Superman, Orson Scott Card and Diversity in Geek Culture

It’s a strange thing, becoming estranged from your own sub-culture. Things happen within a close-knit community that once you’d be in the middle of, but now it feels like it’s happens to other people.

Problem is, sometimes those other people need support; that the stories and characters you love become tainted by association and bad decisions, that your community gets bruised and battered and threatens to tear itself apart.

So when DC Comics announced that their new Superman title would by written by outspoken anti-gay activist Orson Scott Card. As PR moves go, it’s been less than successful, almost immediately attracting a boycott. Do I think DC is fundamentally homophobic? No – I think they hired successful-writer-of-space-opera Orson rather than person-who-doesn’t-like-gay-people Orson, no malice intended. It’s a screw-up.

That’s the problem. And it’s bigger than Orson Scott Card.

Geek culture is often blind to the implications of the media it produces, which leads to things unravelling when people on the receiving end of those implications dare to point them out. Key flashpoints in recent years have been the treatment of women in comic books (with ‘Women in Refrigerators’ being one of the key tropes) and the grief black cosplayers get when they’re dressed as white characters. DC recruiting Card is just the latest controversy that exposes a prejudiced undercurrent in geek culture.

Part of me thinks it’s because of the small-c conservatism of the key geek texts – Superman was created in the 1930s, Lord of the Rings in the fifties, Doctor Who in the sixties, all products of eras with a less inclusive approach to society, their launch years coinciding with Kristallnacht, McCarthyism and Governor Wallace declaring “Segregation forever” in Alabama respectively. Of course their histories are going to have problematic moments; racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers during war time, a lack of decent roles for women or anyone who isn’t white. For the most part, the worst excesses of this get left behind as society moves on; unfortunately, alongside this, stories calcify around particular images and scenarios – they become iconic, in the positive and negative senses of the word.

The problem is, because geek culture holds true to these iconic texts, it creates havoc when, say, a film adaptation wants to beef up the roles of female characters or wants the next Doctor to be black. “That’s not how it’s always been,” comes the inevitable response, and so genres that should be dynamic in exploring possibilities shut down and remain dominated by white men. And while I’ve got nothing against white men (I am one), they don’t exactly give geek culture a multiplicity of voices. And where does that leave you if you’re not one of those voices? Do you get labelled a fake nerd because, say, girls can’t possibly be into comics?

This is where the ‘don’t change the icons’ excuse runs out, because the treatment of people outside the ‘mainstream’ of geek culture can be abhorrent. For a community that has historically been defined by standing on the margins, it’s capable of doing its own share of marginalising.

Superman shouldn’t be about that. More than any other superhero, he’s the one who’s defined most purely by his desire to help and protect others. He’s the guy who gets between you and a killer robot. Or a slumlord. Or corruption or abuse or prejudice. Superman helps people. That’s his job. The key moment of All Star Superman, the best work on the character for years, isn’t a gonzo sci-fi concept, it’s Superman gently and simply talking a girl out of throwing herself off a building. If Superman can’t say “It gets better” then he’s outlived his usefulness. I don’t think he has, but that usefulness has to be more than him picking up asteroids.

I don’t think for one minute DC editorial would let Orson Scott Card use one of its titles to promote a specific political stance. That doesn’t matter. Homophobia has become the elephant in the room, and the fact that Card was even considered for the role, seemingly without anyone considering that it might just be controversial, is problematic. There are already very few black and female creators working in the industry; to pick an outspoken, homophobic author to write DC’s flagship character just adds insult to injury. What does it say to gay creators trying to break into the industry? Heck, what does it say to those who are already established?

Geek culture, in both professional and fan communities, needs to take a good look at itself. Questions of race, gender and sexuality need to be addressed, (and not just by a tiny minority) but more importantly, the community needs to show respect – respect for fellow fans, respect for customers, respect for those who will love Man of Steel this summer but don’t want to buy a comic because it’s written by a homophobe. This isn’t about ideology or politics, this is about humanity.

Superman was once used to fight the Ku Klux Klan for real. We forget the power of our stories; this current controversy acts as a reminder that these characters are important and have meaning for millions of people. Superman is about truth and justice; the moment his books work against that, it’s a problem; it’s even more of a problem that people remain blind to those problems.

Geek culture needs to lose its blinders and live up to its own ideals; needs to be less of a customer base and more of a community. How we go about that will be the real test of whether comic fandom deserves to survive the years to come.

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