Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts: Marvel, Diversity and the 21st Century Superhero 1978809212, 9781978809215

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Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts: Marvel, Diversity and the 21st Century Superhero
 1978809212, 9781978809215

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Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts Q

Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts Q Marvel, Diversity, and the Twenty-­First-­Century Superhero

Jeffrey A. Brown

rutgers university press new brunswick, camden, and newark, new jersey, and london

Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data Names: Brown, Jeffrey A., 1966–­author. Title: Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts : Marvel, diversity, and the twenty-­first-­century superhero / Jeffrey A. Brown. Description: New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 2021. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2020012085 | ISBN 9781978809215 (paperback) | ISBN 9781978809222 (cloth) | ISBN 9781978809239 (epub) | ISBN 9781978809246 (mobi) | ISBN 9781978809253 (pdf) Subjects: LCSH: Comic books, strips, etc.—­History and criticism. | Comic books, strips, etc.—­Film adaptations. | Superhero films. | Ethnicity in mass media. | Gender identity in mass media. | Superheroes. | Marvel Comics Group. | Marvel Studios. Classification: LCC PN6714 .B76 2021 | DDC 741.5—­dc23 LC record available at https://​lccn​.loc​.gov/​2020012085 A British Cataloging-­in-­Publication record for this book is available from the British Library. Copyright © 2021 by Jeffrey A. Brown All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 106 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The only exception to this prohibition is “fair use” as defined by U.S. copyright law. ♾ The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—­Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI  Z39.48-­1992. www​.rutgersuniversitypress​.org Manufactured in the United States of America

For my sister Liane and my brother Doug

C O N T E N T S

Introduction: Marvel and Modern America  1

1 Spider-­Analogues: Unmarking and Unmasking White Male Superheroism  17



2 The Replacements: Ethnicity, Gender, and Legacy Heroes in Marvel Comics  31



3 Superdad: Luke Cage and Heroic Fatherhood in the Civil War Comic  47



4 Black Panther: Aspiration, Identification, and Appropriation  61



5 Iron Fist: Ethnicity, Appropriation, and Repatriation  74



6 Totally Awesome Asian Heroes versus Stereotypes  89



7 A New America: Marvelous Latinx Superheroes  108



8 Ms. Marvel: A Thoroughly Relatable Muslim Superheroine  123

Afterword: “Because the World Still Needs Heroes!”  143 References  151 Index  161

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Introduction marvel and modern america

Marvel superheroes embraced the concept of a civil war, first in the 2006–­2007 comic book event that crossed over into every Marvel title and then in the blockbuster feature film Captain America: Civil War (2016). Unlike the American Civil War between the North and South from 1861 to 1865, where disputes over industrial and agricultural changes, slavery, state rights, and secession redefined the nation, Marvel’s Civil War pitted superhero against superhero, divided over the concept of mandatory government registration for costumed avengers. While Marvel’s comic book and film versions of Civil War provided thrilling hero versus hero fights for fans, the larger political implications of the story line have served as a metaphor for the real-­world debates over civil liberties, increased government surveillance, and personal restrictions in an unstable post-­9/11 America (see Scott 2015). In a broader sense, Marvel superheroes have become engaged in a different type of civil war that has increasingly split Americans along political and ideological lines in the twenty-­first century. Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, progressive and conservative, Christian and other religions, white and other ethnicities—­to many people, America is a nation divided, a country at war with itself. One of the most visible ways that this ideological divide is played out in often contentious fashion is through popular culture. Many of these divisive social issues have been lumped together under a banner of “culture wars.” In the twenty-­first century, Marvel’s superheroes have increasingly been drawn into these culture wars through debates about ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and religion. The popularity of Marvel’s iconic roster of heroes and the changing ways they are represented in comics, movies, and television programs have made them important markers of social change and controversy. The ideological disputes over American culture and values—­over what America is supposed to be—­all too often turn into physical conflicts, sometimes with fatal consequences. Violent clashes between protesters and police on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, that raged for weeks after yet another young black man was shot and killed by a police officer; the over two-­hundred-­thousand-­strong Women’s March 1

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the day after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017 in order to defend women’s rights against a misogynistic cultural shift; white nationalists parading through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “We will not be replaced!” and being confronted by anti–­white supremacist protesters; countless shootings at churches, mosques, synagogues, and schools—­these tragedies and conflicts have raised the stakes. Ideological disagreements are now a potential matter of life and death in America: trans bathroom laws, antiabortion bills, antivaccine advocates, same-­sex marriages, marijuana legalization. Moreover, the public response to these events only seems to entrench the ideological divide and has led to a cascade of cultural clashes that politicize nearly every aspect of contemporary American society. NFL players taking a knee during the pregame national anthem to protest the treatment of black Americans turned into racialized accusations of anti-­American sentiments and ungrateful wealthy athletes. Similarly, when NBA superstar LeBron James commented that he did not think the majority of players were interested in visiting the Trump White House, Fox News commentators said LeBron should “shut up and dribble.” When the teenage survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, called for stricter gun control laws, members of the NRA accused them of being “professional grief actors,” merely opportunists looking to get rich and famous. When women in Hollywood spoke out about the horrific ways they have been sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful men in the entertainment industry, they initially had to endure a shameful public backlash calling them liars, sluts, and harpies. James Davison Hunter characterized the importance of these conflicts as critical to the nation in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. While this “war” has carried on for decades, it has become far more pervasive and more volatile than when Hunter first described it. The hard-­won rights for women, minorities, the disabled, people of nonheterosexual orientations, and other groups that have historically been discriminated against, ignored, and/or abused have been fought for by many and equally fought against by many others. Depicting the culture wars as a simple struggle between left-­and right-­wing beliefs, between social justice warriors and alt-­right trolls, does not capture the complexity of the interrelated issues. But every political and social gain (or loss, depending on your views) is currently regarded as a threat to differing ideas about what “the American way” is. Even topics that may seem trivial at first glance have become lightning rods for controversy, with opposing sides seeing their worst fears embodied by those who disagree with them. Contentious ideological arguments have raged over the last decade in the news and on the internet about fast-­food chain Chick-­fil-­A’s religious objection to hiring queer workers and arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby’s refusal to include birth control under employee benefits due to the store’s strict Christian beliefs. When Starbucks introduced red “holiday” cups, they were accused of leading a war on Christmas. All-­female or gender-­flipped remakes of Hollywood films like Ghostbusters (2016), Oceans Eight (2018), What Men Want (2019), and The Hustle (2019) are disparaged as feminist travesties that ruin great movies. From Supreme Court nominations to plastic straws, anything can ignite an ideological firestorm.

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This volatile cultural environment was explicitly engaged by Marvel Comics as they began introducing new superheroes to their universe in 2011 with the creation of Miles Morales, an African American and Puerto Rican teenager who becomes a version of Spider-­Man. Soon after, Marvel followed with a range of new and diverse characters taking on the names, costumes, and adventures of many of the publisher’s most famous superheroes. Female adaptations of Wolverine and Thor, an African American man as Captain America, an African American woman as Iron Man, a Korean American Hulk, and a Pakistani American Ms. Marvel. The interracial superhero couple Luke Cage and Jessica Jones were wed and became increasingly prominent in the Marvel Universe. The gay mutant hero Northstar married his partner in 2012 and attracted an incredible amount of media attention. Numerous major and minor lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or queer (LGBTQ) characters were introduced, and a popular member of the X-Men, Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, who has been around since 1963, came out as gay in 2015. The first Marvel film to headline a nonwhite character, Black Panther (2018), became the studio’s highest-­grossing solo hero film, and their first female-­ led film, Captain Marvel (2019), became the second highest-­grossing solo Marvel movie. And on television, several Marvel series focus on diverse casts, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–­ongoing), Cloak & Dagger (2018–­ongoing), Runaways (2017–­ongoing), Luke Cage (2016–­2018), Jessica Jones (2015–­2019), and Iron Fist (2017–­2018). The world of Marvel superheroes was changing and diversifying in a way that reflected real-­world changes and an increased awareness of identity politics. The editorial directive was that Marvel’s fictional universe should resemble the “world outside our windows.” Behind the scenes, the demographics of Marvel creators were also changing in the early decades of the twenty-­first century. Far more women and creators of color were involved in writing, illustrating, and editing Marvel superheroes than ever before. Ta-­Nehisi Coates, G. Willow Wilson, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Gabby Rivera, Kelly Thompson, Saladin Ahmed, Magdalene Visaggio, and dozens of other diverse creators brought fresh perspectives to an industry long dominated by white male producers. Unfortunately, the increasing diversity of both characters and creators at Marvel did not sit well with everyone. Just as social media had become an important factor in relation to public debates about school shootings, LGBTQ rights, racism, and politics, new technologies allowed a particularly vile backlash against the increasing diversity in comics. When Marvel writer Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird #8 was released in late 2016 with the titular heroine depicted on the cover wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Ask Me about My Feminist Agenda,” she was bombarded with hateful texts, tweets, and posts accusing her of destroying comics with her “feminist crap.” A few months later in early 2017, a group of young female staffers at Marvel posted a selfie of themselves getting milkshakes as part of their remembrance of pioneering publisher Flo Steinberg, who had recently passed away. The image of these seven young Marvel employees enjoying a work break immediately inspired a tidal wave of hatred from online trolls, dismissing these women as “fake geek girls,” “Tumblr virtue signalers,” “false-­rape-­charge types,”

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and the Right’s catchall insult, “social justice warriors.” The vicious and persistent online attacks forced Cain, the members of the milkshake crew, and others like trans writer Magdalene Visaggio (Dazzler, The Magnificent Ms. Marvel) and MacArthur Genius Award winner Ta-­Nehisi Coates (Black Panther, Captain America) to either engage with this ridiculous rhetoric or close down their social media presence. The increasingly personal and threatening nature of the online backlash against diverse characters and creators was dubbed “Comicsgate” and attracted media coverage as yet another battle line in the culture wars. The Daily Beast declared it “an ugly new front in the online culture wars [that] targets women, people of color, and LGBT folk in the comic book industry” (Elbein 2018). The Washington Post observed, “Comicsgate claims to be fighting against censorship and the politicized groupthink of leftist social justice warrior (SJWs)—­anti-­racists, feminists and marginalized people whom the right characterizes as oppressors. But again, like other movements, Comicsgate participants in fact work to silence opinions they dislike and voices they deem malignant” (Berlatsky 2018). And the Miami Herald described Comicsgate as “an affiliation of alt-­right comic book fan boys united by their hatred of women, themes of feminism or diversity in comics and by their willingness to bully and harass” (Pitts 2018). Marvel (and DC Comics) backed their creators as best they could and continued to endorse a more diverse lineup of characters. Likewise, dozens of other creators and comic store owners and thousands of fans came to the defense of diversity and denounced the narrow-­ minded views of the trolls lurking behind the Comicsgate crusade. In their attempt to parallel the real-­world changes in American society, the comic book industry found itself embroiled in debates about identity politics, cultural values, and just what a hero is supposed to mean—­and look like—­in modern America. Arguing over the ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation of fictional comic book characters dressed in colorful spandex while they punch alien invaders may seem ludicrous at first glance. Isn’t this just another example of immature superhero fans taking fantasies way too seriously? Perhaps. But it is also a sign of just how important these caped characters are in our culture at large, especially in a post-­ 9/11 era that desperately needs heroic images and has turned to superheroes to fill that void. Superheroes are a uniquely American image of social ideals embodied in a few fantastic characters. Superheroes teach morals, values, and ideas about justice and the law to young and old consumers alike. To borrow the iconic catchphrase of the original superhero, these silly costumed adventurers model clear conceptions of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The problem is that concepts like these are not as clear as they may have been when superheroes first emerged with Superman in 1938. Indeed, with the unifying patriotism of World War II and the subsequent conservativism of postwar and 1950s America, “truth, justice, and the American way” were assumed to be natural ideals and clear cultural values. But following the turbulence of the 1960s civil rights era and subsequent women’s and queer movements, the meaning of concepts like the “American way” has become a point of contention. Radically different opinions about what exactly the “American way” is nowadays lies at the heart of all the conflicts in the culture wars, from

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Trump’s proposed border wall, to Starbucks’ holiday cups, to superheroes that fall outside a presumed white, hetero, masculine, Christian norm. Marvel superheroes have interacted with issues of cultural diversity ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby redefined comic book relevance in the 1960s. Marvel introduced the Black Panther, the first mainstream black superhero, in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in 1966. And by 1969, Marvel added African American superhero the Falcon (Sam Wilson) as a partner for Captain America. The Chinese Shang-­Chi, a.k.a. the Master of Kung Fu, was created at Marvel in 1973, but Marvel had also published the short-­lived series Yellow Claw in 1956, which featured Asian American FBI agent Jimmy Woo as the central hero. Marvel debuted White Tiger (Hector Ayala), the first Latino superhero, in 1975, and then the first Latina superheroine with Firebird (Bonita Juarez) in 1981. And in 1992, Marvel outed the mutant hero Northstar, a member of Alpha Flight, as the first openly gay superhero. The historical and continuing significance of these and other characters will be addressed throughout this book. But the most common way that Marvel superheroes have engaged with diversity and discrimination has been through the metaphor of mutants. With the first appearance of the X-Men in 1963, Stan Lee created the “mutant” as a means to explain an unlimited amount of superpowered characters without the need to dream up a unique origin story for each of them. Marvel’s mutants were described as humans’ natural evolutionary step wherein a mysterious “X gene” would activate in certain people during puberty, granting them special abilities. They were referred to as “Homo Superiors.” By the late 1970s, mutants were some of the most popular characters in comic books and allowed for a range of stories to address social inequalities as well as costumed adventures. The conception of mutants in the Marvel Universe as genetic variations facilitated a type of narrative pathos for the heroes that was otherwise difficult to create for all-­powerful characters. P. Andrew Miller (2003) argues that an “important aspect of the X-Men is its series-­encompassing theme of prejudice and bigotry. The X-Men and all mutants are often hated because they were born different from anyone else” (283). This emphasis on the physical as well as cultural difference of mutants, Miller clarifies, “can be seen as metaphors for any number of minority or marginal groups” (283). Thus the idea of mutants as a heroic but ostracized group in American society has served as a thinly masked metaphor for racial and religious discrimination, anti-­immigration sentiments, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and sexually transmitted diseases (particularly HIV). In other words, mutants have stood in for a wide range of groups that have been persecuted, including ethnic minorities, Jewish and Islamic Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people. Ramzi Fawaz (2016), in his insightful analysis of the ideological and political shifting between the relatively stable classic postwar superhero and the instability of heroes inspired by the countercultural movements of the 1960s, claims Marvel’s mutants helped bring into question the assumption of ideal American citizenship that had always been part of the aspirational qualities of superheroes. “By popularizing the genetic mutant as a social and species minority, the series [The X-Men] laid the foundation for reimagining the superhero as a figure that, far from

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drawing readers to a vision of ideal citizenship through patriotic duty or righteous suffering,” Fawaz argues, “dramatized the politics of inequality, exclusion, and difference” (144). With the mutant heroes as cultural outsiders from a marginalized and persecuted minority, the stories managed to critique discriminatory beliefs without being so overtly political that readers might resist. The comic books (and later cartoons and movies) were still superheroic fantasy fiction about good versus evil, but the mutant story lines always included a clear message that anyone who hated the “damn muties” simply for being different was a small-­minded bigot. Despite the incredible popularity of Marvel’s mutants and the success of mutants as analogous to real-­world subaltern groups, the diverse heroes who have emerged at Marvel in the last few years have not been mutants. The “mutant metaphor” is a useful device for incorporating serious political issues into superhero comics, but it also allows the comics to avoid any direct involvement with controversial topics. As Fawaz notes, “The elasticity of mutation as a metaphor for a variety of embodied and cultural differences made it a potent popular fantasy for vitalizing Marvel Comics’ cosmopolitan ethos at the level of both comic book content and public reception” (2016, 144–­145). As a metaphor, mutants are a relatively safe way to depict discrimination and bigotry as evil, all without much actual diversification of the fictional heroes. Relying too heavily on mutants as a metaphor for nonwhite ethnicities, nonheteronormative sexualities, non-­Christian religious beliefs, and so on is akin to the comic industry’s outdated excuse that the superhero genre already included diverse “characters of color” because they included heroes with skins that were green, purple, red, and blue. The diverse heroes that Marvel has introduced in the last decade are purposefully not mutants (nor aliens, robots, gods, demons, etc.); they are Americans who just so happen to fall outside the parameters of the traditional white, male superhero. For most of their over eighty years of existence, the figure of the superhero has combined and valorized the qualities of whiteness, masculinity, and nationhood. The superhero reflected—­and offered fictional evidence of—­America’s romantic self-­image embodied in a hypermasculine Anglo-­Saxon hero. “Historically, comic books have been a cultural space dominated by White, masculine characters and audiences,” observes Whitney Hunt (2019) in her analysis of audience interpretations of race, “leaving narratives for women and minority characters as significantly underrepresented or portrayed in stereotypical contexts” (86). When minorities did begin to appear more regularly in superhero stories in the 1960s, they were usually minor figures and/or presented as demeaning caricatures. The historical lack of diversity in comic books is, of course, not unique. Every form of American entertainment, every mass medium, has suffered from the same forms of underrepresentation and stereotyping. The slow change in American media through the last century from an overwhelmingly white landscape to a gradually more diverse one reflects changes and political advancements in the world outside of popular fiction and in America’s self-­image. While the dominance of iconic white heroes is not unique to the superhero genre, the fact that superheroes occupy a position as idealized role models for

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children and as avatars for abstract cultural beliefs about justice and the nation means that the foundational whiteness of superheroes is particularly important. In his work on geopolitics, Jason Dittmer (2013) focuses on how specific comic book characters like Union Jack, Captain Canuck, and especially Captain America embody and enact national ideals. Dittmer refers to this type of character as a “nationalist superhero,” a patriotic cultural figure who is defined as a “hero (or very rarely, the heroine) [who] explicitly identifies himself or herself as representative and defender of a specific nation-­state, often through his or her name, uniform, and mission” (7). For Dittmer, the explicitness of the nationalist superhero’s alignment with the state is an important distinction from other heroes who may be “prosocial,” which Dittmer describes as “fighting for the American people (among others) rather than for America as an abstract idea” (7). All heroes may be champions of cultural ideals—­defenders of the American way—­but the fact that Captain America is intentionally depicted “as the living embodiment of the American Dream (rather than a tool of the state)” (Dittmer 2013, 7) makes his emblematic significance distinctive. Captain America is intentionally used by writers and understood by audiences as “fighting for America as an abstract idea.” In other words, the abstract ideal of American values is made concrete in the nationalist superhero. As a symbol for the nation, Captain America serves as a focal point for considering how superheroes reflect and construct America. The symbolic resonance of Captain America as a fictional personification of the nation was apparent through the media’s and the public’s reaction to news of his death in Captain America #25 at the culmination of the Civil War story line in 2007. In writer Ed Brubaker’s award-­winning arc “Death of the Dream,” Steve Rogers is gunned down on the steps of a courthouse after surrendering as the leader of the antiregistration rebels. Captain America’s death was orchestrated by Red Skull and other villains from his past, but the broader media framed the story as signifying the death of American ideals. But what “American ideals” were being mourned in Captain America’s passing was up for debate. Critics and commentators argued whether the death of such an iconic character represented the loss of noble, conservative, patriotic values or the loss of American values of freedom, independence, and tolerance of others. Marvel kept the metaphorical intentions of Captain America’s death intentionally vague. As Dittmer noted, “In leaving it to the audience to affix a meaning to the allegory, they hoped for the story to be all things to all people, a tradition that Captain America has famously occupied for much of the previous half-­century” (2013, 151). Interpretations depended on the ideological and political bias of the media outlets and individual readers. Reviewing the media coverage, J. Richard Stevens summarized that “Captain America’s death came to be viewed as the death of liberty, either rightfully so (from the left) or wrongfully so (from the right)” (2018, 257). Though Rogers returned to life a few years later and resumed his career as Captain America (as major comic book heroes are apt to do), the debates over his death are an indication of how important a cultural symbol the character is well beyond comic fandom.

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Captain America, more than any other superhero in the Marvel Universe (only DC Comics’ Superman rivals Cap’s patriotic status within the genre at large), represents America as a shining beacon of hope, strength, perseverance, and fairness. His embodiment of abstract ideals is stressed by writers, fans, and critics alike. For example, in their discussion of messianic images in comics, William David Hall and Ezra Howard note, “The character was created to represent American ideals and values and has become a dominant symbol in American culture. Marvel cast Captain America as both American hero and model citizen” (2007, 132). Likewise, in his historical analysis of Captain America’s masculinity, J. Richard Stevens argues, “Captain America [is] the moral center of the Marvel Universe . . . the ideals, for what is best for America. His code of honor and his honesty are above reproach, and the confidence with which he carries himself exudes an air of power coupled with innocence, a view consistent with how many Americans see their country in respect to others in the world” (2018, 281). Captain America is the embodiment of American ideals and American citizenship, but the character also implicitly signifies America through the identity of white masculinity. Like most superheroes, Captain America represents a hegemonic cultural position. The implication is not only that the character white and male but that at its best, the nation itself is defined as white and male. This reciprocal whitening of both the hero and the country he represents is crucial to the symbolic function of nationalist superheroes as described by Dittmer. “It is through not only exteriorizing the racial other but also making visible the racial self that the nation becomes white,” Dittmer argues. “Nationalist superheroes are one such site on which national whiteness is enunciated and the body politic is cleansed of people of color” (2013, 49). But this yoking together of white masculinity and America through the figure of Captain America has become far more complicated in recent years. In many ways, the image of Captain America can be as flexible a metaphor for America as mutants have been. As a symbol, Captain America is multifaceted and represents far more than a simple belief that an ideal America is white and male. In fact, as a concise symbol of the nation, Captain America has often been used to question or critique political and social issues. Captain America was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941 to spur on anti-­Nazi sentiment just prior to the nation’s involvement in World War II. The cover of Captain America #1 famously depicted the star-­spangled hero punching Hitler on the jaw. Captain America was wartime propaganda of the first order for children and enlisted men. The popularity of superheroes waned after the war, and in 1950, Captain America was canceled. Marvel revived the character of Captain America (Steve Rogers) in 1964, and he has remained an anchor of the Marvel Universe ever since. But despite his patriotic persona, the character has occasionally spoken against government policies and various hate groups. In 1974, under the shadow of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Steve Rogers even renounced being Captain America for a period because he could not represent a country he no longer respected. Rogers adopted the superhero name “Nomad,” literally a man without a country. Steve Rogers quit being Captain America again as recently as 2019, during the Trump era,

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when conservative and violent extremist factions in the comics have taken over the American government. At different times and in different realities, numerous other characters have taken on the moniker of Captain America (in line with the logic of comics multiplicity, which is explored in chapter 1), including William Nasland, Jeffrey Mace, William Burnside, and John Walker. But until recently, every version of Captain America was a white male like Steve Rogers. The 2003 Marvel miniseries Truth: Red, White & Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, made headlines for the story of Isaiah Bradley, an African American character who was the first Captain America. The revisionist tale reveals that prior to Steve Rogers’s transformation into a supersoldier, the government had been experimenting on African American men in an attempt to genetically modify superior fighters. Hundreds of the soldiers were casually killed by the racist officers and medical staff in charge of the experiments. They were treated like lab rats, not people. Isaiah was the only survivor, and though he did gain superstrength, he was ultimately imprisoned for stealing a prototype Captain America uniform and engaging the enemy. Isaiah’s health eventually deteriorated due to the experiments and his long incarceration, leaving him a shell of his former self as he aged in relative poverty and obscurity. In her analysis of Truth: Red, White & Black, Consuela Francis insightfully argues that substituting a black hero for a white one is a radical symbolic act: “Steve Rogers, through the miracle of the Super Soldier serum, becomes a walking, talking, (near) indestructible symbol of American courage, strength, and virtue. To place a black man in this uniform calls into question those virtues and makes many things we would rather not see, such as the whiteness of American heroism, visible” (2015, 139). Likewise, framing the creation of Captain America, the sentinel of liberty, as preceded by a Tuskegee Airmen type of dehumanizing experiment conducted by the American government is a powerful statement about the nation’s history of racism. Though Isaiah Bradley’s story as the “first” Captain America was removed in time (set in a more explicitly racist past) and space (a miniseries designed to add depth to the Captain America mythos but not change the central character), it was not diminished as merely a What If . . . ? tale. Isaiah is mentioned and visited in later comics by Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes (Cap’s World War II–­era sidekick), Nick Fury, and others. Then in 2005, Marvel introduced Isaiah’s grandson, Eli Bradley, in Young Avengers #1 as the “Patriot.” Inspired by both his grandfather Isaiah and Steve Rogers, Eli wears a flag-­themed costume and carries a replica of his grandfather’s badge-­shaped shield. Though Eli does not assume the role of Captain America, he is still linked to Cap’s mythos and the concept of a nationalistic superhero. And as a young black man living in contemporary America, Eli is used by writers to address the dissonance between being black and being patriotic. Fortunately for Eli and for young readers, when he has doubts about his role as an American defender given the racism he witnesses every day, there is always an older, wiser (and often white) hero around to point out a more properly heroic idea of the nation. For example, shortly after Captain America’s death in Civil War, in the pages of Young Avengers Presents: Patriot #1 (2008), Eli narrates his doubts after a

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clash with racist kids at his school: “It’s hard sometimes, to be a black kid carrying a name like ‘Patriot.’ I remember talking to Captain America about that before he died, and he explained what patriotism meant to him: It wasn’t about blindly supporting your government. It was about knowing what your country could be . . . and trying to lead it there by example. And holding it accountable when it failed. There’s nothing patriotic about corruption or cover-­ups, or defending them. But exposing them, well, that takes a hero.” Despite a history of superheroes remaining relatively neutral politically in order to not hurt comic book sales and of superheroes supporting the dominant status quo in general, this story and others like it clarify that Captain America views discrimination and corruption as having no place in American culture. But by far, the most controversial political position taken by Marvel through their iconic nationalist superhero was when Steve Roger’s longtime ally Sam Wilson (a.k.a. the Falcon) officially took over the role of Captain America in 2015. Chapter 2 will address Sam Wilson within the context of numerous new takes on iconic characters through Marvel’s “All-­New, All-­Different” initiative. Here I just want to stress the importance and the progressive nature of Marvel’s editorial decision to change the ethnicity of Captain America. Narratively, Steve Rogers chooses Sam as his successor after the supersoldier serum in his blood is neutralized and he instantly becomes a senior citizen (a situation later mirrored at the conclusion of the blockbuster 2019 movie Avengers: Endgame). Steve bequeaths his moniker, his shield, and his status as the ultimate American hero to Sam with full confidence (figure 0.1). And a few years later, when Steve is returned to his youthful body (superheroes never die; they just get rebooted), he insists that Sam continue on as Captain America (figure 0.2). The ideological significance of a black Captain America was not lost on Marvel. Story lines depicted how Sam was treated differently as Cap than Steve Rogers ever was—­often facing criticism from the media, politicians, and the public. And Sam Wilson explicitly was shown using his iconic position as a way to challenge institutionalized racism in America, violence in black communities, police shootings, immigration, and other real-­world issues. Most fans and media reviews of this new Captain America praised the bold step of presenting a different viewpoint on sensitive cultural issues. But a vocal minority (the Comicsgate trolls and Fox News among them) complained that this black Captain America was merely a capitulation to political correctness or a form of anti-­American propaganda. Though Steve Rogers would eventually reassume the role of Captain America, Sam Wilson’s tenure was not just a publicity stunt or a logical narrative passing of the flame; Sam Wilson as Captain America was an intentional use of a powerful national symbol to question some of the most basic American values and beliefs. The symbolic importance of Captain America as an embodiment of contested national values extends well beyond the colorful pages of Marvel comic books. Captain America is invoked in contemporary political and ideological conflicts in a number of very creative ways. For example, Vishavjit Singh has been making headlines since 2013 for his public appearances as Sikh Captain America. A cartoonist by

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Figure 0.1

Figure 0.2

trade, Singh has appeared as a fully bearded version of Captain America, complete with a blue turban adorned with the letter A, in various city parks and at universities and festivals, political events, and even the 2016 presidential inauguration. His goal is to challenge people’s conceptions of Sikhs, racial bigotries, and the American identity. Likewise, on January 24, 2017, San Jose councilmember Lan Diep, the son of Vietnamese refugees, went viral for holding a Captain America shield while being officially sworn in. Though Diep claimed his gesture was lighthearted, coming as it did during an era of passionate clashes over immigration in the United States, the symbolism of the moment was powerful. Invoking Captain America resonated with a specific image of nationalism. Diep told reporters who asked what the shield means, “The shield represents America’s ideals. The things I want to strive for: fair

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play, equal justice, liberty. The things I want to protect in my little part of San Jose. And to give back to the country that has done so much for me” (Couch 2017). And in early 2019, headlines declared “Captain America vs. Trump” when Chris Evans, the actor who has played Steve Rogers in nine Marvel movies, announced the launch of his new website, A Starting Point, designed to inform citizens about Trump’s lies and accusations against the media. Evans had attracted a significant amount of attention for his cutting responses to many of President Trump’s outrageous claims via Twitter and decided to utilize his embodiment of an American icon to express his political views (even at the risk of losing some of his fans). The invocation of Captain America provides ready access to a range of symbolic ideologies condensed into a single character and can be mobilized by fans, activists, politicians, and celebrities alike. Though Captain America’s symbolic alignment with the nation is obvious and deliberate, he is not the only superhero at Marvel that represents America. Jason Dittmer’s classification of Captain America as a “nationalist superhero” is an effective way to understand the intentionality between the nation-­state and a fictional embodiment of it. Yet all the other heroes, those Dittmer classifies as “prosocial” because they fight for Americans but not as explicitly for abstract ideals, represent different perspectives on what exactly American ideals are. In their own way, every superhero embodies American ideals because there is no single or correct consensus about what is American and/or what is ideal. Historically, representing America has meant reflecting a privileged, hegemonic, and glorified image of a white, heterosexual male. But the population and the ethnic profiles of America have changed, as have the ways the nation views diversity across racial, gendered, sexual, and religious lines. These views may not be agreed upon or consistent, but they are changing. Diversity among American superheroes reflects a new national reality and helps naturalize an acceptance of those changes. Each of the following chapters explores the different ways that Marvel superheroes question and recontextualize presentations of American heroism around issues like ethnicity, colonialization, appropriation, religion, gender, and sexuality. Chapter 1, “Spider-­Analogues: Unmarking and Unmasking White Male Superheroism,” lays out some of the genre-­specific logic that permits and encourages a great deal of variation within the context of specific characters. As theoretical groundwork, this chapter draws on Henry Jenkins’s concept of comic book “multiplicity” and applies it to the range of Spider-­Man variations featured in Marvel Comics’ massive crossover event Spider-­Verse (2014–­2015). The fact that a primary Spider-­Man is regarded as a fictional figure with a core set of immutable characteristics—­a semiotic grounding point—­allows the Spider-­Man analogues to explore a range of social positions without jeopardizing the primary identity of the character. The introduction of Spider-­Man variants that are female (Spider-­ Gwen), black (Miles Morales’s Spider-­Man), Latina (Araña, a.k.a. Spider-­Girl), or Asian (Silk) indicates how a single popular character can be spun off to introduce a significant amount of diversity to the Marvel Universe. The incredible number of Spider-­Man analogues that populate the “Spider-­Verse” is an extreme case of

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multiplicity, but the same principle facilitates the variations of other Marvel characters like Thor, Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, Iron Fist, and Hulk that will be addressed in subsequent chapters. The “Spider-­Analogues” chapter will also clarify that despite all the different Spider-­Men/Women that present important variations in the ethnicity and the gender of Spider-­Man, the character’s overall status as an avatar of hegemonic masculinity is reinforced. All the Spider-­Men of different ethnicities, as well as the number of Spider-­Women and Spider-­Girls, represent an inclusionary logic inherent in multiplicity but also, ultimately, reaffirm white American masculinity as the traditionally unmarked pinnacle of heroism. Within the world of superheroes, change and diversity can sit equal with stability and tradition. Chapter 2, “The Replacements: Ethnicity, Gender, and Legacy Heroes in Marvel Comics,” focuses on Marvel’s introduction of numerous diverse characters in feature roles starting with the 2011 debut of Miles Morales as the Ultimate Spider-­ Man and the subsequent female version of Thor, the African American version of Captain America (Sam Wilson), the Korean American Hulk, the female Wolverine, the Pakistani American Ms. Marvel, and the African American girl who becomes Iron Man. Marvel referred to these new and different characters as “legacy heroes,” figures who carry on the name, symbolism, and mission of the classic characters when they are no longer able to do so. In particular, this chapter will deal with the conservative backlash that resulted from the belief among extreme right-­wing groups that Marvel was simply giving in to liberalism and political correctness by replacing the traditional white male superheroes with women and characters of color. More than just being emblematic of the current political climate and the “culture wars,” the fear that white heroes were being systematically replaced mirrors the broader rise of white nationalists in America who rally around a belief that white men are being displaced from their privileged social position. The legacy heroes allow Marvel stories to directly confront the prejudices faced daily by women and minorities in America and to convey the novel idea that one does not have to be a white male to be heroic. In The New Avengers, “Superdad” looks specifically at the story line of Luke Cage, one of Marvel’s original blaxploitation-­era superheroes, within the larger Civil War and Secret Invasion events. Luke Cage’s comic book arc throughout these stories focuses on his efforts to be a good father to his infant daughter while the other heroes are preoccupied with fighting each other and battling alien shapeshifters. This story line rewrites Luke Cage from his original status as a stereotypical 1970s streetwise ex-­convict and solidifies his modern position as a socially conscious African American hero and an elder statesman for younger characters of color in the Marvel Universe. In particular, the events of Civil War and Secret Invasion offer an alternative image of black fatherhood. Where the media has often misguidedly portrayed African American men as absent or neglectful fathers, Luke Cage offers a corrective portrait of a father who cares for his infant daughter through the mundane chores of parenthood and the world-­threatening dangers of an alien invasion. Luke Cage combines racial issues with a characterization of responsible fatherhood.

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Chapter 4, “Black Panther: Aspiration, Identification, and Appropriation,” shifts away from Marvel comic books to look at the blockbuster film Black Panther (2018) as a breakthrough African American film. The phenomenal success of the film, which grossed well over a billion dollars, dispelled industry concerns that a primarily black movie would not appeal to a broad audience. But this modern update of Marvel’s other blaxploitation-­era hero became a cultural moment when superheroic fantasy clearly transcended racial boundaries. Black Panther does not ignore the complicated and contested history of racism in America, but it does manage to successfully merge racial politics with superhero action. Importantly, the film added a noble black hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s top tier of characters. Black Panther demonstrated to a worldwide audience that ethnicity is not a barrier to imagining oneself as a superhero. Young black children could see themselves reflected in King T’Challa / Black Panther without having to identify across racial signifiers. Finally, a modern Hollywood superhero who looked like them. The emphasis within the film and the press’s coverage of it as a milestone moment in black heroism led to concerns about whether it was even acceptable for white children to enjoy Black Panther. Were children who imagine themselves as Black Panther, play with his toys, or wear his Halloween costume merely participating in the appropriation of black culture? This chapter argues that in the case of Black Panther, identification does not equate with appropriation. In fact, the popularity of Black Panther with children (and adults) of all ethnicities facilitates an effective challenge to beliefs about who can be heroes and what being a hero means for different people. Chapter 5, “Iron Fist: Ethnicity, Appropriation, and Repatriation,” also considers themes of appropriation, but from a different perspective, in relation to the Netflix television series Iron Fist (2017–­2018). Despite initial protests, the series maintained the character of Danny Rand (a white billionaire) as the titular immortal Iron Fist, a master of mysterious Eastern martial arts. Critics pointed out that failing to modernize Iron Fist as an Asian hero seemed to follow a Hollywood pattern of whitewashing Asian and Asian-­themed Marvel characters. The Tibetan monk known as the Ancient One in the comics was played by a white actress in the feature film Doctor Strange (2016), and when the Mandarin appeared in Iron Man 3 (2013), he was played by a white actor. Furthermore, the casting of blond-­haired, blue-­eyed actor Finn Jones as the central hero who becomes the legendary champion of the magical city of K’un-­Lun perpetuates Western themes of a white savior who can easily best Easterners with their own skills. While many of these criticisms of racial appropriation are valid, as the Iron Fist television series progressed into its second season, it explicitly addressed the complicated racial and intercultural politics at the core of Danny Rand assuming the role of a superpowered master of Asian martial arts. The series gave voice to the questions of white privilege, cultural appropriation, and ethnic heritage. Ultimately, Iron Fist played out a narrative of cultural repatriation, wherein the mystical powers of K’un-­Lun are transferred to the worthiest Asian character, Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a Chinese immigrant who is also a descendent of the original Iron Fist and a defender of New York’s Chinatown.

i n t r o d u c t i o n 15

Chapter 6, “Totally Awesome Asian Heroes versus Stereotypes,” looks at specific Asian stereotypes that have long existed in popular culture and how they are being challenged by several modern Marvel superheroes. The specter of pulp novelist Max Rohmer’s legendary villain Fu Manchu has haunted comic books from the very beginning. Fu Manchu embodied the Western stereotype of the evil Chinaman: mysterious, sadistic, devilish, and bent on world domination. This derogatory stereotype was reproduced in the Marvel Comics of the 1950s as the menacing Yellow Claw in the pages of his self-­titled series and then in the 1970s as Fu Manchu himself (once Marvel temporarily obtained the legal rights to the character) as the central villain in the long-­running Master of Kung Fu. But while the Fu Manchu type perpetuated yellow peril stereotypes as the villain in both series, he was countered by two of Marvel’s most prominent Asian heroes: FBI special agent Jimmy Woo in Yellow Claw and later as the team leader in Agents of Atlas and Shang-­Chi, the martial arts expert and hero of Master of Kung Fu. As heroes, Jimmy Woo and Shang-­Chi evolved to challenge stereotypes of Asian men as untrustworthy or less masculine than their heroic white counterparts. Moreover, both Jimmy Woo and Shang-­Chi have been revived in recent years to serve as role models for younger Asian superheroes. Two of these younger Asian American heroes, Amadeus Cho’s version of the Hulk and Cindy Moon’s Silk, are the focus of the second half of this chapter. Together Hulk and Silk explicitly address the gendered and racial stereotypes of Asian men as feminine and Asian women as exotic dragon ladies and offer new ways for Asian Americans to be understood as heroic figures. Chapter 7, “A New America: Marvelous Latinx Superheroes,” deals with the way Hispanic superheroes at Marvel have been treated historically and how they have been updated to reflect changing demographics in American culture. The legacy of White Tiger, Marvel’s first Latino superhero, is considered as a precursor to modern Latinx heroes, his name and powers being carried on in the current era by two female characters. The ever-­increasing number of Latinx heroes among Marvel’s roster has diversified their fictional universe while avoiding some of the tropes that have conventionally equated minority characters with the qualities of threatening aliens (both literally and figuratively). The presence of numerous Latinx creators now working behind the scenes at Marvel as writers, artists, and editors is an important factor that ensures not just an increased presence of diverse heroes but also an attention to cultural and linguistic details. Special attention is given to the character of America Chavez (a.k.a. Miss America), who is discussed as an intersectional figure whose status as an immigrant, a woman, a Latina, and a lesbian highlights the multiple ways that discrimination is encountered by minority characters. The symbolic association of America Chavez with America the nation is indicative of Marvel’s efforts to redefine “Americanness” as a contemporary, nonhomogenous concept. And chapter 8 addresses one of Marvel Comics’ most divergent new superheroes and one of its most popular, Kamala Khan, the Pakistani American Muslim teenager from Jersey City who inherits the moniker of Ms. Marvel. Kamala’s somewhat surprising success as an eminently relatable teenage hero brings a different

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perspective on diversity to the Marvel Universe. Ms. Marvel’s status as a Pakistani American costumed hero broaches issues of difference rooted in religion as well as ethnicity. Initially authored by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim American woman, Ms. Marvel’s stories focus on the delicate balance between her fantastic adventures after she develops shape-­shifting powers and her efforts to maintain her Muslim faith. In an era when Muslims are often reduced to stock terrorist villains, Kamala presents an image of an all-­American girl who also happens to be Muslim and the devoted daughter of first-­generation immigrants. Unlike some earlier attempts to provide positive Muslim characters as superheroines (e.g., the mutants Monet St. Croix and Dust), Ms. Marvel manages to better balance her religious beliefs with superhero narrative conventions. She fights discrimination and social injustices in all their forms, and she wears appropriately modest clothing and behaves in a respectful manner at all times. Ms. Marvel is not sexualized or eroticized in her costume as a female Other, nor is she limited by stereotypes associated with Muslims or ethnically specific powers. Furthermore, through the inclusion of her family, friends, and life at the mosque, the series demonstrates the wide range of diversity that exists within Muslim communities. Marvel, like all major American media producers, has a problematic history with racial representations and how they have handled cultural issues. And there is a long way to go until the Marvel Universe is as diverse as the real world. But Marvel has begun to redress past mistakes and provide a more diverse and sensitive range of heroic characters. Rather than bemoaning the underrepresentation of minority heroes in comparison to the dominant white male superheroes, my hope for the following chapters is to concentrate on the progress that has been made by the leader of superhero fiction. Marvel often bills itself as the “House of Ideas,” and it is heartening that one of their biggest ideas right now is concerned with changing the landscape of superheroes.

chapter 1

Q

Spider-­Analogues unmarking and unmasking white male superheroism

Marvel Comics’ massive crossover event Spider-­Verse (2014–­ 2015) brought together hundreds of different analogues of their most popular character, Spider-­ Man, to fight an interdimensional threat to all the Spider people in the multiverse. Marvel returned to this extreme superhero team-­up in various Spider-­Man video games, the televised cartoon Ultimate Spider-­Man, the comic book sequel event known as Spider-­Geddon (2018–­2019), and the animated feature film Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse (2018). These stories all emphasize the flexibility of the core characterization of Spider-­Man, who has been presented in wildly diverse and often contradictory forms: from Cowboy Spider-­Man, to Cyborg Spider-­Man, to Cosmic Spider-­Man, to even Spider-­Monkey. Marvel’s imaginative depictions of Spider-­Man in a range of different characterizations conform to the comic book convention of “multiplicity,” wherein modifications to familiar heroes are assigned to alternate universes or timelines. While many Spider-­Man analogues are simply whimsical or humorous, a significant number of the variations are more serious and explore ideas about what Spider-­Man would mean if he were not a white American male. Among the Spider-­themed characters who inhabit the Spider-­Verse are multiple female variations—­Spider-­Women and Spider-­Girls—­as well as a range of ethnic and national variants such as Spider-­Men who are African American, Indian, Latino, Chinese, and Japanese. The depiction of nonwhite, non-­American, and nonmale analogues within the larger Spider-­Man mythology represents a potentially progressive, and inclusionary, step for a genre traditionally overpopulated by heroic Aryan supermen. Conversely, the reliance on analogues of such a familiar character and the narrative logic of the genre reinforces a presumption that the white American male is the baseline or default requirement of superheroism. The balance between these two different perspectives (challenging the norm of white male heroic hegemony or reinforcing it) becomes a crucial terrain for understanding the possibilities and limitations of a popular media form attempting to address modern racial and gender politics. 17

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The Spider-­V erse The coexistence of different versions of a figure as popular as Spider-­Man is a logical result of thousands of different writers and artists in different time periods and across different media formats, all telling stories featuring a specific character. Every creator has a unique style and vision that allows a personal twist on the hero within the broad editorial parameters of what defines a character. After decades of different stories exploring different themes and possibilities related to iconic superheroes, characters and narratives often become splintered, contradictory, and mercurial. In her discussion of comic book storyworlds, Karin Kukkonen (2010) notes, “The stories of heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been published for decades on a weekly or biweekly basis, written by ever-­changing authors. As a result, inconsistencies emerged in the different storyworlds and encounters involving these characters, and continuity, or the coherent and consistent development of the characters and their storyworlds, became a problem” (155). Definitive continuity and character authenticity became difficult to stick to when there were multiple versions of iconic superheroes, from both Marvel and DC Comics, all in play at the same time. But as Kukkonen goes on to argue, in order to address these variations and canonize the emerging multiplicity of characters, “superhero comics made a virtue out of necessity and presented their storyworlds as part of a larger ‘multiverse,’ in which a variety of mutually incompatible narrative worlds existed as parallel realities” (156). The narrative device of a multiverse of realities allows both Marvel and DC to rationalize the accumulated character variations and creates a safe place to explore topics that may not be possible within the central continuity of a specific superhero. As Kathryn M. Frank notes in relation to introducing ethnically diverse characters, “Alternate universes can provide creators with more freedom in constructing story lines and creating characters since there are fewer (or no) existing canonical elements to which they must adhere. New universes can also be used as a strategy for drawing in new readers, who can start reading the comics without needing to first familiarize themselves with years of continuity” (242). Every alternate universe is a specific twist on the central continuity of major characters. “For each of these storyworlds one element of its basic premises has been changed,” Kukkonen goes on to explain. “They work as counterfactuals, ‘what if’ versions, relative to one another” (161). The premise of each alternative universe revolves around a central variable: What if Spider-­Man existed in Elizabethan England? What if Spider-­Man was older and had a teenage daughter? What if Spider-­Man was a different ethnicity? What if Spider-­Man was a hard-­boiled assassin? A cartoonish animal? A British punk rocker? Or a vampire? It is the ramifications of these single changes that create new pleasures for the readers and allow a wider range of subjects to be addressed in relation to an iconic character. This idea of character variation has become relatively synonymous with superhero comics and formalized through Marvel’s imaginative What If . . . ? series and DC Comics’ Elseworlds imprints. Marvel’s What If . . . ? series has been an on-­again,

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off-­again publication that first launched in 1977 with the story “What If Spider-­ Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” By 2018, Marvel was on the thirteenth volume of the What If . . . ? series, described on Marvel​.com as “What if something else happened? What if an event—­poised on a knife edge—­fell in the other direction? What if the Marvel universe was . . . different?” Similarly, DC’s Elseworlds books are described as “Heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places—­some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.” The multiverses at both companies have become so extensive that both Marvel and DC have printed charts and graphs for fans to keep track of the variations, and both have required occasional crossover events in order to clean house and explain how these different universes exist in relation to each other. Henry Jenkins (2009) describes this narrative flexibility and the seemingly limitless variations on popular characters as “multiplicity.” As Jenkins argues, multiplicity has become a notable trend that can be taken as symbolic of current multimedia texts, but character variations have long been a recognized feature of superhero comic books. Rather than a shift from modernist ideas of narrative continuity to an era of postmodern multiplicity, Jenkins reasons, “comics have entered a period where principles of multiplicity are felt at least as powerfully as those of continuity. Under this new system, readers may consume multiple versions of the same franchise, each with different conceptions of the character, different understandings of the relationships with the secondary figures, different moral perspectives, exploring different moments in their lives, and so forth” (2009, 20–­21). But as Jenkins goes on to argue, to assume that multiplicity has replaced continuity would be a mistake. Today’s superhero genre may have a predilection for revisionist stories that question some of the basic principles of superheroes, but while “the era of multiplicity exaggerates and extends the generic instability . . . there is not a moment in the history of the genre when the superhero is not under active revision” (29). Instead, principles of continuity and multiplicity work not in opposition to each other but in relation to each other. Meaning becomes layered on top of variations, and continuity is derived through a ready acceptance of multiplicity. In other words, a central and standard idea of Spider-­Man is crucial for a sake of continuity (Peter Parker, a nerdy white American male bitten by a radioactive spider, Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, web-­swinging, etc.), but variations of Spider-­Man seamlessly coexist under the logic of multiplicity. According to the Hollywood Reporter (Block 2014), Spider-­Man is one of the most famous fictional characters in the world and is indisputably the most profitable superhero, bringing in over $1.3 billion in licensing revenues in 2014 alone. To capitalize on Spider-­Man’s popularity and to appeal to consumers’ desires for variation, Marvel has subjected the concept of Spider-­Man to an incredible amount of character multiplicity. Spider-­Man’s ubiquitous media presence has resulted in an almost unparalleled number of variations (DC Comics’ perennial favorite Batman has also been the subject of an avalanche of multiplicity; see Brown 2019).

