Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Regressive Storytelling, A Response

Over the past week or so, many have given tons of debate material with this post from Chris Sims' excellent piece on the potential of a whitewashed comics universe.

Upfront, I'm going to say that I agree with most of Sims' major points but on an entirely different level, I can see things from a vantage point many can't and quite frankly, would never care to see.

I'm one of those minorities folks like to write about/not write about/represent/proclaim isn't being properly represented. And were I a comic book comic character in any superhero oriented universe, I could quite possibly ascend to the height of replacement hero. Many would argue the role of the replacement hero, where a character of color, steps in and takes up the mantle of hero following a hero's retirement/death/crisis of conscience, is a step in the right direction. Many would argue that it is an active admission that comics need more diversity and the decision by big corporations to offer up minorities as successors to a mantle is a step in the right direction.

And that's where I believe things where we go all wrongheaded. Not entirely but... wrong.

We're avoiding an issue I view as slightly bigger and one that simply, isn't being addressed.

The simple reason is this; that for every white hero a person of color replaces, he or she is simply doing just that; replacing a white hero.

They are stepping into an established history accrued by their predecessor and for all intents and purposes, they play the role of the substitute teacher; not used for their skill but to carry on the assigned super-curriculum of "BAM-POW." We show up, hem and haw, do nothing and then go about the task of talking about how the previous teacher wouldn't have done it that way. Ultimately, the new guy's been de-powered to the point where he simply becomes a nothing more than a placeholding figurehead and all anyone can do is re-instate the original. We learn nothing new in doing so, especially about ourselves.

It happened with Superman & John Henry Irons. It happened with The Atoms. It happened with Iron Man and War Machine. It happened with Green Lantern and Stewart. And God knows, you wouldn't even let it happen with Captain America.

These characters, each and everyone of them, were doomed for demotion from the start.

We, as readers, are in love with ideal of truth and justice and equality but when it really comes down to it; we're only comfortable showing our willingness to accomodate the idea of equality; not uphold it.

And that is my main point. If we truly, truly wanted racial and gender diversity in comics, we could have it. We could have a universe where a Supergirl takes up the sole mantle within the Superman family and simply is Supergirl, Last Survivor of Krypton. Instead, we accepted four disparate male successors, submitted for your approval and we did not blink.

Captain America: Truth would have been what it was intended to be; an addendum to the Cap mythos and not viewed as "the raping of your grandfather's childhood," many made it out to be.

Where was the moral indignation when the original Dr. Light, a white man, threatens to rape a Japanese mother and her children and while she defeats him, the ordeal leaves her naked and lying on the cold ground?

Why are we asking the comic book companies to hold their own feet to the fire and ask no hard questions of ourselves?

We pay tons of lip service to the idea of a level playing field but really, how can this ever occur if all we do is build upon old foundations laid over seventy-five years ago.

We, the readers, are as culpable in the death of Ryan Choi as Titans: Villains For Hire writer Eric Wallace for one simple and overlooked reason.

We did not support him. We were offered a Chinese-American hero, who was witty, clever, handsome; his main flaw was that he was not Ray Palmer. He did not fit into our halcyon/Super Friends world and with a lack of financial support, he was deemed unworthy and thus, expendable.

Blaming the company for taking him out is a bit like prosecuting drug dealers for selling product, it's ignoring the bigger issue.

We are within a hobby addicted to our own nostalgias.

We talk about wanting something new and innovative but we support the reinstatement of what went before with our every dollar. We say, "We didn't really care," when we support events such as Blackest Night where one-time Green Lantern headliners, Kyle Rayner (Half Latino/half-white) and John Stewart (Black) are either killed or relegated to sub-plots, respectively. We ask for "something new," but only if it reminds us of something we've seen before.

We say "We didn't really care," when we accept the norm, all over again, for the sake of nostalgia.

We say "We didn't really care," when offered something new and innovative such as XERO, independent of the greater DC Universe, featuring a black lead, written and drawn by black creators and it barely survives a year.

We own this own. We must.

We must because if we truly wanted a Chinese-American as THE Atom, trust me, as long as we were willing to "put up or shut up," we would have more heroes that looked like Ryan Choi. Co
We made this situation possible with our choices with our every hard-earned dollar. Looking inward, I'm realizing we build the universe we, apathetically and semi-apologetically, deserve.


BIG MIKE said...

D - I agree with you that the fans bear responsibility for industry trends. But there aren't that many of us and sometimes the numbers don't tell the story. For example, in August 2006, issue #2 of the All-New Atom sold 38 thousand copies. In January of this year, Titans, the book Ryan Choi was later killed in, sold 24 thousand. You think the 14 thousand people who bought Atom in 2006 and didn't buy Titans in 2010 would be interested in picking up a DC book now?

BIG MIKE said...

