Spider-Man and Other Moments of Comics Discrimination (One in a Series of I Don’t Know How Many)

For those of you who have just gotten out of bed this morning, gotten through that first cup of coffee, driven into the office, logged on, and chatted around the water cooler. For those of you who have gotten the kids off to day camp, or just gotten showered up and ready for your day after that 3-mile run. For all of you who have just logged on to the computer, you should know that this is a historic day. Spider-Man is black.

Let me have a couple of other gentlemen bring you up to speed on what's happening out there.

Ferrett Steinmetz talks about how the new Spider-Man is destined, ultimately, for second banana-hood.

Jim Hines talks about the less than flattering reaction.

***

I am a white ally. I have also read comic books since I consumed them rabidly in college (circa 1983 if you're counting.) And while I have not been up on things like the Marvel Ultimate Series, or say, Blackest Night, I'm savvy enough about comics to still know what's going on, and I still read the occasional comic from the main companies.

Here's our new Spider-Man. Maybe I'm getting older and my maternal instinct is kicking in because he looks like such a little boy who needs a hug. And given some of the reaction to him, he probably does, although as an adolescent, he'd have to pretend not to like it.

What is the problem? With a good creative team behind the book, and a progressive concept, I'm delighted. I'm going to have my grouchy old comics guy add this book to my monthly haul, because Ferrett recommends Bendis, and so I'm happy to take a look.

But Jim's article tells you what the problem is. And while Ferrett is right, that part of the problem is that Old Men of the Silver Age (TM) detest change, the links in Jim's article go way beyond Superman's Bootgate. This kind of unexamined racism (the only way we can fight racism, white people, is to look it squarely in the eye and ask ourselves important questions) is knee jerk and ugly. Anyone who is that afraid of the other that they have to slip in de-humanization mode has some serious issues.

But I'm really off topic here. I thought that it might be educational to talk about some other moments of comic fail that I can remember from my time reading Comics. Three things spring immediately to mind, and I'll talk about these and more eventually. First I'll have a chat about Heimdall in this summer's Thor movie. Then I'll move on to the reboot of Captain America's sidekick Bucky as a black man (oy. They figured it out later, but they were none too smart to do this.) And then, there's Babs Gordon's recent return to the walking in the DC reboot of Batgirl.

Of course, if you like, I can refer you to some historical travesties with a little research, but I thought it might be more interesting to talk about those things things that have occurred in my lifetime. Because you know, we solved that whole discrimination thing in the 60s and 70s.

***

As many of you know from my glowing review of Thor, I'd been waiting for Thor for a long time. In general, all of the characters in Thor are white, with the possible exception of Hogun the Grim, whom some speculate may be Mongol. (What he's doing in Asgard, I've no idea. However, Thor is really a redhead, and I'm not sure where he got the peroxide.) There was a fannish kerfluffle when it was announced that Heimdall, watcher of Bifrost, would be black.

Heimdall was played by mega-hunk Idris Elba. Elba is very popular in Britain, perhaps best known for his role as the lead in the television thriller Luther. I know him best from Ultraviolet, the British vampire series from 1998. Elba's acting credits are versatile and prestigious. He played Heimdall straight and stoic, with a tiny bit of humor thrown in. It was one of the most riveting performances in the film.

What was the problem? I hesitate to use the word purists in this context, but you know, Norse mythology is full of Norse people, and they are white. The population of Norway is becoming more diverse, but the traditional stories are about Teutons and Scandinavians.

Of course, any story about the gods is imaginary. In Norse mythology, you have blue frost giants, red flame demons, and vaguely lavender elves. There is no rule that says a god must be made in the image of the people who worship it. None of the Egyptian Gods are, really. My imagination can extend to black Heimdall.

Not everyone's could.

***

And so, as we continually struggle with these issues of difference, let us remember that in the realm of the fantastic, we can be better than we are in real life. Isn't that what fantasy's all about? I refuse to let my comics be hemmed in by your dangerous stereotypes and pre-conceived notions.

Next up: the Bucky mistake.

