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June 18, 2014

Race Switching

DC Comics, in their New 52 ongoing relaunch, has finally re-introduced a much-loved character: Wally West, aka Kid Flash. There is some nerd-raging going on over the character because DC chose to take this re-introduction from a Caucasian redhead teen to a black teen. My complaint is not over the changing of the race of the character, it is the changing of the personality of the character.

Wally West was first introduced in 1959. He was a suburban white kid who liked science, was fairly happy, had a good home life (in general), and was a bit cocky. He was a good sidekick to the Flash (Barry Allen) when originally created, but soon branched out and became a member of the Teen Titans in most of that team's incarnations. He was a "glue" character; someone that may run off half-cocked and may think he has all the answers which causes him (and the team) to get into some trouble, but who holds the team together through his personality, personal relationships, and his senior rank as one of the longest running and most knowledgeable of the "sidekicks."

This new Wally West is first seen being arrested for illegally spray painting graffiti on a wall. His father and uncle are criminals and he doesn't know where his mother is. The broken home and inner city turmoil make him a "hard" character, with attitude. He is slowly going bad due to a lack of a father figure in his life and his mother's disappearance. He has only been shown so far as a bit of a thug-life gangsta wannabe. (See any one of these Tropes.)

And there's the problem. First, every one of those sentences is not only a stereotype, but a bad one, for black youth. It reads like the worst of the Maury Povich Show or some Cops episode. Of the black people I know, 100% of them are from middle-class families, had one or more very attentive parents (usually both), are smart, engaging, and well-rounded individuals who have no desire to be a part of 'gangsta life.' While proud of their heritage, they would probably consider themselves Americans before they thought of their race.

Next, it doesn't help that this is a black character conceived of by a white writer. It further doesn't help that this writer is using such tired cliches for the character. I mean, don't get me wrong: maybe this is just the opening and the plan is to have Barry Allen befriend Wally, nurture him, and bring the good out in him. But that, in itself is a problem; it's yet another white man saving a non-white person story (the New 52 Barry Allen/Flash is his usual Caucasian self). That's a cliche that is at least 400 years old and pops up in literature, movies, and TV shows. Do we need another?

Lastly, what about "smart, cocky, good family life, and happy" is anathema to switching the race of the character? Why can't a new black character be those things? Again, most of those terms describe the majority of the black people I have known and know now. I'd be willing to bet that more black readers would associate with, look up to, and enjoy reading about a Wally West who happened to be black but was also all of those things, rather than another tired, cliched, inner city thug who has to be saved by a white man.

We have seen recently that race switching can go off without much of a hitch, the Interweb's ranting notwithstanding. Samuel L. Jackson has taken the originally Caucasian role of Nick Fury and done it well. There was nothing inherently "white" about the character to begin with, so keeping him the same bad-ass super-cop/super-spy the character always has been and giving him a racial tweak was fine. In the much-maligned Daredevil movie, the late Michael Clarke Duncan took on the typically white roll of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, and did a great job; it's just too bad the movie wasn't better. Heimdall, a Norse God and usually depicted as white, is played by Idris Elba to great effect.

DC Comics added a new Blue Beetle and made the character Hispanic, and I really like the character. But the key here is that they made a new character to take on the mantle of the Blue Beetle. The Hispanic Jaime Reyes does not compete with decades of backstory or character growth of the previous (all white) cast of characters who were Blue Beetle before. He is the next in line. In Marvel's Ultimate universe of comics, Spider-Man is Miles Morales, another Hispanic in a roll that has always been white. But, again, he is a new character taking on the mantle, with his own quirks, that has some of the same character traits (a lucky loser, smart, and smart-ass) but is otherwise a new character using the same name. DC Comics changed the sexual preference of the Alan Scott Green Lantern in the New 52 and... no one really cared. It just meant that when he was seen kissing his significant other, it was a dude instead of chick. The personality and character of Alan Scott were, overall, the same as before.

So it can work. There are also cases where it doesn't work, but not because of the race switching issue. Halle Berry played Catwoman in a Catwoman movie -- and it failed miserably. Not because they changed the race of the main character from white to black, but because they wrote and produced a really, really bad movie. Eartha Kitt played Catwoman and was quite successful in the role, proving a black woman could be taken seriously as the character as far back as the mid-1960s. It was the horrible story, horrible villain (Sharon Stone, phoning it in), bad dialog, and bad direction that did in the Catwoman movie, not the race of Halle Berry. When the New 52 relaunched, they had a typically black character, Static, in an absolutely horrible comic. It was canceled after only 6 issues -- not because of the race of the character or even that it was written by a white guy, but because it was poorly written and the art was awful. Static had proven himself originally as a Milestone character and again as a well-received and successful cartoon (Static Shock). The relaunched character just wasn't well-written, engaging, or similar enough in character to what audiences were used to for them to keep reading it.

