DC Comics has recently begun putting in the effort to bring more Superhero Diversity to Television.
DC comic books and their television adaptations have long been under a certain scrutiny to strive to be more racially diverse. There has been a lack of representation for people of color in superhero media, and those marginalized by the whiteness of mainstream comic adaptations have been working tirelessly to rectify this. It seems that, recently, this plea has been slowly reaching the ears of DC comic’s higher ups and the content creators who have the power to affect this change.
The DC TV Universe is picking up momentum with each show added to the roster, and slowly, (quite slowly) more is being done in regard to representing people of color. But, while progress is great, much more still needs to be done.
What we have now
In CW’s The Flash a major change was done to a famous character from the comics. Iris West, Barry Allen’s comic book wife, has existed in DC canon for as long as Barry Allen himself. And for the entirety of her fictional existence she has been white (she is still white in contemporary Flash comics). So it was a (relatively) considerable change to have her portrayed by a black actress in her TV incarnation. While simply changing the race of one character does not signal drastic change, The Flash includes Iris and her father Joe as main characters in the series.
The Flash’s sister show, CW’s Arrow, also has attempted to rectify this issue some. From the beginning, Arrow has included John Diggle as a central character and the first “team member” on Oliver Queen’s vigilante crusade. Arrow has also adapted a handful of non-white characters from the comics. In the Season 4 finale, the superhero Katana finally gets to don her famous costume and fight crime alongside Green Arrow. Katana, as the name suggests, is a Japanese superhero in the DC comics’ canon.
A central villain (and later anti-hero) of the series is Nyssa al Ghul a Middle Eastern assassin and (depending on the era of comics) the eldest daughter of a world renowned Supervillain. In the show, an Asian American actress plays this canonically Arab character. While the character is still portrayed as a person of color, it is mostly an infraction that the production “swapped” between marginalized races – from in the comics Arab to unclear in the show, played by a Taiwanese-American actress.
But Arrow made a major misstep when casting Nyssa’s father, Ra’s al Ghul. A truly major villain in Batman comics, Ra’s al Ghul has been powerful Arab character representationally (it should be argued that villainy isn’t necessarily the step representation would like to be at at this point). Nonetheless, it is a major step backward to cast a white person to play this role – especially when the same was done in film with Batman Begins to fan outcry.
The upcoming spin off from Arrow and The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, promises a few more heroes of color in Hawkgirl and the physical form of Firestorm.
CBS’s Supergirl is also taking small steps to bring this change to the screen. Jimmy Olsen has long been one of Superman’s closest friends and confidants, so it is (like with Iris) a relatively major change to make James (as he goes by on the show) a black man. Likewise, Supergirl, has adapted the character of Hank Henshaw to be a person of color as well. Both of these characters fill a powerful and supportive role for Supergirl as a character and as a production.
There seems to be a recurring theme here among DC’s contemporary Primetime lineup. All of these characters of color, whether partner, friend, or foe, are all supporting cast. Not a single one of these characters is a title character or the hero of the story. It seems that the best DC can do right now is give the immediate costar role to an actor of color. Iris is Barry’s love interest (sort of), James is Kara’s mentor (and hopefully love interest), and Diggle is Oliver’s right hand man. Furthermore, the majority of racially divers characters in these shows are the ones without superpowers. In The Flash the Firestorm identity was recently handed over to a black character (making it slightly more similar to the comic version) and he is currently the only “powered” hero of color in the prime time universe so far.
There is one current DC Comics show with a person of color as the title hero, CW Seed’s Vixen. Vixen has long been one of DC’s major black heroes so it makes perfect sense that she has earned her own show – the character deserves it. The show is short form (seven minute episodes), animated, and only airs on CW’s digital brand Seed.
DC also has a second digital first series in active development, an adaptation of Static Shock. Many DC fans probably remember Static’s cartoon from the early millennium. This new show will be a live action adaptation (it’s not clear if this series will also be short-form)!
Just like with Vixen, Static Shock will be the title hero of his own series, and just like Vixen it will be relegated to the digital platform only. I don’t want to condemn digital / web series flat out, there are incredible things being done with online only content that deserve all the credit in the world. But, here we are discussing Warner Brothers and DC Comics who have the power to bring these two heroes (and many other major Superheroes of color from the DC canon) to life on Primetime, mainstream television. It’s clear we can do more.
The overall climate seems to be that DC Comics is very excited to include racial diversity in their Primetime shows as long as they are some step of importance down from the main hero. I am not claiming that DC or Warner Brothers is making this choice consciously or intentionally excluding marginalized peoples from the spot light. Rather DC Comics and Warner Brothers are ignorant of the full extent of these issues. (I would emphasize the ignore etymology of “ignorance”). It’s easy to take the small step to include people of color in any capacity and then pat oneself on the back, but it’s also very clear that more needs to be done in regard to representation.
The best way to look at the issue is in comparison with Supergirl. While the CBS show is young (only two episodes have aired as I type this) it is clearly striving to be an overtly feminist piece of fiction. The show features a young woman in the lead role, with superpowers, and a cast of supportive female characters (namely Supergirl’s Earth sister). The show is working to correct a representational issue for women in comics and (so far succeeding).
This is what needs to be done for racial representation as well: a hero in the title role, who is distinctively powerful and the central figure of a positive story. Supergirl impacts (or at least works to impact) women as well as representing them, and the same should be done for people of color. While the television industry deals with the complicated viewer advertiser relationship, there is really no excuse to not push harder as content creators for more racial representation.