“I thought he was white…”


 In the wake of horrified reactions from everyone’s most reliable pal the internet concerning the race changes of several different characters in other media, I thought I would take time to insert my own opinion concerning these vocalized quibbles.

Diversity in comics has always been one of the Comic Book industry’s favorite subjects to both carry and avoid discussion on. From the Marvel Renaissance in the 60s’ inclusion of the Black Panther and the Falcon to the early 70s’ creations of Green Lantern John Stewart , Shang Chi and Luke Cage, each decade saw more and more prominence of minority characters in the major Comic Book companies. It was those instances of diversity that serves as both a gift and a curse when it came to broadening the scope of variety in characters made available to readers of all races and backgrounds. While kids could say that Green Lantern was black, they still couldn’t say that THE Green Lantern was black, the classic one. The Falcon, the first African American super hero, played second fiddle to Captain America, as his partner or, using the more derogatory term, sidekick. Most notable of all was Luke Cage, who despite being the first black character to have his own solo title was often derided by readers as embodying Marvel’s attempt to cash in on the blaxsploitation phase of the 1970 s, with aspects of his title mirroring Black film hits such as Shaft and Superfly. Lest we forget Shang Chi, an asian character who at the time of his initial publication was a “Kung Fu Master” and the son of Fu-Manchu.

This isn’t to tear down the comic book industry’s attempts to diversify their characters. It’s an illustration that shows how difficult it has been historically to portray minorities in an industry run mostly by white men. The common denominator is this: “Why can’t there a black/Asian/Hispanic/insert-unsaid-minority-here character like Superman?”

Eerily prophetic in this day and age.

One of the earliest instances of “blackening up” a mainstream white character I’ve read is in Batman #250. “The Batman Nobody Knows!” by Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano tells the story of millionaire Bruce Wayne taking three “underprivileged” youths on a camping trip. Passing the time, he asks each boy how they think Batman is. One kid in particular, a black kid, sees him as the living embodiment of every black hero big in the film industry at the time. Even after Bruce appears as Batman in front of the kids to give them a sense of reality, the boys still stick to their initial beliefs about the Caped Crusader, with the black boy still maintaining that Batman is literally black.

What this shows is not only a black hero black readers can relate to, but one that is seen as an “Icon” of all people everywhere. It demonstrates a shared desire to make the heroes of the world more like them, in order to make them easier to look up to.

For minority readers. Not for everyone.

While the notion of taking an iconic character and changing their race may appeal to non-white readers, mention it to the odd white reader and it’s tantamount to blasphemy of the most heinous quality. After all, “if Superman or Captain America were made to be white, then they should be white! That’s who they are, and they shouldn’t be changed for diversity’s sake. It’s as bad as Affirmative Action!”…I paraphrase.

Before I rant, this needs to stay in somewhat of a fair context. This article is not suggesting that any and everyone who prefer to have fictional characters that were originally created as white stay white are automatically racist. Comic fans are comic fans first and foremost, and one of the best things I’ve come to realize throughout my years in the game is that pretty much all of them no matter what racial background they belong to genuinely don’t care about a character’s color as long as he or she is worth reading about. And that’s what it should be. That’s why white readers can read comics like Black Panther, Steel, Static,  Firestorm or Green Lantern: MOSAIC and not feel alienated because of the characters’ race. It’s the story content, first and foremost. This is what the large majority of the readership has proven to fall back on, and it’s what I do truly love about being a fan of the medium. The fan-ship truly crosses all racial, ethnic and national backgrounds and no place was this more apparent to me than at San Diego Comic Con. I saw so many different people of different racial makeups dressed as various characters, some that even contradicted their own race (like a black Sailor Moon). It just goes to show that this medium can bring everyone across the world together, regardless of how corny or even unthinkable that may sound.

However, the notion of changing a character’s initial race has in my experience always caused debate and contention with fans, fo fairly obvious reasons. To put it bluntly, many black people say “YAY”, many white people say “NAY”.

Again, does that automatically have to place them in a racially centered, highly opinionated class of close mindedness? Not necessarily, but it does suggest that they CAN be. At least to me it does.

