"Actually, it's Italian." I answered.
"Really? Oh yeah, that's a Latin root..." which was followed by inquiry into how it ended up so mangled. Immigration issued name (I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as an American name). When he asks what part of Italy, and why my great-grandfather left, I have no answer.
That's when It comes.
"You know, an Italian man, fleeing his homeland, mysterious past. Could be running from the Mafia."
I can't rightfully complain (but that's never stopped me before). I contributed to our cultural obsession by supplying demand to numerous suppliers. I was mildly obsessed with the Mob in High School. I watched the movies, I read books about it, I went out of my way to catch TV documentaries... I ate it up.
It's sexy and exciting. The seedy underbelly of the naked city, bad men at their worst, good men at their worst, decades of history, generations of accumulated power, hot Mediterranean desires, dark-haired goddesses married to ugly men with no necks, intense Catholic guilt, honor stretched to the limit, men kissing, that string music in the background, one more job and I'll be done -- I swear Mama! The writers do it on purpose, and many of them do it well. To make a good story, you glorify and glamorize the genre.
There is a price with this glory and glamour. I'm not talking the price of crime here -- lives and broken hearts. I'm talking fiction here, not reality. People's business is their own business, and if their business is crime it's their business, not mine. I'm studying pure stories and their effect on attitudes. Attitudes which intrude into my life and the life of every Italian American in America, asking The Question.
(No, not that Question.)
"Does your family have any Mob Ties?"
I remember the first time I heard The Question, in any of its myriad syntaxes. Maurice from my first duty station. He lived next door in the dorms, and played his music all night. Loved "gangsta rap." I even remember the name of his favorite duo -- "Capone n Noriega." I'd pound on his door nightly to make him turn it down. He was especially excited when the conversation turn to heritage, and he was the first to seriously ask -- "You in the Mafia?" I was more than a little taken aback. I'd grown up in a heavily sheltered area, with specific ethnic groups. Italian, Polish, Irish, we all made our jokes. Maurice wasn't joking.
He wasn't the only one.
After years and years of romanticizing and fictionalizing the legacy of Al Capone and other Ethnic Organized Crime symbols, an Italian last name becomes dramatic shorthand for "Mob Ties." Oh, how I hate Mob Ties! You know it when you see it on TV. Any cop with an Italian name gets an episode where he runs up against the local Don (who also knew him from a child!) or has to save a wayward relative from "The Life" -- and don't forget, the added Catholic Guilt. In any Crime Drama, eventually, the writer will bring in the Mob for the Italian character. In any comic book, you see it coming. They'll be at least related to a guy who works for the local Boss. They'll most likely know the local Boss themselves. Be actively working for them. Every Italian in comics is connected to The Mob, and of course, every Italian in Gotham City is a card-carrying member of The Mob.
I still enjoy the fiction, to an extent. I like a good Noir movie, old classics in black and white. I'm a sucker for the funny Mob movies like Analyze This and The Crew. I still romanticize fedoras, Italian suits and New Yorker accents. In the right mood, I can even stomach the serious stuff. This is getting more and more difficult anymore, especially as I like Crime Dramas and even when it's not Mob-centered, Mob Ties somehow find a way to slink into the plot. It was okay, back in the Poconos, where everyone was Italian, Polish or Irish and knew what your life was really like (or at least, knew what that insinuated when you asked a cop's daughter), but away from home it gets hurtful. Not only do they spout tired ethnic slurs, they ask The Question. "Is your family in the Mafia?" If they were just joking to break the ice would be one thing, but they ask with a greedy interest like I have stories to tell and connections to act on. People actually think we're like that!
"Any Mob Ties?" It's so insulting!
Generally, the fun part of Mob Ties -- the actually being a bad guy as opposed to just being related to one, went to the men. But not to worry, the Spawn of Capone had a Bride. The Hot-blooded Italian Woman, who actually predates the Mob Ties cliche. I think this one first materialized, for me, in Catch-22 when Nately died. The is the point where Nately's Whore, previously a dismissive and humorous side-character (I swear her only line in the entire book is "Idiota!") goes batshit crazy and dedicates her existence to the Destruction of Yossarian. This homicidal background character becomes representative of all Italian women in American media to me. Her beneficial purpose is purely sexual, and is usually the backstory reason for her inclusion. Her more practical and malicious purpose, storywise, is to throw a wrench in the works. She's the irrational, emotional woman there to make the main character's life much more difficult. "Italian women are nothing but trouble!" the adage goes, and this woman, present to fill any necessary Italian female presence (because, you know, if the character is rational, she can't be Italian) is all too happy to prove it.
