Aquaman and Iranian superheroes: an open letter to Geoff Johns

First, a bit of background for those of you who don’t follow superhero comics: a couple of weeks ago, DC Comic published Aquaman #7, written by Geoff Johns, one of the most prominent and popular writers in the superhero genre, and Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. In it, he introduced a brand new superheroine to the DC universe by the name of Kahina the Seer.

Kahina the Seer, art by Joe Prado

On page 1 of the comic, we see her running for her life from Aquaman’s mortal enemy, Black Manta. She puts up a good fight, but by page 7, she is defeated.

Page 7, art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

On page 8, we find out that she’s Iranian.

Page 8, art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

And yes, she’s also killed off.

What follows is an open letter to Geoff Johns, adapted and slightly reworked from a similar note I sent to the book’s editor, Pat McCallum.

Dear Mr. Johns,

After reading Aquaman #7, I felt the need to share my thoughts on a topic close to my heart. To that end, allow me to very briefly share my background with you: I’m an Iranian-American writer, a lifelong fan of the medium of comics, and a big fan of the DC characters. I have over 10 years of published works to my credit, from self-published stories to comics and graphic novels from Dark Horse, Image, IDW, and DC Comics. My DC Comics contribution was a Spectre story set in Tehran, Iran, for the DC Universe Holiday Special 2010 #1, edited by Mike Carlin.

Needless to say, when I saw that a new superheroine introduced in Aquaman #7 was an Iranian woman, I was very excited. As far as I know, the only other Iranian character in the (pre-52) DCU was the villain Rustam (who, ironically, was named after the most famous and popular HERO from Iranian literature). So you can imagine my frustration and extreme disappointment when this new hero, Kahina, was summarily killed a mere 8 pages after being introduced!

Please understand, this is not one of those “DC Comics is racist/xenophobic” essays that you’ve undoubtedly encountered countless times in the recent past. I’ve been happy with, and supportive of, DC’s attempt at diversifying their universe with a sizable number of comics starring minority and female characters in the “New 52″ relaunch of books. But I just don’t understand the logic behind creating a new minority hero – one from a country and culture that’s often misrepresented in today’s media as “evil” – only to have her killed upon her first appearance. What purpose did her death serve, other than being a mere plot point?

In doing so, you deprived your readership of a character utterly unique by virtue of her ethnic background, a character different than the thousands of others in the DC universe. Imagine the new storytelling venues opened up to you and other DC writers, had this character been allowed to continue her adventures in your fictional universe. With Iran in the news cycle as of late, here was a chance to add an element of verisimilitude to DC Comics, and start something bold and unconventional.

I’m not asking that DC Comics create a plethora of Iranian characters, or that they should only be portrayed as heroes, or even that once created, they should never be killed. I understand narrative needs, primary characters and supporting ones, emotional beats and motivation. But when there are absolutely NO characters of a certain ethnic or cultural background in your stories, to casually kill off the ONLY example of one, after a mere 8 pages, seems very counterproductive to me. It’s a disservice to your audience, a step back in your strides towards diversity, and just reinforces the negative stereotypes about the stunted development of superhero comics.

I know that because of my background, I’m much closer to this situation than the majority of your readers, but I don’t feel that invalidates my thoughts on the matter. Embracing multiculturalism not only offers a wealth of new storytelling possibilities, but it also distinguishes them from the hundreds of other alternatives in the marketplace, and opens them up to a wider marketplace.

I hope that you will consider my thought on this topic in the spirit that they were written: not to condemn, but hopefully to illuminate.

Sincerely,
Dara Naraghi

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    28 thoughts on “Aquaman and Iranian superheroes: an open letter to Geoff Johns

    1. DARA! What the hell is wrong with you? I’m sorry man, you know I truly and genuinely like and respect you but seriously, what is your deal? Why are you doing this? How can you possibly think that DC or Marvel or Dark Horse or Image cares at all about this?

      I guess what I am really asking is why are you looking for an embrace of multiculturalism and a “wealth of new storytelling possibilities” from the Marvel / DC axis? If anything has been proven over the last 20 years it’s that these publishers want as FEW storytelling possibilities as possible. How many times has Batman faced off against the Joker? Superman and Lex? Spider-Man and Green Goblin? How many new heroes have been created who sustained their own titles for more than a year or two? Remember, DC can’t even figure out what to do with Static, who, as an African American hero has what would appear in numbers at least to have a much larger base of support among readers. And you’re expecting someone to care about an Iranian character? That’s about as likely as my wife writing and asking why there are no strong Filipino heroes in the DC Universe.

