Call and Response

"Mess up my mind with the eye patch…"

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

I always had a bit of a problem with Brother Voodoo being a laughingstock.

My first contact with the supernatural superhero was in cartoonist Fred Hembeck’s strips in Marvel Age, the publisher’s house fanzine that was around during the 1980s. He was always the butt of jokes that basically reminded us that he was a C-list character. This guy was never making it to the big time, so why not make fun of him, right?

Brother Voodoo by Fred HembeckStrange Tales - Brother VoodooI felt for him. It wasn’t just that he was part of a relatively small (and sometimes embarrassing) contingent of black superheroes when I was growing up. I learned that he was Haitian–probably thanks to a Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry–and that he, like me, was a twin. Still, for all that personal subtext, I never felt strongly enough about Jericho Drumm and his ectoplasmic brother to seek out his (their?) adventures in back-issue bins. Whenever he’d appear in a comic that I was reading, I’d wince and brace for the worst.

Thinking about Brother Voodoo always hit me in a weird way. He struck a dissonant chord at the place where my Haitian-ness and my nerdiness intersected. Like most children born to Haitian immigrants, I didn’t learn much about vodou from my parents. My mom nervously laughed off any questions I had when I was younger, leaving me to learn what I could on my own. The stuff I did figure out– West African religious traditions jammed up against the Roman Catholicism that the slave trade forced on laborers–fascinated me. Voodoo, and Haiti itself, is the product of two worlds, two cultures impacting each other.

That’s why I’m going to give the new Brother Doctor Voodoo comic a chance.

The latest developments in the Marvel Universe have led to Dark Reign, a new status quo where the axis of regulatory power with regard to superhumans rotates around the evil Norman Osborn. They’ve also prompted Dr. Stephen Strange to look for a successor to take his place as Sorceror Supreme, the guy who brings the magical smackdown to big ol’ demons and such. After taking a tour of all magic-wielders in the Marvel Universe, the Eye of Agamotto–semi-sentient symbol of the Sorceror Supreme mantle–settles on Dat Nigga Drumm. (What up, Dogg Pound?)

Doctor Voodoo

So, who’s a laughingstock now? This move vaults a once-obscure character into the big leagues and parallels similar stunts at the big superhero publishers. Since its inception, the superhero fantasy has come to symbolize a new mythology, pointing the way to lofty ideals like unbridled altruism and justice for all. Though we’ve supposed moved into more enlightened times, it pretty much remains an exclusive domain of white privilege with a heaping helping of paternalism. It’s kinda clear that some fans want it to stay that way. DC and Marvel have paid a lot of lip service to diversity, though, and occasionally they do try to manifest it.

In misguided attempts to vary their rosters, both publishers have occasionally swapped in black folks into roles that where once occupied by square-jawed WASP types. The big standouts are John Stewart stepping into the back-up role of Green Lantern for Hal Jordan, James Rhodes becoming Iron Man when Tony Stark quit to kick his drinking problem and Jason Rusch inheriting the powers of Firestorm. As clumsy at this move often is, the fan response from vocal, maladjusted nerds has been regrettably racist. When Stewart was the Green Lantern used for the Justice League cartoons, there was racist backlash. When the Justice League comic recently boasted more than one black superhero at the same time, there was racist backlash. When the Black Panther and Storm worked with the Fantastic Four so Reed and Sue Richards could take time off and strengthen their marriage, there was racist backlash. I’m sure the new Dr. Voodoo comic will get these ig’nant fans rattling their sabers again.

The first issue of Dr. Voodoo seems at least self-aware about some of that stuff. The idea that a black man’s relationship with power should be brought along slowly creeps in there, too, with Doctor Doom showing up to basically talk trash at Drumm. Those scenes resonate with the kind of “you’re not worthy yet” moments that Victor Von McCain threw at Obama during the election. It might be a bit much to think that the creative team will be paralleling beats from Barack Obama’s presidency, but the similarities are there. I’m guessing that other power players will scoff at the idea that Drumm could be the one granted the power and responsibility of safeguarding this plane of reality from supernatural chaos. Here’s hoping that bit doesn’t get old.

In the opening sequence, Drumm makes quick work of Strange’s archenemy Dormammu by invoking powers from the Vodou pantheon. Dormammu dismiss them as gutter gods by they sho’ do the trick of locking him dow right quick. What I like most about the suggestion that there’s a different untapped reservoir of magical powers is that it serves as a nice metaphor for the black comics market. We’ve always felt underserved and under-acknowledged. (Yeah, I just used the royal “We” to talk about black comic nerds. What of it?) If Remender or his editor were smart enough to slip that subtext into this first issue, then good things might lie ahead. Mind you, I’m not saying I love everything about this re-imagining of Voodoo. There’s still too much ooga-booga in his character design: the claw-like nails on both versions of the first issue cover, the shrunken heads on his staff, the bone necklace and tattered cape. It all channels too much of a “savage” vibe for me but I’ll chalk up a lot of that to artistic license.

But a nagging question hovers, even at this early outset: When Will the Natural Order of Things Restore Itself? When Will the Marvel Universe Get Back to the Way Things Are Supposed to Be?  Whenever a big comics character gets killed or moved off the playing field, it’s only a matter of time until they come back. And when that happens with Dr. Voodoo, will it be Stephen Strange wresting the mantle away from Jericho Drumm? That might have some ugly, unintended symbolism crop up as a result, no?

Thing is,  WE (yes, again) wouldn’t need to read so much into this stuff if we weren’t so starved for representation. Every little development takes on greater significance because people who look like me rarely show up to save the day.  I mean, I understand why I over-invest in the rise and crash of every black sci-fi character or comics hero. There just ain’t that many. That aforementioned afro-diasporan metahuman contingent isn’t much bigger today. The promise of revisiting the Milestone Media characters curdled into a frustrating purgatory and the dearth of current A-list black characters makes Voodoo’s moment in the spotlight even more meaningful. High-profile comics and animation writer Dwayne McDuffie gave me this answer when I asked him about diversity in comics: “The world of comics should look a lot more like the world we all live in, albeit with more capes and flying. We’re not there yet.”

We’ll see if Jericho Drumm’s switch from Brother to Doctor marks a significant step.


October 16, 2009 - Posted by | black people, cultural representation, geekery and nerdiness | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I wanted to write about Dr. Voodoo, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it the justice that you could with your Haitian nerd background. I noticed the Obama parallels as well, and I share your concern about Dr. Strange’s eventual return.

    Comment by David White | October 16, 2009 | Reply

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