Comic Chaos: The Writer’s Approach to Race and Gender Changes in Comics
Most fans, regardless of race or gender, agree that women and minorities are underrepresented in comics. Though comics were on the forefront of introducing women (Wonder Woman in 1941) and minorities (Black Panther in 1966) in to pop culture, they have been slow to fully diversify into a more proportionate depiction of society. With the majority in agreement that they need to be more diverse, the debate focuses mainly on the different approaches to it. One method in particular draws attention more than any other-changing an established character’s race or gender.
Changing an established character’s race or gender is certainly the highest profile route to diversity. News organizations from CNN to the Washington Post have addressed the issue in various articles, writing on the debate itself as well as high-profile members of society, such as actress Michelle Rodriguez, who have weighed in on it. With the high circulation of these articles on social media, many weigh in on the issue through the comments.
If one is looking for the comic purist’s perspective, they will not find it in an academic article or a lengthy article. Very few writers, if any, support this view-there are no easily accessible articles taking this approach. Purists are most prevalent on social media. To them, no character should ever have their race or gender changed. In their opinion, diversity is not nearly as important as preserving a character’s history. Below is a fairly average example of a purist’s perspective, taken from the comments of an IGN article in July of 2014.
1) Captain America IS Steve Rogers, Steve Rogers IS Captain America. Nothing can change that. As the only survivor of the super soldier serum how can the Falcon take his place
2) Thor - by definition is the male Viking god of thunder. Putting a woman in the costume and even giving her Thor like powers does NOT make her Thor.
3) Jeez - last time I checked (many many moons ago) Tony already had multiple Iron Man suits so how is this news ? (Knight)
The quote makes several things quite apparent. First of all, the commenter is neglecting the many other individuals who have taken the role of Captain America, including Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier), the U.S. Agent, and Falcon himself. Secondly, he is ignoring the wording of the enchantment on Thor’s hammer. “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Ignoring the old gender-specific “he”, it makes it clear that whoever is found worthy of the hammer will have all Thor’s power. In addition, Thor himself still exists. He is unworthy, however, and therefore, an unidentified female is in the role for the time being. Because no one knows who she is, she goes by Thor for the moment.
Most liberal fans and writers support the changes fully and often argue for changes to high-profile characters like Superman-blog site Tumblr is a hotbed for these campaigns. In addition, authors for groups like Salon, Time, and the usually more conservative Wall Street Journal have thrown their full support behind the changes. Many argue that changing characters is the best way to improve diversity, because new minority characters cannot gain traction. In direct opposition to that is the fact that Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American teenager, has taken the role of Ms. Marvel and is now leading a highly praised series, while Deathlok, an original African-American male hero, is several issues in to a solo series of his own.
Given the major flaws present in some of the most common arguments from both extremes, it becomes clear that few on either extreme read a lot of comic books. Both sides lack knowledge on the lore and current publications, which calls in to question their motives and logic. If this is true, then, where are the fans?
Most long time readers, regardless of skin color or gender, fall somewhere in the middle. One example is Mr. Kofi Outlaw, editor-in-chief for Screen Rant. He laid out a set of guidelines for race and gender changes, and briefly analyzed changes he agreed or disagreed with. Mr. Outlaw focused on the essential elements of a character, the possibilities for greater storytelling, and the potential need for modernization. He, too, sees the value in focusing on improving the quality of a character. However, “improving the quality” is an abstract term. Some may argue that a change for greater diversity is improving the character, but past changes have shown that that is not always the case.
A clear example of a failure in change is DC Comics’ New 52 reboot version of fan favorite Flash, Wally West. Originally, Wally was a science-loving, pasty white ginger who became the Flash’s sidekick, Kid Flash, and then the third Flash after Barry Allen died. He is regarded by many as the best of the four Flashes. When the universe was rebooted, Barry Allen once again became the Flash. Many fans of Wally were excited at the possibility of him becoming Kid Flash again.
Fans were confused and annoyed when the new incarnation did not fit the original at all. Instead of the ginger, light hearted scientist they knew, the New 52 Wally was an African-American teenager who was out committing vandalism immediately following a crisis, hated the Flash, and hated police officers. The character may have been changed, but instead of providing greater diversity, he fell in to many negative stereotypes. Negative diversity is the only thing worse than no diversity, as Mr. J.F. Sargent mentioned: “…it harkens back to the 1990s, when comics were overly concerned with being “edgy”—but when you’re focusing that gimmick on a new character of color and only on that character, it’s hard to see it as a benign decision.” DC seemed to quickly realize what they were doing and tried to redeem the character by having him bond with Barry over a baseball game, but the attitude shift seemed forced and heavy handed. The writers have slowly let him fade out of the story for a while now, ending one of the more uncomfortable and shaky parts of an otherwise stellar series.
The purists may point to Wally as an example of why existing characters should not be modified. However, they have been strangely silent on several popular changes, like Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Any fan of the Marvel movies picture Samuel L. Jackson, with his eye patch and long coat, standing in defiance against everyone from Iron Man to powerful, godly entities like Loki. He is Nick Fury-based on the version in the Marvel Ultimate Comics line. In the mainstream Marvel Comics universe, known as Earth-616, Nick Fury shares many traits. The now iconic eyepatch, the grim defiance, and the incredible skill are all there. The one thing they don’t share? Skin color. Nick Fury, the original Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., is white. He has been since 1963. And yet, when it came time to pick a Fury for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the producers chose the Ultimate version who has only been around since 2001. In fact, the black version of Fury was so popular that Marvel introduced Nick Fury, Jr. into the Earth-616 universe. Fury Jr. is presumably mixed, though his appearance is almost identical to Samuel L. Jackson-based Ultimate version.
