Chris Sims recently posted a rare non-comedy article up at Comics Alliance (rare for him, anyway, as he is usually a comedy writer) about an aspect of the recent trend at DC Comics to bring the old characters like Barry, Hal, and now former Atom Ray Palmer back. This is, of course, at the expense of Wally, Kyle, and Ryan Choi, the current holders of the identity Flash, Green Lantern (of Earth, anyway) and the Atom respectively. Sims refers to this trend as “regressive storytelling”, but the BW term is “backsliding timeline”. So you can all follow along now.
Now I’ve rallied about the treatment of “legacy characters” more than once here, and may well do so again, not to mention my ranting about the treatment of the Spider-Marriage at Marvel* but there’s one aspect that Sims noticed that I missed. What does this do for the racial diversity of the past few years?
(*Speaking of which, they may be putting Tony Stark back to where he was–mostly because of the movies, I bet–but the way they’re doing it is just plain lazy and makes the last few years of Eventitis absolutely pointless. Although we still have masked Spidey with no marriage, and even the Rhino gets to be single and evil again for the same reason: whiny authors want to write about the characters they grew up with the way they grew up with them…and then be the ones responsible for evolving the character their own way. The previous writers who may or may not have done a fabulous job and made fans of their version? Yeah, they can go to Hades.)
In the race drive to bring back what the writers consider the “One True Version”, the positive changes in race characterization are being cast aside. My problem with the new Firestorm was with the fact that it wasn’t Ronnie Raymond/Professor Stein, but the more I heard about Jason Rusch the more I regretted my decision. The recent Justice League 80-page Giant made me gladly accept the new Firestorm team of Jason and Gehanna. They made a great couple. Which is why she had to die, of course.
The first point Sims makes that I want to highlight comes from a disclaimer of sorts.
Before I go any further, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not suggesting that creators like Geoff Johns are racist, or that their stories are consciously motivated by racism in any way. I don’t think that factors into what they’re doing at all; the motivation is one of nostalgia and resistance to change, not race. I don’t think the racial consequences of what they’re doing even cross their minds, which is an entirely different, and in some ways, more insidious problem.
But it’s there, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore. And it’s particularly prevalent in DC Comics because no other company so relies on legacy characters. There’s no other company that has the idea of super-heroic roles being passed from one generation to the next quite so hardwired into it. They’ve been doing it since 1956, when Barry Allen took the place of Jay Garrick and ushered in the Silver Age. And because most of their popular and enduring characters were created in the early days — the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, when the only minority characters were outright racist caricatures like Ebony White and Chop-Chop — they were white.
The thing that gets me is that Ted Kord (Blue Beetle #2) was killed to make way for Jaime Reiz (#3 and current) in part to CREATE racial diversity, one of the complaints against comics for years. I remember a comment by Didio that they were going for more diversity in the DC rouster. Now his and Geoff John’s worship of past characters (which they plan to make “better”, which to them is darker and more violent–how are your parents lately, Barry?) has become more important.
As comics progressed, however, more legacy characters were created. Some, like John Stewart, were introduced explicitly to challenge notions of race, while later ones — Jason Rusch (Firestorm), Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle), and even going back to Kimiyo Hoshi (Dr. Light) and Yolanda Montez (Wildcat) — were more reflections of changing standards in regards to the media’s acceptance of non-white characters.
But now, the idea of a legacy character is being totally subverted. They’re not roles that are passed down anymore, they’re roles that are passed back up.
And much of the time — not always, but enough that it’s more than notable — they’re being passed back from a non-white character to an Aryan ideal. Jason Rusch is still part of Firestorm, but it’s back to being Ronnie Raymond’s Caucasian body. Kimiyo Hoshi is still Dr. Light, but that name’s been permanently soured by “Identity Crisis” and the fact that James Robinson had the original Dr. Light threaten to rape her children on the Justice League Satellite
Wait, what was that last part again?
and the fact that James Robinson had the original Dr. Light threaten to rape her children on the Justice League Satellite
Cute puppy videos are all that stand between you and a rant about how Robinson is a child-hater and the most despicable writer at DC Comics right now. Continue, Chris.
