Representation And Health 101: Retrospectives and Black Reimaginings

With the Representation and Health Black History Spectacular officially over, I decided to intently discuss this past month of articles, covering characters or themes I didn’t and looking to the future of Black representation in comics. Dr. Mara Wood (@MegaMaraMon), Aaron, Comicosity Editor-in-Chief, and Matt, Comicosity Senior Editor, all provided wonderful ideas in how to frame this discussion, from talking about characters I didn’t cover to discussing the issue of recreating White characters as Black.

Each of these ideas helps us better understand the value of representation by realistically evaluating what exists regarding Blackness in comics. I barely scratched the surface during my month long foray into Black characters and narratives, and there is so much more out there. Today, I want to dive a bit deeper and discuss how we can uncover the integral components of Black representation, but also what moves we should make in creating a better future for Black characters and readers.

Other Characters

While I chose to highlight specific characters, they are by no means the only Black comic book characters that exist. Many of the ones I wrote about immediately stood out to me, so I went for them. I decided to cover people whose narratives had an important component, particularly those who are queer (Bling, Masquerade, Prodigy, and Thunder) and who are disabled (Misty Knight and Cyborg) because there are so few of them. These extant themes drew me to write about each person I did, as I felt they were important for discussing various issues through the lens of Blackness.

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In reality, there are far more characters I could cover, to the point that I could do another month of daily columns (but I won’t be doing that to myself for a long time). I considered Power Girl, Icon, Rocket, Pantha, Aqualad, Blade, and Blue Marvel among many others. Even in doing some extra research for this column, I came across characters I’d either forgotten or didn’t know about, like the second Dr. Mid-Nite, who is a doctor, and Wildstreak, a disabled Black woman who developed her own assistive device to fight crime. Every day, I realized I knew far less than I thought, which drove me to better understand what Black representation means and the characters who shed light on the range of Blackness in comics.

There’s so many more Black characters, even with intersecting identities, than who I discussed this month and I highly encourage you to read about them. Through avenues like Comixology and Marvel Unlimited, it is much easier to read about more obscure Black characters. While some of them don’t have extensive histories, even brief appearances help to flesh them out and reveal important parts of their stories.

It’s worthwhile to examine these characters because they remind us that there’s more to Blackness in comics than meets the eye. The few that are in the public eye don’t even begin to cover the breadth of the diversity of Black characters, even if there are ways that Black representation could drastically improve. Discovering new faces in comics could mean that Black readers find themselves more holistically represented. Obscure characters have some really awesome backgrounds that are easily glossed over in favor of more popular characters, but that hold significant value in revealing the diversity of Blackness in comics.

Villains

Through this month, only three villains made the list, though one, Frenzy, later reformed. If we are going to work on enhancing representation, we need Black villains, too. For one, villains can be bad ass, so we deserve to see ourselves doing cool things whether heroic or not. Also, villains are helpful in exploring the shadowy parts of ourselves. Looking at our darkness is important for framing the rest of us, and by ignoring this part we ignore something that exists in all people. To me, it is absolutely vital that we see ourselves for our potential, but also for our weaknesses or challenges, as this realistic framework of ourselves contributes to healthier narratives by accepting all of who we are, rather than just the light and eschewing the dark.

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To this end, many villains could provide a wonderful analysis of representation. The first person that comes to mind is Black Manta, one of the first major Black characters in DC Comics. His relationship with Aquaman and his prowess for evil make him a dangerous character. However, with the introduction of the second Aqualad, Kaldur, Black Manta reveals a more tender part of himself as a father. While he uses this relationship to manipulate Kaldur, it still exposes something worth investigating: how the love of a father interacts with being a criminal.

There are very few villains that are wholly bad, and their stories can still discuss relevant themes. People like Black Mariah and Fatality would provide excellent analyses of Black women in crime or what the pain of trauma can lead us to do. Rather than ignoring these characters or only focusing on heroes, we could more deeply analyze them and bring to light a variety of issues and topics. We can also discuss how they enhance representation and what parts of them perpetuate stereotypes or negative ideals about Black people.

Reimagined Characters                          

Over time, few characters have been reimagined as Black for various reasons. Whether through editorial reboots, temporary plot devices, or alternate worlds, characters both popular and obscure have been Black to some extent. Both Wally West and Earth One Helena Bertinelli are two examples of characters recreated to be Black. Unpacking such decisions for their implicit meanings is helpful in discussing the ways they enhance representation or may do more harm than good.

First, changing formerly White characters to become Black is one potential way of remedying the diversity problem of comics. Such changes reveal that characters do not necessarily have to stay White unless there is a specific cultural narrative around them. Characters rarely need to be specifically and exclusively White throughout their publication, given that Whiteness has a kind of ubiquity in American media that is seen as the default and that it also functions as a sort of blank projection screen. Thus, no true narrative is lost in many circumstances, as would be the case if creators made a person of color White in comics.

