Seeing Red: Ranting About Race in Marvel’s Red Wolf

Seeing Red: Ranting About Race in Marvel’s Red Wolf

I’ve been wanting to write this review of Marvel’s new comic Red Wolf for a while, in part because I’m kind of ticked off.  Not in a raging, angry kind of way, but red-wolf-cover-minmore in an “Aww, man… Here we go again!” vein.  In fact, I was so ticked off after reading Red Wolf #1, I thought I should button my lip and not rush to judgement.  So, I waited until Red Wolf #2 was released, bought that, and had a second look…

No, still ticked off. Time to let loose, I guess.

So here’s the thing… Marvel, I really appreciate that you’re trying to broaden your world, and doing your best to reflect the diversity of your readership in your characters. I think it’s cool, for example, that the current Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American Muslim, and is written by a Muslim woman. And I think it’s cool that – in order to ensure an African-American perspective – the next series of Black Panther will be written by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates. But really, Marvel, couldn’t you have learned from these experiments and given us something that was a little less race-baiting than this new Red Wolf series?

‘Cause I gotta be honest here… Not only is Red Wolf a terrible, terrible comic book at just about every level, it’s really offensive, too.

For me, I realize that it’s a little closer to home than for some others… I’m of mixed Passamaquoddy and British ancestry, just for the record… Dad is from England, Mom is from the remote east coast of Canada, where my Passamaquoddy ancestors first met Europeans 500 years ago. The story of the Passamaquoddy, like the story of so many others, is a sad one. First contact brought disease, and by the late 1500s, 95% of the -1_0-minPassamaquoddy had been wiped out by typhoid fever. Now, I’m not one to dwell on the past, or to imagine that the suffering of my ancestors is my own. But I do think our history colours us, and shapes the way we see our world.

Red Wolf, in the current Marvel Comics series, is not a Passamaquoddy, of course. He is Cheyenne. And while Passamaquoddy and Cheyenne are both related Algonkian languages, there’s little to connect me to him – except the sadness of history. Pre-contact, the Cheyenne lived in the area that is now Minnesota and Illinois. Through the 1600’s and 1700’s they were gradually pushed westward, becoming the “Plains Indians” we now think of them as. In 1825, they signed treaties of “perpetual friendship” with the United States. Of course, “perpetual” turned out to be about 30 years, and from the mid-1850’s until about 1880, the Cheyenne and the United States were engaged in almost constant warfare. The famous Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where General Custer was killed, was fought by the Cheyenne and their allies. Although Custer instigated the Battle, he may also have been fearful that the Cheyenne were planning retribution for the 1868 Battle of Washita River, in which he and his men had massacred about 25 Cheyenne women and children.

So what’s all this go to do with Red Wolf? Well, the Red Wolf comic series opens in 1872, and Red Wolf himself is the sheriff of the small frontier town of Timely… Wait, what? The Cheyenne are at basically at war with America, and we’re supposed to believe that in some small western outpost, a Cheyenne warrior has somehow Red_Wolf_1_Keown_Variant-600x911-minbecome the sheriff? Look, I know it’s a comic book, I know all about the willing suspension of disbelief, I know it’s supposed to be about escapism… But this is a whitewash.  This is hiding the history of an entire people – pretending that everything is copacetic except for a few bullying cowboys armed only with unkind words – in a way that defies history, logic or commons sense.

Racism can take a lot of forms, and not all of them are overt… but pretending that painful history never happened is, in some ways, one of the most insidious. Imagine a story in which all the happy police and visionary politicians came out to join hands with Martin Luther King Jr. on his march through Selma. Imagine a story in which Rosa Parks never had to take a stand, because every smiling white person on the bus voluntarily stood up to give her their seat. Imagine a story in which the kindly, enlightened townsfolk of Bumfutz, Arizona Territory – saddened by their government’s massacre of the Cheyenne – band together to make a Cheyenne warrior their sheriff.

It’s not that anyone is doing anything overtly racist here… it’s that the very nature of the story is so completely and totally tone deaf on race issues that you have to sit back and ask, “What the blank were they thinking?”

Now, it doesn’t help that the character is called Red Wolf… Marvel has a long history of this with their indigenous characters – Red Wolf, Red Zeppelin, Redstone, Red Warrior, and so on. Of course, I know this happens with “black” characters, too (Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Goliath), but in an era where the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins football team is international news, you think there’d be a little bit of awareness of the sensitivities around this. No such luck… Right from the start – page one of the bloody first issue of the comic – Marvel starts referring to Red Wolf by the shortened name “Red” – as in “After Timely’s Sheriff was murdered, Red took up the Sheriff’s badge and all the responsibility that comes with it.”

Really? “Red”?

Do they call Black Panther “Black”? As in, “Hey, you, Black…”

How anybody – writer or editor – could do this and think it’s OK is beyond me…

At the end of issue #1, Red Wolf is whisked forward in time to our current era. On the surface, this is a plus – if nothing else, it removes him from the problematic historical context of issue #1. But issue #2 does itself no favours, and continues the disconcertingly tone deaf and uninformed approach to the character. In our REDWOLF2015002_int_LR2_1-932x1414-minmodern era, Red Wolf is arrested for vagrancy, and while sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car, is taken to the scene of a gunfight between police and drug dealers. Here, he manages to escape the squad car, silently outflank the armed drug dealers, and take them out even while handcuffed.

Because, you know, Indians are good at sneaking and stuff…

Here, we’re clearly in “magical negro” territory. Wikipedia suggest that this kind of character is a “supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film’s white protagonists.” Over at the TV Tropes website, they talk specifically about “magical Indians,” suggesting they “possess powers because of their ethnicity. Often this involves stating that their power comes from innate spirituality or closeness to nature that “civilized” races don’t have. Usually involves influence over nature, animals, or other spirit powers. Quite often, the Native in question will be dressed very traditionally even in modern settings. May sometimes speak-um Tonto Talk.”

So let’s see, we have a guy whose very native-ness allows him to sneak up silently on unsuspecting drug dealers, who is dressed in buckskins and facepaint, and who has to ask questions like “What are those things? Those things you’re on?” to a group of bike-riding kids. Game, set and match to the magical Indian.

The thing is, Marvel made a big deal about how different this series was going to be, and how they were going to avoid these kinds of issues. The made a big deal about how S’Kllalum’ Nation artist Jeffery Veregge was going to be doing Red Wolf’s covers, and acting as a “consultant” to the series.  To Veregge I can only say that, cousin, your covers kick butt, and are by far the best thing about Marvel’s Red Wolf books. ButRed Wolf 2-min they sure don’t seem to be listening to any advice you’re offering up…

Overall, I don’t think this will be an issue for long… Red Wolf is not only a racially problematic series, but it’s a pretty terrible one from a story-telling perspective.  I doubt it will last the year…

Unfortunately, this may also send a message that indigenous-themes books won’t sell. And that’s clearly not true – from Turok to Arak to X-Men‘s Forge to Aztek to New Mutants‘ Danielle Moonstar, there’s a long history of strong and successful characters who just happen to come from First Nations. And there are a growing number of aspiring First Nations writers who have amazing stories to tell… I have a hundred stories to tell myself, and I’m a single individual.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that only an Indian can write about an Indian, and more than only a white person can write about a white person. To me, that notion is racist, too. But writing “the other” in a politically, culturally and historically complicated space requires insight, intelligence and subtlety. Red Wolf, unfortunately, has none of these qualities.

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