Radioactive Blackness And Anglo-Saxon Aliens: Achieving Superhero Diversity Through Race-Changing
Changing the racial identity of characters has become a contentious issue amongst fans of superhero comics and their adaptations in other media. The awful practices of casting white actors to play people of color, or of turning previously non-white characters into white characters, is all too common in movie adaptations of books, cartoons, TV shows, or even real life stories — but rather surprisingly, superhero comics and their adaptations have mostly avoided this problem.
In comics, the controversy takes a different direction. Several white characters have become non-white, mostly in movies, and sometimes in reboots. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four; Helena Bertinelli aka the Huntress in the New 52; Nick Fury in the Ultimate Comics line and on screen. These are changes that agitate some readers — but realistically, the changes don’t go far enough. Superhero comics have a cultural bias towards white characters that has everything to do with their institutional history and nothing to do with what makes sense to the stories.
“TATTOOED BADASS PACIFIC ISLANDER AQUAMAN”
Though still not officially confirmed, it’s been reported that Jason Momoa will play Aquaman in DC’s very own Marvel Cinematic Universe — thus instantly boosting the appeal of one of the publisher’s more laughable superheroes by making him ludicrously attractive. I mentioned this on Twitter, and musician Marian Call wisely responded; “Tattooed Badass Pacific Islander Aquaman? It’s like the character makes sense for the first time EVER.”
I agree with Call. Jason Momoa, born in Hawaii to a Hawaiian father and mixed race mother, makes sense to me as Aquaman in a way that the character never made sense before, and I think it’s specifically Momoa’s Pacific Islander heritage that made it click.
This is not because I hold some weird belief that people from Pacific islands possess a unique and mystical relationship with the ocean. I do believe that there’s a stronger cultural connection to the ocean among people who live on islands — enough so that, if I were creating an ocean-based hero from the ground up, I’d sooner make him look like Momoa than, say, Chris Evans or Chris Pratt.
When Aquaman was created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris in 1941, he and his fellow heroes were presumably created as white Americans because white American audiences expected their heroes to look like them. Audiences were used to heroes played by Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, or Randolph Scott. Diversity was not a consideration in a pre-Civil Rights America with a reportedly 90% white population. (The percentage of the U.S. population reported as white stood at its all time peak in the census of 1940.)
Seventy years later, society has changed and progressed, yet superhero comics are anchored in the past, partly by virtue of the fact that the same 70-year-old characters remain popular. But nostalgia has created an industry that too often feels artificially out-of-touch with contemporary culture, and irrelevant to a modern audience.
Warner Bros. is now in the position of re-creating Aquaman. The studio could stay true to his appearances in the books and make him a corn-fed blond who looks like he just drove his tractor to church, but does that feel like a plausible look for an ocean-themed hero? (Inexplicably, the comic book Aquaman doesn’t even have a surfer’s tan.) Taking inspiration from an island culture like Hawaii, Samoa, or Okinawa, actually feels more natural to the spirit of the character.
These islands are all in the Pacific, of course, and Aquaman is linked to Atlantis and the Atlantic Ocean, so Aquaman could plausibly look… Icelandic? West African? Native American? Or, he could stay looking Anglo Saxon. The British Isles are Atlantic islands, after all.
But the oceans are vast and interconnected, and Atlanteans are presumably well travelled and not bound to a single mainland culture. Making Atlanteans diverse is more interesting than making them homogeneous and white, and casting a mixed-race actor like Momoa makes the most sense. Casting a blond white actor would create the impression that Atlanteans are implausibly Eurocentric and strangely Aryan.
That’s a direction the filmmakers could explore, of course. Even without exploring it, a justification could be made for Aquaman’s blondness or whiteness. In most tellings, Aquaman is half-human, and half-American, and maybe even half-Floridian, so there’s nothing saying he can’t be white and blond. Some humans, some Americans, and some Floridians are white and blond. (Many are not, but some are.)
Come to think of it, an in-plot justification isn’t really needed. If the character is white and blond, audiences won’t actually question it.
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH-COLOR
This is cultural bias in effect. General (generally white) audiences never question why characters are white and blond. If a character could be white, that’s usually justification enough. Whiteness as default becomes logical and comfortable. Only non-whiteness requires an explanation.
