Sometimes subtext can be as dangerous to a crusading superhero as death rays and ultra-powered lunatics. In comics, everything from coloring and inking to the juxtaposition of panels can send out subtle messages, messages that sometimes slip right past comic creators themselves.
case in point: This week’s issue of Amazing Spider-Man, the latest episode in the ongoing “Gauntlet” storyline. ASM #621 pits Spidey against Yin-and-Yang powered Chinatown crime-boss Mr. Negative. Mr. Negative, an ex “snakehead” turned crime kingpin may be a more nuanced ethnic Chinese villain than the repulsive “yellow-peril” villains that have plagued comics all the way back to the very origins of the super-hero genre, but Negative’s modus operandi, which combines super-science with Chinese martial-arts mysticism, still leans heavily on cultural fears of the other and western stereotypes of eastern exoticism. Mr. Negative has never been portrayed on the same level as overtly racist creations like The Yellow Claw or The Mandarin, but a sequence of panels in the latest issue of ASM leaves room for some pretty xenophobic interpretations of the rivalry between Spidey and this fan-fave, post “Brand New Day” villain:
On the script page this scene probably played out pretty benignly, a clever moment of Spidey retorting to Negative with some tough-guy dialogue, pitting his scrappy attitude against the twisted, honor-bound villainy of Mr. Negative. However, the scene’s final page breakdown intimates something a little less straightforward. That bit of dialogue about Mr. Negative being an invader in Spidey’s city is juxtaposed with a striking image of Negative standing on a New York street dominated by neon signs in Chinese script. Spidey’s feisty assertion that negative has “invaded” his home, takes on a definite subtext: the subtext of a white male hero with a working class background referring to an Asian immigrant as an “invader”, an interloper who somehow has less right to live in the Big Apple than a native-born caucasian.
That arresting panel of Negative on the Chinatown street is the key because its composition, intentional or not, makes a strong visual connection of representation, i.e. Negative as a figurative representation of Chinatown, a Chinatown characterized by those eye-catching neon signs. Spidey’s defiant assertion that New York is His home and it has been invaded by illegal immigrant Martin Li, a.k.a. “Mr. Negative” can be extrapolated to that lonely Manhattan street “invaded” by the generations of Chinese immigrants who have made it their own. Mr. Negative’s position in that frame, establishing him as a stand in for Chinatown, ups the metaphorical ante so to speak, imbuing a conflict of hero vs. villian with the second meaning of white privilege vs. the rights of immigrants. Even the lettering in the sequence, with Spidey’s dialogue appearing in disembodied word balloons like some secret voice of higher truth, intimates an authority beyond mere superhero banter. Its not much of an interpretive step to situate Negative as more than just a symbol of lawlessness but also as the avatar of a neighborhood unjustly “invaded” by Asian immigrants.
I really doubt this is the overt intention of either writer Dan Slott or penciller Michael Lark, but as a Spidey fan with no vested interest in taking shots at one of my favorite books, this subtext smacked me as strongly and as blatantly as the pimp-slap negative lays on Spidey earlier in the issue. At the very least, bandying about charged words like “invaded” in the context of a villain who is aligned with undocumented immigrants is something that should be done with extreme delicacy, especially when the hero is mouthing dialogue that hews so close to the privileged assertions of the most conservative anti-immigration activists.
Maybe a slip like this is not a big deal. Maybe. But this visual faux pas left me scrutinizing the thematics of Mr. Negative as whole. The grosser stereotypes of the past are absent in this popular villain, but when you strip Neggy down to the basics, what you have is a rather problematic comment on Immigration. By day Martin Li is a picture perfect example of the “model minority”, a succesful businessman, and philanthropist, but under that veneer of ideal assimilation is a monstrous, violent sociopath. Combine that with the current subplot of Negative’s bloody war with the Maggia, an organization traditionally aligned with the working class aspirations of a long-entrenched ethnic group, i.e. Italian Americans and what you have is a multi-level narrative of duplicity, a recurring theme of the seemingly benign immigrant as bringer of chaos and social unrest annihilating the established order.
With the recent, (and overblown) controversy regarding a bit of satirical signage over in Captain America, it is this sort of unintentional, yet still evident, subtext that really should concern readers, and cue writers to be on their guard for the slippery, multifaceted meanings that can emerge when combining words with images, whether by design or unfortunate chance.