Monday, February 28, 2011

Whack History Month

Many of the more questionable stories involving race throughout the history of supercomics can and usually are dismissed with the simple observation that the creators' had their "hearts in the right place." It's easy to look at Ebony White and Pieface and see callous racism, but by the mid-60s most of the parties involved in mainstream comics had eliminated or at least toned-down the instances of outright bigotry. In the place of bigotry was a gradually growing awareness of diversity issues. By the late 60s, that meant two things: a small but growing category of ethnically diverse superheroes and adventure characters - i.e., Gabe Jones, T'Challa, the Falcon; and a profusion of "issues" stories.

Most people are usually kind to "issues" stories even if they - as a rule - age horribly. Everyone knows these panels:

To say that the story in question - "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!" from Green Lantern / Green Arrow $76 - has not aged well would be an extreme understatement. But no one really wants to rag on Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams because - you guessed it - their "hearts were in the right place." DC had lagged on the whole socially-conscious thing for a long time, but credit where it was due, they took on urban poverty and race relations in a time when those issues just weren't appearing in comics. But let's put this into context: even if racial tension was still taboo in comics, it wasn't taboo, oh, just about everywhere else in the entire world by 1970. Most of the suits in the comics industry were still operating under the principle that, because they were selling children's literature, they couldn't afford to court even the most timid kind of controversy. Which is another way of saying that anything that could conceivably offend the most reactionary elements of the readership was quashed. If it wouldn't fly in Biloxi, it didn't make it onto the page.

But then, you know, people started to get "hep" to the fact that courting controversy might actually sell more comics than not. So you got things like O'Neil / Adams' "Hard-Traveling Heroes" storyline, which tackled not just race relations and poverty but also - famously - drug abuse. Not so famously, Hal and Ollie also tackled overpopulation, Native American land rights, and ecological destruction. These comics are, aside from Adams' artwork, an awful slog to get through. I don't think that's necessarily a bad reflection on the creators: they were doing their best to drag superheroe comics into the 1970s, and in practice that meant they were producing 22-page short stories about "hot button" topics aimed at a young adult readership - AKA after-school specials. No one likes after-school specials. If we're going to remember the O'Neil / Adams team for their contributions to diversity in comics, let's instead focus on the superb Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. The "Hard-Traveling Heroes" stories were important and ground-breaking in their time, but really shouldn't be remembered as anything more than well-meaning artifacts of a peculiar period of growing-pains for American comics.

So flash forward a couple decades to the early 1990s. America still isn't quite the promised land envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but we've come a long ways, right? Even if race is still a hot-button, we've at least advanced to the point where we can have a civilized and constructive conversation on race relations, at least in our entertainment?

Not so much. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Punisher #59, cover dated January 1992.

"The Final Days" was, as its name might suggest, the last Punisher story ever. After "The Final Days," Marvel killed the Punisher and canceled all of his titles, which is why there have been no Punisher comics for almost twenty years.

Oh, I kid. The Punisher didn't really die. What happened was: the Kingpin was sick and tired of the Punisher always trying to kill him, so he decided that it was time to deal with his nemesis once and for all! (I think that's what happened, I didn't bother to reread the first part of the storyline.) Eventually, the Punisher is hunted into a corner by the Kingpin and the cops, and he is taken into custody. After a speedy trial he gets sent up the river to Rikers, where - to no-one's surprise - he promptly escapes - but not before getting his face sliced by Jigsaw in retaliation for having done the same. So, he's on the run from the cops and the Kingpin, his face cut to shreds, his safehouses blown and his resources drained. What does he do? What any of us would do in this situation: he finds a ground-breaking plastic surgeon who just happens to also be a drug-addicted hooker.

Did you catch that? "Tissue regeneration and melanin?"

Yeah. Blackface Punisher.

