The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 191 | Living Color: The changing discourse on race in superhero comics

Leaving Proof 191 | Living Color: The changing discourse on race in superhero comics
Published on Thursday, June 20, 2013 by
We discuss how Chris Huntington’s recent article on Ultimate Spider-Man‘s Miles Morales has us reconsidering our opinions on “race-swapping” in comics, share Neal Adams’ anecdote about the origin of DC’s John Stewart, recall the short-lived Milestone Media comics imprint, and more.

The recent New York Times article by novelist Chris Huntington—where he talks about how the introduction of Miles Morales, the Ultimate Comics version of Spider-Man who just happens to be a teen of mixed African-American/Latino heritage, has helped him share his love of Marvel’s superheroes with his son—has made me reconsider some of my long-held beliefs about how depictions of race should be handled in comics.

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I posted in a forum discussion in the Gender Through Comic Books course I started in April, where I shared what were then my opinions on the issue of popular superheroes being portrayed with a different racial/ethnic/cultural heritage than the ones we’re used to seeing:

Fan reactions to characters’ race/ethnicity being switched in adaptations (whether from comics to film or, as in the case of Ultimate Nick Fury and the current Ultimate Spider-Man, from one ‘comics continuity’ to another) is an interesting phenomenon.

First_image_of_miles_morales_spider_manAs a visible minority myself (Filipino-Canadian), I’m totally for the idea of seeing more diversity in comics and comics-related media, if only because having a fictional world based on our world reflect the latter’s actual demographic make-up makes sense both from artistic and commercial perspectives. At the same time, as a long-time comic book fan, I find myself occasionally having to fight against the knee-jerk, fueled-by-nostalgia reaction in my head that says, ‘that’s not the character I grew up reading!’

I do sometimes feel that the whole ‘switch famous character X to underrepresented race Y’ tactic is a well-meaning but an intellectually and creatively lazy way for superhero comics publishers to engender diversity in their fiction, one that is potentially problematic in the discourse on race. I mean sure, ‘Black Heimdall’ was awesome in 2011’s Thor and ‘Blaxican Spider-Man’ is in many ways ‘a better Peter Parker’ than the regular Marvel Universe Peter Parker (primarily because Miles Morales is still at the age that Parker was when the character’s defining conflicts were written by Stan Lee), but I can’t shake off the perception that there’s an (unintentional) element of ‘I don’t see race’ rationalization in the thing, which trivializes the visible minority experience (this of course, isn’t as much of a problem–if it’s a problem at all–with legacy superhero titles, i.e., John Stewart inheriting the Green Lantern mantle in the 1970s, Monica Rambeau being designated as the new Captain Marvel in the 1980s, the retcon that was the Isaiah Bradley-Captain America connection in 2003’s Truth: Red, White & Black).

Instead of established, ‘traditionally white’ characters being race-swapped, I’d rather see the Big Two superhero comics publishers introduce and promote in a big way new, well-thought out characters who are of visible minority extraction from the get-go and whose designs and narratives genuinely reflect story-relevant aspects of their heritage. Dwayne McDuffie’s Static being incorporated into the DC superhero universe is a good example of this.

ultimate_spidey_miles_moralesI still hold many of the views I stated above. I still think that it’s in a superhero comics publisher’s best interest to present a stable of lead characters that reflects the real-world demographic diversity of its intended readership, not because of some vague notion of political correctness or a misguided concept of “superhero affirmative action,” but because it just makes sense from commercial and creative points of view: A comic book is more likely to stand out and apart from the pack of homogeneous superhero comics—many of them starring what Huntington described as “big-jawed white guys with their hair parted to the side”—if at least some of its primary cast can be considered distinct and unique from the usual stock characters found in the superhero comics genre. And in comics that are set in a fictionalized but reality-based version of our world, a consistent internal logic of worldbuilding and character design would dictate that in a country like the United States—a nation where almost 40% of the total population falls outside of the “White, non-Hispanic” demographic grouping, where 30% of the active-duty military are self-described members of a minority group, and where a large proportion of professional athletes are black, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander—the superhero population would probably follow reasonably similar demographic trends.

