The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling



Today at ComicsAlliance, it’s another one of those Very Serious Essays I get inside my head every now and then (see also): The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling.

ISB readers have seen me ranting about regressive storytelling before–specifically in regards to the Flash and the Legion of Super-Heroes, books that are literally about forward motion and the future, respectively, and ought to metaphorically be about them too–but the racial aspect is something I haven’t written about too much, and–as you might expect from the 2000 words I just linked to, it’s something that’s been bothering me. I’ve had this essay building in me for a while now (it was originally scheduled for three weeks ago but kept getting pushed back), and it’s good to finally get it out.

But there’s one thing I forgot to put into the finished piece, and that’s this: This stuff is all cyclical. Eventually, the people doing the regressive storytelling are going to be the kids growing up now, who only know Blue Beetle as Jaime Reyes, the Atom as Ryan Choi and Firestorm as Jason Rusch, largely because those are the characters on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. DC comics is catering to the older, nostalgia-plagued market, but eventually that market’s going to want something different because of the forward momentum of other media. And as much as it’s a slippery slope for comics to take cues from their more mass media counterparts, that’s going to be a change I want to see.

42 thoughts on “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling

  1. I think this is certainly a troubling trend, but I think to some extent DC is to blame for how some of these legacies were transferred. I’m not really a Firestorm fan, but I can understand why people who were were put off when the character they’d been following for 20 or 30 years was killed off nonchalantly and replaced with a brand new character and cast. Same with the whole Rayner/Jordan fiasco. Sure, there’s casual racism, fandom seems rife with it sadly, but I think some of it can be blamed on the execution and not the motivation, if that makes sense? Comparatively, I think some of it also comes down to writing. A character like Jaime Reyes does well because he’s been well written and three dimensional, where as Yolanda Montez…not so much.

  2. I do worry about whether these new characters have been around long enough for readers to get attached to them the way current writers are attached to Barry Allen and Ray Palmer and so on. They came to be fixtures over a couple of decades, the newest legacy heroes are only around 5 years old and already getting sidelined.

  3. Very well written, Chris. Often when you write about racism, I find you painting with laughably broad brushstrokes, but this was a Grade-A piece of opinion. Keep it up.

  4. Good article. Speaking as a fortysomething for whom Barry Allen will always be THE Flash, I can’t say that I’m unhappy to see the return of the Silver Age heroes. However, you make an excellent point about the unintended consequences of these changes.

    I know that people like to toss around the word “legacy” when referring to DC, but I’ve always seen it as less about creating super-powered dynasties and more about putting once-popular characters to the sword in the pursuit of short-term sales boosts. Why take on the hard work of revising a “boring” character (the frequent criticism of Barry Allen) when you can kill him/her off and bring in an “all-new, all-different” replacement?

    I believe that the problem goes even deeper than you suggest. I first started reading superhero comics on a regular basis back in the ’70s, and even then I noticed that most “new” female/minority heroes were either “reskinned” (if you will) extant characters such as John Stewart or spin-offs such as Marvel’s Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. It was clear that DC *wanted* diversity, but didn’t know how to create and launch successful, stand-alone heroes who weren’t white males. Whether that was the fault of the creators, the readers, or both, I’m not sure.

  5. When you say “older, nostalgia-plagued market”, what age groups exactly are we talking about? Mostly 40-50 years? 50-60? (70-80?)

    Try as I may, I find it hard to imagine a bunch of 80-year-old men walking into a comic-book shop…

  6. Sorry to put this here, but CA’s comment system is acting wonky for me and I spent to much time on it to just let it go unsaid.

    I’m not Frederick H. Multicultural-Sensitivity or anything, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that DC invited this conversation. For years now, it’s been pursuing the hype and the goodwill that came from replacing retired/dead Golden and Silver Age white male characters with, almost exclusively, minority and female characters (the only exceptions I can think of are Connor Hawke/Green Arrow and Jared Stevens/The Man Called Fate), and then later choosing to pursue the hype and nostalgia that comes from “The triumphant return of the Jim Corrigan Spectre!” (no, that particular one hasn’t happened yet, but it will).

    I think the main question is whether they see any inherent value to a diverse DC Universe besides the bottom line. The thinking seems to be “We’ll give Ryan Choi X-number of years to find an audience. It’s more than we gave the Suicide Squad Atom, after all. If no one wants him, we bring back Palmer and see if we can milk his return for a few bucks. Meanwhile, Michael Holt/Mr. Terrific seems to be making us money, so Terry Sloane stays dead.” There’s nothing evil about that line of reasoning, it’s how businesses work. But, and here’s what I think is the real problem, if a crowded market means the odds are weighted against a new character to begin with, then building your efforts at diversity ON TOP of your efforts at reviving tired properties just ensures that your universe is going to look like a horror movie, where the dark-skinned folks end up going first.

