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Racism, Critical Reading, and Comic Books: Teaching with Green Lantern #0

by Sean A. Guynes

Religion, politics, sex. Don’t talk about these at work. If work happens to be school, certainly do not talk about these with your students.

This cultural maxim both informs and makes sense of key issues facing American education as a national and cultural institution that prepares children for a (hopefully) bright future. How do we teach sex education–or do we at all? How do we teach evolution–should we, and if so, what about creationism? How do we teach the profound reality of race, class, and gender inequalities in classrooms that are increasingly diverse? What will our students’ parents say?!

To focus on inequalities, how best can teachers at all levels of education inform their students about the realities of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, religious discrimination, and ablism? How can students be taught to think critically about everything they read, from textbooks and assigned readings to roadside advertisements glimpsed on the way to school and the latest tunes blaring from the radio?

While I am not an elementary-, middle-, or high- school teacher I hope to offer at least one possibility–from my experience as an emerging historian of comic books in the field of American Studies–for addressing a problem rampant in the post-September 11 era: anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and violence.

To do so will require learning how to critically read texts and how to speak candidly about inequalities in American and global society. These skills make media-conscious citizens of us all, which provides the means for learning to make informed decisions about consumer practices and to think critically about the way in which our lives are integrally connected to others. Perhaps most importantly, this lesson–and the many others that can build upon it–creates a framework for us to begin the process of self-conscious reflexivity that allows us to recognize how culturally mediated ideologies make certain people into Others, and how we as individual actors can resist the Othering process.

One of the best models for critically reading cultural texts like comic books, films, songs, and other artistic media is as follows. First, texts need to be contextualized, answering questions like: “In what historical circumstances did this emerge? Who wrote it? For whom? Why?” Then, describe: “What is the text? What is it about? What are its aesthetic qualities?” Next, analyze: “What does the text tell us? Does it make certain arguments? What do you think about the text?” Finally, the text needs to be historicized; place the text back into its historical moment, interrogate its meaning and message in relation to that moment, and draw connections between the text and others of the time (or before or after).

Contextualizing and historicizing media requires understanding a bit about textual production, audience reception, and message. In addition, it bears remembering that all texts can have multiple meanings, varied interpretations (both contemporaneous to production and throughout history), and can be significant in different ways to different groups. Texts, however, are not created ahistorically or without bias or context. Even history books have an ideological bent, crafting a certain narrative. Comic books are no different, and like all other types of media, they draw on social ideologies to frame discussions of sensitive subjects like race and gender.

With this in mind I explore DC Comics’ attempt to create their first major Arab Muslim American superhero as a Green Lantern (a staple character in the DC lineup dating to 1940) with a deeply troubling original story in Green Lantern #0, which hit the markets on September 5, 2011, written by Geoff Johns with art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy.


The Post-9/11 World and Arab and Muslim Americans

To say that life has not been easy for Arab and Muslim Americans after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 would be farce. As literary critic Steven Salaita claimed in his Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics, the concept of Arab or Muslim Americans as a unified, racially distinct segment of the population emerged in response to fears of foreign Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and the need to control potential threats at home. Arabs, as religious historian Jonathan K. Stubbs wrote in the Journal of Law and Religion in 2003, became “America’s New N…..s.”

Although Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism–that brand of racial ideology that fetishizes the Arab world, the East as a whole, and its cultural products as an exotic, mysterious, and must-have Other (i.e. “not us”)–had long structured America’s view of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the U.S., even placing them in the 1950s–70s as a model minority alongside Indians and Eastern Asians, “The Arab” and “The Muslim” were not recognizably racialized outside of doofy Ottoman costumery, children’s parodies (Aladdin), and occasional bad guys (Indiana Jones). In other words, unlike blacks and latina/os, Arabs and Muslims didn’t bother white middle-class suburbia.

In the wake of 9/11, violence against Arabs and Muslims, whether American or not, increased and was governmentally sanctioned via the stripping of Constitutional rights for the purpose of national security. They were widely depicted in film and on television as the enemy. Scholarship on the issue of Arab and Muslim representation has finally reached a headway, a result of the growth of Arab American Studies, and is best exemplified in Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media (NYU, 2012).

The violence, in many cases, is often spurred by the inability to read beyond media representations and to think critically about the plurality of Arab and Muslim lived experiences. Sikhs, non-Muslim Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Muslim Arabs, and sometimes Jews are conflated with the identity of the singular, Otherized muslimarab-arabmuslim, a seemingly insoluble identity that is, according to government policy and popular belief, potentially engaged in fundamentalist Islamic activity or at least aware of such activity.

Not all Arabs are Muslim, not all Muslims are Arab. The United States hosts some 3.5 million Arab Americans, whose group identity is based largely in shared cultural and linguistic traditions which hail largely from the twenty-two members states of the Arab League. Some are Christian, Jewish, atheist, Baha’i, etc. Muslims, on the other hand, number roughly 2.6 million, only 26% of which are of Arab descent. Many are from South(east) Asia, are black Muslims, white, or Hispanic, according to the 2006 American Community Survey (recent numbers are likely much higher, since in both 2009 and 2011 Muslims made up the largest percentage of U.S. immigrants).

