While Warner Bros dithers over whether to cast in-demand black actor Michael B. Jordan as DC Comics icon Superman, the fans have moved on — as a four-day tour of the Javits Center last week could tell you.
On the West Side of Manhattan, a quarter of a million people (predominantly but not overwhelmingly young) assemble annually over the first weekend of October for what one attendee called the “event most completely reflective of the demographics of this city” — New York Comic Con. And attendee diversity is displayed as much by what they wore as who they were.
Cosplay — dressing up as a favorite character from a comic, TV, film or video game — is as much a part of the Comic Con experience (perhaps even moreso) as creator panels, movie previews, book/clothing/collectible exhibitor booths, etc. Cosplay allows otherwise passive participants to take part in the creative process in a manner unique from other types of fandom.
According to NYCC producers ReedPop, an overwhelming number engage in cosplay of one sort of another. Hundreds actively participate in cosplay contests either in person or online. And for many of these fans, Superman is already black, Asian, Hispanic, the traditional Caucasian and, um, goth. So too, The Incredibles cross all racial boundaries.
And such choices have an impact: Anyone going to Comic Con over the last decade could have predicted that the first Deadpool movie would become a smash. He was clearly the most popular cosplay choice. Years before the Thirteenth Doctor Who regenerated as Jodie Whittaker, many women already saw themselves as the last of the Time Lords.
Of course, such choices are not universally embraced. An alt-right of fandom has arisen in recent years to bewail, among other things, the appearance of a black Norse God (Heimdall) in the Thor movie franchise, a female Thor and black Wally (Kid Flash) West in comics and the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. Each of those creative choices had varying degrees of success. In general though, Fandom shrugged its collective shoulders and the characters became more options for cosplayers to adopt.
Pop culture is in an inextricable reciprocal relationship with capitalism. It continually reinvents itself as the marketplace expands. Diversity makes sense because it makes dollars. When this author was growing up in the ‘70s, he was a rare non-Caucasian kid picking up comics off convenience store spin racks. In the sparse comic book stores of that time, girls (other than impatient mothers dragging their sons out after an inordinate amount of time) were almost nonexistent. That’s not the case today. A diverse geek culture seeks out fantasy characters of all stripes — traditional and non-traditional looks. As the marketplace scrambles to keep up, the genre dominates movies, TV and streaming services. Marvel Studios movies alone have grossed $17.5 billion since first launching Iron Man a decade ago.
Of course, the critique of pop culture choices come not merely from the right.
On the left, outrage comes over the denunciation of so-called “cultural appropriation” — the notion that a white girl shouldn’t wear Asian-style dresses or anything “borrowed” from a culture not their own. And, no, generally speaking, one didn’t see too many white people wearing Black Panther-inspired attire (then again, how would one know if they stayed in the full-covering body suit?).
However, at least one Latino young boy was dressed as Panther foe Killmonger (similarly, an adult Latino dressed as Spawn — an African-American veteran before his death and return as a hellish creature of vengeance). And a non-visually handicapped white guy went dressed as Daredevil’s alter-ego, blind attorney Matt Murdock. Should that be considered crossing a line?
If so, then let’s applaud crossing lines and abandoning “tradition” — the right way.
Today’s fans could be tomorrow’s creators — or at the very least, will influence them. The black nerds of the Comicidal Podcast looked at a once-obscure band of Justice League of America supervillains called the Royal Flush Gang and thought, “Black people play spades more than they do poker.” And, no, the previously offensive racial dimension of the term is not lost upon them either. Instead, they take ownership and empowerment of it themselves. And thus, they debuted a group called the Spades Gang — Ace, King, Queen (the latter two gender-flipped), Deuce and two Jokers — at New York Comic Con.
Doubling down on nerdiness, members Lucius “Deuce” Illumix, R.P. “Queen” Wilson and company met at a conference of the National Association of Black Engineers. Seriously.
So, seemingly lost DC/Warner Bros, take note: Learn the right lesson of the blockbuster “Black Panther” movie. It’s not about gimmick-casting Michael B. Jordan to step into Kal-El’s red trunks and Clark Kent’s dark suit. Instead, draw from 80 years of storytelling — which includes multiple black Supermen (of parallel worlds and alternate timelines) with unique storylines — and put a fresh spin on it. Produce a compelling narrative that can appeal to traditional and newer audiences.
Trust in the source material, shuffle the deck with some inspired creativity and be rewarded with the truly universal color — green.