    Like Chris, I am absolutely not calling anyone a racist, I’m just saying that DC has been trying to have this both ways for a while now (Johns himself has been on both sides of this issue – creating the all-new, all-different Crimson Avenger as well as the stuff Chris talks about here). While I think their commitment to this running gag, going back to at least ’86, is actually kind of endearing, they must have known back in the days of Dr. Mid-Nite II that trying to change all of these characters back would look a little shabby.

    I don’t know if there’s anything to do about it. If phasing out minority characters starts to hurt them financially, they’ll just switch back, and it is a good idea to keep trying to create diverse characters, just for the rare occasions when it sticks (I’d like to see more original characters like Static or Steel, but a Jakeem Thunder is probably better than nothing). So I guess, to sum up, I don’t know whether it’s a juvenile desire to see comics look like they did in the Bronze Age, except with more rape and mutilation, or if it’s just a “throw everything at the wall” sensibility that tries to eke money out of reviving old characters while choosing to ignore the appearance of gentrification, but there’s an ethical issue here that DC should address.

    Full Disclosure: I like the Vic Sage question, and when Renee Montoya gets the boot, it won’t break my heart.

  7. Very rad article, actually sat and read it twice so far. Also pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction to it, because fucking Lord knows close-minded nerds like to lash out at common sense.

  8. Great points, and i especially appreciate your mentioning the description of “Earth-8” from Crisis. When i saw that originally, i thought, i would love to see more comics set on that world…

  9. I’ve already left a comment at Comicsalliance, buty I’m wondering, does anyone know who’s sale are higher, DC or Marvel?

  10. Marvel’s are traditionally a little higher, Michael.

    Also, I posted a comment back on Comics Alliance, but I’d also like to mention that as much as I love the Silver Age (and as intelligent as it was), there were a lot of stupid things there (one of the strongest examples being the constant use of the phrase “Of Earth-2”). You have to wonder how Johns could be such a fetishist of the period without actually attempting to bring back its spirit; you have to wonder if the man actually takes in any other kind of art other than Silver Age DC. The constant obsession with referencing both that and the last 5 years of the company is really putting new readers (myself among them) off.

  11. The worst thing about this is that they are bringing back characters who are, on the whole, not particuarly interesting in their original forms.

    Consider, for example, Ray Palmer. Is there anything interesting about Ray Palmer at all? Do we actually need Ray Palmer at all? Ray Palmer is, in fact dull enough that DC decided during his original run to use him to try and tap into some of that sweet, sweet Conan money that Marvel was maiking for a while. That’s how disposable the character is.

  12. “This stuff is all cyclical. Eventually, the people doing the regressive storytelling are going to be the kids growing up now…”

    That’s part of why I couldn’t generate any outrage over the Spider-Marriage Satanic annulment fiasco; even if Quesada and co. never got around to getting them back together, the fans from our generation who grew up with them married for most of their lives and together in the movies would eventually get them back together as a “back to basics” move. Oh yeah, and great column, too!

  13. You have to wonder what the comics landscape would have been like if, circa 1978ish, DC had hired a bunch of writers/editors who said, “To heck with these guys–we want the real Flash and real Green Lantern back,” and proceeded to wipe out the “Earth-1” heroes in favor of Alan Scott & Jay Garrick et. al.

  14. I thought Ray had been back a while and was happy for Ryan to keep using the Atom name (what, does Ray have the legal right to that name or something?).

  15. First point: Fantastic article, Chris.

    Second point: I was always a Marvel kid, and therefore I have no attachment to the older, ‘classic’ versions of the characters, but I’m struck by how dull they all seem. Jon Stewart, Wally West, Guy Gardener and Kyle Rayner seem like interesting characters that I might be tempted to read the adventures of (though to be honest I don’t really read many mainstream super-hero comics any more) but Barry Allen and Hal Jordan seem so fucking boring. Even putting aside the racial issue (which I do think is a very important point) it seems like DC want to have completely bland interchangeable heros like those dull as dishwater Gardner Fox Silver Age JLAs. I don’t wanted to waste my money on that.

  16. Thanks for the Diamond link. I ask because I remember back in the late 90’s (98 or thereabouts) DC actually took the top spot from Marvel. There was a big article in Wizard discussing it having both companies talk about what it meant, and the DC guy (Paul Levitz maybe, possibly Denny O’Neil or one of the other group editors, this was before Dan Didio came on the scene) basically said that he felt that DC was a forward looking company. It was informed by its history as evidenced by Grant Morrison JLA but wasn’t afraid to break new ground and try new things either. So I’m wondering when Marvel overtook DC again.

