I’ve been watching some of Pam Grier’s classic blaxploitation movies (Coffy and Foxy Brown) for the first time, and I have to say they’re pretty great. The writing is really smart pulp. Grier’s resourcefulness reminds me of Rorscach (since I’ve just been reading Watchmen), with extra bonus points for clever use of the Afro as storage device for lethal weapons. The ambivalent embracing/cynical disappointment in black power politics is nicely done too, and I also like the way in which the standard race stereotypes are reversed — white people are pretty much all thugs and villains (though I was a bit surprised at how many white people there were; the movies really are integrated, not all-black). Of course, the movies are also super hip and stylish; great music, fabulous clothes, just a great seedy seventies look overall. And Pam Grier is charismatic and distinctively, achingly sexy, whether she’s got her clothes on or not.

I was listening to parts of the DVD commentary by director/writer Jack Hill. He talks a bit about how much the actors contributed to the films, in terms of ideas and dialogue and knowledge — especially important since Hill’s white, and he was making a movie about black people for black people. He also discusses how happy the actors were to work, since obviously Hollywood at the time didn’t have a lot of roles for black actors, and how these movies opened the door for more black participation in film.

It got me thinking a little bit about how comics have done, and continue to do, so poorly in this regard. Why wasn’t there ever a blaxploitation equivalent in comics during the seventies — a series of titles starring and aimed at black people? Why are there still so few black comics professionals, and so little black representation in the industry in general? I know it’s not because black people don’t like comics — every time I go into my local bookstore, I see black folks sitting in the comics section, reading away. So what’s the deal?

I don’t really know the answer, but here are some possibilities. First of all, comics have always had a dicey relationship with black representation — the comic strip really took off as a form during the 20s, which was probably the worst moment in the country’s history for racism, especially in the north. Great comics creators from McCay to Crumb have had a lousy record of racism. But that’s true for movies as well (Birth of a Nation), and they’ve managed to do better at moving beyond it, at least on occasion. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that comics creators seem to have been overwhelmingly white from the get go, in a way that wasn’t really true of, say, musicians or actors (George Herriman, light enough to pass, is the exception that proves the rule.) This may have had something to do with the fact that music and acting have always been somewhat disreputable occupations, which means that there has tended to be less impetus to segregate them (segregation usually works by keeping black people out of high status jobs; low status jobs are at least somewhat open to them.) Anyway, I don’t think cartooning for a newspaper had the same kind of seedy reputation, which perhaps meant that segregation was more thoroughly enforced.

Maybe more important that this older history, though, is the fact that, by the time the Civil Rights movement took hold, comics had already ceased to be a widely popular medium. It was already something of an insular, cultish phenomena. Marvel codified that clubbish atmosphere, even if the actual direct market clubhouse didn’t materialize until the 80s. Blaxploitation films found a niche despite the cowardice and racism of the studios because they could be made cheaply — there was a big enough audience for movies to support tiers of product, and alternate venues for distribution (like drive-ins) which could cater to down-scale viewers. Starting out cheap allowed black movies to create buy-in, audience, and reputation over time. It also allowed for the establishment of needed skills — Jack Hill mentions, for instance, that there were basically no black female stunt people, and very few stunt people period, when he was doing his movies.

My sense is that in comics, there wasn’t really enough of a market to support this kind of approach. If a black hero couldn’t support a regular title, there wasn’t much else to do with him or her. It didn’t help that there still were hardly any black creators, either, so the characters that did show up tended to look like parodies of blaxploitation. If there had been a down-market comics equivalent of blaxploitation — cheap, lots of sex, lots of violence — it probably could have sold, but the comics code and the general kid-oriented nature of comics made that impossible. The undergrounds played by different rules, of course — but those folks weren’t a whole lot less white than the mainstream, really, probably in large part because their influences were the very white commercial comics that preceded them. So you get stuck with the odd, not particularly well-imagined black character in your team book, and that’s about it. By the time you did get an actual line of books by black people, for black people, the direct market was in place and the audience was getting ever more insular. It just didn’t work.

My point here isn’t that American comics aren’t racist or segregated; I mean, clearly they are in terms of who you see in their pages, who works on them, and, in general, who reads them. It’s just kind of interesting to try to figure out why comics are so much worse about race than other media (movies, television, music.) It’s also interesting to think about what the consequences have been. I think that in ways big and small the lack of black people and themse in the industry has indisputably been bad for comics. Black culture is a hugely important part of large sections of the entertainment industry — black contributions have been hugely creative, thoughtful, and exciting. It’s a loss for comics that there’s no blaxploitation equivalent that isn’t kind of embarrassing.

In addition, black style and culture is popular; it’s kind of the measure of coolness in the arts in a lot of ways. Comics whitebread image is a big part of why it’s perceived as uncool and lame (kind of like country music.) As just one for instance, a big part of the coolness of Quentin Tarantino’s movies is his reference and familiarity with blaxploitation films. But contemporary comics creators don’t have any black traditions or past to draw on in that way. That makes the medium poorer.

I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this, if anyone wants to comment….