Written By Cadeem Lalor
Batman, Superman, Spider-Man. These three are probably the most popular superheroes in the world and many people may not realize that they were created before black people were allowed to vote in the US. I mention this not to “race-bait” or “pull the race card”. I mention it since there has been backlash towards attempts to create more diverse versions of popular characters, especially Miles Morales (Spider-Man).
I have decided to focus on Miles since his character is an example of a more diverse successor, as opposed to replacement being introduced. Miles comes along after the death of Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe, meaning that Peter Parker is still Spider-Man in the mainstream continuity and that Peter Parker was not retconned out of Spider-Man’s history. These facts seem lost on some people or fans were still disgruntled that a character they love was seemingly killed off only to add a more “politically correct” character.
One comment on a Washington Post article sums up all the bitterness and frustration that seems to accompany any attempt to bring diversity to any medium: “Imagine if Spiderman had always been black, and they killed him off to replace him with a white guy. I GUARANTEE there would be endless cries of racism, and probably boycotts to follow.”
This comment also captures the key issue with many arguments criticizing “political correctness” or “forced” diversity in comics: it lacks context. The vast majority of the most popular comic book characters are white and were created in a political and social climate where positive representations of black were relatively rare. Even today, mediums such as Hollywood films are still disproportionately dominated by white actors. Despite minorities making up 40% of the US population, minorities account for only 17% of lead roles in theatrical films.
Now imagine that a character was created before black people were allowed to vote. Of course he would be white. Over forty years later, there is an opportunity to present a new character who will take up the same mantle. From your perspective, should the comic book creators have gone with another white character? Was that the only right choice? Or is it reasonable for them to think that their new superhero can mirror a country that has changed drastically since the character was conceived.
The mantra that the writing, not race, should be the focal point of criticism usually only applies to white characters. White characters are seen as normal or natural. Meanwhile, minority characters, whether in comics, film or TV are always subjected to accusations of “political correctness” that overshadow what they bring to a story.
Within the Ultimate Universe, Miles quickly became a member of The Avengers. After helping The Avengers defeat a villain, Miles suit becomes ripped and the media quickly realize the new Spider-Man has brown skin. The increased attention only brings discomfort to Miles, who says he just wants to be Spider-Man, not just black Spider-Man. I almost feel like the moment breaks the fourth wall. The writer and the character pleading to be judged by the content of the stories, instead of being torn apart prematurely due to an image as a publicity stunt or an attempt to cash in on President Obama’s election.
Many people may say that the change never should have been made in the first place, and they may focus on black superheroes like Static Shock, Luke Cage or Black Panther. Fair enough, even though there is a disproportionately small amount of minority superheroes. Even Marvel’s Editor in Chief has acknowledged that black superhero titles such as Black Panther have difficulty finding a mainstream audience. This is not to say that there aren’t Black Panther fans or that Black Panther will never have a mainstream audience (especially after his film is released). The Editor’s point was that although he personally loves Black Panther, he must admit that it does not sell as well as older, more entrenched properties like Spider-Man. This is the reason that an existing mainstream superhero (like Spider-Man) was updated. Perhaps if people actually supported black characters as much as they say they do, then there would be no need for the change.
People may have a knee-jerk reaction to blame poor writing or marketing for the poor sales of titles like Black Panther, but is it so far-fetched to believe that growing titles with black superheroes may have a harder time finding an audience than older titles with iconic white characters. These older characters, such as the original Spider-Man, Superman or Batman had the good fortune of timing. They came at a time when the concept of a superhero was new and even more exciting. These characters were able to stamp themselves onto public consciousness early and become archetypes for future creations. Their births in the 30’s and 60’s, made it much more likely for them to be white characters and over time their whiteness became devoid of any political, social or cultural meaning.
As Professor Richard Dyer states, decades of selective casting in Hollywood have normalized discriminatory casting practices and disproportionately white stars (Dyer 3). The majority of the most popular superhero heroes are white, and I believe that decades of indoctrination can make comic readers see this order as a natural outcome, instead of one that is shaped by politics and culture.
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Dyer, Richard. White. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.