Superhero Culture Wars: Politics, Marketing, and Social Justice in Marvel Comics 9781350148635, 9781350148642, 9781350148673, 9781350148666

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Superhero Culture Wars: Politics, Marketing, and Social Justice in Marvel Comics
 9781350148635, 9781350148642, 9781350148673, 9781350148666

Table of contents :
Cover
Contents
Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Mockingbird and Milkshakes: Comicsgate, Identity, and the Politics of Marketing in an Age of Outrage
1 From Stan’s Soapbox to Twitter: Politics and Story-Telling in the Marvel Universe
2 Diversity Done Right? Miles Morales and Kamala Khan
3 “Captain America Is Black and Thor Is a Woman”: Gender- and Race-Bent Mantle Passing in Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Campaign
4 Rethinking Secret Empire: Writing and Marketing Political Comics in an Age of Rising Fascism
Conclusion: Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start: Selling (and Selling Out) Progressive Politics
Works Cited
Index

Citation preview

Superhero Culture Wars

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Superhero Culture Wars Politics, Marketing, and Social Justice in Marvel Comics Monica Flegel and Judith Leggatt

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2021 Copyright © Monica Flegel and Judith Legatt, 2021 Monica Flegel and Judith Legatt have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgments on p. vi constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover design by Eleanor Rose Cover images © Getty Images All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3501-4863-5 PB: 978-1-3501-4864-2 ePDF: 978-1-3501-4866-6 eBook: 978-1-3501-4865-9 Typeset by Integra Software Services Pvt. Ltd. To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com and sign up for our newsletters.

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments  vi List of Abbreviations  vii

Introduction: Mockingbird and Milkshakes: Comicsgate, Identity, and the Politics of Marketing in an Age of Outrage  1 1 From Stan’s Soapbox to Twitter: Politics and Story-Telling in the Marvel Universe  17 2 Diversity Done Right? Miles Morales and Kamala Khan  55 3 “Captain America Is Black and Thor Is a Woman”: Gender- and Race-Bent Mantle Passing in Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Campaign  89 4 Rethinking Secret Empire: Writing and Marketing Political Comics in an Age of Rising Fascism  123

Conclusion: Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start: Selling (and Selling Out) Progressive Politics  157

Works Cited  175 Index  193

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A book is never the sole creation of a single person, or even two people. We would like to acknowledge everyone who helped us in the process of writing, in particular the office of the Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at Lakehead University, which provided us with a Summer Undergraduate Research Internship in 2017, and McKenna Boeckner, who filled that role and helped us with preliminary research into the Gabriel controversy. We would also like to thank Lakehead for providing us with sabbatical leaves in 2018–2019, without which this book could not have been completed in a timely fashion. We’d also like to give a shoutout to Hill City Comics in Thunder Bay for being our source for paper comics and the keeper of our pull-lists. We have many wonderful friends and colleagues who have supported us throughout this whole process. Many thanks go to Bry, Kyle, and Merk of the Zero Issues Comics podcast; our colleagues in the English department; Judith’s partner, Chris, who has no particular interest in superhero comics, but put up with our obsessive discussions of all things Marvel; and Monica’s family, who are too many, and as nerdy as they are plentiful. We would also like to thank the five cats who kept us warm and entertained as we wrote, and who were happy to distract us when we needed a break. Finally, thank you to the creators of Marvel comics, without whom we would not have these incredible texts to enjoy, critique, and analyze; you are the true superheroes of the comics industry.

LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS

ANADM CA CA:SR MCU SE IP

All-New, All-Different Marvel Captain America (1968–1996) Captain America: Steve Rogers Marvel Cinematic Universe Secret Empire Intellectual Property

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Introduction Mockingbird and Milkshakes: Comicsgate, Identity, and the Politics of Marketing in an Age of Outrage

In May 2016, Marvel Comics had good reason to celebrate with the positive press it was receiving for its new, diverse superheroes. In an article for The Guardian, entitled “Marvel Editor-in-Chief: ‘Writing Comics Was a Hobby for White Guys,’” Sam Thielman notes that Axel Alonso’s “Marvel looks very different: one of two Spider-Men is a biracial kid named Miles Morales, Thor is a white woman, one of the Captains America is a black man, Ms Marvel is Pakistani American and the Hulk is Korean American.” He then approvingly asserts, “All this happened with comparatively minimal backlash from notoriously tetchy readers, because Alonso and the company’s writing and editing teams have made changes carefully, switching costumes among established characters and stacking the deck with popular creators when the possibility of fan rage—which is always at least ambient—seems likely.” The publication date of the article allows us, with hindsight, to see this proclamation as woefully premature; in 2016, the comics world was not yet fully engulfed in the volatile culture clashes that have characterized the second decade of the twenty-first century. Unlike the culture wars of the 1990s, these new iterations are fueled by online culture and the mainstreaming of fandom, and include Gamergate in 2014, the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy, the Ghostbusters 2016 backlash campaign, and the

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outcry over 2017’s The Last Jedi. By 2017, however, Marvel Comics would find itself at the center of its own controversy, as a series of fan backlashes, mainly focused on Marvel titles and creators, coalesced into a movement labeled “Comicsgate.” This protest featured all the elements of the previous clashes: conflicts between creators, critics, and fans that were connected to larger social/political issues, such as diversity; accusations that “political correctness” had infiltrated beloved fan texts and communities, threatening popular culture as a whole and the “quality” of fan texts in particular; the emergence of a cottage industry of outrage online, especially on platforms such as YouTube, which served as sites for organizing social-pressure campaigns that spread widely across other sites, such as Twitter and Reddit; and finally, coverage of the outrage in the mainstream media that sought to explain the significance of such movements to mainstream audiences, while producing comment sections that further fuel the conflict. The volatility of these clashes and their seeming repeatability with each new provocation of fan rage—a re-boot of She-Ra: Princess of Power, the casting of a woman as Doctor Who, comments by actor Brie Larsen on the lack of diversity in film criticism and the subsequent boycott of Captain Marvel—suggest that each iteration is not significant in and of itself, but rather that they speak to the zeitgeist of the present time: one marked by political polarization, a lack of civility in public debate, and an extreme blurring of the lines between popular and political culture.1 We want to make perfectly clear that, while these conflicts are often framed and understood as fan-driven, they differ greatly from the customary fan backlashes (such as anger over the cancellation of a beloved television show, or complaints about casting for film and television adaptations of books with large fandoms); their participants and influence extend far beyond the smaller circles of each specific fandom, and the focus is more often on reactionary politics than on the texts themselves. As Angela Nagle points out in Kill All Normies: The Online Culture War from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-Right and Trump, conflicts such as Gamergate, which originated within the online video-gaming community, included all kinds of people from critics of political correctness to those interested in the overreach of feminist cultural crusades. These brought in to the fold people like Christina Hoff Sommers, the classical liberal who started a video series called The Factual Feminist, which aimed to expose faulty statistics within feminism. Somewhere in the mix with the polite and light-hearted Sommers were also apolitical gamers, South Park conservatives, 4channers, hardline anti-feminists, and young people in the process of moving to the political far right without any of the moral baggage of conservatism. (24)

The election of a reality television star as the American president is the most obvious example, but YouTube personalities running for political positions in the UK also demonstrate this point.

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So too Comicsgate, which provides the impetus for this book, went far beyond comics fandom proper (i.e., those who regularly produce, consume, collect, and discuss Marvel superhero comics). Online blogs that covered comics like The Beat, io9, and Bleeding Cool were certainly sources for coverage of debates about the politics of Marvel Comics, but the press it received in The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, and Vulture supports the opinion that “Most folks in the world of comics will tell you that Comicsgate isn’t even really about comics, per se, but rather an extension of the current political divide” (Jancelewicz). If Comicsgate isn’t really about comics, a point on which we largely agree with Jancelewicz, then in what way can it be employed to frame our discussion of Marvel Comics under Axel Alonso, and in particular his efforts to diversify and update its superhero stable? While Comicsgate may be a relatively circumscribed conflict affecting only a small number of comics producers and aficionados,2 it provides us with a means of analyzing the role identity politics—particularly as a specific marketing strategy that is either embraced or rejected by fans for political, as much as aesthetic, reasons—currently plays in Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics has long been a superhero genre powerhouse, responsible for iconic characters such as Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and Wolverine, and for teams such as the X-Men and the Avengers. It has also, with the launching of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, become a cultural touchstone far beyond the world of comics and comics fans. This, combined with the fact that Marvel has always portrayed its fantastical characters and worlds in ways that reflect the reality of “the world outside our windows”—one of the company’s catchphrases—makes an analysis of the role politics currently plays in this universe particularly relevant to battles over race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in contemporary popular culture. Our book is not aiming to defend Marvel Comics from its Comicsgate critics, nor to argue from or for a centrist position in this debate. Rather, we want to analyze what it means to produce and consume overtly political creative texts at the present moment. This analysis entails addressing not just the obvious flashpoints of diversity and social justice both within the storylines of the comics themselves and as driving forces for the company and its creators, but also the complexity of “woke branding” in an age of extreme media concentration and how that branding should be taken into consideration when engaging in criticism of corporate-authored texts.

While the main conflicts of Comicsgate had died down by 2019, the hashtags “ComicsGate” and “SJW Marvel” were still popular on Twitter. Although the former seems mainly to be used to promote Kickstarter and Indiegogo sales of independent comics to those who associate with the movement, the latter is used to critique anything from Phase 4 of the MCU (Holdcroft) to Johnathan Hickman’s reboot of the X-Men (Benitez).

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Shots Fired in the Culture War: Mockingbird and the Milkshake Crew One of the major characteristics of backlashes such as Comicsgate is an outsized response to trivial provocations.3 Or to be more specific, events or incidents are presented by social actors, in both good and bad faith, as affronts they must respond to in order to protect communities that present themselves as aggrieved and under attack. For example, what is often mentioned as the first inciting incident for Comicsgate was Joelle Jones and Rachelle Rosenberg’s cover for the eighth and final issue of Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk’s Mockingbird (2016),4 which depicts the titular hero wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Ask me about my feminist agenda.” The T-shirt captures the spirit of the comic itself: Mockingbird follows Bobby Morse’s adventures as someone intimately connected with, but also on the periphery of, the Avengers and the Marvel superhero community in general, and it is feminist in both content and style. Specifically, Mockingbird engages in gender commentary through its depiction of Bobbie negotiating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s medical system; playful power-sexual relations between her and her lover, Lance Hunter; soft critiques of the male superhero persona (e.g., Tony Stark is depicted reading a pamphlet on sexually transmitted infections while sitting in a clinic waiting room); and commentary on sexual harassment and violence through its exploration of its main villain, Phantom Rider. Mockingbird is exactly what the T-shirt advertises; an openly feminist comic set within the Marvel universe. While the politics of the comic are not subtle, and were very much part of the branding of All-New, All-Different Marvel (ANADM) in 2016, Bobby Morse’s “feminist agenda” does not necessarily translate into the company itself having such an agenda.5 Nevertheless, these politics became one flashpoint for conflicts over the future of comics as a whole, and specifically over who gets to be represented within the comics community as characters, For example, see the treatment of Anita Sarkeesian during Gamergate. In producing feminist criticism of video games, Sarkeesian’s YouTube videos “feature no calls for video games to be censored or banned. They also offer no criticisms harsher than what you might read from other pop-culture critics like Charlie Booker or Mark Kermode on some very obviously retrograde depictions of women in some video games”; nevertheless, “For this intolerable crime, Sarkeesian has endured years of jaw-droppingly dark and disturbing personal abuse” (Nagle 19–20).

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Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy, the image was used as the cover of the second trade for the series, Mockingbird Volume 2: My Feminist Agenda.

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The ANADM campaign promoted a more diverse Marvel in terms of gender and racial representation, the implications of which we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 3; however, such titles by no means represented the totality of what was available to fans: Moon Knight, Daredevil, Old Man Logan, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man/Deadpool were other titles singled out in a “best of” list for 2016 (Dave), none of which employed a feminist framework. In other words, neither Mockingbird’s overt politics nor the ANADM campaign as a whole signaled an actual wholesale transformation of the Marvel brand. 5

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fans, and creators. Cain claimed that she received significant harassment on her Twitter platform, but also stated that her decision to leave was primarily because her Twitter had become a site for the culture wars to be fought, with or without her input: Comments were coming in, fast and furious, every second. I’d never seen anything like it. I saw a few of them—a lot of support, a lot of people yelling at one another—a lot of people mad at me for being too quick on the block button or too critical of comic book readers or being too feminist. A lot of them just seemed mad at women in general … it was no longer my Twitter account. It had been hijacked. (Cain, “140 Characters”) Cain’s experience with the reception of Mockingbird provides just one instance of the issues that overtly political texts and creators currently face: the success or failure of a creative text in the marketplace becomes a means for a variety of actors to keep score in a war between opposing sides over the future direction of popular culture as whole.6 But Mockingbird also demonstrates the complexity of how a “win” gets measured in the present market context. Samples from comments on just one article—Comics Beat’s October 19th coverage of the title’s cancellation—give a sense of how the comic’s demise was viewed. One commenter observed, “I’m gonna buy the trade, since I never got to see the individual books. Would have been nice if they gave people like me a chance to get on board” (“Sean” on Lu). Another reader noted, “Slow build on the comic’s readership—a lot of people only discovered it on issue #6 or #7. Canceling it with #8 is moronic. They should have waited for the trade to come out at least. It was getting growing readership” (“Nathaneal” on Lu), while “Northern Boy” crowed, “ULTIMATE IRONY: Mockingbird, nominated for a 2016 Eisner for Best New Series. Smooth move, Marvel. Smooth move” (on Lu). These comments remind us that the current way of measuring sales does not consider the myriad ways in which audiences consume comics. Marvel measures its sale numbers by single-issue sales through Diamond Comic Distributors to comic book stores, a metric by which Mockingbird was measured a failure. These laments about Marvel’s decision to cancel Mockingbird reflect a belief that the company is failing non-traditional audiences who might consume differently; for example, newer and younger readers are more likely to read digital copies or trade paperbacks.7 As well, declarations such as “I’m gonna buy the trade” In 2019, Cain faced criticism from those aligned with progressive politics for her Image series, Man-Eaters. Taken to task for a storyline that “defines women by their biological functions” (Gramuglia), Cain ended up leaving Twitter again after she included criticism from a reader on a protest sign depicted within the comic itself.

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7 For example, both Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl have relatively low single-issue numbers, but are very popular in trades. Moon Girl in particular has benefited from an agreement with Scholastic Publishing, which sells the trades through schools.

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performatively assert a politics of consumption: here, purchasing even a cancelled comic is configured as a form of social pressure to chastise Marvel for its failure to support diversity, and to encourage greater support for similar work in the future. For others, the fact that traditional floppy comic sales have been diminishing speaks to what they see as an essential truth that has been forgotten in an age of art geared toward social justice ends: namely, that overt politics and quality are incompatible. Numerous commentators on Lu’s article argued that Mockingbird was cancelled because its politics had a negative effect on the writing itself, and that sales therefore accurately reflect the book’s quality. “Sixaxis” observes, “it did seem to have far too much of an agenda and the writing was bad a fair few times. It was very in your face about the feminist nature of the book, which I really didn’t appreciate. I would’ve had no issues if it wasn’t so obviously blatant,” and “J.” likewise opined, Mockingbird was objectively bad. If you’re going to try to drive an agenda or preach through your media, then don’t be so godawful *on the nose about it* all the time. The only people really interested in reading stuff like that is people looking for material to reinforce their own particular world views … My advice to Chelsea Cain wouldn’t be to stop writing about what she likes, but instead to next time try to figure out how to get her point across through literary vehicles like allegory and symbolism. (on Lu) For these readers, the text’s announcement of its politics, as encapsulated in Jones and Rosenberg’s depiction of Mockingbird’s T-shirt, in and of itself equals “objectively” bad writing. These critics argue that good political writing is subtle, sub-textual, and/or “symbolic,” and—perhaps not inconsequentially—allows audience members to avoid being confronted by political stances or issues they do not themselves hold. While comics have always been political, this criticism that overt politics makes for bad art allows critics of such texts to avoid getting into debates about the substance of a text, such as its representation of Bobbie Morse’s bodily and sexual autonomy. Instead they focus their argument on aesthetics: it’s not the specific politics they object to, they say, but instead the negative effect than any overt politics has on art. For them, rejecting political texts or influencing others to not purchase said text is a “win” for comics as an art form, because the rejection fights back against the damaging effects of social justice politics on the presumably purer sphere of story-telling, which should rightly be about characterization, narrative, and the superhero tradition. However, the second provocation that led to the emergence of Comicsgate demonstrates the problem with this argument: specifically, that Comicsgate participants’ framing of texts as “political” or “non-political” is, in itself, a political act. While these commenters are correct that Mockingbird was

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explicit in its politics (though not, we argue, in their assumption that these politics led to objectively bad writing, or resulted in a text without nuance and complexity), it is also true that including, say, Black protagonists, or representations of women in tech, or depictions of women who do not conform to normative standards of beauty, or characters who are not heterosexual, or any other of the many examples of what has come to be labeled as “diversity” is perceived as an “in your face” provocation that must be challenged.8 On July 28, 2017, Heather Antos, an editor at Marvel Comics, tweeted a picture of herself and other women working at Marvel enjoying milkshakes; it was captioned, “It’s the Marvel milkshake crew! #FabulousFlo” (Antos, July 28). The women were celebrating the life and achievements of Flo Steinberg, Stan Lee’s assistant, who had recently passed away. Steinberg was a key player in the early days of Marvel; she “answered fan mail (hundreds of pieces arrived every day), called freelancers, and shipped pages to the printer” (Howe 46) and gained many fans herself through her role as part of the Marvel Bull-Pen (56). Certainly, this tweet had a political dimension: in highlighting the diversity of the women who work at Marvel and honoring the legacy of the one named woman who was most associated with Marvel’s earlier history, the tweet signaled that the company was no longer a boy’s club. The happy, smiling faces of the group celebrate the company’s progress, and, by hash-tagging Flo’s name, the tweet also performs the feminist work of reconstructing history: Stan Lee’s name is instantly recognized in today’s pop cultural world, but Flo Steinberg, this tweet subtly reminds us, also deserves acknowledgment. But the politics implied by this tweet are, we argue, relatively neutral; it conveys an ideology that has been embraced in Western culture from at least the 1970s on: that women have a role to play in public life, and that it is a social good to break down sexist barriers and arbitrary notions of male dominance that have prevented women from entering certain fields (in this case, the editing and creating of comic books). Nevertheless, Antos found her Twitter feed overtaken by culture warriors from the left and the right as it, like Cain’s, became a site in which the future of popular culture was fought out. In response to her tweet, “Hal Jordan” complained about Antos’s influence on Marvel comics, specifically “her pushing feminism into her comics when all we need is a story not a political movement,” while “DarkJester” expressed, “No life experience, the creepiest collection of stereotypical SJWs anyone could possibly imagine.” Both tweets express a central premise of the various “-gates” within fandom: that any increase in diversity, both within texts and behind the scenes, is artificially achieved through social justice activism and corporate agendas, rather than through For a brief example of the above, YouTube channel “Comics MATTER w/Ya Boi Zack” features many videos critiquing Marvel comics as “SJW” propaganda, including several calling the much-beloved Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a “fake comic” with a “creepy agenda” largely because the protagonist is not depicted according to conventional standards of female beauty.

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an “organic” shift. Antos’s follow-up tweet fought back against these attacks—“How dare I post a picture of my friends on the internet without expecting to be bullied, insulted, harrassed [sic], and targeted” (July 29)— and the majority of responses were supportive. For example, “Darth Rage” responded with “Who did it and I will assemble a loyal geek army to strike them down!” and “Kevin or Robo Kevin” asked, “W.W.G.P.D. What would Gwen Poole do if her friends were insulted?” These tweets engage in the work of both supporting Antos and emphasizing the tweeters’ fan identities, thereby configuring true fandom as an inclusive space in which Antos and her fellow milkshake crew belong. Others used Antos’s tweet about harassment to signal their political and social support in ways that transcend comics fandom: for example, “Nerly Señor Citzen” piped up with “Out of so many reasons to actually hate people and they choose THIS? Almost makes me start buying Marvel comics:).” In this instance, there is no evidence that this person is a comics fan specifically concerned about battles between fans and editors, only that Antos’s plight has resonated with them both on a personal level and as part of a larger battle. Their recognition of the injustice of her situation makes them willing to participate in a skirmish in which they have no personal stake, because they believe it is an important front in the culture wars. This willingness of those outside fandom to enter the fray—on both sides— makes it difficult to determine just who is involved in such controversies, or to make any assumptions about how “fandom” feels about a given conflict. Understanding the demographics of online fan communities has long been complicated by many factors: anonymity, ingroup vs. outgroup politics, and factionalism even within the ingroups. However, the emergence of social media as a powerful force in society as a whole has led to some surprising players in what might have once been small, internal conflicts. In the widely reported on study, “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the Strategic Politicization of Pop Culture through Social Media Manipulation,” Morten Bay claimed evidence of organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments in the debate surrounding the film. While Bay’s claims were largely overstated by the popular press and seen as inflammatory by fan critics of The Last Jedi who rightly resented being elided with Russian operatives, Bay’s study addresses what Nagle had already demonstrated in Kill All Normies: that fan conflicts are increasingly spaces not just for expressing one’s strong opinions and analyses of texts, but also for signaling one’s position in relation to current political conflicts. Trolling, sock-puppets, and brigading9 also add to the difficulty of determining who is engaging in fan debates, and in what numbers. When popular culture debates become a tool for those wishing to inflame polarized and polarizing

Organized responses for the purposes of rallying support for a particular cause or against a particular individual.

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discussion, analysis about what fans want or how fans feel about a given text becomes fiendishly difficult. Our analysis, therefore, will focus less on making any claims about Marvel comics fandom at the present time, and more on how the Comicsgate discourse about what fans want, and how fans feel, circulates within and outside fan spaces.

The Gabriel Debate and Online Outrage But what led to Marvel Comics, specifically, being at the center of Comicsgate? Both sides of the controversy have tended to portray Marvel as the main proponent of social justice comics, in contrast to their primary rivals at DC Comics. For example, in his negative response to the milkshake tweet, “Hal Jordan” proclaims, “Can we just get off of feminism and social justice and actually print stories. God DC looks better and better.” This tweet constructs DC as a safer space for disenfranchised fans fleeing SJW-style politics. DC has long had a reputation as being the more conservative of the two major comic book publishers;10 however, DC comics such as the newer take on Barbara Gordon in Batgirl of Burnside (2011) deliberately appeal to diverse audiences and a younger generation, and 2016’s Harley Quinn and Her Gang of Harleys directly mocked President Trump. As well, in their 2014 article for the Wall Street Journal Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche claimed that both Marvel and DC had succumbed to “political correctness, moral ambiguity, and leftist ideology.” The false dichotomy that has led to Marvel Comics being at the center of the Comicsgate controversy can be attributed to several factors that we will explore throughout this book: the company’s long history of promoting their stories as commentary on realworld politics; the promotion of diversity as a key marketing tactic for the company under the editorship of Axel Alonso (January 2011–November 2017); and a very specific incident in 2017 that focused attention on the role that diversity had been playing in Marvel comics for the previous few years, and which brought the issue to a larger audience. What we will refer to throughout this book as “the Gabriel controversy” occurred when Marvel’s VP of Sales, David Gabriel, commented at the March 2017 Retailers’ Summit in New York that increased diversity was hurting Marvel’s sales. Commentary on his claims reached far outside comics, with much attention focused on the role of gender and race in comics and on

In Slugfest: Inside the Epic Fifty-Year Battle between Marvel and DC (2017), Reed Tucker traces DC’s more conservative reputation to its earliest years, in which DC’s corporate-style culture “helped establish DC … as the class of the field, far different from the schlocky publishers … that had once populated the industry” (8). From the 1960s on, DC and Marvel have been defined, not always accurately, in oppositional terms: “Marvel is the eternal hipster, while DC remains the classy, conservative uncle, forever on a quest to make itself more youthful and relevant” (244).

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whether or not, as the popular anti-diversity refrain of “get woke, go broke” puts it, highlighting social justice and diversity in popular culture lead to a loss in audience and sales.11 Jesse Schedeen argues on his IGN article, “Diversity Isn’t the Real Problem for Marvel Comics,” “Marvel’s current books aren’t struggling because of the emphasis on diversity. They’re struggling because of Marvel’s questionable, often short-sighted publishing strategies. Diversity is simply a convenient scapegoat masking a much larger problem.” However, some commenters on his article argue back, suggesting that Gabriel’s claims were in fact a welcome validation of their own feelings, and that they see Marvel’s falling sales as evidence of the righteousness of their cause: “Sorry sexual preference or ethic [sic] background doesn’t make people interesting. It’s good story telling and character building that wins” (on Schedeen, “Diversity”). On The Mary Sue article of April 1, 2017, “grimbrimm” questions, sarcastically, “I mean really, who could have foreseen that introducing a bunch of new superheroes geared towards an audience that hasn’t yet shown much interest in classic superhero comics wouldn’t pay off financially” (on Jasper), while BBurr on the AV Club article of the same date asserts, “The lesson, of course, is that the noisy internet wags who push for ‘diversity,’ political correctness and social justice in hobbies are not actually interested in those hobbies—they are only interested in making those hobbies conform to their political agenda” (on Hughes). Many of the fans who were validated by Gabriel’s comments assert similar assumptions about Marvel’s “core audience,” who one commenter defined as “people over 30 and most of them are men” adding that “SJW don’t spend money all they do is bitch” (on Schedeen “Diversity”). “Smokinclone” complains, They’re [Marvel] only alienating their largest demographic. Those white straight males you mentioned make up the largest part of their market share. That’s not a guess, that’s reality. I guess you think it’s something wrong with them because they don’t want to fantasize about being a arab [sic] lesbian fighting demons and prejudice to fit into the world. Or they don’t like watching Iceman play grab ass with every gay dude he comes across while all his friends tell him to hook up with em. (on Elderkin, “Marvel VP”) The tone and language here are very clear—superheroes who are “gay dudes” or “arab lesbians” are not ones that “white straight males” can While the idea did not originate with him, the phrase “get woke, go broke” is attributed to an interview published on Milo Yiannopolis’s blog, Dangerous, with sci-fi author John Ringo, who used the phrase to criticize ConCarolinas and its handling of political controversies about invited speakers. The idea that diversifying popular culture texts such as comics, video games, and action films will result in alienating the presumed primary audience of White men has been around for some time, but it achieved widespread support with Gamergate and with the organized reaction on YouTube against the 2016, all-female, Ghostbusters reboot.

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“fantasize about”—or, perhaps more accurately, that they can fantasize about being. But the fear expressed by these fans about political pressure being exerted by groups who are not the “traditional” audience (although there is no evidence that those who want greater diversity in comics are not fans themselves) is also one that can be linked to increased corporate control of creative industries. Comics are more than simply stories: they are lucrative products, run by businesses that are very much aware of changing demographics in society. When angry fans complain, as one did on the io9 article, that non-comic book fans “were symbolically purchasing not because they actually cared about comics but because they supported the initiative” and that “at some point that sort of performative consumerism ends” (“Carl” on Elderkin), they are expressing fear of newer, and possibly more desirable, audiences. On the same article, Joshua Sibley remarks that “Cap, Thor, Iron Man, etc. survived in a society outright hostile to comics since the fucking 40’s. Their exploits have been around so long they’re practically mythology. I’m so tired of these Tumblr kids coming in like a sociology professor and lecturing us that the medium isn’t being done right because of our biases.” All of these commenters agree on the same things: “hipsters/millennials and Tumblr kids” are ruining comics through a combination of insufficient buying power, agenda-driven taste, and a lack of true investment and follow-through that sets them apart from the dedicated, longer-term fan; their purchases are only for appearance, rather than a sign of true fan devotion and “investment.” These complaints enunciate not just ageist assumptions about millennials, Gen Y, and Gen Z, but also fears that the buying power of traditional readers is no longer sufficient to influence creative industries to cater solely to their tastes and to represent their interests as they once did. While the media coverage of Gabriel’s comments provided a space for the public to voice their opinions on diversity in popular culture, perhaps no site worked to feed the controversy as much as YouTube. Gamergate played a substantial role in transforming many channels that had been devoted to “skepticism” (such as critiquing religion and debunking pseudoscience) to framing feminists and “social justice warriors” as the new threats to rationality and “centrism.”12 Similarly, in the wake of the Gabriel controversy, numerous YouTube channels emerged to cover what they constructed as the undue influence of “SJW” politics on comics, and to stoke audience anger against a variety of targets, mainly women in comics, but also male creators who were viewed as pushing a social justice agenda, such as Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid. Richard Meyer, in particular, produced the channel “Diversity + Comics” (replaced with “Comics Matter

For example, channels like “Sargon of Akkad,” “thunderf00t,” and “Armoured Skeptic” all focused on atheism, free speech, and rational thought but, in the wake of Gamergate, shifted almost entirely to anti-SJW content.

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w/Ya Boi Zack”), which at its height offered numerous videos a day with the sole purpose of expressing outrage against diversity in comics; some sample titles include “The SJW Stranglehold on the Comic Book Industry Is Finally OVER,” “UNSTOPPABLE WASP #8- The Monstrous & Empty Egotism Of SJWs Is Truly Appalling,” and “Is SJW Marvel Destroying the Direct Market & Comic Book Shops ON PURPOSE?” The click-bait titles often belie a dearth of content, as these videos repeatedly relay the same perceived grievances. Nevertheless, his format of extremely low-budget videos featuring unscripted, often rambling monologues has been highly successful; he has garnered over 100,000 subscribers and receives view counts often exceeding 20,000. The same formula and alt-right perspective are used by many other channels, some of which, such as “Just Some Guy” and “ComicArtistPro Secrets” (run by comic artist Ethan Van Scriver), also enjoy high subscriber counts. Operating as they do on an algorithm that seeks to maximize viewers by recommending similar videos to audiences, these channels are rewarded for producing numerous videos on the same or similar topics, regardless of the quality of their production or their content. But the view counts also give the illusion of a large social movement organizing against the diversification of superhero comics, with the actual demographics very difficult to verify. The purveyors and fans of this movement saw Gabriel’s reiteration of two comic book store owners’ comments as an opportunity to push back against diversification: if Marvel’s VP of Sales was willing to say that diversity was hurting Marvel’s bottom line, then this provided an avenue for those who opposed diversity to organize a soft boycott. Anti-diversity comments and videos lean heavily on the “get woke, go broke” principle because the people who make them want to pressure Marvel to abandon diversity as a goal, and to “save” comics from those who they construct as outsiders to comics fandom. But there is no evidence that those consuming these videos or leaving these angry comments are themselves comics fans. As with Gamergate, which drew in allies from outside gamer culture, so too did Comicsgate appeal to an audience of reactionaries who likely were never the sole, or even primary intended audience of the comics they vowed to boycott. Instead, their outrage served to bolster the small economies of producers on YouTube who could count on them to view each new “cringe” video critiquing the failures of SJW comics.

Escaping the Cycle of Voting with Our Dollars and Evaluating According to Our Politics The Gabriel controversy effectively made Marvel’s financial successes and failures during the Comicsgate period primarily about diversity, allowing the company to sidestep many other issues at play that might have been affecting

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their bottom line, such as: weariness with continual events that disrupt story-telling across numerous titles; the growing expense of single issues; the cancellation of series before they have a chance to find an audience; poor advertising for new titles; and weaknesses in the creative bench brought about by greater autonomy for creators offered by competing companies, such as Image.13 Gabriel’s comments could be dismissed as those of a single corporate executive, but they could also cynically be read as the company attempting to either (a) drum up support politically for its “diverse” titles or (b) shift blame to audiences should Marvel pivot away from Alonso’s stated aim to diversify its lines. Marvel’s handling and mishandling of diversity within the comics and their marketing further contribute to the difficulty of evaluating the success and failure of overt politics in storylines. The ongoing polarization of fans and audiences pushes critique either firmly into the “Comicsgate” camp, a space which we have no desire to occupy, or into encouraging politicized consumption, which we also wish to avoid. Our own politics are decidedly leftist and pro-diversity, but we reject the idea that good art has to replicate or represent our own politics, and we are highly suspicious of social justice that is reduced to a corporate brand. Which brings us to the question: is it possible, or even desirable, to evaluate the comics that are at the center of these debates without acknowledging their role as proxies in endless culture wars? As this introduction should indicate—no. The context of these debates is essential to understanding the creation, content, and reception of the comics we will examine: specifically, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Captain America: Sam Wilson, and Secret Empire. However, we want to move away from simplistic arguments that boil down to “thumbs down on racism or sexism” or “politics make for bad storytelling” to instead place these comics within what we see as a more complex context: that of evaluating popular culture texts that are both a fairly cynical form of corporate art and sincere expressions of creative/political thought on the part of individual comics storytellers. We hope to identify those moments in these texts when politics makes them their best, and when politics makes them their worst. We have chosen these comics not because they are the most representative of diversity in comics—important texts such as Gabby Rivera and Joe Quinones’s America (2017) and diverse characters such as Amadeus Cho (the Hulk/Brawn) and Riri Williams (Ironheart) will not be examined here—but because they are the ones we believe have been positioned by Marvel Comics and its corporate branding as both overtly political and representatives of the future of the brand. Comics like Mockingbird and America, for example, break barriers both through their creative benches

13 Graeme McMillan’s article for The Hollywood Reporter. entitled “2017: The Year Almost Everything Went Wrong for Marvel Comics,” provides a painful overview of the many missteps and PR disasters that shook the company in that single year.

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and through their political subjects, but both deal with characters on the margins of the Marvel universe. By contrast, the comics and characters we have chosen to discuss are ones that have brought debates about diversity into the mainstream and have succeeded in becoming central to Marvel Comics projects going forward. That the majority of them are written and illustrated by White men, many of whom are stars within the comics industry, is very much part of our discussion. Marvel Comics might be viewed by some Comicsgate participants as particularly given to “political shilling” and “forc[ed] political correctness” (Del Arroz), but it is also in many ways still a fairly conservative company, and its forays into diversifying its superhero stable must be understood within that context. Before outlining our chapters, we want to acknowledge a significant absence in our text: as any comics reader and scholar knows, comics are both a visual and a literary medium, and yet there are no images included in this book. Because we could not secure image permissions from Marvel, due to current company policy about third-party works where Marvel is the sole subject (as is the case here), our analysis leans toward the verbal text of the comics, which we can quote. Where we can, we do describe panels and analyze images, but such description can never have the same authority as actual reprints of the images themselves, so we have chosen to limit it. Our text does not therefore provide as much of the “formal analysis” and attention to “line, color, and image” (“Surveying the World” 143) as comics audiences rightfully expect, but we hope we provide the best analysis possible within these limitations. Our first chapter traces the relationship between real-world politics and the Marvel Comics universe, from the beginning of the Marvel brand to the new millennium, with a focus on how Marvel employs politics as a tool for fan engagement. Using theories of corporate authorship, we argue that Marvel has often referenced contemporary politics in its storylines in ways that deliberately align Marvel with its intended fanbase. Marvel Comics has been an inconsistently progressive voice from the late 1960s on, producing storylines, for example, that engaged directly with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and with the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Extra-textual elements, such as Stan’s Soapbox and editorialization in the letter columns, worked to link the company with the liberal agendas expressed in the stories. As part of this liberal positioning, Marvel has always developed diverse characters and political storylines, but we argue that it did so primarily in ways that still preserved its comics as “safe” reading for general audiences. This desire to produce a corporate art that fits the company’s liberal, and sometimes progressive, branding, but preserves the widest possible audience, has led to a continual balancing act in which stories negotiate the tensions that can exist between editors, creators, and audiences in relation to political issues. Our second chapter moves forward to the early 2010s and to the beginnings of Marvel’s current wave of deliberate political marketing.

