Use of a racial insult in
This is fair warning. As a famous oversized rapper once said, “it’s about to get ugly.”
It’s 2009 and the controversy lives on – the proper or improper use of a certain word. Who will be “allowed” to use the N-word and who won’t? The simplistic argument usually goes like this –“Why is it okay for Black rappers and comedians to use the N-Word and not okay for White people to say it?” “C’mon, it’s just a word. What difference does it make?”
But let’s be real. Everyone, even the densest of commentators suspects why the word is not for use in polite conversation. It has a complex history and despite all attempts to change it from an incredible ugly insult to a common everyday descriptive has failed. The word is a nexus for a number of sensitive issues – censorship, American history, power, and much more. It embodies issues that many Americans don’t ever want to think about, let alone talk over or deal with.
Well, if we can’t use it in conversation, how about the appearance of the N-word in comic books? Surely there couldn’t be a problem with the use of racial pejoratives in this fun filled, happy medium? Well, not exactly.
Back in the wild and radical 1960s and 70s, there emerged a new crop of young radical artists and writers. They seemed hell-bent on being as controversial, edgy, and offensive as possible Even in the heyday of underground comics, the N-word was rarely used. Apparently there was line that even the most rabid revisionist wouldn’t cross.
Acclaim Comics’ great but under-appreciated series, Quantum and Woody, tried a unique approach to the N-word. They featured a story in issue #4 where the N-word was replaced with the word “noogie.” It expertly made fun of the controversy and is one of the funniest comic stories I ever read, but hey, I have a sense of humor. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of this issue – it still holds up.
But enough talk of the distant past. How do current comic books really fair in this race to control what we say, think and print? A few years back Marvel Comics’ reinvented title, Black Panther, weathered an appearance of the expression, “work like an N-word” (used by a white character, mind you) even though there were a storm of angry letters and much public debate. Four years ago their Max Comics line showcased the word, in their Supreme Power: Nighthawk book (about a very severe Black vigilante super guy) albeit as racist graffiti. In 2007 the Black character Barracuda, the character in The Punisher Presents: Barracuda use the supposedly least offensive version (“nigga”) to open and close the first issue. I guess I should also mention that Barracuda is not exactly a role model for anyone with his use of all kinds of obscene language, gratuitous violence, and public urination.
The popular current series Loveless by Vertigo (DC Comics’ “adult” line) is about the fictional lives of Americans just after the Civil War. This historically accurate comic book uses the N-word in its narrative regularly. It seems despite any number of censorship watchdogs that at least one main stream comic publisher is resisting the current trend to re-write history, even as fiction.
As an artist, a historian, and an educator I see this discussion, heated or otherwise, as something that must take place. And while I don’t see it being resolved anytime in the near future, current presidential race notwithstanding, we have to have it. We need a measured, in-depth, all parties listening and thinking creatively discussion. I understand parents (Black and White) making choices about how they want the N-word used or not around their children. But I also think that wishing it away is a bit unrealistic as well. Talking about the N-word does not make you racist, but not talking about it could well keep you ignorant.
Now if you find you have an appetite for more, I recommend you check out a segment on YouTube that has been widely traded around the internet. It features Motown Maven William “Smokey” Robinson giving his own eloquent response to words that are used to negatively describe Black people. Comics, conversation or whatever, I don’t think anyone could have done a better job.
And the struggle for control of our thoughts and language continues.
William Foster is a Professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College, and a long-time Comic Book Historian. His new book, “Dreaming of a Face like Ours” will be published this fall.
@ Marvel Publishing, Inc.
@ Acclaim Comics
@ Classic Illustrated R is a registered trademark of the Frawley Corporation
@ Vertigo is a trademark of DC Comics