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At DC Comics, Diversity Is No Laughing Matter

The following article was published on AOLTimeWarner.com c. 11/1/01:

Wonder Woman Goes Peruvian, Batman is an African American
At DC Comics, Diversity Is No Laughing Matter

Holy Chokehold! Batman recast as an African-American professional wrestler? And Wonder Woman, scourge of evildoers everywhere, reinvented as a Peruvian sun goddess? What exactly is going on in the world of comic book superheroes?

The answer can be found among the creative geniuses at Warner Bros.' DC Comics, who hit upon the inspiration to hire legendary comics creator and long time arch-rival Stan Lee of Marvel Comics to re-imagine 12 of DC's superhero characters.

Lee's reinvention of DC's classic characters, which began appearing in special DC prestige editions this July and will continue monthly for the next year, represent DC's latest infusion of diversity into what was once the lily-white world of comic book superheroes.

Pseudo-Whitebread Episcopalian

"The original creators of comics, 60 or 70 years ago, were almost all Jewish and Italian kids from various parts of New York," notes DC Comics Executive Vice President and Publisher Paul Levitz. "And the characters they created were pseudo-whitebread Episcopalian. It was almost de rigueur back then to paint people in this idealized American image. Today we have artists and writers of all ethnicities on four different continents."

Much has changed since the early days, thanks to both an on-going campaign by DC Comics to bring characters of color into the pop culture mainstream and to Lee himself, the creator of such superheroes as Spider Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four and Iron Man. "I began to realize that it wasn't right," says Lee. "I said, 'Let's get some heroes that other people can relate to.' " And some forty years ago, he did just that, becoming the first to introduce ethnic characters in his work: a hero named Black Panther and a series called Sergeant Fury and Howling Commandos that featured a racially mixed Army platoon made up of an Italian, a Native American, an African-American and so forth.

Flash As An Asian Woman?

"Superheroes don't have to be white males," agrees Jenette Kahn, President and Editor-In-Chief of DC Comics, who encouraged Lee to declare "open season" on DC's characters as he began to re-imagine them. "Flash for example is a male but could easily become a woman or an Asian or an African American.

More than a decade ago, realizing that its Superman series was "sadly lacking in African American characters," DC introduced first a black reporter and then Franklin Stern, a black publisher of the Daily Planet to whom editor Perry White reports. "We wanted to interject characters of color in prominent roles in our comics," says Kahn. "And we liked the idea that they wouldn't just be corollary characters, but people in charge."

Among other characters over the years, DC has introduced an Hispanic female detective into its Batman series, and a gay woman character who's in charge of an elite police unit in Superman. Its most involved initiative, however, was Milestone, a DC imprint funded in 1992 to give voice to a group of young African American writers and artists whose vision was to create comics reflecting their sensibilities. "They did a terrific job and created some of our very best comics of the time," notes Kahn. The venture ultimately died, but not before a superhero named Static had been born, a smart, nerdy African American teenager named Virgil whose alter ego Static is, of course, imbued with super powers.

Static Clings To A New Life on TV

Static today has found new life as an animated Saturday morning series called Static Shock on The WB, where it finished its first season among the top 5 Kids' WB! programs and has by now been renewed for a third season. Says Donna Friedman, Executive Vice President of Kids' WB! "The series breaks new ground by addressing some very real issues of growing up in an urban neighborhood, including racism, substance abuse, homelessness, gun violence and the loss of a parent. It's also about a regular kid, facing the same daily struggles as kids everywhere excelling in school, trying to have a social life and dealing with an older sister all with a great sense of humor."

Stan Lee's Batman is a radical departure from the classic character of Bruce Wayne, whose to-the-manor-born good looks, wealth and connections serve him well in his efforts to avenge the death of his parents and bring other villains to justice. Lee's Batman is a wrongly imprisoned African American, son of a murdered cop, whose mild-mannered personality is transformed in prison into a buff, no-nonsense man with a mission. Upon release, he becomes a pro wrestler known as Batman and from there launches his crusade to right the world's wrongs.

Wonder Woman, a character inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, is redrawn by Lee from Inca Indian legends. The result: a victimized Latin American female who learns how to transform herself into a Peruvian sun goddess with a full arsenal of super powers at her disposal.

Comics Influence Younger People

"Comic books are a type of literature," says Lee, "a very powerful form. The fans take their comics quite seriously, and they start as younger readers. So here's a chance to do some writing that influences younger people, and any writer who doesn't try in some way to put in some positive messages is missing a bet."

Whether the new Just Imagine Stan Lee series becomes an ongoing feature in the DC Comic's stable of superheroes is anybody's guess at this point. Lee is in his '70s, and though he's hardly slowing down, it's not clear he wants to take on a major new project. But if he does, count on it to sell. "People just love a good story," says Lee. "If you're doing interesting characters, they'll sell, no matter what their background is."

Related links
Some thoughts on minority comics
Culture and Comics Need Multicultural Perspective 2000
The future of comics

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