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The new millennium witnessed a concerted push to diversify comics so as to expand comics’ readership and reflect changing demographics. This chapter provides close analysis of the first series of two new diversity characters: Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s African- and LatinxAmerican Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011–2013), and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Muslim Pakistani-American Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel (2014–2015). In the wake of the Gabriel controversy, these characters were often held up by opponents of diversity as models of “diversity done right.” This chapter explores what allowed these two to become beloved additions to the panoply of superheroes, despite being positioned and marketed as diversity characters. We argue that both Miles and Kamala found favor with many fans because they are depicted as simultaneously universal and culturally specific. This duality allowed their comics to bring in new readers without challenging the overall Whiteness of the superhero stable and its representation of normative power relations. If Miles Morales and Kamala Khan represent what opponents of “forced diversity” in Marvel Comics find acceptable, then Jane Foster/Thor and Sam Wilson/Captain America embody what many fans described as most objectionable: diversity characters who have taken up the mantles seemingly at the expense of beloved characters. In Chapter 3, we argue that these gender- or race-bending legacy characters differ from Miles Morales and Kamala Khan in that in each case the original character is stripped of power in order for the mantle to be passed, with the replacement then read, by disappointed or openly hostile fans, as a wholesale challenging of political/ social representation in the Marvel universe. We focus our discussion of mantle passing and the challenges it poses to racial and gender norms through close analysis of Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuña’s Captain America: Sam Wilson (2015–2017) and Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s The Mighty Thor (2015–2018), but we also situate that discussion within the wholescale mantle passing that happened from 2014 to 2016 in the ANADM campaign. While we believe that gender- and race-bending existing characters can, at its worst, represent pandering, temporary diversity, we argue that Sam Wilson as Captain America and Jane Foster as Thor instead reveal the potential of such creative revisionings, specifically in terms of reassessing the historical legacy of characters and mantles in Marvel’s long history. Chapter 4 addresses an event that united progressives and traditionalists in their rejection of it: Nick Spencer’s 2017 Secret Empire. The decision to retcon Steve Rogers/Captain America into an agent of Hydra angered both those who saw it as an insult to the character’s Jewish creators, and those who were offended by what they perceived as the event’s use of fascism to reference current American politics under Donald Trump. While we acknowledge the problematic marketing of the event, we argue in defense of Secret Empire as both a story and a creative intervention into contemporary politics. We assert that, despite what its many critics claim, the event largely

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succeeds in being an uncomfortable and challenging examination of hero worship and nostalgia in an age of rising fascism—one that critiques not just the current political climate but also the superhero genre itself. Nevertheless, the event was also marred by its marketing and by Marvel’s frantic efforts to manage audience and critical reactions, particularly in terms of disavowing the politics so central to the story itself. The tensions between the storyline and marketing demonstrate the difficulties facing creators and audiences who wish to employ corporately owned cultural icons to make sense of, and challenge, contemporary politics. Our conclusion addresses the vestiges of Axel Alonso’s efforts at diversity in an examination of Marvel Legacy (2017) and Fresh Start (2018). These launches, coming as they did on the heels of the controversial ANADM campaign, were widely viewed as Marvel capitulating to anti-diversity backlash and rebranding itself away from the political fall-out of Comicsgate. In our assessment of these re-launches, we instead see a continuation of Marvel’s long-term strategy of negotiating between its corporate branding of itself as progressive and its own conservative, corporate interests. Nevertheless, we also argue that the ideals espoused in the marketing of ANADM do indeed live on within these new launches, particularly in terms of increased diversity on the creative bench. At the heart of this manuscript is a question: can Marvel’s strategy of safe, liberal politics succeed in the current political climate? We argue that Marvel needs to continue to reflect back on the emergence of a “Marvel philosophy” in the late 1960s and on the risks taken by its younger creators during that time period, to recognize that stories that either pander to a desired fanbase, or attempt to safely navigate the political status-quo, are not the ones that will serve during a time of immense political divides. Rather, Marvel Comics needs to recognize that the ideology of its corporate art, which is central to what has distinguished Marvel over the years and given its universe its (mostly) coherent tone and style, is currently at odds with its desire to please everyone in a polarized political climate.

1 From Stan’s Soapbox to Twitter: Politics and Story-Telling in the Marvel Universe

If anything defines “Comicsgate” as a movement, it is the slogan “get woke, go broke,” the belief that Marvel’s attempt to diversify its superhero stories is a corporate-driven mandate that is bound to fail. Proponents of this philosophy give varying reasons for why this push for diversity will ultimately destroy Marvel comics. Some argue that such an approach alienates the existing fanbase, assumed—and often stated—to be White men. Others believe that the desire to diversify will lead Marvel to equity-based hiring that prioritizes appointing people from under-represented groups, rather than—implied, but also sometimes stated to be—more qualified White men. Many fans protest that they are absolutely in favor of diversity, just not “forced diversity,” and point to successful characters ranging from Luke Cage to Kamala Khan to point out that Marvel has done diversity well in the past, but that the wholesale transformation under Axel Alonso and represented by the All-New, All-Different Marvel campaign fails primarily because it is a shallow and pandering corporate-driven exercise. In all of these arguments, however, there is a consistent point of connection: that politics in story-telling, both on the page and behind the scenes, is intimately tied to the economics of selling comics. As audiences, we are therefore encouraged by both sides to “vote” with our dollars, consuming and/or boycotting Marvel Comics in ways that match our values. David F. Walker’s list of “10 Ways to Really Support Diversity in Comics,” for example, not only emphasizes the importance of fans’ financial support (with five of the ten points focused on purchasing), but also states that “not pre-ordering comics from a direct market retailer is the same as NOT supporting a book. That’s the system.”

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At the same time, independent comics creators often use political rhetoric to encourage fans to support their Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns as a way of producing comics that “the system” will not.1 In this chapter, we challenge the explicitly political marketing of mass culture texts such as Marvel Comics, without downplaying the need for greater diversity both within and behind the scenes of superhero comics stories. Carolyn Cocca argues that within popular culture, Marginalized groups have been forced to “cross-identify” with those different from them while dominant groups have not. That is, because white males have been over-represented, women and people of color have had to identify with white, male protagonists. But white males have not had to identify with the small number of women and people of color protagonists. This is not only unfair, but can curtail imagination. (3) Like Cocca, we believe that stories that draw upon a wide range of human experiences and identities are necessary not only for the good political work they do in terms of challenging the “representations of stereotypes that exert power” (5), but also for creating richer, more complex, and more relevant works of art that expand the imaginations of their audience. We are nevertheless wary of “social justice” and “diversity” as marketing tools for corporations, particularly one with as spotted a history as Marvel’s in terms of its treatment of its creators. In part, this wariness is simply a rejection of woke-branding as a whole, whether it originates from Dove, Gillette, or Pepsi: these campaigns arguably exacerbate culture wars all in the service of selling their products and, sometimes, as in the case of “wokewashing,” “cynically [cash] in on people’s idealism and [use] progressiveorientated marketing campaigns to deflect questions about their own ethical records” (Jones). As we will discuss, there is good reason to see Marvel as engaging in both. But we are also concerned that diversity as a marketing ploy can result in shallow characterization and pandering story-telling that fail in the important work of increased representation in art. Bad representation is arguably as damaging as no representation at all, in that stereotypes not only shape the dominant culture’s attitudes toward the represented people, but can also shape the attitudes of people desperate to see themselves in the texts they consume. Even when those representations are positive, their scarcity means that they bear an undue weight of signification. Adilifu Nama underlines this point when he uses a quote from Dwayne McDuffie as his epigraph to the Introduction of Super Black: American Popular Culture and

Successful examples on either side of the political spectrum include Comicsgate founder Richard Meyer’s Indiegogo campaign for his comic Jawbreakers, which raised over $500,000 and (on the other side) the three separate volumes of Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, each of which raised around $75,000.

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Black Superheroes: “My problem … and I’m speaking as a writer now … with writing a black character in either the Marvel or DC universe is that he is not a man. He is a symbol” (cited in Nama 1). The path to authentic and adequate representation in mainstream comics is, therefore, a long one fraught with pitfalls for even the most careful and aware writer. Despite these difficulties, we give no credence to arguments that diversity and greater representation threaten superhero story-telling in and of themselves. Instead, we argue that Marvel’s push for diversity under Axel Alonso cannot be read as separate from Marvel’s corporate agenda and economic interests. We place ANADM firmly within the company’s long history of presenting itself as a liberal voice, in varying iterations, so as to help us better understand how its overt political story-telling serves a variety of sometimes conflicting agendas.2 By tracing the relationship between “liberalism” and the Marvel Comics universe from the beginning of the company to the new millennium, we assert that Marvel’s many political storylines result from a continual negotiation of social pressure from multiple directions: corporate, editorial, creative, and audience. Furthermore, we suggest that Marvel’s corporate creation of an ongoing, historically shaped continuity that they repeatedly claim mirrors “the world outside our windows” encourages both creators and audiences to use the characters and storylines as surrogates and stand-ins for real-world political examination. The multiple nature of both comics authorship and comics audiences means that Marvel’s diverse characters and political storylines are not singular, but have created, encouraged, and fomented political debate, often in ways that Marvel, as a corporate author, might not have intended or endorsed.

Corporate Art and Corporate Authorship Before we discuss the role Marvel superhero comics play in political discourse, we must first acknowledge the limitations and impediments to sincere political debate within superhero comics, especially as they are produced by the Big Two (Marvel and DC). In “Buster Brown at the Barricades: Foment in the Funnies & Comics as Counter-Culture,” Alan Moore argues that because early cartoons and comics were “unrestricted by prevailing notions of acceptability,” they had the potential to give “voice to popular dissent” or to become, “in the right hands, a supremely powerful We use “overt” to describe those storylines that consciously and deliberately engage in topics such as geo-political conflict, race/gender/class debates, and “ripped from the headlines” commentary on current political events. We believe that all stories are inherently political insofar as they are framed within or respond to dominant ideological frameworks for understanding ourselves and our world, but we are specifically interested here in storylines that are meant and understood to be political in focus.

2

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instrument for social change.” In other words, because of its separation from high art, the comics medium provides a space to represent the desires of the powerless and the disadvantaged in society, to puncture the respectability of the wealthy, and to revel in power fantasies that redress injustice against the oppressed. Moore highlights the continuity between blasphemous cartoons from the French Revolution, to the underground comix scene of the 1960s, whose “main targets for subversion … were the prissy and sedate traditions of the medium itself,”3 to the current moment, in which “the sole restrictions on what comics can or cannot be are those of the creator’s own imagination.” Like other popular media and genres that reach a wide audience and contain anti-authoritarian content—rap music, punk subcultures, pornography, drug culture, etc.—comics have faced external, legal pressures that sought to weaken their power to disrupt the cultural status quo; the Comics Code of 1954 (like similar laws worldwide) offers an example of indirect governmental censorship and control of a subversive medium, aimed as it was at ensuring that comics adhered to strict guidelines in terms of representing mainstream political ideologies and morality.4 But Moore also alludes to the “taming influence of the remunerative market” in that same essay, tracing how cartoons became “socially sanctified,” which is a common trajectory for many forms of popular culture when they are absorbed into corporate-owned mass production. He complains that “it was seen as more appropriate for these new U.S. totem entities to be in the possession and safekeeping of frequently questionable businessmen rather than that of the genuinely talented and decent human beings who’d originated them.” Moore’s historical narrative of the subversive power of cartoons and comics is a fairly straightforward one: creators produce meaningful symbols of populist dissent that draw upon the medium’s “gutter-generated origins,” which then gradually become sanitized by their absorption into the mainstream. In the case of Superman, for example, While the ensuing decades and expanding fortunes of America have seen Siegel and Shuster’s purloined champion recast as an establishment ideal, a figure that embodies tactical superiority and thus perhaps a sense of national impunity, the archetypal superhero at his outset was a very different proposition. In his earliest adventures, with an admirably broadminded definition of what constituted criminality, a splendidly egalitarian Man of Tomorrow would rough up strike-breakers and use This resulted in taboo-breaking narratives focused on “sex, violence, and criticism of authority figures and the establishment” (García 12).

3

Although the Comics Code was a self-regulation of the industry, it was a direct response to the fear of government regulation in the face of the moral panic provoked by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The Code required the elimination of explicit horror tropes and sexuality from the genre, and required a mainstream morality in which crime was not glamourized, and policemen and other people in authority were not criticized.

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his super-strength to hurl unscrupulous slum landlords over the horizon. Gradually across the next few years, perhaps in keeping with the Cleveland pair’s decreasing power to control their own creation, Superman would undergo a moral and political makeover to become a bastion of authority, carefully trimmed of any prickly or non-conformist attitudes. According to Moore, the full co-option of Superman within the corporate structure of DC leads to a bastardization of his meaning as a cultural symbol for the oppressed: owned and controlled by corporate powers, Superman comes to represent those interests instead. What Moore identifies as the cause of the transformation of Superman’s character, therefore, is less explicit government censorship than it is the appropriation and incorporation of popular culture into “mass culture.” Mass culture is produced by capitalist industries for consumption by the masses, and thus inherently carries with it “the interests of the economically and ideologically dominant” (Fiske, Reading 2). Critics such as Alan Moore are correct to question whether large corporations—which pursue financial goals, often at the expense of artistic expression and innovation—can produce texts that contain subversive elements. Mass culture theorists, for example, have long highlighted the empty escapism of corporate creative products: “Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide” (Dyer 20). This escapism, however, is strictly limited, as the most pessimistic of the mass culture theorists point out, because mass culture “infect[s] everything with sameness” (Horkheimer and Adorno 53), limiting the scope of the audience’s imagination (56) and offering no alternative to the current political and economic status quo (54). The superhero genre is arguably the most mainstream genre within the comics medium and, at its worst, is characterized by banal repetition and a celebration of dominant power structures. The Big Two, for example, have continually copied each other’s creations; the popularity of Superman led to a “legion of ‘long underwear’ imitators” (Duncan et al. 18), whose characterizations and storylines tend to follow set patterns: origin stories, colorful costumes, super-powers, dual identities, and pro-social missions exemplified by “strength of will” and a “sense of duty” (197–210). While every popular genre has characteristic elements, the extent to which a text unimaginatively follows such conventions, rather than subverting or challenging them, can be attributed to mass culture industries’ desire to produce “texts that are minimally acceptable … to a huge audience” (Radway 285). Comics that closely adhere to tried and true formulas, rather than subversive or refreshingly original content, will satisfy the majority of fans of that genre, and thus remain the safest bet for a corporation dedicated to profits, rather than art. Finally, the pro-social missions of the superhero, while not explicitly serving Western geo-political power and capitalism, do not inherently subvert them either. Instead, the superhero in the hands of

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these two corporate giants becomes, at least on its surface, an authoritarian figure who enacts “might makes right” on a global, even galactic, scale, fighting to preserve moderate politics, and engaged in generalized stories of good vs. evil that do not challenge the financial or political order.5 While Marvel Comics has a long history of promoting liberal politics and engaging directly and indirectly in contemporary political issues, we argue that these facets of their story-telling, rather than subverting the political and financial status quos, instead operate firmly within them. Like the studio system Jerome Christensen analyzes in America’s Corporate Art (2012), Marvel Comics produces “corporate art,” a term used to describe “a tool of corporate strategy” that is adopted “to attain competitive advantage” and implemented by executives who “successfully claim the authority to interpret the intent of the corporation and project a policy that will advance its particular interests, whether financial, social cultural, or political” (Christensen 2). Specifically, we argue that while individual creators play a crucial role in shaping comics’ characters and storylines, we must understand the Marvel Universe as one authored by “Marvel Comics,” a corporate author who is personified as a singular entity, and whose texts are linked to a specific “brand.”6 The brand that Marvel Comics has successfully created for itself is primarily aligned with liberal politics, leaning sometimes more centrist, and sometimes more progressive. And while these politics may indeed be those held by people with some power in the organization, such as Stan Lee or Axel Alonso or (in the case of the MCU) Kevin Feige, and some influence, such as individual writers and artists, they exist primarily to advance the company’s financial interests, in terms of both setting itself apart from its “distinguished competition” and courting new or under-served audiences. Its comics and its editorial columns personify the organization as a liberal entity whose interests, it would appear, are as pro-social as those of its superheroes; in so doing, Marvel Comics participates in “soul making,” a strategy meant to “invest corporations with pathos” (Christensen 9). Marvel’s marketing strategies also support this goal, “insofar as the project of marketing involves For example, Chris Gaveler’s history of the superhero highlights the “imperial underpinnings” (34) of the character type, as well as its linkage to fascism, eugenics, and vigilantism: “The superhero, despite the character’s evolution into a champion of the oppressed, partly originated from an oppressive, racist impulse in American culture, and the formula codifies an ethics of vigilante extremism that still contradicts the superhero’s purported social mission” (78).

5

We are modeling our reading of Marvel Comics on what we consider a similar industry: the Hollywood studio system. Jerome Christensen describes this system as follows: “The personification of a studio is an identification that people may recognize, but not one to which anyone must consent. A personification of the studio is, ultimately, an element of the corporation’s brand, one of the cluster of associations people make when they hear the name ‘MGM’ or ‘Disney’” (21). In other words, the personification of corporations is a strategy that distinguishes one brand from another, and encourages consumer identification with and loyalty to the corporation.

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the establishment of social legitimacy of a company that seeks to make customers for its products rather than simply make products it can somehow sell to a customer” (9). Marvel’s soul-making project, one dedicated to creating lifelong fans invested in the company and its products, rests on the following strategies: the representation of its universe as linked to our own, and therefore as a space in which its in-world political commentary can both mirror and influence politics in our world; the development of storylines and characters that enunciate or embody liberal values such as diversity and open-mindedness; and the employment of its editors—best exemplified by Stan Lee engaging directly with the audience through his “Soapbox” and through the letter columns—as the voice of Marvel that speaks for, and enunciates, its politics as a whole. Complicating the liberal voice of Marvel as author is the fact that its corporate authorship has often led directly to the exploitation of individual storytellers, particularly the creators of the characters and storylines that won the corporation such approval from the younger generation in the first place. Jack Kirby described his time at the company as one of “repression” and rightly complained, “I was never given credit for the writing I did … I was faced with the frustration of having to come up with new ideas and then having them taken from me” (qtd. in Howe 118). Likewise, Sean Howe relates how Marvel engaged in a variety of exploitative moves, such as reviving characters “just long enough to ensure their copyright claims” against creators (76), using one part of a creative team against another to undermine such claims (77), refusing raises and contracts “because [workers] could be so easily replaced” (93), and continually failing to reward those who were loyal to Marvel: as Bill Mantlo relates, “It was a sign of success to shit on the company, go somewhere else, and then come back, and Chris [Claremont] … and [I] … were left cleaning up the manure, without thanks, without reward” (qtd. in Howe 157). Older writers and artists who were perceived as “old-fashioned” were “put out to pasture” (277), and even Chris Claremont received “no good-bye in the letters column, no announcement in the press” (328) when he was pushed out at Marvel, despite his impressively long and highly influential run penning the X-Men universe. All of this meant that creators were often afraid to unionize (209), but were not rewarded with secure work when they opted not to do so. As a result, there are few creators who worked at Marvel and were central to the company’s success that left the company on good terms. This tendency changed a little in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when Joe Quesada began a strategy of bringing in new talent from successful independent comics and recognizable names from outside the comics industry and promoting artists and writers as a type of “commercial auteurism” (Overpeck 165). The promotion of individual talents coalesced in the 2010 Marvel Architects promotion, which the company “used to create the sense that stories set in the Marvel Universe have been parts of one overarching narrative that has been designed by a team of important

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writers” (Overpeck 165). In this way, the “Architects”—Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Jonathan Hickman— together with the editor-in-chief—first Quesada, then Alonzo—occupied the place formerly associated with Stan Lee, as “stewards of the Marvel Universe” (Overpeck 177). Significantly, Aaron and Bendis are responsible for two of Marvel’s most heavily promoted diversity changes that we will be discussing: Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Jane Foster as Thor, respectively. However, this promotion of specific storytellers is still a corporate strategy, and one not all creators feel supported by.7 For example, Iceman writer Sina Grace complained about the lack of promotion both he and his comic received from Marvel and, more explicitly, about the lack of support he received in the face of backlash. As he sums up in a Tumblr post: “We as creators are strongly encouraged to build a platform on social media and use it to promote work-for-hire projects owned by massive corporations … but when the going gets tough, these dudes get going real quick.” This complaint suggests that Marvel uses creators to build up a brand following, one often based on liberal politics, but then abandons them if those politics have real-world consequences. One might argue that Marvel’s treatment of its creators does not necessarily have a bearing on the politics of the storylines and characters themselves; however, if we understand creator control and freedom over intellectual property (IP) as central to challenging the more flattening effects of mass-market culture, we can understand how Marvel’s adoption of a consistent “house style,” one that could be reproduced by legions of replaceable writers and artists, affects its content. Subversive political content is often linked with greater creative power, as Enrique García describes of the underground comix scene of the 1960s: “Artistic and economic independence was the main motto of comix artists, and it allowed them to make exciting narratives without being exploited by corporations” (12). By contrast, as Marvel sought to protect its IP from creators, it lost many of its strongest creators and instead employed fans to replace them. As Howe observes, Many of the most provocative and vital writers and artists of the previous generations, chased away by the industry’s paternalistic and/or just plain unfair policies, were off to other pursuits … Those who remained in the field would have to make a go of it within the strictures of the system, waiving royalties and reining in their more esoteric flights of fancy. (213)

After publicizing her dispute with Marvel over the cancellation of The Vision in 2018, Chelsea Cain proclaimed, “Yeah, I’m dead to them. Trust me.” Her comment, “When people say that they don’t want anybody to look bad, they always mean they don’t want themselves to look bad,” highlights the highly conflictual nature of the creator-corporate relationship (Arrant).

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Furthermore, Marvel’s growth as a company led to numerous cross-licensing and business-enhancing opportunities, such as television shows, cartoons, and toys, which made taking creative risks within their increasingly lucrative superhero universe anathema to the company’s best interests: in the late 1960s, “Lee had conveyed to his writers that Marvel’s stories should have only ‘the illusion of change,’ that the characters should never evolve too much, lest their portrayals conflict with what licensees planned for other media” (101). The idea that characters only had the “illusion of change” would support continuity—for example, making Thor consistent whether the story-telling was done by Kirby, Simonson, or Aaron—but that commitment to consistency in turn downplayed the contributions of individual storytellers, making them susceptible to abuse by the corporation.

Marvel’s Liberal Politics as Corporate Strategy Despite the exploitative politics of the corporation itself, Marvel has long presented itself as consistently liberal, promoting storylines about fighting against oppression and for social freedoms. Those who support Marvel Comics’ recent marketing of diverse characters often support this claim: for example, Dorian Lynskey claims of superhero comics in general in The New Statesmen that “progressive politics were baked in from the start.” It is more accurate, however, to see Marvel’s current construction of itself as left-leaning and supportive of diversity not as a completely stable quality of Marvel Comics through its long history, but instead as an appeal to a narrative that was largely constructed and adhered to in the late 1960s and 1970s, only partially present during the 1980s and 1990s, and foregrounded again in the twenty-first century. What is consistent, we argue, is that Marvel, from the late 1960s on, has negotiated politics in a way that safely allows the company to present itself as liberal, particularly when that stance is in the company’s interest. Because of the nature of its comics, the company’s stories regularly engage in politics, but they are only overtly political and progressive, we argue, when such an approach fits the tenor of the time in which the comics are produced. From its inception in early Timely comics, what would become the Marvel universe—that is, the shared realm and ongoing historical continuity in which its characters and storylines are immersed—has been set in a world that is recognizably parallel to our own. DC’s superheroes fight for Smallville, Star City, Gotham, and Metropolis, but Marvel’s storylines beg the question, Was this a fictional universe at all? Wasn’t that the Manhattan skyline behind the Torch? Wasn’t that the Hudson River that the Sub-Mariner was diving into? … Who cared if the Acme Skyscraper [in DC] fell, or the First National Bank had to give up its cash? Timely’s New York, on the other hand, with rife with Real Stuff to Destroy. (Howe 15)

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Placing its superheroes in our world means that the battles they fight can be analogous to our own, and perhaps even influence real-world politics, as we see in the case of Captain America. Steve Rogers’s willingness to do anything to enter the war was a deliberate attempt on the part of his creators to encourage involvement in the Second World War, almost ten months before America entered the war. Depicted on this comic book’s cover is an image of Captain America delivering a knockout blow to Adolf Hitler. In an isolationist climate, this cover was very brazen, implying as it did that Hitler was a threat who needed to be stopped by America. Today, taking on Hitler might not seem so daring, but it was at the time because he was a leader about whom public opinion had not yet reached consensus. (Versaci 146) The creators were successful in their aim, and “the comic book eventually earned official approval from the national consensus it helped create” (Lawrence 2). “Brazen” though they might have been, however, the Captain America Comics were not inherently leftist in their orientation: “The Captain America title made the cut of 189 magazines the War Department ‘distributed to troops without scrutiny of political content.’ … Captain America appeared on posters selling ‘Back the Attack’ war bonds, and the dimensions of his genesis lead many to believe that his character [could] be counted on to meld him well to U.S. government policy” (Lawrence 2). What the success of Captain America demonstrated was that political storylines, handled correctly, could be highly profitable and that even subversive storylines could still serve dominant ideologies and power structures; Timely Comics’s embracing of an explicitly political storyline has since been repeated throughout Marvel’s long history. While obvious political interventions such as that of Captain America and his sidekick Bucky’s “Sentinels of Liberty” club did continue, the main vehicle for political, social, and cultural commentary in the Marvel universe consists of representing their characters not as icons, but instead as “real” people whose struggles reflect those of their audience, and who can therefore model heroism in ways that might transfer over into our world. Stan Lee described Marvel’s superheroes as “the kind of characters I could personally relate to: They’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d have feet of clay’” (qtd. in Duncan et al. 34). This is exemplified in characters such as SpiderMan, because the “problems Peter Parker faced out of costume spoke to his audience” (35). Likewise, Matt Yockey argues that, “by making their characters psychologically realistic (at least by comic book standards),” Marvel not only increases reader identification, but distinguishes itself from DC, who in the 1960s were “producing cookie-cutter stories that were relentlessly one-dimensional in their moral binaries and visual and written

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characterization” (13).8 Making the world of Marvel superheroes closely mirror our own, with recognizable locations, politicians, and history, and superheroes who dealt with the same problems as their audience—marital strife and violence (Reed and Sue Richards, and Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne), alcoholism (Tony Stark), workplace woes (Peter Parker), and prejudice (the entirety of the mutant population)—Marvel provides its creators with the ability to directly comment upon contemporary issues with a depth that goes beyond battles between good and evil. Notably, Marvel’s focus on the individual’s negotiation of political and ethical issues was central to the liberal nature of the comics, but this liberalism was not always what we would align with progressivism today; rather, and especially in Marvel’s foundational years of the early 1960s, it was a kind of “liberal conservatism” (Hodgson qtd. in Costello) focused primarily on anticommunism. Matthew J. Costello explains the nature of this postSecond World War “liberal consensus,” in which “the Cold War American was viewed as an individual who lived in the most virtuous political system in the world, as evidenced by American prosperity, and whose divine mission was to extend the benefits of that prosperity to all American citizens and promote the virtue of its governmental system around the world by defending against the forces of totalitarianism” (32). Importantly, as Costello points out, nearly all of Marvel’s flagship heroes were produced (or, in the case of Captain America, re-introduced) during this period of  1961–1964 (61–2) and anticommunism informs the essential features of their characters, with the “veneration of individualism in the  Marvel Cold War story generat[ing] a logic to the ideology of the books” (67): Captain America is the stalwart protector of liberty; Iron Man is the heroic capitalist, and “Of the many geniuses who populate the Marvel universe, none are academics. All are independent scientists whose autonomy makes their scientific breakthroughs possible” (66). While the early 1960s books used a focus on real-world politics and on individuals engaged in ethical issues to comment directly on the Cold War, these qualities within the Marvel Universe opened up a space for creators and audiences to engage in political debate that would eventually

It is important to note that this characterization of DC comes in large part from Marvel itself. Yockey notes how Lee used the phrase “Distinguished Competition” to undermine DC’s “comic books with the hint of staidness and staleness. DC was for squares. Marvel was for True Believers” (19). In reality, DC was politically engaged in a manner similar to Marvel during the 1960s and 1970s; as Ramzi Fawaz points out, “Across the span of the 1970s, DC Comics would compete with the rising popularity of Marvel’s space operas by infusing political ‘relevance’ into the plot lines of their longest running superhero titles” (165). See also Adilifu Nama’s chapter on Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Black Lightning in Super Black (9–35). Nevertheless, it is also true that DC has consistently played catch up with Marvel in terms of political topicality (Reed 38–9, 77), and that they are generally seen as the more conservative of the big two.

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challenge the “liberal conservatism” of the early 1960s, particularly in the wake of the civil rights movement, which revealed “a growing generational gap, racial gap, gender gap, and credibility gap between government and citizens” (Costello 85). This recognition that the “liberal consensus” was based upon a flawed assumption of American exceptionalism is reflected in many remarkable storylines in the Marvel universe that highlight internal conflict in American society, including: Richard Nixon (implied, but not stated) organizing a coup to take over the United States (Captain America, 1974); numerous representations of superheroes fighting fascist and White supremacist groups (e.g., Avengers (1963–1996) #32–3 (1966)); and storylines focused on race relations and conflict (e.g., Thor (1966–1996) #311 (1981)), women’s liberation (e.g., Ms. Marvel (1977– 1979) #1 (1977)), and gay rights (e.g., Alpha Flight (1983–1994) #106 (1992)). The creation of the X-Men and the mutant population of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s provided a particularly useful means of discussing bigotry, with Marvel’s various X-titles covering everything from discrimination, to criminal profiling, to “cures” for otherness, to the use of violence as a tool to fight oppression. And precisely because these characters are depicted as living in our world as flawed and multi-faceted characters, their immersion in political and social conflicts provides a more direct commentary on real-world issues than that of the usual allegorical SF analogies.9 The Civil War events, for example, show the complexity of political debate by pitting beloved superheroes, all nominally on the side of good, against each other on issues related to how law and order should be maintained: with legal restrictions on superheroes that diminish their freedom to engage in battle whenever and with whomever they so choose (Civil War, 2006–2007), or with the aid of criminal profiling that arguably places punishment before the crime (Civil War II, 2016). Both events directly draw on the real-world paranoia following the 9/11 attacks and the concomitant public debates about sacrificing personal rights and privacy in the name of public safety. Rather than simply moralizing about good vs. evil, Marvel’s comics instead show their characters engaging with each other in ways that complicate contemporary political debates, and provide models for readers to examine their own political positioning. Therefore, despite its foundational years devoted primarily to anticommunist heroes and rhetoric, there is no question that Marvel’s moral aesthetic from the late 1960s on has been generally geared toward progressive,

See, for example, the heavy-handed allegory of the “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, which suggests that racial difference is superficial by creating two races, both half white and half black, but with the sides switched. Or, more recently, the film Avatar (2009), which uses the experience of the Navi fighting a corporation that wants to mine their world for “unobtanium” to critique corporate colonialism. In both cases, the simplicity of the allegory sidesteps the complexities of specific instances of structural racism, and the allegory has the danger of literally alienating non-White people.

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rather than liberal-conservative, ends. This period saw the formation of what Costello identifies as the “Marvel philosophy” (82) that we identify as central to Marvel’s corporate art, one which is shaped by the civil rights movement and depicts oppression as an inherent wrong, and diversity as central to American society. Costello argues that this philosophy goes beyond “passive liberalism” as it promotes “an active, pragmatic, inclusive tolerance of difference and of uncertainties” (125), which requires people to “take positive action to achieve equality” (124). The corporate icon of Stan Lee as the editor and face of Marvel Comics is the primary way in which Marvel represented itself as a progressive voice in the media and comics landscape during the late 1960s and early 1970s. During his tenure as editor of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee utilized his “Soap Box” and other depictions of the “merry members of the mythical Marvel Bullpen” (Howe  44) in interviews, lectures, and letters columns to create fan engagement and identification,10 often through reference to “contemporary social issues and to offer Lee’s opinions on them” (Costello 83). For example, Lee furthered producer/consumer engagement by creating an image of Marvel comics as shaped by an over-arching agenda linked to their superheroes’ pro-social missions: that of valuing love as the antidote to hate, and of upholding the importance of liberal values such as individual freedom, equality, tolerance, democracy, and free speech. Ramzi Fawaz explains how this corporate identity also constructs an implied audience for the comics, one that might differ from the actual audience: “Certainly not all or even the majority of Marvel’s readership believed that comics should espouse liberal ideals or express political orientation, yet Lee and Kirby spotlighted letters that interpreted the content of Marvel Comics as a form of progressive social commentary” (101). And Lee also gently argues with unnamed fans who might disagree with the corporation’s liberal ethos. A “Soap Box” column from 1974, for example, carefully frames the role of Marvel comics in terms of contemporary political debate: From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags. They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul … At every college campus where I may speak, there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None of us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us—events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. (Avengers (1963–1996) #74) Lee’s decision to “alter the standard address of the fan missives […] from ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Editor’ to ‘Dear Stan and Jack,’ and even to make use of nicknames” both for the creators and the characters “did much to encourage fantasies of resemblance” (Yockey 14).

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This column clearly links the shape and form of the Marvel Universe with a singular voice—the “I” of Stan Lee’s column—who can defend the politics of the comics storylines from his position as editor. It also places Stan Lee, and Marvel Comics—the “we” of the column—by association, in disagreement with those readers who demand that Marvel comics know their place as empty, mass culture escapism; in so doing, the column allows Lee to align the company with radical political youth movements, and against the idea that its mass culture products are simply about meeting consumer demands. He gives the company a soul and a conscience by directly linking it to the characters and storylines that convey progressive social messaging. It is difficult to be cynical about columns like this, in part because Lee’s message resonates with the desire of many fans for their mass culture products to be meaningful; many of us want to be able to engage in an inherently exploitative system, and yet believe that we are somehow challenging it at the same time. But it is important to recognize how the presentation of politics in Lee’s columns, the letters printed in the comics, interviews, and the storylines and characters of the Marvel Universe itself, was inherently coincident with the company’s corporate interests at the time. Lee’s reference to “every college campus where I may speak” situates his liberal discourse very much within the demands of a particular audience: that of college students at the height of university riots and student activism. Compared to DC in the 1960s and 1970s, “Marvel was … scrappier, with a faster-growing fan base. Marvel was more Mets than Yankees, more Rolling Stones than Pat Boone (whom, in fact, DC had immortalized in a comic book), it was the Pepsi Generation challenger to DC’s Coca-Cola Giant” (Howe 69). Lee’s fan club reflected a desire to capitalize on the youth audience, with “membership targeted [to] college students more than ten-year-olds” (Howe 54). It was therefore good business and good ideology in a time of protest for Marvel to market itself as an upstart and a rebel, aligned with the students against a staid, square mainstream, and to embrace “a perceived outsider status” as part of their coherent “brand identity” (Yockey 29). And, embracing the counter-culture movement in their comics, Marvel was embraced in return: “In a 1965 poll by Esquire magazine, college students ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk as two of their favorite counterculture symbols (alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara)” (Yockey 19). Likewise, a reference to Country Joe and the Fish visiting the Marvel office, in “Stan’s Soapbox” from August 1969, suggests that these mass culture creators of comics and music are collaborating with their audiences “in the production of a vaguely antiestablishment ethos” (23). Speaking to its college audience in ways that emphasized the culture of the company and its moral role in the contemporary political landscape— one in which distrust of capitalism and “the man” ran high—was key to Marvel’s financial success.

