A purple-skinned alien hurtles across the cosmos, bearing a ring that grants its wearer unimaginable power. The alien is mortally wounded, and the ring is seeking its next wearer -- the Green Lantern, Earth's champion -- by finding the planet's most courageous inhabitant.
In a world with billions of people, what are the chances that the ring's next owner is a white American dude?
Pretty high, apparently. In DC Comics' Showcase #22, released in 1959, the power ring chose Hal Jordan, a dashing military test pilot modeled on a young Paul Newman. Jordan would become a founding member of the Justice League of America, DC Comics' flagship superhero team, and one of its most famous characters. And while comics, over time, began to challenge that whiteness, two major films to be released this summer avoid the critiques on race found in the original comics.
In the early days, whiteness was so pervasive in comics that it could actually span the universe: a Kryptonian Superman could crash-land in Kansas and pass as an ordinary white farm boy. In the 1960s, though, comic-book publishers began trying to create nonwhite heroes. As the civil-rights movement came to dominate the national conversation, a young white artist named Neal Adams tried to subtly incorporate black characters into the newspaper strip he was illustrating. "I come out of a time when bigotry was a lot more subtle than it [was] in the days of slavery," Adams says. "Not for the people who had it working against them but for the people who walked around saying, 'There's no problem, right?'" His world in New York City, Adams says, was full of people who did not think of themselves as Southern-style racists.
But Adams drew and submitted an installment of a syndicated comic strip featuring a black doctor and a white ambulance driver in one panel. When he later saw proofs of the strip, he realized that higher-ups had switched the characters' heads. The higher-ups told him audiences would be confused by a black doctor.
When Adams got to DC Comics, where he worked on the Green Lantern in the early 1970s, he started to push back. "I asked [my editor] what happens if Hal Jordan gets killed," Adams says. "They tell me they have a backup." That backup turned out to be a blond gym teacher from the Midwest.
Adams, however, thought that the secondary Green Lantern should be black. So, with his editor's approval, he and writer Dennis O'Neil created John Stewart, a black architect who would later become the main Green Lantern. (In the early drafts, Adams says, an editor wanted to name the character Lincoln Washington; Adams talked him out of it.) "I'm very proud of that," he says. "I'm glad that [my editor] was open to it and malleable. But it did have to be explained to him."
John Stewart served as a critique of the default whiteness of comics. (Alas, it would be a while longer before the planet would get its first female Green Lantern.) But many early attempts to increase diversity in comic panels were awkward, incomplete, or tone-deaf. The panels were also chockablock with superpowered tokenism. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was Black Lightning, who was black and electrical. And Black Goliath, who was black and a giant. And Nubia, who was black and Wonder Woman. And there was Luke Cage, who, in his earliest incarnations, was a jive-talking powerhouse in a butterfly collar who fought crime for money.
In more established comics like Superman, writers even created a segregated Krypton to explain why Superman looked like a white human. "Way back in the '70s, Vathlo Island was introduced to Superman's history," says David Brothers, who runs the popular comics blog 4thletter. That storyline referenced an island that was home to "a highly advanced black race" -- who presumably chose to self-segregate. "I'm sure 'they were really smart and a credit to their race,'" says Brothers, "but you know, hindsight makes even well-meaning attempts look pretty bad."
It was in this still largely white comics world that in the 1990s, DC Comics helped start Milestone Media, an influential, if short-lived, comics imprint meant to correct the racial disparity. Its titles featured a multiethnic cast of characters created by artists and writers of color. Milestone even created a Superman-like hero, Icon, and it's worth noting the explanation of his racial identity: Unlike Superman, who came to Earth as a Caucasian, Icon was conditioned to adopt the appearance of the first inhabitants he came across; in this case, it was the early 1800s, and he was discovered by a slave after crash-landing in the American South.
Milestone was co-founded by Dwayne McDuffie, who was black and would go on to write for a host of titles. He later became a writer for the Cartoon Network's Justice League, which debuted in the early aughts. The writing staff chose the Stewart version of the Green Lantern specifically because the rest of the show's superhero cast -- which included an Amazon and an alien policewoman who was part hawk -- was white. (Except for the Martian guy. He was green.) For a generation of superhero fans weaned on the popular cartoon series, the black Green Lantern has been the only one they've ever known. "If you ask a kid who Green Lanterns is, the kid will say it's John Stewart," Adams says.