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Hundreds of spin-­offs, impersonators, clones, and other variations have been added to the basic concept of Spider-­Man. In his discussion of multiplicity, Henry Jenkins uses Spider-­Man as an obvious example of the core concept: “So in some storylines, Aunt May knows Spiderman’s secret identity while in others she doesn’t; in some, Peter Parker is still a teen and in others he is an adult science teacher; in some, he is married to Mary Jane and in others they have broken up, and so forth” (2009, 21). The incredible popularity of Spider-­Man ensures a base audience for each variation of the character, and the core idea of Spider-­Man serves as a familiar touchstone for understanding the analogues. In addition to the numerous variations on the original premise of Peter Parker as Spider-­Man that Jenkins highlights, the familiar Spider motif and Spider powers have increasingly been associated with characters who are not white men. Among some of the most popular of these diverse versions of Spider heroes are the earliest explicit Spider-­Man analogue, Miguel O’Hara, a half-­Irish, half-­Mexican Spider-­powered hero in a futuristic timeline who starred in Spider-­Man 2099 (vol. 1, 1992–­1996; vol. 2, 2014–­2017); Pavitr Prabhakar, the Spider-­Man of Mumbai, who appeared in the 2004 miniseries Spider-­Man: India in an attempt to capitalize on the international popularity associated with the film Spider-­Man 2 (2004); Peter and Mary Jane’s daughter May “Mayday” Parker, who became the first Spider-­Girl and starred in Spider-­Girl (1998–­2006) and The Amazing Spider-­Girl (2006–­2009); Anya Corazon, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent and initially went by the superhero name Araña when she premiered in the pages of Amazing Fantasy in 2004 and later switched to Spider-­Girl for her own self-­titled series (2010–­2011); Miles Morales, a black/Puerto Rican Spider-­Man who premiered in Ultimate Comics Spider-­Man (2011–­2013), Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-­Man (2014–­2015), and then Spider-­Man (2016–­ongoing); Spider-­Gwen, who was introduced in 2014 leading up to the Spider-­Verse event and became popular enough to headline her own series, Spider-­Gwen (2015–­2018); and the Korean American character of Cindy Moon, who has powers nearly identical to Peter Parker’s and was introduced in a relaunched The Amazing Spider-­Man #1 (2014) and then was featured in her own series Silk (2015–­2017). These Spider-­Man analogues structured around changes in ethnicity and gender facilitate a greater diversity of heroism without challenging the preeminence of the original character. In his analysis of geopolitics in comics, Jason Dittmer (2013) argues that stories set in other worlds “offer both reinforcement of primary themes found throughout these heroes’ continuities and also opportunities to narrate political alternatives that may or may not be more politically progressive” (143). Dittmer’s focus is primarily on nation-­states and symbolic heroes such as Captain America, Captain Britain, and Captain Canada, but the multiversal Spider heroes function in a similar way to explore the “political alternatives” of identity politics. The central and original conception of Spider-­Man as a young, white Peter Parker, who lives in New York and develops powers thanks to a radioactive spider bite, serves as a familiar foundation against which any number of analogues can emerge. Changes to crucial features like gender and ethnicity are understood in relation to the primary concept of Spider-­Man.

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Spider-­Verse was a massive crossover event orchestrated at Marvel in 2014. The story line ran across numerous Spider-­Man and Spider-­Man-­related titles and introduced a number of new miniseries, one-­shot tie-­ins, and original ongoing series for new solo characters and Spider teams. The premise for bringing hundreds of different Spider analogues into contact with each other revolves around a godlike family of villains (Morlun and his siblings, called the Inheritors) who travel from universe to universe hunting and devouring Spider people in order to consume their powerful essences. The Inheritors travel the multiverse across the “Web of Life” with the help of the “Master Weaver,” whom they have enslaved. Many Spider analogues are killed by the Inheritors before dozens of Spider-­Men, Spider-­ Women, Spider-­Girls, and Spider-­animals team up to fight back and help save the multiverse. Part of the pleasure for fans is the sheer number and imaginativeness of the Spider variations presented, from the stiff 1960s animation style of Spider-­ Man, to an obscure Japanese newspaper strip incarnation, to mentions of both the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield versions from the live-­action feature films. The promotional text on the back cover of the collected trade paperback (2016) emphasizes the allure of the incredible range of Spider-­Men involved: No single hero stands any chance of survival. To have any hope, the Spiders will have to unite—­from the Amazing to the Ultimate, the Spectacular to the Sensational, the Friendly Neighborhood to the Superior, the 1602 to the 2099, Cartoon Spideys! Cloned Spideys! Cool-­costumed Spideys! Even Cosmic Spidey! This one has it all, from old favorites like Ben Reilly and—­yes!—­Spider-­Ham, to breakout stars like giant robot SP//dr and the rocktacular Spider-­Gwen. Join Spider-­ Woman, Scarlet Spider, Silk, Spider-­Man 2099, a time-­torn Superior Spider-­Man, Ultimate Spider-­ Man, Spider-­ Girls present and future, and—­ of course—­ the one true Spider-­Man as they join the wall-­crawlers of all the worlds for the most incredible team-­up of all.

Inevitably, the original Spider-­Man (from Earth 616) and his Spider allies defeat Morlun and the Inheritors and save the multiverse. The Spider-­Verse event was a huge commercial success for Marvel, who, along with parent company Disney, leveraged the popularity of the characters into a number of ongoing series and sequels. Though some of the Spider analogues had previously met each other across dimensional divides, the Spider-­Verse event was the first large-­scale uniting of all the different characters in a single story that strives to explain and contextualize the coexistence of so many Spider-­Man variations (figure 1.1). In Spider-­Verse, the previously established ethnic and/or female Spider analogues that some fans were already familiar with (Pavitr Prabhakar, Anya Corazon, Miguel O’Hara, May Parker, Miles Morales, Cindy Moon, etc.) are joined by many other nonwhite and nonmale variations. Some of these, like Spider-­Gwen and Spider-­team Japan, receive a significant amount of attention, while others merely populate the background in crowd scenes. The implicit message of all these different Spider characters is that anyone can be a hero, can be a “Spider-­Man,” regardless of their ethnicity, gender, nationality, or even species. Spider-­Verse depicts the

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Figure 1.1

inclusionary logic that has become associated with modern comic book multiplicities that true superheroism comes from within and is not dependent on a specific ethnicity or gender. So long as a character has some type of Spider-­related powers and adheres to the maxim of “With great power comes great responsibility,” then physical and cultural differences do not matter. This message of equality regarding who can become a hero helps expand the historically narrow confines of what super­heroes look like and allows a diversity of real-­world readers to imagine a Spider-­Man who looks like them under the mask. Unfortunately, the utopian equality suggested between the countless Spider-­ Man analogues is undermined by a narrative/industrial need to reaffirm the primacy of a single Spider-­Man as definitive. As the promotional copy from the Spider-­Verse collection, cited in whole previously, clarifies at the end of listing some variants appearing in the story, “And—­of course—­the one true Spider-­Man.” Despite the seemingly infinite number of Spider analogues available, equipped with any powers and abilities the writers can dream up, midway through the massive story, the Spider-­Man of Earth 616 (Marvel’s default reality) becomes the leader of the Spider forces. In fact, the Spider analogues seek Spider-­Man 616 out and bring him and his allies Spider-­Woman (Jessica Drew), Spider-­Girl (Anya Corazon), and Silk (Cindy Moon) to their “safe world.” Various other versions of Spidey tell him in Amazing Spider-­Man #9, “Peter, that’s why they brought you” and “This is a war. And you’re our secret weapon.” Surprised by their deference to him,

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Spider-­Man 616 asks, “Me? Why me?” And one of the Spider-­Man clones simply states, “Because you’re the greatest of us all.” The ostensive reason for Peter Parker of Earth 616 being the chosen one is that he is the only Spider-­Man to have fought one of the Inheritors (Morlun) and survived. The more salient reason—­beyond the confines of the story—­is that this particular Spider-­Man’s status as the real, the original, the best, and the “one true Spider-­Man” solidifies his position as the hero from which all the others are lesser variants. The rather obvious implication, by extension, is that the white American male hero is “the greatest of them all.” In his discussion of comic book multiverses in relation to geopolitics, Jason Dittmer (2013) argues that the existence of alternate worlds always underscores the naturalness, superiority, and inevitability of the superheroes’ canonical world. Whether displaced across space or time, Dittmer points out, “Alternative worlds revealed through interdimensional portals tend to highlight the politico-­moral superiority of ‘our’ world while highlighting the contingency of that outcome. Time travel narratives similarly advocate a centrality to ‘our’ present over other possibilities” (147). The confirmation that the Spider-­Man from Earth 616 is the “one true Spider-­Man” and “the greatest of them all” functions to validate that specific universe as the canonical Marvel environment. This specificity is typical and helps the publishers manage the balance between continuity and variation. But in the case of this Spider-­Verse crossover event, it is not just Earth 616 that is prioritized. It is a very specific characterization of Spider-­Man that is elevated above the others. All the Spider-­Man analogues, including the nonwhite and nonmale ones also from Earth 616, are confirmed as “Others” in the sense of not being the real Spider-­Man but also in the sense of being different from his white American male persona. Despite his initial shock, the Spider-­Man from Earth 616 quickly assumes command of all the other Spiders, ordering them around, dividing them into teams, and leading them into battles. When the Superior Spider-­Man (the villain Doctor Octopus in a Peter Parker body) tries to assume command of the Spiders and insists on lethal measures in Amazing Spider-­Man #11, the real Spider-­Man (616) asserts, “No. You do not get to make that call. You’re not in charge here. I am” (figure 1.2). Once Peter defeats his villainous double in a one-­on-­one fight, proving to readers that he is “the best of them,” he declares his moral superiority in addition to his tactical and physical superiority: “We’ve already seen the Inheritors can’t be killed. Killing’s not the answer. It never is. We need to be better. And that’s why I am in charge.” This one true Spider-­Man leads all the others to their eventual victory over the Inheritors and is confirmed for readers as the pinnacle of Spider-­Man superheroism. The centrality of this Spider-­Man as the real and best one, the one the story presents as the leader, and the one situated as the main point of identification for readers is that without drawing explicit attention to identity politics, the white American male is reaffirmed as the natural heroic ideal. To the credit of Dan Slott, Christos Gage, and the numerous other writers involved in the Spider-­Verse story lines, the series does overtly validate the heroism of all the ethnically diverse Spider-­Men and Women. Likewise, certain scenes were clearly crafted to address the implications of marking the white American

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Figure 1.2

male Spider-­Man from Earth 616 as “the greatest of them all.” For example, while the “one true Spider-­Man” is laying out their strategy for the invasion of the Inheritors home universe in Amazing Spider-­Man #13, one of the British Spider-­Men notices a despondent Indian Spider-­Man sitting on the floor away from the main group and tries to cheer him up: Spider-­UK:  Name’s Billy, Billy Braddock. Spider-­UK. And you are? Spider-­Man (India):  Pavitr Prabhakar. The Spider-­Man of Mumbai. Spider-­UK: India? Spider-­Man (India): Yes. Spider-­UK:  Why so down, Pavitr? Outside of the fearful odds and most certain doom. Spider-­Man (India):  I guess my problem is . . . him. Peter Parker. Don’t you see it? The pattern? Our names are so close . . . He has an Uncle Ben. I had an uncle Bhim. My spiritual guide is called “Master Weaver,” and now . . . There are too many similarities. I cannot escape it. That feeling . . . that he is the real Spider-­ Man. And I am some kind of echo. Or strange reflection. And expendable.

s p i d e r -­a n a l o g u e s 25 Spider-­UK:  I don’t believe it. Not for a second . . . Each member, from each world, is unique in their own way . . . Pavitr, you are Spider-­Man. You’re a hero wherever you are and whoever is by your side. And that other fella? Who’s to say he’s not a pale reflection of you?

The pep talk from Spider-­UK bolsters Pavitr’s spirits, but more importantly, it attempts to address the political implications of the story sidelining the ethnically identified Spider-­Men as mere reflections of the white American male one. Spider-­ UK’s point (“Who’s to say he’s not a pale reflection of you?”) is an interesting sentiment suggesting that Pavitr could just as easily be the original. It is also a subtle recognition of the role skin color often plays in marking out Others, nonwhites, as the variation. Perhaps the lighter-­skinned and lesser-­skilled Peter Parker of Earth 616 is a “pale” reflection of Pavitr Prabhakar. But despite the best of intentions, there is no getting around the fact that the story repeatedly positions the white American male Spider-­Man as the real one. Moreover, decades of stories in thousands of comic books, movies, and cartoons have clearly established the core identity of Spider-­Man as a white American male. While multiplicity has helped diversify the roster of top-­tier heroes at Marvel, the insistence on one true Spider-­Man in stories like Spider-­Verse has the effect of implicitly confirming white American masculinity as a presumptive norm. The fact that the Spider-­Man of Earth 616 is declared the “true” and the “best” Spider-­Man, relegating all the ethnic, feminine, or non-­American analogues as mere derivatives of the original Spider-­Man, reinforces whiteness and masculinity as an unmarked category. Richard Dyer (1997), in his landmark analysis of whiteness as an invisible ethnic group inherently privileged in media representations, describes how “white” resists being marked and thus becomes the most vaulted social category: “In Western representation whites are overwhelmingly and disproportionately predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and above all are placed as the norm, the ordinary, the standard. Whites are everywhere in representation. Yet precisely because of this and their placing as norm they seem not to be represented to themselves as whites but as people who are variously gendered, classed, sexualized and abled. At the label of racial representation, in other words, whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race” (3). By this racial logic, being marked, qualified, stereotyped, categorized, and assumed lesser is a burden only applicable to Others. “They are particular, marked, raced,” Dyer continues, “whereas the white man has attained the position of being without properties, unmarked, universal, just human” (1997, 38). Similarly, many of the Spider analogues are doubly marked as variants and Others, while Spider-­Man 616 is established as the baseline, unmarked (white American male) hero. Any discussion of marked and unmarked identities in the superhero genre is compounded by the basic convention of costumes and secret identities. The colorful superhero costume does more than just conceal their true identity; it symbolizes the character’s heroic persona and publicly marks their body as spectacularly different than the average person’s. In her analysis of superhero outfits,

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Vicki Karaminas describes the function of the costumes: “The superhero wardrobe speaks of the identities of the wearer and serves to highlight the supernatural abilities and attributes of his/her heroic status. As part of an iconic signifier, the uber garment and its accessories, armored breastplates, masks, epaulets and gauntlets constructed of steel, separate those with superhuman strength from ‘mere’ mortals and sets the costume-­wearer apart from conventional society” (2006, 498). Unlike most superheroes, Spider-­Man’s costume completely covers his body and face. Without any exposed skin, the traditional Spider-­Man unitard conceals both his identity and his ethnicity, though it purposefully does not disguise his masculinity. The tight bodysuits worn by Spider-­Man and many of his analogues do little to hide the gender of the person inside the costume. Though many of the female Spiders are not as gratuitously sexualized as other costumed heroines, they are still depicted with undeniably feminine curves and often other markers of femininity, such as long hair or jewelry. As the illustrations from Spider-­Geddon: Spider-­Girls #1 (2018) demonstrates, the secret identities of the analogues Spider-­Woman and Spiderling may be hidden, but their gender is signified through their figures as well as their exposed hair and faces (figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3

s p i d e r -­a n a l o g u e s 27

On the other hand, the ethnicity of Spider analogues who opt for a version of the full body and mask costume is not as readily apparent (at least in relation to skin color). Costume variations can reflect cultural differences, for example; both Spider-­UK and Spider-­Punk have elements of the Union Jack evoked through costuming to reflect their Britishness, and the Spider-­Man of India’s outfit combines the conventional red-­and-­blue web design for his upper body with a distinctively Indian dhoti covering his lower body. But for most of the ethnically diverse Spider-­Man analogues, the stories can play with the disjuncture between the visibility and the invisibility of their specific cultural backgrounds. In other words, while readers are fully aware of the character’s ethnicity, the story can still present ethnicity as ostensibly hidden within the narrative and unconnected to the hero’s status. Where ethnic signifiers like skin color can, in Dyer’s terms, present nonwhite figures as “particular, marked, raced,” the full Spider-­Man costume and mask can function as a type of unmarking. Nobody can really tell who is under the mask—­the costume marks all the Spider analogues as special (superpowered), but it effectively unmarks ethnicity. It is only when the ethnically diverse characters are unmasked that they become publically marked as nonwhite. Conversely, when Peter Parker is unmasked, he becomes unmarked as a white American male. Creating racially diverse Spider-­Man analogues is an effective way to introduce characters that reflect the cultural differences that exist in the real world. It also provides young consumers from different backgrounds a range of Spider-­Men they can identify with—­a hero who looks a bit more like them. But there is a tension between portraying these characters as role models based in diversity and pigeonholing them as merely derivatives of the real (white) hero. The awkward conflict between celebrating heroic diversity and the stigmatization of being marked as Other through unmasking is explicitly raised in the Brian Michael Bendis–­written Spider-­Man #2 (2016). Part of Miles Morales’s mask is torn in a battle with a demonic beast, and though his secret identity is not revealed, some of his skin is. After the fight, Miles’s best friend, Ganke, shows him a YouTube video of the battle posted by a fan who is excited to discover this Spider-­Man is not white: “You see that? Wait, hold on . . . I’ll zoom in.—­The new Spider-­Man is brown. He’s a kid of color. This is huge!!! Is he African American? Is he Indian? Is he Hispanic? I don’t know. But he is def color. So exciting!” Miles is bothered by the focus on his skin color. The YouTuber squeals, “Black Spider-­Man!” To which a sullen Miles explains, “I don’t want that. . . . The qualification . . . This is—­I don’t want to be the black Spider-­Man. I want to be Spider-­Man.” Bendis recognizes the importance of a black Spider-­Man, but he also uses this scene to express the limitations that can be perceived to come with the “black” qualification. Miles is disappointed because this partial unmasking immediately leads to his being publically marked as the black Spider-­Man, the other Spider-­Man, a derivative of the original and the real Spider-­Man . . . as a lesser hero.

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“What Makes You Different Is What Makes You Spider-­M an” The unmasking of Miles Morales as Spider-­Man was used to great effect in the first trailer for Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse. The short teaser featured quick cuts of a costumed Spider-­Man leaping from skyscrapers, swinging across New York, and dashing among speeding cars. But the final moment of the montage zooms in on the animated figure as he skids to a stop on the ledge of a building. The pounding music pauses while he pulls back his mask to reveal the brown skin of Miles Morales (figure 1.4) rather than the traditional white face of Peter Parker. This surprise twist in the first trailer introduced the Miles Morales version of Spider-­Man to a general audience, far wider than that of the comic book fans who already knew about this Spider-­Man. Building on the viral momentum of the first trailer, all the subsequent promotional materials made it clear that this Spider-­Man movie was going to be different than anything before and that this Spider-­Man would be something completely new. As the title implies, Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse is structured around the Kingpin and Dr. Octopus’s experimental breaching of the barriers between the multiverses. Spider people from different universes converge and have to work together to defeat the villains, return to their proper worlds, and destroy the massive universe collider that is weakening the stability of the multiverse. The film does include three Peter Parkers (one in his twenties, one in his forties, and one a black-­and-­white noir avenger from the 1930s), Peter Porker (a cartoonish pig), Peni Parker (an anime-­ style Japanese schoolgirl with a Spider-­robot), and Spider-­Woman (Gwen Stacey). But where Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse diverges from the comic book stories about the Spider-­Verse is that the film remains centered on Miles Morales rather than any of the Peter Parkers. As the film review in the Wall Street Journal points

Figure 1.4

s p i d e r -­a n a l o g u e s 29

out, “Once the story kicks in, an unlikely hero emerges—­not another iteration of Peter Parker but Miles Morales, a black-­Latino high-­school student in Brooklyn who will become Spider-­Man.” Or as the Rolling Stone review notes, “The soul of this legendary superhero—­both old and new versions—­come through, even in this thrill-­a-­minute whirlwind. That’s because the filmmakers never forget to make us care about Miles and his growing pains, or what we would do if we were in his onesie.” Miles Morales is clearly a Spider-­Man analogue. The original Peter Parker Spider-­Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962; the Miles Morales version did not appear until 2011, a full forty-­nine years later. But in Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse, Miles takes center stage. He is not marked as different, and he is not a lesser variant. Miles Morales is a fully rounded character and becomes a legitimate superhero in his own right. Significantly, the filmmakers managed to present a version of Spider-­Man who is totally different from anything before without relying on ethnicity as a mere sign of difference. Miles Morales’s ethnicity is not ignored, but it is treated merely as a matter of fact. Miles has an African American father and a Puerto Rican American mother, and they all live in the bustling multicultural environment of Brooklyn. Miles likes rap music and tagging in subways; wears classic Jordans; is very smart, self-­conscious, funny, and nervous around girls; and understandably freaks out when he develops Spider powers and becomes a superhero. Critics were almost unanimous in their praise of Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse, often emphasizing the balance the film strikes between the importance of Miles’s ethnicity in a genre where most heroes are still white men and the message that Miles cannot be reduced to just his ethnicity. The New York Times argued, “We haven’t seen a Spider-­Man like Miles onscreen, which is to say a Spider-­Man who isn’t white. Part of the beauty of ‘Spider-­Verse’ is that Miles’s identity is both a very big deal and no big deal at all, at once a breakthrough and an affirmation of the ethos that has defined the character from the beginning” (Scott 2018). Likewise, Variety noted the impact of Miles’s ethnicity and the effective strategy of not making it a focal point of his value: “Unlike this year’s more politicized Black Panther, which treated the Wakandan identity as a kind of super-­empowerment, Spider-­Verse views Miles’ background as a nonissue. Again, the takeaway here is anybody can be a Spider-­Man—­and that’s a revolutionary idea for a generation of kids eager to identify with Marvel’s most popular superhero” (Debruge 2018). In other words, while Miles’s ethnicity is significant, it does not mark him, or qualify him, as a lesser variation of a presumed “real” Spider-­Man. Positioning Miles and his origin as Spider-­Man at the center of the story allows the film to treat him as the default or primary Spider-­Man. It is Miles whose character is fully rounded, it is his development that drives the film, and it is the black Latino Spider-­Man who ultimately saves the entire multiverse in the end. By not focusing on Miles’s ethnicity as a defining part of his superheroism, Into the Spider-­Verse presented a figure who could be universally identified with. The “more politicized Black Panther,” as the Variety review described it, overtly focused on Black Panther’s African identity as an intricate part of his persona and

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his powers. Black Panther embraced the character’s ethnicity and intentionally created an image of black heroism for audiences to cheer and identify with. The racial politics of Black Panther were so pronounced in the way the character was presented as a model of black heroism that debates emerged about whether or not it was acceptable for nonblack children to identify with Black Panther (an issue discussed in detail in chapter 4). But the less overtly political nature of Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse resulted in a young hero that anyone could identify with. The fact that underneath this Spider mask is a black/Latino character works not to highlight racial differences but to negate them. The subtlety and the unadulterated fun of the animated movie ultimately achieve a very powerful and political goal of truly universalizing the heroic ideal at the core of the Spider-­Man mythology.

chapter 2

Q

The Replacements ethnicity, gender, and legacy heroes in marvel comics

Following the apparent death of Spider-­Man (Peter Parker) in 2011, Marvel announced a new character would assume the web-­slinger’s mantle. Ultimate Comics Spider-­Man (2011–­2013) introduced Miles Morales as the new high school–­aged superhero, of African American and Puerto Rican descent, ushering in a new era for Spidey. Since the debut of Miles Morales’s Spider-­Man, Marvel has slowly changed the landscape of their fictional universe by replacing many of their iconic characters with younger versions who are a different gender or ethnicity (or both) than the original superheroes. In 2013, Carol Danvers was promoted to Captain Marvel, leaving the title of Ms. Marvel to Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani teenager from New Jersey with shapeshifting powers. Thor became unworthy to wield his magic hammer in 2014 and was replaced as the God of Thunder by his ex-­girlfriend Jane Foster, who is able to lift the hammer and assume his powers. In 2014, Steve Rogers’s age was accelerated, and he could no longer fulfill his role as Captain America. Steve’s one-­time sidekick, the African American Sam Wilson (a.k.a. the Falcon), dons the familiar red-­white-­and-­blue costume and shield to become the all-­new Captain America. After the death of Wolverine in 2015, his younger female clone, Laura Kinney (a.k.a. X-23), assumes the Wolverine name and a similar costume to honor him. The year 2015 also saw Amadeus Cho, a Korean American genius teenager, take over the role of the Hulk from Bruce Banner. And inspired by Iron Man, the fifteen-­year-­old African American prodigy Riri Williams invents her own suit of armor and begins adventuring as Ironheart in 2016. Riri even takes over the lead role in Invincible Iron Man when Tony Stark fell into a mysterious coma for over a year. Marvel refers to these and several other new heroes that take on the role of more established characters in their absence as “legacy heroes.” Marvel branded these changes as part of their “All-­New, All-­Different” initiative, and they became the basis for a soft reboot of the Marvel comic book universe. These legacy heroes drastically changed the image of superheroes at the world’s largest comic book publisher. Marvel’s superheroes, like those of most publishers, have been predominantly male and white ever since the genre first emerged with 31

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the success of Superman in 1938. The modern Marvel Universe is a very different world. As New York Magazine reported when Marvel’s character changes were first taking root, “Marvel’s printed superhero books are more ethnically diverse, feminist, and queer-­positive than they have ever been” (Riesman 2013). The new heroes mark a clear divergence from the superhero status quo and were an intentional move by Marvel to reflect the diversity of American identities and comic book fans. “Marvel Comics’ driving philosophy dating back to Stan Lee is to reflect the world outside your window, and the world outside your window has changed since the early ’60s,” Marvel’s then editor-­in-­chief Axel Alonso told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re following that mantra. Our new stories reflect the world outside your window in all its diversity” (Clark 2015). These legacy heroes do reflect the changing cultural makeup of American cities; they also reveal a virulent resistance to diversification by some audience members. Many people applauded Marvel’s commitment to diversity and the quality of stories being told with these fresh new characters. Others were angry that their favorite heroes had been replaced so thoroughly by a group of inexperienced upstarts. The polemical reaction to these characters from some fans, critics, and the general public exposes the tenacity of misogynistic and racist fears that have become a central political issue in these tumultuous times. The use of legacy heroes to introduce a greater range of gender and ethnic representation in Marvel Comics literalizes the Far Right’s fear of cultural change as a form of replacement, where traditional privileges and advantages are erased.

White Men with Power Gender and ethnicity have always been vital to the superhero genre. The flashy costumes, incredible powers, secret identities, and outlandish villains may be more obvious conventions, but the overwhelming maleness and whiteness of most superheroes structure white men as the default heroic standard. Superman, Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-­Man, Green Arrow, Daredevil, Thor—­all the oldest and most famous superheroes are decidedly male and white. The genre’s preoccupation with masculinity is one of its most organizing themes. Superhero stories play out a rather obvious adolescent male power fantasy wherein any wimpy Billy Batson, Peter Parker, or Bruce Banner can be magically transformed into an astonishing Captain Marvel, amazing Spider-­Man, or incredible Hulk. The superhero is a concise embodiment of a very conventional image of ideal masculinity. His steely jaw, bulging muscles, miraculous powers, and unwavering ability to defeat all evildoers marks him as the idol of the grateful masses and the object of every damsel’s affections. Since the late 1930s, comic book superheroes have provided their target audience of young men with ideal fantasy figures with which to identify. The conventional superhero represents one of the clearest examples of hegemonic masculinity (see Connell 1987) for boys to idolize and emulate. The superhero has also, for most of the genre’s history, been overdetermined as strictly a masculine and white fantasy ideal.

t h e r e p l a c e m e n t s 33

The glorification of hegemonic masculinity at the root of superhero stories means that female characters have been treated very differently than male ones. Male heroes have always vastly outnumbered superheroines, the women’s powers are usually more limited than the men’s, and the women are almost exclusively illustrated as sexual objects posed for the appreciative gaze of young male readers. As Carolyn Cocca (2016) notes in her overview of superheroines, “Most superhero titles have white male-­dominated teams and white male leads, and tend to portray female characters as weaker and in a sexualized manner” (14). Though the number of female costumed characters has increased significantly from the 1950s, when Wonder Woman was the sole female member of the Justice League (and was reduced to being the league’s secretary for the first few adventures), superheroines are still overdetermined by their sex. The female characters continue to be predominantly illustrated as curvy pin-­ups in skimpy costumes and as lesser heroes relative to the iconic male characters. Furthermore, women in the comics have often been subjected to a more extreme and degrading level of violence than male characters have been. The term fridging, coined by comic book writer Gail Simone when she amassed the list of “women in refrigerators” who had been unceremoniously killed, depowered, and/or sexually assaulted, has become a common reference point for the unequal violence to which the women are subjected. Obviously, male superheroes also suffer violent assaults and even death, but the men often rise again or suffer in a heroic manner not afforded the women. Despite the progressive depiction of women in many comic books, and an increase in women writers and artists, traditionally misogynistic assumptions remain. “Comics in the 2000s continued to underrepresent, sexualize, and fridge female characters,” Cocca summarizes. “The sheer repetition of these three elements to the exclusion of others, apparently resonant to many readers, made them appear natural and timeless” (2016, 13). Of course the unequal treatment of female supercharacters is anything but “natural” and is slowly being challenged in current comic books, much to the delight of many female readers looking for legitimate heroic representations and to the chagrin of some male readers who prefer their stories with sexy illustrations. For most of the genre’s eighty-­plus-­year history, superheroes have been overwhelmingly white. For decades, any depiction of nonwhite ethnicities was reserved for yellow-­horde, Fu Manchu–­style villains or shuffling, Sambo-­like comedic relief. Unfortunately, blue-­, green-­, orange-­, and purple-­skinned characters appeared long before realistic nonwhite heroes became more common. The first black superhero did not appear in mainstream comic books until Marvel introduced the Black Panther in 1966, followed by the first regularly appearing black hero, the Falcon, as Captain America’s sidekick in 1969. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several other significant superheroes of color emerged, such as Marvel’s Brother Voodoo and Luke Cage and DC Comics’ Black Lightning and Cyborg, but these characters were often burdened by racial stereotypes and were heavily outnumbered by their more famous white counterparts. For the most part, comic book writers seemed ill-­equipped or unwilling to conceive of well-­rounded characters from different ethnic backgrounds. As Sheena Howard and Ronald Jackson (2013) argue in the

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introduction to Black Comic Strips, “Comics dealing with issues specific to the African American experience, such as racial profiling, discrimination, integration, etc. have been scarce, perhaps because these realities are swept under a rug in order to avoid state responsibility for them” (5). Contentious real-­world issues like discrimination are far more complicated to deal with than the average supercriminal. No hero can just punch systemic racism in the face. More often than not, superheroes have avoided ethnicity as a topic, sticking to the relatively safe (and assumed neutrality) of white male heroes. As Frances Gate­ ward and John Jennings (2015) summarize in the introduction to their anthology about black comic books, “The genre of the superhero is very much a white-­male-­ dominated power fantasy that is itself very much based in ideas around physical performance and power in relation to the negotiation of identity” (5). As I have argued elsewhere (Brown 2001), African American superheroes have historically faced challenges rooted in racist fears of black men as already hypermasculine—­as too physical, violent, and threatening. Indeed, any nonwhite superhero character is still visually and narratively marked as an “Other” in a manner that often overburdens them as characters defined by their race—­either running the risk of reproducing stereotypes or being deemed “inauthentic” by some readers. More nuanced storytelling and a commitment to socially responsible portrayals with the legacy heroes have allowed Marvel to build on past success with nonwhite heroes and to learn from past mistakes. Regardless of politics, when a new character like Miles Morales first removes his mask in Ultimate Comics Spider-­Man #1 (September 2011) to reveal he is not white and proudly announces, “I am Spider-­Man” (figure 2.1), it is a conventional moment of celebration. This type of revelation, and heroic self-­declaration of identity that is common for white superheroes (“I’m Batman,” “I am Iron Man,” etc.) can be a very exhilarating scene for many readers who struggle to find positive representations of their own ethnicity. Marvel’s change in the gender and/or ethnicity of the characters bearing the names of Spider-­Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Nova, Wolverine, and Iron Man is a recognition of the importance of identity politics and heroic fantasies. Marvel’s director of content, Sana Amanat, told CNN, “It’s also a reminder that these characters have these messages behind them and these aspirational qualities. We want to remind people that anyone can pick up that mantle. Captain America is not a race, Captain Marvel is not a gender. We want to make sure that it’s about the ideas and what they represent” (qtd. in Pallotta 2016). The idea that anyone should be able to imagine themselves as superheroic regardless of their gender or skin color (or religion, sexuality, nationality, etc.) is a significant shift from a cultural presumption in the media that only white men are heroic. The socially progressive commitment Marvel Comics has made to reflect the reality of “the world outside our window” through the diversification of even their most iconic heroes is coupled with the economic reality that the market for comic readership has changed a great deal over the last fifteen to twenty years. A desire to cultivate a more diverse audience couples an economic strategy with an organic narrative move to nonwhite and nonmale heroes. As numerous

Figure 2.1

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news articles pointed out, “The publisher is shaking up the rest of its superhero roster in an effort to freshen the Marvel universe and attract new readers” (Clark 2015). In an ever more competitive multimedia and globalized market, comic book publishers like Marvel need to expand their market demographic in order to survive. Introducing characters that reflect that wider demographic in terms of gender and ethnicity (as well as sexuality, religion, and nationality) is evidence not just of socially progressive stories or shrewd marketing strategies but of free market–­driven cultural change. Unfortunately, statistics about comic book readers are notoriously difficult to gauge precisely. Diamond, the primary distributor of print comics in North America, does not release sales data, nor do the two big publishing companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. But Marvel’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, David Gabriel, did claim a significant rise in female consumers in 2016: “From things that we gather from some analysis that Disney does on who is buying Marvel as a brand, and from talking to retailers and looking at our titles, we’re probably up to at least 40% female. Which eight years ago might have been 10%, and 15 years ago might have been nothing. So, there has been a real shift, which is great, and it could be even higher than 40%” (qtd. in MacDonald 2016). Indeed, the media analysis organization Graphic Policy, which tracks industry trends through Facebook analytics, has charted a significant month-­by-­month increase in both female and nonwhite comic book readers over the last five years. Graphic Policy charts women as high as 53.5 percent of the comic book audience, with African American and Hispanic readers (male and female) each ranking at 18.31 percent and Asian Americans at 5.26 percent, for a total of 41.88 percent nonwhite readers.1 While the accuracy of these audience statistics may be debatable, there is no doubt that the ethnic and gender standards of comic book readership are changing. When comic book creator and critic Scott McCloud released his groundbreaking book Understanding Comics in 2000, his introduction noted that superhero comics were consumed overwhelmingly by a “white upper-­middle class male” (11) audience. But the rise of digital comics and online subscription services have greatly expanded the audience demographic in the last ten years, as have the success of the blockbuster movies that appeal to audiences from a range of backgrounds.

All New, All Different The legacy heroes introduced by Marvel beginning in 2011 are different from other spin-­off characters that constantly appear in the world of superheroes. The most popular superheroes have long inspired variations: Spider-­Man begat Spider-­ Woman, Spider-­Girl, Spider-­Gwen, Venom, Carnage, and many others; likewise, the Hulk led to She-­Hulk, Red Hulk, Gray Hulk, Red She-­Hulk, and Skaar. Similarly, the narrative devices of alternate Earths, different timelines, and What If . . . ? stories allow writers to temporarily explore different takes on specific superheroes (see Jenkins 2009). These derivative characters often become popular in their own 1

https://​g raphicpolicy​.com/​tag/​facebook​-fandom/.

t h e r e p l a c e m e n t s 37

right, but they are designed to capitalize on, and extend, the brand of the original superhero. These Spider-­Man and Hulk analogues (or Batman or Superman analogues, etc.) may be of a different gender or ethnicity, but they are still depicted as under the umbrella of the original hero. Spider-­Woman obviously indicates a gender variant on the Spider theme, and one of the Spider-­Girls (Anya Corazon) is Hispanic, but both are members of the larger Spider-­Man family of heroes. And as the “family” metaphor implies, the original white male hero is the central figure—­a type of patriarch—­that all the spin-­off characters are inspired by and defer to. Unlike earlier spin-­off characters, legacy heroes were primarily intended to attract a more diverse readership to comics by recasting many of Marvel’s most iconic heroes as women and/or nonwhite superheroes. Yes, the new heroes are linked directly to the most recognizable figures in Marvel’s pantheon, and that allows them to tap into the popularity of those characters. The innovative change employed by Marvel is to have the legacy heroes replace the old guard of white male heroes. Replace is not entirely accurate, even though it is the term often used in the press and among readers to describe the position of the legacy heroes. With each new hero, headlines declared, “Marvel Is Replacing Steve Rogers with the New, Black Captain America” (Opam 2014); “Miles Morales Is to Replace Peter Parker as First Black Spider-­Man in Marvel Comics” (Wyatt 2015); or “Tony Stark to Be Replaced by Black Woman as Marvel’s Comic Book Iron Man” (McMillan 2016). I will return to the perception that the new heroes “replaced” the older white male heroes later. But to be clear, the legacy heroes did not push out or displace the older heroes or cause them to lose their roles. Each of the established characters either died or was depowered in a way that made it impossible to continue as costumed heroes. The younger heroes only “replaced” the old guard in the sense that they were able and willing to assume the responsibilities of the vacated title. The “All-­New, All-­Different” Spider-­Man, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Thor, Nova, Hulk, and Wolverine each followed a similar narrative arc of admiring the original hero and then being called to assume their mantle through a series of unusual circumstances. The new heroes express doubts about filling the shoes (or the spandex costumes) of their predecessors but eventually find ways to be exceptional heroes in their own right. Riri Williams as the new Iron Man (eventually deciding on the name Ironheart) is one of the most popular of the legacy heroes, and the character received a great deal of media attention when first announced. With Riri fulfilling the role previously held by Tony Stark, she represents a change in both gender and ethnicity. A feature article in the New York Times introduced Riri Williams as a definitive sign of Marvel’s commitment to socially progressive heroes: “The development of Riri’s character reflects a comics industry that has made strides to expand its default superhero archetype—­that of a straight, white male—­to reflect broader diversity in race, gender and sexuality” (Rogers 2016). Riri’s case is a good example of how Marvel’s legacy heroes challenged the status quo of the superhero genre and became a focal point for identity politics in the real world. Riri was created by superstar comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and made a brief first appearance in

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Invincible Iron Man vol. 2, #7 (2016), where the fifteen-­year-­old African American prodigy is shown making her own robotic armor from scraps in her dorm room at MIT. A few issues later, Tony Stark pays a surprise visit to Riri at her mother’s house in Chicago and quickly realizes that, in addition to their incredible genius-­ level intellect, the two share a vision and a passion for inventing. Tony is impressed by Riri and offers his encouragement and support. He mentors Riri and slowly introduces her to the world of superhero adventures. But when Tony falls into a mysterious coma at the conclusion of the crossover event Civil War II, Riri becomes Iron Man. It is when Riri becomes the titular hero of the series Invincible Iron Man with a new issue #1 in 2016 that the character is fully fleshed out. Riri grew up in Chicago with her mother and aunt after her biological father was killed in a random act of violence. Her intellect and passion for inventing things in her mother’s garage resulted in a lonely childhood for Riri, though she did have one very close friend in her neighborhood, Natalie. Unfortunately, Natalie and Riri’s new stepfather were both killed in front of Riri during a family picnic in the park from stray bullets from a drive-­by shooting. Despite her enormous losses, Riri devoted herself to inventing devices that could help people. Bendis told Time magazine that the character of Riri was sparked by his experience living in Chicago and the overwhelming amount of chaos and violence in the city. Specifically, Bendis said, “[A] story of this brilliant, young woman whose life was marred by tragedy that could have easily ended her life—­just random street violence—­and went off to college was very inspiring to me. I thought that was the most modern version of a superhero or superheroine story I had ever heard” (qtd. in Dockterman 2016a). By basing Riri on the story of a real-­ life woman from Chicago, Bendis manages to incorporate a hint of the adversity that some children from minority backgrounds have to overcome. Riri, like most of the other legacy heroes, is nervous about assuming her new role. As she says in a video log that begins her first starring comic, “The invincible Avenger Iron Man is no more. I was just getting to know him, and now he’s gone . . . and I have armor . . . I’m supposed to be Iron Man now? Me. That is insane . . . I have no idea if I’m even close to ready” (figure 2.2). But with the help of an advanced artificial intelligence system (based on Tony Stark’s downloaded consciousness), Riri learns how to be a great superhero, and she completes numerous solo missions. As Ironheart, she defeats villains like the Rhino, the Armadillo, Lady Octopus, and Tomoe the Techno Golem. Riri even liberates the country of Latveria (homeland of Dr. Doom) by defeating the superpowered Lucia Von Bardas and the entire Latverian army all on her own. Riri temporarily declares herself the new queen of Latveria and arranges for the poor to be fed, schools to be reopened, and free elections to be held before she hands the country back to its people. Riri also quickly becomes a large part of Marvel’s interconnected comic book universe as she teams up with other legacy heroes in Avengers and Champions as well as appearing as a supporting character in several issues of All-­New Wolverine and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and playing a part in both of the Marvel-­wide crossover events Civil War II and Secret Empire.

