Why did DC and Marvel change the ethnicity of its characters, Green Lantern and Johnny Storm?

To Reflect the Real World

Soho, New York City – 2015 – Just remember this picture, we’ll get back to it in a moment or two.

I normally stay out of this particular conversation because it makes people uncomfortable. Mostly me. But today I am going to go with the idea this is a troll seeking to provoke controversy and I am going to lay the smackdown on this idea once and for all, political correctness, be damned.

Once upon a time:

There was a nation known for its less than ideal treatment of what it deemed minority members of their population. These populations hadn’t done anything wrong other than exist. There were many social issues around these populations, particularly how they came to be in this nation.

There was much inherent and underlying cultural shame in their being brought to this nation, why they were brought here, the wars fought over their being here and ultimately their release from four hundred years of chattel slavery at the hands of one of American history’s bloodiest wars.

As much as we like to pretend this distasteful part of American history didn’t happen, and revisionists work daily to change its inherent meaning, causation and outcomes, the truth stands. The Civil War was fought over the maintenance of slaves and the Slave State.

What made it worse was once those minorities were released from bondage, they weren’t allowed to have a piece of the pie. They weren’t eagerly embraced by those who wronged them for centuries. They were falsely imprisoned, ostracized, marginalized, segregated and even attacked for decades after their so-called freedom had been obtained. This was not a good time for anyone who wasn’t deemed “White” in America.

What does this have to do with comics?

At the same time this was going on:

Birmingham, 1963: A 17 year old is attacked by police dogs during a Civil Rights peaceful protest.

This was going on:

The mighty Avengers were foiling the threat of Loki.

Now ask yourself: this new mythology of superheroes, heroic legends fighting newly created monsters of science and old mythology wasn’t spawned in a vacuum. These new heroes, related distantly to their 1940 predecessors, were created by White men who had the opportunity and lack of socialized constraints to write these creations who would become legendary in American culture.

These legends weren’t spawned in a place where people were not affected by the social and cultural mores of the world around them. In fact, they were a reflection of that world, as those writers and artists saw it and encouraged to make it so.

  • Thus, do you believe it could be possible that the world that would attack Black people on the street with dogs would empower the same marginalized people with worlds of fantasy and power when the culture they lived in wanted nothing to do with them?
  • That they would have been given an opportunity to show up empowered, able to challenge the status quo, alter the perspectives of White America and be seen as equal both in the real world and this mythic one?

Not a  a chance in hell.

Enter: The Blue Marvel

The very nature of the hypocrisy is such that a character created by Modern Marvel uses this very theme as part of his origin story!

In 1962, Adam Brashear received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy on the day the President asked him to retire, since it had been discovered by the public that he is an African-American. As the Blue Marvel, Brashear wore a full-face helmet, but when it was damaged in a battle, his identity was revealed. There was massive controversy as the era of 1962 was too racist to accept a black superhero. Although Kennedy personally approved of Brashear’s actions, the President reluctantly decided to ask Brashear to step down, and the Blue Marvel conceded.

So we are clear on the subject: This hero did not exist in 1962! He was NOT part of Marvel’s lineup of heroes and did not predate the first appearance of Marvel’s first African superhero, the Black Panther (appearing in Fantastic Four #52, July 1966), nor the first African American superhero, the high-flying Falcon (appearing in Captain America #117, Sept. 1969).

This retcon was created to explain why this particular powerful metahuman was not fighting crime at the same time the Fantastic Four was supposedly experiencing their origin story in midtown Manhattan.

Marvel used the specter of racism to explain retroactively why there weren’t more heroes of color in their lineup of mythological beings who could have been any color but were almost exclusively White.

This is not an apology, mind you. But it’s as close as Marvel will ever get.

Black superheroes in the Marvel Universe were already rare. Powerful ones, beings capable of competing with the likes of Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk, were non-existent until the creation of Storm, the mutant weather-manipulator who appeared in Giant X-men #1 in 1975. And she would not grow truly formidable for another fifteen years, give or take.

What does this have to do with race-bending and gender-bending in comics and media today?

What this has to do with and why so many fans rage against the change is simple and has to do with the very first picture in this article. The world we live in does not resemble the ideal world of White America, where everyone is White, minorities are not seen, and the hegemony of White power is omnipresent in this nation.

Instead it looks far more like Soho in that first picture.