  17. Well said, Chris. I’d been missing Milestone lately, after reading Milestone Forever, and now I miss them a little more. That was diversity.

  18. Since DC’s gone to the trouble of getting access to the Milestone characters, then we ought to be seeing as many of them as possible in regular action. Soon, please.

  19. excellent article – your 60 seconds Blackest Night did the gag and you’ve followed it up with one of the best comics articles on the web in recent memory. It’s such a crying shame that Johns (who no-one’s suggesting is racist) should be at the helm of this, when he seems so enamoured with the writting of Grant Morrison – a writer as responsible as anyone recently for broadening the skin tone palete of DC characters.

    There’s always hope – ouside the big three or four characters no one outside fandom really gives a rats ass who their alter ego is. But it’s once the movies get rolled out that perceptions start to stick, which worries me a little considering the stick Idris Elba is getting for his role in Thor – we’re in danger of seeing a lot of caped “Bagger Vance” roles up there.

  20. Tim C admits here, “I like the Vic Sage question, and when Renee Montoya gets the boot, it won’t break my heart.”

    Going by the logic of Chris’ article, I wonder if Tim’s personal preference for Sage over Montoya indicates a “more insidious problem” than overt racism.

    I agree that it undermines the idea of VERY long-form storytelling to bring things back to an older status quo.

    (It might be one reason that it was a mistake to hold to decades-spanning continuity: there’s something to be said for the Batman Black & White short stories, Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego, and the more kid-friendly titles like Marvel Adventures.)

    It’s always regressive to revert a legacy character back to an earlier identity, but if it’s also “insidious” ONLY when the earlier identity is white and the later identity isn’t, is it also insidious simply to prefer that earlier identity?

    I personally like Montoya as a character — more so as a down-to-earth cop in Gotham Central than as a globe-trotting heir to the Question mantle, and as the unwilling leader of some Crime Bible cult — but I fail to see what exactly is insidious if I didn’t like the character, or if I preferred Vic Sage or Harvey Bullock over her.

    Renee Montoya is a racial minority, a woman, and a homosexual. Can the spectres of racism, misogyny and homophobia be raised simply if a person is more of a fan of the previous Question?

    I think the bar ought to be a lot higher than that to raise the question of bigotry. If it’s not, I’ll note that Comics Alliance’s list of contributors includes seven white people out of eight, and seven men out of eight. One can draw one’s own conclusions about the insidious meaning behind that fact.

  21. On reconsideration, that last line or two is unnecessary, and I wish I hadn’t brought any specific examples.

    I think it suffices to say that, if the bar for invoking racial politics is set as low as mere demographic bean-counting, then it opens the door for the conversation to real ugly, real fast.

  22. Bubba,

    When you say “if the bar for invoking racial politics is set as low as mere demographic bean-counting,” what do you think the bar ought to be? How exactly do you gauge a publisher’s commitment to ethnic diversity, if counting the number of non-white characters is out-of-bounds?

    I mean, suppose a publisher says regularly, “we are absolutely *not* in favor of catapulting all elephants into the sea, and we do *not* support the ridiculous claims that elephants are evil spirits who drink the blood of unbaptized infants.” But 80% of their books last year had an evil magical elephant eating babies and getting catapulted into the sea.

    In this situation, we probably should not be taking the publisher entirely at their word about their feelings regarding elephants. Maybe if they’d only released one book like that! 80%, however, seems to constitute a pattern worth noting. I would say that this is the sort of situation in which it is appropriate to exercise the human ability to do math.

  23. Bubba,

    Preferring one white male character over a minority alternative is a personal choice that may not be indicative of anything more than 1 character vs another, preferring all male white characters over all minority alternatives may still not be indicative of anything, after all correlation is not causation (but such a strong correlation may be reason to promote further study).

    The important difference between mere personal preference and the caution recommended by Sims’ article, however, is that writers have a greater responsibility to `the story’ than readers, and editors have a greater responsibility to both `the internal universe’ and `the external market’ than writers. Recent trends of putting personal character preference in front of other concerns seems to be having a rather unfortunate- insidious or not- side effect of having a DCU less relatable to the real world (super-powers being a given either side of the diverse/non-diverse divide).

  24. I think the bar ought to be a lot higher than that to raise the question of bigotry. If it’s not, I’ll note that Comics Alliance’s list of contributors includes seven white people out of eight, and seven men out of eight. One can draw one’s own conclusions about the insidious meaning behind that fact.

