Much ado about regression

I think that Chris Sims’s piece on “the racial politics of regressive storytelling”–by which he means the way that resurrecting the original versions of characters like Green Lantern, the Atom, the Legion of Super-Heroes and so on has the unintended but unavoidable effect of re-whitening these franchises–ignores a lot of important details and thus badly misdiagnoses the source of this problem. But I’ll start by pointing out its strengths: Yeah, you know what, it is weird that concepts like the Flash and the Legion are so nostalgic despite being literally about forward motion and the future, as Sims points out on his own blog (though I like Geoff Johns’s takes on those characters anyway). Also, this isn’t exactly news, but it is indeed silly the way so many ethnic characters have nationality-or-stereotype-based powers (though as Sims notes, that’s true of plenty of nominally “white” European characters as well–Banshee, anyone?). And in general, it’s certainly not healthy for the superhero genre to be so inward-looking; as Sims notes, we’re a long way from Frank Miller and Alan Moore, whose successes stemmed in part from bringing in outside influences and from their restless desire to do things that hadn’t been done with these characters and concepts before. Finally, Sims is quite right to point out the grotesque undercurrent of majoritarian whinging you occasionally detect from fans, marginalizing non-white characters like John Stewart as “Black Lantern” and bitching about Idris Elba and Michael Clarke Duncan getting cast in movies and so on.

But while Sims’s central argument can’t really be denied–obviously, replacing (say) the Asian-American Atom or African-American Firestorm with their Caucasian forerunners does indeed make the DC line-up that much whiter–I think blaming it, as he does, on blinkered and compulsive nostalgia-mongering is misleading.

First of all, I’ve always thought the “legacy” concept, by which older characters are replaced by younger ones who inherit their basic costume-and-power-set concept, is one of the weirdest and lamest things about superhero comics. If Lost introduced a new doctor character with short hair and daddy issues and called him Jack, would it be “galling” or “regressive” for the audience, or subsequent writers, to want to bring the original guy back? Perhaps once upon a time, in its original form, when then-defunct Golden Age characters were replaced by Silver Age characters who were like totally different things, giving an old character’s name to a new one was the sort of forward-thinking freshmaker that Douglas Wolk has argued it is. But that’s very different from the “legacy” concept we know today–as I’ve said before, they’re all about new characters’ compulsion to live up to their forebears, no more forward-thinking than my college buddy’s dad naming him William Howard Taft V.

Secondly, I’m frankly not convinced that very many of these characters are such great losses beyond the surface value of their, uh, surfaces. Ryan Choi and Jason Rusch, the most recent Atom and Firestorm, are the stars of canceled series with no evident fanbase. At any rate, they’re still around and useable, and in fact they’ve both starred in big-deal event comics lately (Ryan in Cry for Justice, Jason in the ongoing Brightest Day where he shares the Firestorm powers with his white forerunner Ronnie Raymond). I also think it’s a stretch for Sims to rope newer Flash Wally West into the argument because his wife is…Korean-American, I guess, though you’d never know it from looking at any of the pictures I’ve ever seen of her. Ditto newer Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who apparently and hilariously was retconned into being Latino. If you have to cite Yolanda Montez to shore up your argument, you’re grasping. (“Who?” Exactly.) As for the Legion, even semi-seriously citing that green skins/blue skins/black skins line is indicative of how goofy this is. And the less said Sims’s likening of the creation of an alternate Earth for more recent iterations of old superhero concepts to “the unintentional building of a cosmic-scale meta-textual ghetto,” the better.

In a nutshell, I think Sims’s argument is DC-based by necessity, since that’s the universe where the most prominent non-white characters have tended to be revamps of preexisting superhero mantles previously held by white dudes. If you look at most of the better, longest-lasting, most prominent superheroes who aren’t white–Storm, Luke Cage, Black Panther–they’re their own thing, not substitutes for previous characters. To filter it through a more familiar lens, I think it’s widely accepted that superheroines are considered lame is that so many of them are obvious, borderline creepy knock-off versions of the male characters like She-Hulk, Spider-Woman. (I think Supergirl and Batgirl clicked because they’re more like sidekicks.) Again, the ones who really work–Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, the Invisible Woman, Storm again–tend to be their own thing.

