Friday, February 22, 2008

Show Me, Don't Tell Me: The Trouble With Patriot

Recently there have been a string of interesting articles regarding minority, and particularly African-American, characters in comics. Since I've started blogging, I've read some thought-provoking posts of other bloggers like David Brothers and Cheryl Lynn about minority heroes and heroines and their treatment in comics. But I've noticed that, for the most part, one voice has been conspicuously absent from the debate.


There have been a couple reasons for this:

1. My creative muse is kind of sporadic to begin with, since I have very busy work and social lives. I'm not a daily blogger. I generally post whenever I get the time and the inspiration, which is not always frequent. I've even toyed with calling myself "the Fred Thompson of Comic Bloggers".

2. My view on solving problems with minority characters is pretty simplistic. It's the Perezian view: The more, the merrier. More minority characters, more artists, more writers, more editors, etc.

3. I've generally felt that bloggers like the ones I cited above made their points more eloquently than I felt I could, not only because they were more eloquent but because they were closer to the subject matter than I. Being a straight white male, I often didn't feel I had a sufficiently informed perspective, and didn't always have the time and inclination for extensive research. In short, I didn't want to come off like an idiot. ( I blame this reluctance purely on myself and no one else.)

However, it's time to get over it. As of today, that reluctant streak ends, thanks to this excerpt by Mad Thinker Scott Anderson:

I do think that the characters created by well-meaning liberals might tend to be more boring if those writers try to remove anything that might be considered offensive from the character. For instance, there were people who were really bugged that Patriot was using mutant growth hormone to get his powers. I understand why people wouldn’t want the black character to be the one using drugs; however, I have to admit that that origin of his powers and the conflicts it created for his ethics (i.e. do the ends justify the means?) and his teammates (i.e. is our teammate a hero, a villain, an addict, or some combination of the three?) was inherently more interesting than what was assumed to be his origin (i.e. he inherited his powers.)

For those unfamiliar readers, Patriot (Eli Bradley) began as the leader of the Young Avengers. He claimed to gain his "super-soldier" powers via a blood transfusion from his grandfather, the original "Black Captain America", but in truth his powers were derived from the continuous use of MGH (Mutant Growth Hormone), a Marvel street drug. When the truth was discovered, Patriot resigned from the group. He later rejoined the team in the next (and final) arc before YOUNG AVENGERS was cancelled.

One of those critics Scott mentioned above was the aforementioned Mr. Brothers, who wrote in full detail about the reasons for his dislike of Patriot's handling in YOUNG AVENGERS. It was a well-written article that made some valid points (why did it have to be the black hero who fell prey to drug use?) , but I remember not fully agreeing with David that the initial drug use ruined the character. This was, after all, the Marvel Universe, which was all about initially-flawed people redeeming themselves. Their flagship character was a guy who started out his career by refusing to stop a bad guy who later went on to kill his uncle. And how many Avengers and X-Men started out as villains before switching sides? By this standard, Patriot had ample chance to redeem himself.

Except that it never quite happened that way.

Sure, he later returned to lead the Young Avengers and is now a member of the Initiative. But he never fully redeemed himself, at least in my eyes.

Here's why:

After Eli's resignation, the rest of the group tries to contact him to reconsider. They, particularly Kate "Hawkeye" Bishop, try to convince him that he's a valuable team leader and capable hero, even without his powers. Eli proves all of this during their conflict with the Super-Skrull by being taken hostage. After he is rescued by the others, he suits back up for the rest of the adventure, which concludes in a face-off between the Young Avengers, the original Avengers, and the Skrulls, at which point Patriot is critically wounded after taking a blast meant for Captain America. The good Captain saves Eli's life with a Super-Soldier Serum-enhanced blood transfusion and then - BANG ZOOM! - Eli's got powers again.

And this is where it all went wrong. They gave him his powers back too soon. Even if the cause was a combination of writer Allen Heinberg's chronic lateness and the book's impending demise, this felt like a cheat. A shortcut. Like an important step in Patriot's evolution as a hero was skipped.

Why did he have to regain his Super-Soldier powers in the next story arc? We could have seen Eli over several issues working to improve himself to compensate for the lack of powers. We could have seen him strive to become a great non-powered hero in the tradition of Batman or Nightwing or the original Hawkeye Clint Barton. Or even his fellow non-powered teammate, Kate. (Kate's origin is not without its own problems, particularly the hackneyed rape-as-motivation angle.) Even if he eventually regained his powers, we could have watched him grow, whether in YOUNG AVENGERS or elsewhere.

But that never happened.

And that's the heart of the problem: Heinberg, and Marvel, went to great effort to tell us how Patriot was a great leader, with or without his powers.

But they never really showed us.


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