Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Real Thor Spot.... Why Diversity in Comic Books Has Always Been Tricky.

This is a bit of a diversion for me. As well as being a skeptic with an interest in science and the paranormal, I'm also a massive nerd. I know, I know. You would have never guessed right?

One of my biggest loves being comic books. Not graphic novels, I don't try to hide my obsession behind a seemingly more respectable moniker. I love Comic books.

One genuine criticism that has been levelled at mainstream superhero comics over the years has been a lack of diversity amongst characters, especially super-heroes. Early attempts to rectify this were, misguided to say the least. Female superheroes, barring the early Wonder Woman and Black Canary, were initially
re-gendered versions of pre-existing, popular male-counter parts. Think Super-Girl, Bat-Girl, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman, the latter at least having a separate origin and powers to her male

Ethic differences were treated with even less tact. Early black heroes had the pleasure of mostly having their ethnic heritage up front in their names, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Racer, Black Vulcan.... When black heroes weren't presented like this, they were still awkward racial stereo-types. Luke Cage a.k.a Power-Man was one of the black heroes to have his own book, he was also a ex-gang member, born in Harlem and a convict when he received his powers. John Stewart, the first black Green-Lantern, was presented as a stereotypical "angry young black man". These its likely black characters were mishandled by white writers, who may well of had the best intentions at heart, but simply couldn't find the right voice for a black character.

That's black characters, but if you are looking for Hispanic heroes in a pre-90s book you'd have a long day in the back issue room. Bat-Hombre anybody? Didn't think so. 
 If you were looking for an openly homosexual character your search would be even less fruitful. Marvel's North Star a member of second-string team book Alpha -Flight was rumoured to be gay though-out the eighties, but editorial mandates prevented this from being outwardly stated until 1992. Marvel were actually beaten to the punch in 1991 when DC comics writer Bill Messner Loebs had ex-Flash villain, the Pied Piper, reveal to his now friend that he was homosexual. Becoming mainstream comic's first openly gay character. The fact that the plot point was sensitively handled and reacted to by the hero of the book with initial discomfort, soon replaced by acceptance, doesn't change the fact that this, as with North Star, was hardly a major character!

In the modern era both mainstream companies DC and Marvel. have taken great steps to rectifying this previous imbalance. Often this is well-handled, sometimes it strikes as little more than an attempt to score publicity.

Take, for example, DC's announcement in 2012 that a "major" character would be revealed to be gay. If the spectacle of this didn't leave a bad taste in the mouth (it shouldn't have to be a major ANNOUNCEMENT DC! And the delay in announcing the character's identity only had some fans debating why it SHOULDN'T be a character they like!) the final reveal was the very definition of anti-climax. Green Lantern was gay! Only problem is, the DC universe features at least five prominent human Green Lanterns (and tonnes of alien ones too)! And it wasn't one of the major ones, it was Alan Scott, a Green Lantern from an alternate universe! And not the original Alan Scott either, a rebooted version! Also in 2012 DC announced they would also be introducing an  Arab-American hero... This turned out to be a Green Lantern too! Oh and the Flash pictured above... He has been reintroduced as an Afro-American. Whilst this is fine and dandy, once again, this isn't the only Flash in the DCU! The main one, as with the main Green Lantern, is white.

In 2011 Marvel replaced Spider-Man Peter Parker with Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino, to much critical acclaim. Fans almost instantly took too Morales, and critics were kind, if cautious about the move. To an casual observer, this may seem like an incredibly bold move on Marvel's part. Spider-Man is without doubt Marvel's flagship character, most well known and well loved.  Here's the thing, this didn't happen in Marvel's main line of books, it happened in its "Ultimate" line. Now defunct, the Ultimate brand met with initial success, aiming to make Marvel characters more accessible to new fans by doing away with decades of continuity. This popularity had petered (pun not intended) out by the time Morales was introduced, it had already been relaunched and rumours of its demise were already circulating. Sales for most Ultimate books were at a point were a regular title would of been cancelled Marvel's move wasn't as risky as it initially appeared was it?

When the Ultimate line disappeared Miles shifted over to the regular Marvel Universe where there is already a Spider-Man who isn't going anywhere. He becomes another ethnic counterpart for pre-existing character.

The supplementing of existing characters with ethnically diverse counterparts may seem like a positive step but its actually exactly what was being done with gender-roles as early as the introduction of Supergirl in 1958. The one major difference is at least these modern characters are being well handled, and are quite rounded, they aren't simple racial stereotypes (although DC faced some criticism for having their Arab-American Green Lantern use a gun, odd as none of the other Lanterns carry a handgun).

Even so much of this strikes as attempts to fill a criteria of  diversity, without doing so in any actual substantive, consequential or meaningful way. Diversity is offered as an alternative. Its throwing a titbit to readers who want to see more diversity, and generating more publicity and therefore revenue in the process.

This is exactly how I feel about today's announcement that Marvel are to introduce a female Thor.  It will generate a lot of publicity, but despite Marvel's protestations to the contrary, its just a female version of a pre-existing hero, nothing more. Consider too that this isn't a huge risk. While it seems that this is going to occur in mainstream continuity, its not likely to be permanent, these things in comics rarely are, and it won't be the first type Marvel have replaced Thor with a counter-part, two of the more unusual choices being a frog and a horse-headed alien during Walt Simpson's run in the 80's.


Instead of replacing an established character with a woman, why on the Earth didn't Marvel attempt to establish a new female character? They could of done far worse than consult a frequent collaborator on their movie projects, the director of the Avengers, Joss Whedon. Whedon is, of course, responsible for creating strong, powerful and independent female characters (and not just the title character) in the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Also Marvel have done this successfully in the past. Chris Claremont's long run on
X-Men was known for the introduction of several new female characters you could hold their own, they  were well fleshed out and remain some of the most popular members of the team. Why this backward step?

So how do fans deal with this forced attempt at diversity?

When Marvel Studios chose Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury, few fans blinked an eye lid. The character had been depicted as a Sam Jackson look a like in the continuity free Ultimate universe Avengers title "The Ultimates" despite him being white in the regular Marvel Universe. This may be because few modern fans actually cared much about Nick Fury by that stage, as a character there wasn't much going on behind the eye-patch. Plus anyone is better than David Hasselhoff surely?

Reaction to the announcement of the portrayal of another long-standing, traditionally white Marvel character has been met with less enthusiasm. The announcement that Michael B. Jordan will be playing the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot has been met with scorn from many sectors of fandom. When pointed out that this is a ridiculous stance, as an accurate portrayal of the character Johnny Storm is not reliant on his race but his brash, reckless nature and occasional arrogance, most of those opposed have countered that "Johnny and Sue (team-mate the Invisible Woman) are biological brother and sister, so it makes no sense that one is black, the other white." To that I counter, "So why are you demanding a white Johnny Storm, and not a black Sue Storm?"

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