Still More About the Atom.

I received a very well-written response to my Ryan Choi post from a reader calling himself Diabolu Frank, and rather than let it languish in the comments, I'm going to run it here, and then give my reactions at the end:

I'm big on racial politics and the need for non-white characters to play a major role in comic book universes. I'm also opposed to handing out token memberships to minorities via dubious legacies. The latter rarely works out as well as a Mr. Terrific, who has completely outshone his namesake.

In the case of Ryan Choi, between his overemphasized features on his debut issue and his being a shrinking Asian, put me off immediately. Further, I have a great deal of affection for Ray Palmer, who created his own suit and powers, rather than having them handed to him and still manage to ruin a classic costume in the transition. I have nothing personally against Choi, but I also never had much for him, and with the reinstatement of Palmer he seemed doomed to second class status anyway.

Whether through entirely new identities or redeeming legacies, I'd like to see more characters of color in comics. I'm just less interested in the conflict that comes from taking a dump on established heroes (death, madness, etc.) to build up these legacies, or setting someone up to inevitably be sidelined. Non-whites assuming roles formerly held by Caucasians can be a delicate process, and as much thought should be put into which characters can be successfully transitioned as the consequences of sidelining a minority for a returning honky. I can't get too broken up over Ryan Choi after two years in a low selling solo series that barely connected to the greater DC Universe. The only inherent appeal in the Atom name is in the long-lived Ray Palmer character, not in an inconsequential short term substitute. There's a lot more cause for ire in the fact that John Stewart has had to wait four years just to share a GLC title, or that the reasonably successful Jason Rusch Firestorm has been whitewashed, or that there hasn't ever been a decent original Asian hero at DC.

Okay, me again. Now, it wasn't my official intent to address any of the racial politics of this particular storytelling decision - mostly because I couldn't think of anything to say about it (and other recent, similar moves by DC) that Chris Sims didn't say already, and probably better, in that Comics Alliance piece from a week or so ago - but it's not an issue that can be easily sidestepped. For one thing, you can't deny that DC has been rolling back the clock on a lot of characters who had undergone significant change and outright replacement in the 90s and 00s, and most of the characters coming back are white people, and white people frequently replacing people of color at that. Now I legitimately do not believe that it is not an effort on DC's (or Time-Warner's) behalf to "whitewash" the Justice League, more an attempt to return the character concepts to the iconic representations most people remember from the Super Friends so as to maintain (or even establish) corporate synergy and sell more bedsheets or something (that sounds more cynical than I intend, but I'm not changing the statement).

However, we're talking about characters and concepts created in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and the general homogeneousness of those characters' backgrounds really stands out in this day and age, given that we've had 10-20 years of DC Comics looking a little more (if only just a little) like the America in which we actually reside. And considering that everyone's still talking about the fallout of the recent Arizona law which basically allows police to stop and question the citizenship of anyone who doesn't look American enough, well, it's not unreasonable to ask just whose America this Justice League of America serves?

As for Ryan Choi's place in all this, well, Ryan stood out at first simply by virtue of his Chinese background playing no role whatsoever in his heroic identity. He wasn't a martial artist, his powers, name, and costume didn't reflect a nationality or historic tradition... Gail Simone didn't write him as yet another variation of The Chinese Superhero, just a superhero who happened to be Chinese. And he continued to stand out, at least to me, because of the world Simone created for him: great supporting cast, weird setting, ongoing sinister plot, unique love interest (Giganta! How awesome was that?), unanswered questions about his superheroic origin... there was a lot going on in this book, and it was so fun, you guys. It may not have connected very often with the ongoing travails in the rest of the DC Universe, but I saw that as a strength, not a weakness. Maybe I'm unique in this regard, but I don't want my superhero comics to be snuff films in spandex.

And, ultimately, that was what prompted my original post. After 5 or 6 long, grueling years of unrelenting darkness and graphic, on-panel dismemberment, DC promised to follow-up the basically-dead-superheroes-as-zombies book Blackest Night with Brightest Day, promising the return to actual heroics that that sort of name implies. But as Johanna Draper Carlson pointed out a while back, they were pretty quick to backpedal from that stance, before the books even came out. And that Titans special last week in which Ryan Choi was so gruesomely dispatched proves that. Hell, if anything, it says to me that somehow things are only getting worse. I find it really offputting, and if that's the sort of comic book they want to produce (and charge people $4.99 for!), well, it certainly affects my buying habits as far as future DC books are concerned. They're still putting out some very good material in all of their various publishing ranges, even the mainline superhero stuff, but these sorts of storytelling decisions lead me to look at all of their output with a much more critical eye, in the negative sense of the term, than I ever have before. I'm not going to write them off completely or boycott anything - as long as they keep putting out books like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, or The Unwritten, or Mysterius the Unfathomable, or Power Girl, or the Legion of Super-Heroes, they'll get at least some of my money - but I do think twice about the editorial wrangling that leads to the material and whether I should really support that with my meager comics dollars.

Even as I was enjoying Gail Simone's All New Atom series, I knew it wouldn't last forever; it was too quirky for "mainstream" comics success, and not grim enough to fit in well with the rest of what DC's capes-&-tights books were up to at the time. I knew, sooner or later, Ray Palmer would be back to take up the tiny mantle of the Atom, and that Ryan Choi would inevitably be shown the door. But given DC's propensity for heroic legacies and a willingness to use several characters with the same name at the same time, Choi could still have been an Atom, if not the Atom. Hell, he didn't even need to be the Atom at all.

He didn't need to be cannon fodder to produce stupid manufactured "shock value," either.


  1. I'm amazed at the fallout of Sims' article. (Even I wrote something about it.) And he's pretty much right on all his points.

    (Bill, just ignore the first posting as I didn't get my name in there.)

  2. That's a good point. Why not have Ryan as a scientist buddy who, after breaking into super-heroics as an Atom, makes his own breakthrough invention/develops a unique adventuring identity? I stand corrected. Besides, I've had a bellyful of comic book deaths. I'm cavalier about Ryan Choi because of my disinterest, but I may be the only man alive who mourns the Blood Pack, Pantha and Damage. One reader's chum is another's great white, and the only deaths that take are the ones that matter to the few who might have one day done something awesome with a character. Iron Man languished for years, Daredevil was a bottom feeder, and Blade was a supporting character. Now they're all household names. Isn't it more interesting to explore potential than to extinguish it?

  3. I was a big fan of the All-New Atom too. REGARDLESS of the racial politics involved, the character deserved better.

  4. Not to be cynical, but is Ryan "really dead"? Or is it some plot (Ryan "shrank" the wound so there was no real blood loss, something else stupid, etc.), to set up the villains?

    Still, treated terrible regardless.