Like a lot of baby boomers who grew up reading DC comics, I watched the premiere of “The Flash,” a re-reimagining of the “Silver Age” version of the Fastest Man Alive. Tuesday’s episode on the CW network aligned at several points with the 1956 origin story in the comics: Barry Allen, a police scientist in Central City, is struck by lightning, realizes he has super-speed, dons a skin-tight red outfit and takes on bad guys.
But there were points of difference: Barry (played by the baby-faced Grant Gustin) is dark-haired, not blond, and instead of fighting crime as a loner he has a support staff at a laboratory. But perhaps the difference that would most surprise readers of the 1956 story “Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” concerns Barry’s female friend Iris West. In the comic, Iris, a “news hen” at the local newspaper, was definitely Barry’s girlfriend. In the opener of the TV show, she’s more of a gal pal, but there were hints that the relationship would be taking a turn away from the platonic.
Oh, and the TV Iris is black, a casting decision that has raised some fan boys’ eyebrows. A commenter on one fan site wrote: “A black Iris West is technically race-bending. CW knows they need to be mindful of diversity but I’m just sayin’.”
The Iris character, played by Candice Patton, isn’t the only example of “race-bending.” In “Man of Steel,” the most recent Superman movie, Daily Planet editor Perry White was played by black actor Laurence Fishburne. Great Caesar’s ghost!
The objections to “race-bending” familiar comics characters is reminiscent of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s much-mocked comments about the pigments of Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. “Jesus was a white man, too,” Kelly said. “He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact — as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that. My point is, how do you just revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and change Santa from white to black?"
The critics of “race-bending” or “race-switching” in adaptations of comic book lore don’t seem to be racist. Rather, as one website summarizes their complaint, they object to “political correctness pandering meant to foster the illusion of diversity, which is disrespectful to the tradition of these characters AND the general public.”
But, as comics nerds of a certain age remember, the “tradition” of comic books in the 1950s and '60s was to ignore blacks — perhaps to avoid offending readers in the South (or their racist parents). But it wasn’t just racial diversity that was lacking in the so-called Silver Age. Though many comic book creators were Jews or Italian Americans (Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, started out as Robert Kahn), the DC Universe of the time was Earth-WASP.
As I wrote several years ago: “Contrast the ethic stew of comic book credits with the white bread monotony of the names of their characters: Superman’s alter ego was Clark Kent, Batman was Bruce Wayne, the Flash was Barry Allen, Green Lantern was Hal Jordan, the Atom was Ray Palmer and even the green-skinned Martian Manhunter assumed the earthbound alias of [the Caucasian] John Jones.”
As for religious diversity, when comics characters got married (usually in an "imaginary" story), you could be sure the officiant would be a Protestant minister, not a Catholic priest or a rabbi.
In the 1970s comics discovered African Americans virtually overnight and soon black characters appeared to challenge not just super villains but “The Man” as well. The high, or low, point of the “relevance” craze was “I Am Curious Black,” in which Lois Lane entered a matter-transformer and emerged as a black woman. (“Suppose I couldn’t change back?” the altered Lois asks the Man of Steel. “Would you marry me? Even if I’m black?”)
There was no such self-conscious racial melodrama in the premiere of “The Flash.” Iris’ race wasn't emphasized or agonized about — which was refreshing. One could argue that this sort of comfortable color-blindness understates the persistence of racism in America, but it’s much closer to reality than the all-white Metropolis crowds who marveled at Superman’s exploits in the 1950s.
And that’s the best refutation of the comics’ nerds complaint that the new approach is “disrespectful to the tradition of these characters.” That tradition was a dishonest and dishonorable one — as DC Comics admitted in a 1970 story in which an elderly black man rips into Green Lantern:
“I been readin' about you ... how you work for the blue skins ... and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins ... and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there's skins you never bothered with — ! The black skins! I want to know ... how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!”
Over the top, but he had a point.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3