Sunday, June 28, 2015

Let's Talk About Race/Gender/Sexuality in Comics... Again...

  I would like to start this off with this thing from the Onion which, in the title alone, sums up how ridiculous I find naysayers of color blind casting:

Comic Book Fans Adamant That Human Torch be Played by Actor Whose Body Actually Engulfed in Flames

  So, would that be better?  I mean really if your going to complain about the actor who plays the character why not complain that the Human Torch isn't being played by a man on fire or that the actor playing The Thing isn't a giant craggy rock monster?

  On to what I'm really here about.  Good news everybody!  Stan Lee says to create new ethnic characters!  And if you won't do it HE will!  So don't worry roughly 100 million non-white members of the population, your ethnicity will be proudly represented by this old, rich white guy who was last culturally aware back when segregation was a thing and was a voting adult through the Civil Rights.  Clearly he's the person to rally behind.  It's not that I don't like Stan Lee but I think we might give him too much credit, somehow we've made him the King of comics and I don't know if that's entirely earned or not.  It may not be entirely unearned but I think we need to be careful about who we assign crowns to and why.

  So let's talk about race in comic books, again, sorted, in no particular order, by the dumb ass statements I see.  I primarily use the word and concept of race in the examples below but the word race could be interchanged with gender/ethnicity/religion/sexuality.  I tried to stick to one concept to make things easier.

  That character has always been white, it's their history and you must pay respect to the history!

  Odds are your white character was created either in a time when creating anything other than a white, Christian, democratic, capitalistic American would just be rejected or created because the common belief was that nothing else would sell because all the characters before it were white, Christian, democratic, capitalistic Americans.  Your editor would have told you people simply don't buy books with 'those' characters and to come back when you had something marketable.  If you were someone who needed that paycheck then you would come back with a character that sells.  Hell, Jack Kirby couldn't even explicitly make The Thing Jewish and they had to sit on that fact until fucking 2002!  While, as the article states, it was somewhat forbidden to directly address religion, the assumption was that, well, everyone is a Christian and we can't destroy that illusion by talking about some other religion.  So, if two Jewish guys, the two biggest creators your company has, can't make a character Jewish how much luck do you think you'd have making one that wasn't white?  It took 5 years (FF debuting 1961, Black Panther debuting 1966) of block busters for that same duo to be allowed to make Black Panther and even then Panther was relegated to guest appearances, being the side kick to Captain America and supporting cast in the Avengers.  Despite having a critically acclaimed run in 'Jungle Action Comics' (#6 - #24, 1973-1976) he wasn't entirely solo, and in a respectably named series, until 1977's 'Black Panther'.

  The first thing someone might say to that would be "Well, he had his own comic in 1973." first off I would say that lets put all the non-white characters on one side of a balance and all the white characters on the other side.  Unless those two side are fucking equal then shut the fuck up.  You cannot deny the existence of oppression, be it racial, religious, ethnic or gender based by using one or two examples in the face of overwhelming opposition.  Gender equality didn't go away the second there was a female CEO because the list of female CEO's is still way fucking shorter than male CEO's.  It's a sign of progress, not of finalization.

  The second thing I have to say to that is HE STARRED IN A COMIC CALLED 'JUNGLE ACTION COMICS'!  That's like having Captain America in a comic titled 'Trailer Park Adventures', or 'Honkey's Do Stuff Magazine'.  The context is insulting on a fundamental, cultural level.

  As to paying respect to the history as long as the books exist they are they're own testament to history.  Nobodies burning them or hiding them, you want them you can buy them.  Besides the historical context means, in most cases, they had no chance but to be white so we just respect that context forever?  We never let someone else do something?  Well the first Presidents wore powdered wigs so every president must wear a powdered wig.  We're paying respect to history now put on that itchy, disgusting mop of dead hair, fill it with a thick, choking powered to absorb your nasty sweat and odors and walk around like an asshole.

  Why don't we make Luke Cage white?

