“Somewhere in north Alabama, there’s a stairway to heaven.” At least that’s what Spawn #30 tell us. For readers who missed out on Spawn, a brief summary might be in order before I explain how the heavenly way opened up in the iron-veined north Alabama hills.
The comic series, Spawn, created by renegade comics artist turned corporate mogul Todd McFarlane, became know from its inception in the 1990s for eye-popping art and one of the most original backstories ever given to a comic creation. The title character, an undead satanic warrior, had once been human, a cold-blooded government assassin involved in black ops named Al Simmons. Murdered by his spook bosses, he found himself in hell but soon reborn as a “HellSpawn” after striking a Faustian bargain with a demonic being called Malbolgia.
McFarlane’s character was perhaps the best of a whole spectrum of anti-heroes inspired by Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero mythos (in Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, respectively). Spawn emerged from a period in comicdom in which taste in characters ran to the dark, violent, and morally ambiguous. Unfortunately, this very imaginative character portrayed in splashy art that ignored all the boundaries of caption and panel also featured (and still does) ludicrous plots and poor writing . . . more specifically, poor overwriting. There were exceptions and, in fact, Spawn finds himself plopped into north Alabama after an adventure written by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) that appeared in the miniseries Angela. Following a tussle in heaven, Spawn has found himself transported to the South, dumped through a dimensional portal on some forgotten rural route far from his home base in New York City.
Spawn #30 uses the American South as setting much like a Hollywood lot with false fronts where only a morality play could be staged. Standard characters the angry redneck, the angrier redneck in a broken down pickup truck, the victimized African American all make an appearance. Spawn himself winds up being lynched by the local Klan but, being dead already, he managed to slip the noose and take a satisfying revenge on the racist locals. The General of Hell’s army left Alabama shortly thereafter. The series soon took Spawn back home, to New York City, where he could prowl the alleys and look infinitely cool perched atop various church eaves and steeples. (There are, apparently, numerous decaying gothic churches in Manhattan!)
Most comics that have bothered with the South at all have used the region in a similar fashion. It’s a region that simply provides a different narrative setting suggestive of certain themes; often either racial division or inbred ignorance. Mainstream comics, by which I mean DC and Marvel, never turn their eye on the South at all. Superheroes, with few exceptions, are urban heroes. Much of the appeal of Marvel’s characters comes from the “House of M’s” willingness to place these wondrous beings in the middle of a New York City we know and recognize. Spider-Man lives in Queens, Daredevil broods over Hell’s Kitchen, and the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building can be found somewhere in Manhattan. DC comics has, meanwhile, placed their heroes, for various reasons, in imaginary knock-offs of New York, whether Superman’s “Metropolis” or Batman’s “Gotham City”. Even those few mainstream characters who are identifiably southern, like Gambit and Rogue of Marvel’s X-Men, seem to be southern only as a way to give these “gifted youngsters” some place to be from (although, there are occasional references to their accents).
Gone South, an independently produced black and white comic from Atomic Basement, follows a similar tendency, suggested actually by its very title. The cover, showing two goth girls chugging beer in front of a tattered Confederate flag, suggests an interesting take on the southern experience by writer and creator Mike Wellman. A great read, Issue #1 takes the reader to the South of Ford Pick-ups and trailer parks where, interestingly, it turns out there are no African Americans in sight. In fact, the setting for Gone South, in which black leather-clad Sylvia and Victoria turn out to be vampires on the run from trouble in New York City, could as easily be rural Ohio or Idaho. As so often in the narratives of popular culture, Wellman simply used “South” to mean “country”, a point reiterated by references to Sylvia and Victoria as “city girls” throughout. By the way, the work of Wellman and his band of merry men at Atomic Basement is not to be missed, especially by those weary of corporate comicdom. Gone South, in fact, is worth the $3 just to see what happens when you mix mean country boys, a trailer full of rufis, and a very irritated female vampire or two.