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Figure 2.2

Tony Stark and Riri Williams share a particular type of genius and an impulse to fight evil, but there are very few other similarities. Tony is a billionaire white male who grew up a child of extreme privilege. Riri, on the other hand, is a teenage African American woman raised by a widowed mother in a lower-­income section of Chicago. These blunt differences between Tony and Riri, like the differences between all the classic heroes and the legacy heroes, allow the stories to address issues that have generally been excluded from superhero stories. In Invincible Iron Man #8 (June 2017), flashbacks reveal that a grade school–­aged Riri idolized the scientist Mae Jemison, who became the first African American female astronaut. Riri recognizes the historical achievements of African Americans who overcame extreme prejudices to achieve incredible goals. Other legacy heroes have similarly introduced concerns about racism in America from the perspective of different minority groups who have been historically discriminated against and are still subjected to racial injustices. For example, in Champions #10 (July 2017), when the team of young legacy heroes discovers a government-­run prison full of Inhumans during the Secret Empire event, the Hulk (Amadeus Cho) invokes a comparison to one of America’s darker moments from World War II when he announces, “Trust me, as an Asian American, I have a deep historical hatred for internment.” Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel faces a wide range of racist comments in both her civilian and superhero identities. Most of the racism is literal, but some is metaphorical, like the “Mecca” story line in Ms. Marvel #19–­23 (2017) that sees her family targeted by an immigration-­like government agenda. And in Sam Wilson: Captain America #10–­ 13 (2016), Sam becomes embroiled in a racially divided struggle against a faceless superpowered police agency, the Americops, that is targeting African Americans and using excessive force—­a clear analogy to real-­life events like the Ferguson protests, Black Lives Matter, and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

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The change in gender from Tony Stark to Riri Williams also introduces a perspective on sexism that is rarely expressed in superhero comics. Tony is perhaps the most notorious womanizer in the Marvel Universe, constantly bedding women from supermodels to superheroes like She-­Hulk and the alien Gamora. Conversely, Riri is an outspoken feminist who revels in working with, and learning from, other women and is quick to call out any misogynistic remarks she hears. Riri even points out the absurdly gendered tradition of superhero naming. When the artificial intelligence version of Tony tries to help Riri come up with a superhero name of her own in Invincible Iron Man #3 (January 2017), he says, “I assumed Iron Girl.” Riri gives him an exasperated look. Clueless, he counters, “Iron Woman?” So Riri explains, “I’m really not a fan of sexual identity as a qualifier. She-­Hulk? What does that even mean? It’s an antiquated and weird line in the sand. Like ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ . . . Why are they separate?” Both the Kamala Khan version of Ms. Marvel and the Jane Foster embodiment of Thor also explicitly address conventional forms of sexism that routinely occur in superhero comics. When Kamala first develops her shape-­shifting powers in Ms. Marvel #1 (November 2015), she has a vision of Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) and tells her, “I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-­kicking and less complicated. I want to be you. Except I would wear the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels.” But by issue #2, after Kamala has spent some time as a scantily clad, white-­skinned blonde, she realizes that the sexy heroine look is a ridiculous and demeaning standard: “I always thought that if I had amazing hair, if I could pull off great boots, if I could fly—­that would make me feel strong. That would make me happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch, and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.” Jane Foster’s bodily transformation into a female Thor is less troublesome for her than simply earning some respect. Throughout her time as Thor, Jane’s legitimacy is constantly questioned because she is a woman. The original Thor, the Norse All-­Father Odin, frost giants, and elf kings all refuse to believe that a woman could be anything more than a cheap imposter. Even relatively minor Marvel bad guys have a problem with the idea of a female Thor. When Thor thwarts Absorbing Man’s robbery of a bank truck in Thor #5 (February 2015), he dismissively says, “Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.” But when she easily bests him in battle, he asks, “What the hell kind of Thor are you?” As Thor delivers the knock-­out punch, she replies, “The kind who just broke your jaw!” and thinks to herself, “That’s for saying ‘feminist’ like it’s a four-­letter word, creep.” These are not just superheroines designed as sexual fantasy objects to satisfy the more salacious interests of male readers. These are women who actually resist misogynistic standards. The challenges these female legacy heroes represent to the traditional misogyny of the superhero genre also seem to be making a difference beyond the confines of the fictional stories as well. When Riri Williams took over the lead role in the

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series Invincible Iron Man (2016), Marvel commissioned a number of artists to create variant covers for the newly renumbered first issue. One of the artists was a longtime Marvel contributor and fan favorite, J. Scott Campbell, who is primarily known for his pin-­up-­style illustrations of female characters. Campbell’s cover portrait of Riri was a standard glam type of image that is commonly used for superheroines and villainesses. Riri is depicted holding the Iron Man mask against one hip, with the other thrust out in a sexy pose, one arm extended out toward the reader. She is dressed in tight black yoga pants that ride low across her hips and a tight, sleeveless, red crop top that leaves most of her taut midsection exposed. Overall, the cover was a fairly typical J. Scott Campbell image of an erotic, idealized, and scantily clad female body posed to be fully on display as a sexual object for the presumed male readers. But as a large number of angry fans pointed out, Riri Williams is supposed to be a fifteen-­year-­old girl and a supergenius, not a barely dressed supermodel. To Marvel and Campbell’s credit, they did listen to the complaints about the sexualization of Riri in this image and changed it. Instead of the conventional erotic pose that has overdetermined female sexuality in the comics, Campbell produced a new image of a clearly younger and more innocent-­looking Riri dressed in jeans and a hoodie with her Ironheart helmet in her lap covering most of her torso. The more modest cover was a clear win for the fans who decried the traditional sexism of the industry.

Being Replaced Though most fans and critics embraced the legacy heroes and the different perspectives their ethnicity and/or gender differences allowed, there was a very vocal group that condemned these new characters. Online trolls complained that these new heroes were nothing more than a surrender to the forces of “political correctness” and a pandering to whiny “social justice warriors.” Racist and sexist internet trolls have become a standard plague that afflicts any attempt to change the status quo of popular media texts. These trolls are occasionally written off by media producers as an example of toxic fandom, implying that some fans are simply too territorial about fictional characters and love to voice their criticisms anonymously over the internet. Trolls (who may or may not actually be fans) have famously attacked the gaming industry for including more female characters and programmers and the BBC, who announced that the next Doctor would be the first female incarnation on the long-­running television series Doctor Who, they complained about the inclusion of several nonwhite actors in feature roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016); and they even ranted about what they perceived as “fake geek girls” when a group of women who work at Marvel Comics posted a picture of themselves getting milkshakes. The troll response to the “All-­New, All-­Different” superheroes was typical of the vile reaction expressed by some about any socially progressive changes to media texts. These changes, in most cases, especially in relation to the new versions of Marvel heroes, were feared as proof that traditional white masculine icons are being systematically replaced by women and minorities.

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This fear of white masculinity being replaced runs much deeper than fan concerns about who wears the Iron Man armor or carries Captain America’s shield. The trolls’ focus reveals a troubling logic that pervades the alt-­right in America, who fear that white men are on the verge of losing their vaulted status, which is based on nothing more than gender and skin color. In mid-­August 2017, most Americans were shocked by the news coverage of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white men, many carrying tiki torches, angrily marched past the cameras chanting, “We will not be replaced! You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” As the weekend-­long event played out on the national stage, counterprotesters challenged the white supremacists, and many news outlets and politicians denounced the neo-­Nazi rhetoric of the rally. Tragically, the clashes escalated, and numerous individuals were hurt, with one counterprotester killed by a car driven by a white nationalist. Also tragically, President Trump famously refused to denounce the white supremacists. Instead, Trump offered a tacit endorsement of the white supremacists, claiming there were good people “on both sides.” This paranoid and hateful rhetoric expressed from a variety of groups associated with the American alt-­right has become far more common in an era dominated by Trump’s xenophobic idea of what makes America great. This same extreme right-­wing fear of white men being replaced in American society is at the root of racist and misogynistic troll rantings about Marvel’s legacy heroes. Dozens of news articles have reported on the wave of negative troll comments regarding Marvel Comics’ diversity initiative. Complex magazine noted, “If you were on Twitter when the fit hit the shan [sic], there was indeed an outcry with an array of comments from butt hurt [sic] comic book fans and fake mad heads the world over” (Khal 2016). And the Huffington Post pointed out, “There was, of course, online backlash from readers opposed to any change, especially ‘politically correct’ change driven by ‘social-­justice warriors.’ The folks at Fox News took particular offense to the progressive politics fueling last fall’s relaunch of Captain America: Sam Wilson” (Ostroff 2016). Indeed, Fox News did run a segment during their nightly newscast lamenting that the new black Captain America was attacking conservatives instead of more traditional supervillains. The irony that Fox News was acting just like the racists in the comic books was completely lost on the outraged anchors. Thousands of Twitter and blog postings and YouTube video rants express thinly veiled (or outright) racist, sexist, and homophobic views about the emergence of nonwhite and nonmale superheroes. Many of these troll comments demonstrate a fear of change that aligns with the “We will not be replaced” anthem chanted by the white supremacists. In the case of superheroes, some of the most iconic signifiers of mythic white masculinity seemed to be in the process of being “replaced” by women and/or minorities. The ridiculous amount of racist and sexist troll comments condemning the legacy heroes was even incorporated into many of the comic stories themselves. For example, in the first issue of Captain America & the Mighty Avengers (November 2014), the writers swing back at Fox News’ criticism of a black Captain America who dares to have political opinions about racial discrimination. The opening montage shows

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numerous people expressing support for the new hero, except for one ranting (and finger-­wagging) blonde newswoman who shouts, “This is pandering, pure and simple. Throwing America’s greatest traditions under a bus for the ‘social justice’ crowd. Its political correctness gone mad.” Likewise, in All-­New, All-­Different Avengers #4 (January 2016), which includes the legacy heroes Captain America (Sam Wilson), Thor (Jane Foster), Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), Spider-­Man (Miles Morales), and Nova (Sam Alexander), some citizens complain about the new heroes even though they just saved them from a supervillain attack. “Whoop-­de-­doo. Rescued by the understudy Avengers!” complains a man in a business suit (figure 2.3). A bearded guy in an undershirt adds, “Where are the real ones? Man, the world’s gettin’ so politically correct these days!” These ungrateful white men are clearly expressing the same sentiments as the online trolls in the real world. Captain America is shocked: “Did you hear that?” he asks Thor. “After we saved their lives?” Thor simply replies, “Let them be ungrateful. What does it matter?” Even more to the point, in All-­New Wolverine #4 (January 2016), Doctor Strange tells the new female Wolverine, “You are the right person to replace Logan.” Laura is appreciative of the compliment but also tells him, “I know there are people who disapprove . . . Guys on the internet mainly.” While these scenes are a bit of self-­referential fun, incorporating the real-­ world troll complaints into the comics also allows the writers/characters to address the small-­mindedness of the comments and to position these perspectives as the antithesis of what superheroes are all about.

Figure 2.3

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Though Laura metatextually jokes about “guys on the internet” who are unhappy with her replacing Logan (figure 2.4), she does go on to clarify, “But I’m not replacing him. I don’t really know what I’m doing yet. All I know is, while I’m wearing this, he isn’t gone. And neither am I. I’m Laura Kinney. I’m X-23. And I’m Wolverine.” It is this idea of “not replacing” the long-­standing superheroes that is a very important factor that the trollish bigotry misses. It is the same dynamic that the white supremacist groups chanting “We will not be replaced” also miss. The inclusion of women and different ethnicities does not mean white men are replaced in some abstract and absurd idea of a pecking order of privilege where white men are barely hanging on to their advantages. Social class systems (whether based on gender, economics, race, education, religion, etc.) have historically been imagined as a type of hierarchy with lower, middle, and upper echelons or the haves and have-­nots. But the reality is that the advancement of peoples from subaltern groups does not mean anyone is necessarily being replaced. Women and minorities can make progress without it being at the expense of white men. For all the panic that trolls expressed about legacy heroes doing away with their traditionally white male predecessors and namesakes, none of the classic versions of the superheroes were really replaced. The legacy heroes merely added to the pantheon of supercharacters that populate the Marvel Universe. In fact, within a few short years, all the original white male versions of the characters had returned to life or had been repowered and resumed their lofty positions. These are comic books, after all, where even death is never permanent and profitable characters will always come back. Miles Morales became Spider-­Man in 2011, but the original Peter Parker version returned in 2014 (and even before that, Peter returned briefly, but then Doctor Octopus took over Peter’s body for a year). Laura Kinney occupied the role of Wolverine in All-­New Wolverine from 2015 to 2018, when Logan returned from the dead. And even when Logan was not around, Marvel brought an alternate universe version of the character, “Old Man Logan,” into regular continuity. And Marvel ran no less than six “Hunt for Wolverine” miniseries that included the Logan version in numerous flashbacks. Amadeus Cho starred as the titular Hulk in The Totally Awesome Hulk from 2015 to 2017, until the Bruce Banner version returned in 2018 with a new series, Immortal Hulk. The Jane Foster incarnation of Thor led The Mighty Thor from 2015 to 2018, when the original male Thor once again became worthy to wield the enchanted hammer. But even while the female Thor fulfilled the role of Goddess of Thunder, the male character continued adventures in a separate title, The Unworthy Thor (2016–­2017). After a few reality-­bending story lines restored Steve Rogers to full health and then rewrote him as an evil leader of Hydra, the real Rogers version of Captain America returned to continuity in Secret Empire #10 (August 2017), fighting alongside the Sam Wilson Captain America. And after two years of Riri William’s Ironheart taking the lead in Invincible Iron Man from 2016 to 2018, Tony Stark woke up from his coma and resumed his role as Iron Man. Importantly, the return of the original white male heroes did not result in the elimination of the so-­called replacement heroes. With the exception of the female Thor (Jane Foster

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Figure 2.4

was battling cancer and could no longer continue adventuring), all the female and/ or nonwhite legacy heroes continue on in the Marvel Universe as solo heroes or as a part of various superteams. The coexistence of Marvel’s diverse legacy heroes and the original superheroes conveys a stronger message of social progress than mere replacement ever could. The Marvel Universe shows readers that there is enough room for everyone; nobody has to be replaced just because new versions of something come along. Comic books have never been known for their subtlety when it comes to moral lessons, and these stories are no different. Through the legacy heroes, Marvel presents ethnic and gender diversity among superheroes as natural and desirable. The nonwhite and/or female versions of Spider-­Man, Thor, Iron Man, Captain

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America, Hulk, and Ms. Marvel are never presented as lesser heroes. In fact, story after story depicts the legacy heroes surpassing everyone’s expectations and saving the day, sometimes saving the entire world. Moreover, all the new heroes are explicitly praised and accepted by the old guard of supers. With a few twists in time and space, even the original heroes express their admiration for the newcomers who adopt their titles. The 2017 series of Generations one-­shots threw the original heroes and their legacy counterparts together for team-­up adventures set in the past, the future, or alternate realities, where they could get to know and appreciate each other. Likewise, when the Miles Morales Spider-­Man was still restricted to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, the miniseries Spider-­Men (2012) allowed Miles to work alongside his idol Peter Parker. The story concludes with Peter telling Miles he is “entirely” OK with him being Spider-­Man and that he absolutely has his “blessing.” In The Mighty Thor #4, the original male version recognizes Jane Foster’s heroism and says, “She is worthy. That is all I know. I am still the Odinson. But she is Thor now. That hammer has the power to destroy worlds. Or to save them. Carry it well, Thor.” Similar praise is heaped on all the new heroes by the classic ones. The moral is clear: superheroes embrace diversity and social progress, and so should the readers. Anyone who resists these types of changes is characterized as small-­ minded or even villainous. With the legacy heroes, Marvel seems to be heeding their own advice: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

chapter 3

Q

Superdad luke cage and heroic fatherhood in the civil war comic

The elaborate and best-­selling Marvel crossover events Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” and Avengers vs. X-Men explore issues of terrorism, national security, xenophobia, paranoia, and government corruption in a post-­9/11 America. Large-­scale battles pit superheroes divided along political lines against each other as well as against supervillains and alien invaders, all in the service of protecting America as an ideal while simultaneously questioning what exactly that “ideal” means. The universe-­wide scale of these crossover events was epic comic book adventure of the first order, as every Marvel character and every Marvel series became embroiled in the action. Interwoven with these world-­shattering crises was a smaller, more down-­to-­earth story line at the heart of The New Avengers (2004–­2010) series written by Brian Michael Bendis, one of the prime architects of the various crossover stories. Amid all the cataclysmic events, the leader of the New Avengers, Luke Cage, struggles to be a good husband and father. The story of Luke Cage’s marriage to retired superheroine Jessica Jones, the birth of their daughter, and their struggles to be a family in the face of enormous adversity presents a very specific vision of the American family being threatened by external forces. As befits the superhero genre, spectacular paternal violence by Cage is initially presented as the solution to a family under siege. But as the story line develops throughout the various crossover events, violence is depicted as an inadequate way for Cage to protect his family. While issues of national security in a post-­9/11 world underline the major conflicts of Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” and Avengers vs. X-Men, the story of Luke Cage and his family addresses competing American beliefs about masculinity and fatherhood, ultimately presenting paternal responsibility as a redeeming heroic act in and of itself. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and America’s subsequent foreign and domestic war on terror, there has been an increased cultural anxiety about the nation’s fortitude and ability to protect its citizens. As critics like Susan Faludi (2008), Michael Kimmel (2013), and countless others have argued, these 47

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anxieties are often enunciated in public discourse in gendered terms as a crisis of masculinity. In response to this post-­9/11 anxiety and the perceived crisis of masculinity, popular entertainments have reinvented heroic male characters, often by harkening back to earlier icons, such as the grittier, revamped version of James Bond performed by Daniel Craig, the return of Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), the return of John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), and the assorted muscular heroes of the Regan era played by Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and their like in the Expendables franchise (2010, 2012, 2014). But perhaps the most obvious parable of American remasculinization is evident in the incredible rise in the general visibility of superheroes. Frances Pheasant-­Kelly notes that “superhero characters have become increasingly popular during the post-­9/11 period, offering escapism and reassurance to audience in vulnerable times” (2013, 143). Likewise, Alex Evans argues, “After the fall of the Towers, the superhero became a figure of some focus for those seeking to express their grief, anger and fear in the wake of the attacks” (2010, 120). As this collection of essays attests, comic books since 9/11 have repeatedly used superheroes as wish-­fulfilling correctives to the tragic events of the real world (for discussions of how superhero comic books have addressed post-­9/11 fears, see Treat 2009; Lewis 2012; Geers 2012; Smith and Goodrum 2011). Likewise, blockbuster films such as The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), Man of Steel (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) play out a comforting scenario of powerful men saving the nation—­New York in particular—­from terrorists who have been metaphorically recast as supervillains or alien invaders (for discussions of how superhero movies have addressed post-­9/11 fears, see Muller 2011; Pheasant-­Kelly 2013). The events of 9/11 may have instigated a fear of masculinity in crisis, but fictional superheroes have stepped in to offer reassurance that the American male is still a force to be reckoned with. Superheroes have always been a quintessentially American fantasy of masculine empowerment, so the current cultural fascination with them is a logical means to placate widespread anxieties and feelings of emasculation. Superheroes provide a clear model of masculinity, what Anthony Easthope refers to as “super-­masculine ideals” (1990, 29). Male superheroes are depicted as incredibly powerful, smart, confident, and always in control. Moreover, the illustrations—­and now the cinematic costumes—­emphasize the muscles and the stature of the heroes as perfect male specimens. The Clark Kent and Peter Parker side of the characters may exist, but these wimpy secret identities only stress the exceptional nature of Superman and Spider-­Man. With the first appearance of Superman in 1938, the visual conventions and narrative formula of superheroes were quickly established. At its core, the fantasy of mild-­mannered men who gain incredible powers is a clear wish-­ fulfilling dream of empowerment for the traditionally young male audience. After 9/11, the superhero power fantasy no longer seems restricted just to adolescent boys. It has become a cultural fantasy of hegemonic masculinity, of American bodies either literally or figuratively armored against possible threats. Scott Bukatman

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points out that the superhero is “hyperbolized into pure, hypermasculine spectacle” (1994, 106). Or as Carol A. Stabile bluntly puts it, “The superhero is first and foremost a man, because only men are understood to be protectors in US culture and only men have the balls to lead” (2009, 87). The masculine ideal embodied by heroes such as Superman, Batman, Iron-­Man, and Captain America play out a reassuring fantasy about the eminence of American patriarchal authority that is especially reassuring in a post-­9/11 world. With the exception of Hancock (2008), all the post-­9/11 feature-­film superheroes have been white males. The predominant whiteness of these characters reflects a consistent bias within the genre over the years and in American cultural concerns more generally. As Rebecca Wanzo argues, superheroes link Americanness with whiteness as well as masculinity: “The superhero is an indelibly American invention connoting ideal citizenship through white muscular force” (2009, 93). Likewise, the perceived crisis of masculinity has been, either explicitly or implicitly, divided along racial lines. The default figure of American masculinity has always been assumed to be a white male: Davey Crocket, John Wayne, Rambo, Superman, and so on. But the masculine crisis in post-­9/11 American culture is complicated by a range of issues that intersect in varying degrees with the consequences of the war on terror, including the economic collapse, loss of employment, lower income levels, immigration, ethnic diversity, women’s movements, and the erosion of the traditional nuclear family. African American men, for example, have been presented in the media as suffering from other types of masculine crises relating to continued discriminations, lack of educational and vocational opportunities, violence, incarceration, and irresponsible paternity. Many of these challenges ascribed in public discourse to black men in American culture are the result of racial stereotyping of the worst kind. I addressed how many of these stereotypes of black masculinity are negotiated in superhero comic books in my earlier work (Brown 2001), but in this chapter, I would like to focus on the specific perception of black men as supposed “deadbeat dads.” One of the most publicly debated issues faced by African American communities in the past fifteen years has been the crisis of absent black fathers. A dominant stereotype of black men perpetuated in the media has characterized them as “deadbeat dads,” who often avoid any parental responsibility for their offspring, from failing to spend time with their children to refusing to pay child support. Common headlines like “What’s the Problem with Black Fathers?” (Banks 2011) and “Who’s Your Daddy? The Epidemic of Absent Black Fathers” (Screven 2013) perpetuate the damning stereotype. Likewise, even well-­intentioned projects such as Morehouse College’s conference and report “Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America” (Clayton et al. 1999) and more recently President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative reinforce the idea that black men are less than ideal fathers. A number of critics have sought to challenge this stereotype and to explore the consequences of the “absent fathers” misconception, including the collections Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America (Connor and White 2006), The Myth of the Missing Black Father (Coles and Green 2009), and Bet on

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Black: African-­American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama (Naasel 2013). Though the statistics about black fathers and their role in their children’s lives are hotly debated, a recent report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Jones and Mosher 2013) found that black fathers are as responsible and involved in parenting as fathers in any other ethnic group, and in many categories, they rank higher in parental care. The CDC report received extensive media coverage because the findings challenged the long-­standing stereotype. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Defying enduring stereotypes about black fatherhood, a federal survey of American parents shows that by most measures, black fathers who live with their children [and even those who reside separately] are just as involved as other dads who live with their kids—­or more so” (Reyes 2013). Dismantling stereotypes like the “absent black father” takes time and counterexamples. The story of Luke Cage’s maturation as a husband and father within the pages of The New Avengers offers readers a corrective to this negative stereotype as well as a specific vision of remasculinization based on paternal responsibility rather than just spectacular violence. In many ways, Luke Cage and his family are at the heart of award-­winning writer Brian Michael Bendis’s run on The New Avengers. Bendis’s tenure on The New Avengers begins with Cage joining the team and ends with Cage, his wife, and their infant daughter leaving the Avengers. After dismantling the previous incarnation of Marvel’s flagship team of heroes in his first story, “Avengers Disassembled,” Bendis reconstructed the team in 2004 as the New Avengers. Gone or relocated were such iconic characters as Captain America, Iron-­Man, and Thor. Instead, Bendis included a mix of big-­name characters like Spider-­Man and Wolverine alongside traditionally second-­tier superheroes such as Luke Cage, Spider-­Woman, the Sentry, Iron Fist, Echo, and eventually a wide range of other characters. After a chance team-­up during a supervillain prison break, Captain America recruits Luke Cage and the others to form their own version of the Avengers. Cage, an African American character that first appeared in the Marvel Universe in 1972 as part of a blaxploitation wave in comics, is an ex-­con with unbreakable skin and superstrength. In the 1970s, Cage’s uniform consisted of an unbuttoned yellow shirt and a silver headband; the modern Cage refuses any flamboyant superhero costumes and is clad in just jeans and a T-shirt. Though he is incredibly strong and resistant to damage, Cage is still considered a street-­level hero rather than a top powered one. Cage seemed to many fans to be an odd fit with the Avengers, whose adventures are usually on a global or even interstellar scale. But through the ensuing adventures of Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” and Avengers vs. X-Men, Luke Cage became an integral part of the New Avengers, and as a black character with limited powers and limited financial resources, Cage facilitated a different perspective on the post-­9/11 issues addressed in Marvel Comics. Still, right from the very beginning of the series, paternity was a central theme explored through Luke Cage. In The New Avengers #3 (2005), Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) asks Luke to be part of the team in front of his visibly pregnant girlfriend Jessica Jones. Cage is surprised and says, “%!^^* like this, groups and teams and

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whatnot, never even occurred to me to bother with it. But . . . I sure wouldn’t mind my little girl growing up and hearing that her dad was an Avenger once upon a time. Wouldn’t mind that at all.” Luke Cage’s progression as a husband, father, and superhero within Brian Michael Bendis’s stories is one of the most interesting character developments in the history of Marvel Comics. The serial nature of comics and the generational changes in the core audience of young readers requires that even as the long-­running characters develop each month, they cannot change too much. As Umberto Eco famously pointed out in his landmark discussion of Superman, “The stories develop in a sort of oneiric climate—­of which the reader is not aware at all—­where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy” (1979, 114). In this serialized “oneiric climate,” rife with reboots, reimaginings, time travel, alternate universes, and other industrial and narrative devices used to perpetually keep characters in their prime, real changes are rare. Superman needs to remain in his late twenties, Batman needs to remain a bachelor, Iron-­Man needs to remain an arrogant genius, Spider-­Man needs to remain insecure and guilt-­ridden, and so on. But Bendis’s work entirely redefined Luke Cage as a character, from an irresponsible thug to a protective family man. As originally crafted by Archie Goodwin in the 1970s as Marvel’s attempt to capitalize on the success of blaxploitation films, Cage was, in large part, rooted in racial stereotypes about black masculinity. Michael Van Dyk has argued, “One of the most embarrassing characters in comics history, Cage typified Marvel’s disregard for the cultural effects their images were producing. Like the films that spawned him, Luke Cage served to reinforce the black male stereotype in America” (2006, 473). Specifically, Van Dyk described the stereotype of Cage derived from the films as “a militant, sexually insatiable ghetto tough bent on overthrowing the oppressive white system” (471). Other critics remember the original version of Luke Cage in a much more positive light. Adilifu Nama, for example, argues that despite the stereotypical elements, Cage “is in many ways the most inherently political and socially profound black superhero to ever emerge, regardless of his connection to the Blaxploitation film fad” (2011, 54–­55). Regardless of whether the 1970s Luke Cage (figure 3.1) was “the most embarrassing character in comics history” or “the most inherently political and socially profound black superhero,” his earliest appearances did establish Cage as a hypersexual street-­level character more than as a thoughtful, intelligent, and noble hero. Luke Cage’s stereotypical past depictions are not forgotten by Brian Michael Bendis, but they are rewritten to illustrate personal development. Bendis first utilized Cage in his series Alias (2001–­2004), which focused on Jessica Jones’s noir-­like exploits as a private investigator. Jessica and Luke were acquaintances as street-­level heroes in the seedier parts of New York. In the first issue of Alias, Jessica uses Luke for rough sex when she feels like degrading herself. Luke Cage appears to be cast according to his blaxploitation roots as a hypersexual black buck; he is more than willing to have sex with Jessica (anally, it is implied) when she drunkenly propositions him late at night. Jessica’s internal narration makes it clear that she just wanted

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Figure 3.1

a dirty experience: “Lucas will feel guilty about this. He’s a decent guy and a buddy, and he’ll feel bad about this. But that feeling will pass. Because he’ll look back and remember this was the one night I let him do anything he wanted. And even though he’ll know it’s wrong, he’ll smile to himself . . . But I can’t say that I care, really. I don’t care what he feels like. I just want to feel something. It doesn’t matter what. Pain. Humility. Anger.” Jessica may like Cage, but in their first scene together, she treats him like a piece of meat, a black bull who can dominate and degrade a white

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woman looking for humiliation. Compounding Luke Cage’s hypersexual reputation, in Alias #3, Carol Danvers (a.k.a. Ms. Marvel) warns Jessica over lunch that Cage is “a total cape chaser . . . likes to, you know, those with capes . . . just ask Jessica Drew [Spider-­Woman], and Tigra, and She-­Hulk.” Even after Luke and Jessica are married and he has become the leader of the Avengers, his prodigious sexual past is treated as a recurring joke as earlier conquests keep appearing and flirting with Cage, much to Jessica’s chagrin and Luke’s embarrassment. While Bendis’s depiction of Cage across various series did not ignore Cage’s past characterizations as streetwise and sexually promiscuous, he does quickly develop Cage into a thoughtful, sensitive, and more three-­dimensional character. Readers are provided with an intimate look at the development of Luke Cage through his evolving relationship with Jessica and their daughter. When Jessica tells Luke that she is pregnant with his child, he is thrilled that she is going to keep it and excited to become a father, even if their romantic relationship is still tenuous. During Jessica’s seemingly interminable pregnancy, shown primarily in The Pulse (2004–­2006), Bendis’s second series focused on Jessica Jones, Luke is supportive, concerned, and protective. When Jessica does finally go into labor, the event is treated with all the excitement that befits a superhero adventure (in The Pulse #11–­14) and involves all the Avengers. Luke proposes to Jessica in issue #14, right after the baby is born with a speech that recognizes his love for his family and his desire to redress the absent father stereotype of black men: This is it. This is the life I want and the life I got. In fact, it’s the life I never thought I’d get. An Avenger. Someone’s father. And in love with you. So, that said, do we have to get married? Hell, no. Won’t change a thing and it’s just a piece of paper. But listen to this: we’re two “super hero” parents and this is a biracial relationship. Don’t mean to shock you with that last bit, but it’s true. For some people out there, that is about a million different reasons to hate us all wrapped up in one convenient package. And now we have the Avengers spotlight right up our ass. And you know I don’t care what people think of me . . . but I do know that now we represent something larger than who we are . . . Why the hell does this girl, this perfect little baby girl, have to contend with being illegitimate on top of all the other crap that’s going to come her way because of her biracial, super hero parents?? Why set her up for more? And why I got to be the cliché of being someone’s baby’s daddy when it ain’t the case. It ain’t me, I ain’t that cliché. You’re my life. So I think if we have to represent—­let’s represent who we are . . . I think we should get married.

Jessica does not accept Luke’s proposal until a few months later in The New Avengers Annual #1. Luke is so pleased that he shouts out, “Yo! She said yes!! We’re gettin’ married!” (Bendis 2006, 7), embarrassing Jessica in front of all the other Avengers. The issue ends with Luke and Jessica’s wedding (presided over by a minister who bears an intentional resemblance to Stan Lee) and a touching speech delivered by Jessica about how much she loves Luke despite all the craziness of their lives and how much she loves watching him be a father.

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The novelty of having a married couple with an infant daughter involved with the Avengers is often played for humor, with numerous jokes about jealousy, dirty diapers, lack of sleep, mothers-­in-­law, and arguments over money (figure 3.2). But the realities of being active superhero parents, particularly during the tumultuous events of story lines like Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” and Avengers vs. X-Men, are primarily treated by Bendis as a spectacular threat to the very idea of domestic bliss. Near the start of the Civil War crossover event, for example, the implementation of “the superhero registration act” is portrayed in The New Avengers #22 as a direct invasion and assault on the Cage family home. Moreover, writer Brian Michael Bendis uses Luke Cage’s iconic position in the Marvel Universe as a black hero to draw an analogy between the curtailing of civil rights in the fictional comic book world, the post-­9/11 climate of unprecedented NSA surveillance of private citizens, and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. When Iron Man, the leader of the proregistration side, comes to the Cages’ apartment and tells Luke that if he does not register by midnight, he will be a criminal again and that “they will come to [his] home and they will take [him] out of here,” Luke replies, “Oh, is it Mississippi in the 1950s now? . . . Getting pulled out of your home in the middle of the night for being different is the same now as it was then” (Bendis 2006, 4). When Iron Man disagrees, claiming, “No. This is about breaking the law,” Cage points out, “Slavery used to be a law” (5). Luke then

Figure 3.2

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says a heartfelt good-­bye to his wife and child as they leave for the safety of Canada and awaits the arrival of the military. When they try to arrest him at midnight, Luke fights back spectacularly and makes his escape with the aid of his friends and allies Captain America, Daredevil, and the Falcon. Luke maintains his principles and proudly fights against government oppression for being “different,” but his home is destroyed, and his family is temporarily torn apart. Balancing superheroic adventures and family responsibilities is clearly depicted as difficult to reconcile. To be a noble and idealistic man of action, Luke is compelled to join the battle, even if it means parting with his family. The story of Luke Cage adjusting to married life and fatherhood is primarily a subplot that runs throughout Brian Michael Bendis’s time writing The New Avengers. In the immediate aftermath of Secret Invasion, Luke Cage’s role as a father takes center stage. The Marvel-­wide Secret Invasion event addressed American post-­9/11 paranoia with a story about hundreds of shape-­shifting Skrull sleeper agents that have replaced key military personnel and numerous superheroes in order to lay the groundwork for taking over the Earth. Once the heroes uncover the plot, they realize nobody can be trusted, and infighting, betrayal, and suspicion undermine even the Earth’s mightiest heroes’ ability to fight back. Eventually, the real heroes gain the upper hand, and during the final monumental battle, Jessica leaves baby Danielle in the care of kindly old Jarvis, the Avengers’ longtime trusted butler, so that she can help Luke and the heroes keep the Skrulls from taking over the Earth. But after defeating the bulk of the Skrull invaders, Jessica learns that Jarvis had been replaced by a Skrull agent. Luke and Jessica race back to the Avengers Tower in horror to find that the Skrull-­Jarvis has disappeared and taken baby Danielle as a hostage. Racked with guilt and worry, Luke and Jessica return to the New Avengers stronghold in issue #48 and inform them of the situation: “They got the baby! They got Danielle!” Luke cries. “He could be any shape or size. He could be anyone. Our baby could be dead, alive. We don’t know.” Their teammates try to comfort Luke and Jessica, and they all set out to find the baby, enlisting the aid of the Fantastic Four and other superheroes along the way. But despite scouring the city and roughing up every villain and remaining Skrull they can get their hands on, Skrull-­Jarvis and the baby cannot be found. Luke is so desperate to find his baby daughter in The New Avengers #49 that he turns to the villain Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin), who has become the leader of the all-­powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. agency and has resources at his command after the events of the Civil War that the outlawed heroes cannot match. Luke agrees to register his superpowers and to work for Osborn if he can help find Danielle. While teamed with Osborn’s crew of supervillains disguised as government-­ sanctioned heroes, Luke tacitly condones the torture of Skrull prisoners until one of them finally reveals a secret meeting location where Skrull-­Jarvis can be found. Luke meets with Skrull-­Jarvis on his own and promises not to hurt him if he just hands over the baby. A relieved and tearful Luke holds his child, who smiles at the sight of her father. Then to Luke’s surprise, the Skrull is shot between the eyes by Osborn’s assassin, Bullseye, from several buildings away. Luke reunites Danielle

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with the overjoyed and grateful Jessica back at the Osborn-­occupied Avengers Tower. “This was a major risk,” Jessica says. “You sure this is the road you want to go down?” (figure 3.3). With resolve, Luke replies, “We have to—­we have to do what is right for her. It’s all about her. Everything we do from now on. It’s all about her. I know we knew that in theory, but this is it. This is how it has to be . . . I have never been so relieved about anything ever in my whole entire life. How on God’s Earth would we be able to go on if we didn’t get her back?” Once his family is safely out of the building, Luke grabs a magic crowbar (yes, they exist in superhero stories), storms into Osborn’s office, beats up his henchmen, and declares that he will never work for a murderer like him but that he will leave Osborn unharmed because he did help find the baby. Luke’s quest to save his abducted child from alien invaders, to make a deal (and break it) with the devil if that is what it takes to ensure his daughter’s safety, is used

Figure 3.3

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by Bendis to reveal the emotional stakes that underlie the traditionally hyperbolic superhero adventures. The story line also shifts the project of post-­9/11 remasculinization from fantastic large-­scale, military-­like superheroism to a more specific emphasis on remasculinization through paternal commitment. While themes of paternal responsibility are rare in comic books, it has become a dominant trope in post-­9/11 Hollywood films, particularly as a message about the need to heroically protect the family (especially children) from the threat of metaphorical terrorists. For example, in War of the Worlds (2005), Tom Cruise’s character has to keep his children safe from an alien invasion; in Taken (2008), Liam Neeson’s character has to rescue his daughter from European white slavers; in World War Z (2013), Brad Pitt’s character has to keep his wife and two daughters safe from a zombie apocalypse; in Prisoners (2013), Hugh Jackman’s distraught character has to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a sexual predator; and in Homefront (2013), Jason Stratham’s character has to protect his daughter from the local drug lords who attacked his family home. In these movies and countless other film and television examples, American masculinity is redeemed through the protection of families under siege. Most of the fathers in these films are initially depicted as inadequate in some way. They are divorced, or they are unable to support their children financially, or they are workaholics, or they are immature, or they are estranged from their children. In short, though they love their children, they do not seem to measure up to the cultural ideal of responsible paternity. This early paternal deficiency is not equated with a lack of rugged masculinity; these men are represented as tough, working-­ class guys, several with military or law enforcement backgrounds. But as with Luke Cage, this toughness alone is not enough to redeem their masculinity along paternal lines. Protective, paternal masculinity has to be realized in these narratives not only through spectacular action but through a single-­minded devotion to safeguarding their children by any means necessary. Luke’s bulletproof skin and superhuman strength may be great for fighting aliens, but it does not keep his daughter out of harm’s way. Luke’s frantic search and more importantly the dangerous bargain he strikes with Osborn to find his child are what validate his paternal masculinity. In her discussion of War of the Worlds and other post-­9/11 films featuring fathers who must save their children, Hannah Hamad argues, “These films depend upon similarly contrived scenarios that recuperate failing fatherhood through enactment of paternal protectiveness in extreme circumstances, whereupon the reconstitution of a normative familial unit is not the point of the protagonist’s narrative journey, so much as the revalidation of his initially derogated fatherhood. These extreme scenarios depict the redemption of inadequate fathers, deflecting feminist critiques of masculinity, by positing the male’s fulfillment of the role of father-­protector as compensating for domestic and interpersonal failings” (Hamad 2011, 250). Similar to these action movies, the redemption of Luke Cage’s father-­protector role is the crucial point of the story. Luke’s selfish desire to continue as an active superhero, thus courting danger for himself and his family, is compensated for by his devotion to saving his daughter. This is why it has to be Luke who actually gets Danielle back;

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he is the one in need of redemption. Jessica also has superpowers, knows Osborn, and is struggling to find the baby. But Jessica is consistently portrayed as the good mother who takes care of the baby rather than willingly jumping into whichever adventure pops up each week. Luke needs to learn the lesson Jessica has already accepted. In “Supermoms? Maternity and the Monstrous-­Feminine in Superhero Comics” (Brown 2011), I used Jessica Jones as one of the few examples of superheroine mothers who choose to leave behind their crime-­fighting careers in order to safely raise their children. The choice Jessica makes to remove herself from costumed adventures is harder for Luke to come to terms with. Despite Luke’s speech about having to do what is right for their baby after saving her from Skrull-­Jarvis, Luke continues his dangerous life as the leader of the New Avengers. On more than one occasion over the course of Bendis’s run on The New Avengers, Jessica actually takes Danielle away from Luke in order to keep her out of harm’s way. At the onset of the Civil War battle between the heroes in favor of government registration and the rebel heroes who refuse to sign up (including Cage and the other New Avengers), Jessica and baby Danielle flee to Canada. In the middle of the Civil War, after reuniting with Luke and the renegade New Avengers who are constantly on the run, Jessica takes the baby and absconds to the safety of Avengers Tower, occupied by Iron Man and the other leaders of the registration movement. And again in The New Avengers #22–­24, Jessica and the baby go into hiding after Osborn escapes from jail and threatens to kill Danielle. Each time Jessica leaves with the baby, Luke searches for her and Danielle, pleads for their return, and declares that they mean more to him than anything else. But after hearing Luke promise to put Jessica and the baby first several times and then always running off on some world-­saving mission, Jessica questions Luke’s priorities. In The New Avengers #24, after Jessica and the baby are reunited at Avengers Mansion, Jessica explains her disappearance: “I had to. I’m sorry. Norman Osborn threatened her and nothing was more important than getting her to safety. I had to get her out of here. Nothing’s more important than the baby.” When Luke angrily says, “I know,” Jessica replies, “I know you think you do.” Luke asks, “What does that mean?” Jessica offers a lengthy explanation of why she feels that Luke has not fully put the protection of his family before his own needs yet: Going by actions and actions alone . . . the Avengers are more important to you. Being Luke Cage is more important to you . . . What are we doing here? With a baby? Are you really going to say with a straight face that this place is as safe as any other place in the city? Really? This place? What part makes you feel safe? The angry protestors outside? The Nazi robots? The homicidal mutant with indestructible, retractable claws? Babe, our lives are different now. This baby changes everything. Every time you or I leave the house it’s not like we’re just going to work . . . we’re not going to 9-­to-­5 jobs. We’re going to war. We’re going to fight. When people go to war, by definition, no matter who they are or where they are, there’s a chance they’re never coming back.

