Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

The White Tide of Comic Book Heroes

The Marvel Universe is taking over theaters (Thor! Captain America! The Avengers!) at an excellent time, given our intertwining obsession with bad guys and Navy Seal teams and the end of the world and buff dudes like Chris Hemsworth and koyaanisqatsi in general. And then, what is going on at Marvel, where recently a number of their franchise comics have gone almost all-white? "It felt unconscious instead, part of a series of all-white sweeps across other cultural industries in the last two years—the very white Academy Awards, the very white Emmys, the very white National Book Awards, and so on. It was the superhero version of these things. As if the sight of Obama had triggered some protective instinct, atavistic and intense, and everyone was giving white people prizes. And now were bringing back Viking gods for good measure."

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dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

All I know is, Obama is still president even in a Nixon-revering alternate universe, and in fifteen years Agent Broyles will be a senator.

@dntsqzthchrmn Peter?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@winchesterwolcott Who he? (And WHERE ARE THEY GOING WITH THAT??!?!?!)

Nick Fury, traditionally depicted in the comics as a white guy, is now played by Samuel L. Jackson in Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, etc). Also, Idris Elba plays the Norse god Heimdall in Thor, so, er, maybe the comics have always been super white and there's a bit more of a conscious effort to diversify when casting in the movies? Granted, two stunt casting decisions do not a summer make, and so on.

The Morning News article says that Psylocke is Japanese, but in Marvel continuity she was originally white before being physically altered to look Japanese by a group of ninja terrorists. This egregious error casts doubt upon the veracity of the remainder of the article! Until such time as a full retraction is printed to correct this error, etc. etc.

JoshUng (#11,371)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Exactly, many of these characters have been around almost 50 years (Captian America even longer), that's why they are white. People know Iron Man as a white guy, now, so they are keeping things the same.

Though, Nick Fury has been depicted as black in "alternate universes" long before Iron Man, so that wasn't totally stunt casting. And after David Hasselhoff, even the most staunch traditionalists agreed that no white guy should ever play Nick Fury again.

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Love you nerds. I have no idea what you people are talking about, but you're all so CUTE.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose My understanding is that Psylocke's transformation was actually a result of traveling through the Siege Perilous, after which she hooked up with the ninja terrorists. Either way, wacky!

@JoshUng: Yeah, I figured I shouldn't get too into the details, considering that the alternate-universe Nick Fury started out as "black Nick Fury," and then they started drawing him like Sam Jackson, and then Jackson saw what they'd done and called up Marvel and was like "you know, let's make this official" and got a deal to star as Nick Fury in their movies and oh crap now we're in the weeds for real.

@boyofdestiny : You're right, it was kind of both at the same time, because Uncanny X-Men was nothing if not complicated. But remember when that whole story arc occurred? I think that was the first time I'd ever been exposed to a form of media that happily killed off all its main characters at the same time. And then Marvel played along for a dozen issues by focusing on the minor characters just scratching along, trying to survive? Adolescent me = mindblown.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose I'd only point out to your Nick Fury is black comment that you are referring to Ultimate Avengers, the reboot, and the Avengers team he leads is a.) all white and b.) all black-ops. I couldn't get into that in the space allotted for the essay, though. In the flagship Avengers, Nick Fury remains white as he always has been.

@alexanderchee : Absolutely. What struck me was that the "alternate-universe black Nick Fury" has been mainstreamed in the movies as the canonical Nick Fury. I suspect that's because of his being Samuel L. Jackson rather than by virtue of his skin color, but nonetheless there it is.

More importantly, since I don't really keep up with X-Men any more, I was really bummed to read in your article that Storm has been so marginalized in the series. Back when I was an impressionable youth and she was rocking that 'Til Tuesday-stylee mohawk, she was literally the coolest thing in the world.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose: I mean more broadly, the movies are like a slightly tweaked Ultimates, right? What with the contemporary setting/backstory, the very thin war on terror allegories, etc.?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

And mohawk Storm didn't have powers, either! She was totally the non-white hero who didn't need a mask or incredible abilities. (I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy she got them back, though.)

I think it can be especially easy to screw up the X-men because the pool of characters you draw from is so diverse. I mean, the Astonishing lineup under Whedon was a Jew, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese girl, a big furry monster, a WASP, and whatever variety of bland Cyclops is. Which is of course just another way of saying white white white asian blue-née-white white white. Ellis threw Storm back in the mix, thank god, but I didn't keep up with his version because the story wasn't to my liking.

I must say that the Black Panther/Storm pairing always bothered me, too. What, other than racial matching, do they have going for them exactly? It's like the bit at the end of the Tennant Doctor Who run (Choire you'll know this bit!) where they paired off Martha and Mickey. Two characters we have never seen interact before, who have nothing in common other than being black, suddenly deeply in love as of a lazy happily-ever-after montage.

JoshUng (#11,371)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose I didn't overload the nerdiness there, did I?

