Monday, August 08, 2016

BlindSpot: A "DREAMER" in a Main Stream Comic Book

When I first read about comic book writer Charles Soule introducing a new character, who is also an undocumented immigrant, to his Daredevil run, I basically flipped my script. At the time of the announcement, there weren't any details available on the new character or the DD book aside from this being a new partnership that will take place after the comic universe reboot brought on by Secret Wars. I waited for more details and for the eventual release of the book, which is currently at issue 9 as of me writing this. After that, I also waited for the first arc to wrap up before I wrote anything about it, so join me in this rare opportunity in which I can nerd out on comic books, identity, immigration, politics, representation, and what it means for a "dreamer" to be featured in a mainstream stream comic book.

Before you continue reading, there is some housekeeping I have to mention right off the top. This will help if you've never come across my blog before or if you need some points of reference on where I stand on the identity politics of "dreamers", my love for comic books, and past blog post in which I've used comic book characters to interpret my own life experiences. For the purpose of this post, I'll be doing something I normally wouldn't do, which is to refer to said character as a 'dreamer', mostly because this is the archetype being used and how the writer is describing him. The politics of that identity will be left out for the purpose of this post. I'll also be hyperlinking past post throughout this one, rather than listing everything as a list. The "dreamer" identity can be complicated for a lot of reasons, but for me, it is now a reminder of what was. That being said, let's nerd the fuck out yo.

The first details shared about Blindspot came through an interview from almost a year ago, August 2015. While the bulk of it is mostly about what Soule has planned for DD in the new book, his approach to the character being a former practicing lawyer himself, and some thoughts on his previous works, he breaks down the character. "The apprentice is what folks in my profession (my other one) call a dreamer. He was brought to this country illegally by his parents from China when he was young, and while he's grown up here and considers himself pretty much American, he's not a citizen and doesn't really have a path to become one. So, many sections of American society are closed to him -- it's hard for him to go to college, hard to get a good job, etc. There are millions of kids in his position in the U.S. today, and I thought it was a really interesting perspective to write from. I've been working on immigration for a long time, and I've met a lot of people like Sam Chung. He's a hell of a fighter, scrappy, but he also has a really cool power that gets a neat reveal in the stories to come, so I'm thinking I'll save that. It ties directly into Daredevil's abilities as well -- they make a neat duo."

Boom. Reading that part made me giddy because Soule gets it, but only to the extent in which he has been able to build a general archetype of "dreamers" from all the different youth he's met in his past career. From there, it's easy to switch around the universal details that make up the"dreamer" experience and archetype. I like that he gave the character a Chinese background over a Latino one because this is reflective of the narrative domination Latino/communities have had on the immigration debate for a long time. There are a lot of intricacies involved as to why that is and I'm assuming that Soule chose this background because it works for the book, which is based in New York. While the comic itself hasn't gone deeper into Sam's past and superhero origins yet, the 'All-New, All-Different Point One' book did give some details into who Sam is and why he is doing what he's doing.

Other "dreamer" traits found in Sam are that of wasted potential/youth, intellect, close relationships with family and immigrant community, fear of others learning his immigration status, being social media/tech savvy, and wanting to contribute back to his community. Interestingly, Sam also identifies as 'illegal' over undocumented or something similar. I cringed when I first read that, but it wasn't until one of the later issues in which DD is talking about Sam to someone else that he describes him as undocumented. That to me shows great attention to detail because individuals who aren't politicized or involved in the immigrant rights movement don't use xenophobic language perpetuated by mainstream media to identify themselves or other undocumented immigrants. That to me is a sign the Sam has not only been hiding but is going through heavy emotional and identity issues. Comparing it to my own experience, I went through the same thing before becoming conscious.

The first story arc also gave me more insight as to what Soule will highlight about Sam further down the line and he does this by using common practices and behavior found in almost all immigrant communities to the point of it being a stereotype. This includes, but isn't limited to immigrant communities coming together to help each other through community centers or churches, being afraid to interact with any kind of authority figure for fear of sharing their immigration status, so they turn a blind eye to abuse, crimes, extortion etc. Then there is the age and cultural divides between Sam being more Americanized/assimilated and older immigrants sticking to what they know and pushing back on assimilation. Then there is the irony of Sam being an undocumented immigrant who creates a suit to make himself invisible and calling himself 'Blindspot", which is a direct nod to those "living in the shadows" narratives and being referred to as "invisible" by media and politicians. Again, that attention to detail shows that Soule is genuinely invested, I hope, and not just using tropes for the sake of using them.

