Stretching Spandex Over Melanin Won’t Make Comics More Diverse

thor the dark world posterSometimes being a Nerd of Color is difficult. Often, the sci-fi you watch marries awesome next-gen splatterpunk visuals with horrid White Man’s Burden political sentiments, or the games you play offer wickedly fun three-dimensional gameplay with healthy servings of amoral misogyny and racial epithets. But often it’s pretty easy – each and every Wednesday new worlds reveal the secrets of earthbound metahumans and iron-masked despots and immortal ronin and sentient bacteria and techno-organic telepaths and rubber geniuses and fighter pilots with imagination rings. The comic industry may not accurately render tomorrow, but it can always take you somewhere you never thought you could go.

But let’s admit, the price of the ticket is Whiteness. When most people close their eyes and imagine a Superhero, the vast majority envision a strapping White male, muscular and determined, with steely blue eyes and biceps that can curl Ford pickups. That’s the starting point. That’s what nearly a century of comic art imprints on the Western mind. Even as every other facet of the shared global experience publicly acknowledges non-European populations’ economic and political contributions, the American comic industry and its burgeoning film components routinely place the same pale Olympian specimens on the power fantasy as global hero altar. Millions of people pay to watch sweat bead under a stringy, half-braided blond mop while a bodybuilder bleeds under a scarlet cape, writhing in agony below an unforgiving world’s cloudy grey sky, the treachery of his wayward trickster brother foremost in his thoughts.

I watched two young women in the audience for a local showing of Thor: The Dark World. These portly, pockmarked brunettes guffawed at every tasteless joke, swooned with every Chris Hemsworth half-smile, and embraced the silence of attraction whenever Thor exposed his shirtless glory. You could pen a long treatise on the tyranny of conformity these images promote, you can YouTube a discussion on the irresponsible corporate socialization inherent in selling a film about a White male god who runs around planet Earth hammering foes into submission, but none of this will change the heady lust in those girls’ eyes. That gaze is uncritical of Thor’s geopolitical implications, his brazen sexism, even his indifference to high school physics. Hell, that gaze could care less that the movie sucked! Taut muscle, metallic spandex and Australian features sold admission. The obvious objective of Thor: The Dark World is capitalist: sell as many movie tickets and as much official memorabilia as possible. All of it — the sweaty masculinity, the computer-generated effects, the human deer impersonation Natalie Portman called acting, the annoying Kat Dennings camp – contributes to that objective. The end result was a terrible forced lobotomy of a movie, devoid of narrative coherence, enjoyable characters, and compelling visuals. Thor: The Dark World is, quite possibly, the worst thing Marvel has ever done.

And I can’t imagine what would improve about that film if they made Thor Black.

Michael B Jordan Torch
Flame on!

No, to my knowledge that’s not scheduled for Monday morning’s development meeting at Marvel Studios, but after reading Justin Aclin’s I’m Sick of White Dudes, it’s what came to mind. In response to the sneering fanboys who lamented news reports that discussed Michael B. Jordan’s possible casting as Johnny Storm in an upcoming Fantastic Four movie, Aclin ably deconstructs the notion that filming Johnny Storm requires a Whites-only casting call. Whether needless traditionalism or barely-concealed bigotry, Aclin rejects the static thinking that encourages some comic fans to express disgust when their beloved comic heroes are interpreted on screen by actors of color.

I understand the sentiment. I understand the desire to offer a counterpoint to those who argued against Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, who gurgled dismay at Idris Elba’s Heimdall. But Aclin’s writing left me cold. At one point, Aclin argues in italics, “There is nothing about the core Human Torch’s character that precludes him from being Black. At all.” But I’m not sure what we gain if we inject melanin into previously de-racialized superheroes to tell those characters’ stories in darker hues. If anything, Michael B. Jordan’s work on Chronicle offers the best evidence of what he could accomplish as Johnny Storm; the actor was more than compelling as the charismatic big man on campus in that film. Still, Jordan’s probably best known for his work on The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and the landmark Fruitvale Station, in roles where his character’s racial identity impacts life choices.

Alba Storm
Can you see me now? OK, how about now?

Given Aclin’s argument, we should be eager as comic fans to allow actors of color to portray superheroes designed when Whiteness was default in the comics industry, as if the actor’s skin color has no impact on the character’s core identity. This logic only works if the writers involved use melanin for palette swaps, and write the same de-racialized characters we’ve seen before. That’s not progress, it’s regression. It’s also contrary to the lived experiences of people who’s melanin affects their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor with every passing second. Sure, the studios can use a Black actor to portray the carefree, high-flying Johnny Storm, but let’s remember that Storm’s core character reflects a fundamental indifference to consequence that many African American men today could not reasonably share.

Heimdall
Sword of Omens, give me sight beyond … oh, wait …

Diversity can’t be a wonderful opportunity for new social interaction and nuanced storytelling at one moment and completely without importance the next. What’s more, Aclin recognizes this: much of his piece centers on his interest in something new from a comic industry that so often serves fans superheroic White men, and his desire to support writers who explore human difference with characters that fall outside that paradigm. I simply do not agree that color-blind casting for superhero movies advances this cause. Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm never reflected upon any discernible Mexican heritage, and Idris Elba’s Heimdall never gazed upon Sierra Leone. In the most public examples of color-blind superhero movie casting in recent memory, nothing about the chosen actor’s race affected anything. How does this advance diversity in comics exactly? This is not Paula Giddings’ When and Where I Enter, this is crass tokenism, designed to quiet the murmuring against the comic industry’s monochrome reality.