 One of the most notable instances of changing a “character’s” race that I’m familiar with is the Post-Crisis second wearer of the Batgirl mantle, Cassandra Cain. Not one of the first, as both John Stewart and Connor Hawke pre date her. But this is a character in particular who I feel is a successful example of what a lot of people seem to rally against in comics. The background for her case is that Barbara Gordon, the Once and Future original Batgirl, had been long since been confined to a wheelchair and had taken up a new identity as the cyber hacker “Oracle”. Until Cassandra picked up the cape, there hadn’t been a Batgirl in the comics for about ten years. So both time and distance had seemingly allowed for Cassandra to don the mask without too much furor over it. To my knowledge, no one has ever shown a problem with her being Batgirl. I’ve not heard cries of DC desecrating classic characters for the sake of diversity, and honestly how could they? If Cassandra was made Batgirl around the same time as Tim was made Robin, I.E. right after Babs was paralyzed, there might have been some backlash. However, when considering the aforementioned Robin scenario it does beg the question of the likelihood that Cassandra would not be taken as warmly if there were little distance between Babs’ paralysis and her first appearance. Tim Drake appeared less than a year after Jason Todd was murdered by the fans/Joker, and though his journey to become Robin was slower than most, it had been anticipated, built up and achieved in a little under two years time. So comparatively, there isn’t much cause for worry that Cassandra’s Batgirl debut necessitated a distance from Barbara’s permanent prevention from ever donning the cape again seeing as how relatively quick Tim Drake succeeded his predecessor in both comic book time and real time.

But these are all hypotheticals. The point is that just like the case with Ultimate Spider-Man, here is an instance where a classic superhero title is given to a newly created minority character (Cass first appeared in 1999 and is half Chinese) after the iconic predecessor has been put out of action for good. The difference is in both the time between the cause and effect, and of course the general reaction. But we’ll get one to that later.

Coupling Batgirl with John Stewart’s Green Lantern and Connor Hawke’s Green Arrow, it would appear that DC hasn’t really had too much trouble introducing non-white characters into classic hero mantles. Compare that to Marvel, which is an interesting case when considering that Marvel has historically featured a number of minority characters that have proven to be more popular than DC’s. Robbie Robertson, Storm, Bishop and even Blade to a degree have all become well known characters within their perspective Marvel corners. But when changing a classic white character to black in the different media interpretations, it always seems as though this is where the fans’ racial tolerance runs out.

Perhaps that last line was harsh, but consider this: with every race change Marvel has made in their film adaptations, there has been fan outcry to varying degrees. As said before, it can be understandable when considering that the classics heroes of old have always been traditionally white, yet at the same time I ask what characters of the following can really be considered classic? Michael Clarke Duncan’s the Kingpin and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury are the two easiest examples to point at, with Kerry Washington’s Alicia Masters coming in at third. With each instance I’ve heard a wish that the actors weren’t cast to keep things consistent with the source material, and as said before that is a very fair wish. But be that as it may, I do wonder how strong of an opinion can one really hold with those instances in the first place. Are Alicia Masters and Wilson Fisk so sacred, so classic, so WHITE that they absolutely demand to remain in their initial racial makeup for a mainstream audience?

Nick Fury is a different an interesting example in that it’s not so much that it’s a black Nick Fury in the Marvel movies as it is the Ultimate Nick Fury. The classic character of the Jim Steranko era is a secret agent type of ex-army spy guy. The Ultimate version is a sort of FBI spook type of character who operates with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the shadows. What makes this particularly stand out is that while I have heard fan complaint of using Ultimate Fury in the movies, the overall opinion of this version’s inclusion has been particularly welcomed. So what, is it just Sam Jack’s star power that people love?

So the main thing we can observe is that between the Big Two, DC likes to create new interpretations of the characters in the comics, while Marvel movies tend to have characters’ races change up, and when it comes to the movies it’s there where the complaints emerge.

 Or is it? In the early 2000s after “Infinite Crisis”, Blue Beetle, the Atom and Firestorm, three white super heroes were separately removed from the books and replaced with a Hispanic teenager, a black teenager and an Asian man respectively. This is where I started to really notice the heat being directed at DC’s insertion of minority replacements for classic characters. With the replacements being done within a year or less, fan outcry consisted of DC killing or writing off some of their favorite character solely for the sake of adding diversity. The backlash wasn’t huge, but it was significant and the fans who hated the changes made DC out to look like a company with a very basic idea of diversity…despite the fact that this type of move was nothing new to the company. See the aforementioned Batgirl and Green Arrow mentioned above.

But what was different for the readers this time around? Was it the sense that the replacements occurred too fast? Was it the fact that all three were completely new characters, as Cassandra and Connor were both introduced before they fully replaced their predecessors. Whatever it was, the main complaint was vocalized to be that DC tossed aside classic characters for minorities just for the sake of having them. My personal opinion? I did see that complaint as valid because the rapid replacing did feel a bit cold to long time readers. However what proceeded to happen with two out of the three characters is what got under my skin.

