When it comes to discussing diversity, there always seems to be an argument about which is better: creating something original, or using a preexisting product to revamp and build something new off of a preexisting audience.
In an op-ed for Bleeding Cool, science-fiction and fantasy author Robert B. Warren wrote about “hand me down culture” in comic books, talking about the importance of black authors like Dwayne McDuffie being able to create comic book characters rooted in blackness, not just the black “so and so.” Warren writes about one of McDuffie’s most beloved creations, Static:
Both Static and Spidey are unassuming, everyday guys who gain miraculous powers via science. They work tirelessly to defend their communities against evil, while dealing with school, friends, romantic relationships, bullies, and other challenges faced by young people. Yet despite their similarities, no one will ever confuse these two characters with one another, or accuse Static of only existing to please minorities. Why is that? It’s simple. Despite the influences surrounding his creation, Static remains an original character—one that inhabits his own unique space within the greater comic universe. He has his own skill set, rogues’ gallery, and personality quirks. More importantly is not defined by his race, but rather, his actions. People of all colors can relate to him on some level.
For Warren, Static works because he was a fully realized character created to be his own thing, not stepping into the shoes of a pre-existing character with years of history whose shoes they must step into.
Yet, as Warren explains, original characters are becoming more rare, not due to a lack of creatives, but because it seems easier to just make a preexisting character black, Asian, Latinx, etc. and reap inclusion points from an existing audience.
Nowadays, a new Black superhero–for the most part–is only allowed to take center stage when he or she is wearing the hand-me-down clothes of a popular, well-established character. This is seen as progressive. However, that’s debatable. In the case of aspiring authors and writers, such choices can represent walls that prevent their work from receiving the proper exposure, or any for that matter. As a result, potentially award-winning ideas are born and die without making so much as a sound. This is not how an industry grows. It’s how an industry stagnates.
Warren concludes that the black community “is every bit as original and creative as any other” and that black creatives “deserve a place in the mainstream—not one gained through handouts or pity, but earned via our own hard work and dedication. If comic pros truly seek to diversify the industry, they should start by injecting it with fresh, never-before-seen characters by Black creators, rather than hashing old favorites. You invited us into the comic industry. Don’t leave us waiting at the door.”
What Warren says in this piece is how I felt about the initial news being put out that the Buffy reboot was going to include a black Buffy. It’s about ownership of a character and black creatives getting the opportunity to create products that can be judged on their own, without being constantly compared to the original property. However, that doesn’t mean that recreating legacy characters is inherently a bad thing. It’s a nuanced issue with examples of being done well and creating a beloved character in their own right (Miles Morales), and being done pretty poorly (James Olsen on Supergirl).
“Race-bending” has been diversity shorthand for casting in the movies for decades, and speaking only for myself, when it comes to comic book movie adaptations, I feel like adding diversity makes sense, especially when the original comics were so white or created stereotypes. Yet, at the same time, there’s a part of my brain that wonders, “But what will their culture be?”
Last year at New York Comic Con, I attended a Latinx Geeks panel, and one of the things that Gabby Rivera, a queer Latina writer, mentioned about working on America Chavez comics was that she asked Marvel, “Who are [America Chavez’s] people?” Meaning, she’s Latina, but where are is her family from? Is America Chavez Puerto Rican? Dominican? Cuban? That answer makes a difference, and saying, “This character is Latina,” could mean literally dozens of things. When you miss out on that cultural understanding, you also lose story possibilities.
When The CW’s Supergirl even remembers Jimmy Olsen is black, it often creates the best episodes for him, because it highlights his experience of growing up as a black man in a major city. Black Lightning, Luke Cage, and Black Panther all are focused on talking about multiple different black experiences, and all of them are unapologetic in that, which, combined with diversity behind the camera, makes all those characters fully realized.
Compare that to, say, the West Family on The Flash, where race is never brought up. Iris could literally be any race the way she’s written, and while in the eyes of some, that’s progress, she’s also one of the most underwritten characters on the show. It doesn’t exactly scream inclusion the way I suspect they imagined it would.
For me, in many ways, it comes down to execution and having diversity not just on the screen, but behind, as well. Find a hair stylist who knows how to work with non-white hair, and don’t have people walking out in really, really bad red wigs. Realize that black people are not a monolith, and that if you are going to race-bend a character, you have to put in some effort into understanding the culture/race you are now attaching them to.
It was just reported in Vulture that, while the new Magnum P.I. has a Latino lead, it has zero Latinx writers, with the executive producer saying, “Not for any reason other than when staffing a show, it’s incredibly hard to find writers.”
Why? Vida, Jane the Virgin, Charmed, and One Day at a Time all seem to be doing fine.
I asked this bc I am so tired of all these reboots casting POC but omitting how their culture affects/changes the character. I LOVE that Jay Hernandez is Magnum, but not allowing his culture to influence #MagnumPI– is a HUGE disservice. PS: 2018 & no #Latinx writers? WTF #TCA2018 https://t.co/PVHHoVo6qY
— Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA) August 5, 2018
Speaking of One Day at a Time, that’s a show based on an old sitcom (that I’ll admit I’d never heard of) that made it into something completely different, keeping the name and a few call-backs, but focusing more on creating it’s completely own world. That’s why it works, and as for Charmed, I still have my reservations.
Also, (some) fans need to understand that attempts at creating this kind of inclusion are not erasing the characters they like. It’s trying to correct mistakes that have already happened. When it isn’t done well, we should all calling it out, but that doesn’t mean spewing racism. If you aren’t the one going on racist rants, then just realize that when people are talking about racist fanboys, they aren’t talking about you, and you don’t need to argue on behalf of racist fanboys.
Warren is right that non-white and marginalized writers need to have the room to make their own work without feeling like they need to attach it to a white, pre-established product to do well.
(via Bleeding Cool, image: Marvel Comics)
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