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Complicating the narrative of Stan Lee as the “voice” and conscience of Marvel is, of course, the man’s extremely complicated legacy in regard to the IP of comic book characters and his arguably highly overstated “authorship” of the shared universe concept. As we discussed earlier, Marvel Comics has a long history of mistreating its creators and undermining their rights to their creative work so as to support corporate ownership of superhero properties, and Stan Lee played a key role in these conflicts. In “It’s Stan Lee’s Universe,” Abraham Reisman’s overview of Stan Lee’s legacy for Vulture in 2016, Reisman asserts, Lee’s biggest credit is the perception that he was the creator of the insanely lucrative Marvel characters that populate your local cineplex every few months, but Lee’s role in their creation is, in reality, profoundly ambiguous. Lee and Marvel demonstrably — and near-unforgivably — diminished the vital contributions of the collaborators who worked with him during Marvel’s creative apogee. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Gene Conway have all challenged Lee’s version of the “Marvel method,” which, According to Lee … meant he came up with the concepts for all the characters, mapped out plots, gave the plots to his artists so they could draw them, and then would take the finished artwork and write his signature snappy verbiage for the characters’ dialogue bubbles. The artists, in Lee’s retelling, were fantastic and visionary, but secondary to his own vision. (Reisman) While Stan Lee was likely neither as central nor as visionary in the construction of the Marvel universe as he claimed, nor as heartless and conniving as those hurt by Marvel Comics perceived him to be, it is important to complicate the “Marvel philosophy” penned by and associated with Lee and see it for the enunciation of a corporate brand that it is, rather than as a sincere and consistent philosophy underpinning the company, its products, and its practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the corporate nature of the Soapbox and its philosophy, Marvel’s success with the youth audience and its positioning of itself as a liberal voice in the industry did see the company attempt to reach a variety of under-served markets, but often in ways that could be seen as heavy-handed and pandering. Howe relates, “The Avengers tackled women’s lib, the Sub-Mariner addressed ecological concerns, and the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and the Inhumans visited the ghetto” (Howe 115). “Diversity” characters were introduced throughout the 1960s and 1970s to capitalize on the civil rights and associated movements; however, these met with varied success. Black Panther, Falcon, Red Wolf, and Shiang Chi, for

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example, were all groundbreaking in a variety of ways, each being a “first” for Marvel, and often drawing attention to issues such as racial inequality, urban violence, and Indigenous land claims; however, they also often relied on popular stereotypes as signifiers of culture. Arguably because these characters represented a desire to promote Marvel’s politics, rather than to truly represent under-served populations with authenticity and complexity, they often met with lackluster fan responses. This same problem was replicated in an attempt to cash in on the women’s movement: “As the company’s initial attempts to entice a black readership (the Falcon, Luke Cage) sputtered along with middling sales, now a clumsy effort was made to reach female readers, with the launch of three comics ostensibly about feminist empowerment” (Howe 129). Again, the handling of these new female characters underlines the shallowness of Marvel’s efforts at diversity: For added authenticity (or gimmickry, depending on one’s level of cynicism) each of the three new titles was to be written by a woman. Unfortunately, there was none presently writing for Marvel, so [Roy] Thomas improvised. He drafted his wife, Jeanie, Hulk artist Herb Trimpe’s new wife, Linda Fite, and comic conventioneer Phil Seuling’s wife, Carole. Lee came up with all three concepts the same day. (129) The failure of these diversity efforts, at least at the time of their development, can be partially attributed to their pandering nature; rather than reflecting a true desire to address problematic gender representation in comics, these titles instead grudgingly sought to address external pressures: “The Bullpen Bulletins rather chauvinistically said of this creative team, ‘At least this time, nobody’s gonna be able to write in and say we’ve got writers and artists who don’t understand the female of the species’” (Sacks, “Paradigm” 70). With Marvel and Lee unwilling to invest in seasoned creators for these stories, or to put in a significant effort to make the characters and storylines actually reflect the feminist movement of its time,11 it is perhaps not surprising that these titles were not embraced by fans: “Within nine months, all three of the distaff titles had gotten the ax” (Howe 131). In particular, The Cat—the only superhero narrative in these three feminist experiments—was the first major example of a conundrum that Marvel is still negotiating: how “to devise ways of empowering female lives and bodies that seem liberating to girls and women, while not being threatening to boys and men (or, more broadly, patriarchal gender norms)” (Peppard 112). After the cancellation of The Cat, it would be four decades until Captain Marvel #5–6—written by

Anna Peppard is a little kinder to these comics, at least The Cat, which she claims established “a paradigm for adapting superhero narratives to female experiences and desires” (112).

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Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Emma Rios—became the second Marvel superhero comic with a female protagonist, writer, and artist. In between, feminist readers had to make do with such questionable material as the Femme Force, which Costello describes as “the buxom female agents … beset by catfights over who is flirting with Captain America” (91).12 Marvel’s rush to highlight, if not necessarily embrace, women’s lib, coupled with its quick and lengthy abandonment of it when such titles proved unsuccessful, speaks to the company’s unwillingness to actually promote political movements that might challenge the overall structure—in this case, the “boy’s club” of the Marvel bullpen—in which the comics themselves were produced. Furthermore, Marvel Comics’ alignment of itself with progressivism and revolutionary sympathies was usually amorphous rather than specific in its politics. Yockey notes that Marvel (like any prudent corporate entity) generally steered clear of overt political statements. The fact that characters such as the Hulk and SpiderMan were embraced by college students indicates the degree to which Marvel successfully touched on the general effective tropes of resistance to appeal to a countercultural sensibility without being “counter” to anything specifically. (23) Stan Lee espoused the importance of political storylines in his Soapbox, but he was just as willing to suggest that these politics should not be taken seriously if they caused offense, telling one letter-writer, “We never in a million years thought anyone was gonna take our silly protest-marchers seriously!” (qtd. in Howe 63). Furthermore, while Timely took a risk with Captain America during the Second World War, Marvel almost entirely avoided commentary on the Vietnam War. Again, in complete opposition to his Soapbox which preached the importance of comics as a means of commenting on political issues, Stan Lee told a radio interviewer, We treat these characters sort of tongue-in-cheek and we get a lot of laughs out of them, we have a lot of fun with them. I don’t know if it’s in good taste to take something as serious as the situation in Vietnam and put a character like Captain America … we would have to start treating him differently and taking the whole thing more seriously, which we’re not prepared to do. (qtd. in Howe 94)

The extent to which comics such as these actually supported feminism can be seen in one hilarious panel of Captain America, in which a Femme Force member takes out a hostile and exclaims to Captain America, “If this doesn’t make you a believer in the Women’s Lib Movement … I don’t know what will!” Cap’s reply models at best skepticism toward women’s rights: “Well … let’s say it makes me a believer in the S.H.I.E.L.D Femme Force … and let it slide at that” (#144, 8).

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Lee’s position speaks less to the appropriateness of using a character in public debate—especially one who had been intended by his creators to serve that role—than it does about the risk of using that same character to comment on a later issue on which readers were more evenly split (Howe 93). As well, Lee’s appeal to “taste” as an arbiter of what should be tackled within comics storylines invokes staid, bourgeois sensibility in opposition to Marvel’s representation of itself as a risk-taking rebel on the comics/culture scene. At heart, these abandonments and avoidances of political issues demonstrate the problem with a corporation embracing progressive or radical politics as a marketing ploy: should that ploy be financially unsuccessful, it will be abandoned just as quickly as it was embraced. The ambiguity of Marvel’s political engagement carries through to the present day. After Lee’s death at the end of 2018, Marvel began reprinting a “Stan’s Soapbox” column each month. The January commemorative issues reprinted the inaugural Soapbox from June 1967, in which Lee identifies “The Marvel Philosophy” as being primarily “plain and simple— to entertain you,” with any social or political benefits being secondary: “Now then, in the process of providing off-beat entertainment, if we can also do our bit to advance the cause of intellectualism, humanitarianism, and mutual understanding … and to toss a little bit of swinging satire at you in the process … that won’t break our collective heart one tiny bit!” Likewise, the March issues (reprinting the September 1967 Soapbox) reaffirm this point, with Lee responding to those who want “a more definite stand on current problems such as Viet Nam, civil rights, and the increase in crime” with the assertion that “most Marvel madmen pretty well know where we stand on such matters, and we’ve long believed that our first duty is to entertain, rather than editorialize. Of course, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not too easy to keep our own convictions out of the soulstirring sagas we toss at you—but in our own bumbling fashion, we do try.” The re-printing of these equivocations on the political import of the comics suggests that Marvel, in 2019, is just as cagey with its politics. It wants to present itself as a force for good, following the legacy of Lee, who also wrote Soapboxes that were more explicitly political—such as the November 1968 missive that begins “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today” (reprinted in the June 2019 comics)—but is careful not to lay too much on the line. It is not too controversial to speak out against racism (or it shouldn’t be), but the current voice of Marvel is cagier about, for example, undocumented immigrants, as Lee’s Marvel was about Vietnam. In both cases, fans are asked to infer the politics from the stories, but also to read those stories as harmless entertainment. Cynically, one could say that Marvel’s negotiation of political issues and capitalist demands is in fact inherently liberal, without any contradiction between the two: liberalism, after all, embraces capitalism and has a builtin flexibility when it comes to political issues, largely embracing moderate,

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middle-of-the-road politics and eschewing revolutionary ideology or policy. But we argue that the willingness of Marvel Comics to abandon diversity and to avoid political issues when they prove to be unpopular or unprofitable speaks to more than liberal wishy-washiness, and instead to its corporate politics. While some are willing to argue that comics have “always been bastions of liberal thinking” (Lynskey), such a claim relies on a fairly broad understanding of “liberal.” We argue that associating the Marvel brand with progressivism specifically is something the company does only when it reflects the desires of a significant portion of its readership. Liberal attitudes shaped by the civil rights movement might have been on brand for the company in the late 1960s and 1970s, but throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Marvel comics were far less invested in politics—at least, in politics that clearly leaned to one side of the political spectrum. There were certainly still diverse characters created, such as Monica Rambeau as the new Captain Marvel, and some existing diverse characters were given greater attention, as seen with James Rhodes taking on the Iron Man role (Howe 255); however, storylines often either “stressed characters’ history and private life rather than addressing social or political issues” (Costello 132–3) or aimed for more amorphous, middle-of-the-road politics that avoided offending anyone. For example, Cap fights the Nihilist Order in Captain America (1968–1996) #261, who hilariously proclaim, “Death to all symbols of everything!” (11),13 while Moon Knight squares off against the “The Third World Slayers,” “a coalition of extreme leftist and rightist terrorists” who have “privately disavowed all political affiliation, publicly playing both ends against the middle … ” (#17, 4). Villains such as these are mass culture bad-guys, unlikely to offend most readers’ sensibilities. As well, the focus on drug dealers, terrorists, and inner-city crime throughout the 1980s, particularly in lines such as The Punisher, reflects mainstream, even conservative, morality. Furthermore, storylines in this period were increasingly being driven by “marketing potential” (Howe 287) that was not about engaging with real-world issues, as seen in the resurrection of marketable characters who creators felt were better off dead, such as Jean Grey and Elektra, and cross-over events that were weak in story but proved popular with fans.14 This attitude carried on into the 1990s, when pouches, over-sized guns, and large breasts overshadowed civil rights and social justice, and when endless #1 issues were produced to cash in on the investor bubble taking hold of comics collectors at the time (323). As reporter Douglas Kass observed of Marvel in the early 1990s, “The brash kid willing to

All page numbers in all citations of Marvel comics are references to the digital editions.

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As Howe relates, “Carol Kalish addressed a gathering of comic-book store owners. ‘Let’s be honest,’ she said. ‘Secret Wars was crap, right?’ (The retailers agreed wholeheartedly). ‘But did it sell? The room cheered. ‘Well, get ready for Secret Wars, series two!’” (279).

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take artistic and literary risks has grown too big, fat and timid. Marvel’s continued focus on violent themes and stereotyped heroes is wearing thin with consumers” (qtd. in Howe 339). Creators complained that executives who quashed stories on political issues in the 1990s—such as the AIDS crisis—demonstrated “a fundamental lack of what Marvel is” (Nicieza, qtd. in Howe 354), but arguably they were the ones who were mistaken. Instead, it is more accurate to see Marvel Comics as having always reflected the dominant politics of the group to whom they are marketing at a given time, and in the 1990s, that was not the hip, progressive college crowd it had once been.15

Media Conglomerates and Current Political Marketing The mismanagement of Marvel Comics in the 1990s that led to the company eventually filing for bankruptcy in 1996 is well known; in short, a complicated series of mergers (both pre- and post-bankruptcy) occurred before the eventual acquisition of Marvel Entertainment by the Walt Disney Company in 2009. This acquisition reflects the increased concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer organizations, which has been a concern since the 1970s; in fact, Alan Moore heralds “the historic corporate merger between D.C.’s parent company, Warner Brothers, and the hefty media concern sprung up around Time magazine” as “arguably the building block upon which modern corporate America, and by extension the whole modern and contentious corporate world, was founded.” More recently, Disney’s acquisition of not just Marvel Entertainment, but also Lucasfilm in 2012 and 21st Century Fox in 2019, means that one company now owns the most significant and meaningful mass culture texts of our time. Disney has long had a vested interest in its association of itself with family values and childlike innocence, particularly as a means of warding off critique (Giroux). As such, it seems unlikely to reinvigorate a company that, in Steve Gerber’s words, “is unwilling to publish anything more potentially

We see this quite clearly in one of Marvel’s most political characters, Captain America. Reflecting as he does the zeitgeist of the American people over his long history, Cap has personified various political incarnations: “despite beginning as a jingoistic pro-war hero, Cap became a liberal crusader in the late 1960s, teaming up with the Falcon, the nation’s first African American superhero, to fight against corruption within the American establishment. In the 1980s, he reflected the Cold War morality and consumerism of the Reagan era. He became a superficial icon in the 1990s, a conflicted agent of war on terror in 2002 (as well as a neoconservative zealot in Marvel’s Ultimates line), a passionate advocate of wartime civil liberties in 2005 (culminating with his assassination in 2007), and finally a frustrated symbol of Obama administration optimism that struggled to define the role of government in regulating a new-world order” (Stevens 3).

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offensive than a Jell-O commercial” (Howe 379). It is not cynicism, then, but instead a necessary fact to be taken into consideration that Disney’s ownership of the Marvel universe will have an immense effect on the story-telling that is produced. Such unparalleled and unrivaled power over story-telling should rightly make us skeptical about the role this massive corporation is playing in contemporary culture war debates, particularly in terms of aligning itself with progressive politics.16 Taking into consideration the movement away from overt political storylines and creative risks that took place with the company’s increased absorption into larger corporate structures in the 1980s and 1990s, how then do we account for the numerous angry fans and online commentators who currently identify Disney as a promoter of social justice, one betraying comics book traditions, and engaged in a “push to force leftist politics onto kids” (Worden)? In what context can we read Axel Alonso’s reign as editorin-chief from 2011 to 2017, in which Marvel Comics seemed to return to its presentation of itself as a progressive voice, one devoted to diversity and politically relevant storylines, while very much operating within a corporate framework? It is our position that Disney/Marvel’s embrace of diversity and social justice is not revolutionary or politically progressive; instead, we should see these story-telling strategies as something the corporation currently perceives as marketable. What some fans describe as a “leftist” move on the part of Marvel Comics is actually a prime example of neoliberalism, which Fawaz describes as a shift in the ideological and political structure of capitalism in the late twentieth century … that involves the increasing imposition of market demands on all aspects of American culture, politics and social life. Under neoliberalism formerly vilified or outcast social identities—for instance being gay or lesbian—have been revalued on the basis of their profitability, both as new target markets for consumer products and as sites of cultural expertise that aspiring entrepreneurs can claim “insider” knowledge about on the basis of their own racial, gendered, or sexual identity. (10) Within this framework, Marvel’s re-branding of itself in the twenty-first century as a voice for progress, hearkening back to its late 1960s and early 1970s iterations, can be read as Marvel continuing to construct itself with emergent political mores. As Costello notes, “The twenty-first century brought a revival of direct political commentary to comic books. While

Case in point: Ike Perlmutter, the current Chairman of Marvel Entertainment and owner of Marvel Toys, is currently a high-ranking member of President Donald Trump’s inner circle. As well, like many Hollywood blockbusters, films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe often feature cooperation with and cross-promotion of the American military (Baron).

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there had been reference to political and social issues over the previous two decades, comic books had not engaged the political world so directly since the early 1970s” (212). As with the college revolutionaries of the 1960s, Millennial and Gen Z audiences are increasingly motivated by social issues; the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study revealed that a majority of buyers, particularly in the eighteen to thirty-four age group, want their brands to “take a stand” on social issues and engage in controversial political debates: “Whether people are shopping for soap or shoes, they’re weighing a brand’s principles as much as its products. Opting out of taking a stand is no longer an option for brands” (Edelman). Marketing books like The Purpose Revolution (2018) tout a new paradigm in which consumers “want the product to meet their self-oriented needs at a fair value and they want to purchase ‘without guilt,’ leveraging a better world through their buying habits” (Izzo and Vanderwielen 6). Therefore, reactionary fans are not wrong when they complain that Marvel Comics is employing diversity as virtue signaling and that Marvel is only “pandering to SJWs” (“lies of minnelli” on Hughes) in service of a larger corporate strategy to engage a younger generation.17 While we reject fans who chant “get woke, go broke” as part of a retrogressive backlash, we also see these campaigns as opportunities to reveal the shallowness of Marvel’s corporate/progressive politics, politics that, as we discussed in the introduction, the company will just as quickly abandon if they fail to meet with financial success.

Comics as True Popular Culture: Writing and Reading against Corporate Art Rejecting political pandering and “purpose-driven marketing,” however, does not mean we advocate the abandonment of overtly political storylines in Marvel Comics. Nor should we assume that because some forms of political stories are marketable at a given time that they should be entirely dismissed as shallow and devoid of value. Instead, we want to push back against the more cynical version of comic book culture we’ve relied on thus far: that of a mass culture product in the service of corporate power, in which creators and audiences alike are dupes of capitalist industry. We will now examine Marvel’s overtly political storylines through a related, but

The desire to engage the next generation of potential comics fans has been a hallmark of Marvel’s marketing in the 2010s, beginning with 2013’s “Share Your Universe” strategy, an exercise in what Derek Johnson calls “transgenerational marketing” that encouraged adult Marvel comics readers to “usher young television viewers into the publishing market” (“Share” 149). This cooperative marketing campaign gave way to the more divisive strategies we will be discussing in this book.

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different lens, one that sees a corporation forced to grapple with creators who often undermine corporate goals, and to negotiate contradictory fan demands and desires. Reading Marvel comics as a product not just of mass culture, but also of popular culture, requires a more complex reading of the relationship between mass culture products, creators, and audiences than our primarily pessimistic reading has thus far provided. While many of us associate the term “popular culture” with the products of mass industry—Coca Cola, large franchises, Major League sports teams, etc.—John Fiske instead defines popular culture as “the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination” (Reading 7), placing it in direct tension with mass culture. Simply put, popular culture is not that which is made for us, but that which we make “out of the resources, both discursive and material, that are provided by the social system that disempowers them” (1–2). Fiske cautions us against the more pessimistic mass culture theories when he argues that “If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular” (2). For example, Marvel’s branding of itself as a liberal, hip organization in the late 1960s and 1970s was in response to younger audiences embracing those storylines that reflected the political turbulence and free-thinking of the time; because they could make meaning out of the comics, fans exerted pressure on the company to frame itself to meet that demand and to leave behind its anticommunist framework. A prime example of this can be found in Ramzi Fawaz’s reading of the Fantastic Four letter columns. Lee and Kirby, liberals of an older generation, geared the FF’s political storylines toward the dangers of communism. Younger fans, however, pushed back against this narrative, with letter writers speaking “to a rising sentiment among 1960s youth that the rabid anticommunism of the postwar period was a detriment to democracy” (112). This pushback from readers “had an enduring effect on the creative trajectory of the series,” with Lee himself acknowledging the role student protests played in challenging his own ideological assumptions, and “following The Fantastic Four’s issue #24 in 1964, anti-communism never appeared in the comic again” (112). This story reminds us that the power between producers and consumers does not flow solely in one direction. Corporations and media industries such as Marvel Comics and Disney are not all-powerful (although Disney is currently pretty close): many projects with significant corporate financial and marketing support still fail to find an audience, and audiences sometimes reject previously successful franchises if they no longer serve audience interests. In order for a product to be embraced, Fiske argues, it has to contain elements within it that can be made back into popular culture; that is, “the people” must be able to “make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology” (2). We argue that the superhero comic, based though it is in assumptions about “might makes right,” the

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importance of adhering to tradition, and the necessity of upholding the social/political status quo, also reflects its origins as a “gutter-generated medium” (Moore), providing a space in which distrust of authority and a desire to speak to and enact the rage of the powerless are still very much creative possibilities within it and available to both creators and fans. Creators are undoubtedly restricted within the corporate framework of Marvel Comics, but that does not mean that they are inherently powerless within it. Understanding authorship within corporate systems instead requires a recognition of the conflict, and confluence, of creativity and financial incentivization. Gray and Johnson argue that authorship is “about control, power, and the management of meaning and of people as much as it is about creativity and innovation” and that, within the contemporary mass media landscape, authors mediate not only between artistic “discourses of beauty, truth, meaning, and value” and commercial ones of “money, power, labor, and the control of culture,” but also “between large organizations (such as Lucasfilm or Fox) and the audience” (4). For example, while Alan Moore speaks scathingly of the “toy-box” approach to authorship by which a corporation such as Marvel “sidesteps the whole Siegel and Shuster problem by insisting that creators in the superhero field aren’t actually creators after all, but merely the recipients of some kind of transcendent windfall fruit that should be freely shared around,” we believe instead that a complex notion of authorship, one that recognizes the ways that cultural characters such as Sam Wilson and Carol Danvers have been transformed and re-created throughout their long history, can be embraced without falling for corporate narratives aimed at undermining the IP of creators. Furthermore, recognizing the complexity of multi-faceted authorship allows us to better understand the changing politics of the stories being told. The nature of comics production—in which the creative choices of writers, artists, inkers, colorists, editors, and corporate mandates all come into play—lends itself to creations that are particularly “contradictory and conflictual” (Fiske, Reading 2) in ways that make them accessible to diverse audiences, and open up spaces for more potent political debate. For example, while we have made clear the many ways in which Marvel Comics restricted, abused, and undermined the very creators who made the company’s success possible, these creators also often found ways to work within that system to critique and challenge corporate restrictions, and to express their own creativity within it. One strategy they employed was to use the storylines to strike back at the very system of exploitation they found themselves in.18 Howe relates that John Byrne took shots at

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Jack Kirby’s creation of the “Funky Flashman” character once he had left Marvel to work at DC. A clear parody of Stan Lee, Flashman was described as an “opportunistic spoiler, without character or values, who preys on all things like a cannibal! Like death and taxes, we all must deal with him!” (qtd. in Ro 160).

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the unpopular editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, by “conceiv[ing] a storyline in which the Shooter stand-in character, Ken Connell, destroyed the city of Pittsburgh—Shooter’s hometown” (308). Another editor, unhappy with Shooter’s reorganization of management, used the letter of resignation from a disgruntled cover designer, originally sent to Stan Lee, and inserted it into an Iron Man storyline in the voice of Jarvis, the Butler, resigning from his post: “I am leaving because this is no longer the team-spirited ‘one big happy family’ I once loved working for … I’ve watched the Avengers be disbanded, uprooted and shuffled around. I’ve become firmly convinced that this was done with the idea of ‘showing the hired help who’s Boss’” (qtd. in Howe 218). Both these critiques are only legible to insiders who recognize the internal politics of Marvel Comics, and both rely on the iconography of  comics—villains, team spirit, and heroism—to imply that the powersthat-be within the organization are not on the side of good. But other storylines made creator grievances visible to the public. For example, Steve Rogers taking up work as a freelance commercial artist allowed creators to take numerous digs at editors and corporations, such as Steve reflecting that he’d “rather fight a super-villain any day! Editors are nuts!” (Captain America (1968–1996) #241, 6). Throughout his time as a commercial artist, Steve Rogers has to deal with the indignities of low pay and long hours, and to spend his creativity on projects that contradict his own tastes and beliefs. In using Captain America, icon of the American Dream, as a symbol for the exploitation of the artist in a capitalist, corporate system, Marvel’s creators were making very clear that no one, not even a superhero, could remain untainted within it. Creators also exerted their power by finding space for creative and challenging storylines while working within the constraints imposed upon them. Fawaz notes that the corporatization of comics in the mid-1970s and early 1980s certainly “attenuated open-ended dialogue and creative experimentation between readers and creators,” but “these constraints added another dynamic variable to superhero comics’ production that encouraged innovative creative responses to corporate economic pressures” (25). One strategy was to take risks in the non-flagship titles that might gain audience interest and thus encourage similar storylines in the main titles. For example, “[Frank] Miller quickly discovered that one of the benefits of taking control of an under-the-radar title with minimal merchandising tie-ins [was that] he could get away with a lot” (Howe 241). His run on Daredevil is now considered a high point for that title, but at the time, his gritty take on street-level crime and the superhero as vigilante went against the grain. Another strategy was to build enough deniability and ambiguity into the story itself to allow for direct political commentary, even when editors were wary of such content. Captain America (1968–1996) #175, in which Richard Nixon is revealed to be behind the “Secret Empire” conspiracy, relies entirely on implication, with Sal Buscema depicting Captain America’s horrified expression as he recoils from the figure in “high political office” he

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has just unmasked, who the audience is positioned behind. Steve Englehart’s use of similarly obscure phrasing, in which Cap exclaims only, “Good lord! YOU!!” (19),19 certainly implies the highest figure in office, but the art and the text work together to suggest a kind of censorship, in which the villain must be legible to the audience, but cannot be stated. Englehart later related that “Marvel called him when the pages arrived, asking for reassurance that it was not intended to be Nixon. ‘I swore up and down that it wasn’t,’ he said, ‘But once it was in print, I had no problem admitting it’” (Howe 146). Even without this explicit confirmation by the creators, the inference is clear; as Jason Sacks notes, “there were blatantly obvious Watergate analogues” throughout (“No More” 130).20 Furthermore, as Englehart’s words attest, he could rest on the knowledge that, given his role as a creator with a public composed of fans who would ask for clarification, he would have the opportunity to clarify at a later date, transforming inference into canon by providing the “word of God” fans rely on to resolve ambiguous textual moments.21 Arguably, the textual ambiguity itself lends greater strength to the storyline: Buscema’s choice to focus entirely on Cap’s face, rather than Nixon’s, having his horror “drive his zeal to see the world as morally complex” (Sacks, “No More” 131) in response to Nixon’s treachery, arguably best reflected the emotions of the American people in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Stories outside of canon also provided a space for creators to take creative and political risks, because they allowed transformations in characters that avoided “tarnishing” their individual brands,22 and allowed for conclusions that were impossible within Marvel’s main continuity. Fawaz notes the role of What If? comics in particular in terms of imagining possibilities “at the margins of contemporary superhero fantasy worlds” (281). While these stories might be seen as offering a “safe” space to take creative risks without lasting consequences, Fawaz argues that they also “sometimes

Unless otherwise stated, all emphasis within quotations from comics (of which there is a great deal) is in the originals.

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“Quentin Harderman [the villain] called to mind H.R. Haldeman, a former advertising executive and Nixon’s former chief of staff as well as a key figure in the Watergate conspiracy. The Secret Empire’s Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) resembled the reallife Committee for the Re-Election of the President (often abbreviated by Nixon enemies as CREEP)” (Sacks, “No More” 130). Jason Sacks’s assertion that “anyone reading the comic” would see these references as obvious suggests that even the editors, leery though they might be of such a strongly political storyline, were looking more for deniability than outright disavowal of the parallels between Nixon and Number One.

20

According to TV Tropes, source for all things fandom related: “A statement regarding some ambiguous or undefined aspect of a work, the Word of God comes from someone considered to be the ultimate authority, such as the creator, director, or producer” (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/ pmwiki.php/Main/WordOfGod).

21

“Tarnishment” is a term used in trademark law to denote damage to a brand that affects its value; it is also sometimes used in copyright cases.

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[put] enough pressure on the traditional continuity of superhero comics to break through and become legitimate happenings in their own right” (281). For example, some issues explore ideas that would later get taken up and developed as in-universe storylines. “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” (1977) predated Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s run with Jane Foster as Thor, which we discuss in Chapter 3, by almost forty years. Likewise, “What If Captain America Was Revived Today?” (1984) explores a reality in which the original Steve Rogers must battle the 1950s “Commie Smasher” Cap (Stevens 16), who has become the flashpoint for a reactionary conservative order. This storyline contains many of the same notes as the Secret Empire event of 2017, which we will discuss in Chapter 4. These similarities suggest that What If? allowed creators to play with ideas that were perhaps ahead of their time, or, perhaps more accurately, ahead of their company’s willingness to take such risks.23 By playing within the framework of the What If? series, creators were able to lay the groundwork for these more subversive storylines to move into the main continuity at a later date. However, in order for out-of-canon or subversive storylines to pave the way for more challenging and innovative story-telling, they had to be embraced by fans. The stereotype of comics fans is explicit in Moore’s pejorative description of them as representatives of “retro-adolescent ‘kidult’ culture … many of whom were devoted to the exploits of some favourite character for reasons that were more based on nostalgia than on any real continuing enjoyment of the book in question.” Certainly, fan culture was, and is, often nurtured by corporations as a means of producing life-long consumers and thus can be entirely coincident with corporate interests. DC and Marvel both created their first fan clubs as a means of tapping into fan desires for future storylines, of gauging fan happiness with current titles and company creative directions, and of encouraging each “budding new generation of fans” (Wells 38) to identify with their fan objects; as Cornel Sandvoss explains about fandom in general: The object of fandom [is] experienced not in relation to the self, but as part of the self, despite constituting an external object … the object of fandom, whether it is a sports team, a television programme, a film or pop star, is intrinsically interwoven with our sense of self, with who we are, would like to be, and think we are. (96, emphasis in original) Corporations encourage such identification so that fans will be loyal to brands, linking corporate success with our own, and consuming products as part of our own self-image.

We see similar play at work in the Ultimate line and other alternate Marvel worlds and also, to a lesser extent, in the “Battleworlds” entries in the “Secret War” series.

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But fan theorists from the 1990s on, including Sandvoss, have challenged this stereotype of fans as simply mindless consumers whose products can only mimic and regurgitate what mass culture has given them. In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins demonstrates how fan engagement with mass culture texts violates bourgeois notions of taste, value, and proper critical distance, all toward the end of making mass culture texts “more productive of personal meanings” (75).24 Research on comic-book collectors, for example, highlights how their curatorial consumption, though operating within a capitalist framework, still subverts corporate interests, with the collector creating a system of value and financial gain that serves fan interests instead (Tankel and Murphy). Derek Johnson has identified various forms of “fan-tagonism” between fans, and between fans and creators, that complicate Moore’s assumption that fans who become creators will simply mimic and replicate what has come before (“FanTagonism”). Finally, fan theorists have long highlighted and continue to discuss the problematic representation of any fandom as a monolith: fans create hierarchies of value and taste that are hotly contested among themselves, and also engage in conflict on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality.25 All of which is to say that we must recognize that the audience for comics and what they desire from storylines and characterization are not as simple as corporate overlords determining what audiences want and  spoon-feeding it to uncritical masses. Instead, producing texts that meet audience needs and expectations requires continual negotiation of many competing demands. Even Marvel’s long continuity is not something  that Marvel as a corporation necessarily desires. As Henry Jenkins points out,

Jenkins describes how, “From the perspective of dominant taste,” fans subvert numerous cultural and economic norms: “Fan interpretive practice differs from that fostered by the educational system and preferred by bourgeois culture not simply in its object choices or in the degree of its intensity, but often in the types of reading skills it employs, in the ways that fans approach texts … Fan culture stands as an open challenge to the ‘naturalness’ and desirability of dominant cultural hierarchies, a refusal of authorial authority and a violation of intellectual property” (Textual 18). Later fan theorists complicate Jenkins’s and other early fan scholars’ focus on fandom’s subversive qualities, noting the ways that fan culture both replicates dominant cultural identity categories and power relations and coincides with corporate interests. Nevertheless, scholars like Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith provided the foundation for taking fans seriously as something other than mindless consumers of corporate products.

24

For more detailed discussions of fan conflicts and the limiting constructions of fandom as White, male, and straight, see, for example, Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom”; Hills, Fan Cultures; Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women; Bury, Cyberspaces of Their Own; Stanfill, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Fandom; Pande, “Who Do You Mean by Fan?”; Wanzo, “African-American Acafandom and Other Strangers”; and Bennett “Flaming the Fans.”

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Historically, writers assumed that their readers discovered comics, read for a few years, and then abandoned them at puberty. They could thus “refresh” the series every few years to reflect new cultural trends  … But hard-core fans now remain true to the most popular characters for decades; most or all of the back issues are continuously reprinted. Writers have to avoid contradicting that complex and multi-generational continuity when it is clear that the collective intelligence of the fan community will always far outstrip the memory of any given creator. (Ford and Jenkins 306) As we will discuss in later chapters, Marvel certainly has rebooted and rebranded characters throughout its long history and has attempted to overhaul the continuity as a whole, but fan pressure insists that the continuity of Marvel comics be adhered to in ways that demand addressing and accounting for character history, including the politics of that history, while still moving forward with character development. The most obvious forums for exerting fan pressure are through letter columns and, currently, online forums and comment sections. In these spaces, fans can provide reviews of specific issues, express concerns about the direction a series is taking, and heap praise or contempt upon creators and editors alike. As we have already indicated, letter columns are a tricky source in terms of gauging fan feedback, not least because the letters themselves are obviously curated by the editorial teams at Marvel. Stan Lee even “wrote some of these early letters using various pseudonyms, showing that modelling and shaping practices of participatory consumption were central strategies by which the consumer/producer binary was blurred” (Yockey 11). This practice has continued, with some who have worked at Marvel over the years acknowledging the role they played in manipulating letter columns for their own ends.26 Letter columns cannot, therefore, be taken as unfiltered fan feedback, a problem that exists also with online forums. As we discussed in our introduction, online spaces are easily influenced by bad actors and, as a result, we need to be skeptical, both about the letters that Marvel itself chooses to print and about the comments from fans that are found in non-corporate spaces. Nevertheless, we also do not want to discount fan feedback, however filtered or mediated it might be. Fawaz highlights the “complex discursive production of the Fantastic Four’s letter column … [which] took shape through an ongoing negotiation between critical fan responses to Marvel Comics’ content, editorial curatorship For example, Howe relates a story of Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner writing a letter of their own in defense of their storyline in Doctor Strange in which the titular character becomes God; after Lee asked them to print a retraction, they instead wrote a letter to Marvel, under the guise of “a Reverend Billingsley in Texas … saying that one of the children in his parish brought him the comic book, and he was astounded and thrilled by it” (144). The editors believed “it was the real thing,” and so no retraction was ever written or printed.

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of fans’ extraordinary written output, and writers’ and artists’ creative responses to fan commentary within the fantasy narratives of the comics themselves” (96). Following his lead, we argue that fan feedback and the curation of and response to it still attest to mutual, if not equal, relations between producers and audiences. A prime example of fan feedback as a form of social pressure can be seen in Carol A. Strickland’s response to a now-infamous storyline focused on Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel. In this thoughtless character arc, Ms. Marvel is brainwashed into having sex with an alien, Marcus; he impregnates her with himself as a fetus, causing her to give birth almost immediately to an infant, who soon becomes him, a grown man; Ms. Marvel falls in love with this offspring and chooses to go out into the galaxy, all with the blessings of the Avengers. This story was rightly excoriated by Strickland in her article for LoC Magazine #1,27 “The Rape of Ms. Marvel”: An all-male Marvel staff, presided by Jim Shooter and watched by the Comics Code, slaughtered Marvel’s symbol of modern women, Ms. Marvel. They presented her as a victim of rape who enjoyed the process, and even wound up swooning over her rapist and joining him of her “free” will. Such a storyline might have fit into the 1950s, when people actually believed such a thing was possible—I mean, they thought that women invited and enjoyed rape back then—but to present such a storyline today shows a collection of medieval minds at work. Or at vicious play. For such a storyline to pass through the echelons of editor, editor-in-chief, and Comics Code can only be a crime. Strickland identifies with Ms. Marvel, who she reads as “mature, powerful, intense and sure of herself,” but she is also aware that this identification is part of Marvel marketing. She describes Danvers as “Marvel’s symbol of modern women,” who the company created in 1976 “to try to cash in on the ‘liberation craze’” by appealing to feminists with “a symbol of the liberated woman. They plastered the words ‘This Female Fights Back!’ on the cover.” Strickland lays bare the corporate manipulation of the female audience28 and makes clear the stakes for female readers in such identification; when

LoC Magazine was first published in 1980, and subtitled “On Comics Opinion and Comics Review.” It became Comics Fandoms Forum in 1982.

