It seems like quite a few things in the news (comics news, of course, not the other news where no one ever wears a cape) have been making me reflect on the state of diversity in comics today and the larger presence of comics in the media. Just this week, DC announced that it would begin a title in its mass reboot called “Batwing,” featuring the first black character to don the Bat-cowl. This news came on the heels of DC also announcing that Barbara Gordon would be leaving her long-time role as the wheelchair-bound Oracle to resume her original mantle as Batgirl. I think much can be said, and will be said here, about attempts to diversify the comic-book landscape in the last twenty years, but the news of Babs become “able” again without yet an explanation from writer Gail Simone coming, I think it’s a good time to assess how diversity is getting taken up in superhero comics and how it is getting cast aside.
A History of Great, White Men
The history of superheroes starting with the first appearance of Superman in 1938 mirrored most of popular entertainment at the time and, frankly, most of what students saw in history books as they learned about the legacy of the US – a bunch of white dudes. There were far fewer secret identities to learn about with the Founders (or so we think…), but the Golden Age of comics came during an era in which most non-white cultural expression was relegated to its own pocketed enclaves like the Harlem Renaissance, Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith in smoke-filled Southern blues clubs or the Nicholas Brothers on Vaudeville. Most of what made up popular entertainment on stage, in films and in the early days of television was mainstream, white culture.
It should really come as no shock, then, that even the most cursory glance across the early years of the superhero genre will show that the longest lasting and even shortest running heroes were white and (save for the legacy of Wonder Woman) men. The purpose of my writing here is not condemn those creators like Siegel and Shuster, Eisner, Kane or the rest as racists or white supremacists. They were, of course, products of their time and producing stories in the context of the Great Depression, World War Two and the post-War conservative years.
For as dopey and oafish as characters of color were in this era, as impactful and pernicious as the racial epithets they perpetuated were, I want to start by simply accepting that comics started with heroes almost entirely white fighting often with minstrel-style sidekicks (the Spirit’s Ebony White)and villains drawn as the most deprecating of Asian stereotypes. There is no need for an extensive history of racist caricature in comics here (that work is already out there – see Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation). Instead, let’s start by recognizing the legacy of snowy whiteness in the early funny books and discuss what the industry has done to (attempt to) become more inclusive.
Diversity in New and Legacy Heroes
The most immediate way to address there being no superheroes of color is to simply create non-white superheroes. Marvel, not surprisingly, led the way in producing new, black characters in the late 1960s, giving mainstream comics its first black hero in the Black Panther, the prince of a fictitious African country known as Wakanda who fights crime with super-intellect, superior physical traits, and an arsenal of advanced technology made from the country’s rare natural resource, vibranium. Debuting in 1966, Black Panther was followed just months later by Goliath and only a few years away from the Falcon, Captain America’s perennial sidekick.
DC was not far behind in creating new black characters, and the 1970s saw a proliferation of new, African American heroes, most notably Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Misty Knight, and Blade. Still, the defining characteristic of most of these characters became simply that they were black. As the 1970s also marked the heyday of blacksploitation films, comic characters were not far from the larger media representation of blacks in the US as living in poverty, dealing with drug abuse and incarceration, and constantly up against hardened pimps and loose women. Even Luke Cage, beginning as Power Man and now one of Marvel Comics most consistently present minority characters (for this, thank Bendis) gained his powers from a prison science experiment that gave him impenetrable skin and increased strength, which of course helped aid his escape.
These new, black characters were unable to escape their exoticism as the other, and often it became the thing that gave them their character appeal. As non-white characters began to surface, then, it seems like simply adding darker faces to the standard hero line-up did as much damage as good in addressing pesky stereotypes about African American life in the US.
Very quickly, if there is one place to identify a strong attempt at adding non-white heroes to the continuity of universes, I should mention the work of Milestone Media, an organization owned and operated by black business partners, in producing new black heroes made specifically for black audiences. Founded in 1993, Milestone produced heroes like Hardware, Icon and Static that saw limited lasting presence but a devoted, passionate fan-base (Static even became the subject of a popular Saturday-morning cartoon). For a fantastic history of Milestone Comics, check out the work of Jeffery A. Brown.