Look, I get the fatigue – The Avengers was as diverse as a North Carolina Woolworth. But the people who are ‘sick of White dudes’ fail to consider the extent of their requests for visible racial and sexual diversity on a comic industry designed by straight White men for straight White men. Superhero comics thrive on continuity, not complex drama or beautiful language. The core comic book fan actually wants today’s Captain America story to reflect some coherence with the character as written ten years prior, with the same recruitment poster ethics and unblemished features. The point? Comics are too simple, too infantile, too immature for writers to apply critical race theory and third wave feminism with palette swaps within their pages without sacrificing the logic of the worlds in their panels. When they try, crass tokenism and poor storytelling almost always results. Aclin’s correct: nothing precludes Johnny Storm from being Black. But to ignore over fifty years of comic book history and nostalgia to render a Black Johnny Storm on screen requires a stronger argument, one that both respects comic book history and its core fans, and most importantly, the African American experience. Crass tokenism does neither. It’s an infantile solution for a childish medium.

nichelle-nichols-ebony
This is what trailblazing looks like.

And it’s unclear who benefits from that solution. I understand that the I’m Sick of White Dudes and the Don’t Be Riker crowd desire to excise White masculinity from popular culture, but that’s neither realistic nor helpful. Who benefits? It’s not as if some powerful social barrier or racial paradigm shift would be achieved by Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of a brash science experiment victim. People who support every actor of color or new minority character in comics mistakenly pretend that these images offer oppressed populations some intangible social justice, as if one can battle institutionalized White supremacy with colorful art and casting calls. It’s ridiculous, Gerber thinking. Heavyweight demigods in scarlet capes can reduce all opposition to rusty nails; adults in the real world should remember that Michael B. Jordan’s next job will have no effect on the incarcerated African American millions forgotten by our nation’s tough-on-petty-drug-addiction policies, or the suburban populations who convince themselves that diversity is a social good, so long as their brilliant little angels face no affirmative action opposition as they matriculate to a four-year university. Yes, entertainment can have some social impact, but every Negro in a sci-fi movie is not Nichelle Nichols or Whoopi Goldberg or Dr. Mae Jemison, who proved that our imaginations and our realities can allow for Black people in space. It’s petty and obnoxious to oppose color-blind casting to avoid forty years of American integration within literary White male power fantasies, but it’s also off-putting to insist that actors of color portray historically White characters as if superhero forced busing approaches moral respectability.

The solution? New stories, new characters, and above all else, new talent! When the comics industry encourages people of color to write, draw, ink and edit their experiences and imaginations, everyone benefits. Sometimes we’ll be offered new characters of color. Sometimes not. But if diversity in comics is a laudable goal, then let’s not shortchange the comics medium by grafting melanin without meaning onto existing properties. I’ve no excitement towards Kamala Khan, the proposed new Ms. Marvel, because all existing information about this character leads one to reason that the same old save-the-innocent-Muslim-girl-from-traditionalist-tyranny tropes will find expression in her stories. Plus, I’m an adult, and could give a damn about yet another “angst-ridden teenager with powers” narrative. But whether through homage or lazy storytelling, will we still be presented with a fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl who idolizes blond femininity? We can’t yet know. What we know now is that Marvel did not trust themselves or their audience enough to create this character without injecting her into the existing Ms. Marvel mythos. Like Jason Rusch as Firestorm, or Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, the character’s melanin provides seasoning to already flat, flavorless comic properties, like extra cumin for a bland entrée. I’d rather excite my palate with well-written, complex, intelligent comics than watch Marvel and DC stretch spandex over melanin and call that diversity.

Because really, what Black man do you know who’d feel comfortable wearing a skintight blue leotard with the number 4 on the chest in the heart of Manhattan? Brothers have been stopped and frisked and worse for less.

38 thoughts on “Stretching Spandex Over Melanin Won’t Make Comics More Diverse”

  1. Someone needs to direct a film about a young superhero who isn’t accepted due to the fact that he is some color other than peach. No matter how many people he saves he’s still nothing… It might just piss something people off but using that basis with everything that makes a good superhero movie, it could be a pretty watchable thing.

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    1. Cynthia, thanks for reading and commenting! Hancock should have been that movie. All the subtext was there, the reactionary angst, the brooding, unfocused disdain for civilized Western society, the homeless, rudderless brother failing at making it. All the film lacked was the will to examine racism with superpowers. In its place we saw a bizarre family comedy loosely associated with public relations. I’d blame Hollywood, but film so far outstripped how the comic medium itself encounters Blackness (where every Black male is a urban stereotype or diamond-in-the-rough valedictorian) that Hancock appeared faintly groundbreaking (pun intended), if barely watchable.

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  2. I agree. Hancock could have been a truly amazing movie. I was completely mislead by the trailers. I still grind my teeth when I think about it. I think the mark was missed when everyone writing that film realized “Are we really going to go there? Do we wanna address this or just make a “hit” blockbuster movie” I think its pretty obvious no one wanted to open whatever racial can of worms Hancock would have been labeled as. Is it just me or was part of the problem casting Will Smith? I just can’t take that guy seriously (exemption of Pursuit of Happiness) I just can’t. it may have been the years and years of Fresh prince of Bel-Air.

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    1. Cynthia, I think you’re definitely correct. Hancock tries to suggest that an upstanding Black superhero can be accepted by the American public without much difficulty, so long as that superhero embraces Bryant Gumbel more than Ol Dirty Bastard. But since Hancock completely ignores why a Black man might experience disdain toward that acceptance project, the movie’s internal logic fails. now that we’re talking about this, I wish I’d used Hancock in my post!

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  3. Nice post, James. I largely agree with you — the problem with casting a person of colour into a traditionally White role and arguing that it is social justice is exactly what you’ve identified: in most cases, these characters aren’t race-neutral; they are culturally White. That comes from their origins — most of these characters are conceived by White creators who write out of their own lived experiences. Johnny Storm isn’t race-neutral; he actually IS White — culturally as well as phenotypically White. If Michael B Jordan plays the same Johnny Storm character we’ve seen in previous comics and movies, than all we’re doing is capitalizing on Jordan’s skin colour, as if Blackness is defined by skin pigment alone. Which it’s not, and any acceptance that Jordan’s melanin alone makes a character Black has some fairly damning consequences on the argument against Blackface (is an actor’s phenotypic Blackness sufficient to make a character Black?).

