Diversity has always been a problem in comics. In the early days, minorities were nigh invisible, and women were usually relegated to romantic interests/damsels in distress. In the modern era, however, DC and Marvel have embraced diversity, seemingly out of fear more than any desire for inclusion, to the point where they appear to be rewriting their own history—which in comics happens often enough anyway.
Most recently, Marvel has introduced a female Thor and a black Captain America. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either decision. On a story level, shakeups like these—replacing an established hero with someone else—is nothing new in comics. In-world, Cap’s case is more than understandable. Sam Wilson is Cap’s best friend and has years of superhero experience as The Falcon. Marvel is going for something meaningful with this: Captain America—the iconic representative of the United States in comics and in the real world is now black. Therein, yes, it sounds special and momentous. It isn’t, however. Not really, anyway. Marvel wants to portray an ethnically diverse universe, and that’s fine. All that takes is time. Falcon is a long-lived well established character whose popularity has grown larger thanks to his appearance in Captain America 2. While he doesn’t have name recognition the way Cap does, the best way (read: the honest way) would be to raise the profile of the character by featuring him in the Avengers title, giving him his own mini or solo series or feature him on the Agents of SHIELD television series. This way is not flashy and quick but at least it has creative integrity.
Meanwhile, the monolithic Thor has also been de-powered and replaced by a new character, a female. (Thor is a name, not a title so I’m confused why she’s also called Thor but that’s beside the point.) In a number of ways, this makes sense. Second to Wonder Woman, there are no characters besides Thor with a stranger or more confusing continuity. Sometimes it is just best to wipe the slate clean. Again, this could be momentous. Two of the biggest names in the Avengers are being replaced to add more diversity. As stories, they’re pretty compelling.
The only problem is the condescension and laziness inherent in this move.
Comics are an Ouroboros, cycling over and over again with no permanent change and no ending. Invariably, the dead always rise to reclaim their former titles like toys being placed back in the box, and will be replaced again once sales lag a bit. There is nothing special about these changes to Thor or Captain America because it’s extremely temporary. Sam Wilson is actually the seventh person to wield the shield; Thor writer Jason Aaron has already said that he’s replaced the common Thor for “a little while.” This is a shortcut to success and an insult to fans’ intelligence. Sam Wilson will be Falcon again within two years; this new Thor will be de-powered or relegated to another section of the Marvel universe within the same time frame.
Both Marvel and DC want to be lauded for the progressive ideas and diverse casts, but neither are willing to take the slow road to get there. Rather than introducing a character—female or minority or whatever—and build them into something iconic, they’ll stamp something new onto an existing entity and commend themselves for such progressive sensitivity.
Marvel has succeeded and failed in this before. Some of their major successes are in their X-Men line. The X-Men were meant to be a statement on race in America (though more recently that has understandably shifted to being a statement on homosexuality in America). The X-Men introduced Kitty Pryde in the early 1980s; she’s Jewish, though that was only one facet of the character. In more recent years, the X-Man Northstar married his longtime love, Kyle Jinadu; they were a gay and interracial couple. This was the result of honest storytelling featuring original characters that were allowed to grow organically overtime. Their powers were their gimmicks, not their religion or sexual preference. Of course there was that awkward moment last year when mutant activist Havoc went on TV and decried a Senator for using the “M-word.” Thematically, I appreciate that, though the moment was a bit over-played.
Also in the X-Men lineup are Magneto and Charles Xavier. Magneto was a concentration camp survivor and Xavier was a paraplegic; two groups not often explored or represented in comics. Magneto now has his own title; Xavier has died and returned on numerous occasions and is currently dead.