As awful - awful, awful, awful - as this is, I want to stress that the writer in question, Mike Baron, is not a bad writer. He is, aside from Garth Ennis, probably the best Punisher writer ever. In an era when every Punisher comic still had to carry the Comics Code sticker, it wasn't possible to do anything more than the mildest kinds of black comedy, and graphic hard-boiled paramilitary-themed noir was simply inconceivable for a mass-market title - so, no "Welcome Back, Frank," certainly no Punisher MAX. Picking up where Stephen Grant's Circle of Blood miniseries left off, Baron wrote the definitive Punisher during what would be the character's most commercially successful period. His Punisher - an ultra-competent, suave man's-man adventurer in the mold of Mack Bolan - was the Punisher for many years.

But as this description implies, the Punisher's success in the late 80s and early 90s was somewhat problematic. How do you make a successful franchise out of such a repetitive and limited character? I mean, I like the Punisher as much as the next guy, but even his biggest fans will concede that there just aren't very many things you can do with the guy. You can't have much of a supporting cast or any soap opera - the Punisher isn't the type to hang out at the Coffee Bean and have revolving girlfriends. He can't have too many recurring villains - the whole point of the character is that he kills people, and even two recurring villains (Jigsaw and the Kingpin) is really pushing it. These problems only compound themselves when you factor in the content limitations of the era. Reading a pile of vintage Punisher comics makes for strange, surreal reading: here's a dude walking around the world gunning-down drug dealers, rapists and serial killers, only there really isn't much blood, and what blood there is is colored black.

It is to Baron's credit that he was able to keep the formula from getting stale for as long as he did. He was a master of single-or-double issue high-concept adventure stories: the Punisher takes on a serial-killer priest, the Punisher takes on evil bikers, the Punisher takes on the KKK - stuff like that. Towards the end of Baron's run, however, the quality of Baron's scripts saw a marked decline. For instance: the double-sized fiftieth issue of The Punisher saw the Punisher battling a dude named Yo-Yo Ng, whose gimmick was that he had a yo-yo that could cut peoples' heads off. I guess if you had to spend five years thinking of things for a character like the Punisher to do, you might go a little bit batty after a while, and start to think that something like Blackface Punisher might be a good idea. And I guess if all your editors and everyone else on the creative team - including comics legend Al Williamson on inks! - had been dosed with peyote prior to working on the comic, it might seem like a good idea at the time.

"The Final Days," besides being one of the most deceptively-titled stories in memory, started off strong with a good hook - the Punisher finally gets caught and sent to jail! - but soon petered out into, well, Blackface Punisher. The Punisher didn't do so well with long-form stories back then: if it took more than two issues for the Punisher to kill a dude, the story usually got weird, and the Punisher would end up trudging around the jungle fighting the devil or something. They couldn't really kill the Punisher, but they could draw themselves into such an awful corner that the only feasible solution was to do the most unbelievably offensive thing possible.

And by "most offensive thing possible," I'm not even referring to making the Punisher black. Oh, no, read on.

After the Punisher wakes up from his surgery, he decides that the only logical solution to his problems is to head to Chicago. (He says he's got a safe house there that the cops haven't busted, but I think he really just wanted some pizza.) And the best way to do this is to drive there in one sitting.

New York to Chicago isn't a nineteen-hour drive. It's twelve or thirteen hours, tops. We can only assume that Frank took the frontage roads and made a point of stopping at every White Castle along the way.

But whatever kept him so long, nineteen hours behind the wheel of a car makes anyone pretty tired. So by the time Frank gets to the Windy City, he's getting pretty wobbly behind the wheel:

Now, this next section might take a little bit of context. Remember I said that the last issue of "The Final Days" was cover-stamped January of 1992? That meant that the story was actually on stands in late Fall of 1991.

1991 was not a good year for race relations in the United States of America. In March of that year, a black man named Rodney King was pulled over by the LAPD following a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood. King was pulled from his car by the arresting officers and beaten bad enough to be hospitalized. The incident was caught on film by a passerby and the resultant footage was broadcast all over the world.