    I would argue no. I would actually argue that even Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura wasn’t as much a trailblazer as Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisko, who embodied a lived Blackness that even Uhura did not. Heimdall is Black, but only insofar as he shares the same melanin as Idris Elba. Culturally speaking, he’s a big Nordish dude whose race seems to matter not one bit in Asgard (same with the Japanese samurai guy — a character totally out of place in Nordic mythology). So, the question arises: is Elba’s Heimdall meaningfully Black?

    Although harsh, I do agree that there is a stratification in how one approaches diversity in comics. When I was twelve, I absolutely gravitated towards ANY character who looked phenotypically like me. But now, at 32, I want emotional connections with characters of colour, not just superficial ones. I don’t want palette swaps, I want to read characters who actually make me examine my own Asian American-ness. And, perhaps you are right that that will only happen when an Asian American writer is at the helm. Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese” for example (although not a superhero comic) got it right , whereas Gail Simone — who can capably write (White) female superheroes — got it very, very wrong with All-New Atom.

    Seeing the Asian American experience in comics requires more than just having people of colour temporarily assume the mantle of beloved superheroes while ignoring any discussion of how their race changes who they are as people. A palette swap alone can only cater to the desire to “prove” that minorities can kick ass, too. Except, I already know we can kick ass. Comics should be able to offer more than that: cultural diversity in addition to mere aesthetic diversity.

    To that end, I wonder your opinion of the newest Green Lantern, who is not only Muslim, but whose Muslim heritage actually shapes his identity. Arguably somewhat one-dimensionally, but still better than just slapping a few extra shades of brown onto an otherwise “race-neutral, i.e. default White” character?

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    1. Jenn, aren’t you contradicting your own (albeit tongue in cheek) post from early in this site’s life cycle in which you argued that The Rock as Superman and Idris Elba as Batman were the World’s Finest “we deserved?” I seem to recall you got a lot of flack on the internet for that photoshop job.

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      1. I only bring that up because I think the point you made in the comments of that Man of Steel post is arguably the same point Justin makes in his original essay, namely that fanboys need to chill the eff out if a POC gets cast as a traditionally white superhero. It’s like Adam WarRock says in the Hard NOC theme, “when they said Don Glover or Spider-Man, we didn’t mind.”

        I don’t want to speak for Justin, but I don’t think he was saying casting MBJ as Johnny Storm was a call to social justice, but like your point about SuperRock and StringerBats, there’s nothing culturally prohibitive in Johnny Storm’s story to prevent Jordan from taking the role. I’d even argue that Bruce Wayne’s whiteness, entitlement and privilege actually is inherent to his character. Which is why you appreciate the Frank Miller stories so much.

        Either way, both your original photoshop and Justin’s sickness with white dudes was arguing the same point.

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      2. Keith, thanks for reading and commenting! Three points:

        1) Saying there is nothing culturally prohibitive in Johnny Storm’s story to prevent color-blind casting of his character in a Fantastic Four film is not an affirmative argument in favor of color-blind casting for that role.

        2) Justin made it clear that the comic industry needed to focus more stories about people of color. On that we agree, but I strongly disagree that color-blind casting leads us to those stories. Really, it only allows people of color to pantomime White stories about White people, so that modern White audiences can still feel progressive while focusing on themselves.

        3) Keith, how can you imply that Johnny Storm’s Whiteness, entitlement and privilege is somehow less inherent to his character than Bruce Wayne’s Whiteness, entitlement and privilege? I doubt anyone can make that argument, but you are welcome to try. What’s much more likely is that Batman is a more beloved and famous character than Johnny Storm, so it’s OK to allow a Negro to portray him. Batman’s much more integral to superhero comics White male power fantasies, so never the most progressive fanboys never consider a brother under the cowl.

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      3. I don’t think so. My point isn’t that one can’t make Batman or Superman a POC, just that one shouldn’t do it by casting choices alone. Shoe-horning a Black actor into a role conventionally White gives the appearance of a Black character, but in the absence of writing that actually addresses how a character’s non-White race has influenced their choices, you have only made a character “incidentally Black”, an act that creates a superficial and aesthetic diversity, but doesn’t diversify outlooks and cultures of your characters by actually integrating race beyond just skin-deep. I’m not necessarily saying that every character needs a racial encounter moment or something, but a Black Batman — even a wealthy orphaned Black Bruce Wayne Batman — will have a different personality or outlook than a White Bruce Wayne Batman. If your script is written with the White Bruce Wayne Batman in mind, and then you cast a Black actor, you’re making a superficially Black Batman, and using the actor’s race as a sort of biological shoe polish to achieve that effect. But you haven’t actually created a Black Batman; you’ve sorta created a Blackface Batman.

        The point I think I’m making is the fallacy of “race-neutral” character writing. Characters aren’t ever “race-neutral”, particularly those from comic books; the whole term implies that race has no meaning unless there is some explicitly racialized moment, which doesn’t reflect the lived experiences of real people of colour. I’m not just Asian when someone is racist to me — my entire approach to life is influenced by my minority, female, and Asian American status. If you’re going to write a genuinely Asian American character, that character’s race shouldn’t be interchangeable, because if you magically changed my race, my personality would be different, too.

        The take-home message here is that diversity in SFF-inspired movies needs to happen at the writing stage, not (just) at the casting director stage. We can have a Black Batman and biracial Superman, but that movie starring the Rock and Idris Elba would be truly diversifying the comic book landscape if the script were also written with the non-White races of the World’s Finest in mind.

        Which, yes, would be changing both characters significantly from in the comics.

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    2. Jenn, thanks for reading and commenting! I find the Simon Baz useless in the new JLA, but the entire book screams ‘trying too hard’ for me. Take Trinity War – Geoff Johns remind his readers at least twice that all the other superheroes felt that Hal Jordan was infinitely more capable than the minority Green Lantern; the in-joke struck me as derogatory and offensive. It’s what’s to be expected from Geoff Johns, but it was comically unnecessary.

