Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Problematic Representation of Africa in Grodd of War #1

I recognize that this entry is a little on the long side.  I felt it necessary to provide some background information for those who may not be familiar with the situation in question.  Please bear with me and please take the time to read through the entire post.

Grodd of War #1, by Sean Ryan and Ig Guara, is not a very good comic book.

It combines the ridiculous penchant among comic book readers to purchase any comic book that features monkeys along with some poor writing for mediocre results.

When writing up my feelings on this week's Flashpoint tie-ins, my draft said about as much, although it also featured a number of jokes and jabs, focused mostly on the monkey phenomenon and belittling the lack of clear motivations ascribed to Gorilla Grodd in the issue.  However, halfway through writing the review, I realized that there was a far bigger problem with Grodd of War #1 than the fact that it was a bad comic.

I found it's representation of Africa to be highly problematic and incredibly offensive.

Let me quickly summarize the comic's content to give you an idea of what I mean.  The issue's main character is Gorilla Grodd.  For the uninitiated, Gorilla Grodd is a "classic" Flash villain who is (as you may have guessed) a gorilla.  He is also super strong, hyper-intelligent, and possesses psionic powers (he can control people's minds and actions).  He is also not unique.  There is actually an entire civilization of super-intelligent gorillas that live in the aptly named Gorilla City, which is located somewhere in Africa.

This comic, set in the alternate Flashpoint universe, is about Gorilla Grodd taking over Africa through military force.  The book opens with one of Grodd's minions telling him that his forces, composed entirely of the aforementioned intelligent gorillas, have finally defeated the last remaining resistance in South Africa, making Gorilla Grodd the ruler of all of Africa.

From there, the issue focuses on how Grodd is unsatisfied with this accomplishment.  He spends the balance of the issue searching for a meaningful challenge, whether from within or without his forces.  The book goes on at length to emphasize that Grodd has a death wish, though it doesn't really spend any time explaining why this is the case.  Either way, the issue ends with Grodd deciding that his African forces will invade Europe, attacking the Amazons and Atlanteans, who are two other world powers in this universe.

It's a serviceable plot that isn't very well-executed.  And like many comics published nowadays, Grodd of War #1 takes elements from "real life" and places them within its narrative.  However, when I really considered the comic's plot and images, I realized that this comic is perhaps one of the most repugnant comics I have ever read.  It addresses some of the diverse and unique issues facing Africa with all the subtlety that you would expect from a comic starring a talking gorilla.  That is to say, quite poorly.

To begin, let me repeat that Gorilla Grodd takes over the entire continent of Africa.  He, an intelligent monkey, controls a continent of over a billion people.  And no one in the comic book (or any of the other Flashpoint books I've read) seems to care.  This isn't an enormous issue, but it does bear mentioning how nonchalantly the whole thing is treated.  Especially with the other things that happen in the story.

A major problem with this comic is that there are virtually no African characters within the entire story.  When in Cape Town, Grodd confronts the leader of the defeated African resistance, who is revealed to be Catman, a white, American supervillain who just happens to hang out in Africa sometimes.  The comic seems to posit that no Africa could have led a defence of the continent.  But that is not my major issue with the comic.

The main problem is that the only characters of African descent in the entire comic appear while Gorilla Grodd is travelling to Cape Town.  His convoy is attacked in transit, killing everyone except for Grodd.  He emerges to confront his attackers: five child soldiers.  The only African characters in this comic book are child soldiers.  Their appearance lasts for two pages, both of which I've included below.  I would invite you to take a look at them before you continue reading.  Please note, they are a tad graphic.

As you can see, Grodd uses his mind control powers to take control of the children, telling one child to "Kill your friends", forcing him to murder the other four.  This murder is depicted in four sequential panels that move closer and closer to the child's face, looking on in increasing horror as he guns down his four companions, bullets flying from his gun.

The next page shows the results of Grodd's coercion.  The child stands alone, tears streaming down his face, surrounded by the corpses of the four murdered children.  The boy is so distraught that he turns the gun on himself, intending to commit suicide.  Grodd stops him, telling the boy to leave and "spend every minute of your life planning and thinking about how you're going to kill me.  And when you're finally ready, I want you to find me, and I want you to get the job done."  Then the child runs off in fear.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't feel like any of that is appropriate.  Especially when child soldiers continue to be a real problem in Africa (and around the world)?  Especially when that is the only representation of Africans in the entire book?

It is reductive, short sighted, and in incredibly poor taste.

On top of this already deplorable issue, I don't even want to go into the many possible interpretations of the fact that, in this comic, Africans have been enslaved by monkeys.

I think that all of this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.  I'm don't believe that these were necessarily malicious choices by the creative team, editors, or DC Comics.  They seem more thoughtless than anything else.  But that doesn't excuse how offensive it is.  For all DC Comics talks about trying to diversify their line and feature more minority characters, this comic is an absolute mess.

I'm a firm believer that comics can successfully address serious issues.  I have seen many superhero comics do just that, but Grodd of War #1 fails on all counts.  Again, it's not that I feel the comic set out to represent everything so poorly.  I imagine no one gave a second thought to what they were doing.  And that is a serious problem.  You can't integrate things as serious as child soldiers and enslaving an entire continent (especially one that has been abused so often in the past) without considering what you are doing and why you are doing it.  Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what DC Comics did.

In looking through a number of reviews of Grodd of War #1 from around the net, I found that few of them made any reference to the scene with the child soldiers.  Of those that did, only one took the time to reproach the comic for "demean[ing] the truly horrific realities of soldier children actually in combat in Africa at this very moment".

I am by no extent of the imagination an expert on Africa and the many issues facing the continent, but it is clear that this comic's representation of Africa is unacceptable.  I believe that we as readers must do our part to recognize this and express our displeasure.

1 comment:

  1. Damn. I'm not in on Flashpoint at all but you make some very good points here. Not only well written but insightful - as you mention, most people didn't want to go down the path of analysing the child soldiers. I'm glad you did.

    I can only hope more people read this article. You better be linking to it everywhere you can. I certainly will.