The Hero Who Could Be You... As Long As You're A White Male

By | Thursday, October 07, 2010 4 comments
I'm helping out at work with an internal United Way campaign. I really haven't done print work in ages, but they wanted a superhero theme to show up on some printed flyers and posters and such, which makes me the default go-to guy. "Sounds like fun," I said, "Happy to help!"

The initial idea the project manager had was to have a superhero mascot for this campaign. Showcased through a series of comic strips over the course of a week with a "big reveal" at the end that the superhero's secret identity was in fact you, the reader. The final comic was to be a close-up head shot of the hero with a mirror over the face area. Kind of a "You can be a hero by donating to the United Way" message.

OK, cool. Not a bad idea. But it poses a distinct design challenge for the actual hero. It'd have to be fairly androgynous and devoid of any racial characteristics, so that the "You can be a hero" bit works regardless of who's looking at it.

So I sketched out some designs. One was a pretty obvious Iron Man rip-off. One was kind of a shadowy cloud character. The one the project manager and I ultimately liked best was...
The colors were chosen because they're official UW colors, but the design is modeled off the Invincible Man, a Jack Kirby design that I always really liked and think was/is sorely under-utilized. (A red cape was one of the design stipulations, since they're doing some photo pieces with employees wearing a red cape.)

The manager was really happy with it, and I started working up some of the materials for the project. But she called things to a quick halt last night because one of the higher ups finally got a look at it. He didn't like it at all. No, a hero should be decidedly male. With big muscles. And you need to see his face. Maybe just a domino mask or something. Short, dark hair. You know, a comic book superhero? Oh, and this total redesign obviously doesn't impact the schedule at all, so I have to have this approved and in several design pieces and off to the printer in less than a week. So the current version of our intrepid hero looks like...
I'll make no bones about it -- I traced Superman. Literally traced. This is pretty obviously what the head honcho was asking for anyway, and I don't have time to be clever with it. I don't have the time now to make sure the anatomy and perspective and whatever are correct. I'm going with getting the job done as fast as possible. If I'd happen to have a cleaner version available, I would've just removed the S shield in Photoshop and used that.

Now, setting aside that this totally wrecks the whole "could be you" angle for over half the people seeing it, I'm more concerned about the fact that the hero had to be a white male. It's not even an instance of a white male just drawing another white male because it's easiest to look in the mirror -- we're talking about being presented with an intentionally nondescript hero specifically for the purpose of being as inclusive as possible, and being told that's essentially wrong because superheroes are white men.

Granted, there are more white male superheroes out there than anything else, but to completely shut down the idea that someone other than a white male could be a superhero...? That that default is (supposedly) so well known that anything else is wrong? That the stereotype is so pervasive that no other options are even viable? I can't even begin to describe how frustrated and disheartened I am right now.

If he doesn't like my original design, that's fine. I'm okay with that. I'm not a character designer. If he doesn't like the illustration itself, I can totally see that. I create websites, not illustrations. I'd be fine if he wanted to critique the specifics of what I actually did; I'm used to that kind of thing. I'm receptive to criticism.

But to dismiss the entire idea of trying to being inclusive? To actively reject that superheroes can be something other than white men? I don't know the guy who said this personally, so I can't say if he's really sexist or racist or anything but, speaking as a white male, I will harbor absolutely no resentment if/when all the minorities rise up and beat the living shit out of all of us.
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Matt K said...

"'Sounds like fun,' I said..."

And there, my troubles began. :-)

Good effort, man. I think this was a very unfortunate decision.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post reminded me of this video:

Louis CK: Being White

@Matt -- Unfortunate is an understatement! Seriously, I do not have the words to adequately express myself here!

@Anon -- I'd be lying if I said that didn't go through my head while I was writing the post.

Matt K said...

If I can make a tangential comment, I like the design you came up with on its own, and the employment of the Invincible Man costume as an inspiration.

I've always thought that costume was cool, too, especially because the costume is all there is; there has never been a "real" Invincible Man at any point. It has always been a temporary identity used by another, already known character. It seems to me like that has a potential story in it, though it's also just cool on its own.

Keep up the good work, man; at some point ones does find an appreciative audience eventually.