18 Instances In Which a Formerly White Comic-Book Character’s Transformation into an African-American Did Not Lead to the End of Civilization as We Know It
When Marvel announced in August 2011 that Peter Parker would be replaced by a half-black, half-Latino teenager named Miles Morales (alliterative names: catch the fever!), reaction from fans and media outlets was… well, pretty much what you would expect. To their credit, most media outlets made it clear this new character developments was only happening in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, a place where young Peter Parker recently bit the dust whilst saving the day; rest assured, they reported, the “real” Peter Parker we all know and love was still alive and swinging through Marvel’s mainstream titles. Not good enough, according to those who took to the internet to register their outrage, including the always-good-for-a-laugh Glenn Beck, who managed to connect the new Spider-Man to a liberal conspiracy to make people think U.S. President Barack Obama is a superhero, or something. Other fans, perhaps not well-versed in the subtleties of Marvel’s multiverse approach, saw this as yet another example of how “they” are taking over everything, how there’s nothing left that’s just for white people, and other similar nonsense. White Spider-Man, so far: in business since 1962, thousands upon thousands of comics, several animated TV shows, three hugely profitable films, another film on its way, one questionable Broadway production, one best-forgotten live-action TV show. Non-white Spider-Man, so far: 1/12th of one year of publication in one comic title. Clearly, “they” have a long way to go if taking over is the goal.
2. Nick Fury
Then again, this is Spider-Man we’re talking about, and so it’s easy to understand how some Spidey fans might be reluctant to embrace anyone, regardless of their color, who isn’t Peter Parker. Let’s face it, comic fans are not exactly known for their willingness to embrace change, which is why Marvel and DC create “alternate universe” titles to explore storylines that would be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate into mainstream titles. For instance, turning Nick Fury, the grizzled head of the super-spy agency known as SHIELD, into an African-American would have been a daunting task for a writer working on one of Marvel’s mainstream titles, given the many war and superhero tales he’s starred in over the years. But when Fury made his first appearance in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe in 2001, he was a completely blank slate. Right from the start, the writers wanted him to resemble badass movie star Samuel L. Jackson — a campaign that got a boost when an obviously flattered Jackson consented to allow his face to be used. Smart man: when Fury made his feature-film debut in 2008’s Iron Man, fans couldn’t imagine anyone but Jackson inhabiting the role, and he has since gone on to play Fury in several Marvel-based movies.
3. Perry White
Overshadowed by the hubbub surrounding Spider-Man’s bit of casting news was an item in which fans learned another comic book character with a long history was going to be portrayed by an African-American. Shortly after Marvel’s announcement, several online sources reported that actor Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix, What’s Love Got to Do With It) had been cast to play Perry White, gruff-but-lovable editor-in-chief at The Daily Planet, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Given how fans are more attached to Spider-Man than to a supporting character like White — and given the immense respect Fishburne’s career has earned him over the years — news of his involvement in the Superman reboot hasn’t caused the same level of grumbling among fans as the Spider-Man announcement, though a few posts have decried Fishburne’s casting as yet another example of “political correctness” running amok, which is about as absurd as claiming an actor can’t do Hamlet because he isn’t Danish. A columnist at EW.com said it best: “Like most mainstream comic book icons, White is essentially just a collection of unchanging personality traits — irascible, faintly annoyed, old-fashioned — that can be plugged into an infinite array of contexts. Make him African-American, make him gay, make him a woman — none of it fundamentally alters his DNA.” Amen to that. And who’s to say someone like Donald Glover wouldn’t rock as Jimmy Olsen?
Then again, not every cinematic role lends itself as easily to this kind of re-interpretation. Take Thor, Marvel’s 2011 film about its resident Nordic god and his retinue of Asgardian warriors (along with a few mortals who find themselves embroiled in godly struggles). If the people producing that movie had stuck to the original Marvel script — a script based on the ancient myths and legends of the obviously light-skinned Scandinavian people — then the film would have left no room for actors whose ancestry placed them outside that select group. That would have been difficult for an American film to pull off in 2011 without courting some controversy; besides, where is it written that everyone in a pantheon has to resemble the group of mortals they came up with them? When British actor Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall, guardian of Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge, a group called the Council for Conservative Citizens called for a boycott of the film, arguing that “[i]t’s not enough that Marvel attacks conservatives values, now mythological Gods must be re-invented with black skin.” There were so many ways to counter the ignorance on display in the group’s press release — starting with the fact that gods are mythological by nature and therefore not, you know, real — but Elba, who said he took the role for a chance to work with Thor director Kenneth Branagh, probably had the best line in response: “Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong?”
