King John: Is History a bit unfair?

Welcome to another Blog post. This may seem weird to you, after all, I’m not really known for my posts on Medieval history (well I’m not known at all really!), but after some of the people at the blog made fun of my lack of writing on this subject, I’d thought I would rise to the challenge and write about something which I remember very well from when I was at school all those years ago. Therefore a post about King John is what I bring you today. My main aim here is to not necessarily open your eyes to any new information, far from it, but to challenge your perspectives on the king who signed the Magna Carta.

So I would assume and argue that most of us know our information about King John from the tales of Robin Hood, you know, those stories which probably were made up, or at least was an amalgamation of a few from different counties, brought together by the print revolution. So even academics who go into this field of study will most likely go in with an already biased interpretation based of a tale which can hardly be trusted for accuracy. So when we look at him, we must remember to try to banish all thoughts of Robin Hood to start with.

When we compare him with his brother, I get the feeling that we praise Richard for really nothing and attack for John for a failing family. Richard was hardly ever in England, and couldn’t even speak the language, how can we then say he was a good king? He was too busy fighting in the crusades to deal with the problems in his own country. Therefore perhaps John inherited a country that was already in trouble. John was well learnt, he studied and could speak the language of the country that he was in charge of. Therefore to class him as a bad king, seems a bit unfair, surely? He at least tried to sort things out unlike his brother.

John also gave more to the poor than those before him, again I’m no expert on this, but I’m sure I have read that John gave the most, so does this show him to be a caring king? He also could be argued to be the founding father of the English navy, although as an early modernist, I find that a tedious claim, as navies really found their footing in the seventeenth century! But he set up ports and saw the construction of some kind of navy that would later have a great impact in our national identity.

The defeats in the army can hardly be put on him, more of an unlucky King, after all if the battles are analysed in detail, it can be seen that perhaps it wasn’t him necessarily being bad, but unfortunate circumstances being the main problem. So perhaps, before we start judging and pointing out fingers and thinking how bad he is, ask ourselves perhaps there were reasons and circumstances that lead to what happened.

I hear you say, what about the Magna Carta, oh that document, the one that poor john is forever known as signing. The document which is known as the start of our constitution, and always quoted somehow. Well I think the circumstances that he was in and the problems he faced made this inevitable, I think that the rising taxes for the failing army and military campaigns would of course cause problems.

To class him as a tyrannical, evil King is unjust, and shows a failure to look at other Kings and Queens of this time, to properly understand the circumstances and to understand the pressures to be a King. I am always hesitant to judge the past by present standards, and you could argue well he has never been liked, but my argument is that his perception of him has always been skewed and when we do proper do an in-depth study, we must not go in with pre conceived ideas.

Red Orchestra 2: A Historical Game Review

For my second post in the series of historical game reviews I’m going for something completely different. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is a realistic multiplayer first-person shooter. It is the sequel to Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 and was released in 2011 by Tripwire Interactive.

This game is fairly unknown in the mainstream gaming audience. It received favourable reviews on release, but 4 years on it is now almost entirely played and kept active by a relatively small but dedicated group of players who stick by the game for its unique blend of tactical realism, immersive design and familiar core gameplay mechanics similar to more regular shooters. This great combination results in the game being an unmatched masterpiece of its genre. While there are games that are better simulators, more visually impressive games, and even more well made gameplay experiences, none can compete with Red Orchestra’s approach that has resulted in a simple yet meaningful and visceral historical experience. A testament to the value of this interactive medium and the advantages it has over others in historical depiction and more.

Historical Content

This game is fairly minimal in its raw historical content. As the name ‘Heroes of Stalingrad’ implies, the whole game takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943). There are the two sides, the Axis and the Allies consisting of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Each location that the multiplayer matches are played in are all part of the overall map of Stalingrad and its surrounding areas and outskirts. For each of these locations there is a story for the game, which corresponds to a real live equivalent in the conflict, but the real outcomes can obviously be meddled with if the wrong side wins. The history of each location, as well as other details such as information on each weapon featured in the game can be found here: link 

History Conveyed Through Gameplay

When playing the game there are a lot of smaller details that really enrich the experience. To begin with, this game has some of the best weapons I have ever seen, on many levels. The different guns are all modeled incredibly well and all seem to handle and sound different and distinctive. The way the character uses each gun is realistic in an interesting way, and sometimes you need to do things like brace your weapon against a wall or window to shoot more steady. You need to think about the differences between the power, speed and reloads of each weapon, and you may find yourself preferring a favourite for small details like it’s weight and how it effects your movement, or the way the sights work. On top of these details, the combined smoke, noise and recoil of all the weapons can feel quite overwhelming at first, especially when compared to more popular games where the weapons might as well be BB guns in comparison.

That brings me onto the second point. As you use each weapon, and fight more battles, your character will improve their skills and equipment. This is a very subtle mechanic, not like other games where you may level up to be twice as good at everything, but it still makes a real difference when your soldier goes from being a bit slow on the reload and lining up the sights of his gun, then being very shaky and breathing heavily and staggering at nearby explosions, to eventually becoming a battle hardened veteran who can smoothly operate his weapon, reload and aim quickly, and flinch less, allowing you to overall make better shots with quicker reaction time. You also upgrade your equipment from standard issue to finely tuned weapons that are more accurate and slightly easier to use, as well as unlocking larger magazines, bayonets, and scopes if appropriate for the weapon of the period.

