6 Hilariously Failed Attempts at Making Comics More Diverse
Diversity in superhero comics is a good thing. In a genre embarrassingly dominated by lantern-jawed white men and scantily clad babes, it's refreshing when writers and artists acknowledge that heroes can come from any race, gender, or nation. However, this doesn't necessarily reflect a change in the people who write the comics, and often their efforts to create the characters made it appear that they had never actually spoken to any non-white person in their lives. And so we wound up with ...
Vibe, the Hispanic Superhero
When it came time for DC Comics to bring the world a young Hispanic superhero, it came up with Vibe. He started life in 1984 as Paco Ramone, a Detroit street kid with the power to generate vibrations from his hands, which is a skill that would actually be fairly useful in everyday life (think about it), but probably isn't as useful in fighting crime as, say, invincibility or flight. But of course the real reason he joined the Justice League was to heroically play victim to every Latin stereotype the 1980s had to offer:
Actual dialogue: "Wha'chu think?" "Fresh, huh?" "VIBE." "That's chill."
Each panel is like a clinic in oneupsmanship put on by a group of white guys who have never met a Hispanic person and are basing all of their character knowledge on break-dancing videos and the movie Scarface.
Mostly the former.
Despite Vibe's superhuman ability to create force vibrations, the attribute that gets the most attention is his power to wear Bret "The Hitman" Hart sunglasses with sleeveless T-shirts.
Along with his sidekick, the pompadour.
A sample storyline involves Vibe bringing one of his new white friends home so that his parents will be proud of him, because apparently white people are so revered in the Hispanic community that simply being associated with one elevates your personal status to that of a local hero.
"Dios mio! El Rey Blanco!"
The timeless old chestnut about "bringing white folk home to meet the family" is given a hip new twist as the writers, drawing upon all their personal knowledge of the character's ethnicity, have Vibe get furiously pissed at Whitey Poloshirt for acknowledging his younger sister's existence (see Scarface, above):
"Incoherent, thoughtless rage is sacred to my people!"
Respected comic book artist George Perez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was particularly offended by Vibe, and said in a 1985 interview that the character single-handedly turned him off of the entire Justice League. When he worked on a later Justice League/Avengers crossover comic that was supposed to feature cameos by all the past members, Perez made sure Vibe's "cameo" consisted of nothing more than the bottom half of his legs.
John Stewart, the African-American Green Lantern
When Green Lantern alternate Guy Gardner got hit by a bus, he was replaced in 1984 by a perpetually angry jive-talking black man named John Stewart. John's primary ability appeared to be reminding people of his blackness every other sentence, because apparently his writers forgot that comic books have pictures. They might as well have just called him "Black Lantern" and told everyone to go fuck themselves.
Featured in Panel 2: Green Lantern asking a white man with a dirty face if he has picked any cotton recently.
Maybe some context would help. Back in the 1970s, Green Lantern author Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams tried to deal with complex topical issues like drug addiction and social injustice. John Stewart, who was created in 1971, was their attempt to address racism, but he comes off as being written by a nerdy white man who wants to make sure every panel clearly demonstrates that John is not a coloring mistake.
In one story arc, John starts dating a woman named Rose Hardin, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend of Hal Jordan. Hal gets pissed off that his ex is now dating a black man and challenges John to a mind battle, which might initially sound like he wants to play chess or Trivial Pursuit, but literally means that he wants to fight John inside his mind. When he shows up in Hal's vacuous skull chamber, John appears as several different personalities, each a worse stereotype than the one before (it isn't clear whether this is Hal's or John's doing).
"Lawdy! We's gun need some fried chicken up in here!"
The various shades of John Stewart include a pimp dressed as Robin Hood, a bongo-clutching African, Barry Bonds, and Balrog.
"Fuck tha police!"
Hal realizes that he's being a shithead and agrees to back off, and he and John part ways as friends. While this admittedly is trying to address a legitimate social issue, we argue that there was probably a better way for the writers to tackle latent racial prejudices than having Hal Jordan box the crows from Dumbo with his thoughts.
Brother Voodoo, the Haitian Witch Doctor
In 1973, Marvel thoughtfully decided to add a Haitian character, surely hoping to broaden the horizons of readers with a look into the culture of that small, impoverished nation. The result was Brother Voodoo.
We're pretty sure no one at Marvel realized how badly Diversity Week could go.
The backstory is that after spending 12 years away in college and grad school, Jericho Drumm returns home to Haiti only to find his brother dying from a voodoo curse (part of the curse evidently prevented anyone from using a telephone or postcard to relay this information to Jericho).
"I was gonna shoot you an email, but then I got on TV Tropes, and suddenly 12 years later ..."
After his brother inevitably dies, Jericho visits the local witch doctor, Papa Jambo (sigh), and inexplicably decides to throw a decade of graduate-level education in the garbage and become Brother Voodoo, because the costume happens to be in his size. The costume, by the way, consists of a deep V-neck, green cutoff pants, and a bone necklace, because voodoo operates on a budget.
"We ain't fuckin' sorcery here."
In one of Brother Voodoo's more creepy "adventures," he uses his abilities to possess an attractive young doctor who has come to Haiti to help fight disease and make her fall in love with him.
It's like if a beer commercial was carried to its logical conclusion.
So Brother Voodoo, Marvel Comics' first Haitian superhero and a powerful practitioner of the mystic arts, uses his sorcery to trick a woman into having sex with him. He does this by infusing her body with the spirit of his dead brother, which means that in addition to essentially date-raping a woman, he is also having sex with his brother's ghost. Meanwhile, his white Marvel Comics label-mate Spider-Man is married to a supermodel and gets to swing around punching bank robbers all day long.