Michael Clarke Duncan’s portrayal of the Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil didn’t attract the same level of controversy as Elba’s casting in Thor, probably because there were plenty of other, far more valid reasons for fans to decry that particular film. In the comics, Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk is literally a larger-than-life character, his massive frame adding to the aura of intimidation that comes in handy in his line of work. But finding the right actor, especially an actor with some level of name recognition among moviegoers and who could convincingly play the role and resemble the comic-book villain proved to be a challenge. So Duncan — who had previously wowed audiences with his breakout role as the gentle giant in The Green Mile — was handed the plum job of beating Ben Affleck’s leathered ass. In a 2008 interview that mentioned his Daredevil role, the former bouncer acknowledged the challenges in taking on an iconic comic-book role: “They [the fans] watch movies to say, ‘Hey, that’s not like the comic book.’ But I want them to get past that and just see the movie for what it is and see me for what I am — an actor.”
Firestorm is one of those superheroes that never quite made it to the big leagues; despite his nifty powers and his appearances during the last few seasons of Super Friends, his fame is limited mostly to the fans who follow his comic-book adventures. When he first appeared in 1978, Firestorm was a composite being formed by the fusion of Ronnie Raymond, a high-school jock, and Martin Stein, a nuclear physicist; as the years went by, the writers changed things up by adding a Russian to the mix, or by giving Firestorm his own separate personality, or having one or both of the men fly solo. When DC launched a new Firestorm title in 2004, the new creative team stuck to the “change is good” theme by bestowing the Firestorm powers on Jason Rusch, a young African-American teen from Detroit with the kind of personal problems that dealing with crazy new super-powers didn’t help. Probably because Firestorm was a minor superhero known for changing identities, his fans didn’t react too strongly to this latest incarnation, with most online commenters expressing a desire to see the original Firestorm duo back in action, rather than dismissing Rusch because of his race. (Television’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold appealed to both camps by introducing a Firestorm who was a composite of Rusch and Raymond, as seen here.) No surprise, it wasn’t long before Raymond and Stein ended up back in the storyline, adding to the constant state of change that has always been Firestorm’s lot in life.
7. Harvey Dent
Lando Calrissian cleaning up Gotham City? Hey, why not? Back when Tim Burton was casting his 1989 movie (a small art house film about dancing with the devil, perhaps you’ve heard of it?), fans were too busy expressing their outrage over the casting of Michael Keaton — a mere comedian, if you can believe it — to express any concerns about Billy Dee Williams playing Harvey Dent. And even if some Batman fans did think it was unacceptable to give the role of Gotham’s crusading district attorney to a black man, the pre-internet world was spared their undoubtedly illuminating thoughts on the matter. In the end, it didn’t matter much who played Dent; Nicholson was obviously the star of the show, and Williams’ lines were limited to “We’ve got to stop crime in Gotham!” and “Hey look, a Bat-signal!” Knowing full well his pre-disfigurement character would likely score a meatier role in the sequels, Williams signed a pay-or-play contract that guaranteed his casting in future Batman films — which was smart of him, as director Joel Schumacher was willing to pay the penalty fee to give Tommy Lee Jones the Two-Face role in Batman Forever. In retrospect, it’s fair to assume Williams was totally fine with how things worked out.