Other small details that add to the game also come in the form of realistic historical depictions that can serve a double purpose as game mechanics, something that I believe other historical games should strive to do better. For example, in a realistic shooter you aren’t going to have big markers over your teammate’s heads, so you usually need to recognize them by their uniform to avoid friendly fire, but this isn’t always possible and accidents do happen. One thing that helps with this is looking at the way your target moves, are they sprinting with their rifle held by their side in one hand, or in front of them with two? If the former, then he’s a Wehrmacht soldier, trained to run that way, open fire comrade!

Another detail is that when you improve your character, you can also eventually unlock the ‘enemy weapon’ meaning at the highest rifleman level, you can choose to use the other team’s rifle, and the same for other classes of soldier. How this plays out is that each team will end up wanting to use the better weapons from the other team. This can also be done by looting in the middle of the game, but that isn’t always as practical. For example, the Russian machine gunners usually go for the german MG-34, or even better the MG-42 machineguns, and the Germans usually go for the Russian PPSH-41 submachine gun. It was actually fairly common for the Germans on the eastern front in the war to prefer the Russian PPSH, and many were captured and re-issued under different names, or even re-chambered to use German ammunition. The fact that this is in essence the same thing that occurs in the game points to the excellent job the game does of recreating the effectiveness of each real weapon.

As I said before, the game is fairly minimal in its historical content, at least when you look at it from the outside. Once you start playing however, is when the true potential of the game shines through. The somewhat limited breadth of the historical content allows the game to focus on some key aspects. Where another WWII game might be single player and have the player visit various fronts of the war across different stages of the war, this game has you stuck in the battle of Stalingrad. The fact that the game is only made for online multiplayer somehow adds to the experience, rather than making it feel more like a game, it makes things more tense and unexpected, and the overarching campaign that each match is part of can feel never-ending. A real slog to victory, or a struggle on the brink of defeat as you defend your very last territory on the map . There’s a real sense of teamwork and a proper chain of command in a good game, and when that falls apart and players ignore the commander and squad leaders the battlefield can become a real slaughtering ground.

When you get down to the small details, such as the well animated characters, the fantastic voice acting of realistic rallying calls, cries of pain, and even gurgling death, or the deafening sound of gunshots and artillery, the experience is incredibly immersive, and completely intimidating. At times like this the game can be compared to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with bullets cracking overhead, comrades running beside you one second and vaporized by a mortar shell the next, and no knowing what will happen. Will you make it to wherever you’re desperately sprinting to, or will you be caught by a stray round? where are you even going? does it matter? The game can get so intense at points that you might start thinking of disobeying the commander and saving your own skin, and you may end up in the exact sort of situations you see in these war films, or even what you may imagine happening in war, but in this case, you are in control of what you do. You are this one soldier, and the rest of the soldiers on this battlefield are just like you and could make any amount of unpredictable decisions or snap judgments that can end in perhaps infinite circumstances.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I must say that this is one of the best games to depict The Second World War. Even though it does not cover the whole war, or include a great deal of historical fact in detail, the type of experience it can give you gives insight into the history from a different perspective and is really very well done. The game plays to the strengths of the medium and delivers an interesting, challenging and thought-provoking experience that I believe can’t be matched by any film or book.

As a side note, if you are interested in this game, there is also the game Rising Storm which comes as part of Red Orchestra 2, and although it lacks some of the polish that this game has, it is almost the exact same type of experience but in the setting of the Pacific in WWII.

Age of Empires II: A Historical Game Review

For a long time now I have been meaning to write something combining my two favourite things, History and Videogames. So here I’m starting a new series of posts reviewing historical games. Now seems like a good time to start, as there have been quite a few significant historical games in recent years, and there are many more coming soon!

Since I started studying history at university, I have been constantly seeking out historical games, and at this point a few years on, my taste has almost entirely changed to favour any style of game with a solid historical representation, or even a loose inspiration. The first game I’m going to look at however, won’t be one of the more recent games to come out, not by a long shot. I’m going right back to the start, at least the start for me, to a game that was released in 1999… when I was only 5. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

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Developed by Ensemble studios, it was the second game in the series after the initial release of Age of Empire in 1997. While I did also play the first game extensively, I played the second game first, so I will be primarily talking about that. As you can imagine, I didn’t exactly know how to play this game when I was very young, but I did continue to mess around with it for years until I finally understood how you’re actually supposed to play. Sadly, playing the proper way didn’t involve building nice towns, taking time to read every bit of information, and trying to avoid getting anybody killed. However playing this way did allow me to experience the history included in this game, which eventually became my main focus.

Historical Content

Jumping into the history of the game, it’s pretty obvious that the main setting is Medieval period, with a focus on Europe for the most part. The first game covered the ancient and classical periods, which probably makes more sense when considering the name ‘Age of Empires’. Although the Age of Kings is mainly medieval, there are some playable civilizations featured in the game which spill over either side of that vague period of time.

The game features a decent amount of historical material, but you would mostly need to seek it out for yourself. For example, there is a large history page in the main menu of the game with plenty to read, but this is separate from the game, and seems to be there for those interested in learning more about the setting they are playing in.

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This section is quite good though, and covers various topics such as background on all the playable civilizations, development of weapons, tactics and castles, and an explanation of the different ‘ages’ of the medieval period. There are a few pieces of inaccurate information here or there, but for the most part it holds up well for something written in the 90s.

History Conveyed Through Gameplay

With the game being fairly old at this point, it’s quite a surprise to see that the core gameplay still holds up very well. This is probably because this and the original AoE have heavily influenced strategy games to this day. For example Starcraft 2, a more recent real-time strategy with one of the largest competitive and eSports scenes around, uses the exact same model. The basic gist of the game is to collect resources, construct production buildings and defences, and produce units and upgrades that are used to battle other players and assault their base.

