A Pair of Brown Eyes

On my classroom wall is a world map, and it's one that has occasioned commentary from a number of viewers because, as they put it, "It looks wrong."  It's this--the Peters Projection World Map:

Peters projection World map.jpg

And of course, it IS wrong, because it's a two-dimensional map of a three-dimensional object: the globe.  You can't turn a curved map into a flat map without distorting something--either the shape of the continents or the size of them.  The most familiar map projection, the Mercator projection, distorts their relative sizes in order to preserve their shapes, which is why the island of Greenland looks far larger than the continent of Australia.  Anything close to the poles looks bigger than it really is, while anything close to the equator looks smaller. 

Unfortunately, the practical reason for the Mercator projection--preserving the shapes of the landmasses it delineates--is accompanied by unintended consequences: making certain places on the globe look bigger and more important, while others appear smaller and less significant.  And since the bigger places include northern Europe and North America, while the smaller places include Africa, India, and Latin America, you can sort of understand why a person of African, Asian, or Hispanic origin might view using the Mercator projection as a political decision, not just a cartographic one.

That's one reason I use the Peters projection, which preserves size at the expense of shape.  Anything near the poles is flattened out horizontally, while anything near the equator is stretched vertically, but you can tell at a glance that Australia is a continent and Greenland is only a big island, and that Europe is a tiny place in comparison to the massive expanse of Africa.  The Peters projection forces the viewer to remember that a map is not the territory it shows.  A map is only a human tool for understanding reality, not the reality itself.  The tools we choose to use, however, do have an effect on our understanding; you've all heard about the viewpoint of a carpenter whose only tool is a hammer.

And speaking of hammers, one of them is famously wielded by a guy from northern Europe, the Norse thunder god Thor.  In his comic-book incarnation, the Mighty Thor is a member of the Avengers, Marvel's super-team supreme, alongside Iron Man, Captain America, and dozens of others.  Their compatriots over at DC Comics are of course the Justice League of America, which includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other heroes, and about five years ago, the two rival publishers decided to let the two teams do what fanboys have been praying for since they were tiny little fantoddlers: beat the crap out of each other.

Well, it wasn't quite that blatant.  But the issue of whether Superman could beat up Thor has been a long-standing and insoluble argument in fandom for decades, the four-color equivalent of "Did Adam have a navel?" So long as they appeared in books from different companies, there was no way to settle it, but in 2003, two grown-up fanboys were finally given the task of creating a comic in which the two could meet, along with all their teammates, and see who was stronger than whom.  Writer Kurt Busiek (best known as the creator of Marvels and the PoMo superhero title Astro City) and artist George Perez (the affable fan-favorite penciller of everything from Teen Titans to Wonder Woman to The Avengers) were given this plum assignment, and Busiek cemented his fanboy cred by borrowing the plot of the legendary Steve Englehart Avengers/Defenders crossover from the mid-70s, but that's not important right now.

What's important is what I noticed when looking at the cover of the first issue this morning:

JLA Avengers Cover.jpg

(If you don't know all the characters here, let me help: in the back row is Thor, with Iron Man to his right.  In the middle row is Superman, with Batman to his right and the winsome Wasp hovering between them.  In front of them is Wonder Woman, with Captain America standing at the bottom right and the Atom standing on Cap's shoulder.

The cover wraps around to the back, though you can't see it here, and features JLA members Plastic Man, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter, as well as veteran Avengers the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Yellowjacket, Quicksilver, She-Hulk, and Hawkeye, plus a few also-rans like Warbird and Jack of Hearts.)

What I noticed is that the above cover is in its way a tights-clad version of the Mercator projection.

You may not be able to see it in the above scan, and you certainly can't see it on the back cover unless you buy it, but there's something statistically startling about the assemblage of heroes: of the twenty-two people on the cover, exactly ONE has brown eyes.  He's also the only African-American.  He's the lesser-known Marvel hero Triathlon, who was on the team for a few years, but who's unlikely to appear in the upcoming Avengers movie.

But seriously, think about this:  in both the Marvel and DC universes, the greatest heroes are all blue-eyed.  With most of them it's obvious: Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman all keep their baby-blues visible to the world, as do Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Quicksilver.  Batman's eyes are usually shown as white slits, but under that cowl, Bruce Wayne is blue-eyed.  Same with the eyes inside Tony Stark's Iron Man helmet.  A few heroes manage to have green eyes--unsurprisingly, Green Lantern and She-Hulk do--and the Scarlet Witch is shown with green eyes on Perez's cover, though her wiki article at Marvel.com lists her eye color as blue.  The only heroes without light eyes on this cover are inhuman--the red-eyed Martian Manhunter and the android Vision, whose eyes are red but usually shown as black--or dark-skinned.

And it's not just the Avengers and the JLA, either.  The Fantastic Four features a pair of blue-eyed blonde siblings and Ben Grimm, a/k/a "the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing."  The Teen Titans are crawling with blue-eyed (Kid Flash, Robin/Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Raven) or green-eyed (Beast Boy/Changeling, Starfire) members.  Daredevil, Elektra, and the Black Widow are all blue-eyed. The X-Men have mutants with eyes of various weird shades (glowing red for Cyclops, glowing yellow for Nightcrawler, frequently white for Colossus and Storm), but the ones with human eyes (Professor X, Wolverine, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, ) almost invariably have blue or green ones.

I know exactly why this is the case, of course.  Comics were for years printed with what's known as the four-color model, using ink of the colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (or blue, red, yellow, and black, for the layman.)  Each area on the page was printed using combinations of those four colors in various intensities.  To get brown, the colorist had to apply three separate color screens of red, blue, and yellow ink, while blue required only one.  Unsurprisingly, most artists found it easier (and neater) for early comics characters to have blue eyes, and not infrequently blue hair as well (since the highlights of their black hair were usually shown in the same bright blue).  Green was a second choice for eyes, and yellow for hair, but in both cases, brown was frequently seen as more trouble than it was worth. It took more ink, it required more precision (to get all three screens precisely in the irises and/or hairdo), and when all the heroes where WASPs, it didn't seem important.

Well.  Times change.  DC's characters have older pedigrees than Marvel's, generally speaking, so the number of blue-eyed DC heroes isn't surprising.  Since 1961, however, Marvel has introduced a number of successful characters, but only a relative few have brown eyes, including Reed Richards and most of Marvel's various non-white heroes such as the Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Shang-Chi.  (Spider-Man has hazel eyes, though they're usually colored as brown, and appear white under his mask.)

But still, we're left with unintended consequences: the overwhelming image of super-heroism can easily be seen as the province of white people, and not merely white people, but downright Aryan people.  When ordinary folks are in danger, a phalanx of pale-skinned blue-eyed powerhouses will appear out of nowhere to save them.

Speaking as a brown-eyed handsome man myself, I can certainly say that I'm not, y'know, intimidated by the preponderance of blue-eyed heroes, but I have to wonder what kind of unconscious message people pick up on when they spend decades reading comics.  Do they tend to assume, as users of the Mercator projection can easily do, that the representation of heroism that they're used to is some kind of statement about real heroism?  Maybe, maybe not. And I don't think the comics publishers, any more than Mercator himself, are engaging in some kind of Aryan conspiracy to lower the self-esteem of dark-eyed people from southern climes.

But what a horrible thing it would be for a kid to see a brown-eyed man or woman stand up to protect the innocent, or to strike fear in the hearts of evil-doers, and think "That looks wrong."

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on November 22, 2008 11:36 AM.

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