Recently, ComicsAlliance’s Chris Sims wrote an excellent article “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling” that relates in a large way to what I study, research, and write about in my academic career. In the article, Sims argues that in looking back so fondly at the Silver Age and bringing back the “definitive” or “real” versions of legacy characters such as the Flash, the Atom, or Green Lantern, DC is inadvertently “white-washing” its own comic history in favor of Euroamerican superheroes at the expense of ethnically-diverse ones. From the outset, Sims makes it very clear that he does not believe DC Comics or its writers are consciously racist–and there in lies the major problem. For while DC writers such as Geoff Johns and others are not consciously racist in their stories, they appear to be unconscious of race in its entirety, as something completely off their radar and not something they consider. And, I believe that unconscious racism that avoids multiculturalism and ethnic diversity is in some ways much more dangerous than conscious, overt racism. Ideas and concepts of race are so ingrained in our psyches that sometimes we are completely unaware of how a certain portrait could be conceived as racist or culturally offensive to some people.
We see a similar process of romantic nostalgia anytime we look with rose-colored glasses into the past. For example, in touting the accomplishments of the “Greatest Generation” or looking fondly upon the “family values” of 1950’s America, we tend to completely ignore the horrific racism and gender discrimination and strife that dominated those decades. It’s the same mentality that argues that “things were so much better when….” Comic’s readers by and large are not those who advocate innovation or change, and instead hold fondly to very static, conservative portraits of their superheroes. This is something DC is obviously recognizing and is developing its current marketing strategy around–rebirth after rebirth as Golden and Silver Age heroes are reborn at the expense of post-1970s legacy figures. One only has to look at Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern to see the effects of such an approach on the ethnically diverse characters of John Stewart and Kyle Rayner, but also upon the continued usage of “Pie Face” for Tom Kalmuku. Even more than Rayner, Stewart was occasionally trotted out as a token Green Lantern with his usual one page exposure in a completely Hal Jordan story and focus of Blackest Night. Of course, I’m sure there’s an eager, young English major out there just dying for Brightest Day to end so that she or he can write a racial analysis of the white lantern corps. Or, look towards the fan outcries at Dwayne McDuffie’s relaunch of the Fantastic Four with Black Panther as the team leader, questioning how an African King could have the credentials to head-up the Marvel super group. And, when writers try to infuse multiculturalism or race into a comic either directly or indirectly, a topic that we deal with and encounter daily, they are immediately accused of “soap-boxing” or being “preachy.”
So, why does this happen? There is comfort in the status quo for both the reading public and for the writers who are involved in the comic pastiche of the past. The argument that since the majority of the comic reading public is largely white and male and they’re not complaining fails horribly as we still see the negative and sexist depictions of female characters continuing alongside the absence of non-stereotypical representations of race and ethnicity. One comic writer I interviewed joked that our discussion would be short because “everything he knew about Native Americans he had learned in a comic book.” What does that say about images and issues of race, ethnicity, and gender beyond American Indians for the comic reading public who are very insular in their tastes?
There is nothing wrong with reimagining the past anew, but the tide of imitation has overcome that of innovation. Perhaps writers would be wise to remember what first got them attracted to comics and instead of placating an established, insular readership, branch out to somebody new. Readers who want the old, who want “things the way they were” can still drag out their old back issues or engage in the fun and excitement of perhaps tracking them down, and relive the past. There is comfort in sameness. However, readers who want something new, something modern, something they haven’t seen before and who are still looking towards comics may start looking elsewhere if this trend continues.