Lately There has been a resurgence of talk about racial politics in comic books. On one side, certain minority superheroes whose original portrayals were controversial are gaining more prominent roles in their respective universes. On the other, the nostalgia-driven changes, especially at DC, are having the unfortunate (and admittedly unintentional) effect of eliminating certain minority characters in favor of the all-white all-stars of the silver age.

This, in turn, causes a backlash as companies try to create new heroes to fill the emptying minority market, as well as to write stories to justify the preeminence, and importance of characters that, at one point, were little more than super-powered stereotypes.

So where does that leave us as readers? What is our role in defining these characters? I’ll tell you. Your role is the same one as always, if you like it, buy it. If you don’t, don’t. But I think it is also important to consider what message you are sending back to the company. So how do you know what characters to get behind? How can you tell when a character is just a last minute write-in cameo to appease the more vocal sections of the readership? What follows is how I come to my decision where a minority character is concerned. I’m not saying that I actually keep a scorecard, this all kind of happens automatically in my brainmind as I read the book. More than anything these are the warning signs that go up when I encounter a new “representative” of a particular minority in a comic book. Of course, no single one of these issues is necessarily a deal breaker, but when a character starts racking these up, it usually turns me off right quick.

The Score

So let’s say I encounter a brand new superhero who is a member of a minority group, for now we’ll stick with ethnic minorities (although you can apply a lot of these to women and gay people as well). Based on the original concept, character design and other immediate aspects I assign him a starting score. I don’t really assign numeric values to these, The Score is much more of an analogy. It may be a 5 or a 500, the important thing is that the character starts with a “Ok, cool” or “I’m not so sure about you” and much more rarely “Ooh, this looks good.”

Points off: You can’t tell the character’s race through his costume

So you might be saying, “Really? Wouldn’t this be a good thing? Isn’t that sort of non-specificity what we’re working toward?” I would answer “No.” I think that presenting a character who is covered from head to toe and telling you he is black does very little to help things. Young black people don’t see a character who is like them, instead they see the message that if they want to play with the big boys they need to hide behind two tons of gray power-armor, or psycho-reactive hellslime (you know who you are). It’s the same issue I have with Samus from Metroid, she’s supposed to be an empowered woman, but really she’s a mute, personality-less suit of orange armor.

Points off: You never see the character spending time with members of his own minority group

Granted, there are some books out there that deal very little with the characters outside of their superhero life, and if that’s the way they’re written they may get a pass on this one. But when we do get some exploration of their social life who does the character interact with? I’m not saying our heroine should return home every night to a meal of arroz con pollo. However showing the character’s connection to her roots goes a long, long way to flesh the character out and give her the ethnic credence the editor probably wants her to have. Of course, this can be done the wrong way, but you take that risk with anything. A well researched ethnic background is probably simultaneously the strongest and most overlooked aspect of whether a character is a believable representative of a minority group. Furthermore, interacting with other people allows the writer to clear a lot of the racial baggage a character may have. If the character is a smart and studious asian girl, people may start to see her as a stereotype, but meeting her dumb-as-bricks sister will assuage some of those issues.

Points off: The character’s superhero persona is based on her ethnic origin

This issue has a lot of smaller sub-issues. The first one is something that we rarely see anymore but is still worth mentioning. It is exemplified by that second generation of heroes from the Superfriends TV show. Why would someone who can grow to enormous size call himself Apache Chief? Because he’s Native American? Why would someone with wind powers call himself “Samurai?” Because he’s Japanese? Wouldn’t that mean that Batman’s name should be “The Newenglander”? By the same token why are all Native American heroes mystically endowed? The X-Men’s Forge is a mutant who has the power to understand and build incredible machines, but he also became a tribal animist because he’s Native American. This Race/Schtick correlation is an only slightly less obvious form of job racism. The idea that all Native American heroes must be mystics is the same as the one that says that all Asians are good at math.

The opposite end of this issue, of course is the I’m-going-to-prove-the-stereotype-wrong mentality. Where you end up with a super smart, super athletic, super attractive, super together character of whatever ethnicity has been sending the most letters to the editor recently. Is that a bad thing? Yes, because in a sense it’s an example of that elusive reverse-racism. But mostly, when you have a character who is good at everything just for the sake of proving a point you are likely to end up with boring storytelling.