So where does Sam fall in the spectrum in which immigration and comics books intersect? Well, he isn't the first, that honor still goes to Superman of course. I've written about that here, and here when the Gods and Monsters video came out. I've also used pop culture, mostly comics, to navigate identity issues for myself here with Spider-man being one of my go-to characters for comparison. Something I've gone back to on multiple occasions here and even going as far as using his Civil War secret identity revelation as my own coming out narrative here. However, to my understanding, this is the first time a "dreamer" is featured in a mainstream comic book, but it isn't surprising that it came from Marvel either. That's a big deal for so many reasons, so let's get into it.

There is something magical about being able to see part of yourself in fictional characters, whether that something is something you have to look for or if it is a direct representation of your heritage, values, experiences, ideology etc. As it stands now, those representations, especially in comic books, come in the form of white, male protagonist. That's reflective of the industry itself and who it's intended for, which has been the norm for decades. It wasn't until I was older did I realize this and become critical of it. Representation is still a major issue in mainstream comics today and while companies are barely starting to change that mindset, at the end of the day, I see no reason for them to change unless it means more money for them. Mainstream companies will create characters of color, but with white, male writers/creators behind them for whatever reason. This is evident in Blindspot. While Soule understands the experience of undocumented youth from his time being a lawyer, he is still an outsider writing about other people's experience and as a result, he'll never truly be able to reflect the experience of what it means to grow up undocumented in the United States.

Outside of the mainstream, there are countless books and stories that have already been told on what it means to be an immigrant from those who have lived that experience. One of the best examples I've seen came in the form of reporter Ryan Schill and artist Greg Scott independently publishing, "Jessica Colotl: Eye Of The Storm". The story focuses on Jessica's lived experience as an immigrant and being held in a detention center through a comic book format. Within the comic book world, one of my all time favorite stories is the "Contract with God" trilogy from Will Eisner. I spend a lot of time looking for those kinds of books and stories because those are the most heartfelt.

I finish reading them and I feel like I was reading a part of my own autobiography. I've tried turning others onto these kinds of books, but they don't appreciate them or care for them, which is fine, I just keep these books to myself. One of the more contemporary books I've had a similar connection with is 'The Arrival' by Shaun Tan. Other books/stories that are on my radar include "Barrier", by Bryan K. Vaughan and "Ruins" by Peter Kuper. To this day, one of my guilty reading pleasures is that time the Punisher went out to the Arizona border to kill super-powered Nazis at a time when minute men were taking up arms at the border. It's just a fun read and it has some ties to the political landscape dealing with immigration and border militants, but it's mostly Castle doing what he does best. One of the more contemporary examples of this is found in the Sam Wilson: Captain America book. In it, Sam took on militant minute men at the border who were working with an evil scientist to experiment on immigrants they kidnapped crossing the border. You might have heard about this because it got sensationalized in mainstream media. This angle was used later in the story to introduce a new Falcon who is one of those immigrants that got caught by the militants and experimented on. It's currently one of my current favorite reads and I highly recommend anyone else to check it out.

Comic books as a storytelling medium have tremendous potential to tell stories or to help others understand the struggles of other people. This is what drew me into this medium and why I connected my identity politics to that of a superhero. They were the only characters I could relate to in my youth in the sense of having a secret to hide, dual identities, having responsibility thrust unto to you without being ready for it or worse, feeling like a part of you got cheated because of what you had to do. That's how I processed being and growing up undocumented in this country. To this day, I'll buy books because I'll notice those same themes and ideas in them. It's no different than the way everyone else consumes media really. 

At the end of the day, I'm glad to see a character like Sam be introduced via a mainstream comic book company. Representation at this level will always be problematic because it is being done by a company that wants to make money at the end of the day, despite the writer and artist having grounded intentions for their creation. This push for more representation of people who aren't white and a male is one lead by the realization by these companies that people of color are a huge untapped consumer market. I myself average about $60 a month in comic books alone and the majority of those are from creators of color or characters of who are of color, queer, women, etc. It would have meant the world if I had found someone like Sam in comics years ago when the "dreamer" identity was exclusively tied to legislation and not the stereotype of a complicated identity. Soule is doing great work in flushing out Sam as a character and I can't wait till he gets deeper into that backstory in later issues. I can already see click-bait sites like Buzzfeed, Huff Post, Remezcla, We are Mitu jumping on the bandwagon when more people notice Sam and that's fine. It'll mean the book will get more attention and hopefully reach someone who needs to see that.