Note: You may disagree with this reading. You may think that’s not a valid reading. That’s fine, but as experiencing misogynoir in a comic that I adore and having clear proof that women of color (especially Black women) will always wind up “losing” to whiteness/white women is hurtful to me, I absolutely do not want to hear about it.
I knew Helena Bertinelli and Dick Grayson wouldn’t end up together at the end of Grayson #20.Despite my shipping goggles snapped tightly to my head (and you know… the actual content in the book), I knew that they wouldn’t be riding off into the sunset together especially as both characters are going to be in their own books come Rebirth.
But I knew that Dick and Helena were attracted to each other because there are several separate moments in the comic series that shows that their attraction is mutual.
More than that, the comic showed that on some level, they cared about each other as more than friends and it was in a way that could be construed as romantic. A way that could have been fleshed out in the upcoming Rebirth reboot or that would have gotten more focus in the comics had Grayson continued past issue #20 with the original creative team (Tim Seeley and Tom King on writing with Mikel Janin on art).
How do I know this? Well, in Future’s End: Grayson, five years into the future of the DC Universe (pre Rebirth and all of the retcons that’s going to be responsible for), Helena and Dick are together romantically.
So to go through Grayson #20 and basically see the new creative team kind of crap all over that is incredibly hurtful.
Mind you, this isn’t just about ships or about the fact that I thought the last arc was incredibly sloppy (sorry, but well… it’s what I thought).
It has a bit to do with shipping and the comic book entitlement that comes when you think your ship’s going to be canon for a while, but it’s absolutely about more than ships or comic quality.
It’s about how whenever a WOC is introduced as a potential love interest for a popular male character (especially in science fiction and superhero properties), she’s quickly deemed the “wrong choice” and shunted to the side for a white love interest. Even if said love interest isn’t actually interested in/involved with the hero at that point in time.
And that, to me, is what Jackson Lanzing and Colin Kelly did here. They reduced the moments that Dick and Helena shared, the care they showed for one another, to a couple brief moments that many fans might not have even noticed or registered as an insult.
And here’s the thing: the book doesn’t actually start out all that bad. Picking up the threads from Grayson #19, issue #20 opens moments later with Dick facing down Doctor Daedalus (wearing Helena’s body, by the way). On page four of the comic, we actually get a scene where Helena!Daedelus goes into this villainous spiel, taunting Dick when he calls for Helena to fight the man inhabiting her mind:
Dick Grayson: Helena… You have to fight him. You can’t let Doctor Daedalus win.
Doctor Daedalus: There is no Helena. Her world of lies is over. The true world screams to be born! A world united by war. No longer a conflict of shadows, but one fought in the harsh light of Day. Half the world Spyral! Half the world, Leviathan. And at the center, a single woman – her consciousness erased from her own mind, her name deleted from every database, her very existence gouged from the memory of every loved one. I’m going to erase every trace of the woman you love… And wear her skin as I burn your world.
Clearly, the woman that Dick loves (on page 4) is Helena B. The threat of erasing her, of turning her into a puppet in her own mind, is one that against Dick because in the very next page, Lanzing and Kelly have Dick offering himself up to the good doctor in exchange for Helena.
He and Helena even have a super touching moment where she gently touches his swollen cheek.
Dick brings up events in Grayson #4 where Helena essentially pulled him back into himself they share an actual tender look as Dick straight up says that he thinks about that night every day and that it’s how he survived even when he had to fight her. (Image here.)
They freaking kiss.
However, Dick’s sacrifice for Helena frankly feels cheapened by what comes next (especially because Lanzing and Kelly seem unable to remember a) the relationship Seeley and King were developing or b) the romantic intimacy they’d greenlit only a page before…).
Doctor Daedalus takes control of Dick’s body and then, because WOC can never have nice things, he says the following thing to Helena as he holds her by the throat:
Doctor Daedalus: What a shame, Miss Bertinelli, you didn’t run away fast enough. You make a terrible damsel in distress, or perhaps an excellent one. By the way, now that I am in this gorgeous body, I can tell you with some certainty that the only woman Dick Grayson ever truly loved was named Barbara — (Helena spits in his face). She was much prettier than you.
That’s strike one and two right there. (Strike three will come a little later, trust me.)
You may be asking yourself, “clearly you’re going to be talking about racism so why is this problematic”. I can practically hear the sound of a dozen pairs of eyebrows raising with skepticism.
