CW: Racist comics imagery
In the expectation that Black Panther lives up to the immense talent of the cast and promise of the incredible Ryan Coogler’s aesthetics and politics, here’s a little more historical context on how deep runs anti-Black imagery in Marvel. Timely Comics, which later becomes Marvel Comics, first had a Black “character” in the Young Allies comic in 1941. Young Allies depicted a group of young “patriots” who first joined Captain America (who was also in his original iteration, this is part of his story too) in beating up Nazis and was soon spun off into a comic of its own. The most prominent Young Ally was Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s longtime sidekick, brought to the screen in the 2014 film Captain America: Winter Soldier and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
The character (caricature really) was named, not joking, Whitewash Jones and he was portrayed as per the images included throughout. There’s not much point in discussing the images themselves for the purposes of this post. Suffice to say they are exactly what they appear to be. This is the imagery of Blackness that was the point of departure for future Marvel depictions.
It’s true that Black characters in mainstream and indie comics are no longer drawn like this. But before writing this off as an image of a bygone era, it was just in 2015 that Avengers: Age of Ultron portrayed a heroic plunder of African resources by white capitalists.
In this clip we see Captain America and Tony Stark worried after they find out Ultron has sought out arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. They learn that Klaue has been branded with the word “thief” in Wakandan and Stark says, “If this guy got out of Wakanda with some of their trade goods…” Cap replies, “I thought your father said he got the last of it.”
Stark’s father was an arms trader just like Tony and Klaue. What this exchange implies very clearly was if the elder Stark’s plunder of Wakandan natural resources, specifically vibranium, had been complete then the threat posed by Ultron would be dramatically lower. So while the representative imagery of Blackness has changed in the Marvel universe we still see a structural imagery premised on colonial power and plundering Africa as a fundamental “good”.
I’ve written before about the colonial present in comics. This structural description of the present is why Whitewash Jones is relevant when we look at Captain America’s portrayal. It’s part of Captain America’s history and representative changes, while vital and 89723465897623458761348756234875% necessary, do not inhere structural changes in the universes portrayed, much less in the material universe producing the portrayals. This is the universe into which Black Panther is coming and what it will have triumphed against if it fulfills it’s incredible promise.