So this style of gameplay lends itself quite well to exploring certain historical themes. At the very start of a match you are given a few villagers and you are in the ‘Dark Age’. Your first goal will be to build up your settlement until you can advance to the ‘Feudal Age’. These ‘ages’ are a core part of the game that indicate the advancement of your civilization, and as you progress through them eventually reaching the Imperial Age you will unlock a lot of technology and new capabilities. But we’ll start at the beginning first, in the Dark Age. To advance to the next age you need to construct one of the key buildings and collect a certain amount of resources, which in this case is food. At this point the player is beginning to explore the basic needs of settlement growth, as more villagers are needed to gather wood for buildings, more food is required, and more houses are needed for them. Each thing must be kept in balance or else production comes to a halt. Once this is achieved properly, and you reach the Feudal age, you see a change in the settlement. Temporary tents become permanent wooden buildings, you start being able to assign your villagers to work on farms to produce food more efficiently, and allowing your population to increase more rapidly. This is just a small example of how the ‘economy’ gameplay can give an interesting, if simplified view on how settlements can start, then expand and develop in different ways.

The use of upgrades in the game can also convey some historical concepts. For example, your basic units such as the spearman and archer can be upgraded to become a pikeman and crossbowman, and then halberdier and arbalester. All units in the game feature upgrades such as this, including different infantry, cavalry and siege weapons. There are aslo the minor upgrades in the game, of which there are many. Once a blacksmith building is constructed you are able to develop, based on the current age, different types of armour starting with padded, then chain, and then plate. This shows yet again a basic, but useful representation of weapon and armour development in history. There is a lot of other research included in the game, which would take far too long to go through, but it covers the development of fortifications, of tools, of religion, of farming and other working methods, and different strategies of warfare.

The combat in the game has some interesting touches and unexpected details, despite the battles mostly consisting of whichever player with the most resources throwing endless hordes at their foes. In a balanced fight, there is an advantage to using certain unit types, as for example your cavalry may be useful for their speed to use hit and run tactics, your archers do considerable damage to infantry, and spearmen have a bonus against enemy cavalry. These types of factors, paired with the use of unique units and bonuses given to each culture, can generate some interesting engagements. For example, if the Britons and the Franks cultures are in play (representing the English and the French in the later ‘ages’) they have certain advantages. The Britons can use longbowmen, and have several upgrades to their archers which give them greater range and quicker production rate. Whereas the Franks have better upgrades for their knights. These are fairly accurate representations in a broad sense, and if you are playing against either of these, there are  accurate ways to counter their advantages.

Looking at a larger scale rather than the minute gameplay details, there are other ways the game conveys history though play. What I mean here mostly is the ‘campaigns’. Each campaign is set around a historical event or series of events. The gameplay in the multiple missions of these campaigns can vary in a few ways, with some starting you with a large army to engage in battle, some starting you at the end of a battle as a lone survivor, or as a famous historical figure recruiting allies to join their small band of men. The game leads you through a story with different objectives changing as you go, you usually traverse a large map and encounter many different scripted events, but there is also the freedom to go off the rails and explore, which you are also rewarded for. These stories have a lot of historical content, but of course with a fair amount of embellishment delivered via some lovely cheesy voice acting and supplemented by some written background information and hints.

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Conclusion

Before I go on any longer, I should conclude. I could talk for a long time about this game, as it is still one of my favourites. It was probably one of the first things to ever get me properly interested in either gaming or history, and I still think it does it will. There are some flaws in the history of the game. It is often very simple, due to the nature of games in 1999 there wasn’t a lot of room for them to include too much detail, and game mechanics at this time couldn’t allow for decent simulation style games in real-time. But for the most part, it does a good job with what was available, opting for a more simple and representative approach rather than a completely accurate sim. This allowed the game to be better balanced, which probably helped it gain most of its popularity and influence in the years after its release.

So the game offers some interesting representations of historical events, cultures, economy and warfare. While looking back on it now after having studied history, it clearly offers only a basic understanding of these concepts. However, it conveys these concepts in such and engaging and fun way, that it could be a perfect introduction to medieval history to a complete beginner. I’m a good example of this, as after playing though the Agincourt campaign when I was about 12, I was given extra marks in school for knowing about Henry V and his command at the battle. 🙂

Black Representation in Marvel and DC Comics

Representation in the media has long been debated whether it be racial, female, LGBT, disabled or cultural. In this post I will look at black representation in comic books, more specifically at superhero characters and comics produced by the two major America companies Marvel and DC. Both companies were founded under different names in 1939 and 1934 respectively, and as can be seen below, both companies took until the 1960s and 1970s to introduce black superhero characters. In some respects this is not a surprise as these two decades are now historically intertwined with Black history in the West and especially America where these two companies are based. It is impossible to cover every black character in these comics in this blog as that would easily fill a book, so I have chosen a few of the most famous and influential characters to focus on. I have also looked at the issue of black representation in Marvel and DC’s comic book adaptations for television and film which has increasingly become the way that the majority of the population is exposed to such characters. Three comic book adaptions now sit in the top ten worldwide grossing films of all time. But then why have these movies often been almost exclusively white?

