Comic books, throughout their long history, have often existed as a playground for subversive and counter-cultural concepts. Famously, “Judgement Day” — the last story published by EC Comics — featured a socially stratified world of blue and orange robots set in the far future vying for entry into the “Great Galactic Republic.” Their inspector, an astronaut from Earth, tells them that their planet isn’t ready but that one day it might be. In the last panel he’s revealed to be a black man, something scandalous enough that the Comics Code Authority demanded he be changed to white or the comic couldn’t go to print. This was 1953.
Since then comics, specifically superhero comics, have continued to make attempts to grapple with social issues.
Drug abuse has always been a popular topic. The “not approved by the comics code!” story “Green Goblin Reborn” which ran through Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 is lauded as being the first story in mainstream comics to deal with the issue. Green Arrow would deal with his sidekick’s heroin addiction in a story arc that would be published a month after Spider-Man’s.
HIV too would be touched on, sometimes tastefully, as is the case with Jim Wilson, occasional Incredible Hulk supporting character, who succumbed to the disease in a 1994 storyline. Other times not so much, like with Extraño, DC’s flamboyant magician character who contracted the disease after being bitten by an “AIDS Vampire.”
Anti-gay violence, rape, spousal abuse, teen pregnancy, and even abortion have all also found their way into the pages of cape books at one point or another.
Sometimes these issues were handled with all the grace and narrative weight they deserved, and sometimes, like Hemo-Goblin the “AIDS Vampire,” they are best left to the pages of obscure comic book history. Race too, like in the previously mentioned EC Comics story has often been a concern of comic book writers. Take this this iconic scene from Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 written by Denny O’Neil:
Can you think of a better example of the phrase “speak truth to power?”
Our present day conversations about race and superhero comics tend to revolve less around the nature and reality of racism and more around the ire of people on the internet who have a lot to say about why it’s the end of the world that their favorite character has been replaced with someone who isn’t white.
The race, method of replacement — whether it’s a new or existing character, or the fact that change is rarely permanent in comics never seems to matter. Anger generates clicks; clicks mean attention; attention hopefully means higher sales. In many ways the push for diversity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the hope is to create fictional worlds that give more people the ability to see themselves. On the the other hand, doing so often dregs up the worst elements of racial vitriol, both from members of comic book fandom and random members of the internet mob.
For a long time, I’ve had thoughts about what it means — just at a sociological level — that fandom spaces become a little less safe for fans of color, specifically black fans, whenever largely white creative and editorial teams decide to “shake things up” with a race-swap of an established character. It almost seems like a strange psychological price to pay:
“Captain America and Spider-Man get to be black now, but you’ll also have to see the word NIGGER a lot more. Deal?”
How does this affect our ability to tell, be told, and process progressive stories?
Not that I place any particular stock on the racial climate based on one or a dozen or even a few hundred racially charged tweets or web comments. But the sort of call-and-response that twitter and other web outlets have made instantaneous has always played a large part in the connection between comic fandom and the people who run the industry. It’s this very same call-and-response which has lead to an increase in what can only be called “racial apologism” by fans of color.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A black character fills a role voided by a white character. Or, a black actor is cast as character who’s always been white. In either case, people get upset. Sometimes it’s casual: “Johnny Storm’s always been white; he should stay that way. It just makes sense.” Sometimes it’s more aggressive: insert string of racial epithets.
Then, someone writes a 1,200-2,000 word essay reiterating the innate humanity of non-white people and explaining, once again, that there is nothing which prevents us from embodying bravery or heroism or any other number of qualities shown by these fictional characters. I won’t say I’ve never done it myself. I won’t even say it might not be an important thing for us to keep doing, but I’ve really got to ask: how long can it go on?
I’ve seen this exact essay replicated time and time again for almost as long as I can remember. In the early 2000s, people were writing them when Michael Clarke Duncan was cast as the Kingpin in Daredevil and again when Kerry Washington was cast as Alicia Masters in the first Fantastic Four. Can you imagine anyone in 2015 being mad that Kerry Washington got a role in a comic book movie?
Most topically, I couldn’t count the number of times I saw these points reiterated during the great DC racial shake up of 2004-06 which saw Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Firestorm, and The Atom all replaced with characters of color. And this is years before you ever would’ve seen the word “representation” in any headlines on geek sites.
For years, I have watched voices — some belonging to industry bloggers, others to writers and artists within the industry, and more often than not, simply the voices of fans — doing the work of creating a justification for our existence. We’ve told you why we deserved to be Captain America, Firestorm, Power Girl, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, and Iron Fist. We’ve explained time and time again why we deserve to be seen when the purest, most basic answer to that question is that we deserve to be seen because we’re here, just like you are.
There’s little, if anything, left to say with regards to the controversial notion of our humanity. Either you think we have it or you don’t. There is no longer a point in re-articulating the apparently radical notion that we are your equals when time has made it abundantly clear that many of you are not yet ready to transcend the nature of your base insecurities and become ours.
Frankly, I’d much rather see a discourse where the people on the other side put as much effort into explaining why we don’t deserve to see ourselves. I can’t imagine why the same editors who read the pitch emails by fans of color wouldn’t be happy to look at theirs as well. Let those who see us as controversial write the polemics rather than those who seem to be the controversy.
And as for the editors and creatives behind these decisions: I would like there be a commitment to seeing through this conversation about race beyond the initial “bombshell” reveal of repackaged characters. Fundamentally, it’s an act of cultural malpractice for the editors and writers behind these race-swaps to not lead public conversations about why these changes are necessary.
That’s not to say that these conversations aren’t ever initiated by the industry. Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson deeply rationalized preparation of the world for a Muslim Pakistani American superhero, and why it wouldn’t cause the sun to swallow up the Earth. Their approach is probably the best example I can cherry pick from recent years of creatives recognizing both the importance of representation and creating an atmosphere where their own voices were louder than those armed only with a resistance to change.
That they were willing to work through and speak to the social prejudices that make the existence of a character like Kamala Khan “controversial” shows the kind of measured grace that was missing from these dialogues for so long. While their deep personal ties to Kamala’s background obviously played a large part in what made their introduction tour to the character work; at another level, it was simply the idea that an editor and writer recognized a segment of fandom that had been left out of the conversation that really made it stick home.
It went so far beyond the usual editorial line of “times have changed,” because that in and of itself has always carried with it the stink of apologism. There is, of course, always an argument to be made for increased diversity at the creative and editorial level, but others have made it much better than I could. Still, it was this recognition, in my opinion, that did much to bridge the gap between corporation and fan.
From where we sit in 2015, we might look back at a story like “Judgement Day” as being hokey or proselytizing, and in many ways maybe it was and still is, but it did something that a lot of contemporary comics — and honestly most science-fiction — regularly fails to do: remind us that tomorrow belongs to all of us.
Fundamentally it will take a radical realization that humanity exists as a spectrum, racially and otherwise, to bring about the change we’ve been hoping to see in superhero comics.
I’m looking forward to it.
Jules is a Nashville-based writer, lifelong comic book fan, divinity student, sourdough baker, and hater.
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