Over the last decade or so, there has been a growing movement to reboot characters in comic books and other media with a different race, gender, culture, etc. The effort has been part of an attempt to both diversify the character base to be more representative and inclusive as well as attract a wider audience with characters with greater appeal.
Some characters such as Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury or Miles Morales as Spider-man have enjoyed widespread acceptance and interest while others such as Idris Elba’s Heimdall or Michael B. Jordan’s Human Torch have met with criticism by small, but vocal groups of critics who consider these changes to be a betrayal to the source material that is “destroying” the characters and mythos…
It is a fair criticism to raise the question; to look at characters who have been represented in one way for generations and ask whether changing their race, gender or ethnicity is necessary. We have characters that have been around for generations, so why mess with canon? The quick and easy answer is that our world has changed; diversity is much more important today than it was 50 years ago. Today’s readership is more ethnically diverse and culturally competent than just one generation back, much less two or three. In order to keep the medium of comics going, not to mention increase sales and interest, characters need to appeal the more diverse consumer.
One might ask, is it not enough to merely create more characters? Can’t we simply add an additional X-Man or another Justice Leaguer? The short answer is no, because:
- They generally don’t last.
- They don’t have an established fan base which then leads to the first point.
One simply has to look at DC’s New Guardians from the 1980’s or the 1990’s X-Men Gateway and Maggot to get an idea of what I mean. The longer answer, however, is more important. By rebooting classic properties like Marvel and DC comics have been doing, they are also addressing the generational segregation of comics. It is only within my generation that the first African American superheroes have been introduced, much less starred in their own series. Comics before that were segregated with Black characters largely relegated to subservient, stereotypical roles and caricatured features (Whitewash Jones anyone?)
To give you an example, let’s look at Black comic book characters over the years, starting with the Golden Age. The first major black character was the supporting role of Lothar from Mandrake the Magician, created by Lee Falk, also of The Phantom fame. Lothar was introduced in 1934 and was uncharacteristically treated more as a partner than a servant. However, much of who he was fit the classic “noble savage” stereotype: he was a former “Prince of the Seven Nations” (sometimes referred to as deposed king), a federation of jungle tribes, but passed on the chance to become king and instead followed Mandrake on his world travels, fighting crime. He was often referred to as the strongest man in the world, and although initially an illiterate exotic dressed in animal skins who provided brawn to complement Mandrake’s brain on their adventures, he was modernized in 1965 to dress in suits and speak standard English.
The 1940’s saw a rather stark contrast because the only Black character of Marvel (then Timely) Comics was Whitewash Jones, member of the Young Allies, a group of non-costumed teenage crime fighters to complement and bolster Captain America and the Human Torch’s sidekicks, Bucky and Toro. Whitewash was typical in the minstrel-esque portrayal, right down to his dialogue and clothes. The character was so offensive that he was cleverly rebranded in 2009 with a Bucky (then serving as Captain America) “memory” story, which explained Whitewash’s portrayal as a matter of national security, but one which the characters complained about themselves.
Juxtaposed against Lothar and Whitewash was the other major portrayal from the 1940s, All Negro Comics. Published in 1947, it was a single-issue, small-press American comic book that represents the first known comic written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists and geared towards and African American audience.
Launched by Orrin Cromwell Evans, the first African American writer to cover general assignments for a mainstream white newspaper in the United States (Philadelphia Record), the comic was unique. The paper closed down shortly after WWII, and Evans formed All Negro Comics, Inc. with former Record staff: Harry Saylor, Editor; Bill Driscoll, Sports Editor. It was 48 standard-size pages, and featured characters like “Ace Harlem”, a private detective, and “Lion Man”, a college-educated African American sent by the United Nations on a mission to a uranium deposit on Africa’s Gold Coast. All Negro Comics, Inc. only produced the one issue of the comic and it didn’t circulate outside the black community, but it is still widely acknowledged as a unique effort for the time.
It would be another eight years before another Black character was introduced into the world of comics . . . in the Silver Age.