In Marvel there’s the primary universe (dubbed 616) and the “Ultimate” universe that was launched in 2000. The Ultimate line was in a parallel reality and featured a then-modern rendition of all of Marvel’s major properties. A few years ago, the Ultimate universe’s Spider-man was killed. Through coincidence and technobabble, a new Spider-man rose. Miles Morales who was black and Puerto Rican. It felt a little forced—not only did he have to be a minority but he had to be bi-racial from two minority groups—but he was fairly well written and actualized and over time became a compelling character in his own right. Then, the backstory came in. Despite his parents being educated and wealthy, apparently both his father and his uncle were former career criminals which somehow led to Miles getting his powers, and led to their deaths.
Kamala Khan, the newest Ms. Marvel (not to be confused with the Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, X-Men’s Ms. Marvel or DC Comics’ Captain Marvel). She’s a Pakistani-American and a practicing Muslim, and was created by G. Willow Wilson (not to be confused with G. Gordon Liddy or G. Gordon Godfrey) who herself is a practicing Muslim. Kamala deals with life as a teen and a Muslim but keeps from getting preachy. The title itself is loads of fun and is cleverly written. The only gimmick involved is her superpowers. But the problem is the fact that she’s called Ms. Marvel. Rather than build the character up in her own right, Marvel took a quick fix and had her inherit another’s name—one of their few major female players—because Kamala’s hero is Carol Danvers. While this was a contrivance, Kamala doesn’t actually replace Carol Danvers who is still around and has her own adventures. It’s just confusing now that there are two of them. It’s a little unfair to Kamala to be given a major tie to an already existing character rather than developing her as her own superhero entirely. It certainly helped sales, but the strength of Wilson’s writing proved Kamala didn’t need the boost of the Marvel name.
At DC, Greg Rucka re-introduced Batwoman almost a decade ago, who had been missing from comics for roughly thirty years. Kate Kane was an out and proud Jewish lesbian. She lost her commission at West Point because of her sexual preferences, though that wasn’t part of her thinking in becoming a superhero. It was a well-conceived and modernizing character point (and a clever way to explain her combat expertise). Now, Kate Kane is a different Batwoman than the original Batwoman named Kathy Kane (oh, comics!) but, again, we’re given confusing origins and murky identities for the sake of headlines:
Captain America is black! Batwoman is gay!
DC’s own victories and losses are also as complicated. In 1972, DC added John Stewart to the Green Lantern Corps; the first African American ring-slinger, and one of the first African American superheroes to not have “black” or some derivation of that in his name, and the first to not be immediately reduced to common stereotypes. He was an architect and former Marine, and in the early days his viewpoint as an African American was explored through a 70s lens. It still comes up from time to time, when it’s meaningful or relevant. Stewart grew in popularity over the years, appearing in the Justice League Animated Series, a handful of video games and currently leads his own title.
In 1977, Black Manta’s revealed himself to the other villains as being African American. “Ever wonder why I’m called Black Manta?” he says, angrily. This would make for a great comment about race were it not for the fact that Black Manta was called Black Manta because his stealth suit was black. Instead, the statement just hangs there almost as a non-sequitur.
In 2005’s Infinite Crisis, Mr. Terrific and Black Lightning work together to stop the plans of Superboy Prime and Alexander Luthor. Black Lightning mentions his strange codename: when he first got into the game, he was one of the few black heroes around and he “wanted to make sure everyone knew who they were dealing with.” I really don’t see the relevance as anyone would know he was black anyway considering his costume doesn’t cover his entire face. In both of these situations you can tell the writers meant well but what’s meant to be a touching heartfelt and true moment only comes off as out of touch pandering that underlines racial differences rather than equality.
In the mid-90s, Cassandra Cain was introduced to the Batman-family. She was of mixed Asian descent, and was very popular. She became Batgirl for a while—which, like Thor and Captain America—didn’t stick. Fans were not pleased. In the New 52, the DC Comics reboot of their entire line, Cassandra was lost in the mix and hasn’t been heard from since before 2011. More recently, a new character called Batwing was introduced. Both were black—the first African, the second (and current) is African-American. None of these three characters had to be repeatedly referenced or defined by any cultural or genetic derivation.
