Gender and Ethnic Diversity in Comic Books

Issues relating to gender roles and ethnicity have become more prevalent in the comic book industry than ever before. The year 2014 gave rise to more discussion on characters of varying ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences than possibly any prior year.

Some of that was due to major changes happening in both Marvel and DC Comics and some was the natural result of comic books becoming more mainstream. The explosion of mainstream popularity through comic book movie blockbusters means that the comic book medium is held up to more intense scrutiny. The bigger your audience, the greater chance it has of being diverse.

This is not to say that the comics industry has been without diversity or a focus on culturally significant stories. Intimate biographies like Maus by Art Spiegelman, Persepolisby Marjane Satrapi, and many more have shined a light on unique cultural experiences around the world and devastating events that have impacted people of many different ethnicities, countries, and backgrounds. These are vital stories that transcend the medium in many different ways and are significant in their artistry and message.

Even the world of superheroes has long featured notable heroes of different genders and races. Wonder Woman is the quintessential female hero, who is both unmistakably female and strong in both character and story when handled by the right author. Black Panther, Luke Cage, The Falcon, Storm, and John Stewart – Green Lantern, and have represented African Americans for decades. Several years ago, Miles Morales took over as Spider-Man in the alternate Ultimate Universe when their version of Peter Parker died. This half African American, half Latino hero is now loved by fans after a period of controversy. Northstar, The Question, Batwoman, Wiccan, Hulking, and more are all well-known homosexual heroes. In particular, Apollo and Midnighter are one of the major homosexual couples in comics, with these two amazing heroes being a longstanding couple who eventually marry and adopt children. Best of all, these are all amazing characters.

However, minority characters in superhero comics, especially the big two publishers, are still largely underrepresented when it comes to the characters who receive major focus from publishers. But things are changing – some naturally and some through force. It’s an insanely complex issue with many sides to discuss. Importantly, it’s a topic that should never fade from view again.

Forcing Progress vs. Natural Diversity

Greater racial diversity in any medium, whether it is film, television, or comic books, comes through greater awareness from readership and society as a whole. Additionally, greater diversity in authors should naturally lead to greater diversity in the characters that are spotlighted in art. The most popular and longest lasting comic book characters, for the most part, are white males. You can list them off easily: Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, and many more. That’s likely because authors and readers of comic books were mostly white males during a large portion of the medium’s history, which meant that both authors and readers gravitated toward characters that were instantly relatable.

But this is changing. Authors and readers are becoming more diverse and creators are more willing than ever to create characters that are different from themselves. This has expressed itself in two major ways: creating new characters that represent different races, backgrounds, and culture and putting new characters with different races, backgrounds, and sexuality into roles previously inhabited by mostly white male characters. Both have their pros and cons and comic book audiences have reacted vocally in both positive and negative ways. There are essentially two characters, both from Marvel Comics, which represent these two ideas.

On the side of brand new characters is Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel – a teenage Muslim girl living in New Jersey. While Ms. Marvel was originally the hero Carol Danvers, she changed her title to Captain Marvel a few years ago, leaving her old name behind. Kamala is a huge fan of Danvers and when she gains shape-changing powers, she takes on the new moniker. What’s so fresh and brilliant about the character is that she represents people who have never been given much of a spotlight in the world of superheroes. Her struggles are simultaneously unique because of her religion and culture as well as incredibly relatable due to her being an authentic teenager in the modern era. Ms. Marvel has quickly become the darling of the comic book industry. She’s loved by readers today in the way that Spider-Man was in the 1960’s.

On the side of changing the identity of an old hero is Thor, who is now a mysterious woman with the ability to wield the mystical hammer Mjolnir. This is a little more complex. Thor, the manly God of Thunder, did not have a sex change. Rather, the character you see in the Avengers movies is no longer worthy to wield his hammer, but this new female character is. That means that the original Thor is still fighting villains, but with less power, while a woman has taken up the mantle of “Thor” and now fights as The God of Thunder. Confused? The name stuff makes it a little unwieldy. A portion of comic readers have been incredibly vocal in their hatred of this change. You can’t read any article on the internet concerning the new Thor without a dozen commenters saying how disgusted they are with the change.

Why? Because some believe Thor is a man’s man who can’t be replaced by a woman. But it’s not like Thor has suddenly been disregarded in favor of diversity. He’s still playing a major role in Marvel Comics while this new chapter unfolds, bringing in fresh stories and new twists. Why not bring someone else into the role? It’s been done several times before. And why not a woman? Just because a character is female does not mean that she cannot take on a role previously inhabited by males.

Another major change has come in the form of Captain America. Long story short, the original Cap, Steve Rogers, lost his powers and turned into an old man. In his place, Sam Wilson, who has been known as The Falcon for decades, took on the mantle of Captain America. This means that for the first time ever, Captain America is not only not white, he’s African American. The change was not met with nearly as much scorn as some of the other recent changes. However, most detractors noted that this was only a temporary change, since Rogers has stopped being Captain America many times throughout his existence, with others taking up the mantle for varying lengths of time.