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Thanks. It is so angry-making. She was, for decades, one of the coolest characters in comics, and then she gets played by Halle Berry and then… she's tossed on the married bin. I can get why she fell for the Black Panther, though yes, I see what you mean, but I loved her when she was edgy and running around Tokyo, putting herself back together after Forge took her powers away.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

This was very good and thought-provoking, but I think that point about "the real-life version of Captain America’s newest assignment" was a little gratuitous. Either Luke Cage is a figurehead, or he isn't. Or either Obama is a figurehead, or he isn't. Those are pretty heavy assertions to explain away with "in dreams, familiar elements are rearranged."

But otherwise, good stuff!

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@boyofdestiny In the story, Luke complains to Captain America of being made a figurehead. Cap reassures him it's not true, that his leadership is needed. But he's still the only man of color on the team. It does mirror the "black president on top, everyone now giving prizes to white people" effect surrounding the Obama administration, and in the manner of a dream.

soco (#8,225)

It would be wrong to say white superhero movies are coming out because of some reaction to Obama as president, because white superheroes have dominated the genre since its origins. That doesn't mean it isn't something to complain about, but it's mixing up the timeline to say, "well, all these super white guy comic book movies are coming out like Thor and Cap't America, so therefore it must be some trend," when in reality it's been at trend since comics were created.

Marvel isn't making white boy comic movies right now as a reaction; it's making white boy comic movies because what else could it make?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@soco The Brown Hornet?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@soco Hancock?

LondonLee (#922)


Spawn (ugh) = Michael Jai White (yes!)

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@soco The original Silver Age stuff is pretty white, but the 70s and 80s saw the introduction of a really diverse group of heroes. The X-men were the most successful — almost all of their best-loved characters are from the multicultural reboot Chee mentions or later — but that doesn't mean there aren't diverse candidates for a longrunning team with a flexible roster like the Avengers.

RK Fire (#10,307)

@soco The Green Lantern didn't have to be white! alas.

keisertroll (#1,117)

My favorite superhero: Machete.

melis (#1,854)

Don't fuck with that Mexican.

RK Fire (#10,307)

@keisertroll: Machete vs Black Dynamite: who would win?

Aw, I'm just joking, those two would team up and go to town and people selling crack in the orphanages in the Southwest.

[Guess who saw Black Dynamite but hasn't seen Machete yet? This commenter.]

keisertroll (#1,117)

@RK Fire It'd be a three-way tie between Black Dynamite, Machete, and the Hebrew Hammer.

Rod T (#33)

Actually this is a huge topic in comics at the moment. Over the weekend a mixed race character was colored with blonde hair and white skin. It was a mistake, but the mistake was made in the lead-up to DC's "big summer crossover".

Here's an example of the outcry:

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@Rod T I was coming to post about the same thing! I think this follow up article also provides a lot more context and some critique about what's going on in comic book land also:

Keith Kisser (#9,714)

It's msotly just the hereditary characters form Marvel are white, because, as others have pointed out, they've been aorund since before desegregation. Nick Fury was made black for the movies, and also for Marvel's Ultimate line, which rebooted a lot of the classic characters with a modern update. This included a Nick Fury who was depicted in the comics as looking like Samuel L. Jackson.

Superhero comics are notoriously white but a corrective measure is being made to fix that. Unfortunately, a lot of the classic flagship characters aren't going to change. (A few months back there was a small movement to get Donald Glover to play Peter Parker int he Spider-man reboot movie. Alas, nothing came of it).

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Actually a lot of white whining came of it. Jerks. I would be at the midnight premier of a Donald Glover Spider-man.

LondonLee (#922)

Seems a little unfair to attack Marvel for this when they were the ones who made a conscious effort to create black superheroes (The Black Panther, Luke Cage, The Falcon). DC are the fascists!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@LondonLee I was actually wondering which of the universes is "better" at this. I think Steel (the comic version, not the Shaq version) is an excellent character. But of course, he wears a mask, so nobody knows he's black.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@LondonLee Does creating black characters in 1972 let you off the hook almost 40 years later? I don't think so.

Mouthfeel (#482)

It’s not just Marvel, clearly. There was a piece earlier this month describing DC’s whitewashing of its heroes:

Matt (#26)

@LondonLee Fine I will take this bait: What about Black Lightning, dude? Or John Stewart (not Jon Stewart)? (Or Kyle Raynor for that matter?) Or the fact that Batman is currently traveling the globe recruiting Batmen of all different ethnicities? Gimme a BREAK.

LondonLee (#922)

Not having read a comic in 20 years I have no idea about any of that.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Yeah, there was a big kerfluffle when Batman franchised out to a French Muslim. From what I hear DC is a little better on the diversity front these days.

runsinbackground (#10,344)

I think the solution is to not read cape comics.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I'll admit to a wiki-search of "koyaanisqatsi". This sent me down a wiki-hole that ended with learning about the split between the Oraibi Hopi and traditional Hopi people. THIS IS UNRELATED.

Pop Socket (#187)

Given the painful stereotypicalness of most non-white ethnic superheroes, this is a mixed blessing.

Matt (#26)

Hey Choire: You can yell at me when they cast a black guy as Dr. Who, okay? Deal.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)


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