Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger: Race in Roger Stern’s Forever Allies

Posted by Jennifer

Next Wednesday, the trade paperback collection of Roger Stern’s Captain America: Forever Allies hits stores. The story features fantastic art by Nick Dragotta and Marco Santucci and does some great things with the original Young Allies, a group of unpowered Golden Age characters who teamed up with Bucky and Toro to fight in World War II. It even manages to rehabilitate the astounding racism of the characters’ 1940s depictions, and for that reason alone I would love to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly. But its villain plot is so full of uncritical replications of Yellow Peril tropes that the miniseries mostly serves as case study in how to get things both incredibly right and incredibly wrong when it comes to racial representation in comics.

Golden Age characters can be tricky to use in modern times, particularly those who were created with racial stereotypes firmly in mind. Such is the case with the Young Allies, a briefly-appearing, multi-ethnic group of non-powered characters (much like DC’s Newsboy Legion, also created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) whose entire characterizations could be summed up as “the prissy rich kid,” “the fat Jewish kid,” “the angry Irish kid” and “the black kid.” Of these, “Whitewash Jones,” Marvel’s first black character, suffered the worst, depicted as an ape-like racist caricature in his 1940s appearances. He didn’t even get a real name.

But Roger Stern, with Forever Allies (and his earlier “Young Allies” oneshot for the Timely 70th anniversary celebration) sought to cleverly retcon the characters’ early appearances, finding ways to subvert the racism without pretending it never happened. In this new, updated tale, all of the characters have more realistic names and characterizations and are drawn to look like real human beings, and Jones in particular – now Washington Carver Jones – is reconceptualized as a Tuskegee Airman and later Civil Rights crusader. But the original caricatures do not disappear. Instead, Stern posits that the comics on the shelves in the real world 1940s were also the comics on the shelves within the Marvel U – unauthorized, offensive depictions of the “real” people. By reframing this history, Stern manages to acknowledge the problematic discourses in 1940s mass media while raising his actual characters above it, allowing them to be outraged by the injustice. When Toro burns down a blown-up poster of one of the offensive Young Allies covers, it’s a victory for the characters and readers alike and a strong statement for Marvel’s desire to rise above some of the more questionable parts of its past without denying them.

This sort of rehabilitation of Golden Age racism is important in an industry that thrives on nostalgia. Characters created in the past gain cultural cachet through their longevity, cachet that newer characters can never hope to match. Therefore, as a step toward a more diverse modern comic book landscape, highlighting and revitalizing the few characters of color who existed in the Golden Age is incredibly important, even if their origins are problematic. Given all of this, Stern’s willingness to highlight Jones in particular within the ensemble of the Young Allies is laudable.

Unfortunately, racism did not disappear after World War II, and traces of 1940s attitudes remain in the present day. Such is the case with Lady Lotus, a villain created in 1979 by Don Glut as part of the Invaders series. Lady Lotus is a Dragon Lady in every conceivable way, a sexy, psychic World War II-era Japanese agent with mind-control powers and racist attitudes who formed a Nazi alliance called the “Super-Axis.” That such a character was created, and retconned into Marvel’s history, less than 35 years ago is disappointing in itself, but that she appears unaltered in Stern’s 2010 comic is completely indefensible.

For the most part, Forever Allies follows Bucky, artificially youthful in the present day, as he remembers his past with the Young Allies and attends the funeral of the elderly Jones, the last surviving member of the group. Among his memories is the group’s encounter with Lady Lotus, and Bucky soon discovers that Lotus is still around, still evil, still racist toward African-Americans, and still attempting to use her sex appeal (she, too, has been kept artificially young) and mind-control powers to wreak havoc. What’s worse, though Nick Dragotta, artist of the 1940s sequences, goes to great pains to use his 1940s-inflected style in a way that renders the Young Allies themselves as full-fledged human beings, the Lady Lotus (and her male sidekick) in the 1940s scenes look just like 1940s Asian caricatures – even though they didn’t even exist in real 1940s comics.

