Should You Tell Their Story: The Old Guard and Cultural Representation

Two men in love sit at a bar lighting a new cigarette from an old one

The popularity of The Old Guard’s original run and recent movie inspired an expansion of the comics series. Specifically, a new historical anthology. News of this dropped via Polygon and the series will explore the histories of these long lived heroes. Unfortunately, the portions revealed offer a distasteful appetizer.

I’ve seen The Old Guard a lot. In comics shops, in my “we think you’d like this” queue, in tweets that cycle through my timeline. But for some reason, I never started it. Although I like Rucka’s work, I hesitated. And with the release of cover art for The Old Guard: Tales Through Time and some quotes from some of the contributors, I am glad I did.

A group of soldiers stand ready for a fight
Some of the characters in the The Old Guard Book One: Opening Fire Leandro Fernández (artist), and Daniela Miwa (colourist), Greg Rucka (writer)

Covers sell comics. The art on the front gives a taste for what the comic will feel like. And sometimes what the inside looks like. It sets the tone and vibe for an individual issue or when it is debut art, for a series. And as someone who knows nothing about The Old Guard, the unveiled covers for Tales through Times alienated me from the series.

Particularly, the use of racist imagery has made myself and others ask, what the fuck; how did this happen? If this is the tone they’re setting for this series, or if the interior art looks like this, I am not buying this comic.

The racist depiction of Yusuf “Joe” al-Kaysani on Leandro Fernandez’s cover shocked me. It’s exactly the depiction Ray Hanania discusses in his book I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America. Specifically, Fernandez depicts al-Kaysani as “dark eyed, big nosed” and wearing “an Arab headdress.” The use of these features historically signaled villainy and endures despite years of work identifying its racism.

What’s even more disappointing is it is an awful foil to Jacopo Camagni’s cover for the same anthology, seen above. In that cover, al-Kaysani is a character in a queer romance. A person, not an Arab-coded villain stereotype. While the two covers could reflect different genres, you can depict violent people or warriors without being racist. An issue that commissioning a cover from a creator of that background may have solved.

After seeing Fernandez’s first cover I was on high alert. So when I scrolled and saw another Fernandez cover I repeated “who allowed this?” This second Fernandez’s cover uses culturally appropriative imagery. Particularly, when all I knew was that the cover probably depicted Charlize Theron’s character. While I assume she’s dressed in Scythian clothing, Andromache’s original culture, that is not clear from this cover. Instead it reminds me of imagery depicting Indigenous peoples negatively or in ways that allow white people to profit from Indigeneity.

These covers exist within current symbolic and cultural contexts. Due to this, artists, and cover artists specifically, need to depict what they intend to and be aware of what audiences might associate their images with. Especially, if the artist is not from the culture they are depicting. Doubly so if that art wants to sell a new series. Or in this case, not sell me a new series.

There’s a quote from a contributor to the anthology in the Polygon exclusive that helps summarizes of my feelings about this project. If you “groan” because of your research load, perhaps you should not tell that story. Instead, find a collaborator of that background or someone who already knows about when and where you want to set your story. They probably have a stronger foundation from which to create something from that time. They will also probably tell you when you shouldn’t do something. And you should listen.

Between quotes like that and the covers, I will probably never pick up The Old Guard. The anthology has some awesome contributors with some excellent concepts. Unfortunately these don’t matter if the other stories do not blend with the people telling them. While I’ve enjoyed works by many of the contributors, I will not pick up a series with covers like that. Especially when it feels like the contributors chose to tell stories they were not equipped to tell.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.