Diversity Changes For Established Characters

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08/06/11Diversity Changes For Established Characters(Blog) (Forum)Retcon(Back) (Next)

In the past four days, Comicvine has had two different articles concerning diversity changes for established characters. The first was "Spoiler: Marvel Reveals the New Ultimate Spider-Man," by Mat 'Inferiorego' Elfring, and the second was "Laurence Fishburne is the New Perry White in Man of Steel," by Tom Pinchuk. Check them out, if you haven't already done so, because both articles sparked some hot debate. They certainly got me thinking, and what I decided is that while I like neither change, one is done the right way, and one is not.

First, let's get something out of the way: I'm a white guy. It's not about that though. As is so often the case with me, it's about the writing. That said, let's get down to it.

The two articles mentioned above talk about diversity changes from two different angles. The Ultimate Spidey article gives us Angle #1: a new, different character replacing the established character. In this case, Miles Morales is somehow replacing Ultimate Peter Parker as Spider-Man. This sort of change in secret identity is called "passing the mantle," or "picking up the mantle," and in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. When the established character is being replaced by their sidekick, or by their child, we have commonly come to call that a "legacy character." In the case of Miles Morales, this is picking up the mantle. He's not a legacy character, because he wasn't Parker's sidekick or child, and it's not passing the mantle, because Parker didn't give him the Spider-Man identity (unless one of those is done through retcon).

While I think "picking up the mantle" is the weakest of the three, after "legacy character" and "passing the mantle," it's still an organic, in-story way of replacing an old character with a new character. The new character being of another ethnicity is fine, but too often, it comes off as a gimmick for sales, rather than as a good reason in the story. It's also harder to explain. How does someone from a plainly different background happen to have the same powers as the character they are replacing? Even if the character happens to be related to the hero, but appears to be of a different ethnicity, as in the case of Connor Hawke, the writer then has to convince the reader that by some remarkable fluke, the relative has developed the same skills as the hero they are coming in to replace, without being mentored by the hero. Frankly, we accept this in comics all the time, but I always find it less believable when the character isn't a legacy character. Despite me calling it weak plausibility, as far as writing, it's still a legitimate way to go.

The Fishburne article gives us Angle #2: a character of different ethnicity being substituted as the same character. In this case, it's an African-American actor playing a caucasian character. Because Mr. Pinchuk's article is about a movie, the issue is really two issues: 1) Caucasian characters being played by actors of other ethnicities, and 2) caucasian characters being randomly replaced by other ethnicities. Whichever issue you go for, it's either 1) bad casting, or 2) bad writing.

In the case of the actor, will they play a good role? More than likely. Specific to Laurence Fishburne: absolutely. But if X-Men had been cast with a white Storm, Chinese Wolverine, and black Magneto, everyone would have said, "bad casting." Why is it not being said for the character of Perry White? I'm sorry, Mr. Fishburne looks nothing like the character of old white guy, Perry White. I understand they're casting for big name actors in the movie, but why not Harrison Ford (who recently played an old white guy in Cowboys and Aliens), Tom Selleck (best known for Magnum P.I., but recently played an old white guy in CBS's Blue Bloods, and in their Jesse Stone movies), or even Sean Connery (former James Bond and played yet another old white guy in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)? I can more easily accept Connery's accent than I can the completely wrong appearance of Fishburne.

Because we're talking about a movie here, with living, breathing people, the issue gets a little muddled with people's opinions on actors' rights, clique exclusivity, and social changes. If you take it back to the comics though, it would be absolutely wrong to suddenly make major changes to the appearance of your character. I'm not talking about a difference in drawing styles, I'm talking about major changes, like a change from caucasian to African-American, or a change from African-American to Plutonian, or from man to woman (or vice versa to any of those). It's simply bad writing, and in the movies, it's bad casting.

In some cases, the caucasian characters who are changed to ethnicities make no sense, from a historic perspective. Simply put: racial bias of the times is why the characters were originally white, and that's also why historically, a non-white person would not have been in that character's position. For me, this goes back to continuity issues, as discussed in an earlier blog. That is, if there were real continuity, rather than rebooted universes every ten years or so, then those titles that were dominated by caucasian characters could be changed more organically. Older characters could die or retire, and diversity could be represented in a way that reflects the times.

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