Sunday, September 06, 2009

Another good thing about G.I. Joe (the '80s cartoon, not this summer's live-action movie)

Earlier this week, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort touched on what Robot 6’s Sean T. Collins referred to as “the third rail of fanboy politics.”

Answering a reader question on his company blog about why books with non-American casts (like the recently canceled Captain Britain and MI13) don' sell, Brevoort gave a very candid and honest appraisal:

I don't know that it's any one thing, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it's all part of the same phenomenon that makes it more difficult to sell series with female leads, or African-American leads, or leads of any other particular cultural bent. Because we're an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males… hat's something that continues to change as the audience for what we do gets larger and more diverse-but even within that diversity, it's probably going to be easier to make a success of a book with a female or African-American lead before it is a British or Canadian-centric character.


The 4thletter’s David Brothers responded with a pretty astute post, saying that,

But, if you’re going to go, “Our best-selling comics tend to be about our universe and continuity. We should do more of those so we can stay afloat,” you’re going to get comics starring people with several dozen years of Marvel history. All but two of those people are white, and the two are Black Panther and Falcon, who no one cares about anyway.

So if the audience wants stories that matter, you’re gonna get stories starring white dudes. It’s not even racism. It’s mathematics.


(He then goes on to note that there is the danger of creating a “self-defeating cycle,” wherein you keep doing stories starring white dudes because you know those will sell best, and never get around to grooming the audience to dig stories starring non-white, non-dude or non-American characters).

How representational Big Two super-comics are of the non-white male demographics is more or less a topic of constant conversation in the comics blogosphere (and, hopefully, within the Big Two as well).

That conversation was sloshing around in the back of my mind, as was a Vince Moore post on the lack of black villains in super-comics, over the course of this last week, while I was enjoying my recent discovery that you can find pretty much every G.I. Joe cartoon ever on YouTube*.

The G.I. Joe cartoon is over 25 years old now, and man, it is strikingly representational when it comes to diversity; certainly when compared to other cartoons of the time and even today (Like, for X-Men: Evolution they had to make-up a new black character because there weren't any more popular ones for them to choose from; when the Justice League cartoon started, they used the least popular version of Green Lantern at the time because he was the only way they could get a black character in a Big Seven line-up).

The original 1983 miniseries (the five-parter about the M.A.S.S. device) only had two black characters in it—Doc and Stalker, neither of whom I can remember ever getting a spotlight episode. But the 1984 miniseries (The Revenge of Cobra) and the series that followed between 1985 and 1987, featured many, many more characters, and among these were new black characters include Roadblock (who played a pretty prominent role throughout), Alpine (ditto) and Iceberg (who was featured as the lead in at least one episode...that awesome one where he gets turned into a killer whale? Remember that? God, that one was awesome).

There were at least three women on the team, Scarlett, Lady Jaye and Cover Girl, and those first two were among the most prominent characters in the series. Both were romantically linked to male heroes, but they were rarely were forced to play the role of “the girl” at the expense of being G.I. Joes.

I know there was at least one Asian-American (Quick Kick) and Native American (Spirit), and I could have sworn there were some Joes of Hispanic or Latin descent prior to the 1987 movie, but I’m afraid I can’t think of any off the top of my head now.

Anyway, there were a ton of white dudes, but still a decent number of non-white, non-dude characters. The portrayal of many of these characters was often cringe-inducing (well, is cringe-inducing to me now that I’m in my ‘30s, as a grade-schooler I didn’t notice), particularly in the case of Spirit, who was every noble savage stereotype rolled into one, but even now I feel inclined to cut the show a little slack. After all, almost every character on it talked with some kind of outrageous accent or verbal tick, either to help distinguish the large cast of characters for the benefit of young viewers, or to disguise the fact that like most cartoon, the voice cast was much, much smaller than the actual cast.

While the Joes were pretty diverse in terms of gender and racial/ethnic make-up, the villains weren’t. In fact, I can’t think of a single non-white Cobra agent, other than Storm Shadow, who looked white as hell on the cartoon, but I believe was supposed to be Japanese (he always talked like someones bad impression of a samurai). They did have a couple of women in their ranks—Baroness and Zarana—but diversity among the bad guys seemed to rest on which countries their crazy accents were imported from.**

I wonder if that had anything to do with the reluctance to create negative racial stereotypes leading to white creators avoiding using non-white villains at all (which is why, I think, Aquaman’s archenemy is the most prominent black super-villain), or if it’s just a complete coincidence. There seemed to have been a lot fewer Cobra characters in general, their armies generally filled out by anonymous foot soldier types in matching Cobra uniforms.