There is one very good reason that the comics medium has ignored rural landscapes, especially southern landscapes. Superhero comics had their birth in New York city. Indeed, its hard to name a writer or artist from the Golden Age of comics (1930s/1940s) who was not a streetwise, marginal, geeky but tough Jewish kid with some connection to New York city’s lower east side. Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Joel Schuster and Jerry Siegal, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and numerous others fit this template (Schuster and Siegal did grow up in Cleveland but spent significant time in New York, the heart of comics). The creators of the “tights and cape” crew that have dominated the comics form for much of its history knew the streets of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn well. The rural South proved beyond their imagining, and they had little interest in portraying America beyond these streets, alleys and skyscrapers. The creators of Superman, for example, gave the Man of Tomorrow a rural boyhood they placed in Kansas; the prototypical American everywhere and anywhere. When he got old enough, he headed straight for Metropolis.
The happy proliferation of “comix” sequential art that deals with adult themes and that frequently have an autobiographical tinge, has not changed this tradition. Daniel Clowes, Harvey Pekar, Adrian Tomine, Joe Matt, and Seth play out their everyman angst in urban, frequently hipster urban settings. Craig Thompson’s heart-breakingly beautiful Blankets has something of a rural setting, though placed in the Midwest. Moreover, it’s a rural setting overrun with subdivisions and strip malls. By and large, in the comics world, the American South remains an undiscovered country.
I have come across only one major exception to this trend (although the world of comics is so labyrinthine that I have almost certainly missed other exceptions), that is Captain Confederacy from tiny Epic Comics. Captain Confederacy attempted to deal with the South as a distinct place with a distinct history, though the writers and artists for the series felt the need to craft an alternative history for the southern states. Captain Confederacy is set in alternative universe in which the South won the Civil War and North America has continued to splinter since the 19th century into political entities like Deseret, Pacifica, and the Peoples Republic of California (ha!). The Confederate States of America (CSA) has become a world power and includes most of the old Confederacy with the exception of Texas, now the Republic of Texas, and the seceded southern tip of Louisiana (New Orleans apparently being unable to abide those north Louisiana Baptists anymore).
Meanwhile, the nations of this alternate world each have their own super soldier, a la Captain America. Captain Confederacy, super soldier of the Confederate states, happens to be, in the modern era, an African American woman named Kate Williams. Dealing with the outcome, even an imaginary outcome, to the American civil war, forced comics writers to deal with issue of race and the place of African Americans in a world where the armies of Robert E. Lee had triumphed. How they dealt with those issues perhaps tells us much about why the comics medium has so often ignored the South.
How did a nation born as a slaveholder’s republic become politically progressive? Not only does an African American female superhero (pregnant at the beginning of the series) represent the CSA, the southern republic also has a female President [certainly not a figure symbolic of progressive politics (like Thatcher) but, still a figure too progressive for the modern United States]. Meanwhile, a few diehard southerners are shown resenting the changes that have come to the CSA. These “White Knights” as they are called, are totally marginal in the modern CSA. Small groups of them are often seen protesting pathetically at airports and other public places.
Captain Confederacy represents what I believe to be a larger theme in much of American popular culture: the inclusion of African American characters and characterizations into a larger narrative of white hegemony, without calling that larger structure and context into question. It deals with race and yet doesn’t; it represents the South but only as a truly alternative universe in which white southerners have been miraculously saved from the burden of racial guilt not by learning wisdom from defeat, but by winning big. Like the Cosby Show or Lethal Weapon, Captain Confederacy takes African American characters and integrates them into a larger narrative, whitening them by that very act of integration.
Many readers of comics, myself included, take umbrage at the idea that the medium represents pure escapism, that it is an adolescent art form with adolescent concerns. No one who seriously examines the genre comes away still feeling this. Even the “tights and capes” books deal regularly with the most adult of themes, from terrorism to AIDS. In fact, the vast majority of comics are simply not written for the under 21 set, most, in fact, would not be appropriate for them. Comics have grown up, except in their ability to represent African American concerns on a wide range of issues. This is not to say that the comics don’t feature African American characters. Unfortunately, African American history and culture is often the least important thing about these characters or they are based in stereotypes born out of the “blaxploitation” film genre of the ’70s.
The South will only cease to be a narrative backdrop in comics when the African American experience is fully integrated into our understanding of the region. And there are hopeful signs that this is happening. In the next installment of “Catfish Row”, I plan a more optimistic appraisal of the role of race in the comics medium, from the noble, if failed, efforts of Milestone comics to the recent reemergence of a politically charged comic from the ’70s.