Black Panther first appeared in 1966 in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, making him the first black superhero in mainstream comics. The character was created as T’Challa, the chief of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which was a technically advanced nation which can be seen as an ‘anti-colonialist critique’ and a ‘stark contrast to the historical and symbolic constructions of Africans as simple tribal people and Africa as primitive’. The character got his own run with Jungle Action #5 in 1973 which ran until 1976. The uniqueness of this title compared to black characters that followed is interesting; unlike other black characters T’Challa was not restricted in terms of storyline or setting of just American ghettos to symbolise racial inequality but was placed in more fantastical settings like some of his white counterparts. As Adilifu Nama summarises: ‘in spite of the cringe-inducing title, Jungle Action was progressive in the way it avoided many of the ghettocentric clichés of the ‘black experience’.’ After Jungle Action, Black Panther was re-launched with a self-titled series and even after that title’s cancellation, the character has continued to have his own comic in every decade since his conception. He has also played a major role in a number of other series including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Daredevil. In 2006 Black Panther married his fellow Black superhero Storm although this was later annulled.

First appearing in Captain America #117 in 1969, Sam Wilson known as the Falcon became the first African American superhero in mainstream comics. The significance of this was not lost on the writers. Wilson and other black characters were concerned about him being a sidekick to Captain America, a white man. Wilson’s black love interest, Leila criticised the character for being ‘a racial sellout’. Nama explains: ‘By having Sam and other black characters question the power dynamics of his relationship with his white superhero friend, the comic avoided creating a static black superhero… His concern and constant attention to the issue gave their personal relationship a social resonance with broader racial tensions, and symbolized a social debate about if aggressive or incremental steps were move effective in achieving racial equality.’ The writers understood the impact that having such a character would have, and the issues that would come from it. While with the creation of Black Panther there had been some element of removal from the social issues in America of the time, this was not possible with Falcon. Perhaps this is why, between 1971-78, the character was billed alongside Captain America in the comics as Captain America and the Falcon, elevating a black character to the title of a leading comic was significant and could be seen to symbolise a greater hope for integration. There was a brief 14 issue run of a new version of Captain America and the Falcon in 2004-2005 but this was cancelled. He had his own four part miniseries in 1983 and has been a member of the Defenders and the Avengers over the years. Falcon played a significant role in the Avengers volume 3 and has continued to play a supporting role in the Captain America comics. It was announced that Wilson would take over the mantle of Captain America after the original, Steve Rogers, lost his abilities. The comic will premiere in November.

First appearing in 1972, Luke Cage sometime known as Power Man premiered in his own comic Luke Cage, Hero for Hire becoming the first black superhero to have his own comic. The title ran for 6 years until falling sales made Marvel decide to team up the character with another superhero, Iron Fist, whose sales were also falling to save both characters from cancellation. This new series ran until 1986. Cage’s origin story is one of the most politically aware origin stories; he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and in prison suffers racism at the hands of the prison guards. In an attempt to improve his chances at parole he volunteers for a cell regeneration experiment but the experiment is sabotaged by a sadistic prison guard with a grudge which leads to him gaining his superhuman strength and durability. The concept of Cage being unjustly imprisoned coincides with widening attention on the incarceration of black people. Such an origin story relates the ‘issues of unjust black incarceration, black political disenfranchisement, and institutional racism in America’. Cage’s decision to use his powers for profit is also interesting, as an escaped convict he had no opportunity to pursue legal work and unlike many of his superhero counterparts he was not independently wealthy to be able pursue such a career unlike white superheroes Tony Stark or Charles Xavier, who both had family wealth to fall back on.

DC’s first black superhero was John Stewart who first appeared in 1971 in Green Lantern volume 2 #87. Stewart was chosen to become a back-up for the then current Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, by those who had given the powers of the Green Lantern, the Guardians. When Jordan quit being the Green Lantern, Stewart replaced him headlining the comics between 1984-86, until Stewart himself, quit. Subsequently he played a major role in the 1988 comic Cosmic Odyssey. Then in 1992 he was the lead in Green Lantern: Mosaic but despite critical and commercial success DC cancelled the title because they felt it did not fit in with their editorial vision meaning the character became restricted to a supporting role until 2006 with Green Lantern Corps. Stewart found widespread popularity when he was portrayed in the Cartoon Network animated series, Justice League. The development of the character has changed over the years. In his first appearance ‘Hal views Stewart as too angry… the critique of Stewart easily played to the racial archetype of the “angry black man”’. In comparison Stewart is ‘a mainstream superhero’ who ‘articulates an integrationist, albeit culturally pluralistic, ethos’.

The first black female character in Marvel or DC to play a major or supporting role was Storm, also known as Ororo Munroe, in 1975. She first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and has gone on to appear in the majority of the X-Men comics since her introduction. The character has led the X-Men on various occasions and is one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe. Such development over the years is intriguing due to the fact that Storm ‘symbolizes many of the struggles that black women… face and resist’ and yet ‘Storm was a triumphant third-world version of a black female superhero’. She can be seen as an inspiration for black women to try to overcome the barriers that not only a racist but also a sexist society place upon them, and dispel the idea that black women are somehow less worthy or inferior. Storm had her own miniseries in 1996 which ran for 4 issues and finally received her own ongoing solo series in July 2014.

In 2000, Marvel released a new ‘universe’ of comics, known as the Ultimate Marvel which reimagined a number of Marvel characters in a new way. Spider Man was one of these. In 2011, Miles Morales took up the mantle of the recently killed Peter Parker in the role of Spider Man. The character of Morales was Black-Hispanic, and while some were disappointed at the killing of Parker (although Parker was alive and remained Spider Man in the main run of the comics), others claimed that it was publicity stunt and political correctness. Others, including an article in the New York Times and Spider Man’s creator Stan Lee, lauded the change citing it as a positive for non-white children to see a character that looked like them. Despite claims of a publicity stunt, Morales still continues to appear in the comics, and his own run ran for just over two years.

