With the posting of a concept sketch for a Black Robin by Detective Comics artist Sean Gordon Murphy, the subject of racial, religious and sexual re-branding of name superheroes has once again become a hot topic. Despite the clarification of the character’s appearance in Detective Comics #27 (both writer Scott Snyder and Murphy have revealed this story occurs in an “imaginary future”), it comes on the heels of a few recent re-brandings.
Announced for March was the newest Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes, a Latino teen. The newest character to hold the name Ms. Marvel goes by the civilian identity of Kamala Khan, a teenager from New Jersey who also happens to be Muslim. The newest Green Lantern from Earth is Simon Baz, a Lebanese-American Muslim. Nick Fury of the Ultimate universe is black, while the Nick Fury of the main marvel universe has a son who is now rising through the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also happens to be black. Alan Scott, once the original Green Lantern, is now reimagined as a man who is younger and gay in the new 52 book Earth 2. Perhaps the most controversial was Miles Morales, a teenager of African-American and Latino decent, who took over as Spider-man in the Ultimate Universe after that world’s Peter Parker was killed.
This is not a new tactic in comics; John Stewart became a Green Lantern and one of DC’s first black heroes in 1971, while James “Rhodey” Rhodes has been Iron Man, War Machine and is set for a new book next year as the heroic version of Iron Patriot. Initially seen as a gimmick placeholder until the return of the “real” Green Lantern Hal Jordan, John Stewart has become a popular hero in his own right. He was the choice for Green Lantern in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, was a mainstay of the pre-New 52 Justice League comic and the current Green Lantern Corps. James Rhodes began as Tony Stark’s pilot, and best friend; and in later years became Iron Man and CEO of Stark Industries. Rhodes has been a supporting character in Iron Man since 1978, starred in several books as War machine and Iron Man 2.0, as well as many animated series and the three Iron Man movies.
There have been several arguments made both for and against this type of reimagining; Comic fans are loyal to their favorite characters. Alan Scott’s New 52 version was newspaper worthy due to his new sexual orientation, but many fans complained that he was young, arrogant, and not Alan Scott at all. The Nick Fury of the regular Marvel universe has taken a back seat to his son, also called Nick Fury. Nick Fury Jr.’s very creation has been seen by some fans as a way to cash in on the Samuel L. Jackson-inspired Ultimate universe Nick and the Nick of the movies. Fans took issue with the character going from a US Army Ranger to one of the premiere super spies in the Marvel U as well as inheriting Steve Rogers’ super solider uniform without earning it.
An argument can be made that there hasn’t been a serious attempt to make a new superhero who just happens to be Black, gay or Muslim in defiance of just using a brand name. But the reality is the top-selling comic characters in both DC and Marvel are decades old. DC tried, in a way, with its New 52 launch of Batwing and Batwoman in their own books. Batwing was a member of Batman Incorporated and was based in Africa. His distance from Gotham and the rest of the Bat Family made his success as a character difficult. David Zavimbe, the man behind BatWing was replaced in issue #19 with Luke Fox, son of Lucius Fox, a mainstay of the Batman books and movies. Batwoman has enjoyed success both pre and post New 52 despite being a gay character. Batwoman’s sexual orientation initially gathered mixed reviews, ranging from praise to outrage. Both have the Bat name, supporting cast and symbolism, so to say they are “new” characters may be a bit false but using familiarity to introduce new characters is nothing new. See Super-girl, Super-Boy, Spider-Woman, or USAgent.
Trying to invigorate decades old characters necessitates taking risks and changing the status quo. This will always ruffle the feathers of some readers. Infusing diversity and variety can only help bring interest and excitement to comics as well as, I hope, some fresh ideas. Your favorite character may not look like he always did, but in a year when Superman lost his trunks and turned 75, you may not like change, but it is necessary to the survival of comics.