27

See also Peppard, who argues that this corporate manipulation is metafictionally acknowledged in the first issue, where J. Jonah “Jameson is, like Marvel, attempting to attract new readers to an erstwhile male-dominated media empire” but that Marvel positions itself against the corporate media by siding with Danvers against Jameson’s normative vision of a women’s magazine, which “allows Marvel to criticize a patriarchal publishing industry while privileging itself above such criticism—because, after all, it publishes the (purportedly) feminist Ms. Marvel” (114). Peppard also notes how they connect Carol Danvers with “feminist icon Gloria Steinem” as shorthand to establish the feminist credentials of the character (114).

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the creators violate Carol Danvers in the guise of a romantic SF plot, it violates the female fandom: “Another lesson to be learned from comics. It’s okay to rape. Women enjoy rape.” Strickland reads this storyline depicting the violation of a beloved character as an attack upon herself and upon all female comic readers, who “have been stomped on by the comics industry ever since there were comics.” Strickland’s strong, negative response to the treatment of Carol Danvers at the hands of Jim Shooter, who was then editor-in-chief at Marvel and therefore a stand-in for the “powers that be” in Marvel Comics as a whole, demonstrates that fans are not blinded by brand loyalty or willing to simply consume what is served to them. Instead, they can assert ownership of the fandom object itself and, in this case, pit themselves against the creators and the editors. Luckily, Strickland had a particularly powerful ally; as Howe relates, not only were fans such as Strickland upset by the story, but so too was an “aghast” Claremont, “who had invested two years of toil and tears and screaming with editors to transform Ms. Marvel into a respectable character, only to see her cosmically roofied and whisked away to a literal limbo” (229). Claremont was able to redress this wrong in Avengers Annual #10, in which he and artist Michael Golden depict Carol confronting the Avengers and holding them to account for their complicity in her rape: “I turned to you for help and all I got were jokes … Your concern was for the baby, not for how it came to be—nor of the cost to me of that conception … That was your mistake, for which I paid the price. My mistake was trusting you” (38). Carol’s speech is delivered with the image positioning readers looking out through her eyes, her speech bubble positioned without her in the frame, directly below the image of the assembled Avengers, depicted as shocked and literally hanging their heads in shame. The Avengers operate here as fictional stand-ins for those who produced the story, with the viewer positioned with the victim. The accusation of abuse of trust is therefore complex. On the one hand, we can read this as an abuse of Claremont’s trust: he invested his creative powers in a character that, given the nature of comic production, he then had to place in the hands of others. But Claremont also here vocalizes the anger of the fans, those like Strickland who had trusted the comic producers to respect the characters they were encouraged to see as a reflection of themselves. In fact, as Strickland relates, Claremont later confirmed that he had read her article, and that his retcon was clearly a response to both of their concerns (“The Aftermath”). Claremont and Strickland use the tools at their disposal to remind the comics industry of its responsibility: if Marvel relies on the connection between readers and characters—one forged by strong creators who are themselves invested in these characters—to sell comics and induce loyalty, then the company is responsible when that trust and connection are violated. The case of Carol Danvers speaks to the complexity of the relationship between editors, creators, and audiences. Certainly, editors have a great

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deal of power to shape storylines, and although they are often perceived as corporate shills, they are usually promoted creators who have their own investment in the Marvel universe. Creators are likewise not a monolith; they come with their own political leanings, and they often disagree with each other’s directions, as seen here in Claremont’s retcon of Shooter’s story. And fans likewise disagree with each other on the direction a story, or the company as a whole, should take: Strickland relates, “I never saw the next issue of LoC, but it seems to me that someone did loan me issue #3, and I remember reading reactions to my article that, summed up, told me that I needed to get laid to get my head on straight” (“The Aftermath”). Here, Strickland is again encouraged to identify with Carol Danvers, but rather than the supposedly empowering form of identification Marvel offered her, and then undermined, fellow fans are encouraging her to be like the violated Carol Danvers, and accept her place as an object, rather than as a reader and a critic. Navigating “what fans want” and “what creators want” is no easy task, then, and the political dimension of the storyline—in this case, the gendered nature of Ms. Marvel’s violation—further complicates the already complex and uneven power structures between editors, creators, and fans. While nowhere near as volatile as the Carol Danvers story in terms of politics, letters from two opposing fans to Captain America during the same period further reveal the expectations editors and creators have to negotiate. Steven Alan Bennett, in a letter printed in Captain America (1968–1996) #236, expresses his desire for more politically relevant stories, saying, “There are places on this globe, including parts of our own country, where the rights of humans are being repressed … where freedom is still a dream. You have a responsibility to show what’s happening” (19). Roger Stern responds, “We do … fully intend to bring Cap more and more into working contact with the America that is, while he strives to make it the America-that-should-be.” But he quickly clarifies, “All of this is not to say, however, that Cap will be espousing any specific political values ... . This magazine is not now, nor shall it become, a soapbox for political change. That’s not what we’re here for, Steve … the only responsibility we have to the reader is to produce a good story” (19). It is clear, however, that what Bennett believes constitutes “a good Cap story” is a political one in which Captain America provides a relevant model of leadership for the present time, just as he did in the 1940s. On the other end of the spectrum, Matt Kaufman’s letter in issue #246 asserts that Cap has, in fact, returned “to his old character … the most conservative member” of the Avengers after years spent “in search of his identity, joining the radical crowd, the mod crowd … the quitters, the faithless cynics, whatever was ‘in’ at time” (19). He rejoices that “Cap has finally rediscovered what he knew when he first thawed out of that ice; all change is not progress” (19). For this reader, the true Captain America is not one that is keeping up with the times. Stern’s response acknowledges that the creative team struggles with how to present Cap and his politics: “The

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biggest problem in bringing Cap’s present adventures to full blossom would be to figure out just where America was headed in the eighties and to present a positive reflection” (19). But Stern, in this case, uses his position as the “Word of God” to correct the reader on Cap’s politics: “You see, Matt, Cap is not quite the rock-ribbed conservative you imagine him to be. As a matter of fact, he’s probably about as dead-center in the political spectrum as one can get” (19). However, he then goes on to state, “Steve Rogers/Captain America grew up during the worst economic depression in the recorded history of the world. Steve’s boyhood saw the growth of America’s labor unions, social unrest, and—yes—campus demonstrations. If anything, Steve Rogers probably grew up as a New Deal liberal!” (19). Stern’s equivocation on Cap’s politics here reveals the complexity of identifying a character’s political leanings, while still negotiating conflicting fan interpretation: some see Cap as a radical freedom fighter, others see him as John Wayne incarnate. And this is true because different creators have produced different variations of the character, but also because fans tend to project their own beliefs onto him. In some ways, then, Stern is fighting a losing battle; as “Ed Brubaker commented at the height of the Iraq invasion, ‘What I found is that all the really hard-core Left-wing fans want Cap to be giving speeches on the street corner against the Bush Administration, and all the really Rightwing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam’” (Stevens 2). Therefore, it has been in Marvel’s best interests, as a corporation, to have Cap’s politics be amorphous and vague; in that way, fans on both sides of the political spectrum will continue to consume his comics and be loyal to the character. But Stern’s argument for Steve Rogers’s “dead-center politics” reveals another issue besides that of appeasing fans on opposing sides: the shifting nature of politics themselves. What Stern describes as centrist in the late 1970s would almost certainly be read as akin to communism in many comics fan circles today, and the increasingly polarized nature of politics means that ambiguous politics will no longer appeal to a wide audience. Because of its long continuity, Marvel not only has to negotiate current fan expectations, but also has to update its history to reflect changing attitudes and politics. However, given the nature of comics as a medium that is linked to childhood and given Marvel’s long history in which its superhero stable participates in crucial events in American history, historical retcons are tricky things, particularly when they are done to address social and political issues. Progress is often heralded as key to Marvel’s success, but it exists in uneasy tension with nostalgia, itself a key feature of the superhero genre. The unchanging, deathless nature of the superhero allows long-running heroes to invoke connection to both individual readers’ past and a nation’s past. For example, Chris Gaveler notes that “Romanticized authoritarianism remains a crucial element of the superhero formula, and its appeal is partly fueled by a nostalgia that seeks the fantasy of moral certitude once embraced by a democratic society besieged by fascism”

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(124). But nostalgia is a complex mode; while it is true that nostalgia “is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress” (Boym xvii), Svetlana Boym also distinguishes between two very different types of nostalgia, with two very different relations to the idea of progress: “restorative nostalgia” and “reflective nostalgia” (xviii). The first thinks of itself as “truth and tradition,” and “knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy”; it desires to bring an imagined, idealized past into the present (xviii). The second acknowledges the constructed nature of the past and thus “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity.” Instead, it “explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones” (xviii). We argue that most fans of comics, including those dedicated to the idea of “progressive politics,” rely on nostalgia as a source of identification with and support for characters and storylines, but as Boym’s differentiation indicates, nostalgia is negotiated very differently by fans, depending both on their politics and on their own personal identification with a character. Perhaps the best example of reflective nostalgia in Marvel Comics is Truth: Red, White, and Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, which retcons the Marvel history that Captain America was the first, and only, super-soldier produced by Reinstein’s/Erskine’s experiments. In its depiction of government experiments upon a group of Black soldiers, experiments that lead to their suffering and death before one, Isaiah Bradley, is first exploited and then disavowed and imprisoned by the American government, Truth argues “that the unacknowledged blackness underlying American mythology will inevitably resurface to challenge mainstream accounts of political responsibility and cultural identity even as the public’s wilful amnesia about white exploitation of black culture continues to obscure historical truth” (Ryan 67). With this retcon, Marvel highlights the extent to which Steve Rogers’s origin story is mired in eugenics, White supremacy, and the expendability of Black lives. Jennifer Ryan argues that such retcons of Captain America’s long history “enable writers, sensitive to shifts in political sentiment among their readers, to articulate and explore critiques of government-sponsored patriotism” (69). By giving voice to stories that were erased from American history, and showing how the nation was built not only on the exploits of heroes, but also on systemic racism, Morales and Baker undercut a restorative nostalgia for that past; only by incorporating these stories into the fabric of the nation can society move forward. However, a more recent retcon also highlights the risks of updating character canon. When her title was relaunched in 2012 as Captain Marvel with Kelly Sue DeConnick as a writer, artist Dexter Soy featured Carol Danvers in a new uniform and hairstyle that were meant to convey practicality and strength. While some fans lamented the loss of the long hair, bare buttocks, and high-heeled boots that had become the character’s

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trademark as a rejection of the “iconic feminine” (“Professor Geek”), others welcomed the faux-hawk and body-covering (but still form-fitting) militaryesque body suit Danvers sports as “recovering and updating the character’s feminist aspirations” (Peppard 123). DeConnick also wanted to change the character’s origin story, which is, like many, accidental in nature: Danvers is caught in a Psyche-Magnetron explosion, but is shielded by Mar-Vell (the original Captain Marvel);29 in the process, she absorbs some of his powers. DeConnick’s planned, but ultimately rejected, update would have had Carol traveling back in time to that moment and giving herself powers in an ontological paradox, a concept that “tapped into Carol’s feminist identity and made her the source of her own power” (Elderkin and Pulliam-Moore). For DeConnick, updating Captain Marvel’s origins was about rewriting canon to acknowledge the sexist assumptions underlying the production of female superheroes at the time of Ms. Marvel’s creation. This desire to remove the male origins of Danvers’ powers ultimately found purchase in Stohl and Fonteriz’s five-part miniseries, The Life of Captain Marvel (2018), in which they retcon her powers as coming from her mother, Mari-Ell. Mari-Ell is a Kree warrior who abandoned her mission after falling in love with Carol’s father and deciding to live a life of domesticity: “Mari-Ell had come to Earth looking for a war. Marie had stayed on Earth looking for a life, love, a family. All the things a Kree never gets to know … or even know they want” (#4, 14). This transformation in Captain Marvel’s back-story can certainly be read as a politically motivated revision of her past, as her powers are now no longer given to her by a man, but are instead her own, and always had been her own, just waiting to be awakened: “You activated them … Not borrowed. Not a gift. Not an accident” (#4, 10). Furthermore, her Kree lineage deriving from her mother solidifies her powers as inherently female through their matrilineal transmission, again distancing Captain Marvel from any suggestion that her powers were dependent upon, or derivative of, those of Mar-Vell. Responses from fans demonstrate that they understood the retcon as the “corrective” it was implied to be, though not all found it satisfying, even when it aligned with their own politics. Chelsea Steiner, writing for The Mary Sue, praised the change as “an exciting plot development, as it makes Carol’s powers innate to her (and her mother) instead of the result of her relationship with a man.” Given The Mary Sue’s orientation as a popfeminist website, it is not surprising that its take was positive, and numerous commenters on that site agreed: one noted that “it’s rare to have the hero’s powers come from the matriarchal side of the family” (windleopard on Steiner), while another proclaimed, “hopefully, future female superheroes will have similar origin stories where they own their powers, without owing them to some man” (Stereo Nacht on Steiner). However, other commenters

Well, Marvel’s original Captain Marvel. Comics are complicated.

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perceived the story as pandering, and accused it of failing to address the longer history of Carol Danvers’ storylines: EvilMonkeyPope opines, “I get that they’re embarrassed that she was a byproduct of Mar-Vell now that she’s their defacto superheroine figurehead, but why not focus on how far she’s come since then by her own merits?” (on Steiner). For this fan, Captain Marvel’s retcon is a shallow, public relations move: with the upcoming film from the MCU being released soon after the retcon, this transformation can be seen not as a legitimately artistic, or even political, choice, but instead as a desire to clean up the “Captain Marvel” brand, particularly in light of the MCU producing twenty-one films before featuring one with a female lead.30 Another fan, Lizzie Llewellyn, looks “forward to the day when there’s so many stories with female heroes that we won’t have to retcon over and over the few that we have. No more need to strive for feminist perfection because being imperfectly human will be good enough” (on Steiner). Her desire for plurality can be found in the reactions of the fans themselves. Even though The Mary Sue is a feminist website, each fan’s responses to the retcon are determined not solely by politics, but by all the things that fans of all kinds continually debate and become divided on: nostalgia for the past, preference for some creators over others, comparisons between Captain Marvel and other female superheroes, arguments about what relation the films should bear to the comics and vice versa, and what makes Carol Danvers a good or likeable hero and what doesn’t. This plurality of responses signals that even when stories can reasonably be read as service for a particular segment of the fanbase—in this case feminist fans—they will not necessarily meet those needs or be welcomed by that group. It is too early to determine the long-term acceptance of this transformation in Carol’s story, but for now, it offers testament to the complexity of writing politically motivated storylines. For those who engage in restorative nostalgia, this retcon invokes conspiratorial theories of the deposing of the White, male superhero, erasing the legacy of Mar-Vell for the sake of progress that is not progress. Orobouros, commenting on an article on the proposed DeConnick retcon, worries that “The attitude, the seeming pressure to have no male character EVER accomplish anything, be responsible for anything worthwhile, or it’s somehow misogynist propaganda is starting to show” (on Elderkin and Pulliam-Moore). And for those who embrace what we identify as reflective nostalgia, this reimagining of Danvers’s origins grants them greater complexity than the original story. But this also comes with risks; in this case, the risk of introducing new problems in the process of trying to fix old ones. Mari-Ell’s assertion to Carol’s human father— “Carol’s going to be whatever she wants to be, Joe. Telling her not to do something isn’t going to change her mind. She’s Kree” (#4, 19)—arguably

Many commenters thought this retcon would be the origin in the Captain Marvel movie, which it was not.

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reduces the strength of Carol’s character to her biological, alien heritage. The suggestion that a human woman might not be so heroic could make Carol less, rather than more, identifiable for female fans. Taken together, these responses to the Carol Danvers retcon demonstrate the paradoxical position fans occupy in relation to comic texts and character. On the one hand, we know that there is precedent for retconning past problems, or for clarifying issues down the road, particularly if fans exert pressure toward those ends. On the other, we recognize that these are mass culture texts, and that we cannot trust that things will be “fixed” to our own particular needs or liking. We are caught in the bind of recognizing that our needs can only partially be met, but are also inspired to hope we will have influence over texts that, more than ever, define our world and our relation to it.

Conclusion: Fan Pressure and Shaping the Future of Storylines Comicsgate and its aftermath have demonstrated that fans believe they can influence the direction comics storylines will take, either overtly, through complaints, or covertly, through simply not purchasing certain titles. The idea of fan pressure is at the heart of both the “Get Woke, Go Broke” campaign and the opposing campaigns for Marvel to increase the diversity of its storylines and of its creative pools. These battles about what the past of Marvel means and what its future should look like are, ultimately, battles about our world and our politics, our past and our future, because Marvel’s particular brand of corporate art is well suited for use as surrogates in contemporary social and political debate. The Marvel Universe is meant to look like and feel like our own (while still accommodating the fantastical, of course), in large part to encourage audiences to identify with and project themselves onto these heroes. And identify and project we do, but often in contradictory and opposing ways, reflecting fractures that exist in society more broadly, and challenging, ultimately, the safer politics of Marvel’s corporate brand. In the following chapters, we examine how creators and fans continue to complicate the corporate authorship of Marvel Comics, particularly in an era of decreasing distance between producers and consumers and more immediate audience response to storylines. We want to see the Comicsgate controversy as an opportunity: not to give in to the demands of fans who employ uncomplicated restorative nostalgia to argue for a return to “true story” and “true characters,” but instead, to identify the weaknesses in Marvel’s corporate-driven diversity efforts; more specifically, those moments when they seek to avoid negotiating with the past in favor of proclaiming an uncomplicated, progressive present. For that reason, we argue some of the most progressive stories in Marvel’s recent history are, paradoxically, those

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which look backward, revealing characters such as Jane Foster, Sam Wilson, and Steve Rogers in a new, reflective light. Those storylines that take risks best mirror the political zeitgeist, meaning, perhaps ironically, that Marvel’s corporate art can only succeed by exceeding its corporate, mass culture limitations. Before moving on to those storylines, though, we will begin with characters who represented successful diversification of the Marvel universe, examining how Miles Morales and Kamala Khan negotiated audience expectation to become symbols of “diversity done right.”

2 Diversity Done Right? Miles Morales and Kamala Khan

While our last chapter explored the long history of political engagement in Marvel comics, we now move to Marvel’s more current incursions into social and political debates, specifically the deliberate increasing of diversity in Marvel’s superhero stable. Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s Africanand Latino-American Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, arguably exemplify the most successful implementation of that goal. The first issue of Ms. Marvel went to an unprecedented eight printings and became Marvel’s all-time best-selling digital comic, with Ms. Marvel trades debuting on the top 10 of the New York Times graphic novels bestseller list. Miles Morales was the only Ultimate superhero to survive when Marvel’s multiverse collapsed in the “Secret Wars” event of 2015 and the Ultimate Universe series titles were discontinued, demonstrating his popularity and therefore his right to become part of Marvel’s main continuity.1 Both Miles and Kamala became Avengers in 2015, and then founding members of the Champions in 2016, a teen team that Ms. Marvel has gone on to lead. Finally, both are crossing over from the books to other Marvel media: Miles’s existence was teased in

The Ultimate Universe was launched in 2000 as a distinct universe, one separate from the main (616) continuity. This line featured “modernized and reimagined” (Sutliff 121) versions of established characters and was meant to appeal to newer readers who might be intimidated by Marvel’s long and complicated continuity. Marvel Comics originally claimed that the two universes would remain completely separate, although there were eventually cross-overs between the two, notably in the 2012 Spider-Men series. Eventually, the Ultimate Universe was destroyed in the “Secret Wars” event, but Miles, as noted above, was saved.

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the MCU with Spider-Man: Homecoming2 and he was the lead in the awardwinning 2018 animated feature Into the Spider-Verse; Kamala is a major player in the comic/animation crossover initiative Marvel Rising, which was launched in 2018, and her forthcoming Disney+ series was announced at the D23 Expo in August 2019. In today’s polarized climate, in which the role of diversity in both the marketing and creation of comics is hotly contested by fans and commentators, Miles Morales and Kamala Khan are often held up as models of diversity done right. For example, numerous fans who rejected diversity efforts in the wake of the 2017 Gabriel controversy were quick to exclude both characters from their complaints: one fan proclaimed, “Kamala Khan? A legit really fun character and me and my friends all love her” (Seshia on “Marvel Executive”), while another asserted, “Everyone loved Miles Morales” (SphinxMagoo on Macdonald). A common sentiment was summed up by one commenter: “Just because the formula worked with Miles and Kamala, it did not mean that the whole universe had to be turned INTO Miles and Kamala” (Psynetrix on Schedeen, “Diversity”). This chapter provides a close analysis of each character’s first series, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011–2013)3 and Ms. Marvel (2014–2015), to ascertain just what it is about these characters that “works,” particularly in relation to the backlash that faced the diversity efforts that follow them. Taken together, the two characters represent three of the most targeted groups of people in the current American political climate: Muslim, Latinx, and African-American. What makes these two additions to the superhero pantheon, taking up mantles associated with other characters, acceptable to audiences in ways that characters such as Sam Wilson or Jane Foster are not? It is our contention that both Kamala and Miles embody an acceptable level of diversification in the Marvel universe because they can be read as either culturally specific or universal (at least as a White or male audience constructs their ability to relate to a character as making that character “universal”), or as both simultaneously. Neither comic’s primary objective is to engage with contemporary racial politics in America, at least not in their first series,4 and their well-rounded characters and distinct personalities prevent them from replicating stereotypes, while simultaneously speaking to an American focus on individuality over Donald Glover, playing the Prowler, refers to his nephew; and Peter’s best friend, Ned, is Ganke in all but his name.

2

The covers give this series the title Ultimate Comics All-New Spider-Man, but the All-New is dropped in the titles on the digital issues, which we are using as our source.

3

Both characters do engage with racial and cultural issues more specifically in their later series, and Kamala in particular struggles with what it means to be a Desi hero during and after her trip to Pakistan. We are looking here specifically at the first series to see how their introductions and initial development made them palatable to audience who might be resistant to change.

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community that also fits with the Marvel philosophy. Both Miles and Kamala, while they are racially and culturally other, are—above all else— relatable, emphasizing a common humanity that deliberately transcends race, and idealizes immigrant communities fitting into the larger fabric of the American tapestry without challenging it: this allows them to be “specifically cultural, uniquely individual, and relatably universal, all at once” (Wanner 52).5 For mainstream readers, the cultural dysphoria may be minimal, as the comics arguably treat ethnicity as surface performance. But for readers from the represented cultures, especially those who occupy intersectional positions as do Miles and Kamala, the comics may speak to their lived experiences with a specificity that goes beyond the surface. Nevertheless, we argue that relying on readers to create such meaning—as minority readers have always done with every genre—is not as large a leap forward as the press touting the comics would have us believe, and perhaps created assumptions about “diversity done right” that set Marvel up for controversy in the years that followed.

Curating a Response to the Diverse Superhero Understanding the editorial decisions behind the emergence of Miles and Kamala, as well as the marketing strategy and the management of fan and critical response to them both, is key to understanding their overall positive reception. Both characters were created specifically to address a lack of diversity in Marvel comics. The launches happened under the direction of Axel Alonso, who had been promoted to the position of editor-in-chief in January of 2011. Alonso, himself mixed race with a Mexican father and English mother, explicitly aimed to make the Marvel universe more ethnically diverse (Cavna), and there is every reason to believe that his desire for greater diversity was an earnest desire to reach under-served audiences. Nevertheless, it also was clearly a corporate decision, with, for example, the success of a young, diverse team like Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s The Runaways (2003) signaling that audiences would welcome greater representation of different identity categories—race, gender, and sexuality—in Marvel comics. For this reason, we want to address both how Miles and Kamala were introduced to the public, and the curation of the fan response to them by Marvel’s editorial teams, before we begin our analysis of their respective comics. When Brian Michael Bendis and the editorial team decided to kill Ultimate Peter Parker and create a new Ultimate Spider-Man as a jumpingon point for new readers to enter the Ultimate universe, Barack Obama

Like Wanner, we recognize the paradoxes inherent in this requirement, and question whether it is an attainable, or even desirable, goal.

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had recently been elected as the president of the United States, marking an historical shift in American politics and, many hoped, ushering in a new, “post-racial” age.6 Alonso directly linked the election with Spider-Man’s transformation—“We’ve got a president right now of mixed ethnicity, so why not one of the biggest superheroes in the world?” (“New Bi-Racial Spider-Man”)—and in an interview with the New York Times, Bendis notes that the editorial team wanted the new Spider-Man to be different from Peter Parker, and to that end he decided to create “a new identity for the character who would be from a minority background” (Itzkoff). He was confirmed in the decision by a simultaneous, but unrelated, fan campaign to change the race of Spider-Man in the movies. The campaign began with Marc Bernardin’s article on io9 responding to speculation on casting for The Amazing Spider-Man with the rant that “The Last Thing Spider-Man Should Be Is Another White Guy” and asking: So why couldn’t Peter Parker be played by a black or a Hispanic actor? How does that invalidate who Peter Parker is? I’m not saying that the producers need to force the issue; that they need to cast a minority just for the sake of it—but in the face of such underwhelming options like Billy Elliot and the kid who played young Voldemort, why not broaden the search? This article led to a campaign to cast Donald Glover—the African-American comedian, actor, musician, and writer, who was at the time best known for starring as Troy on the NBC comedy Community—as the new SpiderMan. Although the role eventually went to Andrew Garfield, Bendis became aware of the campaign, and noted the confluence with his own project: “‘I’m a huge ‘Community’ fan,’ Mr. Bendis said, ‘and I went: “Why couldn’t he be Peter Parker? He’d be a great Peter Parker.” Then I realized I was working on that project already. And I realized we were doing the right thing’” (Itzkoff). Bendis felt that Spider-Man was a particularly significant choice, arguing that while both Marvel and DC Comics have regularly featured characters of color, the web-slinger’s primacy makes the shift more significant: “‘Spider-Man is a jewel in the Marvel crown,’ he said. ‘It’s just a different story’” (Itzkoff). While Miles Morales is not even the first Latinx Spider-Person—Miguel O’Hara, the half-Irish, half-Latino Spider-Man 2099, created by Peter David and Rick Leonardi in 1992, predates him by almost two decades, and Araña, a Mexican and Puerto Rican Spider-Girl

While the “post” in “post-racial” could be read in the same light as “post-colonialism” and “post-modernism,” and thus speak to a continuum between past and present, the term was often used colloquially to signal or celebrate a turning point in American history in which racism was no longer a significant social problem.

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debuted in 2004—Miles represented the first ongoing Spider-Person who both replaced Peter Parker, at least in his universe, and represented a racial minority. Similarly, Kamala Khan’s emergence was acknowledged by Alonso as part of a deliberate diversity marketing strategy, one he specifically links with the success of Miles Morales: “‘Fans respond with their dollars,’ said Axel Alonso […] who thinks Miles has helped bring new readers to comics. ‘When you see Spider-Man strip down his mask and he looks like you, you are more inspired to pick up that book’” (Gustines, “Mighty”). While the article goes on to question the veracity of that statement,7 and it is next to impossible to gauge the actual age and racial breakdowns of purchasers and readers, it is clear that Alonso saw Ultimate Comics All-New Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel not as individual titles, but as part of a larger strategy to bring in new fans to supplement, rather than replace, the existing fan base; as we noted earlier, these new fans often consume products differently, in trades and in digital form,8 rather than in individual issues. The inclusion of Miles and Kamala within Marvel comics, then, serves both the progressive political goal of diversity and the corporate goal of increasing revenue through attracting younger and more diverse readers, linking the political to the commercial. The marketing aspect of the characters’ emergence is further underlined by the fact that both were introduced to the public through mainstream media coverage, separated from the context of the storylines in which they would actually be developed. This suggests that the icon of the superhero and its meaning in contemporary society can be cut free from the complexity of Marvel continuity and history, standing alone to represent what a new, diverse superhero means to society at large. It also demonstrates Marvel’s desire to reach an audience beyond traditional comics readers. Miles was first teased in “Spider-Man,” a short in Ultimate Fallout: Spider-Man No More #4, where he appears (unintroduced) in costume as Spider-Man, and is repeatedly told, by bystanders, by the people he is saving, and even the criminals he is fighting, that wearing the costume of a recently fallen hero is “in terrible taste” (18, 19, 21). The final panel reveals both the youth of Miles’s face and the color of his skin as he peels up the mask, and the details of Sara Pichelli’s artwork emphasize the tension that this new SpiderPerson will face in terms of his identity. The costume, which at this time

Gustines implicitly questioned the effectiveness of this strategy by quoting sales figures: “The September issue of Miles’s series sold around 32,000 copies. The more traditional version sold around 80,000 copies, though Peter Parker is seemingly dead and Doctor Octopus is acting as Spider-Man” (“Mighty”). Despite the damper that Gustines puts on Alonso’s optimism with the comparative sales figures, Ultimate Comics All-New Spider-Man was still in the top 25 percent of comics for that month. Gustines also looked only at the sales figures for individual issues, as sold through comics stores.

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Ms. Marvel has performed particularly well in both platforms.

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is a replica of Peter’s, is ill-fitting, with a too-large glove; the face is that of a worried child, who acknowledges that “Maybe the costume is in bad taste” (22). This in-universe criticism anticipates reader complaints about this new Spider-Man, and sets up Miles as a reluctant iconoclast, going against the prevailing taste of the times. Pichelli’s image, rather than the comic itself, was what introduced Miles to the world. In an exclusive that ran the day before the comic came to stores, it appeared on the masthead of USA Today along with the headline “Spider-Man revealed: Half-black, half-Hispanic hero reflects our diversity, Marvel editor says” (reprinted in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1, 20).9 Miles might fear that taking on the costume is a mistake, but the declaration that he reflects “our diversity” asserts that Miles is now “us,” and that, arguably, he therefore has the right to wear the costume. The image also relies on the idea of a hidden identity, something that most superheroes assume, to challenge the idea of who represents “us.” Spider-Man’s costume is usually a complete cover-up, not an eyemask or a cowl that leaves part of the face exposed; therefore, one never knows who is under the mask in terms of race or age. When discussing the origins of Miles, Bendis “said he had also taken a lesson from a black friend who told him that Spider-Man was the only superhero that other children would let him play when he was growing up. ‘You couldn’t see his skin color,’ Mr. Bendis said the friend told him. ‘He was any of us, when he was in costume’” (Itzkoff). This anonymity allows anyone to imagine themselves under the mask, and separates the hero identity from the plainclothes identity. The superhero mask thus amplifies what Scott McCloud describes as the “Universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe” (31, emphasis in original). However, in much of Western history, the default norm, even in cartoon form, has been a White male, and anything else is thus rendered unusual or unexpected. Similarly, despite the possible universality offered by the full Spider-Man mask, the general public, even those who are not overly interested in comic books or superheroes, know Peter Parker. For readers who expect a somewhat geeky, White teenager from Queens, the reveal of Miles Morales’s darker-skinned face is a deliberate surprise, and creates a cognitive dissonance, asking readers to re-think their preconceptions of who is included in the universal, and who can be a hero. While many enjoyed the novelty of this surprise, it also faced some backlash, especially among those whose familiarity with Spider-Man comes mainly from the newspaper comic strip, the cartoons and the movies, or

Throughout Miles’s history, Marvel publicity has downplayed the idea that he is just one of many Spider-People. Despite public claims that Miles would become the main Spider-Man after Secret Wars (Coggan), The Amazing Spider-Man featuring Peter Parker has remained the main Spider-Man title.

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from memories of comics from before the multiverse.10 The image, together with the headline, was all those who glanced at the front page of USA Today had to go on, and gave those unfamiliar with the Marvel multiverse the impression that the main Spider-Man had been replaced. The most quoted response came from conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who critiqued the politics of the change by saying that Miles “looks just like President Obama.” He directly linked this new biracial Spider-Man to a Michelle Obama speech, which he played for his audience, encouraging them to note the similarity: “and Barack knows that we are going to have to make sacrifices. We are going to have to change our conversation. We are going to have to change our traditions. Our history” (qtd. in Beck). Beck connects this desire to “change our traditions” to the introduction of Miles as SpiderMan, and elaborates: “I know this is just one stupid example of it, but, um, really? We now have a half-black, half-Hispanic, gay11 Spider-man? Okay” (Beck). While Beck dismisses comic books as “stupid,” he nevertheless parallels popular culture with the political sphere to frighten his audience, implying that the recasting of one version of a superhero represents the beginning of an all-out assault on history and tradition. Like Miles, Kamala’s emergence was teased before the start of her first solo series. Her first, uncredited, appearance is in Captain Marvel (2012– 2013) #14 in August 2013, drawn into a single panel by Scott Hepburn as one of many bystanders Carol Danvers is attempting to save, and unremarkable except in retrospect (7). She appears again in issue #17, ending that volume with an example of how Carol Danvers inspires her public. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Filipe Andrade place Kamala in her bedroom, gazing in a mirror at her own flexed arm; they tell us little about Kamala beyond the fact that she is in Jersey City, that she has ties to Pakistan (the flag hangs prominently in the image), and that her strength is inspired by Carol Danvers (her muscles pop as she looks at an image of her hero in a “Rosie the Riveter” pose) (32). The “Next” panel over what we later learn is Kamala’s trademark lightning bolt implies that Ms. Marvel will be a continuation of the Captain Marvel (2012–2013) series, which was coming to an end with this issue. While the image is framed as a positive example

10 Rich Johnston, in his “Fear of a Black Spider-Man” post on Bleeding Cool, lists many of the comments from the USA Today article, including one that says “Spidey’s dead to me,” suggesting that the writer is unaware Peter Parker comics still exist. Likewise, “Darren” commenting on the Daily Mail article says, “You have just ruined the magic of the films for me by being PC. What was sooo wrong with the original format that you are so embarrased you have to change it. I WILL NOT SEE THIS FILM OR BUY THE DVD, THANKS A BUNCH” (on Bates). 11 Beck’s misidentification of Miles’s sexuality likely stems from the Daily Mail article, which twisted Sarah Pichelli’s generic hope that “Maybe sooner or later a black or gay—or both— hero will be considered absolutely normal” to the headline “Marvel Comics reveals the new Spider-Man is black—and he could be gay in the future” (Bates), but it also speaks to the fear of intersectionality that marks discourse on the right.

