I spent my entire childhood in the predominantly Asian-ethnic environment of Hawaii. My adulthood has played out so far in predominantly white regions and, within that, extremely white-dominated academic and professional fields; that’s what happens when you get into the humanities.
Living among the white people of America and the UK – mostly the UK – has been tough, but I’ve made some great friends and even picked up a husband. I thought things were fine.
Then last week I read The Multiversity #2, and cried my eyes out.
For those of you who haven’t been following The Multiversity, it’s a nine-issue series (which just wrapped) about the DC Comics Multiverse, scripted by Grant Morrison. The first and last issues have Ivan Reis on pencils and Joe Prado on inks – Prado is joined by Eber Ferreira and Jaime Mendoza for the last issue – but each issue in between has a different art team and showcases a different super-team from one of the DC Universe’s many alternate earths.
The Multiversity #2 is the last issue of the series. All of the other issues are their own #1s: The Multiversity #1, Multiversity: Society of Super-Heroes #1, Multiversity: The Just #1, etc.
In this issue, we witness the redemption of former hero Nix Uotan, who has been corrupted by the series’ primary antagonists, The Gentry.
What makes this hero-corruption stick in my mind is the fact that Uotan is black and the Gentry are white by proxy.
Granted, the Gentry aren’t physically white human beings. Their leader is a floating egg with an eye and batwings, and the only humanoid among them is a gray corpselike figure.
Nevertheless, in much of the Western world, gentrification means the white people are moving in – look at what’s happening in Brooklyn, Brixton, or North London.
The appearance of the Gentrified Nix Uotan backs this up. When he’s on the side of good, his skin is medium-dark.
Under the Gentry’s control, his skin is lighter.
Once he’s restored to his former self, his skin regains its normal shade.
The story of a hero of color being oppressed by a coded-as-white power structure is hard-hitting enough on its own, but it’s the way Nix describes his Gentrification that got me crying.
“We learn from the worst. They make us like them.”
This transformation is not wholehearted. If it were, he would describe the Gentry as good or right, not as “the worst;” he and the Gentry would be a single “us.”
This is the tragedy of Nix’s warping by the Gentry: there is enough of his original consciousness left to recognize that his Gentrification is wrong, unwanted, a betrayal of his principles, but not enough left to fight it.
It’s more painful – and more real – than losing yourself completely. You know what’s happening to you. You know this isn’t who you are. You can’t make it stop.
I’ve suddenly realized that this could also be a useful analogy, in a pinch, for how it feels for some people who live with mental health issues. More than once I’ve had that OH NO, HERE IT COMES moment before the darkness creeps in.
Anyway, it isn’t only the top-down gentrification that’s to blame. You’re complicit, too.
You have to let it infect you in order to get by socially, professionally, and/or culturally (or sometimes just in order to survive, as demonstrated by the mother of that protestor in Baltimore). And to live with the knowledge of having done that, you might find some way of rationalizing your complicity:
- The humor here is so much more sophisticated.
- Society here is more permissive in certain respects, so I can do what I want, and that’s good, right?
- My family would want me to get ahead. This is in the service of making them proud.
- Everything I’ve built up for myself is here, and I’m just trying to be a good citizen.
The Gentry might not be right, but the pressures that they, as an institutional group, exert upon you from every possible point of input 24/7/365 are inescapable.
You try not to think about how entrenched it is in your mind. This too is echoed in The Multiversity, with its refrain of “Whose voice is this speaking in your head anyway? Yours?”
If you analyze that voice in any detail, the shoddy basis of your self-justification might collapse, and then you’d have to deal with all the compromises you’ve made along the way.
I’ve written all this in second person because, even as I’m putting this out in the global public eye, I can’t bring myself to fully admit to my complicity in my own gentrification. I keep telling myself it’s not me. It’s some unspecified you reading this, and I’ll never have to face whoever that is.
It can’t be me.
I don’t want it to be me.
And for a long time I did an okay job of pretending it wasn’t, until I read Nix’s concise summary of what happened to him.
Multiversity #2 tries to tell us that there’s hope. The new super-team that comes out of it, Justice Incarnate, is led by Calvin Ellis – the black President/Superman of Earth-23 – and includes the Aboriginal Australian superhero Wundajin. Nix returns to his peaceful life on Earth and is finally able to pay off his rent.
In his superheroic form, though, one of his eyes is missing. While this does entitle him to a cool golden eyepatch, it raises the question of how this will affect his superhero abilities. He joined the DC Universe as a Monitor back in Final Crisis, and is now “Nix Uotan, Superjudge;” in other words, his whole identity as a superhero depends on observation, which I imagine will be more difficult to navigate without his right eye. Also, since the right side is traditionally the side of favor or goodness, as opposed to the “sinister” left side, Nix is specifically missing his “good” eye.
Our astute editor Claire has pointed out that the loss of Nix’s eye may also be a reference to Odin, who hung upside down on the Tree of Life for nine days and nights (the number of issues in The Multiversity) to gain wisdom, and lost an eye in the process. The Nix-Odin link is backed up by Morrison’s sketch on one of the variant covers for The Multiversity #2, where the notes regarding Nix’s costume read, “Tree of Life zigzag pattern.” It’s a traditionally white culture’s story embodied in a young black man.
Yet something in my head refuses to incorporate this reading into my reactions. I don’t dispute the validity of the Nix-as-Odin reading; it’s difficult to do that when Morrison’s notes spell it out. What I can’t accept is the non-white body — Nix’s body, my body, my life — as conduit for white narratives, as though the highest honor we can receive is to be allowed to tell the stories of white culture. Let us find our heroism and power in the stories only we can tell.
However you read it, the loss of that eye is where I wanted the emotional reality to end. Morrison has often emphasized the symbolic, endlessly resilient aspects of superheroes, and for purely personal reasons I wish we’d gotten that here. Nix would be fine and completely able to go on Superjudging just like before. I didn’t want him to lose that eye, which was such an important part of his identity.
Like I said: I didn’t want that to be me.
Will he even continue to be a superhero? Or will he have to find something else to define the extraordinary side of his life?
I really hope Nix remains the Superjudge/Monitor/superhuman observer that he’s always been. I want that assurance that I can move past internal Gentrification and be extraordinary. That peaceful, secure, confident, un-whitened hero – that’s who I want to be.