Comic book stories pave a very simple formula that has existed for a hundred years. There is a hero, there is a villain and a conflict arises which the hero resolves. Readers come back to the pages of these heroes once a month and continue on with the adventure. Through this cycle, fan bases for characters develop and a reader/writer/artist bond will be created. Now what happens when you change the core essence of a longstanding character but retain his or her name? Is that still the same character readers have grown to love?
The answer is no.
Is Wally West really still Wally West?
In early 2014, DC comics began reintroducing the 1980’s-2000’s Flash, Wally West into the current New 52 continuity. News broke that Wally West would sport a new look, departing from his famous fiery red hair. When audiences were fully introduced to Wally in Flash Annual #4, we discovered that the Wally West of the New 52 is a misguided juvenile desperately in need of a role model.
Oh and he’s black.
In an effort to “modernize” characters to represent American society today, the big two American comic publishers, DC comics and Marvel have lost sight of the essence of their characters. Heroes such as Flash and Human Torch have been staples in Americana pop culture for decades due to one reason and one reason only.
People love the essence of a character that makes him or her... well, him or her. Their story, their quirks, their personality, their background, their history. Race means nothing to these fictional characters as long as they are written and explored creatively and entertainingly.
The problem right now is that movie studios and the big two publishers are viewing race changes as modernizing for their characters. What they’re doing in reality, is changing the core of a character but continuing to use an established name. Wally West is no longer Wally West without his signature red hair, his gleaming grin and his lovable blabbering in front of the ladies. What you have in the New 52 is a brand new character who has taken the Wally West name. This is essentially “approved plagiarizing.” This isn't an outcry against a Black Wally West. This is an outcry against publishers using race as an excuse to re-create a character.
Characters need to retain their core essence to still be that character
On Marvel’s side, news broke earlier in 2014 that Fox’s reboot of The Fantastic Four will have a mix-raced family that consists of a black actor portraying Johnny Storm. Michael B. Jordan is a terrific actor who is perfect for the role of Johnny Storm. He also has experience portraying superheroes, as he played Cyborg in Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox. There should not be any backlash for his casting due to his ethnicity or acting ability.
The frustration should be directed at the excuses studios and publishers continually force on to the public that this is another effort to modernize outdated characters and stories to relate with the general masses. It is insulting to viewers for publishers and studios to re-cast the race of characters and claim to do it for them, their viewers.
Once again, fans love their heroes and as long as the core characterstics of the characters are true to their name, fans will accept any adaptation Hollywood and comic re-boots throw at them. Changing them in the name of “modernizing” for the fans is offensive.
Is changing races of prominent characters really modernizing to reflect society?
There is a disconnection between publishers and the real world. Making one character switch his race from White to Black does not diversify their fictional universe to match the real world. If we want to be technical, half the X-Men moved to San Francisco half a decade ago. They’ve been re-introducing mutants after Hope Summers reignited the mutant genes. Why haven’t we seen a new Asian-American mutant? If you’ve been to San Francisco, you can’t miss seeing someone who speaks Cantonese in the streets. The same thing applies to Los Angeles. If you’ve been to any comic convention in Southern California, you can clearly see the Asian population attend them as much as White or Black fans do.
Yet the only Asian-American Marvel mutant we’ve gotten from Los Angeles was Jubliee and that was pre-House of M when there were supposedly up to 14 million mutants (New X-Men #115). Yes there are prominent Asian mutants such as Surge, Sunfire and Armor, but all of those heroes were born outside of America (specifically in Japan) which sets up a double standard to which race qualifies as worthy to be “American born.”
The Asian community is the largest immigrant group in Southern California. You would think there would be a few prominent Asian-American superheroes coming out of Los Angeles since LA is the second biggest city in America. If modernizing a superhero universe means racially balancing the lineup of heroes to match their surroundings, then at least 33% of the mutants and civilians living in San Francisco should be Asian if we’re being politically correct with U.S census.
While I’m using Asians as an example (since I myself am an Asian-American living in California), this method of thinking applies to all minority races. The point is that by using “diversity” and “modernizing” as excuses to alter their heroes for sales, publishers and studios are walking a fine line. It becomes offensive to the races they “include” and those they don’t. The fan backlash from these inexplicable race changes clearly show that fans never viewed these heroes as outdated and in need of modernizing their race in the first place.
Why Ultimate Nick Fury worked
When publishers actually change the race of a character to progress and benefit that character, fans will naturally be swayed. Nick Fury changing from White to Black in the Ultimate universe did not damage the character; it actually enhanced the traits of the iconic character. Modeled after Samuel L. Jackson and characters he portrayed in films such as Pulp Fiction, readers eased into the transition because that is in essence how Nick Fury should act.
Nick Fury the character is a self-pompous, egotistical leader who has a certain charm that imposes on you. Samuel L. Jackson is the same way. Can we say the New 52 Wally West enhances what made the pre-52 Wally West so lovable? It’s too early to say as we’ve only seen him in a couple appearances, but so far the answer is a resounding no.
Look to the future and new characters done right
Instead of stripping and re-inventing well known characters into different races, DC and Marvel should continue developing new heroes to represent the real world. The Lebanese-American Green Lantern Simon Baz, and the Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, are characters fans can be proud of as they are new individuals that represent those races respectively from the start of their comic careers. Their races weren’t forced upon another character that already had an identity.
How do you feel about this controversial subject? Disagree with me? Be sure to subscribe if you enjoyed reading this article. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter!