Two years ago I wrote a few articles on various characters in comics who we might otherwise overlook (here, here, and here). Like all aspects of pop culture, superheroes are not immune to the issues and topics of our day, and sometimes discuss them in ways which would be more difficult in other media. I know I’m a glass-half-full guy for sure, so that could be why I’m a little more optimistic when it comes to how diversity is portrayed in comic books. It could also be that I’ve read and watched perhaps more than others and thus see these examples leap out at me. Even so, the topic of diversity is featured today perhaps more than ever, and it has become a greater focus, for better or worse, for many in the entertainment industry. There is a way that creators of comics, television and movies nowadays are answering questions of representation which I have a few thoughts on, so I’ve decided to revisit the discussion a bit this month, if you’ll allow me. 🙂
When I was a kid there was almost nothing more fun than watching reruns of the Adam West Batman TV show. Each week, one of Batman’s colorful rogues would hatch some kind of plot to rob or kidnap someone in colorful, mod-60s Gotham City, only to have the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder follow right behind. After escaping an inescapable trap or two using faultless logic, Bat-devices and/or some top notch detective work, Batman and Robin would initiate an awesome, fun-as-anything fight scene and inevitably foil said villain’s plans.
It had absolutely nothing to do with the Batman comic, but it was really fun.
Of the many aforementioned rogues, one of the most prominently featured in the show was Batman’s sometimes lover, sometimes villainess Catwoman, played by three different actresses over the course of the show’s three seasons. In the third season, the fatal feline was portrayed by the sultry Eartha Kitt- the same Eartha Kitt of “Santa Baby” fame. My young mind didn’t even notice the change in actresses portraying Catwoman, as everything in the 60s Batman show and the characters otherwise remained exactly the same.
In 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman stormed into theaters breaking all kinds of box office records, one of the key roles of the film was played by veteran character actor Billy Dee Williams. Williams was already famous for portraying fan favorite Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, among many other hit roles in the 80s. Years later, the actor said that the reason he was drawn to the role of Harvey Dent in Batman was the opportunity to play one of Batman’s greatest nemeses, Two-Face.
Finally, I’ve found myself watching reruns of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman lately for the first time since the show aired in the 90s. In a recent Christmas-themed episode of the show, one of Superman’s most famous antagonists, the Toyman, was played by the late Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons fame. As the name “Toyman” is not used in this episode, only this latest time watching the show did I realize that his character, Winslow Schott, a toymaker, was the same villain I used to watch giving Superman fits on Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends.
In each of the above instances, it never occurred to me that these roles were being played by African-American actors. The story and characters stayed the same, and the show never missed a beat. Although I may have been looking at each of these characters through the eyes of youthful innocence, I nevertheless still feel this way watching these characters as an adult.
There can be no doubt that diversity in stories is just as relevant today as ever before, if not more so. It seems as if every comic fan nowadays goes around with a pencil and clipboard and, like inspectors marking strikes against, endeavor to include as many demographics in their favorite show or book as possible. To that point, I should begin by saying I believe that the majority of people who raise the question of diversity today are well intentioned and genuinely concerned for their neighbor (although there is something to be said about movie studios wanting to enlarge their target audience as well). But it is this “clipboard” motivation which I find problematic: it is overt, direct, and can feel very forced in the wrong context.
Take, for example, the show Supergirl on the CW, and its depiction of “Jimmy,” excuse me, “James” Olsen. The character of Jimmy has always been a young, short, wide-eyed, and a tad annoying little kid who looks up to those around him. He was originally created for the “Superman” radio show of the 1940s as an entry point for boys listening to the show after school. He’s scrawny. He sometimes wears a bowtie. He’s a photographer for the Daily Planet, and not even a good one. He says phrases like “jeepers,” and he has been depicted this way for nearly seventy-five years. Quite simply, his depiction in Supergirl is not Jimmy, and not because of his skin color. The actor cast is tall, fit, good-looking, and supremely confident in himself. I know the show’s target audience is teens and young adults, but one would have to acknowledge that tremendous liberty has been taken with the character here.
