Welcome to my first article under our new aegis, SCIFI.radio. I am your connoisseur of comics, the one, the only, never duplicated, seeker of knowledge, writer, curator of critique, and all around font of pop-culture genius, I am the Answer-Man, Thaddeus Howze. Like many of my editorials, this perspective is my own. You may agree or you may not, but my goal is to make you think differently about the incredible influences of pop culture media on our society.
Lest you think I am being problematic from the very title of this essay, understand: I am not crazy. Nor am I a bigot. I do not hate white superheroes. I do not hate their creators, who were often a product of their times, and were despite their best efforts, often as racist as the media companies which afforded them the opportunity to create their heroes without competition from anyone who wasn’t white.
This was the order of the day and I recognize it as such. These men had the capacity to create lasting properties because the society we lived in promoted this. None of these creators could have imagined their creations would have had the lasting effects and staying power they have exhibited. Some of that staying power is unfortunately due to societal forces which promoted white heroes in media to the exclusion of any other kind of characters. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was a consumer of these creations and made every effort to interact with every kind of speculative fiction they could appear in. As a child, I LOVED these heroes in every incarnation I could read, watch or consume them. I have listened to EVERY episode of Superman which has appeared in print, on the radio or in film.
It didn’t matter where my heroes appeared, whether it was in print, in newspapers, in magazines, on the radio, on television, in cartoons, no media was too obscure for me to find them and enjoy them. Worse, because of the internet I get to find copies of these heroes and their adventures and remember just how much I loved them. I would eventually discover fans created a fictional name and conceptual framework for many of those heroes called the Wold Newton Universe.
And yet, their very ubiquity spoke to an underlying issue, an older and wiser part of me would speak about as I grew older. I rationalized this thing, I made allowances. I made excuses. I told myself it was the ideas, the demonstration of heroism that mattered, not the skin color of the heroes. I placated myself with this because there were few other choices. I didn’t even recognize this longing until the Black Panther appeared in the Fantastic Four. It was then I recognized what I was missing. I was missing my own heroes – heroes who could have ignited the emotional, creative and adventuring souls of children who looked like me, the same way the heroes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ heroes had for nearly a hundred years. Having realized this hunger and given it a name, I would seek out other creations of color, heroes who made me believe that I too, could change the world.
The catalyst for this article was an announcement repeated across the Internet with much fanfare which said: “George Clooney joins reboot of classic sci-fi series Buck Rogers.”
The Return of Buck Rogers
My initial reactions were two-fold, because I am complex and contain multitudes:
My first Mind thought: “Man, I loved that show back in 1979. Though if they bring it back, Twiki needs to die.” In a moment of inexplicable joy, I experienced that warm nostalgic glow I got from watching bad science fiction in a era comparatively lacking in ANY science fiction. I get that same nostalgia glow from Land of the Giants, Space 1999 and Space Above and Beyond. This stuff made me think. It made me wonder. I am certain executives hope for other people to have this same experience. Then my second, more cynical Mind piped up and asked those awkward modern questions: “Why in the hell does it seem that whenever companies wants to fill the hours in a day with media, it’s never something new and different? Does the world need another rendition of Buck Rogers? Does it really?”
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was an American science fiction adventure television series produced by Universal Studios. The series ran for two seasons between September 1979 and April 1981, and the feature-length pilot episode for the series was released as a theatrical film before the series aired. The film and series were developed by Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens, based on the character Buck Rogers created in 1928 by Philip Francis Nowlan that had previously been featured in comic strips, novellas, a serial film, and on television and radio.
We have had dozens of TV shows featuring more diverse casts that don’t feature lantern-jawed, white male heroes and I don’t think we need one more second of it, especially since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made billions cementing this perspective into our heads by giving us eighteen movies doing more of the same with their Golden Age and Silver Age, B-list heroes, and the Avengers, who have gone on to participate in the most integrated cinematic universe EVER…
I know this sounds militant, but I dare you to tell me how I failed to point out a truth that no one is willing to admit because they want a job creating more of those white lantern-jawed heroes for the masses: media companies today want to mine nostalgia because it is easier, less risky, requires less effort and commitment on the part of the studios to re-release, rewrite, re-chewed, previous intellectual properties through the creation of prequels, sequels, reimaginations, or reboots of hoary action heroes from the minds of white writers from the 1920s to the early 1970s. It is a long list of heroes, some of whom have been recreated every time a new media format became popular enough to sustain them.