      That being said, I don’t think it’s harsh to remember that many fans of superhero comics gravitate toward their simple morality and basic plot structure. In my view, this is the appeal of color-blind casting in superhero film – like in Hancock, we never interrogate the race politics or culture distance from the White mainstream people of color experience. Instead, we swap a Black or Latin or Asian face on screen and hope no one notices the end result’s silliness. The fans who watch Thor: The Dark World to get lost in Chris Hemsworth’s abs could care less about the morality of color-blind casting. So Marvel gets to appear relatively progressive when they cast Idris Elba as Heimdall, even though his character isn’t even remotely Black in any way. All of that seems cheap and simple to me, and I discuss it in those terms.

      But I agree: comics that fail to provide cultural and aesthetic diversity don’t deserve my respect or money.

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      1. I find the Simon Baz useless in the new JLA, but the entire book screams ‘trying too hard’ for me.

        I agree, but I wonder if this has less to do with character concept and more with writers who just don’t know what to do with the character. I think the idea is actually quite interesting — he’s an anti-hero, one who has been explicitly victimized by one law enforcement establishment who has joined a larger intergalactic law enforcement establishment. The entire GL Corps treats alien races in a way that smacks of “racial profiling” (all the X aliens behave like X), which is on the one hand understandable since each GL patrols a sector with hundreds or thousands of worlds (a signal that the corps is severely understaffed) but on the other hand an interesting idea to explore with a character like Baz.

        I think there’s potential in his character as being able to embody an authentic Muslim American experience, beyond just your usual Muslim-as-terrorist trope. But I think the writers are stuck with him as peripheral scenery in a team book that’s currently tied up in bigger story arcs. Consequently, they’re stuck making the “9/11″ angle the single defining characteristic of the character. With more attention, though, do you think Baz could be turned into something kind of cool for the DC landscape?

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      2. Yes, Baz could be made useful. But that’s also true of Vibe or Vixen or even Resurrection Man. Frankly, I think you need writers of color who do not approach minority characters as alien country, with the freedom to ignore the financial concerns imposed by an industry designed to sell nostalgia and childlike wonder. Everything you’ve written about what could be done with Simon Baz would work if mainstream superhero comics were not written at a third-grade level. The simplicity matters: nuanced race politics are too complex for superheroes who approach every villain with martial force as if diplomacy is a dirty word. Further, the editors at the large publishing houses have to be willing to take the chance on solo comics for characters of color. Limited series as tentative first steps may be useful, but I’ve no interest in characters like Simon Baz when they are submerged in team books where brawls and romance overrule all other concerns.

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  4. Hi, J. I think we agree that entertainment in general should be working harder to tell authentic stories about non-white/male/heteronormative protagonists. And I fully agree that the ideal would to be a protagonist who was created to authentically express and inhabit those qualities.

    But my post was mostly about how things are now, and for now almost every Big 2 comic that gets made into a film is based on the iconic, 50-year-old characters…and my point was if we restrict ourselves to depicting those characters, and we restrict ourselves to depicting them as they were then (when there was not a single black superhero), we’ll never see different types of heroes on screen. The ideal, of course, would be to see new characters created and then see them brought to the screen…but that’s a far rarer occurrence these days.

    I would imagine, though, that if the Storms were black and if FF was still a big hit, it would prove that there’s an audience for black superheroes and would open the door to more of them, and possibly even new characters being created with an eye towards Hollywood adaptations. (You never know with show business though, of course.)

    And I realize that there are deeper implications on the whole system and of white gatekeepers deciding when black superheroes have made “enough” money that they “get” to make more of them…

    But I feel like there are a wide range of experiences out there for every classification of person. And I don’t see how entitlement and privilege is so inherent to Johnny Storm’s character that, if he were depicted as black, there couldn’t be some kid out there who could still relate to him in some way and still feel heartened by seeing a hero like him on screen.

    At any rate, my post wasn’t an impassioned plea for more white characters to be cast with black actors. It was an impassioned plea for white people to chill the heck out when it happens. And I stand by that. :)

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    1. Just my two cents: I don’t think anyone is saying one shouldn’t cast Black actors in comic book movies playing conventionally White roles. I, at least, am arguing that the cross-racial change needs to happen at the script stage. I think James would agree with that.

      So, yes Johnny Storm can be Black. Maybe Johnny Storm should be Black. But writers will need to write Johnny Storm as a Black man, not expect that casting Michael B Jordan alone will be sufficient to trans-racialize him.

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    2. Hey Justin, thanks for reading and commenting! I respect that you wrote about the current state of comics on film. We both did. I simply disagree with the premise that we won’t view people of color as superheroes in movies without cross-racial casting. Marvel Studios would not have today’s amazing box office without Wesley Snipes’ Blade. Again – saying there is nothing culturally prohibitive in Johnny Storm’s story to prevent color-blind casting of his character in a Fantastic Four film is not an affirmative argument in favor of color-blind casting for that role. It’s rather cynical in my view to expect that comic audiences today will only tolerate the Black man as superhuman protagonist if he portrays a fifty-year-old White comic property.

      There’s already an audience for Black superheroes. The two brunettes I mention in my piece exhibited the same response I’ve seen on many Black women watching Tyler Perry vehicles. Adding a Kevlar vest and offensive weaponry to make Morris Chestnut or Terry Crews a superhero would, in my view, produce a similar box office to anything we’ve seen thus far, in my view. What Hollywood isn’t sure about, with some reason, is the willingness of White moviegoers to watch people of color as the heroes of $150 million movies. On that scale, any reluctance to the part of White moviegoers could be catastrophic, so the safer, proven comic properties – historically White, straight and male – take precedence. But that safe bottom line argument is used to oppose all manner of comic film concepts – a Wonder Woman movie most famously. Yet no one considers gender as interchangeable as race when trying to sidestep Hollywood’s risk adversity.