I love the stereotype and hate the stereotype. As a rule, generally embrace anything that makes me scarier to other people. And again, the humor. She was the funniest character in the book. But I despise the effect, the one that paints me as irrational, emotional, and violent. The one that invalidates me everytime I get angry, because that's just the Italian in me getting worked up. The one that makes men laugh and joke when I'm seeing red. The one that assumes my Father is corrupt, my Mother is a blind, my brother is spoiled and violent.
It's why I never cared for the Huntress. She's both stereotypes mixed into a sickeningly over-the-top combination. Helena Bertinelli just couldn't be a schoolteacher with a crossbow fetish. No, she had to be the Mob Princess, embodiment of the Italian-American Stereotype, with her religion plastered across her costume and her entire family's skeleton's filling numerous walk-in closets. She's the hot-blooded Italian woman, the one who turns men on for her passion, unpredictability, and danger. She's Nately's Whore, Americanized, with Mob Ties, and reincarnated in Eighties comics. Sex and violence in a black-haired supple-breasted tight-abbed Catholic-girls-gone-wrong package. Way too much of a stock Italian-American character. Heavily Catholic, pampered, violent, oversexed, raised to glorify honor among thieves, hot-tempered, and bloodthirsty. Whether she embraces or rejects "The Life" she's a formulaic fiction femme fatale.
I didn't realize any of this until I saw the panel at right. Now, it's not the panel, or even the joke itself that offends me. I laughed at that joke in Birds of Prey when I saw it. I initially enjoyed it, still enjoy it on one level, I'm not inclined to dislike anything that makes me scarier. It's what the joke makes me realize about the character that's weighing on me. And the more I think about it, the most disgusted I get. Before this moment, I never clicked with Huntress and in one moment I clicked with her and realized why she was ultimately unacceptable to me. I'll still enjoy seeing her hit people, of course, but I can't really enjoy a character study. Not the Catholic/Mob Princess Angst stuff. "You don't mess with Italian girls." Why? Because they are crazy hot-blooded Mediterranean vixens. You can't predict them. They don't make sense. They don't follow logic. They're just animals. It's Nately's Whore, taking it out on Bat-sarian (well, Slade-sarian in that case). Just a crazy woman who doesn't understand what's going on, so you'd better avoid her. The sum of Huntress's Post-Crisis concept -- "You don't mess with Italian girls." We're not thinking beings.
To be fair to the Huntress, even in my Mob-obsessed phase Italian-American comic book characters just never did it for me. Too contrived. Too stereotyped, too insulting.
Well, in general.
There was an exception.
In the fifth Starman trade paperback, I encountered a first. The one Italian-American comic book character that I could stomach. Hell, I even liked this one.
Bobo (He hates that name) was not born to a life of violence, instead, he chose to pursue violence -- honestly, at first. He went with the Marines to Korea, and got injured. In a wonderfully underexplained origin typical of 90s comic books, he discovered that he was invulnerable, super-strong, and immortal. He would use this power, for personal profit. He could use this power to rob banks. And fight Superheroes!
Hey, I never said he was upstanding citizen, just that I liked him.
Jake "Bob" Benetti does have ties to Crime. It's not to an ethnicized, romanticized, organized criminal empire, though. Bobo, like any super-strong bank-robber should, belonged to the Super-Villain community. His most powerful ally was not a neckless overweight old Godfather ripoff, but Opal City's Oldest Living Resident and Most Popular Dickinson Throwback, The Shade. He has a fun personality, one of those big, open, plainspoken people. Like pretty much all of Opal City, he was era-displaced. Bobo belonged in the forties and fifties. That was because of an extended stay in prison. He felt so displaced when he got out, actually, he intended to go back in. Fortunately, The Plot intervened and an old supervillain became a new superhero! As time went on and we focused on Bobo, Mob Ties never revealed themselves in the course of the series. We saw a Times Past story, and Mob Ties never revealed themselves. We saw a guest-shot in Catwoman, and Mob Ties never revealed themselves.
In fact, there's a storyline where The Mob is (are?) the featured villain, and Bobo Benetti is fabulously, marvelously, gloriously NOT INVOLVED IN THE SLIGHTEST!
And in that storyline, that single issue, the Formerly Corrupt Cop Matthew O'Dare, and his Utterly Fantastic Friend the Shade deal each and every Mafia character in the entire city a gruesome horrific death. Thus ensuring that Jake "Bobo" Benetti, this one beautiful, wonderful, divinely three-dimensional Italian-American character can hold his head high and walk proudly out of the police station, free of that banal affront to character background most commonly found in the toolbox of the hack writer -- Mob Ties.