Here’s the thing:
The issue here is that when a woman of color comes up against a tried and true white love interest (that isn’t even in the comic or dating Dick at this point) the white love interest always wins. The white love interest always is framed as prettier, smarter, sweeter — You name it, she’s probably it. And the WOC who’s thrown aside is implicitly or explicitly framed to be “not it”.
Yes, Doctor Daedalus is a villain. It’s his job to be a dick.
But by having him essentially dismiss the moment that Dick and Helena had shared only seconds before and reduce it to something that didn’t matter because Dick is always and forever going to be in love with (white, gorgeous, brilliant, perfect) Barbara Gordon who happens to be prettier than Helena, Lanzing and Kelly are basically reinforcing negative tropes in fiction that only occur to women of color (and largely, Black women like Helena Bertinelli).
One major way is that they have a villain clearly putting Helena Bertinelli down. She’s not as attractive (apparently) as Barbara and it’s implicitly held up as one of the reasons why he couldn’t really love her.
Like, yes, I am absolutely being super sensitive here, but as a Black woman who has definitely been held up to white beauty standards and failed… well…
It’s pretty hard not to be sensitive about a comment like that.
It’s not enough, that Dick supposedly didn’t love her and couldn’t ever love her because Barbara (never mind that the characters haven’t been dating in the main DC universe since the reboot started), but she’s held up to Barbara who is positioned as well the epitome of beauty to Dick and then found wanting.
And there’s something seriously wrong and incredibly hurtful about that scene.
I felt that that moment, that set of panels, was akin to a slap in the face.
Grayson got me back into superhero comics because it was smart, funny, and had a newly racebent BLACK Helena Bertinelli as one of the most powerful super spies in the DC universe.
On top of that, she was a balanced Black character who wasn’t hypersexualized or desexualized. She was presented as a viable potential love interest for the hero without being sexualized or subject to the male gaze.
So that throwaway line really and truly left me with a bad feeling, not just because it dismisses everything that happened in the previous set of pages, but because it also dismisses the canon that Tim Seeley and Tom King developed. You know, the one where Barbara was a great love of his life but not the ONLY love of his life and Helena/Dick ended up together for a little while.
Way to retcon something y’all literally wrote like five pages before…
It’s not okay and it is absolutely hurtful to me as a Black woman who was able to connect to this comic even deeper because now one of my favorite characters (who already constantly gets the short end of the stick) was Black like me to see this sloppy take on her relationship with Dick.
I’m certain that Lanzing and Kelly didn’t intend for that sort of reading to come across and that everyone might not feel the same way, but it’s the impact that counts.
I mean it was incredibly hurtful to me as a Black woman to see the narrative give you the “oh god my lovely diverse OTP is kind of canon” moment right before kind of… lighting it on fire.
This becomes about race because Helena is now Black and because of how Black women are treated by narratives that deign to include them. Grayson as a series wasn’t focused on romance: it’s a spy comic, not a romance one.
But at the same time, Seeley and King managed to balance the “will they, won’t they” tension between Helena and Dick. They made their tension and their friendship shine through and the characters understood and cared about each other.
This is absolutely novel in a genre/medium where Black women rarely show up as characters, much less love interests or fleshed out characters who flirt but also fight.
This brings us to the issue’s third strike and the thing that really managed to piss me off:
At the latter third of the issue, after Doctor Daedalus has been forgotten forever (and apparently, so has Dick), Helena and Dick are out walking through the grounds of St. Hadrian’s and talking. Helena tells Dick that she made sure that his family and other important people would know who he is despite Daedalus’ machinations and the events of Forever Evil.
When Dick asks why, we get the following exchange (keep in mind that Helena reaches for Dick’s hand two panels before this one because it’s important):
Helena: Because they’re your people, Dick Grayson. They’re why you fight, why you survived suicide-by-Hypnos, and he didn’t. Your people are your heart. And after everything you’ve done, I couldn’t see it broken. Not again.
Dick: Helena, it takes more than a million nanobots self-destructing in my blood to break my —
Helena: (taking her hand back from Dick and clearly retreating into herself) I know.
She then goes into this speech where she basically says that she needs to find herself, her own destiny because she’s somehow so different from Dick that they can’t be a thing (because I swear to god, the relationship subtext and text in this issue center heavily on Helena and Dick becoming Helena/Dick).
If the theme of that speech sounds familiar, it’s super close to the one that Claire Temple gave to Daredevil in the Netflix series.
I hated that speech then and I hated it now.
Because it’s a distancing tactic that almost always happens to remove a woman of color from a relationship. She always sacrifices her relationship (as if women can’t be strong and coupled up) in a noble speech and walks off into the distance like an old school gunslinger.