    Fun fact: Depending on your religious beliefs, there is probably not an omniscient, omnipotent external force that we’ll call a “writer” controlling ComicsAlliance and its staff, and deciding the racial makeup thereof.

  25. Bubba, I won’t presume to comment on the “logic” of Sims’s article, but by the *plain text* of the article, the “more insidious problem,” to use the quote you chose, is that the racial consequences of DC editorial’s nostalgia and resistance to change have never even crossed their minds (see Paragraph 3). That is, the “insidious” problem is thoughtlessness, heedlessness, obliviousness. If you read my comment and honestly feel that the racial consequences of getting rid of the Renee Montoya Question never even crossed my mind, then honestly, there’s nothing I can say to you. Because, to the extent that my comment was at all coherent, I feel that that’s contradicted by the four paragraphs that I wrote before I mentioned The Question.

    As far as your thoughts on Renee Montoya go, I agree. I also like her as a cop. I personally, and this may be tangential to Chris’s point, thought Gotham Central was too good a book to have two of its lead characters forced to wear the hand-me-downs of some silly superheroes.

    As far as “raising the question of bigotry,” goes, I was pretty specific that I wasn’t calling anyone a racist, and, again not presuming to speak for Chris, I don’t see how anyone could read the third paragraph of his article closely enough to draw a quote from it and still insinuate that HE was trying to raise a question of bigotry. It really feels like you’re willfully reading some kind of attack into this, when there isn’t one there. Questions can touch on race even in the absence of bad will.

  26. Honestly, I think the answer here might be to go Green lantern Corps on everyone and let everyone who has ever worn that costume continue to wear the costume. Hal, John, Guy, Kyle… they are all currently active members of the Corps, and get pretty solid facetime in the green lantern monthlies.
    Why cant there be three Flashes, or Two Atoms? I realize if we do this for everyone it gets really crowded and confusing, but having one or two heroes sharing identities wouldnt be bad. Like if Ryan Choi really is such a fan favorite, keep him around and working with Ray Palmer. If people legitimately preferred Ronnie to Jason, then maybe Jason should fade into the background.
    Just a thought.

  27. My point being that this way the writers get their nostalgia, and these new characters get to continue existing and being awesome.

  28. Chris:

    Of course there are differences between DC’s composition of in-universe characters and CA’s composition of real-world contributors, though surely you’re not suggesting that the composition of CA’s staff is not anyone’s responsibility. If the staff’s composition isn’t the responsibility of God Almighty, it’s at least the responsibility of the Editor-in-Chief, the founder, or SOMEBODY. Those differences are one reason I realized mentioning CA’s staff was unnecessary, and I was hoping you would do more than respond to the two sentences I explicilty regretted almost immediately.


    Even supposing that the content of what DC actually publishes suggests an insufficient commitment to ethnic diversity — or a commitment that can be trumped by concern for profit or nostalgia — an insufficient commitment to such diversity isn’t reason enough to suggest racism.

    If it were, then writers or publishing companies who focus on one specific ethnicity ought to be immediately condemned as the worst sort of bigots, and I don’t think it’s a sign of racism if a company decides to focus on Irish or African heritage as a niche market.


    I’m not sure Chris was as clear as he could have been about not accusing DC of racism. He wrote the following to reassure the readers:

    “Before I go any further, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not suggesting that creators like Geoff Johns are racist, or that their stories are consciously motivated by racism in any way.”

    The key phrase there is “consciously motivated.” Nothing in the article, before or after this line, makes clear that he also denies an unconscious motivation of race-based prejudice, and a lot leaves the door open that unconscious prejudice is precisely his explanation for demoting ethnic minorities in favor of “an Aryan ideal.”

    If it was clear that Chris was criticizing mere thoughtlessness for creating a roster that was less diverse than in the past, that would be one thing, but I’m not sure he stops at thoughtlessness and avoids the implication that the current roster is the result of an unconscious or subconscious prejudice.

  29. Oh, it is. It’s also nice to have earned the esteem of those who disagree with you by tackling the substance of their disagreements.

    But that takes time, effort, and thoughtfulness — too much, apparently.

  30. Great article! As for you comment about it being cyclical, well i really hope so….. but i am pessimistic about this. Truth is comic books aren’t being read by kids in the numbers they used to. I think the reason this is such a big problem is because this regressive storyline could be a limiting factor in kids people up the funnies. I think long term this could be really bad for the comic book industry.