If there's anything that DC and Marvel can learn from this about making their team books more diverse, I think it's that the bigger the team, the easier it is. Like, if you're only going to have seven to ten characters are the Justice League, it might be hard to work in too many non-white dude characters if you reserve six or seven spots for the original, most popular characters, who happen to be white dudes. But if you have 14 or 20 guys on the team, it's sure a lot easier to work in Vixen, Steel, Skyrocket, Dr. Light II, Cyborg, Tomorrow Woman, Sala, Rising Sun or whoever. (If a 20-hero Justice League seems unwieldly, keep in mind not every character has to appear in every issue; the problem with JSoA and it's massive roster wasn't the number of characters, but that the writers insist on putting them all in every issue, whether they have anything to do or not).

The Avengers are a little more challenging due to the way they're being handled at the moment, consisting basically of Brian Michael Bendis' favorite characters, and how they relate to the overarching Marvel Universe storyline Bendis has a hand in. They've been a small team on the run from the law for a while now, which makes it difficult to double or triple their numbers, I guess. Even still, they could use more color or, at the very least, their "colorful" members—er, just Luke Cage at the moment?—could use some extra attention.

In the post I linked to above, for example, Brothers mentioned how long it's been since Luke Cage has had a miniseries, despite being a prominent member of the team starring in Marvel's best-selling book, whereas Hawkeye got a mini pretty much as soon as he joined the team. Even if Marvel's unsure how well a Luke Cage miniseries would sell, certainly a New Avengers: Cage or Dark Avengers: Cage one would sell like hotcakes, wouldn't it?

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see if I can find that episode where Iceberg gets mutated into a killer whale on YouTube...



*Holy crap, have you ever tried watching the post- G.I. Joe: The Movie series, the one that was produced by a different animation studio, and had new character designs, almost all-new voice actors and animation that looked about ten years behind the original cartoon series? Those are not very good cartoons.


**I thought Destro was supposed to be black, based on his booming deep voice, right up until that one episode where he and Lady Jaye see that Lovecraftian monster beneath his clan's castle in Scotland. If Destro's Scottish, why doesn't he have a Scottish accent instead of a vaguely Jamaican one? He sounds a bit like an evil, melodramatic James Earl Jones to me.

10 comments:

Douglas said...

The racial and sexual politics of 80s cartoons exert a strange compelling influence over me. 'Transformers' in particular (since that's my current fad; don't worry, give me a week and I'll be raving about Raymond Chandler, probably).

With Transformers, you have a 'black' character from the outside (Jazz); problem is, when you consider that they're freakin' cars, it's hard to have 'racial diversity' without dipping fairly far into stereotypes. Which raises the question: do you have a cast that sound like, more or less, white American men, or do you include racial diversity even when it a) promotes stereotypes and b) makes no sense in the context of the characters?

Female characters, too, do weird things to the fandom: some (like me) think the franchise definitely needs more gender diversity, but there's a hardcore contingent who think it is both TOKENISM (the WORST THING EVER) and nonsensical in a context of talking robots that turn into cars. In the original series there was Arcee, who was pretty much 'The Girl', but later series have been a bit better in including main female characters who are actually capable and interesting. Well, um, not OFTEN, but there's hope, man, there's hope.

Dean said...

I disagree that the JLA needs to go with a big cast to get to some diversity. There really are only five "must have" members of the JLA: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash.

Well, one of them is female and John Stewart is perfectly good in the GL slot. He actually works better as team member than Hal Jordan. So, if you add one non-white female and another character who either female or non-white, then you have a pretty diverse roster that is both small enough to feature everyone and feels like it has a lot of "Big Guns".

LurkerWithout said...

What with there being like four Avengers teams right now, they seem to be doing somewhat better diversity-wise. You've got the Bendis written Dark and Secret teams, the Slott Mighty team and the Gage Avengers/Warriors mash-up rebel team...

The Avengers/Warriors team is probably the most diverse with Gauntlet, Night Thrasher II, Debri'i and Rage...

Hdefined said...

"Answering a reader question about why books with non-American casts like the recently canceled Captain Britain and MI13 on his company blog . . ."

There's an important verb missing here.

Esteban138 said...

A few points: you refer to the creators of GIJoe as being white. While this is probably true in most cases, the most prominent voice, the man who wrote the backstories for the initial toy line and subsequent the comic book on which the tv show was based was, in fact, Larry Hama, as Asian-American.

I also think it's interesting that Brevoort specifically mentions Canadians as being a difficult book to sell.

Vanja said...

