When is it ok to change a character’s race?

DC comics announced that Wally West would return to their comic books, but he would come with some changes. The change that stands out the most is his ethnicity. This is not the first time a character’s ethnicity was changed when they were reintroduced or adapted for new media. In the last few years we have seen a slew of characters go through ethnic changes. In the cases of Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man and Samuel Jackson playing Nick Fury, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. However, changing a characters ethnicity doesn’t always go well. Wally’s race being changed, for example, has had mixed reviews to say the least. Rumor has it that Terry McGinnis from Batman Beyond was originally planned to be African-American, but the network and DC comics didn’t feel audiences were ready for a Black Batman. In the new Fantastic Four movie, many fans are less then thrilled by the announcement of Michael B. Jordan’s casting as The Human Torch.

When the comic book community is divided by a characters’ ethnic change there are two camps: 

1) We need more diversity in comic books: This side believes that changes to the most iconic comic book characters not only good, but in many cases needed. This side points out that when most of our iconic super-heroes were created, the comic book industry was overwhelmingly made up of white men. The idea of making a character like Batman African-American was unimaginable. This side agrees and appreciates that while the industry has made attempts to rectify this, the outcomes overwhelmingly fall flat. The supporting characters created as minorities often feel rushed, under developed, or as off-brand copies of the protagonist. The Batman family has had several characters of color, like the assassin Onix, but no one remembers these characters because they simply were not good. By changing the protagonists themselves, it forces stories starring minority characters, instead of making them after thoughts. This side believes changing a character’s ethnicity or even gender is key to bringing in new readers, and should not deter current fans from reading the books. Wally will still be Wally, no matter his color.

2) Classic characters shouldn’t be changed: This side is often called racist for not embracing a characters change, and that view is seldom true. For the most part, Wally, Hal, and Bruce Wayne have been the same for decades, creating a strong sense of nostalgia. To change Wally is like trying to change a fan’s childhood memories. This side views the iconic characters as parts of history. No one is going to cast Will Smith to play George Washington, so why change The Human Torch? This side likes, even loves, minority characters. They consider Cyborg, Black Panther, and Forge among the industry’s greatest heroes. They feel that changing a characters ethnicity is a rushed solution to a bigger problem. The industry needs to support characters of color, and that often rests on the fans. DC has put a lot of support behind Blue Beetle and Static Shock, but the books simply don’t sell. This side believes that you need to put your wallet where your mouth is.

So why is it that some ethnic changes are loved and others despised? What is the magical middle ground? I’ve looked over the industry’s successes and failures, and here is what I have found:

1) Same hero, different identity: Great Examples: Kaldur’ahm (Aqualad) & Ryan Choi (The Atom)

Young Justice hit a slam-dunk with their version of Aqualad. Kaldur’ahm was so popular in Young Justice, DC brought him into the main universe before the first season of the show was halfway done. What made him so great? Anyone who watched Young Justice will quickly tell you, Kaldur was not Garth. Garth, the original Aqualad, was one of the few Sidekicks never to be replaced. When Kaldur hit the scene many people gasped, “They just made him black to have someone black on the show!” “Why didn’t they use Garth?!” But if the first episode didn’t make you a fan, his origin story did. Kaldur was the abandoned child of Aquaman’s greatest foe. This added an entire layer to Aquaman’s mythos that Garth didn’t bring. The character was also drastically different in personality. While Garth lacked confidence, Kaldur was always cool and collected. Fans loved him, and his popularity outlived the show. As long as you give a reason for the change, fans will embrace it.

2) The legacy is passed on: Great Examples: Cassandra Cain (Batgirl) & Conner Hawke (Green Arrow)

The only constant in Marvel’s Ultimate line is change. Because of the nature of this franchise, Marvel’s writers were given drastically more freedom than in the mainstream Marvel line. Brian Bendis, who has been the only person to write Ultimate Spider-man, killed Peter Parker off, with no plan to bring him back. Were fans upset? Sure. But they were far more interested in what was going to happen next. To kill off a character that iconic and replace him was very rare. Brian soon replaced Peter with Miles Morales- a half-black, half Puerto Rican teenager. The book has been a hot seller ever since. Peter’s death wasn’t a stunt, it was part of his story, and Miles now has his own. If Miles was a clone or a long lost sibling, fans would have gone crazy. But he isn’t, which makes his creation feel genuine.

 3) Transitioning: Great Example: Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury

When Marvel launched the Ultimate comic book line, Nick Fury was given a bigger role in the universe and the character was made to look like Samuel Jackson. For a time, the Ultimate line was more popular then the main comic line and so when Marvel began their movie franchise, they chose this version of Nick Fury due to the popularity. Elseworlds are a great way of testing the waters with characters. When a comic book is adapted to a movie or a tv show, it’s generally a merger of past incarnations. So when they were picking a Nick Fury for Marvel’s movie franchise, they chose the most popular version. If Marvel simply made Nick Fury Black, the fan base probably would have flipped, but Marvel showed a different Nick Fury in a different time line first, so fans had a chance to adapt. If the Ultimate version of Human Torch was Black, fans would probably be more accepting of Fox’s casting choice.

 4) Changing a team line-up: Great Examples: John Stewart (Justice League) & Storm (X-Men)

Most super teams go through so many line-up changes it can be tough to keep track. Comic book team relaunches and retcons are a dime a dozen, so this lends the perfect opportunity to give minority characters a spot light. In the movie X-Men, Storm was a member of the team before Angel, and no one batted an eye. The Justice League Animated series made John Stewart their Green Lantern, and for an entire generation, that was the version of GL they knew.

 

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