8-9. Catwoman (1967)/Catwoman (2004)
Of course, Williams is not the first black actor to take on a Batman villain (well, pre-villain) role; that honor goes to Eartha Kitt, who took over the role of Catwoman in the Batman TV show when Julie Newmar wasn’t available for the show’s final season. Now admittedly, I wasn’t around when the show first aired, and lacking any reliable internet transcripts from the 1960s I can only assume that Kitt’s assumption of the roles caused… absolutely nothing whatsoever. Seriously, it was a kid’s show with sound effects, for crying out loud. This was a show in which Batman and Robin were routinely threatened by death traps involving things like giant man-eating clams; really, giving Kitt a role previously played by two white women was the least of the zaniness happening over there. (And no one did a better “purrr-fectly” than Ms. Kitt, people. No one.) In a similar vein, news of Halle Berry starring in a Catwoman film hardly rated as controversial when fans first heard about it; the Oscar-winning actress had already proven her acting chops and her geek cred by playing Storm in 2000’s X-Men movie, so who wouldn’t be curious to see what she would do with a role immortalized by Michelle Pfeiffer? No, the real controversy surrounding that film only started after its release date, for reasons that become painfully obvious to anyone who had the misfortune of sitting through that cat-astrophe of a film.
10. Pete Ross
The problem with creating updated versions of long-established franchises is that you soon realize just how much they’re a product of their times. Take Superman; created by two Cleveland kids in 1938, it’s entirely understandable that his original supporting cast lacked anyone of color. Ditto for Superboy — in the 1940s and ’50s, the heyday of Superboy’s adventures, Kansas was seen as a pretty white place, and comic publishers weren’t about to risk boycotts during those more racist times by suggesting black people existed. Fast forward to 2001, the year that WB’s Smallville show went to air, and the idea of foisting an all-white cast on teenaged viewers becomes a little problematic for obvious reasons. Sam Jones III was the last addition to the cast, coming in just days before shooting began to take on the role of Pete Ross, Clark’s best friend and eventual discoverer of Clark’s big secret. In Smallville: The Official Companion Season 1, Jones said he would have understood if the producers had simply created a black character for him to portray, but the fact they chose to give him a character that had always been white (with blond hair and freckles, even) in the comics made it more of an honor for him to be part of the show. It still didn’t prevent his underused character from languishing until his rushed departure after the first few seasons, but still.
11-13. Mister Terrific/Jakeem Thunder/Crimson Avenger
Speaking of products of their time. In recent years, many comic writers have turned to the past for inspiration, resurrecting comic characters from the Golden Age and re-inventing them for modern audiences. Often, the writers are motivated by the challenge of finding new emotional depths in characters from a time when calling a superhero “one-dimensional” was redundant. Indeed, most of the old-time superheroes that did not have the long career of a Batman or Superman were often variations on the same idea, given little more than a different-colored cape or mask to differentiate them while they punched out Nazis. This extended to their skin color; the few black characters that appeared in the old superhero books were invariably comic-relief sidekicks, with all the jive-talkin’ dialogue and exaggerated facial features that job description suggests. So you can see the challenge if, say, a writer in the late 1990s wanted to revive the Justice Society of America, but also felt compelled to ensure the faces in the team reflected the nation’s diversity. The good news: there were many JSA members who had been killed off or retired during the intervening years, paving the way for new characters to take their place. Hence, the 1999 JSA title saw a new Mister Terrific (seen here), the world’s third-smartest man; Jakeem Thunder, a foul-mouthed teenager who inherited Johnny Thunder’s magic genie; and the Crimson Avenger, a woman cursed with supernatural powers to hunt down the guilty. Given how the few remaining fans of the original characters are now collecting Social Security, it’s safe to assume nobody really cared about these changes to the line-up.
14-15. Star Boy/Invisible Kid
Once more into the “products of their times” theme. When the Legion of Super-Heroes first debuted in 1958, their vision of the future was an aw-shucks kind of
place where people used belts to fly and ice-cream shops carried flavors from all nine planets (well, eight now; sorry, Pluto). As shocking as it may be to believe, these early stories didn’t put much thought into how a 30th-century society might look beyond the flying cars and buildings shaped like upside-down rocketships; the notion the book would have even considered exploring social issues would have been unimaginable. But someone did eventually get around to answering the question of why there didn’t seem to be any non-white people in the 30th century; it seems they were all on an island off the coast of Africa that disappeared, Brigadoon-like, for centuries at a time because of some science-y reason involving dimensions. Oh, and the sole black superhero on Earth was an angry isolationist whose costume wouldn’t have looked out of place in the closet of a pimp with an Elvis fetish (ah, the ’70s). No, it didn’t make a lot of sense back then, either. A few years later, the Legion finally got an actual non-white person on the team in the form of Jacques Foccart, a.k.a. the Invisible Kid; he took the name of a Legionnaire who died whilst battling the aptly named Fatal Five. Later still, during yet another of the franchise’s many reboots, writer Mark Waid changed the skin tone of Thom Kallor, the longtime Legionnaire known as Star Boy, for his 2004 Legion of Super-Heroes series; few, if any, cared.