      Of course people within groups experience vastly different lives. Certainly Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written extensive fiction and nonfiction about upper-class Black America. The point remains, however, that Johnny Storm is a character who revels in wealthy White celebrity culture’s entitlement and privilege, and that trans-racializing him would involve crafting a character who ignores the poverty and criminality associated with those who share his skin. What’s more, Johnny Storm cares nothing for the consequences of his actions, so long as he’s having a great time. I and many others would find a Black man in New York City with that degree of aloof entitlement alien. Even rappers and sports stars are keenly aware that they can be arrested. It’s a valid credibility concern that exists with the Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm idea. Just because some people believe that cross-racial casting is an unalloyed good because it may lead to more visible minorities on screen doesn’t make that perspective logical.

      If those minorities cannot and do not bring with them their cultural histories and perspectives, then we don’t have people of color on screen. We have tokenism, and colorface without makeup. That, Justin, is the end result of your argument. Telling White people to chill out may be useful for some, but White people are not the only important people in this discussion.

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      1. Jenn: I agree. I’d hope that anyone writing anything would take the background of their characters into consideration, and I’d hope that would involve at least minor rewrites if the character’s race was changed during the casting process rather than in the writing process.

        J. – Given how far these characters have been stretched from their initial conceptions in comics themselves, never mind in adaptations in other media, I still believe that there’s room for an interpretation of Johnny Storm that would make sense to cast a black actor (see above regarding writing for such a character). I’m still not arguing that it’s the end-all be-all for what black actors/comics fan can hope for or aspire to. I suppose some people might think it’s an “unalloyed good,” but I’d prefer to think of it as an alloyed good.

        As for your gender thought experiment, it would certainly get plenty of people up in arms. But I’d be perfectly fine with seeing, for instance, a female standing in for Ben Grimm in an FF movie. Pilot, best friends with Reed, struggling with fitting in as a monster even as she suddenly has more power than ever? It would be different than how a male would deal with it and it would change the story, but there’s nothing there in the character core that couldn’t be female. It might even deepen some of those themes. I don’t think it would be as simple as changing all the pronouns in a script, but it shouldn’t be, and neither should casting a minority actor.

        We can certainly agree on one thing, though: Terry Crews would be the best superhero ever.

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  5. “Uhm, both Dwayne Johnson and Idris Elba are actors of colour. Casting them might racially cross-cast characters that have been historically Caucasian, but they definitely would not be “Blackface”.

    And, the point of this post is to question the fandom’s rabid clinging to strict racial definitions of Superman and Batman. Unlike some other comic book characters, it’s not clear what about THESE characters’ histories REQUIRES them to be played by White characters and/or to be White.

    Hell, Superman is Kryptonian. Do Kryptonians have to look like White Europeans?

    I would submit that of the popular male actors in Hollywood today, these two best embody the personas of Superman and Batman respectively. Idris Elba is totally capable of playing brooding, violent, and potentially psychotic yet with a heroic streak (re: Luther), and The Rock is just superhumanely built and exudes an intrinsic Boy Scout good-naturedness. Yet, why won’t they be cast? Because they aren’t White. Because fans insist that a Black actor playing these actors would be “blackface” of White superheroes.”

    How is this argument different from Justin’s initial one re: why it’s okay to cast MBJ as Johnny? I mean, the main point of Justin’s “I’m Sick of White Dudes” was also to “question the fandom’s rabid clinging to strict racial definitions” of popular superheroes.

    If you look at the core of the Human Torch persona, he’s a brash, overconfident hothead who enjoys being popular. In fact, these are many of the same character traits that can be found in Jordan’s character in “Chronicle” which is probably the main reason he’s being considered especially since Josh Trank is directing the reboot.

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    1. Hey Keith — yeah, I did write that, but in response to someone arguing that this was “Jazz Singer” style Blackface. I don’t think it’s to the same extent, and was trying to point out (much as I think Justin was doing) the bizarre rigidity of our contemporary concepts of what certain characters are.

      However, when I said “there is nothing in their backgrounds that requires the characters to be Black”, what I was saying was that there is nothing prohibitive about the characters preventing them from being non-White. But, I was not advocating that casting Elba and Rock alone — without a parallel change in script treatment — was a good idea.

      Black Superman and Black Batman can exist — but I don’t think you get there JUST by casting Black/non-White actors. That was never the intention of the Photoshop which in general, was intended to challenge our existing ideas of what these characters have to be, and not just superficially. That was why I said that both actors embody the personas of Supes and Bats; but if Bruce Wayne were played as a Black man by Idris Elba, he should be written that way. I would rather not have Idris Elba cast, if he would be cast in the same way he was cast as Heimdall.

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    2. Keith, isn’t the counter-argument I make in this post worth consideration? I’ve said repeatedly – just because the core personality traits of Johnny Storm are de-racialized does not provide an affirmative defense of casting a non-White actor in that role. It’s clear that Jenn, Justin and I wish to see well-developed superhero stories featuring characters of color that exhibit more than tangential interaction with their race. My contention is that color-blind casting will not lead to that goal, and that it will engender tokenism and color-face instead. Do you have an opinion on this?

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  6. “J. – Given how far these characters have been stretched from their initial conceptions in comics themselves, never mind in adaptations in other media, I still believe that there’s room for an interpretation of Johnny Storm that would make sense to cast a black actor (see above regarding writing for such a character). I’m still not arguing that it’s the end-all be-all for what black actors/comics fan can hope for or aspire to. I suppose some people might think it’s an “unalloyed good,” but I’d prefer to think of it as an alloyed good.”

    I actually don’t know how much we disagree than. I think it’s one thing to cast Michael B. Jordan just for token diversity, but to not substantially change how Johnny Storm is written for the film. It’s another thing to a priori re-write the film with a Johnny Storm as Black explicitly in mind, and to change his persona accordingly.