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Jessica tells Luke she loves him and wants him to come with her and the baby away from the dangers of being an Avenger. But even as they are discussing what this means for their family, Iron Fist interrupts and calls them to a meeting, where Captain America informs them that they are going into battle with the mutant population and that the fate of the Earth may hang in the balance. Luke kisses baby Danielle good-­bye and goes off to battle again. It is not until near the end of the series that Luke Cage truly comes to the realization that his superhero life is dangerous to the baby. Luke realizes that he needs to do more than just love the baby while still carrying on selfishly with his life of adventure. Luke finally recognizes that being physically powerful is not enough to be a real father-­protector, that beating up aliens, supervillains, and monsters is not the best way to protect his family. In The New Avengers #30, during a brief quiet moment amid the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover story line, Daredevil, one of Luke’s closest friends (who had also single-­handedly saved baby Danielle and her nanny from an army of Nazi robots in The New Avengers #16), comments, “I can’t believe you’re trying to raise a child in all this . . . This life is no place for a baby.” Luke reluctantly admits he is considering quitting the New Avengers: “Something’s gotta give, man. I never had something to lose before. I thought I did, but I was kidding myself. But once you got a baby . . . cliché as it is . . . everything changes.” Luke and Daredevil’s discussion is cut short when they are suddenly attacked by religious race purifiers out to destroy mutantkind. But as Luke fights for his life, images of Jessica and the baby race through his mind, intercut with panels of his struggle. The battle only reinforces Luke’s realization that the most important thing in the world is his family. Luke defeats the bad guy, calls his wife, and walks away, determined to give up being an Avenger. Brian Michael Bendis’s final New Avengers story arc wraps up the popular series with Luke and his family leaving the team. The degree of Luke Cage’s development from street-­level thug to devoted family man is repeatedly made clear in The New Avengers #31. When Jessica fears that the other heroes will be angry with her for taking Luke away, Ms. Marvel tells her, “You let him figure it out all by himself. And though he took his sweet time getting there, congratulations that you have a man who has the ability to figure out what the big-­boy, right thing to do is. Because a guy like that is few and far between.” Even Cage is self-­aware about how far he has come, saying, “I’m not saying I’m not going to help out. I just have to, you know, prioritize . . . Damn, that sounds weird coming out of my mouth, right?” Of course, this is a superhero series, so some mystical threat plunges the team into danger before the Cage family can move out of Avengers Mansion, but the rest of the team forces them to leave for the sake of the baby. Jessica sends Luke back to help their former teammates one last time, and once the crisis is averted, the series ends in issue #34 with the Cage family saying their good-­byes and walking off to start a new—­presumably safer—­life. As they are leaving, Doreen Allene Green (a.k.a. Squirrel Girl), their mutant nanny, sums up the change that Luke has gone through: “It occurs to me that you went from once upon a time being in jail, to being an Avenger, to being a husband and father . . . it seems that both of

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you should be really proud of yourselves for all of this.” The events of Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” Avengers vs. X-Men, and all the other dangers the New Avengers faced between 2004 and 2012 redefined Luke Cage as a character and redeemed him not just as a man, but as a father. The culmination of Brian Michael Bendis’s authorship of The New Avengers, after such a long and tumultuous run, was celebrated with an additional one-­shot comic: The New Avengers: Finale #1. This special issue tied up loose ends and looked back on the amazing events of the previous years, but importantly, it also gave Luke Cage the final word of the series. In reflecting on their adventures and miraculous accomplishments, Cage delivers a long speech concluding with “I realized . . . even with the globe-­trotting, Earth-­shattering, spectacularly colorful lives we have led . . . there’s only one thing I wanted to do this entire time . . . only one thing that will tell me the battle was won. That the fight was over. And that is one day I am going to go for a walk. A free man of convictions. And I said to myself, if I ever get to do that again . . . I’ll know, on that day . . . we won.” Throughout most of Luke’s speech, the accompanying images feature montages of some of their greatest battles against other heroes, against the Skrulls, against Osborn’s supervillain version of S.H.I.E.L.D. But the final two-­page image is a peaceful depiction of the New Avengers in civilian clothes, smiling as they walk through a sunny park together. The focus of the celebratory image is fittingly the Cage family, with Jessica’s arm around Luke as he pushes the laughing baby Danielle in a stroller. The culmination of the series is equated with the development of Luke Cage as a devoted father rather than just a superhero. The victory that Luke values the most is not saving the world; it is saving his family. The epic crossover events in the Marvel Universe in recent years have functioned like much of popular culture has: as a way to deal with the tragedies of 9/11 and to restructure a belief in American fortitude, perseverance, and eventual victory over external and internal threats. Central to this fantasy has been a remasculinization of the American hero. These comic books have provided comforting fantasies of superheroes that can defy the odds and save America from any and all threats. The story of Luke Cage’s development from a streetwise (and promiscuous) hero for hire to a responsible and protective husband and father represents a more specific form of masculinization. Cage’s ascension as a superdad is more important than his ascension as a superhero. Moreover, Cage’s embrace of fatherhood, even at the expense of his own exciting life as a hero, provides a counterexample to the misleading stereotype of absent black fathers. There is a recognition in the way Bendis uses Cage regarding the symbolic importance of utilizing one of the most iconic African American characters in comics as the emotional anchor to the stories. Through all the incredible events, including Civil War, Secret Invasion, “Dark Reign,” and Avengers vs. X-Men, the message may be that America is still tough—­is still masculine. But in The New Avengers, the message is also that to be a “real” man, a real hero, you need to be more than tough: you need to be a good father.

chapter 4

Q

Black Panther aspiration, identification, and appropriation

In the early 1970s, the Black Owned Communication Alliance (BOCA) ran a series of public service advertisements calling for greater racial diversity in the media. One of the ads depicted a young African American boy striking a heroic pose, towel around his neck as a makeshift cape, looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. But in the reflection, all the boy sees is a generic white superhero looking back at him (figure 4.1). “What’s wrong with this picture?” the headline asks. “A child dreams of being the latest superhero. What could be wrong with that?” The copy underneath provides an answer: “Plenty, if the child is Black and can’t even imagine a hero the same color he or she is.” The advertisement is a concise expression of the lack of diverse superheroes and the inherent inequality of heroic models available for children of color during that still tumultuous post–­civil rights era. Much has changed in the world of superheroes since this BOCA advertisement was first published (and, in many ways, much has not changed). There has been a significant increase in racial diversity among the ranks of mainstream superheroes from both Marvel and DC Comics as well as numerous independent publishers. New superheroes of color have redefined the comic book landscape in recent years: the Miles Morales version of Spider-­Man, both the David Zavimbi and Luke Fox versions of Batwing, the Kamala Khan take on Ms. Marvel, Amadeus Cho as the new Hulk, Jaime Reyes as the Blue Beetle, and Kong Kenan the Super-­Man of China, to name just a few. Though the range of ethnicities depicted in comic books is changing, in this chapter, I want to consider the still important issue of identification raised by the BOCA advertisement, specifically in relation to Marvel’s Black Panther. The popular character debuted just a few years prior to the BOCA ad, influenced by both the civil rights movement and the blaxploitation film genre, and Black Panther has recently reached new heights through his best-­selling comic books and the record-­ breaking feature film Black Panther (2018). Unlike most costumed superheroes, Black Panther is treated very consciously in modern depictions as a character 61

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Figure 4.1

burdened by racial representation. The writers and artists of his comic books and the directors and actors from the films are well aware of how important Black Panther is as an iconic black hero and as a positive symbol of African and African American life. Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Black Panther successfully in the movies, indicated the concern with crafting progressive representations of black people when he told Time magazine that a driving ethos behind the making of the film was “How can we be represented in a way that is aspirational?” (qtd. in Smith 2018, 45). Indeed, as one of the most prominent and longest-­lasting black super­heroes, Black Panther reveals the complicated history of race and costumed characters and demonstrates the importance of heroic identification and aspiration both along and across racial lines. Moreover, because the modern Black Panther is an object of identification for fans from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, the character exposes the cultural and political tensions that arise at the intersections of admiration and appropriation. In 1966, Black Panther became the first black superhero in mainstream comics, making his debut as a guest star in Marvel’s Fantastic Four #52. The cover declared, “Introducing the Sensational Black Panther!” over an image of a mysterious figure

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clad in an all-­black costume and cape leaping into action alongside Invisible Girl, the Thing, the Human Torch, and Mister Fantastic. Created by the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the writer and artist pair that had reinvented Marvel Comics and reinvigorated the entire industry in the 1960s, Black Panther was part of Marvel’s efforts to make superheroes more relatable. Though the white creators Lee and Kirby have denied that Black Panther was inspired by the burgeoning radical Black Panther Party that was also founded in 1966, readers have never missed the implied connection. In his secret identity, Black Panther is T’Challa, a prince and later king of Wakanda, an imaginary African nation of tremendous wealth and advanced technology. As part of his royal lineage, T’Challa is imbued with the increased strength, speed, agility, and stamina of a mythical panther god. Black Panther is duty bound to use his abilities to defend his nation and to protect the helpless wherever he encounters them. Black Panther spent several years as a member of Marvel’s preeminent superteam in The Avengers. He then became the focus of his own series, taking over the lead of Jungle Action with its fifth issue in 1973 until the series was canceled with issue #24 in 1976. The character finally received his own self-­titled comic book, The Black Panther, in 1977, which lasted only fifteen issues before being canceled due to low sales figures. Despite some difficulties sustaining an ongoing series, Black Panther became a popular figure with a strong following among comic book fans. Black Panther continued to guest star in other heroes’ books and team adventures, eventually earning a number of reboots and miniseries, including Black Panther vol. 2 (1988), vol. 3 (1998–­2003), vol. 4 (2005–­2008), and vol. 5 (2009–­2010). Most recently, and leading up to the character’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), he has headlined another edition of his own critically acclaimed series Black Panther (2016–­ongoing) as well as variations and spin-­offs like Black Panther: World of Wakanda (2016–­2017), Black Panther: Long Live the King (2017–­2018), Black Panther and the Crew (2017), and Rise of the Black Panther (2018). The creation of Black Panther helped clear the way for several other early black superheroes, including Marvel’s Falcon in 1969, Luke Cage in 1972, Brother Voodoo in 1973, Black Goliath in 1975, and Storm (in The X-Men) in 1975, as well as DC Comics’ Tyroc (in Legion of Superheroes) in 1976 and Black Lightning in 1977. This small wave of black superheroes in the 1970s began to address the lack of heroic images available for black children to imagine as a reflection of themselves. In large part, many of these characters were also inspired by the low-­budget but highly profitable blaxploitation film genre of the time period. Movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), and Black Caesar (1973) expressed and capitalized on racial politics and the desires of a substantial audience to see heroic images of black characters at the cinema. As Tommy Lott argues in his history of black film theory, “Some Hollywood studios discovered that there was a large Black audience starving for Black images on the screen” (1991, 43). Likewise, in his overview of media depictions of African Americans, Ed Guerrero observes that blaxploitation films “were made possible by the rising

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political and social consciousness of black people—­taking the form of a broadly expressed black nationalist impulse at the end of the civil rights movement—­which translated into a large black audience thirsting to see their full humanity depicted on the commercial cinema screen” (1993, 69). In addition to demonstrating the potential profitability of heroic black characters in the media, the blaxploitation films solidified a depiction of black heroes in stereotypical terms as streetwise tough guys and outlaws fighting evil whites and drug dealers in defense of their urban ghetto neighborhoods and racking up plenty of sexual conquests along the way. While many of the black comic book superheroes that emerged in the 1970s mirrored the stereotypes made popular by the blaxploitation films, Black Panther managed to avoid many, but not all, of these limiting tropes. Where Luke Cage was a jive-­talking ex-­con hustling work in Harlem as a hero for hire, T’Challa’s fictional royal heritage positioned him as a more noble and distinguished figure. Though Black Panther has enhanced physical strength, he was not defined solely by his body as a superpowered variation on the old stereotype of the black brute. Instead, T’Challa is repeatedly described as a genius and a scientist—­a thinker as much as a fighter. T’Challa is wealthy, mannered, well-­ spoken, and educated at the finest universities in the West. As Black Panther, he does not have to rely on brute strength alone; he is a trained fighter with magically enhanced abilities. Still, as an African character, Black Panther was aligned with stereotypes of a dark, exotic, and animalistic racial Other. Black Panther’s first solo appearance was in Jungle Action, thus solidifying his association with a particularly rudimentary image of Africa as a dark and uncivilized continent. In his discussion of early black superheroes, Rob Lendrum (2005) notes that Black Panther was often referred to in the comics via racialized terms like “a jungle beast with the garb of a savage cat” (367). Comic books are a medium that has historically been steeped in stereotypes of all kinds; it would have been nearly impossible for the first mainstream black superhero to escape every racially aligned trope and misconception. Still, Black Panther did fight crime, corruption, and supervillains both in America and in Wakanda during his time in Jungle Comics and The Black Panther. Importantly, the character was also treated with dignity and respect by all the more established heroes within the fictional Marvel Universe. A large part of the modern appeal of Black Panther is due to the writers and artists who recognized the groundbreaking character’s racial and political significance. Celebrated black writers like Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-­Nehisi Coates embraced the opportunity to present Black Panther as a complex character challenged by not just supervillains but also the responsibilities of his African kingdom as well as issues like racism, colonialism, and xenophobia. These complicated and overtly political themes established as an integral part of Black Panther’s world in the comics carried over into the character’s feature film in 2018. The modern Black Panther comics also took the character in a range of new directions, including having him marry Storm, the mutant weather goddess who is a member of the X-Men; having his sister Shuri replace him as the Black Panther for a time; and making him deal with alien invaders, tribal warfare, and a

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class revolt in Wakanda. Critics have praised the modern comic book incarnation of Black Panther’s series as “strong. It’s scary and it’s inspiring. It dives headfirst into a conflict without any preparation or introductions, much like any great work of fiction should” (Cardona 2017). And “There’s a deep, interesting cast of characters, a fully realized world, and interesting politics at play. Its vibrancy is also a demonstration of how diversity can breathe new life into old concepts” (Holub 2016). These modern Black Panther scribes have improved upon Lee and Kirby’s original vision of the character by fleshing out his persona and his world as unique among the roster of Marvel’s superheroes. The early depictions of Black Panther in the 1960s and 1970s owed a lot of their success to the character’s uniqueness as the first—­and one of the few—­black superheroes. The twenty-­first-­century version is more popular than ever due, in large part, to his grounding in a culturally specific environment. In an interesting discussion of what makes a black superhero “truly black,” Kenneth Ghee (2013) speculates that the character needs to be “culture bound.” “This critically important variable must be considered before we can determine if an individual Black fictional hero (created by Whites) is truly a Black hero at all,” Ghee argues. “This is also the sociological function of any redeeming hero mythos; that is working to save his own people first, in the context of saving humanity, in other words ‘culture bound’” (231). Ghee insists that just as all superheroes must fight for their culture, so must the black superhero, but where the dominant white superheroes like Superman and Captain America fight on behalf of the dominant white society by default, to be “truly black,” a superhero must focus on defending members of his own community first and foremost. This logic does not preclude saving people from a variety of backgrounds, but it does ensure a connection to black communities and an address of racial issues that affect specific groups. With Black Panther’s modern adventures firmly grounded in Wakanda, his status as eminently “culture bound” is foregrounded. Moreover, as an Afrofuturist fantasy of technological and cultural perfection, Wakanda’s location in Africa does not alienate African Americans; rather, it plays into a magical and romanticized conception of a motherland untouched by outside forces. Afrofuturism is an important imaginative means of uniting science fiction genres with black cultural politics and fantasies. The funkadelic music of George Clinton and the modern songs of Janelle Monae; works from authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nancy Farmer; and films like Brother from Another Planet (1984), Brown Girl Begins (2017), and A Wrinkle in Time (2018) explore black experiences of the African diaspora in the context of speculative fictions. Ytasha Womack describes Afrofuturism in her overview of the genre as a multidimensional “imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens” (2013, 9). In this vein, the incredibly advanced scientific world of Wakanda rewrites an image of African nations as merely impoverished and pretechnological states. The fantastic science is right at home within the superhero genre and echoes the technological marvels that are routinely featured in the tales of Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. The wedding of advanced technology with African traditions allows

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for a world that imagines incredible possibilities for the African diaspora had it been free from subjugation from the outside world. Wakanda, in both the comics and the film, represents a fantasy of a magical and powerful homeland. Despite Black Panther’s newfound popularity in comic books at the start of the twenty-­first century, he remained relatively low profile in a larger cultural context. Characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-­Man, and Iron-­Man are recognized worldwide and have benefited from decades of media exposure and merchandising. Black Panther, on the other hand, was never a household name beyond the confines of comic fandom and some African American groups. But the inclusion of Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe elevated the character to the level of top-­tier superhero. Introduced with a pivotal role in the blockbuster film Captain America: Civil War (2016), Boseman’s performance of Black Panther all but stole the movie from the other, higher-­profile superheroes.1 Then the phenomenal success of the solo film Black Panther in 2018 turned the character into a cultural phenomenon. Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther earned a record-­setting $202 million in the United States over its opening weekend and would go on to gross over $1.5 billion worldwide, making it one of the top ten highest-­grossing movies of all time. Moreover, Black Panther quickly became the most successful film by a black director, scripted by black writers, and featuring a predominantly black cast. As a high-­profile film that embraced its blackness on a number of levels, Black Panther shouldered a lot of responsibility to deliver more than just a blockbuster. “Beyond box office and critics, the people have responded with enthusiasm and raves, attending showings of the movie decked out in African garb or Black Panther cosplay,” noted a feature article in the Daily Beast about the importance of the film to children. “On social media, the unfettered enthusiasm has been met with constant dissection of what the film means and what it gets right or wrong. There’s a lot of talk about representation—­what it means for young black kids to see black faces that are heroic and beautiful, strong and independent, not defined by their proximity to whiteness” (Williams 2018). Mainstream press headlines declared the film a landmark cinematic achievement and an important racial milestone: “Black Panther Is More Than a Superhero Movie” (Atlantic), “Black Panther Is a Triumph, and a Breakthrough Superhero Movie” (Boston Globe), “Black Panther: Why This Film Is a Moment” (BBC News), “More Than a Movie, Black Panther Is a Movement” (CNN). Moreover, in recognizing the racial significance of the film, Black Panther was featured as a cover story in a wide range of magazines, from Essence and Ebony to Variety and Entertainment Weekly, from Rolling Stone to Vogue. The commercial and critical success of Black Panther proves that, as with blaxploitation films, black audiences are still “starving” and “thirsting” for big-­screen heroic images (figure 4.2). As the cover story in Time magazine pointed out, there have been black 1 Many review headlines singled out Black Panther: “Why Black Panther’s Debut in Captain America: Civil War Is So Important” (Dockterman 2016b), “Black Panther Is the Most Exciting Hero to Join the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Years” (Phillips 2016), and “Spider-­Man and Black Panther Win Captain America: Civil War” (Ellwood 2016).

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Figure 4.2

heroes in feature films before, but “Black Panther matters more because he is our best chance for people of every color to see a black hero. That is its own kind of power” (Smith 2018, 45). Most superhero movies are still grounded in a post-­9/11 fantasy of rewriting history so that colorful American heroes can save New York (or Gotham or Metropolis or Xandar) from devastating terrorist attacks (see Costello 2011; Gilmore 2015). But Black Panther charts new narrative and political ground by incorporating themes specific to American racial dilemmas. The central conflict of the film is an ideological one between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) over Wakanda’s long-­standing refusal to engage with other nations. Killmonger regards Wakanda’s isolationism as a cowardly disregard for the horrors suffered by black people through centuries of colonialism, slavery, discrimination, and genocide. Killmonger, who grew up on the streets of Oakland rather than in the palaces of Wakanda, has witnessed and experienced racial atrocities firsthand. With Wakanda’s stockpile of the powerful alien metal vibranium and the incredibly advanced technology it provides, Wakanda could have given the rest of Africa—­and nonwhites around the world—­a fighting chance against their enemies. As Killmonger’s father, N’Jobu, explains to King T’Chakka (T’Challa’s father, the previous Black Panther, and N’Jobu’s brother) when he is found to be involving himself in the racial turmoil of America, “Their leaders have been assassinated. Communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated. All over the planet, our people suffer because they don’t have the tools to fight back. With vibranium weapons, they can overthrow all countries, and Wakanda can rule them all, the right way!” N’Jobu is killed by T’Chakka soon after his impassioned speech, but Erik grows up to pursue the same goal of using Wakanda’s might to conquer the world on behalf of an exploited African diaspora.

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Killmonger declares after temporarily usurping the throne from T’Challa, “I’ve waited my whole life for this. The world is going to start over. I’ma burn it all!” Much of the film’s strength is derived from portraying Killmonger as not merely another crazy supervillain—­like Captain America’s super-­Nazi the Red Skull or Batman’s insane anarchist the Joker. Ryan Coogler’s direction positions Killmonger as an understandable result of his personal and cultural experiences. Killmonger’s ideological perspective on racial injustices is presented as undeniably valid. In fact, Killmonger’s threat to T’Challa ultimately exposes both dark family secrets and the disgrace of Wakanda’s self-­serving isolationism. In the end, T’Challa reverses centuries of Wakanda tradition and vows to help the disenfranchised beyond their own borders. “You were wrong—­all of you were wrong—­to turn your backs on the rest of the world,” T’Challa tells his ancestors when he is on a mystical plane of existence. “We let the fear of discovery stop us from doing what is right. No more! . . . He is a monster of our own making. I must take the mantle back. I must right these wrongs!” Black Panther is the rare superhero film where the bad guy’s goal is shown as relatively justified and reasonable. Still, the film does maintain Killmonger’s status as a villain by stressing the danger of his extremism. Killmonger does not just want to liberate the colonized; he wants to be a colonizer. He would plunge the world into open warfare rather than pursuing peace. As Okoye, the leader of the royal guard, tells Killmonger, “You are so full of hatred, you will never be a true king!” Killmonger’s anger and hatred blind him to any other way, thus positioning T’Challa’s more measured approach to helping the impoverished African diaspora as the truly heroic solution. Where Killmonger wanted to arm African Americans with advanced weapons, T’Challa opts for establishing Wakandan educational facilities in the same Oakland ghetto where his uncle was killed. The film does not ignore the very real racial problems that have plagued our world for centuries, but it does champion a peaceful resolution as the best hope for progress. Black Panther is a landmark black movie, but it also transcends being a movie that appeals primarily to one specific racial demographic. Yes, the film is a celebration of black heroism and an Afrofuturist depiction of an advanced Pan-­African culture, unscathed by a history of colonial exploitation and race conflicts. Yes, the film incorporates sensitive issues of systemic racism, isolationism, financial and technological inequalities, and the logic of resisting oppression by any means necessary. But Black Panther is also an exciting, engaging, and accessible superhero movie full of amazing special effects, well-­choreographed fight scenes, and incredible action sequences. As part of the multibillion-­dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe and under the ownership of the Walt Disney Company, Black Panther is both a significant moment in black popular culture and a commercial blockbuster meant for the broadest audience possible. The cover story in Time magazine noted that as a superhero film, “Black Panther marks the biggest move yet in this wave: it’s both a black film and the newest entrant in the most bankable movie franchise in history” (Smith 2018, 45). Indeed, one of the defining strengths of the movie is that audiences from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds can enjoy the story and identify with the characters. The film has appealed to black and white audiences

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in American and international markets, thus reaching its incredible worldwide box-­office success. Both the film and its titular hero proved a crossover triumph of epic proportions. As a blockbuster movie, Black Panther followed the synergistic, multimedia marketing plan already established through Disney’s promotional achievements with earlier Marvel properties and the Star Wars franchise. The now-­standard avalanche of toys, T-shirts, watches, cereal boxes, soft drinks, hats, buttons, Lego sets, jewelry, and stuffed animals crowded store shelves and were was snapped up by eager consumers, thus generating hundreds of millions more in ancillary profits. “Success on screen can potentially mean plenty of money to be made off screen as well,” the industry website Marketplace noted, thus “Hasbro announced it’s making more Black Panther toys than it has for any other Marvel character’s first movie” (Balonon-­Rosen and Adams 2018). Despite the incredible number of products associated with the film, the demand for merchandise was so great that within weeks of its release, thousands of stores across North America were already sold out of Black Panther toys (Fickenscher 2018), although Disney ultimately managed to meet the incredible demand. This extensive but typical merchandising campaign capitalizes on the desire of fans, especially children, to possess a piece of the fantasy and identify with the larger-­than-­life hero they aspire to be. Disney’s marketing of their superhero toys and costumes caters to this idea of identificatory play. For example, the television commercial for the Black Panther line of toys featured three children, one wearing a Black Panther mask, another brandishing a distinctive claw, and the third using a replica of Shuri’s blaster. “Make way for a new kind of warrior,” the narrator intones, the children leaping, crouching, and shooting Nerf bullets as their backyard transforms into a Wakandan backdrop. “Make way for the hero in you. Be Marvel. Be more.” The commercial begins with a young black male pulling a Black Panther mask over his face and ends with him coming face-­to-­face with Black Panther himself (or at least a CGI version of the character). With this toy campaign, the concern expressed in the BOCA advertisement is finally and definitively countered (figure 4.3). Now when a black “child dreams of being the latest superhero,” that boy or girl can easily “imagine a hero the same color he or she is.” Part of the important power of imagination, particularly in children’s play fantasies, is that it does not have to be restricted to the rules of the real world. Indeed, many nonwhite children (and adults for that matter) have no problem imagining themselves as Superman, Batman, Captain America, or any other character that appeals to them. A mountain of photographic evidence of black fans dressing up as their favorite superheroes, many of whom are white in the comics, can be found online2 and through media coverage of events such as “28 Days of Black Cosplay” and New York’s annual “Schomburg Black Comic Book Festival.” But I also agree with Kenneth Ghee’s point that “a Black child should, at the very least, be able to imagine a positive superhero or mythological archetype and icon 2

For examples, see https://​cosplayingwhileblack​.tumblr​.com, https://​blacknerdproblems​.com, and http://​worldofblackheroes​.com.

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Figure 4.3

from his/her own race or culture instead of always having to look to another culture for his/her pretend play and idolism” (2013, 228). Imaginative play as and identification with superheroes have been proven to help children learn to cooperate and resolve conflicts (Bauer and Dettore 1997), develop a strong sense of morality (Martin 2007), accept their bodies (Young, Gabriel, and Hollar 2012), improve their perseverance (White et al. 2017), and even choose healthier foods (Wansik, Shimizu, and Camps 2012). “Becoming a superhero, flying over the school, helps children develop essential skills for later success,” Timothy A. Kinard (2014) summarizes in his review of early childhood lessons. “Superhero play is not merely preparation for the future. It is a deep philosophical, psychological, sociological, anthropological exploration of life. It happens in the now, but at the same time it is a sustained, timeless exploration of the human condition” (22). Thus it is important that children of color have access to these same values and developmental traits and that they can believe these incredible heroes can come in a variety of skin tones. With the Black Panther movie—­and, to a lesser extent, television series like Luke Cage (2016–­2018) and Black Lightning (2018–­ongoing)—­black children have imaginative access to a wildly popular black superhero and to ready-­made merchandise that encourages identificatory play as Black Panther. The press coverage of the Black Panther phenomena repeatedly stressed ecstatic viewers claiming in person or over social media how great it was to see a big-­screen superhero who looked like them. In fact, because Black Panther was so overwhelmingly embraced by black audiences, a relatively unique concern about children playing superhero began to creep into public discussions: Is it OK for white kids to dress up as Black Panther? Children of all different ethnicities and nationalities were swept up in Black Panther mania and wanted to play with the toys, wear the T-shirts, and don the official mask and costume. But the current climate of racial politics in American culture makes

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something as simple as a child’s “dreams of being the latest superhero” a thorny issue, albeit in reverse of the original dynamic from the BOCA advertisement. In group chats, on Twitter, in blogs, and through entertainment websites, parents fretted and argued about whether it was acceptable for nonblack children to dress up as Black Panther or if it was a form of cultural appropriation. The mainstream press also reported on the concerns expressed by some parents. “White parents are trying to make sure they are not culturally appropriating when they take their children to see Black Panther over the weekend,” noted the Daily Mail, “especially if those children want to dress up like the main character—­superhero T’Challa, AKA the Black Panther. Some parents are worried that allowing their children to wear the Black Panther masks or costumes could be considered cultural appropriation, or even black face” (Miller 2018). Likewise, in a New York Times article originally titled “Who’s Allowed to Wear a Black Panther Mask?” that was cautiously changed to “The Many Meanings of Black Panther’s Mask,” Kwame Opam wrote, “Black Panther costumes—­whether the character’s full raiment or just his claws and mask—­are on toy shelves in anticipation of the film’s Feb. 16 release. At best, the character get-­ups speak to the enthusiastic embrace of a black superhero. At worst, they could be perceived as an unwitting form of cultural appropriation, which has in recent years become a subject of freighted discourse” (Opam 2018). Criticisms about who is represented in the media and how they are portrayed have become standard concerns. Activists, special interest groups, media watchdogs, fans, and even creators have debated issues of appropriation as well as stereotyping, whitewashing, and exploitation. The public debates over representations are valuable and progressive correctives to centuries of misrepresentations and outright racism. Comic book superheroes have a long history of depicting nonwhite characters in very stereotypical ways—­for example, the near-­sighted and bucktoothed Japanese soldiers whom Captain America battled during World War II, the jive-­talking blaxploitation heroes of the 1970s, and the dozens of foreign characters whose superidentities are based on cultural assumptions, like DC Comics’ sexy Brazilian bombshell Fire or Norwegian partner Ice (for considerations of comic books and racial issues, see Howard and Jackson 2013; Gateward and Jennings 2015; Fawaz 2016). Likewise, Disney, Marvel’s parent company, has often been accused of appropriating elements of other cultures for their own profit with films like Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Moana (2016; see Kiyomi 2000; Yin 2011; Samuel 2012). The current trend of live-­action film and television superheroes has also become a lightning rod for controversy by whitewashing some characters, such as the Middle Eastern villain R’as al Ghul in Batman Begins (2005) being played by Irish actor Liam Neeson or British actress Tilda Swinton cast as an ancient Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange (2016). The concern in relation to white children dressing up as Black Panther stems from a recognition of how important and unique the character of a complex, “culturally bound” black superhero is, to use Ghee’s terms. White kids playing Black Panther could be perceived as cultural appropriation or, more specifically,

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as what Richard A. Rogers categorizes as cultural exploitation, “the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation” (2006, 477). Where “cultural appropriation” broadly implies an adoption of the manners, customs, and/or material objects of another group that could include a subaltern group’s use of a dominant societies traits, “exploitation” more clearly describes the practice of a dominant group assuming markers from a weaker segment without regard for historical or cultural importance. Unfortunately, cultural exploitation happens all the time in our society and is based on an unequal access to traditional forms of power. But to lump nonblack children dressing up as Black Panther in with ideas of appropriation and cultural exploitation would be to miss the importance of heroic identification both along and across racial lines. The case of Black Panther and imaginative childhood play is very different from other forms of white people embracing popular culture associated with black artists and communities. White fascination with black cultural forms has a long and complicated history in America. As Eric Lott (1993) has argued, even something as blatantly racist as white minstrels performing in blackface suggested a fascination with blackness at the same time that it was a means to ridicule blacks and soothe white fears of black men. In the modern era, white youths have embraced rap music and hip-­hop fashions grounded in urban black experiences. Drawing a line from minstrel shows to white suburban kids embracing gangster rap as well as hip-­hop fashions, language styles, and physical mannerisms, Bill Yousman (2003) argues, “White youth adoption of Black cultural forms in the 21st century is also a performance, one that allows Whites to contain their fears and animosities towards Blacks through rituals not of ridicule, as in previous eras, but of adoration” (369). But as Yousman goes on to note, while these contemporary aspects of black popular culture forms are enjoyed by white youths through a type of adoration, arts forms like gangster rap, with its descriptions of violence, drug use, criminal wealth, and women as “bitches” and “hoes,” also demonstrate an acceptance of racist stereotypes and beliefs. “Thus, although the motives behind the performance may initially appear to be different, the act is still a manifestation of White supremacy,” Yousman continues, “albeit a White supremacy that is in crisis and disarray, rife with confusion and contradiction” (369). Fortunately, the version of Black Panther presented in the film has popularized a black hero who is a world away from gangster rap or any other limiting stereotypes. In fact, within the dynamics of the film, Killmonger’s language, mannerisms, and political stance echo the style of gangster rap, which is ultimately rejected as an inappropriate position to emulate. Tellingly, some of the film’s creators who were driven in part by the question of “How can we be represented in a way that is aspirational?” expressed their ultimate reward coming from seeing children dressed up as Black Panther. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Sterling K. Brown, who plays T’Challa’s uncle N’Jobu, said he was proud to take his own boys to see the film and to see them dress up but that he will also be excited to see white kids costumed as Black Panther at Halloween because

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that will indicate a real crossover. The film’s star, Chadwick Boseman, agreed and thoughtfully added that he had already begun to experience that breakthrough: “I’ve seen little white kids dressed up as T’Challa. I’ve seen pictures, and I’ve seen it in person. You know, I’ve seen, like, family members’ kids, friends’ kids. They show up on Halloween and they’re the Panther and they understand that I’m the Panther, and they want to show me. People call me and say, ‘We wanted to buy him Spider-­Man, but he kept saying Black Panther’” (qtd. in Wieselman 2017). Black Panther’s most important superpower may ultimately be his ability to inspire all children to overcome assumptions about race and differences. Indeed, this sense of progressive inclusion is essential to the movie’s overall message. When T’Challa rejects Wakanda’s history of isolationism and begins to work for cultural advancement on a global level, his actions are framed as the wise, responsible, and humane choice made by an ideal superhero. T’Challa’s understanding of Killmonger’s justified anger on behalf of the subaltern and his rejection of Killmonger’s desire to rule over the oppressors position T’Challa as a “culturally bound” hero and a voice of change. Where Killmonger sought to reverse the status quo of racial divisions, T’Challa ultimately seeks to overcome those divisions and to unite people regardless of race or nationality. King T’Challa’s address to the United Nations at the conclusion of Black Panther clarifies the moral imperative of people accepting each other despite any perceived differences: “Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

chapter 5

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Iron Fist ethnicity, appropriation, and repatriation

When Marvel announced in 2016 that it was moving into production of its fourth Netflix series, Iron Fist, racial politics quickly took center stage. Despite the critical acclaim and the popularity of Marvel’s previous Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, the details about Iron Fist were overshadowed by concerns about whitewashing. The revelation that white actor Finn Jones would portray Danny Rand, a.k.a. the Immortal Iron Fist, was widely criticized as a missed opportunity to rectify a long-­standing case of cultural appropriation. Focusing on Iron Fist, numerous stories appeared in the press about the inherent racism of Hollywood’s continued practice of whitewashing and the persistence of the “white savior” as a narrative device. Media watchdog groups concerned with cultural representation argued that casting an Asian actor to play Danny Rand, the billionaire martial arts master, would have been a socially responsible way to update a character who has been around in comic book form since 1974. As a case study of contemporary media representation, the live-­action adaptation of Iron Fist exposes many of the problematic historical approaches to ethnicity within the superhero genre that continue to influence current stories. Though Marvel failed to alter the white “Orientalist” fantasy at the core of the character for the first season of Iron Fist, the producers did address concerns about ethnicity and whitewashing in the second season by crafting a corrective story that recognized the importance of racial politics. Following the revisionist example established in modern Iron Fist comic book stories, the second season of Iron Fist directly confronts assumptions of white privilege and cultural exploitation, ultimately leading to an act of symbolic repatriation through the return of an appropriated artifact: the iron fist itself. Both Hollywood and comic book portrayals of minority characters are thoroughly grounded in stereotypes and conceptions of what Edward Said famously referred to as Orientalism ([1979] 1994). Said argued that Western culture has a vested interest in defining itself in opposition to the East. But as Said clarified, the West’s conception of the East is rooted in a self-­serving colonialist fantasy of the Orient as a mysterious and exotic locale filled with primitive natives, a collective fiction that justifies the 74

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Western world’s domination of non-­Western nations and people. “Orientalism” is not a reference to any specific location; instead, it is what Said refers to as “imaginative geography.” In other words, it is the process by which non-­Western places and peoples are narratively constructed in Western representations and, consequently, imagined by Westerners. Historically the fantasy image of the Orient was institutionalized through such mechanisms as travel guides, accounts of early explorers, newspaper articles, foreign policy briefs, and art and literature. As Said put it, “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1). The concept of the Orient as an exotic and mysterious place populated by strange, often savage people is perpetuated in modern popular entertainments. Complicit in the concept of Orientalism is the characterization of non-­Western people in stereotypical modes that reduce them to stock images of exotic Others. Because the mythical Orient encompasses all non-­Western cultures—­and by extension, all nonwhite peoples—­ethnicities as diverse as African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Mediterranean, and Asian are conceived primarily according to stereotypes. The persistence and continued influence of Orientalism as a belief system for defining, knowing, and controlling the non-­Western world and its people still dominates official foreign policies and racists attitudes. Orientalism and the concomitant concept of a diametrically opposed “Other” (any person not like “us”—­anyone different from a Western norm) structure a colonialist logic of Western cultural superiority and a right to exploit and/or dominate foreign lands and peoples. Comic books in general and superhero stories specifically have long trafficked in Orientalist imagery, stereotypes, and fantasies of mysterious Eastern cultures. For example, Milton Caniff’s influential newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates from the early 1930s popularized the idea of the dragon lady, a seductive and evil Asian femme fatale. Both Marvel and DC Comics featured early villains modeled after Sax Rohmer’s demonic Asian character, Dr. Fu Manchu—­for Marvel, it was the Yellow Claw, and for DC, it was the Red Dragon. Likewise, World War II–­era comic books were populated with some of the most dehumanizing presentations of Asians as a yellow horde ever created. In addition to being the source of sneaky and diabolical villains bent on world domination, the mythical Orient in comics also represents a land of mystery, ancient mystical practices, and a plethora of martial arts fighting styles ripe for exploitation by Western superheroes. For both Marvel and DC (as well as countless smaller presses), the East has been a land of fascination, an easy narrative cliché where white heroes can go to learn martial arts and to validate their abilities against ninjas and samurais. Young Bruce Wayne travels the Orient learning the skills he will need to wage his war on crime back in Gotham City as Batman. Daredevil and Wolverine both have a strong connection to Japan and have undertaken numerous adventures in the East. In fact, the DC and Marvel universes have each created mythical Pan-­Asian, vaguely religious, magical kung fu cities that are removed from time and space. In DC Comics, it is Nanda Parbat where Batman, the Question, and Deadman trained; in Marvel, it is K’un-­Lun where young Danny Rand learned kung fu and became Iron Fist.

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From their very inception in the late 1930s (Superman launched the genre in 1938), superheroes have embodied specifically Western and masculine fantasies rooted in a contrast to non-­Westerners and women. John Rieder (2008), Jeffrey Kripal (2011), and Chris Gavaler (2014) all trace the development of the superhero genre to its roots in pulp and fantasy literature that valorized white men in colonial tones, such as the British penny dreadful character Spring-­Heeled Jack and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s creations John Carter (of Mars) and Tarzan. As Gavaler surmises, “The superhero evolved into a reflection of US imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century, and that imperialist past continues to haunt the genre. While personifying empire-­authority in both the British and American periods, the early superhero owes his origin, powers, and plot to colonial peripheries. The superhero absorbs elements of the racial other, disturbing but not overthrowing the imperial binary as a dual identity character who uses otherness to maintain the empire” (2014, 108). The traditional white, Anglo, and male American superhero represents a Western cultural ideal that freely appropriates the skills and knowledge typically associated with the ethnic Other (or alien, often quite literally in this genre) to protect the cultural status quo. In a sense, the superhero is a melodramatic fictional imperialist who takes foreign powers as his own to protect the colonial metropole, be it New York or Gotham City. Though the superhero’s debt to the mysterious East or the Dark Continent may not always be as obvious as Doc Savage’s, the Shadow’s, or Tarzan’s, the superhero is grounded in a normalized story of exploiting Others as a form of Western privilege. “The superhero,” Gavaler argues, “consolidates a myriad of imperial attitudes into a single character type” (108). Derived from a colonial and imperialist history, the modern superhero struggles to balance characterization and continuity with a changing media landscape where blatant Orientalism is no longer as acceptable as it was in generations past. The accusations of racism levied at Netflix’s Iron Fist were widely reported in the press and forced Marvel to rationalize their decision to maintain Danny Rand as a white character. Concerns about “whitewashing” in relation to the casting of Finn Jones as Danny were heightened because the announcement followed several other Hollywood projects that were also in production with white actors embodying Asian characters—­most notably, Scarlett Johansson’s leading role as Major in the live-­action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Tilda Swinton (figure 5.1) as a pivotal supporting character known simply as the Ancient One in Marvel’s feature film Doctor Strange (2016). Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange are clear examples of Hollywood’s long-­standing tradition of whitewashing—­changing Asian characters to Caucasian ones. LeiLani Nishime describes whitewashing as when “filmmakers replace bodies marked as Asian with ones marked as white through casting practices” (2017, 30). The character of Major is embodied as Japanese in both the original manga of Ghost in the Shell, written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow in the late 1980s, and the cult-­favorite anime film version released in 1995. But in the American adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi becomes Major Mila Killian, played by one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading ladies, the blonde-­haired and blue-­eyed Scarlett Johansson. Similarly, ever since the Ancient

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Figure 5.1

One first appeared alongside Doctor Strange in Marvel’s comic book Strange Tales #110 in 1963, the character has been illustrated as an elderly Asian man from Tibet. The casting of Welsh actress Tilda Swinton as a Himalayan monk and the master of ancient Eastern mysticism surprised many comic book fans and was characterized as symptomatic of Hollywood’s tone-­deafness over issues of racial representation. In the superhero genre, particularly in their comic book form, literally anything is possible, including treating race as just another mutable characteristic. For example, Marvel’s mutant character Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock (a.k.a. Psylocke) debuted in 1976 as an upper-­crust white English lady and psychic, the twin sister of Captain Britain himself, Brian Braddock. But in 1989, in Uncanny X-Men #256, through the magic of comic book mysticism, Betsy is transformed into a Japanese ninja as well as a psychic when her soul is transfused within the body of the sexy Asian villainess known as Kwannon. After her transformation, Psylocke became an immensely popular member of the X-Men and remained bodily Japanese for decades. She was also brought to life in the feature film X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) by the Eurasian actress Olivia Munn. Eventually realizing the cultural insensitivity of this type of “yellowface,” Marvel reverted Psylocke to her original white body. In Hunt for Wolverine: Mystery in Madripoor #4 (2018), Psylocke is consumed by a soul stealer and breaks free with a reconstituted version of her original white body. It may have taken nearly thirty years to revert Psylocke’s change in ethnicity, but following the efforts to redress racial mistakes and omissions of the past through changes in Marvel’s editorial approach to diversity, the reversion is a first step in treating ethnicity as more than just another surface trait that can be altered at will. Accusations that included the Netflix adaptation of Iron Fist as another case of whitewashing akin to Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange were technically a misrepresentation. The character of Danny Rand / Iron Fist has been a white American male since his comic debut in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974. Petitioners were not concerned that Iron Fist would transform an Asian figure into a white one, but

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they did hope that Marvel Studios would use the series as an opportunity to alter the character’s ethnicity from white to a more appropriate Asian representation. After all, in both comic books and movies, Marvel has demonstrated an increasing acceptance of racebending characters. As a relatively recent term in relation to ethnic representations in the media, racebending developed out of debates about the racial changes undertaken for the live-­action adaptation of the popular animated program Avatar: The Last Airbender (2003–­2008). The feature-­film adaptation, The Last Airbender (2010), changed the ethnicity of the central characters in accordance with whitewashing. But racebending has become more of an umbrella term for all manner of reconfiguring racial identities, including whitewashing, blackface, and yellowface. Most specifically, racebending has also been used to describe the direct opposite of those terms that indicate a white appropriation of other ethnicities. Racebending is now most commonly used to describe the changing of a white character to one of color. For example, the white Nick Fury of the comic books became an African American Nick Fury in the comics that looked a lot like actor Samuel L. Jackson and since then has been played by Jackson in almost all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Likewise, black actor Michael Clarke Duncan assumed the role of white mob boss the Kingpin in the film version of Daredevil (2003). And as earlier chapters have detailed, Marvel has successfully “bent” the ethnicity of several of their most iconic characters, including Asian Hulk, black Iron Man (Ironheart), black Captain America, Latino Nova, and Pakistani Ms. Marvel. But Marvel Studios argued that, ultimately, they were interested in keeping a sense of fidelity to the comic book origins of the character, where Danny Rand was initially conceived as a paradoxical fantasy: a white man who is a master of secret Asian fighting skills. Marvel was inspired by the popularity of blaxploitation films of the early 1970s to create Luke Cage, who premiered in 1972. Similarly, the interrelated appeal of kung fu films led to the development of Iron Fist in 1974. Blaxploitation and kung fu movies were cheaply made productions but proved a huge success, particularly among urban audiences and minority groups looking for big-­screen representations they could be proud of (see Guerrero 1993). The two genres overlapped thematically and stylistically and were often paired as double features. The pairing of blaxploitation and kung fu movies was reflected in Marvel’s teaming up of Luke Cage and Danny Rand in Power Man and Iron Fist in 1978. Though the origin story of how Danny Rand became Iron Fist has been tinkered with and updated regularly within the comics, the basic premise has remained unchanged. When Danny was just ten years old, his parents died in the Himalayan mountains (in the comics, his parents sacrifice themselves to save Danny; in the television series, their private jet crashes, and Danny is the sole survivor). Fortunately, Danny is taken in by the mystical city of K’un-­Lun, which only appears on the earthly plane of existence once every ten years. Despite being an “outworlder,” Danny trains alongside the native children and quickly becomes one of the most skilled martial arts students. When he reaches maturity, Danny battles to assume K’un-­ Lun’s highest status: the Immortal Iron Fist. Danny defeats all the other students in a tournament and earns the right to face the legendary dragon Shou-­Lau the

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Undying. Danny defeats the dragon and plunges his fist into its molten heart, which allows Danny to become a living weapon by focusing his Chi into a powerful fist. When K’un-­Lun next appears in this realm, Danny returns to New York to find his old life, assume control of his father’s billion-­dollar corporation, and avenge the murder of his parents. In some of the more recent comic book versions of Iron Fist and in the Netflix series, Danny’s return to America is seen as a tragic dereliction of his sacred duty as Iron Fist to protect K’un-­Lun from danger. The producers of the television series felt it was necessary to maintain Danny’s whiteness as a means to convey his cultural alienation from both the temples of K’un-­Lun and the boardrooms of Manhattan. As TV Guide reported, “Marvel execs and Iron Fist Season 1 showrunner Scott Buck chose to stick with the comics and keep the ethnicity of Rand—­a superhero who traffics in Pan-­ Asian myths, legends, and spiritual powers—­a white man” (Malikarjuna 2018). Many of the people involved in the production of Iron Fist recognized the complicated racial issues at play in retaining a white character at the center of a kung fu story. Before the first season started in 2017, there was an effort to address the accusations of racism in the media and to position Iron Fist as a modern multicultural show with a progressive narrative. The series’ lead, Finn Jones, claimed at a press conference, “I am very proud of the work everyone has done on this series, and I’m excited for people to see how we’ve adapted the story. We have gone to great lengths to represent a diverse cast with an intelligent, socially progressive story line. I hope people can watch the show before making judgements” (qtd. in Victor 2017). Finn’s costar, Jessica Henwick, who is of Chinese Singaporean descent and plays Colleen Wing, told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m part of the Asian community, I’m Asian. I’m an actor. If anyone understands the conversation, it’s me. I’ve lived and breathed it.” Henwick admitted it was a difficult decision as an Asian actor to join a show based on Asian culture that focused on a white man. In the end, Henwick chose to sign on because the role of Colleen Wing was complicated and progressive. “When I came on to Iron Fist, it was really Colleen Wing that sold me,” Henwick noted. “I thought it was a good opportunity to see a really strong female Asian American. . . . She’s not a superhero; she’s just an ordinary person who has the guts to fight people with superpowers” (qtd. in Heching 2017). By emphasizing the show’s more progressive racial representations in general and through secondary (but still significant) characters, both Jones and Henwick endeavor to shift the discussion of Iron Fist to a narrative of ethnic and female progress. This defense of Iron Fist’s first season was similar to what Nishime describes as Marvel’s attempt to recontextualize the issue of whitewashing in Doctor Strange. Nishime argues that Marvel sought to characterize the replacement of an Asian man with a white woman as the Ancient One as a narrative of racial uplift and globalization. The film’s producers claimed they wanted to steer clear of the wise-­old-­Asian-­master stereotype from the comic book, so the change to a white woman was meant to be a corrective shift that depicted a powerful female character instead. Moreover, the filmmakers did not want to offend any Asian viewers with tired Western stereotypes, especially since China was a recently opened film

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market with huge box-­office possibilities: “The studio’s public statements frame whitewashing as a corrective to the historical injuries of stereotyping and as a response to the growing influence of Asian markets. Within that frame, the studio can promote itself as an agent for social change by transforming an Asian stereotype into an empowered white woman to move the audience past racist representations and by acknowledging the power of Asian audiences” (Nishime 2017, 30). The studio’s response to criticisms of Iron Fist did not deny the need for better and more representation of Asians in film and television, but they stressed the sheer number of ethnically diverse characters included in the story (much of which is set in New York’s Chinatown) and the strength of the lead female Asian character. Despite these two progressive aspects of the program, critics continued to argue, the series still centered on a white male who becomes the master of ancient Asian skills and the hero of Chinatown.

