For those just joining the fray: pictured above are the new incarnations of Thor and Captain America that Marvel Comics will be introducing later this year. A recently depowered Steve Rogers will be passing on the Captain America mantle to a black man, most likely his old partner the Falcon. Meanwhile, the Norse god Thor will be transferred into a female identity under as-yet-unrevealed but probably magical circumstances.
The media thought these developments were so vital to our nation’s integrity that I first heard the news from morning-radio DJs while we were on vacation last week in Minneapolis. If commercial radio thinks it’s big news, then clearly it’s Big News whether I agree or not.
In what may or may not be a similarly themed development, the media was alerted today that Hollywood A-lister Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has reached a deal to star in a film based on a DC Comics character to be named later this week. All hints seem to point toward DC’s Captain Marvel, a.k.a. SHAZAM!, whose skin tone doesn’t match his. Preparing their rebuttal days in advance of the official announcement, comics fans nationwide have rushed to brainstorm their list of nonwhite DC characters that the Rock should be allowed to play. How nice of them to be so vigilant in helping the major publishers keep their cross-media adaptations demographically unmodified. And all without being asked first or getting paid for the job.
It’s my understanding that certain loud, obnoxious parties are up in arms on message boards and social media and such, because How Dare They or whatever. Fortunately these overhauls bounced harmlessly off me and my not-so-fragile peace of mind. Five reasons why:
1. This is nothing new.
Over the past four decades, Marvel and DC have introduced us to countless alternate versions of their headliners in hopes of doing something different, reaching a new audience, and/or simply shocking the easily bewildered news media. An off-the-cuff, incomplete list includes among others:
female Captain Marvel
black female Captain Marvel
southern Captain America
black Iron Man
black Nick Fury
black Green Lantern
redheaded Green Lantern
Muslim Green Lantern
gay Green Lantern
Hispanic Blue Beetle
black Mr. Terrific
black female Dr. Mid-Nite
Hispanic female Wildcat
blond Wonder Woman
’70s Women’s Lib Wonder Woman
future female Robin
present-day female Robin
bratty assassin Robin
quarter-black/quarter-Korean Green Arrow
alien horse-faced Thor
teen clone Superman
armored black Superman
evil cyborg Superman
evil alien artifact Superman
Every time one of these new characters was introduced, the industry died and comics went away forever. The End.
Oh, wait, no, it’s still here. World governments didn’t dissolve into war-torn anarchy, either. Cool.
2. Radical changes are temporary.
Many of these alt-versions are no longer with us because the Powers That Be decreed a reversion to the status quo, either due to low sales or merchandising requirements. Trying to guess whether any radical change in an existing, corporate-owned intellectual property will be temporary or permanent is a silly game. 99 times out of 100 the correct answer is “temporary”. If you guess “permanent” every time you see a comics-related headline in the mainstream press, perhaps you should ask a friend to introduce you to comic books.
3. Someone else needs the role models more than I do.
In those rare cases where alt-versions stuck around long-term, it’s because other readers find them worthy, presumably many other readers. Several from that list are still around and have their hardcore fans. I’m cool with that. Not every comic needs to be about me. Not every hero needs to be for me. Super-heroes were fantastic role models in my childhood, but super-heroes are not my primary source of wisdom or guidance in adulthood.
Maybe I’m weird this way, but I stopped attaching myself to specific characters years ago. Nowadays my collecting tendencies lean toward specific writers, unusual premises, and/or impressive creative displays. I like the occasional Captain America story, but I don’t understand the compulsion to purchase every single Captain America story that will ever be published, whether or not it’s written or drawn well, whether it’s affordable or overpriced, whether its politics are agreeable or offensive. That kind of zealous, undiscerning idolatry is beyond my comprehension.
For a prime example of a target audience that may better appreciate these new versions, here’s a link to a tweeted photo of some potential new readers. I’m pretty sure those kids were blown away by the idea of a relatable hero with a major public profile. I’m 100% cool with that and don’t see a reason to frown upon them and insist they go read tattered old back issues of Black Goliath instead.
Granted, alt-versions of classic heroes rarely have a long shelf life, but the repeated attempts aren’t offending my aesthetic sensibilities. The solution isn’t to surrender and declare comics a whites-only medium; it’s to try, try again.
Sure, sometimes there can be an underlying opportunistic element to such revamps. Frequently there isn’t. And they may not win points for originality, but that’s not really the goal, is it?
4. The white-dude hero market is far from depleted.
There’s no reason for all super-heroes to be lookalike, sound-alike, act-alike young white males. We have plenty of those. We’re in no danger of running low on those. If your kid suffers from Aryan male inadequacy, your local comic shop should have dozens of other titles waiting to cheer him up and teach him that we white boys can grow up to become productive members of society just like anyone else.
5. I’m not reading Cap’s or Thor’s books right now anyway.
Cap’s ongoing series hasn’t caught my eye, so its current events have nothing to do with me. To be honest, this reduces my chances of hopping aboard even when Sam Wilson accepts the shield and cowl. As for Thor, I’ve never been much of a fan and I’ve no interest in paying four bucks an issue. I’m not saying I will never buy their series again, but my disinclination to follow along has zero to do with their new identities. If something happens between now and then to change my mind, cool.
With or without my participation, I’d love to see either hero’s new version find and sustain an audience once the publicity circus folds its tent and leaves town. In the meantime, I’m glad to see publishers of all sizes already giving me fine reasons to diversify my reading stack. As of this writing I’m buying and enjoying the likes of Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Buffy Season 10, The Wicked and the Divine, Lazarus, Lumberjanes, and Shutter, none of which star white guys. There’re plenty more where those came from, if you look closely at the comic shop racks.
My one lingering fear in all of this: so far nearly every version of SHAZAM! since the original Otto Binder/C.C. Beck tales has ranged from mediocre to godforsaken to disdainful self-parody. If the Rock sees his way to embodying a not-awful version of SHAZAM!, it’ll be a miracle, but I’d love to see it happen, regardless of Billy Batson’s skin tone.