Are people ready for “race bending” in comics?
“The Flash” Casts Black Actress In White Character Role
The new series based on The Flash recently aired, with a few notable changes to the traditional story canon. Most notably, The Flash’s eventual girlfriend, Iris West, is now a young Black woman. One LA Times writer examines the response to the change:
The critics of “race-bending” or “race-switching” in adaptations of comic book lore don’t seem to be racist. Rather, as one website summarizes their complaint, they object to “political correctness pandering meant to foster the illusion of diversity, which is disrespectful to the tradition of these characters AND the general public.”
But, as comics nerds of a certain age remember, the “tradition” of comic books in the 1950s and ’60s was to ignore blacks — perhaps to avoid offending readers in the South (or their racist parents). But it wasn’t just racial diversity that was lacking in the so-called Silver Age. Though many comic book creators were Jews or Italian Americans (Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, started out as Robert Kahn), the DC Universe of the time was Earth-WASP.
In the 1970s comics discovered African Americans virtually overnight and soon black characters appeared to challenge not just super villains but “The Man” as well. The high, or low, point of the “relevance” craze was “I Am Curious Black,” in which Lois Lane entered a matter-transformer and emerged as a black woman. (“Suppose I couldn’t change back?” the altered Lois asks the Man of Steel. “Would you marry me? Even if I’m black?”)
There was no such self-conscious racial melodrama in the premiere of “The Flash.” Iris’ race wasn’t emphasized or agonized about — which was refreshing. One could argue that this sort of comfortable color-blindness understates the persistence of racism in America, but it’s much closer to reality than the all-white Metropolis crowds who marveled at Superman’s exploits in the 1950s.
And that’s the best refutation of the comics’ nerds complaint that the new approach is “disrespectful to the tradition of these characters.” That tradition was a dishonest and dishonorable one — as DC Comics admitted in a 1970 story in which an elderly black man rips into Green Lantern:
“I been readin’ about you … how you work for the blue skins … and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins … and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with — ! The black skins! I want to know … how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!”
Over the top, but he had a point.
Jack Rowland / CW / LA TIMES