Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Racism and The Atom (Spoilers for Titans: Villains for Hire #1)

Last week DC Comics released Titans: Villains for Hire #1. During the course of this issue Ryan Choi, the man who temporarily replaced Ray Palmer as the Atom, is hunted down and killed by the hired villains of the title. There is of course, a large section of the internet now devoted to the wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from the Ryan's fanbase. This is usually the case when a character is killed off. Even Tazmanian Devil got a few vocal mourners when he was recently turned into a rug in Justice League: Cry for Justice.

Usually I keep out of the online bitching and griping that is so common among comic book fans. In this case though it's difficult not to agree with Ryan's mourners. Like many of these fans I see no reason for Ryan to have been killed off. It is a fact that Ryan's predecessor, Ray Palmer, has recently returned to the role of the Atom. However the two characters have such distinct personalities that there seems to me to be no reason why there could not have been two Atoms, just as there are three Flashes and thousands of Green Lanterns.

One argument in favour of the death is that the murder of a relatively prominent superhero that the readers already have an emotional investment in validates this particular group of villains as a credible threat. However I would argue that this is possible to achieve with the death of a character created purely for the purpose of being a victim of the villains. If you don't believe me then check out Grant Morrison's brilliant Seven Soldiers. The first issue of this epic series is narrated by The Whip. The Whip is a journalist who follows in her grandfathers footsteps and becomes a superhero. She does this in order to write a series of newspaper columns on what it is like to be, in her words "a super cowboy." At the end of the first issue she, along with the rest of her team, is killed by the main baddies of the series. Although the Whip's only appearance to date was that one issue, Morrison was able to get us right inside her head. She's written in such a way that we can't help but get emotionally invested in her, and her death really carries a lot of weight.

So in my opinion Ryan's death was a bit of a cheat, a shortcut into our hearts. The writer didn't need to get us to empathise too much with him during the issue as that emotional investment was there already for a large portion of the readership. There is however another criticism being bandied about by many of Ryan's mourners that I just can't agree with. In fact it's more of an accusation than a criticism. An accusation of racism.

Ryan was of Asian descent. This has led many to say that Ryan's death has damaged the diversity of the DC Universe. Fair enough, but others have taken it further and implied that Ryan's death was a racially motivated decision on the part of DC Comics. For example, Ryan's Wikipedia entry was recently updated to say that he had been killed off "because he isn't white enough to be a superhero." This is, of course, nonsense. Don't get me wrong, the DC Universe needs more diversity and I honestly think that Ryan's death was a bad move. But to actually accuse DC of deliberate racism is absurd. I sincerely doubt that Geoff Johns, Dan Didio and Jim Lee are, even as we speak, sat in a board room, all clad in white robes, plotting the systematic elimination of every single minority hero.

It does seem that if a minority character is killed then DC are guilty of racism. But if minority characters are given a deliberate push to the mainstream, for example the inclusion of John Stewart in the Justice League, then accusations of tokenism are thrown about. It seems that DC Comics just can't win. How about we, as fans, stop looking at characters as black or asian or lesbian and just see them as characters. Let's question whether John Stewart deserves to be in the Justice League based on his personality and what he brings to the team dynamic. Let's question whether Ryan should have died based on his merits as a character, not based on filling out some minority quota.

1 comment:

  1. "One argument in favour of the death is that the murder of a relatively prominent superhero that the readers already have an emotional investment in validates this particular group of villains as a credible threat."

    I think the book failed in this respect not because of the emotional investment but because it made this particular group of villains look incompetent, rather than credible. DC readers are constantly told how dangerous Cheshire and Deathstroke are, how they are these ultimate assassin killer types, but then here we are being shown that it takes five of them to kill a rookie superhero. Cheshire has fought the Titans to a standstill and Deathstroke has singlehandly taken down the satellite era JLA, but they need three more people to help them take down the Atom?

    Plot backfire.



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