Season 1—­W hite Savior With the television series preserving Danny Rand’s characterization as a white American male (who also happens to be a billionaire), Iron Fist may not have been guilty of whitewashing per se. But the program does reenact one of Hollywood’s favorite racial fantasies of the “white savior.” In story after story, white Western men are able to easily master foreign skills better than even those native practitioners who have devoted their entire lives to studying the craft. Movies repeatedly portray a white character who excels at adapting to foreign cultures and validate what Edward Said describes as a belief that whites “can imitate the Orient without the opposite being true” ([1979] 1994, 160). The myth of a fallen or troubled white man who finds redemption and his true purpose when living in an exotic foreign culture has long been a clichéd formula. And rather than merely learning the value of another culture, the white man becomes its savior, often protecting these simple people from far more powerful colonial forces. This tale can be seen in Academy Award–­winning films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) with Peter O’Toole, Dances with Wolves (1990) starring Kevin Costner, and Avatar (2009) featuring Sam Worthington as well as in summer blockbusters like The Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise and The Great Wall (2016) with Matt Damon. Even Doctor Strange is a white-­savior film in that Strange is a distraught white American male who travels to the Himalayas and quickly masters the complex mystical arts. Through the power of montage, Doctor Strange becomes the world-­saving Sorcerer Supreme—­despite having studied ancient magic far less than any of the other students at the monastery, all of whom were there years before Stephen Strange even knew the monastery existed. Following the basic premise laid out in the comic books from the mid-­1970s, the first season of Iron Fist is structured around the fantasy of a white savior. But more specifically, Iron Fist is portrayed as a failed version of the white savior story. Through flashbacks, we learn that a young Danny was the only survivor when a Rand Corporation private jet was torn apart over the snow-­swept mountains. Danny would have surely died like his parents if his unconscious, half-­frozen body

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was not found by warrior monks from the mystical city of K’un-­Lun. Despite being an outsider, Danny is welcomed into K’un-­Lun and learns their spiritual and mystical beliefs as well as their elite style of kung fu. Danny grows up and trains alongside his peer, Davos, who is also his best friend and spiritual brother. Ultimately, Danny becomes the best fighter in the city, defeating all challengers, including Davos, to become the Immortal Iron Fist. The sacred duty of the Iron Fist is to protect the gates to K’un-­Lun and to defeat the city’s enemies, a mysterious horde of ninjas known as the Hand. Danny chooses to abandon his post the next time K’un-­Lun is on the earthly plane and returns to America. Davos eventually follows Danny to New York and pleads with him to return and fulfill his duties, but Danny refuses. A chance encounter with Colleen Wing, who runs her own struggling dojo, leads to Colleen and Danny teaming up as vigilantes and also as lovers. Using his Iron Fist powers, Danny does prove victorious in New York, regaining control of his father’s business empire and vanquishing a division of the Hand that was based in Chinatown. Unfortunately, because Iron Fist left K’un-­Lun unprotected, the mystical city is destroyed by its enemies. Grounded in the logic of Orientalism, Danny’s identity as a white Westerner naturalizes a belief in whiteness as inherently superior. “For centuries,” Casey Kelly notes, “tales of white heroism and conquest in foreign lands have sustained misguided beliefs in the superiority of Western culture, the backwardness of non-­ Western societies, and the imperative to ‘civilize’ the world” (2012, 332). Iron Fist reinforces this idea of whiteness as a dominant position through mastery of the “Orient” and its mysterious skills. The story of Iron Fist plays out the misguided logic that if a white Westerner is determined enough (especially a rich male one), he can become the best at anything and everything he wants. For white men, there seems to be nothing to keep him from perfecting even the most complicated of foreign abilities. In an insightful analysis of American martial arts films like Kill Bill (2003) and Bulletproof Monk (2003), Sean M. Tierney argues the films utilize a “repetitive framework of superiority in which the White person achieves and/or comes to possess skill, mastery, and recognition (as well as mastery over and acquiescence of Others),” which, Tierney continues, “displays a colonialist attitude that reinforces Western hegemony” (2006, 614). Danny’s training in K’un-­Lun and his achievement of becoming the Immortal Iron Fist implies the same colonialist attitude about a white character’s abilities to master skills associated with ethnic Others and even surpass native experts. Danny’s mastery of kung fu demonstrates his preeminence as a fighter but also, and more politically important, his advantages as a white and Western figure of privilege. Tierney argues that the easy, seemingly magical way that white protagonists become proficient at martial arts is evidence of how media tropes perpetuate and reinforce an assumption of white superiority, that heroes like Danny (who was already years behind his peers when he arrived in K’un-­Lun at the age of ten) can best natives who have been training their entire lives implies that white superiority is natural and that Westerners have an inherent right to usurp the cultural traditions of Others (figure 5.2). “The ability of the White practitioner to defeat

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Figure 5.2

Asians, using an Asian skill, in Asia,” observes Tierney, “propagates the theme of a ubiquitous, even inevitable White supremacy of global proportions” (2006, 614). White Western characters are repeatedly shown in popular culture to be physically, mentally, and morally superior to Easterners. The colonialist presumption is that Westerners are naturally better at everything and thus able to master the simplistic traditions of other cultures if they only put their mind to it.

Season 2—­C ultural Repatriation Despite the problems and criticisms of the first season, Netflix renewed Iron Fist for a second season with some significant changes. With the addition of a new showrunner, Raven Metzner, and a willingness to diverge from the canon of Iron Fist comics, season 2 (2018) managed to redeem the program with critics and fans alike. The first season received nearly universal derision, but the second season of Iron Fist was widely praised. In fact, the industry website Rotten Tomatoes, which tracks and calculates the aggregate reviewer scores for film and television, reported that “Iron Fist breaks the tomatometer record with the biggest sophomore bump” (Topel 2018). The second season scored 34 percent higher than the first among professional critics. Online bloggers were similarly much more favorable to season 2 of Iron Fist. New showrunner Raven Metzner was credited with fixing some of the program’s stylistic problems from the first season and with creating a new story arc that directly addressed Danny Rand’s problematic relationship with Asian culture. Metzner brought in a new stunt coordinator to improve the fight scenes that were heavily criticized in the first season. The boardroom politics at Rand Incorporated, a major focus of the first season, were expunged in favor of Danny staying at the street level in Chinatown. The characterization of Danny also shifted significantly away from the surfer dude who spouts the fortune-­cookie clichés ridiculed in the first season to a more somber and cooperative persona in the second. But the biggest change mandated by Metzner was the central narrative theme questioning Danny Rand’s worthiness to wield the iron fist.

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The plot of the second season sees Danny and Colleen (figure 5.3), who are now living together, trying to defuse a gang war started by the Triads to take control of Chinatown while also struggling to keep innocent citizens safe from the gangs. While Chinatown teeters on the brink of chaos, Danny wrestles with the guilt of having failed K’un-­Lun and questions his responsibilities as the Immortal Iron Fist now that both K’un-­Lun and the Hand appear to have been wiped out of existence. Danny’s insecurities and self-­doubt regarding his worthiness to be the Iron Fist are exasperated by Colleen (who questions his obsessive vigilante efforts) and by Davos (who is furious with Danny for selfishly leaving K’un-­Lun to be destroyed). Davos feels he has the moral superiority and the cultural right to be the “real” Iron Fist after Danny has failed in his sacred duties. In fact, Davos becomes the central villain of the second season and manages to perform a forbidden ritual to steal the iron fist from Danny. Armed with the iron fist and a sense of moral righteousness, Davos decides it is his responsibility to eradicate crime in Chinatown. But Davos’s ruthless approach involves murdering his way through a long list of criminals and recruiting a small army of acolytes to train as killers. Danny, Colleen, and their ally Detective Misty Knight set out to stop Davos and take back the iron fist. The second season makes it clear that the “iron fist” can be considered a thing that someone possesses rather than a skill that has been achieved by the most accomplished fighter. The iron fist is like a sacred object, a cultural treasure from the city of K’un-­Lun. Danny wins the iron fist, misuses it, loses it, and wants it back. Davos failed to earn the iron fist, reveres it, is jealous of Danny for possessing it, and steals it for himself. By the midway point of the season, the cultural relevance

Figure 5.3

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of the iron fist and Danny’s questionable relationship to it become focal points of the story. When Danny confronts Davos about stealing the iron fist from him in the sixth episode, “The Dragon Dies at Dawn,” Davos criticizes Danny’s sense of entitlement and links it to his status as a wealthy Westerner: Davos:  You should be thanking me. I freed you from a responsibility that had become a burden. Danny:  You spit in the face of a thousand-­year tradition. You didn’t earn it. You stole it. Davos:  You dare speak of tradition after you abandoned ours? You see, Danny, you feel like you can just walk through this world as if it belongs to you. You value nothing because your privilege has afforded you everything. You never had a heritage of your own. A culture you must honor and protect. (Iron Fist, 2018, season 2, episode 6)

Davos directly accuses Danny of being a mere outworlder who never understood nor embraced the true cultural meaning of the iron fist and the responsibilities inherent in possessing it. In other words, Danny’s assumption of the iron fist is akin to the historical practices of imperialism—­of Westerners plundering other cultures and appropriating artifacts. Davos argues that Danny essentially stole the iron fist and brought it back to America for his own purposes, regardless of how important the iron fist is to K’un-­Lun. To the credit of Iron Fist’s second season, the program does not just raise the issue of cultural appropriation in order to dismiss it as unconnected or inapplicable to Danny’s situation. Racked with guilt and frustration, Danny was already questioning his worthiness to be the Iron Fist. Danny confesses that he desperately wants the power of the iron fist back after Davos takes it, but Danny also admits that he may not be the best person to wield it. The story line also clarifies that Davos is definitely not deserving enough to be the “living weapon,” even if he is native to K’un-­Lun and would never have left the mystical city defenseless. Davos’s increasing need for vengeance, his arrogance, and his casual disregard for the lives of anyone who crosses his path positions him as unworthy. Breaking from the established mythology of the comics, the television series offers Colleen Wing as a suitable Iron Fist who is both culturally and morally appropriate. Colleen Wing is Chinese American (in the comics, she is biracial; in the Netflix series, she came to America from China as a child) and has spent much of her life trying to help the citizens of Chinatown. The series also demonstrates that Colleen is an exceptional martial artist—­she is Danny’s equal in fighting and even helps him improve his style after he has been defeated by Davos. Morally, Colleen is very clear-­minded in her values, her sense of justice, and her defense of ordinary people in a city populated by street gangs and supervillains. As Colleen tells Danny, she remembers the importance of what her grandfather taught her at a very young age: “The warrior must always remember what they are fighting for.” For Colleen, fighting has always been to champion the defenseless. In contrast, Danny admits his far less noble reason for mastering the martial arts: “The only thing we fought for in

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K’un-­Lun was the power of the iron fist.” Colleen selflessly works at a community center during the day and defends local businesses from extortion in the evenings. Moreover, the final scenes of the second season reveal that Colleen is likely a direct descendant of one of the most legendary iron fists: the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay. If this proves to be true, it would place Colleen Wing’s cultural roots in K’un-­Lun and suggests that the power of the iron fist is hers by birthright. Importantly, it is Danny’s idea to transfer the iron fist to Colleen once they win it back from the undeserving Davos. Colleen is at first reluctant to assume the responsibility but eventually concedes when she realizes it is the best way to protect people. “I know I did not want this, any of this,” Colleen argues in the eighth episode of the season, “but I am fighting for what I believe in, no matter the cost.” In an act of narrative redemption, Danny’s insistence that Colleen is more worthy than himself to be the Iron Fist allows the series to counter the accusations of cultural appropriation and rewrite the trajectory of the white-­savior narrative. Danny figures out the dark ritual that will allow him to transfer the dragon’s chi that creates the iron first from Davos to Colleen (figure 5.4) and helps her defeat Davos in battle. Danny could take the iron fist back himself but resists. By ensuring the iron fist goes to Colleen, the series presents a symbolic form of cultural repatriation. The privileged white male does not pursue the white-­savior ideology so often repeated in popular entertainments; instead, he admits the cultural specificity of the iron fist and defers to Colleen’s native status as an important component of worthiness. The concept of “repatriation” has been an important issue in anthropology over the last couple of decades, particularly in relation to museum collections (e.g., see Edwards, Gosden, and Phillips 2006). In a broad scope, repatriation refers to the postcolonial process of nation-­states returning ill-­gotten artifacts to their proper owners, descendants, and/or cultures. From precious artworks, to sacred objects,

Figure 5.4

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to human remains, repatriation has been the often slow (and legally complex) act of resituating artifacts to their original cultural position as a recognition of the long history of powerful nations looting from less powerful peoples. Kavita Singh (2010) describes repatriation in relation to the return of Tibetan art from Western museums: Throughout history, as art objects have circulated globally, they have usually flowed in the direction of money or political power. Increasingly, today, we hear calls to reverse this flow—­to send stolen objects or the spoils of war and colonial domination back to their “home.” Most of these appeals “speak truth to power,” as it were, asking wealthy nations, institutions and individuals to transfer objects to poorer ones. Basing their arguments variously on legal, ethical and moral claims, such calls ask—­sometimes centuries after objects were removed, or after political changes have profoundly altered the place of origin—­for their “repatriation,” suggesting that there is a natural home and a natural community that awaits their return. (131–­132)

Though the iron fist is a fictional concept from a fantasy Eastern city, Danny’s efforts to ensure Colleen acquires it is a form of cultural repatriation. Danny, and by extension the makers of Iron Fist season two, return the iron fist to its proper and natural heir. In the real world, repatriation is a crucial corrective to centuries of Western colonial and imperial practices that have appropriated, exploited, and plundered from other cultures. The official return of various artifacts is a recognition and an admission of past wrongs committed by colonial forces. Though the historical damages inflicted on colonized people can never be truly atoned for, repatriation is a concrete step toward redressing past injustices and demonstrates a shift to postcolonial perspectives. To those who are finally seeing the return of objects that symbolize their cultural heritage, the effects can be powerful. Repatriation can help establish a sense of kinship with ancestors (Krmpotich 2010), a sense of cultural pride and vindication (Bell and Collinson 2006), evidence of a proper claim to status as an independent nation (Singh 2010), a restoration of internationally recognized legal rights (Hoffman 2005; Prott 2009), and a justified ownership of one’s own cultural values (Lambek 1996). In a fictional story like Iron Fist, the stakes of repatriation may not be as high, but the narrative still serves as a corrective to the Orientalist logic of the white savior that Iron Fist was founded on. This shift in the second season of Iron Fist to a more complicated portrayal of the cultural issues inherent in a story about a white man who becomes a master of secret Eastern martial arts reflects some of the ways modern comic book stories of Iron Fist have sought to address concerns (without abandoning a profitable character who has been in circulation for nearly fifty years). Writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction retconned much of the ideology surrounding Iron Fist’s history in a new series, The Immortal Iron Fist, starting in 2006. Brubaker and Fraction’s revisionist take on Iron Fist incorporated numerous flashbacks and stand-­alone tales that fleshed out the history of K’un-­Lun and many of the sixty-­six individual

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warriors who have taken the role of Iron Fist. Each of the stories about previous Iron Fists emphasizes their Asian heritage; their adventures in Eastern locations like China, Tibet, and the Middle East; and their different personalities and tactical strengths that characterize each of these versions of Iron Fist as unique. These stories about earlier Iron Fists include Wu Ao-­Shi, the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay, the master strategist Bei Nang-­Wen, and numerous other primarily Asian heroes. This revisioning of the Iron Fist mythology positions Danny Rand as just the latest in a long line of often very diverse Iron Fists. Similarly, Brubaker and Fraction’s second story line broadens the idea of martial artists as “immortal weapons” by introducing Danny to six other current champions (Fat Cobra, Bride of the Nine Spiders, Dog Brother, Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter, Steel Serpent, and the Prince of Orphans) from six other heavenly cities similar to K’un-­Lun. These contemporaries of Danny represent wildly different mystical fighting styles, personalities, physical types, and ethnic backgrounds. This expansion of the Iron Fist world, both historically and currently, suggests that Danny is less of a white imperialist and more of a variation on a diverse martial arts concept. Brubaker and Fraction’s run on The Immortal Iron Fist also linked the depiction of earlier versions of diverse Iron Fists to a lineage of “outworlders” assuming the role in the twentieth century, which leads directly to Danny Rand. In expanding the mythology of the iron fist, Brubaker and Fraction introduce the character of Orson Randall, a white American who became the first non-­Asian Iron Fist just prior to World War I. Orson left K’un-­Lun to fight in the war with his iron fists but was so traumatized by the senseless violence that he refused to resume his position as guardian of K’un-­Lun. For decades, Orson alternated between pursuing pulpy adventures with a band of rogue misfits and losing himself through opium and heroin addiction. The dragon’s chi in Orson’s body caused him to age very slowly so that he appears to be in his fifties when he meets Danny rather than his actual age of well over one hundred. Brubaker and Fraction’s first story arc sees Orson Randall seeking out Danny in order to give him the “Book of the Iron Fist,” a secret history of the sixty-­six Iron Fists that can only be read by another of their kind. And Orson tells Danny the truth about his father, Wendell Rand, who was almost an Iron Fist himself. Orson explains that Wendell had been an orphan whom he reluctantly took under his wing during his wanderings. He involved Wendell in his adventures, taught him kung fu, and told him all about the mystical city of K’un-­Lun. As an adolescent, Wendell, ignoring Orson’s advice, seeks out K’un-­Lun and successfully competes for the right to face the dragon and become the new Iron Fist. In this version of the legend, Davos is Wendell’s closest friend and the runner-­up for the iron fist. And it is in this story that Davos first expresses a native anger about a white outworlder assuming their cultural roles. “It should’ve been me!” Davos yells at Wendell. “You—­you haven’t earned any of this. You breeze into my world and just—­you just take and take these things. These things you have not earned or worked for” (The Immortal Iron Fist #12, January 2008). At this point, Wendell walks away from K’un-­Lun before completing the Iron Fist ritual and returns to New York to create a business empire founded on

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Orson Randall’s fortune in gold (which had originally been taken from K’un-­Lun by Orson’s father). Other modern Iron Fist comic book stories have similarly confronted the inherent themes of Orientalism, colonialism, and assumptions of racial privilege. For example, in Iron Fist: The Living Weapon (2014–­2015), written and illustrated by Kaare Kyle Andrews, Brenda, a reporter who has just slept with Danny, tells him what people say about him: “That you’re a white male billionaire super hero in New York City. That it doesn’t get more privileged than that.” Danny admits the fact of his privileged status but also defends his relationship to Eastern cultures in contrast to his father’s despotic business practices. “I came back wanting to share the Eastern ways. Not own them,” Danny explains. “My father and his business partner built an empire by exploiting the natural resources of Asia. No one wants to ask about the thousands of families they displaced. The temples and farms they destroyed. They just ask about the money” (issue #4, July 2014). And just a few issues later, in Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #8 (November 2014), a random kid on the streets of New York confronts Danny, asking, “Hey, Aren’t you that super hero guy? With the goofy costume? Why are only millionaires allowed to be super heroes?” At a loss, Danny tells the boy, “We can all be heroes in some way. I drive soup to the homeless on weekends. Used to, anyways . . .” “My dad needs a job, not soup,” the kid points out and then walks away from Danny, shouting, “Why don’t you meditate on that? . . . Suck it, karate-­man!” Though Danny Rand as Iron Fist is firmly grounded in the white-­savior mythology that represents some of the worst characteristics of appropriation inherent in Orientalism, Marvel’s most recent takes on the character both in comics and on television have strived to question and redress some of these basic assumptions. Without abandoning a profitable superhero, Marvel is trying to shift his significance in relation to Asian cultures and to elevate nonwhite heroes through a broader Iron Fist mythology.

chapter 6

Q

Totally Awesome Asian Heroes versus Stereotypes Nonwhite characters in superhero comics have historically been overdetermined by racial stereotypes. Asian figures have suffered some of the worst representations as Fu Manchu–­style villains, yellow hordes, or bucktoothed Japanese or Vietcong soldiers. Even when Asian characters have been portrayed in a more heroic light, they are often stereotyped as martial arts masters, mathematical savants, or ancient mystics. But Marvel’s recent diversification of their comic book heroes has led to a number of Asian American characters that directly challenge some of the most basic stereotypes. The Korean American characters Amadeus Cho as the Hulk and Cindy Moon as Silk represent a new era for Asian American superheroes. This chapter focuses on the evolution of Marvel’s heroic Asian characters, including early occurrences such as Jimmy Woo in the 1950s and Shang-­Chi in the 1970s, both of whom have been revived and reimagined for a twenty-­first-­century audience, as well as the modern Asian American superheroes the (new) Hulk and Silk, who represent a mainstreaming of Asian heroes and are used to readdress past depictions without discounting their influence or importance. Though Asian American stereotypes keep shifting and transforming to reflect emerging cultural and political changes, the overall characterization of Asians in the American media has remained relatively stable. A central theme in Asian stereotyping has been a focus on gender as a sign of deviance. Qin Zhang summarizes the dominant stereotypes: “Asian women are frequently depicted in contradictory stereotypes, either as silent, humble, obedient, exotic and hypersexualized dolls, or as evil, deceitful, seductive, and ruthless dragon ladies. Asian men, on the other hand, are often portrayed as culturally ignorant, effeminate, asexual, isolated, and subservient martial artists or cunning villains” (2010, 20–­21). Similarly, Maxwell Leung (2013) argues, “Popular culture has long portrayed Asian American men as geniuses, overachievers, computer geeks, or nerds. They’re shy and docile, humble and passive. If Asian American women are presented as exotic and hypersexualized, men are rendered effete, weak, and physically and sexually inferior. . . . Such 89

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representations leave Asian Americans to struggle against broad stereotypes that are as inaccurate as they are negative—­especially in a culture that prizes traditional masculinity” (2013, 54). The explicit gender division between how Asian men and Asian women are depicted has always been at the crux of representational issues. The gendered implications of Asian stereotypes remain particularly crucial to the characterization of modern Asian American superheroes like Amadeus Cho’s Hulk and Cindy Moon’s Silk. Superhero comic books have always been preoccupied with gender ideals, with supermen and wonder women featured in every story. Costumed crime fighters present an extreme image of hegemonic masculinity and male bodies: powerful, muscular, handsome, resourceful, impenetrable, and undefeatable. Likewise, superheroines are portrayed primarily as male fantasies about ideal women: beautiful, curvy, seductive, and confident but also mostly deferential to the male heroes. As Anna Peppard has summarized, “Whereas male superheroes tend to display exaggerated power characteristics, such as muscles, female superheroes tend to display exaggerated sexual characteristics, such as breasts and buttocks, which their bodies are frequently contorted to display at the same time (in what is colloquially known as the ‘broke back pose’). The sexual objectification of female superheroes has long been a convention of the superhero genre” (2017, 107). The stereotype of Asian men as failing to meet the physical standards of white Western masculinity, a standard personified with the typical male superhero, places the very idea of an Asian superhero in an unusual representative bind that has only begun to be reworked. Conversely, the fetishistic stereotype of Asian women aligns all too well with the feminine standards assumed for superheroines and continues to doubly mark Asian superheroines as excessively sexual.

Fu Manchu versus the “Good Asian” Media stereotypes of Asian Americans have evolved as Western culture has become increasingly sensitive to racial politics and various forms of discrimination. Such explicitly racist conceptions as the yellow peril, gooks, Chinks, Japs, and coolies have been derided as unfortunate historical beliefs essentially purged from modern culture (though anybody who has been discriminated against based on ethnicity will point out how prevalent these racist ideologies still are). Historically, Marvel has been guilty of reproducing some of the worst Asian stereotypes among their cadre of villains. The most obvious of these lamentable bad guys are Yellow Claw, Fu Manchu, and the Mandarin. All three of these nefarious nasties are clearly patterned after British novelist Sax Rohmer’s archetypal Dr. Fu Manchu character who first appeared in the 1913 book The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, matching wits with the British colonial hero Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Rohmer’s initial description of Fu Manchu cast him as a devilish personification of Western fears: “Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, high-­shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-­shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-­green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in

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one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—­which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-­Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man” (Rohmer 1913). Fu Manchu became an immediate success and went on to headline thirteen more books in Rohmer’s popular series and was adapted into numerous radio programs, stage plays, and feature films. Movies like The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) featuring Boris Karloff and the 1960s series of films starring Christopher Lee as the titular villain beginning with The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) established a visual image of the character clad in stereotypical Chinese robes, with dark slits for eyes, a signature long and wispy mustache, and talon-­like fingernails. The fact that both Karloff and Lee were closely aligned with horror movies and were white actors who donned “yellowface” makeup to play Fu Manchu compounds the negative and devaluing associations linked with a threatening Asian character. Moreover, the devious visual representation of Fu Manchu—­Asian robes, ornate hats, and fawning mannerisms—­implied a feminine, almost campy quality that further reinforced an emasculating image of Asian men. Through the first half of the twentieth century, Rohmer’s pulpy Dr. Fu Manchu and his many imitators (including Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, James Bond’s Dr. No, and later Batman’s Ra’s al Ghul) exemplified the insidious Oriental stereotype. Fu Manchu was a criminal and scientific mastermind who attacked the West and its representatives through his minions. He was ruthless, devious, sadistic, and inscrutable, using manipulation, modern technology, and ancient mysticism in equal measures to wreak havoc on the world. Fu Manchu’s ultimate goal was world domination and demonstrating the superiority of traditional Chinese culture. In her analysis of the Fu Manchu image, Tina Chen (2002) argues that the character’s lurid popularity in both Britain and the United States “established Fu Manchu as one of the most enduring stereotypes of Asian villainy” (221). The pervasiveness of Fu Manchu provided an anchoring point for racist beliefs about Asia and Asians at the same time the narratives bolstered a faith in heroic white men ensuring the triumph of the West over foreign threats. The social, political, and ideological implications of the Fu Manchu stereotype have been explored from a number of perspectives. I do not wish to rehash the obvious negative aspects of this stereotype as it appeared in Marvel comic books in different eras. What I do want to emphasize in this chapter is how the specter of Fu Manchu functioned in Marvel stories to develop more progressive images of Asian characters and has inadvertently led to a number of modern Asian American superheroes often defined in contradistinction to established stereotypes. First appearing in 1956, Marvel’s Yellow Claw was a Chinese supervillain clearly patterned after Fu Manchu. Indeed, The Yellow Claw was the title of Sax Rohmer’s 1915 novel in which he imitated his own success with the figure of an evil Asian mastermind. The cover for the first issue of the Yellow Claw comic book depicts the character as a familiar Oriental visage, complete with a Fu Manchu mustache and ornamental robes, reaching his clawed hand out to destroy an American city.

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While Yellow Claw perpetuated the evil-­Asian-­mastermind stereotype and carried it into an era of burgeoning cold war politics, the short-­lived series importantly introduced the heroic Oriental counter: FBI Special Agent Jimmy Woo. A groundbreaking character for the 1950s, Jimmy Woo is depicted as a fully assimilated, modern, and Westernized Asian American hero. Woo is a positive representation meant to offset, or balance, the egregiously negative portrayal of Yellow Claw (figure 6.1). The more positive depiction of Jimmy Woo helped construct a postcolonial and post–­World War II fantasy image of America as a land of tolerance and acceptance. As Ruth Mayer (2014) notes in her analysis of the media serialization of Fu Manchu types, Jimmy Woo shifted representational strategies: “The enactment of the ‘evil Chinaman’ is affected by the emergence of its comics counterpart—­the ‘good Asian American.’ At the time, this figure is specific to the comics, because sympathetic Asian characters of strong standing and significance are few and far between in the 1950s and 1960s literary, filmic, or radio narratives about Fu Manchu and his clones. Thus, the ‘good Asian American’ introduces an intriguing variation to the yellow peril core narrative while by no means rupturing its overall coherence” (128–­129). In other words, Yellow Claw reinforced and capitalized on the stock figure of a devilish Asian menace, but the series also developed an alternative Asian type, the “good Asian American” Jimmy Woo. As a stalwart FBI agent, Woo upheld and validated American superiority, while as an Asian American, he simultaneously glorified the idea of assimilation. Though the Yellow Claw series lasted less than a year, Jimmy Woo does hold the distinction of being the first Asian American FBI character in comic books. Both Yellow Claw and Jimmy Woo remained important figures in the Marvel Universe, making guest appearances in other superhero titles. And most significantly, Jimmy Woo was cast as the team leader in the cult-­favorite Agents of Atlas series (2006–­2007, 2009, and 2015), where Woo and his sci-­fi cohorts would battle Yellow Claw and other would-­be world dominators. Ruth Mayer argues that in the original Yellow Claw series, Jimmy Woo is increasingly “deracialized” from the second issue on, with his whiter skin tone, Western suits, and American speech patterns directly contrasted with the caricatures of Yellow Claw and his thugs. Mayer rightly points out that, as a wholly original character, Jimmy Woo is not as overdetermined by racist portrayals. First and foremost, Woo is Asian American. “His performance throughout the 1950s and 1960s is marked by the features of ordinariness and normality,” Mayer observes. “He may be the first Asian FBI agent in an American comic book, but otherwise he does not stand out but rather blends in” (2014, 132). In a comic book world where most heroes are eminently visible, clad in flashy costumes and yielding spectacular powers, Jimmy Woo is a hero marked by blending in, not standing out as hero nor as an Asian, but passing as an Americanized, suit-­and-­tie-­wearing agency man. For the 1950s, Jimmy Woo was a remarkable Asian character in comics. He was the direct antithesis of Yellow Claw’s image of Asians as dastardly villains, steeped in ancient mysticism, clad in traditional garments, and bent on destroying

Figure 6.1

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the West. Jimmy Woo was a top-­notch American agent who just happened to be Asian as well. Woo was thoroughly modern—­using guns and FBI technology, not martial arts or “Chinese tricks.” Always illustrated as well dressed in his black suit and tie, Jimmy Woo fit the generic mold of 1950s corporate and conformist masculinity. Jimmy Woo was clearly Asian, but he also resembled the besuited icons of masculinity from the movies of the time, famously embodied by such actors as Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson. In his discussion of 1950s masculinity, Steven Cohan describes the image of well-­tailored men in suits reflecting “the exquisite contradiction of fifties conformity” and symbolizing the “middle-­class professional, whose values had come to dominate the entire culture during the postwar era” (1997, 19). As an FBI agent, Jimmy Woo’s Western suits and corporate professionalism visually implied his assimilation to a middle-­class American ideal of conformity. Yellow Claw’s grandniece Suwan plays an important role as the only Asian female character to appear in the original 1950s clashes with Jimmy Woo. Suwan was raised by Yellow Claw to become the eventual heir to his evil empire. She initially appears to be every bit the stereotypical dragon lady. Suwan is illustrated as beautiful but stern, a seductress always attired in a traditional body-­hugging red-­and-­gold cheongsam dress and high heels. But despite being devoted to Yellow Claw and his mission, Suwan falls in love with Jimmy Woo at first sight. Suwan does not want to betray her great-­uncle but repeatedly passes on information to Woo in order to save his life. Though their relationship is never fully developed in the initial run, Suwan’s affections for Woo reinforces his masculinity and his heterosexuality. Suwan’s characterization and her being torn between Yellow Claw and Jimmy Woo redeem her from being merely another dragon lady. Suwan was a far cry from Fu Manchu’s daughter, who was depicted in the Karloff film as a sadistic torturer who revels sexually in lashing the white male hero. She was a woman who seemed willing to forsake her uncle’s ancient goals for the love of a modern Americanized Asian man. The romance in Yellow Claw is nearly identical to the familiar trope also seen when Ming the Merciless’s daughter, Princess Aura, falls for Flash Gordon and Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia, falls for Batman, except the object of Suwan’s affections is not a white man. Where Jimmy Woo’s contrast to Yellow Claw’s version of the Fu Manchu / yellow peril threat positioned him as a prototypical “model minority” stereotype, Marvel’s next most prominent foray into an Asian-­led series was steeped in exoticism. Seeking to benefit from the kung fu craze popularized in America initially by Bruce Lee movies, Marvel introduced the Chinese character of Shang-­Chi at the end of 1973 in Special Marvel Edition #15, just three months before the debut of white martial artist Iron Fist in Marvel Premiere #15 (1974; see chapter 5). Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, who were inspired by the television series Kung Fu (1972–­1975), Marvel acquired the rights to Fu Manchu and structured the series around the conflict between the seminal villain and his son, Shang-­Chi. The premise is that Fu Manchu raised Shang-­Chi in solitude, enlisting teachers from across Asia to shape Shang-­Chi into the world’s greatest kung fu master and

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Fu Manchu’s worthy heir. Eventually, Shang-­Chi learns of his father’s despicable plans for conquering the West and vows to defeat him. Shang-­Chi becomes a British special agent working for MI6 (tapping into the popularity of the James Bond formula as well—­much like Bruce Lee’s 1973 Hollywood breakthrough Enter the Dragon), under the guidance of the very proper surrogate father figure Sir Denis Nayland Smith. The character of Shang-­Chi proved popular, and within three issues, the series was officially retitled The Hands of Shang-­Chi: Master of Kung Fu, eventually shortened to just Master of Kung Fu, and ran from 1974 to 1983. Shang-­Chi also starred in several later solo series and one-­shots as well as temporarily becoming a member of the Avengers and Heroes for Hire. Master of Kung Fu revisited the narrative balance between a villainous Chinese figure and a truly heroic one that was established nearly two decades earlier in Yellow Claw. But with Shang-­Chi modeled on the kung fu characters seen in low-­ budget Hong Kong films (much like how Black Panther and Luke Cage were similarly inspired by the concurrent phenomena of blaxploitation films; see chapters 3 and 4), Shang-­Chi was very different in tone from Jimmy Woo. Almost exclusively depicted in his red-­and-­gold kung fu robes (routinely derided within the stories as his “pajamas”), barefoot and with a red bandana around his head, Shang-­Chi was both literally and symbolically unassimilated. Though he fought for the West, Shang-­Chi was Chinese, not Asian American. He was marked as an exotic Other, undoubtedly heroic but with suggestions of a noble savage. Shang-­Chi’s exoticism was, in many ways, the inverse of Jimmy Woo’s “blending in.” Citing Shang-­Chi in relation to evolving images of Asian men, Jachinson Chan (2001) stresses his persistent depiction as an outsider: “Shang-­Chi’s character is marginalized from the other characters not because of his supernatural abilities or ideologies that subvert mainstream society: rather, he is situated on the margins of society because of cultural differences” (108). A significant part of the character’s romantic allure is that Shang-­Chi is both an outsider and a “good Asian.” He uses his impressive and mysterious Chinese martial arts on behalf of the West against the quintessential figure of an impending yellow peril. The retention of Shang-­Chi’s distinctly Asian appearance and characterization reflected the dominant martial artist stereotype of Asian men that dominated early to mid-­1970s American popular culture. Kung fu was omnipresent on television, in movies, and even in pop songs such as Carl Douglas’s number-­one hit of 1974, “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.” Though the kung fu master is still a stereotype of Orientalism (in Edward Said’s terminology), it does reflect a more positive admiration for at least some aspects of Chinese culture. John Kuo Wei Tchen (2010) distinguishes between the double-­edged sides of stereotyping as “Orientalist-­phobia” and “Orientalist-­philia,” representing the interrelated ideas of a fearful yellow peril and an idealization of foreign cultures. In different terms, Olivia Khoo’s (2007) analysis of media images in the Chinese diaspora demarcates primitivism from exoticism: “Primitivism, as a particular representational practice, constructs its objects as the subalterns and the oppressed classes, whereas exoticism mythologises and reifies the more positive and successful, enviable and

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utopic, aspects of Other societies” (3). The overarching narrative of Master of Kung Fu managed to have its cake and eat it too; Asia was still a clear threat to Western culture through Fu Manchu, but through Shang-­Chi, Asia was also presented as a desirable character and noble protector. In addition to the general fascination with all things kung fu in the 1970s, Shang-­ Chi also proved popular in the comics because a kung fu master with an archenemy bent on world domination fit seamlessly into a world of superheroes (figure 6.2). Shang-­Chi’s incredible martial arts skills were essentially a superpower on par with those wielded by numerous other Marvel heroes. As a superhero, Shang-­Chi represented more than just a “good Asian” character; he also conformed to the superhero’s image of hypermasculinity. Like all superheroes, Shang-­Chi is tough, powerful, relatively impenetrable, and able to defeat all challengers in physical combat. Furthermore, Shang-­Chi’s performance of ideal masculinity is reflected in his heavily muscled body (he is often illustrated shirtless in order to emphasize his bulging muscles), and his sexuality is confirmed by the beautiful women who pursue him. Contrary to the effeminate or asexual stereotype of Asian men, Shang-­Chi presents an exaggerated alternative. Jachinson Chan (2001) singles out Shang-­Chi as one of the most effective counterstereotypes in his discussion of evolving images of Asian masculinity: “Shang-­Chi, with the help of his female companions, reinforces the mainstream conception of a manly man. Shang-­Chi flaunts his muscular upper body much as Bruce Lee does in his films. However,

Figure 6.2

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his masculinity is unambiguously heterosexual: the women he meets are always attracted to him. . . . Shang-­Chi’s exaggerated upper body musculature and his mastery of kung fu complete the socially determined definition of a man” (101). Shang-­Chi, like Bruce Lee in the movies, is an early challenge to the stereotypical asexual or feminized image of Asian men. Master of Kung Fu also introduced the important character of Leiko Wu, a British woman of Chinese descent who is an integral part of Shang-­Chi’s MI6 team. Leiko Wu is a fully assimilated character dedicated to defending the West from any threats. Wu’s ethnicity, in and of itself, is never characterized as an issue for her. Wu is initially strong, confident, independent, and capable—­a top agent in an elite British organization. Unfortunately, Wu’s autonomy decreases as the series goes on as she becomes Shang-­Chi’s lover and is repeatedly in need of being saved by him. Leiko Wu does contribute to the team’s repeated successes, but her importance as an agent is secondary to her role as a romantic partner. As Jachinson Chan argues, “Because Leiko Wu is Shang-­Chi’s primary companion, she functions as a vehicle for solidifying Shang-­Chi’s heteromasculine identity” (2001, 106). While Wu’s primary function as the comic series’ lone female is to be Shang-­Chi’s girlfriend and thus to bolster his masculinity, she is also portrayed as a hypersexual character in a more general sense. Though she is not a dragon lady, using her sexuality to seduce and defeat her enemies, Wu does run the risk of reinforcing fantasies of Asian women as promiscuous. Leiko Wu was certainly illustrated in the exaggerated sexual manner that most female characters were drawn in the 1970s (and beyond). Her long legs and noticeable curves were highlighted in body-­hugging outfits with ample glimpses of cleavage. There were also several near-­nude scenes that dwelled on Leiko’s body parts, such as when Shang-­Chi first meets her as she emerges naked from a bath, flirtatiously asking him to pass her a towel. Moreover, Leiko Wu’s unbridled sexuality is not reserved just for Shang-­Chi. Throughout the course of the series, she sleeps with a number of other men as well, including Clive Reston, another member of their team.

