Death or Glory: The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling

Who needs regressive storytelling when you can have politically progressive heroes and innovative villains?

Above is a mesmerizing rendition of the Hood, the main character, behind Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ new and highly lauded superhero noir series (Marvel Comics). Unfortunately, DC comics suffers tragically from a lack of imagination, and heralds instead its own bygone era of heroic representation, embodied by great white heroes.

In the last 5-10 years, I’ve grown pretty excited at the emergence of a new cohort of black and brown superheroes in the mainstream comics world. Nevertheless, unlike Marvel, DC has begun to roll back franchise after franchise, opting to shelve brown and mixed-raced inheritors of heroic mantles (often in bang!-yr-dead permanence), in favor of bringing back the euro-descendant old skool. Even when such returns require inexplicably miraculous, zombie-like resurrections.

lady gaga telephone comic

Ultimately, my issue isn’t so much that there needs to be some untethered prominence of brown comic characters, (again, Brubaker is doing some of the most interesting writing and he’s dealing with white folks of questionable ethics. Even Lady Gaga features Beyoncé once in a while). Rather, to resort to dredging up old white heroes and placing them back in their old roles is not only socially suspect in sidelining brown characters, but its creatively stifling and essentially a sign of intellectual weakness in the ranks of DC.

reposted from Bleeding Cool and comics alliance:

In [last May’s] comic book solicitations, Ray Palmer made a return to comics as the Atom, following in the footsteps of characters like Hal Jordan and Barry Allen in what Chirs Sims likes to call “regressive storytelling.” These are stories that look to the past instead of the future, setting things back to the way they were rather than progressing them to what they should be next, rendering huge swaths of their fictional universe irrelevant because they didn’t star the One True Version of a character.

“The Good Old Days” have become a driving force in the comics industry in particular and DC Specifically (and Geoff Johns even more specifically, as DC’s Creative Director who is personally responsible for regressing Green Lantern, Flash, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Hawkman, Aquaman and others), and it’s all built around a desire to recapture a feeling these creators got when they were kids. But there’s an unintentional side-effect to all this regression that often goes ignored: The piece-by-piece white-washing of the DC Universe.

It’s been a running gag among my friends that in comics, only white Americans ever find meteors, get splashed with chemicals or get visited by spacemen, everyone else (from Jack O’Lantern to Black Bison to the Gaucho to Apache Chief to Samurai and so on) has to have a power that relates to their race or their country — specifically, the broad stereotypes drawn from white Americans’ perception of their race or country. It’s almost inescapable, and it reinforces the idea that non-white characters are defined solely by their ethnic differences.

But Ryan Choi, as the Atom, was a character that actually had a character, and was one of the few Chinese-American characters in comics that didn’t have powers relating to Kung Fu dragons. He was just a guy with super-powers that was filling a role that nobody had bothered to do anything with in years.

And now he’s been shoved into limbo so that Ray Palmer can come back, reduced to a gentrified footnote so that the DC Universe can a little bit more like it did in 1978.


Below are no fewer than Twenty-Two Legacy Characters who have been offed by DC writers and editors:

1. Amazing Man II (William Everett III) African-American. Killed by Mist (Caucasian).

2. Atom (Ryan Choi) From Hong Kong. Choi was severely beaten and murdered by Deathstroke (Caucasian) and his band of Titans. The mantle he inherited from Atom II Ray Palmer (Caucasian) has now been passed back.

3. Batgirl (Cassandra Cain) Half-White, Half-Asiatic. Cassandra is still alive but has been replaced by blonde hair, blue-eyed Stephanie Brown (Caucasian).

4. Black Adam (Teth-Adam). Inheritor of the power of Shazam. Former member of the Justice Society of America turned genocidal madman. The wizard Shazam (possible Canaanite) has turned Tenth-Adam into a statue.

5. Cheetah III (Sebastian Ballesteros) Argentine. Killed by Cheetah II, Barbara Ann Minerva (Caucasian).

6. Dr. Midnight (Dr. Beth Chapel) African-American. She took up the mantle of the original Dr. Mid-Nite (Caucasian). Slain by Eclipso. The legacy of Dr. Mid-Nite has now been passed on to Dr. Pieter Cross (Caucasian).

7. Eclipso (Alex Montez) Latino. Commits suicide to stop the original Eclipso from taking over his body. The Eclipso entity goes on to possess Jean Loring (Caucasian) and back to original host Bruce Gordon (Caucasian).

8. Firestorm (Jason Rusch)
African-American. When the original Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond, Caucasian) was killed, his powers were passed to Jason Rusch. During Blackest Night, Black Lantern Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond) forcefully merges with Jason Rusch. Now Ronnie Raymond is alive and permanently merged with Jason Rusch creating a new, white Firestorm.

9. Green Arrow (Conner Hawke) Mother is half-black, half-Korean. Father is white. When his father, the Green Arrow Oliver Queen (Caucasian) came back to life, Oliver decides that both he and his son can share the Green Arrow title. However, Conner gets turned comatose by Dr. Sivana. Conner comes back to life and abandons the Green Arrow identity. Now Oliver Queen is the only Green Arrow.

10. Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) Half-Irish, Half-Latino. Once Green Lantern Hal Jordan (Caucasian) came back from the dead, Rayner loses his place spot as the Green Lantern of Earth and his membership in the Justice League of America.