Given what a great job Stern did with Washington Jones, I continued to read the miniseries in the hope that it would somehow subvert the Dragon Lady/Yellow Peril tropes. But, beyond a brief reference to the struggles faced during the war by Golden Girl, a 1970s-created Japanese-American character similarly retconned into the past, the plot and the stereotypes on which it relied remained straightforward and predictable, with none of the nuance present in the depiction of the Young Allies characters. If anything, the depiction of Lady Lotus only got worse. In addition to being a stereotype in and of herself, Lady Lotus – the only other person of color in the book, beyond a brief appearance by the Falcon near the end – became the primary racist force toward Jones, and, as the only woman in the book, an example of sexism as well, with her “terrifying” powers of control over men. By the end of the series, as Lady Lotus met her defeat, I found myself demoralized, empty of all the joy I’d found in Stern’s initial representational subversions.

Other writers have more successfully redeemed Yellow Peril characters and stories, most notably Jeff Parker in his Agents of Atlas. And the most recent team to take on the name “Young Allies,” Sean McKeever’s excellent short-lived series, featured a multi-ethnic, gender balanced cast with nary a stereotype in sight. If you’re looking to expand your horizons with a comic book purchase this month, I highly recommend picking up the trade collections of either or both of those. But Forever Allies, whatever its achievements, is a series I can’t in good conscience recommend to others. Stern’s keen attention to the problem of African-American stereotypes is equaled by his blindness to the problem of Asian stereotypes, ultimately tainting the series. But its few shining moments leave me hopeful that another writer might take up the call, creating more past adventures for the smartly reconceptualized Young Allies – and perhaps finding a way to redeem the Asian characters of the 1940s at the same time.

By Jennifer Smith
E-mail: Jennifer@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • Caroline

    Best article title EVAR.

    This is really interesting — I wasn’t aware of *anything* about this series (or the old Young Allies) until you wrote about it, so thanks for covering it.

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  • Menshevik

    While I didn’t read Young Allies or Forever Allies since Golden Age nostalgia gives me the wind, so I’ll rely on the way you describe it, but I do have a few points I’d like to comment on:
    1. I would have to question whether it really is important to highlight and revitalize Golden Age characters merely because they happened to exist – Sturgeon’s Law applies to the Golden Age as well. This goes especially if they are as obscure as the Young Allies (according to Overstreet, their book ran for all of 20 issues 1941-1946, and according to wikipedia they were not used at all until 2009, so they are hardly an example) and if it essentially involves creating a completely new character to replace the old one. To speak of longevity in that context seems a bit unrealistic. In that respect, if you have to write new stories set in World War 2, it is perhaps better to create all-new ones, like the Nisei Golden Girl or the Black first Captain America (grandfather of the Young Avengers’ Patriot).
    2. It can be a bit misleading to lump 1930s and 1940s anti-Japanese propaganda with general “Yellow Peril” tropery. From the 1890s to the 1930s Japan was very much a member of the otherwise white imperialist nations’ club (expanding not just at the expense of China and Korea, but also that of European powers Russia and Germany). “Yellow Peril” stories were mostly about insidious Chinese, i. e. a nation that found itself a victim of Japanese imperialism and racism. And during the 1930s and 1940s, Western stories with an anti-Japanese bias frequently contrasted this with a sympathetic, occasionally heroic portrayal of Chinese or other Asian nationals. (That these latter could be patronizing and in questionable taste is another matter).
    3. (Sorry, if it involves World War 2, it really is impossible to avoid Godwin’s Law): So perhaps one should compare the portrayal of (Golden Age and retrofitted) World War 2 Japanese villains with that of villains belonging to the other major Axis power, Nazi Germany. As a matter of fact, if there is another WW2 Japanese supervillain apart from Lady Lotus in the Marvel Universe, I can’t for the life of me think of his of her name, while Marvel, DC etc. not only have Golden Age Nazi villains, but also quite a number of Nazi German villains of more recent vintage than 1979 that conform to stereotypes about Germany going back to at least 1900 (the younger Struckers (Fenris) for instance, created in the 1980s, are not just Nazis, but also fit the “sadistic Prussian aristocrat with implied sexual deviancy” cliché beloved of Allied propaganda in World War 1). While it is much harder to find sympathetic German or recognizably German-American characters of any real significance in the Marvel Universe. Well, the Howling Commandos had Eric Koenig, who hasn’t been much used since the 1970s, but German superheroes like Blitzkrieg (what were they thinking?!) and Hauptmann Deutschland are just instant trivia questions. (And how German is Nightcrawler really? Child of a demon and a woman of undetermined ethnicity, raised as a member of an ethnic group targeted for extermination by the Nazis).
    4. If you do stories set in World War 2, I would be in favour of a more realistic treatment than you got until the 1970s (making Magneto a survivor of was a very important story in that respect, since the Holocaust had hardly been mentioned at all up until then). There is now also a much greater awareness of Japanese war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1930s and 1940s (even if Japanese society by all evidence is still not willing to face up to them), but have they been turned into material for stories?
    5. Is the “Dragon Lady” stereotype really more than a quaint museum piece these days? (Compare Lady Lotus with Nekra, the White Queen (before she reformed), Selene, and Mandrill).
    6. Why is it not enough for Japanese (or Asians in general) that sympathetic characters more than balance unsympathetic ones overall, but that it gets to be called racism if one story features an individual villain subscribing to a nasty, but not completely unrealistic ideology without them being counterbalanced by a sympathetic one of the same or similar ethnicity?