Points off: The character is in a secondary role to a white protagonist

It’s hard to prove yourself when you are relegated to second fiddle, regardless of the first chair’s ethnicity. The real problem here is, once again, that message. The idea that as a minority you sit at the kids table while the grownups talk. That you should feel lucky that your pal brought you along because, as we all know, you wouldn’t have cut it on your own. There are a lot of writers out there that have tried and tried to get even white heroes out of the sidekick status to no avail. If you consider that minority characters tend to get sidelined as it is, a hero who starts his career as someone’s ethnic sidekick is probably doomed to stay there.

Points off: The character is a successor, reboot, re-imagining, or “Clone” of a white character

If you’ve gotten this far and aren’t furious or rolling your eyes so hard at me that you can see your own brain, you probably had a handful of heroes that you thought might come out with a perfect score. At least up until this category. That’s right. I make no apologies for this one, John Stewart, Jaime Reyes, Monica Rambeau, Ryan Choi, Patriot, all get points off in my book. Because in a lot of cases they are literally just minority versions of white heroes. Although publishers feel that this helps the characters because the name already has a following, I think all this does is handicap a potentially great superhero. Sure, many of them go off and get new names and identities, but they often have trouble leaving the shadow of their predecessors. Also if you ARE keeping score, I think War Machine is in negative triple digits by now.

A conclusion and a story

Again these are just the sort of rough, general ideas that send up red flags in my mind. I recognize that some characters like Luke Cage and Black Lightning have outgrown their somewhat stifling origins to become much more appealing and three-dimensional characters. I also get that sometimes it is that gimmicky ethnic knockoff position that gets a character green-lit to begin with. But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.

Here’s a story I heard once, which may or may not be true: I heard that when they were creating Spider-Man 2099, they decided to call him Miguel instead of Mike to illustrate the more diverse world of the future… Well, the future came 89 years early, and in this writer’s not-so-humble opinion, it’s time for comic companies to illustrate the more diverse world of the present.

The Author

Rodrigo

Rodrigo

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

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38 Comments

  1. Sarcasm Kid
    June 18, 2010 at 11:00 am — Reply

    I understand that years ago, Ferro Lad of the original Legion was meant to be black. But the editors were afraid that their distribution in the South would be cut off. So Ferro Lad’s creator, Jim Shooter, killed him off.

    I can think of at least Native American heroes who didn’t have mystically-powered abilities. Rainmaker from Gen13, and Man-Of-Bats and Raven Red (The Native American Batman and Robin of the Club of Heroes)

    I don’t honestly think there’s any racial angling in comics. But in DC’s case those people need to stop and think “you think this might be a bad idea?” because it is going downhill for them.

  2. litanyofthieves
    June 18, 2010 at 11:06 am — Reply

    Really great article, Rodrigo.

    I had actually never considered the hiding race behind a costume issue. When I was a kid, I picked up spawn when the series was in full swing and had no idea until about 5 issues in that he was black. Now that I think about it, it is basically a “cheat” to have a minority character on “the books” and trot him/her out and say “Hey, we’re all diversified now!” while still basically keeping it under the radar in practice – I mean how many Spawn covers do we see Al Simmons on?

  3. Alan
    June 18, 2010 at 11:22 am — Reply

    Warpath (and his deceased brother Thunderbird) are not mystical, they were both mutants. Danielle Moonstar had a brief flirtation with Native American mysticism during the Demon Bear arc, but today, she’s best known for being a freaking Valkyrie. And I strenuously object to your complaint about Monica Rambeau. She was called Captain Marvel because the company wanted to keep the name in circulation, but her origin, costume and power set were completely unrelated to Mar-Vel. Also, while Luke Cage and Brother Voodoo started off as shockingly offensive racial stereotypes, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Bendis’s efforts to rehabilitate the characters.

