On Changing Race and Gender in Comics

Thor Jane Foster On Changing Race and Gender in Comics

Why change the race, gender, or orientation of comic characters? This isn’t a new question. This subject has been the topic of burning conversation for at least the last four years, and if history remains true to its age-old tricks, it’s probably been raised before. Oftentimes the question is… why?

Most of the character changes within comic books have been from white (usually male) to some other demographic. Most of those who are angry about this are usually white (and usually male) individuals. This leads most people to quickly jump to the easy answer:

“Well… they’re racist (or sexist, or homophobic).”

In many cases, this is absolutely the truth. In fact, some of these ideologies of the default (straight, white male) are so well conditioned into the minds of the masses that they may not even realize how that can be viewed as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Plus, this conditioning doesn’t only affect white people, even if they are usually the prime culprits. Still, the easy answer isn’t always the right answer. Some folks have different reasons.

If it Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Several individuals who are upset about character changes have a vast range of arguments: “Racial inclusion undermines what should just be a good story,” or “I only want new original characters, not changes to the old ones,” or “You don’t deserve to see yourself in comics, that’s a form of special entitlement.” Some of these arguments are mild-mannered, but most of them imply that representation either doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or is downright detrimental to stories.

People who care about diversity do not want to destroy all white characters. There is no endgame plan to replace all white characters with new black and brown characters. The characters are who they are, and in most cases, we don’t really have a desire to change them, and we love them just the same as others. There may be cases where we don’t mind a change (like when Sam Wilson became Captain America), but we don’t have picket signs up begging to erase white male characters.

Some even go so far as to say that race and other demographics shouldn’t matter as much as story. There have been cases of diverse people saying that they aren’t defined by their race and don’t care what characters look (or act) like. Frankly, I’d call that cognitive dissonance and a major result of conditioning. I strongly doubt you’d like to go through life and never see a character that more closely represents you, or rather anything other than the repeat standard.

Captain America Secret Empire 10 On Changing Race and Gender in Comics

Here’s the issue: because white is the default and has been since comics started in America, white characters dominate the industry. Most of us love these characters and do not care that they are white, but it doesn’t change the fact that it naturally marginalizes other demographics. While there were pushes with books like Teen Titans, X-Men, and New Mutants, the fact remains that most of the most popular characters are white, and unless someone stands up and demands something different, it will likely stay that way.

Seriously, who wants to see the same thing all the time? Sure, you can make several stories with all white leads, and they may all be enjoyable, but at a certain point don’t you wonder what that story would be like with a different cultural lens on it? Culture and diversity inherently create stories, even if the stories aren’t focused on that culture. Let me make this clear: diverse people aren’t only looking for stories that are all about that culture, we simply want to see our culture naturally implemented in them. And yes, we also want to see stories that specifically highlight our culture as well. Representation matters. As Vita Ayala put it:

We all know that representation is important. It’s not a hash tag. It’s true. You know the stories about people seeing Nichelle Nichols being inspired to run for office or become astronauts. They saw black people in space and thought “Wait, I can do that. That’s real.”

Vita Ayala, interviewed by Heidi MacDonald at The Beat

So? Make New Characters

I’d bet we’ve all heard that one before. It’s an easy response from those that don’t really want change or are ignorant about how difficult that process is. Not to mention that they don’t see the importance of representation. Making any new character is difficult in the Big Two. With the fact that racism, sexism, and homophobia is still very much alive, that creates an even more difficult task. So yes, there have been new diverse characters completely separate from any previous titles, and in some cases, they have had at least mild success (Doctor Aphra, Silencer), but that success has been mostly more notable in indie and creator-owned comics.

Marvel and DC are monoliths, and though they’ve both made efforts to create diverse characters, sometimes less often than more, the turnout isn’t always a positive one. With large groups like comics gate looking to tear down any push for anything diverse, influential bias makes it difficult for even established books to get moving (Power Man and Iron Fist, Nighthawk, Black Panther & The Crew).

Marassa-Voodoo On Changing Comic Characters
From Marassa #1 by Greg Elysee

But when it comes to publishers like Image, Lion Forge, Valiant, or Boom Studios, the demographics and interests are different. All of those titles are something different, not attached to a larger multi-decade old universe, and are more readily accepted by fans. Self-published comics make huge efforts to create diverse characters and the public responds in kind. The thing is, the right people need to be behind these companies and enough individuals must be willing to put in the hard work to create these indies. It’s not easy.

But Are They Really Changing?

So, with all this uproar about “SJW’s” taking over comics and replacing all the white characters with diverse ones, no seems to be asking the question… are they really even changing? It looks to me more like the titles were (temporarily) handed off.

