Monday, November 21, 2016


Today’s bloggy thing has been kicking around my brain for months. The more I thought about it, the more its scope widened. I’m still not sure where it will take me, but I needed to have a go at it and today seemed as good a time as any.

The genesis of today’s bloggy thing was apazine comments made by an old friend of mine. For those of you who only know online fandom, I should explain what an apa is. It stands for “amateur press association” and consists of individual zines created by people who share a common interest. In this case, we’re talking comic books and related subjects. The print runs of the zines corresponds, more or less, to the number of members in the apa. Each member sends the required number of copies to a central mailer who bundles all these zines together and mails them to all the other members. I’ve been a member of several apas in my life, but find online communication, such as this blog, far more satisfying.

My old friend wrote about how he was really enjoying the Supergirl TV show and then went into a rant about not warming up to the idea of “Affirmative Action Jimmy Olsen.” He continued with complaints about “Affirmative Action Pete Ross” in the Smallville series of years past and “Affirmative Action Iris West” in the current Flash series.

“Affirmative action” is a code phrase frequently used by right-wing zealots in unsuccessful attempts to mask the racism that has become a cornerstone of their politics. As much as it pains me to accept this, my old friend is one of those zealots.

In all fairness, comics fans who aren’t racist have also expressed their dislike of such revamped characters. Not necessarily because the characters are black, but because they aren’t the same as the characters they liked when they were twelve years old. They believe  new characters should be created to serve roles played by classic characters like Jimmy and Pete and Iris.

Here’s my take on this...

I don’t want to see the bow-tie and green jacket-wearing Jimmy on Supergirl. I love those often-wacky comic-book stories as much as anyone, but their time has passed. I don’t want to see Jimmy drink strange potions just for the heck of it. I don’t want to see Jimmy dumped on by Lucy Lane every other issue. I don’t want to see that guy on TV or in the movies...because neither of those mediums are likely to capture the full Jimmy Olsen. The brave and loyal friend who, despite his many mistakes, did a lot of good in his roles as reporter and sidekick.

I like the new James Olsen. I like his strength and style. I like that he has mixed feelings about being a sidekick all of his life and wants to become something more. That he’s black doesn’t enter into at all, save that I am a proponent of more diversity in comic books and movies and television.

Jimmy Olsen could not have been a black man when he was created in the 1940s and turned into a star in the 1950s. Sadly, America was not ready for that. It may not be ready for that today, but, screw that. TV’s James Olsen is black. TV’s Pete Ross is black. TV’s Iris West is black. Because it’s 2016.

My personal preference is for original characters just because I’m fond of original characters. But I completely understand why legacy characters have changed their race, sex or sexual preference when they are reinvented for today’s comics audience and comics-related movies and TV shows. In the comics series I am currently writing, I changed a male character to a female character because I wanted to have a strong woman character in the book.

My definition of diversity is this...all of our audience should be reflected in our comics and movies and TV shows. That means black characters, women characters, gay characters, disabled characters, liberal characters, conservative characters, Christian characters, Muslim characters, Jewish characters, atheist characters, straight white male characters and characters of every race and nationality. Because they are our readers and that is our world.

Not every such change works for me. Will Smith is an amazing actor, but I don’t buy him for an instant as government agent James West in post-Civil War America. It defies logic.

Conversely, Perry White or Commissioner Gordon can be black without upending the willing suspension of disbelief required by super-hero comic books and such. You would not have seen a black editor of a major metropolitan newspaper or a black police commissioner when these characters were created. You do see them now.

There’s also a bottom line component to my embrace of diversity in movies and TV shows inspired by comic books. Our best-selling comic books maybe move a couple hundred thousand copies of some special issue...and we wouldn’t reach even those numbers if we didn’t make those comics inviting to all kinds of readers.

If a movie or TV series only attracted an audience of two hundred thousand, it would be the biggest financial disaster in the history of movies and television. Movies and TV shows cost a lot more money to make than comic books. Of necessity, they have to reach a much larger audience than comic books.

Diversity is not just the right thing to do. It’s a smart business decision. I came to the “cause” because I thought it was the fair thing to do. I came to realize it was also the best way to increase the audience of the comic books and comics-related movies and shows I love. We are stronger together.

The old comic books you loved with their almost exclusive Caucasian casts of characters are still there. If you’ve held on to those old issues, you can read and enjoy them whenever you like. If your mom threw them away - and it’s time to stop giving moms a bad rap for that because not all of them did that - then you can find many of them in handsome hardcover and trade paperback editions. For that matter, you can buy them for your Kindle and other devices.

Yes, I know the notion of non-paper books and comic books horrifies some of the same people who are upset by revamps of old characters. I feel their discomfort, but we are living in a future only partly predicted by those comic books of our youth. As I see it, you can cling to a past that will never return no matter how much some may wish for that...or you can embrace the world as it is and the world as it will be. I choose the latter.