    A lot of this seems to be nerd-rage over the death of Ryan Choi, an abortive attempt at a legacy reboot for a Silver Age character who himself was never even popular enough to headline his own book and who is best known for being the little guy who sat on Hawkman’s shoulder. (At least Marvel had the good sense to quickly give Ant-Man the power to grow into a giant or he’d be just as irrelevant today.) And honestly, Spawn spends most of his time interacting with hell-spawned demons. Are you expecting him to maintain a membership in the NAACP while he’s at it?

    • litanyofthieves
      June 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm — Reply

      Warpath and Thunderbird are examples of Rodrigo’s point that their powers have nothing to do with being Native American, yet their superhero identities do. His point also stands with Monica Rambeau because the company thought she couldn’t sell without being marketed as a Legacy Character, whether or not her origin was different.

      As to the “nerd-rage” over Ryan Choi’s death, I’d like to see your actual logic there. Rodrigo mentions his name once in the article, and it’s about him being a legacy character, not his death, and they were talking on the podcast about the new Aqualad, not Ryan. Not only that, even if someone IS upset at the treatment of a minority character, it doesn’t invalidate his/her arguments.

  4. Bob
    June 18, 2010 at 11:33 am — Reply

    Not familiar with the second Black Condor, but wasn’t he kind of just born with his power and not given it mystically?

    As for the slam that DC, are having the unfortunate (and admittedly unintentional) effect of eliminating certain minority characters in favor of the all-white all-stars of the silver age.

    Where is your outrage that Artemsis and Jean Paul Valley were replaced? SPOILER ALERT: Are you going to be just as mad when white Dick Grayson is replaced by Bruce Wayne? I agree with you on the cloning.

    The reason why Ben Reilly, Wally West, John Stewart, and Ryan Choi failed is because people want to read about the charactors they are most familiar with. I do like the coexist world where Green Lantern Mosiac could be on the stands with Guy Gardner, and Green Lantern. But I want a Hal book, to see Ray Palmer, and Barry Allen.

    There are many people who want Ted Kord to come back. Not because they are racist, not because they don’t like Jamie, but because to them Ted Kord is the Blue Beetle.

    • Sarcasm Kid
      June 18, 2010 at 11:56 am — Reply

      In all honesty Barry Allen, John Stewart, Hal Jordan, and Ray Palmer barely interest me.

      The problem is that the writers need to work harder at getting people to believe in the new versions. Wally, Kyle, Jaime, Ryan, Ben Riley…

    • Jacin B
      June 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm — Reply

      “In all honesty Barry Allen, John Stewart, Hal Jordan, and Ray Palmer barely interest me.”

      I’m mostly with Sarcasm Kid on this one. Barry Allen, Hal Jordan and Ray Palmer do nothing for me.

      I liked reading Kyle Rayner stories in Green Lantern and Wally West stories in Flash. (Despite you wanting to read about Barry, Wally West as the Flash didn’t not work, by the way, as evidenced by Wally holding that mantle for about 25 years and having a run of more than 100 issues as the namesake of the comic. Bart failed.) Heck, I even like John Stewart after reading more of him in Green Lantern Corps.

      You may want to read about the characters of the good ol’ days, but for a large portion of people reading and buying comics now, the characters being replaced by the returns of Hal and Barry and Ray are replacing the characters of our good ol’ days. We didn’t grow up reading these characters and we have no investment in them. If Hal and Barry died again, I don’t think any of us would blink. Or care.

      And, personally, I think it’s a big mistake for DC to regress from being the “legacy” company, where titles could be passed on to heirs, where Wally could grow up from Kid Flash to Flash and where Dick could grow from Robin to Nightwing to Batman, and return to their status quo of 30 years ago.

  5. Baron of Kaos
    June 18, 2010 at 12:13 pm — Reply

    I’ve a pair of things to say about this “opinion”.
    On First Point: There are, generally, two type of superheroes, those that care about their secrete identity and those that don’t. In the first case a costume that HIDE every possible identifiable trait of you is a GOOD thing. Perhaps Samus and Nighthawk do not want let other people know their identity, and prefer having as muhc protection as they can, luke cage can enjoy the luxury of open face as he is pretty much invulnerable (on Side note Spawn is a scarred ZOMBIE under his necroplasm symbiotic costume. He is the living proof that we are all alike underneath. As he has no skin at all…).
    On the last point(the reboot). Listen is such great problem? I mean is not tha tone complain being called a cop because there had been white cop before them, nor a balck fireman feel he is weakening his race by not coming up wiht a black original name for fire extinguisher.Is the name is free(well at least for a given moment) and eveyrone is ok with it, hey keep up the legacy, after all we are running out of decent superhero names anyway (seriously every possible decent declination of “lighting”, “power” and “man” had been made already). Warmachine is no more a legacy character, more a parallel development from common origin.

