On Heroes 3: Secret Wars

I’d never written an encyclopedia article before last week. My 2,000 word entry for The Encyclopedia of Black Comics was enthusiastically accepted. It’s a good feeling, getting a job done; Sheena Howard was extremely kind and looking over her credentials, I’m very happy to be a small part of her big thing.

Here’s the thing about a biographical article, though. You leave a lot out.

You don’t speculate. You report but don’t observe. And you don’t draw many, if any, conclusions. You research the facts of a person’s life, organize them, write them– conclusions and lessons learned are the readers’ jobs. You don’t sing a man’s praises.

You don’t judge.

And yet, here I am.

By George Herriman – Image from GreatCaricatures.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10471525

When I picked George Herriman I didn’t think it was a difficult article. As the creator of Krazy Kat, Herriman’s famous enough that I figured resources would be abundant. I was ignorant enough going in that I didn’t even realize that Herriman was black. I didn’t string together the facts of his time, place, and race at all until I started reading. I put in my requests for library books, looked in encyclopedias, did preliminary research online. A picture began to emerge– blurry, strange, contradictory and unconvincing.

herriman_1902 mothman-jpeg

Herriman and Mothman– separated at birth?

Herriman was born in New Orleans; his parents were French-speaking “Creoles of color.” On his birth certificate he is “colored.” When he was 13, his family moved to Los Angeles, and census records show that the Herriman family was white from that point forward.

The great, ugly fact my brain had failed to process is simple and terrible. Race had huge legal consequences in the late 19th and early 20th century. Regardless of his skin color, Herriman was a black man on paper, and as crappy as racism still is today it has nothing on the legally required racism of past America. In a time before instant access to information, the light-skinned Herrimans were escaping the prison of a corrupt and racist system. Hooray?

On the one hand, they were literally claiming their basic human rights. On the other, they were (figuratively) abandoning millions of people caught in the same corrupt and dehumanizing system. Not that they could have helped anyone by staying in New Orleans, but… there’s a moral trade off in joining a corrupt privileged class. An endorsement of the system implicit in joining the system’s “good” side.

I’d be a huge asshole if I blamed them. Not just for the obvious reasons of white privilege. When my wife was researching my family tree, she found a similar situation. A second husband– to my knowledge not a blood relative, but certainly family– had moved two counties over in the 1880s and stopped being an “Indian.” He was white on paper from then on.

Sadly and tellingly, I was disappointed to realize that I had an American Indian relative but no native blood in me. For a brief moment I mourned the loss of my 1/16th Cherokee identity– a status that imparts minority cred to those of us with rosy cheeks and blue-eyed daughters, but still preserves us from any associated hardship. Oh how lucky I would be, to be able to trot that out when it was convenient while still cashing all of my white privilege checks at the Race Bank.

My point is I grinned when I saw how step-great-great grandpappy Tandy had slipped the noose that race had put around his neck. I didn’t see any of the unintended consequences of his actions. Looking at Herriman’s life made me realize their reality.

Because the smartest part of me is my wife, she’s the one who asked if Herriman’s wife knew about his secret. After much hemming and hawing, I was forced to admit she probably did not. He met her after his move to LA, and I can only imagine the conversations the young adolescent George’s parents had with their children prior to and during their move. “No one can know,” must have been the refrain. They could be prosecuted, persecuted, lynched. George’s wife, Mabel, was Caucasian and– as much as they obviously loved each other– he could have lost her if the truth had come out.

I don’t think this secret grew like a cancer at the heart of their marriage. All the evidence points to George and Mabel being quiet people; all the pictures look like pictures of a family filled with love. Still, I can’t imagine keeping something fundamental to my identity from my spouse the way George Herriman did.

If his racial identity was fundamental to his identity.

