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Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie


Minority Report: Bending Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality in Comics

It’s no secret that geek culture is still too much of an old boys club. That being said, there is an ongoing rise of other perspectives, as pushed forward by creators, retailers, and consumers. To use an outdated and marginalizing term, ‘minorities’ are slowly gaining ground in aspects of pop culture dominated by white, straight men. And to lay all the cards out on the table, I definitely fall in the category of the majority.

But as geek culture evolves, changes are taking place that don’t sit well with some members of that club, whether it’s casting choices for movies, reboots of comic books, or who’s standing behind you in line at a comic con. And changing an established character’s race, gender, and/or ethnicity always seems to send a ripple through the traditional residents of geekdom, for better or worse.

Take the casting the late Michael Clarke Duncan in the role of the Kingpin for that abhorrent Daredevil film Ben Affleck starred in so many years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the character, the comic book version of Kingpin is the head of crime in New York City and one of Daredevil’s staunchest enemies. He’s also very large and very white. While Michael Clarke Duncan was very large and played the role perfectly, he was African American. Despite being one of the best parts of an otherwise tragically bad film, a number of geeks took issue with the change in ethnicity. Similar comments popped up when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in the Thor franchise, when Jamie Foxx was cast as Electro in the next Amazing Spider-Man film, and the possibility that the new Fantastic Four movie has cast Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch.

Fortunately such naysayers are not representative of the majority. If the actor is good and fits the movie they’re in, the ethnicity of the actor simply does not matter and hopefully most people get that. The response to Ben Affleck being cast as Batman was more rage filled than any other casting announcement, but that was less about ethnicity and more about his Daredevil performance.

One could easily brush the negative responses to racial reboots off as the purist geek mentality not wanting to deviate from the source material, and the Daredevil film did a lot of that. There are, unfortunately, other indicators that show this stems from a much darker place.

It’s only been a couple of years since DC Comics relaunched virtually their entire catalogue into the New 52, a reboot of their continuity from square one in most cases (though that line in blurry at best). As books were cancelled from the line and new books appeared, an alternate universe book called Earth 2 started. It featured former Golden Age heroes, like the Jay Garrick version of Flash and Dr. Fate, on a different Earth in another dimension. It also featured the Golden Age version of Alan Scott, aka the Green Lantern.

And this new version of Alan Scott is gay.

As you can imagine, the response from fans ran the gambit from supportive to upset about any change to classic characters, an issue that plagued the New 52 relaunch.  In the case of Scott, things turned virulently and unabashedly homophobic. Such responses shined a light onto a darker part of geek culture that many fans want to ignore, as if somehow because we read about heroes like Spider-Man and Superman our culture is impervious to hate. It isn’t.

As much as DC was lauded for the decision to make Alan Scott gay by some, they were derided when they chose to put the boot down on allowing Batwoman to marry her partner Maggie Sawyer when the creative team pushed for it . J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman subsequently left the acclaimed title over the issue. And more recently, DC reintroduced the characters for Onyx and Connor Hawke, the son of Green Arrow, to the New 52, but as white heroes instead of as people of color as they existed in the original continuity.

Again, fan response was demonstrably diverse, with some people actually claiming that it was okay to switch the ethnicities of their New 52 iterations to Caucasian because it balanced out Alan Scott becoming gay. Let’s put this out there right now; diversifying comics is not a balancing act. If you have more than X number of ‘minorities’ represented in comics books, a black hole will not form and suck up all reality. And according to Stephen Hawking, black holes aren’t even a thing anyway, so stop worrying about them.

Marvel Comics also has brought in a few gay characters, some being gay from moment one and others being long term characters revealed to be gay like the mutant Northstar. Again, this was a move that did illicit similar responses to DC’s Alan Scott. Marvel has also shown that they have no issues in recent years in taking a look at ethnicity. When the Ultimate Universe version of Peter Parker died, an African American child by the name of Miles Morales took over the role. This wasn’t a new move for Marvel in the Ultimate line as Nick Fury had been introduced as an African American character that looked a lot like Samuel L. Jackson but not in a Laurence Fishburne kind of way.

A brand new Ms. Marvel comic just started with a young Muslim woman at the helm (but that is in addition to Captain Marvel, the female hero who formerly went by that name and is still around). And, to the best of my knowledge, the only official skin color change that has ever taken place on for a character on a Marvel page within normal continuity is when Hulk goes from grey to green to grey to green.

Are these kinds of changes necessary?

Does it really accomplish anything?

Wouldn’t it be better to simply create new characters of color and different sexualities?

In a perfect world, yes, but the reality is that it’s difficult to create a new character that sticks. If you want to make a true impact with a character, there is value in using an established character. In the case of Northstar, he had to come out in a fashion that indicated that he had always been gay but had to hide it. Northstar is a mutant, hated by the world for being different, who had to find others like him to feel a sense of community yet still felt he had to hide the fact he was gay from that same community. It’s a powerful story if told right. And Marvel seemed to have no problems with Northstar marrying his partner.

While revealing a well established character like Alan Scott as gay is good because it increases the number of LGBT characters in comics, it also can come across as a bit of a publicity stunt on the part of the publisher. If DC was actually as supportive of gay rights as such a move would indicate, and not just doing it to get headlines, the marriage of Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer would probably not have been an issue. Then again, who knows what the focus group they tested the idea with told them.

It’s hard to solely bash DC over gay rights as they’ve published good work with prominent LGBT characters, like the aforementioned Batwoman and titles written by Gail Simone such as Batgirl and Secret Six. It was in a relatively recent issue of Batgirl that Simone penned the first transgendered character who also happens to be bisexual. Simone’s work, while progressive and needed, has also been a source of contention for many fans who don’t see her work as progressive and more as offensive.

For that reason, it’s unfortunate that Gail Simone’s The Movement is scheduled to be cancelled by DC. The Movement is an innovative comic from a major publisher that used a variety of ‘minority’ characters with stories that drew on the ideals of the Occupy movement. Some of the characters were new to the book with others appearing in previous stories. While the book received critical acclaim, the sales just were not there to sustain it. The Movement will end with issue 12. Simone has been clear in posts on her Tumblr blog that DC was very supportive of this book but could not continue publishing it without the numbers to sustain it financially. Those who would rather see less diversity are most likely celebrating the book’s impending departure. Don’t worry; Simone will be back with more.

The question ends up not being about the existence of intolerance in the old boys’ club in the comic book world — it’s quite clear it still exists.  The question is, what fuels it? What is often perceived as racism or homophobia is hopefully just old school geeks who just don’t like change but don’t express it well. It’s not so much that they don’t want Alan Scott to be gay as it they don’t want him to be anything different than what he has been since 1940. Unfortunately, change is needed for comic books to stay relevant. Our world is one that is hopefully becoming more tolerant and definitely more diverse. What we read in comics simply must reflect that. This means more characters, creators, and fans from different genders, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations.

If you’re someone that demands traditions be wholly maintained simply because they exist, it can’t always be that way. Some changes are needed. And if you’re one of what I hope is one of the few homophobic, sexist, racists reading comics and complaining in online forums, you’re going to be very disappointed as the game changes around you.

About the Author

Ian Goodwillie

is an established freelance writer, a regular contributor to both Prairie books NOW and The Winnipeg Review. He also writes two blogs that very few people pay attention to, a Twitter feed no one follows, and film scripts that will never see the light of day. He is very fulfilled by his career choice.

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