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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, May 9, 2016


The heavens must have wanted me to tilt with Noah Berlasky again. I glanced at HU a couple of times in the last month, and found nothing worth commenting upon. But a chance citation on a CBR thread led me to yet another NB venture into social justice, THE ENDURING RACISM OF WONDER WOMAN.

This essay starts out a lot like one NB wrote in December, and to which I responded with a two-part essay in February, here and here.  In the earlier essay, NB decided that he could judge the reactionary politics of BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN on the basis of a four-minute trailer. In this April essay, he started out by attacking publicity photos released from the in-production 2017 WONDER WOMAN film, because "all the Amazons in the images are white." 

Yet, in contrast to the December film, NB isn't browbeating the movie people because they didn't hew closely enough to the Wonder Woman canon, as articulated by creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. Instead, he was righteously condemning the filmmakers for not following a more recent addition to the canon: George Perez's interpolation of a black Amazon, one Philippus, who was introduced into the mythos in 1987. As one who read the series back in the day, I don't think that Philippus ever became much more than a token black character, but given that NB isn't the only online pundit bewailing her absence, clearly she made some impact-- at least as an example of ideologically-approved race-bending, if not as a character in her own right.

However, after NB has fussed a little about the failure of the filmmakers to instantaneously live up to his lofty standards, he drops that bone and goes after an even more chimerical one: to prove that Marston and Peter were themselves racists.

I wasn't entirely surprised by this apparent volte-face. Although NB has repeatedly praised the liberal sexuality and gender-consciousness of the Marston-Peter canon, on occasion I've seen him lament the ways in which the two creators failed his purity test regarding racial depictions. To be sure Marston gets the lion's share of condemnation, since he, unlike Peter, had much more to do with the direction of the Amazon's adventures. I concur with this de-emphasis on Peter, since one cannot be sure to what extent he simply drew whatever the scripts told him to draw.

I would concur, also, that there's no question that Marston used images that qualify as "racist" rather than simply "racial"-- though it should be noted that he sometimes employed positive images of Asians, Middle Easterners, and Native Americans when it served the purpose of a particular story. But as if offering a reverse-image of NB's emphasis on the Importance of Keeping Philippus, Marston doesn't seem to have anything comparable with respect to sub-Saharan Africans and what are now called (sometimes) Afro-Americans. Here's one of the earliest depiction of a Black American in the series, from SENSATION COMICS #10 (1942).

Though there are a few exceptions to this pattern, I think it's axiomatic to say that Marston had no problem with depicting American Blacks as complete doofuses, and in that respect, he is as much a racist as all the other comics-creators who did the same thing.

However, the admission that many Golden Age creators had a nasty sense of humor is not enough for NB. He has to find ways to use Marston, the man he respects for his liberal sexual views, as a paradigm of Evil White Culture.

Taking his oversimplifications in order of occurrence:

The absolute low point of racism in the Wonder Woman comics was in Wonder Woman #19. This issue was set in some unspecified African nation, giving Peter the opportunity to draw African people as subhuman animalistic blackface monsters. For his part, Marston wrote a script in which the Africans were allied with the Nazis; they actually had swastikas on their loincloths. Hitler, of course, loathed black people. To present black Africans as Nazis both whitewashes Hitler and suggests that black people were implicated in an evil regime which called for their genocide. In short, even by the very racist standards of American wartime pulp, Wonder Woman #19 is a shameful exercise in ignorance and hate.

