How does something like IMMORTAL HULK #43 happen?

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This week’s issue of Immortal Hulk has come under scrutiny for imagery that has been interpreted by many to be anti-semitic. The image in question is of a scene in which Joe Fixit, in the body of Bruce Banner, is in a jewelry store. The front window of the store is visible, and the word “Jewelry” is misspelled – the ‘L’ is omitted, leaving the word ‘Jewery’ – and a large Star of David is on the window underneath the word. The combination of the misspelled word and the symbol have been called out for playing into well-known negative stereotypes of Jewish people.

Immortal Hulk #43
The four-panel jewelry store sequence, as it originally appeared on page 3 of IMMORTAL HULK #43.

Brazilian artist Joe Bennett, who drew the offending image, has issued an apology for the panel, claiming the misspelling on the window was just that, and that he was ignorant of the Jewish stereotype invoked by the use of the Star of David in that context. Marvel Comics has also acknowledged their error in not catching the image, and has said they will correct the panel in future printings and collections that contain Immortal Hulk #43. The panel has already been altered on the digital edition of the issue to remove the anti-semitic imagery.

Whether you choose to believe Bennett’s apology is sincere is up to you. Personally, I find it a little hard to swallow. If it had been just the misspelled word, I could believe it was an honest typo, but the inclusion of the Star of David is honestly baffling as anything other than anti-semitic. There’s nothing in the story to indicate the business is Jewish-owned – the issue spends a total of four panels in that shop – and putting something more generic (like, say, a diamond) on the window would’ve probably made more sense (and required less conscious thought on Bennett’s part). Bennett’s previous history of questionable behavior also doesn’t make it any easier to believe this was a simple mistake on his part.

The thing that I find more troubling is how many other people saw that image and either didn’t find anything wrong with it or simply didn’t notice it. The issue’s inker, either Ruy José or Belardino Brabo, would have finished the line art. Colorist Paul Mounts colored it all in. Letterer Cory Petit placed word balloons in the panel. Editors Sarah Brunstad, Wil Moss, and Tom Brevoort (and possibly even Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski, whose name is also on the issue) would all have to have reviewed and approved the page. Writer Al Ewing may even have done a lettering pass on the issue to tweak dialogue. Even without that, and assuming Cebulski never saw the issue, there were still at least six other people with their hands on Immortal Hulk #43, who would have seen the page and either said nothing about it or actively approved it for print.

The panel as it now appears in the digital edition of IMMORTAL HULK #43.

My first job after graduating from college was as a textbook editor, and the first project I worked on was for a series of fifth-grade math books. The work included formatting and editing manuscript for the books, and reviewing and proofreading production pages before the books were sent off to the printers. One day I was reviewing pages when I came across an image that I immediately flagged. The section of the book I was reviewing dealt with sorting geometric shapes based on common characteristics, and a photograph that accompanied it featured a teacher in the center of the image, with two students on her right and one on her left. The two students on the right were White and were wearing solid-colored shirts, while the student on the left was Black and wearing a very thinly-striped shirt. The caption accompanying the photo read something to the effect of, “A teacher sorts her students based on what they have in common.” The intent was that one student’s shirt was striped and the others were solid, and that’s what they were being sorted on, but stopping to look at the image with a critical eye made it obvious that it looked like the teacher was sorting the students by race.

I thought about how many people had to have seen that image before it got to me. Someone took that photo. Someone selected it for use in the book. Someone in the production department placed it on the page. That’s at least three sets of eyes who either didn’t think anything about it was potentially problematic or who just weren’t paying attention. I don’t think any of those people were racist; I think they just didn’t see the problem because they weren’t looking for it, regardless of how blatantly obvious it was. I know I certainly never expected to see anything like that photo in a math textbook, at least not until I did.

The question that’s been on my mind about Immortal Hulk #43 since Wednesday is this: how does something like this happen? I don’t believe, nor do I have any evidence, that what any of those previously-mentioned six people who saw the panel after Bennett drew it did (or didn’t do) is malicious. What I do believe is that none of those six people, in particular none of those three editors, were looking for something like this, or even conscious of the idea that they might see something like that. This is especially concerning considering another relatively recent incident of an artist hiding hateful dog whistles in their work, that of Ardian Syaf and 2017’s X-Men Gold #1. One would think Marvel’s editors would be on the lookout for things like that now, so it’s troubling that something like it could happen again. Whether it’s a symptom of implicit bias, or simply of everyone who works in comics being overworked (as was the given explanation for another case of anti-semitism in a Marvel Comic, 1998’s Wolverine #131), or of something else entirely, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, it’s clearly an ongoing problem, and one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

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