7 thoughts on “Spider-Man and Other Moments of Comics Discrimination (One in a Series of I Don’t Know How Many)

  1. I thought Idris Elba rocked Heimdall. I was skeptical at first, based only on knowing him from his less-than-heroic turn on The Wire. But he pulled it off.

    These character makeovers are always complicated by issues of race. I think Samuel L. Jackson is ludicrous as Nick Fury in the recent Marvel outings, for example. The character has been transformed from a hard-boiled, cigar-chomping war veteran to - essentially - Jules from Pulp Fiction with an eyepatch and a leather trenchcoat.
    I would welcome a black Fury that exhibited some of the same characteristics as the original character; I guess I just disagree with the casting.

    I'd be interested in your take on Avengers #200, featuring the violation and abduction of Marvel Girl and her teammates sending them on their merry way with well wishes. Ah, the 70s.

  2. I like Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury.

    The events in Avengers #200 come back to bite the Avengers in the butt in a later issue. But yeah, that was a pretty scary comic. It might be worth talking about. I'll see what I can do.

    Cath

  3. Spider man could be a black, Latino, lesbian woman. As long as she makes with the webs and the ass-kicking. I'm good.

  4. I have two thoughts about this...
    I cheer the attempt to increase the number of non-blue races in comics, but I wonder if they're taking the easy way out of taking a traditional white hero and just "putting them in black-face." How respectful is it to just switch the skin color of Spiderman, instead of creating a kick-ass black/Latino hero from the beginning? Maybe somebody who has that background can tell me if I'm way off the mark here...

  5. I don't think you're off the mark. I think we need more baseline ethnic heroes. Are you familiar with Dwayne McDuffie's work on the Milestone Universe? That was a solid attempt. I'll find some time to talk about that.

    Catherine

  6. My favorite reaction to the Heimdall issue -- I mean genuinely favorite, not a sarcastic commentary -- is this one, by a medievalist studying Norse sagas. (And also rewriting Star Wars as an Old Norse saga, which is a project I adore, because really, who wouldn't?)

    Stephanie: I agree, as a general rule. However, comics also has a long tradition of "passing on the mantle," when a hero dies or retires (or changes his/her name and insignia as a dramatic self-reinvention, or goes through one of any number of different plot twists...) It's not common, but it's very far from unheard of. This is in the Ultimates universe, a separate continuity from main Marvel canon, where Peter Parker is dead, and this is a totally separate character taking up the mask rather than a reinvention of Peter's ethnicity. (Apologies if you already knew that! I've just seen some people confused -- very reasonably so -- by the continuity issue, and wasn't sure from your phrasing if you were or not.)

    Anyway, I think there are benefits to both approaches. Creating a new character with a new name and so forth is great, because it lets that character establish his or her own identity and motivation right from the get-go, instead of riding on another character's coattails. On the other hand, a newly established main character has to work to get readers, because they probably don't have any emotional investment to start with. So the writers are gambling that they can attract readers to pick up the issue in the first place, and then hook them fast on an unfamiliar character. This is especially true when it's a solo hero, rather than a new member of an established team, and (to my knowledge) Spider-Man's always been mostly solo.

    Giving the Spider-Man or Superman or Batman name to a new character automatically brings some audience with it. Yeah, you're going to have some backlash about the change even with the least controversial successor possible. But you're also going to have readers who go, "Huh, someone else is Spider-Man now? Well, let's see how they handle this." Everybody knows who Spider-Man is, even if they're not especially comics fans. Hardly anyone is going to care about New Character Man, unless the writer and artist and luck/convenience/etc make them care. And, in this particular continuity, they'd already killed Peter Parker. The options now are: a) leave Spider-Man dead for the time being, and have no Spider-Man line; b) bring Peter Parker back to life; or c) pass the Spider-Man mantle to somebody else. While I totally agree that there should be more new characters outside the traditional white-guy range, I also think it's cool that they opted for a black/Hispanic kid when they went for option c, instead of another white guy. I think it's valuable to have a mix of both approaches: adding diversity with new superheroes, but also adding diversity to the existing lines that are already popular.

    ...Wow, that got more long-winded than I planned. Heh, sorry.

    (Disclaimer: I am a comics fan, but something of a desultory one, and I've never followed Spider-Man especially. Also, I am white.)

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