    • June 19, 2010 at 10:55 am — Reply

      War Machine was Tony Stark’s super-devoted best friend who only took up the armor because his “boss” couldn’t do it anymore. How is that not a legacy character?

  6. Ricco
    June 18, 2010 at 12:16 pm — Reply

    The one hero that infuriates me is Tonto, Lone Ranger’s native american sidekick. For as long as I can remember, growing up as a kid he was the only none white hero/sidekick out there and his name literaly means “dumb” in spanish…

    As race changing of white characters goes (not talking of legacies here, love Jaime Rayes), nobody likes it. I work with the black comunity and you know who is the least liked character Marvel has right now? Samuel Jacksos’s Nick Fury, because everyone knows Nick Fury is white.

    Why do they have to push for diversity anyway? We are minorities, meaning we are the MINORITY! What’s wrong with been underrepresented when you ARE underrepresented? Sorta like what happened in Resident Evil 5, everyone bitched and moanned about how the main characters were shooting nothing but black people, the game takes place in Africa for Pet’s sake! If it represents reality leave it as is, diversity is fine but don’t shove it down our throat just to be politicaly correct.

    • Rodrigo
      June 18, 2010 at 5:56 pm — Reply

      I always knew him as “toro” growing up in mexico, which I think Translators did so that El Llanero Solitario wouldn’t have a sidekick named “Dumbass.”

      As far as why push for diversity? Because that’s the only way to be heard as a minority.

      for example, how many black superheroes can you name off the top of your head? How many latino ones? I’m willing to bet you can think of twice, maybe up to ten times as many black heroes even though Latinos are now the biggest minority in the U.S. Clearly this is not because the demographics have worked themselves out, this is because there are people out there trying to advance the black community in all media, and they have been more successful in doing so than latinos. If you don’t push for it, and if you don’t back it up with your wallet, you’ll never see someone who looks like you in a comic.

      • Ricco
        June 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm — Reply

        I didn’t mean don’t push for diversity, just don’t do it for the sake of diversity. Sure more diversity wouldn’t hurt, but if all they’re introducing is stereotypes I’de rather they left us alone. For exemple, I literaly can’t think of a single well known, or relatively well know, asian character that doesn’t know martial arts or is some sort of scientist.

    • R.J.O.
      June 19, 2010 at 11:00 pm — Reply

      The real irony about Tonto’s name (which was, I think, simply a case of linguistic ignorance on the part of his creators, rather than a deliberate slur) is that in the original radio show he was often presented as a highly intelligent character. Not only had taught the young Lone Ranger almost everything he knew about trailcraft, he was also something of a polyglot, fluent in several native American dialects, as well as Spanish and Louisiana French patois. Unfortunately, this was little appreciated because, as Jay Silverheels once put it, “Tonto very smart man, but unfortunately Tonto have trouble with personal pronouns in Anglo-Saxon derived languages.”

  7. Roosterj
    June 18, 2010 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    So, in the end, is there ANY character that gets by without any deductions using your system?

    Also, you mention the need for diversifying the genera (I agree) but offer no possible solutions. What would you suggest to amend this? If reboots and successors are a negative, then is the only option an establishment of a new mythos?

    As a possible point of contention, I think it is possible to ‘overcome’ previous incarnations of a mantle. John Stewart knocks the socks off of Kyle, and is very close to Hal, but this is because I’ve seen him flushed out well in the animated JLU.

    • Jacin B
      June 18, 2010 at 1:20 pm — Reply

      Point of (grammatical) order: “Fleshing out” is what you do to characters to give them more depth. “Flushing out” is what you do with your toilet.

