Since the Golden Age of comic books in the 1940s, superheroes like Captain America, The Spirit, Batman, Superman and many others have been capturing the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. If you fast-forward the better part of 70 years, you’ll find that fans are now looking for something they’ve never seen before, but at the same time, they want to continue reading about the heroes they know and love, which often results in modern issues – no pun intended – molding fictional stories. With writers and studio heads attempting to answer this call, it’s created a divide among fans, casual readers and keyboard warriors over just how far to push the envelope of diversity in these treasured fictional universes.
In order to truly understand the debate, you have to sort through the endless amount of articles and opinion pieces written on racism and social issues in comic books. You can browse the Internet non-stop for several weeks, reading until your eyes bleed and still only brush the surface of the discussion. Because modern society is so passionate about the subject of racism and equality, naturally it’s going to begin shaping all mediums of storytelling. After all, you have to market to people’s interest in order for your work to both sell and remain relevant. And if the juggernaut presence of this new Civil Rights movement in the news each day is any indication, this is definitely a topic that people are interested in. At the same time, however, it’s important to remember that, like most hot topics that have been prevalent throughout history, there are going to be people who disagree or don’t like the decisions that somebody else is making. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate reasons for these arguments to be made, especially when it comes to beloved stories and characters.
Matt Giles, a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara had this to say, “Stories can’t be taken out of their context, and that context applies both to the stories as they were told in earlier iterations, and in the most recent. These ideas of “purity of a story” and “respecting the source material” are inherently lost causes. You’ll never quite get the same viewing of a film or re-telling of a story any two times, even with the same director, film and showing. I quite enjoy it when someone attempts to remain as faithful to the source material as possible, but that isn’t inherently a better or more important goal than retelling the story in a way that makes sense today.”
While he definitely brings up an excellent point, what happens when a character’s entire existence and origins are built upon their skin color? For example, when Marvel and Netflix decided to cast Game of Thrones actor, Finn Jones, in the role of Danny Rand for the upcoming Immortal Iron Fist series, not everybody was pleased with the idea of another white superhero, especially one with blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Iron fist is an orientalist-white-man-yellow-fever narrative,” said Marjorie Liu, whose writing credits include Dark Wolverine and a brief run on X-23. “An Asian actor would have helped subvert that offensive trope, and reclaim space.”
There’s no shortage of people who agree that this would be a good time to inject some much needed diversity into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Danny Rand’s entire story relies on him being white. Unlike the new Captain America, Thor or Spider-Man, there’s no way to change the character’s ethnicity without completely rewriting the character himself. In the comic book, Danny Rand is an outsider in an Asian culture, who learns martial arts and wields a power known as the Iron Fist, which allows him to focus his chi and do things that normal people can’t. Yes, that does sound like everything Marjorie Liu mentioned, and that anybody from New York would feel like an outsider in the mystical city of K’un-L’un, but keep in mind that the Iron Fist’s first appearance was in Marvel Premiere #15, which was released in the 1970s, a time when Bruce Lee was popular and America was going through a pop-culture trend revolving around kung-fu films. In fact, the existence of the character himself is thanks to such a film.
“I’d seen my first kung-fu movie, even before a Bruce Lee one came out, and it had a thing called ‘the ceremony of the iron fist in it. I thought that was a good name, and we already had Master of Kung Fu going, but I thought ‘Maybe a superhero called Iron Fist, even though we had Iron Man, would be a good idea,” writer/co-creator Roy Thomas wrote in the issue where Iron Fist first appeared.
Source material and inspiration aside, the fact that society has reached the point where this topic can actually be discussed is a landmark in itself. Gone are the days when characters of non-white skin color were used as cannon fodder in comic books like The Walking Dead. No longer do star-spangled heroes in the Captain America comic books hurl racist adjectives at foreign enemies. And what about the stereotypical, flesh-colored heroes used to add diversity to the Justice League comic books? They had a Native American named Apache Chief, a Japanese guy named Samurai, a Hispanic hero named El Dorado and an African-America hero named Black Vulcan. Okay, so the last one isn’t any worse than Marvel naming an African-American hero, Black Panther, but you get the point. Though progress has been made in somewhat offensive baby-steps, progress is being made nonetheless. One of the most prominent characters currently in the Marvel’s universe is not only African American and Hispanic, but he also now carries the mantle of one of the biggest superheroes to ever appear in the pages of a comic book, Spider-Man. However, as good as the story is and as interesting as the character might be, was it a move meant to tell the story in a new way and give readers something they’ve never had before? Or was it nothing more than diversity for the sake of diversity?
“I think it’s diversity for the sake of diversity,” said Cameron Miller, a longtime comic book fan and occasional guest speaker on the Rogue Fanboy Podcast. “Yeah, they could’ve made it some other hero, but it would not have had the same sort of legitimacy and shock-value as it would with a name like Spider-Man. They told the story of Spider-Man in a brand new way. And people picked up the comic books because it was a “black” Spider-Man. They wouldn’t have done it if Miles wasn’t shoved in their face like he was. They wouldn’t have picked it up if it wasn’t Spider-Man.”
