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Comic Book Culture

Race “Changes” in Comics, So What?

Spoiler warning:  If don’t want to know what will happen in Earth 2 #22, New 52’s The Flash Annual #3 or The Flash: Futures End #1, do not read any further!

So…
Superman will be black;
Spider-man is half black, half hispanic;
Ms. Marvel is Pakistani;
Wally West (once known as The Flash) is half black, half white;
And The Human Torch of The Fantastic Four is black.

Great!

Okay.  Some of those characters are not from mainstream comic book continuity (they’re not in Marvel and DC’s main comic books).  Some are from alternate comic book universes or from the movies.  Some are completely different people using the names of other heroes.  These are not the heroes we grew up with.

The Wall of Death

Now, this is where the fan base divides and clashes like The Wall of Death in a metalcore concert.

Right side says, “No!  There was no good reason to change that characters.  These companies are ruining our favourite characters just to grab attention and money.  These are not the characters I’ve grown to love.”

Left side says, “Right on!  Diversity is a great reason for change.  People who aren’t heterosexual white males are under-represented in comics.”

Defaulting to Heterosexual White Male isn’t Equality

I’m a left-side guy myself, but I can see why one wouldn’t like these kinds of changes.

The worst anti-change argument I’ve seen on the Internet, however, is, “Do they need to be ethnic?  Marvel/DC has no good reason to do this other than diversity.”

There doesn’t need to be “good reason”.  In the same way, there usually isn’t any “good reason” for a new character to be Caucasian.  If people of different races/cultures are to be considered equal, they must be treated equally.  A Brazilian girl or a Korean guy should have just as much chance to be the star of his/her own series as a Caucasian guy.

I doubt this is the most popular anti-change argument, but it does annoy me whenever it pops up.

Legacy Issues

A Painting of the classic Justice Society of America by Alex Ross.

A Painting of the 1940’s Justice Society of America by Alex Ross.

Lack of diversity is an old problem of this old medium.  Comic books date as far back as 1933.  As everyone knows, North America was pretty racist back in the day.  Heterosexual white males were the ideal heroes.  They belonged on the front cover as heroes.  Everyone else belonged in the household, a separate school or the wrong end of a gun.

Never before have I seen something so racist. (From DC’s Sensation Comics #8 and Wonder Woman Archives Vol. 1 by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Published in August 1942.)

So, for a long time, publishers pushed out more and more heterosexual, white heroes.  Occasionally, they’d throw in a heterosexual, white heroine for eye-candy, but barely anyone else.  Many of these characters still survive in print today.

Now that most North Americans frown upon this attitude, we’re ready for a more diverse cast of heroes.  Racial minorities are waiting for characters they can identify with.  The market is begging for this and publishers want to cash in.

However, we don’t want to say goodbye to the old characters we know and love.

So, how do Marvel and DC approach this?

New Characters with Legacy Names?  Good idea!

In my opinion, this is the best way to do it.

Create a new character and have him/her take on the mantle of a famous hero/heroine.  Someone fresh gets to stand in the spotlight and our favourite character doesn’t need to disappear.  In fact, this method glorifies the predecessor as an idol/ideal.

Marvel did this best with Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel.  She’s a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage girl.  She has responsibilities to her family like anyone else, and writes fan fics about her favourite heroes online.  I’m a Christian, Filipino-Canadian, young adult male, but I can already relate.  (I don’t write fan fiction, but I do read some.)

She's actually charming and feels human.  The writer, G. Willow Wilson, didn't need to white-wash her to make her relatable.  (From Ms. Marvel #1, by G. WIllow Wilson and Adrian Alphona)

The writer, G. Willow Wilson, didn’t need to white-wash her to make her relatable. (From Marvel’s Ms. Marvel #1, by G. WIllow Wilson and Adrian Alphona)

The best part is that the previous Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, still exists.  She, in fact, levelled up.