The inclusion of nonwhite characters in the Justice League of America comic raised hackles among fans who thought McDuffie was trying to enforce a quota system on the pages. "The quota arguments ... crack me up," McDuffie said in an interview last year in the documentary Shaft or Sidney Poitier: Black Masculinity in Comic Books. "Which fictional character is losing a job?" (McDuffie died in February due to complications from heart surgery.)
McDuffie's efforts won't make it onto the big screen, though. When the big-budget Green Lantern movie rolls out in mid-June, white heartthrob du jour Ryan Reynolds will wield the power ring as Hal Jordan, the original white character. Captain America, another iconic superhero, is getting his own tentpole summer flick, out in July. Like the Green Lantern comic-book character's story, Captain America's mythology has been reimagined to explicitly comment on American racism. And like the Green Lantern film, the movie isn't likely to touch on that critique. News reports from the start of the project said that the moviemakers were going back to the original source material and would hew to early Captain America tradition. Elisabeth Rappe, writing for Moviefone, stated, "I honestly think there would have been riots if they tried to update Captain America, so color me unsurprised by the news."
The original Cap didn't challenge much: Introduced in 1941, he was a scrawny, meek military recruit who becomes the only recipient of a super-soldier serum that augments him to the peak of human ability. The character was meant to be a totem of American ingenuity and grit and to drum up support for the war effort. The irony of creating a physically perfect blue-eyed blond guy as a counter to Nazi ideology was apparently lost on everyone.
Because he's an avatar for the nation's ideals, Captain America has served as a foil to whatever social anxieties people are wrestling with in the real world. After World War II, he fought communism, and after Watergate, a disillusioned Cap abandoned his superhero identity. In a recent, controversial story arc, he became a die-hard civil libertarian after the public called for preemptive monitoring of people with superpowers following a deadly explosion caused by costumed heroes -- a plot line alluding to surveillance overreach in the Iraq War era.
In 2001, Marvel Comics asked a writer of color, Robert Morales, to tell a Captain America story inspired by the notorious Tuskegee experiments, in which black men were used for four decades, from 1932 to 1972, as guinea pigs for scientists studying the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. Morales' story, Truth: Red, White and Black, focuses on a group of black soldiers in a segregated battalion during World War II. They are forced to participate in secret experiments by the U.S. government, which is attempting to re-create the super-soldier serum that augmented Captain America. In a memorable scene, military officers stare out at hundreds of black soldiers assembled at fictional Camp Cathcart. A visiting officer explains that he's shutting down the camp. "Camp Cathcart never existed," he says and then shoots the white man in charge. He orders a subordinate to round up 300 black soldiers onto trucks to be taken to an undisclosed location. Then he orders that the remaining soldiers, who don't make it onto the trucks, be disposed of. As some of the black soldiers are driven away, one asks, "Is that shooting I'm hearing?"
Only five of those 300 soldiers live through the experiments, and Isaiah Bradley is the only black super soldier to survive the war, albeit as a military prisoner and later as an urban legend among generations of black folks who is largely unknown to white America. The entire experience leaves him with the addled mind of a child. "It was so depressing I didn't think they would approve it," Morales says. "But it was depressingly realistic. And likely."
Morales says that there was push-back from fans who thought Truth made Cap a party to racial atrocity. But he rejected that criticism. "It's a book where every single person is complicit, one way or another," he says.
The frankness of the Isaiah Bradley story is light-years away from the earliest characterizations of black comic-book heroes. And using the pages of a comic book to critique actual American racial history is a stark contrast to the lightness with which superhero characters make it onto the big screen, when moviegoers expect acrobatics, explosions, and unambiguously good characters going after undisputed bad guys. In the comics, though, these characters aren't just positioned against such villains as Lex Luthor and the Joker. Their authority as agents of good requires that they be on the right side of history, too -- and what that means changes over time. Clark Kent's human family, for example, has been reimagined as the descendants of Kansas Free-Soilers and abolitionists. Superman is a vegetarian now, too. And Wayne Enterprises, the huge conglomerate whose largesse makes Bruce Wayne's nocturnal exploits as Batman possible, has been rethought as a pioneer in environmentalism.
These are now uncontroversial positions, of course. But comic-book characters are iconic and long-lived, and the world in which they were created is dramatically different from our current one. Writers routinely revisit stories to deepen their mythologies and, sometimes, to try to correct the errors of the past. Because these characters live throughout history -- many of them are a half-century old or more -- they don't have the luxury of living outside of it.