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of inspiration, Jordie Bellaire’s somber coloring, with Kamala wearing black rather than her trademark red and blue, the grey walls, and sepia tone, set a darker mood. Andrade’s depiction of Hulk-like muscles breaking through her T-shirt, which are very different from Kamala’s actual embiggening powers,12 combined with a Pakistani flag that Bellaire renders in a slightly more military green than is usual, could seem ominous to an American public that often associates Pakistan with terrorism. Given the very different tone and message of the actual Ms. Marvel comic, this image seems like an odd way to tease the new hero; again, however, it was not the main way Kamala was introduced to the world. On November 6, 2013, the same day that Captain Marvel #17 appeared in stores, the New York Times published “She’s Mighty, Muslim and Leaping Off the Page,”13 which announced, “In February, as part of a continuing effort to diversify its offerings, Marvel Comics will begin a series whose lead character, Kamala Khan, is a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City” (Gustines). The article emphasizes humor in recounting the title’s origin story; it began “in a conversation between Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker, two editors at Marvel. ‘I was telling him some crazy anecdote about my childhood, growing up as a Muslim-American,’ Ms. Amanat said. ‘He found it hilarious’” (Gustines). The anecdote works to soften and contrast the teaser image at the end of Captain Marvel, suggesting, perhaps, that the expectations that image sets up (i.e., that her characterization could feed prejudices against Muslims) will be subverted. It also, of course, demonstrates how much context matters. Marvel can use an image from the comic to introduce Miles Morales, because his youth makes him appear non-threatening14 and because he acknowledges his own sense of unworthiness. For Kamala, however, the early, in-comics image of her in her bedroom, which was by a different creative team than the one that would produce her first series, is not the one chosen to announce her arrival. Within Kelly DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run, which celebrates female empowerment, there was a place for a Pakistani teenager to be physically powerful as a sign of promise for the future. In terms of announcing her to the broader public, however, Marvel chose to focus on her location, her age, and the playfulness of those who would go on to create Kamala’s inaugural series, arguably as a means of making her more palatable. Adrian Alphono’s concept art for Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, which accompanies the Gustines article and was used as a cover for the second run of Captain Marvel #17, shows her posed with a cartoonishly enlarged fist, alongside a cute hedgehog, and so captures the light-hearted tone of her comic and downplays any real-world context.

Kamala’s powers include the ability to “extend her limbs, alter her appearance, and shift shape in other manners” (“Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan”).

12

We cite the online version of the story, published a day earlier.

13

Except to those, like Beck, who are triggered by his non-White face.

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Marvel’s careful introduction of both Miles and Kamala to the broader public also carried over in their curation of fan letters early on in the run of both superheroes, in which the editors situate these characters within the wider social reactions to their introduction. These early letter-writers, like the general public, had not yet read the comic itself, and the editors present the letters in the first issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011) as “a sampling of that world-wide feedback, unedited and without comment” (#1, 20). But the editorial team’s choice of letters is designed to shape how readers approach this new character. In this first issue, the letters lean toward the critical side, with two positive letters and four negative ones. While some of the disapproving responses lament the death of Ultimate Peter Parker— Karlo Zadvarec complains: “It hurt me when you killed Peter Parker for he was the original Spider-Man and he still is,” and Mag protests: “There are a lot of comic characters you can pass the torch with. Not Peter Parker. Not ever” (#1, 20)—Jimmy Champane explicitly objects to the politics of the switch: “I am wholeheartedly against the decision to replace Ultimate Peter Parker with an African American/Hispanic person. I am extremely disappointed and offended that you killed off one of your greatest characters of all time for the sole reason of diversity” (#1, 20). These negative responses create a sense of Miles being under attack, and unfairly so, since those who are complaining cannot have read the book and are responding either to the short teaser comic, which tells us little about Miles or his character, or to the news reports.15 Nevertheless, the positive letters are also written without knowledge of the comic itself, and as such suggest that the importance of Miles is external to how he will actually be developed within the story. Elliott Ruben Serrano’s letter epitomizes the kind of response that Bendis and Alonso had been promoting in the news: As a young Hispanic male who grew up reading comics, I always related to Peter Parker the most. Despite the idea that he was a white kid from Queens, New York. But I always imagined a day when I could be the kid under the mask. And now, today’s generation of young readers will get to live in a world were ANYONE can be Spider-Man. This is when the ‘House of Ideas’ really does live up to its name. (#1, 20)

This tactic paid off in responses from fans who feel protective of Miles. For example, in the letters column to the third issue, Jennifer Valerio registers her disappointment “in those people who call themselves ‘true Marvel fans’ but refused to read the new Ultimate Spider-Man” (20), and in issue #4 “Nick from PA” registers surprise at the negativity, and criticizes it as coming from people “who want to read the same thing over again” (24). Bendis also addresses such critics within the comic itself. In the second issue, two delivery men carrying a television appear as background characters; one says to the other “So I said to the guy: You never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if—” (3). This aside not only critiques those who are critiquing Miles without reading the comic, but also thanks the readers of the book, who are the only ones who see the message.

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This letter answers many of the complaints about the racial switch, without explicitly addressing them. Serrano identifies both as Hispanic and as a comic book reader, contradicting any assertion that traditional comic book readers are Anglo. His past identification with Peter Parker, despite the ethnic difference, reassures White readers that it is possible—though a little more work—to identify with a character of a different race. And his joy at having that identification confirmed in a literal way illustrates the importance of a diverse roster in which there are important superheroes of many different races and genders. Taken together, the positive and negative letters suggest to readers that the comic they have just finished is of great cultural significance, and that how they feel about it is directly linked to how they position themselves in larger political conversations about equality and inclusion. Ms. Marvel’s “Holla@Kamala” letters page does similar work, but in this case, with its title evoking an email address or Twitter handle, its progressiveness is also signaled by firmly placing the series in the digital age. The first column begins with Sana Amanat describing how a Marvel creative retreat in November of 2013 “was put on hold” when the New York Times article announcing Kamala Khan went viral and “our inboxes exploded. So did our phones, Twitter, Facebook pages, you name it” (#1, 23). Here, faceto-face communication between the creative and editorial teams is secondary to online engagement with the larger world, and the letters pages go on to position that larger world as part of the creative team. As Amanat notes: “It seemed we had tapped into some global subconscious desire that had gone ignored for far too long. This book became a sort of victory for the misfits of the world, and they raised their flag proudly joining the ranks of the Kamala Korps as if it were long overdue” (#1, 23). The “Kamala Korps,” an homage to the “Carol Corps” in the letters columns of Captain Marvel (also edited by Amanat), is thus formed even before the comic itself comes out. People make up their mind and respond to the idea of a Muslim superhero before they respond to Kamala herself. Amanat finishes her introductory missive by thanking readers “for making this series such an international media sensation,” with a “hope that one day this sort of thing won’t be considered newsworthy. Because then that’s a sign that we’ve really progressed as a society, breaking past stereotypes and racial divisions and finally seeing each other for who we truly are” and with a call to action: “We’re almost there though. I feel it. It’s just up to the rest of you” (#1, 23). As Winona Landis puts it, Ms. Marvel invites “readers to ‘read themselves’ into the comic and the character of Kamala Khan and, more importantly, to reconceive of the character to serve their own experiences” (35). Where Stan Lee often targeted college students with his Soapbox (Howe 54), Sana Amanat and the rest of the editorial team market Ms. Marvel to a demographic that is looking for change in comic books, and for the sense that they are doing good progressive work with their purchasing and reading practices.

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Sana Amanat, as editor, thus becomes the face of Ms. Marvel, much as Lee had been for the brand as a whole (as discussed in Chapter 1). The first letters page ends with a note from Amanat’s mother, Hamida Amanat: “We look forward to the creative and positive ways in which this new super heroine, Kamala will use her powers for the betterment of the human condition on this planet” (#1, 24). Sana replies, “Thanks MOM. I’m so glad you finally understand what I do for a living. Also I love you” (#1, 24). The sweetness of this personal exchange emphasizes a connection between the people making the comic and the story in the comic, in the same way that other letters emphasize connections between reader and story. Kamala was based, in part, on Amanat’s own experiences growing up Muslim in New Jersey, and this letter shows how the comic bridges the world of older Muslim immigrants and their pop-culture-savvy offspring. At the same time, the publication of this apparently personal letter on a curated letters page makes connections between the readers and the creators, allowing fans a glimpse into the editor’s life. From their inception, to their introduction, to their reception, Miles and Kamala demonstrate how Marvel used diversity to achieve both progressive goals and commercial success in a post-racial climate. Introducing both characters to the wider, non-fandom public prior to the launch of their own storylines worked to invest the characters with a sense of cultural importance, far beyond that of other new heroes. Their ethnic and racial backgrounds are foregrounded both as overdue and as congratulatory signs of how far popular culture has come, with Marvel Comics positioned as a progressive voice that listens to its fans, but also pushes them forward, when necessary. And, most importantly, Marvel Comics presents itself as the voice of “us,” speaking both for those who have been under-served and for those in the mainstream who welcome greater diversity. As such, Marvel positions itself, through Miles and Kamala, as a forward-thinking, risk-taking author whose comics represent America in the new millennium.

“‘Spider-Man is Brown!’ … ‘And she cares, why?’”: Miles Morales as the Everyman Central to Marvel’s strategy in speaking for and representing “us” is their depiction of the superhero as an “everyman,” of which Spider-Man is by far the best example. While Spider-Man is now one of the most recognizable superhero characters, at the time of his creation, he represented a new and unique take on the superhero. As related in The Power of Comics, Lee proposed making a teenager the lead instead of merely the sidekick, but publisher Goodman was lukewarm to the idea and it got relegated to the last issue of a series that was about to be cancelled. Amazing Fantasy

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#15 introduced the world to Peter Parker, a teen bookworm who gains the power of a spider … The problems Peter Parker faced out of costume spoke to his audience, and, perhaps better than any superhero before him, they could identify with Spider-Man. (Duncan et al. 34–5) Peter Parker represented a calculated risk for Marvel: would readers be able to enjoy a character that was relatable in a genre that catered to escapist power fantasies? The success of Spider-Man and his longevity demonstrate that they could and, throughout his long history, Peter Parker has represented the everyman of comics: not a billionaire orphan, or a super-soldier, or an alien/god/mutant, Peter Parker is a regular guy whose extraordinary powers do not mitigate his worries about working for a bad boss and making a living in the big city. If anything, Peter Parker is even worse off than the average American; as Arnold T. Blumberg observes, “If there was one thing that was certain about Peter Parker’s life, it’s that bad luck was his constant companion. Although gifted with the abilities that made him Spider-Man, and possessed of a keen, scientific intellect, Parker nevertheless suffered in both his home life and as his crime-fighting alter ego” (199). The introduction of Miles Morales as Spider-Man, then, was not just about whether or not a person of color could be a superhero; it was about whether or not Miles could take the place of a supremely engaging, relatable, mainstream character, while performing the work of representing “diversity” at the same time. One of the ways in which Bendis and the other co-creators ask readers, especially those loyal to Peter Parker, to give Miles a chance is by making explicit connections between the two Spider-Men. Sara Pichelli’s drawings of Miles show a skinny, awkward tween whose lack of muscles brings to mind, and intensifies, the slenderness of Steve Ditko’s early renderings of Peter Parker. The early issues of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011) tell an origin story that echoes all versions of Peter Parker’s genesis. A masked figure, later revealed to be Miles’s Uncle Aaron, who is also a criminal known as the Prowler, breaks into Norman Osborne’s laboratory to steal equipment, and leaves with a spider, marked with a 42, as a stowaway. The spider later bites Miles as he visits his uncle, and imbues him with super-powers. Uncle Aaron’s later death, and Miles’s guilt over that death, echoes the death of Uncle Ben, as does the death of Rio Morales, his mother. Even though Miles has different skills, most notably his ability to turn invisible and to sting, he still, as his friend Ganke helpfully points out, has much in common with the existing Spider-Man: “You got bit by a spider. He got bit by a spider. You can walk on walls, he can—” (#3, 4).16 Miles even studies footage of Peter Parker to learn how to fight like him (#6, 20; #7, 3–9). Finally, Miles’s initial

Bolding for emphasis is ubiquitous in comics writing. All bolding in quotation is, unless explicitly noted, from the original.

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reluctance to take on the role of hero (#3, 14), only doing so after the death of Ultimate Peter Parker, demonstrates the necessary respect for Peter’s right to own the mantle, dissuading readers from seeing Miles as a usurper. One reader, “Mateja from Siberia,” even notes that “In a way, Miles is Peter, and I don’t understand why people can’t see that” (#3, 20). The claim that “Miles is Peter,” rather than “Miles is just like Peter,” erases both the objectionable death of Ultimate Peter Parker and, arguably, any racial/ethnic difference between the two. But in the moment of stepping into the role, Miles also has to learn to make it his own, differentiating himself from his predecessor. When he first tries to find his feet as a superhero, he echoes Peter’s mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility,” which he follows with the question “What would Peter Parker do?” (#12, 6). But when Aunt May gives him Peter’s web shooters, she tells him: “Don’t do what Peter would do. Do what Miles Morales would do” (#14, 9). Bendis illustrates the risk of forgetting himself in his quest to be like Peter in Miles’s battle with Venom, in which he spends so much time “trying to remember how Peter Parker beat this guy” (#20, 12), that he almost neglects his own abilities, including the venom blast that he finally uses to temporarily disempower the symbiote (#20, 15). The creators thus make Miles both like Peter Parker, in order to preserve the “brand” of Spider-Man, and different from him, in order to justify his story as something new. Brian Bendis’s response to a letter from Jared Throne, who asks about the difficulty of differentiating Miles from Peter, especially “when in costume,” demonstrates the importance the creators place on differentiating the two heroes: I was wondering myself how difficult it would be to create a character that is on some level so similar to Peter Parker but at the same time so incredibly different. But once I started writing Miles I realized that there were so many differences that I rarely even think about Peter Parker while I’m writing Miles. We even handle their physical language very differently. Some of it is very subtle but if you compare Peter Parker’s Spider-Man fighting style and Miles’s very rookie moves, you’ll see that there are a lot of differences. (#8, 23) Bendis casts Miles as similar enough to Peter to make him an obvious successor, but different enough to be distinguishable. But Bendis’s focus on physical language and fighting style as the means of differentiating between the Spider-Men also ignores the implication of the letter: namely, that Miles and Peter are difficult to distinguish when wearing the mask because, the letter-writer implies, skin color is the main distinction between them. This speaks to a crucial aspect of Miles Morales: he is likened to Peter Parker in ways that position him as the appropriate successor to Peter’s everyman role, but the comic arguably achieves this by downplaying cultural difference. While much is made

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outside the comic series and in the letters pages about Miles’s ethnicity, it is often sidelined in universe. Brian Montes notes that “we never see Miles speak Spanish” (274)17 and Adilufa Nama and Maya Haddad go so far as to characterize his “racial import and meaning” as “amazingly bland” (258). For example, in each instance where Miles’s ethnicity is mentioned in the first series, the writing implicitly or explicitly questions its relevance. When he saves a woman and child from a house fire in his first act of heroism, he does so without a costume, and leaves without giving his name. As two firefighters, one Black and one Latinx, watch him go, the Black one says to his partner, “Told you Spider-Man was black” (#3, 12). Since this is the first time Miles has used his abilities in public, and Peter Parker is still alive, Miles’s skin color is being applied to Peter, suggesting that any Spider-Man can be read as any color while in costume and emphasizing the universality of the character; Aaron’s later reference to Peter Parker as “the white Spider-Man” (#10, 4) makes it clear that White should not be the universal default position for Spider-Men. The relevance of race is further questioned when Betty Brant, a reporter at the Bugle, is pitching a Spider-Man story. She notes that “if you look, you can see the new Spider-Man, he might be African-American” to which Robbie Robertson, who is Black, responds, “What does that mean?” (#16.1, 5); when Betty attempts to diffuse the tension by explaining that she is merely suggesting a family connection with the Prowler, Robbie points out that “not all African-American people are related” (#16.1, 6). Arguably, Robbie’s—and by implication Bendis’s—criticism is directed not only at Betty here, but also at readers who might place too much emphasis on Miles’s race. Likewise, when Giant Woman captures Miles during the “Divided We Fall/United We Stand” event, she reports in: “Hydra base, I have a prisoner. I have Spider-Man. I think it’s Spider-Man. He’s not what you think he’d be at all—” to which Miles responds: “Whatever, racist. Or she’s talking about that I’m a kid” (#18, 12). Miles dismisses both markers of identity as saying more about Giant Woman than about him. Through Miles, Bendis educates his readers, asking for a color-blind reading in which Miles is Black and Latino, but these are not the most important aspects of his character. While Brian Montes complains that Miles “remains culturally unmarked: a sanitized version of multiculturalism that ought to remain palatable to white, normative America” (275), this lack of marking is clearly a deliberate attempt by the creators to sidestep stereotypes. For example, Bendis obliquely responds to such critiques after Miles transitions to the 616 Universe, in which Peter Parker is still Spider-Man and race becomes an easy way of distinguishing between them. Early in Spider-Man

This omission is rectified in Into the Spider-Verse where Miles and his mother do speak Spanish.

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(2016–2018), Ganke and Miles watch a YouTube commenter who is— like many of Miles’s fans in our world—excited to have a racially diverse Spider-Man. She shows footage of a fight in which Miles’s costume is torn, and his chin is exposed. The YouTuber’s excited squeeing—“The new Spider-Man is brown. He’s a kid of color. This is huge!!”—is undercut by Miles’s response “Uh … And she cares why?” (#2, 14). The commenter also places Miles as part of a larger shift in comics representation: “I love this! We have an African American Captain America, Thor is a lady, and now Spider-Man. This is nuts. In the best possible way” (#2, 15). Miles again rejects this positioning, providing in-universe, critical commentary on the widely touted All-New, All-Different Marvel campaign. He complains about the “the qualification,” explaining, “I don’t want to be the black Spider-Man. I want to be Spider-Man” (#2, 15). Bendis, through Miles, emphasizes the importance of seeing this character of color as universal, rather than as a token of representation. Nevertheless, Miles’s ethnicity is important, and the text continually balances between Miles’s universality—which, because of White privilege in Western popular culture, is still generally expressed through Whiteness— and his ethnic specificity. In Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, Luis Aldama notes the differentiation between the ethnically non-specific label and costume of “Spider-Man” and the dark skin and Latinx surname of Miles Morales (118). In this duality, Miles is like “most Latino superheroes who mask their Latinidad, playing to the convention in superhero comics of opening up the character for greater reader identification” (118, emphasis in original). Such a construction serves the political and commercial purposes of Miles as a “diversity” character: his story speaks to those readers who see him as almost indistinguishable from Peter Parker, but at the same time, it also includes signifiers that are specifically legible to Latinx and AfricanAmerican readers. Aldama argues that Bendis and Pichelli invite these readers “to fully co-create ourselves as Spider-Man” (92), while readers who do not share those identities can “co-create themselves as a teen, male Blatino Spider-Man,” giving the example of his own Mexipina daughter’s ability to cross gender and ethnic lines by filling the gaps with her own imagination (93). Miles’s masking does not mean erasure of his ethnic identity; instead, he demonstrates that Spider-Man can be Black without becoming “the black Spider-Man.” Nevertheless, the task of constructing Miles’s everyman identity in ways that acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, stereotyping, and cultural difference makes for some complicated negotiations within the text itself. We see this particularly in the representation of Miles’s education at the elite charter school, Visions Academy; given that this is our first introduction to Miles, it is clearly foundational to the character. Bendis presents the school not just as giving academically inclined students a leg up, but rather as the only option for Miles to escape a life of poverty and crime. When Miles wins his spot, his mother hugs him close, saying “Oh—oh—you have

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a chance. Oh, my God, you have a chance” (#1, 10), and Miles’s Uncle Aaron reaffirms this position: “you got your ticket out of this cesspool. You play your cards right, you make your own way. Your dad and me didn’t have a chance in that school we went to” (#1, 11). The implication here is that, even for those children with academic abilities, it is impossible to succeed in the public school system. While such rhetoric could be read as an attack on public schools in general, it also speaks to “the arduous and contentious struggle that black folk have faced and that continues to crop up today over access to quality education” (Nama and Haddad 256). Miles, like Peter, faces hardships and difficulties, but here they are specifically coded as ones faced primarily by minorities, something that spoke to readers who came from similar backgrounds. Gerardo Trinidad Galan, in a letter to “Ultimate Spider-Mail,” notes that the scene with Miles’s mother makes him cry “out of sheer joy” because “I finally saw something that represented the life I was surrounded by, to really feel represented in a medium I’ve loved so much.” He claims that “the last time something moved me that that way was Obama’s election” and notes that his own “Mother reacted the same way when I graduated high school, thanking God that I, unlike so many others I had grown up with, came through the other side” (#3, 20). Similarly, Nama and Haddad read this origin story as “a subversively political and racially relevant reading of how education, economics, opportunity, and luck are scarce resources for folks of color” (256). The layout of the page depicting the lottery draws attention to the unfairness of the system in which Miles finds himself. The panels shift from Miles’s shining eyes, to the tearful and angry faces of other dark-haired, brown-skinned children who were not as lucky. Miles, looking down, sees the bigger picture: “It shouldn’t—all these other kids. Should it be like this?” (#1, 10). The literal lottery highlights the ways children are affected by the chance of community and class into which they are born. But the text undercuts the lottery aspect of entrance into Visions Academy with a focus on merit and ability; like Peter, Miles is intellectually gifted, and the fact that he had to pass exams to be eligible for the lottery (#3, 5) presents his own individual strengths as having won him this opportunity. The same balance between chance and character marks Miles’s transformation into Spider-Man. Miles’s winning ball in the lottery bears the number 42, the same number as the spider that changes his life (#1, 9)18. The school’s promise that “You get to discover what you can really do” (#3, 15) likewise echoes Miles’s exploration of his newfound abilities of what he “can really do” as a superhero. Both the realism of having to rely on luck to enter an It is also the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, thus suggesting that both gaining entrance to  the school and becoming a superhero are answers to questions that are not properly understood, and granting those answers too much importance, without first identifying what the question is, would be foolish.

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elite academy and the fantasy of being a superhero speak to the basic moral of the Spider-Man mythos: that with great power, comes great responsibility. But Bendis depicts the question of who he now bears responsibility for as one that demonstrates the pull between the social and the individual. His mother urges him to focus on his own needs and achievements, arguably echoing capitalist narratives of self-improvement: “Just focus on you. You got in. Focus on that” (#1, 10). Uncle Aaron, the villain, sees Miles’s success in the lottery as his chance to escape from social injustice: “We had to fight. Boys shouldn’t have to fight the way we had to. You shouldn’t have to see half the stuff we did.” He continues on with the following encouragement: “You— you learn. You study. And you make the world the way you want it to be, not the way it is” (#1, 11). His words here seem to echo those of Uncle Ben about the responsibility that has to accompany individual empowerment, but his advice encourages Miles to reform the world as he, an individual, would like it to be, rather than the world his community needs. Conversely, Miles’s father Jefferson emphasizes individual responsibility in the face of societal injustice. Jefferson tells Miles that both he and Aaron were thieves who had spent time in jail. Aaron continued with crime, but Jefferson went straight when he became a father: “When we were kids we didn’t have— we didn’t see any other opportunity coming our way. Not saying that we didn’t have other opportunities … I’m just saying we couldn’t see them” (#2, 16). Jefferson, who has made both choices in his life, promotes personal responsibility, while still acknowledging that the path to legitimate success is narrower, harder to find, and more difficult to see for those who do not have the privilege of White skin and economic stability. The question of how he will use his power is further complicated for Miles by his social and ethnic positioning. For Peter Parker, the choice was between using the power selfishly for his own gain and using the power to protect others, as he painfully learns when he inadvertently fails to prevent his Uncle Ben’s murder.19 Ultimate Spider-Man, however, is haunted by the fear of what Miles himself could become, a future avoided by the combined fortune of both the school lottery and the spider bite. Miles faces repeated pressures that could turn him away from the straight and narrow. At one point, he worries that his father’s past and uncle’s continuing criminal behavior could be genetic, and that “there might be a part of me that has that too” (#6, 17). A depiction of his uncle attempting to lure Miles into a life of crime plays into these fears. Sara Pichelli draws Miles and his Uncle Aaron as physically similar, with their eyes in particular the same in both shape and expression. However, she differentiates in size between Miles and his uncle, who is depicted looming over him and pinning him against a tree, which presents his uncle as a predator, one who is using his relationship with Miles to make him go down a criminal path. The final line

In Amazing Fantasy #15.

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of the page “Now you’re a man, yo” (#8, 6), captures his appeal to both masculinity and adulthood, suggesting that Miles’s identity as Spider-Man has changed their relationship so that the two are now equals, and Aaron will no longer protect his nephew or shield him from criminal activities. To be a Spider-Man, for Miles, is to be haunted by the image of criminality that the comic presents as a not-unlikely consequence of Black manhood, with Miles’s youth as the only thing, the image suggests, that separates him from the bad guys. Miles is further linked to the possibility of criminality through the Scorpion, who represents contemporary American fears of Latinx crime. This supervillain first comes up from Mexico in pursuit of Miles’s Uncle Aaron, and then attempts to take over all the criminal activity in New York as the new Kingpin. Pichelli’s splash page depiction of the Scorpion (#8, 13) invokes fears of Mexican gangs that have been used to stir up immigration fears along the southern border. The image positions the viewer as victim, looking up at the tattooed, heavily muscled Latino gangster, and the Scorpion’s repeated use of the second person—“you people,” “you are dead,” “ALL OF YOU”—encourages the reader to identify as someone whose own territory is being usurped. When Miles defeats both the Scorpion and his uncle, he proves that he is not part of the violence and criminality that they embody, offering a reading of Latino and Black masculinity that is heroic, rather than villainous; arguably, however, making him a child, rather than a man, is central to his ability to play this role. Miles’s masculinity must be rendered nascent, rather than fully realized, in order for him to be non-threatening to the White gaze. Nevertheless, he is surrounded by men who hold out both the threat and the promise of what he could grow up to be. Where Aaron and the Scorpion represent the social hazards in his future, other Black and Latinx characters offer models for heroism. Miles’s race bending is preceded in the Ultimate universe by both the Latino Antoñio Stark as Ultimate Iron Man, created in 2006, and the African-American Ultimate Nick Fury, who was modelled on Samuel L. Jackson. Bendis makes Nick Fury particularly important to Miles’s development: he endorses his adoption of the Spider-Man persona, and provides him with his new suit. The mentoring of the young Miles by an older, established, Black hero, while never explicitly noted within the pages of the comics, is implicit, and some readers pick up on its importance. Luis Ramirez of San Francisco CA writes in: Issue #5 was great. I love how it set up Miles as a super hero, I was also moved by the scene between Nick Fury and Miles Morales. What got me about the scene was that it was two persons of color, two heroes, trying to figure each other out and creating a special mentor/student relationship. When I was growing up I didn’t have a “Nick Fury” type of mentor figure to guide me and give me support. And as an adult, I see Miles Morales

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as a very special symbol for all of us darker-complected kids. He’s a big name hero that looks like me and comes from similar life circumstances as I did. I am invested in him and I like him. (#7, 22) Luis Ramirez here engages in what Aldama calls “co-creating,” a process by which “our emotions and thoughts fill in and complete drawn figures, gestures, dialogue, and character interactions” without “changing the DNA of the story itself” (91). While for some, the text might suggest that the only way out of the “cesspool” is through a combination of individual luck and social assimilation, for Ramirez, it offers a narrative of hope and of racial solidarity. Ultimately, however, the comic vacillates between acknowledging and avoiding the realities of social inequality and its effects upon young men of color. It is not surprising that this leads to some fissures in the presentation of Miles’s home life in the series, captured best in him having to board at Visions Academy, whose name promises that it will provide their students with the ability to see the opportunities that Jefferson references, and will give students “the tools and the techniques” they need to make their own “dreams come true” (#3, 15). However, the school represents a way out of poverty only through assimilation: during the orientation, an adult tells the new students, “trust me, in just a couple of weeks you will be fully integrated into this new lifestyle of yours. It is a lifestyle of learning. It is a lifestyle of imagination. Of community. Of purpose” (#3, 15). The fact that it is a boarding school, which aligns it both with upper-class modes of education and, arguably, juvenile detention centers, means the students can only see their families on weekends, even if they—like Miles—live close enough to commute. They can only have visitors who are on an approved list, a fact that Uncle Aaron refers to as “gestapo business” (#8, 7). Even Rio admits that there are downsides to the school, complaining “I do not like you not living at home anymore” (#6, 14). By forcing children to integrate in order to have their “dreams come true,” the school implies that children must be removed from their homes and communities in order for them to blossom.20 This implied difference between the school and the home/family/ neighborhood points to the racial and class inequalities that plague America, but offers nothing but separation and assimilation as the answer to those problems. Furthermore, the depiction of Miles’s home and family life does not support the idea that he has miraculously been given a “chance” to escape

The mandatory boarding aspect of the school also has unpleasant echoes of the Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and Residential Schools in Canada, which were promoted as a way of bringing Indigenous children into mainstream society, but which have recently been recognized as what they were: tools of genocide.

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a “cesspool,” as his mother and uncle suggest.21 Instead, what Miles has escaped, according to him, is the distraction of fairly typical middle-school behavior such as “throwing something or cracking a lame joke” (#6, 15). The equating of these two actions suggests that what is being thrown is something mundane, such as balled-up paper, rather than a weapon or furniture. As well, Miles’s comment about his former school takes place in a conversation between him and his mother in their upscale kitchen, which issue artist Chris Samnee depicts with a large island, modern white cabinets, and stainless-steel appliances. The framing and shape of the panel emphasize a cathedral ceiling and open display cases. Even though the school does provide an academic focus that Miles might not get at a public school, the family clearly already has economic advantages that contrast with the life that Jefferson escaped. The shift from an implied escape from poverty to an escape from mundane school experience and a middle-class home22 speaks to an ambiguity in the depiction of Miles’s ethnic background and its role in American life—a desire on the part of the creators to acknowledge real social problems facing ethnic minorities, while also resisting stereotypes through recourse to a depiction of family life that is modeled on White, middle-class norms. In the end, the representation of Miles’s home adds to the competing interpretations of the text: its middle-class markers make it read as “universal,” but the evinced fear for Miles’s future spoken here and represented in his interactions with his uncle speaks to the fragility of that class status for people of color in America.

“No Normal”: Kamala Khan, Intersectionality, and the Millennial Superhero Miles’s role as a “diverse everyman” is echoed in Kamala Khan’s characterization, though in her case, intersectionality is central to her appeal. We argue that Ms. Marvel does more than Ultimate Comics For example, Aldama notes that Miles losing his mother is part of a larger trend in mainstream Latinx superheroes, which he says speaks both to the individual experience of readers, and— more importantly—to the larger “Latino experience—that somehow our group has been orphaned within the United States’ socioeconomic system” (Latinx 118–19). We would argue that Miles’s experiences focus on the latter over the former, but emphasize the interrelation of the two. Miles comes from a stable home in comparison to many superheroes, Latinx or otherwise; more stable, actually, than Peter Parker experienced. Both his parents are alive and together for the majority of the comic, although they do go through rough patches in their marriage, and there are times when one or the other leaves the home. Although his mother dies toward the end of the first series, that death is reset when Miles moves to the 616 Universe, so that Rio is not only alive, but never died, removing that trauma from Miles’s past. Both parents are employed in secure positions in respected professions, Rio as a nurse, and Jefferson as a police officer and later a S.H.I.E.L.D agent, although he also has a past on the other side of the law.

21

Possible even upper class, given the location in Brooklyn, but Miles’s parents’ professions do not fit with that reading, and rents might be cheaper in the Ultimate universe.

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Spider-Man to explicitly represent minority experience as an important marker of identity, rather than something to overcome. But this series too aims for relatability to an implied White audience. While Miles relates to fans through his specific connections with Peter Parker and his story arc, Kamala is universalized through the concept of “no normal.” Specifically, the comic asserts that each of us is shaped by various and sometimes conflicting categories of identity, disrupting the idea of a normative self. We use the idea of “intersectionality” following Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coinage of the term, which she used to challenge assumptions that “the issues and experiences” of misogyny and racism “occur on mutually exclusive terrains” and to argue instead for the importance of recognizing “intersectional identities such as women of color” (1242–3). These subjectivities are not discrete and separate, but overlap, as seen in Kamala Khan: “As Wilson writes her, [the] religious, ethnic, and cultural components of the character are related, yet distinct” (Curtis and Cardo 383). Kamala’s connection to place is glocal and hybrid, as she is both “the pride of New Jersey” and shaped by her status as a second-generation immigrant with Pakistani parents. Her relationship with her parents is about negotiating competing cultural demands, but it is also firmly focused on generational differences and conflicts that parallel her encounters with established superheroes. Kamala’s coming of age is complicated not only by being a brown woman in a world that privileges Whiteness, but also by her subcultural status as a nerd. Finally, her discovery of her Inhuman status23 complicates and destabilizes these connections to place, family, and generation, along with human society as a whole. Thus, Kamala offers many points of identification for her readers, replacing the idea of an “everyman” with instead an intersectional individual, one who models that everyone is unique in their own conflictual identities. When she complains that her status as “a Pak-American, Part Alien, morphogenic nerd” renders her “alone in the universe,” an Inhuman doctor reassures her that “Unique is not the same as alone” (#9, 13). Nevertheless, we argue that the creators normalize Kamala’s intersectionality in ways that reduce much of her cultural and social difference to safe, superficial signifiers. Perhaps the greatest point of identification Kamala offers readers is that of being a part of fan subculture. Throughout the series, Wilson et al. portray her as an inveterate fangirl, with her nerd cred continually on display: she played Avengers with her friend Bruno as a child (#5, 12); she has a pull list at a local comic shop (#6, 7); she repeatedly refers to her

The Inhumans are a group of genetically advanced aliens (or their descendants) with a long and complicated history in Marvel Comics going back to their introduction in Fantastic Four #45 (December 1965). Their numbers were greatly expanded in the 2013 Infinity event. Kamala, like many other characters, was exposed to the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mist by a Terrigen Bomb, which triggered the emergence of her nascent Inhuman abilities.

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superhero powers using the Simpsons reference “Embiggen”;24 and she is also a gamer who sees battles with supervillains and monsters as “like a boss fight in World of Battlecraft” (#4, 19). Even in the age of Big Name Fans and metafictional nods to fandom within popular culture texts, fans are seldom able to become a literal part of the texts they consume, except in their imaginations and their own creative endeavors. Kamala offers a specific power fantasy for the fan audience: she remains an active writer of superhero fanfiction and posts her stories online, where they are commented on and assessed by other fans, even while she gets to “play” at being an Avenger in her real life. In many ways, her transformation from fangirl to “fan-turned pro” models that of real-world fans who have gained access to the production side of popular culture via the new digital landscape (Jenkins Convergence). And because Ms. Marvel’s intended audience is widely engaged with social media and digital communities, Kamala’s role in those same communities allows a metafictional connection, suggesting that fans can enter Ms. Marvel’s world,25 as echoed in the title of the letter page, “Holla@Kamala,” and in the continued focus on social media in the Ms. Marvel-led Champions later on.26 The construction of Kamala as a fan offers a way of negotiating Kamala’s “otherness” that will be familiar to comic book readers and, arguably, fangirls in particular: Jennifer, who Amanat identifies as the first person to send in a review letter for the first issue, states approvingly that Kamala’s “Yoda paraphrase is nerdy awesome” (#2, 23), signaling her own fangirl status. Within the comic, however, Kamala’s friend Nakia mocks her “sad nerd obsession with the Avengers” (#1, 4), a criticism that many comic book fans have experienced. And while her nerd identity is separate from Kamala’s Muslim identity, the two are linked by their outsider status, and the difficulty of crossing barriers. Alphona’s visual representation of Kamala’s fanfiction in which Captain America and Captain Marvel save Planet Unicorn from an evil space creature is undercut by a caption echoing her conversation with Nakia on the previous page: “My chances of becoming an intergalactic superhero are even slimmer than my chances Any suggestion that her use of the word is a coincidence is undercut by her cereal box of “Cromulent Crunch” (#5, 7). In the “Lisa the Iconoclast” episode of The Simpsons, Edna Krabappel questions the town motto “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” and is told by a native of the town that “it is a perfectly cromulent word” (Season 7, Episode 16, 1996).

24

These strategies are used even more explicitly in later Marvel titles such as The Unbelievable Gwenpool which features Gwen Poole as a comics reader who somehow enters the Marvel comics universe and whose super-power is her fandom knowledge, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, whose protagonist has an active, in-character, Twitter account and Tumblr page.

