Saturday, July 12, 2008

Follow up on the Memin Pinguin situation.

Yesterday post gathered a lot of responses, not here on my blog but on the blogs that linked to it. I'm glad I took my time to read those answers, even if I still don't know if it would be wise to answer them one by one, because it really nailed it to me what the whole problem is.

American people are complaining about the ART in Memin Pinguin, more specifically, the way Memin and his mom are drawn.

Mexican people are defending the STORY of Memin Pinguin, trying to put some emphasis on the fact that it was the story we paid attention to, not the art that sure is dated.

As long as the argument runs around those lines, we're not going to get anywhere.

So I was talking with my business partner Aurea Freniere, and we decided that while we don't have the power to change the way in which Memin was drawn, and the industry in our country is not in the shape to support a complete re-make of the series, we can at the very least do something to show that we understand the problem and that, if we could, we would change it, and, at the same time, try and showcase exactly why we love Memin and his pro-equality (Because, in the end, Memin preaches equality in every way) message.

Yesterday I made an open call in my DeviantArt account to all mexican and spanish-speaking members who knew Memin to redesign Memin. To take him away from the racist and stereotypical designs from which he took influence as a drawing, and instead focus on the good things he gave us. To show how we wish Memin looked now so his message wouldn't be lost and we could have avoided both controversies. After all, we can't expect every one who sees Memin in the states to understand Spanish enough to understand the context, and while I still maintain that before condemning the whole country as racist and ignorant the people behind the media reports should've done a better research, I am not saying that people in general got offended 'for nothing'. They had the right to be offended, they had the right to protest, and I hope this shows that, even when we're powerless to make a bigger change (say, get that modernized comic), we understand, and we're willing to learn and to change for the better.

And if you're still interested on this whole thing three months from now, tune in here for the announcement of the page where Aurea and I will recopilate all the new Memines.

I firmly believe something good can came out of all this, that we can use this to understand each other, and make those cultural differences smaller, respecting both cultures at the same time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The trouble with Memin Pinguin.

I read Journalista in a sort of daily basis, but this is the first time I've felt compelled to write a long post over a story I found there. The story in question is the Top Story of yesterday, where a woman in Texas found an old Memin comic being sold, bought it and promptly declared it racist and offensive.


This is not the first time that Memin has caused controversy on the states, but last time I held on hopes that someone from my country would step up and explain what Memin is about, but no one did. Most of the posts in México were about how hystericals americans were at some stuff, not delving in the fact that there's a huge cultural difference between the States and México, and that most of the problem American's have with Memin is due to those cultural differences.

First point in fact: There's not that much racism in México against PoC. We have our own problems against the indigenous habitants, but not against PoC, and that makes us have troubles to relate to the situation north our border. What we have is a huge problem of class discrimination. Upper class looks down on Middle Class, who looks down on the poor. You could have green skin and purple hair but as long as you don't stray away from your own economical class, no one would bat an eye at you. If pressed, I'd say we have a huge discrimination trouble against Spainards in a very intricate level, mostly because a little over 200 years after our Independence from them, we still haven't forgiven them for Hernan Cortes.

Second point: No one in this huge complains against Memin has ever tried to actually read the whole story. I know it's daunting, as last I checked it ran around the 200 issues, but they could ask about it to people who had read it. Because when you get Memin in context, the story is quite different from what you might guess at the covers, or at a single issue.

