Petition Against White Guys Writing "Dawg"
I am a complete convert when it comes to reading comic books digitally. The ease in which I can buy a complete series and take it with me wherever I go greatly outweighs the days where I had to hunt down random issues or collections at used book stores if I wanted to dig into a comic book series I had read about in Wizard Magazine.
Comixology in particular often runs great sales in which I can pick up hundreds of comic book issues for dirt cheap prices. In fact, they are currently giving away almost every single Black Panther comic book ever published for free!
During one of Comixology’s recent sales, I picked up the complete run of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 BULLETS. This series, first published in 1999 by DC Comics under their Vertigo label, was a critically acclaimed crime series about a mysterious agency that provides individuals with an attache case showing, without a shadow of a doubt, the individual that is to blame for their sorry state in life. The case also contains 100 untraceable bullets and a gun. It is up to the individuals to figure out what choice to make - do they take their vengeance or do they stay on their journey of trying to rebuild their life?
There have been a lot of attempts to adapt 100 BULLETS into a film or television show over the years, by people such as David Goyer and Tom Hardy. I had read a lot about this series over the years, especially during the time where I reading Wizard Magazine religiously - yet I never dove into the series. As a kid, I wasn’t super interested in crime stuff and the few Batman books I read that were written by Azzarello never did much for me. But how could I say no to 100 issues of 100 BULLETS for $50?
The series begins as a loose anthology, following a disparate group of individuals across America as they are approached by Agent Graves, a mysterious, suit-wearing elderly man who provides them with the chance to take revenge and, more importantly, get away with it. As the series progresses, though, readers begin to see the full picture - Agent Graves is the leader of The Minutemen, a group of soldiers who have existed since the dawn of America, protecting the interests of The Trust, a powerful group of extremely rich and influential individuals who run things from behind the scenes. Graves’ seemingly altruistic game is actually part of a larger plot to take revenge on The Trust, who ordered the death of his team in their quest for power.
100 BULLETS is a highly complex, sprawling crime saga conspiracy - with dozens of characters living as violently as they die. There are moments where the book truly shines - great, understated scenes of tragedy or dark comedy. Mostly, though, 100 BULLETS is a bunch of bullshit.
I’m sick and tired of white dudes writing minority characters as thugs. Azzarello seems obsessed with gang life among black and Latinx communities. 100 BULLETS is full of horrifyingly stereotypical portrayals in which the characters of color are portrayed as drenched in drugs, sex, and gun violence.
I’m not stupid - there are parts of this country in which the kind of stuff Azzarello writes about is all too real. Azzarello, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and later lived in Chicago, was probably witness to a lot of real individuals who spoke and acted like the characters in his books. That doesn’t dilute the fact that I feel uncomfortable reading highly stylized “ghetto” dialogue written by a guy who looks like Brian Azzarello looks.
Furthermore, I was also troubled by the artwork from Argentian artist Eduardo Risso. Risso’s artwork reminds me a lot of Frank Miller - he’s capable of drawing extremely beautiful men and women (usually white) while also drawing his minority characters as monsters. The criminals of 100 BULLETS are bug-eyed, bulging mutants. I have no problem with stylized artwork and I would never dream of trying to censor something but Risso’s art, combined with Azzarello’s writing made me feel extremely uncomfortable - like I was reading something from a lot more distant of a past than a series published less than 20 years ago.
And then there's the curious case of 100 BULLETS cover artist Dave Stewart's portal of Dizzy Cordova. Dizzy is one of the first characters readers are introduced to in 100 BULLETS. Recently released from prison, Dizzy is a former gang member whose husband and son were both killed while she was in jail. Recruited by Agent Graves, Dizzy is an audience surrogate for most of the series, introduced to the various players along with readers. The cover below on the left is one of the first depictions of Dizzy by Stewart. The cover on the right is from one of the later issues. Who made the decision that Dizzy needed to have her skin lightened? Was it a desire to sell more issues of the comic book?
What does this all mean? What am I trying to say? I don’t know. I didn’t start this blog with the intentions of a manifesto. I don’t believe people should only be able to write about characters that look like them but I also find myself suspicious of creators that consistently write characters of different ethnicities in the role of criminal - noble or not.
Take David Ayer, whose recent film THE TAX COLLECTOR stared Shia LeBeouf as a violent criminal who works in a heavily Latinx community. When questioned about whether or not LeBeouf was supposed to be playing a Hispanic in the film, Ayer was quick to point out that “Chicano culture” is inclusive and, like the filmmaker himself, a lot of non-Hispanic folks grow up in the hood.
While I’m sure that’s true, there’s also a big truth to the fact that Hollywood keeps demanding a token white lead in their Hispanic films. Heck, Ayer’s own HARSH TIMES from 2005 cast Christian Bale as a Spanish speaking ex-Army Ranger who takes center stage in an otherwise largely POC film. Taylor Hackford’s BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT is often celebrated by the Latinx community but I always side-eyed the movie due to its need to have the most prominent “Chicano” lead in the ensemble be a half-white character played by Damien Chapa, an extremely light-skinned actor from Dayton, Ohio with partial Mexican heritage.
People like David Ayer and Brian Azzarello should be allowed to write characters of color if they want, I'm not going to dispute that. In the end, I think, my issue is the fact that films and books by white creators like Azzarello and Ayer seem to be the most prominent depictions of people of color currently available in the marketplace. Representation matters and when the majority of representation of POC comes from white creators, it's just off-putting.
When we get to the point where Latinx and black creators have as equal representation in the entertainment world as the white creators who have made their careers off the stories of POC characters, I won’t feel as troubled by the situation. In the meantime, I'm going to keep 100 BULLETS firmly in my brain's "bullshit" folder - regardless of how good some of this series was. Azzarello is a very good writer and Ayer has made some very good movies, but I refuse to let them be the definitive voice for communities that they aren't a part of.