Monday, September 26, 2016

If You’re Spider-Man, Why Are You White?

Guest review by Rocío Isabel Prado of Graphic Borders

Frederick Luis Aldama & Christopher González. Eds. Graphic Borders: Latino Comic Books Past, Present, and Future. University of Texas Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-4773-0915-5

I remember few moments of anger as vividly as that in which I was sitting in a theater awaiting the moment when Afro-Latino Spider-Man would come swinging onto the screen during Civil War. I reeled when I saw that this Spider-Man was just a carbon copy of the nerdy white boys that make up Peter Parker’s legacy. In my anger, I looked to social media, expressing myself through Mean Girls memes, but I always got the same response: Miles Morales isn’t part of the same universe. And while my friends were talking about a narrative technique specific to the Marvel universe, I couldn’t help but think everyone was asking me to not expect so much from this one. Because even though Black Panther was an important part of the movie, and even though Miles Morales’ presence had already rippled through nerd culture, Black and brown communities were still experiencing violence at the hands of police, were still the targets of hate crimes, and were still being deported.

The tension between the importance of representation and whether representation has a measurable impact on a world with no caped crusaders, walking muertos, or speech bubbles is central to Graphic Borders: Latino Comics: Past, Present and Futurejust published this spring 2016 with the University of Texas Press. The anthology is edited by The Ohio State University’s own Latino superhero Dr. Frederick Aldama and Texas A&M’s Latino pop culture powerhouse Christopher González. With articles ranging from Los Bros Hernandez to Sonambulo to gay Latino superheroes, this anthology was a queer Chicana nerd’s dream. And even better than simply adoring the works they featured, many of these articles critiqued them and put them into conversations that have long pervaded the vast comic book fandoms across Twitter and Facebook. In fact, they seemed so relevant to online discourse, I was often moved to “like” or “comment” on the articles, but I could only leave sticky notes or underline as I annotated. The articles are split into five parts: “Alternativas”, “Cuerpo Comics”, “Tortilla Strips”, “A Bird, a Plane…. Straight and Queer Super-Lats”, and “Multiverses, Admixtures, and More.” As one can tell by the titles of these sections, all of the contributors look at each work through in-depth analysis without taking themselves too seriously – and isn’t that why we all started reading comics in the first place?

Patrick L. Hamilton’s “Out of Sequence: Time and Meaning in Los Bros Hernandez”, is the article I wish I would have read as I wrote my Master’s project. After reading Maggie the Mechanic, I told anyone who would sit still long enough that Maggie’s body defies the limits of time and space. Needless to say it didn’t have much impact. So you can imagine how validating it was to read Hamilton’s argument that Jaime and Gilbert defy the way comics have traditionally been read and developed new understandings of narrative. The difference in time and space between Maggie’s letters and the panels depicting Hopey reading them “indicate a nonsequential and nonlinear simultaneity” (Hamilton 31). Similarly, the foreshadowing and disjointed manner in which Gilbert arranges elements both within and without his panels deny the reader any type of closure in understanding what it’s like to be in Palomar. In “Recreative Graphic Novel Acts in Gilbert Hernandez’s Twenty-First-Century Neo-Noirs”, Frederick Aldama argues that Gilbert employs a similar tactic in Chance in Hell, Troublemakers, and Maria M. Aldama posits that in the use of neo-noir’s social Darwinism enables the graphic novels to work together and individually to critique capitalism and its disastrous effects on youth. Lastly, in “Three Decades with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez: An Odyssey by Interview,” I was able to fully realize my fangirldom. There is so much satisfaction to be had for Love and Rockets fans; including insight into how Jaime and Gilbert decide to go about building their story worlds and hints about where the Bros are planning on taking them next.

Prof. Frederick Luis Aldama

In “Part II: Cuerpo Comics”, Christopher González’s “Biographic Challenges: Wilfred Santiago’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente,” discusses the importance of the form of the graphic novel and its relationship to the events that make up the career of famed Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente. González argues that a biographic expands upon the limits of the form of biography; meaning that 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente does something that a textual version of the same story doesn’t. Further stoking the flames of my fangirldom, Ellen M. Gil-Gómez discusses the meaning behind lucha libra and gender in Sonambulo and Locas. She begins with a short history of lucha libre and uses that as the basis to argue that the anachronism present in Sonambulo’s style matches its anachronistic depictions of gender. The same history allows Gil-Gómez to show that lucha libre allows female characters in Locas to defy traditional gender roles and gives them the opportunity to create complex definitions of gender.