On a side note, racial diversity has been previously explored in Captain America comics, as the comic book miniseries Truth: Red, White & Black explored the idea that the U.S. government tried to recreate super soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America by experimenting on black soldiers during World War II. It’s a stark and stunning take on the real life Tuskegee Experiments that also shows heroism through minority characters in the face of horrific racism.

While it has mostly been Marvel that has been doing the moving and shaking when it comes to diversity, DC Comics has taken some action as well. One of the oldest comic book characters, Alan Scott – the original Green Lantern – has been recast as homosexual when the entire DC Universe was rebooted. However, their changes have been less profound, as the vast majority has stayed the same.

Thankfully, these more diverse characters have been unique and felt true to their ethnicities, sexualities, and unique backgrounds for the most part. While some of these changes may feel more forced than others, they are leading to many stories that focus on people who are relatable to different kinds of readers. Combined with legitimately good writing and art that is embracing these new ideas, the more diverse lineup of heroes is injecting new energy and fresh stories into the medium. Diversity leads to new ideas and unexpected developments. That’s always needed for stories that have been published monthly for close to a century.

Racial Changes in Movie Casting

A discussion of race and gender in comics cannot be complete without touching on the casting of comic book characters in film adaptations. Like any adaptation of a well-loved work, the casting of a comic book character is held up to scrutiny concerning whether or not the actor or actress chosen can portray the unique personality of someone that has been long established and loved by fans. However, does race and gender play an important role in defining who a character is?

The real answer is yes and no.

To say that a white character must be played by a white person on film is to buy into the idea that an actor of a different race cannot possibly portray a fictional character simply due to appearance. On the other hand, to say that races of characters are completely interchangeable is to ignore the many different life experiences and unique aspects that come with different racial and cultural experiences. It’s a fine line to walk, but comic fans need to be accepting of different takes on characters in film, especially when a character continues to be rebooted and tweaked with new movies.

The casting of African American actor Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch, a blond white male hero in the comics, in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot sparked great controversy among the comic fan community. The biggest and most repeated argument against Jordan’s casting? Johnny Storm is white. Therefore, a white actor should play him. Additionally, white actress Kate Mara was cast as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman, who is his sister. People seemed to think that this broke everything, as they could not possible be blood relatives. Well, they could. Or one could be adopted. Really, it doesn’t matter. They definitely need to be brother and sister, that is essential to the characters’ relationship in the stories. Race doesn’t need to change that. In fact, showing that race doesn’t change that can be a sign of progress in the acceptance of different ethnicities.

To everyone else who really doesn’t know much about The Fantastic Four, this casting really doesn’t mean anything. Michael B. Jordan is a talented actor. If he can put on a good performance as The Human Torch, that is what should matter. Just as importantly, this film not being garbage should really be the focus from audiences that love The Fantastic Four.

It’s difficult to always know the motives behind casting an actor of a different race or gender for a character in a film. Did studio executives cast someone because they felt they were the best choice regardless of differences from the character? Was he or she chosen to simply add diversity to the cast? Is the change simply meant to garner attention and appeal to a wider audience? What if it’s a bit of all three? While positive end results can outweigh potentially shady causes, ethnic and gender lines being crossed is better when it’s done for the sake of progress, not just attention and money.

Should Thor one day be played by a woman on screen or The Falcon take the mantle of Captain America, one would hope that it is done out of service to a great story and altruistic ideas on equal representation in the media.

The Worst Race Change in Comics. Ever.

Let’s end this on a slightly lighter note by looking at the perfect example of what should never be done when it comes to racial and gender diversity in comics and film.

It’s the time The Punisher was temporarily turned into a black man in comic books.

In a 1992 story, The Punisher had his face horribly scarred, so he went to a back alley plastic surgeon to fix his face. When he wakes up after the surgery, he’s African American. Why? She used melanin during the procedure, which darkened his skin and even changed his facial features. It makes no sense at all. Of course, this was meant to shake up the identity of the character and also highlight some racial issues, such as having the character be pulled over by the cops and harassed.

Do I really have to say why this is a terrible idea? Yes, being able to experience what other races go through could help everyone better understand the lives of others. No, this is not what this comic is really about. The Punisher is really not the character you want exploring racially sensitive topics. He’s a serial killer loved by psychotic fans. His loves in life are shooting criminals in the face and stabbing criminals in the face. In that order. Here, he teams up with Luke Cage (a legitimate and great African American character) to fight some criminals.

There’s really nothing more to this story than that. No real exploration of racial issues or what this might do to the outlook of a white man. It’s incredibly shallow, making this not just an insane plot development, but one with no real purpose at all. Worst of all, The Punisher’s pigment change quickly wears off after only a couple issues, with the final issue being the unfortunately-titled “Fade to White.” At least they don’t make him talk jive.

If there’s anything positive here, it’s that we all know what not to do by example.


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