Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Race and Gender in Comic Books

Marvel made an unusual move this week by making a major comic book announcement on The View: The new wielder of the power of Thor is going to be a woman.

Is this Thor being replaced or is this Thor turned into a woman?  We don't know all the details yet, but Marvel's gambit has worked and people who don't really pay attention to comics have taken notice.

But what I would like to address is a trend in comics of changing the race and gender of characters.

Introducing new characters into a title isn't anything new.  The Silver Age brought in new versions of characters like Green Lantern and the Flash.  And then later, even these characters were replaced (at least for a time).  DC introduced a black Green Lantern, John Stewart.  He still serves as a Green Lantern along with Simon Baz, an American of Arabic descent.

Over at Marvel, they replaced Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe with half-black/half-hispanic Miles Morales.  Carol Danvers, known as Ms. Marvel, has taken the previously male role of Captain Marvel.  And now the name Ms. Marvel is being used my an Arab-American girl in her own comic.

The two major companies constantly try to outdo each other in diversity outreach.  It makes sense in an attempt to increase the market by accessing new customers.  One of the primary pulls of the superhero genre is the ability of those (especially the young) to see themselves in the role of the hero.  The more that the character has in common with the reader, the easier it is to identify with them.

I can give you a non-comic book example of this.  When I was younger, I self identified much more with the Asian side of my ethnicity.  As a result, I became very attached to Asian characters in movies and TV.  I watched Bruce Lee's movies over and over.  I loved imagining I was Short Round, accompanying Indy on his adventures.  Now, this didn't mean that I couldn't identify with non-Asian characters, but I can see how the racial or gender component can aid in making that emotional connection.

For the most part, I haven't noticed people in the comic book community very bothered by this.  Most geeks like me see the superhero cannon as a big tent with lots of room.

The problem occurs when they change the race or gender of a character.  For example, Wally West was recently introduced into the New 52.  He is no longer the red-headed family man, but a bi-racial teen.  And now the news of Thor possibly becoming a woman is upsetting to some.

Now, I hesitate even bringing this topic up, seeing as they are hot-button issues and there is already a heightened sense of emotion in this matter.  But it should be addressed.

Giving a superhero code name to someone of a different race or gender is very different than changing the race or gender of the character per se.

The popular internet opinion is that anyone who disagrees with a race/sex change has an objection rooted in racism or sexism.  But I think that is simply a red herring, meant to shame those who have a disagreeing view.

I want to limit my discussion to comic books alone and not to movie and TV adaptation where racial and gender changes are common.  Instead, we have to take the comic genre by itself.  The reason why is that comics are a purely visual medium.

The entire experience of reading a comic book is the visual.  Unlike a movie that employs sound, motion, music, and the like, the only information provided is what you see.  Your imagination has to fill in the details regarding what the character sounds like, what the environment feels like, etc.  Because of this, the visual design and details can be more important than in other media.

We comic book readers become very attached to the way a character looks because that is the most identifiable and unique feature about them.  Changing race and gender in movies and TV adaptions is much more acceptable because of the elements of voice, talent, physical prowess and other qualities that are not needed in depicting a character in a comic book.

This is one of the reasons comic book fans get very opinionated about even the slightest costume change.  Even the smallest change has a strong impact on how you encounter the character.

And then when you change the race or gender, it is obviously a much deeper change.  We are used to people changing clothes, but changing skin color or sex is much more radical.  The reason why is because it would be an intense physical change.  But this is not rooted in any kind of racism or sexism, but with our given expectations of the character.

Imagine a blond Superman?
A male Wonder Woman?
An Asian Luke Cage?

Racial changes are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.  But it is a big change.  To deny that is to   ignore the purely visual nature of comics.  Going back to Wally West, I very much miss his red hair.  But this has nothing to do with his race.  If they kept him caucasian and made him a brunette, it would be just as jarring to me.

Changing sex is a much bigger deal.  Unlike race, sexual differences are rooted in our nature.  And these differences are essential.  You can say that Wally West is the same character no matter his race and it could be true.  But if you say that Thor is the same character no matter his gender, this is incorrect.   I am not saying that you cannot have interesting and entertaining stories about a female wielder of Mjolnir.  But you can't change genders the way you change costumes.

So to sum up, racial and gender changes are big deals because they radically change the look of a character in a medium that is purely visual.  This change is neither good nor bad by its nature but that doesn't change the fact that it is a radical change.  Finally, changing gender is a much bigger deal than changing race because sexual differences changes the character at their essence.




    1. Thank you for the link. This gets back to my point. There is precedent for someone else stepping up and someone besides Steve Rogers being Captain America, most recently Bucky Barnes. As I wrote, many different people have taken on the same superhero mantle.

      For me, the news isn't that someone of a different skin color will become Cap, but that anyone other than Steve Rogers will step into the role. Replacing the original character isn't always bad (e.g. Kyle Rayner, Wally West, etc), but I approach with apprehension because it is still a BIG change.