This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 8, 2016.
Normally comics criticism focuses on entire series, issues, or (at the very least) pages. However, sometimes you need to devote some space to one very special moment. Whether it’s a single panel or a brief sequence, there are brief snippets of comics that deserve to be examined for their own properties. That’s why each week in SNAPSHOT a Comics Bulletin writer will discuss one panel of particular interest, giving the craft and meaning behind these specific moments their due.
This week’s snapshot comes from:
Silver Surfer #5 – page 2, panel 3
Written by Dan Slott and Michael Allred
Art by Michael Allred
Colors by Laura Allred
Silver Surfer has received a lot of much-deserved acclaim, singled out by multiple comics awards shows as one of the best examples of mainstream comics. It has a sense of whimsy and delight, touching upon grandiose concepts of art and humanity with a real joie de vivre. That is all present in Silver Surfer #5 where Norrin Radd is celebrated by humanity for his immense sacrifice in saving all of Earth’s culture. Along the way he is invited to a variety of cultural outings, including the one featured in this panel.
Writer Dan Slott shows off his New York roots by alluding to multiple events in the city, including this Broadway presentation. Front row seats show off the incredibly personal experience of a show with both the Surfer and Dawn Greenwood within spitting distance of the singers. This particular show is clearly meant to reference the smash hit Hamilton. The setting, the costuming, and references to difficulty of obtaining tickets (even for a global savior) all point in one direction. It’s a smartly constructed panel that touches upon something everyone is hearing about without providing so specific of a reference as to risk dating the issue.
However, there is a problem with the panel’s presentation worth noting. The coloring of all three of the actor’s faces appears to be very vague in regards to race. The two men on the sides are slightly darker in pigment. However, the lead singer is clearly caucasian, bearing a great similarity to that of Dawn albeit under different lighting and reinforced in a later panel. This would not be an issue, if it were not for the very specific meaning and themes raised by Hamilton that the panel so clearly raises.
A significant component of the casting in Hamilton is that the historically white characters are all played by men and women of varying ethnicities, predominantly black and latino. This plays a significant metatextual role within the musical’s narrative. It comments on the egalitarian nature of the “American Dream”, the universality of the narrative, and the opportunities presented to people now that were not available in 1776. It is a core part of the musical’s widespread appeal and recognizability.
The choice to remove color from a reference to Hamilton is to whitewash the play, no matter the root cause. Taking a role that would likely be filled by actors like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs and filling it with a generic white men is to remove the racial commentary from the play. At best, it can be read as a an act of ignorance unaware of the significance of race in Hamilton and the effect of white washing a leading man. At worst, it can be read as a cruel retaking of these characters based on their race. Either reading is fair though, if the work is to be taken on its own merits.
None of this is meant to cast aspersions on the creative team, much less a specific player within that team. Comics are a collaborative effort that also run through a variety of levels of editorial and legal approvals. All that can be said of this specific panel is that the choice reflected in the coloring of three faces is a mistake that places a dark light on an otherwise shining example of the comics medium.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is this: Details matter. This panel shows the same level of craft and joy as the rest of Silver Surfer #5. It is playful and fun in its set up, references, and dialogue. However, the coloring of a small percentage of the panel leads to a deeply troubling instance of white-washing that cannot be denied. It is a small portion of the book, but it is a consequential choice that shows how the smallest panel can be a big deal.