    That will piss of the nerds, for sure. And there’s a certain brand of inauthenticity that may be inescapable. But, I’d rather see that than just — like I said — shoe-horning in POC at the casting level. Or, what happened to Ming Na Wen in Agents of SHIELD, which was a superficial name-change to avoid unfortunate bad-taste jokes, but otherwise to leave the character the same, which resulted in a rather confusingly bad dragon lady trope.

    As we discuss more, it’s not clear to me where we actually disagree. I think Jessica Alba as Sue Storm is the good example here — in that case, she is a Latina actress playing a -White- Sue Storm (as indicated by the blonde hair and the fact that she’s a sister to White Johnny Storm). Or, a character like Travis Mayweather of Enterprise, who is human scenery and incidentally Black. I think the argument we are kind of ALL making here is that diversity in SFF requires more than aesthetic diversity — it requires diversity at ALL levels of movie/comic book production, not at the ‘end-stages’.

    To that end, I also think there is room for an interpretation of Johnny Storm as Black. But it’s an interpretation that requires more than just casting choice.

    Like

  7. @J.Lamb

    “Yes, Baz could be made useful. But that’s also true of Vibe or Vixen or even Resurrection Man. Frankly, I think you need writers of color who do not approach minority characters as alien country, with the freedom to ignore the financial concerns imposed by an industry designed to sell nostalgia and childlike wonder. Everything you’ve written about what could be done with Simon Baz would work if mainstream superhero comics were not written at a third-grade level. The simplicity matters: nuanced race politics are too complex for superheroes who approach every villain with martial force as if diplomacy is a dirty word. Further, the editors at the large publishing houses have to be willing to take the chance on solo comics for characters of color. Limited series as tentative first steps may be useful, but I’ve no interest in characters like Simon Baz when they are submerged in team books where brawls and romance overrule all other concerns.”

    We’ve had this as dinner conversation, too, and I’m more and more coming ’round to your side that if writers write from lived experiences, that it may be impossible (or at least far more difficult) for writers to get the non-White experience “right”.

    That being said, I think my idea for the Baz character vis-a-vis exploring the Lantern Corps as a rigid, authoritarian, and self-appointed Establishment would be so cool.

    Can we get someone to write that comic? Please?

    Like

    1. “We’ve had this as dinner conversation, too, and I’m more and more coming ’round to your side that if writers write from lived experiences, that it may be impossible (or at least far more difficult) for writers to get the non-White experience “right”.” – Jenn

      Certainly not in superhero comics. The medium is too shallow and juvenile to discuss communities of color with adequate nuance and depth. The core fans are not interested. It’s like teaching the Electoral College to kindergartners.

      Like

  8. “Thor: The Dark World is, quite possibly, the worst thing Marvel has ever done.”

    Spoken like someone who doesn’t actually read superhero comics. You’re lucky enough to be so ignorant of the 90s and things like the Clone Saga.

    Anyways, I’m a white kid from NYC who dreams of working in the industry. I’m also sick of the lack of diversity in the genre of superhero comics. I’m never going to know what it’s like to be black and I’m sadly unaware of a lot of the nuances of racism. Discussions of race in comics like these are important to me, especially if I am lucky and skilled enough to achieve my dreams and gain some clout in the world of comics. And having read your articles…

    …I can confidently say you’re like so many other critics out there. You’re an elitist prick that’s more interested in writing poorly fragmented sentences you think are snarky than actually saying anything worthwhile. You’re unable to enjoy a fun superhero movie because what, you’re too obsessed with the evils of capitalism? And too busy judging others in the audience? Love how you casually dismiss Wonder Woman in another article as neither fresh, new, or exciting, and yet you’re exactly that. Just another boring prick whining about capitalism. Cause it’s not like communism killed millions or anything, right?

    But that’s just all stupid bullshit that had nothing to do with your point, so let’s move past that.

    I got a question for you bub, why are you here? Why are you even bothering with cape comics? You obviously hate them and think they’re infantile trash. You’re seemingly incapable of separating medium from genre, and adaption from source material, or at least noting so when you write.

    This genre is so not for you! The whole draw of these stories is the characters. I totally understand the negative racist imagery that you mention about Thor, and about every superhero, but you seem incapable of actually seeing them as anything beyond that! A lot of people like Thor because he’s this unique mix of an alien and a god based on actual mythology that Jack Kirby made up, and because he hammers the shit out of huge monsters. Judging by what you’ve said, even if you divorced your racial ideologies from Thor or Cap or any superhero, you’d still find them to be shallow boring books and characters. So once again, why are you here? This genre isn’t your thing!

    Finally let’s get down to the most important issue here, race in the world of superheroes. It’s here where I’m the most baffled. You obviously understand the problem of having almost every big time hero the general public know and love through adaptions be white. You also understand the difficulty of creating new popular heroes within the genre, and yet you dismiss an easy solution. I’m no going to argue about the complicated notion of race being inherent in characterization, merely, I don’t see what is too white about “hot head who was raised by his sister after his doctor father got arrested.” Are young black men incapable of being jokesters who act impulsively? Is bickering with your big rocky teammate an inherently white trait or something?

    Your solution is more black creators making new material, which I agree should be happening, but the sad truth is that it isn’t. Saying “things will be better if the big two start diversifying their employees” is easy, but it doesn’t change anything. It fucking sucks, but that’s how it is sadly.

    The characters of superhero comics work because you can write and interpret them in almost anyway while still being true to their core beliefs. That’s a core element of the medium and its process of having so many writers. I think that’s why we don’t see many new characters, and why so many characters are still around. You can easily make almost any superhero black, and still be true to their character, as well as the medium.

    So I say embrace it. We need more non-white heroes for fuck’s sake, and making new characters in this genre is hard. There’s this obvious solution right here that is so creative and so true to the medium, so I say take it. If you’re too much of a prick to realize that, then it’s your fucking problem.

    Oh and once again

    “Certainly not in superhero comics. The medium is too shallow and juvenile to discuss communities of color with adequate nuance and depth. The core fans are not interested. It’s like teaching the Electoral College to kindergartners.”

    WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE!?

