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Comics Need More Diversity to, You Know, Get With the Times

Reactions to the recent castings of ‘Iron Fist’ and ‘Aquaman’ remind me of the relationship between Jews and comics

Marjorie Ingall
March 11, 2016

Last month there were two major comic book adaptation announcements: The casting of Marvel’s Iron Fist in a forthcoming Netflix series, and the release of new pictures of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in the Justice League movie, which will be released in 2017. Squawks of geek distress ensued.

Why? First, there had been a campaign for Marvel to cast an Asian-American actor to play Iron Fist, a minor comic book hero. (In anticipation of the hate mail I may very well receive from the geeks for calling Iron Fist “minor,” I offer: Is he Batman or Superman? No? Then he’s minor.) In the canon, Iron Fist is Danny Rand, a young white dude trained in ancient martial arts in the hidden Asian city of K’un-L’un, who goes on to defeat a dragon and thus gain chi-harnessing powers of unbreakable punchingness, I don’t even know. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the “white guy gains discipline by studying Asian combat oh wow SWEATY TRAINING MONTAGE SET TO POUNDING MUSIC” thing a zillion times. So there was a movement afoot, using the hashtag campaign #AAIronFist, urging Marvel to make Danny Asian-American.

The shift would’ve created a lot of interesting possibilities: We could’ve seen an Asian-American who wasn’t a model-minority-math-league-esque-dork with a bowl cut in a lead role; he could’ve be a super-acculturated wise-ass slacker-stoner type who didn’t connect to Asian culture in any way until he became a superhero, developed discipline, and started seeing the world as a much bigger place. There was no need to change the bones of the origin story other than changing the character’s race, which would have added resonance and avoided the tired Orientalist white-person-ennobled-by-savage-yet-heroic-Other trope (which often ends in the mentor becoming dead, incidentally, thus fueling the white person’s rage and giving them a noble and manly crying scene). Keith Chow of the web site The Nerds of Color, who has been campaigning for an Asian-American Iron Fist for years, explained to Vulture last week who the character is and why Marvel blew it by casting blond, blue-eyed, and white Finn Jones, whose tousled romance-hero hair should have its own IMDB page. (Wait, I said that, not Keith Chow. Sorry, Keith Chow. My sentence got away from me.)

Meanwhile, Aquaman, another blue-eyed blond dude in the comics of my youth (and also on SuperFriends, the terrible ‘70s cartoon on which he was a Ken Doll who water skied on the backs of two dolphins like a pageant winner at Cypress Gardens), will be played by Jason Momoa. Momoa is best known for playing Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, being married to Lisa Bonet, and being so smoking hot I can barely form words. Most vital to our purposes here, he is Hawaiian (with a Native Hawaiian dad and a mom of German, Irish, and Native American extraction) and he does not look like the Aquaman I grew up with. Some white boys are very distressed at this. They are also distressed that thousands of women are fainting all over Twitter, because Aquaman is not supposed to be hot. Oh, pish tosh. (I appreciated Women Write About Comics’s headline: “Jason Momoa: Wet Naked Poster Child For The Narrative Revolution.”) The casting works perfectly, because now, at long last, it makes sense that Aquaman is able to talk to fish, because what living creature on earth would not want to talk to Jason Momoa? Also sure, Aquaman has sonar, that works, because look at him. He has everything.

Jason Momoa as Aquaman (Twitter)
Jason Momoa as Aquaman (Twitter)

And again, there is potential for storytelling nuance and creativity here. Why shouldn’t Aquaman’s design and skills reflect the culture of the Pacific Islands? Why shouldn’t we see hints of Hawaiian culture in his story? What with Aquaman being an environmentalist superhero, protecting the oceans and all, why not have him hail from a place that has some real skin in the game? He can still be from Atlantis, but why does Atlantis have to look like an underwater Renaissance cathedral or Vegas casino? And how exciting for kids who look like Momoa to get to look at Momoa. (Also, it is exciting for me.)

Seriously, though, making formerly white comic book characters not-white is a thing now. People got very upset that Michael B. Jordan was cast as The Human Torch in 2015’s Fantastic Four, but they should have been upset instead that The Fantastic Four was terrible. On the other hand, Nick Fury in the Marvel Comics Universe movies is played by Samuel L. Jackson, and I don’t hear complaining because he’s Samuel L. Jackson and if you don’t like Samuel L. Jackson who even are you? Netflix’s Daredevil has done all kinds of creative casting (white newspaperman Ben Urich is black, Greek assassin Elektra Niarchos is played by a French-Cambodian actress, and more). Jimmy Olson on Supergirl is black and tall and not a nebbish, and you may call him James. In the comics, Spider-Man is now Miles Morales, and my kids are obsessed with Ms. Marvel, who is now a Muslim-American teenager in Jersey City named Kamala Khan. (She’s adorable and a great role model for tweens. I highly recommend this series.)

The widely mixed reactions to changing times in comics-land made me think about Jewish representation. Tablet has published a gazillion articles on superhero creators’ Jewish origins; as you know, most of the early comic book creators—Siegel and Shuster, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Lou Fine, etc—were Jews. There have been a ton of books and a show at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan about ‘em. And we Jews have always recognized ourselves in superheroes, even when they haven’t been explicitly Jewish. Superman was an immigrant who seemed like an awkward, stooped, glasses-wearing brainy shmendrik, but inside, he was a powerful, tikkun olam-doing, girl-attracting rescuer. Wish fulfillment, perhaps. But we knew he was a stand-in for our people. He could pass; his Jewishness was coded. And we understood why—in an anti-Semitic world in which many comics creators had to change their names to get work—those early heroes weren’t actually Jews on the page. Ha’mavin yavin.

But when we got a big-deal superhero who was an explicitly Jewish Jewy-Jew, right there in print, we rejoiced. I remember when I first read a comic in which The Thing—who was obviously influenced by stories of the golem, but turned out to be a Brooklyn Jew (who wound up fighting the actual golem in one story)—I was stone(-cold) tickled. Even though I was never super into The Thing. But for the most part, we’ve never really fought for representation because we knew we were secretly represented … and because most Jews can pass. Most of us are white. We don’t have the struggles that Asian-American, black, and brown comics fans have in trying to see themselves in their beloved stories.

Why can’t those of us who are privileged recognize that desire, push over, and make a little narrative room? Diversity helps everyone. Maybe it’ll lead to more superheroes who are overtly Jewish. Amen, selah.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.