Another character changed in Ultimate Marvel was Nick Fury who had traditionally been portrayed as a white man in the main run of the comics. This Nick Fury’s appearance was based on that of actor Samuel L. Jackson. After the first comic in 2002 featuring Fury, Jackson contacted Marvel about appearing as Fury in any movies featuring the character. He made his first appearance as Fury in a post credits scene of Iron Man in 2008. While this version of Fury has yet to headline his own series, he has played a major part in many of the storylines in the Ultimate universe as the General of S.H.I.E.L.D and as the leader of a reimaging of the Avengers known as the Ultimates.

Of course the majority of the population’s exposure to comic books is via movies and television. The earliest representation was Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in 1967 in the third season of the Batman TV series. The role had earlier been played by a white actress who was unable to reappear. This was not just unique for black representation in comic book adaptions but also for black representation on TV, with Kitt being one of the first black women on mainstream TV. Beginning in 2001, Smallville ran for 10 seasons focusing on the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman. The only black regular character, Pete Ross played by Sam Jones III, left the show at the end of the show’s third season. Two members of the Justice League, Cyborg (Victor Stone) and Martian Manhunter (John Jones) were played by black actors along with Amanda Waller, a prominent character in a number of DC properties. Waller is also portrayed in the show Arrow, focusing on the character Oliver Queen as he becomes the Green Arrow, which is due to start its third season this autumn, in a recurring capacity. The show also introduced John Diggle, a character created purely for the show played by David Ramsey. Since his introduction, the character has been added to the comics. Like Ross in Smallville, Diggle plays the confidant role to the lead, although so far the character has fared better as Diggle has been given several storylines that are separate from the white lead. A spin off from Arrow, The Flash, which premieres this Autumn, has two of the characters Iris West and her father Detective Joe West cast with black actors, Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin whereas their comic book counterparts were white. Another two DC television shows to premiere this year with characters not from their respective comic books, Gotham and Constantine have Jada Pinkett Smith and Harold Perrineau. On the Marvel front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has no black characters in its regular cast but has 3 in its recurring cast. J. August Richards plays the superhero Deathlok along with Ruth Negga and B.J. Britt playing characters unique to the show (although in the case of Negga, her character could easily turn out to be a comic book character). Our first black lead should come with the Netflix series around Luke Cage, although the part has yet to be cast, and its future could possibly rely on the success of the Daredevil series that will precede it.

While not technically a superhero film, the Blade franchise was (and still is) the only comic book franchise led by a black actor. Starting in 1998, Blade a dhampir played by Wesley Snipes was the protagonist. The films were a financial success following with Blade II in 2002 and Blade Trinity in 2004. Two factors delayed Blade 4. First was a dispute between Snipes and the studio that his role was marginalised in favour of two white supporting characters and accusations of racism from the writer/producer/director David S. Goyer and crew. Snipes also claimed that in previous films that an effort had been made to employ a multi-racial crew but on Blade Trinity only white crew were intentionally hired. Then Snipes’ subsequent imprisonment for tax evasion meant the film was put into limbo and the rights to the character have now reverted to Marvel Studios (the rights to the character Blade and numerous others had been sold to other studios in the 1990s when Marvel Studios were facing financial issues), which further puts the film in limbo, although Snipes has said he would return to the character. Blade laid the foundations for many of the comic book movies that would start in the early 2000s, it was commercially successful and after the failure of Batman and Robin proved a comic book movie could become a franchise. The fact that Blade was led by a black actor should not be forgotten, despite many comic book movies ignoring their black characters. Without a black character, studios may have not taken a chance on the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man.

Catwoman is the only other comic book movie that has a black lead, with Halle Berry playing the titular character in 2004. However, unlike Blade, the film was a box office bomb and was critically panned. The film, along with Elektra (another bomb), is often used as an excuse for not producing a female led superhero or comic book film. The fact that a comic book movie hasn’t had a black lead (or a lead who wasn’t Caucasian) since Catwoman would suggest that Catwoman may be used as an excuse for that too. In reality, the writing of the film has been considered poor by reviewers especially considering that the film was only a Catwoman film in name, as the character’s alter ego Selina Kyle is not the lead (or present in the film) nor does it share the Batman universe that the character inhibits.

Since 2000 there have been over 40 movies based on comic books. Before 2000, with the exception of the Superman and Batman franchises, the majority of comic book adaptations were television series or movies released on TV or straight to video. With the exception of the two above, these have generally had white leads, with black characters often playing supporting or minor roles. As can be seen in the list below, I could only find 39 named characters that were played by black actors (the list might not be 100% accurate as I have not watched every film nor did IMDB have an image of every actor). As can be seen the vast majority of these films only had one named black character. Other racial groups fare generally worse, with East Asians the only group coming anywhere near the amount of black characters in these films, which shows a complete and utter lack of diversity. This has been noted by some of the actors who have played these roles. Djimon Hounsou who played Korath in Guardians of the Galaxy explained he took the role because: “I have a four-year old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes. One day he looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’  That was sort of a shock. This is why I am excited to be a part of the Marvel Universe, so I could be hopefully provide that [sic] diversity in the role of the superhero.” Hounsou’s comments reflect the feeling that for the sake of children’s identity, and despite some people’s belief, diverse casting is important.

Even the more diverse franchises such as X-Men have been criticised. Halle Berry, who plays Storm in four of the films, had to petition to have a larger role in the X-Men: The Last Stand despite playing one of the most significant X-Men characters. X-Men: First Class was also fiercely criticised after killing Darwin halfway through the movie and having Angel, the only other black character switch sides (!SPOILER for Days of Future Past! – Angel was also then killed off-screen much to the fury of some fans).

