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Brave and truly bold: why the case for black Batman proves comics can be more daring

It’s time to get crazy and progressive, y’all.

It’s said God doesn’t close a door without first opening a window. Seems that applies even to nerd ish.

When the Universe recently forced out Ben Affleck as Batman, the clouds parted to reveal… New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie. In a truly epic Twitter thread late last week, Bouie outlined a remarkable case for a black Batman. He touched on almost every feasible aspect of the character, from the origins of the Wayne family to the makeup of Gotham City. Seriously, just link the Kickstarter and I’ll slap down $100 today.

There are tons of amazing reasons for a black Batman – not only in the film universe, but in comics (where I’m focusing). The sense of progressiveness alone should be enough to get people behind this daring new spin on our beloved Dark Knight. Similarly, representation is crucial – providing kids of color with a genuine role model does wonders for their sense of value and cultural immersion. In the words of writer/producer Jane Espenson regarding sci-fi’s greater purpose, “You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”

But beyond those painfully obvious points, a black Batman – or, that thing representative of an essential step forward for the industry – would be a much-needed kick in the pants for comics.

There’s no denying that the industry isn’t the bastion of growth and profitability it once was (sales were down 6.5% in 2017). At the same time, there’s some promising growth in digital comics, with that sector bounding from $25 million in 2011 to $90 million in 2017. And, yes, digital sales have somewhat peaked, but this approach may be the closest we get to the ’90s renaissance, where young creators sold upwards of 8 million copies with wild new ideas (and Cyberforce). But more than how money can ease stakeholders, it provides a certain space for creativity.

If, for example, Spawn or X-Men hadn’t performed as well, we may not have had an onslaught of gritty antiheroes in the early- to mid-90s. Financial security lets creators focus their energies on what matters, and the industry could easily jump on digital sales as a means of opening up the flood gates to new and interesting ideas. If they fail, there’s less overheard, and the possibility of success is more than worth anything wagered. There’s already been some such activity, with heaps of digital exclusives from DC and Marvel and ComiXology’s original titles.

At the same time, the economic argument is only a small piece of the puzzle. There seems to be a hesitation in taking a move like publishing a black Batman, despite the fact that the industry (Marvel and DC especially) have a giant-sized track record of altering heroes and canons for the flimsiest of reasons. Large-scale shifts that alter our perceptions of these characters, and usually in ways that confound instead of enlighten. Like, when Hal Jordan was infected with Parallax. Or when they turned The Punisher into an angel of vengeance. And who could forget Nazi Captain America or Homicide Batman?

Take that, reality.

Whether to drum up sales, or tickle the fancy of bored writers, these changes are important for the message they send. Turning Frank Castle supernatural – given the character’s history and down-to-Earth utility – is somehow leaps and bounds better than if he were, say, Puerto Rican. Not everyone believes that, obviously, but that very attitude prevails through much of comics, especially regarding fans. Those faithful have created a sense of logic where only certain ideas can excel, and it’s almost never ones around uniting people via better representation. It seems if you’re going to let Superboy punch actual reality, it should be OK if he were queer or a POC.

There’s this excellent book by critic/writer Glen Weldon called The Caped Crusade. It’s a history of Batman in pop culture, but he makes this incredibly poignant point about the essential true-ness of Batman. That, for a young gay kid like himself growing up, Batman (namely, the ’60s TV version) was an icon, a source of comfort and representation. Your Batman may not be the same, but that’s what makes these characters so powerful. Their decades-long existence lets them cycle through so many ideas and iterations that they can be everything to everyone.  A kind of shape-shifting mythology, something we can all cull for meaning as required.

It’s worth noting that there are, obviously, black and Latin heroes, and even those LGBTQ supers. Plus, important recastings, like the brief run of Sam Wilson as Captain America. While we should all celebrate these characters, it sometimes feels like they’re empty gestures. Editorial decisions to create buzz and present a certain faux progressiveness. Only for publishers to roll out another such character, and the cycle begins anew. There should be a focus on more organic instances, when these characters can be worked into a book or greater universe in a way that’s not another marketing ploy. That process can take some work, but it seems the kind of thing worth doing properly, no matter the needless blowback.

What makes all the ever-shifting stories and motifs even more bothersome is certain creators explain it away with a blind allegiance to some “core” of the character. Using Angelic Punisher again, there’s so many things to have done with the character, and yet he remained the same sociopath with a mile-wide blood lust. It’s as if to say that certain changes are OK, as long as the writer/creator remains faithful to some arbitrary benchmarks in the character. If Frank Castle were given celestial, god-like powers, he’d do more than keep murdering thugs. Perhaps he’d find a way to pursue his mission on a grander scale, or struggle with the continued bad luck of being alive, or better understand the universality of his cause. Anything that might move the character forward, and not just give him sick heavenly weapons. Comics are full of just such reworkings, and they remain surface-level out of fear or cowardice.

To paraphrase Espenson again, if you’re going to really make Batman different, then why not go all the way? Why not, say, turn him into a Catholic priest? If it doesn’t work out, comics can pull the escape hatch as always with any number of retcons. It’s a device/tendency that some fans cry foul over, but that wanton disregard is generally a positive. There’s almost no other medium or genre where you can reset a universe or character like that. And comics tend to do it every few years, with large-scale events and other assorted crossover titles. Even things that might contradict past changes are often ignored or re-spun by editors, writers, and fans alike.

Cowboy. Batman. Is. Canon.

This isn’t just some annoying hiccup in dealing with characters and their 70-plus-year histories; it’s a level of creative freedom that needs to be expressed and utilized more openly. To remove the stigma attached and let universes grow and die and reform and shift again according to what storylines are most interesting and what new truths can be pumped from beloved characters. This flippant approach to canon means that we can have shorter memories and less antagonistic connections to a character’s background, and tell more stories based on our needs as a diverse audience. Sure, all this canon-smashing should be done with kid gloves, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It’s about understanding and reading the culture to see where stories should go. With no pre-described sense of meaning or overly exhaustive, deeply restrictive continuities, comics can be more of what we want and less an ongoing memory exercise.

Still, I’m not profoundly optimistic about some grand, tectonic shift like a black Batman. Not because I think fans are ignorant (though enough clearly are). Nor because people don’t want it, as certainly enough folks do. Rather, it’s hard to look at something so essential as a superhero – a safety blanket in battle armor – and watch it shift and grow in ways that everyone can feel comfortable with. However, if we truly loved these characters, more creators and publishers would take the chance. To blast through all the calls of outrage and controversy, and craft storylines that approach these icons in new and fascinating ways. To shine a new light on our heroes and villains and see what else they can tell about ourselves and the world in which we exist.

Some lessons may be scary, and others may be downright exhilarating. But we won’t know if we don’t take the leap and try crafting wings on the way down.

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