By 2010, the new Firestorm was on his way to be replaced by the original in the pages of Brightest Day, while the new Atom was killed by the Titans: Villians for Hire. Cassandra Cain’s series had been canceled in 2006 to make way for the upcoming Batwoman title, which as of this writing has yet to actually premiere due to a list of delays. Connor Hawke has been replaced as the premiere Green Arrow by the original, Oliver Queen, and the new Blue Beetle’s title was canceled by issue #36. Cries from fan-dom at DC for essentially removing all of their major minority characters from the front lines were made, with special outrage attributed to the Asian Atom, Ryan Choi’s death. Coupled with the resurgence of several long-time but until-recently dead old school characters like Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, a major complaint at DC was that it was heading back to the Silver and Bronze Age, or as some referred to it as, “white-washing” the company line.

Bat-Wing: the Batman of Africa, as much promoted by DC Comics

And still, fan debate conflicted with each new instnace. Just as The original Question passed his mantle down to gay latina female Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain was being replaced completely with Stephanie Brown, a blonde haired, blue eyed white teenager. Just as John Stewart enjoyed tremendous success as the main Green Lantern in the Justice League animated series, The Spectacular Spider-Man received criticism over changing half of the supporting characters’ ethnicity due to the fact that the show took place in 2008 New York. One of the most twisted instances for the sake of pure incredulity was the popular  interracial marriage of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, contrasting with the much-out spoken union of Black Panther and Storm of the X-Men. As the industry grows more and more complex with it’s characters and storylines, race in comics seemingly becomes more and more of a hot button issue with each and every new obstacle.

Which brings us to the current time we’re in. As of yesterday, it’s been announced that the Superman character Perry White will be played by black actor Laurence Fishburne in the upcoming “Man of Steel” movie. Over at Marvel, the late Ultimate Peter Parker will be succeeded by a half black/half Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales. While fan response has been mixed, the negative side has appeared to be more vocal.

And here’s where I have my major contention with people.

First it should be said that more people have reacted negatively to the Ultimate Spider-Man news than the Superman movie news, so that more or less gets a pass. In any case, it’s another typical instance of a film adaptation changing a race due to the hiring of an actor. The fact that people seem to be up in arms over the new Ultimate Spider-Man being of mixed non-white race pretty much bugs the hell out of me. And when I say “up in arms over the new Ultimate Spider-Man being of mixed non-white race”, I mean that is the main problem people have specifically, whether it’s addressed directly or indirectly.

From what I’ve heard online, it’s the fact that this feels like a big gimmick from Marvel that people have a problem with. And they would be right, it is clearly a gimmick. Without a doubt. Why? Because Marvel released images of the character unmasked before the comic came out. Obviously, they wanted to ensure that people knew about the “race change” before deciding on whether or not to pick it up. Now I have a problem with this as well, as it’s basically Marvel Comics being sensational as all get out, getting across the fact that a minority character in an iconic character mantle has to be water cooler material. Essentially, Marvel wants you to know that this kid is half black, half hispanic and nothing else about him going into the comic. So I agree that it’s really stupid to assume that the readership is so attracted to anyone that’s black.

But my larger problem is with the people who think that Spider-Man as a character just should not be black whatsoever. The people with this opinion know that it is A) a different universe separate from the classic and happily white Peter Parker, B) a different character completely unlike Peter Parker, which leads to C) NOT A RACE CHANGE BY DEFINITION. By that token, every character listed earlier in the article is a race change. Batgirl, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and others such as Bucky, Captain Marvel, Goliath, Johnny Thunder, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Light. Why people feel that Spider-Man is the exception to all of these characters leads to a larger, more disturbing point but the more immediate point is this: If a character you love is killed off, that’s one thing. If you know he’s going to be replaced, the thought that he might be of a different race should cross your mind. If you can’t reconcile with that possibility, you need to get your priorities in order. Spider-Man is supposed to be THE #1 most relatable character in the world, and a difference in people should not change that continual truism. Whether or not that fact will be kept up in the new title has yet to be seen. But if your knee-jerk reaction to the mantle being passed down to a minority kid is despondence or disgust, you need to leave the 21st century now.

However, this does lead to a number of questions that the situation poses…is changing the race of a classic character acceptable at all? Does it depend on the character? If it does, which character cannot be changed no matter what?

