Casting a Spell of Settler Normativity

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The 2016 film Dr. Strange is a paradigmatic example of how the settler society naturalizes settler colonialism in the imaginary universes it produces. The film studiously avoids political discussion so the coloniality is only implied, albeit quite heavily. Folks who followed Dr. Strange’s production will remember problems in the film’s production related to both the orientalist narrative and whitewashing of the cast . But this is not where the film’s racism ends. As noted previously on this blog, the US settler society produces imaginary universes that share it’s premise of indigenous removal. The Marvel universe is no different than the material universe in this regard. The United States destroys the native world through constructing the anti-Black one.

We learn towards the end of Dr. Strange that there are three “sanctums” operated by the Masters of the Mystic Arts. One is in Hong Kong and the second in London. Neither of these are obvious historical choices for a mythology supposedly stemming from the Tibetan plateau. But both have had human populations for several thousand years. So let’s chalk it up to drift. The third is in New York City. Why should this be? Why would this ancient sect set up shop in such a young city? How long has it been there? Were/are the sorcerers settlers? Did native Masters of the Mystic Arts prior to European colonization operate the sanctum? No matter how we answer these questions they exemplify settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one is naturalized in settler discourse.

If the Masters of the Mystic Arts set up the sanctum as part of colonization then “defending the planet” from extradimensional threats means defending the settler’s world, defending a colonial cosmology; the destruction of the native cosmos is already including in their very settlerness. If they were there before colonization, why did they not defend the native cosmos from settler invasion? From what little we’ve seen there is no question of ability. Through making portals they could’ve simply rerouted ships back towards their own lands or to Antarctica or beneath the ocean surface, all that before considering their superiority in potential violence. Dr. Strange’s cosmos explores neither of these because it cannot. To explore either one is to question the premise of the settler cosmos. Instead it goes unasked. Like all basic questions of settler colonialism, it is simply naturalized in discourse at a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made. The comics offer a little more information on this but it’s really more of the same, naturalizing indigenous removal in the narrative as a natural progression from native to settler. The dispossession of natives is as fundamental to settler imaginary universes, including the settler fantastic, as it is to the material settler colony. This also shows yet again the limits of improved representation alone. The question of settler normativity is structural, not representative and basic changes to the Marvel universe are required to address this spell of settler normativity.

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Marvel History is Whitewash

CW: Racist comics imagery

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.