Feb 6, 2013

Pop Medicine: Representation

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

The exceptionally talented Ricardo Villagran illustrates a contemporary southwest reservation with anachronistic clothes and generically ethnicized setting in Strange Tales. Gary Erskine goes deliberately off-model with Wolverine, significantly short, squat, heavy, with longish, unkempt hair, and a bit of a visible reek. A cover for Heroes for Hire goes for out of character fear in Misty Knight and her partners, as they are chained up in peril facing a slimy-tentacled rape threat.

Now, if I were to go to virtually anywhere on the internet that talks comics, or into any local comics shop in America and present those three examples, which two would I be most likely mocked for being concerned with, and which would inspire cries of drumming the artist out of the industry or at least, a demand for quality control and accuracy through research?

Wolverine needs to be drawn to model. This is implicitly understood and sometimes it is allcaps yelled on messageboards because fuck expression or function, Wolverine is a real guy. Simultaneously, those raging mobs in eastern Europe you'll see in superhero comics shall forever sport torches and farm tools, lederhosen and feathered caps because it's not a real eastern Europe. For the most part, eastern Europe doesn't exist in superhero comics.

Harlem does not exist, essentially, in superhero comics, or Glasgow, Thailand or Uganda. When places bearing those names appear, they are agglomerations of stories and memories of people who have, most often, never experienced anything of the place first or secondhand. The Thailand of, say, the DC Universe, is defined by the existence of Batman and the architecture of several Hollywood movies than by any actual artifact, individual, or locale in Thailand.

The Harlem present in the Marvel Universe is dictated not by reality, but by old myths and a stranger's misperceptions, and a need to support and arrest those misperceptions today, to reiterate and concretize the past failings and reassure their veracity over genuine reality.

"Oh, but that can't be true"?

When was the last time you read an Aborigine in Australia who kept his shirt on for his entire first appearance? And did he or did he not have face paint?

If the Philippines or Spain are accurately or functionally represented and not erased for a substitute to squat in their place, chances are strong some of the immediate talent have strong firsthand experience with the region. Not - importantly - secondhand, that is to say, research or who've had documentation presented directly to them, but primary experience.

Sometimes, you have a good ethnographer or a clear-headed researcher, an all things being equal portrayer, but those people are often transliterated by the efforts of their collaborators. Just because Warren Ellis writes for a ghost dance in contemporary post-apocalypse doesn't mean the artist won't go for anachronism and whatever savage dance moves they feel like. Jack Kirby can draw a woman contributing directly to a fight, but Stan Lee can easily come in and dialogued her some "Oh! Fooey! I'm an emotional female! Love me anyway, Reed!" to devalorize the combat.

These people and places are so unreal as presented that they are exchangeable in the face of the absurdity of that status. The places, the people, the cultures and goods are no longer useful as fictional representations but do have cache as substitutions. It is, unfortunately, a weak cache, however. This is why they great more, the more familiar you are with what they fail to represent.

A strong substitution, such as the future Southern California of Demolition Man or the Manhattan of the Marvel Universe, are capable of subsuming our impulses to grieve for the missing actualities. They fulfill the basic expectations of a Southern California or a Manhattan, even for a local, because they were crafted from closer sources (second and firsthand), while Hell's Kitchen or Latveria require a tacit sardonic distance or that we are primarily familiar with what they represent symbolically or in terms of what is established in older comics.

Latveria is created as a substitution; it has nothing to represent one to one, only symbols and structures that connect it to genuine nations and histories. The ahistoric costuming can be easily parsed as national style and who can argue? But show Beijing in a DC comic, and chances are strong the architecture, social mores, and styles of dress will neither reflect a contemporary reality nor be functionally excusable as feasible affectation. One ponytailed dude in a robe chattering about honorable murderer is quirky; a city of them calls attention to its irreality. It becomes necessary to either believe in it, via ignorance of a genuine Beijing, or to acknowledge consistently that this is an ironically distanced substitution. Orientalism, either way, but with different strengths and, naturally, weaknesses.

Thus certain circumstances and positions become expected despite our firsthand experiences, because they are the substitution for reality, as experienced repeatedly in fiction. Foremost among these is cheesecake, the tendency of fictional women to end up in contrived physical positions or scenarios with exaggerated sexual content. Do women lose their towel in front of strangers or platonic acquaintances more often than men? Do women in combat require less armor, or indeed simply less clothing of any sort, than men?

It cannot be that these substitute tendencies are supported solely by ignorance. Obviously, not. So? Possibly it is in their familiarity. As you read the previous paragraphs, did you feel a twinge of suspicion, in support or not, that I might try to cancel future cheesecake? That I am decrying cheesecake? I'd wager many of you did, at least a little bit, whether you're for an embargo ir against. And, yet, I haven't. I've only drawn attention to the artificiality.

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