In Ultimate Spider-Man (The Ultimate Universe that was destroyed in 2015’s Secret Wars event from Marvel comics), Afro-Latino Miles Morales took on the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker died. This was a big deal, because Spider-Man is one of the most beloved characters in comics, and that was quite the change. Still, this was only in the alternate universe, and since Miles has been brought to the main universe, Parker is still around.

Spider-Man Miles On Changing Race and Gender in Comics

Thor lost his worthiness, dropped his hammer, and Jane Foster picked it up. She became Thor. However, Odinson didn’t leave, he simply wasn’t the main character. Tony Stark fell into a coma and the Iron Man title briefly went to Riri Williams, a young black girl. Stark has since awakened, has his own book, and Riri has her own as Iron Heart. Kamala became Ms. Marvel, and Carol became the Captain. Falcon became Captain America, and Steve Rogers still had his own run, and has since returned (while Falcon has none).

There’s a trend here. It looks like most of these characters only briefly took the titles, and the original characters themselves weren’t actually gone, just temporarily moved from the spotlight. This was a really smart way to bring diverse characters in because it got eyes on them by putting them on main titles.

This was a bold move, and yes, sales were certainly affected (in the negative), but it was a push that created fans for them, mostly among the diverse community. And now, with them in their own books, and the originals back, Marvel now has more books for more people. Seems that drastic measures had to be taken just to get that diversity, but it’s a risk that needed and still needs to be taken. Scott Synder said it best in his tweet here:

The only actual evidence of changing characters completely are in instances like DC’s New 52 changing Etta Candy to a black woman and military operative, or the introduction of the alternate version of the young black Wally West. Ironically, I haven’t heard quite as many complaints about this as I have for many Marvel characters.

As for characters changing sexual orientation? Well, I think the LGBTQ community may have something to say about how difficult it can be to come out of the closet. When we see characters like Iceman, one of the original five X-Men, there’s a perfect example there. X-Men writer Fabian Nicieza commented here:

On Screen

Characters in TV and movies changing from white to something else should not matter. Why? The same reason I mentioned earlier: characters have been predominantly white for ages, and a new fresh take isn’t always such a bad idea. This should still be done without tokenism or pandering, but in most cases I welcome it. It’s nice to see a black family in The Flash, or Zazie Beetz kick ass as Domino in Deadpool 2. People like to see themselves in awesome roles and with there being so few, should we be so limited to the exact iteration of the published characters? I think not.

Domino Deadpool 2 Zazie Beetz On Changing Race and Gender in Comics

Plus, these beloved characters are different versions anyways. The only things that should be prioritized and maintained is who they are… in action. Their true character is their passion, ideals, code of honor, morality, or lack thereof. If those things are intact it shouldn’t matter if they aren’t white.

On the flip side, changing marginalized characters to white? Not so great a move. This falls under white-washing. One may ask, why are we allowed to change from white to diverse, and not the reverse? Easy: white is the default. There is no need for more of it when it’s most of what we see already. So, to change something that we have little of to that default? That’s when we engage the racist side-eye.

More on the “Wash”

Still don’t think that’s a good enough argument? Where’s the “proof” that white people are dominant in most forms of media? Well you can either turn on your TV and flip through your channels, walk down the aisles of your comic shop, or… open a children’s book.

Since the default affects all forms of Americanized media, it doesn’t hurt to draw data from other forms of visual literature. Children’s books aren’t comics, but as far containing pictures and telling stories, they are not far from comics on the visual spectrum of media. In 2015, an image was drawn up by David Huyck, in consultation with Sarah Park Dahlen and Molly Beth Griffin, to depict the stats.

by David Huyck

The numbers don’t lie, and while comic books would not have the exact same number, this would not be a bad comparison.

The Wrap-Up

No one is replacing white characters, and no one has a desire to do so. However, there is a strong desire among some parties to exclude new diverse characters, and that is a major issue. Representation is important. Culture is important, and it’s about time we left behind old notions of what “comics are supposed to be.” Stop insinuating that people are putting “identity politics” before good story and accept the fact that culture should always be a part of good story. Read comics and have fun. And Remember Miles’s words:

“Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.”

Miles Morales, Into the Spider-Verse
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AKA Sceritz, AKA Ophan Black Panther. A cosmic obliterator of the IVth Wall and breaker of chains of the hordes of fandoms scattered throughout the multiverse. Architect of DoYouEvenComicBook.com and Creator of IVWall.net.

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Jose L
July 26, 2019 9:14 pm

You obviously have not done enough research. Before I start my rant a little about me. 1- I’m mixed 2-I’m not gay but I have spent years performing as a dancer/actor in LGBTQ clubs for over 15 years making lots of dear friends and meeting a ton of great people along the way. 3-My best friend is Trans. 4-My kids are half Mexican and 5 I live in a part of California that is still unapologetically racist and I dealt… Read more »