Hey, That's My Cape! Comic Books, Race, Change, & Hate

Hey, That

Diversity in comic books. It’s been a hot button topic for a long time. Whatever their specific reasons, there are two very vocal camps; those who welcome changing familiar superheroes with ethnically and racially diverse characters and those who hate it. That’s overly simplifying things, sure, but that is really what it boils down to isn’t it? Don’t believe me? Read a few message boards or articles pertaining to the new Ultimate Spider-Man.

Some really disgusting comments were made online after the announcement of Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic character, taking up the mantle from the deceased Peter Parker in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. I’ve been on the internet, I’ve seen disgusting, this was a new low.

For instance, over at The Beat, Heidi MacDonald posted the Spider-Man news and received an influx of racist and ignorant comments. Many were so bad she had to delete them and close off comments. Here’s one that remains:

“Political correctness run amok. Kill off whitey. Replace with multiculti. As a white person who has read and loved Spiderman my whole life, I am out. Will no longer buy Spiderman or Marvel. They could easily have created a new black/hispanic hero if they wanted to but this guy [Editor in chief Axel] Alonso changing a cultural icon is a FU to white Americans. This is a FU moment to white people.”

The anonymity of the internet breeds all sorts of terrible behavior, I’ve been a victim of it several times and I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of it too, but this? I’m ashamed to see this kind of behavior. Ashamed that we live in a country where we have made so much progress and people still hold to this, in my opinion, moronic view. That there is still such a cultural divide 60 plus years after the civil rights movement. And people wonder why minorities of all kinds get discouraged. As much progress as we think we’ve made in this world, it can sometimes seem like we’re never going to get to that ever-looming “happy place” of equality.

Never mind that these kinds of issues pervade every aspect of our culture, in the comic book world they’ve gotten out of control. I don’t read any of the Marvel Ultimate Comics books but when I heard the news about the new Spider-Man my first thought was, “Cool, another young kid is going to take up the mantle.” But not everyone had that view. Speaking with others working in the industry, almost all are sickened by the vile comments coming from some of the fanbase. So I have to ask, how much does race actually play a factor in our favorite comic characters?

In reality, a great deal of superheroes (as well as supporting characters) can theoretically be changed to a different race and have their story remain the same. If you close your eyes and tell their tales, who’s to say what color they are? The exceptions? Characters who were created with a very specific background such as Black Panther, Storm, the current Black Condor or Sunfire. They were created in such a way that they use their racial identity to help inform their characters. If you change that, they aren’t the same people anymore.

But characters like Superman (as well as other comic book aliens), Green Arrow, Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, Batman, even those like Lex Luthor, don’t have a real connection to any particular race. Physical traits are sometimes part of a story, but most of the time they’re not. Bear in mind, a lot of these characters, the Justice Society for example, were created during a time when having a superhero of color wouldn’t have been possible or acceptable in society. If these characters were created in modern times they could be any race. Would some life experiences be slightly altered? Sure but in my eyes, not significantly enough to turn the character into someone else.

Completely changing a character’s color in the comics may be a little far-fetched, even in that fictional world, but having a person of a different race play them in a film or television show? To me it’s a non-issue. Would it require a big shift in thinking for a lot of people? Sure. But, racists aside, why is it really a problem? I’m not saying characters races should be changed willy-nilly, but I am calling for some consideration when they are. If an actor of a different color is the best actor for a role that doesn’t rely on his or her race to make them who they are, they should be the one cast. What bugs me the most, and bothers others I assume, is when it’s made a spectacle of.

When a company comes out and blatantly says, “We’re adding x, y or z because we want more diversity in our project,” it creates an automatic division. Some will think it’s a great move, others will feel it’s forced. Does that mean it’s always a “stunt?” Not necessarily, but that’s how it comes off to most fans. Marvel’s headlines for the Ultimate Spider-Man news were that he was of mixed race. Granted, when the Man of Steel Laurence Fishburne casting news broke it wasn’t in a statement by Warner Bros. but it was simply that he had been cast in the role of Perry White. It was the discretion of the journalists disseminating the story (myself included) to decide whether or not to state the obvious, that this was a black actor playing a traditionally white role. I chose to point that out in the original story I wrote on Blog@Newsarama because it was part of the news to me. While I personally don’t think it’s a big deal, I knew it would be for a lot of people and that it was also a bit of history in the making. And of course, coming on the heels of the Spider-Man announcement, it seemed remiss not to say anything.

“Turning” an established character into a different race or replacing a legacy character with a new one of a different race, neither is met with complete acceptance from comic fans. In fact, it’s heavily rallied against. It goes back to some points I made in my response to the DC relaunch. People feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to these characters and when a significant change is made they react as if they are their own. They say things like, “Don’t take ‘our’ characters away from us, make new ones instead if you want diversity.” Right, because all-new characters usually work so well selling their own titles. Again, I’m not entirely ok with it being done as a stunt but if it can be done naturally then I don’t see why not.

Eight years ago, Michael Clark Duncan was cast as Kingpin in Daredevil. The character in the comic books was white. Now, I wasn’t online the same way then as I am now and while I do remember it making some waves, I didn’t feel it received the same reaction the latest news has. Surprising considering the fan campaign started for actor Donald Glover for the role of Spider-Man in the reboot got a lot of positive response. In fact, writer of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis, even mentioned Glover was an inspiration of sorts for the new character and a sign he was headed in the right direction with his story in our interview with him today.

But sadly, these decisions, whatever their motivation, bring out the worst in some people. I don’t want to have to be cynical when these happen and just say I should have expected it. I want it to stop. The casting of actor Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor received some of the most hateful responses I’ve ever seen online. The Ultimate Spider-Man news is rivaling that and it saddens me. I hope the new story turns out to be one of the best ever told. In comics, the story is what it’s all about after all.

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