      And they do this because of the fans. The readers. Or, at least, the majority of readers. And majorities rule, it seems. Again, remember, this is the readership that nearly burned down the old DC message boards with howls of hatred when an issue of Blue Beetle, a Mexican American hero, contained almost all Spanish dialogue. I specifically remember calls to boycott DC and Blue Beetle for “shoving PC thinking down our throats.” What does that tell you about their appetite for cultural diversity and new storytelling possibilities? The DC readership by and large doesn’t know and doesn’t care what the difference between Latino and Chicano is, and Mexico is on our border.

      Again I say, why do you waste your time buying, supporting, and reading these steaming piles of shit from DC, Marvel and their ilk? Is it nostalgia? Because if so, there are plenty of great reprints and quarter bins for you to find new stories in and to relive old ones. I am so glad you have a deal with NBM because honestly that is where you need to look for comics that actually care about telling unique and interesting stories. NBM, Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics…these publishers CARE about the art of making comics. DC and Marvel care about their shareholders, their IPs, minimizing risks, and maximizing profits.

      I write this because I weary of you smashing your face into a brick wall, hoping that somehow, someday, under the auspices of Disney (ha!) or Time Warner (haha!) Marvel and DC will develop a dedication to the craft of storytelling. It will never ever happen man. Why do you think it will?

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    3. This was a really lovely piece, and sadly this is a problem DC continues to have, going back to Cry For Justice, a book about a bunch of white heroes but contains the deaths of a bunch of minority characters (including a little biracial girl) to provide angst for the white people.

      I really hope Johns gets this. I don’t think anyone is asking for minority characters to never ever be killed or anything, but this instance is very upsetting.

    4. Dara- I had almost the same chain of thoughts after reading that issue of Aquaman; you just said it better that I ever would have. Thanks!

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    6. well…as a comics fan perhaps she gets a Legacy character out of this?
      And that was this Modern Black Manta who is really established as being a cold killer…
      speaking of where is Aqualad? There is a new Aqualad that is Manta’s son, right?
      ;)

      kriya shakti,
      Rev Sully

      Eric O’Sullivan
      Boston, MA USA

    7. Mr. Naraghi, i completely agree with you, while my reasons were a bit different. I am a muslim and was very excited to see a muslim woman who wore the veil and could actually defend herself. Her power set (while a staple in superhero stories) i also liked. She seemed a great addition to the superhero echelons and i for one couldn’t wait to see her interact with Aquaman et al. Her death seemed so unnecessary given her possible plot potential. I honestly thought that i was oversensitive to the issue. I was gladdened that others such as yourself had similar sentiments. In an age when muslims are callously labelled terrorists it saddens me that a superheroine such as Kahina, could be introduced and murdered in the span of eight pages. While i can’t even think of a prominent positive muslim male in comics, at least there is still Dust of the X-men, even though she has been relegated to a supporting role.

    8. Dara Naraghi,

      I support your letter, plan to send it to everyone I know and ask them to say the same thing that you did. I was a long term fan of DC Comics (over 40 years buying them) and had intended to raise my son reading them, hoping to inspire him the same way they once inspired me to write. I am a science fiction and fantasy writer and think about our relationships to each other both racially (since race is just a concept used to oppress diverse groups I tend to ignore it) and culturally, since culture is more significant and often based around geography, it has a bit more relevance. The death of this character while seemingly insignificant to the writer could have major significance to a reader, like you, who identified with the character and felt painfully both the idea that she did not exist before now (and should have) and now does not exist again (seconds after she gave you hope of a new day dawning where her culture might be acknowledged as anything other than a bad thing).

      I am a Black Man in America and no longer have the benefit of the illusion of parity in this culture. I know I will never see it. But I live for the day when I am not asking for anything that White writers and by proxy White superheroes don’t get by being White. I would like the same chance to develop as a person, with the expectation of being heard, of being considered a person with feelings, not a statistic to be killed when a convenient death is required.

      There was no need to create Kahina the Seer if the only goal was to kill her. There was no reason to make her a person of color if your goal was to kill her. All that says to people of color (at the subconsciously level) is you matter less than the story I am telling, less than my promotion of stereotypes and mindsets of “White Superiority” and that in the end, you, as a “Person of Color or Culture Outside My Own”, don’t matter. Please don’t bother writing responses refuting this, all of you trolls who will read this. I will not be affected one way or the other. I am now beyond that. I wrote this letter for Mr. Dara Naraghi who expressed his concerns eloquently and should know despite the piss-poor support he has received in the comments of his letter, that he was heard by someone who understood his pain.

      You would think with things in the US being as racially charged as they are in the last months (if you read this at a later date, today was the same day Mr. Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, but was unable to be arrested since he had been let go by the police department the same day as the alleged murder took place back in February 2012) and anyone publishing anything might consider what a statement this particular event in their books might take.

