Back in July, Aaron Kashtan concluded his short review of Champions #10 which had come out that same month with the following words:
I’ll have to think twice before buying any more Mark Waid comics, and I say that as someone who’s been a fan of his for almost 25 years.
As a regular reader of both Aaron Kashtan’s weblog and Mark Waid’s comics, I had to check out this comic book for myself. Aaron’s problem with Champions #10 is that writer Mark Waid “defends” the fictitious internment camp in which most of the story is set (or maybe even internment camps in general?) and portrays it in an insensitive manner. Several other people have shared this sentiment on the Internet, e.g. Joe Glass at Bleeding Cool, but not that many to qualify it as a full-blown outrage. Anyway, here’s how I see Champions #10, and please note that this is only about the comic and not about the opinions of Aaron Kashtan or Joe Glass or Mark Waid (who identifies himself as a “liberal” and “progressive” writer for what it’s worth).
In the current status quo of the Marvel universe at the time of Champions #10, the villainous organisation Hydra has taken over the United States, and Inhumans (basically a superpowered alien race living among humans) “are being imprisoned in camps across the country”, as the introductory text puts it. The first three comic pages show life in one of these camps in a nutshell: behind the idyllic appearance, a surveillance regime is in operation in which merely talking about escape can get inmates killed immediately.
The action then switches over to the Champions, a superhero team consisting of (Miles Morales) Spider-Man, (Amadeus Cho) Hulk and Viv (daughter of Vision). They locate their missing fourth member, Ms. Marvel, in one of those camps, and set out to free her. After managing to break into the camp and incapacitating the guards, they face the unexpected problem that “some want to go, but some want to stay”, as Hulk says on p. 14 (or 15 – not sure whether the first page after the cover already counts as part of the story). Ms. Dawood, one of the detainees, expands: “What’s happening here is brutally unjust, but we and our children are well cared for here. Out there, we would be hunted relentlessly. It would be a life of fear and desperation. Some of us are willing to make that trade and fight, even though we may not win. But those who stay may be made to pay for their escape, and that terrifies them.”
So far, so good, but then Hulk comments (still on p. 14): “Trust me, as an Asian American, I have a deep historical hatred for internment, but we might have to retreat and try some other–“. This is the crucial point (the rest of the story is of no importance here): Hulk’s comment links the fictitious camp to real-world history. Even though (or rather because) he doesn’t really say much, it triggers questions in the reader’s mind such as whether Hulk thinks that the US government that imprisoned Japanese Americans (and also Korean Americans – Amadeus Cho is of Korean descent) in WWII is morally as bad as Hydra, or whether he feels that the conditions of living are as bad in the camp he is standing in as they were in WWII internment camps. Such ideas might be offensive to Asian Americans – but they are not explicitly expressed in the comic. (Who knows, maybe Hulk is merely thinking, it’s wrong to imprison someone because of his or her race, then and now.) Even if they were, it would be Hulk who has these controversial opinions, not Mark Waid. In the end, Amadeus Cho is only a teenager who hasn’t experienced WWII internment camps, so why should his opinion have such a weight that it could be mistaken for the ‘message’ of the whole comic or its writer? Waid could have devised a better stand-in for himself to broadcast his opinion, if that had been his aim.
Besides Hulk’s comment, is the plot point itself offensive that some of the inmates choose to stay imprisoned in this particular camp rather than break out? How can Ms. Dawood say she is safer inside than outside the camp when she all but witnesses the execution of two other prisoners? One could argue that, once outside the camp, Inhumans would have a good chance of escaping and hiding from Hydra by using their superpowers. However, the inmates are probably safer inside the camp, for as long everyone plays by the rules and doesn’t try to escape, no one is executed. This is an important difference from real-world Nazi concentration camps, many of which were death camps with the purpose of ultimately killing all inmates. Ms. Dawood is also right about “being well cared for”: from what we see of the Inhuman camp, it looks like they live in spacious, well-kept houses with their own lawns. This is an important difference from real-world Asian American internment camps in WWII, in which conditions were miserable.
However, the problem of Champions #10 lies not in the story but in how it is told. The comic has a serious problem with its pacing and crams too much action into too few pages. The situation of the Inhuman inmates and the opinions of their two conflicted groups are relayed mainly through the Champions instead of the Inhumans themselves, because they have already turned into a raging mob and are busy fighting each other. It’s also telling that – after the camp wall has been breached and the guards have been taken out – it’s up to the Champions to come up with a solution to the problem of approaching Hydra reinforcements. The Inhumans, even though they have superpowers too, are relegated to passive victims in need of rescue. And even though there are “hundreds” of inmates in the camp, the Champions only ever talk to two of them (not counting the terrified Inhumans they first meet on p. 10), so the majority of the Inhumans – despite their portrayal as heterogeneous – lack not only agency but also their own voices.
To sum up: is it allowed to allude to real-world internment camps in a superhero comic book? Of course it is. But if the comic is poorly written and the subject matter is not treated with the necessary sensitivity, don’t be surprised if people are offended. That being said, this whole ‘controversy’ seems to be a non-issue along the lines of Action Comics (2011) #1 / “GD” and Batgirl (2011) #37 / “But you’re a–“ (both of which I haven’t read though).
A surprisingly large number of papers on manga were presented at this year’s conference of the German Society for Comics Studies, which was held in Frankfurt last weekend. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear all of them (among the ones I’ve missed were Sven Günther’s paper on Thermae Romae and Sylvia Kesper-Biermann’s on Barefoot Gen), but here are brief summaries of the ones I did attend:
- Rik Spanjers spoke about Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. In this classic manga set in the Pacific War (as well as in his other manga), Mizuki employs a distinctive art style in which cartoonish characters clash with photorealistic backgrounds. Spanjers explains this art style with Mizuki’s attempt to adequately represent the horrors of war. For instance, the opposition between these two distinct art styles mirrors the opposition between life and death in the story, etc.
- Marco Pellitteri presented results from a survey on the arrival and impact of manga in several European countries. He attributes the success of manga in Europe mainly to two circumstances: the adoption of the ‘authentic’ tankobon format for translated editions, and the simultaneous broadcasting of anime series on European television channels.
(Naturally, there is some overlap with my own PhD research, but also one major difference: when one tries to identify similarities and differences between so many different comic markets and within such a long time frame – 1970s to today –, the perspective is necessarily much wider, and the results coarser. Which doesn’t make it less valid, of course.)
- Lukas Sarvari introduced three manga drawn by Kazuo Kamimura: Shinanogawa (1973-74, written by Hideo Okazaki), Furious Love (Kyōjin kankei, 1973-74, written by Kamimura himself), and Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, 1972-73, written by Kazuo Koike). Each of them is set in a different period of Japanese history: Shōwa (1926-89), Edo/Tokugawa (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912), respectively. However, Sarvari’s hypothesis is that these manga tell us more about the time in which they were made than about the time in which their stories are set. Thus they convey views about the nihonjinron discourse, Japanese exceptionalism, and fascism that readers today might feel uneasy about.
- Christian Chappelow identified similar elements in two manga about Adolf Hitler: Hitler (Gekiga Hittorā, 1971) by Shigeru Mizuki and Adolf (Adorufu ni tsugu, 1983-85) by Osamu Tezuka. Both manga can’t really be regarded as anti-war stories and lack a critical stance against nationalism, militarism and fascism. Chappelow suspects that this is the reason why Mizuki’s Hitler hasn’t been translated into a European language yet.