Race-Bending in the Media

Race-Bending in the Media

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Most avid comic book fans would agree that they were less than enthused when Marvel Studios decided to reboot the Spiderman movie franchise in 2012 – just 11 years after the quasi-successful run of the original trilogy (Proctor). As one of the aforementioned avid comic book fans, Marc Bernadin, writer for “io9” (a technology and lifestyle website), rightfully questioned this decision by stating, “in this day and age, does Spidey have to be a white guy?” (Bernardin). This question fueled an Internet phenomenon that forced creators and fans alike to re-evaluate the way that they see the characters they love so much in terms of their race. Media makers and content creators have an ethical responsibility to “represent the many facets of humanity” (Petrou, Jan. 27). ‘Race-bending’ is when a content creator dresses a character as someone of a different race, or changes the race of the character entirely from one race to another (Ibid). In this paper, I aim to explore the influence of social media on race-bending, as it applies to comic book culture and its meaningfulness to the fan community. My principle arguments will draw from an examination of the Marvel comic universe, the #donald4spiderman campaign and the “Amazing Spiderman” movie franchise in order to show that through the power of social media, we are changing the way we root for heroes regardless of their race or ethnicity– moving society forward as a progressive culture.

The conversation about the influence of social media on race-bending as it applies to comic book culture begins with an examination of Robert Morales and Kyle Bakers’ 2004 graphic novel – Truth: Red, White and Black. Jennifer Ryan proposes in her article Truth Made Visible: Crises of Cultural Expression in Truth: Red, White, and Black that the graphic novel depicts a new version of the “great American hero” (Ryan, 67); an African American Captain America by the name of Isaiah Bradley. Truth tells Isaiah’s story, and contrasts his experience with that of the white Captain America (Ibid) – right down to their physical differences (see figure 1). Truth alters the traditional Captain America story, effectively rewriting Marvel comic lore (Ryan, 77). It does so by telling the story of how the super soldier serum that gave Captain America his powers was created; by being tested on Isaiah Bradley and other African American soldiers (Ryan, 67). Axel Alonso, lead editor of Truth, acknowledges that introducing a new character effectively destroys a previously unbroken and consistent existence for Captain America’s origin that allows the creators to “tell a larger story” (Ryan, 70).

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As Ryan explains, the lack of canonical fidelity of Isaiah Bradley’s Cap “forestalls widespread recognition of his role as a marker for cultural change” (Ibid) Conclusively however, Ora C. McWilliams claims that the fan rejection of Isaiah as part of the canon of Captain America’s storyline implies meaningfulness of fidelity to the original Captain America origin story to comic book culture. (McWilliams, 1.2).

To reiterate, it is clear that race-bending occurs in comic books with major characters such as Captain America, and that doing so is significant for the fan community as they care about continuity within a given characters’ canon. Phillip L. Cunningham claims that race-bending is not unique to Marvel comics – DC Comics has reverted heroes such as “The Atom and Firestorm – who until recently had been Asian American Ryan Choi and African American Jason Rausch respectively – back to their traditionally white alter egos of Ray Palmer and Ronnie Raymond, respectively” (Cunningham, 25). If fans care so much about race-bending, imagine how much they would care about race-bending the most recognizable property, a central character in the Marvel mythology (McWilliams, 1.1). Imagine if Marvel comics changed the race of the identity of Spider-Man!

McWilliams claims that the transformative power of social media in relation to race-bending as it applies to comic book culture was sparked by a single internet post by Bernadin, writer for “io9” about Spiderman’s race that brought the issue to the attention of “multi-platform media producers, resulting in a change in Spiderman’s race in print” (McWilliams, 1.2). Though both Spider-Man alter egos have similar origin stories involving genetically mutated spiders biting them, Miles Morales, the half-black, half-Latino alter ego of Spiderman, finds his origin in a twitter campaign (McWilliams, 1.2). This was an inspired Internet campaign to get Donald Glover, a black comedian and television star, to play Peter Parker in the then upcoming Amazing Spiderman film. (McWilliams, 1.2). Through Bernardin, McWilliams contends that Spider-Man should be identified by “his understanding of choice, as represented by the often-quoted line, “With great power comes great responsibility” (McWilliams, 2.1), and not by his race. He further claims that Spiderman “happens to be white” (McWilliams, 2.1), and that his “whiteness” is secondary. Glover posted on his twitter feed in response to Bernardin:

@io9 wrote a post about casting a non-white #Spiderman for the reboot. Some suggested @MrDonaldGlover I agree with this. "You guys. Let's make this happen. #Donald4spiderman" and "Sweet. You guys are awesome! Retweet. Someone start a Facebook page. I'm going to start doing shit. #donald4spiderman." (McWilliams, 2.2)

At that point in the comedians/actor’s career, Glover had been known for his portrayal of the character Troy on the NBC show, Community (Ibid). McWilliams claims that his fan base “loved the idea of having Glover play Spiderman” (McWilliams, 2.2). Consequently, the campaign became a “top 10 trending Twitter topic” and was reported by several news outlets. (McWilliams, 2.3). The campaign even reached Stan Lee (Ibid), cocreator of Spiderman, who said that despite audiences “might get confused” since they know Spiderman’s race is white from the previous films, Glover should have a chance to audition for the role.

Though Glover did not end up being cast, this wasn’t the end of the campaign. The second season premier of Community, “Anthropology 101”, opened with a sequence showing Glover in Spiderman Pajamas (see figure 2) – “a wink at the Donald Glover for Spider-Man campaign" (McWilliams, 2.4). At this point, Marvel was planning to kill Spider-Man's identity in favor of changing him to “someone other than Peter Parker as a first step in a publicity blitz” (McWilliams, 2.6) (see figure 3). Having seen Glover in the pajamas, Brian Michael Bendis, decided that he would look good as the new identity for Spiderman (McWilliams, 2.6).

Works Cited

Bernardin, Marc. "The Last Thing Spider-Man Should Be Is Another White Guy." Io9. Io9, 28 May 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Proctor, William. "Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books and Film." Scan - Journal of Media Arts Culture 9.1 (2012): n. pag.Http://scan.net.au/scn/journal.html. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. .

Ryan, Jennifer. "Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books and Film."College Literature, 38.3 (2011): 66-96. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. .

McWilliams, Ora C. "Who Is Afraid of a Black Spider(-Man)?" Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books 13.13 (2013): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. .

Figure 1 - Baker, Kyle. Captain America. Digital image. Http://www.writeups.org/. N.p., 2 Dec. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Petrou, Laurie. "Racial Representation in the Media." Class. RCC 204, Toronto. 27 Jan. 2014. Lecture.

Cunningham, Phillip L. "Donald Glover for Spider-Man." (2012): n. pag. Rpt. in Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man. Ed. Robert M. Peaslee and Robert G. Weiner. N.p.: McFarland, 2012. 22-29.Google Books. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. .

Figure 2 - McWilliams, Ora. Anthropology 101. Digital image. Transformativeworks. N.p., 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

Figure 3 - Szwimer, Jason. Death of Spiderman Fallout. Digital image. N.p., 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

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