Even the regressions of ostensibly white characters often have racially charged consequences: Wally West’s interracial marriage to Linda Park has been sidelined in favor of on-the-go suburbanites Barry Allen and Iris West, and Kyle Rayner (who was created as an Irish-American but later “revealed” to be the son of a Mexican-American CIA agent) has suffered the strange fate-worse-than-death of a fictional character who gets demoted from a starring role to a supporting one. He’s still a Green Lantern, but he’s not the Green Lantern.
The worst part is that really Kyle and Wally don’t have to be cast aside. Why not send Kyle to Earth and leave Hal in Sinestro’s old role as trainer of new Green Lanterns? I thought Guy was more interesting as Warrior, but since he’s been regressed to just another Green Lantern again, he and John (another regressed GL who was part of a different supergroup with other powers for a time) can be put in charge of special mission groups. (Oh, wait, they are!) As for Wally, there are more than enough speedsters (who now we are told actually GET their powers from Barry–what?) that he doesn’t have to be regulated to the background. Oh, right, Barry is our “Flash fix” from here on out, right, Dan?
Then Chris posts the following panel from Infinite Crisis:
And makes the point that they want to shove these characters under the rug, but haven’t found the right “Mephisto” for the job. (My words, not his. His words are more like “It’s the unintentional building of a cosmic-scale meta-textual ghetto.”)
But is it only the writers’ fault? Chris also makes the point that fans didn’t take to the new guys, either.
But you can’t really even blame the creators entirely, because it’s reinforced by the fans. I’m sure a lot of it comes from the fact that the stories are often good stories (as I said, the Legion stuff isn’t necessarily what I want the Legion to be, but it’s still very enjoyable), but there’s an underlying resistance to change that seems to come out in a far more ugly manner when race is involved. Again, I would certainly hope that the majority of comics fans aren’t racist, but I heard John Stewart referred to as “Black Lantern” years before Nekron started sending out rings, and I’ve heard enough people refer to Jason Rusch as “Blackstorm” to know that a lot of them don’t understand that casual racism is still racism.
One point I would disagree with Mr. Sims here is the reasons I assumed for the rather insulting titles. We all knew that making Firestorm a black man or the new Atom Asian or the new Batwoman a lesbian wasn’t character development but to create diversity, often at the expense of the original or previous character. We weren’t impressed. Was there ever evidence that Kathy Kane or Rene Montoya (one of the DCAU crossovers) were gay originally? No, there’s a better case for Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. Ronnie and Ted were killed off only to give their names to new characters of a different race. (See also bringing in the Milestone imprint characters, although that was probably to get their hands on the marketable Static character, making me wonder if we have another Ultraverse on our hands.) They practically admitted to that at the time.
Sims final point is the one that makes the most head-shaking sense.
Which is one of the things that’s so galling about the regression from Ryan Choi to Ray Palmer. It’s been a running gag among my friends that in comics, only white Americans ever find meteors, get splashed with chemicals or get visited by spacemen, everyone else (from Jack O’Lantern to Black Bison to the Gaucho to Apache Chief to Samurai and so on) has to have a power that relates to their race or their country — specifically, the broad stereotypes drawn from white Americans’ perception of their race or country. It’s almost inescapable, and it reinforces the idea that non-white characters are defined solely by their ethnic differences.
As he notes in the next paragraph, Ryan actually got his powers the way most “white” heroes do, space radiation and fancy gadgets, not because of anything related to the “culture” of his national origins. So what’s going to happen to him now? For that matter, what happens to all the other characters who aren’t the “pet characters” or “childhood heroes” of the current writing staff?
And what happens when the next generation of comic writers and editors, who grew up with the new versions, come along and decide to be as big a bunch of “bring back my childhood” jerks as the current group and decide their characters are the “One True Version”? That’s mentorship gone wrong, and can only lead to bigger headaches, if the company lasts that long.