I'm a little mad at myself for my previous comment. Looking at sales figures, it appears that Brad Meltzer's Justice League consistently sold close to or over 100 thousand copies. So, I agree with Devon in that fans are stupid. We buy crap and that's why they make crap.

However, I think what's frustrating is that some characters can have lackluster sales in their books and never get canceled or killed, while others are more dispensable and the distinction often has to do with the particular taste of an influential creator. And if that creator happens to be nostalgic for an era where the heroes were all white...

Well, that's an unfortunate side effect... there's no denying that there are market forces at work, but there are undeniable creative biases at work there too.

David said...

I think that the whitewashing is the unintentional side effect of the approach to nostalgia-porn that many of the authors take.

What's funny is that nostalgia and continuity-heavy legacy works can still be updated with new characters: witness Robinson's Starman and Andryko's Manhunter to name two. As long as the old hero is allowed to step offstage gracefully, that works fine.

word verification: astro, who clearly was just a legacy replacement for Krypto...

Anonymous said...

Two solutions I see:

1) Turn singular heroes into families, the way Batman turned into "Batman and Robin" and then later into "The Batman Family". Green Lanterns and Flashes are already naturals for this, and Green Arrows have done well of late in this vein. No reason to not do the same with Atoms, Questions, and so on. They don't all have to wear matching unitards, but at the very least have them on speaking terms.

2) Create new heroes who are not legacies of any existing heroes. Manhunter (despite having one of the most overused names in comics) stood on her own for some time, in ways that she wouldn't have if she were an understudy for, say, Donna Troy.

That said, I don't see this as a matter of whites being given preferential treatment. You cite Kyle as half-Latino, but that was a late retcon, after Judd Winick was well on the way to running Kyle's comic into the ground. Guy Gardner's white as white can be, and he's been relegated to the very same comic as Kyle (where, strangely enough, both of them are written better than ever, and the GLC comic is consistently better than Hal's). Or take a look at Wally being replaced by Barry ... that's not racially motivated in the slightest, and I say it would have happened even if Wally had been a Chinese American like Ryan Choi.

You say "if we truly wanted a Chinese-American as THE Atom" ... well that's just it, I don't want a THE Atom; I don't mind having both around, in fact I would strongly prefer having both as colleagues and friends. But if you're going to insist that there can only be one, well, that may not work out the way you want. How could it, when the legacy characters are defined in terms of their predecessors? Ryan Choi wore Ray Palmer's old costume and used his technology, and you can't even relate Ryan's secret origin without saying "Ray Palmer" five or six times.

Kansasjin said...

I don't know, when you have minorities replacing characters who couldn't even support their own books on multiple occasions, and others like Kate Kane and Cassandra Cain who actually sold decent figures and yet had their books prematurely end through no fault of reader sales, the phrase "doomed to failure" springs to mind.

I'm totally with you on the wrong-headedness of using minorities as replacements, though. Not only does it tend to piss off an existing fanbase when the predecessor is unceremoniously disposed of, every other issue of the new comic then has to be a paean to that predecessor and handwringing about how the new minority replacement just isn't up to snuff in comparison (outrageously shoved in our faces by primarily white male American/British writers to boot). Is it really the readers' fault that sales tanked? What self-respecting minority WOULD line up to read that condescending nonsense for entertainment? If this is escapism, I'm thinking perhaps it's for another crowd entirely.

Sorry, this stuff just gets waaaaaay under my skin, even though I finally stopped actively reading and supporting DC three years ago. Let me know when the passive-aggressive, meta-heavy nostalgia porn ship finally sails.

Jeff said...

I hope they find a way to bring Ryan Choi back soon. Why can't he just continue to be a professor in the background? What harm was he doing? A "weirdness magnet" with a dog and a job.

He added to the richness of the DCU.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of Ryan and Ray both having to teach classes sometimes, or conduct research, or whatever, forcing the other one to go on cases. Two very smart and capable guys, but from different generations and with different temperaments and outlooks ... no reason they couldn't complement each other, and no reason either has to push the other into a refrigerator (or matchbox).

Of course, Osiris was on the team that killed Ryan; Osiris was recently revived, and if memory serves he wasn't really a bad guy. There is a slim chance -- call it a fanfictional wish for now -- that Osiris's conscience will get to him, and he will try to bring Ryan back to life (white power battery / Boston Brand's ring / whatever).

Jon Hex said...

Ryan Choi had his own costume, and his own belt, as well if I'm remembering correctly, that had different properties than Palmer's. What killed his book is named Rick Remender, and if someone had taken the time to hire an appropiate writer for the series when Gail Simone left, then maybe he wouldn't have gotten gang-killed in a half-assed Secret Six ripoff. Wow, that TITANS VILLAINS FOR HIRE is more meta than I thought.