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RACE, COMICS, and MOVIES: Why Race Matters

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Recently, my article “We Have The Power To Change MARVEL and DC Comics: Support Diversity, Support Miles!” received a lot of negative criticism about diversity in comics and Hollywood’s casting of black actors in white roles. I asked people to support Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and I was called a racist. My article was supposed to support this great comic, not because it is a black or minority comic, but simply because it is great. I stated the comic needed additional support because sales decreased when an alternate version of Peter Parker was replaced with Miles Morales, a Black and Latino character. Ultimate Spidey has the same writer and superior quality, but once the main character’s skin gained tint, many people stopped buying. Minority comics, in general, do not receive the support white counterparts do- maybe because of a lack of marketing, not targeting new demographics, companies’ lack of faith in characters, or the deep-rooted racism of the existing fan base. Many white characters have badly written or drawn series, yet people still buy them.

Race Matters because many comic fans have their tokens and their “my black friend” arguments, i.e. that racism doesn’t exist in comics, because they can list the three black characters they know. Most often these characters are Luke Cage, Falcon, and Black Panther, all of whom have been tainted by the racist society in which they were born. They are all awesome characters who have, at times, had great writers and have risen above some of the ignorance they have faced. Where is the equality in Luke Cage being a “hero for hire”, while other superheroes fought for justice? He needed to get paid that cash money! Falcon’s backstory got retconned from him being a middle-class architect to a drug-addicted criminal. Well, Black Panther actually rules, but I still cannot figure out that stint as the Man Without Fear. Now, tell me why most of you can only name three major heroes without looking it up? And please remind me, if many of you are such fans, why you have never faithfully bought their series?

Race matters in movie casting. Whenever a black actor is cast in the role of a minor white character, people riot, but if the actor is a light-skinned Latino or from a different country, very few people care. For example, in the Avengers movie, Black Widow is not Russian. Huh? Her whole identity is that she is a Russian spy, but I don’t recall much uproar about that. And when did Professor X become British? Why is it so foreign to cast a black actor in a white role? Does this change in characters’ backgrounds suddenly make them so alien to you that you can no longer relate? Many people’s resentments towards black actors playing characters like Heimdall, seem to mirror their political fears, especially related to affirmative action. Be honest, how many people who were so outraged really knew who Heimdall was? And how many people who did know who he was actually cared that he became black?

Race Matters because fans claim that minority characters are being shoved down their throats if a title has more than a couple minority characters in it. This is not affirmative action, but a correct representation of America’s demographics. The main universes were created when audiences had little tolerance for minority characters or themes. Both DC and Marvel universes were created mainly by first and second-generation American Jews, who lived, acted, and looked nothing like the Aryan male prototypical characters they created. If these creators were allowed to create characters like themselves, we’d have characters like the Green Golem aka Chaim Chaimstein!  But instead, it will be difficult for you to name five Jewish characters off the top of your head, even in the year 2013.

Race Matters because white society has always stolen from the black community, with little respect towards the creators.  The new “Harlem” Shake craze is going nuts, but when residents of Harlem created it, it was seen as ghetto and gang-affiliated to most white folk (and by the way, you’re all doing it wrong). Now, white girls are droppin’ it low and twerkin’ and it is considered a fun exercise, but when a black girl does it, she’s a skank. Minority cultures are constantly taken advantage of, but when white people feel that their cultures are being threatened by minorities, the world is ending.

Am I racist? I see a race all around me. America’s population is largely comprised of minorities, like me, yet we only have a handful of token characters that are represented as major characters. I myself am not black, but I come from a very underrepresented demographic. Do I see race and prefer comic characters with backgrounds similar to mine? Absolutely! I get excited when we are represented and when I see someone comes from my background. I take it personally when their series get cancelled. When they thrive, I thrive. When people accuse mainstream companies of creating token characters just to appease us, it hurts because they are not giving us much. If the companies were to create a comic universe that accurately represented America, there would be a lot more black people, Muslims, Indians, and Jews. Hopefully, as more minority fans become minority creators, this will become a reality.

Do I hate white characters?  Not at all.  Peter Parker’s my man! Like many of you, I, too, had a crush on Mary Jane. I do not want to kill off all white characters, I just want diversity.


