There’s been this thing going around the bits of the blogosphere that talk about race and comics called “Chromatic Comics.” It started here, dipped over here, ended up on When Fangirls Attack (which is where I first saw it), and just this week showed up on Fantastic Fangirls. Essentially, established characters in various properties are recast to be a different race or gender. From the outside looking in, the choices appear to be fairly arbitrary. Kanye West as Archangel, for example, or Vanessa Williams as Emma Frost.
To put it bluntly, I didn’t get it, didn’t like it, couldn’t quite put my finger on why, and I’d decided not to say anything about it, barring some private conversations with friends. I felt like a player hater, coming from the position of “this is dumb and a waste of time and borderline offensive and I can’t quite figure out why.”
Earlier today, my buddy Cheryl Lynn proved that she’s smarter than I am when she started talking about it on Twitter. She gathered her thoughts and expanded on them in a post on her blog. It’s must-reading, frankly, and is almost exactly why I have a problem with “Chromatic Comics.” An excerpt:
This whole Chromatic Comics ish irritates me. Y’know, Marvel does have a whole boatload of POC characters. Stuff like that makes it seem like only the white ones are important and deserve focus. Y’know what would be nice? For POC characters to get the same promotion and devotion that white characters get so people don’t have to think of POC actors they’d like in the “important” (white) characters’ roles.
She has several more things to say on the subject, including a beautiful and nuanced breakdown of why Luke Cage has to be black and Frank Castle has to be white. I urge you to go read it. And pardon me if the following is just a rehash of her better piece.
Cheryl makes a good point on the subject of what race actually means in stories. She says, “And just like I’m not just a color, that white kid isn’t just a blank slate. He isn’t the default. And acting like he is the default hurts both him and me.” I’ve often seen it said, and probably said myself, that white is the default. That isn’t true- white is dominant, yes, but not the default. White doesn’t mean “average.” It, like black, is completely insufficient.
Elektra is white. Elektra is native to Greece. Emma Frost is white. Emma Frost is upper class Boston old money. Luke Cage is black, but he’s Harlem black. James Rhodes is black, but he’s South Philly black. Peter Parker is white, but he’s Forest Hills, Queens white. Night Thrasher is black, but he’s upper class New York City black. Steve Rogers isn’t just white. He’s from the LES during the depression.
I’m black, but I’m Warner Robins, Georgia black, where the black folks can be found watching NASCAR, mud bogging, rolling with blue flags out their back pockets, and working on an air force base.
My littlest brother is half-black, half-Egyptian, and has a name that’ll keep him on no-fly lists for his entire life. He’s living with my mom and her husband in New England. He’s going to be a different kind of black than I am. My younger brother, who’s about to turn twenty, is a different kind of black than I am, and we lived in the same house for twelve or so years. That’s three males, raised by the same woman, who aren’t the same kind of black. I can’t replace either of them and they can’t replace me. I’m absolutely certain that that applies to white people, and Chinese people, and whoever.
This race thing isn’t as simple as a skin tone and nappy hair. That’s kiddie pool anthropology. That just reinforces the idea of white as the default, in that it ignores the rich culture that white people hold dear. It reinforces the idea that non-white characters don’t matter, because why would anyone cast Jubilee in a movie? Why would anyone go see a movie about Misty Knight or Luke Cage? Let’s flip Jean Grey and Cyclops to being Indian and Chinese and roll with that! Progress!
But hey, here’s a counterpoint: Spider-Man and X-Men didn’t start this burst of superhero movies in Hollywood. No, Wesley Snipes as Blade did that. Black hero with a black love interest and everything. And before the movies? Blade was lame. All he had going for him before the movie was awesome Gene Colan art and we got two great movies out of him and one awful one. As far as quality of Hollywood superhero flicks go, he’s matched Batman (both 1989 and Begins franchises), Spider-Man, X-Men, and Superman. Blade beats Hulk, considering that those movies were mediocre at best.
Imagine what we could get for Aya. Or Jubilee. Or Dizzy. Or Loop. Or Misty. Or Luke. (Or Hypno Hustler.)
You mean to tell me that nobody would go see an action movie about a black chick with an afro, a robot arm, a sneer and a half-Japanese sword-wielding BFF in 2010? That they’d rather see The Dark Dark Phoenix Saga instead? Get outta here. If we can buy Matt Damon as action star, we can buy a black character as a black character, rather than a palette swap.
Chromatic Comics is tokenism, or maybe lip service. Either way, it’s not powerful. It’s not respectful. It’s not even anti-racist. It ignores what we already have in favor of continuing to worship exclusively white characters as if they were the end-all, be-all of comics. Hey- Marvel and DC already do that. We should do better than flipping a switch or using the paint bucket in Photoshop and calling it a day. We’ve got some diamonds in all this rough. Let’s act like it.