The events depicted in this comic are as recent as last Friday (January 15, 2016). We wrote, drew, inked, and did layout within 48 hours, in time for Savannah’s Martin Luther King parade, in which the Poor People’s Campaign participated.
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If all great truths begin as blasphemies, as George Bernard Shaw put it, we in Canada find ourselves living in a theocracy. Certainly even Adam and Eve would wonder at the spectacular efforts to preserve the innocence of ignorance undertaken by our present government. It has taken a valiant stand against sex education so we may uncover our nakedness. In seeking to dismantle the National Archives, they will free us from knowledge of good and evil. Thanks to the government’s destruction of the integrity of census data, we are free from even the prospect of acquiring knowledge.
But to be sure we are safe from it, they are throwing whole libraries into the trash, and forbidding the wicked among us from sharing their dangerous truths with the press.
So we are nearly free of blasphemy, and what greater expression of piety than prisons? At a time when American districts are turning away from the tough on crime approach, Canada embraces it enthusiastically. If books are not totally passe at this point, I should recommend to the Justice Minister and any higher powers to which he might answer a thorough reading of ‘Race To Incarcerate.’
Title: Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling Created by: Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer Forward: Michelle Alexander Preface: The Sentencing Project Published: 2013 by The New Press
‘Race To Incarcerate’ practically bursts its bindings with relevant historical, sociological and economic data. It doesn’t shrink from statistics either, as it outlines the growth in prison populations, corrections spending and the prevalence of private prisons. Exploring public attitudes towards morality, the dishonesty of elected representatives and the role played by the War on Drugs, this expressive tome shines light onto critical questions in one area of public policy where high-minded moralizing has long reigned supreme.
The comic traces the evolution of America’s obsession with getting ‘tough on crime’ from its beginnings in the 1970s through to the second Bush administration. Along the way it explores the impact of the War on Drugs, changes in social attitudes towards crime and the role of racism in expanding the prison-industrial complex. On the political file, the crass electoral motives of successive legislators are exposed. Clinton and George W. Bush are particularly held up as hypocrites, promising to reform the system while allowing prison spending and populations to grow in tandem.
The comic does an excellent job of outlining the role played by racism in incarcerating black and Hispanic Americans at a disproportionate rate. Racism, and underlying white cultural anxieties, are ably exposed as the culprits for rates of black incarceration. The usual apologies for the racial composition of the prison population are handily debunked. The proverbial fig leaf is pulled away, and the naked truth is not a pretty thing to behold.
If there is a flaw in ‘Race To Incarcerate’, it is in the conclusion. After spending the majority of its pages identifying the endemic racism in American society, it proposes a coalition of business, academic leaders, communities of colour and families of addicts to tackle the problem by lobbying the government. The book persuasively argues that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. It then proposes the problems be solved through a coalition made up in part by the rich and powerful appealing to the very politicians whose dishonesty it has exposed. Some business leaders may feel compelled to oppose the prison industrial complex, but it is a drop in the bucket to a system that has been constructed–designed–in the interests of corporate profits.
Furthermore, the book is right to suggest the involvement communities of colour, but missed the opportunity to highlight one of the most important groups of all – prisoners and ex-convicts themselves. Prisoners and ex-cons not only deserve the right to tell their stories, their voices should be at the forefront of a prison abolition movement. Regardless of the accuracy of the book’s conclusion, the information in it can help persuade regular people that prisons don’t work.
But the truth, we are told, shall set us free. The Conservative government is hot to bring many of the measures described in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ up to Canada, including mandatory minimum sentences and private prisons. The message of ‘Race To Incarcerate’ is clear: prisons don’t work. But more than that, they are dangerous to a degree that should alarm us. Indigenous people make up about 4% of Canada’s population, but 23% of its prison population – and the rates are climbing. In Canada, prisons are looking more and more like another form of genocide.
The facts in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ won’t liberate those prisoners, but they can free the rest of us from the moralizing naiveté that justifies mass imprisonment. Liberated from our ignorance, we can turn our attention to prying open the bars of the prison industrial complex.
This week the comics industry juggernaut Marvel announced a new superhero stepping into their circulation.
Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, growing up in New Jersey. In an article this week in the New York Times about the new character, author G. Willow Wilson explains that she wanted the comic to be about a few things: “…about the universal experience of all American teenagers, feeling kind of isolated and finding what they are.” Wilson explains that this comes through the lens of Kamala being a young Muslim in America who struggles with her faith.
The prospect of a new comic about this kind of character feels really promising. Even the art displays something new and comforting about it. I feel like Kamala could actually be a real person that I know. But aside from pointing out how Kamala will be different than previous Marvel superheroes, very little is discussed of her.
About a quarter of the article is taken up with examples of Marvel’s shoddy history of attempting to introduce minority characters. Thus if we are not already familiar, readers begin to introduce themselves to the battle against sexism and racism in the comic book world. Navigating the gauntlet of narrow editorial mindsets and penny-pinching fans… is seeing the underlying reality that most positions in the comic business are still inhabited by white men, and that this environment has often embarrassing and ugly consequences.