spider-menWhat I am stepping away from is the notion that superheroes that are designed from the outset as minority characters hold some sort of inherent cultural value over established characters that have been redesigned as members of a visual minority. To Huntington’s son, Miles Morales is Spider-Man, not just a brown-skinned alternative to the real deal. In this instance, the fact that the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man speaks to his burgeoning notion of self-identity is ultimately more important than any concerns about comic book continuity or character design precedence. Also out the window? The blanket assertion that the casual “race-swapping” of an established character engenders the risk of trivializing the visible minority experience. As Huntington’s anecdote illustrates, even his young son can recognize the distinction between the Peter Parker version of Spider-Man and the Miles Morales version of the character and not let that be a problem or a source of confusion, even as he obviously has a preference for the latter. I think there’s a lot that older comics readers can learn from the fact that one child’s imagination can simultaneously accommodate different versions of the same character, and that he can enjoy “his Spider-Man” and feel a sense of identification with the revamped version of the character without being bothered by the existence of different or even conflicting versions of the webslinger.

Neal Adams on the creation of Green Lantern John Stewart

One of my personal highlights attending this year’s Fan Expo Vancouver was listening to Eisner Hall of Fame artist Neal Adams recount all sorts of stories about his time working for Marvel and DC during the 1960s and 1970s at a panel moderated by his sonDr. Who and House of Mystery artist Josh Adams.

neal_and_josh_adams

The elder Adams held court over an engaged audience, talking about his favorite superhero comics creations (in no particular order: the X-Men’s Havok, X-Men villain Sauron, Batman villains Ra’s al Ghul and Man-bat, the goateed, “Hard-traveling Heroes” version of Green Arrow, and Green Lantern John Stewart), the difficulty the creative team had getting DC to approve the proposal for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and his pride in the completed work, Stan Lee taking the credit for Adams’ late 1960s revival of what was then a struggling Uncanny X-Men comic, and his opinions on TV’s Arrow series (“the guy they got to play the part could stand to smile every once in a while”). The most interesting part of his talk was his account of how he advocated for the creation of a black Green Lantern character, taking advantage of what he jokingly described as DC editor Julie Schwartz’s “practically [communist], New York liberal Jew” tendencies to push through a character design proposal that was likely to meet resistance from editorial and corporate:

I said [to DC Editor Julie Schwartz], ‘You know, Julie, it would be nice if we had a back-up for Hal Jordan’ Julie says, ‘We already have a back-up for Hal Jordan his name is Guy Gardner!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry Julie, I don’t read the comics.’

Green-Lantern-v2-87So he opened up a [Green Lantern] comic book and there was Guy Gardner: He was a gym teacher, and he was blonde, and he was from the Midwest and he was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And I said, ‘See, that’s the problem.’ Julie says, ‘What’s the problem?’ And I say, ‘Well, a ship comes to Earth, and the guy in the ship is going to die and he sends out his ring to find the most worthy human on Earth. The bravest, most worthy human being on Earth, okay? It passes over Bruce Wayne. It passes over Superman. Passes over the Flash. It finds a test pilot. Well, I’m okay with that. [Chuck] Yeager was a test pilot and he was a brave guy. My balls would shrink up to my belly if I were a test pilot. That’s a tough job. I’m buying it. Hal Jordan—good. The ring goes out again. It’s going to find the next most worthy, bravest guy on Earth. It finds a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant gym teacher in the Midwest. Julie, you ever watch the Olympics? How often do you see three white guys get gold, silver, bronze, all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Maybe archery. Hockey? Certainly not basketball. I’m just saying, sometimes you have a white guy, a black guy, an Asian guy, kind of a mix. What are the chances that the next guy [to be selected to wear the Green Lantern ring] is going to be [another] White Anglo-Saxon Protestant? Julie says, ‘What are you angling for? You want a black Green Lantern?’ I say, ‘Yeah. Could be Asian, but yeah.’

