Hi y’all, and greetings from Atlanta GA! I’m happy to hand over the reins to this week’s guest author: Michael M. Khorshidianzadeh is a High School World History teacher and was born and raised in Brockton Mass. He is of Iranian and French Canadian descent and is part of the first generation on his Iranian families side to be born the United States. Michael’s wife is of Colombian origin and his daughter is a wonderful mix of all 3 backgrounds. Michael is an avid Star Trek fan and a believer in the Vulcan concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his family, drinking coffee, reading and wondering how to save to world.
Nearly 80 years have passed since Superman and Batman’s first publication. The world of 1938 and 39 was one of impending war, growing fascism, institutionalized racism, corruption in the law and business, sexism, enforced inequality, domestic abuse and criminal gangs populated by people who saw crime as a lucrative and more accessible way to make money than an honest day’s work. Superman and Batman served as escapist fantasy for people from their everyday lives. They were heroes created in the images of what their creators wanted to see in the world. The fantasy was that criminals and bad people who couldn’t be stopped by the police for whatever reason could be stopped by vigilante justice.
Comic book heroes, particularly the mainstream heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, Avengers, and the Justice League, just to name a few, are well known because they all successfully addressed crucial issues and concerns of the time and in many ways, still do. Paradoxically, though the heroes don’t seem to come from all walks of life. It isn’t bad that nearly all of the major heroes are apparently what most people would consider “white”. No apology is needed by the creators or readers nor is any in depth explanation needed as to why they the heroes are predominantly “white” Americans.
The creation of white heroes is not a problem. What is a problem is the notion that by default, heroes should be white or that a person of color can’t be cast or take on the identity of a character which was originally white. For example, the shooting deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne can be retold in a modern context where they are black and killed in the exact same manner without changing Batman’s story much, if at all. In fact, switching Batman’s race was done by Stan Lee when he was given a crack at the character in the 2001 in “Just Imagine” series. Lee’s Batman, Wayne Williams, was black and the son of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Wayne is framed for a crime, goes to prison and becomes a world famous wrestler to amass a fortune in order to continue being Batman.Granted, Wayne Williams’s backstory is not the same as Bruce Wayne’s and perhaps Lee believed that making Williams a self made man was a more original story but this Elseworld comic clearly demonstrates it is possible to tell an amazing story from a non-white perspective and deal with issues which are more likely to happen in non-white communities. The story of Batman is an urban anti-gun and mental health story.
Batman’s story is not bound by his race, though changing his race opens him up to different and very interesting stories which could not be told if he were white. In many ways, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate example of “white privilege”. Wayne’s wealthy playboy personality enables him to be seen as a victim of “affluenza” or the notion that because he is extremely rich, his playboy, reckless behavior excuses him from consequences in many people’s eyes. Batman knows this and exploits it to the fullest degree in order to distance for average people the notion that Bruce Wayne is Batman.
Wayne Williams would face a totally different set of circumstances around his wealth. Williams didn’t inherit a company, he built a fortune with his own body, fighting in a ring and then used his business acumen to make even more money. Williams could have played into the stereotype of a black athlete in order to provide cover for his alter ego or could have done the opposite and provided a positive role model for people by being a sports star who transitions into something else inspirational and positive. The Lee comics were never intended to last more than a few issues so we will never know how Williams would have used his public life to mask his private vigilantism. There is of course the possibility that the comics could be integrated into the current universe where both Bruce Wayne and Wayne Williams exist in the same universe and interact with each other.
On film and in television, some main character’s racial identities have changed from white to non-white and the characters are more fleshed out as a result. One example is General Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel Universe. Fury has always been known as the best of the best for military leadership and ability and his racial identity was never a central focus of his character. Changing Fury from white to black makes him more of an amazing character because in the real world, assuming Fury is really the same age as Jackson, he would have faced the same struggles as any black man trying to get to the head of a nearly all white organization.
