I love Free Comic Books Day. It’s a great time of year for publishers to advertise and attract new readers. For example, I didn’t know that The Tick was still in print (or that Chris McCulloch’s published stuff was available in trade paper back. Oh yes it is).
At the same time, there’s something which makes me feel awfully uncomfortable about comic books. Think of any superhero, then think of a superhero from Marvel, and then one from DC. Bets are on you either thought of a white guy or a female known for impractical clothing.
As a bit of a proof, I went to the Marvel Database and hit random until a person of colour appeared. I gave up after 12 attempts. More than twelve in thirteen comic book characters (even including all the minor nobodies) are white. At least until it gets edited again, Wikipedia says that only 75% of people in America are white (7.5 out of every ten, so by the time I got to 10, I should have had at least one POC). So either there is a disproportionate number of whities getting superpowers in the Marvel Universe (making it eerily like the Harry Potter universe), or the Marvel team aren’t proportionately interested in writing about non-whites. [Okay, it’s also possible that the Marvel Database is lacking in data about all the hundreds of POC superheroes they’ve had. I’m happy to be corrected]
I chose Marvel because I like Marvel a lot and rather wish it had performed better. I doubt I’d get a better outcome from DC.
You could argue that Caucasian-dominated comics sell better and that there is little appetite amongst the comic book audience for non-white stories. You would, of course, be arguing that comic book audiences are jerks.
And, frankly, I’m rather willing to agree. News circulated this week about the ‘nerd rage’ regarding Idris Elba (a black actor) playing Heimdall in the new Thor film.
My favourite line of that article:
Some of the Elba’s staunchest – although ostensibly not racially motivated – opponents accuse Marvel of left-wing social engineering, noting that it attacked the Tea Party movement in a recent issue of Captain America, and that Stan Lee is known to support left-wing politicians. Other complainants, who are more directly racist, talk about the “filthy culture of judaism [sic]” and how Elba’s casting is an attack on “White Culture.” While the latter accusation is both disgusting and ridiculous, the former – that the left wing is using the media, and especially Hollywood, as a vehicle for propaganda – is not new. It was also leveled at DC Comics following the news that Superman was going to renounce his US citizenship. [Source: ‘Black Thor Actor Talks About Racist Comic Book Fans‘, The Escapist]
Could there be any more deliciously stupid position? Oh, the real racists complain that it’s an attack on white culture (and that’s disgusting and ridiculous) but the totally ordinary fans think it’s left-wing social engineering?
How is ‘Darkies can’t play my white hero’ not racially motivated? In what universe do the words ‘disgusting and ridiculous’ not apply to both positions (and not just the latter)? This is a baffleplex and I am baffled.
And don’t you go confusing me for one of those socially sensitive, well-meaning lefties either: I’m a conservative and even I think it’s outrageous that people are getting upset that an African American is playing a comic book character.
Damnit. Back in 2004, the very first episode of Boston Legal preached:
Judge Rita Sharpley: No one is denying this little girl an education, sir. She just can’t play Annie.
Reverend Al Sharpton: You may think this is a small matter. But this is no small matter. This child is being denied the right to play an American icon because she doesn’t match the description. Those descriptions were crafted 50 years ago! We’re supposed to be in a different day!
Judge Rita Sharpley: Reverend…
Reverend Al Sharpton: You talk about racial equality, how we’re making progress. The problem with that progress is it’s always a day away. Tomorrow, tomorrow-you love that!-because it’s always a day away. I’m here to stick out my chin today! Today! Give us an African-American Spider Man! Give us a black that can run faster than a speeding bullet and leap over tall buildings in a single bound! Not tomorrow-today! Today! The sun needs to come out today! Not tomorrow, your Honor! God Almighty! Give the American people a black Orphan Annie. It’s just not good enough to say she doesn’t look the part. [Source: 1×1 ‘Head Cases’, Boston Legal]
The preoccupation with protecting ‘white characters’ from the evil machinations of sinister left-wing producers is obscene. It’s a fictional character being reinterpreted for a new media. If ever there’s a time to shift the framework, surely it’s when comic books are trying to reach out to mass audiences. With any luck, we’ll see Heimdall represented in the comics the way he ought to be: as a freaking awesome black guy. Like Spock’s skin tone being doctored post-production from yellow to white, I like to think that Heimdall is actually a Nordic-African but his skin colour keeps getting doctored post-production to white.
But it’s not even like there’s a lack of precedent for this kind of thing. Meet this guy:
Nick Fury was a WWII vet who then became the super-spy head of SHIELD. He was the poster boy for bad ass, punching Nazis and then taking down supervillains. Few characters were as awesome as he was.
Oh, and he was white.
When Marvel started up the Ultimate Universe, they decided that Nick Fury was far too awesome to be modeled on anybody other than Samuel L. Jackson.
Where was all the pathetic whining then? Where were all the fanboys rabidly protecting the treatment of their white identity then?
Despite being about people who surpass human limitations and who live in a futuristic world just around the corner, the comic book world seems intent on living in the distant past when it comes to issues of racial identity.