I always thought that the problem with superhero comics isn't in the lack of gender or racial diversity, but in the appeal of the content itself. Shows like "Lost" would be a hit even without insisting on mixing in the cast. "JLA" would be no more realistic if it featured 7 idealized Latino American figures. Personally, I prefer watching "Lost" to reading most superhero comics not only because of the gimmicks and the innovative genre story-structure, but because of the little touches of realism that extend to having short, fat or old actors doing very solid character work on screen. "JLA", and most superhero books in tow, are missing both any kind of character diversity, and an innovative storytelling style that would make it stand out as something different.

Hororo said...

Hey could you post a youtube link to that GiJ.O.E episode if you find it ? Thank you in advance !

Kid Kyoto said...

"Holy crap, have you ever tried watching the post- G.I. Joe: The Movie series"

I don't think they even showed those in NY, I don't remember seeing any GI Joe or Transformers after the movies.

Nothing I ever heard even vaguely tempts me to find them.

Caleb said...

The racial and sexual politics of 80s cartoons exert a strange compelling influence over me...

As a child, I didn't give much thought to race when it came to the Transformers, as they weren't human. Jazz didn't sound black to me, he sounded like Hong Kong Fooey to me, for the obvious reason.

But yeah, when they Arcee came around, it blew my mind, as if she were a female Transformers, that meant the others must be male, and then I got quite confused, as it introduced sex, gender and thoughts of reproduction into the world of the Transformers.

I wrote about that a little in this piece comparing the live action movie to the original cartoon movie here:
http://www.donewaiting.com/2007/07/04/the-new-transformers-movie-vs-the-old-transformers-the-movie/



I disagree that the JLA needs to go with a big cast to get to some diversity. There really are only five "must have" members of the JLA: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash

But that leaves out my two favorite Leaguers!


Well, one of them is female and John Stewart is perfectly good in the GL slot. He actually works better as team member than Hal Jordan.

Yeah, I think Stewart's best for the League now too. I thought it was tremendously forced when he was put on the team, and didn't see any real reason for Kyle Rayner to leave (he just, like, took a vacation and decided to never come back?), but now that John's been there a while, and Kyle is co-starring in his own book, I think John should be the JLA GL from here on out. (With Hal and/or other GLs guesting when needed).


you refer to the creators of GIJoe as being white. While this is probably true in most cases, the most prominent voice...was, in fact, Larry Hama, as Asian-American.

You know, I think I recently learned Hama was Asian-American, was surprised to learn it (I think I read a blog post about him being a guest of honor at an Asian-American comics festival or convention of some sort...?), then forgot all about it.

It speaks to the facelessness of the comics profession that Shawn Martinborough spoke about in an article recently, I guess.

Here's that article, if you're intersted:
http://www.bvonbooks.com/2009/08/17/black-superhero-luke-cage-ignites-marvel-comics/


I also think it's interesting that Brevoort specifically mentions Canadians as being a difficult book to sell.

I guess as far as non-American heroes go, Marvel probably has the most experience trying to push Canadian heroes via their various Alpha Flight type series, huh? (On the other hand, Wolverine's one of their most popular characters and he's Canadian...or is he Canadian-American, since he seems based in the U.S. now...?)


Hey could you post a youtube link to that GiJ.O.E episode if you find it ? Thank you in advance !

I could, but would that get the person who posted it in trouble, and he might be forced to take it down? (I don't really know the logistics and legal issues regarding YouTube). It's called "Iceberg Goes South" and "G.I._Joe" will work better than "G.I. Joe" as a search term, if that helps...



Nothing I ever heard even vaguely tempts me to find them.

I watched a half-dozen of them so far on YouTube, sating my childhood curiosity (I waited soooooooo long for new, post-movie G.I. Joe cartoons that I grew out of G.I. Joe before the series started).

The only good thing I can say about it so far is that Chris Latta is still doing Cobra Commander's voice, and man, I could listen to Latta's Cobra Commander under almost any circumstances.

The theme song is fucking awful, but I guess it is catchy...it's been stuck in my head for a few days now.

Here, join me in my suffering! And note how lame the opening sequence is compared to past ones:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBzqjF-wg7s&feature=related

Oh, and I thought Destro dumping Zarana was pretty sweet:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNcy9YaYxkc

Teebore said...

Yeah, the post-movie DiC Joe cartoon is almost universally considered to be awful (though I've always had a nostalgic soft spot for the five part mini that opened that season, which I absolutely dug as a kid).

The "Iceberg turns into a killer whale" episode is only trumped by the episode in which Cobra Commander's evil scheme of the moment revolved around the creation of a giant laser, with which he plans to carve his picture into the moon. Destro is understandably appalled that he's wasting money and resources on an act of "cosmic graffiti."

It's called "Lasers in the Night" and was written by none other than Marv Wolfman.