June 28, 2010

Race and the trends of DC comics

Before we get to the racial question, lemme provide a little background here - particularly for those of you who haven't been reading comic books for decades...

Comic books have gone through a number of eras (I'm going to focus primarily on current DC properties here because the subject of today's issue is the trends at DC comics):
  • The Golden Age - (mid 1930's to late 1940's) - before, during, and just after WW II; typified by Superman and Captain Marvel (Shazam); added in a sciency, atomic tone after the war ended; non-white characters were typified by Ebony White (a black face pickaninny who drove The Spirit around) or Chop-Chop (The Blackhawk's buck-toothed Chinese mascot).
  • The Silver Age - (mid 1950's to around 1970) - saw a number of redesigns of Golden Age heroes (Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Superman, Captain America) into the more modern versions that most people recognize now; Marvel's modern heroes appear (Spider-Man, Avengers, Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, X-Men); race fades into the background for the most part as many of the racial stereotypes fade away
  • The Bronze Age - (mid 1970's to mid 1980's) - kept most of the heroes of the Silver Age; shifted the tones of many stories to tackle real-world issues (drug use, racial discrimination, depression, religious differences, cultural shifts of hippies and counter-culture, social inequity); the first major black heroes appear (Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Storm, John Stewart, Blade, Bronze Tiger) all of whom were distinctly Black - defined by being black, not just heroes but Black heroes, often aligned with a sort of crossover from blaxplotation films; saw the publication of the panel shown at the top of this post
  • The Modern (or Dark) Age - (mide 1980's until maybe current) - darker, more violent tone to comic storytelling (typified by Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns); psychological explanations for many of the villains; crossover events every year or two and now seemingly a constant cycle (World War Hulk leading to Civil War leading to Secret Invasion leading to Dark Reign leading to Seige leading to World War Hulks); trade paperback collections become more successful leading to long-form story arcs rather then single-issue stories; new non-black minority characters and revamps come forward (Blue Beetle, The Atom, Firestorm, Green Lantern [Kyle Rayner], Dr. Light, Wildcat)
This, then, is a bit of how we've gotten to where we are and what's happening at DC Comics.  During the Modern Age, there were a number of replacements of older characters with newer version (again), something that seems to come with every new generation of comic book writers.
  • As Green Lantern, Alan Scott (Golden Age) gave way to Hal Jordan (Silver Age) who gave way to John Stewart (Bronze Age) who gave way to Kyle Rayner (Modern Age) - white to white to black to vaguely Hispanic.  
  • The Blue Beetle mantle went from Dan Garrett (Golden Age) to Ted Kord (Silver/Bronze Age) to Jamie Reyes (modern age and Hispanic). 
  • The title of Dr Light, Caucasian villain, shifted to Kimiyo Hoshi, Asian hero.
  • The Atom - Al Pratt (Golden Age, no power, white guy) to Ray Palmer (Silver and Bronze Age, white guy, shrinking powers) to Ryan Choi (Modern Age, born in Hong Kong, shrinking powers).
  • Firestorm - Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein (Silver Age, white guys - don't ask) became Jason Rusch (Modern Age, black teenager).
  • Wildcat - Ted Grant (whit guy, boxer, Golden Age) gave way to a number of other versions including Yolanda Montez (Bronze Age, hispanic). 
  • Batgirl went from Barbara Gordon (Silver Age, red-headed white cutie pie) to Cassandra Cain (Modern Age, Asian).
In the past couple of years, however, DC has seen nearly every one of these changes undone, taking what was becoming a far more racially-diverse DC universe and returning it to a more white/Caucasian/homogeneous past.
  • Hal Jordan was resurrected and returned to prominence as the one, true Green Lantern.
  • Jamie Reyes's new series was canceled.
  • Kimiyo Yoshi was pushed to the background after the use of - and ruination of the name - Dr Light in Identity Crisis.
  • Ryan Choi was killed.
  • Jason Rusch's series was canceled and the black face of Firestorm reverted to the white face of Ronnie Raymond.
  • Yolanda Montez was killed.
  • Cassandra Cain became a mind-controlled villain then retired to be replaced with Stephanie Brown (blond, white cutie-pie) 
  • See a more thorough (if perhaps too much so) list here.
Comic Authority, a comic-themed blog that tends to be far more fanciful than serious, has posted a marvelous piece titled "The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling" by Chris Sims.  Here's Sims's conclusion, though I highly recommend the reading of the entire article:

But you can't really even blame the creators entirely, because it's reinforced by the fans. I'm sure a lot of it comes from the fact that the stories are often good stories (as I said, the Legion stuff isn't necessarily what I want the Legion to be, but it's still very enjoyable), but there's an underlying resistance to change that seems to come out in a far more ugly manner when race is involved. Again, I would certainly hope that the majority of comics fans aren't racist, but I heard John Stewart referred to as "Black Lantern" years before Nekron started sending out rings, and I've heard enough people refer to Jason Rusch as "Blackstorm" to know that a lot of them don't understand that casual racism is still racism.

Which is one of the things that's so galling about the regression from Ryan Choi to Ray Palmer. It's been a running gag among my friends that in comics, only white Americans ever find meteors, get splashed with chemicals or get visited by spacemen, everyone else (from Jack O'Lantern to Black Bison to the Gaucho to Apache Chief to Samurai and so on) has to have a power that relates to their race or their country -- specifically, the broad stereotypes drawn from white Americans' perception of their race or country. It's almost inescapable, and it reinforces the idea that non-white characters are defined solely by their ethnic differences.