Here is a list of some of the luminaries whose cinematic immortality transcends time and space: The Lone Ranger and Tonto, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, the Phantom, the Shadow, Zorro, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, Green Hornet and Kato. Then there are the superheroes in general, on screen, in print and in animated series such as The Herculoids, Birdman, Space Ghost – and let’s not forget one of the most retreaded properties from an early century whose enduring fascination spawned an entire industry dedicated to the exploits of characters based on Vlad Tepes in his more famously known identity as the First Vampire of fiction, Dracula — no he is not the first vampire in fiction—he is predated by almost eighty years by a vampire patterned on the life of Lord Byron, but he is THE name when you imagine a vampire in the modern parlance. Do I really need to go on? Because I can — but I think I made my point.
We are constantly being told the best we can do is to insert some lantern-jawed white hero from the before time, from the golden age of media and recreate him, again, for a modern audience, as if there were no other books, no other libraries, no other scripts, no other creations, we are drawing from the seventeen to twenty characters who have been created before the 1960’s and cannot possibly create anything new; no women, no minorities, no characters whose stories are completely different from those heroes who exercise white privilege, enact the White Savior trope, colonialism, imperialism or to promote the noble savage/magical Negro/Sidekick meme.
I understand these people producing this media feel they cannot take ANY risks, they can’t and won’t risk alienating the dominant white subgroup who has funded their creations for the last hundred years, but I think it is time to consider we can tell other stories and they can be WILDLY profitable if we take the time to tell good stories, with meaningful themes, showcasing new worlds which have never been seen before. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s breakout hit, Black Panther should have beaten Hollywood’s executives into submission with all of the dollars it pulled in, as well as the crazy numbers of awards, accolades and rabid fan-enthusiasm.
Let me speak the unspeakable:
No one needs Buck Rogers. He has had his day. He has run his course. And he had a great run in the twenties, thirties, forties, and a rebirth in the seventies after Star Wars became famous. He had a television show and a comic series; look it up. This guy has been EVERYWHERE. I grew up with heroes just like him. I cut my creative, speculative teeth on their adventures. I know them like they’re family. Yet, I secretly feel shame every time I watch a movie featuring a character who has been around for seventy years and he is white, male and given another yet another opportunity to dominate the minds of a new viewing audience. I believe these heroes who have dominated three generations should be allowed to rest. Because, frankly, the world is ready for new heroes, new stories, new fears, new ideas, new ways of being which enhance all of our stories, not just the white, dominant subculture in control of everything. I say this as the number one Superman fan anywhere — the whitest, golden age, hero, the godfather of four color heroes everywhere.
We actually can do something else. Yes, we can.
Yet, I still think it’s time for a change. As the world changes, so must the media it showcases. It’s time for media which does not paint minorities as useless, criminal stereotypes barely worthy of airtime while a Great White Hero Saves the Day, one more time, in another century. I say these words as a bonified, hard-core fan of Flash Gordon in every iteration he has existed in (that Saturday morning reimagining of my youth is still one of the finest things I have ever watched on television). I do not bear these creations any malice for in their existence, for through them, I found a freedom of thought the real world has never given me.
And yet, I still think it’s time. It’s time to do something different. It is time to put someone else in the cape, to allow a new ideal of heroism which does not have to subordinate others to elevate itself. We need a more cooperative, creative, expressive, generous and diverse heroism for a new age of civilization. Watching the MCU’s WandaVision this morning made this abundantly clear to me. WandaVision features a story about a powerful woman, the Scarlet Witch, coping with her grief, a story featuring characters who would have once upon a time not been allowed to exist in any meaningful way. FBI agent, Jimmie Woo, SWORD operative, Monica Rambeau, the snarky but brilliant, Dr. Darcy Lewis are all characters who, once upon a time, could not, would not exist except as characters at the fringes of a story, given ten seconds of airtime, two sentences and no agency in the story.
It’s time for some new heroes and goddamn—I have waited long enough, prayed hard enough—and when no one was willing to give them to me, I wrote them myself. Buck Rogers and other heroes like him, no matter what century he appears in now, have run their course. Let him retire gracefully. Please. There are too many new stories waiting in the wings for a chance to soar, to inspire, to realize new dreams, for everyone.