Thursday, 23 December 2010

More Fodder for the Newcomer's Guide

As I've said before, sometimes coming across something... not complimentary about Howard can inspire me to look at the author in a new way.  Take this post at Man vs Clown!, which speaks about the Iris Edelba controversy of Thor:

Not seeing Thor simply because a black man was cast in what you think ought to be a white man’s role may be racist; however, not seeing it because you think the casting may be symptomatic of many other boneheaded directorial choices isn’t. It’s not okay to complain about this because you’re a racist. It is okay to complain about this if you’re a fanboy, the same kind of person objects to the casting of Stargate: Atlantic actor Jason Momoa as Conan the Barbarian because his eyes are brown rather than the “volcanic blue”2 described by Robert E. Howard (who was a racist, which complicates matters).3
2. Whatever “volcanic blue” means. I’ve never understood this one. Last time I checked, volcanoes were grey to brown and threw up in reddish orangey colours. This must be what they call colour-blind casting.
3. As much as I love his pulp fiction, imagine how badly someone like Robert E. Howard would do as a casting director, given his reliance on broad, crude racial stereotypes. “Need a sinister villain? You want a Chinaman. Get me Jackie Chan’s agent.” “Crafty? Let’s get a bankable Jew. How’s Adam Sandler sound?” “Brutish? That part’s made for a Negro. Is Sidney Poitier still working?” It just wouldn’t work.

How cute.  My response is below:

Oh come now, that's just ridiculous and not borne out by any sort of analysis of Howard's fiction.  The vast majority of villains in Howard stories are white men.  Pick a Conan story: it's more likely than not Conan's enemy is a sinister white sorcerer, a crafty white general, or a brutish white warrior.  Sure, Howard was writing in the age of Yellow Menace and Jim Crowe laws were still in effect, but if you break down the stories, white men outnumber all other ethnicities combined.  It is simply false to state otherwise.

Besides, if you pluck most pulp fiction authors of the 1930s, of course they're going to have "broad, crude ethnic stereotypes."  That's how bad it was in the 1930s.  It was illegal for a black person to marry a white person in most states.  Miscegenation was outlawed.  Lynchings, while not common, were frequent in the south during Howard's lifetime.  Scientific theory, at the time, was inundated with the pseudoscience of racial theory.  Is it really any wonder that Howard said and wrote things that would be considered incredibly insensitive nowadays?

In any case, Howard would clearly cast Sidney Poitier as Ace Jessel, the intelligent, cheerful, courageous, sympathetic boxer, the only of Howard's boxing heroes to be a world champion.  For a supposed racist, it's strange that Howard wrote two stories featuring an intelligent, sympathetic black man, especially one where he has to overcome the town's prejudice towards him - and succeeds.

"Volcanic blue" is a reference to larimar, a very rare and highly prized variety of volcanic rock noted for its vibrant, intense blue hue.

So, I have a few more things to put up on the Newcomer's Guide: "How many of Howard's villains were black/Asian/Jewish/Not White," and "What does volcanic blue mean?"

I've already answered the latter, though a more in-depth explanation of what larimar is and a helpful image wouldn't go amiss.  However, for the latter I'll actually go through the stories, and note the ethnic origin of each villain, as well as heroes.  Can't forget the heroic minority characters like Ace Jessel, N'Longa, Sakumbe, Ajonga, Yasunga, Laranga, N'Yaga, N'Gora, John Garfield, Lala Tzu, Conchita, Belit, Juan Lopez...


  1. Beyond that.. My problem with Iris Idelba isn't that he's black and was Cast in Thor.. Its that hes playing a NORSE GOD... And Last time I checked, The Norse didn't have too many African guys running around with them.. Though I've got a sneaking suspicion its a homage to Lee Majors' "The Norseman"...

    I don't have to be a Fanboy or a Racist to be angry about it. I think Sam Jackson as Nick Fury is great casting. I would be just as upset if a Caucasian actor were to be cast as Mr. Nancy in a hypothetical American Gods adaption.. Just because no one, or very few people view these "characters" as actual deities any longer.. dosen't give Hollywood the right to simply change them to make them more PC..It's insulting to the cultures you are borrowing the characters from..

    On the other hand.. I can only imagine the crapstorm if some one actually cast an actor to play Temujin.. who looked like he's described in the Persian sources.. Conan O'Brian would be just about perfect I reckon..

  2. I talk about this issue in the next post, Lagomorph: suffice to say I agree that there's no justification for a black Norse God, but there is a "catch" in the comics which allows for it.

    I'm more irritated that everyone who has a problem with the casting purely on the basis of "it wasn't like that in the comics" is unfairly lumped in with the white supremacists. Like how those with legitimate protests on the Pope's visit (child abuse victims and whatnot) were paired up with trolls like Richard Dawkins. It's such a nonsense.