There is a new trend in the comic book industry, changing certain character’s races, and it is quite divisive. While some praise these changes as progressive others call them racist. The most current and infamous example of a comic book character’s race being changed is Johnny Storm in Fox’s upcoming reboot of The Fantastic Four. It was recently announced that popular and acclaimed actor Michael B. Jordan, perhaps best known for his role in Chronicle, has been officially cast in the roll of Johnny Storm/The Human Torch. There was an immediate outcry, claiming that Fox cast Jordan merely to make an inauthentic attempt at diversity. Others came to Fox’s defense saying that Jordan was a good choice to play the brash and overconfident hero and that if he played the part right, his skin color would be irrelevant.
Other than his frequent arrogance and happy-go-lucky attitude, Johnny Storm has another defining characteristic, his relationship with his sister Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman. Fans wondered if Jordan’s casting would mean that Fox would cast a black actress to portray Johnny’s sister. After all as long as the two are close siblings on a four piece super hero team, there is nothing in their history or characterization that dictates they must be white. Then Fox confused just about everybody and cast Kate Mara as Sue Storm. The pair could still easily be siblings in the new film, but it will take extra and added exposition to explain whether one of them is adopted or the two are half/step siblings. Many fans see this as unnecessary and also as evidence that Fox was merely meeting some sort of diversity quota.
Some fans and even writers see this as patronizing and racist in and of itself, while others still defend it as necessary progression. Perturbed fans question why change a comic character who has had a certain appearance and race for over half a century. If there is a lack of diversity in comic books then the writers and comic companies should create more characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds. These secondary versions of comic characters with swapped racial backgrounds have been viewed as insulting to minorities, as if they are given the scraps of older characters instead of new and unique characters. DC comics has recently ignited a similar controversy within the fan community with a simple cameo.
The character of Wally West recently made his first appearance since DC restarted their universe in 2011 with the new 52. In the new DC universe many characters had been updated or changed, some to update origins and back stories to fit modern readers and others allegedly to fit another diversity quota. Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, is now homosexual, many Batman characters had their back stories condensed, and government official Amanda Waller was slimmed down and sexualized. Among these and many other small changes the New 52 was fairly hit and miss with fans, some changes eventually warmed up to, others still derided. Now with Wally West fans may have released their outrage too soon. The classic Wally West that fans know is the nephew of Barry Allen, The Flash.
Wally becomes Kid Flash and eventually The Flash himself. Wally spent several decades as an affable, goofy red-head, but in his premiere New 52 appearance he is shown as a teenager being released from police custody with a smirk on his face who also happens to be black. Many fans had been awaiting Wally’s return to comics after the reboot and were disappointed to see Wally’s first panel be completely out of character. However Wally has only appeared in this first panel so far, so there is no assurance that anything other than his skin color has changed. Still fans say that if DC wanted a black teen character with a criminal record they could have created a new character instead of changing the race of an existing one and left Wally to exist alongside the new potential comic book hero or villain. It is true that comics are largely populated by white heroes, and many of those heroes who are not of the Caucasian persuasion are aliens. however it is also true that new non-white characters have been created to great success in recent years. Marvel recently began the newest Ms. Marvel series starring Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American girl who deals with many modern issues that Muslims in America really face.
The former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, had recently assumed the name Captain Marvel so she is still a large part of the Marvel universe. Kamala particularly looked up to Carol and when she discovers her unique set of powers she decides to adopt Danvers’ old moniker. DC comics has had success creating a new Green Lantern in the Arab American Simon Baz who sports a unique look from the other Green Lanterns and adds to their ranks rather than replacing one of them. Comic books are a place where anything can happen and anything can be changed back even with in one issue. Many characters have existed for over half a century necessitating change from time to time. Whether or not changing the race of a comic book character is acceptable as one of those updates is still up for debate. Many of the most controversial changes are very recent or not even fully realized yet. Comic books and comic book movies are famous for inciting knee jerk reactions to what eventually ends up being an accepted and well-loved product, so fans will just have to wait and see the results of any changes to their favorite characters.
Opinion by Matt Isaacs