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.
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.