I think what the readers and viewers have predominantly said with their pocket books and watching eyes is that character matters. As long as the personality or overall character is the same, the race (or even sex) of the character in question is of little importance. Sure, you'll offend some and be applauded by others but the metrics by which you look at success or failure will likely not be affected one way or the other. When you change for change's sake, however, you run some risks. As we have seen repeatedly at the box office and in books (comic or otherwise), if you change the personality/character of the character in question, you are better off just giving it a new name and presenting it as a new character altogether, as fans of the original character will not accept a personality that is different, regardless of race. In the case of Wally West, if you are going to change his character so much, why name him "Wally West" in the first place? And, when considering such sweeping changes, someone should be looking at why those changes are necessary and what the end goal is for them -- especially if you're just going to wind up with a badly done trope or stereotype.

June 2, 2014

Hyperbole and Then Some

I know I'm as guilty of this as the next person, so it is a little hypocritical to complain, but have you noticed how it seems like so many people use negative hyperbole when something doesn't work?

For example, I have a friend who is having problems with the game application conglomerate Steam. She wanted one game and she can't seem to get Steam to download or install it. The result is a steady stream of Facebook posts about how much Steam sucks, that it is awful, its support is horrible, etc. I interjected that it is normally a pretty solid application and game installs can involve a lot of variables. But she's having nothing to do with that. In the end, the fact that both myself and many of my friends use Steam without trouble or incident is ignored and the entire company, at this point, "sucks" because she's having trouble.

A similar instance happened this weekend. A group of friends got together. Most (all? not sure) use Chrome to connect to a specific website we use to game together. One friend was using Chrome and had issues; he could connect to the site but couldn't get the audio features to work correctly. Soon we were reading a steady stream of how much Chrome sucks, how bad it is, and other venting... even though the rest of us had no real issues with connection or our audio/video setup. In his defense, each time we connect as a group, one of us seems to have an issue -- this was just his turn, it seemed. What's more funny is that when it is my turn having issues with the connection, everyone jokes that it is "just John" and how I always seem to have trouble-- when really I have only had a couple of instances, they just tend to be more memorable than others.

As I watch the news, the same thing is happening in our leadership and around the world; one person has an issue with something or someone that everyone else seems to be getting along with, yet that one person dominates the news cycle with his/her opinions. Or the news conflates one person doing something to some sort of "why didn't this other person/group do more" question that doesn't apply and is not applicable. For example, when a shooting makes the headlines, no one stops to related how low gun-crime statistics actually are per capita; they rarely mention that there are frequently multiple and sometimes up to double-digit laws already in place that could have and should have been enforced, which would have solved the issue; they seem to rarely mention that in many of these cases, warning signs were ignored and/or the police or other authorities were involved earlier and were unable to do anything to stop the violence from happening before it bubbled over; they rarely mention the huge rise of knife violence happening in "gun-free" countries like China and other Asian countries, where there have been a number of incidences of people taking knives and going on rampages and killing and injuring multiple to dozens of people. Instead, the news media usually jumps on the "ban guns" bandwagon yet again. They rarely mention that in many of these cases, the guns were obtained illegally and that banning the law-abiding citizens (who are rarely in the news for gun violence reasons) from following the law and obtaining guns won't stop people from continuing to get firearms illegally.

Look at our lawmakers: for the past five and a half years, John Boehner's cronies in the Republican party have been doing their best Chicken Little impersonation about any bill or idea put forth by President Obama or anyone in the Democrat party. They keep hammering their ideals and what they believe has happened no matter how mountainous the evidence to the contrary. If these few people keep telling us something long enough, they think we'll believe it. It is like they do not realize that what they say and what they do is recorded, or that the American people will have the means by which to review those recordings in the future and call them on their poor decisions, outright lies, and general obfuscations. Even when caught, and shown the evidence that they said one thing and then did the opposite, or that the one thing they said was outright wrong, they try to spin it like that isn't what actually happened. How much longer can the American people stand for this to happen, or the constant inaction that has come from it, before voting these people out of office?

At some point, we each have to take responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming "the other." My friend with the Steam app issue may want to stop blaming the company and the app and realize it is likely some setting in her PC that is causing this issue. Thousands of others use Steam daily without these issues and hundreds have likely used Steam support without a hassle. Chrome may not be as much to blame as, say, the website itself or my friend's personal PC setup in connecting to it. Maybe the guns aren't so much to blame as the person who wants to commit the violent act. Maybe our lawmakers should look in the mirror at who is to blame for the government's ineffectiveness, rather than trying to blame the other party, the President, or some other force. Maybe we all need to start saying, "I have an issue, how can I resolve it?" rather than, "They are the problem, how can I screw them the most for it?"