These are questions my brother and I asked ourselves while driving around town earlier today. We both went for broke, listing off iconic characters such as Superman, Batman, Spidey and Captain America. After a bit of thought, we came to the conclusion that, to us, it wouldn’t matter a bit if these characters were made to be black.  In many cases, it makes the basic story more interesting. If Bruce Wayne were the heir to a rich black doctor, does that make him an Uncle Tom in the eyes of Gotham City? How would that affect his outlook when prowling the streets as Batman? Can an infant Kal-El be brought up by a black farmer in the mid-west? Would it make a difference if he landed in the deep south? How would the history of the Marvel Universe differ if in World War II Captain America was a man fighting both the Aryan ideologies of the Axis Powers and racism from his own infantry? Going from these ideas, would all the characters have to be switched? If Peter Parker changes, does Jonah and Robbie? Is Robbie the white best friend of the irascible Jonah, or is he the Publisher of the Daily Bugle. If all the characters change, does that change the geological scope of the planet? Are Middle Easterns in Japan and Asians in Pakistan?

The horror!

Slowing down a bit, the main question is this: How does changing race service the story? In comic books, even I would admit that it would be odd and disconcerting to one day see Tim Drake wake up and looking like he’s Corbin Bleu. The character is as old as I am publication-wise, so it just would not the same Robin I’ve grown up with. At the same time, I only would get upset if it was done purely to serve as diversification and not for story purposes because that’s just plain exploitation. Before people call me hypocrite, every example of race changing in the comics has been done to service the story. Blue Beetle is Jamie Reyes because it’s a different character for a different story. Where the film adaptations are concerned, the actors cast for the classically white roles have been great each time. Michael Clarke Duncan captured the Kingpin’s vicious nature both in the theatrical version and director’s cut of the Daredevil movie. Kerry Washington…*tiger growwwl*…oh, and she did a fine job acting as well. And I’ve already mentioned the warm reception Jackson’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D has gotten.

But to not sugarcoat the possibilities, what if Donald Glover is cast as Spider-Man? Don’t care. Michael Jai White as Batman? Awesome. Morris Chestnut as Superman? Bad casting. It’s all about what they can bring to the story and characters, and everyone knows this. Same thing with black characters as traditionally white title characters in comics. Serve the story. Can it be a gimmick? Possibly, but is diversity automatically a gimmick? That’s something I don’t understand, the negative connotation accompanied with the word “diversity”.

Now while opinion is my own, it isn’t a unique feeling over the subject. Several different people have thoughts over general race changing in comics, and I asked a wide range of people throughout the day. From people you may know online to the people I know personally in my civillain identity, the concept of race changing in comics brought about a lot of opinions. Some different, some similar.

OPINIONS I’VE SEEN POSTED ONLINE:

In all seriousness: Does this reek of desperate, hasty diversification for the sake of superstar PR? We will say this: The fact that Marvel officials haven’t identified Morales as anything beyond half-black, half-Latino, which could mean a million things in America, isn’t a good starting point.”

“I hate changes of this sort because they positively reek of what they are — shit-stirring for the sake of controversy and gaining attention and forced “racial balancing” of something some fool has proclaimed to be “too white”. It is pure nonsense. What I’d really like to know is if other ethnicities are really all that cool with continually getting hand-me-down heroes in nerd world or wouldn’t they like to have more awesome and totally original ones to call their own?”

OPINIONS ON WHITE CHARACTERS BEING MADE BLACK:

My brother: “It would automatically be interesting. You can’t change black characters to white because it’s an entirely different scenario. But if Superman or Captain America were made black, at the very least it would be interesting.

Black co-worker: “If Superman was made black, I would be interested. (Why?) Because he’s always been white, but if he were black I would care to read him.

White co-woker: “I’m a big Spider-Man fan…if he were made black I’d be pissed! I grew up with Peter Parker as white, I’m used to seeing him white.”

ON ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN:

Jon Wilson: “There are two ways Bendis might have approached this. Either he wanted to kill Peter Parker and try to tell stories about another Spider-Man, and he decided to go with a minority character.  OR he wanted to “de-white” the classic pantheon of superheroes a little and realized he could do so with Ultimate Spider-Man, so he killed Peter. I think fans might are assuming it’s the second and are pissed. But i think, either way, it says cool things about him creatively.People cry about “you don’t have to kill Peter.  make a whole new character who is a minority” and they ahve a point, but that’s been done plenty of times, and none of those characters has ever reached the popularity level of the classic pantheon.  You have all these guys who were created in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they’re all white, and almost all male.  And it should be okay to realize that that’s a product of the time and try to mess with the rules.  And if there’s any place where messing with the rules is allowed, it’s the Ultimate Marvel universe.”

