24 January 2007

Ducking Stereotypes in Abadazad

As I've discussed before, the Abadazad series of graphic novels/novel novels plays off the the Oz books and other series from decades past. One of the nifty ways its creators re-imagine those forebears is that "Little Martha," the heroine of the fictive original books about Abadazad (i.e., the equivalent of Dorothy Gale), was in fact African-American. But of course a black child wasn't marketable a hundred years ago (unless reduced to a comic stereotype, like Sambo, Epaminondas, or Herman in Penrod).

On an Oz discussion list, I once speculated on what might have happened if L. Frank Baum and John R. Neill had portrayed Betsy Bobbin, heroine of Tik-Tok of Oz, as black. As it is, she's simply a stand-in for Dorothy; her thin personality in that book fades to nothing after she reaches the Emerald City. But if Betsy were black, the book might have won a new audience in the 1960s and 1970s when librarians and teachers sought out stories with non-white protagonists--a new audience just as the Oz books started to fade from public consciousness behind the bright rainbow of the MGM movie. But of course Baum and his publishers couldn't have seriously imagined such a protagonist in 1914. The creators of Abadazad can.

At the same time, their characterization of Little Martha strikes me as dangling on the edge of a modern stereotype. Unless Martha Vaughn develops well beyond what I see in the first volume, she's a print example of that modern movie cliché, the "magical Negro."

I quote from Wikipedia (and promise I didn't make up this text there in order to quote it here):

When he first encounters the (invariably white) protagonist, the magical negro often appears as someone uneducated and in a low station of life, such as a janitor or prisoner. The black character is depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the protagonist, and the magical negro is often used as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, and to help the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them.
Other explorations of this narrative trope are available from Noel Wood, Rita Kempley, Spike Lee, and Audrey Colombe.

Obviously, the character in Abadazad doesn't serve a white male--excuse me, White Male, as most "magical Negroes" in movies do. But Martha is a crucial supernatural helper for the story's young white heroine; she provides Kate the magic necessary to reach Abadazad, and guides the girl there. Martha does appear first as someone in a lower station: an addled elderly neighbor ("totally senile," as the Abadazad website expresses Kate's thoughts). She's obviously going to help Kate recognize her faults and overcome her problems.

But it's not clear why Little Martha is doing any of that. I think that's the main giveaway of a "magical Negro" or similar sacrificial characters: they don't have motivations or desires of their own. Why besides wise altruism does Little Martha help Kate, and what will happen if their interests diverge?


Gail Gauthier said...

I think you make a good point. I felt Kate was a stereotype, too. She's very much the troubled older child/early teen from contemporary kidlit. She doesn't get along with her mother, and she carries a painful burden.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I unloaded on Kate as my first reaction to reading volume 1.

Gail Gauthier said...

Ah. Yes. I did recall you writing about this series before, but I was on vacation that week and had to skim when I was catching up.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm just glad somebody agrees with me. The only thing worse than an angry adolescent is an angry adolescent who's been told that she's a cliché, and not a rebel after all.