Life beyond Fu Manchu Though Jimmy Woo’s initial adventures ended in 1955 and Shang-­Chi’s series wrapped up in 1983, both characters remained important Marvel properties and occasionally made guest appearances in other titles, and both have been updated for the twenty-­first century. Jimmy Woo and Yellow Claw underwent revision in writer Jeff Parker’s miniseries Agents of Atlas (2006–­2007) and its follow up Agents of Atlas vol. 2 (2009–­2010). Rather than ignore the outdated stereotype embodied by Yellow Claw, Parker’s initial story line addressed the cliché directly in order to rewrite it. In the initial Agents of Atlas, a comatose elderly Jimmy Woo is rescued by three members of his old team—­Gorilla Man, the alien Marvel Boy, and the killer robot M-11—­who use space technology to return Woo to his youthful 1950s self. Woo assembles the rest of his team (Venus and Namorita), and they set out to defeat Yellow Claw, who has amassed an evil empire under the corporate banner

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of “Atlas.” Ultimately, the story reveals that Yellow Claw (or “Golden Claw,” as he now prefers to be called) was only ever playing the part of a Fu Manchu–­style villain to exploit racist stereotypes and to make Jimmy appear to be an ideal Americanized Asian hero in contrast. As it turns out, Jimmy Woo is a rightful descendent of Genghis Khan, and Yellow Claw’s schemes were only designed to challenge Jimmy and help mold him into a great leader. Yellow Claw voluntarily goes to his death, and Jimmy Woo takes over the vast Atlas organization and sets out to use it as a force for good in the world. While Jimmy Woo is returned to his youthful heroism, and Yellow Claw is somewhat redeemed, the character of Suwan is not as fortunate. The final story arc of the second volume of Agents of Atlas reveals that Suwan has also remained young and beautiful since the 1950s, but she has become the supervillain Jade Claw, who rules over the Pacific Rim evil Asian organization the Wall. Suwan no longer cares for Jimmy, though she is more than willing to use her sexuality against him. Suwan has become a power-­crazed dragon lady who Jimmy must defeat to prove his American ways are the best. Like Jimmy Woo, Shang-­Chi is openly recognized in the Marvel Universe as a historically important Asian character. At various times, since the cancellation of his own series, Shang-­Chi has been featured prominently in adventures with the Secret Avengers, Iron Fist, Spider-­Man, Heroes for Hire, and Domino. He has also headlined his own updated adventures in one of Marvel’s experimental “Mature Readers Only” MAX miniseries, Shang-­Chi: Hellfire Apocalypse, in 2002, as well as in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (2014). Many of the modern stories involving Shang-­ Chi revolve around reconfiguring his past. For example, in the “Eyes of the Dragon” story from Secret Avengers #6–­10 (2010) by Ed Brubaker, a clandestine organization seeking a foothold in China attempt to resurrect Shang-­Chi’s father and reveal that his name is actually Zheng Zu (because Marvel cannot legally use the name Fu Manchu anymore). The story revives the specter of Fu Manchu as a potential villain but then relegates him to the dustbin of past stereotypes. In the 2014 Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, Shang-­Chi returns to London following the death of his ex-­lover Leiko Wu at the hands of their old enemies. Shang-­Chi sets out to avenge her death and discovers that Wu had become a lover of one of the villains while she was undercover for MI6 and had actually become one of the bad guys. Overall, every appearance of Shang-­Chi confirms his heroism, nobility, and supreme mastery of kung fu. And while Shang-­Chi is no longer depicted with a regular lover, his sexual desirability is still reinforced. When the mutant heroine Domino first sees Shang-­Chi in his dojo in Domino #3 (2018), she thinks to herself, “Yes. All right. He’s cute . . . I’m making a fool of myself. I’ve heard all the legends. But no one—­no one—­no one told me he was as fine as five Fridays.” When Shang-­Chi reluctantly agrees to train her, Domino cannot resist lusting after his physique: “Oh, thanks. That’s . . . you’re not gonna’ put your shirt on, are you?” While the modern Shang-­Chi may reinforce the stereotype of the Asian martial arts master, his hypermasculine body and his sexual appeal continue to challenge the idea of Asian men as feminine. Marvel Comics explicitly sought to increase the ethnic and gendered diversity of their characters under their “All-­New, All-­Different” initiative in 2015 (see

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chapter 2), introducing new Asian American heroes that intentionally moved away from any association with Fu Manchu or yellow peril stereotypes. Amadeus Cho and Cindy Moon became two of the most noticeable characters in the “All-­New, All-­Different” Marvel catalog through their association with existing superheroes (the Hulk and Spider-­Man, respectively) and through their own self-­titled series: The Totally Awesome Hulk (2015–­2017) and Silk (2015–­2017). Amadeus Cho was initially created by writer Greg Pak and artist Takeshi Miyazawa in 2005, and for nearly a decade, Amadeus was presented as a teenage genius who appeared on the periphery of numerous stories focused on established heroes. Amadeus finally took the lead in The Totally Awesome Hulk, from Greg Pak and artist Frank Cho, when the classic Bruce Banner version of the Hulk averts a nuclear disaster by absorbing a lethal amount of radiation. To save Banner’s life, Amadeus uses micronanites to transfer all the radiation to himself, thus keeping Banner from exploding and simultaneously freeing Banner from the curse of being the mindlessly destructive green behemoth. The transfer of radiation also results in Amadeus assuming the powers of the Hulk. But unlike Banner, who went from brilliant scientist to mindless beast when he became the Hulk, when Amadeus changes, he remains as intelligent as when in human form. Likewise, Cindy Moon, who was created by writer Dan Slott and artist Humberto Ramos, made her first full appearance in The Amazing Spider-­Man #4 (2014), where it was revealed that after the infamous radioactive spider bit a young Peter Parker, it also bit his classmate Cindy. She develops powers similar to Peter’s but has trouble controlling them. A clandestine organization offers to help Cindy with her abilities but then locks her away in solitary confinement for ten years. When Spider-­Man learns of Cindy’s existence, he finds her and sets her free. Cindy Moon became a popular variant on the Spider-­Man theme (see chapter 1) and began having her own adventures as the superheroine Silk. In addition to their own solo series, Amadeus Cho and Cindy Moon have been featured in such superhero team titles as Champions (vol. 1, 2016–­2018; vol. 2, 2019–­ongoing), Civil War II (2016–­2017), Spider-­Women (2016–­2017), Spider-­ Girls (2018–­2019), and The New Agents of Atlas (2019–­ongoing). A significant amount of press attention surrounded the Marvel announcement that both Silk and the Amadeus Cho version of the Hulk would headline their own series. Mainstream news outlets, which are rarely concerned with what is happening in the world of comic books, featured stories about the arrival of Asian American superheroes. NBC News declared “Marvel Smashes Diversity Barrier with Korean-­American Hulk” and “Cindy Moon Goes Solo as ‘Silk,’ Marvel’s New Comic Heroine,” a Washington Post headline read “New Korean Hulk Could Begin to Smash Issues over Marvel’s Creative Diversity,” and the Huffington Post emphasized “Marvel Launching New Series with Asian American Heroine.” In particular, the new Hulk was lauded for increasing the diversity of comic creators and fictional characters. In an interview with the creative duo behind the Hulk, Greg Pak and Frank Cho, the industry website Comic Book Resources noted, “Just like that, Marvel has a Korean-­American Hulk written by a Korean-­American writer, illustrated by a Korean-­American artist and featuring

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an Asian-­American as the lead character, who would be doing his superhero-­ing through brute strength rather than martial arts. Though there’s still a lot of work to do to improve representation across the board in mainstream comics, it feels like a solid win—­especially given other developments, like Marvel’s Silk series which also stars an Asian-­American character” (Ching 2015). Making the new Hulk a Korean American character represents an obvious counter to the stereotype of feminized Asian men, or as Leung argues, “effete, weak, and physically and sexually inferior” (2013, 54). Ever since the character was first introduced in 1962, the Hulk has been Marvel’s most obvious sign of hypermasculinity. Depicted as a mountain of muscles and fueled by an unquenchable rage, the Hulk is a caricature of masculinity carried to a ridiculous extreme. In his cultural history of superhero comics, Ramzi Fawaz notes, “The Hulk’s physical appearance as a muscled green giant and his outbursts of violent rage identified him as hypermasculine” (2016, 12). Moreover, Fawaz goes on to argue that the Hulk’s excessive masculinity is emphasized in contrast to his weaker and feminized secret identity as mild-­mannered Bruce Banner. It is revealing, then, that Amadeus Cho’s version of the Hulk essentially unites his human and his superhuman personas into one figure. Amadeus obtains all the muscles and strength of the Hulk without sacrificing any of his intelligence, control, or (over)confident personality (figure 6.3). In fact, Amadeus is so comfortable that he remains in his giant green form almost permanently. For Banner, the unchecked hypermasculinity was a curse; for Amadeus, it is, as the character repeatedly declares, “totally awesome!!!” The Totally Awesome Hulk writer Greg Pak intentionally used Amadeus Cho’s version of the Hulk to counter stereotypical images of Asian men. Amadeus may be “the eighth smartest person on the planet,” as he likes to remind people, but he is also depicted as impulsive, arrogant, funny, and overly flirtatious with just about every woman he meets. In other words, Amadeus is a complex young character struggling to be himself, be a hero, and represent a positive Asian American role model. Interestingly, Pak blurred fiction and reality to stress the importance of nonstereotypical Asian roles when he featured Chinese basketball sensation Jeremy Lin in a team-­up story in issues #13 and #14 (2016). Jeremy Lin’s incredible achievements on the basketball court in 2012 and 2013 (a period the press dubbed “Linsanity”) provided a real-­life counterpoint to long-­standing stereotypes. As Michael K. Park argues in his discussion of progressive Asian representations, “Racial stereotypes still permeate society, and Lin’s success has challenged the narrative that Asian American men are unable to excel in a physical sport like basketball. Unlike the tired media images of Asian American men as comical foreigners or unathletic and meek types that fill popular culture, audiences witnessed an Asian American male aggressively slashing through lanes, dunking, and outplaying some of the league’s elite athletes” (2015, 369). The real-­life challenge “Linsanity” represented to stereotypical representations of Asian men was similar to the fictional reworking undertaken through Amadeus Cho’s Hulk. Like Lin, Amadeus is not a “comical foreigner or unathletic and meek type”; as the Hulk, he is pure brute force and the strongest character in the universe. The overarching theme of the

Figure 6.3

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entire The Totally Awesome Hulk series is the gradual maturation of Amadeus Cho into a true hero and role model despite any personality shortcomings. Greg Pak uses Jeremy Lin’s guest appearance to impart some words of wisdom to Amadeus. When Amadeus asks Lin about his charity work, Line pointedly tells him, “We’ve been given this big platform. Kind of have to use it for something bigger when the time comes.” The Totally Awesome Hulk does not lose sight of the fact that an Asian American Hulk exists in a medium that has traditionally derided, vilified, or erased Asian characters. The series recognizes its place in negotiating the evolution of Asian images in the media. Escaping stereotypical representation has also been a central theme for the development of Silk. Cindy Moon’s debut within “The Parker Luck” story line of The Amazing Spider-­Man (in issues #4–­6) risked presenting her in less progressive terms than her later solo series would (figure 6.4). Like so many female characters in the comics before her, Cindy was initially defined in large part by her sexuality. Despite Cindy’s horrific backstory of having been forced into solitary imprisonment for a decade, her irresistible sexual attraction to Spider-­Man is presented as a dominant story line. Almost immediately after Cindy reenters the world, she and Spider-­Man are overcome by their “spider” hormones. Just a few pages after they first meet, Spider-­Man and Silk are ripping each other’s clothes off. A shirtless Spider-­Man narrates a rooftop scene, mask pulled up to expose his mouth, as he kisses Cindy, who is kneeling over him and is clad in just a few strands of webbing that look more like silky lingerie than a superhero costume: “There’s a moment where I can’t even remember my own name. Let alone hers. I’m Spider-­Man. And she’s . . . Silk. Cindy Moon. Just met her. Don’t know anything about her . . . other than I can’t let go! I can’t stop!” Peter Parker / Spider-­Man tries to resist Cindy but can’t. They are all over each other every chance they get—­his apartment, in the back of a car, in the middle of a supervillain battle. Cindy gets angry with any other woman who comes near Spider-­Man. Though Cindy Moon has been locked away without human contact for most of her life, though she is distraught that she does not know where her parents live (or even if they are still alive), and though she is thrown into a number of web-­slinging fights with costumed villains, her prime narrative function seems to be as a sexual partner for the white, male hero. The blatant fetishization of a female character is nothing new in superhero comic books. But the hypersexuality ascribed to the Asian Cindy Moon for no apparent narrative reason taps into the persistent stereotype of exotic Otherness. In her analysis of Asian women in film, Celine Parrenas Shimizu describes the associative link between hypersexuality and ethnicity: Hypersexuality is the inscription of pathological or non-­normative sexuality as if it were a natural characteristic, one that is directly linked to a particular raced and gendered ontology. A Western fantasy of a perverse subject position for racial and gendered subjects in popular representation, the production of hypersexuality directly contrasts with normal or standard white male sexuality. . . . This phenomenon powerfully ascribes the sexuality of nonwhite others as aberrant.

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Figure 6.4

While hypersexuality is a “fiction” that ultimately fails to capture the sexual subjectivities of raced and gendered subjects as a “factual” or coherent group, the differences between normal and abnormal classifications have values: right versus wrong, knowable versus unknowable, acceptable versus unacceptable, and familiar versus different. (2007, 31)

Though “The Parker Luck” story line does not explicitly link Cindy Moon’s frantic sexuality to her ethnicity, her characterization as a Korean American woman who is immediately irresistible to the clean-­cut white male hero suggests the stereotypes of dragon ladies and other Asian seductresses. Fortunately, the Silk solo series written by Robbie Thompson avoided fetishizing Cindy Moon in favor of developing Cindy as a young woman struggling to catch

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up to the modern world and to find her place as a superheroine. An important part of toning down Silk’s sexuality is derived from the more innocent, cartoonish style of the various illustrators: Stacey Lee, Annapaola Martello, Tana Ford, and Veronica Fish. The less erotic depiction of Cindy/Silk by these women artists positioned the series as a favorite among the increasing number of female comic book readers. Desexualizing Silk in her own series through both the narrative and the art style coincided with a larger mid-­2010s trend of marketing certain superheroines specifically to a younger female audience. The look and the tone of the series Silk and the characters herself were very similar to some of Marvel’s other revamped younger-­skewing heroines, including She-­Hulk, Hellcat, Spider-­Woman, Hawkeye, Captain Marvel, and Ms. Marvel. By downplaying Silk’s sexuality, the series also avoided associating Cindy Moon’s ethnicity with stereotypes about Asian women as hypersexual seductresses. Instead, Cindy was presented as a heroic young woman with Spider powers and a fully rounded life, who just happens to also be of Korean American heritage. Silk fights supervillains, teams up with other heroes, and always saves the day. Likewise, Cindy struggles to do her best at her low-­paying, entry-­level journalism position, balances her friends and social life, and searches for her missing parents and younger brother. Her Korean American identity is never ignored, but it is also not turned into a defining trait. To the editorial credit of Marvel Comics, the development of new Asian superheroes has managed to avoid most stereotypical features without ignoring the pertinent history of Asian characters in Marvel stories. Oftentimes, the issue of racial stereotyping is addressed bluntly. For example, in perhaps one of the most self-­aware comic book stories to appear in regular continuity, the “Big Apple Showdown” story arc from The Totally Awesome Hulk #15–­18, penned by Greg Pak, unites Asian heroes (new and old) for an interstellar adventure and some karaoke. The story brings together Amadeus Cho’s Hulk and Cindy Moon’s Silk with Jimmy Woo, Shang-­Chi, Jake Oh (a highly decorated S.H.I.E.L.D. agent), and Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel. These heroes make a group appearance to promote an Asian American bone marrow registry to a youth group (figure 6.5). When Amadeus, Cindy, and Kamala mention they were moved by all the kids wearing their costumes, Jake Oh metatextually tells them, “Yeah. You’ve got a lot of people looking up to you. All those second and third generation kids. When have they ever seen people who look and sound like them doing what you do? I know you think you’re a pretty big deal. But the crazy thing is, you actually are. So, don’t screw it up.” Over Korean barbecue and after karaoke, the heroes discuss the pressures of being the children of immigrants, living up to and challenging cultural expectations, and the ridiculous Asian stereotypes they have to deal with. As the elder statesman of the group, Jimmy Woo tells Amadeus, Cindy, and Kamala, “I’m so proud of all of you. You’re all so different from the world around you. Even from each other. And yet you chose to stick out. To make yourselves unsafe in order to stick up for others. For everybody.” And Shang-­Chi adds, “Yes. And that’s what makes you heroes. God bless you all.” Of course, this being a superhero story, the night of fun is interrupted by alien invaders, and the heroes must work together to

Figure 6.5

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defeat them. It is an indication of just how far Asian American heroes have come in Marvel Comics that Greg Pak has Jimmy Woo telling the younger characters he admires their “sticking out,” since, as Ruth Mayer pointed out, Jimmy Woo in the 1950s “is marked by the features of ordinariness and normality. . . . He does not stand out but rather blends in” (2014, 132). Asian American superheroes now seem perfectly justified in standing out, in making a spectacle of themselves, just like any other costumed characters. This all-­Asian superhero team-­up allows the characters from Marvel’s past to endorse the new heroes and to confirm the place for both the old and the new Asian heroes in the modern Marvel Universe. The story also ridicules the misconceptions conveyed through stereotypes and stresses the inherent diversity that exists within a specific ethnicity. When Cindy and Kamala point out that Amadeus does fit some stereotypical notions about Asians (“You’re also really good at math”), Amadeus rejects the “model minority” image, claiming, “What? No! All those stereotypes are based on obedience and emotionlessness and . . . and . . . and . . . Ask Jake! I’ve got no impulse control! I’m the opposite of ‘inscrutable.’” The comic industry press, fan sites, and media outlets focused on ethnic representations all praised Greg Pak for highlighting Marvel’s Asian heroes. “The core of the issue is how the group bond over their similar/differing experiences as Asian Americans,” wrote Christian Bone in his review for the website We Got This Covered (http://​w ww​.wegothiscovered​ .com), and “you’d be hard-­pressed not to be won over by such a good-­hearted, inclusive book that promotes a culture not often spotlighted in the pages of a mainstream comic book” (2017). Likewise, Oliver Sava argued for AV News (http://​ www​.avnews​.com) that “there’s a lot of joy in these pages, and the creative team has a clear understanding of what this moment means for the readers hungry to see more Asian American representation in comics” (2017). For the Asian American watchdog site Reappropriate (http://​w ww​.reappropriate​.com), Jenn Fang claimed, “I was refreshed to see Asian Americans portrayed in comics as normal humans with complex personalities, unique interpersonal relationships, backstories and senses of humour; that reaction tells us something about how flatly Asian Americans have been portrayed in comics in all the decades before this book” (2017). And in his review for the Nerds of Color website (http://​w ww​.thenerdsofcolor​.org), Keith Chow noted that “Greg [Pak] is sharing an authentically Asian American experience with an audience who has never seen these things in a superhero book,” and further admits he “was actually moved to tears at how resonant it was to see these characters embody being unapologetically Asian American” (2017). Marvel Comics’ advancement of Asian American superheroes in recent years has been a remarkable achievement. That Greg Pak could assemble six heroic Asian characters for the “Big Apple Showdown” story line is, in itself, an indication of progress. And the story did not even have to tap into all of Marvel’s Asian superheroes in order to put together a team—­characters like Jubilee, Sunfire, Silver Samurai, Hazmat, Surge, Nico Minoru, and Jolt were not even mentioned. From a purely economic perspective, an increase of Asian heroes is about more than just racial politics; it also helps capitalize on the massive—­and relatively

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untapped—­audiences throughout the East. To this end, Marvel partnered with the Chinese digital company NetEase in 2017 to develop new heroes who premiered in China before being introduced to American comic book readers. Several of these original Chinese heroes, including Aero, Sword Master, Wave, and Luna Snow, made their American debut in New Agents of Atlas (2019) alongside Jimmy Woo, Shang-­Chi, Silk, and Amadeus Cho’s Hulk. Moreover, the development of Asian heroes in Marvel Comics has begun to extend to the big-­screen Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following the incredible breakthrough success of Black Panther (2018), Marvel Studios has fast-­tracked a feature-­film adaptation of Shang-­Chi, and Sony Pictures (who own the film rights to Spider-­Man and related characters) has announced they are developing a live-­action Silk movie.

chapter 7

Q

A New America marvelous latinx superheroes

The term Latinx emerged in the early twenty-­first century as a more inclusive variation on the standard Latino (masculine) and Latina (feminine). Linguistically, the x is a standard marker of gender neutrality in a range of Spanish-­based languages and dialects. But in the world of superheroes, a capital X signifies Marvel’s concept of mutants, humans who have gained incredible powers thanks to the fictional X-gene. Marvel has incorporated the X into as many mutant titles as possible: Uncanny X-Men, Excalibur, Exiles, X-23, Mr. & Mrs. X, Agent X, Mutant X, Nation X, Weapon X, Generation X, X-Force, X-Babies, X-Factor, X-Statix, and so on. Comic book fans joked that it was just a matter of time until Marvel announced a LatinX superteam series. Though Marvel has not launched a LatinX title (not yet, anyway), the company does have a number of popular Latinx characters included in their universe. For example, the superhero identity of White Tiger has been assumed by Hector Ayala, Ava Ayala, and Angela del Toro. Robbie Reyes is the current Ghost Rider, Miles Morales shares the moniker of Spider-­Man, and the primary Spider-­Girl is Anya Corazon. Roberto de Costa is the mutant Sunspot, and Humberto Lopez is known as Reptil. Victor Alvarez is the most recent hero to call himself Power Man, and Julio Esteban Richter is a mutant team leader code-­named Rictor. Dante Pertuz is the Inhuman who goes by Inferno, Victor Mancha is a cyborg member of the Runaways, and Maya Lopez has assumed several heroic identities including Echo and Ronin. The young Sam Alexander is the current Nova, and Maria Vasquez is Tarantula, a member of Heroes for Hire. Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to feature a lead Latinx hero (except for the animated version of Miles Morales in the 2018 film Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse), the comic books have a relative abundance of interesting characters to draw upon. One of the most controversial new figures in Marvel Comics, and a central focus of this chapter, is America Chavez, a.k.a. Miss America. America Chavez is an intentional grouping of several marginalized

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identities (Latina, female, lesbian, and alien/immigrant) that reveals and reclaims a number of stereotypes about Latinx characters in popular culture. The significant increase in Latinx characters in Marvel Comics in recent years is a logical response to the changing demographics of American culture and an increased need to attract a global audience. Latinos are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world, are the fastest-­growing group in the United States, and currently constitute over 20 percent of the American population. In simple marketing terms, Latinos represent a huge audience demographic that has traditionally been underserved by the mainstream entertainment industry. Moreover, Latinos have proven to be avid consumers of popular culture. As the film industry trade Variety reported in 2018, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, “Latino audiences had the highest rate of movie going last year among ethnic groups in the U.S.” (McNary 2018). In fact, Caucasians’ rate of moviegoing came in fourth, lagging behind not just Latino audiences but also Asians and African Americans as well. Likewise, Latino audiences have become an increasingly important demographic for television, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finding that Latinos in 2016 represented 25 percent of all viewership in the United States (fcc​.gov/​media). But according to the literary sales tracking company NPD Bookscan, Latinos only account for 12 percent of graphic novel purchases from retail bookstore chains and only 13 percent of regular customers at comic specialty shops (npd​.com/​news). What this means for publishers is that Latinos are a large and loyal audience for popular entertainments that have been relatively untapped by the comic book industry. Latinos represent a huge potential consumer demographic, and Marvel is attempting to establish a following through developing a range of new Latinx superheroes. In his thorough overview of the history and diversity of Latinx superheroes, Frederick Luis Aldama notes that “while clearly not legion,” Latino superheroes “have played and continue to play a significant role in shaping the mainstream comic book universe—­and multiverse. Indeed, creators of mainstream comics have had Latino superheroes on their radar since the 1940s” (2017, 7). As early as 1940, All-­American Publications (which would become DC Comics) briefly featured the Zorro-­inspired masked vigilante known as the Whip, who defended downtrodden Mexicans in a fictional southwestern city. And in 1955, DC Comics introduced El Gaucho, the Batman of Argentina, who made occasional guest appearances in Batman stories through the 1960s. Alongside these early Latino heroes, numerous supporting characters were depicted as part of the Latina diaspora. Unfortunately, as with most nonwhite comic book characters, Latinos were typically portrayed in the symbolic shorthand of stereotypes. No matter how well intentioned some of the creators were, the characters were most commonly marked as Latino through broken Spanglish dialogue and fiery tempers, their mysterious link to an ancestral past, their poor immigrant story, their lower-­class rural status, or their portrayals as drug smugglers and street-­level criminals.

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In his analysis of comic book images, Derek Parker Royal argues that all comics necessarily use “stereotypes as a kind of shorthand to communicate quickly and succinctly” (2011, 68) and that if creators are not cautious, they can, intentionally or not, reproduce racist concepts. Racial stereotypes in popular media forms have always been particularly damning because they are so widely disseminated and uncritically observed. The power of mass mediums like film and television to reduce particular people to a one-­dimensional status rooted in misconceptions can effectively eradicate the complexity of cultural groups. The fact that these characterizations have typically been created and disseminated by more dominant cultural groups (i.e., white, heterosexual men) has been a central issue in public debates since the 1970s. Historically, the use of narrow racial stereotypes in comic books has been more egregious than in other media forms. The comic book industry has long been famous for relying on quick turnaround times for scripts and artwork. In particular, the sweatshop, work-­for-­hire dynamics of the 1930s and 1940s lent itself to story lines and illustration styles that were demeaning to certain characters and easily reproduced dominant racial stereotypes. Moreover, the fact that superhero stories were produced for an audience of children meant that comic books often remained beneath the notice, or the regulation, of adults. When adults did pay attention to comic books, such as during the comic book / juvenile delinquency scare of the McCarthy era (see Nyberg 1998), there is more concern about the depiction of sex and violence than about racial stereotypes. The danger of demeaning racial (and other) stereotypes in comic books is compounded by the basic narrative premise of superheroes versus supervillains. The symbolic shortcut of stereotyping can all too easily equate some markers of ethnicity with heroism and others with villainy. Like all minority superheroes, Latinx characters over the years have been limited by stereotypes but have also been used to reveal and rebuke racist assumptions. The character generally considered to be the first prominent and long-­lasting Latino superhero was Marvel’s White Tiger. The original White Tiger (Hector Ayala) debuted in 1975 in the anthology series Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #19, alongside other martial arts–­based heroes like Shang-­Chi and Iron Fist. In fact, the emergence of the White Tiger in 1975 underscores how important the early 1970s were at Marvel for the development of superheroes from underrepresented ethnic groups. As mentioned in early chapters, Luke Cage was introduced in 1972, Black Panther first appeared in 1966 but did not get his own series until 1977, and Shang-­Chi debuted in 1973. The struggles of the civil rights era, second-­wave feminism, and the general countercultural revolution of the late 1960s that pervaded all aspects of American society were reflected in the increasingly diverse characters that populated the media. “Starting in the early 1970s the comics industry responded to the counter-­cultural ‘turmoil’ with series and characters that privileged topicality and ‘relevance,’” argues Jose Alaniz in his history of physical disabilities in comics. “Such policies progressively introduced what were once considered abject bodies—­racial, sexual, and physical others” (2014, 22). Alaniz’s description of nonwhite bodies previously having an “abject” status in comics indicates that truly progressive turn the industry was taking in the early 1970s. The abject represents a

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disruption of order, a transgression of socially and individually acceptable boundaries. Prior to this period, ethnic and racial minorities threatened to unsettle the image of America as monolithically white. The development of characters like Luke Cage, Shang-­Chi, and Hector Ayala at Marvel shifted the boundaries of acceptability and began to normalize the idea of nonwhite superheroes. Created by Bill Mantlo and George Pérez, the Puerto Rican–­born Hector Ayala was a student at Empire State University who could transform into the White Tiger (figure 7.1) through the power of magical jade amulets that channeled an ancient tiger god. As White Tiger, Ayala had enhanced strength, speed, and reflexes. Hector Ayala was purposefully designed to be a positive image of Latino heroism. “Perez and Mantlo’s careful attention to both Ayala’s verbal and visual characterization infuses his character with a substance and dynamism not seen in mainstream comics,” argues Aldama. “They choose to create a superhero with his identity firmly planted in his Latinidad; and, with this, a powerful drive to protect his community against menacing underworld oppressors, Latino and otherwise” (2017, 19). White Tiger often fought alongside other heroes like Daredevil and Spider-­Man but primarily stuck close to home, defending the Hispanic streets of South Bronx. Though the character was extremely popular in the 1970s, particularly with young Latino readers, White Tiger never became a top-­tier solo character for Marvel. Hector retired in 1981 but returned briefly in Brian Michael Bendis’s awarding-­winning

Figure 7.1

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run on Daredevil in 2003, only to be killed off. But Hector’s magic amulets, powers, and White Tiger legacy were passed along first to his niece Angela del Toro and later to his younger sister, Ava Ayala. Though Hector Ayala was killed off in 2003, the White Tiger has remained active within the Marvel Universe through Angela del Toro and Ava Ayala. The shift to these White Tigers as Latina superheroines reinforces the increasingly common notion in comics that masculinity is not the defining trait of heroism (nor is whiteness). Indeed, as discussed in the first chapter, in 2004, Marvel introduced the figure of Mexican American Anya Corazon as a type of Spider-­Man analogue who originally went by the code name Araña. Anya’s powers differed from Spider-­ Man’s but are derived from an ancient order of spiders and hunters. The teenage Anya becomes a friend and ally to Peter Parker’s Spider-­Man, eventually adopting a similar costume and the superhero moniker Spider-­Girl. Anya’s ongoing popularity within the Spider-­Man family of characters demonstrates that the diversification of ethnicity and gender can be successful in comics. The development of Angela del Toro as White Tiger, primarily in her 2007 solo miniseries written by Tamora Pierce, and then Ava Ayala as the character in the pages of Avengers Academy (2010–­2012) and The New Avengers (2015–­2018) similarly demonstrates the viability of Latina superheroines. However, the female White Tigers, both of whom are older than Anya Corazon’s Spider-­Girl, are also subjected to the genre’s relatively standard fetishization of female characters in a manner that reinforces stereotypes about “hot” Latina sexuality. In her review of Latina heroines, Carolina Fernández Rodríguez describes Angela as “granted a more openly sexualized body. . . . Her superhero costume makes her sexier, and the postures her body adopts more clearly emphasize her ample breasts and hips. Her facial gestures, too, are sometimes presented to evoke sexual arousal” (2015, 117). Even within the story, a Daily Bugle editorial by J. Jonah Jameson calls this White Tiger a “babe” and a “hot tamale” and praises her “skintight outfit that hugs her curves in all the right places.” In other words, Angela’s first feature turn as a headliner in a self-­titled miniseries presents her as a stereotypically sexy Latina. This White Tiger appears to be overdetermined by her ethnicity and her exoticism rather than functioning to counter these stereotypes. Unfortunately, Angela is killed in 2008 by Lady Bullseye and then resurrected by the evil ninja cult the Hand within the pages of Daredevil. Following her resurrection, Angela is a villainess and works for the Hand through a number of different story lines before eventually returning to her true self. In the process, though, Angela loses access to the tiger god amulets, which have been passed along to Ava Ayala with the implication that Ava will make a better and more responsible White Tiger. Ava Ayala’s White Tiger is introduced as an adolescent and a novice heroine in Avengers Academy #20 (December 2011), a young woman learning to be a superhero with the intention of honoring her brother’s legacy. Though Ava as White Tiger is not as overtly sexualized as Angela was, she is still depicted as the conventionally ideal comic book female body clad in a skintight bodysuit (figure 7.2). But other characters do not leer at her or make lewd comments about how she is a “hot

Figure 7.2

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tamale.” Ava’s ethnicity is neither ignored nor foregrounded; she is a heroine who just happens to also be a Latina. Utilizing Ava’s White Tiger primarily as a member of multicultural superteams dilutes the tradition of using a solitary ethnic character as a representative of Otherness. In most of the teams Ava is involved with, she is not the only minority—­in fact, she is not even the only Latinx character at Avengers Academy or with the newer versions of the Avengers. Moreover, Ava is sexual but not hypersexual, cast in an on-­again, off-­again romantic relationship with Victor Alvarez (a.k.a. Power Man) through her time on the team series Mighty Avengers (2013–­2015) and The New Avengers (2015–­2018). Much like the original Hector Ayala embodiment of White Tiger in the 1970s, Ava is unequivocally portrayed as proud of her ethnic heritage and aware of her importance to underrepresented characters (and fans) as a hero. As Ava tells Luke Cage and Victor Alvarez in Mighty Avengers #1 (2013), “I didn’t put this mask on for a paycheck. I became White Tiger to honor my family and make a difference in the world.” Ava Ayala is occasionally portrayed as impulsive and controlled by her temper, characteristics that could be interpreted (and were by some online commentators) as media clichés of “hot-­blooded” Latinas. For example, when Ava learns that Gideon Mace, a villain who killed most of her family, is loose, she swears to kill him. In Mighty Avengers #6–­9 (2013), Ava willingly gives herself over to the full power and bloodlust of the tiger god in order to kill Gideon. Ava’s teammates try to stop her, Iron Fist attempts to reason with her, and Power Man appeals to her on a personal level, but she ends up fighting her way past both of them. Eventually, Ava is restrained by other colleagues who fear her use of lethal measures. In the end, after letting her rage take control for a few issues, Ava comes to her senses and reasserts dominance over the tiger. Ava successfully resists her own anger and dark impulses and confirms her position as a legitimate superhero because she refuses to become a killer. It would be a mistake to interpret a moment like this as a melodramatic confirmation of an age-­old stereotype about “fiery” Latinas. Yes, this story line of Ava being so angry that she almost becomes a villain herself is a bit clichéd, but it is a cliché of the superhero genre more than it is an indication of Latinx temperament. Pretty much every superhero has been involved in narratives where their morality is questioned, where they have become so enraged that they almost kill the bad guy. Even the most traditional and noble (and white) super­heroes, like Captain America, Spider-­Man, Superman, and Batman, have succumbed to a ruthless need for vengeance that is only overcome at the last moment. Ava’s momentary fury rises above being a mere ethnic stereotype to the level of a broader superhero trait. Her anger is depicted as justified by the situation, not as rooted in “hot-­blooded” ethnicity. Though stereotypes are often employed as narrative tools in comic books to communicate ideas quickly and symbolically, the genre of superheroes is also uniquely poised to overcome the dehumanizing and racist implications of ethnic stereotyping. The genre is, by its very definition, overwhelmingly focused on formulaic stories where the characters overcome all odds, defeat whatever evil they face, and save innocent people. In most tales, the superhero’s morality is presented

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as pure and just. When the superhero falls outside the traditionally dominant mold of “white heterosexual male,” their representation may still be haunted by racial stereotypes (though this is lessening as we become better aware of cultural issues in the media), but the superheroic outcome demonstrates a transcendent value for the ethnic hero. In other words, simply by being a costumed hero treated the same as other superhero characters, figures like White Tiger (and Luke Cage, and Ms. Marvel, and Silk, etc.) rewrite ideas of who can be an idol, a role model—­a hero. I do not mean to suggest that the characters’ Otherness—­or their specific ethnicity, gender, or sexuality—­is a nonfactor or something easily overcome. But the basic formula of the superhero genre inherently means that characters from any background can, and are, vaulted as true heroes by the end of the story. Mauricio Espinoza insightfully unpacks the negative association of Latinx costumed heroes with American cultural perceptions of Otherness and the possibilities of transcending Otherness. In particular, Espinoza notes that Latinx characters are doubly marked as foreign or alien through both their superpowers and their ethnicity. Espinoza builds on Ramirez Berg’s (2002) analysis of modern science fiction movies that treat otherworldly aliens, space invaders, and other monstrous creatures as metaphors for the supposed threat that real-­world aliens/foreigners may pose to a traditionally white Christian nation. In the paranoia of the post-­9/11 American society, aliens and monsters became easy representatives of outsiders or Others as villains that needed to be destroyed or controlled. “In the comics, the Latino/a protagonists (already marked by their ethnic and cultural otherness) are initially represented according to the alien-­monster-­threat distortion formula,” argues Espinoza, “as they gain potentially dangerous powers from exotic sources and in the process, acquire new appearances that range from outright monstrosity to masked-­and-­costumed peculiarity” (2016, 183). But unlike the films where the metaphorical Others are clearly the bad guys, Latinx superheroes prove their worth by consistently fighting the good fight despite any perceived Otherness. Espinoza reasons, “Their abilities, heroic deeds, and moral decisions quickly overwrite this initial, apparent distortion and serve to contest traditional stereotypes about Latino/as—­giving a new, resistant meaning to their portrayals. . . . Latino/a superhero comics appropriate the alien distortion pointed out by Ramirez Berg, nullifying its negative representation effects. They do so by taking the two sources of otherness associated with Latino/a protagonists (ethnic and cultural difference and superpowered alien-­ness/monstrosity) and employing them to assert Latino/a cultural specificity as well as to combat threats to their communities’ full realization as human beings and as valuable members of the nation” (184). As Espinoza argues, this dynamic of Latinx characters being both clearly alien and undeniably heroic allows them to resist merely being culturally assimilated and to be models of cultural empowerment for audiences. One of the most important factors in the creation of Latinx superheroes and the greatest guarantee that they will transcend stereotypes is the presence of Latinx writers, artists, and editors working within the genre. The significance of creators from traditionally subaltern groups cannot be overstated. Creators from any

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background can produce wonderfully diverse characters, but diversity behind the scenes fosters more careful depictions and a sense of recognition by readers. In other chapters, I have mentioned the oft aligned relationship between the personal identity of the creators and the characters they present, be they black, Asian, Muslim, or anything else. Greg Pak is the Korean American writer behind Amadeus Cho, the Korean American Hulk. G. Willow Wilson is the Muslim female author who created Kamala Khan, the Pakistani American Muslim teenager Ms. Marvel. It is not a coincidence that the first major Latino superhero, White Tiger, was cocreated by legendary Latino comic book artist and writer George Pérez. Most critics concerned with the representation of Latinx characters in comics emphasize the importance of Latinx creators making the stories. Frederick Luis Aldama, for example, notes that in addition to the ever-­increasing percentage of Latinos in the United States constituting a desirable consumer demographic, “we also see a greater number of Latinos (especially artists) creating content for DC and Marvel. That is, we see a greater will to style in the making of superhero comics that distills and reconstructs the identities and experiences of Latinos in engaging and complex ways” (2017, 54). Similarly, Enrique Garcia argues, “Latinx comic book artists/ writers have played an important role in crafting superheroines with Latino and other backgrounds that have helped improve the paradigms of gender, race, and class in American superhero comic books” (2018, 163). The success of comic book writers and artists from across the Latinidad has been crucial to the significant rise in Latinx superheroes since the 1990s at both of the major publishers (Marvel and DC) as well as with numerous smaller and independent presses. Modern Latinx creators like Edgardo Miranda-­Rodriguez, Vita Ayala, Daniel Acuña, Oscar Jimenez, Jaime Hernández, Javier Rodriguez, Humberto Ramos, Natacha Bustos, and dozens more ensure that Latinx characters are well represented in comics. The link between the cultural identity of the comic creator and the fictional character as a sign of veracity became a focal point in the press coverage of one of Marvel’s most divergent superheroes. America Chavez first appeared as the new Miss America in 2011 as part of the miniseries Vengeance, by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta. America is an outspoken young Latina heroine, lesbian, and alien with superstrength, flight, and the ability to punch star-­shaped portals between dimensions. Miss America joined the Young Avengers in 2013, appeared in the 2015 series A-Force, was part of the team in Ultimates in 2015, and since 2018 has been part of the West Coast Avengers. From 2017 to 2019, America Chavez also starred in her own self-­titled series, America, written by Gabby Rivera and illustrated primarily by Joe Quinones. As a lesbian Latina activist and award-­winning author of young adult novels, Gabby Rivera brought a unique voice to comics and was treated in the press as a sign of authenticity for America Chavez as more than just a PR stunt by Marvel. As Enrique Garcia notes in his analysis of Latina heroines, “The media coverage of the series has focused on the pairing of America Chavez as a lesbian Latina superheroine with Rivera as a lesbian Latina creator and activist” (2018, 172). For example, Nicole Chavez observed that “superpowers aside, America and her writer have a lot in common” (2017), and the Entertainment Weekly wrote

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that “what’s being celebrated as most fantastic in this comic is that Gabby Rivera, a young-­adult author who is gay and Latina herself, is writing the adventures of America” (March 26, 2017). This elision between Gabby Rivera as a lesbian Latina writer and America Chavez as a lesbian Latina character helps justify and validate America’s embodiment of a nonnormative superheroic identity. Frederick Luis Aldama (2017) insightfully argues that this type of specific correlation between the identities of creators, characters, and consumers is not always required for purposes of identification. Aldama refers to comic book readers as “cocreators,” as fully capable imaginative participants in the personal interpretation of superhero characters regardless of factors like the ethnicity or sexuality of the creator or the character. “When we fill in the gaps, we co-­create and we make the story our own,” Aldama observes. “We don’t change the story; we follow the carefully selected visual and verbal cues that make up the blueprint to co-­create the story. We become chiasmic transformers, all while not changing the DNA of the story itself” (91). Thus through the power of fantasy, readers can identify with characters and imagine themselves as those heroes regardless of superficial differences. This type of imaginative interpretive strategy has always been used by members of subaltern groups not typically presented as heroes in the media. “We aren’t sponges that passively absorb superheroes that don’t look or act like us,” Aldama continues. “Maybe the superhero is older, white, straight, and male. This doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t identify within these categories can’t co-­create such a figure as our own” (94). This ability to project oneself into the story regardless of categorical differences (which is not unique to Latinx readers) is indicative of how underrepresented groups have been required to carve out their own places in media texts. But this practice of cocreating does not circumvent the importance for young readers to see people like themselves depicted as heroes, nor does it address the benefits of other readers seeing superheroes who are presented as culturally different from themselves. The connection between America, the character, and Gabby Rivera, the writer, verifies Marvel’s efforts to diversify their universe both within the comic pages and behind them. But the close association between character and writer may also be irrelevant to many readers. Most readers, especially younger ones, do not care about who the creators are; they just care about the monthly adventures. One alliance that cannot be overlooked, however, is America Chavez’s explicit association with America the nation. The conscious choice by Marvel to so clearly associate America Chavez with the nation, in her personal name and her superhero moniker and costuming, implies an awareness of her place within the genre and as a symbol of a changing country. Though Miss America eschews a traditional superhero costume in favor of cycling shorts, T-shirts, a hoody, and running shoes, her clothing is red, white, and blue, with prominent stars and stripes. America Chavez / Miss America’s names and appearance suggest she occupies the role of a “nationalist superhero,” described by Jason Dittmer (and discussed in the introductory chapter) as a hero who “explicitly identifies himself or herself as representative and defender of a specific nation-­state,

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often through his or her name, uniform, and mission” (2013, 7). But where a character like Captain America has long been recognized as “the living embodiment of the American Dream” (7), America Chavez is a very different personification of America, or at the very least a different American dream. The original Golden Age version of Miss America, Madelyn Joyce, was a more traditional image of American womanhood. Madelyn was a thin, blue-­eyed heroine who could fly and had superstrength that debuted in 1943 for Timely Comics, Marvel’s precursor. As a World War II–­era heroine, Miss America appealed to patriotic sensibilities and a conception of women as contributors to the war effort, albeit in supporting roles for American men. “The parallels between Captain America and Miss America as nationalist superheroes were highlighted from the very beginning,” notes Dittmer, “as were the gendered and heterosexualized roles each had to play” (31). Miss America embodied a 1940s ideal of American womanhood as patriotic, beautiful, heterosexual, and white. In reintroducing “Miss America” as an alien lesbian Latina, Marvel subverted the narrow Golden Age image of acceptable heroines. More importantly, the America Chavez version of Miss America represents a changing conception of what America is and how a new abstract national persona can be embodied. As a nation, America is not as monolithic a concept as it once was (though it was never completely monolithic); the traditional Steve Rogers Captain America may still represent the nation, but so does the African American Sam Wilson Captain America, and so does a lesbian Latina Miss America. America Chavez’s backstory is pure science fiction. She was raised in another dimension, the Utopian Parallel, by her two superpowered mothers who sacrificed themselves saving the galaxy when America was only six years old. As a teenager, America sets out to prove herself a hero like her mothers, traveling across multiverses until she settles on Earth 616, the primary Marvel dimension. America establishes deep friendships with other heroes during her time with the Young Avengers and the West Coast Avengers, especially her “platonic bestie” Kate Bishop, a.k.a. the female Hawkeye. Throughout her self-­titled solo series and all the other team books she has been involved with, America has been portrayed as having a strong personality—­she is impulsive, brash, fiercely loyal, proudly Latina, and openly lesbian. America Chavez’s racial and sexual Otherness is compounded, in typical superhero fashion, by her status as an alien to Earth (and even to this dimension of reality). Within the logic of the stories, America’s otherworldliness means that she is not really human, let alone a Latina. Moreover, she comes from the Utopian Parallel, where same-­sex relationships are a norm, where women can biologically conceive children without a need for men, thus marking her sexuality as only “queer” on our world. But the narrative premise of Chavez being from an alternate dimension does not diminish her status as a Latina lesbian, either within the stories or in the reception of them by readers and critics. In fact, the comics’ embrace of America Chavez’s real-­world markers of identity, rather than hiding behind the thin veil of being an interdimensional alien, makes the political significance of the character integral to her stories. As Enrique Garcia notes, the adoption of a Latina persona by an alien is a potentially complicated

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issue: “America’s portrayal as an alien who chooses to be Latina is interesting and problematic at the same time” (2018, 174). By presenting America as an alien who chooses to align with an underrepresented ethnicity (unlike the original superhero, Superman, who is an alien emblematic of a WASPish American identity), America’s pride in being Latina is a clear political statement. Moreover, because it is a “choice” for America (albeit one that conveniently lines up with her natural physical appearance), the stories are able to explore the socially constructed aspects of ethnicity and racial characteristics. In the America solo series, Gabby Rivera explains Chavez’s conscious identification with cultural groups across the Latinidad rather than a specific nationality. In America #3, over a montage of images of her younger self in different Latin communities, America reminisces that she was “once that kid looking for someone, anyone, to connect to that’s still you. After my moms died, I left the parallel. I found spaces on Earth where little brown girls blended into the scenery and became part of the family. Once Abuela Santana [in the Bronx] offered me that first plate of arroz con gandules, I was one of hers, no questions asked. Didn’t even know what a Puerto Rican was. I just knew these folks looked like me and let me in. In Cartagena [Colombia], the Mejias soothed the ache for my moms with adventures in the Manglares. Fresh empanadas and cumbias about falling in love.” The final panel features a close-­up of the heroine in front of a collage of national flags from across the Latinidad, as America (figure 7.3) summarizes, “Still, I was a tourist everywhere. Lifting language and culture from the love of people who weren’t my kin but held me as their own.” America Chavez’s identity as a Latina is not limited to a specific national, regional, or cultural group; she represents a pan-­Latinx persona. America’s ethnicity is declared an important aspect of her character but not one limited by geography or politics. While America Chavez’s Latinx ethnicity is an important part of her character and provides a valuable symbol of racial diversity for readers, her lesbian sexuality garnered more public attention than her ethnicity. This discrepancy is an indication of how more normalized nonwhite superheroes have become in the comics and, conversely, how much farther nonheterosexual characters have to go to be normalized. Mirroring the rise of LGBTQ politics and the increased

Figure 7.3

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cultural awareness of LGBTQ issues and rights, superhero comics have featured a sharp increase in characters with nonnormative sexual identities. Marvel’s outing of the speedster Northstar of the Canadian superteam Alpha Flight in 1992 was the first hero to identify as gay from one of the major publishers. In addition to Northstar and America Chavez, the current Marvel comic book universe includes such LGBTQ characters as Hulkling, Wiccan, Iceman, Rictor, Moondragon, Daken, and Loki. And while all these LGBTQ heroes have received a great deal of attention from fans and critics, America is the most prominent lesbian superhero at Marvel (rivaled only in comics by DC’s Batwoman). Throughout her solo series and within the story lines of her team books, America is unabashedly proud of her lesbian identity. Her sexuality is openly welcomed by her friends and teammates, and America is often shown in emotionally tender moments with different girlfriends or crushes. Perhaps most progressively, especially for a medium and a genre that has always been grounded in a core masculine fan base, America’s same-­sex romantic scenes are not eroticized or exploitative. Gabby Rivera’s writing reveals the universal, emotional aspects of America’s romantic encounters, thus normalizing lesbian relationships for readers of any sexual orientation. “The lesbian scenes do not revolve around sex,” argues Garcia, “but are instead focused on tenderness, caring, and love” (174). The story lines that touch on America’s relationships are not belabored or overly dramatic; they are not sexualized for the more prurient viewing of male readers. America Chavez’s multiple markers of difference (female, Latina, queer, alien) positions the character as one of Marvel’s most obvious departures from the conventional depiction of superheroes as white, male, heterosexual, and American. But as radical as America may seem in the world of mainstream comics, countless people in the real world belong to numerous subaltern or disadvantaged groups simultaneously. Many people are faced with multiple forms of discrimination as a constant reality. America Chavez’s complicated identity politics may be relatively unique in the comics, but not for readers. Even in the comics, many of Marvel’s new heroes discussed in this book personify more than one nonnormative social position. The emphasis in America’s stories as an “Othered” hero facilitates an awareness of intersectionality as an important factor in identity politics. Since the early 1990s, intersectionality has been an important concept for beginning to understand and navigate the multiple ways that certain social issues converge to reinforce systems of oppression. In her analysis of African American gender and sexuality, Patricia Hill Collins concisely notes, “Intersectional paradigms view race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among other things, a mutually constructing systems of power. Because these systems permeate all social relations, untangling their effects in any given situation or for any given population remains difficult” (2004, 11). America Chavez illustrates that issues like ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are often intimately intertwined in a single figure. America is more than just a positive media representation of women, Latinas, or lesbians. She represents all these social categories at once and is still more than just the sum of these parts.