11. Guardian (Jake Jordan) African-American. Jake Jordan was given the title Guardian by the newspaper Manhattan Guardian which purchased the rights from Project Cadmus. He is replaced by clone of the original Guardian Jim Harper (Caucasian).

12. Hawkgirl (Kendra Saunders)
Latino. Kendra gets killed by Black Lantern Sue Dibney. Then gets brought back to life as the Golden Age Hawkgirl Shiera Hall (Caucasian).

13. Hawkman (Katar Hol, post-Zero Hour) Half-Cherokee, Half-Thanagarian. Banished to limbo. Katar Hol becomes reconstructed as the Golden Age Hawkman Carter Hall (Caucasian).

14. Hero (Hero Cruz)
Latino/African heritage) Keeper of an H-Dial previously used by Robbie Reed (Caucasian), Chris King (Caucasian) and Vicky Grant (Caucasian). The only H-Dial currently in use is the one belonging to Robert Reed.

15. Isis (Adrianna Tomaz) Egyptian. Instilled with the powers of the goddess Isis, Tomaz tried to use her abilities to reform Black Adam and become a superhero. After being fatally wounded by the Horseman of Apokolips, she tells Black Adam that his violent ways were for the best. She gets resurrected and sexually assaulted by Felix Faust. The wizard Shazam (possible Canaanite) has turned Isis into a statue.

16. Jai West (Half White, Half Korean) Son of the Flash (Wally West, Caucasian). Jai gained super strength powers thanks to his connection to the Speed Force he shared with his fraternal twin sister Iris. However, their connection to the Speed Force was altered by Reverse-Flash (Caucasian). Only Iris West (the more Caucasian looking twin) gets to use the Speed Force. Iris becomes the super speedster Impulse while Jai currently sits around playing video games.

17. Osiris (Amon Tomaz)
Egyptian. Shares the powers of Black Adam (Egyptian). Osiris sought to be a superhero, even going as far as joining the Teen Titans. But after accidentally killing the Persuader (Caucasian) to save his sister’s (Isis, Egyptian) life, he became shunted by society. He was later killed by the Horsemen of Apokolips Sobek. Osiris came back to life at the end of Blackest Night and joined Deathstroke (Caucasian) and his Titans in killing the Atom Ryan Choi (from Hong Kong).

18. Son of Vulcan (Miguel Devante
) Latino. When the original Son of Vulcan (Johnny Mann, Caucasian) died, he passed his mantle onto Devante. Miguel joined Titans East only be attacked and left comatose by Trigon.

19. Tarantula (Catalina Flores) Latino. Flores adopted the Tarantula identity to honor the Golden Age hero Tarantula (Jonathan Law, Caucasian). She sacrifices herself to in a battle against a small army of super villains over a Neron created “Get Out of Hell Free” card.

20. Tempest (Joshua Clay) African American. Killed by the Chief (Dr. Niles Caulder). His name gets taken up by Garth, the first Aqualad (from an offshoot race from Atlantis).

21. Wildcat (Hector Ramirez) Latino. Former boxing protégé of Ted Grant (Caucasian), the original Wildcat. Killed by Killer Croc in an underground fight club. The mantle was reverted back to the original Wildcat Ted Grant.

22. Wildcat (Yolanda Montez) Latino. Fought crime as the second Wildcat. Slain by the original Eclipso. The mantle was reverted back to the original Wildcat Ted Grant (Caucasian).

Seeing them all in a list, with their respective fates enumerated makes me feel some kinda way about these literary shifts.

Up Up and Away?
Sunshine Superboy


4 Responses to “Death or Glory: The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling”

  1. Good one to come from you. I liked “it reinforces the idea that non-white characters are defined solely by their ethnic differences.”

  2. WOah. Thanks for the post. Its one thing to notice individual instances, but that list….

  3. That’s a powerful list. I think the general point is valid but I would take exception to some specific items.

    Captain Marvel was actually the replacement of Black Adam. And Black Adam could definitely “come back”. And Isis is apparently alive along with Osiris.

    and then I think the origins of Hawkman/Hawkgirl are so f-ed up that they are all kind of true and kind of false.

    And Kyle Rayner may not have the JLA position but don’t all of the human lanterns have some other position in the Guardians’ organization if they aren’t the Green Lantern of Earth’s sector?

    And Cassandra Cain is still a hero, but in Hong Kong…

    Again, I agree with the general point and Marvel has done a better job than DC in many respects…Jim Rhodes /War Machine still is active. Brother Voodoo is now the Sorcerer Supreme. Luke Cage is more prominent than in past years. Storm and Black Panther as well. etc.

  4. btw have you checked out the new reboot of the Squadron Supreme. They are part of the Marvel multiverse where the superheroes are basically analogues of the major DC heroes (Hyperion = Superman, Nightwing = Batman, there is a Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well, along with others). “Batman” and “Flash” are both Black in the reboot. And Batman’s parent’s were killed by white racists so he has more of a Malcolm X by=any-means-necessary vibe. Superman was Truman Show-ed by the government to make sure he would be patriotic. Seriously good. Much more political.

    Also, I don’t want to be an apologist for DC but I wonder on balance how the picture really balances out if you take into account DC including characters from Milestone Comics (like Icon and other Black superheroes)

    Or DCs crossover between the JLA and the 99 (Muslim superheroes)

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