Racism in a Four-Color World.
I don’t read comics anymore. I haven’t read comics since the Clone Saga mess with Spiderman back in the late 90s. It was at that point I realized that everyone was out of ideas and “silly” was the order of the day. Of course, I continue to keep up with what’s going on in the comic world, and through the years I’ve noticed certain disturbing trends that have really begun to get under my skin, the largest of which is the not-so-subtle racism inherent in comics.
Superheroes are supposed to represent the more noble aspects of humanity. For the most part, they get the message across that anyone can be a hero. Of course there are darker anti-heroes out there, intent on being gritty and shooting things up with massive guns, but eventually the comics industry will realize that the 90s are over and I’m convinced that these kinds of heroes will go away. My problem is not with gritty, gun-toting psychopaths. My problem is not with huge-breasted women in skimpy lingerie; comics are all about fantasy and escapism, and if people can’t understand that simple concept, then they’ll never get the appeal in the first place.
My problem is with comics companies making “ethnically diverse” heroes, only to treat them as second-class citizens, to be brushed casually aside for the hordes of white-washed “real” heroes that litter comic shops worldwide.
Here’s a great recent example: Spiderman.
White guy, mid-twenties, lives in the city. He died just recently (don’t worry, it’s not the main Spiderman, but one from an alternate reality). Naturally, Marvel Comics aren’t going to kill off one of their biggest cash cows with no chance of revival, so in the interim until he inevitably returns, they’ve thrown us a replacement! Wheeee! Meet the new Spiderman.
Ooh, a new costume! But wait, why on Earth would Spiderman need a new costume? Whoever is under the mask doesn’t matter… Spiderman’s costume covers everything! So why a different costume?
Meet Miles Morales, the new Spiderman. Notice anything different about him? If you said “Now Donald Glover really can play Spiderman,” congratulations! You’re what’s wrong with comics!
Think about it for a moment: what does a person’s skin color have to do with who he is as a superhero? Why couldn’t Donald Glover play Spiderman? Because Spiderman is white? Back up a moment. Why is Spiderman white to begin with? What does his ethnicity matter at all as a superhero?
It doesn’t. Spiderman is Spiderman is Spiderman. He’s a guy with spider powers who swings around Manhattan beating up bad guys. It doesn’t matter who’s under the mask; as I said at the beginning of this post, I got out of comics because of the Clone Saga. The Clone Saga, for the uninitiated, was a period in Spiderman’s history when there were multiple clones of him running around either helping or causing trouble. In particular, there was one clone, from an earlier storyline from the 70s, who became an alternate Spiderman, called the Scarlet Spider. Naturally, he had a different costume, because he wasn’t Spiderman. The books went to great lengths to remind us (through much angst-filled monologuing,) that the Scarlet Spider was not Spiderman, that he would never be Spiderman, and that he had no right to be happy because he was just a genetic experiment gone wrong. (Seriously. There was enough angst to fuel the CW’s Friday night lineup for decades.)
I can understand the Scarlet Spider’s different costume; it made sense in the context of the character. Does Miles Morales’ costume make sense in the context of the character? No, it does not. He’s taking up the mantle of Spiderman. Not The Black Spider or the African Arachnid; he’s Spiderman. Why does he have a different costume?
Spiderman’s not alone in this. Let’s take a look at a few other “ethnic” re-imaginings of various characters over the years.
This handsome looker is named Isaiah Bradley. He was introduced a few years back in a storyline called “Truth,” which was about the U.S. Military’s experiments on black soldiers in WWII to test their super soldier serum. We all know the ultimate resolution of the super soldier serum: Captain America himself. However, there were dozens of permanently maimed black soldiers behind the scenes that paid the price for the serum. The experimental serum caused most of them to uncontrollably mutate into a mass of muscles or cancer; about 99% of all the test subjects died outright. However, Isaiah Bradley survived and went on to do a few covert missions with a handful of other similarly mutated test subjects before dropping out of sight for several decades. Now take a good look at his costume. Cut off sleeves, tattoos, and a doo rag. Oh yeah. Of course there’s a distinction; Isaiah Bradley was never Captain America himself, but an earlier prototype… so why not give him a different costume? Even though he went through most of what Captain America did himself, and he’s even credited with the reason that the super soldier serum was effective on Captain America, he’s relegated to “alternate” status. A throwaway character, forgotten about as quickly as he was introduced.