So we hit Guy Gardner with a bus, and then we got another guy. A black guy. A pissed-off black guy. College graduate, architect, doesn’t have a job—of course he doesn’t have a job, he’s black and it’s the the sixties. Julie says, ‘Are you going to draw it?’ ‘Sure I’ll draw it.’ ‘Alright, fine.’

Adams’ creation of a black Green Lantern wasn’t motivated by “political correctness” or some sort of zero-sum racial balancing game—Adams was simply sticking by a reasoned and reasonable internal logic deduced from his real-world observations and the fact that the DC superhero universe, fantastical as it is, is still supposed to mirror our reality in certain ways.

On the minority comics creator

Reading Huntington’s article and listening to the audio of Adams’ talk also led me to recall a particularly revelatory interview in Wizard: The Guide to Comics #20 that I read some twenty(!) years ago featuring the late writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist Denys Cowan promoting the fledgling Milestone Media comics publishing concern. Here’s an excerpt:

bloodsyndicateMcDuffie: There’s a sense of validation when you see yourself or people like you in a work of fiction. As a young black kid, when I saw I Spy, I said ‘Wow!”

Cowan: There was Bill Cosby—it was great!

WIZARD: Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute: Couldn’t you be charged with saying that only black writers and artists can create good black characters? Only Asian writers and artists can create good Asian characters? Etcetera, etcetera?

McDuffie: Sure, we could. But that would be inaccurate. You have to have a sensitivity toward the material and you have to have some knowledge of what you’re writing about. I think I’m a good writer; I think it would be foolish for me to write a book about a Native American in Wisconsin—because I don’t know anything about it. There are black writers who do know about it and can pull it off. Odds are that [a Native American] from Wisconsin would have a better idea where to start. Whether or not he would have the skills to pull off the writing is a completely different question, but he would certainly bring something to the work that hasn’t been there before…

Icon… When you’re writing heroic fiction, you’re usually talking about an idealized version of yourself. And since [the comics industry] is pretty much [made up of] white guys, [it follows that] comic book superheroes are 95 per cent white guys… or their fantasies of what blacks or Asians, or God knows, women—

… One of the big problems with African-American characters [in superhero comics] is that there are so few that, any time you use one, he becomes a symbol. He can take no action without it [taking racial significance] in the story. [Marvel Comics’ Luke Cage] is not a guy who’s a private detective—he’s ‘black people.’

Cowan: He’s all black people in comics.

McDuffie: And that’s a crushing weight to work under as a creator. If I want to do a white character, he can be a saint or a sinner or anything in between, and it doesn’t mean that all white people—

WIZARD: —that you’re characterizing all white people by his actions.

McDuffie: Right.

StaticMilestone Media did achieve some commercial success but it folded in 1996, with its characters being absorbed into (and, for all practical intents and purposes and with the exception of Static, eventually disappearing from) the mainstream DC superhero comics universe. Part of that was timing—Milestone was just one of the many victims of the same comics speculator bubble implosion that contributed to Marvel’s 1996 declaration of bankruptcy—but in retrospect, it seems that despite Milestone’s genuine attempts to present itself as a publisher of comics with diverse casts featuring black, Hispanic, Asian, and white superheroes of varying social, political, religious, and even sexual inclinations (some quick examples off the top of my head: Icon was a political and social conservative, Blood Syndicate leader Wise Son was a Muslim, and Blood Syndicate’s Masquerade was a shape-shifting transsexual), I don’t think it ever totally shook off the public perception that it was a “black company” making superhero comics “for black readers.” Milestone’s comics had violated popular entertainment’s “rule of three,” and that led to them being classified as “black products.” What is the “rule of three” in pop entertainment? McDuffie explains the concept in the video below:

McDuffie raised an excellent point in the Wizard interview and the video above in mentioning that the paucity of minority characters in mainstream superhero comics reinforced a stultifying limitation on what writers could or could not do with minority characters. Even with Neal Adams’ best intentions, for a time, John Stewart, like Marvel’s Luke Cage, became a de facto stand-in for all black people in DC’s superhero comics, not so much a character but a token symbol (the fact that both characters were—at least in their earliest versions—”angry black guys,” didn’t help). Important too was McDuffie’s observation that the lack of diversity in superhero comics reflected the homogeneous demographics of the superhero comics industry at the time, although as our ongoing look at the 1970s “Filipino Wave” of illustrators in the American comics industry shows, comics workforce diversity does not necessarily entail diversity in character design and story content.