25

Marvel Champions (2016–) highlights social media communication as central to being a hero in the digital age. For example, Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos frame Ms. Marvel’s inspirational speech after the showdown at the end of the first issue with the cell phones that are recording her, and the issue ends with the team assessing their impact by checking out what has been tweeted about #Champions within the comics universe (Champions #1, 33).

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of becoming blond and popular” (#1, 5). This equation of the superhero industry with blondness and popularity speaks to the difficulty that women and people of color have had entering the creative industry that makes the products. Sana Amanat, a successful Marvel editor even before Kamala came into existence, compares Kamala’s desire to be Carol Danvers to her own adolescent desire to be “Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, from ‘Saved by the Bell’” (quoted in Gustines, “Mighty”). The desire to be White is here linked to exclusion from “normie” culture. Kamala’s fangirl positioning invites the White fangirl reader to recognize Kamala’s feeling of alterity as a brown woman as one they can identify with as fangirls in a normie world, in which being a “sad nerd” is never associated with being “popular.” At the same time, Kamala’s experiences as a fangirl have a cultural specificity that is very much about being young, a nerd, and a brown woman. As fans of color have asserted, assumptions about the essential Whiteness of fan culture have long plagued both fan communities and fan scholarship. While White fans might be encouraged to feel Kamala’s otherness through a shared fan experience of being outsiders, Mel Stanfill reminds us that “the notion that fandom is a vector of inequality often ignores the ways fans may (or may not) experience marginalization on the basis of race, class, language, and other structures” (305). Kamala Khan’s fannishness is a point of connection with a broader, comic-reading audience, but her relation to her fan objects and her feeling of being unable to live up to them are also inextricably tied up with her minority status. Likewise, Kamala’s powers are similar to those of mutants, and her “stories are closely related to the series that scholars characterise as an allegory for identity politics with respect to race, sexuality and disability” (Gibbons 452–3). Like the X-Men comics that often feature ethnically diverse teams, Ms. Marvel interconnects metaphorical and literal markers of difference in order to explore otherness in American society, which means that Kamala’s Muslim identity is far more foregrounded than Miles’s African-American and Latinx culture are in his first series. For example, Kamala’s eventual transformation into her own form of Ms. Marvel—not Carol Danvers, nor with powers that mimic hers, but an explicitly Muslim, Inhuman hero, with a totally distinct power set—provides, as Landis notes, “a kind of climax of her fan and consumption practices. Ms. Marvel … invites readers (Pakistani, Indian, and otherwise) to participate in this same ‘becoming’ through consumption of her locally specific text” (38). Such connections are modeled in the letters pages where, for example, Nada Mohammed—who identifies as “a Muslim girl studying animation”—notes that her early excitement at the announcement of the comics was borne out in its execution: “all of the issues she’s going through are the same ones I experience nearly every day being a veiled Muslim American and to see someone else go through them, even someone fictional, makes me feel less alone in this world” (#7, 23). The Ms. Marvel fandom presented in the

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letters pages not only provides community, but also models change in the very industry it is a part of, explicitly encouraging readers to support this comic in order to bring in more diverse characters and creators. At the same time, any threat this increased diversity might pose to existing comics and their fans is also softened by Kamala’s ongoing fannishness; her unguarded adoration of other heroes presents her as non-threatening to the status quo. For example, two of the nineteen titles in her first series feature covers in which she acts like a crazed fan around a somewhat-annoyedlooking superhero. Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson’s cover art for Ms. Marvel #7 depicts Kamala’s hand holding a smartphone featuring a selfie with Wolverine, in which she smiles widely with her arm around his shoulders, while he is hunched over, arms crossed, with a decidedly grouchy frown upon his face. On Kris Anka’s cover for #17, a blissfully happy Kamala hugs a flying Captain Marvel, whose own expression is one of heroic stoicism. These covers echo countless fan photographs with celebrities. Their visibility in comic book stores, afforded by their place on the cover, serves a dual purpose: they let traditional fans who might not regularly read the book know that there is a crossover they might want to pick up, but more importantly, they signify to those who are literally judging the book by its cover that Kamala does not pose a threat to the established universe. The difference in tone between the generations also signifies the younger intended audience of the new title, with Carol’s noble gaze and Logan’s grumpy scowl humorously contrasting the goofiness of Kamala’s smiles and hugs. In both images, Kamala’s status as fan puts her in a subordinate position to the established heroes, thus reassuring older fans that Kamala is not a threat, and that she cares about these characters as much as they do, even if they might like to think that they would be a little cooler in such an encounter. The fact that Kamala’s first team-up is not with Carol Danvers but with Wolverine, a gritty, violent hero much beloved by Gen X comics fans, also creates connections with a larger audience by emphasizing generational, rather than racial or religious, difference between both the two heroes and the diverse audiences. Despite their shared healing factor, Ms. Marvel and Wolverine are at diametrically opposed ends of the superhero spectrum in terms of worldview. G. Willow Wilson explicitly wrote Ms. Marvel as someone fighting for justice and a better world, not driven by a tragic backstory. She did this to tap into what she saw as a Millennial and Gen Z “generational preoccupation with justice, with outsiders overthrowing broken systems” (“Superhero” 8:45–53). Wolverine thus works as a standin for cynical Gen X fans, who might be unimpressed when Kamala squees at him in doge speak27: “Wow. Such athletic. Very claws. So amaze,” and tells

A mode of discourse that was popular on internet forums such as Tumblr at the time, often found over pictures of a shiba inu dog (“doge” is a deliberate misspelling of “dog”).

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him “I totally put you first in my fantasy hero team-up bracket!” (#6, 14), or when she tries to bond with him by telling him: “My Wolverine-and-Stormin-space fanfic was the third most upvoted story on Freaking Awesome last month” (#6, 15).28 The extreme contrast between the two in terms of tone does not, however, suggest that older fans are unwelcome. While Wolverine is initially annoyed by Kamala, he warms to her after she reacts to the loss of his healing factor by asking, “So like … now you’re just a short, angry man who punches stuff?” (#6, 21). The darker tone of this humorous comment leads the two to bond29 and models comics fans coming together to celebrate their shared universe even if they occupy it in different ways. But Wilson does not erase the generational divide between the characters, nor does she privilege the worldview of older fans through Kamala’s admiration for Wolverine. The ongoing difference in their worldviews is emphasized when Kamala asks him if it is “possible to help people without hurting other people? Or, you know … reptiles” (#7, 10). Wolverine replies, “No. It ain’t. It all circles around. The hurt I mean. Sometimes you can avoid hurting other people, but it usually means you get hurt pretty bad instead. The pain’s gotta go somewhere” (#7, 10). He dismisses Kamala’s protestations by telling her, “You’re young” (#7, 10), implying that she will become more cynical as she ages. Jacob Wyatt’s artwork accompanying their conversation offers two opposing ways of reading the generation gap: Kamala sitting at Logan’s feet suggests she is learning from an elder, but Logan’s stooped figure and hand on his injured back present him as part of an aging generation that may have to make way for the next one. That this issue was published concurrently with the “Death of Wolverine”30 storyline furthers the sense that a torch is being passed. The focus on larger social categories, such as fandom and generations, allows the comic to address the specificity of Muslim-American identity in

Wolverine is even less impressed when he learns the story was beat out by “Cyclops and Emma Frost’s romantic vacation in Paris” (#6, 15).

28

Kamala is probably the new Marvel character to whom the pejorative label “Mary Sue” most accurately applies. Everyone who knows Kamala loves her. Her name “Kamal means ‘perfection’ in Arabic” (#5, 10). Even Zoe, the bully who torments Kamala in the earlier issues, eventually tells her that she did so out of envy. Captain America tells Medusa that “Logan says this one is different. Special” (#7, 20), and after he shows her a photo of Kamala eating a gyro and flashing a peace sign, she inexplicably comes to the same conclusion. Kamala is also admired by Agent Coulson and Jemma Simmons (S.H.I.E.L.D #2) and by Peter Parker, who tells her “You remind me of a web-headed whippersnapper who always wondered how he was doing. And he thinks you’re doing great” (Amazing Spider-Man (2014) #8, 15). When Kamala finally meets Carol Danvers, her hero adds her voice to the chorus of praise: “A lot of people think you’re something special, and now I see why. And—and it makes me wish we had more time” (#18, 16).

29

He does die at the end of the event, but—as is typical with Marvel characters who are not Uncle Ben—the death doesn’t take, and Logan returns in 2018.

30

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the twenty-first century in relation to more generic questions about how all individuals develop identity. In her responses to letters, Sana Amanat privileges the latter, arguing that while Ms. Marvel “is very much about minority representation, the bigger idea was about finding your authentic self” and that “it’s a universal story about finding your own identity despite what you’ve been told” (#7, 23). This tension between cultural specificity and universality has already attracted a great deal of academic attention, with critics such as Kevin Wanner claiming that Kamala “ultimately balances the public and private in ways that do not seriously test the limits liberal society sets for religion” (48). Miriam Kent blames the universalized understanding of Kamala on mainstream journalists and comics critics who stressed “the relatable nature of Kamala, how she appears to be ‘just like everyone else’” and ignored “the specificity of Kamala’s femaleteen-American-Muslim subjectivity” (524). Other academic critics agree with Kent and stress that the editorial and authorial rhetoric emphasizing Kamala’s universality and status as a typical American teenage girl is at odds with the comic itself, which emphasizes Kamala’s status as a Desi Muslim whose hybridity marks her as other in both the comics world and  the United States (Khoja-Moolji and Niccolini 28; Gibbons 451; Landis 39–40). These observations demonstrate the successful balancing act performed by the comic, in which both the universalist appeal made by its marketing and the cultural specificity of the comic itself work in concert. We see this balancing act at work in a much-studied scene from Ms. Marvel #1 that depicts Kamala’s vision during her transformation (16). Several critics have drawn attention to the Christian iconography of Alphona’s visual imagery in this splash page, in which Captain Marvel, flanked by Iron Man and Captain America, appears floating in clouds above Kamala as she gazes skyward. Ernesto Priego notes its references to Raphael’s “The Transfiguration” and Ng Suat Tong sees echoes of Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” (cited in Gibbons 455). But Gibbons notes the Urdu text from “Sufi poet Amir Khusro’s famous thirteenth-century poem ‘Sakal Bun Phool Rahi Sarson’ (‘The yellow mustard is blooming in every field’)” (455), and argues that the juxtaposition between the two sets of cultural signifiers “recalls the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of the superhero genre while gesturing toward new possibilities for the introduction of a Muslim hero” (455). Where Gibbons reads the inclusion of Urdu poetry as a movement toward inclusion, Khoja-Moolji and Niccolini argue that it marks Kamala as an outsider, making it seem “that only Kamala has culture and religion while white America is acultural and secular” (28). We would argue that whether the combined sign systems bring the Muslim into the secular/ Christian, or mark it as different, depends on the perspective and cultural competency of the reader. Both the verbal and the visual story-telling place this vision firmly within Kamala’s imagination and her own multiple

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knowledges: Urdu language and poetry from her cultural upbringing, Christian imagery—possibly from art history classes at the Academic High School she attends—and her pop culture heroes, the Avengers. When Kamala’s subconscious is looking for answers as the Terrigen mists unlock her innate Inhuman powers, it combines imagery that has helped her. By blending Muslim signifiers with Christian ones, and pop culture signifiers with religious ones, Wilson and Alphona emphasize similarities between the religious and secular ideologies, all of which are brought together in the mediating figure of the new Ms. Marvel. This idea of connecting apparently opposed belief systems and worldviews surfaces repeatedly throughout the comic. Although Muslim texts are often quoted, they tend to be “ecumenically friendly and generically inspirational” (Wanner 49). These connections seem explicitly set up to assuage readers’ fears about Muslims and to encourage nonMuslims to—as Aamir tells Kamala when she is sent to see Sheikh Abdullah at the  mosque—“Calm yourself. For real. […] just keep an open mind” (#6,  4–5). Sheikh Abdullah’s advice is generic enough to come from any religion or belief system. He tells her “to do what you are doing with as much honor and skill as you can” (#6, 6) and to do so “with the qualities befitting an upright young woman: Courage, strength, honesty, compassion, and self-respect” (#6, 6). Such positive teachings, focused as they are on individual growth and goodness, undercut fearmongering that mosques are breeding ground for terrorists. The comic also repeatedly links superhero ethics with Muslim ones. After Kamala saves her classmate Zoe, her first act as a superhero, she quotes her father quoting the Quran, as he does whenever he sees an act of terror on television: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind—and—whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind” (#2, 10). This line echoes Uncle Ben’s maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility,” bringing Kamala into the superhero world and simultaneously undercutting rightwing rhetoric of Islam as a religion that espouses violence. Likewise, at the end of the first series when the multiverse is facing collapse, Carol Danvers advises her namesake: “The fate of the world is out of your hands. It always was. But your fate—what you decide to do right now—is still up to you” which Kamala, in text boxes, links to “one of Sheikh Abdullah’s lectures. We all face the end alone, he said. And we have to account for our time on earth. The good and the bad. ‘What will be in the book of your life?’ he used to ask. ‘How will you be remembered?’” (#17, 5). By bookending Kamala’s first series with these explicit connections between Muslim and superhero ethics, Wilson suggests that a Muslim superhero is not a contradiction in terms. In repeatedly finding common ground, Ms. Marvel very explicitly espouses the liberal idea of shared humanity, in which cultural differences are viewed largely as superficial differences that create artificial borders

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between cultural groups.31 Before she gains super-powers, Kamala feels like an outsider, even in her multi-ethnic school. She asks, “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everyone else gets to be normal” (#1, 9). In each case, Joe Caramagna’s lettering places the marker of cultural difference in bold, demonstrating through typeface the way it stands out as a beacon of difference, at least in Kamala’s mind. The latter two markers emphasize the ways in which superficial differences are policed. Everyone eats, but different foods and spice palates are constructed as problems by those outside the culture. Most cultures have holidays, but all culture’s celebrations can seem “weird” to others. Even “being signed out of health class,” which suggests a deeper cultural difference, one that does not fit as well with the liberal ethics of the comic, aligns Kamala’s family with other religious groups, including some Christians, who are opposed to sexual education curriculums. The title of the issue is “No Normal,” which lets readers know, even before Kamala figures it out, that her assumptions about “everyone else” are wrong, because no one feels normal. As she ponders her difference, Alphona’s artwork shows her staring at her reflection in the mirror, and the positioning of the reader looking over Kamala’s shoulder and seeing her face in the mirror emphasizes that Kamala’s questioning of her identity reflects her reader’s own struggles. While her words mark her as different, the picture makes her universal. The mirroring that creates identity through difference again comes into play after Kamala has transformed, but before she has learned to control her powers. As Kamala is practicing, she accidentally turns into her mother; she herself looks over her shoulder into the mirror, and complains, “Ammi! Okay, I was totally going for Taylor Swift. This is getting Freudian” (Ms. Marvel #3,12). Here, Alphona’s positioning of Kamala and her reflection does not ask the reader to identify with the reflected image. Instead, the implied contrast between the blond pop icon (who shares some physical features with Carol Danvers) and the conservatively dressed older woman emphasizes Kamala’s own difficulties of balancing her family’s culture with her status as an American teenager. Conversely, Kamala’s assertion that the accidental transformation is “Freudian” (#3, 12) not only places her in the realm of Western psychology, but also universalizes her experience; turning into one’s mother is a fear that teenage girls everywhere might relate to. Unlike in the first image, where Kamala, dressed in Western clothes, is

At its most extreme, this desire to see racial difference as unimportant leads to “color-blind racism.” In “From Traditional to Liberal Racism: Living Racism in the Everyday,” Zamudio and Rios argue that “liberal principles” such as “the color-blind race project” deny “the existence of the structural disadvantage of people of color, while simultaneously obscuring the structural advantage or embedded racial privilege of whites” (487). While we would not argue that Ms. Marvel reaches this extreme, the focus on her relatability does allow some readers to avoid questioning the limits of their tolerance.

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looking directly at her own image, here Alphona places her back to the reflection that shows her as her mother, suggesting her difference from her parents and their iterations of Muslim culture, even as she remains connected to it. But by the end of the first storyline, Kamala’s identity stabilizes and her metamorphoses become less extreme. She can embiggen and shrink different body parts, but can no longer shapeshift into another person or object (#9, 12). She will never be her mother, or Carol Danvers, but she will be her own superhero, providing a model of personal development relevant to her teenage readers. While the comic draws these universalist lessons, it also allows for voices that see being Muslim as a unique identity. When Kamala’s brother Aamir is attempting to dissuade Bruno from pursuing a romance with Kamala, Bruno appeals to their shared experiences: “We’re not that different. We’re both from immigrant families. My Nonna is as crazy-religious as you are, no offence […] I know where you guys are coming from, ’cause I’ve been there” (#14, 14). Aamir’s response, however, rejects their shared identity as Americans from immigrant families, and clearly positions Bruno as an outsider: But my parents expect Kamala to marry someone like us. Because they don’t want our heritage to die out. They want their grandkids to feel connected to their religion, their language—They want their daughter to be proud of who she is, and to pass that pride down to the next generation. If you care about Kamala, you’d want those things for her too. (#14, 14) The debate between the two again demonstrates the importance of intersectionality to the comic, in which “difference” is not always equal, nor universally experienced. But the comic also leaves interpretation open to various audiences: readers are invited to support Bruno’s hope for romance with his best friend, but also to see the importance of the cultural considerations that Aamir raises. The politics of romance are just one way in which the comic engages with the complicated reality of being a Muslim in a Western nation. Like the X-Men, the comic uses superhuman status as a metaphor for ethnic/religious difference. In the “Crushed” arc (#13–15), Kamala encounters a group of new Inhumans—including Kamran, a Muslim Inhuman who is her first crush—who wish to exert their dominance over humans, in part because of human intolerance toward Inhumans. As she battles one of these Inhumans, Kamala complains: “It’s always the same. There’s always that one group of people who think they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them. And then everybody else who looks like them suffers” (#13, 19). While this speech is explicitly delivered to an Inhuman terrorist, the fact that it comes from the mouth of a Muslim-American superhero makes the connections to the Islamophobia that Muslims faced in the wake of 9/11 hard to miss. In fact, Kamran, who is both Muslim and Inhuman,

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casts the difference between Inhumans and human in terms of faith: “There’s no reason for you to keep wasting your energy to protect people who don’t believe what you believe. Who can’t do what you can do” (#14, 16). Kamran later kidnaps Aamir, the most devout Muslim in Kamala’s family, in the hope that he carries the Inhuman potential and that his experience as a Muslim in America will make him more likely to join the radical Inhuman cause. When Kamala avows that there is no way her brother would “agree to help psychopaths like you,” Kamran responds, “You think some little part of Aamir isn’t angry? Looking like he does, believing what he does … you think he doesn’t wish he could live in a world where he gets to make the rules” (#16, 13). This characterization of Aamir explicitly evokes both right-wing rhetoric that closely associates what they call “radical Islam” with terrorism and left-wing rhetoric that argues that American intolerance breeds such acts of resistance. The comic ultimately rejects both interpretations, and instead emphasizes that Muslim people are unique individuals who should not be cast as terrorists because of their faith. Kamala tells Kamran, “You have no idea what Aamir believes. Don’t you dare speak for him” (#16, 13), which is borne out when Aamir awakens and emphatically rejects both Kamran’s offer of power and his assumption that because Aamir is “a religious freak” (a label he wears proudly) he will side with the Muslim male and blame his sister “for whatever happened between you” (#18, 8). When he speaks for himself, his emphatic “Well, my brother, you are incorrect” (#18, 8) acts as a rebuke not only to Kamran, but also to any readers, Western or Muslim, who make assumptions about Muslim fundamentalism.32 The comic also specifically addresses the role of women in Islam. In Veiled Superheroes: Islam, Feminism, and Popular Culture, Sophia Rose Arjana argues that female Muslim superheroes “counter both Islamic and Western misogyny” (xv); Arjana situates Kamala as an important counter-example to stereotypes of the subservient, oppressed Muslim woman who needs saving by Western feminism. Kamala is a modern Muslim woman who does not wear a hijab, and who refuses to wear a burkini that her mother buys her until she transforms it into her own superhero costume (#4, 14). Her adoption and transformation of this modest Muslim swimwear emphasizes the importance of context. While the burkini can be read as a symbol of the repression of the female body, its signification transforms in conversation with typical female superhero outfits, which often appear to be less modest swimwear, or even body paint. Kamala initially wants to be Carol Danvers, but not in the contemporary costume with full coverage; she claims she While Khoja-Moolji and Niccolini argue that the comic’s “desire to interrupt rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia” at first “relies on, and (re)produces, stereotypical conceptualizations of Muslim masculinities as mirrored in men who are conservative, prone to irrational rage, pre-modern, anachronistic, and even bestial” they do acknowledge that the characterization of Muslim men as tyrannical shifts as the series progresses (24–5). Aamir’s statement is an excellent example of this shift.

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“would wear the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels” (#1,18); however, she quickly discovers the impracticality of the costume: “The hair gets in my face, the boots pinch … and this leotard is giving me an EPIC WEDGIE” (#2, 14). The impracticality of the wedgie also reminds Marvel readers of the many times the “classic” Ms. Marvel was depicted from behind, barely covered by her costume. In this context, the burkini is a feminist choice, which “communicates modesty, independence, and respect for one’s body” (Arjana 66) and suggests the practicality of having appropriate clothes in which to fight crime and save people. Kamala’s choice not to wear a hijab,33 except in religious situations, arguably makes her more palatable for Western audiences and, as Yanora argues, disrupts stereotypes “that a Muslim’s core identity is his or her religious identity” and “that Muslims never question their faith or practices” (128). Wilson, a White convert to Islam who wears the veil herself, presents the headwear as a choice. Kamala’s Turkish-American friend, Nakia, does wear one, and the comic critiques a Western bias that sees the headwear as oppressive. Zoe, who Bruno identifies as a “concern troll” (#1, 2), epitomizes Western prejudices: “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki. I love that color. […] But I mean … nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody’s going to, like honor kill, you? I’m just concerned” (#1, 3). Nakia’s response that her choice to wear the hijab goes against her father’s wishes (#1, 4) contradicts both Zoe’s and many readers’ expectations, as does her overt criticism of patriarchy in both Islam and Western culture. She leaves the mosque with Kamala as an unseen protest against sexual segregation (#3) and characterizes a school dance that Kamala drags her to as a “patriarchal capitalist display of fake affection” (#12, 13). That such overtly feminist phrasing and actions come from a woman who is pictured in a hijab creates a cognitive dissonance for those who, like Zoe, see it as a marker of oppression. Landis hopes that rather than “relating to Kamala,” readers will see their own prejudices in Zoe and “realize that they too held misconceptions about Kiki’s headscarf” (Landis 43). We would argue that, while readers might rethink such prejudices, the comic asks them to distance themselves from Zoe, at least in this issue, and to see her as a typical mean girl picking on the nerds, a trope that is common in American narratives. While veiled readers might see a positive role model in Nakia, Kamala, with her popular culture obsessions, is the protagonist, and she provides a vision of a hybrid Muslim America that does not challenge American norms to the extent that Nakia does. Finally, the comic does address the unique place of Muslims in post9/11 America, but only briefly. When Kamala is shot saving Bruno’s store from a hold-up by his brother Vic, her panic is based on what she knows of American policy: “I have to hide. The police—they can’t know it’s me. Arjana argues that the sash in Kamala’s Ms. Marvel costume operates as a “deconstructed veil” (66), but we would argue that it is the one feature she retains from Carol Danvers’s classic costume.

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My parents will freak, the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something” (#4, 6). But this explicit reference to the unique dangers a Muslim vigilante superhero might face is quickly dropped, and seldom repeated. Landis notes that “Kamala understands the connotations that surround her identity, the misconceptions, and acts of racism (direct or inadvertent) that may arise,” but argues that “instead of outright attempting to correct such misconceptions within the text, Kamala and her author G. Wilson identify them, draw the reader’s attention to them, but avoid being didactic” (42). We would argue that, in avoiding “being didactic,” Wilson might allow her audiences to sidestep the issues altogether, to celebrate the way that Kamala’s Muslim heritage demonstrates the multiculturalism of American society, but not to think through how specific American foreign and domestic policies affect Muslim-Americans. While we agree with Landis that Kamala’s difference from expected superheroes “creates an axis of identification for her readers, especially those who are members of the South Asian/American and Muslim diaspora” that belies “its creators’ reliance on the neoliberal rhetoric of sameness amidst difference” (43), we simultaneously see the validity of Wanner’s critique of the liberal desire for heroes to be “specifically cultural, uniquely individual, and relatably universal, all at once” (52). Warner sees Ms. Marvel as an embodiment of a liberal paradox “in which differences are held to unite rather than divide, and to matter most when they can be shown not to matter to one’s place in society” (52). We see the paradox as going even further: while the superficial and universal aspects of Kamala’s differences as a Muslim encourage readers to see her through the lens Wanner describes, more profound differences are apparent to Desi, and other Muslim readers, and lead to a more complex reading of what it means to be a Muslim superhero in America. Nevertheless, while Ms. Marvel performs more complicated work in terms of intersectionality than does Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, the continued focus on her relatability across cultural lines underlines the importance of liberal narratives of identity to Marvel’s diversity project.

Looking Forward: How Diversity Done Right Leads to Diversity Done Wrong These titles were both successful, at least in part, because they worked within the neo-liberal framework of the early millennium, a framework that, as we discussed in our introduction, allowed Marvel Comics to see diversity as a means of marketing to new and different consumers, without alienating old ones. However, we believe that both Ultimate Comics SpiderMan (2011–2013) and Ms. Marvel (2014–2015) ultimately support what Gibbons describes as “a North American neoliberal society that presents itself as accommodating when it embraces diversity through the trope of

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flexibility, while actually demanding unreasonable degrees of flexibility and adaptation from individuals” (451). While Miles and Kamala both claim the superhero role, they have to transform their lives and conform to mainstream American values in order to do so. Both heroes eventually rebel, quitting the Avengers in order to form their own superhero team in opposition to the superhero status quo;34 however, in these early series they enact the ideal of American multiculturalism, bringing their own flavor to the mix, but having their main aim to be accepted into the mainstream. Nevertheless, while their hybridity and success in their first series make Miles and Kamala relatively non-threatening and do not force readers to confront thorny political issues head on, both series also performed important political work. As Nama argues, even stereotypical and limited representations of Black superheroes offered “a futuristic and fantastic vision of blackness that transcended and potentially shattered calcified notions of blackness as a racial category and a source of cultural meaning” (6). We agree with Khoja-Moolji and Niccolini who see Ms. Marvel “as wielding potentially dynamic and transformative power in social imaginaries” (23) and with Aldama who places Miles Morales in a context in which comics create imaginary worlds that ask readers “to imagine new possible ways of existing in the real world” (92). If these characters had not been so successful, Marvel might not have gone ahead with their ANADM campaign, which included titles that provided, as we will argue in the next chapter, more pointed critiques of American society, and greater complexity in terms of identity politics in the twentyfirst century. However, we identify a problem in anti-diversity fans’ celebration of Miles and Kamala as “diversity done right.” Such a characterization suggests that more direct political interventions, open critique of American policy, challenges to exclusionary norms of the Marvel universe, and the promotion of characters who are not as easily accessible to a mainstream audience are politically and artistically questionable. Landis reads reactions to Ms. Marvel as demonstrating that “reconceiving a canonical Marvel superhero does hold important political power, whether the creators realize and claim it or not” (43). We would argue that, while characters such as Miles and Kamala can do important political work both for those who want to see themselves represented and for those who need help recognizing the humanity of people who are different than them,35 the very universal relatability that makes this identification possible puts limits on this recognition, limits that were exposed by Comicsgate and the more challenging storylines and characterizations in the ANADM campaign.

Though again, this rebellion is constructed as one based on generational conflict, arguably still working within a “universal” appeal.

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Sadly, an ongoing problem in society.

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3 “Captain America Is Black and Thor Is a Woman”: Gender- and Race-Bent Mantle Passing in Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Campaign

Marvel followed the success of Miles and Kamala with 2015’s All-New, All-Different Marvel campaign, to which we now turn. As the title suggests, this campaign entailed a massive shake-up in nearly all titles and teamups, with such foundational characters as Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine, and the Hulk all replaced by non-White and/or non-male characters, and with major transformations in teams such as the Avengers and the X-Men. As we discussed in the previous chapter, Kamala Khan and Miles Morales had been mostly welcomed by fans when they took on existing hero titles, but they were new characters and, most importantly, the “real” Ms./Captain Marvel and Spider-Man continued to exist in Marvel canon.1 Miles Morales and Kamala Khan also benefited from what Wilson, speaking of her own creation, identifies as the “paradox of low expectations. It is true that Ultimate Peter Parker and Mar-Vell had to die for the mantles to be available, but both die as heroes. Furthermore, Ultimate Peter Parker was always an alternate-universe Peter, who never reached the popularity of the 616 Peter, and he does return from the dead to endorse Miles as his replacement; likewise Mar-Vell’s death, which allowed Carol Danvers to assume the Captain Marvel mantle and leave Ms. Marvel for Kamala to pick up, is not only an extra step away from the young hero, but also occurred in 1982, so audiences had had a chance to get used to it (even if he does come back occasionally).

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The bar was set pretty low for Ms. Marvel, but because of Ms. Marvel’s success, that bar got set much higher for similar books that came later” (“So About”). That other changes to the superhero complement might not face such a generous reception from fans proved to be true. If Miles and Kamala represented a necessary freshening up of the superhero roster for a new, more diverse generation, then ANADM sent the message that the Marvel Universe as a whole required a complete overhaul, a decision with which many fans disagreed. The Gabriel diversity controversy, which we discussed in the introduction, came eighteen months into this transformation and, while there is not sufficient evidence to blame ANADM for Comicsgate as a whole, the coverage of Gabriel’s comments online, in both journalism and the blogosphere, featured extensive commentary from fans who declared that the wholesale mantle passing to new, “diverse” characters made them feel angry, disappointed, and even betrayed. Numerous fans described the move as “very heavy-handed pandering” (“smokinclone” on Kanayama). Specific complaints included the idea that while “Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales are examples of new and important unique characters,” the changes in ANADM were counterproductive because they came at the expense of fan favorites: “Pushing classic characters aside [and replacing them with] a ‘diversity’ character doesn’t serve anyone. In fact it alienates a large portion of their base and devalues the point of diversity” (“skateboardgreen” on Kanayama). Some even argued that the replacements insulted the very idea of diversity by implying that new characters could not stand on their own, but must instead usurp the mantle and thus the popularity of existing White, male characters: “having a Korean hero is great, but you’re not going to make him popular by having him take Bruce Banner’s place and then hav[ing] the latter killed off; you’re not going to make the Falcon a more popular character by hav[ing] him become Captain America … while Steve becomes a fucking Nazi, etc” (“Just Die Already” on Hughes). Such fan complaints were aimed directly at Marvel and argued to the corporate powers-that-be that, if they were attempting good progressive politics, they were going about it the wrong way. These responses to the changes stem not only from genuine fan disappointment, but also from the ways that Marvel used, and even manufactured, controversy as a marketing tool for the campaign. In this chapter, we will analyze how Marvel employed the idea of ANADM to overtly re-brand itself as politically progressive, both in its storylines and in its letter columns and creator/editor interviews with the press. This period of explicitly political story-telling gives us a window into how Marvel’s handling—and mishandling—of diversity at times betrays a lack of awareness of just how volatile this topic would come to be. In a Time article praising the passing of Mjolnir to Jane, Eliana Dockterman notes the danger of “Disrupting the fictional universes for longtime fans who can cite dialogue just from the mention of an issue number” (“Everyone” 79). And

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Zak Roman and Ryan Lizardi argue in “‘If She Be Worthy’: The Illusion of Change in American Superhero Comics” that “temporary diversity, no matter how progressive, becomes destructive when its logic is based more in marketing than in permanent representational changes” (20). To this, we add that the broad weaponization of fandom that has taken place since Gamergate in 2014 has allowed restorative fan nostalgia to serve some very ugly politics in terms of gender, race, and sexuality, and Marvel’s ANADM campaign arguably served to fuel anti-diversity sentiment more than it welcomed a new age of progressive story-telling. But we also assert that the transformations that took place in ANADM are not simply market-driven pandering that failed to add anything fresh to the superhero genre. While we will address the proliferation of mantle passing throughout the campaign, our close reading will focus on the challenges posed to gender and racial norms through two specific changes: the passing of Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, to Jane Foster, created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in 1962 to be the nurse and love interest of Thor Odinson when he was Dr. Don Blake, and the passing of Captain America’s shield to Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, Marvel’s first AfricanAmerican superhero, created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1969, who was Steve Roger’s partner throughout the 1970s. The politics of the changes are best depicted in Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuña’s Captain America: Sam Wilson (2015–2017) and Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s The Mighty Thor (2015–2018), but Rick Remender and Stuart Immonen’s All-New Captain America (2014–2015) and Aaron and Dauterman’s Thor (2014– 2015) introduced the new mantle holders and inform the ANADM titles. Sam and Jane differ from Miles and Kamala in that, instead of being new creations, they are long-established characters who have been “promoted” from supporting character to central hero. They also differ from newer characters in ANADM, such as Riri Williams and Amadeus Cho, in that they have long histories of their own, ones that link them to the characters whose mantles they take on. While promoting established characters could be read as a safe way to increase diversity, we argue that the story-telling in these comics exceeds the boundaries of character familiarity, and of fan comfort with it. These comics deliberately critique the story-telling of the past, engage in complex political exploration, and draw attention to the ways that women and minority characters have been, and continue to be, sidelined in the genre. In so doing, their stories reveal the absences, gaps, and silences in the original comics in ways that have significant and ongoing implications for the politics of these iconic mantles. Fans might complain that diversity stories “reduce” characters to tokens of their particular identity categories, but Jane Foster/ Thor and Sam Wilson/Captain America reveal just how much the unspoken politics of identity were at work in these mantles all along, and the kinds of rich characterization that can be produced when race and gender are carefully attended to. The creators used mantle passing, even if it was only

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temporary, to challenge tired tropes within the superhero genre; and it was their very success in doing so, we argue, that fueled much of the backlash they faced.

Marketing All-New, All-Different Marvel: Putting Mantle Passing in Context While mantle passing, temporary or permanent, is a widely accepted part of superhero story-telling, the second decade of the twenty-first century witnessed what Marvel Comics touted as a bold experiment in renewal and change. When Axel Alonso first took the reins as editor-in-chief in 2011, many of the line’s diverse characters were secondary characters or parts of team titles, and one of his first acts was cancelling Marvel’s only femalelead comic, X-23, which was not selling well. Alonso knew first-hand the importance of having a diverse roster, telling Time magazine: “It was always in the back of my mind that I’d like to see superheroes look like me or look like my son. So I’m always striving to make the next great Mexican superhero … When we decided to cancel X-23, it just hit us that this was really bad” (Dockterman, “Everyone” 78). Alonso’s mandate to increase diversity culminated in the ANADM campaign, which officially began in October 2015 after Secret Wars and finished with Secret Empire in 2017.2 Secret Wars depicted the collapse of the Marvel multiverse into a patchwork of worlds held together by the supervillain Doctor Doom, and concluded with the reforming of the main Marvel 616 universe, now called Marvel Prime. As ANADM rolled out, the idea that the universe had been restarted was echoed in the comics numbering. Every title started with a new #1 issue, whether it was a completely new title (such as The Totally Awesome Hulk), a relaunch with a new creative team and story (such as Captain America: Sam Wilson), or a continuation with the same team and ongoing story (such as Mighty Thor). Significantly, Marvel’s marketing for ANADM focused less on the idea that the multiverse had collapsed and been reformed into something new than it did on diversity, highlighting the importance of that aspect of the universe’s transformation to Marvel’s new future. Alonso made up for cancelling X-23 by explicitly looking to “develop a female superhero who would also be a hit in the marketplace,” asking editors to “Keep [diversity] While the two events make clear starting and end points for the campaign, the reality is fuzzier. Several All-New titles, including those for Jane Foster as Thor and Sam Wilson as Captain America, began before Secret Wars in the fourth, All-New Avengers phase of Marvel NOW! (2014); as well, ANADM overlapped with the Marvel NOW! 2.0 (2016–2017) and several of the All-New titles continue into the Marvel Legacy (2017–2018) branding, with the final ANADM title, All-New Wolverine, finishing in 2018 at the beginning of Fresh Start branding (2018–).