A few others that won in DC’s favor started in the late 90s with a series called The Authority which featured an eponymous team with members Midnighter and Apollo who were gay lovers. They were not stereotyped or exaggerated (very rare in fiction). They were emotionally stable people (very rare for superheroes) and eventually adopted a daughter. Other gay characters were also introduced—Obsidian, Scandal Savage and Knockout. Gail Simone recently introduced DC’s first minority transgendered character in Alysia Yeoh; Scott Snyder introduced the gay Cullen Row (though he’s had little to do); gay writer Marc Andreyko’s lauded Manhunter series featured several gay and lesbian characters; a new Teen Titan member named Bunker is an openly gay and widely accepted character (and has flourished since Scott Lobdell left the title).
Here, again, is where things get a little complex. As mentioned before, DC rebooted their line and dubbed it the New 52, a gimmick to create a jumping on point for new readers and boost sales. Some changes were controversial, some were pretty cool.
Starfire was turned from a warrior queen to a barely clothed nymph/warrior queen, Catwoman was relegated to little more than Batman’s paramour, and paraplegics Barbara Gordon and Niles Caulder suddenly walk again eliminating the only two disabled characters in the company.
Meanwhile, on Earth 2, Alan Scott was turned gay—a reference to his son Obsidian who no longer exists because Scott has been de-aged to about 25. Cyborg, an African American superhero, was now made a founding member of the Justice League, replacing Martian Manhunter. Unfortunately, Cyborg has rarely been utilized to his potential, and in an interesting bit of irony, he has indeed taken over Martian Manhunter’s role as little more than the switchboard operator for the League. Where at once he was allowed to be his own character as guiding original member of the Teen Titans, he’s now just on promotional posters so DC can say “We have a black guy on our biggest team! And we fixed time so he’s now a founding member too!”
Attempts have been made to create original characters. Recently, Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz were added to the Green Lantern Corps. This doesn’t really fall under the umbrella of what’s going on with Thor or Cap, considering the Corps are a large team of space-cops and already have five or six human characters of different backgrounds. The problem becomes how these characters were introduced.
Baz started out pretty well. The first issue he appeared in began with a silent breakdown. As a boy, he watches the 9/11 terror attacks on television. He’s then the target of Islamophobic school bullies, and as an adult, is treated suspiciously because he’s Muslim. Great! Interesting! Contemporary! Let’s see where this goes. Turns out, he’s not a terrorist but he is a career criminal and a noted car thief. Of course. Naturally. His sister works for the State Department, and we’re meant to take that as a gift, as if to say “See, we don’t believe all Muslims are criminals!” However, Baz’s sister isn’t an important character. Baz is. And yes, he’s not a terrorist, but he is a criminal.
Jessica Cruz was introduced strangely. Her story is subtle, thematic and relevant. Cruz witnessed a mafia hit and has been holed up in an apartment, living like a hoarder with guns and dry food—windows blocked and doors locked—afraid of the inevitable Godfather-esque reprisal. When her ring was given to her it was because of the fear she had in her heart. The only way to control the ring, rather than it control her, was to not only accept the fear, but overcome it. Purposely or not, her arc was not unlike that of a rape victim who, traumatized, shuns the world by locking herself away and the only way back out is to confront the act and overwhelm the fear that has come to define her life. A real life connection can be made in the home invasion and sexual assault that porn starlet Cytherea suffered earlier this year.
This is not only an example of empowering storytelling, it’s also blind to any specific race or gender. Anyone who has dealt with that kind of ordeal can find something true in this portrayal; it just so happens that the character is a minority. Compare this to Thor’s ham-fisted, suspension of disbelief-breaking takedown of a bad guy in the name of feminism. Taken side by side these two arcs really show the spectrum of quality in utilizing minority characters.