Indeed, if a character is not white, some people will cry out that their racial identity is the product of political agenda-driven tampering. If a character is white, the same people will comfortably assume that he or she came out of the box like that.
It should be noted that we’re not even talking about the broad US census category of “white”, which covers people whose families hail from Europe, North Africa or the Middle East — including many people with tan, olive or ruddy skin.
In comics, whiteness is predominantly represented by the pale pink complexions of Northern Europeans — the color once problematically referred to as “Flesh” on Crayola crayons, until Crayola changed it to “Peach” in 1962. Real world white comes in many shades, but in comics all white people seem to trend towards hex color #FFCFAB. (Individual colorists may of course bring more nuance to their work, but how many white superheroes can you name who are consistently portrayed with bronze or olive-toned skin?)
Superhero comics don’t actually favor whiteness; they favor a subset of whiteness that borders on Aryan idealism. We ought to regard that as uncomfortably fetishistic, because it’s an aesthetic that the industry has chosen.
All fiction is manufactured. Authors make their worlds and choose what goes in them. It is always possible to contrive a fictional justification for a character looking whichever way the author wants, up to and including finding a way to make a white person the hero in a story about, say, feudal Japan, or ancient Egypt, or Persia during the Islamic Golden Age. A white hero is not the most likely scenario, but it’s always a possible scenario, so in that way it always becomes justified.
The decision to cast Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch has been called out by message board posters as evidence of an agenda at work — but white heroes in these non-white settings are rarely called out as similar evidence of an agenda. It’s all artifice, it’s all contrived. Fiction exists in service to an author’s design. All fiction serves an agenda, whether it’s articulated or not.
WHITE ANGLO-SAXON ALIEN
What could be more forced and artificial than the idea that a child from an alien world who crash lands at random in a Kansas field should look like he belongs to the predominantly white Anglo-Saxon culture he chanced into? First you have to accept that Kryptonians look like humans, and, OK, that’s a necessary precondition of the narrative — the story can’t happen if you don’t start with that assumption. But then there’s a secondary assumption that Kryptonians could look like late 1930s Kansans.
Most of the world does not look like Superman. If his ship had crashed almost anywhere else, he would have stood out, not as an alien, but as alien.
I’m not implying that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had a racist agenda when they created Superman, but I believe they conformed to a prevailing agenda, the unforced presumption of whiteness. The idea to make Kal-El white was likely a choice they made informed by cultural expectations. Anyone who is consciously aware of the existence of non-white people is always making a choice when they make a white character, whatever reasons inform that choice.
As it happens, Kansas in 1938 was only 96% white. Krypton was 100% white — right up until the 1970s. That’s when black people were finally introduced to the demography of Krypton on their own separate island. Krypton didn’t become racially integrated until 2009. Were diversity and integration artificially forced onto this fictional world? Yes, absolutely — just as they had been artificially kept out of it for decades previously. Krypton is artificial, and its demographics are always a matter of authorial choice.
It’s a relief to know that Krypton is no longer all white, but it perhaps begs the question; why is Superman still white? We can guess why Siegel and Shuster made him white, but why is he white today? Why, through every DC reboot, has he remained white?
It’s not that the world isn’t ready for a non-white Superman. We had one for several years — just not in the main comics continuity. Dean Cain introduced the world to a non-white Superman back in the ’90s in the show Lois & Clark.
Cain is a Midwesterner, like the Kents. He’s also mixed race — his natural father was half-Japanese. His mixed heritage was always apparent to me as a viewer, and it seems that an audience of 15 million had no problem accepting Cain as Superman. Perhaps much of that audience didn’t recognize Cain as mixed race, but they were certainly comfortable with a Superman who looked like Dean Cain. The precedent was set in front of a prime time audience. Superman doesn’t have to be white. A mixed-race Superman won’t blow people’s minds.
One might argue, of course, that Lois & Clark didn’t explore the ramifications of this change in the status quo. A Clark Kent who is visibly different to his neighbors, and visibly identifiable as adopted, might experience life differently to the Superman we know, and thus turn out differently, at which point he would no longer be Superman.
