Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Cliche Writers Can't Refuse

He was an older man who reminded me of my father. I was escorting him while he was doing an all-day job in a secure area. This is long and tedious from both our points of view, and eventually, running out of conversation fodder, he asked about my name.

"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."


(Consider this your Catch-22 Spoiler Warning)

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.


  1. Being just Italian enough myself to have gotten the mob-ties question every so often, I was going to add in some sort of well-thought out response.

    But whatever it was, it's gone now replaced with: "DAMN, the Shade looks hot in those panels."

    Oh well.

  2. Huh. "Ragnell" didn't strike me as Italian at all. :-)

    The Italian name/Mafia connection is probably one of the best examples of lazy writing in comics and elsewhere. Pick a name ending in "tti", let the reader's stereotypes do all the heavy lifting.

    I'm sitting here for 20 minutes trying to think of an Italian in comics I read that DOESN'T have "Mob Ties"...and I'm still thinking.

    Good post.

  3. Oh great. Now I have to start buying Starman trades again so I finish my collection.

    PS : You take questions about "mob ties" are bad? Try growing up Mormon.

  4. Oddly, no one ever thinks my Chinese heritage means I've got mad kung-fu fightin' skillz. *sigh* It's just not fair...

    "Sex and violence in a black-haired supple-breasted tight-abbed Catholic girls gone wrong package."

    See, now I'm torn: on the one hand, I'm sympathetic to the point you're making about the Huntress being a cheap stereotype; OTOH, that sounds totally hot.


  5. That was a great little essay. Not only did it cite James Robinson's Starman, but also Catch-22, possibly one of the greatest novels of all time (and my number one favorite book). I applaud your taste.

    I've never really had to deal with ethnic questions. I'm primarily German/Irish/Guatemalan, with trace amounts of half of the Old World thrown in. It makes me hard to classify, to say the least. It's interesting to get a perspective on such things.

    And hey, at least Helena finally managed to dump that horrible Jim Lee costume. Goofy costumes are fine if you're bulletproot, but if your only powers are religious iconography, you might want to protect your organs.

  6. I thought it was funny when I saw the "don't mess with Italian girls" line too...but it's such a mad libs fill in the blank.
    Try being Italian and Irish, living in New Jersey, and having teamsters in your family! NJ: Where the weak are killed and eaten.

  7. "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."

    To be fair, there are (theoretically) seven million people in Gotham City, which means there's probably plenty of Italian-Americans that don't spend their time shaking down kindly shopkeeps and stabbing people in alleys.

    But Batman comics are about a crime-fighter, and--to a lesser extent--a supporting cast of crime fighters and criminals, so it doesn't really bother me that the vast majority of Italians he meets are criminals. The majority of people he meets in his line of work are criminals.

    As for the Huntress, well, terrible costume history aside--with the leotard when she reappeared in the early 90s and the Jim Lee costume that supplanted the nifty black-and-purple one in between--I like her a lot.

    I'm someone that's really into characters driven by a mad obsession with vengeance, though, so that's to be expected. But I think it's really something that works for her, especially when she's stacked up as a foil for Batman.

    He's purely righteous, she's far less so (which, admittedly, gives her a different set of problems). Batman's father, a doctor, made most of his fortune saving lives and through a patent on a medical process. The Bertinellis, as a crime family, made their money ending them.

    By the same token, Batman's family--a small, nuclear unit of mother and father--is taken from him by what essentially amounts to one man with a gun, while Helena's much larger family was rubbed out at the order of a larger and organized group. It's a difference that goes a long way to explaining why Batman tends to be more interested in saving people from criminals, and Huntress tends more towards shooting them with arrows.

    Well that veered a little ways off topic. But still, I like her.

  8. I inherited most of that stuff, just as I inherited, say, some of Black Canary's victimhood (bad) and Oracle's genius (good). Huntress' story was already pretty thick (with lots of great stuff like Rucka's mini, and lots of awful stuff by other peeps).

    But I reject the interpretation of the comment in the Deathstroke fight. I understand how someone could read it as bad, but ALL I intended was to say, Italian girls have a way of getting up when knocked down. It's total respect and love for the many good friends I've had who were both female and Italian.

    What I've said about Huntress, and it's both her character and her background, is that Black Canary is a vastly better trained fighter. But if you shot Black Canary in the head, she'd go down. If you shoot Huntress, however, you'd better have a full clip and you might need to reload a couple times, cause that woman don't fall DOWN.

    Anyway, sorry if it gave offense, but it's actually darn near a direct quote from a very good friend who had the genetics to be allowed to say it.

    It's a case where you take your flava as you find it. :)



  9. yeah, wow, on second read, I disagree with a LOT of this stuff. Confused? Huntress? Huh? And heavily Catholic? She was very anti-church for a good while.

    And Huntress is PROUD of being Italian. It's her family she can't stand, and I like that she chose to stand up and do right.

    Anyway, I think you wrote some cool stuff, but that sure doesn't sound like the Helena I know.