Legacy or prominent characters becoming Black can actually be pretty subversive. Wally becoming Black in the pages of New 52 was huge, considering that we lost him for at least a couple of years. So, his return as a Black man meant elevating Blackness to the spotlight, changing the nature of his legacy to better reflect a diverse world. A Black Wally challenges the idea that only popular heroes can be White, and that legacies must be “pure” in order to be recognized. The outcry from many comic fans supports this needed change, as they reflect the value that people place on Whiteness in heroes and the fact that this outcry is largely absent when characters of color become whitewashed

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However, changing legacy characters into Black characters could also register as a half-hearted move toward diversity. Instead of creating new characters with potentially new backgrounds, creators pick an established character to change, thus altering the status quo to some extent while not necessarily expanding any narratives. While there is value in these changes, we also need newer characters that reflect more diverse narratives. Thus, if a reimagining of a character is to occur, it needs to be treated delicately. These altered characters need real and whole stories that address their history, but also the character’s relationship to Blackness. Otherwise, these moves end up ringing hollow rather than really helping anyone.

In the case of characters like Abner Jenkins, aka Beetle and Mach I-VII, making a character Black as a temporary change maybe isn’t the best move. For one, while they may experience racism, they are able to shift back at some point, something that Black people aren’t able to do. Also, this kind of story still supports a largely White population of comic characters and treats Blackness as a temporary plot device rather than a real identity. Again, when characters are changed from White to Black for whatever reason, creators should be careful in how they discuss this change, where it comes from, and the underlying implicit narrative.

There’s a unique affirmation in being able to see yourself as your favorite characters, so I imagine that a Black Wally and Helena was profound for Black nerds. Changing White characters, whether legacy or not, gives us an opportunity to connect to characters more intimately. We can connect with White characters just fine, as we’ve been basically forced to for most (all?) of comics’ history, but having a character that looks like us is validating. It’s also important for the industry to more accurately reflect its readership and the nation and world at large.

A Black Future

There are a lot of different ways that we can improve Black representation in comics, whether by creating new characters or reimagining older ones. The key component as we move forward, however, is creating a sense of realism and nuance in our characters. Making a Black character functionally White without exploring more of their identity may help with visibility, but not true representation.

Thus, I implore the comic industry to make a few of important changes. One, as I’ve already mentioned, increase the number of Black characters. We need more of them so that the relative few aren’t tasked with shouldering our history and our culture. Instead of having one or two Black characters on a team, how about half, or an entire time of Black people and other people of color. So often we’re forced into White spaces as tokens with no real exploration.

Second, as these characters increase, we need diverse intersecting identities. There need to be more gender and sexually diverse characters and people with disabilities because we exist. We’re here and that reality is rarely reflected in the pages of comics. Far too often people stop at Blackness in creating diverse characters and don’t move beyond that, barely highlighting Black women. We have other identities that could be represented, that need to be represented.

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Third, actually craft stories that highlight these characters, the obvious caveat being we don’t just need to be victims. We need story arcs, not just visibility. The fact that characters like Bling, who is Black and lesbian, have stories where they are only prominent as victims is kind of insulting. Marginalization exists, but why restrict a fictional world to constant victimization or oppression when you could increase the amount of stories that don’t have these elements. We need stories that explore the totality of our experience, and racism or other forms of subjugation aren’t that.

Fourth, hire, promote, and boost the voices of Black creators. They are the vanguard of increasing positive representation, as they are more likely to capture the realness of Black experience. To this point, these creators need to be comprised of more people with intersecting marginalized identities. They don’t all have to be cisheterosexual men. I would love to see a Black character who is queer in name and nature, not just a random nod or a one-time story that doesn’t explore their fullness, written by a Black queer person. To have so few characters beyond Black women who hold other marginalized identities flies in the face of reality. I reiterate: We exist and we can definitely write the stories. This is evident in the culture of webcomics, which I feel is vastly more diverse than the comics industry. Hire more people that are Black and hold other identities because this enhances the quality of stories and representation, but also creates varied narratives so that we don’t have to just put up with one or very few problematic ones.

These suggestions are just a starting point, and some creators have done great work along these lines. However, as always, there are still many strides to make. We could do with less Black characters who have a criminal history, while exploring the racism inherent in the prison system for those that do. We need stories that involve Black people being queer and being happy, but also addressing how queer identities are influenced by Blackness. I hope the comic industry listens, takes note from the diverse webcomic community, and consults with more Black people in making these necessary changes. Sure, White people can write our stories, but there’s something to be said for how a White creator understands racism or Blackness compared to our lived experience of these realities.

Writing better representation of Black people is in no way mutually exclusive from writing a good story. You can have action while discussing racism, misogynoir, experiencing homophobia or transphobia as a Black queer person. The path truly is laid before us, we just have to choose to walk it. Black people can, and absolutely do, create their own stories, but the industry needs to take a bold step it hasn’t and move toward progressive storytelling. I have high hopes for the future of Black representation and comics, and I want them to someday come to fruition. Until then, I’ll always continue to read, but I’ll also let you know when the jig is sky high and how we can move forward from missteps.

What did you think of this retrospective? What are your thoughts on changing characters to be Black who were formerly White? Hit me up on Twitter at @80Grey!

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