The documentary OJ Simpson: Made in America talks about how O.J. essentially left his black identity behind, starting in college if not before. He didn’t date black women, he marketed himself to white audiences, he didn’t even have any pictures of black people in his house– until, you know, his defense team told him to get some. Not surprisingly, I think Herriman was a much better guy than O.J. “the convicted felon” Simpson. Still, once Herriman reached early adolescence it was his job to deny his racial background. As he got older, and incredibly successful– he owned a mansion, met Frank Capra, was admired by Woodrow Wilson, lived next door to John Huston– Herriman’s secret identity must have only been a threat to him and his children. He had much more to lose than his parents ever did. Race was the strange fact that could discredit him, destroy him, take everything away. Obviously, I can’t imagine what that was like; obviously, I’m trying.

There’s a loss there. Not just that Herriman consciously severed ties to his heritage so he could vanish into white society. His children almost certainly never knew about the family secret– you can’t reveal a secret you don’t know. On his death certificate his daughter Mabel (yes, the daughter was named for the mother) wrote that her father’s father was from Paris and his mother from Alsace-Lorraine. When Herriman’s friend Tad Dorgan wrote a playful article about Herriman, he wrote “we didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek, and he still goes by that name.” I’m talking about a loss of honesty, a loss of intimacy throughout Herriman’s life.

Herriman came to New York in 1900 and his career as a cartoonist really started in 1901. Everything before that is peppered with anecdotes– how George lost his job as a baker because he baked a mouse into a loaf of bread or ate too many cream puffs, how George came to New York on a freight train, hurt himself when he fell off a trellis painting signs, worked as a carnival barker on Coney Island. These unverifiable stories filter inconsistently into Herriman’s various online biographies and origin myths. I think of them as misdirections– they all sound like things Herriman’s comics characters would do. This is speculation at its rankest, but it feels like Herriman was obfuscating his origins, spinning stories about himself in place of revealing any facts about his past and family.

George Herriman was a gentleman in every sense of the word that matters, a quiet, funny, kind soul. A fully realized artist and probably the most influential comics creator ever to work in newspapers. He created an incredible 24 comic strips throughout his lifetime, often running concurrently; Krazy Kat ran for 31 years. He also illustrated magazine covers, painted gorgeous watercolors, collaborated on a ballet, wrote film reviews, illustrated books of poetry. He’s still my hero at the end of the day. Without him, I doubt Peanuts would have existed; I doubt Will Eisner would have invented graphic novels. I have nothing but admiration for George Herriman.

Nothing but admiration and questions and sympathy for his secrets and his lies.

On Heroes 2: Scott’s Pilgrimage


This is a rewrite of an article I wrote for UNC’s Games4Learning Blog a few years back. Evidently, I was the last person to update that blog, in 2011. I oughtta see if I can help them out. Anyhow, in that Scott Pilgrim’s life imitates video games, that wasn’t a bad home for this piece. This is a better one.

I’m very interested in heroes and their opposite numbers. Especially in the cape-and-tights set, a good hero is often defined by his villains. What would Batman be without The Joker? The Fantastic Four without Doctor Doom? Captain Sunshine without Boggles the Clue Clown? Their relationships can be simple or complex, allegorical or abstract, literal or symbolic. I could be reductive and say it’s all about the struggle between good and evil and… I wouldn’t be wrong? I also wouldn’t be illuminating anything new. At the very least, the types of good and evil heroes and villains represent are important. Which brings us to to Scott Pilgrim and the Seven Evil Exes.

Scott Pilgrim is a successful graphic novel series from Oni Press, written and drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley, detailing the adventures of Canadian 20-something congenitally awesome slacker Scott Pilgrim. Scott is given an unexpected mission in life when his new girlfriend announces that he must fight/defeat her Seven Evil Exes if he wants to date her. What follows is a series of video game style battles, full of super powers and sometimes robots, as Scott tries to move towards both having a real life and winning not just cartoon fights but also self respect and Ramona’s heart.

