[This time last year, I was in South Korea. I was doing a lot of walking and subway-riding back then, and because of that, I was listening to more podcasts than I can possibly name. For that reason, I can’t recall the name of the podcast that I will reference later in the post. For those of you who wish to know, I apologize in advance.]
Last year, on my way to the subway, I was listening to a podcast. I don’t remember the podcast’s title, or the hosts, or the guests, or even the main topic of discussion. I do remember that on this particular episode of said unknown podcast, there was a portion dedicated to black comics creators honoring Dwayne McDuffie. One of the guests began talking about the difficulties of being a black comics creator in the white boys’ club that is big comic companies and Hollywood studios. An enormous difficulty facing many black TV show writers, the guest said, was dealing with several roadblocks that hindered them in representing and depicting characters of color. In order to combat this, McDuffie, and undoubtedly other marginalized creators in various industries, would sneak in small acts of resistance against the status quo. These acts had to fly under the radar, as obvious examples of their political and social ideas–sensible though they were–would be met with resistance from executives, other crew members, and (perhaps most importantly) the fans of these properties. On the most extreme end of the spectrum, pushing their beliefs too hard could possibly see all of these creators without jobs. McDuffie, the unremembered guest said, was a master of these small acts of resistance. He ghosted culturally relevant references into the shows that he worked on, executed perfectly timed critical jabs against the system, and projected characters that would normally be ignored into prominence.
I was recently re-watching the animated series Justice League Unlimited, because it’s an awesome example of McDuffie’s writing talent (and a great superhero cartoon). After working through much of the show, I came to Season 2, Episode 7, titled “Hunter’s Moon“. This episode features Vixen, the only woman of African descent shown in the Justice League (and only one of two women of African descent on the show–the other is Amanda Waller, if I’m recalling correctly.). Vixen is on a mission with Hawkgirl and Vigilante, a cowboy out of time. They go to an alien moon in search of a distress signal and are immediately attacked by their enemies, who blow up their transportation and strand them among some trees. While they’re making their way through the alien planet’s forests in search of escape, viewers are treated to this exchange:
Hey, Vix, ain’t this supposed to be your territory? Use some of your animal tricks to give us a leg up.
What makes you think I know anything about the jungle? I live in a loft in Chelsea.
We could discount this encounter as a one-off joke, but think about the racial and social implications here. Vigilante’s reference to “animal tricks” makes sense in context when you consider Vixen’s powerset, but it can also be racially codified in the same way as “thug”, given Vigilante’s “man out of time” schtick and his status as a white male. Vixen, whose mind is on the task at hand, has to stop to correct her teammate on an assumption that serves only to add discomfort to an already uncomfortable situation. You can just tell that McDuffie, or one of the other crewmembers of color, was subjected to this ridiculous racialized microagression by a co-worker, a colleague, or even a supervisor. We can be sure that marginalized people face situations like this multiple times throughout their careers, because we’ve all been there. McDuffie chose to reference this experience publicly in the work, making its problems plain as a nod to us. This exchange becomes a shared moment where all of us marginalized nerds can shake our heads and sigh because we know how it is.
What do y’all think? Was this just a benign exchange that I’m reading too much into? Am I reaching like Mister Fantastic?