The Wikipedia entry on Memin touches it a bit, but it doesn't quite goes in depth enough to explain why Memin is so popular here, or why no one in their right minds see him as a racist caricature. (I am aware of the history of the depiction of PoC in the States, and that Memin does borrow from those stereotypes, but again, history of both countries is completely different, and in 1940's, when Memin was created, even in America people didn't bat an eye to those representations. We have to remember that Memin is not being re-drawn, but reprinted. And knowing Sixto Valencia's art (the man behind Memin) if he had designed Memin now and not then, the kid would look completely different)

Created by Yolanda Vargas Duché, the first woman writing comics in México, hailed by many as the Queen of soaps, Memin Pinguin usually tackled social problems but it was very rare that Memin's skin color was actively addressed. In the very first issue, his classmates and professor are shocked to see him there, but it's not due to his skin color, but because he's very small, and thus, they all assume he's very young so he should be in another class. Once that mix up is cleared, Memin is just another student, nothing more and nothing less. To the seven year old reader that I was -and to many like me- it was Ricardo, the blond blue eyed rich boy, who was out of place in that class room.
He was a rich kid who was going to public school because his father wanted him to learn to fend for himself, snobish and standoffish at first, and he seemed like a sore thumb in a class filled with brown haired kids. They all also made him know it, and here's where we go back to class discrimination. The poor 'good' kids wouldn't give the rich 'bad' kid the time of the day, because he was rich. He didn't belong there, and he would never belong there.

Until Memin decided to befriend him, that is, and he became the fourth in the gang conformed by Memin, Carlos, the rude mouthy kid raised by a single mom (Like Memin himself, only due to very different causes), and Ernesto, the quiet, smart kid who was the very end of the social scale, being the poorest of the four.

In the run of the comic, only the villains of the piece tend to try and make Memin feel bad for his skin color. Ernesto's father starts the story being an alcoholic carpenter, so poor that his son has to go to school without shoes, and who spends most of the time completely out of his mind. At one point, in the middle of delirious tremens, he calls Memin 'the Devil'; later on, after Ernestillo almost dies due to alcohol poisoning, the father reforms, never drinks again, and becomes one of many Memin's friends, never mentioning again that particular bout of delirium. Carlos's paternal grandmother, who is a very rich woman set in never letting Carlos's father marry his mother (Carlos's mother is a prostitute, even when the comic calls her a cabaret dancer, it's obvious what she does. Carlos's father is upper class, and left her before Carlos was born, and there's a bit of soap-operaish plot going on that leds to Carlos and his father being reunited). However, the old grandma is more concerned about Ernesto stealing her silver, than about Memin being roaming around the house, and after a very tear-inducing issue, Memin also wins over the old woman and she repents of all her previous cruelty, little before dying.

Here I'd make a pause to mention that the only real happy family of the whole thing, the ones who didn't had a soap-operaish past, and whose only problem was the lack of money which is still true to this day for many Mexican families, were Memin and his mother, who was also the most important figure of authority for the gang, over their teacher and Ricardo's father. Even the teacher and Ricardo's father would bow down to Eufrosina's authority at times.

There are, however, three times when race does comes into play. At least, the ones I remember from the 200 and so issues. (In fact, they were short stories into themselves. Mrs. Duche spent far more time in Carlos's subplot with his mom, or with Memin confronting his own fat predjudice -although at the time it wasn't called that- than with race itself). The first one I remember, and I'd like to say it was the first chronologically speaking but I'm talking from memory so I might be wrong, was when Memin and the gang entered the Boy Scouts, with the help of Ricardo's father. The Troupe leader, upon seeing Memin, declares that in the Boy Scouts there's no place for those of 'his kind', and refuses to let him go with the rest of the group. Upon hearing that, Carlos first decks the troupe leader, then they smuggle Memin into the excursion and later, when the troupe leader still won't change his mind, they leave the camp because if the Boy scouts don't want Memin, then the gang doesn't want the Boy Scouts. (I think that was the time when Memin tried to wash himself with milk, under the belief that it would lighten his skin, but upon seeing his mother's dismay at that situation, he realized that the problem wasn't his skin color, but the hate filled mind of the Scout troup leader. If it wasn't that storyline, it was in one of the other two, but I honestly can't remember it right now)

