The Extrahuman Union

Looking for Ourselves in our Heroes

Posted on: August 3, 2011

This illuminating post by Jim Hines (as well as a Twitter conversation) got me thinking about a lot of things today.

The post is about the sadly predictable reaction of some people in American “geek” culture to the idea of a half-black, half-Hispanic Spider-Man. I personally love the idea; there are so few nonwhite heroes in the various comic book universes that any new addition feels like an opportunity for fresh and interesting storytelling. I also like the idea that superhero identities don’t have to be tied to a single person; the idea of someone new stepping into the boots and cape of an older hero is compelling. That’s why I liked “Batman Beyond” so much, and why I made Sky Ranger an inherited title instead of something associated with only one individual in the Extrahumans universe.

Some fans don’t feel that way, clearly. The amount of whining and nasty, racist jokes from the geek world is not surprising, though it continues to be disappointing. I used to feel very much at home in geekspace, but these days I feel like I have less and less of a place there. Where are the people like me? And I’m talking just women, not even LGBT folks (though that would be nice, too)!

This isn’t just a comic book problem, but something that SF/Fantasy/etc. in general is just starting to come to grips with. Fantasy was long the domain of Muscled White Guys With Swords doing important things, for example. This is changing, thankfully–I could name you many great books with women as the main characters. Bless urban fantasy with its wealth of strong and interesting female protagonists! I feel like science fiction still lags behind a bit, but there too some strides are being made towards gender equity.

I still haven’t run into a lot of truly racially diverse fantasy or science fiction universes. One notable exception was Zion in the two Matrix sequels, but other than that…? And let’s not even get started on sexuality or ability. Sadly, because we’re trained by our society to assume that characters are white, straight and able-bodied unless told otherwise, diversity can be a bit harder to find in print. I think we want to find pieces of ourselves in our heroes. That’s an awful lot harder when all of the heroes aren’t like you in some fundamental way.

This is something that I struggle with in my own writing. How do I create worlds and characters that really do reflect human diversity? And how do I do that without hitting people over the head with my big Star Trek hammer?

In any event, Marvel is to be commended for letting someone who isn’t a white guy named Peter Parker be Spider-Man. Sort of. This is all happening in the Ultimate Marvel universe, which contains “reimagined” and “updated” versions of familiar characters. Basically, it’s the place where non-canon goes to die. So, Spider-Man can be a half-black, half-Hispanic guy–in a second-class offshoot universe. Yay?

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6 Responses to "Looking for Ourselves in our Heroes"

Yes, I’d love to see even the superhero fiction reflect reality.
In my neck of the woods, the most prevalent superhero is Phoenix Jones (yes, a real life superhero), and he’s african American.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Jones

And so what. The important thing…we’ve a superhero in town. How cool is that.

I’ve heard of him and his group! Are they still active? That is very cool.

I think that comics and other superhero fiction will slowly start to reflect reality a bit more, but we do have a long way to go.

Yup, they’re still active. And are visible and around. We ran into him in an all-night diner once. Got pictures and everything.

This is the sort of thing that very badly needs to happen in my town!

I found myself torn about the news of the new Spiderman. I should start by saying that I don’t have a lot of comic book reading under my belt and my knowledge of super heroes stems from pop culture and not geek culture. And of course anyone spouting racist remarks doesn’t deserve a listen. But there’s an interesting argument at the core here.
I think where I finally land in this debate is that I see nothing wrong with people wanting to protect canon. IMO Spiderman should stay white because for 80 years Spiderman has been white. Why does that need to change? So Marvel can cast itself as progressive?
What would really be progressive would be NEW superheroes of varied races. Good one’s, too. But nobody seems to know how to do much except reheat leftovers anymore, so we get this. I think that’s my real annoyance here. They aren’t trying to create a new iconic hero with an Hispanic heritage, they’re just offering up this rather lame and mushy stew.

And, as someone who writes in the fantasy genre, I liked your closing lines about the difficulties of representing human diversity without…well sounding like your trying too hard to represent human diversity.

It’s not easy and in the end I just try and keep my mouth shut and listen to what my characters are telling me. 🙂

I do see your point about protecting canon, but the Spider-Man in question is in a line of comic books set in an alternate universe. Their whole purpose seems to be to mess with canon.

However, you’re absolutely right that it would be great to have new heroes instead of ones that have been around for decades. DC and Marvel do launch new hero titles, but for all kinds of reasons they never sell like the old stuff. That says something about what comic book buyers want, too. It’s hard for them to take risks when their fans reward the same old same old.

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Susan Jane Bigelow’s Extrahuman Union

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