The Human Flame War
By Tini Howard
As part of what I’ve reviewed for at At the Margins, I like to give people a nice, smooth transition into the world of comics, which hasn’t always been… super inclusive. There was a time – a time many of us grew up in – in which comics were an infamous hive of everything wrong with mass media. Everyone was sexually exaggerated and villains were based solely on racist caricatures on the regular and excused through shoddy narrative.
This gives comics nerds a really bad name, one that a great many people live up when it comes to the questions we ask about the recent rise in superhero media. Make a billion dollar blockbuster where Superman’s entire personality is disregarded in favor of neck breaking and no one bats an eye. Give Wonder Woman pants and everyone loses their minds, to borrow from the medium itself. Nary a day goes by when any attempt at inclusion or updating on the part of the big comic publishers is met with the scorn and outcry of a hundred thousand nerds over the most absurd and minor things.
The most recent announcement to generate this sort of insanity is the casting announcement for Fox’s upcoming Fantastic Four film. Actor Michael B. Jordan, who is black, has been cast in the role of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, a character who has historically been portrayed as white.
I feel like I don’t even need to discuss the first type of backlash here. I don’t even really care to give it attention. I just don’t think the argument that “the movie has to match the comic” holds any water. As in none. At all. To everyone who says “he’s white in the comics,” I say, he’s also been dead in the comics, and now he’s not.
Or, if that doesn’t catch you, I suggest this: One young black guy who was previously going to watch that movie without seeing a single hero that looks like him now will. If that’s less important to you than Johnny Storm’s skin color, if you say (as so many people have), that “seeing a black man in a role that was previously portrayed by a white man ruins the character” for you, I don’t know what to say to you, other than there’s a word for that.
It’s a six-letter word that starts with R and should make you cringe. Hint: It’s not reboot.
Don’t suggest to me that I don’t really care about these characters, that I’m not a real fan. I adore Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s “4.” I think it was a great run because – and I’ll spare you the recap where I post panels of all of my favorite moments and make emotional commentary – because it nails down what the Fantastic Four are about, what makes them different from the Avengers or the X-Men. And that’s the idea of family.
So this brings me to my second talking point – people claiming that that somehow is shattered by casting a black actor in the part of Johnny Storm. The suggestion has been made that perhaps Sue Storm should have been cast as a black actress – Kerry Washington was suggested, and I think that would be just perfect. She hasn’t been, and white actress Kate Mara is playing the part. But if your perception of the Fantastic Four as a family, of Sue and Johnny Storm as siblings, is just shattered by them being different races, I suggest you watch a few Cheerios commercials. Or take a look at the multi-racial family of writer Brian Michael Bendis – the author of Ultimate Fantastic Four.
I want to be clear, from over here at the margins, that most of the people I know personally and follow socially are not the backwater nerds who are pissed off about this. This is what kind of kills me about the whole thing – literally everyone I know who actually buys comics weekly, all of the people who are reading Fantastic Four, the people who are going to dress up and be there at the midnight showing, who will see the movie four times in theaters so they can fill their Tumblr with references – aren’t bothered by this. All of the people you’d think to be the most hardcore nerds, the ones you’d expect to be giant jerks over this – they’re all for it.
The weird, vocal group of people I’ve encountered who are angry about this haven’t bought a comic in years. If they had, they’d understand what the medium is all about now, how it’s become a haven for characters too other for television and for concepts a little too off-the-beaten-path for those weenies in the mainstream media. These days, we’ve got Batgirl’s transgender roommate, a biracial Spiderman, and a team of teen Avengers who are led by a perfect Kelly-Kapowski-and-Zach-Morris dream couple – only they’re both boys. Stuff that just isn’t getting the representation it needs other places finds a home on the pages of superhero comics.
If nothing else, hear me out on this: If you’ve been staying away from comics because of a vocal group who fancies themselves to be old-school nerds and adheres to canon at the exclusion of minorities, please, come into the fold. The core of us, the fans and creators and cosplayers and conventioners, we love our diverse world. We welcome you into our family. It’s Fantastic.