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'Green Lantern' is opening. Does it appeal only to white American males?

As movies bring classic comic books to the screen, some critics say they are mining the genre's early period, which featured less diversity than it does now. 'Green Lantern' is a case in point.

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To do so the studio sought a figure with wide appeal, particularly to the under-30 crowd, casting Ryan Reynolds as the lead. But, Mr. Dergarabedian adds, the phenomenal overseas success this summer of films such as “Fast Five” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which has pulled in a record nearly $700 million foreign box office in its first month, suggests that a more diverse cast “would be a good idea.”

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The legacy of the comic books themselves is partly to blame, says Jacque Nodell, granddaughter of Marty Nodell, the artist who created the first Green Lantern character in 1940.

“He was the child of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who knew well the sting of anti-Semitism,” she says, noting that the first version of the hero was blond. “My father was a little harsh about his own dad, but he summed it up when he said that his dad did what he needed to do to put bread on the table,” she says, adding that if that meant selling a fair-haired ideal of middle-American male power, then “so be it.”

Comic book universe expanded

However, the comic book universe has vastly expanded since its early days in World War II and Cold War America, points out Michael San Giacomo, who teaches a course in comic book history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Before the sixties, comic books were largely aimed at young, white middle-American boys who had the disposable income to spend,” he says, adding, “but that began to change in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they began adding black and Hispanic and female characters.”

Today, he says, the comic book universe if full of strong, diverse characters. The film spinoffs have not been as progressive. Still, there been tiny spots of progress, such as casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, previously a white character, in “Iron Man.”

Falling back on cultural stereotypes has a long tradition, notes pop culture pundit Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University media professor. The image of the white he-man endowed with superpowers dates to some of our earliest Western stories, he says, adding “just look at them all from Hercules to Achilles to Jason.”

There is a certain irony in the emphasis on white, male power in the film, points out pop culture expert Rob Weiner, a humanities librarian at Texas Tech University. The larger Green Lantern universe does embrace a galaxy of aliens and multi-species cast of characters, “so if you are looking for real diversity it is actually there.”

“Maybe they’ll get to that in the sequel,” he says.

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