      On the other hand, one of the benefits of White Privilege is never having to acknowledge anyone else’s culture but your own. And when you discount other cultures, you are right to do so, because only your ideals, your dreams, your people’s right to exist in all forms of media, matter. Everyone else is an extra on your stage to be discarded at will. So, as poignant and significant as your letter might be, I suspect it will fall upon deaf ears, used to hearing only how wonderful it is to be White in America and responsible to no one but themselves.

      I salute you, Dara Naraghi. Anything you write, I will find and support. It is rare to be a person of conscience in an age of conceit and vanity.

      If you have been insulted by what I’ve said, examine yourself. If you hate me because I speak the truth as I see it, know this: If you hate me because I am Black, know that I did not choose it, especially knowing how much this culture hates Black men, I would have chosen to be something, anything else.

      But, and this is the more important point, I did not choose to be what I am, hating me is a choice YOU made. Continuing to hate me and people like me, is a choice you perpetuate. The true stigma in this is yours, not mine. I could not choose. You could. You chose poorly. You chose to vilify your fellow man about a thing he could not change. You perpetuate your hatred in your media, though you will not call it that. “I’m just telling my story,” is how you rationalize it. And that sir, is history. “His Story.”

    9. well as an Iranian comic book artist i prefer the characters die quick and be forgotten rather than seeing writers and artists portray iranians as indians or arabs and force the veil or hijab on them so they can be Iranian.
      but yes, i think you are right, it was not necessary but i guess he wated to do a nod to the current situation between the 2 countries… maybe.

      • Yes, because there has never been a female Iranian in existence who wore a veil without force by government *rolls eyes* ……..I’ve come across plenty of Iranian females outside of the Middle East who willingly wear a hijab due to being religious, so don’t try that “force the veil or hijab” BS.

        What should be in question is not her outfit, but her having the name Kahina. There are plenty of Iranians with Arab/Islamic names, such as Hassan, Ali, or Muhammad, but Kahina isn’t a name I’ve seen attached to any female Iranian. It’s a name which seems to be popular with Algerians, in particular because of a Berber queen from around the 7th Century who battled the Romans, as well as battled Arab/Islamic invasion of Algerian land back in that time period.

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    11. It’s extremely disappointing, and yet not a big shock either that DC backtracks on the ‘diversity’ claims and proceeds to kill off an iranian/muslim hero right out the gate. This is the same company that thought giving Barbara Gordon back her ability to walk was ‘a good idea’. (Cripes, you have eight bajillion different characters in the Bat-verse that are either a Robin or a Batgirl. Leave Oracle alone.)

      Anyway, I thought it was one of the better character designs of the nu52, the team seemed more intriguing than Aquaman himself. Everything about this relaunch seems so haphazard and ill-thought out.

    12. Just because we saw her die doesn’t mean there are no more stories to tell with her. The comedian died at the beginning of Watchmen, but much more was revealed about that character (and even more to come). VERY premature letter. To not like the story or Johns’ style is one thing; criticizing him over who he kills in the story, based solely on that character’s background and nationality, makes no sense to me.

    13. @ most of you who have made comments I refer you to Justin and Marc’s comments and let’s see how it plays out.

      @ Dara Naraghi, I think you have seen something that you did not like and have made a well reasoned and measured response. You have a right to express yourself and have done so in a rather eloquent manner. You appear to be a reasonable person, which is why I don’t think you will take offense when I suggest that perhaps you are the one being narrow-minded. With his comparison to the Comedian Marc has taken a lot of the wind out of my sails but I will press on. Yes, her death means that stories that take place in the present and future are no longer viable but there’s clearly a back story associated with her. There are several New 52 stories that are taking place in that gap between now and 5 years ago, why can’t Kahina’s be another one of them. I’m suprised that you as a writer didn’t think of that immediately. “Maybe DC might let me do a few 8 page back up stories here and there exploring her background?” or “A couple of fill-in issues of DC Presents might be a really cool place to have a Kahina story?” You write of opportunities lost and yet these opportunities are only lost because of your own narrow mindness.

      You want to imagine a world where an opportunity was really lost, try imagining Kahina being replaced by a Polish hero. Or if you want to keep the female Muslim angle then have her be Indonesian. It’s a throw away character, be grateful you got something you could enjoy, however briefly.

      As I stated before, I’m glad you wrote this letter because without it I wouldn’t have been made aware of this token (yet effective) display of diversity. Remember, if DC is going to receive backlash over this then maybe they should just stick to killing off white characters and forget about this diversity thing. Also people should complain about things they don’t like, especially if they make their point as clearly as you have. Finally, if DC do give you a shot at writing a backstory for Kahina, email me because I’d like to check it out and without your promotion it’ll get a little lost in the noise of the comic shelf.

