When talking about his character Ebony White, Will Eisner â creator of The Spirit â claimed he used racial stereotypes, but didnÂ´t exploit them.Â ItÂ´s a strange distinction to make – and may even border on circular reasoning -, but it makes sense when looking at the comics of the early twentieth century in the United States.
Apply Eisnerâs dichotomy to Iron Man comics for instance. Although his foe, The Mandarin, embodied racist Asian stereotype, the comicÂ´s readers presumably didnÂ´t buy an issue to laugh at The Mandarin, or cower before his long nails for that matter.Â He simply came with the Iron Man package.
Thinking about this I came upon a used comic stand in BogotÃ¡ last week and saw an example of what I believe to be exploitation, even more exaggerated and perhaps offensive then that of Luis ZaÂ´s Reco, Reco y Azeitona, mentioned in a previous column.
MemÃn, a comic of Mexican origin distributed in many Latin American countries, made headlines in the United States October of 2006, when the comic was commemorated in a series of stamps that featured famous Mexican cartoon characters.Â The stamps came only shortly after former President Vincente Fox made his now infamous comment about African-Americans (Â¨Mexicans are willing do the jobs blacks wonÂ´t do.Â¨) The stamps quickly became a treasured collectorÂ´s item and quickly sold out.
Then in 2008 MemÃn showed up the American press again.Â A resident in Houston complained Â when Wal-Mart was forced to shelve the comic after a Houston resident complained about its offensive content.Â According to CNN the Texan resident explained, “To me it was an insult.”
The comic entitled, Â¨Memin For PresidentÂ¨ – that incidentally coincided with Obama BarackÂ´s presidential campaign – was pulled.Â In the short culture war skirmish that followed some proposed that this was gringos forcing their stereotypes onto Mexico.Â This was after all the Cosmic Race as revolutionary intellectual Jose Vasconcelos.Â Of course, we know in great part this story of cultural hegemony was simply a nation-founding myth.Â One only has to look to some parts of southern Mexico to find a history similar to that of some Caribbean islands.Â So itÂ´s not as simple as weÂ´re Mexican, we get MemÃn and youÂ´re gringos who donÂ´t.
As the late Carlos Monsivais argued these widely distributed media – like television for instance – are actually what has created a unified Latin American identity. Â Does MemÃn, simarly define at least some of Latin American culture. Â If so is that culture really a Â¨raceÂ¨?
Keep in mind, MemÃn was and is still an extremely popular in Mexico, producing thousands of copies per month – massive by Latin American publishing standards.
Yolanda Vargas DulchÃ© began the strip in the 1940s supposedly after seeing a young Cuban boy in Mexico City where she lived her entire life.Â (Cuban expatriates have been a norm in neighboring parts of Latin America since the 19th century).Â She married comic distributor Guillermo de la Parra and wrote for the strip, drawn by the late Sixto Valencia Burgos, for some forty years until her death in 1998. Â (De la Parra then fired Valencia Burgos and denied him all creative rights to the MemÃn character.)
If Will EisnerÂ´s distinction between racial stereotypes and exploitation is valid, MemÃn undoubtably applies to the later.Â MemÃn relies entirely on being a well-intentioned idiot, a dwarfish child, about half as tall as his friends, practically inhuman.Â Critics can argue that MemÃn is understood differently in Mexico, but most of the descendants of African diaspora find these depictions extremely offensive. Â And MemÃn is distributed to countries with large black populations like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, among others.
ItÂ´s interesting to note that MemÃn began after Will EinserÂ´s strip The Spirit had already appeared in dailies. Â His side kick Ebony White, is another Sambo-figure, who in the words of Eisner, speaks in the hyperbolic speech of the Â¨minelstry show.Â¨ Â (ItÂ´s even possible that The Spirit had already reached Mexico before DulchÃ© began her strip.)
According to Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, Â Eisner said that it was his collaborator Louis Fine who began adding the hyperbolic attributes to Ebony White – such as big buttocks – that the creator found offensive.
Eisner, born in Brooklyn 1917, surely remembered early films of ministrel-like figures from vaudeville and early film stars like Bojangles. Â Although today we may cringe to see it, many people found these shows quintessentially American, notably poet Walt Whitman and jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Was it not natural for Eisner to see this â offensive as it is â as essential to portraying black characters?
However, the case of MemÃn is clearly different.Â For one, thanks to the advent of cable television, air travel and the internet, no one can claim to be culturally isolated.Â In fact, itÂ´s quite probable that the U.S has influenced many other countryÂ´s views of race, particularly in the Americas – for better or worse. Â Is supporting MemÃn an act of cultural rebellion against the ubiquity of gringo ethos?
Perhaps the time has come to open a dialogue, so that comic artists and readers can hear, that what for one person is endearing, for another can be degrading.