    Best wishes,


  10. Gail -- Well, the comment itself wasn't offensive. Like I said, I laughed at the joke at first. The thing is, it was a innocent comment that reminded me of why I dislike Huntress's concept, and that's why I pointed it out.

    You probably saw a lot of solo stories I didn't. Aside from the recent Birds of Prey stuff (and Zinda's inherent coolness overwhelms my dislike of Helena) I mainly remember Helena from guest-shots in Robin, her time in JLA crossovers like Cataclysm and No Man's Land, and of course, the Nightwing/Huntress miniseries. This is the impression I got off of her. And the thing about her anti-church stance was that it still played heavily into the fact that she was raised Catholic and still believed Catholic and was loaded with Catholic angst. Everytime I ran across her, the above is what I saw. So, while the character trait you highlighted is very good and very admirable, and the joke is funny, it still comes down to Huntress's concept (all the stuff you inherited) is two really bad and really prevalent stereotypes fused together.

    Maybe if there were more characters like Bobo around, characters like Helena wouldn't make me cringe.

  11. Kalinara -- Gene Ha, Starman #46 Check out the first issue of the Shade's Miniseries, too. (And JH Willaims does the second)

    Chris (Holly) -- Which is why it's getting on my nerves.

    Spiritglyph -- I know. Bare midriff on a grown woman? Yuck.

    Spencer/redlib -- Sounds awful. Some people don't think before they speak.

  12. Chris -- Sorry, it's the same with females in the Green Lantern Corps. Theoretical isn't worth a thing. They just don't count if we don't see them.

    I'd probably like her a lot better if I was never asked the Question, but whatcanyado?

  13. Well, fair enough. I disagree, but I certainly understand your position, and enjoyed your article.



  14. Spiritglyph -- I know. Bare midriff on a grown woman? Yuck.

    My male bits like it, my brain doesn't. Why would an intelligent woman like Helena cut a huge swatch of fabric out of her costume?
    She might as well wear a bullseye. "Hey, criminals, shoot my completely unprotected organs!"

    My two cents, anyway.

  15. I agree, and adapting the costume design (which I actually like except for the tummy) was always a just took longer than expected. I still think we need to tinker a bit to get it perfect, but we're working on it.


  16. "I agree, and adapting the costume design (which I actually like except for the tummy) was always a just took longer than expected. I still think we need to tinker a bit to get it perfect, but we're working on it"

    Why not just stop working on it and go back to the previous costume, which has the benefit of not sucking? You wouldn't even have to explain it, just have Huntress offhand mention that she decided to stop wearing a completely stupid and impractical costume, or something.

  17. "Bare midriff on a grown woman? Yuck."

    It's what happens when one's fashion sense and/or vanity overcomes one's better judgment... :-)

    There's an interesting piece over on Websnark which Eric Burns wrote several months ago, comparing the Huntress (among others) to Batman. He speaks of the animated JLU versions of the characters, but I figure most of it can be applied to the comics as well.

    Stereotypes are the first refuge of the lazy writer. They spare them the effort of coming up with original, nuanced characters by recycling familiar tropes. Even if a writer manages to avoid one cliche, he or she may fall into another: e.g., your point about Bobo not being a Mafioso cliche, even as jamawalk points out the O'Dares fall into the "hard-drinking Irish cop family" cliche.

  18. I agree, and adapting the costume design (which I actually like except for the tummy) was always a just took longer than expected. I still think we need to tinker a bit to get it perfect, but we're working on it.

    Ha! I thought I got the impression you were eager to get rid of that redesign. First thing to slightly destabilize Helena's worldview, and bam! The costume is suddenly more practical.

    And you're right, tummy window aside, it works alright. There's nothing wrong with the bit of exposed thigh, and the white actually works pretty well. It's just that one irredemably goofy element that ruins the whole thing.

  19. Sorry, folks. Lately I keep having the same anonymous moron (Hey, 'Jarod!' Still obsessive?) posting something obnoxious every time I post.

    He's got a certain freakshow appeal.

    Well, that's half-accurate. ;)


  20. I wouldn't have nearly as much a problem with the Huntress's visible abs if she hadn't adopted that costume shortly after being shot like three times in the stomach by the Joker at the end of No Man's Land. I imagine that's the sort of thing one doesn't want to happen again, and leaving that kind of window is an odd choice to make for a vigilante, nor does going from black and dark purple to lavender with white trim.

    Plus, I've never understood those big old earrings, and I really liked her old costume. The Birds of Prey joke about the sit-ups did get a chuckle, though.

  21. This New Yorker thinks you have way to much time on your hands. I have a sister who married into an Italian family. I don't wanna believe he is mob related, but your New York Grandfather had his doubts!!!!
    P.S. Does your cat still roll over on command?

  22. Auntie Anonymous -- I don't think a Preacher's wife who was caught by the Bisho's wife in line to gamble should be making accusations about organized crime in the family.
    (Not mine, but maybe Kim's can)