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    16. I thought the immediate death of the first American comics’ Iranian superhero sucked and was unrealistic to boot. I know a lot of Iranian Americans, many of them very good friends and I know for a fact that any Persian woman, possessed of superpowers or not, would have ripped that villain’s head off barehanded once he threatened her family.

    17. Wow, I didn’t expect so much feedback to my post, both here and in the comments section of the other websites that reprinted my letter. In general, I’ve been pretty impressed with the level of discourse, barring the occasional troll.

      There’s no way I can respond to each and every comment, so I think I’ll just write a brief follow-up post with my thoughts to the reaction the letter received. But I appreciate everyone who left a comment, and I definitely read through all of them.

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    20. Dara, I’ve never heard of you, and only learned of the Death of Kahina the Seer by visiting the comicbookresources website I havent even read that issue of Aquaman yet ( Im really a Namor fan).Im not so rabidly enthusiastic of Dc’s New 52 strategy either..Im a 47-year old African-American comic reader ( and artist , BTW, but thats 4 later). I cant tell u how many times DC Comics has been rebooting Aquaman. His coolest depictions have been in the Alex Ross graphic novels ( Kingdom Come, Justice, Worlds Finest,etc) and in the Justice League cartoons by Bruce Timm. He’s technically a hundred times more powerful than Batman, or his Marvel counter-part , Sub-Mariner. But I think somehow that in a fight, Namor would just bitch-slap Mr. Arthur Curry by his mere attitude. But I digress…

      I get the feeling that the latest makeover ( complete by the sudden “deaths” of supporting characters that the audience has had time to learn about or grow fond of) is all part of making Aquaman more “gritty”, or “realistic”….all in a move to overcompensate against the perception that most comic readers ( like myself) think that Sub-Mariner is still cooler than Aquaman. Ultimately, supporting characters are killed off to make the surviving Hero look good. Their casualties serve as the last motivation for the Hero ( usually a white guy) to finally confront the Villain.

      Anytime Big Story-Arcs hit mainstream comics, be prepared to have the 2nd-tier minority characters to bite the dust. Go ask Black Goliath about Civil War, or Brother Voodoo about the Age of Heroes. Ive been so pissed off about Black Superheroes taking a bullet for Superman ( Steel, pre-Flashpoint ), or Thor ( Civil War) that its finally gotten me off my ass , and I’m drawing my superhero comic (where I’m the lead hero) and EVERYONE DIES AT ONCE when the Final Battle occurs, end of story. I think u ought to collaborate with an artist and make YOUR OWN Kahina the Seer ( I actually have a female character called Kahuna, no relation)

      I have drawn 2 graphic novels about true-life Chinese martial artist , Jow Lung. see them online at http://www.thelegendofjowlung.org

      Dara, I dont know u, ……but I FEEL U. Peace.

    21. What purpose did her death serve, other than being a mere plot point?

      You do realize that stories are made of plot points? Her murder was in order to establish just how absolutely batshit crazy Black Manta actually is. And it did that beautifully. Well… You get what I mean (hopefully). The point is that a character was brutally murdered by Manta’s hand. Manta is the focus of this part of the story, not the person he killed.

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    23. As a white female living in the American South who embraced Islam by choice, I deeply admire the veil and its beauty. I was so excited to see Kahina when I opened my new Aquaman issue. The fact that she was a psychic also appealed to me. I was smiling like I’d just won a million bucks, and actually opened my browser to tell everyone about my new favorite character…and then she died. As a Muslim, the sheer number of people I’ve encountered who don’t understand Islam is astounding, and Kahina could have defied the stereotypes, driving people to learn and understand that it’s nothing like the sensationalized media portrayal.

    24. I was moved, justified and enlightend by your letter and the full page of comments. I want to answer or talk to every commentor because I think they were all passionate heartfelt statements. I won’t, but I will say this, thank you all. Somebody heard you and I am one fan who cares, about this genre and espescially this medium.

      As culturally diverse as I am and my family is, I failed to express my thoughts on DC and Marvels use of minority characters as eloquently as you guys have. The Bronze Tiger is the character that I embrace as one the truest original, concepts and representations of an African American hero in comics. He’s not an offshoot of any other character. The Tiger has also been mishandled and is almost unknown by minority readers ( thebronzetiger.blogspot.com).

      Usually I try to talk about comics in a hip, down to earth fair and insightful kind of way. And you guys are some of the people I would love to talk comics with. Blogging is not journalism but it can be just as important to the world of comics. Kahina is a beautifully developed character and I can’t believe

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