The Avengers films have also been criticised, with no non-white leads for its first nine movies. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana, a black actress was cast as the female lead (and the one named black female character in all 10 films) but her character was an alien and Saldana was covered in green paint. The films have been criticised for their lack of women, especially with no female fronted film; this is even more pointedly obvious when Saldana is the only non-white woman to appear in the 10 films produced.

Black characters in the Avengers films have been significant supporting roles, most prominently Nick Fury, James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, also known as War Machine, and Sam Wilson as mentioned above, the Falcon. These characters have been incredibly important to the plot and supported the white leads; they are all characters that could headline their own films. With the focus so far on the big four of the Marvel universe (at least out of the properties that Marvel Entertainment own the rights too), it is not surprising that there has been a lack of black characters in the films. At least in the case of Rhodes and Wilson, who both play significant roles in the comics, they weren’t ignored completely. However Marvel is rapidly running out of excuses for its poor show on diversity, not just racially.

The most popular way to increase diversity in such films has been to cast non-white actors as traditionally white characters, similar to several of the TV shows above. This is mostly due to the age of many of the popular comic book characters, with so many premiering before even the most minimal attempts were made at diversity often these comics have all-white casts of characters. Although even more recent comics are not necessarily much better in this respect. For example Michael Duncan Clarke played Kingpin in Daredevil and Jamie Foxx played Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which allowed both actors to play major roles. While black superheroes sometimes struggle to be known by the public, black supervillains are even less well known. However this does not sometimes go without controversy. When Idris Elba was cast as Hemidall in Thor, known as “the whitest of the gods” and portrayed as white in both comics and mythology, there were a number of people who criticised the casting. In response, Elba pointed out the most glaringly obvious truth: “Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

Black representation in comics has been slow and fairly limited, especially in main roles. This has also been similarly reflected in the film and television adaptations. While there have been attempts to increase diversity these have failed to make much change. While Miles Morales has had decent sales, he has been unable to compare to Peter Parker. Part of this problem is falling comic book sales, the most successful are generally the more established books such as Batman. It is difficult for less established characters or new characters to break through. Perhaps the best attempt to do this is to introduce more black representation into film and television adaptations and make more of an attempt to encourage such viewers to buy comics. As we attempt to move into a more integrated society the lack of black representation is problematic (as is racial representation in general) and perhaps in future at the centre of the origin stories, racism won’t be a major or core factor.

Film Year Character Actor Size of Role Existing Comic Book Character/For Film
Superman III 1983 Gus Gorman Richard Pryor Major For Film
Batman 1989 Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent Existing but Caucasian in comics, subsequently replaced by Caucasian actor in sequel
Batman Forever 1995 Margaret Kimberly Scott Minor For Film
X-Men 2000 Storm Halle Berry Major Existing
Spider-Man 2002 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting Existing
Daredevil 2003 Kingpin Michael Duncan Clarke Major Existing, but Caucasian in comics
X2: X-Men United 2003 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 2 2004 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Catwoman 2004 Catwoman Halle Berry Lead Existing, however is not the character’s alter ego
Elektra 2005 Stone Bob Sapp Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Constantine 2005 Midnite Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing
Dr. Leslie Archer April Grace Minor New
Batman Begins 2005 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting Existing
Colin McFarlane Police Commissioner Loeb Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Fantastic Four 2005 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 3 2007 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2007 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting See Above
General Hager Andre Braugher Supporting New
Iron Man 2008 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Terrence Howard Supporting Existing
The Incredible Hulk 2008 General Joe Greller Peter Mensah Minor New
The Dark Knight 2008 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Police Commissioner Loeb Colin McFarlane Supporting See Above
Gambol Michael Jai White Minor New
The Spirit 2008 Octopus Samuel L. Jackson Major Existing
Punisher: War Zone 2008 Paul Budiansky Colin Salmon Supporting Existing
Watchmen 2009 Office Kirkpatrick Colin Lawrence Minor New
X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 John Wraith Will.i.am Supporting Existing
Iron Man 2 2010 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting See Above
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
Thor 2011 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in Comics
Agent Garrett Dale Godboldo Minor New
X-Men First Class 2011 Angel Salvadore Zoe Kravitz Supporting Existing
Darwin Edi Gathegi Supporting Existing
Green Lantern 2011 Amanda Waller Angela Basset Supporting Existing
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011 Gabe Jones Derek Luke Supporting Existing
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 2012 Moreau Idris Elba Supporting New
The Avengers 2012 Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2012 Miss Ritter Barbara Eve Harris Minor New
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Crispus Allen Rob Brown Minor Existing
Iron Man 3 2013 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting Existing
Man of Steel 2013 Perry White Laurence Fishburne Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in comics
Thor: The Dark World 2013 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting See Above
Captain America: The Winter Solider 2014 Sam Wilson (Falcon) Anthony Mackie Supporting Existing
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 2014 Electro Jamie Foxx Major Existing but Caucasian in the comics
X-Men Days of Future Past 2014 Storm Halle Berry Supporting See Above
Bishop Omar Sy Supporting Existing
Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 Gamora Zoe Saldana Major Existing, both in comics and film character has green skintone
Korath Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing but skintone is blue in comics

Bibliography

Nama, A., Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Texas, 2011)

Idris Elba defends Thor Film Role: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/27/idris-elba-thor-race-debate

Comic Con 2013: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Cast Talk Rocket Raccoon and Playing Badasses: http://screencrave.com/2013-07-21/san-diego-comiccon-2013-guardians-galaxy-cast-surprise-appearance-talk-antiheroes-coming-providing-diversity-alligators/

Visual Media: A Historian’s Black Sheep

Today I am going to share something very dear for me with you all. As you may know we are starting this month with our Cultural Studies theme. This means that I am allowed to be overenthusiastic about my research- HISTORY AND THE VISUAL MEDIA!

