Fantastic and Fatal Coalitions: Revisiting ‘Blood Syndicate’

*This post is part of our online forum on the Black-owned and -controlled Milestone Media.

Cover Artwork, Blood Syndicate #1 (DC Comics – Fair Use via VCU Libraries)

In 1983, Bernice Johnson Reagon offered an observation in “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” that navigated the utopian and fatalistic: “You don’t go into coalition because you like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you is because that’s the only way you can stay alive.” Reagon suggests that coalitions not only feel like they will kill you, but should feel like they will kill you because they must “be done in the street,” and are not where you feel at home. Two decades into the century, Reagon anticipated that one of the most pressing issues in our time is how we can work successfully in coalitions, and how we might deal with constant failure and disappointment in such projects.

The challenges of and possibilities of coalition run through the Black intellectual tradition, from tensions and overlaps between Black liberation and feminist activism, to labor organizing, and transnational solidarity projects between people of color. Fictive approaches include novels such as Shirley Ann Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986) and films like Max Julien and Gordon Parks Jr.’s blaxploitation western romance Thomasine and Bushrod (1974). The fictive and fantastic often offer utopian visions of coalition politics, perhaps most commonly realized by Hollywood romances of racial reconciliation. But some fictions, such as the 35-issue run of Milestone Comics’s Blood Syndicate, are not only fantasies of success, but dystopian meditations on the possible failures of multiracial coalition.

The members of Blood Syndicate in the fictional Midwestern city of Dakota were in opposing gangs before a corporation exposed them to a dangerous chemical gas during a gang conflict known as the “Big Bang.” Many died, but a few survived and became “metahuman.” Superhero comics often have teams of superheroes and supervillains — but Blood Syndicate exists as an anti-hero group burdened by the destructive habits they formed when they were solely human. They jockey for power through violence (which is a standard convention of superhero comics) and often turn on each other. Many of their issues with each other turn on identity. Leader Wise Son distrusts Boogieman when he discovers he is white. Some members turn away from Masquerade when they discover he is a transgender man, even though he helped them become more unified. Their prejudices hinder them from solidarity and full support of one another. Editor Dwayne McDuffie wrote the first issue, while Ivan Velez Jr., a gay Latino writer wrote most other issues with ChrisCross as the principle artist. The creative team behind the series never shied from allowing their mix of African American, Latinx, and Asian characters, some of whom were queer, to voice bigotry.

Blood Syndicate was quite transparently an exploration into such representations circulating in the 20th century about the lives of urban youth of color. The chemical that made them “Bang Babies” spoke to issues of environmental racism in the city but also the crack epidemic, the latter literally referenced by the character Flashback’s addiction. Political discussions about urban violence and gangs often failed to contextualize the costs of deindustrialization, urban decay, and subsequent fatalism descending on many youth who recognized the lies of the American Dream in northern cities. That Dakota is a Midwestern city is not a minor part of Milestone Comics’ legacy — Milestone co-founder, writer, and editor Dwayne McDuffie was from Detroit, and the Dakotaverse should be understood as part of a body of literature that helps us understand the Black Midwest. In July 2019, journalist Jonathan Weisman from The New York Times was publicly chastised for stating that Rashida Tlaib, a Black congresswomen from Detroit, and Ilhan Omar, a Muslim American congresswoman from Minneapolis, were not representative of the Midwest. Weisman’s comments repeated a constant public erasure of Black Americans by treating the Midwest as only rural and white. Dakota could be Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, or Kansas City, and the issues addressed in the city serve as a counter to the often absent, or only allegorical treatment, of addressing race in many superhero comics.

Of course, most people of color in the Midwest are not gang members; thus Blood Syndicate was problematic for those who make “positive” representations a cornerstone of what they desire for representations of African American, Latinx, or Asian American characters. But as a fiction, Blood Syndicate makes use of these characters to challenge the affective and political distancing that many citizens might feel in relationship to these characters who embody stereotypes in a medium founded on caricature. ChrisCross’s artwork moves between realist, grotesque, and idealized representations of these mutated bodies. The fluidity of representation obviously invites readers to embrace the complexity of the characters, but also to recognize, as Richard Wright did with the creation of Bigger Thomas, how representations that can be read as stereotypical can be essential in depicting the “horror” of Black life in the United States more broadly. His artwork serves as a history of Black aesthetics that, counter to W.E.B. Du Bois’s mandate to focus on the beautiful in Black art, imagines the possibilities of the grotesque and ugly in a representational politics of racial liberation. These gang members are depicted as not only violent, but because of their powers, verging on the monstrous at times. But they are often on the right side of fights.

As Reagon notes, to work, imagine solidarity, or have affinity with people and ideologies that can kill you has costs, and perhaps the failure of a gang, as opposed to progressive social justice organizers, may seem to have nothing to do with what we struggle with now. But the McDuffie and Velez-penned final issue seems strangely prescient. Leader Wise Son recounts for a reporter his attempt to get the members to work together:

Whenever we have problems, we run off by ourselves. We’ve got more beefs with each other than we do with the rest of the world. Look, all I’m saying is this, we got a great thing here, we just never lived up to what it should have been. If we’re going to do this anymore, we gotta commit. All the way.

He asks them to decide if they are in or out, and the group chooses to disband. But there remains the hope that they might reunite. The impossibility of coalition could be taken as simply a narrative about gangs and gang violence, but with the sometimes heroic and productive work of the team, the creators clearly imagined them as representing something more than what they ostensibly appeared to be. As John M. M. Hagedorn has noted in his scholarship about gangs in the Midwest, the popular narratives about Black nihilism causing gang violence often ignore the post-industrial urban decay that shaped the conditions for gang violence to emerge. The coalitional struggles of the Blood Syndicate thus begin to seem less like fantastic spandex fantasies than signifiers of a recognizable struggle for many of us who have raged, mourned, and sought connections in cities that fail the vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens who dare to call these places home.

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Rebecca Wanzo

Rebecca Wanzo is an Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a PhD from Duke University and is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (SUNY, 2009). Her research interests include African American literature, history, and culture; theories of affect; popular culture (particularly the history of popular genre fiction and graphic storytelling in the US); critical race theory; and feminist theory. Wanzo's upcoming book, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (New York University, 2020), explores African American cartoonists' interactions with racist caricatures and the implications for citizenship and belonging. Follow her on Twitter @RawReader.

Comments on “Fantastic and Fatal Coalitions: Revisiting ‘Blood Syndicate’

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    This is a fascinating article. I’m from metro Detroit and was not previously familiar with Blood Syndicate. I especially like the comparison with Wright and Dubois. Rashida Tlaib is a phenomenal congresswoman and strong ally to the Black community but is of Palestinian descent.

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