The main problem publishers faced in producing new heroes, I would argue, had less to do with creating believable and engaging black characters (Black Panther remains one of my absolute favorites), and it has much more to do with the fact that the Big Two already had a bevy of established white heroes on which to milk their newsstand sales every month.
Looking again at the Big Two, who dominate the share of the market and media presence, DC has its “holy trinity” in Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Marvel has no blessed triumvirate, but its central cast of heavy hitters consists of Captain America, Spider-man, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Wolverine. Lots of white faces in that line-up (and one green one, I guess). These characters and their respective titles are solidified in the weekly and monthly publishing ranks of the two publishers, and if any title is going to get cut from the pile, don’t count on it ever being one of these. So, if the central superheroes remain, and remain WASP, and even the next tier of characters has been mostly white for decades, how would a publisher inject a little rainbow in the mix? The most creative answer so far has been in the creation of legacy heroes, and by that I mean those hero titles that are taken up by other characters after their death or as the heroes “team” expands. Looking at the work the Big Two has done in diversifying a once lily-white line-up by concentrating on the diversity within legacy heroes does give some hope. In this regard, DC has actually led the way, first opening up a spot on the Green Lantern Corps for John Stewart in 1971, then replacing white characters with non-white alternatives like Ray Palmer with Ryan Choi (the Atom), Ted Kord with Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle), Clark Kent with John Henry Irons (Superman to Steel), and Ronnie Raymond with Jason Rusch (Firestorm). Marvel has been able to use some of its main titles to provide new, non-white legacy characters like James “Rhodey” Rhodes as War Machine in the Iron Man comics, but its strongest tool in introduce minority characters is through the X-titles, which are consistently introducing new mutants from all over the world. Still, even though characters like Storm, Sunfire, Thunderbird, and Bishop have added some diversity to the X-men line-up, the group remains predominantly white. It is interesting to point out that a title like X-men that started as one of genetically “different” heroes fighting to help the world understand that difference is acceptable was made of entirely white characters and still could use a decent color wash to live up to its cornerstone ideals.
From Comics to Other Media
An unexpected place that has allowed some injection of diversity into the general world of comicdom has been the transition of many characters and stories from the pages of the comic magazines themselves to other media like film and television. Some effort has been taken by studios to take historically white characters and cast them with black actors when portrayed on-screen. For instance, Michael Clarke Duncan played Kingpin in Daredevil and Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury, head S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho for what seemed like one movie, and now I can’t remember the last movie I saw that didn’t have Sammy J come in somewhere wearing an eye-patch. Jackson’s portrayal so far has been interesting, at least, and Duncan suffered as Kingpin not because he wasn’t believable, but because the script was a total dud. And Idris Elba just plain rocked as Heimdall in Thor. Also, as the Brian Michael Bendis series Powers comes to television, it was recently announce that actor Charles S. Dutton would play the title’s Captain Cross, a white character.
Aside from the fact that the groundskeeper from Rudy is now a superhero, most of these attempts are a positive look at the way we can remake (and racially complicate) superhero titles for a new generation as the move from medium to medium. It remains to be seen, though, if any studio has the fortitude to cast a major white character with a non-white actor. Recently, Community funny-man Donald Glover openly declared that he wanted to play Spider-man in a new movie. It was never entirely clear how serious his own attempt was, but it begged the question: would audiences accept a black Spidey. Unfortunately, the fanboy blogosphere showed mixed emotions. People, myself vehemently included, love Glover from Community, so that carried his support much further than I originally expected. But the main diatribes against Glover’s campaign went something like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “what would happen if they cast a white actor in a black superhero’s role?” There are already enough white folks in comics, and here’s a pretty great news flash from the world of Critical Race Theory: white privilege isn’t going anywhere. My short answer to these detractors is this: no harm is done to the strangle-hold white heroes have on the industry by having them portrayed by black actors on screen, but to take away the few good black heroes by making them white in film and television is incredibly destructive. Because of the centuries-old, white-over-black racial order in the US, the racial switch in the media transition doesn’t work the same in reverse. Personally, I would love to see a fantastic actor like Forrest Whitaker sitting in Charles Xavier’s chair or Djimon Hounsou with a great big “S” on his chest. These characters, our contemporary world’s metaphors for that which we find heroic, are living breathing things also. Why not let them evolve racially or culturally through media representations? I believe resistance to these transitions pinpoints one of the greatest shortcomings of the diversity efforts in the world of comics, even still.
