Robot 6

Race and superheroes: touching fanboy politics’ third rail

from Spider-Man: Fever #1 by Brendan McCarthy

from Spider-Man: Fever #1 by Brendan McCarthy

Warning: People who use the phrase “playing the race card” need not apply to the following post. I guess that rules out, y’know, our entire political class, but oh well. Anyway, a trio of recent pieces have taken on the issue of race in contemporary superhero comics and movies.

Perhaps the most high-profile of the three pieces is Chris Sims’s essay on “the racial politics of regressive storytelling” for Comics Alliance. Sims argues that DC Comics’ current penchant for restoring the Silver Age versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, the Atom, the Legion of Super-Heroes and so on has the unintentional but regrettable effect of pushing their successors — in many cases, non-white characters created to replace their slain or off-stage white predecessors — to the sidelines. While he’s quite clear that he doesn’t believe Geoff Johns or any of the other writers or editors involved are motivated by racial animus, he laments the way in which several decades’ worth of minority characters are now becoming “footnotes” in the race to create comics that evoke the creators’ and readers’ memories of their childhood favorites. I’m sympathetic to the obvious truth in Sims’s argument — replacing Ryan Choi with Ray Palmer, for example, does indeed “whiten” the Atom concept once again. But as I wrote in an essay on my own blog, I think the blame lies not with Johns and his Rebirths and Brightest Day and so on, but with the creators who, instead of creating strong non-white characters out of whole cloth like Luke Cage or Storm or Black Panther, simply put new guys in the old guys’ outfits, thus all but inviting readers to think of them as substitutes and pine for their original favorites.

Next, Brandon Soderberg of Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader tackles a scene from the first issue of writer-artist Brendan McCarthy’s trippy Spider-Man: Fever in which an African-American character acts and speaks in a fashion that’d make the vest-wearing street toughs of Bronze Age comics blush. Not only does Soderberg call out the cringe-inducing urban patois in which the character speaks, but the strangely outdated outfit McCarthy’s given him: “the guy’s dressed like say, a De La Soul or Souls of Mischief fan from the early 90s, not a thug at all,” says Soderberg, who also writes the hip-hop blog No Trivia. I found the scene extremely off-putting myself, though I do find Soderberg’s commenter Julian’s explanation — that McCarthy deliberately inserted a retrograde portrayal of a minority character in order to emphasize the project’s throwback nature — at least a little plausible.

Finally, David Brothers of 4th Letter caught a few fans protesting the proverbial too much over the casting of The Wire‘s Idris Elba as one of the Asgardian gods in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Thor movie. Brothers is actually sympathetic to the complaints, to an extent, calling the casting “race-changing for no good reason”; but he points out that given the historical inaccuracies already jam-packed into Marvel’s take on the Norse myths, a black Norse god is hardly a dealbreaker.

Of course, it hasn’t been that long since Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass came in for criticism over its troubling-to-some treatment of non-white, non-male characters, so this is clearly a topic that’s on readers’ minds. As far as I’m concerned, the more thoughtful exploration of the treatment of race we can get in an industry with comics’ frequently shameful racial legacy, the better.



“I think the blame lies not with Johns and his Rebirths and Brightest Day and so on”

Nah, that’s letting him off too easy. By the time of Blackest Night and Brightest Day, Johns certainly had the clout–both within DC Comics and among the people who buy comics–to give Ryan Choi or Jason Rusch a better chance of becoming lasting characters. He’s done almost nothing with John Stewart in almost six years of writing Green Lantern comics. Johns had chosen not to make use of minority characters despite numerous opportunities. I’m not saying that makes him a card-carrying racist, but he most certainly does not get a pass on this issue.

“now becoming “footnotes” in the race to create comics that evoke the creators’ and readers’ memories of their childhood favorites.”

yeah, but maybe that means that when we’re in charge the Milestone characters are gonna be big players.

One can hope, at least. I loved that shit when I was a kid.

“He’s done almost nothing with John Stewart in almost six years of writing Green Lantern comics.”