Connor Hawke, the Mixed Race (and Possibly Gay) Green Arrow
Since the 1970s, the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow has had sex with pretty much every female he's been able to impress with arrow-based innuendo. So it wasn't much of a surprise when, in the early '90s, he discovered that he had a biracial son. He was named Connor Hawke, and he was meant to replace his father as Green Arrow to once again try to breathe new life into the character by adding some diversity. The problem was, they couldn't seem to agree on exactly what Connor's parentage was, so they decided to make him a golden-haired blackasian.
With dashes of Chippewa-Aztec.
According to the storyline, Connor's mother was half-black and half-Korean, and his dad was the Caucasian sperm cannon known as Green Arrow. However, most of the time he just looks like a photo negative of Aquaman:
Might want to get that jaundice looked at.
So, Connor was as diverse as they could possibly make him, right? Not quite. He was also gay (but not totally gay):
Despite being the son of a traveling penis salesman, Connor has no idea how to be around women and becomes uncomfortable when he has to deal with them. Rather than using it to explore the character, the sexual confusion is typically thrown away on hilarious misunderstandings and George McFly-esque awkwardness:
"Ma'am, I don't know what this is all about, but please put your clothes back on and stop fondling my junk."
So, the half-white, half-black/Korean and partially gay Green Arrow, intended to be a firm statement against the "socially acceptable" image of comic book superheroes, came off as a confused jumble, sort of like if several different Diversity Day parade floats broke down and everybody decided to just share one. What's worse is that they don't even stick to their own plan and abandon Connor's confused sexuality once his father reappears so he can develop a relationship with an HIV-positive teenage girl, because we all know that the missing ingredient of a struggling comic book is AIDS (more on that later).
"The perfect hetero cover! A girl I have a legitimate reason not to bang!"
Dr. Fate, the Transgender Oedipal Pedophile
Dr. Fate, the resident sorcerer in the original Justice Society, was killed off in the 1980s and replaced with Eric and Linda Strauss, who merged together (sort of like Bones and Spock in Star Trek III) to become the new Dr. Fate. This gave DC Comics a wonderful opportunity to explore what happens when a male and a female psyche inhabit the same body. What they did instead was make Dr. Fate the creepiest superhero in the history of comics.
Also he liked to over-share.
You see, Linda Strauss is a woman in her 30s, and Eric is her 10-year-old stepson. When they encounter Nabu (the god who transforms them into Dr. Fate), Eric is changed into a grown man, and he and Linda immediately have sex. This is bad enough, but subsequent issues make it disturbingly clear that Linda was attracted to Eric even before all of that Dr. Fate nonsense.
"The soulful way he sat and watched Power Rangers sent shivers down my spine."
Eric was fully possessed by the Oedipus complex, because apparently incest sells a lot of comic books.
Wait, should we even have this on our hard drive?
None of this is even addressing the horror show that unfolds when they actually fight crime as Dr. Fate. Rather than displaying some sort of mental struggle with gender confusion, Dr. Fate physically alternates between being male and female, like Tyler Perry without the inexplicable popularity.
Complete with gender-appropriate powers: nagging as a woman, fireballs as a man.
Sometimes Dr. Fate would be depicted as a man flexing abdominal muscles in the middle of an explosion, and sometimes she would be a woman with boobs that everyone stared at.
"The breasts wouldn't draw so much attention if you made an effort to hide your erection."
Every aspect of this version of Dr. Fate seemed like DC Comics was trying to sexually assault us with word balloons.
Extrano, the Openly Gay Sorcerer With HIV
In 1988, DC Comics introduced a superhero team called the New Guardians. The eight members were of different nationalities and were meant to represent the whole of the human race. Extrano (whose name translates as "Strange One," incidentally) was a gay Peruvian man who was given the power of magic. He was probably the first openly gay superhero, but unfortunately is more noteworthy for being one of the worst comic book stereotypes of all time.
The poor blue guy was just looking for his Marine Corps reunion.
He dresses like a mix between Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and a sofa, and refers to himself as a witch while constantly reminding people how "strange" he is:
And now you know what it's like to have Zooey Deschanel hit on you.
Extrano also took great pains to assert himself as teammate Harbinger's "gay best friend," using his magic powers to appear on her balcony and tell her that men are jerks. By the way, he does this by referring to his homosexuality at least once per sentence, including calling himself her "auntie" and assuring her that the two of them would not be having sex anytime soon.
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about your vagina."
Extrano and the New Guardians soon face off against a psychic Nazi vampire, because this is a comic book and that is how they address social issues:
Extrano and the vampire get into a bitch-slapping contest, in which the vampire tries to claw his eyes out:
"Open palm, man, open palm!"
Extrano is able to defeat the monster, but it dies in captivity. Of AIDS. Which the entire team might now be infected with:
Fact-checking was a pain in the ass before the Internet.
Every member that came into direct contact with the Nazi AIDS vampire has to get tested for HIV. Except for Extrano, because he already has HIV.
"Posers, I was getting HIV before it was cool."
Yes, Extrano, unfairly burdened with virtually every stereotype of gay men that has ever existed, was additionally revealed to be HIV-positive, which sadly was still widely referred to as "the gay disease" even by this point in the 1980s.
In the writers' defense, their hands were largely tied by censorship, and they weren't allowed to explicitly identify any character as homosexual. But by trying to have Extrano's sexuality be implicit, they unfortunately drew upon every homophobic punchline of the past century and implemented them with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer made of hand grenades. And then they gave him HIV.
The adventures of Extrano and the New Guardians lasted only 12 issues before the series was cancelled. He and the entire team were later crushed into anti-energy by a galactic supervillain, because DC Comics would like us all to forget that he ever existed.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Crazy Sociology Experiment Buried in a Russian Game Show.