30 Sep 2011 10:25 am

Race and Reboot

So one of my favorite DC characters is the second Mister Terrific. He's been the leader of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team in comic book history. He's the third-smartest man in the DCU (next to Lex Luthor and possibly Batman). And he's got just as many gadgets as the latter two, including floating "T-Spheres". Now he's even got his own solo comic book series.

But in the first issue, Mister Terrific feels the need to remind people he's black. The bizarre exchange occurs after several Londoners complement Mister Terrific when taking down a supervillain. They ask his name.

"Mr. Terrific. Some people call me the third smartest man in the world."

This prompts two questions: who is number two and number one and how does it feel to be third place?

His response? "Actually, a simple 'thanks, black guy, for saving us from a homicidal lunatic wearing weaponized armor' will do."

Ummm . . . okay?

The British bystanders already complimented Mr. Terrific's "nice work", so the snarky response seems a little uncalled for, especially with Mr. Terrific condescendingly referring to himself as "black guy". What makes the scene all the more strange is the bystander Mr. Terrific is addressing actually black himself - though this is probably an artistic oversight more than anything else (the script probably didn't specify what the bystander looked like.)

If this were the only mention of race in the issue, it could be chalked up to first issue jitters, but unfortunately, it's not. Mr. Terrific's alter ego, Michael Holt, is dating future (or perhaps current, depending on the reboot) Power Girl Karen Starr. Michael's friend Aleeka is starring daggers at Karen at an upscale party.

Cue the awkward. "I get it. It's because I'm a white girl, isn't it?" Karen says. "And I'm a black woman, which means I'm built to hand things you can't even imagine. Or never had to," Aleeka respond. (Yes, she's talking to someone who is or will be one of the toughest super-powered women in the DCU.)

To be fair, the issue ends with Michael Holt trying to kill one of his allies - a senator - implying that not everyone at the party is in their right mind. The story-arc seems to be built around a villain named Brainstorm, who can push people over the edge. Still, Michael's plunge into madness is proceeded by an "EEEEEEP!" sound bubble - which was conspicuously absent during Karen and Aleeka's racial tirade.

The issue of race is handled slightly better in "Static Shock". When young superhero Virgil Hawkins asks his mentor Hardware why everyone at his company "looks as me like I'm going to steal their wallet?" Hardware explains he wanted to create a "wall of suspicion" around to give Virgil appropriate access to his base . . . so Hardware told his employees Virgil was "a pet project he rescued from the juvenille court system." (Virgil groans in response.) Though a bit long-winded and convoluted, the explanation does give a plausible explanation for Virgil to be milling around his mentor's company at strange hours in the night.

The trend of spotlighting race in the DC Relaunch does seem to be a noticeable one, though. As a frequent reader of "Justice Society of America", I saw Mister Terrific in the spotlight for almost a decade with very little mention of his race. In light of the DC Relaunch - which is aimed at bringing new readers to the comic book stores - his race takes center stage - which really isn't a problem, except that here it is portrayed almost bombastically. It's not surprising Static Shock handles the issue a little better - the character was created by the late great Dwayne McDuffie, the co-founder of Milestone Comics, a DC imprint aimed at positive depictions of minorities in comic books.

Of course, this isn't DC's first brush with diversity (or a lack thereof) in the relaunch. For as many of its books feature female protagonists, DC Comics recently came under fire for its mostly-male creative staff. The overly-sexual depiction of the superheroine Starfire in "Red Hood and the Outlaws" definitely isn't helping their case.

This might be the DC Relaunch's one Achilles' Heel. The relaunch was started to give readers a fresh start without the baggage of continuity - but it seems they are saddling their books with baggage of a different kind. It's interesting because, for all its controversy, the new "Ultimate Spider-Man #1" apparently doesn't mention Miles Morales' race at all. DC might want to crack open the Brian Michael Bendis playbook - or maybe even the Dwayne McDuffie playbook - before baggage turns to backlash.

(That's it for this rant. Check out next week's Blue Yonder!)

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