Diverse Representation vs. Critical Analysis
I wrote this entry and provided all the above context to make this basic point. Superhero comics, at least as far as we can trace the development of the two biggest publishers over the last eighty years, are mostly counting diversity as a game of numbers. Much like we teach diversity with the toothless language of tolerance in our schools, the overpowering message we get in our daily lives as our world increasingly diversifies is that if we can just get enough representation of non-white faces, we are doing our part to make the world a beautiful place. I guess I would never, at least, argue that representation is not an integral part of the process. It is NOT okay to continue putting out comics that show no faces of color with which white and non-white readers can find something to identify and respect. At this game, the Big Two are getting better (although there is work to do, which I will discuss in a moment), but I’m afraid it’s not the only part of the game that needs played.
What mainstream superhero comics tend to lack are a critical engagement of difference and its effect on maintaining the order of power in society. As I stated before, even X-Men, which started in the 1960s as a comic about the danger of oppressing one group because they are different, has slowly lost its critical edge. What could be more useful to point out the categories by which we maintain difference, maintain a sense of “normal,” maintain a perpetual “other,” than a comic book about one group outcast because of a particular genetic marker? References to this process, one in which power is constantly negotiated and one in which the same groups typically maintain that power, are sporadic throughout X-stories, and almost never explicitly framed in that way.
Some titles have tried to bring attention to issues of power and oppression in US society, like the famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow arc in which the Green Lantern is accused of helping people throughout the galaxy with every skin color except black. And often superhero titles will call attention to injustices in social life. After Arizona passed a bill requiring that all immigrants carry their registration papers at all times, who didn’t immediately pull out their copies of Civil War to see what Cap would say? But most of the pressing issues comics will engage wax philosophically about justice framed as law being fair. There is still plenty of room to think about how superheroes can stand for a different kind of justice. How they can stand for social justice. That is one place where our superheroes still have a lot of work to do.
Not Just the Color Line
I suppose I will end in the same place I began, by looking at what Barbara Gordon’s resumption of the Batgirl helm has to do with diversity. Up until now, I have talked about attempts to diversify comics as adding faces of color to the pages. While this has had some lasting benefit and contributed just as well to stereotypes and mis-characterizations of entire groups, this should not be the only concern of comics creators looking to extend diversity into superhero universes. To put it more simply, diversity is not solely a black/white issue.
Superhero comics have been making inroads on different fronts in complimenting the landscape of characters with myriad cultures and lifestyles, from the aforementioned Thunderbird (Native American) to Northstar (an openly gay character). So, the question I am left with is this: don’t the dis/abled count? Having Babs miraculously walk again tarnishes the attempts made at diversity, especially as she was such a strong, female character as Oracle. In a world where pretty much everyone is super-abled, it was always refreshing to have a dis/abled character who can be a forceful presence in any issue she graces. Oracle was one of the only dis/abled heroes in comics whose disability wasn’t also intended as a foil for their great powers (Daredevil is blind but all other powers are enhanced; Professor X is in a wheelchair but also the most powerful psychic on the planet).
If superhero comics are to keep pushing the work of diversity, they must engage social issues, and they must understand the importance of including ALL groups in their pages. Let’s start seeing more Muslim heroes. Let’s have a committed, gay couple. Let’s have an openly gay actor play a superhero on-screen (Neil Patrick Harris as Barry Allen, anyone?). It’s time the Big Two joined the rest of the industry on the edge and started doing the work of progress, not stagnation for the sake of market appeal. And if we are looking for progress, a reframing of what counts as diversity HAS to be part of that project.