Monday, June 05, 2006

The Many Faces of Superheroes

Aside from being superheroes, what do Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Henry Pym, Bruce Banner, Donald Blake, Peter Parker, Scott Summers, Logan, Bobby Drake, Warren Worthington III, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Kyle Rayner, Wally West, Carter Hall, Arthur Curry, Eel O'Brien, Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, Jim Corrigan, Ted Knight, Wesley Dodds and Kent Nelson all have in common?

They're all white, heterosexual males.

They're also among the most prominent and well known superheroes in both the Marvel and DC Universe.

It took a long time before comic book publishers really started to make their characters more ethnically diverse, and at first the attempts to broaden the pool were little more than racial stereotypes.

There were heroines right from the beginning, of course. But the female heroes were drastically outnumbered by the male ones. In the Fantastic Four, we had one female character to counter three men.

The Avengers only had a single female member in their original line-up, and the average person on the street would be hard-pressed to name a superheroine from the DC Universe, other than Wonder Woman, who isn't simply a female counterpart to a better known male hero.

The female characters also were rarely as strong or tough or offensively capable as their male teammates. Sue Storm originally was only able to turn invisible, with her force fields coming later. The Wasp was able to shrink and fly, both useful, but hardly on power with the power of Thor, Iron Man or Giant-Man.

Marvel's X-Men were one of the first places we got to see some diversity in race. The "New X-Men" included heroes from Russia, Germany, Japan and Kenya, and brought in Japanese, Native American and African heroes, who were more than packages of stereotypical behavior. And the numbers grew from there. But for every Storm or Cyborg, we were forced to endure a Black Lightning or Afro-wearing Power Man.

Even today, there is a disproportionate number of white, heterosexual, Christian men in our superheroes. The number of characters who break this mold is slowly growing, but it's a slow process.

Following Infinite Crisis, DC has made a real strong push at diversifying their character base. In the wake of the crisis, Firestorm has become a black man (this actually occurred before Infinite Crisis, but not long before), the Blue Beetle scarab has gone to a Hispanic boy, the Spectre has merged with an African-American Gotham policeman, and the new Batwoman, Kathy Kane, has been announced to be a lesbian.

This last item has attracted an undue amount of attention and controversy in my opinion. The simple fact is that there is a sizable homosexual population in the world, and it was ridiculous that there were so few superheroes in the GLBT community. In the mainstream Marvel and DC Universe, it's difficult to think of a single well-known gay superhero. Northstar just doesn't cut it by himself. Marvel's Ultimate continuity has opened it up a bit more, by making that version of Piotyr Rasputin a homosexual man.

Now, Kathy Kane has the potential to be nothing more than an exploitative way to sell comics with the promise of "hawt lesbian grrlz doin' it". But I have faith in DC's ability to make her an interesting character, who serves as a legitimate member of the superhero community. Sadly, we're another seven weeks away from her debut in 52: Week Eleven, so I guess we'll have to wait until then to judge.

My final thought on it is that comic books are no longer solely aimed at white, heterosexual boys, and the heroes who appear in comic books should be reflective of the population of the world as it really is. I don't suddenly want to see all new heroes be "ethnically diverse", but I'd like to see more heroes cut from that cloth. I'd be annoyed to see characters created simply for the sake of "We need another Hispanic superhero," but there is always room for new superheroes, from any race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.


Blogger Al B Here said...

I can appreciate your perspective on the need for ethnic diversity. Will we attract more hispanic readership if we create more hispanic heroes? After all, people (kids more specifically) are attracted to things they can relate to. So from that perspective, I give the thumbs up to creating new and interesting characters who are not some hokey stereotype. I believe the Avengers character "Rage" would fall into that category (at least I think that was his name).

The thing I *do* object to is the altering of existing characters who have a long and interesting legacy. Was it really necessary to change Nick Fury's race? The character has been around for 43 years now! If you want a black general, then make a black general. Just don't name him after a character who's been around since the founding of the Marvel Universe. Same goes for the altering of the Kingpin in the Daredevil movie. Was that really necessary? And wouldn't it be more fitting that Kingpin REMAIN white, if only to avoid depicting blacks as villains and crooks all the time? Just my opinion.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as Bat Woman being a Lesbian - the main writer behind the character is a bi sexual woman- I I have a little faith that it will be handled somewhat tastful at least

3:31 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I generally agree with you, but since the Ultimate Universe is a complete re-imagining, it doesn't bother me all that much. Changing the Kingpin's race in Daredevil I thought was a bit more unforgivable.

I'm actually quite hopeful, and expect the character to be handled well.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

If there is a move to bring more ethnic diversity to the superhero side, should there also be an equal movement to bring ethnic diversity to the supervillain side?

The supervillain side suffers from the same problem. Most of the prominent names like Lex Luthor, the Joker (and most of Batman's rogue gallery), Magneto, the Red Skull, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Doom are white, heterosexual males.

Or should this equalizing be steered away from in order not to further stereotypes about some minorities being more criminally minded?

The only time I've seen to diversify the villain side was when Brian K. Vaughan did it in Runaways. His reasoning made sense, but it did offend some readers who thought (before he explained his reasoning) that he was furthering racial sterotypes.

What's your take on this issue?

7:29 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Sure, it should. But it's much less urgent. The reason I want to see more diversity is so that someone other than white boys can look at comic books and find someone to admire.

But you might notice that of the names you listed, three of the characters are "foreigners". I don't have statistics to point to, but I'm certain that there are more black, hispanic and asian supervillains then there are superheroes, at least in Marvel and DC comics.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Nico said...

I'm pretty forgiving about changing ethnicity for movies when the reason is the quality of the actor. Especially if the ethnicity isn't important to the character.

For example, Magneto needs to be white. You wouldn't have found a non-white Jew in a Nazi camp. The Mighty Thor would need to look Nordic, he's a Norse god. On the other hand there's no reason Hawkeye couldn't be Hispanic or Tony Stark be Black.

It all depends on how its handled and why it's being done.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous said...

As a black kid growing up reading comix, i never noticed at all.
As a black adult reading comix I don't really notice that much.

Black Lightning and Luke Cage were kind of like add on's. I never read BL till i was older and laughed at the attempt.

Powerman was done better, but evidently didn't hold up as well. the Mini Series a few years ago was great and I hoped that there would be a continuation but it didn't pan out.

When Green Lantern went black, i didn't notice.
I didn't blink when War Machine came into being.
I liked Steel, he was well done and well written.

I don't really care about homosexual superheroes because I don't really care if my superheroes are getting it on. Well except for the Hulk and Shulkie, Something about green...

11:04 AM  
Anonymous R.C. said...

I was just talking with my roommate about how much I loved the Ultimate version of Colossus having a crush on Logan. She asked, well, aren't there any other gay superheroes? And I said... well, there's Northstar... and then I drew a blank. Then the conversation branched into women and non-white heroes... and I pretty much said what you did here: Sue Storm, and *cough* Black Lightning... yeah... Anyway, I know it's an age-old post, but just glad to know that I'm not the only one who saw the tokenism and stereotyping as a non-solution. Good post.

3:59 AM  

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