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in mind,” but also to “Write something we can sell” (qtd. in Dockterman, “Everyone” 78). This explicit connection between the two separate needs— representation and profitability—shows how “Marvel creates and/or revivifies capitalistic pathways reaching and expanding new demographics. All of these commercially driven creative tactics attempt to raise revenue, foment excitement amongst a more diverse readership/viewership, create more brand equity for the character, and appear to give the company a progressive aura of inclusion” (Roman and Lizardi 24). But the overlap between diversity and marketing is also at the heart of the Comicsgate backlash and, as a result, many of the arguments about the changes, on both sides, focus on the salability of diverse characters. Pro-diversity fans point to sales bumps from new characters to make their case; Jane Foster’s Thor (2014) outsold the title it replaced and Mighty Thor was Marvel’s second-highest seller (Kanayama). Anti-diversity fans counter these statistics by arguing that new, widely publicized “diversity” characters—like new number one issues—are a gimmick that might work to increase sales for an issue or two, but that the new fans will not support Marvel in the way the “traditional” fans have done. One fan, “Re-Man,” wrote to Marvel to complain about the changes, making his argument for the return of his heroes in financial terms: “I don’t know how many longtime fans you’ve lost, because I can tell you in my little circle of friends, you guys lost close to over $2000 a month” (All-New, All-Different Avengers #8, 14). Whether fans are fighting for or against diversity, it seems that sales are always the measure of whether or not one has scored a win. We want to avoid such reductive arguments. While we focus here on two of the more successful titles in this phase, it is important to recognize that the large-scale nature of the campaign was always about seeing which new characters would find an audience, and which would not. As we discussed in Chapter 1, comics are mass culture products, and their profitability is the primary concern for those who produce them; however, they are also a form of corporate art, and so reflect Marvel’s current branding. ANADM was not just about the immediate profitability of each new title or mantle passing, although Marvel certainly would have been looking to replicate the success they had found with the introduction of Miles and Kamala. ANADM was also about Marvel and their parent company Disney reading changing demographics and attitudes toward consumption and positioning themselves to take advantage of progressive branding. The sheer volume of new characters, roles, and titles that Marvel introduced in this period meant that there were always going to be successes and failures in ethical representation, in artistry, and in profitability, undermining any simplistic arguments both for and against the “get woke, go broke” mantra. Furthermore, an examination of the changes made from 2013 to 2016 highlights the many factors that have to be considered when evaluating Marvel’s success at diversifying its titles. First and foremost, the scope of the transformation was unprecedented: Marvel implemented massive and

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wide-reaching changes to the entire line, including both new characters and mantle passing on a scale that had not been seen before. They launched sixteen new titles with female leads between 2013 and 2015 (Dockterman, “Everyone” 79) and, of the titles that Marvel launched or relaunched as part of ANADM, roughly half featured leads who were not White males or their non-human stand-ins.3 The campaign saw the first solo title for longstanding characters, such as Mockingbird, and revivals of characters who had been out of the limelight for decades, such as Red Wolf and Patsy Walker. And while changes in major teams such as the Avengers are common, by the end of 2016 the only one of the original six MCU Avengers who was active and not somehow disgraced in the comics was Black Widow; significantly, she is also the only woman on the team. Tony Stark/ Iron Man was in a coma, Bruce Banner/Hulk was dead4 and Clint Barton/ Hawkeye was on trial for his murder, Steve Rogers/Captain America was a secret Hydra agent (which we will discuss in detail in the next chapter), and Thor Odinson had found himself unworthy and unable to wield Mjolnir. All five White male characters had been succeeded by a woman and/or by a person of color. In addition, Logan/Wolverine, the most popular White male on the X-Men team, had died and been replaced by Laura Kinney as the All-New Wolverine (2015–2018) in a title that was more successful and longer running than her X-23 title that Alonso had cancelled in 2012. These characters differ from Miles Morales and Kamala Khan in that in each case Marvel’s corporate strategy entailed that the original character be stripped of power specifically so that the mantle can be passed. G. Willow Wilson, weighing in on the Gabriel controversy, implicitly criticizes many of these mantle passings: “This is a personal opinion, but IMO launching a legacy character by killing off or humiliating the original character sets the legacy character up for failure. Who wants a legacy if the legacy is shitty?” (“So About”). As Wilson points out, linking the wholesale introduction of “diverse” legacy characters with the wrong-doing, flaws, or diminishment of the originals arguably invites fans, particularly those who closely identify with the original characters, to see themselves as flawed and replaceable, an outdated fanbase that Marvel is rejecting in favor of attracting a new one. And, certainly, many of the younger diverse replacements were meant to attract a new generation of readers: the half-Latino Sam Alexander put on his father’s Nova helmet in February 2013, filling a hole left by the death of Richard Ryder; Latino Robbie Reyes became the All-New Ghost Rider in March 2014, the same time as Kamala entered the scene; Korean-American

It is difficult to come up with exact percentages as there are numerous one-shots, limited series, and team-up titles on both sides, because what counts as “diversity” in speculative story-telling includes many grey areas (is Vision a diverse character?), and because the end date for the campaign is not explicit.

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He gets better.

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Amadeus Cho became the Totally Awesome Hulk in 2015, taking over from Bruce Banner; nine-year-old African-American Lunella Lafayatte became Moon Girl in 2016, a replacement for Moon Boy; African-American Riri Williams/Ironheart filled in for Iron Man when Tony Stark was in a coma starting in 2016; Nadia Pym, a younger Wasp, was introduced in 2016; and Kate Bishop began her first solo Hawkeye series in 2016. These replacements all focus on younger, more diverse characters replacing older, less diverse ones. Furthermore, teenage versions of the original six X-Men were brought forward in time and became the focus of the All-New X-Men launched in 2013; in this series, Iceman is not only younger, but also gay, arguably reframing a character who had always been represented as straight. Together with new lines featuring other diverse teenagers, such as America Chavez and Gwenpool, these transformations and additions were all aimed at broadening Marvel’s audience in the younger generation and pitched at a variety of identity categories so as to market the brand to new demographics going forward. Backlash against these characters is not, therefore, entirely subsumable to identity politics; as well, whether or not Marvel was successful in gaining a younger audience is complicated by younger people consuming comics more in trades than in the floppies that Marvel uses to gauge sales figures. The many changes and replacements did gain Marvel a great deal of mainstream publicity, which was clearly the point, and produced a significant backlash, which may also have been the point. On Free Comic Book Day in 2015, five months before the official launch of ANADM, Marvel released an All-New, All-Different Avengers comic that operated as a preview of the rebranding. The ANADM Avengers included core Avengers heroes Tony Stark/Iron Man and the Vision; newcomers Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, and Sam Alexander/Nova; and new mantle holders Sam Wilson/Captain America and Jane Foster/Thor. The marketing for the comic highlighted the idea that such changes would be controversial and meet with some resistance. Tom Brevoort crowed to Wired: “It’s an All-New, All-Different Avengers for an All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe! […] So throw out your preconceptions about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as we change the game, rewrite the rules and destroy childhoods with an Avengers team that more closely reflects the world outside your window!” (Kamen). Brevoort’s claim that the corporation is deliberately attempting to “destroy childhoods” refers to a regular complaint across many fandoms that reboots and reinterpretations of a text constitute an attack on long-term fan’s nostalgic memories,5 but his brash assertion is also clearly a marketing ploy, one that ironically evokes a different form of nostalgia. He hearkens back here to the days of Stan Lee’s Soapbox, positioning Marvel Comics as a progressive

George Lucas’s changes to the original Star Wars trilogy are an obvious example, as discussed in the 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas.

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voice that privileges diversity politics over fan pressure to maintain the status quo. While insulting one’s own fan and consumer base might seem like bad business, we argue that Marvel employed this tactic to separate Marvel from soulless corporate culture at a time when media consolidation and its effect on culture are a significant public concern. Certainly, the marketing is aimed at gaining a new, more politically conscious audience, as well as rewarding those long-term fans who identify with Marvel’s more progressive roots. However, it is also deliberately provocative, and frames Marvel as an ethical corporation, taking a side against their own financial interests by standing up to regressive fans who might reject the changes. Finally, Marvel emphasized the diversity of some creators, both those who had been around for some time, such as Gregory Pak writing Totally Awesome Hulk, and some who were new to the genre, most prominently Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther. But the diversity of the creators took a back seat to the diversity of the characters, and much of the ANADM campaign was still helmed by White men. As we discussed in the introduction, the diversification of Marvel’s creative and editorial team faced backlash from those who saw it as politics-based hiring that favored identity over knowledge and skill. But a lack of diversification in the creative pool also led to questioning from pro-diversity fans about just how different ANADM really was in terms of representation and progressive politics. In “The Return of the Author,” Kristina Busse argues that “authors have returned to the forefront of interpreting texts not via interpretive privilege or singular access to the meaning of their writing but via their identity and how that identity affects reading and writing practices” (55). For many fans and critics, the identity of the creative bench was just as important as the identity of the character being depicted. Kelly Kanayama, in her response to the Gabriel controversy, highlights Marvel’s own mishandling of diversity in the very stories touted as promoting progressive politics: When Brian Michael Bendis writes Miles Morales as being upset with a fan who mentions his black heritage, or when Nick Spencer has Sam Wilson apologize to Steve Rogers for any activism-fueled anger he may have displayed in the past, it comes off as tone-deaf and leaves readers understandably less than thrilled … Let’s also remember SHIELD #8 (2015), written by Mark Waid, where a black woman viewing her young son’s corpse remarks, “He was no angel”—the same phrase used to vindicate Michael Brown’s murder. Understanding the varied fan reactions to ANADM is therefore complicated by a variety of factors: the deliberate decision by Marvel to pitch the stories as controversial; a transformation in story-telling to attract a younger audience; a replacement of fan favorites that might invite fans to see themselves, by extension, as “unworthy”; and a mishandling of diversity that arguably betrays a shallow understanding of just what such diversification might entail on the level of creator, character, and story.

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But if Marvel’s ANADM marketing sought a connection to the past in order to promote its future in ways that, arguably, inflamed its fanbase and served as evidence of the company’s shallow pandering to new audiences, some of its creators nevertheless took this opportunity to engage in a form of nostalgia that opened up new and creative possibilities for superhero mantles. While both the stereotypical angry fan and arguably Brevoort himself rely too heavily on an idealized version of the silver age of Marvel Comics, and thus engage in “restorative nostalgia,” or, a desire to return to “truth and tradition” (Boym xviii), we argue that The Mighty Thor and Sam Wilson: Captain America instead exemplify “reflective nostalgia,” which allows for “a more conscious, complex attitude towards the past,” and “a more successful interpretation of the past as a resource” (Horvath 151). Reflective nostalgia “can present an ethical and creative challenge” (Boym xviii) to the object of nostalgia, as it is “suspicious of the retrospective gaze” (Boym 29) even while it revisits and hearkens back to the past critically. Sam Wilson and Jane Foster offer a clear example of how mantle passing can simultaneously appeal to the past and to progress and transformation. Jane and Sam’s historical prominence in what Stan Lee called the “Marvel Age” of comics, during the 1960s and 1970s, certainly speaks to a return to roots.6 The writers draw on fan knowledge of Sam Wilson and Jane Foster and use specific references to past comics to reward “hardcore fans who can be flatteringly positioned as connoisseurs or opinion leaders within organic fan communities” (Beaty 324), but they also ask these fans to reread those past comics critically and think through how the new mantle holders challenge the racial and gender politics of that past. Sam and Jane have been part of Marvel comics continuity for half a century, with Sam being a superhero for all that time, but in ANADM they occupy roles that are more central to Marvel Comics and to the Avengers—Thor was an original Avenger, and Captain America joined the team in the fourth issue. They both struggle to find their place with their new mantles and experience a tension with the “original” mantle holder, as Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson do not always agree with the actions of their successors. Significantly, Aaron and Spencer both explicitly link the conflicts between old and new mantle holders to the politics arising from their differing subject positions. These tensions are exacerbated by the diminishment of the original mantle holders, and by the ascension of the new mantle bearers, from love interest and side-kick/partner to central protagonist of their own stories. As Albert S. Fu points out, characters of color are generally either sidekicks “such as Tonto for the Lone Ranger or Kato for the Green Hornet,” or “they were ‘regional’ heroes such as Zorro in the Hispanic American South-west, or Asian action heroes from Asia (not Asian-American). Like

Jason Aaron and Chris Robison both further this connection by responding to positive letters in support of Jane Foster/Thor with Stan Lee’s trademark “Nuff Said!” (Thor (2014) #1, 24 and Mighty Thor #3. 23).

6

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other heroes of color, black superheroes are marked by their ‘blackness’ both visually and in name” (276). Women in the superhero genre have also often been sidelined; while “female superheroes in the 1940s were generally clever, strong, and independent” (Cocca 7), “Female superheroes of the early 1960s suffered both quantitatively and qualitatively. They were not at all diverse, and they were markedly less threatening in their names and powers” (9). If this period saw female superheroes confined to romantic plots that hindered their development as characters, non-superheroic love interests like Jane Foster were offered even less depth of character and field of action. And while it is not surprising that a secondary character such as a side-kick or love interest should experience a life that is, well, secondary to the heroic exploits of the main character, it means that “Marginalized groups have been forced to ‘cross-identify’ with those different from them while dominant groups have not … white males have not had to identify with the small number of women and people of colour protagonists” (Cocca 3). Gender- and race-bending in contemporary popular culture can redress this imbalance and, in so doing, provide complex, positive representation for those who have not seen themselves reflected in the culture they consume; it encourages empathy and identification with, rather than objectification of, women and people of color by those who are used to seeing themselves reflected in the heroes.7 And when that representation is combined with mantle passing, particularly mantles central to the Marvel universe, creators have the opportunity to challenge their readers’ fundamental understandings of what it means to be a hero.

From Love Interest to (In)Vulnerable Superhero: Jane Foster/Thor and Why Gender Matters As discussed in Chapter 1, creators can use a variety of story-telling methods to take risks with valuable and beloved properties, and certainly the idea of Jane Foster as a superhero required just such a risk to come to fruition. As the love interest from the early days of Thor, Jane Foster was a lovelorn damsel in distress, low in complex characterization. However, a 1978 issue of What If … ? (#10), written by Don Glut and drawn by Rick Hoberg, dared to imagine who and what Jane Foster might have been had the Marvel universe offered her a greater scope of action. Aptly titled “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” this retelling has Jane taking on the awkward name of “Thordis” and living out many of Thor’s early

And while responses to race- and gender-bending are often vitriolic, we should remember that White washing has been a problem for far longer.

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adventures, with her gender seldom changing the outcome of the battles. Thus, the comic suggests that gender is not significant when it comes to the mantle of Thor, and that differences in power and leadership are based on social perception, rather than ability. But it also stands as an oblique criticism of Jane’s shallow characterization in the main timeline, implying that, somewhere in the multi-verse, Jane Foster has far more depth of character and far more to do than her role as love interest allows. Thordis co-founds the Avengers, and her declaration, “I like these Avengers! They don’t get intimidated by my powers … especially considering I’m a woman,” emphasizes the Avengers’ acceptance of a woman as the physically strongest member of the team, while the qualifier acknowledges that much of society is not so liberal-minded (21). With this comment, Glut directly critiques the audience and society of the age when Thor was first created. Glut’s ending, unfortunately, undoes much of this interesting work, instead reiterating the limitations placed on female superheroes at the time of the comic’s publication. Odin reveals Don Blake’s true identity as Thor Odinson and returns Mjolnir to its “rightful” owner. He then transforms Jane into a goddess—an act he always resisted in the main timeline because he did not approve of a relationship between Thor and Jane, and because he repeatedly found Jane “unworthy”—and marries her. While Glut presents this marriage and elevation in status as a victory, the combination of marriage to the father of her true love, itself a literal reification of patriarchy, with the knowledge of how Odin repeatedly belittles Jane in canon, rings hollow. What If … ? #10 opens up the possibility of Jane Foster being Thor, but its conclusion marks a return to the status quo, and it ultimately suggests that a woman temporarily wielding the hammer would only change things for that individual, and even then, not necessarily for the better. While the What If … ? Jane Foster/Thordis comic served as a diverting thought experiment at the time of its publication, it highlights the far more complex way in which Jason Aaron approached the idea in 2014; he negotiates Jane Foster’s assumption of the mantle of Thor as both a continuation and transformation of that mantle. In a letter in the final issue of Thor: God of Thunder Aaron emphasizes continuity: It’s the same story. The same direction in which I have always been moving. The same characters and settings. The same stakes and tone. The same heavy metal soundtrack. The same “dark Kirby” vibe. The same all-encompassing love of beards and mead. Though there will be just one notable difference. There’s about to be a brand new Thor in town. And she can sling a hammer with the best of ’em. That’s right. SHE. (#25, 31) Jane might be an “All-New” Thor, but Aaron assures audiences that her gender does not supersede the nine points that are “the same.” Jane’s ability

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to become Thor, in a transformation that—because it is triggered by an enchanted hammer—goes beyond a costume change, suggests that mantle passing paradoxically provides stability, allowing a role to continue even when occupied by a new person. Therefore, when a shadowy figure whispers “there must always be a Thor” (Thor (2014–2015) #1, 22) as she picks up Mjolnir, she sets up one of the major themes of the run. Jane Foster’s whisper echoes Nick Fury’s whisper of truth to Odinson in the Original Sin event—also penned by Aaron—a whisper that made him drop the hammer (Original Sin #7, 15–16), and so creates a symmetry linking the making unworthy with the making worthy. These whispered truths are in tension with each other. We eventually learn the content of Nick Fury’s whisper: that “Gorr was right” (The Unworthy Thor #5, 16). Gorr the God Butcher is the villain of the first two arcs of Aaron’s run; he was driven mad by his gods’ refusal to answer prayers, and so goes on a quest to kill all gods on the grounds that they, and the religions they inspire, have devastating effects on the people they claim to help. While Aaron is highly critical of religion and of gods who demand fealty throughout his run on Thor, from the first Gorr arc (2012) to War of the Realms (2019), Jane’s whisper implies that—while Gorr is right about gods and religion—the role of Thor transcends that of one specific Norse god. James Whitbrook argues that what makes Mighty Thor one of the best Marvel comics in recent years is the way Aaron uses Jane to negotiate the tensions between Asgard and Midgard (Earth) that are a mainstay of Thor comics: In almost every version of Thor, the point of being placed between these two realms, between gods and humankind, is to show the need for both, for a faith in the good of both, despite vast differences between them. Jane encapsulates that on a literal and spiritual level throughout Mighty Thor, not just because of the dichotomy between her failing human body and her all-powerful goddess form, but because of the crises of faith that have tested her throughout her long relationship with the Odinson and into her time as Thor herself. (Whitbrook “Faith”) The reveal of Jane’s identity to the readers, which happens at the end of the first series, is accompanied by an inner monologue in which she clarifies the meaning of her initial assertion: “The world needs a Thor. That’s all that really matters. We need a god who understands what it means to be humbled. To be mortal. A god who knows how precious life is. How delicate. A god who struggles every day to lead a worthy life. Who suffers so that no one else will have to” (Thor (2014–2015) #8, 20–1). While the rhetoric of this statement echoes Christian mythology more than Norse, a connection reinforced by Jane’s eventual sacrificial death and resurrection, Aaron depicts Jane’s strength as coming from her humanity rather than her divinity. Jane Foster as Thor reflectively brings back the duality of Thor

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as Don Blake, a form Odin chose as a punishment so his son would learn humility, and so returns the mantle to its earliest Marvel roots. However, Aaron’s run also explicitly highlights the specific challenge that a female Thor represents to the status quo. Thor Odinson makes a spectacle of himself in front of all of Asgard upon the loss of his hammer. He kneels shirtless and defeated, refusing to eat, to sleep, or to speak to anyone “except the hammer” (Thor (2014–2015) #1, 7) that had dropped from his hand at the end of Original Sin. Dauterman’s art in the opening pages renders Odinson as an abject, crouched figure, ending with him pathetically wiping his nose as his father berates him and the shadowy image of Nick Fury whispering hovers above him in the stars (9). Aaron uses the conflict between Odin the All-Father, who has recently returned to Asgard, and Freyja the All-Mother, who had been ruling in his stead, to suggest two different ways of reading Thor’s fall. His Father angrily asks: “What absurdity have thou allowed to befall thee here, boy? How is it possible that the prince of Asgard, the one true God of Thunder, the Odinson … has become unworthy?” (7–8). The focus on masculine bloodline and loss of power demonstrates Odin’s own fear of replacement, and—even before Jane picks up the hammer—he blames women: “This is what happens when an All-Mother is left in charge of Asgard” (10). Freyja, however, suggests that her son should not read the loss of Mjolnir as a loss of his identity: “Worthiness should not be defined by the whims of magic weapons. Rise my son, and let the hammer be damned. Rise and remember the hero that you are” (11).8 The suggestion that worthiness is internal rather than external undercuts the hierarchical reasoning of Odin, and shows Jane’s godhood as part of a larger social change. Where Marvel’s past “attempts to appeal to female readers through female superheroes” have been marked—at best—“by complex negotiations between female (and/or feminist) needs and male (and/or patriarchal) expectations” (Peppard 109), Aaron writes a female-centered text that criticizes patriarchy as harmful to both men and women, and Dauterman’s art appeals to a female gaze as much as a male one. Jane Foster’s story therefore openly acknowledges the challenge her assumption of the mantle offers to the one who held it before her, and through it, to the ruling power structures of the Marvel Universe as a whole. Furthermore, because Marvel only announced that “a woman” would become Thor, with the mystery of her identity continued through her first series, the new Thor’s gender is inevitably more important to her role in this first series than is her own history as Jane Foster. When Jane picks up the hammer, the focus is on Mjolnir, rather than her. The panels slowly move in from a wide shot of the abandoned icon to a close-up as the hammer begins to lift from the ground; its inscription, which has been the same since

8

This sentiment is picked up, but placed in the mouth of Odin, in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

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Don Blake first picked it up, changes in a crackle of blue lightning, adding an “s” so that it reads, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if she be worthy, shall possess the power of … Thor” (Thor (2014–2015) #1, 22). While in the 1960s, the pronoun “he” was used both for men and as the universal default, that grammatical construction of gender suggests that the default position is male, and that a female is somehow a special case. The change from “he” to “she” does not solve the larger pronoun problem, but it does emphasize that the holder of the hammer does not need to be male to be worthy. The transformation in Mjolnir’s inscription, together with Freyja’s earlier personification of the “magic hammer,” suggests a change not only in the wielder, but also in the mantle itself. Jane has a more collaborative relationship with Mjolnir than Odinson ever did. While Aaron’s run has a recurring character of a young Thor, c. 900 CE, who cannot yet lift Mjolnir and struggles to become worthy, Jane and Mjolnir’s relationship is reciprocal, and modeled on cross-species relationships, rather than on the use of a tool as a sign of dominance. She kisses Mjolnir and tells it that it is a “Good hammer” (Thor (2014–2015) #7, 19). It speaks to her. It even takes her form to save her from S.H.I.E.L.D agents (Mighty Thor #11, 3). In Jane’s form, Mjolnir tells her, “Your heart is stronger than even your thunder, my lady. That’s what makes you worthy. That’s why I chose you” (17). The close identification between the two suggests that Jane Foster is more truly Thor than was the original holder of the mantle. Their relationship also spits in the face of Odin, who put the initial enchantment on Mjolnir because the hammer was “too wild and untamed for even the god, and if it would not be wielded by him, then it could rot for all he cared” (Mighty Thor #12, 18). In emphasizing these changes to Mjolnir, Aaron’s story depicts gender as something that actually matters when it comes to power relations, that might challenge what superheroism should look and be like. Because the focus of the first series is so much upon the change in gender of the mantle holder, Aaron’s story also delves into the challenges faced by a female superhero operating in a sexist society. For example, in the second issue of her run, the new Thor faces off against both Frost Giants and Dario Agger, head of the Roxxon corporation. The villains belittle Thor, and question her legitimacy. The Frost Giants suggest that Jane is a “scrawny little girl” who makes a “mockery” of the role, or that she is not real but a trick pulled by Loki. Either way, they see battling her as “so humiliating, seems almost a shame to have to kill her” (Thor (2014–2015) #2, 17). Dario Agger’s quip, “I’ve met Thor. I’ve punched Thor. You’re no Thor” (17), echoes Lloyd Benson’s belittling of Dan Quale in the 1988 vice-presidential debates—“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”—which has become political shorthand to rebuke anyone who is trying to elevate themselves by association with a beloved icon. The perspective of Dauterman’s accompanying image adds to

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the intimidation, with the viewer placed, like Jane, looking up at the Giants, emphasizing her physical smallness. The fact that the story openly addresses the sexism Jane Foster/Thor might face as a female superhero is not necessarily a weakness, but there are times when Aaron’s first Jane Foster series is too self-congratulatory in its treatment of gender, reflecting some of the creative dangers of overtly political writing. In one particularly pointed episode, Aaron takes both positive and negative reactions to the mantle passing that could have come from internet comments or letters pages, and places them in the mouths of villains. First Crusher Creel/Absorbing Man dismisses Jane, complaining: “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 (2014–2015) #5, 5). The target of the parody here is low-hanging fruit, and while it might be cathartic when Jane breaks his jaw, the defeat comes not from the hero but from another woman who respects what she is doing. Crusher’s partner Titania is so impressed that Thor is a woman and not “called She-Thor, or Lady Thunderstrike or nothing like that” (7) that, in a “one time girl-power pass,” she gives herself up to the hero “out of respect for what you’re doing. Can’t have been easy for you. Hasn’t been for me either” (8). Titania’s affirmations here echo many of the letters to the comic, each of which emphasizes what the positive female representation means to the writer, and Aaron thus suggests that those staunch defenders of Thor help her win battles; however, the moment is heavy handed, and was commented on by numerous fans as a particularly on-the-nose bit of writing. Fans commenting on the Gabriel controversy on the r/books sub-reddit9 singled out this “girl-power pass” incident as particularly worthy of scorn, and emblematic of the worst of Marvel’s diversity writing: “sonofableebblob” exclaims, “holy god damn. even as a girl, that is FUCKING annoying. ESPECIALLY as a girl” and grafton29 complains about “fem Thor stop[ping] the fight to talk about feminism.” Clearly, neither fan saw this as a seamless incorporation of feminist themes into the story arc, but rather, registered it as a moment of preachiness and “moral superiority” (“I_am_ the_ginger”) on the part of the creators. Similarly, Odinson’s list of women he suspects of being Thor—a list that points to the many worthy women in the Marvel universe—triggers another “girl power” moment when he uses it to find an army to back up his usurper. In a splash page, the reader is positioned looking over Jane’s shoulder to see Odinson and his mother leading an army of women arriving to aid Jane in battle. Freyja’s call “Am I right, ladies?” (Thor (2014–2015) #7, 21) emphasizes the power of women working together as a community, but again, the artificiality of the moment, in which superhero women all simultaneously gather together to answer

9

Discussing Sian Cain’s article for the Guardian (“Marvel Executive”).

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the call of another woman, arguably undermines the scene in its obvious, pandering address to its audience.10 It should be noted, however, that most such incidents happen in the first run where Thor’s human identity is a mystery, making her gender her defining feature. Once it is revealed that Thor is Jane Foster, she becomes more than simply a representative of her gender; rather, her gender is only one part of her transformation of the mantle. Aaron draws on her long history with Odinson and with his family and people, her movement from nurse to doctor, her work as the Senator from Earth in the Congress of Worlds, and her battle with cancer to give Jane depth and nuance that make her much more interesting than “Thor, but a woman.” For example, one of the strongest ways the Jane Foster/Thor run critiques gender is through hearkening back to the character’s long history in ways that critically examine her role as a love interest in the early days of Thor. Her first appearance was in Thor’s second appearance (Journey Into Mystery #84), where Lee and Kirby introduced her as Don Blake’s nurse, who, despite their mutual attraction, he would not pursue because he saw his own disability as making him unworthy of her affections (#84, 4). Throughout the early years of Thor comics, Jane is depicted as standing loyally by Don Blake, running the office and making excuses to patients for his unexplained absences, and putting up with his reticence to develop their relationship despite his eventual protestations of love. She later accepts his inability to stand up to his father, who she identifies as the main reason their relationship failed: “I was never good enough for the All-Father. Never worthy” (Mighty Thor #5, 3). In some of the early issues, Jane also has a crush on Thor, whose dashing and romantic heroism she sees in opposition to the stuffy reticence of Dr. Blake. Kirby depicts Jane’s daydream in which she polishes Thor’s hammer11 and irons his cloak; she imagines that “he’d complain about my fussing, but I know he’d secretly enjoy it” (Journey into Mystery #89, 5). Lee, Lieber, and Kirby use Jane’s fantasy of doing domestic chores for Thor to parody idealized American domesticity at the time, since Thor so obviously does not fit the narrative; but Jane, rather than Thor, is the object of their satire. By contrast, Aaron critically re-examines Jane’s role as love interest in ways that are both about gender and about the character herself. Jane’s position as nurse, assistant, and love interest in the earlier comics places her outside the world of action that is Thor’s domain, and suggests, perhaps, that Odin is right and that she is too far beneath him for their relationship to work. But in Aaron’s run she rejects that secondary role, not to rekindle her relationship with Thor, but to be Thor. She throws an asteroid at the

It also prefigures the moment in the final battle of Avengers: Endgame (2019) when all the female heroes join together to help Captain Marvel, a scene that similarly elicited mixed reviews (Kane).

10

Not an explicit euphemism, although it does link domesticity and sexuality.

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All-Father in battle, asking “Am I Worthy enough for you now?” (Mighty Thor #5, 4). Jane also notes Thor’s own role in the failure of their relationship, telling Rosalind Solomon: “I loved Donald Blake like no man I’d ever known. And I knew that he loved me. But for far too long what I didn’t know was that he had a secret. Donald Blake was the Mighty Thor. When I found out, I felt like such a fool” (Mighty Thor #11, 19). Rather than protecting her with his secrecy, Jane’s “one true love” let her down. By explicitly and critically referring back to earlier comics, Aaron not only suggests Jane’s growth as a character, but also rejects the ways in which female characters in those comics were passively affected by male characters’ actions, or even inactions. Aaron most explicitly criticizes this passivity in Jane’s rejection of her early role as the stereotypical damsel in distress. It was common in the Lee and Kirby comics for Jane to be kidnapped or otherwise endangered as a way for the villain to manipulate Thor. For example, when Loki discovers Thor’s human identity, he visits Don Blake in his office, and puts Jane under a spell so that she will obey his commands (Journey into Mystery #88, 5); he then makes Thor choose between picking up his hammer and maintaining his identity, or saving Jane from a tiger he has conjured (7). When Jane first encounters Loki in her new role as Thor, she cuts off his pleas that he has changed and wants to create new stories, as she is doing, because she cannot completely escape those old stories. She knocks off the head of his avatar with a hammer, thinking: The first time I ever crossed paths with Loki, he brainwashed me and tried to feed me to a tiger in central park. In those days he was always kidnapping me to use as a prop in his schemes against Thor. He treated me as a plaything. Never cared if I lived or died. If he knew it was Jane Foster who now commands the thunder, he’d know not to waste his breath. This is one Thor who will never trust a Loki. (Mighty Thor #3, 5–6) While Jane’s suspicions are reasonable, the narrative itself suggests that Loki is trying to change, and Jane’s inability to work with him because of past conflict points both to the limitations of those narratives and to the difficulty of changing them. In trying to escape the narrative of damsel in distress—a role she obviously no longer plays—Jane ends up re-inscribing the story of Thor and Loki that has been told since that time. With this ironic conflict, Aaron demonstrates how gendered narratives have repercussions that cannot be erased simply by rejecting one past narrative. Finally, Aaron critically re-examines the Thor mantle through exploring Jane’s illness. She is the only woman who Odinson crosses off his list of possible Thors, not because she is unworthy, but because of her cancer—a fact that suggests that he has forgotten the duality of being both the God of Thunder and “lame Dr. Blake.” Aaron’s run began with three Thors from different eras, and he also writes three Janes, who exist simultaneously: Thor,

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the cancer patient, and the woman who mediates between the other two identities. Jane hides in her Thor identity as a way to escape “thinking about cancer or chemo or the problems of poor, frail Jane Foster” (Mighty Thor #3, 19). Transforming into Thor gives Jane strength and power, but it also “neutralizes the effects of the chemotherapy” making her weaker every time she returns to human form. It does not purge her body of the cancer cells that are consuming it “because cancer is just another part of me now” (#1, 18). In this way, Jane Foster differs greatly from the Donald Blake/Thor Odinson dichotomy, in which Thor’s power represents what José Alaniz, in Death Disability and the Superhero, calls an “overcompensation” for disability: “Almost universally, the superpower will erase the disability, banishing it to the realm of the unseen, replacing it with raw power and heroic acts of derring-do in a hyper-masculine frame” (36). Jane’s transformation into Thor grants her immense physical strength and beauty, but because her illness is her, there is no escaping from or erasing it through her superheroic transformation. Instead, her story focuses intimately on the relationship between the body and the self, and in so doing challenges the “structuring principle of the super-body,” namely, “that it comes about … through an always-erased though always-implied disabled/dying/dead body” (25). In Mighty Thor, that dying body is not erased; rather, it is central to the story and to Jane’s sense of self. Tellingly, Dauterman’s art directly links Jane’s super-body to her cancerridden body in that neither the blonde goddess nor the frail, bald patient looks like the brown-haired Jane Foster of the past fifty years of comics continuity; Jane is afraid of losing herself in either alternate identity. They are both her, and yet, neither is fully her, so her fear is that of losing her “self,” either through death from cancer, or by forgetting Jane Foster and “staying the Goddess of Thunder forever” (Mighty Thor #20, 14). While Don Blake sees his disability as emasculating in the early comics, Jane’s cancer suggests that recognizing and accepting vulnerability is its own form of strength, and that one does not need to be an invulnerable god to be a hero. Mighty Thor includes many letters from people with and survivors of cancer and their families who praise the comic for speaking to their experiences.12 For example, Marla writes that her “Mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer around the same time that it was revealed that the new Thor was Jane Foster—who also happened to have cancer.” While her initial impulse was to quit reading because the storyline hit too close to home, she found the parallels filled her with inspiration and hope: “My Mum’s bravery and strength matches that of Jane Foster. No matter how much life keeps trying to drag her down, she fights and fights and fights” (#21, 22). Aaron presents Jane’s fight against cancer as equivalent to her cosmic battles, and

See also letters from Charles Hilton (#4, 23); separate letters from Justin and F.J. (#5, 23); from Wadzi (#15, 21); from Bellan (#17, 21); and from Jamie Grace-Duff (#704, 23).

