Diverse on the Surface


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DC has garnered some criticism for backing away from its efforts to present a more racially-diverse line-up of characters. Will the new African-American Aqualad answer their critics? 

Our world is a culturally diverse one. Each country, each city is becoming more racially and culturally diverse. In some major American cities, white people are in the minority, sharing the streets with African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino-Americans.

This kind of diversity didn’t show up as much in the pages of DC Comics. That is, until the company made efforts to make their characters more ethnically and culturally diverse. It started in 2004 when an African-American teen named Jason Rusch assumed the mantle of Firestorm. Then, a Mexican-American teen named Jaime Reyes became the new Blue Beetle and an Asian man named Ryan Choi became the new Atom. Batwoman was reintroduced into DC continuity with her alter ego, Kathy Kane, being a lesbian. The first three starred in their own series, the last one was rumored to get one soon after her introductions.

Recently, this great push for diversity suffered a series of hiccups. Firestorm was cancelled and Jason Rusch was eventually demoted to a support role for the character when original Firestorm Ronnie Raymond came back from the dead. Blue Beetle was also cancelled. The character then moved on to a back-up strip in Booster Gold which was eventually dropped. The character now only appears as a cast member in the Teen Titans series. And Batwoman is only now getting her own series after a notable run in Detective Comics.

But it was Ryan Choi’s treatment that got the fans most up in arms. His series was also cancelled and he, too, was relegated to a secondary role when the original Atom, Ray Palmer came back into continuity. That was, until he was killed off during the Brightest Day revamp of the Titans series. So treasured was the character’s diversity that he was used as fodder to show how badass this new line-up of Titans were.

Almost as if to prove to fans that the diversity of their characters was still important to them, DC is pointing to the new African-American Aqualad as a sign that their commitment is still strong. Introduced in this week’s Brightest Day #10 and timed to correspond with a similar version that will be starring in the new Young Justice cartoon, the character has gotten a fair amount of mainstream press.

The fact that DC is still revamping their older characters into people of color is a good thing, I suppose, but have they worked to fix what went wrong the first time they tried this? I think not.

One of the main complaints about the latest attempts to show diversity is that they really didn’t show diversity. The characters might have had different skin colors, different physical appearances, but they were essentially the same as a white character. Nothing showed how their different cultural backgrounds made them unique and individual.

Blue Beetle and Firestorm seem to touch a little bit on the Latino and Black experiences—the close bonds in the Latino family, the problems raising a black teen in America, etc—but the major identifying quality Ryan Choi got was the prototypical stern, disapproving Asian father (see George Takai’s role in Heroes as another example of this stereotype).

The fault does not really fall on the creators involved. Granted, many of the characters were written by creators that did not share the same ethnicity, but I think the fault lies in the mechanical nature of storytelling in comics these days. With DC in particular, there is an industrial quality to their creative process—introduce hero, introduce supporting cast/potential love interest, introduce subplot/future conflict, introduce villain, fight. Anything that does not advance the plot is left by the wayside. The quieter moments, where characterization is formed and where these character’s cultural differences could be explored, do not have a place here.

Would DC taking time to write a subplot about Ryan Choi’s culture shock in moving from Hong Kong to the United States save his life and/or series? Maybe, maybe not. But it would have shown that DC truly made an effort in celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity instead of using the character’s Asian heritage as a simple identifying characteristic—like eye color or hair style.

Technically, this new Aqualad debuted in Brightest Day #4, as Jackson Hyde a young man living in Silver City, New Mexico. He is a young man taught to fear water at an early age because his parents fear his true parents will be able to find him and due to the strange changes that occur when he gets near water. This issue, presumably, will focus on him and explain his situation better.

But will his cultural heritage be explored (or will it even have anything to do with his skin color?)? Will his being an African, possibly Atlantean, American be dealt with more than just an obvious physical character trait? Or will his story progress in the same way every other character’s story progresses, his skin color just part of the background. Having characters who look like their fans is a step towards cultural diversity. Now, DC has to go deeper. 

Also out this week:

Justice Society of America Special #1:

Pity poor Scott Kolins. He was tapped to take over as writer/artist on Magog with issue #10. He develops a multi-issue arc to start off his run, only to find out the book will be cancelled after his second issue—with a good part of his arc yet to be finished.

But don’t pity him too much. He will be able to finish his story here in this 56 page special. The world of Kingdom Come is coming to fruition and the only person who can stop it is Magog. But the best way to change the future is for him to join the JSA, something he refuses to do. His refusal could very well lead to his death.
Scott Kolins (W/A), DC Comics, $4.99, Special.

Koko Be Good:

How hard is it to stay out of trouble? For some, it’s easy. For others, it’s hard. These are the people that even if they duct taped themselves to their bed for a week, never leaving the house, never answering the phone, they will still find a way to get into trouble. I’m sure you know people like that.

Koko is one of these kinds of people. But she has decided that she wants to be good. How can a trouble magnet, a person whose greatest skill is stirring things up, stay on the straight and narrow? By growing up and showing some maturity. Can Koko do it? Read the graphic novel and find out.
Jen Wang (W/A), :01 First Second, $18.99. Original Graphic Novel.

25 to Life #1:

Eriq LaSalle is primarily known for two things. He’s known either as the gruff Dr. Peter Barton on the long-running NBC TV show, ER, or as the Jheri curled romantic competition to Eddie Murphy’s character in the film Coming to America. But he about to become known as a comic book writer, as this series, which he co-wrote, hits stores this week.

The series concerns a brutal murder of three African-American police officers. The FBI has been called in to investigate. Much like in Silence of the Lambs, the feds turn to harden criminals to gain insight into the crime in the hopes of solving it. Only in this case, the only one who can help them is a white supremacist militia leader who is more willing to give the culprits a medal than help catch them.

Eriq LaSalle & Doug Wagner (W), Tony Shasteen (A), 12-Gauge Comics, $3.99. Three-Issue Miniseries.


William Gatevackes is a professional writer living in Mamaroneck, NY with his wife Jennifer and daughter Vanessa. He also is a comic reviewer for PopMatters, has written for Comic Foundry magazine and is the comic book movie editor for Film Buff Online. Links to his writing can be found at his website, www.williamgatevackes.com.

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  • Eric Lindberg

    Eric Lindberg Sep 14, 2010 at 2:29pm

    Re: Diversity - Don't forget that Asian Batgirl Cassandra Cain was written out in place of blonde-haired Caucasian Stephanie Brown. But that's a whole other can of worms.

    I get that the new Aqualad is designed to tie in with the Young Justice cartoon. But Aqualad's always been one of the lamer codenames. I can't see a modern hero being cool with that name (especially one who doesn't seem to be that young or childish. That dude is ripped!). It's got history, sure, but I think they should have stuck with "Tempest."

  • CA3

    CA3 Sep 28, 2010 at 8:36am

    While I think it's nice that there occasional pushes to introduce minority characters to comic book readers, we all know that the intent is to bring in readers who are themselves minorities. Superman is a success for two reasons. One, he was a character many young people in immigrant families of European origin could identify with during the last century. Two, his adventures were cheap to follow.

    Considering the rather grim economics statistics that come into play with minorities, unless publishers are willing to either give their comics away or dramatically reduce their prices they won't see any marked increase in comic readership amongst minority groups. And putting them online will not solve that particular problem.

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