Moreover, and contra the likes of the DC characters mentioned above, the big Marvel non-white characters are associated with influential, acclaimed runs by important creators: Storm’s from the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne X-Men, Luke Cage was rescued from obscurity by peak-of-his-powers Brian Michael Bendis for Alias and then placed at the forefront of the company-defining New Avengers, Black Panther is a goddamn Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four castmember. I know plenty of ’90s-era comics readers who are fond of Kyle or Wally and his wife Linda, and there are any number of superhero blogs who could tell you how much they enjoyed the low-double-digit runs of the recent Blue Beetle or Firestorm comics, but we’re clearly on a different level here.

Now, I know that the “one true versions” of Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), the Flash (Barry Allen), the Atom (Ray Palmer) et al who have recently been resurrected were all themselves replacements for earlier superheroes with those names. But there were many other variables in play here. For starters, the previous holders of those titles were, for the most part, predecessors in name only: The concepts for the original Green Lantern and Atom were very different, for example. They’d also been pretty much out of commission for quite some time before their publishers decided to reinvigorate their IP by coming up with new characters for those monikers. As Franklin Harris notes, this means the earlier versions didn’t have to be killed off or otherwise forcibly marginalized to make room for their replacements, which isn’t true for guys like Hal and Barry and Ray; I’d imagine that Harris is right to say that this is the source of a lot of lingering desire to bring back the previous versions.

This is getting into personal preference now, but of the suite of non-white heroes currently flying around the DCU, I’m not surprised to discover that my favorites–though not originals like Storm and Cage and the Panther–tend not to follow the usual model of copycatting a previous template as closely as their shunted-to-the-side counterparts. African-American Green Lantern John Stewart works for the same reason that white Green Lantern Guy Gardner works: They fit in as fellow members of the Green Lantern Corps, a concept that can allow for multiple people with the same power set, rather than as direct replacements for a slain Hal Jordan as was the apparently Mexican-American Kyle Rayner. Steel shares a name with some previous DC hero I don’t have the first clue about, but he’s also a can’t-miss combination of Iron Man with Superman’s cape, Thor’s hammer, and an iconic African-American legend’s name (John Henry Irons = AWESOME secret identity), all of which I’m reasonably sure didn’t apply to the last guy. Jaime Reyes is a direct replacement of the previous, murdered Blue Beetle, yeah, but he’s so different in identity (suburban teenager vs. grown-man billionaire inventor) and power set (magic alien artifact vs. basic eccentric tech stuff) that he feels less like a sub and more like what Hal Jordan was to Alan Scott. Plus, he’s in a very popular cartoon series, which is really the bottom line: The characters with the most purchase in the minds of fans and in pop-culture at large tend to be the ones who win out in the end, which is why the Green Lantern who originated the modern concept and starred in decades of stories and Super Friends beats the Green Lantern who gave us “women in refrigerators,” the crab mask, and relative obscurity.

My point is that if you don’t like the whitening of the DCU as it’s playing out through the return of Silver Age whitebread heroes, don’t blame Geoff Johns’s Rebirth comics or the fans who buy them–blame the people who thought the best way to diversify the DCU was to stick new guys in the old guys’ laundry.

14 Responses to Much ado about regression

  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I’ll just post my general agreement that the obsession with legacy heroes at DC is kind of weird / creepy, and is one good reason why the DCU – even when done well – always strikes me as a very parochial, conservative place.

    But I will also quibble – in a very minor way – that it’s unfair to dismiss She-Hulk like that. The character has a long history and significant fanbase distinct from her cousin’s, so even if her earliest origins are crass her staying power is proof of the fact that there’s a lot more to her than many of the other, very predictable character “updates” you mention.

  2. Yeah, I’m probably a little hard on Shulkie. Then again, if you ever use the words “She-Hulk” around civilians, they will laugh or go “ewww.” I remember that from a Maxim thing I did that mentioned her.

  3. sara1944 says:

    Funny, whenever I mention Maxim around civilians, they laugh or go “ewww.”

