It’s Just a Comic Book, or, Judo Master has friends who are Asian
The date on the inside of Judo Master No. 96, tells me that it’s a Modern Comics (a Topps imprint) 1978 reprint of a 1967 comic. I probably picked it up in 1978, at the local newspaper/candy/tobacco store, because that was where I got my comics until I became an adult and bought them for inflated prices from skeevy dealers at comics “shows” in the meeting rooms of Holiday Inns or in overfull, slightly tattered comic stores.
I remembered very little about the story, the title just popped into my head one day recently. I had to clean out the office to find it and there it was, looking as fresh as the day I bought it…maybe a little yellower. Judo Master is, along with a few other unfortunate comics, the overlap of two of my passions – comics and martial arts. (The very first book that I paid for by myself out of my allowance was “Teach Yourself Judo.” I was seven years old. I think my little sister has never forgiven me.) I remembered having really enjoyed the translation of each technique Judo Master uses. I remembered very little else, except the casual racism of the superior Caucasian man who not only is better at a Japanese Martial Art than any Japanese, but defeats evil, dismissively titled, Asian foes with their own martial arts.
I haven’t the vaguest clue what the story is, I only have this one volume and I have no interest in “doing the research.” I can tell you this, Rip, the manly, western (he causally makes references to football, baseball and other wholesome American activities,) “Judo Master” is allied with a group of anti-Japanese Japanese on an island…somewhere. Joining them is Suzi (short for Suzikawa, but conveniently American-sounding, as “Susie,”) Rip’s love interest, who wears something similar to a cheongsam, but definitely unrelated to a kimono. Eh, girl’s clothes, who cares what country they are from, it’s all so impenetrable to men, you know.
When they are discovered by The Acrobat and his evil “Jap” henchmen, I couldn’t help but notice that our square-jawed hero is a Master of a Martial Art, while our bad guy is merely an acrobat – clearly no one worth taking seriously. (According to the first page, Rip previously defeated the Red Crusher – guesses as to what country he was from?)
With a masterly series of shimewaza and osotogari, Judo Master defeats his opponent and, in an Arthurian moment, unmasks his opponent with “It’s time we took a peek under that falseface [sic] of yours and see what you really look like!” The Acrobat turns out to be none other than Suzi’s misguided brother!
After Suzi realizes that her brother (who remains nameless) will never care that he was used by the “Imperial warlords,” Rip ends the chapter by comforting Suzi. “Suzi, someday this war will be ancient history! Who knows how things will be changed by then? …But in the meantime…”
What Rip? What in the meantime? There’ll be more “Japs” to kill in the name of freedom, or was that meant to be an overture to Suzi to celebrate his heroic efforts in their island bedroom? We’ll never know, because the story ends there and I never found another issue.
Now, here’s the thing about Judo Master. He’s not racist, right? He has a Japanese girlfriend (okay, with Chinese clothes and a vaguely Chinese and vaguely American nickname, but still,) and he fights with a bunch of Japanese guys…so…? And it’s a WWII-era comic, right, so we have to forgive the propaganda, right? Well…no. Remember the dates above. The original book was published in 1967. I was two. This is *in my lifetime.* This is not a relic from a war-era comic. This is a cheesy recreation of a war-era comic feel. (Many of the comics I read as a young person were similar to this. Just post-Vietnam, it was obvious that comics were flailing to get back that good-guy flair. Lots of Nazis were defeated in comics when I was a kid. It was easier then, we were the clearly the good guys.)
Judo Master isn’t racist – look, he’s got friends who are Asian. He’s got a “Jap” girlfriend. He does Judo. He’s not fetishizing elements of Japanese culture and appropriating them for his own use or anything.
But, hey, this is just a comic, right? We shouldn’t take it so seriously. That’s what readers said in Noah’s discussion of racism in The Priest, and what commenters said in Colin’s comments about the exhaustingly awful use of sexual violence by DC in Flashpoint. Oh, and don’t forget Asians are getting all uppity about Akira. But then, I’m told to take Chester Brown’s Paying For It seriously, because it’s a serious work, with a premise worth discussing.
So, readers, is Judo Master racist? Was it racist in 1978? How about in 1967? 1942?
When do we take racism and sexism in comics seriously, because it’s a serious issue, with consequences worth discussing? When do we look at comics writers, artists and publishers and say, enough with the aggressive cluelessness. Enough racism, enough sexism, enough with the “it’s just a comic book.” If comics are indeed an a form of serious artistic expression, then we have to stop dismissing the bits of it we don’t like, the parts that make us squirmy and uncomfortable. If it’s just entertainment, then let’s stop pretending it’s anything other than pubescent fantasies and utterly banal writing.
“We didn’t mean it that way” Does. Not. Work. If someone is offended at a thing, it is offensive. That feeling cannot be wiped away with “it’s just a….” If anything, that kind of casual denial of offense serves to heighten it. Words and images have meaning – those meanings have consequences. If we acknowledge the power of words and images, the we have to acknowledge the consequences, too.
When will it be time to stand up and recognize the racism, the sexism, the denial and the pathology embedded in the words and images in comics for what it is?
I’d kind of like that moment to be now.