I am a massive fan of comic books, and particularly of the superhero narrative, so I was intrigued by the Op-ed piece by Vishavjit Singh of the SikhToons website, titled “Wham. Bang. Pow. It’s time for a superhero to fight hate crimes,” where he suggests the creation of minority superheroes, including a Sikh, to fight moral battles such as hate crimes. I like the sentiment of Vishavjit Singh’s piece and while moral battles aren’t really my cup of tea (I am much more a fan of the moral grey area), I’ll address what it seems like he is suggesting at the end of this post. But first, my usual tangent. The issue as I see it is not that “minority” superheroes don’t exist. There are quite a lot of them, covering many ethnicities and religious backgrounds, even Satanism (Ghostrider, anyone?). I’ll save my rant about female superheroes for another post. They’re just not developed with as much awesomeness as their white male counterparts. Even the white female superheroes and supervillains are foils to their more powerful, funnier, and wittier male counterparts. Here’s a quick experiment to show you how quickly you run out of steam:
-Name five white, male superheroes.
-Name five white, female superheroes.
-Name five black, male superheroes.
-Name five black, female superheroes.
-Name just one Sikh male or female superhero.
I’m not even bringing sexual orientation, Hispanic superheroes, or the all encompassing “Asian” superheroes into this, and most people will struggle after the second one, and all but the die hard comic book fans who don’t rely on movie adaptations will reach #4. But to name even one Sikh character requires a certain commitment to the lore of comic books, some would call it a lack of a social life, although I would certainly not. I think people like this should be called what they are: extremely cool.
Race and occasionally religion are written into the characters in exactly one of two ways for characters of “color”:
1) Their foreignness is fetishized and their entire character is made into an exercise in stereotypical attributes of the exotic, where their race is essentially their entire story.
2) they’re assimilated into white culture, but are unjustly harassed because of their racial or religious impediment (aka “the model minority victim”). Essentially, it’s the creation of the civilized “other” worthy of “our” compassion.
For either of the above techniques, the goal is for the characters to be palatable to a perceived white audience. So even the “ethnic” superheroes you do see, like Black Adam (predictably, he’s black), Collective Man (Chinese) or pseudo-empowered female superheroes who need pumps or clothes that show their cleavage in order to fight crime, have default “white” values. In the image on the left, former Batgirl, who is now paralyzed because of the Joker in “The Killing Joke,” is now the extremely intelligent Oracle. And even she has to show us some skin, despite the fact she works behind a computer. On a sidenote, why do we never see Batman wearing some sexy crime fighting shoes? And Spiderman could surely stand to show us some leg. No? Just me then. Again.
To illustrate choice #2, let’s take the only African American female superhero that has lasted many incarnations from the late 70s: Storm from the X-Men. Since she’s black (or technically she’s the product of a mixed race alliance), of course her story involves being descended from witch priestesses aka voodoo, which explains her white hair and blue eyes and living in Harlem. Plus, there’s an inevitable return to Africa. And who does she get married to? T’Challa, aka The Black Panther, who has fought everything from the KKK to Apartheid. In the movie version, her blackness is pretty much non-existent.
A few months ago, DC comics unveiled a Muslim superhero (link to article) to join the ranks of the Green Lantern. This character will probably have a very short life because, to be honest, there’s nothing of sustainable interest as noble as the effort may be. And they’re going a little out of their way to make sure we know he is a civilized Muslim by making him as assimilated to white America as they can, starting with his traditional Muslim name: Simon Baz. There is nothing groundbreaking about any of this. There have been plenty of Muslim superheroes over the decades. There’s something totally unoriginal and generic about him: he’s incredibly “American” (aka asimilated into white America), very patriotic, and both him and his mother, who wears a hijab are victims of racism and Islamophobia. Props to DC comics for creating a Muslim character (again), but there is still no genuine effort being placed into creating a complex character that will last for more than a few issues.
It surprises many people to know that Sikh superheroes do in fact exist — at least in prototype form — scattered throughout the decades with a seemingly abrupt halt in the 1990s. The earliest one that I know of is what could have been capitalized on as a pretty awesome superhero: Randu Singh, who was completely made into a symbol of the exotic, which I suppose is better than being a terrorist. Those are, apparently, the only two choices. Randu Singh wears what looks like a Kenyan style pag, wields a sword, and is blind. Then his capabilities blend with the “East” with his psychic abilities, and thus he is referred to as the “East Indian friend of Jason Blood.” It also blows people’s minds when they hear that not only has Randu Singh saved Jason Blood and his demonic alter ego, but he has also helped out Batman! Okay, so perhaps their minds weren’t blown, but it’s still an interesting fact. Unfortunately, this character fizzled away because nobody bothered to develop his him into something complex and lasting.