Lately I have been developing work and research on how we as a society represent the past- my case study is the Vikings, and particularly Old Norse Women- in our visual culture. By this I mean any image, in any way, shape or form, although my preferred sources are comic books and TV series. Why is this? Well, apart from the fact that I am a big fan of these media, I find fascinating how much information these sources provide about our own society as well as the one that is being evoked in them.

Continue reading “Visual Media: A Historian’s Black Sheep”

Augustus and Divine Imagery

Emperors in the Roman Empire would frequently manipulate their public image to convey their best aspects, whether fact or fantasized, and further their private imagery to cement private belief in himself as a righteous ruler, so much so that even they would fall into the deception themselves. The Emperor Augustus, known initially as Octavian, was well-regarded as the ‘saviour of Rome’, the princeps that brought Rome into their golden age of prosperity and restored the Roman Republic, and as such he was often portrayed as something of a god among mortals, sent to help the Roman Empire in its time of need. His achievements many, the reorganisation of the coinage ‘into a single precious-metal currency system’ and in his actions taken to ‘defeat the men “who butchered my father”’, Augustus portrayed himself as if he were ‘executor of a divine mission’ and claimed that ‘he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble’.

Augustus chose to be addressed differently during his rise to power and success to accrue nothing less than reverence from the Roman people. He was born Gaius Octavius from his biological father and later expanded to the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, as he was named Caesar’s son and heir by his will in 45 BC. The meaning of the name Augustus, which was bestowed upon him by the Senate on 16th January 27 BC, carried with it ideas of superhuman status, from the Latin ‘augere‘ meaning ‘to increase’, connected also with ‘augurium‘ and the religious connotations of augury, further linking Augustus into the realms of Romulus, the founder of Rome, ‘and elevated him beyond mortal limits’. In 27 BC, the Senate agreed to officially and legally recognise Julius Caesar as a god, cementing the legislative amendments he made in his time as dictator and subsequently condemning objections. In this move, Octavian ‘was now able to describe himself as divi filius – son of a god’, ignoring his adoption into the Caesar family tree, but ‘son of a new god and as such “holy” and venerable himself’. In his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus describes that laurels symbolic of his adoptive father were placed at his door that day, a shrub which also links to the god of music, Apollo, further cementing Augustus’ belief in his strong connections with the god. Appealing to his connections with Apollo, in October 28 BC, Augustus ‘dedicated a huge new Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill near his home’ to give thanks for the god’s assistance in his substantial victory at Actium, which is frequently described by poets as a decisive victory thanks to ‘Actian Apollo’s interventions. Augustus mentions this temple in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a signal of his pride in his achievements and a reminder to readers of his connection with the god.

In Roman civilisation, both members of high and low society would utilise the inscription on their graves to impart the story of their lives, however fabricated, from beyond the grave, to attract attention and worship from passers-by. Augustus’ inscription on The Monumentum Ancyranum, known as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, is described as ‘perhaps the most interesting and important inscription that has ever come to light’, a ‘dying statement of the founder of the Roman Principate’. Intended to be presented as two bronze tablets outside his mausoleum in the Campus Martius to the effect that masses of sightseers and worshippers would read them in passing for religious festivals and games, the best surviving copy was found on the walls of a presumed temple to Augustus and Rome at Ancyra, while a further copy was also discovered in the Greek colony of Apollonia which Augustus himself founded The document is one of three records that Augustus wrote to be read out in the senate after his death, and conveys in his own words Augustus’ views of his grand achievements for Rome, ‘extinguished civil war’ for one, and as such he details the honours bestowed upon him by the Senate . However extensive the information featured on the inscription, historians must remain aware that the purpose of such self-epitaphs are to form the reader’s perception of the life of that person as opposed to relaying accurate events.

The statue of Augustus of Prima Porta is a prime example of his public image of divinity and righteousness, displaying numerous ecclesiastical figures such as Apollo and Diana while also commemorating Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra with the presence of a Sphinx relief. Frequently depicted in statues such as the Prima Porta with a figure of Cupid riding a dolphin at his foot, Augustus attested to his divine right to the Roman throne of power through his connections with the son of Venus through his adopted father Julius Caesar. In striking comparison with passages of the Aeneid, the Prima Porta also displays Augustus’ strong links with Aeneas, his attire resembles Aeneas himself as he encouraged the surrender of a Roman eagle standard from the hands of a barbarian. His divine ancestor Aeneas often features in Augustus’ imagery in an attempt to confirm that his ascent to power in Rome had been organised by the gods for centuries. Depicted as a ‘god upon Earth’, Augustus is presented without a helmet and barefoot, an unlikely choice in preparation for the battlefield, but instead presents a god-like immortality to Augustus. Similar to the images we see on Augustan coinage, barbarians are pictured falling to their knees in the face of a mighty Augustan empire. The coinage that was distributed throughout Rome was more emotionally attached than it is to us today, the figures that appeared on its face were venerable guards of the individual’s monetary riches. On the face of an Augustan coin, the letters RPC, representative of rei publicae constitutendae, appear in a triangle similar to the symbol of Apollo, ‘whom he considered his personal tutelary deity’. The emperor is depicted on the face of the denarius as a strong link between Rome and the provinces, and their gratitude for Augustus’ actions towards the end of civil war and corruption was frequently bestowed in the form of ‘nearly divine honours’.