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An attention to intersectionality matrices, like those emphasized via America Chavez, is important for raising awareness about the cumulative effect of different forms of discrimination—­for example, the differences between how Latinos and Latinas may experience racial discrimination as informed by differing gender stereotypes (e.g., men as uneducated physical laborers, women as hypersexual exotic objects) or how white and Latina lesbians may be subjected to different homophobic discriminations (e.g., white lesbians as more femme and/or privileged, Latina lesbians as more butch and/or lower class). Without paying attention to the influence of intersectionality, different forms of discrimination may not be considered in full. For example, priority may be given to issues of racial discrimination or gender discrimination in a manner that does not adequately occupy someone who straddles both subject positions. African American feminist scholars and activists have detailed the dilemma faced by many black women who struggled with divided allegiances to broad African American social movements and broad feminist movements. While both groups sought to root out harmful injustices, the focus on race in general on one side did not adequately address the specific racism faced by women, and the focus on gender, on the other side, did little to confront the specific forms of misogyny faced by nonwhite women. Rather than ranking or alternating systems of oppression, intersectionality reveals a need to consider how these various systems work in conjuncture. The equal prioritizing of America Chavez’s ethnicity, her gender, and her sexuality within the stories highlights the complexity of identity politics. While the matrices of intersectional discrimination remain notoriously difficult to untangle, as Patricia Hill Collins argues, an awareness that multiple systems of oppression are always in play can facilitate alliances across categories. In fact, one of America Chavez’s most progressive features is that she cannot be reduced to just a Latina character facing Latina issues (or just a woman facing misogyny, or just a lesbian facing homophobia). Instead, America, along with many of the other new and diverse Marvel heroes, develops alliances to fight against all forms of discrimination. In her solo series as well as in Young Avengers and West Coast Avengers, America teams up with other young heroes to fight social injustices as well as supervillains. When Hulkling and Wiccan, two gay heroes in Young Avengers, are treated differently for their sexual orientation, she fights with them. Likewise, in West Coast Avengers, when her best friend Kate Bishop, a new female version of Hawkeye, is demeaned as a female “wannabe hero,” America is there to support her unconditionally. Moreover, at various times in a range of team-­up series (see the afterword), America is equally supportive of all her racially different colleagues, be they black, Asian, Latinx, or white. Perhaps the greatest indication that America Chavez is changing the public perception of Latinx superheroes is her appeal to preadolescent fans. America is a prominent member of the hit animated television program Marvel Rising (2017–­ongoing), which airs on the children’s network Disney XD. In the cartoon, America’s sexuality is not ignored, but it is also not emphasized. Conversely, her ethnicity is always front and center. She is presented as a Latinx hero to be admired

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and identified with. America Chavez has also broken free of the confines of the comic book pages (and the niche audience that reads them) through an emerging merchandising line targeted at children. America Chavez dolls (figure 7.4) and action figures, plushies, T-shirts, and costumes are readily available for young fans. While the marketing logic of America Chavez merchandise may be driven by corporate profitability, the fact remains that America Chavez is helping normalize a belief in diverse superheroes.

Figure 7.4

chapter 8

Q

Ms. Marvel a thoroughly relatable muslim superheroine Kamala Khan could be a Latina or an African American, a descendant of Chinese immigrants or a blonde Daughter of the American Revolution. Her struggles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to figure out where they belong. . . . The new Muslim teen superhero is sweet, conflicted and immensely relatable. (Tahir 2014)

One of Marvel Comics’ most successful new heroes has been the updated Ms. Marvel, who premiered to great fanfare in 2014. When the Carol Danvers version of the character finally dropped the “Ms.” from her moniker and was promoted to Captain Marvel, a young fan from New Jersey, Kamala Khan, assumed the name of Ms. Marvel and began her unique journey as a hero. In many ways, Kamala Khan is a very conventional adolescent superhero. Like Peter Parker (Spider-­Man) before her, Kamala has to balance her extraordinary new powers and costumed adventures with the demands of being a high school student and maintaining a secret identity. But Kamala Khan is also an unambiguously modern type of hero, since she is a sixteen-­year-­old, first-­generation Pakistani American and a practicing Muslim. Kamala’s complex identity combines and navigates a number of social and cultural positions beyond the traditional secret identity/superhero duality. As the promotional blurb on the back cover of the first Ms. Marvel trade paperback collection “No Normal” declares, “Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City—­until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm!” Ms. Marvel’s originality as a superhero foregrounds her intersectionality at a time when American culture is just beginning to come to grips with the changing reality of the “American experience” in the twenty-­first century. Kamala Khan’s adventures emphasize the cultural differences that influence her beyond the mere surface representation of skin color. Kamala’s identity as a child of immigrants, as a Muslim, as a proud resident of a multicultural Jersey City, as 123

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a woman, as a superhero fan, and even as a descendent of Inhumans all contribute to her persona, both in and out of costume. But even more important than Kamala’s multiple identities is her relatability for readers—­a trait that emphasizes her sameness rather than her differences. Kamala’s complexity broadens and adds dimension to the idea of superheroism beyond merely acting as morally righteous protectors of the status quo. Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel was conceived by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker and has been primarily authored by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Arian Alphona and Jaime McKelvie. Both Amanat and Wilson are Muslim American women that bring a sense of their own experiences and cultural authenticity to the Ms. Marvel series. Kamala’s superhero origin story is laid out in the first issue when the moderately rebellious teenager disobeys her parents by sneaking out of the house to attend an outdoor party with boys and alcohol. Kamala realizes she has made a mistake and quickly leaves the party, but on her way home, she is exposed to a cloud of Terrigen Mist that activates the latent genes of her unknown Inhuman heritage. The Inhumans are an ancient race of superpowered people in the Marvel Universe, and Kamala emerges from the mist with fantastic shape-­shifting abilities. Kamala can stretch her limbs, expand to be a giant, shrink to the size of an insect, and mold her appearance to look like someone or something else. After initially experimenting with transforming into a simulation of the Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel that Kamala idolizes (see chapter 2), she eventually becomes an all-­new type of Ms. Marvel, defender of Jersey City. Kamala attends high school during the day, hangs out with her friends after school, goes to the mosque when she can, and fights supervillains at night. Like all new superheroes, Ms. Marvel (figure 8.1) struggles with mastering her powers, balancing her public and private lives, and dealing with life-­and-­death situations and grand ethical conflicts. The prominence given to Kamala’s complex and multiple roles throughout the series has led to a range of excellent research about the series. Indeed, it is a testament to Ms. Marvel’s groundbreaking place in popular culture that so much scholarship has addressed the series in such a short time. “Kamala Khan represents a break from tradition,” argues Miriam Kent, “a major development, for instance, is the publisher’s conscientiousness towards issues of inclusion and intersectionality” (2015, 523). The theme of intersectionality is taken up by Mel Gibson (2018) in her study of how Kamala navigates various identities, including adolescence, femininity, religion, and technology. Chris Reyn-­Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz (2017) analyze the cross-­cultural reception of Ms. Marvel in France in relation to racial politics regarding Muslim immigrants and government regulations. Sophia Rose Arjana (2018) celebrates Ms. Marvel as a progressive counter to long-­standing negative stereotypes about Muslim women. Focusing on the metaphorical possibilities of Kamala’s shapeshifting powers, Sarah Gibbons (2017) argues that Ms. Marvel is a radical feminist text because the character refuses to conform to bodily expectations. Slimane Aboulkacem (2018) uses Ms. Marvel as a case study to encourage young people to explore the various identity politics at play in their own lives. And

Figure 8.1

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Wajeehah Aayeshah (2018) argues that Ms. Marvel offers an authentic depiction of Muslim hybrid identities and thus validates a less monolithic perception of Islam than is usually offered in the media. All of these works and others are an indication of how many important cultural issues are intertwined with Ms. Marvel. They have also been valuable resources for this chapter, but my primary focus here will revolve around the issue of Ms. Marvel’s identity as a Muslim woman and the specific diversity that identity brings to the Marvel Comics universe. Kamala’s struggles to navigate and harmonize the various cultures/identities that shape her suggest a strong theme of assimilation that runs throughout Ms. Marvel. Gibson points out, “Kamala is a complex and nuanced character who, even before gaining superpowers, is caught between the two worlds of her Pakistani and Muslim family background and her New Jersey teenage peers, thus making the narrative, in part, about issues around assimilation and integration” (2018, 23). Likewise, Umme Al-­wazedi argues that Kamala’s “desire to inhabit both South Asian and mainstream American culture creates a hybrid identity—­a complex balance between acculturation and assimilation” (2018, 240). Importantly, the idea of assimilation that Ms. Marvel presents is not about giving up one’s individuality and cultural heritage in order to conform to a monolithic image of what an American is. Rather, assimilation is characterized as adapting to a cultural environment by merging and balancing social, political, ethnic, and cultural beliefs and values. The principle of assimilation has always been an underlying theme in superhero comics, ever since Superman arrived as a refugee/immigrant from the doomed planet Krypton in 1938 to become an emblem of America. Noah Berlatsky’s (2014) review of the first issues of Ms. Marvel for the Atlantic makes the connection that Kamala is “also an assimilation fantasy, but that isn’t a quirk or a variation. It’s just how superhero empowerment fantasies have always worked.” Assimilation in the story of Ms. Marvel is not about conforming—­no melting pot here; it is about figuring out one’s unique place in the world as a Muslim daughter of Pakistani immigrants, as an American, as a woman, and as a superhero. In his overview of the character, J. B. O’Ready astutely argues that Kamala chooses “to embrace her superheroism without abandoning her own identity. In this way Ms. Marvel articulates that assimilation does not equate to inauthenticity: that a Muslim is an American” (2018, 242). Ms. Marvel is a milestone character for Marvel not just because she is a Muslim but because she is also undeniably American. Unlike most superheroes, one of Ms. Marvel’s biggest issues is maintaining her principles as a Muslim as she pursues a life of adventure. Kamala Khan’s significance as the first Muslim superhero to headline her own series at Marvel became a defining feature of how the character was received and promoted to the public. Religion has always been an uncomfortable theme in superhero comic books. As a quintessentially American and secular genre, specific belief systems are usually elided in favor of a broad assumption of Judeo-­Christian values. There are a few clear exceptions in the Marvel Universe, such as Daredevil’s grounding in the Catholic Church (see Young 2016) and the Jewish heritage of the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde (see Dowling 2009). Still, the presence of both these organized religions serves

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to metaphorically reinforce the hero’s struggles between good and evil, Heaven and Hell (in Daredevil’s case), and the dangers of anti-­Semitism and antimutant hatred (in Kitty Pryde’s case). The use of mutants in the Marvel Universe as an all-­encompassing metaphor for discriminations of any kind allows the comics to approach religion and fanaticism allegorically—­for example, the villainous attempts by the Reverend William Stryker in several X-Men stories to eliminate the “blasphemous” mutants with his devoted legion of henchmen known as “Purifiers.” Otherwise, religion, or the religious affiliation of specific characters, is rarely mentioned explicitly in the comics. Davis and Westerfelhaus (2013) argue that “typically, the religious affiliation of superheroes is undefined, or mentioned only in passing. As a rule, religion neither shapes character depictions nor drives plotlines” (801). The basic indifference to religion in superhero stories makes commercial sense because it avoids the risk of alienating readers. But exceptions are sometimes made, Davis and Westerfelhaus go on to note, “when religion adds an exotic dimension to a character’s profile. This Orientalizing impulse exploits alien aspects of the material culture and ritual practices associated with religions that differ from the Judeo-­Christian tradition that has historically dominated the American mainstream” (801–­802). Real-­world religions tend to only become part of superhero adventures when they are useful to signify—­usually visually—­a figure as different, mysterious, or Other. The superhero genre has also been frequently described as embodying a modern pantheon of ancient gods and mythological figures, a perspective that the creators have often embraced. As Richard Reynolds notes in one of the first scholarly works to approach comic books seriously, aptly entitled Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (1992), “There has arguably been a tendency for comics creators to legitimize their offspring by stressing their resemblance to legendary heroes or gods: a strategy to give their disregarded medium a degree of moral and intellectual uplift” (52). Sometimes the link between mythological gods and modern adventurers is direct—­after all, both the Norse god Thor and the Roman demigod Hercules are counted among Marvel’s roster of superheroes. Other times, the association is thinly disguised through similar powers, such as Poseidon and Namor (or Aquaman), or Hermes and Quicksilver (or the Flash). Furthermore, as the progenitor of the entire genre, Superman has always had the aura of being a Christ-­like savior in a flashy suit. The only son of an advanced alien race, Superman is sent to Earth as an infant to be raised by the humble farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, a modern-­day Joseph and Mary. He grows up to be pure, moral, and just, infallible and all-­powerful. The enduring godlike connotation of superheroes has led to dozens of books exploring the links, with titles like The Gospel According to Superheroes (Oropeza 2006), Holy Superheroes! (Garret 2008), Do the Gods Wear Capes? (Saunders 2011), and Superheroes and Gods (LoCicero 2007). Even legendary comic book writer Grant Morrison’s book-­length reflection on the genre, and his work in it, is entitled Supergods (2012). Despite the association of superheroes with gods, the centrality of Kamala Khan’s faith is a departure for mainstream comic books. The importance of

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Kamala’s beliefs is compounded by the fact that she is a Muslim character and thus part of a cultural and religious group that has often been villainized in American popular culture, particularly after the tragedies of 9/11. Like most Western media forms, comic books struggled to address the atrocities of 9/11 and the complexity of shifting political and ideological landscapes. The superhero genre, in particular, struggled with a way to depict American heroism in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack that revealed a nation’s vulnerability. Superhero movies thrived at the box office post-­9/11 by rewriting the narrative to have the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-­Man, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy successfully defending New York (or other major cities) from alien terrorists. In their discussion of superhero films, Smith and Goodrum summarize, “By reliving the attacks through superheroes, a new narrative of the attacks becomes available, one with the crucial element of control inserted” (2011, 490). Likewise, Simon McEnteggart argues, each superhero film “assuages anxieties of identity and reassembles cultural traditions and values that are seemingly under threat from external forces. Through the repetition sequelization induced, such fears are continually allayed to indoctrinate a sense of sociocultural ‘calm’ and stability through patriotic confidence” (2010, 172). The superhero movies that followed 9/11 managed to balance fantasies of American security from, and revenge against, terrorism without directly linking it to Islamic extremism. However, the thorough Othering that typified the “alien” terrorists was a thin veil for the xenophobic fears that gripped the nation. In comic books, on the other hand, superheroes were surprisingly resistant to any knee-­jerk reaction that would cast all Middle Easterners and all Muslims as extremist terrorists. There were some obvious examples of using comic book superheroes to give voice to a sense of paranoid Islamophobia, such as Frank Miller’s 2006 proposal to have a machine-­gun-­wielding Batman violently eliminate al-­Qaeda terrorists attacking Gotham City (DC Comics wisely declined, but Miller published the tale as a Batman knockoff graphic novel Holy Terror in 2011 anyway). But for the most part, comic books were relatively quick to address the dangers of simplifying and villainizing an entire religion and culture. In his analysis of post-­9/11 superhero stories, Henry Jenkins noted, “comics urged caution as we entered a new war against terrorism” (2006, 72). Specifically, Jenkins argued, “As comic book artists and writers re-­examined these familiar characters in the wake of September 11, the characters became powerful vehicles for pondering America’s place in the world” and that the comics “rejected fisticuffs or vigilante justice in favor of depicting the superheroes as nurturers and healers” (79). Even characters as traditionally patriotic as Superman and Captain America were used to express concern about America’s complicated political status in relation to terrorism. For example, Jason Dittmer (2005) analyzed the Captain America story line where Cap defeats a foreign terrorist but is forced to recognize that American military actions caused the anti-­ American zealousness. Dittmer concludes, “While ultimately retrenching the status quo of territorially based American power both morally in the dialogue and physically in the action, Captain America serves as a voice for a resistant, counterhegemonic narrative that illustrates the connections between the

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American way of life and American military operations around the world” (641). More generally, Matthew J. Costello argued, “Superhero comics early and consistently took a skeptical position on the meaning of the 9/11 attacks. Developing a common narrative that challenged notions of U.S. innocence and the appropriateness of a nationalist response, the books challenged the dominant interpretations coming from the mainstream media, interest groups, and government” (2011, 41). The creation of new Muslim superheroes was the most direct strategy used by the comic industry to contest a simplistic and reductionist vilification of the religion. Ms. Marvel was one of several high-­profile comic book superheroes used to challenge Islamic stereotypes and to present Muslims as a diverse group that includes pacifists and heroes as well as violent extremists. Nicholaus Pumphrey surmises that “American Muslims, like any minority, deal with dangerous stereotyping, but as Marvel further develops its characters, many have shifted to a more complex Muslim hero” (2017, 782). And as A. David Lewis and Martin Lund note in the introduction to Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation (2017), “Muslim superheroes are doing more than saving fictional innocents from peril; they are also engaging and influencing real-­world comprehension of this world religion, its adherents, and twenty-­first-­century heroism” (2). But Lewis and Lund also suggest that new Muslim superheroes may be about commercialization as much as heroics: “More pragmatically, the companies are likely also hoping to capitalize on Islam and Muslims’ increased visibility and media profile in recent years” (2). In either case, the increase of Muslim superheroes ushers in a greater diversity of comic book heroes and of Muslims in popular media forms. Among the post-­9/11 Muslim comic book superheroes at the big two companies are Marvel’s mutants Soorya Qadir, a.k.a. Dust, originally from Afghanistan who made her first appearance in 2002, and Monet St. Croix, code name M, an Algerian French woman who was introduced in Generation X in 1994 but was not revealed to be Muslim until 2010 in X-Factor #217; DC Comics’ Nightrunner (Bilal Asselah), an Algerian Muslim immigrant in Paris introduced in 2011 who has been aligned with Batman; and the newest member of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps, Simon Baz, a Lebanese American from Michigan who premiered in 2012 and joined the Justice League in 2013. Furthermore, a range of Muslim superheroes also emerged from smaller independent and international comic book publishers, including The 99 (Teshkeel Comics), Silver Scorpion (Liquid Comics), Buraaq (CFX Comics), and Qahera. Sophia Rose Arjana argues that “Ms. Marvel represents a major shift in the industry’s treatment of Islamic subjects, which have historically been largely negative” (2018, 49). Even though Kamala Khan was not Marvel’s first Muslim superhero to emerge in post-­9/11 America, she was the first to receive almost universal praise for the complex and humanized depiction of her faith. “Though the character was framed in the press as ‘controversial,’” Miriam Kent notes in her discussion of Ms. Marvel as a potentially feminist character, “reactionary articles were a minority. Critical reactions to the first issue were overwhelmingly positive” (2015, 524). The industry’s earlier post-­9/11 attempts to incorporate Muslim superheroes,

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while well intentioned, were often criticized as stereotypical misrepresentations or underdeveloped. It is difficult to incorporate Muslim characters effectively in a genre that requires bombastic action and a medium that relies on colorful and easily understood visual codes. Subtlety has never been a strength in superhero comic books. In his overview of Muslim superheroes, Fredrik Stromberg (2011) acknowledges the progressive efforts made by the publishers: “Research indicates that Arab and Muslim superheroes exist in American superhero comics after 9/11 and that most seem to have been created to resist stereotypical or racist configurations of Arabs and/or Muslims as terrorists, submissive veiled women, and so on” (576). Unfortunately, as Stromberg continues to note, the limitations of the genre often function only to reinforce misconceptions: “Yet despite this attempt, these representations still partake in the Othering of these ethnic and religious groups by reinforcing stereotypes of ‘the Oriental’” (576–­577). In highlighting the uniqueness of Muslim superheroes and their difference from conventional caped crusaders, portrayals often strayed into areas traditionally associated with marking differences as “Other.” In racial/cultural terms, “different” is too easily coupled with mysterious, exotic, foreign, unknowable, and dangerous. Muslim men have routinely been depicted in Western popular culture as violent brutes, religious fanatics, suicide bombers, jihadists, and lecherous exploiters of women. These stereotypes existed long before 9/11 but became more explicit afterward under the guise of “realism” and the intensified air of Islamophobia. Recent popular television shows like 24: Legacy, Homeland, Tyrant, The Bodyguard, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan continue to reinforce a belief that all Muslim men are terrorists who hate the West. Muslim women are subjected to different but interrelated stereotypes as either exotic beauties or oppressed victims of their misogynistic culture. As Sophia Rose Arjana phrases it, the media routinely offers “representations of Muslim women (and girls) as victimized, oppressed, and sensual beings” (2018, 23). Under the general logic of Orientalism, Muslim women, like all “Other” nonwhite women, have a long history of being fetishized in the West as mysterious seductresses and sexy vamps coyly hiding behind a flirtatious veil. Arjana argues, “The veil is the principle symbol of the exotic Muslim woman” (4). Worn by countless Hollywood belly dancers and Harem girls, the veil implies a mystery to be revealed, a sexuality waiting to be taken by a white hero. The veil plays a different role in the standard image of the oppressed Muslim woman. This stereotype is derived from a supposedly more enlightened concern that under Islam, women are victims of a misogynistic religion that requires women to be the submissive, voiceless property of men, hidden away behind robes and veils. The oppressed Muslim woman stereotype assumes that Western women have achieved a type of personal and social freedom that is being denied to Muslimah. In the case of Dust and M, Marvel’s two most prominent Muslim superheroines before Ms. Marvel, issues of misrepresentation and Orientalism complicated the well-­intentioned premise of both characters. Monet St. Croix’s M has been a popular mutant heroine since the mid-­1990s, appearing as a semiregular team member in The Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and Generation X. Monet is of French

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and Algerian descent, and her family is extremely wealthy. She is typically portrayed as an arrogant socialite who also happens to be an incredibly powerful mutant with Superman-­like abilities. Monet, who has worked as a professional model (even posing nude for a Vanity Fair exposé) is always illustrated as beautiful, sexy, and voluptuous. Male characters have trouble concentrating around Monet, she spends an awful lot of her time sunbathing in skimpy bikinis, and she wears figure-­revealing suits for battle. While Monet was characterized as exotic and foreign, there was no mention of her religious affiliation until 2010. Monet declared her Muslim status while confronting protesters in New York City from anti-­Muslim (and antimutant) groups with her X-Factor teammates. Monet shouts at the racist mob, “Come on. Here’s the face of the ‘enemy.’ Say what you want, because I am a Muslim” (figure 8.2). “Fans were surprised when she announced she was a Muslim, as there were no clues prior to her revelation to suggest she follows that faith,” Davis and Westerfelhaus (2013) argued about Monet, “nor has her Muslimah identity played much of a role in defining her character” (800). Even within the story, Monet’s teammates are shocked to discover she is Muslim. Years of blatantly fetishizing Monet as an exotic Other contradict the ideology of Muslim modesty and the image of the veiled woman. Indeed, just a few panels earlier, Monet was lounging in a bikini, and her chest threatens to spill out of her low-­cut superhero outfit while she is proclaiming herself a Muslim. “Clearly, M’s Islamic faith was a tokenistic afterthought,” J. B. O’Ready argues. “Subsequent clumsy attempts have been made to retro-­engineer M’s faith into her characterization rather than take the potentially more interesting path of depicting either a Muslim character whose religion is not a significant factor in their appearance and behavior, or a character who converts to, or rediscovers, Islam. Such nuanced depictions of Muslim superheroes are still denied us by the implicit or explicit Othering that pervades” (2018, 245). Monet St. Croix’s long-­standing characterization as a sexualized figure—­as a fetishized Other—­undermines her validity as a Muslim woman. Where Monet St. Croix seems to be too Westernized, too much a traditionally eroticized superheroine/Other, to be a believable Muslimah, Soorya Qadir’s Dust (figure 8.3) perhaps adheres too much to conventional assumptions about Muslim women. In his overview of Muslim comic book characters, Nicholaus Pumphrey argues that Dust is just “a stereotypical caricature of a Muslim hero” (2017, 26), and Sophia Rose Arjana agrees that “Dust is problematic, for she is cast as foreign, different and exotic” (2018, 11). Created by legendary writer Grant Morrison in 2002 as a response to the Islamophobic fever that Morrison saw gripping the United States, Soorya Qadir is initially rescued from slave traders in Afghanistan by Wolverine of the X-Men. Soorya is a mutant with the ability to turn herself into sand, assuming different shapes or lashing the skin of her enemies. Soorya comes to America and enrolls in Xavier’s school without giving up her Muslim beliefs or practices, maintaining her prayers and wearing her niqab at all times, even in battles. Though Dust was a radically progressive move to include as part of Marvel’s popular team of X-Men, critics were quick to point out the flaws and

Figure 8.2

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Figure 8.3

inconsistencies in how she is represented. Soorya’s language is incorrect for her place of origin, she mistakenly calls her niqab a burqua, and she is constantly depicted praying to Allah. And when other young heroines, like X-23 and Surge, ask about her veil because they regard it as dehumanizing, Soorya explains that it offers her protection from the lascivious eyes of men. In many ways, Soorya fulfills the Western trope of an oppressed Muslimah who needs to be rescued from a misogynistic Eastern culture. The odd mix of foregrounding Soorya’s religion but doing so through a number of Western stereotypes marks Dust as thoroughly Other. In their analysis of Dust, Davis and Westerfelhaus conclude, “Highlighting Dust’s religion emphasizes how Islamic identity renders her radically different from her colleagues and the culture to which they belong: the mainstream American culture that Marvel’s creative team draws from and contributes to, and in which many comic book consumers live their lives” (2013, 802). Despite the many positive aspects of Dust as a breakthrough character for mainstream comics, she ultimately reaffirms followers of Islam as fundamentally different. Moreover, while Soorya’s fully covered appearance is meant to conceal her for the sake of modesty (in a more practical manner than any other full-­body and masked superhero costumes do), the visual conventions used to illustrate female characters in comic books works against Dust’s beliefs. As Miriam Kent notes, “Dust’s representation is fraught with Orientalist sentiments and a Western male gaze” (2015, 523). Nicholaus Pumphrey similarly argues that, like Monet St. Croix, Dust is frequently sexualized. “In several instances, the reader is allowed to view her under the niqab and abaya,” Pumphrey observes, and he states that in New X-Men #6, “she is completely naked, covered only by her hands and some well-­ placed plant life. This act seems to satisfy the male gaze, by stripping away the female Oriental Other’s burqa and giving a view of the ‘beautiful’ woman hiding underneath, an oversexualized view based on the mystery of the burqa. In other

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instances, Dust’s clothing is tight-­fitting showing off her hips or even the outline of her breasts, working in the direct opposite of the niqab’s purpose” (2017, 28). As widely divergent as M and Dust are (M as not very Muslim, Dust as extremely Muslim), they are both structured as fetishized objects according to the underlying logic of Orientalism. Ella Shohat’s (1997) detailed analysis of Orientalism in Hollywood addresses the gendered and sexual elements of colonial films and is as applicable to modern comics as it is to classic movies. Following Edward Said’s binary conception between the civilized West and the savage East, between us and them, Shohat argues that the Orient signifies an alluring, unbridled sexuality to be exploited by Westerners. Dust’s sexualization is intrinsic to her feminine Otherness. “The Orient as a metaphor for sexuality is encapsulated by the recurrent figure of the veiled woman,” Shohat notes. “The inaccessibility of the veiled woman, mirroring the mystery of the Orient itself, requires a process of Western unveiling for comprehension” (32). Despite Soorya’s veil, or perhaps because of it, there seems to be a cultural imperative to expose her, to understand her, to master her. As Shohat continues, “Veiled women in Orientalist paintings, photographs and films expose flesh, ironically, more than they conceal it. It is this process of exposing the female Other, of literally denuding her, which comes to allegorize the Western masculinist power of possession, that she, as a metaphor for her land, becomes available for Western penetration and knowledge” (32–­33). Where Monet St. Croix is already fully exposed to the controlling male gaze of the assumed comic book reader (no mask, revealing outfits), Soorya’s niqab and veil fall into the tradition of being an Orientalist tease to the Western male gaze that must be overcome. Just on a visual and sartorial level, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel manages to occupy an appropriate middle ground between M’s too traditionally superheroine figure and too sexualized costuming and Dust’s too traditionally Muslim and too inaccessible niqab. When Kamala is first affected by the Terrigen Mists and develops her shape-­shifting powers, she transforms herself into a version of her hero, Carol Danvers, replete with big blonde hair, skimpy costume, and thigh-­high red boots. Kamala assumes that looking like her favorite hero, the very picture of a fetishized (white) superheroine, would make her self-­reliant and powerful. Instead, she just feels exposed and immodest. “This is what I asked for, right? So why don’t I feel strong and confident and beautiful?” Kamala asks herself. “Why do I just feel freaked out and underdressed?” Kamala quickly realizes that if she is going to pursue her dream of being a superhero and stay true to her Muslim faith, she will need a different kind of costume. She will need a costume that both signifies her heroic role and satisfies her desires for modesty. Kamala opts to adapt her red-­and-­ blue burkini (a modest swimming garment), which covers her arms, shoulders, and legs. She also incorporates her red silk scarf (which seems to shape-­shift at times from a short necktie to a full cape), her matrilineal grandmother’s bracelets, and a blue domino mask for her eyes. Ms. Marvel’s simple mask is a succinct compromise between M’s exposure and Dust’s veiling. The mask affords some coverage, protects her secret identity, and clearly marks her as a superhero, but it also allows

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her brown skin to reveal her ethnicity and counters the stereotype of oppressed Muslim women. Kamala Khan’s ongoing adventures as Ms. Marvel are relatively typical superhero problems. Ms. Marvel has fought a mad scientist trying to turn the teenagers and the senior citizens of Jersey City into human batteries, a destructive cloned version of herself, evil Inhumans out to enslave mankind, agents of Hydra attempting to gentrify and homogenize the neighborhood, and fascist militants trying to incarcerate people for future crimes based on their identity profiles. Likewise, her exploits within the superteam books The Avengers and The Champions see Ms. Marvel battling all manner of alien invaders, evil gods, giant monsters, and “A-list” supervillains. Where Ms. Marvel breaks new ground is the way it casually depicts Kamala’s faith as central to her identity and the humanizing way a diversity of Muslim people is incorporated. Overall, as Winona Landis observes in her analysis of real-­life Ms. Marvel fans, the series reveals many of the “misconceptions about Islam, particularly those related to the severity of its teachings and its attitude toward young women” (2016, 41). Likewise, Arjana argues that “Ms. Marvel is a very different kind of Muslim character. Her daily interactions with family and friends reveal a Muslin identity, but it is not an identity that relies on the stereotypes usually in force in graphic narratives. Islam plays a prominent role in the series, but it is presented as an integral part of Kamala, not as a costume or accoutrement. Instead of presenting Islam as an accessory, or a series of tropes, Ms. Marvel instead offers nuanced, complex portrayals of Muslims” (2018, 55). Ms. Marvel may be a typical superhero, but she is an atypical media image of a Muslimah. Kamala regularly goes to masjid and routinely questions why the boys and girls have to be separated by a partition. She observes dietary restrictions, even if she occasionally lusts after bacon, which Kamala refers to as “delicious infidel meat.” Her older brother, Aamir, is far more devout than Kamala: he dresses traditionally, wears a beard in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad, and prays so often that his own father tells him, “Aamir, if you don’t stop praying long enough to put some food in your mouth, one day you will starve to death.” Kamala prays with her family and is often depicted at her mosque seeking guidance or questioning the rules with Sheikh Abdullah. The Muslim religion is not portrayed as mindlessly strict, one-­dimensional, or hateful. Kamala’s parents are mildly conservative but also very loving and supportive of Kamala, even when she breaks rules. When Kamala tells her mother that she has been sneaking out of the house at night to be Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s mother reveals that she had already figured it out. Kamala is shocked her mother is not angry, but she hugs her daughter and tells her, “If the worst things you do is sneak out to help suffering people, then I thank God for having raised a righteous child.” In her analysis of Ms. Marvel’s intersectionality, Mel Gibson (2018) describes these questioning and supportive moments as evidence that “her faith is depicted here as at the core of her character, choices, and actions. Kamala does not blindly engage with her faith but questions it and challenges its authority figures” (31). And Gibson clarifies that the “overall point

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the narrative makes is that Kamala is being acknowledged as working within the tenets of her faith” (32). Islam is humanized through Kamala Khan, her family, friends, and community. Islam is not vilified as different, mysterious, or dangerous. It is merely presented as a part of some Americans’ lives in the same way that other religions, ethnicities, or social-­political values are. In addition to Kamala and her immediate family, Ms. Marvel includes numerous other Muslim characters. One of Kamala’s closest friends and supporters is Nakia, who is of Turkish descent. Nakia has attended Mosque with Kamala since they were children and has opted to wear a hijab even though her father thinks it is just a “phase” she is going through. As the series progresses, Kamila’s pious brother, Aamir, courts, marries, and then starts a family with Tyesha, an African American woman who recently converted to Islam. When Kamala visits her extended family in Karachi, she meets Kareem, a charming teenage boy who also fights crime at night as Laal Khanjeer (Red Dagger). Kareem eventually moves to Jersey City and becomes part of Ms. Marvel’s support group and a potential romantic interest. Sheikh Abdullah becomes a recurring character that Kamala initially fears as an authority figure until she realizes that he is actually very open-­minded and nonjudgmental. When Kamala’s father sends her to speak with Sheikh Abdullah for sneaking out at night, the sheikh does not pressure her or chastise her. “If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about,” the sheikh tells Kamala, “do it with the qualities befitting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-­respect.” Ms. Marvel even includes a villainous Muslim character, Kamran, a seemingly perfect marital prospect for Kamala who also has developed Inhuman powers. But Kamran has joined forces with a radical group of new Inhumans who want to enslave mankind. In Ms. Marvel, Muslims can be good, bad, funny, devout, or even superheroic—­just like any group of people can be. The inclusion of a large variety of Muslim characters reflects the diversity that exists within any given faith. As J. B. O’Ready argues, “Ms. Marvel also deftly illustrates that ‘Muslim American’ is not a monolithic identity” (2018, 242). Unlike Dust and M, Kamala is not the sole representation of Muslim beliefs in the series. She does not have the burden of representing all Muslimah through a single character, a burden in representational politics that often befalls nonwhite, heterosexual male characters in the media. As a Pakistani American Muslim teenager, Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel is obviously different from the traditional image of a superhero. “The fact that the new Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim girl named Kamala Khan is, for superhero comics at least, a long-­awaited and much-­welcome innovation,” wrote Berlatsky (2014) in the Atlantic review. “The great thing about Ms. Marvel, though, is not how unusual it is, but how familiar.” Despite her unique identity, or perhaps because of it, critics and fans have overwhelmingly described Kamala as “relatable” since her very first adventure: Bringing relatability back to superheroes. (Darnell 2015) What you do need to know about the new Ms. Marvel is that she’s one of the

m s . m a r v e l 137 most relatable superheroes ever to grace a comics page. (Granshaw 2014) It’s not the first comic book to feature a Muslim superhero, but it’s captured the attention of readers because Kamala’s story is both compelling and imminently relatable. (Oler 2014) Wilson does an amazing job making the characters realistic and relatable for the audience. (Holm 2014) Favorite new superhero, thanks to the spunky personality, and relatable social problems. (Sava 2014) The Pakistani American Muslim teenager quickly became one of the most honest and relatable heroes in the Marvel pantheon. (Reese 2015) Kamala’s identity and the way it shapes her life is relatable to everyone. (Donaldson 2018)

The importance of Ms. Marvel’s relatability cannot be overstated. In her early piece about the first few issues of Ms. Marvel and its cultural impact, Miriam Kent described “reviewers’ insistence on relatability as a key source of value for the book” (2015, 525). Kent was concerned about the assimilationist impulse that the focus on Kamala as “just like everyone else” may encourage: “The emphasis on relatability has the effect of positing a kind of universal teen experience which critics suggested was being fulfilled by the character” (524). But as the series developed, Kamala’s unique experiences were never reduced or generalized in order to be relatable across religious, ethnic, or gender lines. Kamala did remain relatable because her Otherness was not fetishized or depicted as mysteriously exotic or unknowable. If readers identify with any character, then they are able to see past the surface differences of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on. Identifying with the adolescent power fantasy at the core of the superhero genre has always been crucial for young fans, and the strength of the identificatory fantasy seems able to overcome even deeply ingrained preconceptions. Like most young readers, Kamala has conflicts with her parents but loves them, struggles to fit in among her different peer groups, is plagued by self-­doubt, and has to deal with school, friends, family, and community. Kamala dreamed of being a superhero long before she got her Inhuman powers. In other words, Kamala is a typical teenage geek just as all of us feel we are (or were) at some point. The specifics of Kamala’s situation may not be universal, but the ideas and the feelings are. “This positive geek representation for a female, Muslim superhero has two major consequences for Kamala’s character,” argues Wajeehah Aayeshah. “Firstly, it adds another layer of diversity to an already complex representation of a brown, immigrant, Muslim woman. Secondly, the beauty of Amanat’s writing allows Kamala to connect with her nerdy-­geek audience. Ms. Marvel is a superhero who is also a superhero genre fan: enough to have spent time on writing fan fiction” (2018, 62). Kamala’s relative adolescent normality and her “geekishness” help readers identify with her well beyond her superficial identity markers of Pakistani American Muslim girl.

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With M and Dust, Marvel’s earlier forays into the terrain of Muslim superheroines, the characters were limited as Orientalist stereotypes. Dust, in particular, was marked as different—­a quintessential Other. Through the extended narrative of the Ms. Marvel series, Kamala is presented in an entirely unique way. Kamala may be an “Other,” but she is characterized by sameness rather than difference. Umme Al-­wazedi argues that Kamala’s identity as a hyphenated American is critical to the series’ ability to connect with young American readers. Kamala may not be a traditional superhero icon of America in the way that Captain America is—­what Jason Dittmer categorizes as a “nationalist superhero” that “explicitly identifies himself or herself as representatives and defender of a specific nation-­state, often through his or her name, uniform, and mission” (2013, 7). But Kamala is iconic of a modern America filled with diversity and multiculturalism (figure 8.4). Kamala, her family, her friends, and her beloved Jersey City are full of the cultural mixes that define American urban centers in the twenty-­first century. “In contrast to Dust, who is a refugee and therefore an outsider looking in at American society,” Umme Al-­wazedi concludes, “Kamala’s struggles present an insider’s story about Muslim-­American experiences” (2018, 244). It is Kamala Khan’s differences that mark her as a modern American. Ms. Marvel represents an alternative type of Americanization for the twenty-­first century that emphasizes the complexity of citizenship as the real point of connection for a diverse nation struggling with a shifting cultural and ethnic landscape. As Winona Landis notes, “Ms. Marvel is Muslim, but her Islamic background does not matter, it’s a mere aspect of her unique cultural identity. She’s an American hero for everyone” (2016, 40). Ms. Marvel’s ability to connect with young audiences across ethnic and religious lines is evidenced through the mainstream popularity she has achieved and the passion of her devoted fans. Bolstered by Kamala’s starring role on the Disney XD animated television series Marvel Rising (more on this in the conclusion), Ms. Marvel has become a marketable commodity in a manner that very few other superheroines before her have. To satisfy consumer interests, a range of Ms. Marvel merchandise has been stocked in the Disney Store, Target, Walmart, Hot Topic, Party City, and other mass-­market outlets. Ms. Marvel action figures, shirts, mugs, bags, notebooks, and other products allow fans to publically declare their affiliation with this new character. And in what has become a standard indication of a character’s popularity to young fans, Ms. Marvel Halloween costumes became a top seller for young girls in 2017 and 2018 (figure 8.5). Moreover, Kevin Feige, the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has announced that a live-­action feature-­film version of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is currently in development. A blockbuster movie featuring a Muslim Pakistani American woman could forever change the public perception about what superheroes are, who can be one, and the various ways they can represent what America is. Shifting the focus to older Ms. Marvel fans, both Winona Landis (2016) and Juli L. Gittinger (2018) have explored how readers use the character to enact their own fantasies of hybridity through interpretive strategies, cosplay, fan fiction, and cross-­cultural identifications. Landis argues that part of Ms. Marvel’s broad

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Figure 8.4

appeal “lies in the fact that Wilson’s text invites readers and fans to disidentify with Kamala and to participate and engage with the text, character, and author in ways that are meaningful to their own subject formation” (2016, 43). In other words, the specificity of Kamala’s subject position is just one point of identification for similarly situated South Asian readers, but the overall fantasy world of Ms. Marvel is accessible to readers across racial and ethnic lines through engaging the comic in relation to other social positions as well. Taking a different approach, Gittinger’s study of superhero cosplay by Muslimah fans that incorporate the hijab into their

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Figure 8.5

performance of various characters draws the link from Ms. Marvel’s own fictional adaptation of traditional garments (her modified burkini costume and her red dupatta scarf in lieu of a cape) to the fans’ practices. Gittinger’s work illustrates how these young women who cosplay, like Ms. Marvel herself, are both normalizing Muslims and recontextualizing superheroes and ideas about identification. Ms. Marvel’s popularity and accessibility—­her relatability—­facilitates her imaginative movement beyond the confines of the comic book page and into the lives and minds of her fans. Moreover, just as Ms. Marvel has become more than just a colorful comic book character for many of her fans, Kamala has also “spilled out beyond the confines of comic fandom to become an icon of protest” (O’Ready 2018, 251–­252). When the alt-­right propaganda group American Freedom Defense Initiative ran public advertisements in San Francisco in 2015 equating Islam with Nazis, street artists plastered images of Ms. Marvel over the offensive ads. The Islamophobic pictures were covered with illustrations of Ms. Marvel looking suitably heroic,

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and the text calling for the end of American aid to any Muslim countries were replaced with phrases like “Stamp Out Racism” and “Free Speech Isn’t a License to Spread Hate.” And Ms. Marvel was invoked by numerous protesters outraged by Donald Trump’s hate-­filled rhetoric against immigrants and various ethnic groups during his 2016 campaign and his subsequent presidency. Fan art depicted Ms. Marvel punching Trump, replicating the original cover of Captain America that featured Cap belting Adolph Hitler. Cosplayers dressed up as Ms. Marvel and marched in anti-­Trump rallies. A photo of one young girl dressed as Ms. Marvel and tearing a picture of Trump in half went viral on Instagram. The image was so inspiring that famed comic book artist Phil Noto drew the image in his signature style and posted it online for protesters to use. Ms. Marvel also became a regular image adorning picket signs declaring “He Will Not Divide Us” and “Kamala Khan for President!” Ms. Marvel has become more than just another comic book superhero by being just a superhero who happens to be a Pakistani American Muslim.

A F T E R W O R D “because the world still needs heroes!”