      • Roosterj
        June 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm — Reply

        Woot, my first online grammar correction! Thank you for your informative response. I will try to make proper penance.

    • Rodrigo
      June 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm — Reply

      I agree with your point on ‘overcoming the mantle’ like I said, these issues aren’t deal breakers, just sticky bits of social subtext. My green lantern is JLU John Stewart. As far as a ‘perfect score’ Storm comes pretty close, although there are some problematic points in her origin. In fact most (but not all, me boyos) of the 2nd genesis X-Men were steps in the right direction since Sunfire, Colosus, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine didn’t have Japanese, Russian, German or Canadian powers.

      • Ricco
        June 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm — Reply

        “Canadian powers” no THAT I would like to see ;-)

        • Ross
          June 19, 2010 at 9:54 am — Reply

          “The Canadian super Power”, you are so nice nobody wants to fight and you can get everyone to join you watching an hockey game and drinking a beer.

          • Ricco
            June 19, 2010 at 11:31 am — Reply

            Hummm, our beer is kick-ass strong and we live, sweat and bleed hockey… I’ll buy that!

  8. Brother129
    June 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm — Reply

    Allow me to make five points….

    First off: Great article about a topic that I feel too many comic blogs/sites/magazine avoid…with good reason for the most part. This is heavy stuff. My compliments to Rodrigo & the MS crew for even attempting to broach it. I’m also thankful to the MS crew has allowed me to comment on this issue when it inevitably comes up, directly or indirectly.

    Second: While everyone who reads comics are fans of the genre, we all still bring our life experiences and beliefs to the love of four-color fiction. It’s impossible to separate. As someone who has taught and spoken about diversity issues in my day job, I always find it very interesting that people who come from another background often don’t consider stereotypes or slights because they don’t naturally occur to them in their everyday lives. Simply put, just because crap doesn’t happen to you, doesn’t mean crap isn’t happening to somebody else.

    Third: I think pejorative statements like referring to getting NAACP membership, telling folks to “get over it”, or that we minorities are overreacting aren’t useful to the discussion. Outright dismissing ANYONE’S opinion on ANY subject isn’t helpful for that matter.

    Fourth: I love how Rodrigo came up with an unofficial scorecard that validates/invalidates a minority character. I’ve actually found myself doing the same thing over the years whenever I’ve seen characters of color used and introduced in any comic. Ultimately, consumers of any media want to see their own reflection in the work at some point in a quality and meaningful way.

    Fifth: The use of a black super hero for example, or any comic other character for that matter comes down to vision, great writing, and execution of the story. Sam Wilson AKA The Falcon has never been more interesting to me since Brubaker started writing him in Captain America. On the flipside, Reggie Hudlin almost made Black Panther unreadable for me.

    Everyone knows that all of this comes down to dollars. So if enough of us stoke our nerd rage and comic spending if this is important to us then we will begin to see better stories and better comics. We should have characters, adventures, and challenges that truly represent the world for what it IS and not what it WAS when Superman first lifted a car above 70 years ago….

    • June 18, 2010 at 10:44 pm — Reply

      Please let’s just try to forget the Hudlin run on Black Panther.

      I really liked how The Blue Marvel was handled. It is unfortunate that his character was not adequately followed up on.

  9. Andrew
    June 18, 2010 at 1:20 pm — Reply

    An issue I hope comes up about the removal of legacy characters and the return of the silver age is the fact that some of us grew up with these heroes.

    Kyle Rayner and John Stewart are my Green Lanterns of choice because they were under the mask when I started getting into comics. Wally West took over the mantle of the flash before I was even born and Spiderman has always been married in my book. Jamie is even my first Blue Beetle. Adam Choi is my first Atom. Not all readers want their silver age characters!!

    I have felt that DC has made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t care about any of it’s readers born after 1970 because of how it has treated it’s 90’s and early 2000’s characters. Does this make me want to buy their comics? Nope. I dropped Flash, Green Lantern (eventually to be picked up by sinestro corps war), and

    Minority characters (as a non-white person myself) are excellent for me to read, but I don’t need them to not be connected to other heroes because honestly, when has a white character become popular without some connection to the DC and Marvel properties in the past 10 years. I think it will just come down to more writers writing good stories.

