I want to talk about representation. I know what you’re saying: Chris, you’ve already written two columns on representation. Isn’t that enough? Why do you hate this horse so much that you gotta just keep beating it? Well, because it’s not enough, that’s why. And when you are fighting nearly a century of comic books that have featured one group primarily (white males), followed by the diminishing othering of marginalized groups through gross stereotypes, two columns isn’t even the bare minimum. It’s not even enough to scratch the surface. So, I want to talk about representation, but I want to talk specifically about how not to do it.
When I wrote my column about Miles Morales, I argued that representation is important, and I laid out my hopes that Miles would continue in some capacity, and later when it turned out that he would find his way into the normal Marvel universe, I was super excited. I praised Marvel for the decision, as I did for the recent revelation that Bobby Drake – Iceman, if you’re nasty – is gay. In both instances, I praised Marvel because I firmly believe these two characters have interesting and unique stories to tell, stories that I feel many readers can relate to. It’s important to tell these stories, and I’m very, very happy that’s happening.
Which brings us to the topic on hand today, though. How do you handle it when an attempt at representation ends up doing more harm than good? Enter Red Wolf.
Over at Comic Alliance, James Leask already wrote a fantastic article on the issues with the recent promotional art featuring this latest iteration of one of the earliest Indian superheroes. If you haven’t done so yet, please go read that column before you proceed. It has important information on the history of Native representation in media, specifically on the physical design of such characters. It’s important to understand some key concepts which Leask brings up, concepts like the “Dead Indian,” the historical accuracy of stereotypical dress, and “savagery” vs. “civilization.” Needless to say, this topic is quite charged, and there are some deep-rooted historical ideas at play here, not just in comic books, but all media, and in this little thing we call real life.
All of what Leask writes is valid and important, and he’s not the only one. Since Marvel’s announcement, and the promotional imagery was released, many people have voiced similar ideas specifically around Red Wolf’s dress. He looks like a stereotypical Indian, like he’s waiting just off screen, ready ready to fire his bow and arrow at John Wayne. The outcry has been so strong that editor Tom Brevoort recently freaked out at a fan’s reasonable question on Tumblr, stating that Marvel “thought that when people read the story, as opposed to judging wildly from a piece of promotional art, they would understand the character.” Aside from the idiocy of assuming that we can’t make judgments about characters based on promotional imagery that the company is releasing to promote the character, it also shows a lack of understanding of what such stereotypical imagery brings to light.
To understand this, one must first dive into the history of native characters and the problematic representation within. The big issue with the imagery isn’t just that it’s stereotypical, but more importantly, what sort of ideologies those stereotypes reflect. The buckskin pants and the bone necklace create an embedded connection to nature for the character, something that is backed up by his name, Red Wolf. This association with nature is something that has long been present within the depiction of Native characters. From the old western trope of the Indian listening to the ground to determine how far away someone is, to the more modern presentation of the mystical Indian shaman, Native characters are inexplicably linked with nature. In comic books we see this in a number of ways. All four iterations of Red Wolf all received their power from a wolf God. The classic X-Men Thunderbird was first shown chasing down and wrestling a buffalo to the ground. Even the origin of Apache Chief, from the old DC Super Friends TV show, involves him fighting off a bear. In addition to all of this, Indian characters are often shown to be great trackers, an attribute that is again linked to a mystical kinship with nature.
This isn’t an isolated incident, and it’s certainly not only a historical problem. Even modern Indian super heroes exhibit this, and from the looks of the promotional material, Red Wolf doesn’t look to change that pattern.
By now, you may be wondering why all of that matters. Who cares if Indian characters are linked to nature? To understand the answer to that question, you must understand the link between nature and savagery, as present in the American frontier ideology. This dates back centuries, but it is best stated in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner. A historian, Turner presented this essay in the late 1800s in an attempt to explain American exceptionalism. Specifically, Turner believed that American individualism was forged on the frontier. We left civilization and entered the frontier, where we tamed the wilderness on our own, and eventually we became something wholly separate from our European forefathers: American. Turner’s theories rely on one specific aspect: the frontier (nature) is uncivilized and savage.
So, where do Indians fit into this thesis? While Turner doesn’t spend much time on the subject of Indians, they are usually reduced to members of the savage wilderness, no different from a grizzly bear or a wolf. They are members of this nature, savage and untamed, and it is up to the American to tame them, which he eventually does. At best, he “civilizes” them. Barring that, he makes them disappear. In the real world, we tried to do this through the Indian boarding schools and reservations, two concepts that are as terrifying as almost anything white people have ever come up with.
While Turner’s thesis has long been shooed away by modern theorists, the ideas were so prevalent for so long that they infected pop culture for over 100 years. They still do. In western fiction, the frontier is presented as a dangerous and terrifying place, where residents are always on the very brink of death. Only by the grace of God go they. Even towns – bastions of civilization – are not immune to the threats of the frontier. Lawlessness reigns supreme, and a man’s only salvation is his gun. Etc. Etc.
And, of course, the savage Indian, whose inexplicable link to nature is evidence of his savagery. Circle the wagons, the injuns are attackin’! Whoop! Whoop! Paleface speaks with forked tongue.
While I doubt that Marvel is not going to go full-bore into this classic Native representation, let me ask you a question. If they did, would it seem off to you? If you saw that character walking around parroting Apache Chief lines from 1975, would you bat an eye?
“Indian… legend… tells of… a… great eagle…”
If you saw a character dressed like Red Wolf saying that, would that seem out of place? I would argue that for most of you, it wouldn’t. Most of you wouldn’t even realize what was happening.
That’s the power of this ideology. Based on the outfit that Marvel has trotted out, they intended to evoke an imagery of Native savagery, and in doing so, they have invoked long held perspectives on Native people. And that’s why it’s problematic, Tom Brevoort. That’s why there’s all of this “wild” speculation over a promotional image. Because it doesn’t matter how you portray him as a character in the comic; by pulling out this stereotypical imagery, you have guaranteed that almost every reader will come into this comic with preconceived notions about the character based on deep-set ideology created by over a century of portrayals in pop culture.
Can you use these preconceptions to counter these ideologies in a ironic way? Absolutely. But, in order to do that, you have to have already established a history of understanding that such portrayals are wrong. And, judging by how mainstream comics have handled Native characters, we are far, far from that point. Let’s try to get it right a few times first before we try to shake up the system.