The rebuttal for this of course, is that because so many of these characters were created a long time ago during squeaky-clean, white bread, postwar America, almost all of them are (presumably) Protestant white males. This is true, but I would offer simply the following.
I am an Orthodox Christian. Orthodox Christians are the second largest body of Christians in the world, after only Roman Catholics, and have existed since the time of Christ and His Apostles. Yet in 30+ years of watching and reading these beloved stories, I don’t remember, even once, any character who is Orthodox Christian. Characters who are written as having Greek origins (Wonder Woman, for instance) are, as far as I can recall, written as still believing in Olympian gods or having their origins in mythology, and not modern times. Russian characters were depicted as Communists in decades past, and as mafia today. Even characters of other white European backgrounds are never depicted as Orthodox, even though they are a growing number in our Church and, in some instances, astoundingly so.
In that case, one might ask, what can be done to change it? Should we not demand a change of some kind? Although this may be a tempting thought, after a closer look at what I understand of the topic, it seems to me that the point isn’t to simply check off a box for the sake of checking off a box, or to shoehorn something in because I demand it, well-intentioned as it may be.
When I walk down the street, go to the supermarket or hop on a bus, I don’t count how many people are white, black, Asian, or anything else, and I don’t know how many of us who live in this country, if any, do. To scrutinize it to the point of forcing or arguing does it a disservice. It should be something that simply is, rather than something that “has to be.”
This is the point that I would like to offer today as just a thought. Diversity is better served when it’s something we don’t have to consciously think about.
One of my all-time favorite stories in comics, one which absolutely blew my mind as a kid, was the Death and Return of Superman storyline from 1992-1993. After Superman is killed in a battle with the monster Doomsday, four different “Supermen” appear in the various books, each claiming to be Superman. The writers of the four Superman monthly books of that time each created one of the four characters to be in their book until the real Superman returned a few months later. Each “Superman” embodied a different aspect of the Man of Steel: one his Kryptonian heritage, one his futuristic qualities, and so on. In a documentary I recently watched on this story, the character who was chosen to embody Superman’s heart was a man named John Henry Irons.
John Henry was clearly meant to be an homage to the American folktale of the same name, but more importantly was meant to depict Superman’s innate goodness, humility, and commitment to always doing the right thing. He was and is an incredible character who went on to make many appearances in books and shows (and one bad movie starring Shaquille O’Neal which, the less said about, the better…). In the story, he was a construction worker once saved by Superman from falling to his death. He felt he owed it to Superman’s memory to take up the mantle and to be the inspiration Superman had been for his city and the world. He also happened to be black. He was an interesting new character added to the mythos out of absolutely nowhere, and gave the book its heart and soul, and it was genuine. It absolutely worked.
If liberties are to be taken with an existing character, I wish more people would follow this path. Before being hired as DC Films’ executive producer and consultant, Geoff Johns wrote various DC Comics for fifteen years and created several wonderful characters using this model: Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle), Simon Baz (Green Lantern), Jackson Hyde (Aqualad), and Kendra Saunders (Hawkgirl), to name a few. The characters were fresh and fit each story, and many fans, including myself, enjoyed them very much.
My take, for what it’s worth, is simply this: if it blends well, great. If not, make new characters. That’s how new stories and universes grow. Would there have been any downside in making Mechad Brooks a new character? One would think that there would be a great benefit for a writer to start carte blanche, as they could create whatever characters they believe the audience would want to see in their show. Does it serve anyone’s cause to take a character who is meant to be completely different and slap a new mold on them?
Growing up, I don’t remember anyone calling any of them “the black Catwoman, Harvey Dent or Toyman,” but I do hear people today saying “the female Thor.” I’m not sure, maybe it’s just me.
I feel letting things happen organically, without forcing an agenda, is a good policy no matter what the situation is in life. Time will tell.
“And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
“For [the honeybee] does not visit every flower in the same manner, neither does the honeybee attempt to fly off bearing the burden of the entire flower. Rather, once it derives that which is needful from the flower, it leaves the rest behind and takes flight.” – Saint Basil the Great