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Sunday, June 24, 2012 

Jonathan Last has no idea how to address DC's diversity problem

Columnist Jonathan V. Last of the Philadelphia Inquirer, whom I don't have a very high opinion about, has written on The Daily website about the publicity stunt of turning Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott gay, attempting to argue about how for a long time, they've been trying to make their lines more diverse with increasingly disastrous results. But if he thinks he's succeeded in making a good case about how wretched their current approach to diversity is, I think he's only goofed again. For example:
In the world of comic books, DC has been pulling diversity stunts for a long time. From the birth of superheroes during the Depression to today, most characters have been, like most readers, white guys. During the 1980s, the people who make comics came to believe that this was a failing. So they started changing characters in an attempt shake up the medium, and bring in new readers, in a long program of stunt diversity.
He doesn't mention how, towards the end of the Silver Age, they were trying to conceive stories alluding to race relations, and one of the first prominent black protagonists they created was Mal Duncan, a teenager who'd appeared in the Teen Titans in the early 70s. Nor does he mention John Stewart, also black, who debuted in 1971 as another Green Lantern for earth, or Black Lightning and Vixen, who debuted in the late 70s and were significant as black superheroes who gained their very own roles. Before we address the matter of changing races of established white protagonists, it's worth wondering why he doesn't address where they did succeed in introducing black, Latino and Asian protagonists plausibly.
In 1985 they took Wildcat, a hero who had been portrayed, since 1942, as an old-school, white boxer named Ted Grant, and turned him into a Hispanic woman, Yolanda Montez. Since then, the comic book powers that be have re-cast lots of characters in the name of diversity: Metamorpho, a white, male adventurer, was turned into a Korean woman. Firestorm, a white, male college student, was turned into an African-American teenager from Detroit. Speedy, originally a white, male sidekick for the Green Arrow, became an HIV-positive teenage girl.
He makes it sound like a wizard approached Ted Grant, waved a magic wand and gave him a sex-change operation! Not so, and he misses a very important part: Yolanda Montez, who debuted in Infinity Inc. #12 in 1985, was Ted Grant's god-daughter, who took up his career after he sustained an injury while saving a child's life at the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths. And more importantly, though injured, he was still alive, and after learning she'd taken up the role, he gave her his blessing to become a vigilante. As a successor to a white male protagonist with no direct relations to the family lineage who takes up the predecessor's career in crimefighting, her origins were a lot better handled than the kind of forced character changes that took place particularly after Identity Crisis (which he noticably doesn't mention, presumably because his subtle support for that abominable miniseries keeps him from citing it), and unlike Firestorm and Blue Beetle, Ted Grant wasn't killed off in some disgustingly bloody fashion, nor was he ever demonized for being white. And Yolanda's introduction wasn't done as part of the JSA per se, but as part of the series starring the children and disciples of the JSA. Ironically, when a biological son was introduced for Ted Grant a few years ago named Tom Bronson, who even turned out to be a metahuman, that's where DC actually blew it by being ridiculously trendy.

The point Last misses is that if done right, it is possible to replace a white male superhero with a black, Latino, Asian or a woman provided that the passing of batons is done with respect for the predecessor and not in the kind of manner Hal Jordan was victimized with back in Zero Hour (and Kyle Rayner, his replacement, was established at one point being of half-Asian or half-Mexican background, making him an early example of a minority member replacing a white predecessor through badly written storylines).

And if Last's got problems with Yolanda Montez, I'd sure like to know what he thought of Eclipso: The Darkness Within, the crossover where she was slaughtered along with Dr. Mid-Nite's own protege, Beth Chapel, another former member of Infinity Inc, in 1993. That was one of the worst examples of DC's pointless slaying of supporting characters in the early to mid-90s for terrible shock value.

That aside, there's another bewildering part here: since when was Metamorpho ever replaced by a Korean woman? I tried searching on the web, but unless what he's bringing up is very recent, I couldn't find any clue that Rex Mason's ever been replaced by a woman from the far east. Where'd he ever get that one from?
Fast-forward 27 years, and the character DC chooses to make gay isn’t the primary Green Lantern, Hal Jordan — but an alt-universe, B-team Green Lantern named Alan Scott. This way, if audiences don’t like it, they can kill Scott off without mangling their mainstream continuity. (Even more importantly, the change doesn’t affect the movie-franchise version of Green Lantern.)
He's actually insulting everybody's intellect even more - we don't want Alan killed. It'd be more greatly appreciated if they'd just switch him back to his heterosexual self again and bring back Molly Mayne as his paramour. Killing him at the hands of supervillains would only be compounding the problems even more. How odd that he doesn't clearly mention that Alan Scott was a product of the Golden Age.

And I don't agree that it doesn't affect the "movie franchise" version - it could have a ruboff effect, since any parents or others who find DC's steps with Alan Scott alienating could be too put off to bother if there's ever any attempt to revive the movie projects, which I don't forsee happening for a long time. Simply put, when the topic is brought up in discussion, there's already a chance one person could tell another, "hey, did you know that in 2012, DC turned the Golden Age GL into a gay man?" As a result, what they've done could actually embarrass the extended family of GLs for quite a while, even if they do reverse the current take on Alan. It could make people queasy about the prospects that he'll turn up in another company wide crossover tale, with his current state presented as a completely positive, normalized image. That's why, as I said before, there's a very big chance this could affect merchandise like toys and computer games if people find the current changes repellant. The main problem with the retcon of Alan Scott is that they tinkered and tampered with a classic, established character to suit their PC-mindset instead of at least introducing new ones who could take these roles instead.

Once again, Jonathan Last has only proven that he's simply not the kind of person suited to address the subjects, if he can't make a clear distinction between plausible and respectable baton transfers, and if he's going to suggest he has no problem with wiping out certain characters if they don't suit his positions instead of fixing the errors. Far from proving himself a valuble voice on pop culture, he's only proven himself an awkward embarrassment.

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Last isn't very bright when it comes to comic books. He's probably one of my least favorite Weekly Standard reporters. And I agree with you about Infinity Inc's slaughter in that Eclipso miniseries; that was done for shock value and nothing more. As for diversity, it's a joke and the fact that it's shoehorned into pretty much everything is what really gets under my skin.

I don't know about Last, but the "creative" personnel clearly know nothing about Aesop and the fable in which the moral is "please all, and you will please none." DC's efforts at "diversity" seem to have the same effect on what's left of the comic book reading audience.

As to the "minority" characters introduced in previous decades, if it isn't current, it isn't worth talking about.

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