Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What exactly is the 'Black Superhero Agenda?'

In my last post I opined about cases where the race of characters was changed in going from the print version to onscreen, and when it did and didn't make sense.  Piggybacking off of that I also felt like it important to lay down just what exactly non-white fans (or at least this non-white fan) were looking for when it comes to racial diversity in superhero stories, whether it be in print or on film.  Is changing the color of an existing character when going to film or doing a comic retcon/reboot a good idea?  Should some new characters of color be created and introduced into existing universes to broaden things up?  Or are we happy with status quo?

[Before we even get into to all of that, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: history. Take a look at this. There isn't a original major hero that debuted after 1993, War Machine, and even he was just an existing character (James Rhodes) who was now donning a suit and going into action.  If you don't want to count him, then it's Deadpool in 1991.  The previous decade was pretty light on new characters as well.  If we stick to truly iconic characters, ones that laymen know well, the most recent debut was Wolverine in 1974.  Given the state of race relations in the country in and before 1974, the chance of having an abundance people of color in the role of superheroes was pretty small.  At that point, the only major characters who fit that bill were Luke Cage, the Falcon, and Black Panther.  Storm would show up for the first time a year later.  And given that the iconic figures of decades past (Superman, Batman, Spider Man, etc.) remain icons in 2014, well....that gives us a largely monochromatic group to work with.  I'm not knocking it at all; it's just where we were as a country at the time.  If superheroes started showing up en masse during the 1990s instead of the 1930s, they would very likely look different than they do now.]

So out of my three possibilities, which one is closest to what people of color actually want?  Which one is the most feasible?  Let's see.

  • Status quo- I may get some heat for this but.......status quo really isn't that bad.  No there aren't any black characters among the Mt. Rushmore level heroes, but Storm would be the equivalent of a perennial All-Star and there are several others who get chances to shine and have had their own series at times.  Cage, Panther, Falcon, Cyborg, Bishop, Green Lantern John Stewart, War Machine, Black Lightning, Amanda Waller, and Lucius Fox have all been mainstays in their respective comic book universes.  There also some newer characters like Batwing, Bunker, Green Lantern Simon Baz and the new Ms. Marvel.  And we can throw in the Ulimate Marvel version of Nick Fury.  That's a lot of representation, much of it coming into existence in a relatively short period of time.  Would it be nice to see some of these characters get a bigger push?  Sure.  But some of them have, and their individual series did not sell enough to keep going.  Comics are a business and if a product isn't bringing a big enough return on investment, it's gone.  We can put some of the blame on racism but how many of us are buying these series ourselves?  I've bought two issues of Batwing, so I'm not without blame here.  At the end of the day I'm a Batman guy first and foremost so I buy comics featuring him and the people who work closely with him.  I'm not going to become a crusader for Falcon to get his own series or for Black Lighting to show up again because they just don't interest me that much.  Sorry folks.
  • New characters - This would be fine, whether they are new heroes, new Alfred-like subordinates, or love interests of existing characters.  The Green Arrow series is taking after the TV series and introducing it's own version of Oliver Queen's ally John Diggle for the print series.  The Teen Titans had a new character, Bunker, as a member.  There's Simon Baz, the previously mentioned newest Green Lantern.  And last but not least Miles Morales, the new Spider Man in the Ultimate Spider Man series.  The only problem here is one of space.  There are  already lord know how many characters already in print.  DC has been getting flak for several months for not bringing a lot of existing characters like Wally West into the new 52 timeline or disappearing some like Booster Gold after short runs; to come up with even more new characters would cramp a limited amount of room.  Marvel has the same problem; dozens of characters are already relegated to a panel or two and few if any lines in print; more characters will just marginalize them even more.
  • Changing the color of existing characters - This is the most controversial and, unfortunately, the most feasible.  It's a lot easier to simply change the color of the character on the page or cast a black actor to play a role than it to create a new character from scratch or take a risk elevating a minor character to their own series.  But this also causes the most trouble.  Diehard comic fans get up in arms about small costume changes and little tweaks to origin stories; the New 52 haters are a major testament to that.  If taking away Oliver Queen's goatee is enough to piss people off imagine what making him black or Hispanic would do.  And this is not limited to white readers/fans.  I've heard from plenty of black readers/fans who don't want any racial changes, either.  I honestly couldn't tell you where the push for this is coming from.  Neither I or anyone I know is asking for a black Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark or Frank Castle or anyone else.  Remaking Nick Fury as an African American and putting Miles Morales in the Spider Man suit were ok to some (but not all, don't get it twisted) because they were in alternate storylines.  Batman & Robin was a terrible move - switching out George Clooney for Denzel Washington or Will Smith would not have made it any better and every black person who hated the Clooney version would have still hated it.  We want good stories and good characters more than anything else.
So in closing, as far as I'm concerned leave things alone.  Don't change races of existing characters and don't make up somebody new just for the sake of adding a black person.  If you're going to make a new character anyway then by all means consider something other than a white person.  If you do that, you'll likely make a few of them non-white and we're good. 

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