June 23, 2010

DC's "green, pink, and blue characters"

DC Comics is receiving a lot of criticizing for killing off or eliminating several minority superheroes. Editor Ian Sattler tried to defend DC's actions and came up with this gem of a line:We don’t see it that way and strive very hard to have a diverse DCU. I mean, we have green, pink, and blue characters.Blogger David Brothers ripped DC for this "defense":

DC Comics:  Run the NumbersThe problem with this statement is that green, pink, and blue people don’t exist. In fact, comparing actual, real-life people to fake people when discussing real-life issues is a pretty screwed up thing to do, isn’t it? It’s saying, “Yes, I understand your complaints, but look over here! This thing that we made up is just like what you want, just a different shade! That’s the same thing, right?”

No, it really isn’t. The point of diversity is to reflect reality. If you’re bringing up imaginary people when talking about actual people… you probably should just stop talking. A real life example: you’re making a cartoon for kids. Your boss asks why there aren’t any kids in your show. You respond that there are several kids, like this dwarf, this baby dragon, this baby goblin, those are like kids, right? No.
Brothers looked at 73 DC comic-book covers from August 2010 and found seven minority characters. The ideal number would be more like 20-something. (30% of 73 = 21.9.) Brothers's snarky summation of the situation:There’s an equal number of talking monkeys and black women on your covers. Scooby Doo is on more covers than that.Brothers notes that eliminating a particular minority character isn't necessarily racist, but the overall pattern may be:The problem is the trend. Jason Rusch gives way to Ronnie Raymond. Kyle Rayner and John Stewart give way to Hal Jordan. Wally West and his multiracial family is replaced by Barry Allen and Iris West, a good ol’ down home American couple. Ryan Choi is replaced with his equally unlikely to support an ongoing series predecessor. Milestone is publicly courted and wakes up to find money on the dresser, with a note saying “Lose my number.” Despite the fact that white people are a global minority today, the official future of the DC Universe is about as lily white as it can get and most of the aliens are white people. In what world does that make sense?Comment:  This echoes a point I've been making for decades. The original Legion of Super-Heroes had green, blue, and orange members but no minorities. The original Green Lantern Corps had blue, orange, and pink members but no minorities. DC's foreign and alien heroes--Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Aquaman, et al.--are almost all white.

This applies to many fictional universes: Marvel Comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. Whether the characters are human or alien, Caucasians seem to dominate. A universe dominated by people who look black or Asian seems to be beyond America's comprehension.

What about Native superheroes?

This clash of views applies to Native superheroes too. Other than the insignificant Manitou Dawn, DC basically has no Native superheroes in its present-day comics. It should have a dozen or so, as Marvel does, but it doesn't.

To make Native or minority superheroes popular, DC has to make a concerted effort. It has to do something like what Marvel did with Wolverine. First, have minority writers and artists create complex characters they care about. Guest-star them in a high-profile comic like INCREDIBLE HULK. Make them supporting characters in a team book like UNCANNY X-MEN. If the characters "break out" in terms of popularity, showcase them in a mini-series or two. Then give them their own series.

And make them important to the DC Universe--the way Wolverine has become to the Marvel Universe. If there's another Crisis, let a minority hero resolve it rather than Superman or Batman. If the Greek gods or New Gods tackle a world-destroying foe, throw an African, Asian, or indigenous pantheon into the mix.

In short, if you're committed to diversity, then truly commit to it. That means fewer storylines that depend on the big three (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) for their resolution. It means more sharing of the spotlight with a wider range of characters.

It means taking a successful experiment like the 52 series and making it the norm. 52 proves people will read something other than Superman or Batman comics if they're central to the DC experience. The trick is to turn that one-time event into a permanent way of thinking.

For more on the DC debate, see Race + Comics Notes:  Black Panther & DC Comics Update and Sunday Brunch:  6/20/10.

For more on minority superheroes, see Do Superheroes Reflect Society? and Some Thoughts on Minority Comics.

Below:  Manitou Dawn.


Rob said...

Michael Cooke writes:

The sad thing is that the comics industry is struggling. Thousands of super talented comics artists have been put out of work, comic shops have closed their doors, circulation has plummeted.

DC comics, like Marvel comics, have to compete with the videogame industry for the disposable dollar of the American teen aged male. Video games have won that war already. Comics are mostly valuable for the property rights, which can be recycled into cartoons, movies and ... video games.

The reason Hal Jordan is back is because the average comics reader is older now, and remembers Hal Jordan--is more likely to buy Hal Jordan as Green Lantern than anyone else as Green Lantern. And the 'whitening' of other DC properties is also a returning to their 'classic' core--which has a direct pipeline to the characters of the 1940s superheroes who were uniformly White.

One answer for the comics industry is to look for new markets. Spanish speaking people read Spanish comics voraciously, there's a market there. Hip Hop is an enormous market, there's no reason not to tie that into some African American comics! Alas Milestone went bust, but I believe it could have done well if only they promoted it in VIBE and the SOURCE.

Rob said...

I think of Hal Jordan's GREEN LANTERN as a middling series that DC had to revamp a few times because it wasn't selling enough. Are people really willing to spend more money on Hal Jordan than on John Stewart or Kyle Rayner? Or is that just an unsubstantiated belief shared by readers, writers, and editors?

The success of the recent BLACKEST NIGHT series doesn't prove much. Big companywide events are usually popular. Who's to say BLACKEST NIGHT wouldn't have done as well with John Stewart in the lead?

This is exactly what I'm talking about. DC didn't have to make Hal Jordan the shining star of that series. Wolverine wasn't the centerpiece of every All-New X-Men story, yet people still bought the book.

dmarks said...

John Stewart was my favorite GL. I guess I'm one of the few who loved his "Mosaic" series.

John Lees said...

