Monday, March 26, 2012
Wild Boy and the Noble Savage
One of the most difficult things to get right in jungle fiction is portraying people who are indigenous to the setting, especially if you're a white person who's writing jungle adventure stories for a predominantly white audience. How do you do that while also sensitively portraying the non-white characters who make up most of the population of the region you're writing about?
Most agree that making them all savages is out of the question, but the Noble Savage stereotype isn't cool either; mostly because it's a stereotype. This Wild Boy story on Comic Book Catacombs is a good example. It shows that the Noble Savage idea isn't so much racial as cultural. It's the notion that humans are inherently good and will stay that way unless corrupted by "civilization." In the comic, that applies to both the indigenous people and the white Wild Boy. In contrast, the White Man's World - because it's civilized - corrupts everyone, including the indigenous man who visits it. The problem isn't racism, it's using stereotypes in place of characters. All the primitive characters are good; all the civilized characters are bad.
I don't want to be too hard on the story. It's a Golden Age comic and those weren't about characterization. Compared to other Golden Age jungle comics, it's downright enlightened. But it does illustrate how problematic it is when a writer paints everyone from a certain group - whether racial, cultural, or something else - as being exactly the same. That's why stereotypes suck. It's not that you can never write a character who falls into a particular stereotype, it's just that it's far more realistic to have characters occasionally buck against expectations. And more interesting too.
It also helps when they wrestle crocodiles and apes, but that's beside the point.