With this context in place it is possible to both understand and employ a critical reading of Green Lantern #0.


Green Lantern #0–“The New Normal”

The Green Lantern is an iconic superhero dating from July 1940 (All-American Comics #16), one of the original Justice League members in the 1960s, a mainstay in DC team publications, and the center of one of DC’s largest comic book publishing families (in total there are five Lantern books: Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Red Lanterns, and Larfleeze).

When DC relaunched its entire line of comics in September 2011 via the “New 52,” new origins, new characters, and new narrative continuities characterized the company’s publications. In celebration of a year of the “New 52,” DC’s September 2012 issues were all branded #0 and feature the origin stories of series favorites. For Green Lantern, this meant a new face that writer and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns developed from his own experiences as a Lebanese American growing up in Detroit.

Enter Simon Baz, an Arab Muslim American who steals cars to help raise his sister’s child. In his debut issue Simon steals a van that, unbeknownst to him, is laden with explosives on a countdown timer. Not wanting to endanger the public, he drives the van to an abandoned car factory where he used to work, and the bomb explodes! Later, Simon is captured by government officials and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he is interrogated as a terrorist. Fortunately, the otherworldly Green Lantern power ring smashes through the ceiling, attaches itself to Simon’s finger, and turns him into earth’s newest protector! Simon escapes from prison and crash-lands in a field. Meanwhile, the Justice League is alerted and sent to find and capture the escaped presumed terrorist.

A critical reading of this narrative in the context of the contemporary lived experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans yields (at least) two conflicting messages.

The first, and perhaps more obvious, is that Green Lantern #0 draws on the prejudice and violence faced especially by Arab and Muslim men in the United States, owing to a general paranoia that any Arab or Muslim is a potential terrorist. Green Lantern #0 seeks to use patterns of prejudice in American society to tell a story about prejudice–not an uncommon concept, in fact commonplace in the literature produced by and about social groups that face hardship (consider, for example, that the vast majority of mainstream films about African Americans are about the Civil Rights movement, antebellum slavery, or postbellum racial repression).

For many Green Lantern #0 readers, this may be an eye-opening way to self-reflectively approach the concept of race violence and prejudice experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans. In addition, this narrative is a great way to open up discussion of other media that depict similar circumstances. Many crime shows–NCIS, for example–rely on the ideology of Arab/Muslim as terrorist, as do a number of films. “Babel” for example, creates an incident that becomes labeled as terrorist because the accidental attackers are Moroccan Muslims and the accidental victims are white Americans. Green Lantern #0 provides a means to dissecting the complex beliefs that undergird the relationships between race, religion, and ethnic/national origin in the post-9/11 world.

The first reading is sufficient for starting what might be a powerful and life-changing discussion for many students, and which can be broadened to encompass other lessons concerned with race, class, and gender inequalities throughout history. Green Lantern #0 is particularly apt for this because its visual medium allows for a thorough interrogation of our beliefs about Arab and Muslim Americans. What can the comic’s cover, for example–which shows Simon in a Green Lantern suit, holding a gun, with a glowing Arabic tattoo, and his face covered like a robber–tell us in light of a critical reading of the narrative? How do the artists draw on the iconography of criminals to illustrate Simon, and why?

These questions prompt a deeper discussion that relates to a second reading I am proposing, which I have not seen any reviewer of the comic mention. While it is effective to portray the negative lived experiences of Arab and Muslim characters, especially considering that this comic appeared six days before the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the broader context of a growing diversity of comic book characters’ identities (and the significance of this development) is erased by this reading.

Recent years have seen the mainstream comic book industry rapidly diversify their characters’ races, sexual orientation, and genders, despite relying still on a majority of white male characters. This is, all things considered, good progress. And yet, this progress comes all too often at the behest of capitalist forces, meaning that characters are not shaped so much by a creator’s desire to express non-normative experiences, but because a black Puerto Rican Spider-man sells well (additionally, the type of coverage a company with a “diverse” character is likely to get is, essentially, free advertising). Again, this is not necessarily bad, but narrative changes should always be understood in the context of market forces.

What is bothersome about Green Lantern #0–and, really, about all media depictions of Arabs and Muslims–is the seeming requirement that terrorism be a central part of the narrative because an Arab or Muslim is involved. Readers might now have an Arab Muslim American Green Lantern, who makes for a more diverse superheroic cast at DC, but this character’s very diversity (i.e. non-whiteness, non-Christianness) is stunted and made non-diverse by the fact that he only exists in the context of an ideology that forces terrorism into the story.

The major question this begs for us and our students is how to diversify without requiring black characters to be the recipients of white supremacist violence, Latina/o characters gang members, Asian American characters super-genius model minorities, and Arab and Muslim characters terrorists.

A critical reading of Green Lantern #0 exposes the daily prejudices with which we live as citizens of the United States and the global post-9/11 era. It requires us to confront the truth of inequalities and to recognize the farce of post-racial and post-gender-inequality arguments. Ultimately, Green Lantern #0 teaches us to reflexively read representations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion and question the possibilities of a media that openly fights against socially and individually damaging ideologies.