  31. Nothing in the article, before or after this line, makes clear that he also denies an unconscious motivation of race-based prejudice

    Nothing? Not even the two sentences right after the ones you quote? The ones that go…

    I don’t think that factors into what they’re doing at all; (bold in original) the motivation is one of nostalgia and resistance to change, not race. I don’t think the racial consequences of what they’re doing even cross their minds, which is an entirely different, and in some ways, more insidious problem.

    Or maybe:

    Even stranger — and oftentimes worse — are the storytelling gymnastics that creators have to go through to justify their regressions, which, again, are things that are clearly done without thinking of the consequences (My bolds); or

    But the subtext here — no matter how unintentional it is — is that these newer characters don’t belong in the DC Universe (My bolds); or

    It’s the unintentional building of a cosmic-scale meta-textual ghetto (My bolds)?

    Weighed against all that, you’ve decided to latch on to this idea that when he said their motivation was nostalgia and resistance to change, what he MEANT was that their motivation was unconcious racism? Next, you’re going to argue that he UNCONSCIOUSLY meant they were unconciously racist. This is bordering on paranoia, dude.

  32. Much of the reason for the rapid regressive storytelling is that the new characters have all been replacements for older characters who either were killed off recently or had large enough fandoms to not want to see the previous version replaced. There is no one, absolutely no one in the world, clamoring for Terry Sloane to come back from the dead and depose Michael Holt as the one, true, Mister Terrific, because a) Terry Sloane died off in, like, 1978 and b) no one cared much about him at the time, let alone when the new Mr. Terrific was introduced. And now DC’s got a solid B-lister who appears in multiple books and has a bunch of action figures made of him and so on. Whereas Ray Palmer’s still running around DC’s comics even as they’re trying to tell us, no, really, Ryan Choi is the new Atom! If they want to diversify existing properties, they should be looking at the older, more obscure, more dormant ones (and it occurs to me, as I write this, that the new Mr. America was a huge missed opportunity to introduce some more diversity to the DC universe under the Michael Holt model — there is no reason at all that character could not have been be any ethnicity at all, and there would be some lovely symbolic value to having a character with that name who’s Latino or Asian or Native American or African American).

  33. Great entry. I disagree, but still, I have to say you did made your point clear. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a good point, but at the end of the day, I don’t really think DC is trying to whiten their roster.

    I think they’re washing their backface away.

    DC Comics IS a white boy club, and as painful as it may be to acknowledge it, it always have been. And a 1000 Ryan Chois can’t change that fact.

    All those characters you mentioned (Rayner, Choi, Stewart, etc) were -are- token characters, made for either quelling any inconvenient talk about DC being too WASP-oriented, or for trying to cash in on a trend by making a marketable ‘Poochie’ from the currently hip ethnic/minority group. Sometimes, that means black people. Sometimes, it’s Asians. And most of the times, it’s lipstick lesbians.

    Those ‘diversity’ characters will never be A listers. They can’t be, ever. There’s limited room on the A list, and it belongs to stablished, well-know all-american franchises (and I mean “all american” in the same way Abercrombie and Fitch does). I’M NOT SAYING THIS IS HOW I PREFER THINGS TO BE. I’m just ponting out the nature on the beast.

    Times might change things a bit on the outside, but the spirit will always remain the same. DC publishes stories about characters who are establishment friendly father figures, and they always will. Marvel had it’s militaristic heroes who defended the good ol’ USA from it’s currently relevant threat: nazis, commies, people who live in oil-rich countries, etc. Image has totally rad and, like, über cool, like, x-treme demonic ninja dudez and babes. I bet you could list a dozen titles that contradict what I have just stated, and I can list a hundred that confirms it. For better or for worst, a company’s identity is very hard to change.

    And DC is Decidedly Caucasian

  34. (Sorry for the late response – I’m very spoiled by LJ/DW sending me notifications.)

    an insufficient commitment to such diversity isn’t reason enough to suggest racism.

    How would you define racism, then? (Keeping in mind that Mr. Sims was careful not to say “DC is racist;” other blogs have recently, but you’re posting here.) I would say that the attitude that white heroes are the default and normal, and non-white heroes are a “bonus” and unnecessary is a racist one. Would you argue against that?

    The thing is that most racist actions are not conscious – the word “racist” does not mean “someone who would say out loud that they think their race is superior, possibly while holding a weapon.” Racism, sexism, religious bigotry, etc etc are mostly just a bunch of bunch of unconscious attitudes that get into our heads and screw up our behavior – even if we think of ourselves as staunch anti-racists. Gaertner and Dovidio’s “wrong number” study is probably the one most commonly used to demonstrate this phenomenon; if you don’t want to mess with the Google Books inferface, this New York Times article about the 2008 election lists a few others.

    [re-post, because it looks like the original got eaten]