  4. Dean Hacker says:

    I think it is a valid point that derivative characters rarely work and almost never exceed the original. Batgirl was never going to be bigger than Batman, nor She-Hulk more popular than The Hulk.

    The major exception to that rule were the Silver Age DC revamps by Julius Schwartz. However, not only was that a completely different time in the comic book industry, but (as you alluded to) a far more radical re-think of the premises behind the properties than anyone has attempted since. Even then, for every hit (i.e. The Flash, Green Lantern) there was a miss that did not age nearly as well (i.e. space cop Hawkman).

    By exclusively saddling their non-white, non-male characters with the legacy baggage, DC has set them up to fail. The intentions might be wonderful, but that is the effect.

  5. KentL says:

    I would argue that in the current market, people don’t invest in new concepts. So I can understand why creators tried to use already familiar properties to diversify the DCU. Do you really think a Ray Palmer Atom series will sell any better than the Ryan Choi Atom series did? Probably not. Same goes with Firestorm. So my question is why bother bringing back the old. Why not try and integrate these characters more into the DCU by having them be part of other ongoing series (ala Blue Beetle in Teen Titans)? It seems to me that DC is just throwing up their arms (and to a certain extent thumbing their noses at the creators of these characters) just to return to status quo circa 1980.

  6. Tre says:

    While I agree that Sims’ article/essay was reaching a bit, I must say too, that the idea of presenting Marvel’s cast as positive proof doesn’t really fare much better for me (and I know that this is only a slice of your argument, but still).

    Storm? You mean the white-haired, white-eyed Storm? I don’t mention these features because they allude to white characteristics/appearances, but more so, outside of rap videos, I don’t know any black woman that looks like this. That’s always undercut Storm’s presence to me–her ridiculously ethnic-sidestepping appearance. And then the rather forced marriage to…Black Panther. OK.

    Luke Cage falls into that same territory of “cool street thug” that’s all the rave nowadays, and is still stilted by being burdened with “street talk”.

    I’d mention Brother Voodoo too, but you know, his name sorta does enough on its own.

    Throw in the mix too, Marvel’s own issues with consistent race ID-ing of characters like Psylocke (who underwent an Asian/ninja transformation), Jubilee, and the semi-recent controversy with the Ultimate Wasp, and I’d say there’s plenty to raise an eyebrow or two about over at the House of Ideas, too.

  7. Paul Allen says:

    You make some good points, but ultimately I disagree.

    On one hand, I think the new Green Lantern run has been great and I like that effort has been made to still respect Kyle (though I don’t see how him having a Latino father is “hilarious”). I’m enjoying Barry’s return as well (in Final Crisis, Blackest Night, and the new series; Rebirth didn’t quite do it for me). So I’m not automatically against what Sims calls “regressive” storytelling. I think new things can be done with these characters that aren’t just nostalgia tours. Johns has proven that.

    Even so, Sims’ point was that DC used to be much more committed to giving us more heroes of color and it seems that commitment has waned. The pushing aside of legacy heroes is a strong symptom of that.

    And I strongly disagree that the concept of legacy heroes is “weird” or “lame”. I don’t think there’s any way to justify such a a blanket dismissal. Reasons:

    1) Wally West is one of my favorite characters precisely because we were able to watch him grow and mature. This only happened because he stepped into the role of the Flash.

    2) Don’t forget that Ted Kord, John Stewart, Tim Drake, Bart Allen, and Conner Kent are also legacies. For many newer readers, the legacy versions are “their” versions of the character. Why shouldn’t a new comics reader be able to see a big name character whose more reflective of who they are (racially or generationally, or whatever)?

    3) More than Marvel, DC’s universe has reflected the actual growth and change of life, not just the illusion of it.

    4) It’s not so much about the costume or powers it’s about the personality. Sure, Barry and Hal and Ray were radical reinventions of their original concepts, and even though Wally, Kyle, and Ryan had/have similar powers and costumes, they are completely different people approaching their circumstances and powers in completely different ways. That’s interesting storytelling.

