Are Westerns Inherently Racist?
Are Westerns Inherently Racist?
As I sit down to write a review of Weird Western Tales number 22 from June of 1974, I feel I have to talk about one of the big issues that confronts a contemporary reader of vintage Jonah Hex comics... the apparent racism in the stereotyping of the characters.
In this issue Jonah Hex is sheltering from the rain in a crude lean-to when armed robbers happen by. He dispatches them with his six-shooters, and realizes that they're the men he's been tracking (he's a bounty hunter).
Unfortunately, in the gunfight his horse was killed by a stray bullet, and he's forced to carry his gear on foot, until a passing stagecoach happens by and offers him a lift.
The coach contains several passengers, including a deputy who's escorting a huge negro criminal, named Blackjack Jorgis, back to the town of 'Hard Times' for trial, and a mysterious stranger who recognizes Jonah Hex from a Confederate Army photo.
This is where things can get a bit iffy for the modern reader. The stagecoach is attacked by Blackjack's cronies who free him and then flee. All the 'good' citizens aboard the stagecoach seem to be Anglo caucasian, including the driver who's killed by Blackjack's men. Blackjack's gang, on the other hand is made up of two Mexicans, Sanchez and Esteban, who are portrayed as dirty, greasy, reprobates, and an 'Injun', who seems to only be there to look menacing... and then there's Blackjack himself, who's a watermelon chomping black stereotype.
But then racial stereotypes aren't the only stereotypes present. The southwestern townspeople are illiterate yokels, the sheriff is a drunk... but wait a minute, isn't that a common Western trope? The drunk sheriff? Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, Robert Mitchum in El Dorado, the list goes on and on... the entire Western genre is built upon certain tropes, cliches even... if you take out too many of them, it almost ceases to be a Western (imagine a western where nobody could be shown wearing cowboy hats, riding horses or using guns).
What about historical accuracy? A lot of Western frontiers types were alcoholics - or at least very heavy drinkers - it's a pretty well documented fact. A lot of people, especially out west were illiterate - even to this day the southwest U.S. has some of the highest rates of illiteracy (and the highest if you take out California, New York and Florida, the states that are skewed by the biggest immigrant port cities).
When it comes to racial stereotyping, stridently anti-racist rapper Ice-T said that people need to listen to the whole story, while it's a racial stereotype he admits to loving fried chicken and watermelon - going so far as to record a song called 'Fried Chicken'. Ice-T it's worth noting actually had a reason for saying 'listen to the whole story', he was famously accused of glorifying anti-police violence by writing the song 'Cop Killer', but he could just as easily be accused of glorifying police work in his long-time portrayal a cop on TV's Law & Order.
The point Ice-T was making at the time is that any work of fiction has to be judged as part of its whole. Should Quentin Tarantino avoid using the 'N' word in his movies as Director Spike Lee says? Or would a Western like Django Unchained be less realistic had it done so? That's where we come back to this issue of Weird Western Tales. Jonah Hex, at this time was a complex character - what's behind the whole 'shove a tamale down the greasy Mexican's throat' line? Here's a character who first appeared (and still does) wearing a Confederate army uniform - something that turned me off about this 'hero' when I was a kid. But does he really hold the values of the Confederacy? This issue casts some doubt on that point, as he's tracked and marked for death by 'patriotic' Southern loyalists.
And then there's the issue of era. These Weird Western Tales comics were written in the early 1970s. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment poking fun at how blatantly sexist Silver Age comics are - but they were pretty much a reflection of what was 'normal' for their time. While the 1970s were the early post-civil rights era, whether or not society was any more racist than it is today may be debatable, but what's less debatable is that 'political correctness' had yet to become commonplace in popular culture. Westerns shamelessly portrayed 'Injuns' as bloodthirsty savages - and if they were talking about Apaches, weren't they more or less accurate, at least from the point of view of any non-Apache? And are even modern attempts at politically correct Westerns such as the 2013 Disney The Lone Ranger film (with Johnny Depp in 'redface' makeup) any less racially stereotyping despite their best intentions?
A mixture of genre tropes and complex characterization makes any Jonah Hex comic difficult to explain to anyone that hasn't read it, but the added dynamic of early 1970s social norms in popular fiction compound that problem. This issue's story, 'Showdown at Hard Times' is particularly difficult (especially in a review without spoilers) to summarize to the unfamiliar - as a Western, it's as good as any Jonah Hex story - how palatable such racially thorny escapism is to you is probably best made by yourself and best made by actually reading and judging the material first hand - so consider that an endorsement of this comic whether or not you think you like such stuff.