One thing that McDuffie and Cowan didn’t talk about in their Wizard interview is how the simple fact of knowing about the existence of successful minority comics creators can provide the same (or even greater) feeling of validation for the minority comics reader and aspiring minority comics creator as reading about minority superheroes, something I acknowledged in a piece written about Whilce Portacio two years ago:

… for a lot of young Filipinos in the early 1990s, Portacio represented a fundamental shift in how we viewed our potential futures. We saw ourselves in him and wanted to root for his continued success in one of the most American of modern art forms.

This realization was not lost on Portacio, as the former Uncanny X-Men and Batman artist mentioned in a conversation from last year:

Portacio intended to make Bishop (center) the first Filipino X-Man (and the first male Asian X-Men since Sunfire) but was overruled by the editors. He settled for drawing himself in as one of Bishop's sidekicks, Randall (left)

Portacio intended to make Bishop (center) the first Filipino X-Man (and the first male Asian X-Man since Sunfire) but was overruled by the editors. He settled for drawing himself in as one of Bishop’s sidekicks, Randall (left)

You know, because I grew up in the States, [being an American comics artist of Filipino descent] didn’t really mean anything to me until I went back [to the Philippines] for those five years between 1995 to 2000. That’s when I started my school that Leinil [Francis Yu] and Philip Tan came out of. Edgar Tadeo, Gerry Alanguilan, Roy Allan [Martinez], Jay Anacleto: All of those people that came out of that studio school—they bugged me [into starting a school], especially Gerry, just day in and day out, ‘Help us, help us.’

[It started to mean something to me] only in connecting to them. To this day they call my wife Até (‘big sister’), we have that closeness. Being able to have been that bridge to get them into the industry, and see where they go, and see what they’re still like. Me and my wife, we almost feel like their parents, you know?

And the big realization that I did not know until I met those guys was that they didn’t know it was possible. And just that one fact, they kept telling me, day in day out, just that fact that ‘I’m a Filipino, they’re Filipino’ that means they might be able to do it, too. That’s when they all just tried a little harder. And just that one little fact got them to me, and got them to the industry.

At the beginning, I was so surprised because I didn’t know that was what was happening. When I actually had time to think about what I was doing, I understood that it was actually a big deal. And ever since then I’ve been seriously thinking about it. For the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out, blocking some time, and getting money to start up the school again. Because it seems like that’s waning now again, that realization that you can go there and do it. One guy [from my studio school], his dad just drove a taxi. One guy had nothing. One guy was an architect. One guy was from a well-to-do, middle-class family. But you know, most of them were just regular, average, everyday guys who didn’t think they would become anything or anyone but they had this drive and love for comics and just that fact that they knew I did it, and I went to the Philippines and showed them ‘Hey, I’m not much older than you are, a little crazier maybe, but I’m just like you,’ that pushed them to that edge so I’ve been trying to consciously push that with other people, too.

Odds and sods

  • WBY_001-pr-001Our most recent reviews of some of the month’s first issues are now up, and I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed Mike Raicht, Zach Howard, Austin Harrison, and Nelson Daniel’s Wild Blue Yonder #1. If the review doesn’t convince you to give it a shot, check out Howard and Daniel’s stunning art in the preview gallery included with the review article and see if it doesn’t convince you (it will).
  • We hope you’re digging the site’s new look. Site overlord Jason Thees did an excellent job updating our online home’s appearance to incorporate and match the new minimalist logo I designed to replace the old one.
  • You might have noticed some new additions to the sidebar on the right. Editor Joe Milone’s been busy reviving our long dormant social media outlets. Make his day and connect with us, won’t you?
  • Also, don’t forget that Saga, Vol. 2 went on sale yesterday. Pick up the comic that Apple doesn’t want you to read (not on their iOS devices, at least).
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