Racebending and Representation in Comic Books

This guest post is part of our blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.

Spider-Man is black. Or more precisely, Miles Morales, the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother is currently Spider-Man. Well, he’s one of the Spider-Men. It’s complicated. Miles Morales’ Spider-Man originates in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Ultimate Marvel was an attempt at rebooting the Marvel universe and starting fresh, ostensibly giving creators license to tell new stories unburdened by years of continuity heavy history. Comic book continuity is the collection of character and comic book world history that shapes and evolves the medium’s fictional landscape. The Ultimate Marvel experiment has now been scrapped. The Ultimate Universe came to an end, its inhabitants either meeting their own end or ending up collapsed into the main Marvel Comics continuity. Miles is one such character who made the jump. He is now Spider-Man, along with Peter Parker and Ben Riley (Peter Parker’s once thought dead clone). I told you, it’s complicated.

The unmitigated whiteness of popular superheroes is part and parcel of their origins. Superhero comics have been going strong since the late 1930s. This is when many of the iconic superheroes were first published: Superman (1938), Batman (1939), Captain America (1941), and Wonder Woman (1942). They have a legacy that has helped to propel them into popular culture as near mythic characters. By contrast, the first black superhero published by a major company is Marvel’s Black Panther in 1966 (and he doesn’t get his own series until 1973). The marked lack of black superheroes has an insidious inertia to it; their “history” is brief. The most popular characters tend to be those that were created during comicdom’s golden and silver ages.  These superheroes were created during times when racial representation was not prioritized for the comics industry (or the nation as a whole for that matter) but also, the lack of creators of color meant that there was zero impetus on the creative side for racial inclusiveness.

Thus the golden and silver age superheroes represent a tableau of stark whiteness. The superheroes that have become fixtures of pop culture are almost entirely white. Additions to this modern day pantheon have often not fared well. New comic books and their characters are released and cancelled on a revolving basis. Comic book audiences have shown a predilection for familiar heroes, the ones that they grew up with. The repercussions of this for new superheroes of color are that they are often relegated to side characters or simply forgotten. Superheroes of color have failed to capture a wide enough audience that generates enough sales to justify their existence.

The Ultimates (Source: Marvel Comics)

Racebending already established characters is a tactic that has been used to sidestep this problem. Racebending refers to the practice in comic books (and other media) of taking an established character and rebooting them as another ethnicity. Racebending is often conflated with the practice of whitewashing. I argue that whitewashing and racebending are two distinct practices, with different motives and consequences. They exist in entirely different contextual histories. Whitewashing contributes to the erasure of an already miniscule pool of non-white characters. The reimagining of established white characters as African American, Asian/Asian American, and Latinx allows audiences of color to see themselves represented within popular comics narratives. It does not seriously threaten the white hegemony of comic books.

Racebending is one of the major paths that comic book publishers have taken to address criticism that claims that people of color are underrepresented within the medium. When Marvel launched their new Ultimate Marvel title, The Ultimates (a take on the Avengers), their SHIELD Director, Nick Fury, had been reimagined as a black man with a striking resemblance to actor Samuel L. Jackson. The racebending of a previously established white character was successful enough that the Marvel Cinematic version is based upon this portrayal. By racebending an established character, Marvel created a new character that seems to have some staying power. Of course, it is probably neither a coincidence, nor does it hurt that Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing African American actor (and second highest grossing actor overall) in Hollywood.

Captain America, The Atom, Nick Fury, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), and Spider-Man all have been racebent, that is, reimagined as being of different racial identities. Recently, Marvel has released a new Iron Woman, RiRi Williams, an African American teenaged prodigy. In DC’s WB television universe both Wally and Iris West are now African American. Actor Idris Elba portrays the character of Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movie. The reimagining of these characters ethnicities has helped to create comic book universes that more accurately reflect our own society’s multiculturalism. Rather than replicating the original starkly white tableau of superheroes, we are now seeing stories that more accurately reflect society. People of color are not merely background characters in these new representations; they are heroes. Racebending effectively creates multiculturalism within the comics’ medium, while also giving fans the characters that they have cherished for decades. It is also a practice that has engendered a great deal of criticism from audiences and creators.

Captain America (Source: Marvel Comics)

Why is there such resistance in the comic book community to racebending? The comic book community is imagined to be a largely white audience. If one examines the online spaces devoted to comic books, they would find the pushback from many fans is that they want the comic book world to remain a bastion of whiteness. Racebending of popular white superheroes is perceived as an explicit attack on white dominance over comic books. White comic book fans seem to view this as a zero-sum game. Greater visibility for people of color equals an erasure of whiteness for these fans. White characters are engulfed by blackness; white supremacy loses tractable ground. For many comic book fans, the default whiteness of their favorite characters is integral to their being. The arguments from comic book fandom are often couched in notions of authenticity. By this logic, changing the race of a comic book character invalidates their authenticity.

This argument is steeped in notions of white supremacy. This is especially apparent when the authenticity argument is juxtaposed with the ever-changing narratives that constitute comic book continuity. The Batman of 2017 is not the Batman of 1939. The Superman of 2017 is not the superman of 1938. Their characters, powers, and even history have evolved over the decades. This is true for all of the heroes that have lasted since the early half of the 20th century. There is very little that is historically “authentic” about characters that are constantly being reinvented to meet audience demand and continue to tell new stories. The authenticity argument is merely a smokescreen for arguing that comic book characters must conform to white racial expectations. This is a transparently invalid argument in a medium where reinventing is the name of the game and history is rebooted and reimagined every couple of years.

In the minds of comicdom’s largely white audience, non-whiteness needs an explanation. When characters are racebent, critics are quick to decry “political agendas,” they claim that the integrity of the character is being erased. The inclusion of newly imagined black versions of superheroes is labeled as pandering to political correctness. All of this calls into question the idea of authenticity. Are the characters authentic? Are the people who wish to see non-white superheroes authentic fans? Ultimately, why is authenticity in comic books linked to whiteness? Comics luminary and professional curmudgeon, John Byrne, opined on his website:

It is currently a fad in Hollywood — bordering on a fetish, it sometimes seems — to swap out White characters for other races and ethnicities. And I am frankly amazed that the Black community is not outraged by this patronizing modern version of blackface.

Ignoring his ahistorical comparison to blackface and minstrelsy, what Byrne has failed to address is new superheroes don’t sell broadly. The established superheroes are the ones that have cache. Audiences of color have a desire to see themselves represented in the medium. The simplest solution to both of these dilemmas is racebending. Critics like Byrne have made the argument that racebending is akin to erasing the ethnic identity of characters. The counter to that argument is that whiteness for most of these characters are not a part of an ethnic identity; it is merely a default setting.

Accepting this argument necessitates that one accept the just-world hypothesis, the idea the world is just and fair and that everyone is on equal footing, and ignore the context of structural and systemic racism that prohibited creators of color from becoming established in the golden and silver ages of comics. It requires one to ignore the dearth of characters of color and the overwhelming whiteness of superheroes. It requires one to assume a stance of “color-blindness,” where race is not a factor in representation. This “color-blind” world that critics like Byrne appeal to does not exist. Of course if it did exist, it would preempt their rejection of racebending. Racebending of characters would just be another flavor of superhero identity. Miles Morales’ multiethnic Spider-Man is a representation of what the comic book world could be.

Bryan Cooper Owens is an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, CUNY. He is an educator who has split his time between both the museum world and academia. He holds graduate degrees in both African American Studies and African Studies with areas of focus in art history, anthropology, and history. At Queens College he teaches courses in African American history, and African history and culture.  Follow him on Twitter @anansithespider.

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