Although my primary area of specialization is urban studies, I recently published an article entitled “Fear of a Black Spider-Man: Racebending and the Color-Line in Super Hero (Re)Casting” that is now online ahead of print. In this blog post, I figured I’d talk a bit about why I wrote that piece and link it to why I think personal interests, research, and teaching are closely connected.
My article seems timely given the recent news that there will be a new Spider-Man movie starring a new actor produced under the watch of Marvel. It may also seem timely given the recent suggestion that Idris Elba play James Bond or the recent news of Mehcad Brooks playing Jimmy Olsen in the upcoming Supergirl television show. However, this is not a new issue and the issues of race, racebending, and casting is a recurring debate amongst fans of superheroes and other genres. This debate is something that I have been following as both a fan and a social scientist for the past few years. However, this is my first research article on the topic.
The origin of my work on race and superheroes goes back to my dissertation. In a chapter, I use Zorro to discuss the not-so-fine line artists, authors, and writers walk when they appropriated non-WASP culture for popular dissemination. I specifically discuss how Johnston McCulley was very careful to make Zorro of Spanish and not Mexican descent. This choice to make Zorro specifically European was not simply to tell a good story. It was a choice that was influenced by racial attitudes of the time. However, my dissertation wasn’t about Zorro or superheroes. It was about the use of “Spanish” culture in California’s built environment and visual culture.
The reason why I became interested in the Donald Glover controversy is that I enjoy comic books, superhero movies, and video games. However, as a critical social scientist, I cannot help but be persistently aware of the under-representation of different groups in popular culture. As a sociologist, I’m always using my “sociological imagination” to see the connection between aspects of everyday life to larger social realities. Essentially, I wanted to put my training and curiosity to use, while digging deeper into something I enjoy.
Another reason why I chose this project is that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to explore a different topic and employ different methods to test myself. To put it simply, I made myself write this article for the same reasons why I make my students write papers. Doing the research and writing the paper allows me to develop and test my skills and knowledge in another area of interest.
Finally, I was teaching courses on race and ethnicity every semester when I was working on this project. So reviewing the literature, conducting the research, and writing helped me in the classroom. Bringing this research into the classroom – partially since it was about Spider-Man – was enjoyable for both myself and my students. It was a fun way to show my students the connection between personal interests and research.
It’s unlikely that I’ll continue to do research on superheroes, but I think it’s an exciting time to be a fan. The news that Spider-Man can be included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the coming Captain Marvel and Black Panther movies, as well as the recent shake up of the Avengers in the comic books are intriguing on so many levels.