Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Diversity Hires: Are we doing well with race in comics?

            I read this this quote on why the old Legion of Superheroes comics had no black people from co-creator Mike Grell.

Their explanation for why there were no black people [in the Legion] was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. It's possibly the most racist concept I've ever heard in my life."

            WHAT. THE. ASS.

            Granted, that’s was decades ago, but it’s always been interesting how comics handle race. Recently, DC has introduced an Arab-American Green Lantern, who seems to be their favorite character to diversify. It’s just sort of interesting that whenever they need to add someone with diversity they immediately use a GL.

            Green Lantern has always had some racially provocative storylines thanks to Neal Adams, who put the very 1950s conservative minded GL alongside ultra-hippie Green Arrow which allowed for a lot of political discussion and some pretty incredible issues, including the introduction of African-American Green Lantern John Stewart and this fantastic panel.

            Still, there is not a lot of diversity in comics. Part of the fact is that these characters have been around since the 30s. The first mainstream black superhero was Black Panther. Before him there were black supporting characters, like the Spirits woefully racist caricature of a sidekick, but no real black badasses like Black Panther. He fought the KKK, Apartheid, and Doctor Doom.

            Asians are no longer regulated to the mystic sorcerer role, or do something involving katanas (like that one Outsider, Katana). It’s a step up from the Fu Man Chu-esque Iron Man villain literally called the Mandarin. The Atom is chinese, and Grant Morrison introduced two Japanese superhero squads known as Big Science Action and Super Young Team in Final Crisis who were just awesome in general.

            Hispanics are sort of new to the scene, with a surprising few in the mainstream outside of Blue Beetle and the Question. In researching this (read: looking up lists of Hispanic superheroes on Wikipedia) I was rather surprised to find out the Kyle Rayner counts because he is Half-hispanic Half Irish. I imagine we will se a rise in both Middle Eastern and Hispanic superheroes soon as the demographics continue to change, but I think there is a bigger problem at play here than just having these characters on hand.

            One of the reasons characters like John Stewart, Luke Cage, or Black Panther work is because they are badasses. A lot of times, comic companies will add “diversity hires” to the JLA or Avengers and then not really know what to do with them. To me, this is worse than not having anyone at all. Just sort of sticking someone in because the your super team wasn’t filling some sort of 501c3 requirement (I imagine the X-men do not pay taxes) is sort of missing the point.
            I really like Grant Morrison’s decision to use an Algerian immigrant for the Batman of Paris. There is still a general lack of Muslims in the multiverse, and this was a major step forward. The reason this works isn’t just because it’s a nice addition of diversity, but because the dude was awesome. It also worked well with the racial tensions currently plaguing France. It was a really solid call on their part, and that’s the kind of thing I applaud.

            When you look at the covers of most comics today, it does seem like they’re still sort of stuck in the Leave it to Beaver era of American entertainment where everyone is incredibly white. The problem is that is not what America looks like any more. We’re a pretty diverse country, and our heroes need to reflect that. I’m not saying we should up and make Superman and Wonder Woman black (besides, Grant Morrison did it in Final Crisis. They were supposed to be Barack and Michelle Obama.), but it wouldn’t hurt to consider bringing more diversity to the forefront in the interest of story rather than headlines. As fun as it is to make One Million Moms go crazy because Nova is going to marry his boyfriend, how about giving Nova a storyline that doesn’t just revolve around him being different. Batwoman has handled that really well, and I think a lot of other books that could take example from that idea of “yes, she’s a lesbian, now lets move on and watch as punches some dude in the teeth”.

            The best example of how diversity has been handled is with Jewish Characters. I think part of this has to do with half the people who write comics are Members of the Tribe, but the way they’re handled is really, really good. We get some big names, including Magneto, Shadowcat, Iceman, the everlovin’ blue-eyed thing, and the aforementioned Batwoman. These characters not only get storylines where their Judaism is the subject, but they also are allowed to develop far beyond that as actual characters who do things and are awesome in their own right.

            That’s what I’d really like to see. Lets have more ass-kicking as less trying to get articles in USA Today. Nobody reads it anyway, and having an Arab-American or homosexual Green Lantern doesn’t have any impact if you just do one story on how he is Arab-American or homosexual and then immediately go back to writing about Hal Jordan. Give them their own titles and see what you can do with them beyond sticking them in the background. If you want to really promote diversity and the American way (I think Superman would have something to say about that), let them actually do something.


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