Last week Marvel comics announced that it was replacing Bruce Banner (old, white guy) with Amadeus Cho (young, Korean guy) as the Incredible Hulk. This comes on the heels of Marvel recently turning Thor into a woman, Ms. Marvel into a Muslim teenager, and Spider-Man into a kid who’s half African-American and half Puerto Rican but, disappointingly, still male, heterosexual, and cisgendered. As you can see, there is much progress yet to be made.
You may be asking yourself why, exactly, the world needs a Korean Hulk. But then, over the last couple decades the Hulk character has become so convoluted that he’s far afield of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby cooked up in 1962. I mean, did the world need Grey Hulk? A Savage Hulk? A Merged Hulk? A Red Hulk? A Hulkling? In other words, the new Korean Hulk isn’t an outrage. It’s just another gimmick in a long line of gimmicks.
And truth be told, it’s not a bad gimmick because it brings something new to the table. The Amadeus Cho character is a precocious young genius (which is a troubling racial stereotype, but whatever) who didn’t accidentally overdose on gamma radiation. Rather, he figures out how to turn himself into the Hulk, at will, and—here’s the best part—he keeps his own personality when he becomes the Big Guy. Imagine a younger Tony Stark wearing a Hulk suit and that’s pretty much the character. Not bad.
But Korean Hulk does reflect a sad trend in the comic-book industry. Since the 1960s, writers and artists whose political and cultural sympathies run from the reliably liberal to the outright radical have dominated the comics industry. You can count the number of prominent conservative writers in the business on one, or possibly two, hands.
Marvel’s self-conscious recasting of their characters has been driven, by their own admission, by an urge to demonstrate their fealty to multiculturalism. It isn’t about sales—these re-cast titles are rarely big sellers. And it isn’t about creativity, either. Because if they really wanted to just tell stories with multicultural characters they would invent new characters who were not white, or male, or whatever other descriptor is now disfavored.
And the truth is, the best, most influential characters are the ones not dreamed up as PC sentiment. For example, take Jessica Jones. In 2001, Brian Michael Bendis created a new character from whole cloth who was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. A failed superhero who had become a junior-varsity alcoholic, Jones made ends meet working as a private detective (she wasn’t a very good one, either: Jones was just smart enough to realize that she wasn’t quite smart enough). The character was so great that Marvel plucked her out of the siloed world Bendis wrote her in and incorporated her into its mainstream narrative. And then made a Netflix series with her. And may even bring her to the big-screen as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That’s what happens when you do character first and politics second.
Coincidentally, Korean Hulk debuted the week after Frank Miller returned to comics with Dark Knight III: Master Race, which he has co-written with Brian Azzarello. Miller is one of the rare conservatives in comics. And he also happens to be the most influential comic book creator of the last forty years. You could argue that his masterwork, The Dark Knight Returns, is the single most influential comic since Action Comics #1, which gave the world Superman and created the superhero genre.
Since it first appeared, The Dark Knight Returns has influenced just about every comic book written and even today, thirty years after the fact, it retains unbelievable vitality; the energy still pops off the page.
But here’s the thing: Miller is well known, and somewhat reviled, within the industry for his conservatism. (The Guardian refers to him as a “crypto-fascist.”) He certainly has no interest in multiculturalism. But in The Dark Knight Returns he created one of the great non-powered characters in the history of comics: Ellen Yindel.
The Dark Knight Returns takes place in (what was then) the medium-future, when Bruce Wayne is a man in his 50s and the there is a changing of the guard in Gotham City. Part of that entails long-time Batman conspirator Jim Gordon being put out to pasture as commissioner. His replacement, Ellen Yindel, is a diversity hire. And she wants to arrest the Batman. In short, Miller loads the deck against Yindel so that readers are ready to hate her.
But then he pulls a fast one: Yindel turns out to be smart, and capable, and she has a yard of guts. By the time The Dark Knight Returns wraps up, she’s one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters in the story.
And here’s what you have to remember: Frank Miller didn’t create Ellen Yindel because he thought it was time to replace the Gordon character with a woman because comics needed female role models, or diversity, or some other bit of PC twaddle. He created Ellen Yindel because he had a story to tell about a great character that was rattling around in his head.
It’s the difference between artistic vision and politically minded tokenism. The rest of the industry should think about that.