16. Martian Manhunter
At first, it may seem ludicrous to even put this character on the list, given the fact he’s (1) a Martian and (2) a shapeshifter and by definition can take on whatever appearance he damn well pleases. But when J’onn J’onzz first arrived on Earth in the pages of Detective Comics in the 1950s, he adopted the very Caucasian face of police detective John Jones to help him blend in among the Earthlings, and the face of his secret identity for the next few decades remained the same whiter shade of pale. But when it came time to introduce the character to fans of the live-action Smallville TV series, he was portrayed by actor Phil Morris, who is perhaps best known for his recurring role on Seinfeld as the Johnny Cochran-inspired defence attorney Jackie Chiles. Did this cause any real outrage? None that I could tell, but to be honest I didn’t look too hard for any examples because the Manhunter is a character whose ability to change his appearance is kind of the point — and it would be hard for anyone to argue that he “should” be portrayed by an actor who resembles the first false face he ever sported, back in 1955.
There was a time when every self-respecting superhero had a young sidekick; Aquaman’s was Aqualad, a young Atlantean named Garth who first appeared in 1960 and joined the original Teen Titans team not long after. Garth appeared in both the 1967 Aquaman cartoon and the 2003 Teen Titans series, but the Aqualad role in 2011’s Young Justice series went to Kaldur’am, another young Atlantean chosen to serve Aquaman and learn the art of superheroing by teaming up with the other Justice League apprentices. Portrayed as the most level-headed and duty-bound of the group, he’s elected to serve as team leader after the first few episodes. Though this updated Aqualad was created specifically for the show, the comic writers handling Aquaman’s storyline while the show was in production clearly liked the character, given they wrote him into DC’s comic-book universe as well. There, he’s the son of the eeee-vil Black Manta, but he rejects his father’s terrorist ways and opts to train with the Titans instead (the original Aqualad, later codenamed Tempest, died in 2010, presumably to make way for his successor). Online reaction was encouraging, in the sense that fans weren’t so much irked by his skin color as they were by DC’s track record regarding its minority characters, predicting he would meet a swift end as soon as one of the writers decided they wanted to bring back the “real” Aqualad. Time, as they say, will tell.
18. Green Lantern
It seems appropriate to end this list with what could be argued is the most successful example of what we’re talking about. John Stewart was first introduced in Green Lantern #87 (01/72), back when comics first strove to tell “relevant” stories about, like, real people, man. In the original story, Stewart was chosen by the Guardians to serve as Hal Jordan’s backup, despite Jordan’s concerns about Stewart’s belligerent attitude and “chip on his shoulder” regarding authority figures (read: “angry black man”). But Stewart proved himself over the years and carved out a niche for himself as a supporting character in several Green Lantern books, even starring in the brief but intriguing Green Lantern: Mosaic series in the early ’90s. Then came 2001’s Justice League animated series, which brought together seven of DC’s heavy hitters for team-up adventures. Though Green Lantern’s inclusion was a no-brainer, the show’s creators passed on Jordan and gave the role to Stewart instead, an obvious attempt to inject some diversity into the mostly white roster. Stewart’s abrasive attitude was also seen as having more dramatic potential; to that end, his original career as an architect was changed for the show to make him a former Marine. The show’s success led to a higher profile and better storylines for Stewart in the comics, and while fans are free to debate who is the better Green Lantern, it would be hard for anyone to argue there’s no place for a non-white person in an intergalactic police corps that includes sentient vegetables and gas clouds among its ranks. And given the critical and financial drubbing the Green Lantern movie got, the producers could do a lot worse than to start fresh with a story about how Stewart gets inducted into the Corps. Do you suppose anyone would complain if Elba took on that role…?