 I think that is a perfect piece of satire that explains in a somewhat subtle way how stupid the above question is.  If it isn't clear then I will explain it to you.  Characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, Blade and John Stewart were made IN RESPONSE to the lilly white comic landscape.  They were MADE to represent an under-represented presence in comics.  Before them you had shit like Pie-Face, Fu Manchu and god damn Ebony White.  They were created so there could be non-white HEROES, not just villains, for young comic fans to look up to.  You can't make them white because their ethnicity is integral to the character.  Johnny Storm being white is not integral to anything.  It's the result of the above default character machine that was itself the result of an accepted system of racism and gender exclusion.  The same goes for Spider-Man, as I will get into, Spider-Man can be anyone.  They chose to focus on Peter Parker, a white person, but the character of Spider-Man isn't tied to Peter Parker unless you, as an individual, CHOOSE to bind the two concepts.

  Race doesn't matter so why can't the character stay white?

  If race doesn't matter why does the character have to STAY white?  If it doesn't matter why can't they be anybody?  Stan Lee says that the point of the mask is so that Spider-Man can be anyone.  You can't see the person underneath so it can be any race or ethnicity that you want him to be.  The problem is that Spider-Man is Peter Parker.  Peter Parker is the star of the Spider-Man comic books.  His life, his culture, his family are the stars of that book as much if not more than Spider-Man.  Peter Parker IS Spider-Man so 'Spider-Man' can't be anything other than a white "poor" genius superhero married to a model.  Because that's who's in the books every fucking month.  White guy Peter Parker.  If you wanted him to remain an 'every man' you shouldn't have given him a name or identity beyond being Spider-Man but you did and because you did you tied that character to a specific race, gender and culture.  Miles Morales was the first to come along and start to untangle the idea that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are different concepts, one being a title and one being a person and that any person can be that title.

  Make new characters instead of changing the old ones!

This one bothers me because I think it's mostly stated by people who have never tried to created an original story and then tried to sell that story.  It's dismissive and demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the industry.  You know who is probably the most well done, well pushed, mainstream, non-white, wholly original character out there?  Blue Marvel in Marvel Comics.  Do you know when he was created?  20-fucking-08.  I don't know of many more, most of the well done non-white characters have had to take the name of someone to get in the spotlight.  Mr. Terrific, Miles Morales, Val-Zod, Tyrone Cash, while somewhat original, is still considered a 'Hulk' in his universe.  Jim Rhodes is basically an extension of Iron Man and John Stewart is a Green Lantern.  Before Blue Marvel you almost need to go back into the 70's with Storm as the last wholly original, well pushed, mainstream non-white character.  And I'm talking like, accepted, used big name characters, not one offs or flash in the pans.  Legacy characters.

  I wanted to put all that out there so we understand the situation, there has been a 30+ year gap between original, mainstream non-white leading characters.  Clearly it's not easy but it's not easy because YOU WON'T LET PEOPLE MAKE NEW CHARACTERS.  Comic books are a business first and foremost so their goal is to make money.  You make money by creating blue chip IP's and pushing them constantly.  There isn't going to be another Superman or another Batman or another Captain America or Spider-Man because you won't let there be.  There are dozens of characters that will never go away because they make money, they make tons of money, they make enough money to float massive organizations with staff numbers rivaling small cities.  No sane person in charge is going to dump Spider-Man in favor of this new character that you just made up especially if that character doesn't fit into what 'sells'.  What 'sells' is white people because the characters were made by white people when all you could make were white characters.  Do you see the vicious loop present in this situation?

