Sunday, May 16, 2010

Comics Rambling: The Ryan Choi Incident

Ryan Choi as the Atom
This is another rant, and if you’re following comics fandom online chances are you’ve read plenty about this already. I felt compelled to weigh in, but don’t worry, I’ve got a Godzilla review in the pipeline too.

You may be wondering what’s up with the “Chris Sims Was Right” label. Now, Chris Sims has been right about a lot of things- SPEED RACER, FINAL CRISIS, Jeff Dunham sucking, etc. Unfortunately, this is a more solemn vindication for the Invincible Super-Blogger. Recently Sims published a rare serious piece for Comics Alliance called “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling.” It basically highlights a problem DC’s having with many of its returning Silver Age heroes displacing their modern replacements, who were more diverse, resulting in an unintended but notable “whitewashing” of the DC Universe, all the more notable because most of the characters getting replaced have been around for less than a decade.

This past Wednesday, as if to illustrate his point, DC published “Titans: Villains For Hire Special #1”, a one-shot meant to lead into a new series about a gang of, well, villains for hire led by super assassin Deathstroke. In this special, the new gang prove themselves by carrying out a contract on the All-New Atom, Ryan Choi, brutally murdering him and presenting him to their client in a matchbox coffin.

So yeah.

My reaction to this is biased by the fact that I really, really liked Ryan Choi. Gail Simone’s run on ALL-NEW ATOM was one of my favorite comics of the past decade- one of the few superhero books, along with the new BLUE BEETLE and INCREDIBLE HERCULES, to really “get it”. It was imaginative, original, and fun, full of wild ideas and likable characters. (We will for the moment overlook the series’ final arc, written by Rick Remender, which screwed things up spectacularly.) Its failure to succeed in the market kind of broke my heart, and I’ve been a bit more cynical about mainstream comics ever since.

This doesn’t help. But here’s the thing. I’ve disliked character deaths and retcons and other developments before. I still think Ted Kord got a raw deal, Maxwell Lord got it even worse, and so on. But on some basic level I can understand that those were creative decisions that I disagree with. My tastes are a minority in the comic market, for whatever reason, and I’ve accepted that DC and Marvel have to appeal to the wider audience. I didn’t like INFINITE CRISIS and was unwowed by BLACKEST NIGHT, but many people clearly loved them.

This time, however, I genuinely do not get what DC is doing. And I’m not sure they do either. Sure, whenever a comics company says, “We have a plan,” your best response is to nod politely and ignore them, but this decision seems utterly tone-deaf. Did they not get how this might come off? Did they really think it was that important to get cheap heat for an “amoral mercenaries” book when the very good SECRET SIX is still being published? Did they think we would be terribly interested in reading about the exploits of the people who just killed a charming, memorable minority character?

I’m not one to claim that artists need to be responsible and take care to send positive messages in their work, and sure, nobody’s ever going to have a perfect record on racial sensitivity. But having strong minority superhero characters in a shared comic book universe is a good thing. Superheroes are powerful identification figures for audiences, and if we can get a variety of them, in ethnicity as in other areas, so much the better. Ryan may have been a Chinese super-genius, but he transcended stereotype from the get-go, coming off as a well-rounded, believable guy with an enthusiasm for Science!, an easygoing and open-minded attitude, and a strong sense of humor. His ethnicity and bi-nationality affected who he was, but not in obvious ways- it was just his heritage. He was not a big seller, but he was making impressions in BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and in the Johnny DC comics as well- logically, it would make sense to leave him be until someone could think of a good use for him.

And this is not the only decision DC’s made as of late which seems a little off. There’s the entirety of CRY FOR JUSTICE, in which beloved Silver Age characters- including Ray Palmer- turn all dark and gritty and Jack Bauer-esque while children get killed and the word “Justice!” is repeated approximately 100,000 times, and this is supposed to kick off a new era for the Justice League of America. There’s the Asian Cassandra Cain being kicked out of the Batgirl role in favor of plucky blonde Stephanie Brown, because they were going to put Barbara Gordon back in the role but decided against it at the last minute. There’s Wonder Woman being made a member of the Star Sapphire Corps, a group of scantily clad spacewomen who channel the power of love (they’re finally introducing a male member of the group, but he gets to wear something dignified.) There’s the black Firestorm being absorbed into his white predecessor (and his Asian girlfriend getting killed during BLACKEST NIGHT), there’s the Japanese Dr. Light still being overshadowed by her dead rapist supervillain predecessor whom someone apparently still thinks is an interesting character despite all evidence to the contrary, and on top of it all, there’s the fact that Hal Jordan helped save the day in BLACKEST NIGHT by becoming the White Lantern- which wouldn’t have been so bad in and of itself (the whole chromatic lantern thing was clearly building to it), but in the context of all this really becomes unfortunate.

(Man, when I total it up it’s really the people of Asian descent getting hit the hardest. Sorry, guys.)

As Sims himself had to make explicit, as does anyone tackling this, I don’t specifically believe that anyone in charge at DC has any particular racial prejudice. It’s not that they’re racist. They’re not. If anything, they in particular are having this problem because they tried to add some diversity with their legacy heroes, and they took a lot of heat for “tokenism” at the time (which I think they generally avoided by making the new characters pretty well-rounded.) They deserve a lot of credit for having made that push, but they seem to have decided that that approach isn’t working. “Brightest Day” has the feel of a quick-and-dirty reset, trying to go back to basics and not really thinking too much about what’s getting thrown out in the process.

Except I’m not sure that’s going to work either. Ryan Choi’s Atom didn’t sell many comics, but neither has Ray Palmer. “The Atom”, as a concept, doesn’t move a lot of books on its own, and the market as it is depends a lot on marquee value. This is a problem in and of itself, but it’s not one that will be solved by rushing back to the status quo of the Satellite Era.

Here’s what’s bugging me. As I’ve said before, I’m not happy with Ted Kord’s death. A lot of work has gone into casting it as a noble and essential sacrifice, but I think it goes against the merry prankster element of his character, I don’t like Max Lord as an irredeemable supervillain, and for various reasons I’d like to see him come back. But now I don’t think I do. Not now, anyway. Maybe not for five, ten years. Because the way things are working out now, any resurrection of Ted would put Jaime Reyes, the awesome new Blue Beetle, in danger. Maybe he’d be grotesquely killed, maybe rudely pushed aside, but whatever happens it would likely taint the joy of Ted’s return. So let’s hope that part of the status quo stays in place for now.

Part of this is DC’s old bugaboo, killing way too many characters way too often, most often to “raise the stakes” or establish how badass a villain is. But even just pushing these legacy characters out of sight is a waste. There needs to be room for the old and new, for variety.

In short, killing a likable if low-selling legacy hero who added diversity to the DCU for the sake of the comic book version of a series pilot was a bad move. DC really seems to be heading in the wrong direction- not just going retro, but actively paving over its recent past and cutting off avenues for future development. They’re still publishing some good books, and I’m not going to give them up entirely, but- they can do better than this. Seriously.

1 comment:

Jack Bennett said...

Excellent post. I think a big part of the problem is not that TPTB are racist but that they seem to be tone-deaf to what they are doing, even though the internet has been mocking them for the "Whitest Day" since at least Lian Harper's death.