The Politics Of Racial Identity In The Superhero World

Superheroes are easily dismissed by mainstream pop culture. Its fandom is relegated to a class of obsessive nerds that have nothing better to do with their time. However, this conception of the superhero fandom is wholly mischaracterized and is borne of a misunderstanding of the values that these superheroes aspire towards, embody, and try to inculcate into the value system of its readers.

The works of DC Comics, especially when reading about or watching my favorite superhero, Batman, in action, enamors me greatly. I am also quite taken by The Arrow, The Flash, CatWoman (who I suppose is more of an anti-hero), and the contemporary adaptation of the marvel superhero Daredevil (I apologize to my DC Fandom, but I cannot help who I love).

Whenever I watch or read about these heroes, I am confronted with the immediacy of philosophically important questions inherent in their works. I battle with multiple, opposing, conceptions of justice, the one held by our society, and the scarce options that are left to a city like Gotham or Hells Kitchen, where corruption is rampant and infused into every institution within society. I am more taken by the philosophically and morally important issues that they present than I am with their action sequences'.

There have been varying new conceptions and interpretations of these works in our contemporary society that have purposely reinvented these superheroes in order to stay relevant. We see various television and cinematic expressions of these stories that have melded these characters into indestructible pillars of popular culture. Comic Books are also becoming ever more popular with these contemporary cinematic inventions, and so is the science fiction and the fantasy genre in general.

The problem, I suppose, deeply entrenched in comic books as they are in other facets of our society, is diversity. Because these comic books and superheroes have been around for a very long time-- Batman first appeared in 1939¬-- most of these iconic superheroes started out as white. One way that the issue of diversity has been and can be combated in the comic book world would be to create new superheroes of colour.

But, another important way that this issue is being handled is by changing the racial identity of iconic superhero characters that have existed for a long time. Television shows, especially, has really helped to deconstruct their original racial identities and expand the diversity of these characters. And, the comic books still in print will inevitably change the racial identity of the character so as to align in conformity with the much-needed change seen on the television shows they are partnered with.

However, whenever the racial identity of a comic book character is changed, there is always backlash from the fundamentalists in the comic book fandom. They believe that by changing the racial identity of the character, they have changed something inherently necessary in the character, a trait that made them the heroes that we perceive them to be.

Yesterday, The Flash--one of my favorite television shows and one of the most iconic superheroes that exists¬--announced that Keiynan Lonsdale has been cast as the indelible and amiable Wally West. Keiynan Lonsdale is a Black actor, and his casting should not come as a surprise seeing as how in the DC Comic Universe, Wally West is the nephew of Iris West and Barry Allen.

For those of you who do not watch the show, Iris West in the show is Black, and so of course her nephew will be black. But, this did not stop the resultant backlash that took place on twitter following the announcement. I mean, I thought it had been universally accepted that the contemporary manifestation of Iris West, played superbly and brilliantly by the amazing Candice Patton, has been accepted as Black, but yesterday's backlash proved otherwise.

As TV writer and critic Andy Behbakht noted on twitter--a point that I readily agree with him on--"Wally West having red hair and white skin was NEVER 'iconic' to me. It is his wit, big heart and heroism that I see as ICONIC." The things that make Wally West iconic vastly transcend his race, rather than being unforgivably entrenched in it. His wit, big heart, and heroism are transmutable qualities that do not stand in opposition to the darker colour of his skin. This point is one that should not have to be spelled out, but I suppose this is an unavoidable consequence of deeply ingrained racism, in a society that has managed to convince itself that it is post-racial.

As nerds we love superheroes because they invigorate our vigor and we look to them in our darkest and loneliest times from strength and courage. As a Black Kid, I desperately wanted to see diversity and representation in the comic book and superhero world. While I did not get that as a kid, I was still able to connect with the loyalty, bravery, strength, selflessness, intelligence, and heroism of my favorite superheroes. And, in that moment, it was enough.

But, we need to represent diversity in all of its form, so that the next Black kid, Latino Kid, Gay kid, Transgendered kid, who looks to comic books and superheroes for strength will feel an added sense of solidarity and recognition. Superhero story lines have always been inherently revolutionary, and it is time that it internalized that in itself and how its characters are represented.

So welcome to the cast of one of the most awesome television shows ever, Keiynan Lonsdale. I am sure you will be great! I don't know about those comic book fundamentalists out there but my nerdy friends and I will be tuning in every week to watch you kick some serious ass alongside the awesome Grant Gustin. And, so will all those fans out there that truly understand what superheroes are all about, and are able to look past the superficial to what is truly important.

I don't know about you, but I am looking forward to the day that a Black transgendered kid gets to play one of the most iconic superheroes to ever exist--and my personal favorite--Batman (not that I don't absolutely adore David Mazouz and his amazing portrayal of Bruce Wayne in Gotham).

PS: Christian Bale, you will always be my Batman!