(another repost from my own blog)
When I first read the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill Black Dossier, I was baffled by the Galley-Wag. He’s a huge blackface figure who comes out of nowhere to save Allan and Mina, babbling insane gobbledygook, as you can see below.The deus ex machina aspect was just bad writing but what was the point of the blackface? It turned out this was a revival of yet another 19th century fictional character, the Golliwog, but it’s one that doesn’t work.
The original Golliwog was created by Florence Kate Upton. It became the basis for golliwog dolls which make the racist aspect a lot more obvious, as you can see. I saw them on Robertson’s Jam labels in my childhood but I just thought they were funny looking figures. I hadn’t been exposed to much racist iconography of that sort, and it never occurred to me they had any resemblance to black people in real life.
According to Moore, the original Golleywog was a strong, positive character, not at all racist despite the blackface look, ; I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, but I’ve no idea which is right. By putting the Galley-Wag in the book as one of the Blazing World’s agents, Moore thought he could redeem the character, restoring him to his non-racist roots. When people began saying he blew it, Moore did not take it well. Eventually he fell back on the time-honored cop-out that his critics are objecting to white people writing black characters.
Um, no. The issue is not Moore’s white skin, it’s that he had a bad idea and handled it badly. Even assuming Upton’s Golliwog is as non-racist as Moore says, I’ve never heard of it and neither, I suspect, have most other LXG fans. Of course that’s true of lots of characters in the series but it’s more of a problem with the Galley-Wag than having Billy Bunter (a character I know but I’m sure few Americans did) put in an appearance. My reaction isn’t going to be “Wow, Moore has reclaimed the positive qualities of the Golleywog!” but “What the hell i sthat freaky character in blackface doing there?” Even readers who’ve never heard of Allan Quatermain can figure out his character type (great white hunter/adventurer) without much effort. The only way to make sense of the Galley-Wag is to read the Upton story or study Jess Nevins’ annotations to the series.
That to me, is authorial failure. Readers are entitled to judge the story by what’s on the page and what’s on the page is blackface. Admittedly the Galley-Wag is so bizarre he doesn’t conform to any particular racist stereotype, but that’s not good enough.
It’s not like this is a unique problem in the series. LXG suffers from having a shit-ton of rape and rape threats, not to mention Yellow Peril stereotypes in the first series. The Comics Journal argues that Moore and O’Neil use these tropes to “dare their readers to parse the difference between mimesis and mockery,” but I don’t see mockery, just a lot of rapes and racist imagery recycled. If their intent was to mock or subvert the tropes, they blew it.
To paraphrase the late film critics Siskel and Ebert, if something in a comic doesn’t work, having the creators explain why it had to be that way is not an excuse.
#SFWApro. Comics panels by O’Neill.