So what made the Wally West change fail, while Fury succeeded? The answer is fairly simple-writing. Wally was written as a stereotypical black adolescent male, which portrayed black teens in a negative light. It also lead to even poorer writing down the road, when the writers tried to redeem the character through forced changes. Marvel succeeded with Fury because of writing as well. Fury is a strong, intelligent character, in charge of an entire secret division of the government. He regularly works with, is in charge of, or fights super powered individuals who far outclass him in strength, speed, and stamina, and never backs down. He breaks free of stereotypes and draws in interest not only because of his skin color, but because of his character.
Nick Fury succeeded because of his writing, and Wally failed because of his. Regardless of the approach one favors to greater diversity, there are no strong arguments against this. Unfortunately, it is not easy to say when a character change would work or when it would not. Each of the aforementioned examples were different, but not every character can be copied off of Nick Fury. Clearly they need to be written well-but what aspects must be considered for a change to work?
The first is fairly simple. Will a change interest readers beyond the fact that it is a change? Wally West in the New 52 fell victim to this. His defining trait was that he was black. He was not presented as a science nut or someone ready to be a hero. He fell in to all sorts of clichés, and the attempts to redeem him seemed so heavy handed that the character did not seem at all believable or any better than before. Wally failed immediately for this reason. Fury, on the other hand, brought in major interest not due to his color, but his character. He was highly intelligent, dryly humorous, head of the world’s largest intelligence organization, and one of the most courageous people in a universe full of super-powered heroes. He grabbed readers’ attention, and holds it even tighter than the original Nick Fury did.
Character traits are not the only deciding factors. An out of date character can be difficult to transition in to the modern world. The original Nick Fury did not age too well. As a World War II veteran, it became more and more difficult to adapt him to the modern world. Though Marvel succeeded with Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, it became clear that a World War II soldier without superpowers or an iconic outfit just could not keep up. The change in race allowed for a surge in interest that carried over. By basing his design and character on the already popular Samuel L. Jackson, writers ensured that he would fit the modern definition of “cool”.
Unlike Fury, Wally was not in need of an update. As a man of science, Wally easily transitioned from year to year, decade to decade. The update was both unnecessary and ill-advised, because it represented not only a step back in the writing of the character, but a step back to times where stereotyping ran rampant. Portraying him as a teenage “thug” makes him more of a weak antagonist, instead of the strong protagonist he is supposed to represent. In this way, despite the attempted modernization, the writers managed to make him seem even more dated than the older versions of the characters.
The same criteria can be applied to gender changes, with slightly different issues, mainly oversexualization of women and stereotypical gender roles, most notably being the “damsel in distress.” Ms. Karen McGrath states “although small steps toward a more varied representation of minority groups are present in this comic book series, the characters are still depicted in gender and race stereotypical ways.” If a female character is known solely for her looks, or is most often seen being rescued, it does not matter that diversity has been increased, as she still fits stereotypes. Certain characters, such as the current Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, have made fantastic strides forward. However, rampant changes to male characters would undoubtedly lead to many falling in to stereotypes and clichés, similar to the problems DC had with Wally.
Some people may argue that this leaves very few options for characters, particularly major ones, to be changed. However, there are currently several characters that could, and maybe should, be changed to keep up with current times. The Punisher is one such example. Frank Castle is a longtime favorite of many Marvel Comics fans, and has appeared in two movies in the mid to late 2000s. He is a white male whose primary enemies have included the Maggia (Marvel’s version of the mafia) and the Kingpin. He’s well known for his violent tactics and non-stop, unforgiving bloody war on criminals of any sort. Originally, he grabbed the attention of fans who feared organized crime in the United States.
However, organized crime has changed dramatically. “The mob” is not a constant force of terror on the streets, and is no longer the main fear of city dwellers. Instead, gangs populate the poverty stricken neighborhoods that surround city centers, dealing drugs, running prostitution rings, and even fighting in the streets. Minorities stuck in these areas bear the worst of the violence, and are the primary victims of these crimes. Instead of fighting large, shadowy crime organizations, a new African-American Frank Castle could fit well in with the new paradigm of crime. His backstory could remain the same-losing his whole family to gang violence, and deciding to take revenge on its perpetrators and the system that allowed it. The Punisher would combat local gangs and could work his way up to international cartels, much like he did with the Maggia and the Kingpin. His story and character would not change in dramatic ways, but he would be more relevant to modern times and more adaptable to world situations involving cartels and gangs. Instead of having a beef with the cartel solely because they are criminals, he would have a personal stake in modern organized crime.
Comic writers have a long way to go to represent society properly, in fact, the discussion will likely never truly end. When they focus on writing, certain changes fall in to place naturally, and fly above and beyond their race or gender. Done incorrectly with the wrong characters, and steps are taken backwards, due to stereotyping. Writers should do what they do best-write. If they do that correctly, diversity will slowly work itself out, as long as writers are open to changes and new characters. It may not happen as quickly as some like, but it will be done right.
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McGrath, Karen. "Gender, Race, and Latina Identity: An Examination of Marvel Comics' Amazing Fantasy and Araña." Atlantic Journal of Communication 15.4 (2007): 268-83. EBSCO Host. Web. 1 Apr. 20115.
Sargent, J.F. "Comic Book Superheroes Face Their Greatest Challenge!" Extra! 26.5 (2013): 14
Outlaw, Kofi. "Changing Face: Diversity & Change in Comic Books and Superhero Movies." Screen Rant. Screen Rant, LLC, 16 Aug. 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.