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Why an African American Human Torch is Important, or Comic Fans are Kinda Racist

Originally posted at BadAzz Mofo

Wake up world, Black actor Michael B. Jordan has been cast as Johnny Storm (a.k.a. the Human Torch) in the upcoming reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise. The hurricane of controversy, and all the requisite ridiculous and racist comments have begun, and will keep flowing, until, or course, the movie comes out, at which point people will go see it no matter how incensed or infuriated they are. And you know what? I don’t care if anyone is incensed, infuriated, or inconsolable about a Black actor being cast in a fictional role of a character that is known to be White. Really, honestly, and truly, I don’t care at all. That is not, however, going to stop me from addressing a few issues.

Your new Fantastic Four.

First, there are all the diehard comic book fans freaking out over the fact that one of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s creations is being changed from White to Black. Their protests and insipid whining are, to be sure, based primarily in racism. The complaints that are not racist are merely based in nostalgia, which is tied more closely to racism than even the most free-thinking, liberal, and, sad to say, people of color, can even begin to comprehend. The very real — and very ugly — truth of the matter is that if you’re upset that Human Torch is being played by a Black guy, you are in fact operating within a paradigm of racial ideology that is — in every way, shape, and form — tied to racism. This is not to say you are a racist, because you may not be. But that’s the soul-crushing and terrifying reality of racism — quite often we engage in racist ideology without realizing we’re doing it.

The most common statement we will be hearing in days, weeks, and months to come is that casting Human Torch as a Black man is akin to casting a White actor as Luke Cage, or even worse, Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, for starters, Human Torch and Luke Cage are both fictional characters. Martin Luther King was a real person, and I have already addressed the ugly reality of White actors portraying real-life people of color in another post (so I won’t repeat myself). Instead, I want to explain why it is of the utmost importance that Michael B. Jordan portray Human Torch, and why it is nothing like a White actor playing Luke Cage or Black Panther.

When we are talking about Black superheroes — and for the sake of what I’m getting at, I’m talking about characters that exist in the world of Marvel and DC Comics — there are only a relative handful of well-known characters. And even then, these characters are only well known to fans of comic books. Most people outside of comics have no clue who Mr. Terrific or Brother Voodoo are, and they don’t care. In fact, most comic fans don’t care either. Both Marvel and DC have a long history of killing off characters and resurrecting them (usually in ways that are completely ridiculous). Fans lose their minds whenever Superman or Captain America are killed (hell, Brian Bendis received death threats when he killed Hawkeye), but inevitably, these characters are always brought back to life, more popular than ever. That is, unless we’re talking about the death of a Black character. About a dozen people seemed to care when Black Goliath/Bill Foster was killed off in Marvel’s Civil War. Even fewer than that cared when Brother Voodoo/Jericho Drum bought the farm. And to the best of my knowledge, both are still dead, and no one is clamoring for their return.

The bottom line is this: Black superheroes get very little respect in comics, and other than a few characters — Luke Cage, Storm, Black Panther, Static Shock, John Stewart — with some devoted fans, the vast majority of Black superheroes are inconsequential to readers. At least they are inconsequential to the White readers that Marvel and DC cater to as a matter of course (this is all an extension of White privilege and racial ideology, which I’m not going to spend too much time discussing). The point I’m getting at is that Black superheroes don’t matter as much as White superheroes, and this is reflected both in the medium of comics and films. In comics, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with three significant Black superheroes introduced in the last twenty years with any sort of staying power or popularity. In film, we can literally count all the Black superheroes who’ve appeared in live-action films, and we don’t even need to use our thumbs, or all of our fingers. Likewise, the Black superheroes created specifically for the big screen are limited to Hancock, Meteor Man, and Blank Man.

All three of which are enough to make even White people hang their heads in shame and disgust

Audiences of all colors need to start seeing superheroes of all colors, not just the same old White characters played by White actors. But here’s the key: for the time being, we need to see the same old White superheroes played by actors of color. Because to a very large extent, there simply aren’t that many Black characters for them to play. Sure, Falcon is in the new Captain America movie, Storm has been in four X-Men movies (including the new one coming out soon), War Machine/Iron Patriot was in two of the Iron Man movies, Blade had his own franchise, and Luke Cage is getting his own mini-series via Netflix. That’s all great. And maybe Black Panther will get his own movie.

But what other Black characters are there that can carry a film, or are even known enough to film audiences to make an impression? And compare that to Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Hulk, Captain America, Wolverine, Green Lantern, Thor, and all the other White heroes who get their own movies. I mean come on! Can anyone really tell me that Green Lantern or Ghost Rider would’ve been that much worse with an actor of color in the lead?

The medium of comics does not have the best of track records for creating and cultivating characters of color. As superheroes move from the pages of comics to the screen, now is a perfect opportunity to reinvent many beloved characters in a way that is more reflective of a far less monochromatic world. It is important to do this if we as a society and a world are to ever move past the ideological constructs of race that continue to enforce oppression. Some people — especially comic fans — may have a problem with this, but ultimately, they don’t matter as much as they’d like to think. Sorry kids, but you are a tiny niche audience with delusions of grandeur.

There are more people going to see The Avengers than there are those buying Avengers comic books, and whether you want to admit it or not, those are the people that matter. Both Fantastic Four and its sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer made a collective total of more than $500 million worldwide at the box office (and in both cases, the highest percentage of money came from foreign ticket sales). The best selling issues of a Fantastic Four comic currently on the market can’t even scratch the surface of 1% of those ticket sales. Amazing Spider-Man #700 earned an unprecedented $2 million in print sales, while the movie The Amazing Spider-Man earned $752 million at the worldwide box office (making it the worst performing of the four films thus far). For Amazing Spider-Man (the comic) to make what it made, it had to sell somewhere in the ballpark of 250,000 units. For Amazing Spider-Man (the movie) to make what it made, it had to sell in the ballpark of 75,000,000 tickets. The reason why comic fans aren’t nearly as important as they think — nor are their racist or quasi-racist nostalgia — is because actual comic books don’t make that much money. Film and merchandise based on comics rake in the loot, while comics are something of a financial footnote.

The world needs more superheroes of color. In the world of comics, Marvel and DC need to step up their game, as do the readers. Comic book readers must demand, accept, and support superheroes of color, and not come across as racist assholes every time there is a rumor of a Black actor playing a White character. And until the comic publishers (Marvel and DC), creators, and fans can do their part to bring greater diversity to the world of superheroes, we must all learn to accept — either eagerly or grudgingly — that some of our beloved White heroes are in need of an extreme makeover for the big screen. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch far more than I am looking forward to seeing the new Fantastic Four movie — which has the bar set exceptionally low as it is.

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