Marvel was founded in 1939 and has been a major architect and purveyor of American ideas of heroism for over eighty years. Since the 1960s, Marvel superheroes have dominated the comic book industry, and in the twenty-­first century, the same costumed characters have conquered Hollywood with record-­setting blockbusters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and critically acclaimed live-­action television series. In addition to the books, movies, and television programs, Marvel’s superheroes have generated billions of merchandising dollars through the sale of toys, clothing, video games, backpacks, housewares, and just about anything else that can be brandished with a trademarked emblem. While Marvel’s most iconic characters have always been a rather conventional image of white, heterosexual men (as it is in most areas of American popular culture), the world’s number-­one producer of superhero fiction is committed to diversifying the genre. In an effort to better reflect “the world outside their windows,” as the editorial mantra goes, Marvel has introduced dozens of new—­and revitalized many of their older—­characters of color. Furthermore, Marvel has raised the profile of female, queer, non-­Christian, and non-­American characters. This push for diversity with Marvel superheroes is less about blind political correctness and more about attracting and maintaining as broad an audience as possible for their characters. America—­indeed, the world—­has changed an awful lot since superheroes first burst on the scene in 1939, and the industry needs to keep apace of shifting cultural expectations and audience demographics. Despite how American culture has changed, there is still a seemingly insatiable audience for superheroes who can embody the dreams and ideals of a diverse and complex nation. It is fitting that the tagline for one of Marvel’s most popular new series, Champions, which features a collection of diverse teenage heroes, declares, “Because the World Still Needs Heroes!” As a supplement to many of the solo superhero adventures discussed throughout this book, like Black Panther, Silk, America, Ms. Marvel, The Totally Awesome Hulk, and Sam Wilson: Captain America, team books like Champions are an important step in solidifying the diversity of Marvel’s heroes. Champions brings together 143

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such new heroes as the Pakistani American Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), the Korean American Amadeus Cho (a Hulk who now goes by the moniker Brawn), the black and Latino Miles Morales (Spider-­Man), the African American Riri Williams (Ironheart), the Latino Sam Alexander (Nova), the magenta-­skinned and green-­ haired android Viv Vision (“daughter” of the robotic hero Vision), the Mexican American Fernanda Rodriguez (the Locust), and the Native Canadian Amka Aliyak (a.k.a. Snowguard). Similarly, the series West Coast Avengers is led by Kate Bishop, a young female version of the archer Hawkeye, and includes the Latina/ alien lesbian America Chavez, the original Clint Barton Hawkeye, the humorous female version of Deadpool known as Gwenpool, the African American Fuse, and the pink-­haired Kid Omega. And Marvel’s most recent version of Agents of Atlas brings together a wide range of Pan-­Asian heroes under the guidance of Jimmy Woo, including Brawn and Silk (Korean Americans), Luna Snow and Crescent (South Koreans), Sword Master and Aero (Chinese), Wave (Mactan Islander), and Shang-­Chi (Chinese American). And though it was relatively short-­lived, The Mighty Avengers (2013–­2014) and its follow up series, Captain America & the Mighty Avengers (2014–­2015), united the African American heroes Luke Cage, the Sam Wilson version of Captain America, Spectrum, Power Man, Blade, Blue Marvel, and the Latina White Tiger. Unlike earlier team books, like The Avengers, The Defenders, or even X-Men, the roster of heroes featured in all these new Marvel series are overwhelmingly dominated by nonwhite superheroes. The publishing logic of superhero team comics is premised on attracting and expanding readership by combining the audiences of different popular characters. “The all-­star team subgenre offers a number of commercial appeals,” Mark Minett and Bradley Schauer point out in their discussion of early Avengers tales. “In terms of marketability, it offers readers the novelty of seeing their favorite characters interacting, as well as the value of purchasing a single comic that contains all or most of their favorite characters. This aggregation of characters suggests an opportunity to attract an especially wide readership, as fans of the different characters seek out the book. An all-­star team book can also serve to promote lesser-­known superheroes by placing them alongside more popular characters” (2017, 41–­42). This basic marketing principle holds true for newer series like Champions, West Coast Avengers, Agents of Atlas, and Captain America & the Mighty Avengers. Readers who enjoy the solo exploits of Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel or Miles Morales’s Spider-­Man are likely to follow Champions and then may also become fans of Ironheart and Brawn as well. Or fans of Jimmy Woo or Shang-­Chi may pick up Agents of Atlas and find they like Aero and Sword Master enough to also try their solo books. With all these new series bringing together a range of ethnically diverse characters, Marvel is able to specifically target readers interested in diverse representations and to showcase other, similar superheroes. Moreover, many of these new team books from Marvel are specifically targeted at young audiences in an effort to establish a new generation of readers and consumers. All the members of the Champions are teenagers, as are most of the current members of Agents of Atlas. This appeal to young audiences through

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diverse superteams is even more explicit with the popular animated television series Marvel Rising, which airs on the parent company’s children’s network Disney XD. Marketed to preschool-­and grade school–­aged children, Marvel Rising serves as a juvenile primer for superhero adventures. The animation and story lines are uncomplicated for young viewers but still introduce the themes and conventions of Marvel’s world of superheroes. Significantly, Marvel Rising focuses primarily on the newer and more ethnically diverse characters, including Ms. Marvel, Ironheart, America Chavez, Inferno, Quake, and Patriot. The animated program has proven popular enough to spawn several movie-­length specials and a comic series (also entitled Marvel Rising), as well as numerous toys, children’s costumes, T-shirts, and other merchandise for young fans. Marvel is consciously courting new fans from a broader range of cultural backgrounds through their new heroes. The shift to younger and more culturally diverse superteams also facilitates an opportunity for Marvel Comics to address social activism as a new type of heroism that is of particular interest to millennials and Gen Zs. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service (nationalservice​.gov), in 2018, over half of all young Americans between twelve and eighteen were involved in volunteer and charity activities and actively supported human rights causes. Since the very inception of the genre in the late 1930s, stories have relied on symbolic battles wherein powerful superheroes assert moral authority primarily through overpowering the bad guys who represent very specific threats to the status quo. Iron Man pummels the Mandarin, who signifies a foreign threat to America; Daredevil beats up the Kingpin, who symbolizes the dangers of organized crime; and so on. But in a world where the very real dangers of white supremacists, police profiling of minorities, and other forms of systemic discrimination pose a greater omnipresent danger to young people, the fantasy that

Figure 9.1

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superior force can eradicate social threats seems anachronistic. Many of Marvel’s newer heroes provide an access point for addressing social injustices for younger audiences. For example, Kamala Khan and her teenage friends in Ms. Marvel are depicted fighting against political corruption, volunteering with the elderly, protesting discrimination, and helping the homeless as much as she is seen fighting costumed villains. As Sophia Rose Arjana argues in her analysis of veiled superheroes, “She [Ms. Marvel] represents a diverse, socially progressive, and politically active youth culture” (2018, 53). Ms. Marvel is not alone in tackling social injustices; Ironheart, Nova, America Chavez, and all the other young heroes express similar goals in their solo series as well. The generational and ideological break between Marvel’s older heroes and their younger ones is treated as the core principle for the establishment of the Champions as a team. In the first issue of the series (October 2016), Ms. Marvel quits the premiere superteam the Avengers when the adult heroes refuse to help clean up the damage they created for ordinary people after fighting superterrorists. Ms. Marvel meets up with Nova and Miles Morales’s Spider-­Man, who had quit the same team a few weeks earlier in All-­New, All-­Different Avengers (2015–­2016) because they did not agree with the team’s “might makes right” agenda during the events of Marvel’s universe-­wide Civil War II. “You were right,” Kamala tells her friends. “They don’t seem to care. All the ‘grown-­up’ heroes broke the world with this dumb war, and they don’t seem interested in putting it back together! Somebody should! . . . We can make people believe in what we stand for again. I bet a lot of heroes our age want that!” By the end of the issue, the three young heroes are joined by others and rescue a boxcar of underage girls from a costumed sex trafficker. When one of the girls dies, the crowd of bystanders and the Hulk begin to beat the villain to death. But Ms. Marvel restrains them and makes an impassioned speech about needing to be better: Look. I’m not going to give a speech about what heroes do, or are supposed to do. Or judges or juries or anything old-­school like that. I want—­I need—­to watch this sick lowlife be punished as much as you do. But not by the Hulk. We see it all around us more and more everyday—­people with power punching down. Meeting unarmed perps, even unarmed kids, with lethal firepower. That’s the world we are inheriting, where violence does all the talking. But we can be better than that. We have to start enforcing justice without unjust force.

Ms. Marvel’s speech, captured on the bystanders’ cell phones and visually directed right at the reader (metatextually alluding to real-­world events like police using lethal force on unarmed black teenagers), inspires an immediate popular response with other young heroes and the general public. This attention to social injustices is further reinforced in the story line that follows this first adventure where the Champions help a group of Middle Eastern girls who are being raped, murdered, and denied freedoms like an education by religious extremists. Instead of just saving the girls, the Champions declare them part of the team and help them free themselves from gendered tyranny.

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Figure 9.2

The desire to expand on core audiences and to establish new ones, to capitalize on the appeal of the more successful characters and hopefully transfer some of that appeal to lesser-­known heroes, is undoubtedly at the root of these new all-­star team series. But the narrative formula and structure of superteams also benefit how these diverse characters are represented on a number of different levels. A common complaint, lobbied by both people who want to see more diverse characters in comics and those who decry it as “political correctness” run amok, is that the inclusion of just one or two nonwhite characters on a team of iconic white heroes is nothing more than tokenism. Drafting Luke Cage to be in the Avengers alongside Steve Roger’s Captain America, Bruce Banner’s Hulk, Clint Barton’s Hawkeye, Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-­Man risks being perceived as forced diversity. Even within the comics, characters like Luke Cage have self-­ consciously wondered if they are really nothing more than “affirmative action” hires. Of course, stalwart heroes like Captain America always clarify that every hero is part of the team because they have earned it and that heroism is color-­ blind. But when the typical racial percentages of superteams are overturned in books like Champions, Marvel Rising, and Agents of Atlas, the derisive implication of tokenism is erased. Instead, readers are encouraged to rethink many of the traditional assumptions the genre has made in relation to race and heroism, assumptions that have historically privileged white characters as superheroes and the unquestioned majority. In a genre that revolves around spectacular fight scenes and supervillains constantly attempting to destroy the world, one of the simpler pleasures of team books is the verbal interaction between the superheroes. Characters like Captain America and Iron Man can voice their differences, argue about battle strategies or ideological disparities, and ultimately come to respect each other as individuals and allies. By featuring a range of nonwhite characters in the new team books, readers can observe more humanizing scenes that explore the superheroes as regular people regardless of ethnicity (or sexuality or nationality, etc.), like the Korean BBQ

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dinner scene from The Totally Awesome Hulk #15 (discussed in chapter 6), where Amadeus Cho, Kamala Khan, and Cindy Moon discussed being the children of Asian immigrants with the older Jimmy Woo and Shang-­Chi, or when Blue Marvel and Luke Cage argue about their responsibilities as African American role models in Mighty Avengers #6. While scenes like these are designed to emphasize the different personalities on a team—­to clearly define each character in relation and in contrast to each other—­these moments also help reveal the inherent diversity that exists within groups that are often treated as homogenous in media representations. When characters from the same underrepresented minority groups are included in the same series, none of them have to serve as the sole representative for an entire social category. In these team books, the various heroes can debate different views on morality, politics, and ideology in addition to battle strategies. Marvel has greatly diversified their comic universe over the last fifteen years, and while many of the solo series have become huge commercial and critical hits, others have struggled to maintain their audiences. Spider-­Man (Miles Morales), Ms. Marvel, and Ironheart have proven to be huge commercial successes, but the Hulk (Amadeus Cho), America Chavez, and Silk’s self-­titled series were all canceled within three years—­which is common in the comic book industry. But even when these new heroes did not initially prove popular enough to sustain their own titles, they were well liked enough to warrant remaining in circulation on team books. Moreover, as Enrique Garcia points out, even characters that do not become superstars help diversify media representations in other formats. “A consequence often overlooked by critics is that sometimes these ‘flawed’ characters’ introduction into the corporate comics of Marvel and DC launches them into other media venues such as animation, video games, and live-­action filmmaking,” argues Garcia. “This leads to diversification of other narrative mediums and to a more solid presence of underrepresented groups in the global narratives produced by the United States” (2018, 169). Indeed, Marvel’s creation of new and different heroes in comics is just the starting point for development to other media forms able to reach much larger audiences. In addition to the animated Marvel Rising program, numerous live-­action Marvel television series marketed to teenage audiences focus on diverse characters. The Hulu series Runaways (2017–­ongoing) features a diverse cast of superpowered children who set out on their own to be heroes after discovering their parents are all supervillains. Fox Network’s The Gifted (2017–­2019) starred a multicultural cast as mutants trying to coexist with humans who fear them. And ABC’s Cloak and Dagger (2018–­ongoing) explores the symbiotic and budding romantic relationship between two superpowered teenagers, an African American boy and a white girl, whose powers over lightness and darkness unite. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been slower to focus on heroes outside of the traditional white male prototype, the movies are set to proceed with more diverse feature players. As discussed in chapter 4, the phenomenal success of Black Panther (2018), the first film in the modern MCU to headline a black superhero and feature a predominantly black cast, has emboldened the studio to pursue other minority-­led films. A Black Panther sequel is already in production,

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as is another animated movie starring the Miles Morales version of Spider-­Man. Following the conclusion of the MCU’s third phase with Avengers: Endgame (2019), Disney announced that they were already in production with the feature-­film debut of Chinese character Shang-­Chi in the planned 2021 release of Shang-­Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Similarly, following the success of Captain Marvel (2019), more women are going to headline their own films, with Black Widow to be released in 2020 and Jane Foster assuming the role of a female Thor (as she does in the comics) in Thor: Love and Thunder for 2021. There are also rumors that live-­action movies are in development from Marvel Studios for both Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel and Riri Williams’s Ironheart. And Sony Pictures (who maintains the primary rights to Spider-­Man-­related characters) is moving forward with a live-­action film about Cindy Moon’s Silk and an animated movie featuring Silk, the Anya Corazon version of Spider-­Girl, and Spider-­Gwen. The box-­office dominance of superhero movies will eventually wane, and this new “golden age” of superhero popularity cannot last forever. But superheroes will always be a quintessentially American genre and an influential symbol for ideas about heroism, justice, morality, nation, gender roles, and race. Amid the social and political turmoil of twenty-­first-­century American culture, Marvel’s superheroes have stood out as examples for the nation—­indeed, the world—­to aspire to. Marvel’s record of racial representation is as flawed as any other long-­ standing purveyor of popular entertainments, but over the last two decades, the company has managed to produce an impressive new roster of heroes that construct diversity in a more positive and progressive manner. These diverse heroes are important for validating the self-­image of audience members who have traditionally been under-­or misrepresented in popular culture. To see people from all walks of life as more than just stereotypes, to see them as fully rounded heroes, is a powerful thing for people from those subaltern groups to experience. It is also an important idea for audiences from more advantaged groups to accept as well. Whatever the future holds for superheroes, Marvel’s recent diversification has made great strides in redefining heroism beyond the narrow confines of white men. As the Champions say, no matter how the world develops, it “Still Needs Heroes!”

R E F E R E NC E S

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I N D E X

Aayeshah, Wajeehah, 126, 137 Aboulkacem, Slimane, 124 Acuña, Daniel, 116 Aero, 144 A-­Force (Marvel Comics), 116 African Americans: as audience, 36; children, superheroes and, 61, 63, 66, 69–­71; feminism and, 121; masculinity and, 49; in 1970s media, 50, 63–­64 African diaspora, 65, 67, 68 Afrofuturism, 65, 68 Agents of Atlas (Marvel Comics), 15, 92, 97–­98, 144, 147 Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), 3 Ahmed, Saladin, 3 Alaniz, Jose, 110 Aldama, Frederick Luis, 109, 111, 116, 117 Sam Alexander (Nova), 108, 144, 146 Alias (Marvel Comics), 51 Amka Aliyak (Snowguard), 144 All-­New, All-­Different Avengers (Marvel Comics), 43, 146 “All-­New, All-­Different” initiative, 10, 31, 41, 98–­99 All-­New Wolverine (Marvel Comics), 43 Alonso, Axel, 32 Alphona, Arian, Ms. Marvel, 124 alternate universes, 17, 18–­19 alt-­right, 4, 42 Victor Alvarez (Power Man), 108, 114 Al-­wazedi, Umme, 126, 138 Amanat, Sana, 34; Ms. Marvel, 124, 137 Amazing Fantasy (Marvel Comics), 29 Amazing Spider-­Man, The (Marvel Comics), 99, 102 America (Marvel Comics), 116–­117, 119, 120

American Dream, 7, 118 Americanization, 92, 138 Americanness, 15, 49 American way, 4, 7 Ancient One, 14, 76–­77, 79 Andrews, Kaare Kyle, 88 appropriation, 14, 88; cultural, 71–­72, 74, 84; ethnic, 78 Araña. See Anya Corazon Arjana, Sophia Rose, 129, 130, 131, 135, 146 artists. See creators Asian Americans: Asian villains and, 92, 98; assimilation and, 92; as audience, 36; masculinity and, 94; representation and, 106; stereotypes of, 89–­90, 100 Bilal Asselah (Nightrunner), 129 assimilation, 92, 126, 137 Atlantic, 126, 136 audience: demographics of, 36, 109; expansion of, 143, 144, 147; subaltern groups as, 149; young, appeal to, 121–­122, 144–­145. See also readers authenticity, 18, 116, 124, 126 Avengers, The (Marvel Comics), 63, 135 Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo), 149 Avengers Academy (Marvel Comics), 112 Avengers vs. X-Men (Marvel Comics), 47 Ava Ayala (White Tiger), 108, 112, 114, 144 Hector Ayala (White Tiger), 108, 110, 111–­112, 114 Ayala, Vita, 116 Bruce Banner (Hulk), 31, 44, 99, 100 Clint Barton (Hawkeye), 144 Batman, 19, 51, 94, 128, 129. See also Bruce Wayne

161

162 i n d e x Batman Begins (Nolan), 71 Simon Baz, 129 Bendis, Brian Michael, 27, 37, 38, 57, 111–­112; Alias, 51; development of Luke Cage, 53, 54, 59; The New Avengers, 47, 50–­51, 54, 59, 60; The Pulse, 53 Berlatsky, Noah, 126, 136 Kate Bishop (Hawkeye), 118, 121, 144 Black Comic Strips (Howard and Jackson), 34 blackface, 72, 78 Black Goliath, 63 Black Lightning (character), 33, 63 Black Lightning (TV show; The CW), 70 blackness, 66, 72 Black Owned Communication Alliance (BOCA), 61, 69, 71 Black Panther (character), 61–­62; influence of, 63; introduction of, 5, 33; political significance of, 64, 67; popularity of, 66; racial representation and, 62, 66. See also T’Challa Black Panther (comic; Marvel Comics), 63, 65 Black Panther (film; Coogler), 61, 67–­69; African identity in, 29–­30; critical response to, 66–­67; influence of, 107; merchandising of, 69; success of, 3, 14, 66, 148 Black Widow (Shortland), 149 blaxploitation, 13, 14; in comics, 50, 71; in films, 51, 61, 63–­64, 78 Blue Marvel, 144, 148 BOCA. See Black Owned Communication Alliance Bone, Christian, 106 Eli Bradley (Patriot), 9–­10 Isaiah Bradley, 9 Brawn. See Amadeus Cho Brother Voodoo, 33, 63 Brubaker, Ed, 7, 86–­87 Bukatman, Scott, 48–­49 Buraaq, 129 Burroughs, Edgar Rice, 76 Bustos, Natacha, 116 Luke Cage (character), 47, 50–­53, 54–­55, 144, 147, 148; in blaxploitation era, 33, 51, 63, 64; character arc of, 13, 55–­57; as father, 58, 59–­60; marriage to Jessica Jones, 3, 53 Cain, Chelsea, 3 Campbell, J. Scott, 41 Caniff, Milton, 75 Captain America (character), 7–­12, 118; analogues of, 3, 9, 13, 31; invocations of, 12; in post-­9/11 era, 128; symbolism of, 8;

in World War II era, 8, 141. See also Steve Rogers; Sam Wilson Captain America (comic; Marvel Comics), 7 Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo), 1, 66 Captain America & the Mighty Avengers (Marvel Comics), 42–­43, 144 Captain Canuck, 7 Captain Marvel (character), 31, 34, 123 Captain Marvel (film; Boden and Fleck), 3, 149 Casey, Joe, Vengeance, 116 CFX Comics, 129 Champions, The (Marvel Comics), 39, 135, 143–­144, 146–­147 Chan, Jachinson, 95, 96–­97 America Chavez (Miss America), 116–­119, 120, 144, 148; intersectionality and, 15, 108–­109, 121–­122 Chavez, Nicole, 116 Chen, Tina, 91 China, 79–­80, 107 Amadeus Cho (Hulk/Brawn), 31, 39, 44, 144, 148; as countering stereotypes, 15, 89, 99, 102; critical response to, 99–­100 Cho, Frank, The Totally Awesome Hulk, 99 Chow, Keith, 106 citizenship, 5, 6, 8, 49, 138 civil rights movement, 4, 54, 61, 64, 110 Civil War (Marvel Comics), 47, 54, 58 Civil War II (Marvel Comics), 38, 146 Cloak and Dagger (ABC), 3, 148 Coates, Ta-­Nehisi, 3, 4, 64 Cocca, Carolyn, 33 cocreation, 117 Collins, Patricia Hill, 120, 121 colonialism, 76, 81, 82, 134 Comicsgate, 4 Complex magazine, 42 conformity, 94 continuity, 18, 19, 23, 44 Coogler, Ryan, Black Panther, 66, 68 Anya Corazon (Araña, Spider-­Girl), 20, 22, 37, 108, 112; MCU and, 149 cosplay, 66, 69, 139–­140, 141 Costello, Matthew J., 129 costumes, 25–­26, 48; gender and, 33, 40, 90, 133–­135; as merchandise, 71, 72–­73, 138 counterstereotypes, 96–­97 creators: African American, 64; Asian American, 99–­100, 104, 106; diversity of, 3, 99, 116; female, 104, 112, 116–­117, 124; Latinx, 15, 111, 115–­117; LGBTQ, 116–­117; Muslim, 124 Crescent, 144 crossover events, 19, 38, 47, 54, 55, 60

i n d e x 163 cultural change, 32, 36 culture wars, 1–­2, 4, 13 Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Hunter), 2 Cyborg, 33 Daily Beast, 4, 66 Daily Mail, 71 Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel), 31, 40, 53, 123, 134 Daredevil (character), 59, 75, 126, 145 Daredevil (film; Johnson), 78 “Dark Reign” (Marvel Comics), 47 Davis, Julie, 127, 133 Davos, 81, 83–­84, 87 DC Comics, 8, 18–­19, 75, 128; diversity and, 109, 129 Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (Marvel Comics), 98, 110 Deconnick, Kelly Sue, 3 Angela del Toro (White Tiger), 108, 112 desexualization, 104 Diep, Lan, 11–­12 discrimination, 127; intersectionality and, 15, 120, 121; metaphors of, 5, 6; systemic, 145 Dittmer, Jason, 8, 12, 117–­118, 128, 138; on geopolitics, 7, 20, 23 diversification, 34, 112, 143, 148, 149; resistance to, 32 diversity, 32, 46, 138, 143, 147; backlash against, 4, 42; of comic creators, 116; construction of, 149; racial, 61; religious, 126, 137 Doctor Strange (character), 43, 77, 80 Doctor Strange (film; Derrickson), 14, 71, 76–­77, 79, 80 Domino (Marvel Comics), 98 Do the Gods Wear Capes? (Saunders), 127 Dragotta, Nick, Vengeance, 116 Bobby Drake (Iceman), 3 Jessica Drew (Spider-­Woman), 22, 37 Dust. See Soorya Qadir Dyer, Richard, 25 Easthope, Anthony, 48 Eco, Umberto, 51 Elseworlds (DC Comics), 18–­19 emasculation, 48, 91 Englehart, Steve, 94 Entertainment Weekly, 116–­117 Espinoza, Mauricio, 115 ethnicity, 10, 14, 26–­27, 32, 34; approaches to, 29–­30, 74; diversity within, 106; racebending and, 77–­78; representation and, 34; as socially constructed, 119 Evans, Alex, 48

exoticism, 94, 95–­96 exploitation: colonial, 68; cultural, 72, 74; of the Other, 76 Falcon, 5, 33, 63. See also Sam Wilson family, 47, 49, 55, 68, 114; importance of, 59–­60; protection of, 57, 58 Fang, Jenn, 106 Fantastic Four (Marvel Comics), 62–­63 fatherhood, 47, 55, 60; black, 13, 49, 50; redemption through, 57–­58 fathers, black: countering stereotypes of, 50; stereotypes of, 49, 53 Fawaz, Ramzi, 5–­6, 100 Feige, Kevin, 138 feminism, 3, 32, 40, 110, 124; African Americans and, 121 Fernanda Rodriguez (Locust), 144 fetishization, 102, 112, 130; of the Other, 131 Firebird, 5 Fish, Veronica, 104 Ford, Tana, 104 Jane Foster (Thor), 31, 40, 43, 44–­45, 46, 149 Fox News, 10, 42 Fraction, Matt, 86–­87 Francis, Consuela, 9 Frank, Kathryn M., 18 fridging, 33 Fu Manchu, 15, 75, 90–­91, 94–­95, 96, 98 Nick Fury, 78 Fuse, 144 Gabriel, David, 36 Gage, Christos, 23 Garcia, Enrique, 116, 118–­119, 148 Gateward, Frances, 34 Gavaler, Chris, 76 gender: Asian stereotypes and, 89, 90, 94; colonialism and, 134; costumes and, 26, 33, 40; ideals of, 90; Latinx stereotypes and, 121 gendered subjects, 102–­103 Generations (Marvel Comics), 46 Generation X (Marvel Comics), 129, 130 geopolitics, 7, 20, 23 Ghee, Kenneth, 65, 69–­70, 71 Ghost in the Shell (Sanders), 76 Gibbons, Sarah, 124 Gibson, Mel, 124, 126, 135 Gifted, The (Fox Network), 148 Gittinger, Juli L., 138, 139–­140 gods, 127 Goodrum, Michael, 128 Goodwin, Archie, 51 Gospel According to Superheroes, The (Oropeza), 127

164 i n d e x Green Goblin. See Norman Osborn Guerrero, Ed, 63–­64 Gwenpool, 144 Hall, William David, 8 Hamad, Hannah, 57 Hands of Shang-­Chi: Master of Kung Fu, The (Marvel Comics), 95 Hawkeye, 118, 121. See also Clint Barton; Kate Bishop Hernández, Jaime, 116 Hollywood Reporter, 19 Holy Superheroes! (Garret), 127 homophobia, 42, 121 Howard, Ezra, 8 Howard, Sheena, Black Comic Strips, 33–­34 Hudlin, Reginald, 64 Huffington Post, 42, 99 Hulk, 99, 100, 146; analogue of, 3, 13, 15, 31, 39, 89. See also Bruce Banner; Amadeus Cho Hulkling, 120, 121 Hunt, Whitney, 6 Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars, 2 Hunt for Wolverine: Mystery in Madripoor (Marvel Comics), 77 hypermasculinity, 6, 34, 49, 96, 98, 100 hypersexuality, 51–­53, 89, 97, 102–­103 Iceman, 120. See also Bobby Drake identification, 14, 117, 137, 138–­139, 140; heroic, 61, 62, 72 identity: American, 11, 119; cultural, 116, 138; declaration of, 34; dual, 76, 123; hybrid, 126; LGBTQ, 120; racial, 29–­30, 104, 108, 118–­119; religion and, 131, 133, 135; secret, 20, 25–­26, 27, 100, 134; sexual, 40, 97; white, 81 identity politics, 23, 37, 120, 121, 124; diversification and, 3, 20, 34 illustrators. See creators immigrants, 15, 16, 104, 123, 124, 141 Immortal Hulk (Marvel Comics), 44 Immortal Iron Fist, The (Marvel Comics), 86–­88 imperialism, 76, 84 inclusion, 13, 17, 22, 44, 73, 124 Inferno, 108 intersectionality, 15, 120–­121, 123, 135 Invincible Iron Man (Marvel Comics), 31, 38, 39, 41, 44 Iron Fist (TV show; Netflix), 3, 76, 79; first season, 80–­82; second season, 82–­85, 86; whitewashing and, 14, 74, 77–­78 Iron Fist: The Living Weapon (Marvel Comics), 88 Ironheart. See Riri Williams

Iron Man, 51, 54, 145; analogue of, 3, 13, 31, 37–­40. See also Tony Stark; Riri Williams Islam, 126, 135–­136. See also Muslims Islamophobia, 128, 130, 140 Jackson, Ronald, Black Comic Strips, 33–­34 Jenkins, Henry, 12, 19, 20, 128 Jennings, John, 34 Jessica Jones (TV show; Netflix), 3 Jimenez, Oscar, 116 Jessica Jones (character), 3, 47, 50, 51–­53, 55, 56, 58–­59 Madelyn Joyce (Miss America), 118 Jungle Action (Marvel Comics), 63, 64 Justice League (DC Comics), 33, 129 Karaminas, Vicki, 26 Kelly, Casey, 81 Kent, Miriam, 124, 133, 137 Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), 15–­16, 104, 123–­124, 135–­141, 144, 148; assimilation and, 126; costume of, 134–­135, 140; discrimination faced by, 39; introduction of, 31, 40; Islam and, 127–­128, 129; MCU and, 149; relatability of, 124, 136–­137, 140; social progressiveness of, 146 Khoo, Olivia, 95 Kid Omega, 144 Erik Killmonger, 67–­68, 72, 73 Kinard, Timothy A., 70 Kingpin, 28, 78, 145 Laura Kinney (X-­23, Wolverine), 31, 43, 44 Kirby, Jack, 5, 8, 63 Kripal, Jeffrey, 76 Kukkonen, Karin, 18 kung fu films, 78, 94, 95 K’un-­Lun, 14, 75, 78–­79, 81, 83–­85, 87–­88 Landis, Winona, 135, 138 Latinidad, 111, 119 Latinx: as audience, 36; demographics of, 109, 116 Lee, Stacey, 104 Lee, Stan, 5, 32, 63 legacy heroes, 13, 31–­32, 34, 37–­41, 46; old-­ guard heroes and, 37, 45; racism and, 39; vs. spin-­off characters, 36–­37; white male fear of, 42, 44 Legion of Superheroes (DC Comics), 63 Lendrum, Rob, 64 Leung, Maxwell, 89, 100 Lewis, A. David, Muslim Superheroes, 129 LGBTQ characters, 116, 119–­120. See also superheroes, LGBTQ Lin, Jeremy, 100, 102 Liquid Comics, 129

i n d e x 165 Logan (Wolverine), 43, 44, 75 Maya Lopez, 108 Lorenz, Désirée, 124 Los Angeles Times, 32, 50 Lott, Eric, 72 Lott, Tommy, 63 Luke Cage (TV show; Netflix), 3, 70 Lund, Martin, Muslim Superheroes, 129 M. See Monet St. Croix male gaze, 33, 133, 134 Mandarin, 14, 90, 145 Mantlo, Bill, 111 marking, 23–­24, 25, 95, 118, 130, 138 Martello, Annapaola, 104 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), 78, 108, 138, 143; diversity in films, 63, 66, 68, 107, 148–­149 Marvel Comics: audience of, 34, 36; diversity and, 42, 106, 148, 149; history of, 90, 143; as socially progressive, 34, 37, 145 Marvel Premiere (Marvel Comics), 77 Marvel Rising (comic; Marvel Comics), 145, 147 Marvel Rising (TV show; Disney XD), 121, 138, 145, 148 Marvel Studios, 78, 107, 149 masculinity, 6, 25, 47, 112; Asian men and, 15, 90, 96–­97; black, 49, 51; conformist, 94; crisis of, 48, 49; hegemonic, 32–­33, 48, 90; redemption of, 57; superheroes as model of, 48–­49; white, 8, 13, 42. See also emasculation; hypermasculinity; remasculinization Master of Kung Fu (Marvel Comics), 15, 95–­97 Mayer, Ruth, 92, 106 McCloud, Scott, Understanding Comics, 36 McEnteggart, Simon, 128 McKelvie, Jaime, Ms. Marvel, 124 MCU. See Marvel Cinematic Universe merchandising, 66, 69, 122, 138, 143 Metzner, Raven, 82 Miami Herald, 4 Mighty Avengers, The (Marvel Comics), 114, 144, 148 Mighty Thor, The (Marvel Comics), 44 Miller, Frank, 128 Miller, P. Andrew, 5 Minett, Mark, 144 Miranda-­Rodriguez, Edgardo, 116 misogyny, 32, 40, 130, 133; race and, 121 Miss America, 117–­118. See also America Chavez Miyazawa, Takeshi, 99 Mockingbird (Marvel Comics), 3 model minority, 94, 106

Cindy Moon (Silk), 20, 22, 144, 148; as countering stereotypes, 15, 89, 99; introduction of, 102; MCU and, 149 Miles Morales (Spider-­Man), 28–­30, 108, 144, 146, 149; introduction of, 3, 13, 20, 31; Peter Parker and, 46; popularity of, 148; unmasking and, 27, 28, 34 Morrison, Grant, 131; Supergods, 127 Ms. Marvel (character), 3, 13, 123, 124; Muslim representation and, 15–­16, 129; political protest and, 140–­141; popularity of, 148. See also Carol Danvers; Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel (comic; Marvel Comics), 40, 123–­124, 138, 146; authenticity of, 126; cultural impact of, 137; intersectionality of, 135; popularity of, 138; racism depicted in, 39 multiculturalism, 79, 138 multiplicity, 13, 17, 19–­20; diversity and, 25 multiverses, 17, 18, 19, 23, 118 Muslims, 16, 123, 124, 126; normalization of, 140; in post-­9/11 era, 128, 129. See also Islam Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation (Lewis and Lund), 129 mutants, 108, 131, 148; as metaphor, 5–­6, 8, 127 Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, The (Rohmer), 90 Nama, Adilifu, 51 nationalism, 11, 129; black, 64; white, 2, 13, 42. See also superheroes: nationalist NBC News, 99 New Agents of Atlas (Marvel Comics), 107 New Avengers, The (Marvel Comics), 58–­61, 112, 114; Luke Cage and, 13, 47, 50 New Avengers: Finale, The (Marvel Comics), 60 New Avengers Annual, The (Marvel Comics), 53–­57 New X-Men (Marvel Comics), 133 New York Magazine, 32 New York Times, 29, 37, 71 99, The (Teshkeel Comics), 129 Nishime, LeiLani, 76, 79 N’Jobu, 67 Northstar, 3, 5, 120 Noto, Phil, 141 Obama, Barack, 49 Jake Oh, 104 Miguel O’Hara, 20 Opam, Kwame, 71 O’Ready, J. B., 126, 131, 136 Orientalism, 74–­75, 76, 95, 127, 130, 138; correctives to, 86, 88; logic of, 81, 134

166 i n d e x Norman Osborn (Green Goblin), 55–­56, 57, 58 Other, 16, 23, 25, 34, 81–­82, 131; ethnic, 76; marking of, 25, 95, 130, 138; Orientalism and, 75; in post-­9/11 era, 115; religion and, 127, 133 Othering, 120, 128, 130 Otherness, 102, 114, 115, 118, 137 Pak, Greg, 99, 106, 116; The Totally Awesome Hulk, 102, 104 Nanda Parbat, 75 Park, Michael K., 100 Parker, Jeff, 97 Peter Parker (Spider-­Man), 19, 27, 28–­29, 31, 99; Miles Morales and, 44, 46 paternity. See fatherhood patriotism, 7, 8, 9, 10; in post-­9/11 era, 128; in World War II era, 4, 118 Peppard, Anna, 90 Pérez, George, 111, 116 Pheasant-­Kelly, Frances, 48 Pierce, Tamora, 112 political correctness, 10, 13, 41, 42, 43, 143, 147 post-­9/11 era, 47, 54; masculinity in, 48, 57; Muslims and, 128, 129–­130; paranoia in, 55, 115 postcolonialism, 85–­86, 92 Power Man, 144. See also Victor Alvarez Pavitr Prabhakar (Spider-­Man of Mumbai), 20, 24–­25 Priest, Christopher, 64 primitivism, 95 privilege, 32, 88; Western, 81; white, 14, 25, 74; white male, 12, 13 Kitty Pryde, 126 Psylocke, 77 Pulse, The (Marvel Comics), 53 Pumphrey, Nicholaus, 129, 131, 133 Soorya Qadir (Dust), 129, 130, 131, 133–­134, 136, 138 queerness, 32, 118 Quinones, Joe, 116 racebending, 78 racism, 32, 71; in Hollywood, 74; of internet trolls, 41, 42; legacy heroes and, 39; in media, 79; stereotypes and, 114; systemic, 34 Ramirez Berg, Charles, 115 Ramos, Humberto, 99, 116 Danny Rand (Iron Fist), 75, 77, 80–­81, 82–­84; origin story, 78–­79; repatriation and, 85, 86; whitewashing and, 14, 74, 76 Orson Randall, 87–­88

rap music, 72 readers: attraction of, 18, 36, 37, 144; biases of, 7; as cocreators, 117; demographics of, 36; female, 33, 104; generational changes, 51, 144–­145; identification and, 117, 137, 138–­139; Latinx, 111, 117; male, 33, 40, 41, 120; as niche audience, 122; relatability and, 124; representation and, 34, 106; young, 9, 144–­145. See also audience Red Dragon, 75 redemption, through fatherhood, 57–­58, 60 religion, 16, 126–­127, 129, 130, 135–­136 remasculinization, 48, 50, 57, 60 repatriation, 74; cultural, 14, 85–­86 replacement, 32, 37, 41–­43, 44 representation, 71; Asian, 78, 100; racial, 16, 25, 62, 66, 77, 79, 149 Reyn-­Chikuma, Chris, 124 Reynolds, Richard, Super Heroes, 127 Rictor, 108 Rieder, John, 76 Rivera, Gabby, 3; America, 116–­117, 119, 120 Rodríguez, Carolina Fernández, 112 Rodriguez, Javier, 116 Rogers, Richard A., 72 Steve Rogers (Captain America), 31, 44, 50–­51, 118 Rohmer, Sax, 15, 75, 90 Rolling Stone, 29 Royal, Derek Parker, 110 Runaways (Hulu), 3, 148 Said, Edward, 74–­75, 80, 134 Sam Wilson: Captain America (Marvel Comics), 39 Sava, Oliver, 106 Schauer, Bradley, 144 science fiction, 65, 115, 118 Secret Avengers (Marvel Comics), 98 Secret Empire (Marvel Comics), 39, 44 Secret Invasion (Marvel Comics), 47, 55–­57 sexism, 40, 41, 42 Shang-­Chi, 15, 107, 144, 148, 149; introduction of, 5, 94–­97; masculinity and, 97, 98; revival of, 89, 98, 104 Shang-­Chi: Hellfire Apocalypse (Marvel Comics), 98 Shohat, Ella, 134 Shuri, 64 Sikhism, 10–­11 Silk (character), 107. See also Cindy Moon Silk (comic; Marvel Comics), 20, 99, 100, 103–­104 Silver Scorpion, 129 Simon, Joe, 8

i n d e x 167 Simone, Gail, 33 Singh, Kavita, 86 Singh, Vishavjit, 10–­11 SJWs. See social justice warriors Slott, Dan, 23, 99 Smith, Phillip, 128 Luna Snow, 144 social activism, 145–­146 social injustices, 16, 121, 146 social justice warriors (SJWs), 4, 41, 42 Sony Pictures, 149 Special Marvel Edition (Marvel Comics), 94 specificity, 23, 139; cultural, 65, 85, 115 Spectrum, 144 Spider-­Geddon (Marvel Comics), 17 Spider-­Girl. See Anya Corazon Spider-­Gwen, 20, 21, 149 Spider-­Man (character), 37, 99; analogues of, 18, 20–­24, 27, 34, 112; characterization of, 51; costume of, 26–­27; multiplicity and, 11–­12, 17; popularity of, 19; white male as “true,” 23–­25, 37. See also Miles Morales; Peter Parker Spider-­Man: Into the Spider-­Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman), 17, 28–­30, 108 Spider-­Men (Marvel Comics), 46 Spider-­Verse (Marvel Comics), 11–­12, 17, 20–­25 spin-­off characters, 36–­37 Stabile, Carol A., 49 Monet St. Croix (M), 129, 130–­131, 133, 134, 136, 138 Tony Stark (Iron Man), 38–­39, 40, 44 Starlin, Jim, 94 stereotypes: Asian, 15, 79–­80, 89–­92, 94–­95, 98, 106; Asian men, 96–­97, 100; black, 33, 49, 51, 53, 72; Latinx, 109–­110, 112, 114; Muslim, 129, 130, 131, 133; non-­ Western, 75; Orientalist, 138; racial, 64, 100, 110; reproduction of, 34; sexual, 51–­53, 103–­104, 112; use of, in comics, 110, 114–­115 Stevens, J. Richard, 7, 8 Storm, 63, 64 Strange Tales (Marvel Comics), 77 Stromberg, Fredrik, 130 subaltern groups, 6, 44, 115–­116, 117, 149 Supergods (Morrison), 127 superheroes: association with gods, 127; diversity and, 117, 122, 143, 149; empowerment and, 126; generational break, 146; morality of, 114–­115, 145; names of, as gendered, 40; nationalist, 7, 8, 10, 12, 117–­118, 138; in post-­9/11

era, 128–­129; recontextualization of, 140; religion and, 127; symbolism of, 149 superheroes, Asian, 89, 90, 94–­95, 96–­100, 102–­104, 106–­107, 144. See also individual characters superheroes, black, 62, 144, 148–­149; as culturally bound, 65, 71, 73; introduction of, 5, 33, 63; stereotypes and, 51, 64. See also individual characters superheroes, female, 114, 118, 120; marketing of, 104; sexualization of, 33, 41, 90, 102, 112, 131, 133–­134. See also individual characters superheroes, Latinx, 108–­109, 110, 112, 114, 115, 121. See also individual characters superheroes, LGBTQ, 3, 119–­120, 121. See also individual characters superheroes, male, 6, 9, 16, 33, 77; as default, 37; female superheroes and, 90, 102; legacy heroes and, 37, 44, 46; masculinity and, 32, 48, 90, 96; Orientalism and, 76, 80; as “true,” 23; as unmarked, 25, 27. See also individual characters superheroes, Muslim, 129–­130, 133–­134. See also individual characters Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Reynolds), 127 Superheroes and Gods (LoCicero), 127 Superman, 51, 119, 126, 127; introduction of, 32, 48; as patriotic, 8; in post-­9/11 era, 128 Suwan, 94, 98 Sword Master, 144 Tarzan, 76 T’Chakka, 67 T’Challa (Black Panther), 14, 63, 64, 67–­68,  73 Tchen, John Kuo We, 95 team books, 143–­145, 147, 148 Terry and the Pirates (Caniff), 75 Teshkeel Comics, 129 Thompson, Kelly, 3 Thompson, Robbie, Silk, 103 Thor (character), 44, 46, 127; analogue of, 3, 13, 31, 40. See also Jane Foster Thor (comic; Marvel Comics), 40 Tierney, Sean M., 81–­82 Time, 38, 62, 66–­67, 68 Timely Comics, 118 tokenism, 147 Totally Awesome Hulk, The (Marvel Comics), 44, 99, 100, 102, 148 trolls, internet, 3–­4, 41–­44 Trump, Donald, 12, 42, 141

168 i n d e x Truth: Red, White & Black (Morales and Baker), 9 TV Guide, 79 Tyroc, 63 Ultimate Comics Spider-­Man (Marvel Comics), 20, 31 Ultimates (Marvel Comics), 116 Ultimate Spider-­Man (Disney XD), 17 Uncanny X-Men, The (Marvel Comics), 77, 130 Understanding Comics (McCloud), 36 Union Jack, 7 unmasking, 27–­28, 34 Unworthy Thor, The (Marvel Comics), 44 Van Dyk, Michael, 51 Variety, 29, 109 Maria Vasquez (Tarantula), 108 Vengeance (Marvel Comics), 116 villains, 68, 114; Asian stereotypes and, 75, 89, 90–­92, 98; ethnicity and, 110; Other as, 115 Visaggio, Magdalene, 3, 4 Viv Vision, 144 Wacker, Stephen, 124 Wakanda, 63, 64, 65–­66, 67–­68, 73 Wall Street Journal, 28–­29 Walt Disney Company, 68, 69, 71, 149 Wanzo, Rebecca, 49 Washington Post, 4, 99 Wave, 144 Bruce Wayne (Batman), 75 West, 76, 130; Orientalism and, 74–­75, 81, 134 West Coast Avengers, 116, 118 West Coast Avengers (comic; Marvel Comics), 121, 144 Westerfelhaus, Robert, 127, 133 What If . . . ? series (Marvel Comics), 18–­19 white men, 31–­33; as default, 32, 49; replacement fears, 42, 44; as unmarked, 25, 27 whiteness, 66, 81, 112; Americanness and, 49; masculinity and, 49; national, 8; superheroes and, 6–­7, 9, 25 white savior, 14, 74, 80, 88; correctives to, 85, 86

white supremacy, 42, 72, 145; global, 82 White Tiger, 108, 111–­112, 114, 116; introduction of, 5, 110; legacy of, 15. See also Ava Ayala; Hector Ayala; Angela del Toro whitewashing, 14, 71, 76, 78, 79–­80 Wiccan, 120, 121 Riri Williams (Ironheart), 37–­39, 40–­41, 44, 144; feminism and, 40; introduction of, 31; MCU and, 149; popularity of, 148 Wilson, G. Willow, 3, 16, 116; Ms. Marvel, 124 Sam Wilson (Captain America, Falcon), 13, 39, 42, 44, 118, 144; becoming Captain America, 10, 31 Colleen Wing, 14, 81, 83, 84–­85, 86 Wolverine, 44, 131; analogue of, 3, 13, 31, 43. See also Laura Kinney; Logan Womack, Ytasha, 65 Wonder Woman, 33 Jimmy Woo, 144, 148; conformity and, 94, 106; as countering stereotypes, 15, 92; introduction of, 5; revival of, 89, 97–­98, 104 World War II, 8, 39, 92; patriotism and, 4, 118; stereotypes during, 71, 75 writers. See creators Leiko Wu, 97, 98 xenophobia, 42, 128 X-­Factor (Marvel Comics), 129, 130 X-­Men, 64, 77, 126, 127, 131; introduction of, 5 X-­Men, The (comic; Marvel Comics), 63 Yellow Claw (character), 15, 75, 90, 91–­92, 97–­98 Yellow Claw (comic; Marvel Comics), 5, 15, 91–­92, 94, 95 Yellow Claw, The (book; Rohmer), 91 yellowface, 77, 78, 91 yellow peril, 15, 92, 95 Young Avengers, 116, 118 Young Avengers (comic; Marvel Comics), 9, 121 Young Avengers Presents: Patriot (Marvel Comics), 9–­10 Yousman, Bill, 72 Zhang, Qin, 89

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Jeffrey A. Brown is a professor in the Department of Popular Culture in the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is the author of several books, including Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans (2000), Dangerous Curves: Gender, Fetishism, and the Modern Action Heroine (2011), and Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture (2015).