That’s rather unfair, because it hasn’t been just Geoff; no one ever really does anything with John Stewart. The Justice League cartoon did more with the character than anyone I can think of since Denny O’Neil created the character about thirty or forty years ago. John Stewart often feels like he’s just there when it comes to the comics; it could just be me, but he feels like one of those characters no one really knows what to do with.

i think the biggest problem with the online comics community in tackling issues of race and representation in popular comics is that it seems to happen mostly in large sweeping pieces of criticism, as opposed to finding its way into the everyday discourse. for example, sexism in comics seems to have reached a point of awareness among online critics so that it can be mentioned along with other complaints casually in the context of a critique. but i’ve found (and this is all my opinion of course, and not some sort of definite proclamation) that criticism of ignorant or unbalanced portrayals of race in comics receives only occasional-but-far-reaching exposure among most critics. like it only comes out when there’s a big argument to be made, as opposed to being someting that gets cited just as casually and with frequent sensitivity as sexism and unbalanced portrayals of women in mainstream comics.


May 10, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I agree with all of the articles.

One of the main reasons I’m staying away from DC except for the bat-books. They go and bring back all the white guys and remove all the minority legacy characters. Blackest Night? All the heroes that came back were white save Osiris and Jade, and Hal Jordan stopped the Blackest night with White Power. I know it was probably unintentional, but that’s how it happened.

In Brightest Day, Somalian pirates kidnapped a white girl. Why couldn’t she have been a somalian girl?

In the other cases, it may have to do with the creators being European. I noticed very few European writers actually know how to handle other races.

Even with the returns of Ronnie Raymond, Ray Palmer and others, we’ve got to remember that Jason Rusch, Ryan Choi, Jaime Reyes and Rene Montoya’s taking their respective mantels all happened fairly recently under Didio’s watch. There were interviews at CBR and other places where Didio went to great lengths to explain that he wanted to expand both the variety of the characters and the comic book reading audience. And at the time it was happening, fans on the message boards howled in indignation that DC was abandoning these classic characters who could shine once again if DC just gave them the chance. And DC gave the fans what they said they wanted most of the time: they restored the original characters. And now they’re taking flak for not giving these new characters a chance to build an audience. DC just can’t catch a break.

But I do agree with Sean that the larger problem is that there aren’t more interesting original characters of different races. On the other hand, most new characters don’t succeed anyway, regardless of race. It’s just been really hard to launch new concepts at either DC or Marvel since the era of direct market began.

But I think the majority of culpability rests on the shoulders of the fans. Every year or two, there is a small handful of new series featuring characters of color in prominent roles (I’ll throw out Green Lantern: Mosaic as an example, because I still think that is one of the best concepts in super-hero comics in the past 30 years), and they simply don’t sell. They may be wonderfully written and inventive, but we the fans just aren’t interested in purchasing those kinds of stories when we’re offered them.

Spidey used the drug guy’s phone to call the cops HA! HA! HA! HA! HEH! HEEEEeeee! Funny stuff!
White power thats the best they could come up with weak. White Power is that a metaphor for Superman?I’m saddened to hear there was a major multi year event and no body wished it better. Am I the only person who caught the Marvel Apes cover with Luke Cage /Power Man as a Baboon with the head band and yellow shirt, talk about bad taste. Maybe the Vulture should call the AARP. Yea! Blame the Europeans! later!

Simon DelMonte

May 10, 2010 at 6:04 pm

One writer really tried to shake things up with John Stewart. But does anyone else remember Gerry Jones’ disturbing and often brilliant Green Lantern: Mosaic series? I can’t see DC doing anything remotely like that today. Heck, Cully Hamner once said that DC canceled it despite decent sales because it didn’t suit their needs then,

I’m all for minorities, but just stay away from Indians, please. I’m Indian myself, and a lot of these writers just….get the culture WRONG. It’s maddening/saddening/annoying. If you’re gonna write it, do your research first.

“(I’ll throw out Green Lantern: Mosaic as an example, because I still think that is one of the best concepts in super-hero comics in the past 30 years), and they simply don’t sell.”

Hmm. According to Wikipedia, the first issue sold 210,000 and the last sold about 70,000, when it had already been cancelled.

