Rethinking the Narrative: An Exclusive Conversation with Dr. Walter Greason

The apology from Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn linked to thoughtless comments in a blog entitled, “The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With” highlight an ongoing debate about race and gender in superhero comics.

The debate over sexism and Eurocentrism in superhero comics simmers constantly, an easy charge for cultural critics and fans alike. Yet, the fact that superhero comicbook struggles with questions of race and gender bias should not be a surprise. As byproduct of a precise historical moment, superhero comic book reflects the societal structure in place when the genre was created. Conceived and enhanced at the height of US power, superhero stories harken back to communal convictions about the US social, political, and economic circumstances. Our contemporary understanding of the fallacy associated with those past assumptions brand superhero comics regressive. Our focus on iconic characters from the major publishers obscure the depth and complexity linked to ethnicity and gender that can be achieved in comics beyond the superhero view.

Increasingly the fuel for global media conglomerates, critics contend that problematic representations reproduced across new platforms undermine new generations. Such charges are heightened by the disappointments linked to diversity in DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch and with the announcement that Karen Berger will step down as editor of company’s Vertigo imprint. Berger’s twenty year tenure saw a literary quality associated with comics through such titles as Preacher, Hellblazer, Y: The Last Man, Sandman, and 100 Bullets, to name few.

Seemly seeking to emulate the cross media success of Marvel Comics, the assumption is that Warner Communication is looking to exert greater control over DC Comic characters as license properties. Aiming to keep the core audience (male, white, heterosexual) happy, DC Comics editorial decisions seem to be embracing a limited view of what superhero comics are and, as a result, stifling what they could become. In the midst of the endless cycle of dialogue about what superhero comic books failed to do, critics and fans overlook the social and political commentary achieved by independents. Independent publishers have challenged expectations and given expression to minority voices for decades. Any serious consideration of comic book publishing history can highlight these contributions. As corporations work to protect (and exploit) established characters, the importance of independent creators to challenge expectations and evolve the comic medium grows.

It is with this in mind that I spoke to Dr. Walter Greason about his new collaboration with artist Jiba Molei Anderson. The Holy Bible: Dignity and Divinity is an unlikely project that challenges assumptions about comicbook content, audience, and purpose. An unexpected biblical tale, the creative team is reaching out to communities of faith and schools to attract an audience. Moreover, like so many comic creators, they have a digital strategy that relies on social media to build awareness and digital distribution to widen circulation.

JC: The Holy Bible: Dignity and Divinity resonates as a commentary on European views of global history and society, why choose a comic book to pursue this project?

WG: I teach across grades and stages of life in my work, so I’ve seen the way pervasive ideas take root in people’s home and morph into policy in both corporations and governments. Patriarchy is one of the deepest-seated issues that cause a raft of social problems in my view. Intervening to challenge patriarchy at early ages, especially in a format that can bring parents and children together in discussion, is a crucial commitment I have made. I think Dignity and Divinity has a great chance to advance this goal.

JC: Your project links complex ideas growing from the womanist ideology associated with Dr. Delores S. Williams and broader questions of contemporary religion. Do you think of your project as an attempt to clarify established idea or promoting a new path forward in a discussion of ethnicity, faith, and agency?

WG: My introduction to womanism came through Alice Walker and bell hooks. Working with extraordinary womanist scholars like Katie Cannon and Stacey Floyd-Thomas almost two decades ago provided me with a deep praxis concerning public discourse and gender. Dignity and Divinity attempts to open conversations in religious institutions (and the public-at-large) about how people understand gender identities and how theology influences these perceptions. It does not provide clear and settled answers the way a more scholarly analysis would. Instead, Jiba and I tried to present provocative revisions of traditional Bible stories in ways that would seize anyone’s attention. In this way, I hope that we open multiple paths of inquiry that challenges any received wisdom people have about ethnicity, faith, and agency.

JC: By content, style, and story, this project offers a challenge to societal ideas linked to race, gender, and power that have been fodder for debate for decades. What was your goal for this comic in terms of those contemporary social debates?

WG: Almost every day, I confront a problem because conservative ideology has so thoroughly infected the field of economics. When Paul Krugman is the most liberal economist an interested citizen can encounter through the mass media, there is a severe problem. Less frequently, I stumble into conversations about religion that replicate the same issue. Faith has become a reactionary terrain. Atheism is the (perceived) arena for liberal ideas. Worse, too many people have made religion and science antagonistic to each other. Dignity and Divinity is an attempt to bridge this unnecessary divide in our public conversation. Bringing reason back to questions to faith in the most open and inclusive venues carries numerous rewards. At the foundation of the project, I hope linking these ideas for young people can help them overcome the cynicism and materialism that is endemic in world society.

JC: A challenge to western assumptions about ethnicity and gender are first and most powerful impact of this story, driven by an infusion of African symbolism harken back to classic academic arguments about Africa such as Black Athena, is this a conscious process you want to engage?

WG: As a historian this topic is probably the most controversial in my home profession. The debates over Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, and the idea that history begins with any single essential geography have not been effectively resolved. With recent visits to the urban history, American studies, and African studies conferences this fall, it is clear to me that the academy remains nearly as segregated as American churches are. None of these events effectively cross over with the field of Africology or other derivations of Afrocentrism. Instead, Eurocentrism remains pervasive, retaining an authority that fuels hiring, tenure, and promotion discussions across the country. Invoking women as the faces of divinity was controversial enough as a project. However, to situate the Biblical world in east Africa was another step I could not avoid. African women have done so much work to build the modern world that goes entirely ignored by nearly everyone except black women themselves. Dignity and Divinity is a very intentional attempt to force these innumerable institutions to abandon their malicious neglect and treat African and African American women with the respect they deserve.

JC: Because of the premise, questions of race will be front and center for critics and fans alike, yet the comic offers a complex insectionality in its challenge of Eurocentrism and genderism that is provocative. What would you say you want the reader to recognize from this story?

WG: The most basic lesson is that all people have a profound agency to shape their lives and the most important ways we use this ability include the power to forgive ourselves and each other. The fundamental questions about the diverse forms of femininity, sexuality, and culture in the images open the door to reimagine our most profound heroes across several philosophical and religious traditions. Yet those powerful new visions still fall short of the core affirmation that all humanity can (and must) change its moral compass to sustain each other and our planet going forward in the twenty-first century.

JC: You are a professor of history, but your professional activities seem to be evolving to embrace an African definition of “learning” that is broader. How do you see your activities?

WG: I love the classroom. I first taught a history class in 1989 and my joy in sharing knowledge and developing new historical interpretations only grows with each passing semester. Yet, after fifteen years in higher education, I realized I could only reach approximately 500 students a year. Meanwhile, I would see 25 million people watching “American Idol” or “Survivor” once a week. I saw YouTube videos reach hundreds of millions of people in the space of a week. Too much of the best knowledge in the academy never reaches the audiences who need it most. At this point, the world has become my university. While I still teach in the more traditional sense, my movies, books, websites, and essays now reach thousands of people every day. I learn much more from moment to moment than I did in any of my previous years in traditional academic posts. Amazingly, I’m finding more and more faculty who have come to similar realizations. We may be the leading wave for a revolution in higher education over the next several decades.

JC: Is The Holy Bible: Dignity and Divinity entertainment, testament, or indictment?

WG: Of course, it is all three. The audience does the best job in making a categorical decision of this nature.