Throughout history, comics have reproduced sexism, toxic masculinity, and the discourse that crime can only be ameliorated by racist vigilantism. Throughout history, comics have been on the forefront of progressive, cultural change, counteracting gender norms, sexism, and the misrepresentation of people of color. Yes, comics are complex, and perhaps more so recently.
Here is a quick history.
The Villain —
Comics have had a long tradition of representing women and people of color as heroes. Black Panther and the never-colonized kingdom of Wakanda was imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 60’s. Luke Cage was created by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and John Romita Sr. in the early 70’s. His comic can be read simultaneously as blaxploitation and as a scathing critique of the racism that pervades the justice system, the prison-industrial complex, and bio-medicine’s long tradition of experimenting on black bodies.
Black Widow, Captain Marvel, and She-Hulk have been fan-favorites, and a majority of the X-Men’s strongest members have been women since the 80’s with stories by Chris Claremont, Brian Michael Bendis, and Brian Wood. But most all of these representations of diversity were written, drawn, and read by straight, white men.
Look at any comic book cover from the 90’s, and you will see plenty of heavy-artillery wielding men and latex-clad hyper-sexed women — a vivid gender ideology.
Read a Punisher comic from just about any era, and you’ll notice a very clear — and quite sickening — ideology of race, language, and criminality. In the first 40 years, there was only so much progression.
The Hero —
When Spider-Man died, a Black-Latino kid named Miles Morales put the mask on after him. Nick Fury, the icon of eye-patch wearing, white masculinity was suddenly African American. That was back in the early 2000’s in Marvel’s alternate ultimate universe — but it was just the start.
Since then, Marvel has changed the face of just about every one of its super heroes.
Bruce Banner, the Hulk, a white scientist who became a hero after he built a weapon of mass destruction — is now dead. Amadeus Cho, a young genius, less bent on building weapons and more interested in saving people from the start, has now taken up the mantle of the Hulk. He’s Korean American. Tony Stark — who transitioned from arms dealer to alcoholic superhero with all the privileges of wealth and whiteness — is now in a coma. Riri Williams, another young, underprivileged genius, built her own iron suit out of scraps and has taken the name of Iron Heart. She’s African American. Mrs. Marvel is Pakistani American. Iceman of X-Men recently came out of the closet. America Chavez is queer and Latinx. Thor is a more-than-worthy woman fighting cancer, and for a time, Captain America was black and actually fought for undocumented immigrants.
The rest of our superheroes of late, are also taking on bigger, scarier problems like gentrification, jingoism, racism, sexism, capitalism, and environmental exploitation.
The Battle —
The fact that pages of comic books are a bit more “colorful” these days cannot be the final point, and amazingly, it doesn’t have to be. Marvel comics has actually expanded its writing roster. Authors of color like Greg Pak, Gabby Rivera, Roxane Gay, Sina Grace, Ta-Nehisi Coates, G. Willow Wilson and countless other artists, colorists, and editors are telling new, exciting stories, and reflecting their identities as minorities in the US and in the world of comics. They are showing the reading public that change and difference are exciting, and that the entertainment industry does not have to reproduce inequality.
Young readers of color now have heroes that look like them, and actual, creative role models showing them pathways to success.
As these comics become blockbusters, we can only hope the trend continues. Fortunately, the successes of Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and the all-female directorial team of Jessica Jones Season 2 suggest our hopes will continue to be realized.
The Final Panel —
Within comics, there is a truism: unless you see the body (and sometimes even if you do) the bad guy is probably not dead. Readers should always beware a repackaged villain, or a writer who is only capable of reimagining evil as more complex, and therefore, as more forgivable.
For all the social, cultural, and political progress that we have seen and might imagine through comics, there remains large imbalances of inclusion and much work to be done in the world. For the majority of the reading public, reading stories about non-white superheroes, even if written by non-white or LGBTQI+ authors is not enough.
For Marvel, and for any publishing company, celebrating diversity does not really counteract racism — multicultural pandering can actually reproduce colorblindness, and admitting to white privilege does not excuse a person from responsibility.
Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read, and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books, and exhibits a serious waste of potential.