To some degree, I think it’s inevitable that all of us who were born and raised in the 80’s, who now look back at that decade with equal parts mortification and nostalgia, and most importantly, who share the special brand of being born and raised an 80’s kid of colour, are to some degree nerds with a special connection to comic books and all other things fandom.
Personally, I stumbled into the role of fangirl, and I still have a hard time fully claiming the title. There are plenty of folks out there with obviously better nerd cred than me – I spot several of them within the esteemed ranks of this site’s bloggers. These are the folks who can quote verbatim Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s From Hell, who can keep straight what happened and who died in which Crisis (and might even be able to point you at which issue of which title is relevant to your particular question), and who can gleefully cite the names of each X-man created by Chris Claremont before descending into a heated debate over whether any of them would win in an epic deathmatch against Iceman.
By comparison, I am a mediocre fangirl. As a kid, I was a casual reader of comic books, a casual consumer of 80’s television, and a casual player of Super NES games. Now, in my thirties, I have less time to devote to these kinds of pursuits than I would like, and I sometimes mourn how hopelessly behind I am on the latest pop culture news (which is moments before I wonder if it’s about time to crack out my dentures and high-waisted granny pants so that I can park myself on the patio rocking chair with a lukewarm chamomile tea and complain about these young whippersnappers, their ear-splitting music, and their new-fangled technology).
All that being said: I’m still a fangirl. Because as much as I’ve failed to make time for the fandom in my life, it has occupied (and will always occupy) an important part of my childhood.
When I was a kid, my prototypical Tiger Mom limited me to a single 30 minute allowance of television a day, which had to be pre-approved and penciled into my otherwise packed schedule of extracurricular responsibilities (also including school homework, home homework, Kumon homework, Chinese school homework, piano practice, and that one year when I flirted with learning the violin). This required me to choose how I spent my TV time carefully. For most of my childhood, I (for reasons now unclear to me, other than the fact that the show bore so little resemblance to my reality) picked syndicated Adam West Batman episodes.
Until, one day, I discovered Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Or, more specifically, I discovered the Yellow Ranger. The original Yellow Ranger.
I didn’t care that the Yellow Ranger was Saban’s transparent attempt to inject some gender diversity into the original Power Rangers by committing the fastest gender reassignment surgery in Hollywood history. I wasn’t aware then (like I am now) of the ironic racism of that first roster; how she, the Yellow Power Ranger, was a shy, bookworm-y, tomboy-ish Asian girl with an inexplicable affinity for the martial arts.
I was eleven years old. All I knew was that, for the first time in my life, I was watching a girl on-screen who looked like me, who might if I stretched my imagination have had a childhood like mine, who might if I stretched my imagination even further actually be me, and who was kicking massive amounts of butt.
I don’t care what anyone says. That shit is fucking cool.
This was nothing like the hours I had wasted on cartoon ponies that could fly or cartoon bears that could cause psychedelic seizures with their tummies and almost no one was human. This was nothing like Adam West’s Batman, who occupied a world where everyone was White and athletic, and had unlimited funds with which they could build things like creative death traps that involved smashing one’s enemies between the hands of a giant clock. I lamented the TV time I had wasted on shows that were nothing but easy escapism. For the first time, I realized that the TV could show me a world that was not merely a fantasy, but a fantasy that I might – with a little bit of easy pretending – inhabit.
This, to me, is the draw of comic books and video games and science fiction for our generation. These were the isolated places where the boundaries of 80’s mainstream media could be pushed, and where a kid of colour might have a chance of seeing another kid of colour be both a kid of colour and a hero. For us, the one-day nerds of colour, comic books were an oasis in a desert of all-White media; so starved were we for someone we could relate to that we couldn’t help but make an instant bond with those rare characters of colour we discovered. We connected with these faint and oftentimes racially insensitive characters (and caricatures) because they were, if nothing else, a validation that we, too, existed in this world – a fact that the rest of 80’s childrens’ media carefully ignored.
And, like a teenager’s first puppy love romance, the echoes of those early forged relationships (however imagined) are not soon forgotten, long after the actual objects of our affection have exited our lives.
That’s why I think the recent comments by Todd MacFarlane (Spawn), Gerry Conway (The Punisher) and other comic industry leaders, wherein they rejected the responsibility of creators to write nuanced diversity their titles by arguing that comics are a mere reflection of the time, are bullshit. Pure bullshit, the kind scraped gingerly off one’s shoe using the sidewalk curb. As quoted in the LA Times:
“I think our series reflects the evolution of our culture. And women and minorities have been marginalized throughout history, so they were marginalized in comics,” [Michael] Kantor said.
Conway added, “I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters. Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.”
It’s true that comic books are a reflection of their times. Wonder Woman’s Nazi foes reflected the era’s World War II fears. It was once vogue to pit superheroes against the latest Fu Manchu pastiche to invoke contemporary Yellow Peril paranoia. The decade following the civil rights movement gave way to a handful of Black Power inspired comic book characters (or, dare I say, caricatures).
But these reflections don’t occur in the vacuum of Conway’s head.
Those reflections aren’t mere ideas. They are made into real books that are read by real kids who form real notions about themselves and the world around them based on those reflections. And these kids do, someday, grow up and do real things to shape that world, influenced at least in part by how they themselves were shaped by those ideas.
And that moment when a child imagines, for the first time, that they, too, can ride a saber-toothed tiger into battle can have a profound and indelible effect on the adult they will one day become.
Sure, eventually, my interest in the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers faded, and I outgrew the show. I reassigned my allocated TV time to bigger and better shows (ST:TNG) and other things I can scarcely remember (Friends), and at some point I discovered the X-Men cartoon where I fell head-over-heels for Jubilee (with whom I forged a long-term relationship that remains to this day).
But my first love will always be the Yellow Ranger. And that will never change.