Diverse, mixed, people of all sorts of colors, cultures, social groups and religions populate the nation’s largest cities. While the economic power of Whites has continued to grow, their numbers are slowly being eroded and this ultimately means their social cache, their influence, their dominance over all forms of media will also be reduced. But it may take some time.

As media continues to develop, however, the people who are paying to see movies being made already know what many media companies are unwilling to accept.

If all of your heroes stay White, you will lose your audience.
Maybe not today, but as you transition toward the future, this will become an unacceptable circumstance.

Here’s where the problem lies.

The fans will say:

  • But those heroes were always White.
  • Why is it a problem now?
  • We should stay true to the canon.
  • We should just make new heroes for those minorities to aspire to instead of changing the established ones.

My response is simple:

  • Get over yourself and check your privilege at the door.
  • We don’t live in the racially-segmented, culturally-insensitive, radically-offensive time of your fathers and grandfathers.
  • While it may have been considered acceptable to pretend Black people couldn’t be anything other than slaves, servants or entertainers in 1940s, 1950s or 1960s, it is now considered the very soul of racism to continue to promote those ideas today.
  • If these entertainments were created in 1960s I would expect to see an all-white superhero team because Blacks and other minorities were simply excluded from any form of media that didn’t portray them in a negative light.
  • This is the year of our Lord, 2015. We are supposed to be better than this. What we say we are supposed to want, equality and an egalitarian society should be reflected in our workplaces, our streets and in our media. It should be reflected in the hopes and aspirations of all of our citizens not just our White ones.
  • All of our children should have the opportunity to see themselves represented mythically, as idealized constructs, the same way White men have been allowed to do since such media came into existence.

And don’t get it twisted. I recognize the world we live in is still very racially divided. There is still murder and mayhem based on color, religion, culture all over the globe and it is unfortunately not likely to change to the more idealized perspective to which I am espousing. I get that.

But if you tell me it is okay to say, there should never be any representation of people of marginalized groups: women, LGBT, Black, Asian, just to start, and every movie, every television show, every newscast should feature exclusively White men in positions of power and authority…

You have a problem. And you should get some help. Look back at that picture of Soho.

This is the future. This is the world we will slowly come to have everywhere. Different regions will have different mixtures but we are mixing. We are recombining to form new relationships with each other.

And as such, we are asking…no we are demanding our media, our entertainment, to reflect a viewpoint that is not only White or male (of which comic companies are all to unwilling to change) but that it be about something other than White male stereotypes of superiority.

Two of Marvel’s hottest properties are the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan and Jane Foster as Thor.

The character Cyborg, has experienced a renaissance under the hands of a writer of color, David Walker.

On television, Iris West has become a woman of color.

In the movies, the Fantastic Four has been presented with Johnny Storm as a Black man.

Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost has been portrayed by the legendary Idris Elba.

These relatively minor roles have caused the comic and movie fanbase to boycott the publications, stay home from the movies, and rail online as if Ragnarök itself were around the corner. They scream as loud as their tortured voiceboxes will allow: How could this happen? Why would you do this?

The question should be: Why has it taken so long for anyone to notice the lack? It’s right in front of you.

It will be nearly twenty of Marvel’s newest movies before a woman or a Black lead character will be featured. Really?

Has it taken this long to recognize there is a problem? Or is it just White privilege which prevents anyone from seeing the problem. Because to them, there isn’t one.

This is how its always been.

That, my friends, IS the problem.

  • And if you are one of those people railing against change,
  • railing against a diverse representation of people of color appearing in roles they have previously not been seen in,
  • if you are indeed saying only Whites can be superheroic,
  • you are the problem with our world today.

Perhaps you should stop going outside. Stop going to the movies. Stop doing anything which puts you in contact with anyone else. Because the ideal world represented in the racially-insensitive, but oh so popular series, Mad Men, is gone.

This is the future. And the present. Let’s just go ahead and accept things the way they are.

Just like Black people and other minorities had to accept things the way they were.

As for Green Lantern being a White guy…

He started off a white guy named Hal Jordan, test pilot.

If you are young enough, you may have never heard about Hal until recently because this Black Green Lantern, John Stewart, was all the rage in the animated series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. For nearly a decade and ninety episodes, give or take, he was the only Green Lantern some had ever known.

In recent years, and in the terribly irresponsible Green Lantern (2011), Hal Jordan was returned to prominence, likely for the same reason most White heroes who get replaced for a time do, because the rabid, foaming at the mouth, comic-buying fan base said: We want him back.