But Ryan Choi was a character that actually had a character, and was one of the few Chinese-American characters in comics that didn't have powers relating to Kung Fu dragons. He was just a guy with super-powers that was filling a role that nobody had bothered to do anything with in years.

And now he's been shoved into limbo so that Ray Palmer can come back, reduced to a gentrified footnote so that the DC Universe can a little bit more like it did in 1978.
DC's executive editor, Dan DiDio, responded to Chris's article through an interview at Comic Book Resources (CBR) with a fairly impassioned response:

[CBR] There's been a lot of discussion – and a lot of angry discussion, I'd say – coming out of some of the recent DCU storylines, specifically the death of Ryan Choi in the "Titans" Brightest Day launch...

Didio: And if I could jump in here for a second, I'd ask "What past that?" There seems to be a concern about us pulling back in diversity, and we identify Ryan Choi, but we don't identify what more than that. If you're talking about a single character, we can't run backwards from the way we act and behave with our characters because we're afraid of addressing characters of different race or putting them in stories that are bigger or more exciting, I'm sorry to say. This is an interesting thing to me, because since I've been here, we've been extraordinarily aggressive in trying to bring racial diversity and diversifying our cast of characters as much as possible. That's been part of our agenda for the last five to eight years since I've been here. We're talking about a single character with Ryan Choi, but I'd love to know about examples past that, because at the same time that we've got Ryan Choi, we've got a Great Ten series running. If you look at every team book and everything we're doing, we go to extraordinary lengths to diversify the casts and show our audience in our books.
...which Laura Hudson of Comics Alliance masterfully annotates to provide very specific examples - including the cancellation of the Great Ten series that DiDio defends.

CBR also posted a Quote of the day from DC Senior Story Editor Ian Sattler saying this:
It's so hard for me to be on the other side because it's not our intention. There is a reason behind it all. 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. We have the Great Ten out there and I have counter statistics, but I won't get into that. It's not how we perceived it. We get the same thing about how we treat our female characters.
David Brothers at 4thletter! answers that quote marvelously on his blog:
The 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.


When you consider the trend of how DC has treated its non-white characters (and the fact that this argument has to be phrased in terms of white vs ______ is foul), DC Comics comes off looking pretty stupid. I don’t care whether these characters fit into their Silver Age nostalgia or not. When, as a company, you have made a habit of marginalizing a specific type of character, introducing new characters that you’re going to let die on the vine in an attempt to show how “diverse” you are, and then talking out the side of your mouth in public…
I couldn't have said it better.  Thankfully, David Uzumeri said it very succinctly.



K.C'arl said...

Hey, I just came accross your blog, and there's lots of good points here, many which are valid, but I also feel I may be in dissagreement. I heard about the death of Ryan Choi, but didn't think it was a big deal, and though I can follow the logic of what this article says, I STILL believe it's biased, even the "proof." I myself am Asian, and though I'm sad Ryan Choi is dead, I understand that they wanted to bring Roy back, and well, characters die, and he so happened to be Asian, is how I see it. I read LOTS of DC books. I think DC really tries to be diverse, and IS diverse, but unfortunately sales does factor into some things,.. and Ryan Choi IS just one example of a non-white character who was killed, but many other non-white characters are still around, though perhaps not the most popular characters, or whatever,.. YET. AND, there's also the new black Aqualad, who's gonna be simutaneously introduced in the comics and a new cartoon soon, AND, the new Mexican Blue Beetle though, his book was cancelled due to sales, is featured in Teen Titans, a back-up story in Booster Gold, in Justice League Unlimited AND is in pre-development as a live TV show. Well, I have MUCH more to say about it.. but I really just wanted to do a quick response,.. it's 3AM,.. time for bed,.. thanks for the blog! I do think it serves a good purpose and hope people at DC read it!! Yes, I even though I disagreed on some stuff,.. I still think it can only help diversity and equality, etc... gnite.

PHSChemGuy said...

Thanks, K.C'arl. I dig getting a solid, significant response to any of my posts.

I understand that sales have to be what drive the publications that DC sticks with. They aren't a charity, after all. They are out to make money, not forward any sort of political/inclusionary agenda.

And I don't think DC had any intent to do any sort of purge of the non-white characters of the DC universe. I think that some of those non-white characters were probably not selling well, and DC decided to allow their writers to replace those non-selling characters with older, white iterations of those characters who have a track record of being stronger sellers.

In the short run, they're probably all good decisions. I know Hal Jordan. I dig him. I'm comfortable with him. I like reading stories about him. The same is kind of true for the other characters they've flashed back to. They're the characters of my childhood, and I'd miss them if they weren't around. To me, The Atom is Roy Palmer not Ryan Choi.

I appreciate that DC needs to let those characters grow on the readers for the long-term because at some point, selling DC comics only to white guys only isn't going to be a successful business strategy.

They're smarter business folks than I am, so I'm sure they know about the changing demographic than I did, and I appreciate that they've made attempts to include a more diverse hero community. They have to know that they are going to need female, Asian, Hispanic characters in the long run, and I hope that those are good characters more than they are minority characters.