The second one, and probably the most offensive to Americans was when, for some reason I can't remember, the school football team wins some tournament and is selected to go to play against an American team in Texas. The whole gang is on the team, and so they go. This cover, that I found thanks to Supermexicanos, shows pretty much the summary of that particular storyline when Memin faces for the first time in his young life institutional racism. While he had met some nasty people like the aforementioned scout leader, he had never been denied service in any place, or treated like if he was somewhat inferior until he had gone to the States. In the story, he and Carlos go to have a milkshake, and when the man refuses to serve Memin, Carlos gets angry, ends up hitting the man (A very common thing with Carlos, he always tried to solve things by fighting) and both Memin and Carlos find themselves in Jail, so Carlos's father, Ricardo's father and Carlos's texan aunt have to get them out of the mess.

The third one, and my personal favorite to explain why Memin isn't racist and in fact can be used to teach kids that racism is wrong, is when Memin and the gang are going to have their First Communion (Another cultural thing here. Even when we do have freedom of religion, and there are many different religions in Mexico, everyone is assumed to be Catholic until there's evidence that they're not, so seeing this type of religion storylines in comics is not even considered propaganda. It just is). At one point, another kid in sunday school points out to Memin that he is wasting his time, he's going to go to hell even if he has his first communion because there are only white angels in heaven. As a proof, he shows Memin all the paintings in the church where of course, all the angels are white and blond haired.

Memin gets so disheartened at that, that he really decides that there's no point in being a good kid, and so he starts not talking to his friends, being mean to people, talking back to grown ups, not doing his homework and so on. It takes a bit of sleuthing from his teacher, his friends and the priest to figure out what is the problem, and the solution presented by the priest is simple: He sends the gang to buy some brown paint, and task them to paint some of the angels in the murals black, because of course, even if they weren't painted by the artist, there are angels of color in heaven. That gives Memin hope, and he finally makes peace with his friends. The kid who started the problem though, if I recall correctly, is expelled from Sunday school.

Now, Memin was created back in 1940, and it hasn't changed since then. Should he get a revamped version, that draws less from the old design? Maybe, if they were paying Mr. Sixto Valencia, the artist (Mrs. Duche died a while ago) for redrawing his old work. As things stands now, what Editorial Vid is doing (And had been doing for a while even before the stamps controversy three years ago) is just reprint the old material, exactly in the same way as it had been published back then. There is no modernization, no attempt to make the material more current (And trust me, there's more than just Memin's appearance that reads dated when you start reading the whole story, for instance, the much critiziced corporal punishment against Memin by his mom. In 1940, mothers were expected to do that. Or have we forgotten all those Superman covers where Superman is spanking someone, or getting spanked?) and I don't think there's any interest for it to be. While Memin is a very loved character, and his comic has been reprinted at least 5 times if my memory serves, mexican comic books aren't treated with much importance by Mexican business, mostly because they 'don't sell' and thus, a modernization of Memin is probably seen as a useless risk. Reprinting makes money with very little cost for them, so it's seen as risk free.

Oh, one final word. There's a lot said about the language used against Memin (I've even read a blog that translated parts of it, by a man who claims to be fluent in both languages but obviously fails at contextual reading), but most of it forgets one thing: In Mexico, 'Negro' is not an insult, and, when used by members of your own family, or very close friends, is usually a term of endearment. So when Memin's mom calls him "condenado negro" (lit. "Damn Black") what she is saying in spanish is equivalent to a mother calling his kid 'naughty boy' even if the words literally say something different. But then translation is a tricky business, and usually, a literal translation will only translate words, but not real meanings especially if those meanings are culturally charged.

ETA: I sent my post to Journalista, because I feel strongly about finding solutions to cultural differences, and I see that it's been posted on other sites, sparkling discussion in them. I am now thorn between going there and explaining one point that seems that I failed to make clearly, or just editing, so I will do the editing. Hopefully, the people who already read the post and didn't comment here will read it. If not, at any rate, it is a point that should be cleared.