BerserkFury819: “I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m not buying USM anymore and haven’t been for awhile because I believe the quality dropped. I personally feel like its a bit stunty and Marvel is going “see, we’re diverse!” If they really wanted more diversity, shouldn’t they have done this in the main Marvel U? My only real issue was some comments Bendis made about how “now minorities can relate to Spider-Man” or something to that effect. Which to me comes off as elitest. I thought anyone could identify with Peter, thats why we all love him. I’m certainly not angry, and I don’t think its as a big a deal as people are making it out to be. I just think Bendis is being kind of obnoxious in how he’s talking about it. Also, I understand this new Spidey is 13. That seems kind of young to be alone and not have a mentor. Yeah the current Robin is 10, but he’s got Batman and two former Robins to help him out.”

Stella: “I like diversification, but I don’t like it being forced. *cough cough DC cough* (Him being hispanic) feels forced.”

One of these actors is not like the others.

Gerard DeLatour II: “Speaking as somebody that is mixed (about 3/4 black), this feels VERY exploitative. The entire gist of the change seems to be “ZOMG HE’S A DARKIE, HOW EXCITING AND DIFFERENT” rather than “Check out this cool new character that’s going to be Spider-Man, and we hope you like him.” In fact, they even made sure to add the obligatory statements in the press release telling you how you should feel about this before it even comes out. And making his costume black is pretty damn insulting, to boot. Yeah, this is probably a case of Marvel PR twisting this into something it isn’t (in other words, Bendis and Pichelli have the best of intentions), but I for one am very put off by how this is being presented.”

“We have to be fair to this character and give him a shot, but this press release didn’t get off to a good start. Miguel O’Hara was great because he wasn’t Peter Parker — and I mean that in a figurative sense. If this dude turns out to be a thinly-veiled Peter Parker clone (again, figuratively), then it would be a huge disappointment all around.”

Joshua Lapin-Bertone: “I will not be reading the new Ultimate Spider-Man. It has nothing to do with the color of the new Spider-Man’s skin. I just got tired of the relaunches and storylines a while ago. There is a new Spider-Man and it’s fine that he’s black. We had a new Spider-Man who was blonde (Ben) and at one point a Spider-Man without male body parts (Mattie Franklin masqueraded as Spidey for the first two of the relaunch). I saw Daredevil and Kingpin was black. Ultimates have had a black Fury. The FF movie had a black Alicia (at least she wasn’t a Skrull). It’s not as if this character is even white in 616 cause it’s a new guy.”

Brad Douglas: ” Ok here’s my 2 cents. Peter Parker as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962 was a white kid from New York. If the two created him in 2011 they may have went with a different race, but they didn’t. Now if you want to create a new hero in 2011 to be just as good as Spider-Man sure go ahead. But I don’t understand changing his race. Sure it makes headlines and it sells a ton of books, and Ultimate needed it.”

Thomas Matis: “Well over all, I like the new character. I have no problem with his ethnicty and think that it great that a major comic book character is something different. My fear however is that people are going to jump on the promotion of the ethnicity as they have already done to use as an excuse to justify not reading the book just as they did when fans jumped on the promotion of the brand new ultimate universe back when Ultimate Spider-Man first came out in 1999. My fear is that yet again, a great comic book will be punished by fans by it promotion which has nothing to do with whether the comic is good or not.”

Zach Joiner: “Here are people, who for whatever reason, are offended because of the fact that the new Ultimate Spider-Man is Black. Er, excuse me, Half Black and Half Hispanic. For whatever reason, there are some out there who think it’s classic Political Correctness running amuck, or the fact that we’re now doing this because we’re trying to be ethically diverse for the sake of it. Clearly, there is a story to be told, and it’s not something that longtime fans haven’t seen before. In fact, off the top of my head, I remember a Peter Parker Spider-Man issue that Paul Jenkins wrote that had a little boy who was black wanting to be Spider-Man. The story ends with Spidey unmasking and it being a black man under the mask. The point of the story was that Spider-Man could be anyone. I remember discussing this one of the designers of the Hasbro Action Figure line. (I made the case that it could be Ben Reilly) Its one of the great things about Spider-Man! I remember discussing this one of the designers of the Hasbro Action Figure line. (I made the case that it could be Ben Reilly) Its one of the great things about Spider-Man! He could be you under the mask! His entire body is covered! He could be YOU! ME! Anyone! That’s what makes him great! The only thing that bugged me was the randomness of the Hispanic aspect of the character. Why? I mean, I get it: Axel Alonzo is half Hispanic, Quesada is Hispanic, but the randomness is there. If it’s a homage to another character, Miguel O’Hara, then fine by me. Like Brad said, it just makes headlines, which is what Marvel seems to crave. Plus it gave a new reason for people to hate Glenn Beck.”

So the people have spoken, and more importantly, so have I. But this is a topic worth debating about for years to come, so comments would especially be appreciated this time around. What are YOUR thoughts on the subject of race change in comics and comic book media?

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