If one of the core themes of Clark Kent’s childhood is that he was taught his values of love and respect by Ma and Pa Kent, surely he would turn out the same way, even if he experienced more prejudice and estrangement from his peers? In fact, wouldn’t his experiences serve to underline Superman’s good grace?
It would all come down to how the story is written. It all comes down to the choices made by the author producing a work of fiction. A Superman who experiences prejudice and still grows up to be Superman sounds like the best Superman to me — and a mixed-race Superman sounds like the perfect exemplar of modern American virtues.
Race is not actually important to Superman’s story. What this unfortunately means, in his case and in almost every case where that holds true, is that he ends up being white.
Whiteness has a manufactured gravity that tugs at any character whose racial identity is not crucial to the narrative. This is where the cultural bias manifests. A character is white unless the story specifically demands otherwise. Audiences have become complacently comfortable with that idea.
Before Andrew Garfield was cast as the new Spider-Man in the “Amazing” movie reboot, there was a fan-driven campaign to get black actor Donald Glover an audition for the role. Glover himself endorsed the campaign. He later said, “It makes sense. A poor black kid in Queens? It just fits. … It wouldn’t change much.”
The campaign met with the usual outcry from fans angry at the idea of a black Peter Parker, but in an interview with Hardknock TV, Glover said that the message that got to him the most was from someone who said that there are no black kids like Peter Parker. Glover’s response:
“[Y]ou don’t think there is a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens who likes science? Who takes photography?”
Donald Glover knows better than that guy. In a diverse borough of more than two-million people, there are surely plenty of black, Latino, Asian, and white kids who like science and photography and live with their aunts. Yet there’s a section of the audience that cannot conceive of the idea that Peter Parker might have just as plausibly been a black kid as a white kid. They must imagine that would take some sort of special circumstance, one that fiction couldn’t account for.
Here’s the memo: “Black” does not require an origin story. No character needs to be bitten by radioactive blackness.
There is nothing about the Human Torch that presumes he must be white. The same is true for Iron Man, or Nightwing, or Wonder Woman. Whiteness is not an essential part of their stories. Sure, there may be implications to changing the race of any of these characters; if Steve Rogers had been black, it would knock the secret black Captain America revealed in the story Truth out of continuity. But it’s not implausible for a black Captain America to have the same strengths, principles, and virtues as white Captain America. Those are the aspects that define his character, and they’re not tied to his whiteness.
Some things would change. Race does shape a person’s experiences and interactions. But as Glover said of Spider-Man; “It wouldn’t change much.” The things we come to these heroes for would not change.
Fictional characters are fabricated out of infinite material. The only limits are the ones the authors impose. And time and again they impose the same limit. White. White. White.
Take another fictional Atlantean, Namor the Sub-Mariner. He’s half-human. Who would you cast in the movie? There are plenty of white actors I could imagine in the role. I’ve said before; I’d pay good money to see Zac Efron splashing around in little green trunks. But Daniel Dae Kim expressed an interest in the role back in 2010, and there are also a lot of fans who think that Namor should be played by an Asian actor.
And here’s the thing; They’re right. Namor’s features are more Asian than Caucasian. Like Superman and Aquaman he’s at least partly from a fictional race, so there’s absolutely no in-universe reason why that fictional race should look like white Europeans like so many of Hollywood’s leading men. Casting an Asian actor would instantly make Namor one of Marvel’s oldest and most high profile non-white heroes. Namor is only white if people decide he’s white.
The same is true of Nightcrawler and his mother, Mystique. In the movies they’re played by white actors, but there’s no reason they had to be. Mystique’s chosen appearance in the comics seems to emulate the Hindu death goddess Kali — blue skin, revealing costume, garland of skulls and a “third eye” skull on her forehead. So why shouldn’t she and Nightcrawler be South Asian? Marvel isn’t exactly overloaded with South Asian characters. (If you’re wondering, yes, there are South Asian people in Germany, even with German accents, even in the Catholic faith. Nothing about Kurt Wagner would change if we learned his mother was born in Delhi or Kolkata, but something would change for South Asian superhero fans who rarely see themselves in American comics.)
Of course, there aren’t many characters whose racial identity could be so easily changed (or rather, established) in the comics — and no-one should want to see another story like Psylocke’s, where a character’s race is artificially changed in-story. Movies and TV shows give us the best chance to re-imagine and re-establish these characters. Adaptation is the perfect opportunity to recreate Iron Fist, for example, as an Asian American.