    Like

    1. JB – Thanks for reading and commenting! I really enjoy dialogue over my posts, so I appreciate your words.

      Most of the time when I write about superhero comics, some dedicated fanboy disagrees with my writing with the assertion that I must not be well read enough in the subject matter. Your comments make this argument, and I find it wanting, since you can’t possibly know what I’ve read. I take the point you raise that Marvel’s responsible for some pretty horrible moments in industry history, but I stand by the assertion that Thor: The Dark World ranks highly. Along with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., certainly.

      To briefly answer the WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE!? question: I respect that many people enjoy the cultivated simplicity and endless re-imagining that superhero comics provide. But those traits make superhero comics poor vehicles for political nuance and cultural authenticity. As a result, superhero comics routinely fail to offer characters of color worth reading. I’ve noticed this since I was reading Archie Comics as a child — the writers usually do not pen Black humanity with authenticity and the artists often fail to render Black facial features with accuracy. So superhero comics have little to offer people of color, in my view. Your WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE!? question might well be a Whites Only! sign, given that context.

      What I find interesting in your comments JB, was this:

      “So I say embrace it. We need more non-white heroes for fuck’s sake, and making new characters in this genre is hard. There’s this obvious solution right here that is so creative and so true to the medium, so I say take it.” – JB

      It’s not clear to me that we need more non-White heroes in superhero comics. It’s clear to me that superhero comics need to embrace literary complexity to present characters of color worth reading. I’d trade every Mr. Terrific, Black Lightning, and Steel in DC Comics for another Watchmen-caliber miniseries. The genre is fatally flawed: we’re discussing an industry designed to sell nostalgic White male power fantasies to children. Just because you and some others revel in the immature morality and distorted human relations sold in superhero comics does not mean that color-blind casting or trans-racializing old White comic properties offer an easy route to an in-panel and/or on-screen diversity that people say they want without defense.

      Often when people clamor for more diversity in comics, I wonder if they even know why. Justin Aclin has a ready defense — he wants new stories from new perspectives. Why do you think we need more non-White heroes, JB? Before you try to pull my fanboy card, help me understand that your desire for non-White heroes has substance, and isn’t just what you think progressives should say in the Obama-de Blasio era. The ‘obvious’ solution you champion leads directly to crass tokenism and repugnant color-face, and if you’re unclear on that score, check out Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ming-Na plays a character that was not intended to be Asian, yet in each episode she portrays a Dragon Lady on national broadcast television in 2013. The racist caricature she puts on should be behind us all, but in superhero comics where everything’s Similac simplistic, it’s OK.

      I’m here because racism is here, and the core superhero comic fan has done a piss-poor job of excising this bigotry from the comics they love. What’s your excuse?

      Like

      1. “The genre is fatally flawed: we’re discussing an industry designed to sell nostalgic White male power fantasies to children.”

        See this here is my whole point of confusion. You express nothing but contempt for this genre. I totally get the negative racial imagery. I grimace every time Storm is drawn with white features, and when a writer introduces yet another fictional African country as opposed to writing about an actual one. I guess the best way to put is that, we see the genre completely differently. I look for the best runs or trades of a character I like or check what’s considered good or essential. It seems you don’t actually enjoy any cape books, and are only able to look at them from a racial perspective. Obviously I know I have a bias being white, but I think it’s possible to divorce ideologies from a work and enjoy it as it is. I feel as if even if you could do that, you still wouldn’t like what you’re reading. I don’t see why you’d want to devote so much time to a genre you don’t enjoy, but hey, you answered my question.

        “Why do you think we need more non-White heroes, JB? Before you try to pull my fanboy card, help me understand that your desire for non-White heroes has substance, and isn’t just what you think progressives should say in the Obama-de Blasio era.”

        There isn’t much complexity to my reasoning. I grew up in one of the most diverse cities in the world. When I entered middle school, I’d often wind up being the only white kid in my class. Things stayed that way when I went into art high school, except now any homophobia I encountered was nonexistent and I was truly surrounded by people of every race, belief, philosophy and sexuality.

        Quite simply, since my childhood it’s been ingrained into me that white people are far from the only race and that you’re defined by so much more than the color of your skin. So seeing a genre that’s always been dear so lacking in diversity and going against what I’ve learned bothers me. There’s a lot more to this world than what the genre shows, and regardless of whether or not the writer is prejudiced, there’s a racist vibe that’s hard to shake.

        I enjoy his genre a lot, and it seems like you don’t. My love of this genre is why I care so much about these issues, because ultimately they’re the genre’s most glaring flaw. The biggest problem from the industry’s roots in the 30s.

        As I said before, I feel rewriting and reinterpreting is a key element of both the genre and medium. What is true to the any major league character is subjective, and every version of them is valid. These characters are modern archetypes, and frankly, I find them to be almost aracial. Green Lantern’s overarching theme of courage and willpower against fear can apply to anyone, as can Spider-man’s adolescent mistakes teaching him responsibility. Once again, you seem to find race to be a key part of characterization, when I don’t, or at least not for superheroes. Of course, you also desire more comics that deal with race, which affects your position. Regardless, while you say Johnny Storm isn’t written as black, what’s to stop us from re-writing him or any character as so? Maybe Superman’s a hard sell with all the Jewish stuff, but hey, the sky’s the limit, at least in superhero comics.

        To expand, it seems to me like you’d enjoy a series that made Steve Rogers black, with his race affecting how the public views Captain America. Or one where Thor’s race goes against Norse mythology and some interesting questions are raised. But you wouldn’t enjoy black Peter Parker, if it didn’t tackle the complexities of race. Thing is, I’m a middle class white nerd from Queens, and my friends that are middle class nerds from Queens of various races aren’t that much different from me. I don’t see how Spider-man is this inherently straight white character that cannot be made black or hispanic or gay or nearly anything else.

