Let me throw in a terrible aside in even before I start into the topic. When I was younger I practiced Tae Kwon Do, I started as a young adult and had a great instructor. It was a fun sport, the dojo was the perfect place to go after work and get a nice sweat going, I always felt great afterward. I did pretty good too, won the ITF National Sparring championships two years in a row as I was rising through the coloured belts. Of course, once I entered the Black Belt pool with all its veteran fighters who were doing it for most of their lives I got a nice reality check and my ass handed to me many a time. Good memories and lots of friendships formed. I am embarrassed to say though that at the very beginning I was not happy with my instructor. The man, Master Zbeb, was amazing, he was and probably still is a great fighter and an even better teacher but I had second thoughts of joining his school. Why? He was of Polish descent. Tae Kwon Do was a Korean martial art and I wanted the “authenticity” of a Korean instructor.
The aside above was the first thought I had when I thought of tackling the touchy subject of character updating.
There are many types of character updating and two of the most famous examples are two of the oldest as well. When DC Comics brought back the Flash in 1956 they did not bring back the original Jay Garrick alter ego, they updated the character to fit the times with Barry Allen. A few years later DC brought back and updated the Green Lantern character and changed the alter ego from Alan Scott to Hal Jordan. Both updates were a huge success though I’m sure there must have been some controversy and complaints from the old fans, not even a decade had gone by since the old versions disappeared. I’d love to read some of the negative old fan mail as I’m sure there was plenty.
Since then there have been countless character updates, some have worked while some have not, some have been very controversial while others have met with almost no backlash at all.
I’m going share my observations with you as to what I see as going on but before I do I have to point out that I know this is a prickly subject and that these are only my views for what they are worth.
Protests and backlashes don’t just happen when a character update involves a racial or gender change, DC’s attempts at replacing Bruce Wayne as Batman has shown us that. Dick Grayson? Not on my watch! I’m not even sure why some characters can successfully change even within the same demographic. From Jay Garrick to Barry Allen to Wally West, we may all have our favourites but we all accept the three as a valid incarnation of the Flash. Hank Pym? Scott Lang? Who’s your Ant-Man?
Here’s where I’m going to trip over myself but I’m going to try nonetheless. A lot of the white male characters were written as default characters, there was no importance to their race or gender when they were thought up, they were just thought up by a demographic in society for a demographic in society. Green Lantern stories were about adventures with little attention given to the fact that Hal Jordan is white. If we are going to use Jon Stewart as an updated Green Lantern it has no reason not to work if the stories are focused on the Green Lantern adventures. He’s the Green Lantern fighting aliens, he’s not the Black Green Lantern fighting aliens.
I recently read that the Emily Blunt character in Sicario was supposed to be a man, that was a fantastic movie and during the whole movie, Emily Blunt was an FBI agent who we all felt for. I didn’t know the character was supposed to be a man until recently and when I watched the movie I obviously noticed the character was female but it was something that was not important to the character, this was an FBI agent in a messed up situation. Sigourney Weaver as Ridley in the Aliens franchise was fantastic, I remember being scared straight when it came out, I also remember years later when critics hailed it as a great role for a woman but most of us that were there watching when it came out can attest to the fact that it was something that just didn’t register as important.
In comics, race and gender updates can work. Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is a great example of a successful character update involving a gender change, Nick Fury Agent of Shield is a great example of a successful character update involving a racial change. Miles Morales is another great example of a successful character update involving a racial change. The great thing about the Morales update is that it proved there is a need and room in the world for Spider-Man to have two personas.
I think that change in comics finds more acceptance when the character core is kept the same. Its a tricky balance creating new fans while at the same time satisfying old, alter egos that face the universal realities of the human condition find wider audiences than those focused on specific cultural circumstances. The Nick Fury update did this very well with great results. When a character is created to tell the story from a specific cultural perspective like say Luke Cage it would be hard to tell the story of the 1970s inner-city America with an Asian or European man, it would not make sense as the character was written for an African American perspective. Wonder Woman would be an obvious female character written for a female. Characters like this most likely would not have successful race and gender updates.
Do not discredit or disregard character updates in comic books, they have gone on forever and they will continue as long as there are comics. Some will stick and some will miss and only time will sort them out. Don’t look at change through the perspective of a moment in time. Change has almost always come with some resistance, at that moment in time change is always a disruption, a shock, but change is inevitable and time almost always bears it out as necessary and good.
What are some of the key comics to collect when talking character updates? Marvel Superheroes #13 from 1967 introduces Carol Danvers to goes on to become Captain Marvel, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #5 from 2001 introduces the black Nick Fury (I’m pretty sure I got this wrong on an old Undervalued Spotlight), Ultimate Fall Out #4 from 2011 introduces Miles Morales as Spider-Man. Avengers #181 from 1979 introduces Scott Lang who goes on to become the new Ant-Man in Marvel Premiere #47 also from 1979.
Help me flush out some more recent successful character updates, what characters, what issues? Which of these has the best long term prospects? Remember comic print runs over the last 15 years are at historic lows, some of these books will be able to develop relative scarcity with an increase in demand.
Character updating can have infinite nuances, I’ve touched on some very macro ones I was comfortable with above. In the end there no way of guessing what will work and what won’t, all I know is that there character updating will continue and we should look at it as an opportunity for investment.