“Part III: Tortilla Strips” begins with “Latino Identity And the Market: Making Sense of Cantú and Castellanos’s Baldo”, wherein Héctor Fernandez L’Hoeste claims that the comic strip Baldo marks how Latinos negotiate their identity through the advertising industry. His dad, his sister, his grandmother, and himself all represent different identity-based reactions to economic imperatives. In “The Archaeology of the Post-Social In The Comics of Lalo Alcaraz: La Cucaracha and Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons on Immigration,” Juan Poblete smartly posits that Alcaraz reflects the post-social politics of contemporary immigrant populations in the U.S. He claims that Alcaraz’s humor marks the development of U.S. Latino culture as both an entity that is heterogenous as a cultural formation, but is also critical of U.S. culture. Alcaraz is often critical of other Latinos while pointing out how the Latino community faces discrimination in America. In “My Debt to Rius,” Ilan Stavans remembers how he moved from being a fan of Kalimán to a Cantinflas enthusiast to an aficionado of Rius’s reflection on Mexican politics.

In “Part IV: A Bird, A Plane… Straight and Queer Super-Lats,” focuses on the otherness that marks Latino superheroes because of their queerness and their ethnicity. Clearly, Aldama and González took notes from veteranas Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga and transcestors/trans leaders Sylvia Rivera and Bamby Salcedo who embody and argue that Latino/a/x identity is not separate from gender or sexuality. I began this section eagerly (I’m going to start referring to myself as a queer super-lat), but I couldn’t help but wonder how these writings would affect or change the discourse around the queer and trans Latino/a/x community and whether there would be any measurable impact. In “The Alien Is Here To Stay: Otherness, Anti-Assimilation, and Empowerment in Latino/a Superhero Comics,” Mauricio Espinoza argues that Latino superheroes’ ethnic and cultural otherness is represented in their “superpowered alien-ness/monstrosity.” Blue Beetle, El Muerto, Weapon Tex-Mex, The Jaguar and Johnny Cuervo all show their ethnic otherness through their transformations into their super other. In Isabel Millán’s “Anya Sofía (Araña) Corazón: The Inner Webbings and Mexi-ricanization of Spider-Girl,” she deals with the many variations of Anya’s identity and suggests that this speaks to a more contemporary understanding of Latina identity, race, and sexuality. Among the many observations that Millán makes, her exploration of Anya’s sexuality through fan art are the most interesting because it delves into questions of audience participation in comics. The last article of the section, “Revealing Secret Identities: Gay Latino Superheroes and The Necessity of Disclosure” by Richard T. Rodríguez explores how the figure of the gay Latino superhero forces “the fantasy space of the comic book” to include issues that are pertinent to the everyday experiences of queer Latinos. The superheroes that interest Rodríguez address concerns of HIV/AIDS, coming out, representation and respectability politics – issues that are still being debated in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting where the victims were predominantly of Latino or African descent.

In Part V: Multiverses, Admixtures, and More, scholars bring up questions of Afro-Latinidad in popular culture, including comics, film, and television. In “Everybody Wants to Rule the Multiverse: Latino Spider-men in Marvel’s Media Empire,” Kathryn M. Frank shows how the way in which the Marvel universe works allows for representation of Latino and Afro-Latino identity while also reinforcing Peter Parker as the true Spiderman. Frank was able to articulate the source of my confusion and the reason I felt “Miles Morales is not from that universe” was just an excuse (hint: it’s because it was). In “Mapping the Blatino Badlands And Borderlands of American Pop Culture” Adilifu Nama and Maya Haddad explain the difficulties of depicting Blatino superheroes that express their blackness to the same degree as their Latinidad. They warn against the usage of Blatino identity as an “existential quandary” but argue that it should be the “face of the global future, a pan-racial and multicultural America” (267). Brian Montes adds to this conversation in “The Paradox of Miles Morales: Social Gatekeeping and The Browning of America’s Spider-Man.” He claims that although Marvel’s choices allow them to seem like they embrace diversity, they are still “safeguarding a white, Eurocentric spatial privilege” (270). The last sentence of his article struck me especially hard: “Miles Morales reminds us of the fact that even in the twenty-first century, not all border crossings are possible.”

I often struggle with the weight of researching race in popular culture. Those of us who do this work are over-worked and under-appreciated. We don’t get happy endings and we’re never done asking for diversity or accurate representation in film, television, or comics. The only consolation I can muster after the simultaneous joy and harsh slap of reality of reading this anthology is that we are not alone in taking on this work. This anthology meant a lot to me. I’m sure it will mean a lot to the many Blerds (Black Nerds), nerdy Latino/a/x students, dorky pop culture queers, sweater homos, Arab-American trash-can-kicking fangirl dykes, genderqueer and gender non-conforming Black femmes who linger in comic book stores, and the many people that are intentionally taking on the work of participating in discussions around race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

This is an essential read for everyone who does not shy away from the reality of the ever-changing world around us, but also takes on the responsibility of contributing to the future as it’s being negotiated in comics, television, and film. 

Rocío Isabel Prado

Rocío Isabel Prado is a part-time human, full-time PhD student at The Ohio State University. She earned her B.A. and M.A. at the California State University, Fullerton in English. Her research focuses on race, gender, and sexuality in world comics and comedy. She spends her time between Columbus, Ohio and Southern California reading comics, eating veggie food, and watching comedy.  She is the author of “Inexact Revolutions: Understanding Latino Pop Art” in The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Literature.


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