Friday, August 02, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (2)

"Now, Mr. Spigott, you, a one-legged man, are applying for the role of Tarzan -- a role which, traditionally, involves the use of a two-legged actor....And yet you, a unidexter, are applying for the role. A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement."
                                        Not Only...But Also
Could Spider-Man be black?
This is a meaningless question.
Spider-Man is a fictional character, with a background and a history. As a matter of fact, that character is a white, teenaged, male New Yorker, born around 1948. (Or "about 25 years ago" if you believe in Marvel Time, or "In 1986" if you prefer the Ultimate version.) I suppose there could be a storyline in which someone injects him with a magic potion and his skin went black. A good writer could write a good story based on that premise, and a bad writer could write a very bad one. 

But that isn't what you are asking, is it? You are asking "Could Spider-Man have been black?"
To which the answer is yes, of course he could have been. Steve Ditko and his very talented scripting assistant could perfectly well have told a story about an African American teenager who was bitten by a radioactive Spider and learned that with great power must also come etcetera etcetera etcetera. 

Would that have made a difference to the story? Yes: in the same way that it would have made a difference if Uncle Ben had been Peter Parker's natural father, or if it had been Aunt May who had been shot by the burglar. Change any part of the story and you change the story. I suppose that, in 1963, even in New York, it would have been relatively uncommon for people of colour to get science scholarships to major universities or work in photo-journalism. I imagine that the bullying of Peter Parker by Flash Thompson, or his hounding by J Jonah Jameson would have felt different if it had been white guys picking on a black guy. Could a story have been written along those lines? Yes, emphatically. Would it have been such a good story? Steve Ditko was a genius at the the top of his game working with the best dialogue-writer ever to work in comics, so yes, I imagine he would have produced a good story on any subject he felt like. Would Spider-Man have still been basically the same character? It depends what you mean by "the same". Is any character who can stick to walls and shoot webs essentially Spider-Man, or is it all the little details that made Spider-Man who he is?
If you take the former line—if it's the costume and the powers that maketh the hero, as opposed to the specs and the over protective aunty—then being Spider-Man is a job and that job could be done by someone other than Peter Parker—black, female, disabled, gay, a born-again Christian or an alien from the planet Zog. In the Ultimate universe, Peter Parker is currently spending a year dead for tax reasons and the "job" of Spider-Man is being performed by an Hispanic youth. It works fine.
But that isn't the question you are asking, either.
The question you are asking is "Could a black person pretend to be Spider-Man. In, like a movie or a TV series."
And the answer is—well, maybe.
Almost definitely.
If we were talking about legitimate theatre we wouldn't even be asking the question. Everyone—everyone except Quentin Letts—accepts colour-blind casting. If the director casts a black man as Macbeth, it wouldn't occur to us to think that Macbeth actually was a black man—that there were African noblemen in tenth century Scotland. Theatre is all about suspension of disbelief. The cut-out tree in the middle of the stage doesn't look like a tree; it's an instruction, saying "please imagine that this scene is taking place in the forest of Arden." Eke out our performance with your mind, as the fellow said. It's fairly common for female actors to play male roles. No-one claims that Richard II really was a woman or Juliet was really a man. We just pretend.
Movies are a bit different, because the whole fun of movies is that you don't have to use your imagination. What we see on the screen is what the pretend people on the screen can see. If a character looks black or female or disabled, then we take it for granted that they are black or female or disabled in the story.
So, the question you are asking is "Does it matter if the character we see on the screen doesn't look like the character we see on the page of the comic book?" Does it matter if Peter Parker has light skin in the comic and dark skin on the screen? Would it be okay for Mary-Jane, who has long red hair in the comic, to have short black hair on the screen? Can blonde comic-book Gwen become brunette movie Gwen? Does Prof X need to be bald? Could we cope with a ginger Lois Lane? Why do all the good examples I can think of involve hair? 

Ditko's Spider-Man was a science nerd, and "science-nerd" is a much more irreducible part of Spider-Man's fictional DNA than "white New York male". In the original comic, this nerdiness was represented by test tubes, microscopes, museum exhibitions and piles of books. In the movie, and in modern comic book versions, the chemistry equipment is replaced by computers, the internet, the internet and computers. Because that's what 21st century nerds play with. "Changing things" is, in this case, the only reasonable way of leaving them the same. Changing "radioactive Spider" to "genetically modified Spider" for the benefit of modern kids is no different from changing "spider" to "araigne" for the benefit of French kids. 

Peter Parker, as created by Steve Ditko, grew up in the 1950s. He called women "gals" and Russians "commies", wore a waistcoat on informal occasions and thought "I bet you're still wearing a Vote for Dewey badge" was a clever topical reference. Yet many of us seem to be able to accept that the young man who remembers the Beatles and lost friends in the Vietnam war is the "same persion" as the young man who was a teenager when the World Trade Center was destroyed; but somehow think that if his hair or his skin is the wrong colour he is just not Spider-Man. 
In 1963, Peter Parker's Aunt May was already a Very Old Lady, prone to have heart-attacks at the drop of a pin -- in her 70s, or even older. A New York lady who was born in the 1890s is very likely to have been an immigrant. I think everyone now agrees that Peter Parker was -- like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and the guy who wrote the words --  a second generation immigrant, say of Austrian or Czech  Jewish heritage. This is why Peter Parker is rejected by his peer group, and bullied by Flash Thompson. He's a foreigner; an outsider. 

It follows that movies which represent him as an all-American white kid are just as false as the ones where he plays with a microscope rather than a computer. If you want to set Spider-Man in the 21st century and remain remotely faithful to the original, you'd have to make him the kid of some refugees who came to America in the 1990s; non-religious himself, but greatly influenced by Uncle Ben's Somali Muslim or Punjabi Sikh heritage.

(I'm serious, by the way.) 

This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.


Anonymous said...

If you want to set Spider-Man in the 21st century and remain remotely faithful to the original, you'd have to make him the kid of some refugees who came to America in the 1990s; non-religious himself, but greatly influenced by Uncle Ben's Somali Muslim or Punjabi Sikh heritage.

Or perhaps, since those groups aren't known for geekiness an all-American white middle class girl. Hermoine crossover?


Anonymous said...

"those groups aren't known for geekiness"

Really? You've clearly not met many people from those groups, have you?

The proportion of people working in technology-related jobs who are culturally Muslim, in particular, is far, far higher than the proportion of people in the population as a whole.

Anonymous said...

(That last comment was Andrew Hickey, as is this one. Don't know why it didn't show it as being from me...)

Andrew Stevens said...

Maybe it's because I'm a mathematician, but the Punjabi Sikhs I know are totally geeky. I mean if you overlook the whole "always carries a symbolic sword because they're committed warriors to defend the weak and protect the innocent" thing.

In fact, I'd love to see a superhero who was raised a Sikh; that would be awesome.

Mike Taylor said...

The first anonymous poster didn't say that the groups in question aren't geeky, but that they're not known for geekiness. That is a quite different issue, and one that's at least as relevant when constructing a mass-media entertainment. It's all about signifiers, and making them work for the story you want to tell.