Fantastic Four: Changing Faces in Geekdom

michael-b-jordanI get so tired of fellow nerds and geeks exploding into flames every time something of “theirs” finds a new audience. It’s tedious. This month’s scandal? The Fantastic Four is being rebooted by Fox and the cast includes Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch. That’s his handsome face right there in the picture. I’ll bet you can guess, without any more context, what this blow up is about. Yep …he’s black. If you want to witness the fallout from this minor detail, just check the comment threads of various articles announcing the movie and blogs writing about it to see blind racism action. This tantrum is silly for the same reason all the other ones are, but I want to talk about why almost any “concern” of this variety (race) is unjustified and racist. First some disclaimers.

What I’m definitely NOT saying is that fans can’t criticize the change of appearance of characters, nor am I saying that concerns over story changes are uncalled for. I understand that some fans care a ton about how their heroes look, but I think most care about the character of our heroes. Fixating on the color of the characters skin to the exclusion of their talents is the definition of racism. There’s a particular brand of “criticism” which is strictly concerned with color – not character, not the talents of the actor. It’s not that these fans are being consciously racist (most of the time) but that’s exactly why I’m writing this. More often than not, it’s the invisible, subtle racism that causes things to never change because we deny its existence and ignore those who point it out to us. To these people it’s a world of racism without racists.

The Human Torch

Right now, I’m calling out the hypocrisy of these fans who may ordinarily agree that racism is evil or that we’re a post-racial society, but who blindly support the maintenance of structures that uphold it’s legacy. And the superhero comic industry is as much part of that structure as anything. The fact that entire casts of superheroes began as white because of racism is not insignificant when discussing changes to their race today – that’s the legacy I’m referring to. As popular culture goes, the superhero comic industry has been an immense force for legitimizing discrimination on the basis of race (among many other things) in geek circles and society at large. It’s pretty damned important that we not freak out about characters strictly because they are no longer white, because it’s a measure of how post-racial we really are. And I’ve to say, looking at the ugliness at the foot of all these articles shows that we haven’t made the kind of progress we tell ourselves we have.

Super Legacies

Fantastic FourThe foundations of the superhero comic industry were laid in a time when open racism was publicly acceptable and encouraged – a fact we (especially Americans) should all be well aware of. There were laws to enforce it. It’s both easy to see and easy to understate the impact superhero comics have had on reinforcing social attitudes, since they act as conveyors of cultural ideologies. One need only look to Captain America for one of the most powerful examples of the impact comics can have on social consciousness, attitudes, behaviors and expectations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that representation in comic books is probably one of the most important areas of geekdom to change and improve, because it’s broader cultural consequences run far and deep. The fact that none of these race objectors talk about whether Michael B. would be a good fit for the role based on his talent as an actor exposes the subtle racism of their position. These particular objectors do so exclusively on the basis of the race of Human Torch.

From IGN:

The problem with the superhero genre is that it was built largely on the backs of middle-aged, Jewish-American men in the ’30s and ’40s. Diversity and equality weren’t really buzzwords anyone lost any sleep over back in those days. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that someone looked up from the drawing table and said, “You know, maybe if we’re trying to sell the idea of the X-Men being hated and feared for being different, we shouldn’t have a team made up entirely of young, handsome, middle class white people.” Only after all that time did superhero comics begin making any sort of effort to acknowledge the feminist movement or reflect the real racial and ethnic diversity in America.

The racism of the past has meant that the creation of our favorite superheroes was the product of larger ideological and cultural forces which sought to valorize whiteness and demonize Others. Superman and Batman are white for this reason alone — not because their powers lie in the color of their skin, not because being white was material to the substance of their persona, and not because their whiteness was essential to the tale they starred in. It was because whiteness was rightness, because having them be any other color wasn’t even on the table.

DC Comics April 1970, No. 76

DC Comics April 1970, No. 76

Credit where it’s due, leaders in the superhero comics industry did engage the issue of racism in America in a few Civil Rights era issues of Green Lantern. The writers and artists at DC Comics meekly stepped into activist territory, acknowledging the social issues of the time in a way never done before. One particular issue (DC issue April 1970 No. 76) of Green Lantern saw an ordinary black man question the hero on why he’s helping every alien race in the universe, but has done nothing to save blacks in America. Talk about profound …this demonstrated a shift in consciousness of some comic book developers and a willingness to engage with the times. Now if we can just get fans to answer a similar question: why not a black Human Torch?

This latent racism remains, however, embedded in the stories of our heroes of old and I think they can’t shake that taint if we don’t allow their race to be changeable. A dialogue about race in comics, while powerful, doesn’t change the racial dynamics involved in who gets to be a superhero. Why would Superman be less compelling or why would he not be who we know just because of his color? Fans unwittingly fight to maintain this even while agreeing that creating a more diverse line-up of superheroes is a good thing, even necessary – just not their heroes! But if we don’t start changing up the color pallete of the heroes, how can we achieve it? How can the institutions of racism be dismantled if we fight to maintain it’s legacy?