Anyone who was alive at the time remembers this as one of the darkest and most unpleasant periods in contemporary American history. The myth of a "post-racial" society, with Cliff Huxtable as the symbol of American domestic prosperity and black artists like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston dominating the pop charts, was deflated in one dramatic, heartbreaking moment. Well-meaning liberal white people had done a good job of fooling themselves into thinking that racism was a long-gone relic of the past, but the reality of racial tension - and the class inequality that goes hand-in-hand - once again reared its ugly head in a way that simply could not be swept under the rug. America had not even had the time to congratulate itself for winning the Cold War before it woke up to the reality of lingering racial enmity on the homefront.

So, who better to deal with the boiling cauldron of Rodney King-era race relations than Blackface Punisher?

So, um, yeah. That. That is a thing that happened.

But before we get too off-track here, let's take a moment to remember the whole point of this awful story. The reason the Punisher was in Chicago, after all, was not so much to recharge his batteries after a grueling adventure that left him scarred in body and mind, but to as to serve as a lead in for the early 90s Luke Cage reboot.

By 1991, Cage had been out of the spotlight for a good five years. Following the cancellation of Power Man & Iron Fist - a finale which had seen Cage framed for Fist's murder, if you recall - Cage went underground. Whereas nowadays fans might reasonably expect that kind of dangling plot hole to be resolved, it's important to remember that Luke Cage in 1986 was nowhere near as prominent as Luke Cage in 2011. Power Man & Iron Fist had been canceled for low sales, after all. The plot wasn't addressed until 1991, a full five years later, when John Byrne revealed that - quelle surprise! - Iron Fist hadn't really died back in 1986, he was really hiding out in a plant pod. Or something, I dunno, the latter half of Byrne's Namor got pretty dire.

But I guess five years was long enough, so Luke Cage was brought back as a Hero For The 90s, which meant that he was now VERY ANGRY. I mean, yeah, I'd be pissed if I spent half a decade living underground because I had been framed for my best friend's murder, but by that same token it reduced one of Marvel's most prominent African-American heroes to a caricature of an "Angry Black Man." Leave it be said that Cage lasted all of twenty issues. Part of the reason for this failure was that there had been a fairly intense amount of hype before the first issue hit the stands. (I know, an overhyped debut issue in the 1990s, what a shock?) Marvel had been promising a new Cage series for what seemed like years. What's more, they had promised that the first issue of Cage's new series would have some kind of revolutionary magic cover - I can't remember what, exactly, it was supposed to have been, lenticular chromium foil or something crazy like that. When it finally hit the shelves, many months late, it had nothing more than a garden variety "fifth-ink" metallic purplish cover, nothing extraordinary whatsoever. In the gimmick cover wars of the early 90s, you either went hard or went home. Cage went home.

Anyway, what you need to know is that Cage had, following his exoneration for Fist's murder, relocated to Chicago and - in addition to his gig as a hero-for-hire - taken a staff gig with a major Chicago newspaper. (Doing what, I can't remember - security or something, I dunno. It was an excuse to do all those newspaper-related things that better facilitate superheroics.) What you also need to know is that Cage's new look involved a New Jack fade haircut and a metal belt buckle that stabbed him in the junk every time he sat down.

Wow! Luke Cage, back in action after five long years, meting out symbolic justice to all racist cops everywhere! I wish I could go back in time and have Benjamin Marra draw this comic, because this right here is basically why Benjamin Marra was born.

Now that we've seen Luke Cage and Blackface Punisher mercilessly hospitalize a half-dozen racist cops and steal a police cruiser in order to make their getaway, you'd expect the entire Chicago police department to be after them. Since Cage was such a public figure in Chicago - on the cover of the newspaper and everything - you'd assume the cops would have no problem locating the outlaw Cage and taking him into custody.

Well, you'd be wrong because this scene is never mentioned again. Seriously: you remember the time when Luke Cage put six members of the Chicago PD in the hospital and then stole a police car with the Punisher? Neither does Cage, because there were never any consequences whatsoever. In fact, by the next page he's even remembered that he actually had a car the whole time, and had not actually needed to steal a police car.

But it's a good thing he arrives in the Hood when he does, because as it is he's just in time to stop Kid from selling Play some "righteous crack."

The 90s, folks.

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