Jay Deitcher, LMSW(@mrdeitcher) is an educator on comic history and runs successful Free Comic Book Day events yearly.  You can see a listing of his incredible articles and his highly energetic videos here.

S#!T Talking Central

  • Chris

    Really well written article. I can see your side of the argument but as a long time comic fan and your typical white guy I hate when they change the characters background. I honestly think this comes more from being a “fanboy” then being white. I have spent over 20 years reading some of these characters and they are set in my mind as the race they were first written to represent. I agree there could be more diversity in comics but why change an established character. There have been some cool characters of different race. I personally love War Machine, well until they made him like half machine. ( the story got to weird from there) My biggest complaint with the article is the section about Heimdall. Idris Elba was arguable the best actor in the whole movie, (have not seen him do a bad role yet) but he should have been cast as anyone but Heimdall. I am a fan of mythology and in the Norse mythology is is literally known as the Whitest of gods possessing the fairest of skin. I believe that has to do with his origin story. I think Idris would have been great as one of the warrior 3. Sorry for any grammatical errors in this comment.

  • Erik

    I decided to give the “I know more than three black characters” a shot without looking any up. Here’s the list: Luke
    Cage, Black Panther, Falcon, Storm, Captain Marvel, Misty Knight, Black
    Lightning, John Stewart (Green Lantern), Steel, Lucius Fox, Cyborg,
    Bumblebee, Nick Fury, Michonne, Tyrese, Blade. (I wish I knew more black females.) But 16 is pretty good. And way more than 3.

  • Judge Fredd

    Great article, but like Chris I grew up with these characters and hate when their race/ethnicity is changed to anything other than what I’d read in my earlier years. By the way, Kingpin and especially Nick Fury are certainly not “minor white character(s).” Making Fury black totally destroys his back-story AS WE KNOW IT since he could no longer be Sgt. Fury leading the Howling Commandos in Captain America, because blacks weren’t allowed to lead white divisions (although Gabe’s inclusion threw that idea out the window). Sad but true. But once I realized (and read) that some of my beloved characters had been “reimagined” as “Ultimates” I began to loosen up; that, or let the changes I perceived in these characters ruin my enjoyment of the films in which they were portrayed.

  • Maby

    “first and second-generation American Jews, who lived, acted, and looked nothing
    like the Aryan male prototypical characters they created.”

    I don’t know about Batman, but Stan Lee based Peter Parker’s appearance on himself. The creators of Superman based Superman’s appearance on a Jewish man they knew (Stanley Weiss?). And of course Spider-Man is played by a Jewish guy, something that had a very good chance of happening even if they had cast someone else (i.e. Logan Lerman, Anton Yelchin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, etc.).

    P.S. Black Widow IS Russian! Since Scarlett is Eastern European Jewish on her mother’s side, it is close enough.

  • Geoffrey Lynn Freeman

    blue marvel,spawn(al simmons),blade,john stewart,static shock,aqulad(2nd one),spykes,bishop are my favorite black characetrs

  • Eric Bott

    2 words – Nick Fury. When Marvel launched the ultimate line, they did so with a black Nick Fury. And you know what, everyone loved him. Loved him so much that when time came to cast him in the movies, they went to they guy that the artist modeled him after. Also, for all that the movie was rather lackluster, Michael Clarke Duncan was the best part of Daredevil. Yeah, comic Kingpin was a white guy, but I can’t think of a white actor who could have pulled it off. Heimdahl, well as someone else has said, he’s a Norse God. No such thing as black vikings. Fury and Kingpin, sure, entirely conceivable that those characters could have been black all along, vikings? not so much.

    The problem with Miles Morales wasn’t that he was black, it was that he wasn’t Peter Parker. Had they just made Peter a black kid from Queens to start with(kinda makes sense in today’s world actually) there might have been a little grumbling, but I bet it would have been a lot less than what happened when they killed of Peter in favor of Miles. The complaint wasn’t that there was a black hero, it was that they were replacing a favorite character. No one was stopping them from creating a new character, but they didn’t want to take the risk. Yes, black characters don’t generally get popular. The last one I can think of that came close was Static Shock. I liked it as a Saturday morning cartoon, but I must admit it wasn’t one of the titles I bought.