But that’s not to say this sort of re-imagining can never happen in comics.
WHAT WE BOOT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT REBOOT
Marvel has avoided universe-wide reboots, which is generally wise, but the one advantage of a reboot is that it allows a publisher to introduce diversity into a universe that was codified in less progressive times.
When Marvel re-created its characters in the Ultimate Universe, the publisher did little to alter its characters beyond making Nick Fury black (on his second appearance) and making Wasp Asian American. There was no black Johnny Storm or black Peter Parker. It was a missed opportunity, and the publisher seems to recognize that now, given how it reconfigured the line around new heroes like Miles Morales, the black and Latino Spider-Man.
When DC’s New 52 reboot was first announced three years ago I briefly allowed myself to believe that the publisher would seize the chance to radically re-imagine its characters from the ground up. Superman could have a mixed, non-white appearance. Gotham could be re-imagined in the model of a collapsing Detroit, with an African-American Bruce Wayne as its champion. Wonder Woman and her Amazons, usually presented as predominantly white Greeks, could be given more Middle Eastern appearances. (The Amazons weren’t Greek, but rather a fictional alien culture invented by the Greeks. There’s no more reason for Amazons to look like Greeks than for Kryptonians to look like Kansans.)
In retrospect, my hopes for a diverse New 52 were foolish. DC wasn’t in the mood or in the market to do anything radical. The publisher made several admirable moves, giving solo titles to Batwing, Mister Terrific, Static, and Voodoo, and maintaining Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle, but the publisher didn’t go to the mat. John Stewart could have been positioned as the Green Lantern; Ryan Choi could have been re-established as the Atom; Renee Montoya could have been kept in place as the Question. Most crucially, any white characters could have been reintroduced as non-white characters.
We’ve recently seen evidence that DC is open to this idea. Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, was introduced as a black woman in the pages of Grayson; Wally West is now a young black man in The Flash (albeit one freighted with the cliché of being a fatherless street hoodlum); and white male hero Serifan of the Forever People is now black female hero Serafina in Infinity Man And The Forever People. All of these changes are worth celebrating.
On the other hand, the Earth 2 Connor Hawke was introduced as a seemingly white man when he had been mixed race in the pre-reboot DC Universe, and Green Arrow character Onyx has switched from black to Asian. If there’s an editorial policy in effect here, it’s unclear what the parameters are — except to say that it doesn’t extend to a non-white Superman.
All of that was on the table. The DC Universe is a construct. In rebuilding it from the ground up, its architects chose white as their dominant color scheme. It was not organic. It was not inevitable. It was a choice.
Maybe DC will make different choices in the next reboot — there’s sure to be one along in a few years. If Marvel makes the mistake of following DC into the reboot pit, one hopes they do a better job of shaking off white bias.
Of course, there will always be those who say that publishers shouldn’t add diversity by changing existing characters; they should only do it by adding new characters. But that’s difficult to do when white characters overwhelmingly dominate the racks. Batwing, Mister Terrific, Static Shock, and Voodoo have all been cancelled, while Superman, Batman, Aquaman and Wonder Woman now have almost a dozen titles between them.
This is an institutional problem. You can’t just ask superheroes why they’re white, Karen; but here’s an answer. Superheroes are white because they were created a long time ago, mostly by white people, mostly for white audiences. They are the product of cultural bias — yet they are expected to remain white even as the audience changes, for no better reason than that the industry is hidebound by tradition and continuity.
Perhaps it will take a more diverse talent pool bringing new energy and new ideas into the industry to create comics for today’s more diverse audience — possibly outside the established superhero universes. More diversity among comic book creators is a big part of the solution to superhero comics’ diversity problem. The historic lack of diversity among creators may in turn be rooted in that same diversity problem. Superhero comics look like an old boys’ country club, where whiteness is a prerequisite for membership. That’s not a welcoming proposition for non-white talent.
Every time a hero changes from white to non-white, whether it’s in rebooted comics or up on the screen, it helps chip away at that country club idea. That can only be a good thing for the future of the industry. And yes, it’s a “PC” agenda. It’s a pro-comics agenda. I’m proud to be PC.