I am completely aware on how anyone living in the United States (Or, I'd even risk to say, outside Latin America) can be offended by Memin's looks (and, by extension, how his mother looks). He is, after all, drawn in the same fashion as many people of color were ridiculed back in 1940, and yes, that is offensive, and, even if I'm pretty sure that neither Mr. Sixto Valencia nor Mrs. Duché intended it to be, racist. That should not be up to discussion, and I'm really ashamed that I couldn't make that clear. I wish Editorial Vid (Because the Mexican Goverment has nothing to do with Memin or its publication) had the good will to ask Mr. Sixto to re-design Memin and redraw the old stories. It would be a win-win situation. We could keep the anti-racist message that Mexicans love so much, lose the ugly stereotypes that make that same message get lost, and Mr. Sixto would get paid more, but I honestly doubt it will ever happen due to the bad shape the comic industry in this country is in. My only point with all of this was to put a bit of perspective on the history of the comics, and to why so many mexicans defend Memin. Mostly? They aren't talking about the art, but about the story.

In any case, I also like to thank those commenters I read in those other blogs (That you can see in posts linking to this blog), because they have made me think a lot about not only the issue of Memin, but also how we all see our cultural neighbors. And that maybe a good subject for another post.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Misa Misa. The not so dumb blonde.

One of the main criticisms against yaoi fangirls (and by this I mean the type of rabid fan who will chase guys around in cons to hit them with a 'yaoi' pallet, or will say that a cute guy is 'rapeable' and not see how creepy that is) is that they will call *any* female who comes between their guys (Or, in the most extreme cases, any female) a whore, a bitch, a slut, and an idiot.

Unfortunately, that one is not so much a stereotype as it's the truth, and sometimes, not only with the most rabid type of fans. Setting aside the 'but she's not as important/strong/cool/interesting as the main character' complains, that might be true as sometimes, secondary characters don't get as much development as the main characters, I'm talking about people that complain that the daugther of a Foreign Minister doesn't has the same combat skills and military know how as a Gundam Pilot. Or, in the particular case I'm going to discuss, that a pop singer isn't as bright as the best detective in the world, and a guy who fooled every single government agency in his country. And here I make a pause to warn you, I'm going to pretty much spoil a couple of very important plot points of the Death Note manga.

Misa Misa, whose real name is Misa Amane, is, at first glance, hated by many fans and critics of Death Note alike. In secret communities, is fairly easy to find 'I know my friends will kill me, but I like Misa Misa' secrets, as easy as is to find people who complain about Misa Misa fanart (Even more if she's paired with one of the main characters of the series). On the other hand, I've also read in at least two forums (One a community in live journal, another was that people where hesitant to pick up Death Note because while the two main male characters were genious level smart, the main girl was the equivalent of a teenaged Britney Spears, who talked about herself in third person, and only cared about dates. Tom S.Pepirium of IGN even compared her to Jar Jar.

Because at first sight, yes, Misa Misa could be considered at best dumb, and at worst stupid. After all, she's a struggling idol singer wannabe who, as I mentioned before, talks about herself in third person (a sign in manga of 'cuteness' and 'childlike personality'). From the moment she appears, she declares her absolute love for Light Yagami, and not only she manages to put him in danger of being caught a couple of times, she also seems to be only interested in getting him to date her. She's like a psychopathic Silver Age Lois Lane in that aspect, and yes, I understand how that can be a bit jarring.

But in a series where the main characters spend most of the first volume playing complex cat and mouse games, second guessing each other, and correctly predicting the other's actions without even meeting face to face, where L is apparently the best detective in the world at the tender age of 25 (And the second and the third best too, because he sockpuppets), and Light is a top student, who is called a genious by his teachers and is so smart that he gets bored by school easily, anyone else can come up as stupid. A good example is Naomi Misora, an FBI agent that comes incredibly close to discover Light without the help of the FBI or L, but committed the one fatal mistake of telling Light her real name because even if she knew that Kira used the real names of their victims to kill them, she had no reason to suspect Light.

