A Moment for False Nerds


One of the weirdest, most angry-making discussions in comics fandom, an admittedly angry fraternity, is the outrageous flag-planting on the whiteness of beloved heroes when it comes to casting the movie versions of those characters. There are lots of reasons to be upset about this kind of absurd I’m-not-racist-but tantrum-pitching, so I think I’ll list a few of them here, working my way up to my favorite.

1. Readers and viewers of color are underrepresented in both production and depiction in a lot of media. I’d go so far as to say that most artistic media are so exclusive of black voices as to be de facto hostile—tokenism, flat-out racism and appalling stereotypes are the norm on television and in film. It would be nice if that wasn’t true, but it is. The little corners of those worlds accorded to people of color are hermetic, low-rent and regarded with suspicion and condescension, and the voices they tend to champion are frequently unworthy of the platform (looking at you, Flava Flav). This is changing, especially on television with shows like Scandal, Black-ish and Empire, but we’re still a long way off.

2. Heroes and creators of color are certainly not everywhere in comics, but they are somewhere, and that place is not in a kind of regrettable artistic ghetto. Gene Ha is one of the most in-demand artists in the industry thanks to his work with Alan Moore on Top 10; it is very rare, by the way, that in an interview he is asked what it was like to be a comics artist of Asian descent. The president of DC Comics is Jim LeeKyle Baker’s work is universally acclaimed, particularly his graphic novels Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show; his race goes more or less unremarked unless he produces work addressing it (he may see fit to correct me on this, but I think I’m right about that) and he is widely praised for his work on mainstream superhero books like Plastic Man. Among the hundreds of heroes and villains in the Marvel Universe, the many Black and Asian characters are sources of incredible popularity—it would be really dumb to assume that the reliably high sales of X-Men comics and movies has nothing to do with the fact that Jubilee, Storm, Psylocke, Bishop, and probably a dozen others are much more representative of the readership than, say, the Justice League, where the only skin color variant is green. Some of these creators had the balls to name their Black characters Power Man, Black Panther and Blade.

3. Black superheroes work on screen. This is proven. There’s the Blade franchise, of course. And the popular Warner Bros. Justice League cartoon, produced during a period of time when the two white characters named Green Lantern were being fought over in boardrooms, just quietly gave the mantle to a character named John Stewart (no relation), subject of a series of heavy-handed stories written in the 70’s by Dennis O’Neill and illustrated by Neal Adams. The network has had for seven seasons a Black hero on its Teen Titans cartoon named Cyborg. His defining characteristic is not that he’s Black. It’s that he’s a cyborg.

4. Here is my favorite point: These people, these nasty little trolls having conniptions over the idea of a Black Spider-Man or a Black Human Torch or a Black Superman are comics ahistorical, which is the worst kind of ahistorical. Race-bending is like the very first gimmick used on any superhero, dudes. There’s a great Captain America story in which a black man takes up a the mantle of Cap; the current Spider-Man is Black and hugely popular, there’s a cringey Black version of Wonder Woman named Nubia  and a much more interesting parallel universe in which the whole fucking Justice League is Black; that version of Superman is prominently featured in both the terrific Grant Morrison run on Action Comics (art by Gene Ha, by the way) and the same author’s universe-defining miniseries Multiversity.

Shorter: there are infinity superhero universes in the imaginations of the writers and artists who create and recreate these characters every week. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native reworkings of them are not merely established so well that they should raise no eyebrows, raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway that the eyebrow-raiser is a Fake Geek Boy and only goes to the movies or reads maybe one book a month. True Nerds should out them by shaming them with arcane trivia or something.

Rant over.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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