I’d like it stated for the record that I don’t know comic book writer Roy Thomas. I only know his work, which has given me decades of reading pleasure. But I’ll be damned if I don’t speak up on his behalf here regarding the “controversy” which has suddenly erupted regarding the so-called whitewashing of Iron Fist and Thomas’s defence of it in which he used the term “oriental” – something which has earned him the ire of some social justice warriors. That one Twitter user described him as an “old, white racist”, whilst one website decried his entire reaction to the whitewashing question like he was practically a Nazi, sickens me.
One of the first comic books I ever read of his (or at least on which I noticed his name) was an issue of DC’s All-Star Squadron, issue #43, cover date March 1985. It’s still one of my favourite issues of any comic book ever, even though it’s the second part of a storyline.
Set during World War II, the All-Star Squadron have suffered a major defeat at the hands of a group of Japanese metahumans, who now hold Liberty Belle hostage. The Squadron, demoralised, agree to a prisoner exchange since they’ve captured the villainous Tsunami, who constantly taunts the Americans for their weakness. The exchange turns out to be a trap, as treacherous Prince Daka has plans to ambush the Squadron and steal Starman’s gravity rod.
That all sounds pretty bad, especially in light of everything that’s been said lately. Of course, it’s set in WW2 so it’s understandable that the Japanese, like Nazi Germany, are the villains in this series.
Except here’s the thing: not all of the Japanese metahumans in this issue are strictly villains. Sure, Prince Daka and Kung are villains; yet Tsunami and Sumo disagree with Prince Daka’s plan of deception, finding it without honour, and turn on him. Tsunami even comes to respect her foes, just as they gain respect for her, as she’s the one who alerted them to the ambush. They all learn that even though they’re on opposite sides, honour is earned and that they share that value. Even as a child, I read that story and appreciated it for how all the characters learn that prejudice, even in times of war where the distinction between friend and foe seems to be more clear, blinds us to what makes us the same.
It was a great issue, and I still cherish it. It also inspired me to pick up as many back issues as I could, and was pleased to see that Tsunami had been in earlier issue, decrying the Japanese-American internment camps. Meanwhile, Amazing-Man explained the injustice of how his Olympic Games success meant nothing in the real world of America, and he was forced to get a menial job sweeping the floors in a store – simply because of the colour of his skin. He and the Squadron would later team up to defeat a white supremacist group in Detroit. In all the issues of the All-Star Squadron there was a recurring theme that there was prejudice in America and the rest of the world – and that it was wrong.
These were stories written by Roy Thomas, in a time when most people preferred to stick their heads in the sand rather than face up to America’s less-than-perfect track record regarding racism, civil rights and the disgraceful treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW2. Now, Roy Thomas is being vilified as some kind of racist himself by people who seem to think that they’re social justice warriors. What’s wrong with this picture here?
At 76 years old he’s an industry veteran who’s seen and done it all. He co-created characters as diverse as Amazing Man and Captain Carrot to Ultron and Ghost Rider. He was a comic book fan who became a writer and editor, telling some of the best stories of all time, and has served the industry in other ways like helping with a charity which gives aid to comic book creators who have fallen on hard times. In a time before superstar artists and writers, he was a guy who got the job done well and for very little reward.
His statement regarding those social justice warriors and whitewashing on Iron Fist is exactly what you would expect of a man who’s used to speaking his mind. If people want to complain about the portrayal of a character on screen who is accurate to how he is in the comic books, then they probably have too much time on their hands. As for his use of the term “Oriental”, by his own acknowledgement, he knew it wasn’t the most politically correct way to phrase it, but that is in no way a statement of being racist.
As Jayne Tsuchiyama stated in an op-ed piece in the LA Times, the concept of the term “Oriental” being un-PC amused her since she didn’t believe the word to be demeaning at all. The term stems from the Latin, meaning “Of the East, where the sun rises”, and the term “Occidental” is its antonym meaning “Of the West, where the sun sets”. She likened the term to being no more offensive than calling people from Mississippi “Southerners” – which nobody objects to. So yes, Oriental is a term used to describe rugs, but it’s also one which has been used to describe a geographical area.
It’s all about the context, not the word itself. Did Roy Thomas, a man who wrote comics decrying the unjust suffering of over 127 000 Japanese-Americans, mean to insult everyone of Asian descent? I’m sure you can figure that out for yourself with some common sense. In a world of ever-changing politically correct terms, even the term “Asian” is now being hailed as wrong by some. Once again, as Patton Oswalt noted, the meaning behind the words are what should count and not the words themselves… and in that regard, Roy Thomas said nothing wrong, and further explained how the stories and characters of one generation may face criticism in a world of changing standards.
Now, he’s become a victim of those changing standards himself by using one un-PC term. Someone who’s written some great socially relevant stories about the human condition and the injustice of prejudice is being bullied for not keeping up with the times. That’s not a win for the social justice warriors, it’s a loss for us all. Because if we keep getting sidetracked instead of focusing on the real problems out there, we’ll never solve them.