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Altered Spandex: Diversity in Comics and Hollywood Adaptations

Words by Paul Dalla Rosa
Illustration by Alyona

A while ago my boyfriend and I were driving home after seeing Stranger by the Lake, the acclaimed Alain Guiraudie film centring on the murder of a gay man at a popular cruising destination in Southern France. Though it’s often charming, the film deals with death, the fetishisation of violence, profound loneliness, anonymous sex, and anxiety over venereal diseases. It doesn’t have a happy ending. On the road home, my boyfriend wondered, “Why is it that every time we go see a queer film it’s always so fucking depressing?” I countered that these films are all independent, small-scale and generally art house. He said he liked it, but that every time we see anything with a gay character in it—a gay character in a lead, that is—the story is tragic. Beautifully shot and intellectually stimulating, but tragic. Why can’t there be a film—fuck it, a movie—with a gay lead that we can watch at Hoyts’ Xtreme Screen while eating out of a giant, fuck-off box of popcorn?

The truth is that we probably won’t, at least not for while. At present, any movie focusing on a queer or transgendered protagonist gets defined as queer cinema, a genre unto itself. And these films would have to cross from their ‘LGBT’ shelf in the back corner of JB Hi-Fi to the main counter amid your Catching Fires, Hobbits and Iron Mans. It’s a pretty small spatial distance, but what it represents is so incredibly vast.

I couldn’t help but think this over as I read the arguments surrounding the casting decisions in 2015’s live-action reboot of the Fantastic Four. Joshua B. Jordan, an actor who happens to be black, will play the white Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. The superhero film now embodies a generation of new summer blockbusters. They’re in many ways the antithesis to art house and independent film. With their increasingly standard $200 million plus budgets, superhero films are made to appeal to the widest audience possible. They’re mass culture, advertised at the Superbowl and in the commercial breaks of prime-time television, and their characters populate Saturday morning cartoons. This makes them indicative of society, a reflection of the good and bad—notice their distinct lack of leads that are anything other than white heterosexual men—but it also makes them a powerful force in shaping culture.

In 2001 Nick Fury, traditionally white, was relaunched in the Ultimate Marvel Universe as an African American modeled on the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, who went on to portray him on film. Before then Nick Fury had been played onscreen by David Hasselhof in a 1998 telemovie.

In 2001 Nick Fury, traditionally white, was relaunched in the Ultimate Marvel Universe as an African American modeled on the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, who went on to portray him on film. Before then Nick Fury had been played onscreen by David Hasselhof in a 1998 telemovie.

The furore over casting a black man as the traditionally white Johnny Storm presents an opportunity to speak honestly about representation. A white character has turned black, and has changed in the process. Whether it was main motivation or not— all reports suggest it wasn’t—there’s been an introduction of diversity through this act, and this is what I want talk about.

Though it took a fucking long time to happen, comics are becoming more progressive. DC and Marvel are introducing characters that don’t fit the pre-established moulds we currently see on film. DC have introduced a lesbian Batwoman along with Alysia Yeoh, her roommate and arguably the first transgender character in mainstream comics. But just as they created the first black superheroes amid the civil rights movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s—Black Panther, Falcon, Blade, and Luke Cage—in the modern era, Marvel remains at the forefront. In the past three years they’ve introduced Miles Morales the new half-black, half-Hispanic Ultimate Spiderman, given an all-female and epically badass X-Men team their own ongoing series, they’ve rebooted the Young Avengers franchise with a much stronger focus on the homosexual romantic relationship between Hulkling and Wiccan, and most recently, they debuted Kamala Khan as the new teenage, Muslim-American Ms Marvel. Though they’re all connected to pre-established characters or teams, they’re all their own individuals, and it feels like this is the most natural introduction of diversity.

This is all great, but when we’re talking about representation we need to acknowledge the diminished social role comics play in the present. My little cousin recognises Spiderman from the movies and Ultimate Spiderman cartoons. He’s never picked up a comic book. Most people don’t. That’s the reality. So for all the headway that’s been made, if these characters don’t actually have a wide audience due to the market constraints of their medium, these inclusions get reduced in the wider consciousness to just being syndicated news headlines: ‘A Green Lantern Comes Out’, ‘Northstar Has Comics’ First Gay Wedding’, ‘Muslim Ms. Marvel!’ Hollywood’s where change has to happen. If studios feel it’s too risky to produce features with almost completely unknown characters—case in point Kamala Khan— then studios need to introduce diversity by changing their heavy hitters.

This stance might not be popular, and I’m not interested in shaming the fans that disagree at first. People saying they don’t like the Human Torch being black doesn’t automatically make them a racist. Some may be, but outright labelling them as such doesn’t achieve anything. And I can empathise to an extent. For fans, especially hardcore ones, there’s a strong personal attachment to these characters. They’ve often known them for years in isolation, as comics aren’t always considered cool. I’ve loved X-Men since I was five. Whenever it got windy outside, I used to go into the backyard and bounce around on my trampoline pretending I was Storm. I get it. You don’t like your shit messed with. But this fear that your favourite characters are being stolen, taken away to be sacrificed on the altar of diversity just to tick a few multicultural boxes, is, quite frankly, utter bullshit.

Miles Morales creator Brian Michael Bendis has admitted he was in part inspired by Donald Glover’s (Troy from Community) 2011 Twitter campaign to be cast as Spiderman in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot.

Miles Morales creator Brian Michael Bendis has admitted he was in part inspired by Donald Glover’s (Troy from Community) 2011 Twitter campaign to be cast as Spiderman in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot.

These characters exist in a state of flux. They always need to adapt to the present, to continually be reimagined. That’s how they remain relevant, and find new audiences as time goes on. If you pick up a Batman comic from the ‘40s, it’s different from one you might find in the ‘80s or today. But the core of Batman has stayed the same, and not just because he’s still white or occasionally sleeps with Catwoman. In the case of the Human Torch, I’m aware, as are the writers at FOX, that the Invisible Woman, who will be played by a white woman, and the Human Torch are brother and sister. The family at the core of the Fantastic Four are now a mixed-raced family. They’re still a family. Deal with it.

And I say this because the point of it all isn’t to one day do a movie census and say look how politically correct we are. It’s about inclusion. It’s about recognising that the world we live in today is different from one fifty years ago. And it’s different not just because we can recognise that gay people, people of differing ethnicities, different genders or gender identities exist, but that we can say they’re valuable, they matter and they can be heroic too. Superheroes are meant to embody the best in us, and that belongs to everyone.