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The Narrative Minefield of Race

Okay, I’m having a bit of a quandary, and I’d like to hear various folks’ opinions on it — but it’s about the potentially-loaded topic of race, so I respectfully ask that people keep their heads about it. :)

I’m working on the main cast of my new comic; it’s a lighthearted fantasy adventure story following a trio of troublemaking heroes-for-hire. The leader is a suave trickster type, the second is a cute and perky gal who has a propensity to blow things up, and the third is a big and scary-looking strongman who covers up horrible scars with a Phantom-Of-the-Opera-esque hooded mask, who actually has a squooshy nougat center and loves to pet kittens. (Anybody remember the phase-through-walls guy on Buck Rogers In the 25th Century? He’s sorta like that, but more brawny and less brooding.)

The trickster isn’t human at all; in point of fact, he’s a white-and-black-furred fox-morph. The bomber-gal has red hair and freckles. The big scary strongman is an imported character from an earlier project I worked on, in which he was a big ol’ cueball — think “Mr. Clean” meets “Two-Face.” However, when I was importing him into this story, I thought that in an effort to keep the cast from being too monochromatic, I’d make him black instead.

John Dunn development sketches

This is where I run into a catch-22 … now instead of an “all-white” cast (if you take a white-furred fox thing as being “white” in the same sense), I’ve potentially got “black man = big, ugly, and scary.” That’s not the intended message by any stretch — this character is a doll and the scariness of his exterior is intended to be a subject of pathos rather than revulsion — but it is something I worry about people taking away from it.

So rather than just bat this one around with my beta readers, I’ve decided to toss this issue out for more general discussion. Am I just overthinking the whole thing? The comic is not about race in any sense, and is not a defining aspect of this character. I don’t want what was basically an aesthetic choice causing anybody grief.

What do you think, folks?

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
It is indeed a minefield. You at least didn't make the bad guy a person of color, that's all you'd need to complete the stereotype. There is one for the sidekick/bruiser being not-white, so it's something to keep in mind.

What time period is this happening in? I'm guessing it's not modern, maybe post-modern? Because you can use this to make subtle statements about race and harmony, and since you're thinking about it you know your audience will be thinking about it too. If the color of one's skin isn't an issue in the main storyline, that can be a positive thing. And eventually you'd want/need to have to contrast that - as simple as some backwater character making a comment about race, or find an entire area that's stuck in the old ways. Having the familiar, known characters coming down on those people like a load of bricks can highlight how It's Just Not Done anymore that way.

How does that sound?
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
What time period is this happening in?

Vaguely-steampunkish alternate world; really I'd like race to be a non-issue all together. :) The comic is about daring rescues and beating up evil robots.

Really, of the trio of main characters, none of them couldn't be twisted into being "a harmful stereotype" by those inclined to do so. Suave trickster? Says minorities are deceitful. Gun bunny? Says minorities are violent.

Stoopid politics!

Aug. 31st, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
It's not politics so much as human nature. We learn prejudice from a young age, and racism is still very prevalent. On top of that is what we learn from our common stories, which I must admit tvtropes has by the throat for Western culture. So yes, it's a problem for any character to be anything, it can always be twisted.

I'm sure you've thought of this, but you've also got a female character there too. For balance you'd want to make sure that, while your main character is the trickster, all three of them shine equally in their own ways. That way you aren't marginalizing any race/gender/species in particular. The "white" guy isn't always better than his sidekicks, that way lies the Mighty Whitey trope.
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
Well yes, it's very much intended to be an ensemble story. :) They're a team, not just "a guy and his assistants."

(Deleted comment)
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
I agree completely. There are people who will Just See Race -- and will count coup on each TV Trope they can point to.

Others -- your real audience, will just enjoy a well-written story. The more quickly we can get to a point where we're not having to tiptoe around this stuff, the faster we can leave it behind, I think.

===|==============/ Level Head
Aug. 31st, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
Brawny guy with a heart of gold is pretty much all anyone will see.

That's certainly what I'm hoping for! :)

Aug. 31st, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
I think that as long as you establish him pretty quickly and thoroughly, you won't have any problems.
Aug. 31st, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
Another point not yet mentioned is the rest of the cast, including background characters. If this is the only black character in the whole story, that may be read as more suspect. If there are other characters, including side characters and those just in the scenery, that are of various races then it should be a non-issue.
Aug. 31st, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Definitely true!

Aug. 31st, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
If Stargate SG1 can do it and get away with it, so can you :-)
Aug. 31st, 2010 10:16 pm (UTC)
But Stargate shops TV Tropes for ideas.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 31st, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
I really liked the revised character sketches on him. Based on the notes you've presented about the characters so far, he's my favorite. I'd say leave him; it's not like the people who will call him a token would be *less* annoyed if you make both human characters white instead.

You probably do want to mix in various races to your supporting cast, if race is a non-issue. But that's like balancing age/gender/physique, pretty much, though. Sometimes I think I should generate those using an RNG. O.o
Aug. 31st, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
You do it, people will say you're doing it wrong.

Do it, take your lumps, read the criticism and flesh out the character more. Race may not be a "defining aspect" of the character, but at the same time you need to look at how race might inform his nature and not just create a big white guy in blackface.
Sep. 1st, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, the first thing that popped into mind when I saw the sketch was "Cyborg".

While the Big Black Guy isn't really racist, the character design has become a touch cliche. It might help to mix around and see what other race/gender/species variants appeal for this guy... and if you decide he just has to be black, then that's what's right for the character.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you, characters have a mind of their own. ;)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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