It’s the 21st Century. You wouldn’t think that a fictional character being half-black, half-Hispanic would be a big deal any more. And yet…
Some background. In 2000, Marvel Comics launched the Ultimate universe, a series of comics running alongside their main range that could act as a jumping-on point for new readers. The beauty of this was that the design, personalities and circumstances of characters could be tweaked, producing new twists on familiar heroes and villains.
Fast-forward to June this year, and the Ultimate version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man was killed off in a climactic battle with his arch-enemy. Well, comics abhor a vacuum and the new Ultimate Spider-Man has been announced: Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager.
As always in these cases, reactions have been mixed: some people love it, some people don’t like it because they’d rather Peter wasn’t killed off (fair enough), and some… Well, reactionary is the kindest word for it.
Meanwhile, at San Diego Comic Con, a fan dressed as Batgirl caused a bit of a stir by confronting DC Comics writers, artists and executived about the portrayal of women in their forthcoming reboot. There’s a nice interview with Batgirl over at DC Women Kicking Ass, but needless to say, this was something else that lead to some intetesting reactions.
So why the strong feelings?
To my mind, there are a couple of possibilities, one understandable, the other, well, not so much. I think some of this stems from an inherent small-c conservatism among comic book fandom. I can see where this comes from – Superman has been around since 1938, Batman since 1939, Wonder Woman since 1941. And, as these characters primarily exist in a visual medium, they developed their own iconography.
Now, this seems to be something that happens with artistic representations of figures that mean a lot to people; heck, you could make a link to religious art, where St. John tended to be portrayed as a feminine-looking young man, where St. Peter’s carrying around the Keys to Heaven, and where iconoclasm could be seen as heresy. Seen this way, not wanting too drastic a change isn’t rooted in bigotry but in a fixed idea of who characters should be and how they should look – Spider-Man IS Peter Parker, accept no substitutes.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem, if a little limiting, if the durability of the characters didn’t work against a more representative portrayal of the world in 2011. Superman, Spider-Man and the rest were created during a time of racial segregation, where a ‘second wave’ of feminism was developing in response to huge gender discrimination in the US. The DC and Marvel universes are more representative of an imaginary mid-twentieth century world than the world in which we live, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a white Clark Kent, let’s not kid ourselves that a fictional world emerging seventy years ago is going to mirror today without a lot of work and intentionality, on behalf of both creators and readers to develop new iconic characters to stand alongside Superman and Batman. The lack of diversity in 20th century pop culture was a crime, not a treasured tradition.
But that’s not the only attitude we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. Let’s not kid ourselves, some reactions to racial, sexual and gender diversity in comics have been the product of flat-out bigotry. Only this morning, writer Kurt Busiek reported that he’d seen the name “Spigger-Man” used, a conflation of two racial slurs. This isn’t being a fan of Peter Parker, this is basic racism, and it’s horrifying to see used in the context of a genre that tries to affirm dignity and respect for all – heck, once upon a time Superman was used to fight the Ku Klux Klan for real.
But is it a surprise? Sadly not, considering we live in a world where outspoken branches of the media peddle dubious stories about immigration, where politicians think it’s a good idea to sign pledges implying that slavery had its upsides, and where the first black US president gets a whole movement dedicated to proving he’s a Muslim born in Africa (as opposed to a Christian born in Hawaii). All these reactionary, bigoted rants are really nothing to do with comics, but a hardcore dislike of ‘the Other’, and while it would be easy to say these are the views of the minority, it’s obviously a sizeable enough minority to be wooed by media outlets.
All this puts the comic industry in a difficult situation, damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and while there are attempts to make a stand, the fact is their target audience is still white men aged 18-34, which is never going to boost the audience by a significant amount, or encourage writers from different backgrounds. The industry remains trapped by its own traditions and the bigotry of a minority of its audience. Despite the positive moves being made, it remains to be seen if comics can ever break free.