Carol Danvers is Captain Marvel. (From Cover of Marvel's Captain Marvel #9, by Jamie McKelvie)

Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel. (From Cover of Marvel’s Captain Marvel #9, by Jamie McKelvie)

Other characters done similarly well are Miles Morales as Spider-man, Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, Nick Fury Jr. (based on Nick Fury of Earth-1610 and Samuel L. Jackson) and Val-Zod as Superman of Earth 2.

Changing the Races of Existing Characters?  It’s not as bad as you think!

The current casts of characters in the Marvel and DC multiverses are mind-bogglingly huge.  If creators add enough non-Caucasian characters to even it out, it all gets too unruly.

A small percentage of the characters at Marvel and DC combined.  Can you name them all?  Now consider this:  For every Caucasian Character you see, add an African, an Asian, a Native North American, a South American, a South Asian, etc... How good is your memory? (Art by George Perez)

A small percentage of the characters at Marvel and DC combined. Can you name them all? Now consider this: For every Caucasian Character you see, add an African, an East Asian, a South Asian, a Native North American, a South American… How good is your memory? (Art by George Perez)

For the writer, this is tough to deal with.  Imagine you’re making a Spider-man story.  You write, Spider-man swings to a bank robbery in progress…, then you realize that at least 50 other supers would probably be in the area already.  So you either have to write them in too or think up some reason why they can’t help.  You write, A bomb goes off at the police station and Spider-man was too late to stop it.  Now every writer in charge of a New York City-based character has to consider how this affects their own stories at the same time.  They rewrite their drafts last minute, then send you angry emails next morning.

And as a reader, how much fun can you have reading comics if you have to google a character every few pages?  How confused would you be if Daredevil is in the middle of a mystery, then the city suddenly goes into chaos because the cops were wiped out by a bomb from last month’s issue of The Amazing Spider-man?

So what’s the easy solution here?  How do we keep the cast small and easy to work with?  Keep the same roster and modify a few characters here and there.

Superheroes are Visual Icons.  I get it.

The whole reason why superheroes became so big in the first place is that they catch your eye like nothing else.  The perfect physique, the bold colours, the impractical accessories.  They’re easy to recognize no matter who draws the picture or who plays the role.  They’re iconic.

Photo by mjac1971 on deviantART

Photo by mjac1971 on deviantART

You’ve probably never seen this guy before.  He hasn’t acted in any Superman movies I’ve seen.  But how do we know he looks like Superman?  The iconic look!  We see the clues and we know what we’re looking at.

Red trunks, red cape, blue suit, red and yellow “S” shield on the chest, light skin? Is race necessary to the look?  Can we still recognize our heroes/heroines if this changes?

Does he still look like Superman?

Photo by kamau123 from deviantART

Photo by kamau123 from deviantART

He has the red trunks, red cape, blue suit, red “S” on the chest.  He’s missing one aspect of the iconic look, though: the lighter skin tone.

So does that take away from a character’s recognizability?  He still looks like Superman to me.  Now consider the following…

Do these guys still look like Superman?

Red cape, blue suit, red “S” on the chest, light skin.  No red trunks.  A different visual aspect changes, but we still know they’re Superman because most of the classic look is still there.

Clearly, DC is really trying to push this no-trunks look.  They want to redefine and evolve the iconic look.  We’ll see in 10-20 years if this catches on, but if they think this can work, why not change the skin tone of any other hero?

We can still recognize the superhero/heroine, so it’s not that bad.

Race or any other aspect of the look isn’t mandatory to the character as long as the rest of the iconic look is there.  They’re all still Superman.  Yeah, I still prefer my heroes replaced like Ms. Marvel, but if we can’t mistake that character for anyone else, we’re not losing much.


For the sake of diversity and equality in comics, getting used to replacement/changed characters makes sense.  I mean, out of everyone fighting against evil in a world of superpowers and vigilantes, why are most of them Caucasian Americans?  Why not let everyone in on the fun?

What do you think?  Are you curious to see Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie?  Do you want to see any other heroes/heroines change like this?  Did I spoil Earth 2 and The Flash for you?  I warned you not to read further!

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