Think I’m going to end this post without mention of the most potentially badass Sardarni superhero? No way. Yes, her name is Sarapha Singh, and she was promised to marry bald-headed Kali cult leader Raga Shah (And you thought Amrish Puri in Indiana Jones Temple of Doom was original?), but she turns against him. And for this she is marked for death. But she disappeared almost as quickly as she appeared, without further development. And this is not a one-off. There are several Sikh female characters (and males), but they are, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, either made to be exotic and the whole story is defined by their race/religion/gender, or they are made to be “race neutral,” aka imbued with white values, but they happen to have “foreign” names and non-white skin. Case in point, Lauren Singh. There’s nothing all that Sikh about her, or Indian. She has a white boyfriend and is a typical “American,” whose story involves a mugging.
There are so many narratives that could easily be developed into some multi-layered stories. One of my favorites was Saduhl Singh from the Moon Knight comic books, a male Sikh, who had three deadly female assassins.
The latest Spider-Man is an African American boy, who of course lives in the ghetto. Several years ago, India got Stan Lee to come over and help with Indianifying Spider-Man, and the result was the most tedious backstory I have ever heard. Without going into details, he was an IT guy. No, I’m not kidding. The point I’m making is we need to stop relying on other people to tell our story.
The reason we find the drama of Batman and the Joker so fascinating is because they are both such complicated people. I’m making more of a reference to the comic books and graphic novels, although the recent film adaptations have stayed very true to the nature of their relationship. Batman is a vigilante and operates in the darkness, but he has a moral code that the Joker continues to challenge in order to fit into his world view of chaos. And therein lies the fascinating drama and the reason these two have been published continuously since the 1940s, with no signs of stopping. They cannot be put into neat little boxes. So, the question is how to integrate these complexities into characters who reflect the multiculturalism of America.
One of the most inspiring ventures into melding religion with genuinely original and complex storylines/characters is Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of The 99. As in the 99 names of Allah, a concept similar to what we find in Sikhi. The word “God” is insufficient to translate VaheGuru, or Har, or the countless other characteristics we use for what is commonly contextualized in the Judeo-Christian word “God,” where the only word in Gurmukhi to warrant this translation is “Rab.” And that is only written one time in the entire Guru Granth Sahib. What I found absolutely fascinating about Al-Mutawa’s endeavour is that he weaved in a very interesting backstory that involved a real historical event, that he skillfully fictionalized. It is accepted as fact that in 1258, Mongol forces invaded Baghdad and destroyed the city, throwing all the books from the famous Bayt al-Hikma library into the Tigris. He stays true to that history, but adds a “what if” to the scenario, and comes up with a very creative and engaging story. Here’s a TED talk he did a few years ago:
What I found truly impressive about what Al-Mutawa tried to do with the Muslim image in the West is to create universal storylines and characters that connect with anyone, while still being true to the religious and cultural heritage of these characters. The tough sell was that since this wasn’t just targeting the Muslim world, he really needed to make it financially viable.
Like the Sikh community, the Muslim community are equally good at pointing out problems with how they’re being depicted in the media, without much in regards to a solution, except to educate people (read Simran Jeet Singh’s blog post on how ignorance may not be the problem). Our community rarely advocates ignoring the problem, except when it comes to Bollywood and its “negative” depiction of Sikhs — with the only solution, at least by Sikhs outside of India with little cultural connection to Bollywood, being to boycott it. Interestingly, we have zero issues with disgusting, mysogynistic song lyrics from Punjabi singers professing to be Sikhs, and there is a mild to no protest when Hollywood does anything of the sort Bollywood is accused of doing. There is no support that I’ve seen to encourage Sikh directors, or screenwriters to enter Bollywood or Hollywood to at least attempt to tell our own story. We have the same few singers turned actors using mainly their own money to act, produce, and direct their own movies in Punjab. And let’s just say, they ain’t no Noori Nath or Maula Jatt.
But there are some wonderful organizations that are doing some great things and several film festivals to showcase the impressive talent in our community. The only scholarship I know of for Sikh students to enter into fields they are underrepresented in is from Saanjh (link here). But it is not a scholarship specifically for pursuing creative degrees, and one of the requirements is for leadership potential, which – let’s face it – artists rarely exhibit. I know I wouldn’t qualify, but that may just be me. I’d love to see more scholarships for studying things like animation, creative writing, screenwriting, directing, art, painting, music, music producing, photography, video. That sort of thing that most of our parents think of as a hobby.
As a writer, I strongly believe it is time to take control of our own narrative. And the first step is to support Sikh artists by buying what they’re producing (or helping to get the word out), whether it’s the original Ocean of Pearls DVD, Vishavjit Singh’s first illustrated book, “My Headcovering is Downright Sikh,” buying a comic book depicting something from Sikh history by the folks over at SikhComics.com, even if they do use the term “graphic novel” a little too loosely, or purchasing music from iTunes or cds (including shabads) straight from the artists or their producing labels, if only to send the message, “continue doing what you’re doing.” I’m not saying any or all of these are brilliantly illustrated or that the story is flawless. But it’s a start to the conversation that I hope continues to grow as does the creative energy surrounding it.
Returning to the initial thread of this post, rather than pose the question of “Can it be done?” I would rather leave you with the question of “How can it be done?”