Part of the problem is that DC just can't seem to win. Fanboys scream to the heavens when we get a female Question, a Hispanic Blue Beetle and a black Spectre. "This is BS! Minority characters are being forced on us! It's political correctness gone maaaaaaad!" But when it's flipped around, and you have minority legacy characters replaced by their white originals, suddenly accusations of racism start getting thrown around.

I personally hope Renee Montoya and Jaime Reyes remain with us for a long time, as I find both to be more interesting than their white predecessors. But with something like Ray Palmer replacing Ryan Choi or Hal Jordan replacing John Stewart/Kyle Rayner, I don't think it's a racist thing. It's a "love for the old Silver Age characters" thing. If Hal Jordan had originally been black, and had been subsequently replaced by a white Green Lantern, I think "Rebirth" would have happened anyway, because the motivating factor wasn't race.

Hal Jordan certainly has his detractors, but I'd say if we look at the long term picture, bringing Hal Jordan back was a good move. With Kyle Rayner at the forefront, "Green Lantern" was a book declining in sales, mocked as the most dense and obscure of major superhero mythologies. But starting with Hal Jordan's return in "Rebirth", "Green Lantern" has become one of DC's consistently highest-selling titles, and now there is a movie on the way and the franchise is about to go mainstream.

And I'd say this is why DC is bringing back all the old characters. It's not "Let's kill all the minorities". Rather, it's "bringing back an old character made us money when we did it before, so let's try doing that again."

Rob said...

John, I think David Brothers addressed your argument when he said the trend is the problem, not the individual decisions to revive old characters.

Is there really evidence that the old versions of the Atom, Firestorm, and Blue Beetle will sell better than the new versions? If so, I'd like to see the evidence.

The presumption behind these changes is that white, middle-class fanboys are comfortable with white, middle-class superheroes. Isn't that another way of saying these fanboys are (unconsciously) prejudiced against minorities?

Catering to the existing fan base ignores the possibility of expanding the fan base to new demographic niches. How does DC plan to reach America's increasingly multicultural population: by featuring more heroes from the Father Knows Best era?

John Lees said...

I think the answer lies in introducing fresh new multicultural heroes, rather than replacing the established white B-listers and C-listers with derivative minority substitutes. Because there are always going to be people who, no matter how good the replacement is, will always prefer and demand the return of the original, purely because he is the original.

By creating new heroes with their own distinct personalities, rather than just saying "Here is Firestorm... but BLACK!" or "Here is Atom... but ASIAN!", you're not alienating fans of the original white character, and at the same time you're not patronising minority readers by suggesting arbitrarily changing the color of white characters is all that's required to create a compelling minority character.

Yes, you could say a lack of brand recognition or whatever might hurt the chances of a brand new minority superhero succeeding, but it's not like putting the name "The Atom" or "Firestorm" on the cover is going to shift copies by the bucketload anyway. I'd say a well-written, well-drawn brand new minority superhero has just as much chance of sales success as a well-written, well-drawn relaunch of an existing superhero series with a new minority protagonist does - with less risk of engendering bad will and resentment amongst the existing fanbase.

A big problem with DC, the Big Two in general really, is this reliance on the old and the established. Yes, race might play an unconscious factor in that, but it's an issue that overall is bigger in scope. I think getting some of their top creators to create some fresh, exciting new heroes (and villains) to build future stories around could really help freshen things up, and making at least some of these new characters black or Asian or Hispanic or Native American would bring increased variety to DC's superhero roster.

On another note, the title of this thread reminded me of that memorable moment from the old "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" series, where the old African American man confronts Hal Jordan and says something like, "You help people with green skin, pink skin and blue skin all over the universe, so why do you ignore the people with brown skin on your own world?" It's pretty dated, of course, but at the time I'm sure it was pretty impactful, and might have made for an appropriate image for the end of the blog post.

Rob said...

I'm in favor of fresh new minority characters, John. And I don't particularly like "derivative minority substitutes."

But which minority substitutes are derivative, anyway? You could argue against the Ryan Choi Atom and the Jason Rusch Firestorm, I suppose. But I'd argue for John Stewart, Renee Montoya, and Jaime Reyes. I'd also argue for the Latino Spider-Man 2099, the black Nighthawk in SUPREME POWER, and a Native Rima the Jungle Girl in the First Wave universe.

P.S. Back in 2002 I did a whole posting on the seminal moment in GREEN LANTERN #76. Check it out.

John Lees said...

I'm also definitely FOR Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle and Renee Montoya as The Question. I actually think both have surpassed their white predecessors. Though in Jaime Reyes's case his version of Blue Beetle is drastically different from the Ted Kord version, and in Renee Montoya's case she was already a tenured, compelling character fresh off a critically-acclaimed run in "Gotham Central" before she took over as The Question from Vic Sage. It wasn't just a case of a straight swap out of the blue just for the sake of swapping, like the Ryan Choi Atom. They brought something new to the table aside from the color of their skin.

Have you read any of Dwayne McDuffie's run on "Justice League of America"? I never read it, but I have heard it got quite a lot of praise for introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble cast into the JLA, including I believe some new characters.

I'll check out the "Green Lantern #76" post now.

Rob said...

I read the first issue of McDuffie's JLA storyline introducing the Milestone heroes to the DC Universe. It didn't move me enough to keep reading it.

I presume you read some of the Milestone comics when they first came out, as I did. Or did you?

Here's another posting on race--this time on Marvel's women of color:


Of the 29 women pictured on the cover, only one (Storm) is nonwhite. The writer helpfully lists a dozen minority women Marvel could've used instead of its almost pure-white lineup.

This suggests the problem goes deeper than aging DC fanboys who can't live without their Silver Age favorites. Editors at both companies seem to be avoiding minority characters and issues.