Champions of “Equality”

Inequality

Nothing boggles my mind as much as the “but I face inequality too, what about me?” retort. The logic goes something like the picture here.

Every person who chimes in “me too” is essentially doing this. They are looking at the 1 (the numerator) and claiming that because there’s a 1 in each fraction, then it’s all the same! This is pretty much a claim that [insert oppression] does not exist at all. But it’s the denominator we’re supposed to look at here when judging the issues of equality and oppression.

So now we’re at the part where these champions of equality propose that Black Panther and Blade be opened up to white actors as well. You can almost hear the point flying overhead when these responses are posted. As though that proposal were an equal cultural exchange when the very purpose of the exercise at all is that things are NOT equal.

Luke CageSo the answer on opening up traditionally black heroes to white actors is no; no this does not justify calling Robert Downy to do Luke Cage. The reason for the existence of such a hero is that the group he represents has been denied representation in the “real” superhero comics. Unwilling to add a black hero to the mainstream line-ups for years, heroes like Luke Cage were a solution to the problem of racism. In other words, their race portrayals are not problematic in the first place. Making these characters white is an attempt to level a field that’s uneven because it’s filled with whites. Now I’m not saying Luke Cage cannot be white as a matter of creative experimentation. It may actually be an interesting tale. But making him white in the name of “equality” absolutely diminishes Luke as a character because he represents resistance to anti-black racism in comics.

IGN’s article was a pretty good response to the inanity of fans pitching a fit over the race of the of Human Torch (the same article quoted above). The funniest among them, I thought, was the suggestion that because Johnny and Sue (Kate Mara) are brother and sister, Johnny can’t be black. Because families don’t have black brothers and white sisters or some other awful racist notion of family purity.

Some White sci-fi/fantasy fans look upon sci-fi and fantasy as a “refuge” from a constantly “browning” pop culture that automatically (in their minds) alienates and confuses them. These all white fantasy worlds are their only respite from the (imagined) Black hordes of pop culture and the moment they hear that their pristine genre worlds are going to be “touched” by Blackness, they lose their minds because they feel that we are “taking” something else from them. – Brandon Easton, Creator of Shadow Law

The fans who support this kind of non-sense are basically calling for the same things as Klan members, their complaint no better than other bigots who lament “the good ole days” and who feel race changes violate the character. They don’t seem to realize that purity is the cornerstone of racist ideology. There’s no reason to act as though the old versions of our favorites will disappear if a reboot of the franchise wants to add some color to the cast. 

We cannot have change without changing. We cannot have more black, gay, female, handicapped, and/or fat heroes without including more black, gay, female, handicapped, and/or fat heroes.

Separate But Equal

After all of the hubbub above, eventually there’s always that fan who suggests “But shouldn’t [Other] just make their own heroes?” Sure and they have — except that’s not the problem and it’s also not a solution. The problem with this approach is that the dominant culture works to keep that work on the margins – literally marginalizing them – and suppressing their impact. First, there’s the fact that the industry is dominated by powers who don’t want competition and who define what comics are legitimate and deserve to be published (as well as the scale on which it’s distributed). This is why there’s such notions as “real” heroes and fringe heroes. If an industry established and run by white men for white men wanted more blacks in it, then it wouldn’t be an industry run by white men.

Survey of the demographics at Marvel and DC. No wonder our heroes remain grossly white.

Survey of the demographics at Marvel and DC. No wonder our heroes remain grossly white. This is an example of part of the legacy of racism.

The owners of the industry are overwhelmingly white and male, and they tend to hire and do business with those who look like them. It’s not even a secret that this nepotism reigns supreme, because how else do we explain this chart? Coincidence? Pure happenstance? A reflection of aspiring and qualified comic developers? If the industry and fans want change and diverse representation of geekdom, the most direct way is to change diversify our developers. Next, we need to evolve the line-up of established heroes. There’s no better way to increase visibility and broaden the variety of role models who reflect the faces of all fans. And we should welcome this change with open arms, even though change isn’t easy. The hard part is actually changing ourselves and that just may be a trial by fire for many. But there’s no other way to have change except to change.

The staunch conservatism of fans which loathes the evils of racism, sexism, classism and all oppressions is the same that will not let go of the racist institutions and who unwittingly cling to the legacies of a racist past. Fantastic Four isn’t the first to revisit the complexions of our beloved heroes. When we fight to keep things the same while calling for an end to discrimination it’s like running in place while trying to win the race. We can have one or the other, but not both.

As I said earlier, I can appreciate the sentimentality of fans and their sensitivity to change; those fans care about the stories. But this particular brand of criticism goes beyond that. Totally well-meaning nerds are picking up this torch (no pun intended), but they must realize the implications of doing so. Make no mistake: when you explode in nerd rage because the race of your favorite super hero changes, arguing as though the integrity of the hero has been destroyed because of the color of her/his skin, you are fighting to uphold the legacy of racism. Just think about that.

Michael B. may be the worst Human Torch or the best. But given how Nick Fury has turned out, I’ve got great expectations that he’ll nail the role and forever change the face of the Torch in our minds.

Scree Tags: #fantasticfour #nerdrage #racism

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