Was this because John Stewart wasn’t good enough? Certainly didn’t seem to be a problem for nearly a decade or more. In fact, John Stewart as Green Lantern, was a necessary change for DC to have any diversity in their major lineup of heroes at all.

The same case could be made for the change in Johnny Storm, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the recent Fantastic Four movie.

Storm being a step-brother to Susan Richards, doesn’t inherently change the quartet’s dynamic. A change that is not a change, isn’t a change. He’s still the same character, with the same powers, with a slightly altered origin story. Is this a reason to lose one’s mind?

Only if you think you are losing something else instead.

Perhaps the misguided belief that only Whites should have power. Because if you look at the history of metahumans in comics and note that no one has a problem with a White guy having incredible, unbelievable power. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of them.

But the history of comics shows that few, if any such characters of equal power or capacity were ever regularly depicted as heroes of color representing any social group outside of Whites. And when they do have power equal to Whites, it doesn’t last long.

Monica Rambeau was such a character. When she first hit the scene in the Avengers, she was the second person to ever carry the name Captain Marvel (1982).

  • When she first hit the scene, her powers were so great, she was considered to be one of the most powerful Avengers to EVER exist. But it didn’t take long for Marvel to change that.
  • Yes, I said Marvel. It was the decision of writers, editors and publishers who made the changes to the character. It was a conscious choice.
  • Not only was she stripped of the powers that made her the equal of ANY Avenger including Thor, but she was stripped of her codename as well and she became Photon.
  • Far less powerful and less interesting, she was eventually benched and disappeared from view until her recent reappearance in Mighty Avengers and returned to her previous power level by no less than the same Black hero who supposedly hid away for 53 years, Blue Marvel…

Now, she is as powerful as she was before. At least until those aforementioned ‘side effects’ kick in…

You have to remember, all of the decisions made about these characters depends on:

  • Whether they get good writers or not
  • Whether a writer who may be sensitive to the social lifestyle of the character (i.e. women writers, or writers of color) ever has a chance to write the book, and indeed this is invariably NOT the case.
  • Whether the effort to ensure the successful deployment of said characters is made

All of these things are decided by the producers and publishers of said characters. You can be assured every issue of Thor was not a good one. There are plenty of times his book did not sell well, for extended periods. And there are times when his book might even go off the shelves, briefly.

The difference is: Marvel didn’t give up on trying to find an audience for him. They were certain they could sell his book. So they kept trying.

This is why Thor is still on the shelves sixty years later and Luke Cage is not.

Is Thor inherently more interesting? No. But significantly more effort is made to keep him on the shelves.

By any means necessary. (I’m sorry, Malcolm X, but it’s appropriate in this instance.)

The reason we don’t see new heroes of color is because no one is making the effort to create them. No one has decided there needs to be one or two or eight. They currently don’t see any value in diversity.

Or maybe because the creators of comics enjoy the same level of privilege their comic counterparts get and just don’t want it to change.

What about a Latino Superhero?*

What about it? There haven’t been many of them. Goodness knows there should have been more by now. In old school comics, there may have been one or two, but I have to think hard to remember: Superfriends had one, but he appeared in less than ten episodes, and I was never truly clear about what his powers were. These characters got so little screen time between the four of them, any mainstream Superfriend could equal their total time in a single episode.

Apache Chief would later go on to an episode of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and get more screen time there than he did during his entire time with the Superfriends.

A few other Latinos of note among DC. Fire, appearing in Superfriends #25 and reappearing in the Global Guardians and Justice League. A second stringer for most of her career.

Then I remember Vibe (far right), a break-dancing member of Justice League Detroit during the comic’s less popular eras.

The legacy heroes replacing both the Question (Renee Montoya) and Wildcat (Yolanda Montez) of DC Comics. Both Latina women and both characters languished in obscurity for the most part.

Are there any famous Latino superheroes?

There may be others, but the most famous one I know is most likely NOT KNOWN as a Mexican-American. His name is Kyle Rayner. You may know him as the legacy hero, Green Lantern.

Kyle Rayner was a struggling-but-gifted freelance graphic artist who was raised in North Hollywood and currently lived and worked in Los Angeles. Kyle was raised by his mother as an only child; his father abandoned his mother when she was pregnant. It was later revealed that his father was a Mexican-American CIA agent named Gabriel Vasquez and that Aaron Rayner was merely an alias.