As the Netflix incarnation of Marvel’s Luke Cage would say, “Always forward.” That doesn’t mean you can’t look back at something with fondness. That doesn’t mean you can’t take something of value from the past. It just means what it says.

Always forward.

My own journey continues. I’ll be back on Wednesday with more.

© 2016 Tony Isabella


  1. I pretty much agree with everything here. I understand it's a jolt to see a beloved character depicted differently than you expected, but do understand and agree with the need for change.

    I resisted the idea of Nick Fury as a black man because that didn't make sense for a man who led a platoon in WW-2. But those stories have also dropped the war from Nick's backstory, so I'm good with it now. I was actually kind of tickled with the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall because it ticked off the Aryan Brotherhood types so much.

    The change that irritated me most, I guess, was the revelation that the Two Gun Kid was Jewish and that his name was Matt Leobowitz rather than Matt Hawk. That one felt forced to me. I'd have been much happier there with a new, explicitly Jewish, western hero.

  2. Sometimes the responses to something like “Jimmy Olsen’s now a black guy” are racist in nature, and sometimes they’re based the devotion to that self defeating concept of continuity. A person will see something like this, or they’ll hear that Iron Man and Thor are now women, and they’ll default back to “well, Thor is a guy, and now they’re just raping my childhood (a phrase that can’t go the way of the passenger pigeon soon enough). Comics constantly fight a losing battle with continuity; some of these characters have been around so long that their early foundations aren’t even possible any more. Reed Richards and Nick Fury can’t be WWII vets any more, because they’d be 90 years old. The longer the characters exist, the more often they have to reboot their lives so they make some sort of internal sense. Comics are one long story of reboots, re-imaginings, reconfigurations and retconning, simply because they have to be. From a story standpoint, is a black Nick Fury any more of a radical change than a Nick Fury whose entire history as a WWII vet has to be jettisoned? Personally, I don’t think so. Frankly, I think trying to maintain some sort of continuity with comics characters’ past is only possible at best within each successive generation of readers.

    The thing is that a lot of people who read comics stop reading them at some point. Whatever version of the character they read and were comfortable with becomes their version, so when they’re confronted with a Hispanic Spider Man or a female Iron Man, that seriously jars their nostalgic memories of their version of their hero. They don’t read comics any more, so they’re unaware of all the other continuity changing events that have happened to their favorite character in the 20 years since they followed their adventures. For characters whose popularity spans decades (Superman’s been around almost 80 years!), the only thing that won’t change is the need for change.

  3. Bass Reeves ( was a black US Marshal in post-Civil War America; he is a good precedent for Will Smith as James West.

  4. The TV change that messed with my head the most was Smallville's Lana Lang. Lana Lang can't have black hair. It's "just wrong":)

  5. I find myself mostly in agreement with much of what you have to say, although I'll admit to sometimes being miffed when I see a classic character changed (either racially or sexually) for no apparent reason other than to boost sales for a short time. It doesn't really bother me when this happens as characters move from one medium to another, as much as it does in comics.

    The important thing is if the writers for the comic, film or TV show can make the character vital enough and 'real' enough to make me accept them. Heck, Jimmy Olsen is a decent guy and I'm glad he and Supergirl are an item. Also, how many fans who initially hated the idea can even imagine Nick Fury, looking different from what we have come to expect now that we all love Samuel L. Jackson as the Colonel.

  6. Damn, but we old apa-hacks are a dying breed.

  7. Honestly, I can't see why he can't be black and be a geek with a bow-tie. (Fezs are also cool.) More seriously, what did they do with Snapper Carr?

  8. My problem with a lot of these characters isn't race, it's that they got the personalities wrong. If, for example, they had cast Donald Glover or a similar actor as Jimmy Olsen, that would work. Jimmy is smart, resourceful, impulsive, fearless, and nerdy as hell. Playing him as the tall, smooth, cool, handsome guy really isn't Jimmy. Now, Winn is more like Jimmy to me, and a black guy playing that role, only named Jimmy, would have been right.

    Along the same lines, on Smallville, Pete Ross was fine, but there was a problem with Lana Lang. Not because they cast a half-Korean actress, but because they had two actresses playing the wrong roles. The role identified as Chloe Sullivan should have been named Lana, with Clark going all googly over cheerleader Chloe while ignoring best buddy Lana. It wouldn't matter if either of them were Asian or any other ethnicity; what matters is the relationships. (Also, Kristin Kreuk is an actress of very limited range.)

  9. Nice piece, Tony. One would like to think it goes without saying, but more like it goes unheard just about all the time....

  10. I am not sure where this fits in all this, but I still can't take Ben Affleck as the Batman. DC/Time Warner somehow ruined my childhood retroactively. Was my past retconned? Wither Adam West?

    I kid. Great post, Tony.