    Where I think we can all agree is that there need to be more black and brown heroes (Marvel, as you said, is better, but but only nominally). The convenient excuse (and one you brought up) is that these characters won’t sell and don’t have a fanbase. But this is really just an argument for maintaining the status quo. Let’s face it, the fanbase is easy to manipulate. You mentioned Luke Cage: Bendis put him in front of us and made us like him and pay attention to him. That’s all it really takes.

    And I think that can be done whether the characters are legacies or not. Put John Stewart, Ryan Choi, Jamie Reyes, Icon, Static, etc in front of us and make them REALLY important (Choi and Stewart were NOT important to Cry for Justice or Blackest Night). If they don’t make it in their own solo books, put them on a team or make them integral to a big event, or like you mentioned, put them in a cartoon. This has continually proven itself to work. Comic book companies and creators just need to step up and do it.

  8. I just wanted to pop in to say thank you to any one who’s new here for putting up with my infuriatingly slow comment interface. Welcome!

    Dean: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m saying.

    Kent: I think you’re right that people in the current comics market aren’t super-interested in new concepts. But I think then you have to pull back and look at how it got that way, and I think ultimately the blame can be pinned on the same publishers whose lack of imagination led to so many retreads of previous concepts to begin with.

    Tre: To nitpick back at you a bit, Storm’s white hair and white eyes are not only different from what you’d see on a young African woman, they’re different from what you’d see on ANY young human being, pretty much. I don’t think those features obscure her ethnicity, particularly when you go back to the stories when she was first introduced and see how relentlessly her background was explored. Also, there’s really nothing “street thug” about Luke Cage at all anymore: His overriding motivation for the past couple years is to create a safe world for his wife and baby, and Bendis has kept his tough-guy talk to a minimum. That said, I only think Marvel’s record with minority characters is better than DC’s because of the very low bar set by the latter; you’re certainly right that there are plenty of problems at the House of Ideas as well. (Black Panther and Wakanda are an amazing concept, though.)

    Paul: In terms of Kyle having a Mexican dad being hilarious, I don’t mean his Mexicanness is hilarious, I mean it’s hilarious that he started as an Irish-American and then at some point someone was like “You know what? Nevermind, he’s Mexican-American.”

    As for legacies being lame, we’re just gonna have to disagree on that. There are certainly plenty of interesting characters who’ve inherited either character names or whole concepts, including some of those on your list. But when folks like you or Douglas Wolk talk about how legacies reflect the forward motion of life, I just think of all the legacy-based stories i’ve read, which are almost oppressively nostalgic and all about the new kid worrying he can’t possibly be as awesome as the old guard.

    But ultimately we agree. I think conceptual strength–design, power set, etc.–is hugely important for a character, and I tend to believe that coming up with an original idea in that regard gives characters a leg up, provided it’s a GOOD idea. But almost any inherent weakness can be overcome with solid execution. Luke Cage is a perfect example: He went from yellow blouse-wearing tiara-sporting Sweet Christmas guy to the leader of two teams and arguably the heart of the biggest franchise in comics today, all because Bendis took the time to work with him.

  9. Tre says:

    Sean,

    I can totally appreciate the commentary about Storm, though I still find it odd that Marvel’s most prominent A-A woman is still colored like a Powder Puff Girl.

    Marvel’s been better about making minorities background characters (like say Robbie in the Spidey comics) but I overall don’t think that they fare much better than DC.

    Storm and BP are about the ONLY examples you can really point as Marvel “being down”.

  10. Terence says:

    Interesting that you should mention Luke Cage, seing as Marvel has just announced a new Power Man/legacy character.

  11. Paul Allen says:

    I won’t spoil it, but something very applicable to this conversation happened in the Titans: Villains for Hire special that came out yesterday.

    Let’s just say there’s one less DC legacy hero to worry about. And apropos to what Sims wrote, the character isn’t/wasn’t white.

  12. therewasme says:

    SPOILERS in the link.

    Le sigh.

  13. Emburii says:

    Storm was referred to as beautiful in earlier comics because she had ‘the best features of all races’. So the blue eyes and straight white hair are directly a racial thing, the parts of black women that aren’t ‘best’. Storm is not really a good example of Marvel’s racial sensitivity.

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