I’ve spoken about how women of color are frequently dismissed and distanced from popular male characters who serve as their love interests. It’s a thing.
Women of color never get the guy and it’s always framed like it’s their choice but it’s not. It’s the choice of the writer to consistently and constantly pair these characters with white love interests (Note here that Dick Grayson is not white but his Romani heritage is constantly erased by creators and fans alike) while literally dismissing women of color from the role.
See Sana Starros who was introduced specifically to get in the way of Han/Leia in the Star Wars comics.
Obviously she’s not going to be valid love interest for Han because Leia is his forever girl and so she was subject to fandom’s racist backlash for no reason.
Because the writers chose to place her up against Leia, having her lie and introduce herself as his wife, and so of course, people put them on opposite sides and chose Leia.
I can only assume that Sana will go the way of many other Black women in SF/F properties: erased and ignored, unimportant beyond what she did to get the white couple together/aware of their feelings.
For Dick (again), Ursa Major was introduced in a valentine’s day special several years back. She was black, funny, and Dick clearly wanted to get to know her better. So what does the writer make her do? Stand Dick up before never appearing in a Nightwing comic again. (Yes, I am still absolutely annoyed at how they didn’t go where they could’ve with this potential relationship.)
I mention Claire Temple earlier, so let’s mention her again because the way Daredevil (especially season two) fails her and sidelines her as a Black woman important:
Played by Afro-Latina actress Rosario Dawson, Claire is introduced in season one of Netflix’s Daredevil series as Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s love interest.
She’s a snarky voice of reason who clearly cares for and comes to love this weirdo vigilante who gets her in more trouble than it’s worth. Karen Page, who Matt saves from being killed to silence a conspiracy, appears more closely connected to Matt Murdock’s best friend Foggy Nelson. So the season ends and viewers assume “okay, this is cool because season two is going to have a Black woman as a love interest in the MCU for the first time“.
Except… That’s not at all what we got.
What we got was Claire making the noble sacrifice, pushing Matt away.
When she walks away (like Helena does) it’s “for her own good”, something that rings so very hollow.
It’s “her choice” but the narrative also makes it clear that she’s not right for Matt because she doesn’t take his shit and because her response to his world is to say that he’s doing some good things while questioning the violence he brings into her life. She’s framed as an unsupportive choice for Matt because well… he keeps getting her into trouble and she’s distanced herself from him (AKA the narrative distances her from him in order to clear the stage for another ship).
Elodie Yung’s Elektra, the only other WOC who appears in the series, is immediately set up as another “wrong choice”.
Where Claire isn’t supportive enough, Elektra is too supportive.
She enjoys the fight and straight up wants Matt to get out there and start murdering people. This is due to the fact that she is repeatedly dehumanized and brainwashed by the same man that taught Matt how to fight. (Also you know… the narrative tries its hardest to dehumanize her as well.)
She’s written to be “bad” for Matt because he would do anything for her.
So they “kill” her, but not until they’ve beaten it into our heads and Matt’s how terrible a choice she is while completely discounting all of her experiences that’ve turned her into the woman that she is in the series. The Punisher, mind you, is an actual serial killer at this point and the narrative loves him and pushes for us to empathize with him in a way that they don’t with Elektra.
The only woman that the narrative leaves as a “good” choice for Matt is Karen. You know, the white lady. Who isn’t that bad (aside from you know… getting Ben Ulrich killed and then having everything from his career to his car handed to her on a silver platter).
Karen is young, pretty, feminine, soft.
She’s dressed in pastels and often covered up while Claire is entirely desexualized in her scrubs and Elektra is hypersexualized throughout much of her appearances.
The narrative positions her as soft and sweet with a flexible personality while saying very clearly “women of color can’t be what Matt needs because they are not these things”.
But it’s the juxtaposition that’s messed up (and again, part of what was so hurtful about the dismissive “Barbara Gordon is prettier than you” line directed towards Helena in Grayson #20).
Because this is what media and fandom does: it pits women of color against white women (because that is absolutely what that is even if that’s not the intent) when it comes to relationship, power, anything and then the white ladies always comes out ahead of said women of color.
In having Helena walk out of Dick’s life, in distancing herself from him because she’s a strong woman who needs to find herself, Lanzing and Kelly just reinforced imagery of Black women that have been a pain in the ass to deal with for ages.
I never expected Helena and Dick to be together forever, but I was expecting them to maybe have more than a single, serious kiss before the narrative reminded us once again that women of color never get to have the guy and keep the guy.
Thanks for that, I guess.