Would readers have been willing to take such a chance on Ultimate Spider-Man after the death of the Ultimate Universe’s Peter Parker? They probably wouldn’t have, unless they were doing it for the sake of continuity, and they enjoyed what they read inUltimate Fallout #4. Though Miles Morales is the first African-American Spider-Man, he isn’t the first person with Latino blood to don the suit. Miguel O’Hara was the title character in Spider-Man 2099, a futuristic retelling of the story that lasted 46 issues in its first run. During the character’s first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #365 back in August of 1992, there wasn’t a lot of talk about people being upset about this new Spider-Man’s ethnicity. Taking that into consideration, what exactly is it that comic book purists are upset about? Is it the character they dislike? Or is it the suddenness and lack of closure felt by the demise of the Ultimate Universe’s Peter Parker?
“Purists can have their cake and eat it, too, because Miles Morales isn’t even in the candid 616 Marvel Universe, until recently,” Cameron Miller went on to say. “He was created in the fading Ultimate Universe. So, the uproar, in my opinion is undeserved, and not founded on solid principles. This character was injected into the universe, but he was done with so much integrity, so much respect for not only who Spider-Man the character represents, but Peter Parker, as well. It allows brand new stories to be told from a different perspective. Miles Morales is also just in junior high. He was brought to the universe very responsibly and is deserving of the mantle. Plus, it is a fresh taste in my mouth as a reader. It doesn’t just reveal that anyone can be Spider-Man, it shows that anyone can be a hero.”
That’s a very well stated argument, and it might put purists in their place, but what about everybody else? Why is this character so controversial outside of comic book reading circles? Since the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, up until the fall of the entire Ultimate Universe during Marvel’s recent Secret Wars event, Brian Michael Bendis has not only been the heart and soul of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book, he’s also responsible for the creation and success of Miles Morales, which has added fuel to an already combustible subject. While nobody will deny the man’s talent as a writer, many people in the African-American community are upset by the fact that a white person is writing such a prominent “black” character. Ten years ago, this might not have been a problem, but the fact that race, gender and sexuality equality are such prominent issues in today’s society means that topics like this need to be explored carefully.
“That’s where empathy comes from,” Matt Giles had to say on the topic. “Does that mean that you’ll do it well? Nope. Does that mean that it’ll be well received? Nope. Do other people owe it to you to feel touched by your racial sensitivity? Definitely not. And as for doing it for the sake of art, there are two separate issues in that dialect. Of course, anyone doing creative work is “making art”. But at the same time, it’s also about making money. No one creates comics for free. These two issues are constantly pulling against each other.”
Does this mean that the media is dictating cultural beliefs? Nobody will argue with the legitimacy of the above statement, but it presents a viewpoint that might allow you to see the debate from an entirely different perspective. Are purists intolerant like all of the bloggers and keyboard warriors would have you believe? Or are they fed up with non-comic book reading activists dictating what goes into the pages of their favorite stories, and what shapes their subculture as a whole? Who knows? At the end of the day, this is an issue that really doesn’t need to be an issue. If you don’t read comic books, don’t worry about what’s happening in comic books, and if you don’t like what a certain writer is doing with a certain character, don’t read it. The solution is really that simple. Comic books are a product of the eras they’re written in. Any Superman, X-Men or Captain America comic will more than prove that. The comic book industry is treading ground that’s never been walked on. Yes, it’s risky, but any step towards progress is going to have its dangers. Spider-Man is African-American/Latino, Thor is a woman and Iceman is gay. Why is this a huge deal to anyone on either side of this argument? Why is it even an argument in the first place? In a recent article in Escapist Magazine, journalist Stew Shearer tackled the controversy surrounding Miles Morales’s latest adventure in Spider-Man #2. When a video blogger finds out that the new Spider-Man is black, Miles says that he doesn’t want to be the “black” Spider-Man, he just wants to be Spider-Man.
“We all have our preferences and we’ve all, at some point, been burned by bad writing that ruined a good thing,” Stew Shearer said in his article. “If the problem though, is that you just can’t bear the thought of someone with different parts swinging a hammer or different skin color wearing a mask, well, the most I can offer you is the hope that you’ll get over it before you miss out on some really good comics.”
White, black, red, yellow, magenta, at the end of the day, what matters is that story is good and the characters are interesting. Fans read comic books as an escape and because they’re compelling and sometimes inspiring. When has any sort of artist ever created something for the purpose of pleasing one group of people? Danny Rand might be white in the Immortal Iron Fist series on Netflix, but Marvel is launching all sorts of diverse characters in the next few years. Luke Cage has his own series, Black Panther his own movie, and let’s not forget about those who already exist. Blade has already had three movies and a mini-series, and who can forget about Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury character in Marvel’s Avengers franchise? You can’t change the way people feel about things, but you can stop adding gasoline to a fire that, at the end of the day, you really can’t do anything to change. The pendulum of tolerance swings both ways. You’re welcome to your opinion just as much as others are welcome to disagree with it. However, Stew Shearer has a good point. If you’re boycotting a comic book because of a hero’s race, gender or sexuality, that decision is on you. But it’s important to consider that you might be missing out on some great stories. As for the keyboard warriors and activists, if you’re creating problems in a sub-culture that you’re not even a part of, what exactly are you accomplishing? Perhaps these issues aren’t that simple to fix in the real world, but in the pages of comic books you’d be surprised what a few keystrokes or pencil scratches can do.