        We both agree that bad writing and stereotypes are unhelpful, and that more diverse creators and new content are needed. But sadly the industry is still heavily affected by the former, and lacking in the latter. It’s why I think playing with a popular and established character’s race or gender or sexual is more likely to change things for the better, while still being valid to the .

        I think bringing up Ming-Na’s character doesn’t say much. She’s an original character for the show, one that I keep hearing is poorly written and not interesting. I don’t feel she’s the standard for adding new characters of color to an established universe either. Look at Arrow’s original black character, John Diggle, while his military background is a little cliche, he’s an interesting, likeable character, who pokes fun at being seen as Oliver Queen’s black driver or being the one in the who goes undercover to buy drugs. He’s a great addition to the show, and part of the reason I watch every week.

        Like

      2. JB – I really like this comment of yours. Don’t get me twisted – I agree with very little of what you wrote, but I can appreciate the arguments you write. I have a post coming this week (probably tomorrow) that will directly confront my relationship with comics; hopefully you’ll get the chance to read that soon. But I wanted to take on some of this while I had a moment.

        Making Steve Rogers Black helps Steve Rodgers infinitely more than it helps Black people. I would not enjoy any of those comic ideas you’ve mentioned, because they all attempt to revitalize existing superheroes with the cultural and political spice Black skin imbues. I think you’re right when you consider superheroes archetypes, but very wrong to suggest they are somehow without race. Steve Rogers is a White guy: all that Greatest Generation tripe his character represents would not be possible without his WWII-era Whiteness. That’s why Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story moderately intrigues — it reminded readers that military necessity required soldiers to embrace their inner sociopath in order to defeat the Axis threat, and that Cap could not exude American heroism and truly give himself to the beast within. Cap always worked alongside other heroes who were more comfortable with antihero amorality (Hawkeye, Wolverine) but is always written as a Reagan-esque pillar of virtuous White masculinity. None of that is possible with a Black Steve Rogers because superhero comic fans could no longer be expected to make those associations.

        I’m not sure if my possible affinity or lack thereof for superhero comics has much to do with this conversation. What I do know is that superhero comics as a genre are not written for people like me. By that I mean people who enjoy complex storytelling. All the problems superhero comics have with diversity should, in my opinion, be interpreted as a facet of their general aversion to complex storytelling and moral ambiguity. The reason trans-racializing superheroes does not work is that it assumes a palette swap can offer new avenues to explore old characters. That perspective discounts the cultural foundations that form racial identities. This belief that people are basically the same, that superheroes are archetypes without race, only makes sense from a mainstream perspective, where you have the freedom to choose your desired level of interracial interaction. People of color do not have that choice, and I’ve never come across any comic book that spoke to the reality of that difference. I’ve never seen it because comics don’t handle nuance well enough to discuss those differences, and the audience thrives on clearly defined heroes and villains. Comics are too simple to get race right, so maybe comics should leave race be.

        Like

  9. magnificent submit, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite
    specialists of this sector don’t realize this. You must continue your writing.
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    Like

  10. I am a black person who grew up outside the us, but has lived here for many years. I think most Americans see color as a more integral part of what a person is than many other cultures. When I was very small my teacher (British) put on a play that revolved around the nativity, she had me play the Arch Angel Gabriel (not just color bending but gender bending as well), she had a Asian girl play Mary and the rest of the cast were obviously not Jewish. Later, I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver twist.

    I remember my mother was a little upset that I was not in the pretty dresses some of the other cast members wore, but I was quite happy, I had a very important role (or so I saw it at the time). Now I realize that she had given me one of the most complex characters in the entire play. It could have gone to a white student, it could have gone to a male white student, but she gave it to me because she had confidence I could play the part.
    This is nothing new, men have played women, women have played men and in other parts of the world people play people who belong to different classes, races, religions etc.

    I don’t agree that there is a ‘black’ character or a ‘white’ character, I don’t identify at all with the concept of a ‘black woman’ in the US, because I did not grow up in the US, even though I am a black woman. I am sure there are white men that don’t identify at all with the ‘white’ male characters. The truth is, there are very few fictional character that really need to be played by a person of a specific race. For example the president of the US could be played by an Asian, a Woman of any race, a black person but is almost always played by a white man.

    Whites play other races, so there is no reason for other races not to play ‘white’ characters. I agree that in some stories if one decides to cast a minority character, then one could explore the issues of race and racism, but I don’t think that always needs to be the case. I think sometimes it is healthy to have minority characters who play parts written for whites (which are often multidimensional and interesting) the way they were written. It allows those who are not minorities to see characters who don’t fit their stereotype of a minority person and just see them as another character in a film.

    Another reason this is a good idea, is that characters who are black, especially black women tend to be killed off (I spent most of Eureka wondering when they were going to kill her or marry him off to someone else, they surprised me and did neither very rare), but that is harder to do with characters that were not written with minorities in mind.

    There is room for both, for the ‘black’ character (whatever that is) and for the character that just happens to be played by someone who is black.

    Like

  11. “Comics are too simple, too infantile, too immature for writers to apply critical race theory and third wave feminism with palette swaps within their pages without sacrificing the logic of the worlds in their panels. When they try, crass tokenism and poor storytelling almost always results.”
    I dont think this applies to comics in general. Perhaps superhero comics and the majority of comics that get made into hollywood movies are this way- and even alot of small press, indie comics, and webcomics.
    But off the cuff, I can think of at least three examples of comics that address third wave feminism: Allison Bechdels’ work on ‘Dykes to Watch Out For,’ and ‘Are you My Mother?’ ; The ongoing comic queer comix collection: ‘Juicy Mother’ ; and the Webcomic: ‘Curvy’ by Sylvan Migdal (c.urvy.org).
    I enjoyed the article as a whole, and its insights, I just felt like this was an overgeneralization about comics, and an oversimplification.
    It seems like a comic like the Image series ‘Saga’ also does ok with this- although since it takes place in a sci-fi world where everything is decontextualized from our society here in the present, and race and class operate on different paradigms- race theory and third wave feminism don’t apply as directly.

    Like

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