I think it is part of human curiosity to be drawn to controversy. It is the reason why many people salivate over an issue of People magazine that speculates over a sex scandal between celebrities, or why we watch unblinkingly as a politician destroys their career with a ridiculous statement. What I do not care for, however, is the desire to create controversy where none exist. No other medium seems to be as prone to unwarranted and illogical controversy as comic books, however.
From the publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the creation of the Comics Code of Authority, the comic book industry has been subject to public scrutiny on supposed controversy. As society progressed and the stories developed to reflect the evolution of our culture, we saw new “controversial” stories arise. While some were designed to create controversy, such as Harry Osborn’s drug addiction or the entirety of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, others were deemed controversial through the simple merit of the media wanting them to be so.
Where some controversies are created by the symbolic deaths of heroes, such as Captain America’s death being taken as anti-american sentiment, other controversies are derived from the race or sexual orientation of new or established heroes. The latter has been the most prevalent in recent years within both Marvel and DC, with the companies themselves exacerbating the issue by playing up the spectacle and potential for controversy rather than respecting the story and the characters.
In regards to race and sexual orientation in comics, it has often been an issue where many characters are identified by those traits before they are identified for who they are. While there is nothing wrong with exploring the cultural identity of different races or sexual orientations that characters belong to there is something wrong with making some characters feel like their identity is solely tied to those traits. The personalities and aspects of each individual is made of a gestalt of their culture, sexual identity, gender, experience, preferences, and relationships so it is understandable to want to explore each of those concepts to create a deeper character experience.
However, from a societal standpoint, the reason race and sexual orientation is so paramount in how we view our super-heroes to the point of creating “controversy” is because of how we view the norm. As a culture, Americans and many other parts of the world have created the idea that the heterosexual white male is the tabula rasa for what is normal in our world, with everything else being “the other” with which we either look at with contempt or misunderstanding confusion. While one could assume that this is a baseless analysis to the true nature of comic books and how we create them I can provide a few specific examples in past and recent times of a fervent concentration on the race and sexual orientation of a character as the sole defining aspects of them.
For many comic readers Green Lantern John Stewart is considered their favorite hero to wear the ring. He is the hero that is known by an entire generation as the only Green Lantern simply from watching Bruce Timm’s Justice League. However, as the character himself has even put it in the comics, people look at him as “the black Green Lantern.” Luckily, John has proven that he is a very deep and rich character, not letting his race be a crutch but a tool to enrich the character to the point where he is favored over his Caucasian counterparts in many instances. This may not necessarily be the case with the newest corps inductee, Simon Baz.
Baz’s creation was a topic of much heated discussion by news networks because of his openly Islamic heritage. The idea of a Muslim super-hero is an interesting concept indeed, allowing for one to see how this entire culture could influence one’s decisions in the fight against evil. People should clamor to this concept for the potentially rich stories a new character can provide, not run because of a fear of that character’s religion. Even Baz’s story is unique amidst most super-heroes, having been a former car thief and street racer you see a conflict of his past choices with the man he wants to be. His religion and heritage influences his actions, yes, but it is not the only deciding factor to who he is.
However, religion and race aren’t nearly as hot button of topics as homosexuality in super-hero comics. This past year, there was not one but controversies related to homosexuality in comics that was not only created by the media, but exacerbated by the publishers making the comics. When the gay marriage of X-man Northstar was announced, I know I personally groaned, not because I am against gay marriage, but because Marvel’s promotion of the event felt like it cheapened the event by making it feel like it was done for the controversy and not the story. Even when DC announced that Alan Scott would be remade homosexual in Earth-2 I was confused, but in both cases I was able to appreciate the story despite the attempts to draw attention to the story through controversy.
It becomes an uncomfortable grey area in comics when you have to decide if a character is being created and utilized for the diversity his existence creates or for the potential stories that he can provide through their character. Controversy is the constant visage of this grey area, reminding us that it is there and forcing us to look at what the media wants us to.
And I suppose that is my problem with “controversial issues” in comic books. When the companies utilize them on purpose it feels like the publishers are cheapening the actual act of being human through cheap tricks. Instead of concentrating on providing a story we want to read they try to make us concentrate on “the other” that is everything non-heterosexual white male. It comes off as juvenile and forced, like a teenager making fun of a gay couple and pointing at them, just to draw attention to it. I love my characters to be organic and I don’t want to be manipulated into reading about them for the sake of a created or perceived “controversy.”
After all, if a story is good then it doesn’t matter if a character is controversial. Good writing is good writing. It is why Batwoman is one of my favorite comics out right now. It is why I love Jaime Reyes as my favorite Blue Beetle. Hell, it is why I love comics. Good stories are good stories.