In our nation’s entire 240-year history, the Army has had 216 4 star generals. Of those 216, 7 are black, 1 is a woman and 4 others are of various other non-white ethnicities. General Roscoe Robinson Jr was the first black 4-star General in 1982 and Colin Powell in 1989 was the second. Very few high level military leaders are people of color despite people of color being part of our military since its creation. For a very long time, nearly all high level military leaders have been white males and that is beginning to change. Since the 1980s, there has been a slow growing number of people of color and women taking top positions. Switching Fury from white to black makes Fury’s achievements impressive, inspirational and reflects the growing change in our own armed forces.
Rebooting or revising characters isn’t the only way to bring cultural diversity to comics. New heroes can be created to reflect the world we live in a more plausible and inspirational way. The new characters can form partnerships or mentorships with the old guard characters would enable well established heroes to pass the torch on to another generation or and demonstrate an evolution in story-telling. New heroes do not even need to be limited to the United States. With the recent and tragic events in Nice, France, seeing a hero for France who is Muslim would send a powerful, inspiration and positive message to those who need to see Muslims and middle-easterners not as villains but as heroes who are fighting terrorism just as a white hero would.
In 2011, DC Comics created the French-Algerian hero Nightrunner. Nightrunner, whose real name is Bilal Alsselah is a Batman inspired hero who witnesses a French-Muslim protest which went terribly wrong. The 16 year old Bilal witnessed his friend Aarif beaten by the police and learned he died in fire at the police station, Alsselah vowed not revenge on the police but rather vows to become a force for good, to protect people in need. Unfortunately, the Nightrunner comic and storyline is no longer being written for by DC but now would be a great time to bring the comic and character back. There are so many issues with which is would be amazing to see through the eyes a teenage Muslim boy which would help people empathize with Muslims and people of middle eastern heritage.
In 2016, Marvel Comics created Riri Williams, a 15 year old black academic prodigy who attends M.I.T. and took it upon herself to build her own Ironman suit using stolen materials from the university. Williams’s ability to create an Ironman suit is impressive and puts her on a par with Tony Stark or Peter Parker’s technical capabilities. Williams has yet to craft a full superhero identity and her journey has the potential to be very interesting. In the real world and in fiction, there are unfortunately not many female or black female scientists or engineers.
In the past, the achievements of women scientists and engineers have largely been overshadowed by their male counterparts but as more focus is being placed upon women’s achievements in history and as more women and non-whites are being encouraged into STEM fields, Riri Williams is contemporary character that can serve to inspire young female scientists and engineers. Some have argued that creating a smart black female hero is pandering to audiences, that it isn’t anything more than tokenism but that argument is counter to the idea of promoting diversity. Riri Williams does not need to be a token character at all. She can be the start of a new generation of female and females of color heroes who can hold their own alongside the old generation of heroes.
The best comic book stories focus on social issues. Having a diversity of racial, ethnic and gender heroes enables comic book storytellers to weave complex and compelling social issue stories that can help groups of people understand and empathize with each other by presenting a variety of viewpoints and life experiences. It is important to stress that the race, gender, ethnicity, or religion of heroes are not viewed as exclusively bound to a specific group. Superman is not a “whites only” hero and Riri Williams is not a “blacks only” hero just as rock music isn’t “white people music” and rap is not “black people music. Comics, like music, are for everyone and ultimately, they are a reflection and an analysis of the world we live in.
The world of 2016 is very different than the world of 1938 and one difference is that people are much more aware of racial, ethnic and religious injustices. Creating heroes for people who are facing these injustices enables everyone to have their own escapist fantasies where they can envision themselves or people they care about standing up for themselves and identify with heroes who are addressing issues important to them regardless of their background. When there is negative reaction to the creation of non-white heroes by people who are essentially advocating for white only heroes, that too is a reflection of the times we live in and can be incorporated into the stories of these new heroes. Incorporating real world prejudice into the stories enables authors to address the issue non-white exclusion directly while at the same time, getting readers to ask fundamental questions about their views and beliefs. When we as a society envision what kind of world we want to live in, we also envision our heroes and it is important for storytellers to demonstrate that anyone, regardless of origin, can be a hero.