  • handyhunter

    Thanks for this review; I think I’m going to skip this comic.

    “Yellow Peril” stories were mostly about insidious Chinese, i. e. a nation that found itself a victim of Japanese imperialism and racism. And during the 1930s and 1940s, Western stories with an anti-Japanese bias frequently contrasted this with a sympathetic, occasionally heroic portrayal of Chinese or other Asian nationals.

    The flip-flopping of the US’s narrative/propaganda over which (East) Asian country was its enemy (first w/ the Chinese Exclusion Act, then Japanese military gaining strength, then Communist China, etc) are BOTH examples of Yellow Peril; all Yellow Peril stories are about the US’s fear of ‘yellow people’ inside its own borders and as a global force that might challenge US imperialism.

    There is now also a much greater awareness of Japanese war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1930s and 1940s (even if Japanese society by all evidence is still not willing to face up to them), but have they been turned into material for stories?

    There are plenty of problems (historical and current) in the US to write US-centric/POV stories about, instead of putting (yet another) white/western lens on another country’s history.

    6. Why is it not enough for Japanese (or Asians in general) that sympathetic characters more than balance unsympathetic ones overall, but that it gets to be called racism if one story features an individual villain subscribing to a nasty, but not completely unrealistic ideology without them being counterbalanced by a sympathetic one of the same or similar ethnicity?

    Because there does NOT exist a balanced representation of characters of colour compared to white characters, and it is racist to portray characters of colour as inaccurate/offensive tropes (see the part about there not being balanced representation, so these awful caricatures further the imbalance). And ‘similar ethnicity’ is treading very close to the ‘all Asians look the same’ racist stereotype.

  • Jay Smithart

    An interesting article. The phrase “well-intentioned” comes to mind while reading this.
    The comic book writers of the original Young Allies of the 1940s, wanted to depict individuals of different races, religions, and social classes coming together. Unfortunately, they were blind to the fact that, while depicting “togetherness,” they were nonetheless reinforcing stereotypes of the day.

    Roger Stern similarly takes on the noble cause of bettering these offensive depictions, but through, presumably, unintentional oversight or ignorance calls upon lingering caricatures for the villain. Racial sensitivity or cultural awareness is difficult to get right, and for some people it can inadvertently be overlooked. The misrepresentation of Asian Americans ‘has’ and continues to be considered a non-issue when compared to the (comparatively) larger and more prominently depicted misrepresentation of African Americans.
    Hopefully we’ll get better things from Roger Stern in the future, he clearly was well meaning.