Helena Bertinelli (the former Huntress) had been absent since the New 52 began in September of 2011. She debuted again a few months ago as an African American character. So was Wally West. And here’s where things get more controversial. DC didn’t go out looking for headlines in changing Helena’s race. It was treated quietly and with dignity, and felt strangely correct—like a matter of course. It’s like Beverly Katz in Hannibal being portrayed by Hettienne Park, a Korean. No noise was made by anybody, largely because it was done respectfully. You normally don’t see a Korean with the last name of Katz, and you don’t normally see a black person with the name of Bertinelli. Bi-racial children are simply of normal course and isn’t something to make a big deal out of. DC had a pair of bi-racial kids—the products of Wally West and Linda Park—but they’ve been erased from continuity, and brings me to my next point.
From 1986-2008, Wally West was the Flash. A freckle-faced ginger reminiscent of Jimmy Olsen or Archie Andrews if either had a backbone. The character was created in 1959 as Kid Flash, sidekick to Barry Allen’s Flash. After Barry’s death in 1986, Wally fulfilled the promise that legacy characters almost never do. He became the mentor. He replaced the old guy. For an entire generation reading comics or watching the animated series—myself included—Wally West was our Flash. He was one of the few characters in comics to actually age and grow up (the only others that come to mind are Dick Grayson, Peter Parker and Donna Troy).
When DC launched the New 52, Wally was written out of continuity and Barry returned to the mantle. Wally, himself, among fans, bloggers and comic-con attendees would haunt DC Comics higher-ups like Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio and Bob Harras with chants of “Where’s Wally?”
Well, Wally came back as an African American street kid, tagging buildings in graffiti, dropping consonants and talking in slang as if to imbue him with some sort of urban realism, but is actually as contemporary as The Warriors and as tiringly demeaning as Uncle Ruckus. You see, like Miles Morales, Wally West must have some connection to criminal gang culture due to their race. They simply couldn’t be treated as any regular characters. (In an attempt to make them more gritty or realistic or whatever keyword Marvel or DC like to throw around to boost sales, that is.) The point maybe is to portray these characters as something youths—minority or not—could identify with. Rather than set an example, in both cases, the point was to jump up and down and scream “Look, look we have black characters and they’re really black!” but that isn’t representative. It’s condescending, hacky, and shows both the creative bankruptcy and how out of touch these companies are. Progress isn’t depicting more black criminals, but by having more characters who are treated and act like regular people.
In Bobby Joseph’s “Why the New Black Wally West is Offensive,” he breaks the lazy stereotyping succinctly, “This new ‘Black’ Wally West kid is devoid of any kind of personality and charm. New Wally West wears a hoodie (as all Black kids do obviously) and is on a downward spiral because he doesn’t have a firm family network (yawn) to rely upon.”
It’s tedious that black characters in comics must have some connection to crime or some sort of street-cred in order to somehow gain a three dimensional persona within comics. Their connection to crime cannot simply be the fighting of it, they have to have involved themselves in it or have direct family members who have spent time in jail (see Miles Morales). Had DC handled Wally differently, the backlash from fans and special interest groups would not have been so severe. If Helena’s change had been met with a semi-annoyed shrug but a nod of understanding, Wally’s was met with a deep, rancid bile.
While we do live nowadays in a knee-jerk society, prone to outrage just to feel important, I understand this one. Critics have dubbed the change offensive and unnecessary (apparently black people don’t need a black Flash to like the character!). Mostly, they ask the question: If you wanted to create a Flash that was black why not just make a new character?
Though meant to be special, these acts often come off as a lazy retroactive progressivism and that obsequiously panders to an audience they might alienate by trying too hard to make them stay. The solution is simple: make more original characters, take fewer shortcuts.
“Why the New Black Wally West is Just Plain Offensive,” Bleeding Cool, accessed March 3, 2015, http://www.bleedingcool.com/2014/05/06/why-the-new-black-wally-west-is-just-offensive/
“Dear DC Comics, That’s Not the Wally West We Asked For,” Nerdist, accessed March 3, 2015, http://www.nerdist.com/2014/05/dear-dc-comics-thats-not-the-wally-west-we-asked-for