The Internet has come as close to agreement as it probably ever will over one point: it’s 2015 and we’re ready for more diversity in our fiction. No more will we accept straight white males as the default character lens through which to view our movies, comics, video games, and novels.
What no one can agree on now is how to accomplish this.
Don’t let my click-bait title fool you; I don’t have any answers. How to best reflect our culture’s many facets is an issue that itself is multifaceted.
For example, as comic books are being turned into movies, studios must walk a line between staying “true” to the source material and giving modern audiences the diversity they want. The only superheroes that have achieved any kind of permanence in mainstream popular culture include a couple of white guys (Batman, Captain America, etc.) and one white woman (Wonder Woman). So comic books, and the movies based on them, have started adding diversity to their line-ups in two basic ways.
- Gender/race/etc. bending
Straight-up changing an established character’s racial/gender/sexual identity is sometimes called “bending,” as in, here are pictures of gender-bent Disney princesses. For comic book properties, race bending is most common. Both Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Nick Fury were originally drawn as white men, but their most recent movie incarnations are both black. The new DC Justice League movies have cast an Israeli woman as Wonder Woman and a man of native Hawaiian descent as Aquaman, both of whom generally appear very “Northern European” white in most of their iterations.
Why can’t we do this for all the famous superheroes? Sometimes, certain (some would say all) aspects of a superhero’s identity are essential to his or her character. Changing Wonder Woman to a man, for example, would negate the entire idea of her coming from the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons where men are not allowed. But portraying her as more Mediterranean in complexion makes sense with that traditional, Greek myth-related backstory. As another example, Captain America’s Aryan features made an interesting statement at the time he was created, considering that he was fighting Nazis in WWII.
But is this statement still culturally relevant? American society has changed in many ways since WWII. When Batman was created in 1939, it would have been quite rare for an “old money” family like the Waynes to be anything but white. But nowadays, the idea of upper-class minorities is not so crazy, and I don’t think an African- or Asian-American Batman would be either. For Bruce Wayne, I feel his social/economic class is the defining characteristic, more than his race.
Another issue is whether these kind of changes would be too confusing for a large audience. People who read superhero comic books generally get pretty good at not getting too hung up on continuity. So Nick Fury was white in the last series, and now he’s black. Ok. It’s the same way that Rogue can sometimes fly, and Jubilee is now a vampire. But for the general public, it might be confusing as to why Bobby “Iceman” Drake was into Rogue and Kitty for 4 movies but now likes boys.
In any case, the corporations who stand to make lots of money from superhero movies are going to be extremely hesitant to make even “superficial” changes to cultural icons, no matter how good it makes the story. Instead we could try…
- Making new diverse characters
So, if we can’t mess with cultural icons, whether because we like their stories as-is or because they’re super profitable, then we’ll just have to make some new superhero characters that are not straight white males.
Comic books have been doing this for decades. Some of these characters are now being brought into the cinematic universes, such as Falcon, who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics when he was created in 1969. We’ve also seen Warpath, Blink, Bishop, and Sunspot, with varying ethnic backgrounds, appear in X-men: Days of Future Past, and Skye/Daisy, who is arguably the main character of Agents of SHIELD, is a mixed-race woman. Cyborg, another African-American, will be included in the Justice League movies, despite never having been considered a founding member of the League prior to the New 52.
Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel) will be getting her own movie in a few years, the first of the MCU to feature a solo female superhero. Though she’s been around under various aliases since the late 70s, Carol has really been leading the way for female superheros recently with a new (fully-clothed) look and very popular comic series as Captain Marvel. We can see why Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, looks up to her.
But the truth is, no matter how many Captain Marvel movies they make, I don’t really believe that Captain Marvel will ever be as popular or well-known as Superman. I guess time will tell.
- Door Number 3: A little bit of both
The strategy that DC and Marvel have both been using quite successfully lately combines these first two ideas: having a new character take up the mantle of a famous superhero. (It doesn’t seem too crazy considering the frequency with which comic book heroes get killed off.) Marvel’s new Avengers line-up includes Sam Wilson (Falcon) as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales as Spider-man. Kamala and Miles specifically have been a huge hit, being brand new characters featured in well-received solo series titles who are now being incorporated into Marvel’s headliner team.
Although Ms. Marvel is not a particularly well-known superhero persona in the general public, Kamala has received huge amounts of press for being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who deals with typical teenage problems (like strict parents) as well as dealing with criminals and saving citizens of Jersey City. Her solo series has been selling very well. Having just read the first collected volume of Ms. Marvel, I liked the way Kamala’s religion was represented: it is an essential part of her life (she would be a slightly different person if she hadn’t been raised Muslim), but at the same time it is only one part of her character, and neither the plot nor her superpowers revolve around it.
Miles has even more visibility, as Spider-man is one of Marvel’s signature heroes and was ranked 3rd behind Batman and Superman on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heros of All Time. In fact, many fans have suggested that Miles be the Spider-man of the MCU (because, do we really need a 3rd teenage Peter Parker rendition?), but the actors rumored to be in contention for the role look decidedly like young Peter Parker, so the powers-that-be at least feel that the general public is not ready for Miles as Spider-man.
In the DC universe, the Green Lantern Corps is a perfect opportunity to introduce various characters and still call them “Green Lantern,” including an African-American (John Stewart), a gay man (Alan Scott), and several women. I was very happy with the choice to use John Stewart as the Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League cartoon (despite the fact that Kyle Rayner had already been introduced to the DCAU in Superman:TAS). Why they made the (terrible) Green Lantern feature film about Hal Jordan instead, I’ll never know, but I still hold out hope for John Stewart to be the Green Lantern of the new Justice League movies.
In conclusion, it’s clear that the only “right” way to increase diversity in comic book fiction is in a way that tells an interesting story with compelling characters. Character traits shouldn’t be simply boxes checked on a list; they should be used to tell a story that reflects the experiences of audience members. As both creators and consumers of fiction, we must think carefully about character diversity both on an individual level and as a whole. The answers are not simple, but we continue to work towards a goal of inclusiveness.
Here are a few more thoughtful discussions on this and related topics; feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments below:
- From io9.com: What Comic Characters Would Benefit From Changing Their Ethnicity?
- From io9.com: What’s The Best Way To Diversify Superhero Comics?
- Marvel, Please Cast an Asian-American Iron Fist
- Redefining Disability #14: What I Want to See In Representation (And What I’m Sick of.) (Rose B. Fischer)
- LGBT+ comic characters (Hannah Givens)