue makes for a disjoined experience. These aren’t so much stories, as sketches of stories. that’s always the risk with this sort of comic of course, when you’re trying to hint at an entire universe worth of back story, again relying on the average reader’s understanding of superhero cliches.
Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter from Jack Staff #7

The funny thing about the series is also how incompetent and useless Jack Staff is. His secret identity is unmasked in the first issue, he gets knocked out more often than Green Lantern used to be and most of his cases are resolved by others. It’s a very English view of superheroes, of not very useful, not very dependable weirdos, even in an universe filled with strange beings and alien menaces.

Bramble & Son, Vampire Hunters in action from Jack Staff #7

What makes the series is Grist’s artwork, which is gloriously expressive, making full use of the possibilities of black and white. At times it’s Toth like in its use of shadows, but Grist also uses white backgrounds a lot to isolate his characters, especially in those half page introductions. Many artists would be afraid to leave so much empty, but Grist has the courage to do so when necessary. All in all this was a very enjoyable trip through somebody else’s nostalgia.

Showcase Sunday: Bat Lash

cover of Showcase Presents: Bat Lash

Showcase Presents: Bat Lash
Sergio Aragones, Nick Cardy, Denny O’Neil and friends
Reprints Showcase #76, Bat Lash #1-7, DC Special Series #16 & Jonah Hex #49, 51 & 52
Get this for: Nick Cardy art going from full on cartoonish to spaghetti western realist in two panels

Having now read through several of Showcase volumes of early sixties DC Silver Age series, I felt it was time for a break. Important as those series are, they do suffer from the fact that these were never meant to read through in one sitting, with many of the stories being variations on a theme, the same ones cropping up again and again. What I needed instead wasn’t yet another huge 500+ page wodge, but something slim and slightly more complex. The collected Bat Lash was perfect.

Bat Lash: lightning fast gunslinger

By 1968, when Bat Lash made his first appearance, in Showcase of course, comics was very different from where it was at the start of the sixties. The Silver Age revolution DC had unleashed had been taken up by Marvel with great enthusiasm and while DC might still be selling more comics than them, all the excitement was at Marvel. Unlike DC, Stan Lee and co had aimed their comics at a more adult readership, making both their heroes’ morals and stories slightly more complicated than the goody two shoes world of DC, not helped by the latter’s bureaucratic ways of working. By the end of the decade though DC was working hard to catch up with Marvel, Bat Lash being one of the results of this improvement drive.

Bat Lash the masher

Bat Lash was a very different sort of western hero. A dandy and a scoundrel, he had a taste for the finer things in life, especially if those finer things were female and at times he might as well have been wearing a fedora instead of a stetson; he’s portrayed as a little bit too grab handey at times, though of course every woman he puts the moves on ends up liking it very much, except when they have their own nefarious designs. Bat Lash was the creation of an unlikely duo: Sergio Aragones, much better known for his humouristic, big footed work for Mad and Groo the Warrio and artist Nick Cardy, best known for his Aquaman and Teen Titans art, with Denny O’Neil helping with the scripting after his first appearance.

Nick Cardy shows his funny side

Most of the stories here follow the same pattern: open with Bat Lash in peril, only to saved at the last moment by the woman he got into trouble for, then riding out of whichever town he was in to get involved in some sort of adventure in which his avarice has to combat his well buried better nature. These then are still fairly formulaic stories, but much more interesting and with some continuity between them, with our hero crossing the border into Mexico in one issue and attempting to get out in the next.

Nick Cardy draws women very well

What really makes the original Bat Lash series is Nick Cardy’s artwork, some of the best he’s ever done. Just look at the Showcase cover above, originally done for issue two: that’s a brilliantly done scene, telling a story with one picture. Cardy has a real affinity for drawing the old west and is great at action scenes as in that first sequence showing Lash being ambushed and turning the tables on his ambusher. But he also does well with humour, which turns up a lot in these stories, as in the sequence where Bat Lash has to escape from his hotel by fleeing through some old-timer’s bath. It’s clearly the same artwork, just a bit more exaggerated. And of course Cardy also has his usual flair with drawing women, who have a heft and physicality to them that’s rare for that time, especially at DC. Plenty of artists that could draw pretty girls, but Cardy’s are real women. In black and white his artwork looks even better than when it’s coloured.

The brothers Lash meet, unknowingly

Sadly the original series only lasted seven issues, which is barely long enough to have gotten the sales figures for the first issue in. Since then he’d been wandering around the edges of DC’s western titles and this volumes includes some of his later appearances, which aren’t bad, but without Aragones or Cardy onboard, lack the charm of the original. A pity too that in that very last issue, after the previous one had featured his origin, Lash runs across a bounty hunter with gunslinging skills as good and perhaps even better as his own, out for his blood and who might just be his younger brother, a storyline that was ended just as it begun…

Saga — Best Graphic Story Hugo

Saga - cutting the umbilical cord

Saga has already won the Best Graphic Story Hugo once, in 2013, for the first volume of the series. I think the review I did of that first volume back then also goes for the third volume:

What makes Saga more than just a pretty sci-fi adventure is the simple fact that none of the main characters are true villains or heroes. Alana and Marko just want to live in peace with their daughter, to be left alone, while Prince Robot IV just want to get things over with so he can go home to his pregnant wife. Even the two freelancers are anything but Boba Fett like bounty hunters, with The Will frex having confliced feelings about his former partner, The Stalk.

Saga - The Will and the Stalk

But what really makes the series is the artwork; as said Staples is seriously good at facial expressions, slightly exaggerated at key moments, but also has a good eye for character design and layout in general. In general, like Prophet, this is a series that actually makes me enthusiastic about American comics again, something that shows there are still pleasant surprises to be had.

The only thing worth adding to this is that being the third volume, this is less of a complete story than the first, starting and ending in media res. I went back and forth on whether this or Ms. Marvel was the better comic, but though Saga is more properly science fiction, Ms. Marvel was done slightly better and perhaps the more important comic.