Saturday, May 23, 2015

"The Yellow Curse": there are not enough facepalms in the world

When I'm delving through comic books of the 1930s and 40s I see a lot of casual racism in the tales of the time. I've learned to accept that they exist, shake my head and move along. I'd much rather uncover a forgotten character like Torgon who defies the tropes of the times. Every so often, however, a story so racist comes along that I can't get past it.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, comic books happily indulged in characterizing the hated Japanese as yellow-skinned, buck-toothed, murderous fanatics. Who could blame the creators, considering their nation's leaders had consigned the Japanese populations of the States and Canada into internment camps - and at a time when both the USA and Canada had fairly liberal governments, mind you! Racist Japanese caricatures are surely the most common racial stereotypes in comics of the 40s - certainly much moreso than the "big-lipped Negro" character.

I've been cleaning up a few entries at the Grand Comics Database, using the Digital Comics Museum as my guide. After happily tidying up a number of issues of Captain Marvel Adventures (Captain Marvel being one of my favourite 40s heroes), I turned to the series Captain Marvel, Jr.

I should explain that in the 40s, Captain Marvel, Jr. was (ostensibly) the more grounded of the two heroes. Beyond their shared fantastic powers and frequently out-of-this-world adversaries, Captain Marvel was rendered by the cartoonish (and wonderful) C.C. Beck, while Captain Marvel, Jr. was drawn by the more photorealistic Mac Raboy (Raboy would often draw CM Jr. when he guest-starred in Beck's stories, maintaining that visual divide between the two). Captain Marvel, Jr.'s adventures often pit him against social problems of the day; after all, in his identity as Freddy Freeman, he was an impoverished crippled newsboy.

With that out of the way, I give you "The Yellow Curse" from Captain Marvel, Jr.#10 (August 1, 1943). The title alone suggested some racist tomfoolery to me, but I decided to examine the story because it might (might) have proved to be racist in a kitschy, head-shaking way. Oh, my head did indeed shake. We open with Freddy Freeman ("a patriotic American through and through") visiting a blood donor clinic. However, the doctor in charge of the clinic, one "Dr. Ching" is in reality "Dr. Kursyu of Nippon!" Evidently he used the name "Ching" to pass himself off as a Chinese doctor. If you grade on a curve, that is the least-racist moment of the tale.

Kursyu places a dose of "the Yellow Curse serum" into the blood. When one General Otis is rushed to the clinic in need of a life-saving transfusion, Kursyu administers one of the tainted supplies to him. Almost immediately, Otis' skin turns yellow, his eyes become slanted and he begins talking like a typical Japanese comic book character: "Banzai! Hurrah for the Mikado! Down with America!" Kursyu is pleased to note his serum "makes the victim think like honorable Jap too!" Freddy says his magic word and transforms into Captain Marvel, Jr. to stop the rampaging general, but being patriotic, CM Jr. first tries to reason with him rather than strike an American officer. However, the transformed Otis cannot be reasoned with and he punches Captain Marvel, Jr. into a cannister of ether, which slows the hero down long enough for Kursyu and Otis to escape (so, um, I guess all the tainted blood samples will be destroyed now; Kursyu's really not going to undermine the USA that badly if he can only manage one transformation before being discovered).

For some reason, Captain Marvel, Jr. decides to change back into Freddy Freeman in order to help one of the doctors whom Otis attacked. Stranger still, the doctor's face is mistakenly coloured yellow as the colourist apparently lost track of which character he was working on (however, the doctor's ears are still pink). With this done, Freddy goes to warn "the other generals" about the plot because... uh... I guess they're more likely to believe the story of a crippled newsboy than a popular super hero? Anyway, it's good that Freddy thinks of this because Kursyu has already ordered Otis to phone up his fellow generals for a conference so that he can infect all of them with the Yellow Curse. Freddy tries to stop the generals' car but they hit him (Freddy gets no respect). The generals decide to bring Freddy along to the supposed conference (sure, let's go with that). Of course, with Freddy ko'd they have no idea what awaits as they're met by Kursyu and Otis.

Kursyu agrees to tend to Freddy's injury before going any further and also takes the opportunity to infect Freddy. Sure enough, Freddy becomes yellow-skinned and slant-eyed. His first words are "Banzai! What can I do for the Mikado? Banzai! Banzai!" However, Freddy struggles against his transformation, thinking "I know it isn't right to hate America," and is finally able to speak his magic words, turning into Captain Marvel, Jr. However, CM Jr. is likewise infected by the Yellow Curse (rendering him into Japanese Elvis, I suppose) and Kursyu sends him to destroy a munitions plant. Captain Marvel, Jr. flies away as Kursyu prepares to infect the captured generals, taunting them with his antidote labeled "White Serum." At once, Captain Marvel, Jr. bursts back into the room, revealing he wasn't under Kursyu's control and only wanted to learn about the antidote. Gulping down the formula, he becomes Caucasian again and similarly restores General Otis ("I had a horrible dream that I was a Jap!"). With the plot ruined, Captain Marvel, Jr. takes Kursyu prisoner and delivers the White Serum so it can be used to treat any other victims of the Yellow Curse.

Let's tally up this wartime racist paranoia:

  1. Japanese men could be passing themselves off as Chinese! Remain vigilant around Asians!
  2. Which points again to the need of internment camps - if you give a Jap a chance, he'll try to destroy America single-handedly!
  3. When we are rendered vulnerable by illness and placed under the power of people from other races they will attempt to bring us to their level! Maintain segregated hospitals!
  4. Hatred of America is literally found in the blood of all Japanese!
  5. Further, good patriotic Americans - even military officers - will turn against all their principles if found to be Japanese!
  6. Also the usual business of banana-yellow skin, "Banzai!" and a strange fascination with the Mikado.

That's a big heaping bowl of racist crap right there.

The next time you're inclined to comment on how racist a contemporary comic book is, do bear in mind it wasn't that long that things were much, much worse.

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