On Comic Books and Race

So, I picked up The Flash Annual #3 last week and was introduced to the New 52 version of Wally West. This Wally is a kid, kind of a punk, and a person of color.

Wally’s race change has stirred up a bit of controversy on the web, and it’s prompted me to think a bit about how the big two are approaching the whole diversity problem.

By “problem” I mean, comic books are too white, probably too male too, but definitely too white. A disproportionate number of Marvel and DC’s major heroes are white. Let’s be honest, 100% of the main heroes in the big two are white.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman. All white.

Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Thor. All white.

That’s a problem for both companies, especially since, through film and television both Marvel and DC are trying to reach bigger and broader audiences. Reaching those audiences depends on viewers and readers being able to identify with the people they see on the screen and on the page.

Both companies have tried different strategies for diversifying their lineups. Marvel changed Nick Fury from a white man to a black man. With the start of the New 52, DC promoted Cyborg from the Teen Titans to the Justice League. And now they’ve transformed Wally West into a biracial man.

I’ve gotta say, I appreciate what Marvel and DC are doing. I agree comics should be more diverse, but there’s something unsettling about these tactics to me.

Cyborg’s promotion to the Justice League is transparently about race. I find he sticks out not because of his colour, but because he’s the only member of the team who isn’t one of the World’s Greatest Superheroes. There’s also something a little disturbing to me about just “painting” a character a different color and altering their racial identity.

The main thing that bothers me though is that Marvel and DC seem to making these changes where the stakes are the lowest. We’re not going to see a black Tony Stark, or a black Clark Kent, but we’ll get a black Nick Fury. We’ll make Flash biracial, so long as we’re talking about Wally West and not the “real” Flash.

When I was a kid, I remember a couple of Image comics challenging racial norms in more authentic ways. Spawn’s alter-ego was Al Simmons. Al was a dead man who made a deal with the devil because he wanted to be reunited with is wife, Wanda. But when Al “returned” to earth he found his wife was remarried to another man named Terry and they had a daughter named Cyan. All of those characters were black, and in the mid-90s Spawn was among the best selling comics going.

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Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon also had minority characters in prominent roles. Two of Dragon’s romantic leads were Rapture and Alex Wilde, both women of colour.

I think diversity in comics is good, and maybe retroactive diversity is necessary if DC and Marvel want to keep supporting characters like Nick Fury around while they work on a more realistic portrayal of the human species, but I think some of those early Image comics point to another path.

Where are the original characters? Why not create compelling new minority characters to lead their own series? Turning Wally West into a biracial man is well-intentioned but it’s also kind of gutless. If you’re really going to ret-con race, you have to do better than that. Make Barry Allen black; make Bruce Banner Asian, or give Jubilee her own series.

Credit where credit is due: Marvel does seem to be making some moves in the right direction. Miles Morales has recently taken over for Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe. So we’ve got a black Spider-Man.

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This year the House of Ideas also introduced the world to a Muslim Ms. Marvel. The book has sold well so far and has received some critical acclaim.

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These to me are more authentic and more meaningful ways of diversifying comic book universes; However, again there’s still something safe about these moves. Miles Morales is to Peter Parker what Wally West is to Barry Allen. Ms. Marvel is a recognizable character, but she’s not Iron Man or Captain America.

It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a Latino Bruce Wayne; to my mind the best bet for really diversifying the pantheon is to create compelling new minority heroes and villains.

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3 thoughts on “On Comic Books and Race

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to say Miles Morales is a recolor, mostly because he is an entirely different character. An original character. They may both be obvious grabs at diversity but Miles is an entirely original character.

  2. “To my mind the best bet for really diversifying the pantheon is to create compelling new minority heroes and villains.”
    Yes. Yes 100%. Changing a character’s skin colour just so we can say we are diverse isn’t the way to go about things. Building new characters is the way to go. Will DC and Marvel ever learn though?

  3. Pingback: The Comic-Verse: Awesome Art & The Top 15 Featured Links (05/03/14-05/09/14) | The Speech Bubble

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