On the other hand, this idea of a revered emperor above all would have never gained ground had the populace of Rome and the provinces not bought into the idea themselves. Most of the divinity bestowed upon Augustus was beyond his control but a mere by-product of widespread public worship. During his lifetime, Augustus was considered a divine figure in the Roman world as a response to his epic achievements in the development of the Roman Empire, not the image he carved for himself in stone. Upon his return after the successful defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, ‘he entered Rome to a welcome fit for a semi-divine hero’, revered through religious chants and libations under Senate orders. Following this heroic victory against the alien Egyptian queen, Augustus had become ‘the one who effectively made and interpreted the laws’ and rebuked any contest to his claim of real power as the primus inter pares, the ‘first among equals’. The imperial cult forged around Augustus by the worshipping public acknowledged his ‘more than human greatness’ under a Greek model of individual worship which involved ‘thanks, praise, speeches, song, communal activities, monuments, and worship in seamless series’, that had been bestowed upon the Romans, ‘the most emphatic and precious ones being, in the end, no less than the due of Augustus’. Sharing this view, the renowned Roman poet Ovid would frequently depict Augustus as a deity, identifying Augustus with the god Jupiter, and subsequently giving us ‘a more detailed picture of emperor worship than any Augustan poet… or perhaps any Roman poet’.

However, what happened behind closed doors in a Roman Emperor’s lifetime would mostly stay behind closed doors until his death, and it was therefore at the emperor’s discretion how he desired to be viewed by his close friends, family and dinner acquaintances. In his private life, Augustus carried forward his belief in a link to Apollo, the god of music, having once arrived at a party dressed as Apollo and was seen ‘feasting amid new adulteries of the gods’ and consequently reprimanded for his reputation as ‘Apollo the Tormentor’ fuelled by his seemingly limitless extravagance and indulgence in his personal life. However, in most social circumstances it is documented that Augustus was down-to-earth and far from godlike in his sense of humour, self-deprecating and witty, and furthermore Augustus personally refused to be referred to under titles ‘such as dictator, king, and god’ and satisfied himself with the title of princeps, the leading citizen. With regards to the titles Augustus collected in his lifetime, in his early adulthood Octavian appealed to the religious side of Rome and was appointed to ‘the priestly college of pontifices’, although his career revolved around avoiding the attentions of local ladies who would otherwise compromise his chastity. Later in 12 BC, Augustus became pontifex maximus, the position of chief priest, symbolic of his dedication to revive religious temples and festivals, which Cooley claims ‘made him appear as a new Numa, second king of Rome, notable for his religious activities, as well as a Romulus’. As such, Augustus appeared in ’20 out of his 230 surviving portraits’ draped in a veil required for sacrificial events, the most notable appearing on the altar of Augustan Peace. The land on which the Ara Pacis Augustae stands, the Campus Martius, was a dedicated area purpose-built for Augustus worship where the symbols of his self-deification are most prominent. The Ara Pacis Augustae, constructed between 13 and 9 BC, demonstrates the official interpretation of Augustus as prescribed by the principate, not so much divine but primus inter pares and a mediator between mortals and gods, while still effectively maintaining a special relationship with the immortal realm, a casual relationship which Roman art at this point had not dared to explore.

Imagery that was far less mass-produced than that of the Prima Porta, such as cameos and statuettes, displayed the Augustus that the populace rarely saw. The Gemma Augustea arguably depicts Augustus with a ‘strained, ailing, yet ideal and noble face’, yet he appears holding Jupiter’s lituus to demonstrate that he has the ‘power to interpret the will of Jupiter and is therefore subordinate to the supreme god of the Roman pantheon’. His early biographer Suetonius discovered an alternate image of Octavian to the inherent divinity expressed in his public images, a bronze statuette of Gaius Octavius as a boy with the word ‘Thurinus‘ at its base, alluding to his questionable origins in the town of Thurii, noted as the home of a servant ropemaker. When this statuette was given to the Emperor Hadrian, however, he placed it among the shrine to household gods in his palace. Furthermore a mythmaker of his own life story, Augustus claims that the stories purporting to his toga of manhood, which fell apart at the seams and flowed around his ankles, was a foundation for his future command of the Senate that would too fall ‘at his feet’.

Augustus, more so in his public imagery, portrayed his view of his own undeniable ties with the realm of the gods through his adoptive father Caesar, revered by the Senate as a god, and also through his appeal to the widely accepted gods such as Apollo and Aeneas. However, the evidence of this self-portrait of god-like stature appears as a result of the divinity given to him by his people and provinces, as the saviour of Rome, the ‘one and only absolute ruler’.

Bibliography
Cooley, Alison E., Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary, Cambridge, 2009.
Guven, Suna, ‘Displaying the Res Gestae of Augustus: A Monument of Imperial Image for All’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 57 (1998), 30-45.
Hardy, E.G., The Monumentum Ancyranum, Oxford, 1923.
Holland, Louise Adams, ‘Aeneas-Augustus of Prima Porta’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 78 (1947), 276-284.
Holland, Richard, Augustus: Godfather of Europe, Stroud, 2004.
Macmullen, Ramsay, Romanization in the Time of Augustus, London, 2000.
Raaflaub, Kurt A. and Toher, Mark, Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, London, 1990.
Shotter, David, Augustus Caesar, London, 1991.
Vermeule, Cornelius, ‘Greek and Roman Gems’, Boston Museum Bulletin, 64 (1966), 18-35.