There are so many incredible examples of how working mostly with white men to create a comic universe comprised mostly of white men and male-idealized women can take its tole on your ability to even imagine diversification.
Some fun examples of this are instances such as DC Comics’ Dan DiDio in his outburst, now famous in the comic book world, at the San Diego Comic Con in 2011. When a member of the audience suggested that DC hire more women, DiDio emphatically responds, “WHO? Who should we hire? Tell me right now!” Let’s keep in mind that the suggestion came as a result of DiDio literally asking the audience what DC Comics should be doing to boost readership and reader confidence. As has been noted by many, if you actually listen to the exchange (an MP3 is conveniently available), you’ll note that DiDio’s response sounds less like a question and more like a challenge. DiDio continues to embarrass himself as an editor at America’s #2 comic publisher with actions like forbidding Batwoman authors from allowing the character, who is currently portrayed as a lesbian, to marry her partner. Superheroes are about self-sacrifice; they “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” he explained to fans at the Baltimore Comic Con.
In August, 2013, comics creator Mark Millar was in the spotlight, particularly for his comments about the subject of rape in comics. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” Millar went on to boast that he “always likes to push it and see something [he’s] never seen before.” Monika Bartyzel’s response in The Week:
But Millar is wrong. We have seen rape in comics before, and we’ve seen it a lot. In fact, rape shows up repeatedly in Millar’s work (Wanted, The Authority, Kick-Ass 2), which echoes a longer tradition of rape suffered by superheroines like Black Cat, Ms. Marvel, and Rogue. Rape is no more an unspeakable taboo in comics culture, where the industry is overrun with continual sexual harassment and rape threats, than it is in real life.
Despite it being less of a publicly heated debate (perhaps because it’s more embarrassing?) we see this trend not only around gender, but around race. Brandon M. Easton, an African American animation writer, layed out the numbers in a Bleeding Cool article last year:
Clearly, breaking into Marvel or DC is insanely difficult and few people of any background manage to get close; but the fact that there are less than 3.0% of Blacks credited on all Marvel and DC titles as of June 2012 illustrates a serious problem that requires greater exploration.
Without necessarily trying to, Easton sums up a large part of the attitude problem facing society and the microcosm of the comic book industry. It is about racism specifically, but we can extract important lessons about all forms of systemic oppression:
In the U.S., it becomes a situation where some White people feel personally indicted as a racist and the burden rests on Black people to 1) prove racism still exists and impacts all of us, 2) explain the difference between a White person living their daily lives vs. the institutionalized system of racism, and 3) defend yourself against claims of “reverse” racism as the very mention of the issue means that you hate White people. Almost every online discussion of race boils down to these three arguments before it’s all said and done. And ultimately, nothing changes because some folks refuse to separate the system from their personal identity.
…So what does this all have to do with the fresh young Kamala Khan? Well, it could tell us that the mainstream comic book industry, despite some very old habits and mindsets, is trying to move forward.
Khan appears to be her own superhero, when she is, in fact, going to become the new Ms. Marvel…Oh dear. Marvel and D.C. both have an embarrassing record of stuffing minorities–African Americans, women, and LGBT folk–into superhero characters that are already molded and defined as the characters of white men. Why is this a problem? To me, it boils race and gender down to pigment and body parts, and ignores the basic understandings of systemic oppression: that of a categorically different life experience. The idea that a Black Spiderman or a Ms. Marvel would carry on with the same missions and objectives as their white male counterparts, in essence, tells us what the comic creation establishment means when they huff and haw at accusations of racism and sexism: beyond pigment and body parts, we’re all the same. So why go out of our way to hire/include/portray minorities in comics?
Relatively speaking, I don’t think we are all the same. Perhaps a Pakistani Muslim superheroine like Kamala Khan would be concerned with American military drone strikes killing hundreds of civilians back home… Perhaps superheroes of colour would be more in tune with criminal behavior that has negatively impacted their communities or countries of origin, as opposed to some generic gangsters or bad men in suits? And I can’t speak for all women, especially women superheroes, but perhaps a feminist perspective would *completely* change a superhero’s take on the world–its problems and its solutions.
What’s also enlightening, in the end, is the attitude of introducing diversity. “Fans respond with their dollars,” said Axel Alonso, the editor in chief of Marvel Entertainment, In the sense of margins and numbers, there is the logical fear that minority issues won’t connect with the majority and their wallets. As some of the most POWERFUL comics creators in the world said, “The comics follow society. They don’t lead.”
I find that to be an interestingly defeated attitude for an industry’s top dogs. Any industry–but especially one with creativity at its core. And especially one so capable that it can put out a press release about the Muslim superheroine Kamala Khan on Monday, and have it picked up by two dozen major newspapers by Wednesday.
It seems to me that the biggest news the comic world can make these days is news of change.
Ultimately, the comic industry giants have yet to be able to overcome the major hurdles of sexism and racism, because they genuinely do not know how. Don’t worry guys, you’re not alone on that one. But until there is a comprehensive examination of racism and sexism, not as topics of sensitivity training, but as pervading systems of oppression in our society (with histories. with context) then we have little hope for the new characters being born, no matter how diverse they appear to be.