Thing is, and most people forget this, that there was one person who managed to not only find that Kira was Light, but also managed to trick him into revealing his identity without revealing hers. If you've read the series, you probably will say that of course she managed to find him, since she had the Shinigami Eyes that reveal a person's name and lifespan... unless that person has a Death Note. However, the planning that went into assuring that Light would be within her eyesight without her being recognized was quite solid and she managed to fool everyone except for Light and L.

She also has a very strong personality, at least in the sense that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. When Light tells her he will have to see other girls, she doesn't hesitate to announce that she will kill all of them if he does that. Where at that point Light still refrained himself from killing too many innocents (He killed all those who were directly a threat to him, but not random cops just to show off his powers), Misa simply views those causalities as steps on the way to make Kira's perfect world. In that way, she's far colder than Light, and one would thing that if she had been the first Kira, that is, if she had been the only possesor of a Death Note, she could've been far more dangerous than Light because even when she didn't had the intelligence that Light had, she was far more willing to kill, and had something that Light never had: A completely loyal Shinigami at her side.

Another great example of her personality is on volume 4 of the manga, in what can be called one of the most disturbing sequences of the whole story (And that's saying a lot). After her first meeting with L, she is captured by the FBI and, since they don't know how Kira kills, but know that she needs to know her victims' faces and names, they cover her eyes with a metal mask, and put her in a straitjacket, and keeping her restrained in what many fans have come to call 'bondage Misa'. Misa then is kept without water or human contact (L talks to her through a microphone but no one comes near enough to touch) until she confesses that she's Kira the Second, and who is Kira the First. And Misa, the bubbly hair head who doesn't seem to think about consequences at all, who seems more concerned about make up and clothes than anything else, doesn't budge. There's a very chilling moment when, after three days of being deprived of food and water, Misa just asks 'Kill me'. It is her codeword to give up the Death Note, but at the time, we readers don't know that. For a moment, we're witnessing Misa's suicide, and it's a very poignant moment for her, as it's the last time we'll see Kira/Misa for a while.

That same torture scene brings forward another thing that most readers overlook: Misa is far more stronger than Light in front of adversity. Following his (Incredibly complex) plan, Light gives himself up to be locked up just like Misa was. Only that he isn't troused up like Misa was. He's just handcuffed, and someone puts headphones on him, ostensibly to keep him from finding out where he is just by the sounds. He waits seven days, according to his plan, before giving up the notebook, but we never know the exact situation of his confinement. We can figure out he's being fed and given water, since there's no indication to the contrary. And when he loses his memory of being Kira, the first thing he does is to ask for his immediate release, and keeps insisting that since he's innocent, he should've let go. Misa, on the other hand, stays tied up like Hannibal Lecter's female version for 50 days. And in those 50 days, with no clear memory of how the hell she ended up like that, she doesn't cry, or begs. She comes to the conclusion that she was taken by a stalker, and starts negotiating for her freedom in a way that keeps L puzzled. She calls him a pervert, she acts as if she's bored out of her mind, and the only time she asks for something not biolgical (namely, going to pee, so we can imagine she's being fed now), is to see Light. In L's own words 'the only thing I see is the abnormal strenght of Amane's love for Light Yagami'.

After that, Misa is shoved in the role of Light's girlfriend by Tsugumi Ohba, so she gets less and less to do. But even so, she still manages to make her opinions heard and, in many occasions, she proves to be braver than the super smart guys because while she knows she can't second guess everything, she jumps into the situations life throws at her willingly, ready to make the best of them.

So sure, she seems like an airhead, only interested in Light as a romantic partner even if he doesn't love her, and at times, she can be certainly annoying. But all those things don't make her an unnecessary character, or a weak one.

If you ask me, she's one of the most multidimensional characters of the whole story, just because of that.