I confess I have not read the story in question, but-- genocide? According to this blog-writeup of the same story, it looks to me like WW and her buddies manage to win back the Africans from the Nazis, who were "threatening [the natives] with their [the Nazis'] death-ray." It's true that WW and her buddies win out by playing upon the foolish superstitions of the natives, and their natural sense of rhythm, etc. But of what relevance is it that "Hitler loathed black people?" The story in question was dated September/October 1946, so it's long after the conclusion of WWII, and Hitler's presumptive death. The die-hard goose-steppers of this story have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by attempting to persuade the natives that they can become part of the coming regime. I don't imagine Marston bothered to work out this scenario very carefully, but WW#19 is certainly of a piece with many wartime stories in which Axis agents are seen suborning or subverting established Third World cultures. Indeed, WONDER WOMAN #1 (1942) features one story, "Wonder Woman Goes to the Circus," in which a Japanese spy infiltrates a group of Burmese mahouts in order to sabotage American interests. Frankly, IMO the Burmese get much worse treatment than the Africans in the post-war story, though I suppose it's a measured choice at best. In any case, there doesn't seem to be any attempt in the WONDER WOMAN #19 story to justify genocide, though the narrative holds much in common with a number of post-war stories that sought to validate the return of imperialism.

Up to this point NB is critiquing only what Marston put on the page, even if he's brought in some skewed interpretations. But he does have an earlier line about how "only white women were awesome," and NB justifies it here:

You could argue that Marston’s racism is inconsistent with his feminism and with Wonder Woman’s true principles. Marston generally wrote stories in which Wonder Woman would discover a patriarchal society of Mole Men or Seal Men, help the women find their true moral, physical, and erotic strength, and then depart with a happy matriarchy in place. In Wonder Woman #19, though, Marston’s racism interferes with the feminist narrative. Wonder Woman does not help black women to find strength and sisterhood; in fact, for all practical purposes, black women are not represented at all in the comic. Marston’s belief in female superiority and his belief in black inferiority are incompatible. He cannot imagine black women, and therefore, for the one and only time in the Wonder Woman series, is unable to imagine feminist revolution. Racism undermined Marston’s progressive vision. 

Certainly one can say that Marston's racial attitudes interfere with what NB conceives to be a true "progressive vision," but if Marston's ideas are in any way progressive, then those ideas stand on their own, whether or not he was progressive in every other regard. I can well believe that Marston used the African story, like the Burmese story before it, to make fun of peoples he considered amusing, or knew that his readers would find amusing. He may or may not have considered all black people inferior to white people, but there's another point NB has failed to consider--

If Marston had wanted to publish a story showing black women finding strength and sisterhood-- who would have published it?

My view of Marston is that, crank or not, he had his pragmatist side. He does occasionally show individual women of color getting it together, as with the cinnamon-skinned Pepita, also from WONDER WOMAN #1.

But in the years of 1942-1947, during which Marston wrote the Amazon, no comic book company-- indeed, no medium in the U.S. (if anywhere)-- would have published a story about empowering the women of either local minorities or of Third World countries. DC Comics was obviously OK with the Amazon liberation-fantasy as long as it was applied to archaic cultures that somehow survived into the 20th century (like Atlantis from WONDER WOMAN #8, 1944) or to alien worlds replete with winged fairy-women (like Venus, from ALL-STAR #13, 1942). But DC Comics' record on both feminism and minority relations was much the same as Marston's: they played to the prejudices of the dominant white majority most of the time, while allowing for occasional breakthroughs with particular characters. Indeed, the dialectics of feminism in the 1940s had not yet assimilated the modern era's much-touted conceptualization of "racial difference." It makes no sense to bludgeon Marston for not being able to articulate a vision of racial-and-sexual justice that few persons of his time could even imagine, and he's not a racist for not following through on implications that Noah Berlatsky deems inevitably linked. 

I made no bones about saying that there was a "dominant white majority" at the time, one that certainly reinforced the racist stereotypes in Marston's work. But this statement is very different from NB harping on every example of Caucasian identity as an extension of Evil White Culture, which is what NB does when he insists that the Amazons must not be all-white; that they must have their black token no matter what logical hoops the writers must be jump through to get Philippus to Themiscrya-- 

Even if those hoops aren't nearly as narrow as the ones that got Idris Elba into Asgard.

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