Kyle Rayner would become Green Lantern after Hal Jordan destroys the Green Lantern Corps during one of his many periods of remorse over one such thing or another. At this time, the Guardian, Ganthet, makes Kyle the custodian of the Last Green Lantern and Ring in the universe. Kyle eventually masters the ring and begins rebuilding the Corps.

Kyle Rayner would go on to be considered one of the most powerful Green Lanterns of Sector 2814, possibly one of the most powerful Green Lanterns ever. He would be instrumental in saving the Green Lantern Corps, he would master every color of the Emotional Spectrum, save the Guardians of Oa and nearly all of space-time itself. I am willing to bet, most people don’t know he is considered Mexican-American.

And here in lies the lesson:

  • A hero goes only as far as his writers and editors are willing to take him. The idea that heroes of color sell less well, are less viable, and inherently less interesting is BS.
  • Considering the War of Light series for Green Lantern is a high point in the series entire career, and it stars Kyle Rayner.
  • Before Kyle’s example, there were few minority characters given the opportunity to shine at the level he has. He has proven instrumental and as capable as any White hero before him.
  • Even heroes such as the Green Lantern, John Stewart, were depicted unevenly and were more often failures than successes. The destruction of the planet Xanshi is laid at John Stewart’s feet. Millions died due to his hubris. And he is never allowed to forget it:

Summary:

The dominant subculture in control of the media knows one thing, if it isn’t aware of anything else:

  • Images are powerful.
  • Media is powerful.
  • It shapes minds.
  • It alters consciousness.
  • It inspires.
  • It changes the dreams of everyone who interacts with it.

If media and advertising didn’t work to do these things, would we spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year worldwide, to keep making it? Absolutely not.

In media, the rule is: Perception is Reality.

Think of comics and movie depictions of superheroes as advertising for the imagination.

When you hear the litany of society saying Blacks or minorities don’t aspire to anything, I have to wonder:

  • If they saw more of themselves reflected in their media,
  • If they saw themselves as able to transform the world,
  • If they saw themselves as instrumental in the shaping of today’s world,
  • If they saw themselves being portrayed in media in a positive light instead of always in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs,
  • if they saw themselves the same way White children get to see themselves portrayed in media, maybe it could make a difference for them.

Maybe it could teach them and inspire them the same way Action #1 inspired a generation or two including mine.

This clamor for representation is not about “political correctness”. It is about the understanding that media can shape consciousness. If you alter media to falsely represent society, then you are responsible for intentionally undermining any group you falsely represent there.

People are tired of that. Fanboys notwithstanding, People have had enough of misrepresentation. Do better or lose future audiences. People aren’t sitting on their hands anymore. Change is coming.

*That asterisk you saw earlier

I may have been remiss in not discussing the major cultural shift when the comic company Milestone Media hit the scene in 1993. It was one of the first major production companies featuring diverse lineups of multiple minorities as lead characters.

  • Milestone Media is a company best known for creating Milestone Comics and securing an unheard of publishing and distribution deal with DC Comics and the Static Shock cartoon series.
  • It was founded in 1993 by a coalition of African-American artists and writers (namely Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle) who believed that minorities were severely underrepresented in American comics. Milestone Media was their attempt to correct this imbalance.
  • Christopher Priest participated in the early planning stages of Milestone Media, and was originally slated to become the editor-in-chief of the new company, but bowed out for personal reasons before any of Milestone’s titles were published.
  • By early 1995, Davis had left Milestone as well, to become President of the new Motown Machine Works imprint, published by Image Comics. Cowan soon joined him to serve as Editor in Chief.
  • The shockwaves in the comic industry lead by these prominent African American writers has never been equaled and even when Milestone and its characters were absorbed by DC Comics, it was never forgotten.
  • New rumblings about the resurgence of Milestone Media appear to be in the works but it is an entirely different discussion worthy of time and attention outside the scope of this article. SDCC: Milestone Media Returns to DC Comics as “Earth-M” – Comic Book Resources

Kwezi – a comic from South African writer Loyiso Mkize.

Too late. Change is here.

Originally posted on Quora: Why did DC and Marvel change the ethnicity of its characters (Green Lantern and Johnny Storm)? 

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2 responses to “Why did DC and Marvel change the ethnicity of its characters, Green Lantern and Johnny Storm?

  1. Good writing pretty much makes the ethnicity and/or sex of a character irrelevant. It is somewhat ironic that almost no one disparages a good book or other piece of “great” literature simply because the main character wasn’t white and/or male.

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