Searching for Higher Ground: A Reflection On Race In Comics

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And so here we are, at the eye of a storm which seems to ebb and flow but never end. Race is no doubt still a topic of much debate and consternation for many. I don’t believe this will end in our lifetimes. Even though comics for many of us are an oasis in the vast desert of strife, injustice and inequality, the fact remains that we cannot avoid a topic which has so much angst and baggage. One item that seems to spur this on is the idea of recasting or making formerly white characters black. This has started to become somewhat commonplace in a medium that employs tools such as alternate universes, reboots and shape-shifters.

Nick Fury was clearly the character that made many sit up and take notice. At the launch of the now defunct Ultimate Universe, or Marvel-1610, if you like, Fury was patterned after Samuel L. Jackson, who was widely known to be a comic fan and cinematic badass. In the confines of the Ultimate Universe, it made sense to have a shift in the character’s appearance as an element to have this world stand apart from Marvel-616.

Then something happened. Slowly, Ultimate Fury became the Nick Fury we would see more often. The launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe incorporated the aforementioned inspiration for Ultimate Fury, Sam Jackson, and although he would appear in books like Secret War (2004) and the series Secret Warriors, Original Fury would soon be “retired” in the event series Original Sin. This was only after Marvel tried to introduce Original Fury’s mixed race lost son who would later step into the … er… mantle of Nick Fury. We haven’t seen much of Lost Son Fury. There’s always future reboots…

Then there is the curious case of Wally West. Look, understand that I’m a huge, and I do mean huge, Teen Titans guy. It was the first comic I ever bought. So my affinity for these characters goes deep. My primary issue with DC was crapping on so many legacy characters like Wally or Donna Troy in the first place. But as some sort of mea culpa ,we got a new Wally lacking many of the basic elements we hold dear in Original Wally. DC neglected to understand that perhaps second to Dick Grayson (who they also wanted to kill), Wally was the most successful graduated character, and a Flash for a generation of fans.

Set that aside. Recasting is difficult. Yes, I know we are talking about comic books, but the challenge for many is the idea that you jettison history and canon for appeasement. As a Black man, I’m not necessarily inclined to pay closer attention to a character just because he’s Black, yet it may pique my curiosity depending on the setting. However, the gratuitous black-facing of an established character solely to create interest seems disingenuous.

Recasting in the core books for the sake of rebuking what was previously established without a sense of credibility or real purpose is tokenism.

That said, setting and presentation is everything. In the television show The Flash, I love the character of Joe West, which in turn made me more open to the idea of Iris being black. I separate the casting in a show versus a comic book. Therefore, I struggle as a fan. At the base of it, it shouldn’t matter. I really don’t care that Johnny Storm is Black in the new Fantastic Four movie. It will ultimately come down to performances. Sam Jackson is Nick Fury. Candace Patton is Iris West. And hopefully Michael B. Jordan will be Johnny Storm. It would have been interesting to see the response to going with Miles Morales as the new cinematic Spider Man.  Yet and still, recasting in the core books for the sake of rebuking what was previously established without a sense of credibility or real purpose is tokenism. I said it was complicated.

Mantles are different. Sam Wilson inherited the mantle of Captain America. Steve Rogers wasn’t made blacked or even Dolezaled (yeah, it’s a thing) ala Punisher in the 90s (tsk, tsk, Mike Baron). The mantle was passed. Carol Danvers wasn’t turned into a Pakistani teenager. Ms. Marvel was a brand new character. Miles Morales was a new take on what was frankly an oversaturated mantle or concept. Luckily, his version stands out and embodies the core idea behind the Spider-Man mantle.

Next: Reconciling Comics With Reality