  Nobody is going to dump a proven IP in favor of some new, unproven IP.  Nobody would support that as a business decision and any objective witness would look at that think that is a stupid decision.  So you can't make non-white characters to replace the old ones which means if you want diversity in comics you need to co-op someone else's IP.  The idea of a Spider-Man or a Superman or a Captain America is a classic one, they are powerful concepts which is why they are so valuable.  They represent timeless ideas and ideals that aren't limited to the confines of a particular person.  So if you want to make a non-white character that the company HAS to push and that people HAVE to accept you give someone else the name.  You give it to Miles Morales, you give it to Val-Zod, you give it Sam Wilson and you let pass that down to the next people so they have someone they can look up to.  But you almost have to do that because it's the only way to guarantee a spotlight and a platform.  If you don't take the name then nobody will pay attention to your character and the character will be pushed aside but if you give them a main event name then they'll have to be in the main event.  You can't exclude the name Captain America from your big Marvel event, that's one spot taken so you make sure that one spot is taken by someone diverse otherwise that spot gets taken by that blonde Aryan which is one less spot for someone else.

  If you're worried about your little white kids not having anybody, well, Captain America has been white for 75 years now.  That's 75 years of comics where the white guy is the star of the show and the focus of attention.  They have those 75 years to look at and go 'That person is like me, I can be THAT'.  What about all the people who haven't had 1 year of someone like that to look up to?  Which brings us nicely to the next point.

  They aren't doing it for the right reasons!

  They never do.  Their in the business of making money.  That hasn't changed.  They were doing for the same reasons when you were a kid and they hooked you then for the same reasons they hook people now.  No one will remember WHY they did it, they'll only remember THAT IT WAS DONE.

  I don't like how they have changed the character, it doesn't feel like the character I know.  These aren't the comics I grew up with!

  I had a discussion of Facebook not that long ago when Iceman was outed as gay in the X-Men comic, the basis of which started out as 'I don't like this, why do they have to change everything?'.  I mean, I get that, I understand that but if you're reaction to something is that 'I don't want Iceman to be gay' or 'Ms. Marvel to be Pakistani' or 'Human Torch to be black' or whatever the fuck else you just have to realize that it isn't for you.  They don't do it FOR YOU.  The comic industry isn't made FOR YOU.  You may have invested a lot into the comic industry but man, when you pay that $3.99 it's a done deal.  That's an even exchange, you traded cash for 21 pages of illustrated bound paper.  You didn't pay for a GOOD comic, you didn't pay for something you LIKE or something appeals to YOU.  You plunked down your pennies and you got a story.  End of deal.  You are not owed anything beyond that.  You are not owed movies or action figures or t-shirts or whatever.  Even exchange.  Done deal.

  So, if something doesn't appeal to you that's because it wasn't made for you.  It was made for the next person.  It was made for that homosexual kid who uses comics to escape.  So they can have someone to look up to, someone who shares THEIR struggle, someone they can relate to and idolize.  Someone so they know they aren't alone.  It used to be the X-Men had to be a metaphor for being different, now they can ACTUALLY be different.  They don't have to hide behind the text, it can be right there for that next generation.  Something like that Iceman reveal, even if it doesn't become a major storyline it could help someone who may even be sexually confused.  The character has dated women but is gay.  They discuss this, how the feeling can be confusing and how people can do things because they are expected to and not because that's who they are.  But more importantly than not everyone sees acceptance.  After the sexuality conversation Bobby Drake and Jean Grey embrace and there is love and acceptance.  That's there for the gay kid who is struggling to know that they will be accepted and that's good for everyone else to see that people should be accepted for their sexuality.  Even if it's only brought up occasionally it shows that it's not something that defines you, you can be gay and something else and that's okay too.

  That's for THEM, not YOU and if you remembered what it's like to be someone who needed to escape because they were different then you should be sympathetic to that.  There is still plenty out there to appeal to you 'traditionalists'.  Decades of back issues that you can read again and again!  They don't explode or nothing when you're done!  You can read them forever!  You can read them and be taken to your happy place any time you want but it's time to let some other people get their own happy places.  It's time to tell some new stories with different characters.  It's time to let some other kid look to the sky and see themselves reflected in the illustrated gods of our modern mythology.  That's why we need diversity in comics, we need it so comics can be for everybody and not just a few people.

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