Consumers of popular culture, aware of the recent box-office success of the movies Black Panther and Wonder Woman, may have been puzzled by recent claims that the world of fantasy entertainment – comics, films, books – was deemed to be suffering a crisis in diversity.
The days are long past when non-white male comic book characters were restricted either to the role of villain or sidekick to the suitably pale-skinned hero.
Where would Blackhawk have been without the roly-poly, buck-toothed Chinese aide named Chop-Chop? What would Lil Orphan Annie have done without the giant Punjab or the sinister Asp? When Red Ryder needed comic relief, to whom could he have turned other than Little Beaver, an Indigenous lad with a shaky grasp of English grammar?
Dusky foreigners could not be mainline heroes but they could be formidable foes like Fu-Manchu, the Dragon Lady or Ming the Merciless.
Over time, however, the comic world came to feature a rainbow universe of varying ethnicities, colours, genders and sexual propensities: a female inside the Iron Man suit, a gay Iceman, a Latino take on Spider-Man and, of course, Black Panther, penned by African-American activist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But, according to some, the clock is being turned backwards.
The Guardian, never slow to clutch its pearls in alarm, claims that Marvel Comics is “showing worrying signs of pandering to its most conservative readers” by slighting homosexual heroes and super characters of colour.
According to Marvel’s new marketing scheme, Tony Stark, the original white male of Iron Man, will reclaim his signature suit, blond-haired Thor will get his magic hammer back and Bruce Banner, a dead white guy, will somehow be resurrected to resume his career as the Incredible Hulk.
These changes disturb those who demand that comic books should be “progressive and transgressive.”
Their complaint is – follow me closely here – that not enough people who don’t actually exist resemble real people who actually do, and that the demographical profile of those who sport capes fashioned from a Kryptonian baby blanket, retractable metal claws or bullet-deflecting bracelets made by the goddess Aphrodite should resemble the inhabitants of North American cities.
The skin colour and sexual orientation of those who can see through walls, shoot energy beams from their eyes or leap tall buildings at a single bound must match the latest census return, or a crime against diversity has been committed and that, you know, is just like being a racist.
The problem with this attitude is that it doesn’t go far enough. These eagle-eyed Social Justice Warriors who call for diversity are really only complaining on behalf of imaginary, highly-fit creatures younger than 40.
If they really wanted a fantasy world with truly accurate mirroring of our culture, they would be calling out for more infant crime-fighters or elderly opponents of intergalactic villains. Like Mike Myers’ Middle-Aged Man, whose powers included being able to jump-start a car with battery cables and remembering where his appliance warranties were kept, some of them might have pot-bellies. Teenaged superheroes would have acne and not be able to get a date while aging heroines would suffer from hormonal problems and chipped nails.
To be truly diverse, a comic book line must include titles such as Daycare Dynamo or Erectile-Dysfunction Man.
Or maybe there are just more important problems out there.
Gerry Bowler is a Winnipeg historian who loved the original Black Hawk comics and was once a member the Archie fan club. He is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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