I think that the real blame doesn’t lay so much with the creators but with us the readers. If these new replacement characters were more popular they would still have their own series. Gale Simone’s Atom was pretty good and deserved more readers. Blue Beetle dropped off in quality when John Rogers left but still was as entertaining as a lot of the better selling comics.

“Johns had chosen not to make use of minority characters…”

What about Mister Terrific, one of the key members of Johns’s JSA?

I also disagree with one of Sean’s comments.The way comic fans are hostile to new characters created out of whole cloth (regardless race, gender, or sexual orientation), the best shot of including minority characters in Marvel/DC is to make use of the legacies of past heroes.

I think I tend to agree with Rene. If the next Flash was X, Y, Z, or Guy Gardner, I’m still picking up the book automatically. I’m a fan of The Flash.

If there’s a new hero, well, you’re gonna have to sell me on why I should read the book.

Unrelated question: Have all the residents of New Krypton looked like Caucasians? I think they have but I’m not positive.

Mr. Terrific, Black Lightning, Batwoman, Renee Montoya, John Stewart, Black Manta, Katanna, Judo Master and John Henry Irons are all prominent minority characters in the DCU that I thought of, just off the top of my head, so I’m sure there are many more. Jason Rusch’s booked tanked, but he is still a main player in Brighest Day. Jaime Reyes booked did not sell well, but he will be in the weekly JLI book. Yeah Hal and Barry are back, but Wally is not part of a minority and most people think Kyle is white anyway.

Wally might not be a minority but his wife and kids are.

I just hope that the points made by Chris Sims and in this column are taken to heart by DC. They have to be careful when they’ve done what they’ve done with their characters.

I honestly don’t think anything done here was on purpose, but the regressive nature of the publisher does inherently make the cast more white.

And just a point, John Stewart was heavily used in the pages of Winick’s Green Lantern in the year or so before it was canceled to make room for Hal’s return. He regular shared the space with Rayner (sometimes taking the book over completely.)

Mark Millar is mentioned because he’s a massive wanker. Go away.

Poor writers aside, yes, DC is guilty of something here.

I am a massive DC fan, but the murder of Ryan Choi was a slight and has, unfortunately, served to highlight some of the industry’s shortcomings. Ian Sattler’s brainfart aside, DC has a lot to offer in the way of racially diverse and homosexual characters.

At a glance:

Kate Kane (Detective Comics is easily the best comic of the last year), The Question (long-term hispanic-lesbian-come-thinking-man’s-superhero), Black Lightning (Justice League powerhouse), Mr Terrific (the most-likable brain ever to grace the Universe), Dr Light (Asian keeper of light-power and one-time chair-woman of the JLA), Jakeem (trustee of JSA’s lighting friend and the most lovable teenage in the DCU), John Stewart (one of the original black superheroes and smasher of racial stereotypes in the 1970s).

There is so much to offer in the way of diversity – but this is outweighed by the creators desire to resurrect Golden Age replace the excellent successors. On a Caucasian scale, it’s no different that Wally West earning the mantle of the Flash for fifteen years, only (after Final Crisis – which I loved) to have it reclaimed by Barry Allen.

All I want is some continuity and some faith in the new generation. There is so much to give.

@Nick Alhelm

It’s a great point, but Johns’ GL since 2005 has been nothing short of amazing. John Stewart, in my opinion, is fantastic and deserves more time than Guy and Kyle (who I adore, also), and should have found a place on the Green Lantern Corps series. Fact is, him and Hal were the two flagships of the main title, but he’s had no place there. He needs attention and, if Green Lantern v4 wasn’t so amazing, I’d be furious.

Guy Gardner: Emerald Warrior? Fuck that — John Stewart: Bad-Ass Architect Extrordinare. I’d buy that.

I was upset about the changing of the guard in Firestorm and I am delighted at the return of Ronnie. That being said, I never understood why they couldn’t keep Ronnie and add this new character and now they are joined as one. Firestorm is more than one person inhabiting that body so he is an ensemble character, I am fine with this scenario.

I never liked the lets replace this guy with a new one in the mask mentality unless it is a new version of a golden age, I like the more recent Mister Terrific, but as others have said, make new heroes for these minority characters, don’t take a preexisting character and replace them, especially if someone else is closer in line to taking over that mantle. They should elevate the Milestone heroes to a larger status and create a few new minority heroes with top talent and heavy pr.