It’s good stuff. The comic series ran from 2004 to 2010; the movie was released in 2010 and is similarly good. Not as weird and nuanced as the comic series, certainly, but it did a nice job translating the story, characters, and weird Anime video game atmosphere to the screen. Plus it’s funny, which always wins points in my world. Humor is that spoonful of sugar that lets us savor complex ideas instead of pulling out a shotgun and shooting them down the moment they appear on the horizon. Literally? Yes probably. Humans are a superstitious, cowardly lot but– to our credit– we love to laugh.

Except for his unexplained super powers, Scott is a pretty regular guy. An affable underachiever, he’s clearly scared of growing up; wearing out his friends’ generosity. A good guy, to be sure, but also a guy who’s learning that being a good guy is not enough in life. In short, he’s a post-teenage Everyman, architect of his own wasteland. Ramona Flowers is the person that finally fires Scott’s ambition and drags him, somewhat reluctantly, towards becoming his own person. Of course, he has some obstacles to overcome along the way.

What do Scott’s villains, the Seven Evil Exes, reveal about him? Well, the early Christian hermits known as the Desert Fathers came up with something known as the Seven Deadly Sins; when Captain Marvel approaches the Rock of Eternity they’re the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Either way, they are ready-made for allegories, inner forces for ordinary people to face down or succumb to.

When Saul Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, he didn’t quite talk about the Seven Deadlies by name. Instead of Lust, his character is named Wanton, instead of Pride he lists Pride-of-Life and early contender for worst-named supervillain, Mr. Self-Will. Instead of  a girl named Envy, Bunyan writes about a character named… Envy. So yeah, you get the idea.

Scott’s villains are parts of himself. Using the black and white morality of old-school console games as an allegory, O’Malley is giving his readers a post-modern story that resists simple answers. And yet, here we are. For the record, I know Scott’s name comes from a song by Plumtree, but in a story all about self knowledge and self growth, the parallels between the Evil Exes and the Deadly Sins– intended or not– are too good to ignore. Some of the bad guys– Envy Adams, Todd Ingram, Gideon Graves– even have allegorical or semi-allegorical names. This time, though, the hero isn’t trying to be a good Christian. He’s trying to be an adult, a good guy, and finding that morality you learn from fight games (don’t show initiative, just fight the bad guys in the order they’re handed to you) is not exactly getting the job done. Before long he’s winning all the fights and losing Ramona (and his friends’ respect) at the same time.

The Seven Evil Exes. From Matthew Patel to Gideon Gordon Graves, a few of them are characters in their own right, but mostly they represent parts of Scott, just like the even more obvious Nega-Scott (no, really!) that Scott grapples with in an effort to  keep himself from learning anything from his past. Scott doesn’t like learning– learning HURTS! He still plugs away, though; as the story advances, the Exes become harder to defeat as they force Scott to confront distasteful parts of himself. The Evil Exes are a part of Scott. And Ramona. And especially that sarcastibastard Gideon.

Here’s the breakdown as I see it. Since this is “original research” (also known as opinion) feel free to tell me how wrong I am.


1) Matthew Patel=Wrath. Matthew comes busting through the wall at Club Rockit, summoning hipster demon ladies, throwing fireballs and wanting nothing more than to incinerate Scott. He’s a pure engine of rage, and for all of his magic powers, can’t do much against Scott. Why? Scott just doesn’t have a lot of anger in him to exploit. Not this early in the story, anyway…





lucas_lee2) Lucas Lee=Pride. The full-of-himself Hollywood actor and pro-skater is almost too much for Scott to handle. However, he’s easily manipulated into his suicidal run down the Casa Loma stair rails on his skateboard. Why does Scott have so much trouble fighting him head on, when Scott has so little to be proud about? Maybe there are some sins we can’t challenge head on without falling victim to them. That seems to fit Pride’s bill.



todd_ingram3) Todd Ingram=Envy. Since Todd is Scott’s ex’s boyfriend, and said ex is named Envy, this one is kind of a gimme. Todd has everything Scott thinks he wants. He’s a bass player in a successful band. He has actual musical skills, and a beautiful rock star girlfriend who also happens to have broken Scott’s heart. Incredible psychic powers somehow based in Veganism. And of course Todd also envies us carnivores our gelato… which is Gluttony? Greed?

Hmm. Yeah, even though this is a post-modern non-allegory I’m analyzing and I don’t have to make everything fit together perfectly, I still think this works out. See Evil Ex #7 for details.



Roxanne_Roxie_Richter4) Roxy Richter=Lust. Yes, even her name kind of makes me think of sex, the kind that makes the earth shake. Roxy is Ramona’s only female ex, which Scott thinks of as her “sexy phase.” In his immaturity, Scott has the same fascination with lesbians that a lot of young dudes have. Need I go on? I’d rather not. However, considering Scott’s infamous confusion of the L-Word “love” with the L-Word “lesbians,” I don’t think this is a bankrupt point.





pilgrim_twins5) and 6) Kyle and Ken Katayanagi=Gluttony and Sloth. Maybe? The Katayanagi twins are complicated.

They’re arrogant, conjuring up images of Pride. They’ve dedicated themselves to a kind of cooperative revenge on Ramona, which is Wrathful but also kinda… admirable? One is dark, the other light, representing a Yin and Yang motif. And they build punchbots, which is just cool and a good use of their time. Except in the movie they’re musicians with no dialog who summon some kinda ice dragon to fight Sex Bob-omb. Post-modernism again? Bah.

Gluttony and Sloth themselves do make good twins. One is ebb the other flow, consumption followed by laziness, gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving then falling comatose on the couch. Interestingly, the twins won’t even fight Scott themselves for most of the story, throwing egregious robot after robot at him to do their work for him while they attend self-indulgent party after party. It’s an interesting combination of the two sins in one.

Since Scott has a fair portion of these sins, not to mention the other sins they overflow into, no wonder they’re so hard for him to beat. Of course, he’s made significant progress defeating his tendency towards Sloth at this point, starting with when he abandons his lazy kind-sorta relationship with Knives Chao and starts pursuing Ramona. But then he kinda tried to have his new girlfriend while not breaking up with his old one and he’s still a huge food mooch. Gluttonous.

At the end of the day, maybe the twins are just tough to defeat because there’s two of them and they cheat a lot. Hard to say.

gideon_graves7) Gideon Graves=Greed. Yeah, no way around this one. If it exists, Gideon wants to own it. Not just Ramona, not just Ramona and Envy (whom he enjoys showing off his ownership of by dressing her up like a doll). He puts his logo on everything he can, even Scott (via t-shirt). He wants to own music, he wants to own the world… oh yeah, and he has all of those frozen Future Girlfriends in storage. He really does want to have it all!

And so does Scott. Or at the very least, he wants all of Ramona, and wants her for himself. Scott wants to keep his past and still have a future. He still exerts a kind of ownership over his friend Kim Pine, long after he should have let her go. Gideon’s the king of self-loathing, the self-defeating thing inside us that we hate, and he has a way of infiltrating everyone– even the other Exes. He made them greedy for the revenge he offered them, got inside them, committed them to his corrupt agenda. No wonder so few of them represent just one sin– Greed/Self-Loathing’s at the heart of it all, and it won’t even let sins stay pure.

For Scott, his resentment of Ramona keeping any part of herself hidden from him almost sends her away forever, to a place not even Gideon knew about or could follow (until, being Gideon, he could). Self-hate is Scott’s ultimate evil. Highlighting Gideon’s status as a final boss, his “GGG” logo is a modified “666″ that he marks everyone with. Self-loathing is Scott and Ramona’s devil, their judgement, their Beast. They have to become less selfish together, less stuck in their own heads, to defeat Gideon.

Wait… doesn’t Gideon=Greed? Maybe they hate themselves because they see themselves as greedy? Or… wait. I know this one.