‘Flame on!’: Minority Superheroes and Privileged Comic Book Readers

Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel

Last month, the comic book community discovered the casting details for an upcoming big-budget superhero movie adaption. (I guess there must have been a Y in the day.) Following plans to relaunch the Fantastic Four movie franchise, FOX revealed that team member Johnny Storm would be portrayed by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan in a race-blind casting for the Human Torch. So far, so Hollywood.

However, the backlash against news of a Black Human Torch from certain sections of the fan community quickly proved to be so vicious that the catchphrase ‘FLAME ON!’ suddenly took on a whole new (somewhat racially dubious) meaning. This indignation from predominantly white, heterosexual, male fans both represents an intriguing point in the cultural evolution of comic books from fringe texts to mass media products and raises the question of the cultural ownership of geek culture; to whom exactly do superheroes belong?

Although the reasoning behind fan objections to Michael B. Jordan’s casting has been as colourfully diverse as the Fantastic Four are utterly homogenous, the only actually remotely valid argument they have is that in the comic books, Johnny Storm has consistently been depicted as Caucasian. However, movie versions of classic comic book stories make massive changes to canon events all the time to little fanfare. And while the Human Torch has traditionally been white, no part of his characterisation has ever been anchored in his ethnicity whatsoever. In this case, inverting the character’s race doesn’t necessarily involve redacting a substantial chunk of that hero’s history; it’s more likely to give the character new issues to explore.

Fantastic Four

The classic comic book depiction of the Fantastic Four: the Human Torch, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and Mister Fantastic (clockwise from the man on fire). A common objection to Jordan’s casting is that the actress set to play his onscreen sister (Kate Mara as Sue Storm) is Caucasian, thus creating a cultural quandary as interracial families do not exist. *headdesk*

Ironically, the only characters that are in-fact principally defined by their ethnicities are racial minority heroes that were originally given little in the way of description beyond ‘not being white’. (If it seemed like they could get away with it, writers would even attempt to give these characters shockingly racist superhero names, such as Black Lightning, Shang-Chi or the Mandarin.) An African-American Johnny Storm allows producers to reflect cultural diversity within the movie without having to try and flesh out a potentially offensive one-dimensional character who never featured in the original narrative, allowing Johnny to become more interesting in the process.

Obviously the Fantastic Four were created at a time when racial diversity wasn’t particularly acknowledged in culture, let alone celebrated. Just as racial homogeneity in early science fiction and fantasy texts reflected the cultural tensions of the period, the gender- and race-blind castings of classic characters in modern media adaptations can be understood to reflect the inclusive world that we live in today. More to the point, movie studios are often keen to feature women and people of colour in big productions on some level in order to directly target those audiences because (shockingly) women and ethnic minorities also watch movies. While straight white men may still be the main target market for action movies (and thus, we’re still waiting for a Wonder Woman movie to go into production) the greasy wheels of capitalism are eager to also reflect other identities for the sake of market penetration.

This social revelation has slowly began to trickle down into comic book texts themselves as publishers have realised that a market exists for representation beyond a flood of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road men. Both the latest characters to utilise the Ms Marvel and Green Lantern monikers are Muslim-Americans and a number of big-name female characters in the Marvel universe (from Captain Marvel to Black Widow and Elektra) have all recently began their own independent series.

Kamala Khan

Kamala Khan, the new Muslim-American Ms Marvel, debuted in the first issue of her own series last month and immediately went to second printing following a sell out first-run. The success of Kamala’s own series (along with characters such as She-Hulk and Black Widow, who are also going to second printings) suggests that a tangible market exists for stories featuring different kinds of characters.

Publishers are beginning to realise that featuring different kinds of people as the heroes of their own stories makes sense not only in terms of social equality but also in business terms. Queer teenagers who feel culturally overlooked, middle-aged women who can relate to She-Hulk’s fight with the corporate glass ceiling and ethnic minority kids who wish they looked like Spider-Man all want to see themselves reflected in explosive, fantastical and empowering narratives, just like conventional white male readers. However, ‘fan’ backlashes against attempts at diversifying characters suggests that a substantial number of long-time readers believe that these attempts at inclusion are less concerned with targeting different kinds of readers and more interested in goading them with white guilt and male privilege.

Somewhat understandably, when you’ve been the sole target market for a cultural product for 50 years it may become easy to believe that everything produced is somehow about you. However, while they may feature in different mediums, both Michael B. Jordan’s Human Torch and the new Muslim Ms Marvel represent a similar idea: superheroes are for everyone. If long time fans of the Fantastic Four series feel unable to relate to a beloved character because they are no longer the same ethnicity then perhaps they should consider how less represented fans of the series have been feeling for the last fifty years.

– This article was originally published in Issue 108 of qmunicate, a publication of the University of Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Union.

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