Ol' Blue-Eyes Is Back: Race And The Return Of The Retro Superhero When superheroes are rebooted to their "retro" forms, things get lost. Like everybody who isn't a blue-eyed white guy, for example.
NPR logo Ol' Blue-Eyes Is Back: Race And The Return Of The Retro Superhero

Ol' Blue-Eyes Is Back: Race And The Return Of The Retro Superhero

a man with a blue eye

Last Thursday, go-to comics blogger Chris Sims posted a thoughtful, nuanced and well-argued critique of a recent trend in DC superhero comics he finds troubling: The recent tendency for the publisher to reinstate the "classic" versions of heroes who had at some point exited the stage and passed their multicolored longjohns to a new generation.

Sims considers what he dubs "regressive storytelling" to be emblematic of the superhero genre's ingrained fetishization of nostalgia, of the way the form remains perfectly content to trade on its past at the expense of its present -- and its future.

But, as Sims points out, there's a larger issue here.  Turns out, before the recent drive to bring classic characters back from oblivion got underway, that aforementioned younger generation of heroes was … slowly … beginning to look a good deal more racially diverse than, say, the Silver Age Justice League.  

Which, you should note, featured more pale males than an E.D. Hirsch syllabus.

Which made the starting lineup of the Washington Generals look like a Benetton ad.  

….Lotta white dudes, is what I'm saying here.

So an unintended effect of this recent practice of gradually reinstating all those old "classic" heroes is, in Sims' words, "the piece-by-piece white-washing of the DC Universe."


The King Is Dead, Viva El Rey

Of course, we have to acknowledge that not every member of that new, younger generation really worked out.  In 2006, the superhero mantle of Firestorm (flies, transmutes matter, head like a Zippo) passed from arrogant white jock Ronnie Raymond to brainy young African-American student Jason Rausch.  But alas, his writers slapped Jason with the "reluctant hero" schtick, and I humbly submit that it's nigh impossible to empathize with a character who keeps whinging about "just wanting to be a normal kid" when the thing that stands between him and his vaunted normal kid-hood is BEING ABLE TO FLY AND TRANSFORM STUFF INTO OTHER STUFF.  

But for every near-miss there were palpable hits:  Life had been had always been rough on Ray ("The Atom") Palmer.  So when, in 2006, Ray's ex-wife murdered the wife of one of his fellow heroes (long, weird and unremittingly grim story), Ray decided to disappear, and the role of the Atom was assumed by his protege, Chinese-American Ryan Choi. The resulting short-lived series, written by the great and good Gail Simone, was a potent mix of goofy humor, sci-fi adventure, gothic horror and lots of heart.

Wealthy inventor Ted ("Blue Beetle") Kord was murdered, and in his place arose young Jaime Reyes, a Mexican-American kid who, with the help of a close network of friends and a supportive family, donned the azure carapace to protect the people of El Paso, Texas from bank robbers and the occasional dark alien conspiracy.  As we've mentioned before, this series (also short-lived) represented pure superhero whimsy distilled to its grooviest essence.  

Cut to the present: Jaime's still workin' the Beetle-suit and plying his superheroic trade, but both Jason and Ryan have now been shouldered aside as DC reinstates their old guard.

If any of this interests you even remotely, you really should read Sims' piece, and the post by Comic Book Resources blogger Sean T. Collins rounding up the online reactions to it.  For the most part, it's proven to be a remarkably civil and cogent discussion of race in comics. Which, trust me, is notable.

Blue-Eyed, Solely

I don't have much to add, except maybe that Sims only touches on the degree to which those classic versions of heroes adhered to a very specific, and very narrow, ideal of what superheroes looked like.  And, for that matter, what they looked with.

By which I mean: Blue eyes.

As a lad, I loved encyclopedic series like The Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who in the DC Universe, which served up the "just-the-facts" vital stats of every hero and villain who'd ever graced the comics pages: Height. Weight. Alter-Ego. Base of Operations. Powers and Weapons. Hair Color.

…. Eye Color.

Now, I was a pale, brown-haired, brown-eyed kid.  There were millions of kids like me, and nothing about me placed me in anything resembling the minority.  

And yet, when I pored over those books one afternoon to find a hero like me, I searched in vain.  Page after page, hero or villain, DC or Marvel, it didn't matter:

Eyes: Blue.

Eyes: Blue.

Eyes: Blue.

Nationality didn't matter. Hell, species didn't even matter: Human, Kryptonian, Thanagarian, Avenger, Defender, Eternal, Kree Warrior or Justice League Mascot:

Eyes: Blue.

Brown hair was a rare thing, too, in that universe where even the lowliest "Da boss says ta moiduh yuh" gunsel sported either jet black, blue-highlighted, brilliantined hair or a canary yellow cloud meant to pass for blond.  

And yet it was the ubiquity of blue eyes that puzzled me, that blase affront to Mendel's laws.  Mendel. Odd: I unthinkingly accepted flight, spider-senses, and the fact that a guy could build a relatively successful crime-fighting career around being really good at archery. But as I stared down into those pages so generously peopled with extras from some cosmic Riefenstahl film, I couldn't shake the impression that I, and all my brown-haired, brown-eyed friends had without knowing it failed some secret eugenics experiment.  Barred forever from the world of superhero adventure by our depressingly dominant alleles.    

Now of course it's one thing to find one's eye-color unrepresented in a given medium. I mean, boo-fricking hoo. It's quite another to search in vain for any members of your race, sex, religion or sexual orientation.  Which is why Sims has a point, and a good one, about the need to move the comic book conception of what a hero looks like forward, instead of continuing to hit the reset button.

Epilogue: The Exception

But what, some of you may ask, of Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan, the character whose 2004 mini-series Rebirth launched the current wave of returning classic characters? Shouldn't he come in for particular blame?

Not in my book. No, in my book, Hal's a special character. In fact, in a very real way, Hal's practically unique. In my book.

Because the book to which I'm referring is my 1985 copy of Who's Who in the DC Universe.

Specifically, Volume IX: Garn Daanuth to Guardians of the Universe.

Allow me to quote from the Green Lantern entry:

Hair: Brown.

Eyes: Brown.