Moving on. Here’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D.:
Huh. Well, that certainly makes it easier for Samuel Jackson to play him. Sorry, David Hasselhoff, you just don’t have the same sort of box-office pull.
Not that we’ve gone from a soldier-esque look with bright colors to dark, brooding, scarred and angry. Also lots and lots of leather. This is not a soldier’s uniform. This is a silly costume that shrinks when you get it wet and squeaks when you sit down. Why do we need to change it? Oh, right, because the new Nick Fury is an angry black guy. He wouldn’t wear a silly blue costume.
Why are we calling this entirely different character Nick Fury again?
Moving along to the next character: Superman. (I bet you guys were praying I wouldn’t bring this one up, huh?)
And here’s the black Superman:
I get it. He’s not a super-powered guy (originally, at least,) so he has to have a suit to let him stand up to the sort of punishment Superman can take. But why the hell does it look like that? We get that he’s not Superman; we get that he’s just a replacement for Superman… but if he can manipulate steel well enough to make a nigh-indestructible suit, and he’s trying to give the people of Metropolis some sense of continuity while Superman is down for the count, then why couldn’t he make the costume look more like Superman’s traditional red and blue costume? Seriously, just buy some spray paint, dude. It’s not that hard to figure out. Speaking of superheroes in power armor…
And now let’s look at his friend and ally, War Machine:
How freaking hard is this to do? Look, I know that the Iron Man suit is a flying weapons platform… but on most of Tony Stark’s alternate suits (of which there are a freaking crapload) the weapons are sleek, and usually retracted into the suit itself when not in use. The suit is aerodynamic and loaded with hidden weapons. Then we look at Tony’s friend James Rhodes, and we see that he got his own suit, called the War Machine armor, in 1979 (the 70s were a bad time to be a black superhero in comics; if you were lucky, you usually got to wear a tiara and yell “Jimminy Christmas!” or such other jive drivel. No, I’m not making this up.)
Whereas Tony’s Iron Man armor is sleek and pretty, Rhody’s armor is bulky, more threatening looking, and bristling with FREAKING SHOULDER CANNONS. Why is this? Why would he be called “War Machine” and not something closer to Iron Man? Is it because the comics writers of the day saw black people as being more violence driven, perhaps? James Rhodes’ fictional biography has him as being raised in the inner city of Philadelphia, joining the Air Force during Vietnam, where he befriended Tony Stark. Notice that Tony Stark is a privileged, stupidly rich white guy, whereas Rhodes is a hard-working kid trying to evolve past his upbringing in Philadelphia and make a respectable officer out of himself. Tony has nothing to prove, and no responsibilities; he’s a rich genius who does what he wants. Rhodes is just trying to be a good man. Why do the comics point this out? Because at the time, if you were black in comic books, you were either a ridiculous stereotype, a thug, or someone just trying to escape from his/her rough inner city upbringing and prove you were as good as the white superhero main character. Way to lump everyone together, Marvel.
There are more examples out there of “ethnic” replacements for superheroes in comics books getting alternate costumes to set them apart, even thought they’re portraying the same superhero, but I’m not going to go any more in-depth with this right now. It’s a bogus issue to have in comic books in the first place; are we not taught by comic books that there are heroic qualities in all of us? That anyone can be a hero? If anyone can be a hero, then why do people of different race who take up the mantle of fallen heroes, or people who take on the same roles and responsibilities of existing heroes, or simply alternate takes of existing heroes, have different costumes? If we’re trying to show that people of any race or walk of life can be a hero, why are we sending the message that they can’t take up the existing visual look? Why are we setting them apart? There’s no purpose for it other than to point a finger at the difference. Spiderman is Spiderman is Spiderman. Who is under the mask doesn’t matter. As long as he has spider powers and swings around beating up bad guys, what does it matter what he looks like?
To paraphrase Dr. King, I have a dream where the heroes we hold up to our children, no matter how fantastic, will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.