Stereotyping: Tattoos and Thugs and Prison Cultures

The comics industry is no stranger at all to controversies of various kinds. Last year’s two big controversies had to do with the outing of several prominent male comics creators as sexual harrassers and DC’s much-maligned-but-successful 3D covers for its Villain’s Month titles. A controversy flares up every now and then, whether on a small scale or big scale, and often times the coverage given is either blatantly dishonest or just massively uninformed. Sure, sometimes the controversies and the responses to them are entirely justified, but mostly I just shake my head and move on because I can’t understand it when people raise a stink for absolutely nothing.

Last week’s Future’s End #4 featured on its cover Michael Holt aka Mr. Terrific with the word “Fair Play” tattooed on his back and working out. I didn’t see any negative responses to it at the time but when I woke up this morning, it seemed to be everywhere and I was pretty stunned because people were equating tattoos and working out with big weights-equipment as indicative of prison culture as it is in the United States presumably and commented that DC had “thugged out” Mr. Terrific. My jaw dropped. Worse happened when people lambasted the comic and they hadn’t even read the previous issues, or weren’t even reading any DC at the time!

Future's End 03Personally, I find people’s reactions to be among the worst kind of stereotyping that I’ve seen in recent years. Just because a superhero character has a stylish tattoo on his back and is working out, he is considered to be a thug and a criminal, down with the worst of American prison populations. The reactions don’t make sense to me because I’ve never conflated tattoos and a desire to work out with prison culture. Like, how does that even make sense? Sure, I can kind of see how people would go that route, but the thing is the reactions seem to be so over-dramatic and convenient and fawning and pandering to the anti-DC crowd. It all just boggles the mind.

But then again, I really shouldn’t be surprised I suppose, because hating on DC and fawning over Marvel is apparently how the bandwagon is setup these days. I certainly won’t deny that DC hasn’t made any screwups since the New 52 launched in September 2011. In fact, I’ve been very critical of a lot of the things they’ve done, but then there’s a difference between criticism and uninformed hostility. People are crying out over how one of DC’s big black superheroes is now just a thug and how it is a devolution of his character. People are crying over how this is DC at its worst and how DC is ruining it all for the readers and the fans.

Because sure, the fans are always in the right, right?

A lot of these people are coming from a point of view where they either haven’t read Future’s End and thus have no idea what the series is about, or they haven’t read any DC comics for several years. Joseph Phillip Illidge, a contributing writer to CBR, posted this a couple days ago and it is one of the most ill-informed pieces of commentary on the industry that I’ve seen on CBR for a good long while. Let’s start with the fact that the writer of that article only picked up Future’s End #3 so he could comment on how terrible a portrayal of Michael Holt is contained within. There’s some bit of negative commentary on Michael Holt’s portrayal, but that’s really it. The writer is more concerned with drawing allusions with hip-hop/rap artists and Michael Holt to actually offer any insight into the whole “controversy”. He then goes on to talk about some notable achievements from writers of colour working on characters of colour in the industry and the entire piece just fizzles out in the end.

And I just don’t get what the point of the article was all about.

The story of Future’s End is set 5 years after the current timeline in the DC-verse where the world is reeling from the attacks and mayhem of the Crime Syndicate of America, an evil Justice League from Earth 3 which invaded Earth 1 and managed to defeat every superhero sent against it, until some supervillains decided to go up against them. The actual main story of Future’s End starts off several more years in the future, a future where a robotic machine intelligence has taken over the world and has converted most of the superhero and supervillain communities to its own purposes. Batman of the future, Terry McGinnis is sent back in time to make sure none of it happens and that the machine intelligence is defeated well in advance.

And that’s where we are in the current Future’s End stories. Even as Terry, shown on the same cover, goes up trying to stop Michael Holt from proceeding with his well-intentioned but resultingly disastrous plans for the future, we look at how many of the familiar heroes have all changed over these five years. Batman is apparently a recluse. Mister Terrific has refused entry into the Justice League and has founded a business empire to rival that of WayneCorp and, presumably, Kord Industries. Green Arrow is dead. Firestorm is a loose cannon. There was a war between Earth 1 and Earth 2 in these intervening five years and this war caused a lot of psychological trauma for the good guys, and many heroes are now either dead or missing or horribly disfigured.

This is the Future New 52 in a way that we haven’t really seen yet, and thus it makes sense that what we know about all these characters, characters such as Michael Holt, is not as valid as we think it is. We don’t know what has happened to all these characters to change them as they are now. Like, why is Michael Holt such a media-hog now when he wasn’t before?

And in the midst of all this, I don’t see what exactly is wrong with a tattooed superhero working out on his own premises? How many times have we actually seen superheroes working out like this? Very, very few I’d reckon. I can’t remember anything off the top of my head, though I’m sure I’ve come across a small handful of instances. Michael Holt’s portrayal on that cover makes a lot of sense because he is someone who has turned Mister Terrific into not just a superhero identity, but also into a business brand that he capitalises on when he can. And in the DC-verse, he is popular with the masses. That is abundantly clear in Future’s End #2 and the conversation between him and Aquaman is very enlightening as to why he’s such a media-hog.

And I see nothing wrong with a black character having tattoos either. Let alone a black superhero and a genius scientist at that. We all have our quirks and eccentricities in the real world. Is it so hard to imagine that the superheroes we read about would have them as well? Are tattoos inherently bad because they happen to be popular with criminal cultures all over the world? Do normal people not get tattoos? I have several friends who do, and they are all normal. They are doctors and bloggers and media professionals and programmers and authors and more. And a few of them even like to work out. I see quite a few tattooed men and women at my gym every day and they are all normal people.

I just don’t get the obsession that has developed in the readership over this cover, and for entirely the wrong reasons, because I see it nothing as the worst sort of stereotyping, with people drinking the controversy kool-aid and just talking out because they want to talk out and because it is “in fashion”.

There are lots of things in the industry that are worth talking about. Deeply problematic things in fact. But then something as stupid as Michael Holt’s portrayal on this cover to a DC weekly comic does the controversy rounds and people lose their minds because to them DC is running these characters in the ground.

To all these people, all I can say is: grow the hell up. There is absolutely nothing wrong with how the artists in Future’s End have portrayed Michael Holt. There is nothing wrong with how the writers have written him either.

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