I think that few white writers seem to know what to do with minority characters, and I think it may have to do with the relative dearth of minority creators who could bring different life experiences and perspectives to racial and ethnic minority characters. I never found John Stewart interesting until I watched the Justice League cartoon; I’m pretty sure that Dwayne McDuffie (an African American) was a large part of what made John Stewart work as a character in the JL series.

I’ve been a Green Lantern fan since the “Emerald Twilight” storyline in the mid-nineties, but I’ve only recently heard of “Green Lantern: Mosaic”. To the anyone who posted their admiration for the title in this comment section: What was it about and what made it so good? Is it available in TP, and if not, what are the chances of me finding the run via back issues?

Christopher Stansfield

June 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Green Lantern: Mosaic was “about” John Stewart acting as policeman and Guardian (note the capital “g”) of a literal melting pot world of numerous alien and human communities forced to share one space. It was also about the cycle of life, death, and resurrection; racism and its effects; sanity vs. insanity; and it’s really quite indescribable. Put it up against Gerard Jones’s run on, say “Justice League International,” and a person could be forgiven for wondering if someone was possessing him when he wrote this. It’s an almost-Vertigo Green Lantern series, it was tremendously well-written, and it was thrown under the bus despite good sales. Then John Stewart was reduced from being a Guardian to being a Darkstar, and then a cripple, until finally being status quo’d back to being a Green Lantern. it is not collected in TPB and probably never will. However, back issues should be easy enough to find, and it was a short run, so it won’t cost you much. It’s very gratifying to see how many other people here are giving the series some respect.

i think that i personally enjoy marvel comics for the simple fact that they have alot more diversity like with the x-men which is a cast of so many ethnic groups backgrounds cultures and etc.. DC in my opinion didn’t take that into consideration until after seeing how well marvel was doing with there characters.Hence why for them going backwords is what will end up keeping them behind marvel because when you have young readers looking at these comics the internal question of who can i identify with is left up in the air. I do like DC comics but times do change back then im sure race wasn’t a dicussion because there most likely wasn’t alot of diversity back in the discussion rooms, which is why later over the years as more ethnic groups started taking notice and asking, why is every hero in the justice league white with the exception of martian mnhunter. lol. The shows like teen titans, static shock, for instance were very fun and more diverse. I think maybe writers of the comics for these super groups should get a little and experiance different cultures,and ethhnic groups. Just for clerification this isn’t just me smashing on DC this is simply me encouraging dc to continue to bring in more ethnicities.

Also one more thing i’m very excited to see the new show that dc is working on called Young Justice the art is amazing and truthfully looks better than marvels new animated series coming out i think its the Avengers well at least i know what its about. But anyway i look forward to seeing how they go about doing this series.

This is, by far, the single most idiotic “theory” in the mental disorder of political correctness I’ve ever witnessed. Why is it people find offense when no offense is intended? The reason for gap between white characters and minority ones is NOT that vast as every single alien character is a minority. Also, I think white creators and writers don’t connect with the minority character as we have no point of reference. Was Tolkein a racist? Eddings? If people want to see more minority characters, maybe more minorities should take up writing comic books. Now, in my opinion, people need to cease being bobble head parrots, repeating everything the hear or read and start thinking for yourself. O.o

Wispling Godfried

February 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm

@ Kilted_Savage: Whoa, calm down buddy. Did you even read the responses here? People are thinking for themselves. That’s what this forum is about. It’s a known fact that as the world becomes more global, the audience for comic book heroes is becoming more diverse. The question of the ethnicity of the characters is an obvious one especially as more and more comics are being converted into movies. This doesn’t seem like a hard concept to understand. True, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s when many of the characters we know and love were being created, the creators AND audience was primarily white, so diversity was never a question. Now however, with REAL LIFE ACTORS being cast to play these characters, the topic of race is coming up more often. These characters are supposed to reflect the societies we live in, or be approximations for them. That’s why I believe the Golden Age status quo is a bad idea. An Alien character being representative of minorities is a strange compromise. Besides, your argument for having no point of reference implies that only male writers should write male characters, and so on. O.o

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