    • TaZ
      June 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm — Reply

      “I think it will just come down to more writers writing good stories.”

      As Stan Lee used to say, “Nuff said”.

  10. Jim
    June 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm — Reply

    Off the top of my head, I think one of the best minority characters was the first Night Thrasher. I always thought he was an interesting character, functioned well as leader of the New Warriors, and had a lot of cool backstory involving his family and race. I’m not sure how it sold but I collected his solo title back in the day, too. Based on Rodrigo’s scorecard, it sounds like he’d actually do pretty well. So it figures that he was killed (thanks Civil War!)

  11. brainypirate
    June 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm — Reply

    Great article, Rodrigo! Like Brother129, I deal with race/ethnicity issues as part of my career, and you’ve nailed the key issues–not just for comics, but for literature, TV, movies, etc.

    One thing you could add would be the trick of implementing diversity by giving the minority character an important leadership role–the black police chief, the Latino mayor, the Asian boss, etc.–as if showing a successful minority person in a powerful but secondary role is somehow sufficient. The problem isn’t the use of a minority authority figure–it’s the fact that these characters too often remain on the sidelines, undeveloped in their own right but useful to justify avoiding racial storylines. (“Look–race isn’t an issue in this world. See, the army general is named Rodriguez!”)

  12. Jacin B
    June 18, 2010 at 5:11 pm — Reply

    Right off the top of my head, two characters that I didn’t see mentioned were Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen. Both were well-developed characters in their own right and were the central focus of Rucka and Brubaker’s excellent 40-issue run on Gotham Central (and both had been around longer than that, I think) before eventually being handed the mantles of the Spectre and the Question.

    Do they count?

    • Rodrigo
      June 18, 2010 at 5:38 pm — Reply

      you tell me, do you like them better as the Specter and the Question? Or would you rather they had A) remained “badass mortals” or B) gotten their own unique powers/personas?

  13. Astro Dinosaurus
    June 18, 2010 at 8:00 pm — Reply

    You know what I want?
    More superheroes who aren’t United Statians….4 Green Lanterns, all of them American?
    Awesome article Rodrigo, write some more stuff for the site.

    • brainypirate
      June 20, 2010 at 2:07 pm — Reply

      Amen to that! Of course, the way James Robinson keeps killing off the Global Guardians, it might be safer to get U.S. citizenship….

  14. Kirby
    June 18, 2010 at 10:12 pm — Reply

    Just want to say fantastic article Rodrigo. It’s made me want to go in and check some of my back issues and how they stack up.

  15. Brian G.
    June 19, 2010 at 8:19 am — Reply

    Since he’s only really known by his cartoon lately, Rodrigo, I’m curious about your thoughts on Static Shock. Is he done well or does he get Points Off too?

    • Rodrigo
      June 19, 2010 at 2:16 pm — Reply

      I like static, and I think he comes out ok score-wise. But it’s also important to note that the white sidekick is not specifically a good thing either, at this point I would consider it neutral.

  16. MaximusRift
    June 19, 2010 at 9:53 am — Reply

    I agree with the points made, but I think the main problem has more to do with who’s writing. White writers will tend to write white characters. Pure and simple. It’s not a racism thing more than it is a experience thing. Sure, you can do research, but that only goes so far. Add to that the presure of getting it right and not coming across as a stereotype. Do you write the story where you can base yourself on personal experience or do you write the story where you’d have to do a lot of research to not sound like your ignorant or come off as stereotypical?

    • brainypirate
      June 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm — Reply

      I’ve wondered how many writers, artists and editors at Marvel and DC are Black, Asian, Latino, Indian or Arab…. Is part of the problem that the diversity in the comics represents the diversity in the industry?

  17. Bob
    June 21, 2010 at 11:00 am — Reply

    Cyborg….

    Is he a secondary charactor to Robin/Nightwing and WonderGirl Troia, or is he equal to other members with different looks to them?

    • Rodrigo
      June 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm — Reply

      I’d say he’s an equal. He may not be written to be as awesome as the other guys at times, but that can be argued of any character.

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