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her assertion that “When you are a ninety-pound woman dying of cancer … it does feel good to punch god in the face” (#5, 13) emphasizes her strength in the battle. The god she punches might literally be Odin, who has been a blocking figure to her for half a century, but the reference to her illness suggests that she is also fighting back at the fates who have dealt her this affliction. Jane’s illness is, after all, a gendered one; she is battling breast cancer, which is coded as female, both by its attack on a female secondary sexual characteristic and also by awareness campaigns using stereotypically feminine imagery such as pink ribbons. Jane eschews such explicit gendering of the disease, usually referring to it simply as cancer,13 but Aaron’s explicit choice links her struggles with her body to the many ways in which women negatively experience their own embodiment within sexist and patriarchal societies. Furthermore, Jane’s repeated transformation into Thor is killing her, which brings up questions of who has the right to tell someone how or when to die. In a page that visually parallels Jane first picking up the hammer, a visibly frail, almost ghostlike, Jane contemplates Mjolnir as the people around her tell her that she can never do so again. Here, rather than each panel moving closer to Mjolnir, Mjolnir stays the same size, and each panel shows Jane getting closer. Color artist Matthew Wilson presents Jane and the hammer in the same pale, stony color scheme, emphasizing their connection and Jane’s continued identification as Thor, even in her weakened state. While she is not literally isolated as she was on the moon, the people around her, talking to her, and telling her what to do are not connected to her. Dauterman pencils them all out of focus, and only Rosalind Solomon’s assertion that “She’s gotta make this decision herself” (Mighty Thor #703, 17) actually gets through to Jane. Even surrounded by loved ones and caregivers, professional and personal, she is alone and the decision of whether to pursue treatment is hers to make. The final panel of the hand and hammer almost touching echoes the suspense of the first lifting of Mjolnir, but also emphasizes the cost of doing that work. Her choice to embrace the physical might of godhood is not an escape from death or vulnerability, but instead a reckoning with the personal consequences of wielding great power. The ending of Mighty Thor continues the theme of transformation, but focuses as well on the idea of return. Aaron emphasizes the permanent transformation of the Thor mantle by not having Odinson regain Mjolnir when he retakes the Thor name. Importantly, Odinson values Jane over Mjolnir, telling his once beloved tool: “You are the cause of this suffering! You are the reason she is dying! Go to Hel and leave her be, you blasted mallet!” (Mighty Thor #21, 20). Jane dies after saving Asgard from Mangog, and earns the respect of Odin (without any creepy offers of marriage this

In so doing, Jane’s illness also refers back to one of the most famous superhero deaths, Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel (1982).

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time), and a place in Valhalla. However, she hesitates at the gates, bathed in warm sunshine, and in her ideal form as a healthy human woman with brown hair, explaining that, though she chose to sacrifice herself for Asgard, she wasn’t “ready to die” (#706, 7). Odin and Thor work together to channel the God Tempest, the force that gave the hammer its power and was released when Jane destroyed Mjolnir in order to hurl Mangog into the sun; they use that power to bring Jane back from the Gates of Valhalla. The storm burns itself out bringing Jane back and becomes a “soothing breeze” (16). Mjolnir and Jane have fused into one, but Jane’s heroism is now the human kind and the hammer is gone. Thor says that “’twas easier to get used to losing an arm than it will be the hammer” (18), emphasizing how much it was and is a part of both of them. Jane hands Odinson back the last remaining speck of Mjolnir, but tells him that his identity was his own: “The hammer made me the thunderer. But not you. You did that yourself” (19). Jane repeats, “There must always be a Thor. And now … once again … it must be you” (20). Aaron and Dauterman’s story ends with Jane Foster looking out from Asgard and seeing the spectral image of her other identity (20). This conclusion could be viewed as a disappointment on a number of levels. First, by passing back the mantle, Jane could certainly be seen as reaffirming that Thor Odinson is the “rightful” owner; Aaron gestures toward this reading when Loki tells Jane: “We all know how your story ends, Lady Thor. You’re just keeping that Mjolnir warm for a bit, aren’t you? Sooner or later, the Odinson will come back to reclaim his hammer” (Mighty Thor #3, 14). Her inevitable passing back of the mantle to the original mantle-bearer could thus be read as a sign that her bearing of it was always just a marketing ploy that would be abandoned if it proved unpopular. As well, by having Jane escape death, the story could be read as a “bad-faith ‘resolution’” (Alaniz 282) to the death/disability narrative at its heart. Certainly, while Jane may no longer be a Thor, she has challenged what the mantle means, disrupting the patriarchal power structures that mantle has represented through her collaborative relationship with Mjolnir (as opposed to Thor and Odin’s attempts to command it). Nevertheless, the fact that it is Odin and Thor who, through their power over nature, erase her choice to sacrifice herself, also undermines this narrative; her bodily autonomy and her choice to accept the consequences of her power are denied by their authority. Jane’s survival might, however, be necessary for her time as Thor to have lasting repercussions on the Marvel universe, rather than being only a one-off experiment in diversity. Her survival offers opportunities for other creators to build on Aaron’s foundation. As well, while her death can be seen as a cop-out, a magical erasure of her illness that feeds into the very tropes of the super-body that Alaniz rightly identifies as central to the superhero genre, it is just as true that death as permanent only for side characters and girlfriends is every bit as problematic. We read the ending, then, as a

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compromise: given the nature of Thor Odinson as a valuable property, it was inevitable that the mantle would be returned to him. However, by having Jane survive and her Thor form remain as a spectral entity who might, as most superheroes do, someday return, Aaron and Dauterman negotiate the end of this Thor in ways that suggest that the mantle is as transformed by her wielding of it as she is by bearing it.

What It Means to Be a Good Man: Race and the Captain America Mantle Like Jane Foster, Sam Wilson has a long history in the Marvel universe, although he has occupied a far more prominent position. He was created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1969 and, though his very first appearance has him swinging shirtless through a tropical jungle (Captain America (1968–1996) #117, 16), he introduces himself to Steve Rogers as “a big city brother” (17). While this conjunction does combine two stereotypes, it also served to remind late 1960s readers not to judge by appearances. Working as Captain America’s partner throughout the 1970s, the Falcon’s almostequal status is captured in the title Captain America and the Falcon, which appeared on the covers of #134–222 (1971–1978), although the official title remained Captain America. He made sporadic appearances in various titles after that time, only again co-headlining a comic in Christopher Priest’s 2004–2005 Captain America and the Falcon. The partnership between Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers is “contentious, but brotherly … measured by the superhero’s commitment to interracial male bonding based on an assumed social equality between partners” (Fawaz 189). Nevertheless, Marvel creators often depict Sam chafing at Steve Rogers’s greater physical and social power, and Mark Gruenwald underlines his lessthan-equal status through the words of a government committee tasked with replacing Steve as Captain America: they briefly consider Sam Wilson, but “doubt the  country is ready for a black Captain America” (Captain America (1968–1996) #333, 5). In the Marvel universe, Sam Wilson is continually defined by his race in ways that, while they often critique racial politics in America, are also limiting; as Fawaz observes, “The Falcon’s wish to be seen as Cap’s heroic equal is presented as stemming from his personal insecurities as a black man in a racist society, while Cap’s struggle to escape the institutional structures of government power is framed as the universal struggle to be a free man in any context regardless of race” (190). Such a universalist construction of Captain America, which, as we will discuss in Chapter 4, sees him as an apolitical, idealized representation of the American Dream, positions Sam, by contrast, as unable to fulfill that role because he has so constantly been represented as a minority.

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Nevertheless, Sam’s name being put before the Committee for consideration and his role as Cap’s partner both suggest a desire for a time when Sam Wilson could occupy the position, one that would signal that America was indeed, finally, “ready” for racial equality. Indeed, Sam Wilson’s first turn as Captain America is, unlike that of Jane Foster as Thordis, part of canon, as Sam temporarily assumes the shield in 1999 in Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty, written by Mark Waid and penciled by Dougie Brathwaite. The two-issue arc in which the mantle is passed emphasizes racial divisions in America, ones that have not been solved in the ensuing twenty years, and the series remains topical today, with its depiction of White supremacist groups inciting hatred and Black people distrusting the police, including Steve Rogers who works as a beat cop. Waid attempts to avoid the stereotype of Black men as “ultracool sidemen or wise-cracking partners to various white protagonists” (Nama 67), and has Sam take “extra care to be perceived as Cap’s partner, not his sidekick” (#8, 4). But the relationship still puts him in an uncomfortable position with the people of Harlem, especially since the White supremacist group, the Sons of the Serpent, has renamed itself the Sons of the Shield, and is claiming that Captain America supports their goals (#8, 5).14 When the group makes it appear that protesters incited by the bombing of a Black church have killed Steve Rogers, Sam puts on a Captain America costume to preserve both the legacy of his friend and everything that the costume itself represents. The title page of issue 9, “Back in Black,” depicts Sam, positioned in front of flames, saying “I’m Captain America. Deal with it” (3). However, Waid and Brathwaite present the image of a Black Captain America as a source of dis-ease, both for those he is fighting and for those on whose behalf he fights. White supremacists might be addressed as the ones who need to “deal with” a Black Captain America, but the people of Harlem also react negatively, seeing in the uniform a symbol of inequality and oppression, and distrusting Sam when he wears it, calling him “a traitor to [his] race” (#9, 12). He responds to this distrust with a stirring speech, ending “America belongs to all people—not just the white supremacists! This is my home—This is your home—This is our home! You with me?” (13). While the crowd that turns to support Sam is specifically made up of people of color, the speech is also being delivered to the comics audience, and the emphatic use of first person, second person, and first person plural draws a connection between Sam, the people of Harlem, and the readers. The rhetoric encourages all readers to include themselves in the “our” and to make a mental allegiance with the oppressed people of Harlem fighting

14 The Sons of the Serpent have adopted this strategy before; in their first appearance (Avengers (1963–96) #32–33) they captured Captain America in an attempt to force the rest of the Avengers to help them divide America through racial conflict, and had an imposter act as a pro-Serpent Cap.

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back against injustice, and not with the bigots and White supremacists who are oppressing them. The issue ends with Sam explaining that his heroism was not in aid of his friendship with one individual, but rather for the symbolism of the nation: “Not just for you, Steve, for the suit. I’ve learned a lot from you, man … and maybe the most important thing is about the power of the colors. Not the black and the white … but the red, white and blue” (#9, 23). Sam here makes a claim for himself as worthy of the mantle, as racial conflict is subsumed in the universality of the American dream, which is only powerful if it is open to all. However, Sam sees himself as “back where I belong” (23) in the final frame; while cynical readers might read this as an indication that Sam knows his place, the comic itself suggests that Steve cannot be Captain America without the balance provided by his partner. This early mantle passing therefore straddles a line between arguing that the mantle does represent all Americans and recognizing that different groups within society need different heroes representing them and their interests, cementing Sam’s, and the African-American community’s, minority status. Nevertheless, this temporary mantle passing storyline demonstrates again how one-off creative risks can pave the way for larger changes within continuity, as Sam Wilson officially took on the mantle as the new Captain America on October 1, 2014, in the final issue of Rick Remender, Carlos Pacheco, and Stuart Immonen’s Captain America (2012–2014). In the preceding storyline, Iron Nail had removed the Super-Soldier Serum from Steve Rogers, triggering a reversion to his true age and rendering him no longer capable of performing the physical heroics of Captain America. The cover art by Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger, and Marte Garcia has a background of many Marvel characters, old and new, but the focus is on an empty white space, in the shape of Steve Rogers holding the shield in a heroic pose, with the question “Who is the NEW Captain America?” in the middle (#25, 1). The negative space emphasizes the hole left by Steve Rogers, but the words also suggest that the hole can be filled. The mystery implied by the cover is undercut when Sam Wilson appears in his new colors at a huge party held by Steve Rogers at Avengers Mansion, and attended by all the big names and many deep cuts from Avengers history. Sam immediately acknowledges his appearance as an anticlimax, both to the assembled heroes and to readers: “You guys all knew it was me, didn’t you? There’s literally no drama left in this reveal” (20). The fourth-wall-breaking comment does ask readers to think about why this reveal is happening with all this fanfare, especially since Sam Wilson’s new role had been widely publicized by Marvel in July. But the reveal is necessary in order to emphasize that, while Sam will become Captain America, he will not become Steve Rogers. The silhouette of Sam in the splash page does not fit neatly into the hole left by Steve Rogers in the cover art. Furthermore, as Sam enters his new role, the shadow of Steve Rogers still looms large; Steve is not retiring, but instead operating

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as “tactical support” from Avengers Mansion (19). He is the only person who could inspire so many heroes to attend such an event; as Rogue notes, “Steve says jump, everyone asks how high” (16). While she identifies this authority as “one of the advantages of being Captain America” (16), it is clear from the context that advantage does not come with the shield, but rests in the elder statesman who is bestowing it on his protégé, a feeling that is borne out in Remender’s two brief runs with Sam Wilson, and becomes a recurring theme of Spencer’s series. The comic begins with Steve Rogers authorizing Sam’s position: I remember the first time I met Sam Wilson as clearly as if it was yesterday. He was helping a band of subjugated villagers fight for their freedom against the Red Skull. Even after I arrived he insisted on helping fight. He was used to fighting. Sam had been through terrible adversity. Lost both parents to violence at a young age. He raised his brother and sister. Supported them. But he never succumbed to bitterness. He used the teachings of his parents, a minister and community organizer, as the standard by which to live. In a world that had shown him prejudice and heartbreak … Sam Wilson continuously stood up. Giving everything he had to try and shape the world into the one that his father dreamed of. (#25, 2–3) Remender has Steve’s words place Sam’s backstory firmly in a civil rights narrative that is widely accepted and celebrated within liberal American culture. His father was a minister who had a dream, linking him to Martin Luther King Jr. His mother is a “community organizer,” a term closely linked to then President Barack Obama. Most importantly, while Sam has fought, both literally against supervillains and more metaphorically against “adversity,” “prejudice and heartbreak,” he has done so without “bitterness,” and so is very much the model of the acceptable Black activist, who doesn’t make White allies feel uncomfortable with his anger. Steve’s story here is directed at the reader, affirming that Sam is a hero, even if he has “No magic hammer. No Super-Soldier Serum,” even if he is “Just a man” (p. 3). The words are superimposed over visuals of Sam apparently sacrificing himself to save New York from an Omega bomb. His falling from the sky evokes images of Icarus, but his ability to rise from the ashes suggests that he can reach higher, that he can be superhuman. However, Steve Rogers’ (and Remender’s) version of Sam’s history already hints at the complexity of Sam’s position in superhero mythology. His story as told by the former Captain America is not entirely accurate. In their fraught partnership in the 1970s, Steve and Sam often fought, and Sam frequently evinced significant and righteous bitterness about his secondclass citizenship in American society; for example, in issue #137 of Captain America (1968–1996), Stan Lee depicts Sam reflecting on his partnership with Steve Rogers: “I never signed no contract to be his whipping boy.

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Any time he wants’a trade gripes, I’ll match ’im two for one. I figure any black man can” (6). Sam’s words here signal his importance in terms of representation; in a world of superheroes set apart by their unique powers, Sam invokes the power of communal experiences, in which “any black man” could set Steve Rogers straight. Sam also has to continually remind Steve of his White privilege, puncturing the idea of Captain America as a “universal” icon; for example, writer Gary Friedrich has Steve see Sam’s more politically radical girlfriend, Leila, as a threat to their partnership; Steve tries to win the Falcon back by claiming to know what it’s like to be torn between conflicting communities, which Sam angrily rejects: “That’s the trouble with you whites! You think you’ve got all the answers … when you don’t even ask the right questions! On the day you realize that … then maybe you’ll have the right to say you know how it is!” (#144, 15). Sam’s words express rightful bitterness about his second-class status, and Steve’s inability to fully comprehend this fact. Therefore, when Falcon proclaims in issue 146, also written by Friedrich, that “My people need me a lot more than SHIELD or Cap, and I plan to see that they get at least one superhero to call their own” (14), he is making a claim for why he needs to be not just a Black man who is a superhero, but specifically a Black superhero, one who might very well be at odds with a White establishment that is both complicit in and ignorant of the problems facing the Black community in a profoundly unequal America. By having Steve Rogers White-wash this history in his introduction of Sam as the new Captain America, and place his troubles in the past as history, Remender makes him a palatable option for the supposedly apolitical mantle. This reveals the unspoken assumption underlying the choice of Sam as Captain America: only a good man who has suffered, but remains above anger for that suffering, can represent America as a whole. If Remender’s introduction of Sam relies on somewhat revisionist history to make Sam suitable to bear the mantle of Captain America to the assembled Avengers and (presumably) the reading audience,15 Nick Spencer’s ANADM take on Sam Wilson instead focuses on the cost to the hero of picking up a beloved mantle, and the role that race plays in a hero’s ability to represent the larger public. Rather than adopting the version of Sam presented by Steve when he passed the mantle, Spencer instead invokes the friction in the relationship between Sam and Steve that stems from their different positions in an America where the liberal ideas of equality and justice are not available equally to all. Spencer’s story is often angry in tone, and therefore “off brand” both for the stereotype of Captain America as a nationalist icon and

Sam Wilson is no stranger to revisionist history, the most infamous being the earlier “Snap Wilson” retcon, in which Sam’s heroic origin story, as related by Steve Rogers here, was revealed to be a hoax perpetrated by Red Skull with the aid of a cosmic cube, a story designed to appeal to Steve (and liberal readers’) ideals and ethics.

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for the more centrist aspects of Marvel’s liberal philosophy. At the beginning of Spencer’s run, Sam has been ousted from S.H.I.E.L.D, lost all funding, and gained the ire of a good portion of America, because he has chosen not to be a replica of Steve Rogers, with his ability to “inspire Americans, show them what they could be, if they worked together” (Captain America: Sam Wilson #1, 10). Remender might present Sam Wilson as the obvious choice to replace Steve Rogers as Captain America, but Spencer’s first issue highlights just how much Sam will have to work to be accepted in that role by the general public, with newspaper headlines blaring “Captain AntiAmerica” and “Sam Wilson: Hand in your Shield” (12). Therefore, while Spencer initially depicts Sam as attempting to “follow in [Steve’s] footsteps, honor his legacy” by fighting villains, joining the Avengers, and appearing in a Pride parade to support marriage equality—in other words, as a superhero who embodies the Marvel philosophy—he also depicts Sam as “feeling a little off” (10), showing that he cannot simply step into the role as it was defined, and occupied, by Steve Rogers. Spencer instead chooses to emphasize Sam’s different approach to the mantle of Captain America, focusing not on hope and idealism, but on the political divisions that are tearing apart the country, both in the comics and, implicitly, in the world outside our windows. Sam complains that “We don’t trust each other. We no longer see ourselves in our neighbour. And this is not some intellectual debate—people are dying. Our streets are burning. Inequality is soaring.” He notes that he differs from Steve Rogers, who “always tried to stay above the fray” in that Sam has “opinions. Strongly held beliefs.” He reflects, “the more I saw the people I believed I was standing up for being walked on—the more I heard a noise machine spouting intolerance and fear, drowning common sense out—the more I wondered— shouldn’t Captain America be more than just a symbol?” (#1, 10–11). Sam therefore holds a press conference that sets the stage for the conflicts Spencer highlights throughout the run, in which Sam’s ideals come into conflict with those of the nation state. Sam goes from being a governmentally sponsored superhero back to a street-level hero, crowdfunding to finance his operations (#1, 20), borrowing money from his brother’s congregation, and flying coach on missions (#1, 7). His lack of funds to do the good work he envisions alludes to the work done by many underfunded agencies and by those without privilege. While Waid’s Sam Wilson who temporarily held the shield in Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty worked to bridge racial divides and placed the “red white and blue” over “black and white,” Spencer’s Sam Wilson is rightly cautious, hearkening back to his early days in the 1970s. His self-reflexivity in his relationship with Steve recalls his history of refusing the typical sidekick role, which “gave their personal relationship a social resonance with broader racial tensions, and symbolized a social debate about if aggressive or incremental steps were more effective in achieving racial equality” (Nama 70). That these same concerns are still central to a Sam Wilson storyline decades down the road demonstrates that

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the incremental steps of the powers that be (both within and outside the comics) who worry about an America that is “not ready for a black Captain America” are not working. Spencer grounds Sam’s internal conflict in political debates that are easily recognizable to a contemporary American audience, and in so doing, argues for the impossibility of an apolitical Captain America in the current political climate. The recap and credits pages of each issue show a television set to a news channel, a tablet open to a Twitter-style newsfeed, and a smartphone with the creators. The different screens and the opinions that appear on them emphasize how the media are exacerbating the divisions that Sam is trying to overcome. Recurring commenters appear on these screens throughout the series, spreading the news of Sam’s previous and ongoing exploits, always with their own slant or a sensationalist agenda designed to change the narrative or to get attention. For example, the title page of the second issue shows “Wing Watch” arguing with “GALACTUS WAS RIGHT” over whether Sam’s hotline is a useful way for ordinary people to “take a stand” or “part of the socialist agenda” (#2, 2). Even the television news, which is supposed to give the facts, asks rhetorical questions designed to sway opinion or uses adjectives to suggest particular readings of events: “Partisan Captain America ruffles feathers with controversial press conference” (#2, 2 emphasis added). Nuanced debate over issues becomes reduced to hashtags, with #IStandWithSam and #NotMyCaptainAmerica denoting how characters position themselves in relation to what they see as Sam’s politics and embodiment of the role. Spencer, in an interview, notes that “what drives partisanship, even in an era of deep disillusionment with political parties” is “not belief in one’s own ideas, it’s fear of the other side. That’s really what motivates people to vote, it seems—not ‘We’re going to fix this’ but rather, ‘We can’t let the other team win’” and he therefore has Sam battle “an entire political structure that really has no interest in coming together” (Leon, “Slams Fox”). Such binary division, Spencer suggests, does not allow for cooperation, negotiation, or even nuanced debate. Sam and Steve’s ideological positions are not too far apart, but each is coopted by an opposing side as an emblem of all that side represents. Furthermore, Spencer’s depiction of Sam attempting to adopt a centrist political position reveals the moral hazards that belief entails. A recurring theme is that of Sam going against his own beliefs and preferences in order to maintain social stability, such as when he allows the corporations who employed Serpent Solutions to escape prosecution, even though they were benefiting from human trafficking and torture, because taking them down will cause economic hardship for the entire country (#6, 17), or when he does not publicize the facts of Maria Hill’s illegal prison at Pleasant Hill, because it would make Americans lose faith in S.H.I.E.L.D. and the government (#9, 7). But Sam’s compromises put him at odds with others. For example, two younger heroes, Joaquín and Rage, both believe he should be doing more and fighting harder against obvious injustices in the system,

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even if doing so might break the system altogether. When Joaquín and Rage attempt to protest Ariella Connor—an anti-immigrant pundit and obvious stand-in for Ann Coulter—who is speaking at a local campus, they come up against the Bombshells, campus radicals who make the two younger heroes better understand Sam’s position. Rage notes that he is confused by fighting people “who seem to hate the same person we hate” and Joaquín agrees that Conner’s “very presence is damaging to those who have suffered” but can’t agree that “for that she’s gotta die” (#17, 14). One of the group’s complaints that Joaquín—who is an undocumented immigrant himself— should be “an ally” to their cause points to the hierarchical divisions in the left, and to the dangers of well-meaning outsiders taking over radical movements (#17, 15). Spencer’s attempt to get his readers to think outside binary “team” terms, however, also leads some reviewers to critique the message. Kelly Kanayama complains on The Nerdist that the Bombshells are “parodies of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ stereotype” (Kanayama), and YouTuber “Graphic Policy” describes the storyline as “very anti-left” and the political rhetoric of the campus protesters as “a comic book version of what someone thinks the left sounds like.” He sees this episode—and another where Flag Smasher attacks a US Senator—as going against the politics of the rest of the title (“Graphic Policy”). Certainly, the issue does offer some heavy-handed representation of a particular type of social discourse, such as when one protester yells at Sam: “Oh, look, it’s Captain Patriarchy here to mansplain why our principled stand against hatred isn’t ‘appropriate’” (#17, 19). In representing leftist discourse in ways that play into “fault on both sides” reductionism on issues of racism and oppression, Spencer could be accused of playing it safe. However, this episode can only be understood for what it is when read within the larger arc of the series: Sam’s last attempt at working within a system that is becoming increasingly oppressive. Although the campus confrontation ends on an optimistic note for Sam and his team, who have found common ground, the issue itself does not. There is a coda in which Rage tries to prevent a robbery and is beaten and arrested by the Americops, a privatized police force who have been violating civil liberties. This incident is bookended by Sam’s narration, musing “that things are a long, long way from perfect, but they have gotten better. And so long as we all keep pushing—the world will change” as the team heads home from the campus confrontation (#17, 22). The final page of the issue crushes that optimistic vision. Artist Paul Renaud’s splash page shows the Americops surrounding and standing over Rage’s beaten body, with Sam’s words “Then again, maybe things never change … and maybe all that hope was just an illusion” positioned in a text box right beside his comatose friend (#17, 25–6). The Captain America shield in the bottom right corner of the page is situated to balance a speech bubble at the top left, announcing Rage’s arrest “by the authority of the Americops,” and the star on the shield and on the Americops badges links both to the nation. This incident puts the lie not

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only to Sam’s repeated attempts to work within a system that consistently attempts to discredit him, but also to the idealism represented by the mantle of Captain America. Rather than simply critiquing the left, the rhetoric of the comic suggests that it is impossible to work with an opposition that refuses to compromise, as the reactionary right does, and that—rather than fighting each other over methodology—those on the center need to move further left in order to fight against injustice. This storyline both echoes, and diverges from, the Captain America comics of the 1970s, which included stories that tackled White supremacy, but also contained “thinly veiled attacks on Black Power nationalism” (Nama 72). Sam cannot embody the supposedly apolitical qualities of “Captain America” (which we will further challenge in the following chapter) because he is repeatedly asked to protect the powerful in ways that lead to continued systemic oppression. In Spencer’s storyline, Sam’s attempt at a moderate position is not a strict endorsement of centrism so much as it is complex continuation of Sam’s characterization throughout Marvel history: one that shows him constantly having to negotiate between his work as a superhero and his role in his community in ways that superheroes from the dominant group often do not. The Americops and their handlers are the defining villains of Sam Wilson’s time as Captain America, and his struggle with them is both an obvious allegory for the Black Lives Matter movement and a demonstration of the futility of trying to find common ground within an inherently unjust system. Sam at first attempts to de-escalate conflict, preventing Rage from engaging the Americops (#13, 14) and trying to talk reasonably with the officers (#12, 7). Still trying to work within the system, he sets up an avian surveillance network to attempt to document instances of the Americops overstepping their authority (#13, 18). When his network captures Rage being brutally beaten, Sam at first hesitates to make the footage public because a representative of the Mayor’s office uses the same rhetoric that has been used to convince Sam before: “This footage could tear the entire city—hell, the entire country—apart. Do you really wanna do that?” (#18, 17). This time, Sam decides that if the country needs to accept this level of injustice in order to stay together, then dividing the country might be the only way to effect change. As with people’s use of camera phones to document police brutality, Sam’s network raises awareness and creates public outrage, but it is not enough to change the system, as demonstrated when the video is ruled inadmissible in court (#19, 13). Working both with and against ruling structures, Sam is continually undermined in his fight for justice. Spencer contrasts Sam’s attempts to compromise with the challenges and actions of the appropriately named Rage, who becomes a martyr to the cause and, in the process, makes Sam recognize the futility of centrist politics. Recognizing the importance of his high-profile case, Rage deliberately refuses the kinds of financial and legal advantages available to

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most superheroes, thereby drawing attention to how African-American— and other disenfranchised—defendants are railroaded by the justice system (#18, 11–12). Rather than being represented by Matt Murdoch or Jennifer Walters, he has an overworked public defender who he first meets two hours before the trial and whose first order of business is to encourage his innocent client to take a plea deal (#19, 6). Sam describes the trial itself as not “too far off from what you’d expect to see most days—a nearly all-white jury in the majority-minority city … and an overly aggressive prosecutor eager to get his name in the papers” (#19, 9). The riots that first protest Rage’s unjust conviction, and then his suspicious death in a privatized prison, reinforce the divisions within an America that is moving ever-closer to a Hydra state, as we will discuss in the next chapter. Sam Wilson’s turn as Captain America therefore highlights the tensions that remain for racialized superheroes in a culture that is far from postracial. Numerous fans complained that Spencer’s storyline, as with others in Marvel’s ANADM, focused too much on stereotypical storylines for the “diversity” characters. In a Reddit debate on the Gabriel controversy, several fans pointed out that characters such as Sam continue to be defined by their race in ways that White characters are not: “Zilde” says Marvel is “putting up more walls and making characters with the sole motivation being, ‘He’s a black guy, he does black stuff and represents black people’” and that this “is a terrible way to make characters and exactly the wrong way to diversify your work. The struggles a character faces as a result of their race should be natural, they shouldn’t be the only thing that defines them as a person” (on “Marvel Executive”). “LiathePenguinologist” adds, “Sam Wilson as Captain America’s biggest stories so far have all been about police brutality and racism in the media … why can’t minority characters have similar stories to ‘traditional’ super heroes?” (on “Marvel Executive”). However, other fans asserted that the reality of America means that minority characters must have different stories: “ModsAreShillsForXenu” argues, “If you’re a black guy, in a city like New York, in the Stop and Frisk era, that shit is going to affect you every day” and “itchni” agrees, saying “I think it is extremely important to address a lot of the issues that minorities face” (on “Marvel Executive”). The very acknowledgment of the obstacles Sam faces, which make it impossible for him to have “similar stories to ‘traditional’ super heroes,” arguably makes the text more anti-racist than ones that emphasize the “everyman” status of their heroes. However, “itchni” goes on to argue, “One of the best ways of doing this is by hiring writers or consultants of that minority to help guide the character into place. This will both kill the chances of it being racist while also incidentally integrating a lot of the challenges minorities face” (on “Marvel Executive”). While this point is vigorously debated by others in the discussion, the fact that the Sam Wilson/Captain America storyline was written by a White writer, and particularly one with politics as slippery as

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Spencer’s,16 is one more factor making some fans, even those who embrace diversity, unconvinced that Marvel’s promotion of diversity goes beyond a marketing ploy. While we believe that Nick Spencer’s attention to race was necessary for Sam Wilson’s turn as Captain America, primarily because the mantle itself—as we will discuss in the next chapter—was never apolitical or universal, we also recognize those beats in the story that lend themselves to a far more conservative meaning than the surface would suggest. For example, Spencer complicates Sam’s decision to release the footage in the first place by having HydraCap17 be the one who convinces Sam to release the tape (#18, 19). Arguably, this aspect of the storyline is inherently moderate and centrist, echoing as it does the argument that civil unrest and protest play right into the hands of democracy’s enemies, as is the case here.18 At its best, however, Spencer’s storyline embraces the messiness of contemporary politics, and the difficulty of upholding ideals when those very ideals might be at the heart of political and racial conflict. Like Jane Foster, Sam gives up the mantle of Captain America at the end of this series, but Spencer frames this return as a rejection rather than a loss. Right-wing pundits, politicians, and people might have told Sam throughout the series to #GiveBackTheShield, but he returns it not because he feels unworthy, but because he finds the country unworthy, highlighting just how much both the mantle and the nation it represents need to be challenged. In his farewell video, he explains that he is giving up the shield, just as Steve Rogers has done in the past (#21, 17), as a protest against “a system that never practices the fairness it claims.” He tells the next generation not to lose hope (18), but acknowledges the fundamental difference between the mantle holders: “If Steve’s Captain America is a symbol of a great country pushing forward—then let Sam Wilson’s Captain America have been a reminder of the people it’s leaving behind” (21). Sam’s critique of the shield as a force for White supremacy, lifting up some while pushing others down, comes to fruition in Secret Empire, which is the focus for our next chapter. But it is important to end our discussion of Sam Wilson as Captain America with the final issue of his run, in which he again dons the suit, in a wardrobe change that takes up most of the issue. Misty Knight, his love interest and sometime partner, first pressures him to do so, but he claims that the country does not deserve him after “what they’ve allowed [Steve] to do” (#24, 12). However, Patriot, a young African-American hero who

We will discuss Spencer’s politics in the next chapter.

16

Steve Rogers transformed into Marvel’s version of a Nazi—see Chapter 4.

17

The ambiguity of the politics in the comic is meant to stir up debate, rather than present a thesis on how to fix America. Spencer claims to “write a lot of characters, all with different views on the world and different politics. It’s not hard for me to make that distinction. Sam and I do not have identical politics. I am not Sam. I have absolutely no desire to simply confirm my own beliefs and write a book that only appeals to people who agree with me” (Leon “Spencer Slams Fox”).

18

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was inspired by Rage, convinces him that the resistance, the people who have “lost everything,” do “deserve a Captain America” (17). As Sam puts on the uniform, he thinks “I spent so long wearing this suit, but never really believed it was a part of me. It was always in the back of my head that the job was temporary” (8). But this time is different. Joe Bennett’s visual storytelling on the final two pages of the final issue first shows Sam suiting up, each component part making him more Captain America with every panel, culminating in a splash page, reminiscent of his initial reveal, but this time Sam looks not overwhelmed, but proud and confident. The final words of the issue “I might even enjoy it” (21) suggest a beginning rather than an end. While Sam eventually returns the shield to a resurrected Steve Rogers at the end of Generations: Sam Wilson Captain America and Steve Rogers Captain America (31–2), Spencer’s choice to end the series with Sam re-assuming the mantle suggests that he might occupy it again, or at least that the next Captain America who is not a White man will have Sam as a model, and might not have to face the same struggles.

Conclusion: Passing the Mantle Back The passing back of the mantles to the original mantle-bearers in these series could be read as either a sign of failure or an inevitability built into the genre. For example, Roman and Lizardi see a reversion to the status quo as inevitable, since “the American superhero comic publishers have deeply embedded a narrative universe based on consistency, replicated for decades, above all other concerns.” They quote Stan Lee as claiming that “the secret to the company’s successful storytelling has always been cultivating ‘the “illusion” of change.’ The comic book industry employs these narrative deviations to control their intellectual property, while simultaneously using temporary changes to drive economic growth” (19). On the other end of the spectrum, Terrence Wandtke argues that “revisionism is widely accepted as part of and integrally related to our experience of superheroes” and that this constant questioning of narrative “must also be recognized as critical to our identity” (6). We would place ourselves between these two positions, arguing that comics can—but do not always—reflect changes in society, and that individual creators move the story and the characters forward in meaningful ways. The mantles were passed back and everything was restored to normal, but that does not mean that these two particular wearers of the mantle failed to challenge the status quo. First and foremost, both series draw attention to the ubiquity and transitory nature of mantle passing. While the continuing presence of Steve Rogers and of Odinson acts as a reminder that the original mantle holders are waiting in the wings, and will likely retake the mantles (which they do), the presence of other mantle holders emphasizes that the mantles can be occupied by a wide variety of people (including horse-faced aliens

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and frogs), and that each individual mantle-holder brings something new to the role. Sam discusses the implications of holding the mantle not only with Steve, but also with two previous replacements to Captain America: Bucky Barnes, who encourages and supports him (#7, 8–9); and U.S. Agent, who attacks him verbally and physically, and tells him to give back the shield (#13, 6–7). Misty Knight also picks up the shield for one issue (#16). Jason Aaron suggests a multiplicity of Thors by adding Volstagg as the War Thor; likewise his Thors series in the Secret Wars event multiplies Thors exponentially. In Battleworld, all of Doctor Doom’s security force are Thors with many new heroes, such as Storm and Groot, joining the ranks. Most of the expected Thors also make an appearance, although Beta Ray Bill, Ultimate Thor, and Odinson are the focus. Roman and Lizardi argue that Misty sending Sam on vacation and coopting the shield cast his ability to wield it into doubt (32) and that both Thors and The Unworthy Thor, which is focused on Odinson, dilute the importance of Jane Foster (26). We would argue instead that the plurality of mantle holders does not make Sam and Jane unworthy, but rather suggests that the mantles are not, and should not, be linked only to one individual and one identity category. Furthermore, these stories both delve into what it means when characters from different identity categories take on mantles in ways that challenge the “universal” hero. While Miles and Kamala respectfully occupy their positions in relation to Peter Parker and Carol Danvers, both Jane Foster and Sam Wilson challenge and critique those who have come before them and the way they chose to occupy their roles. Jane is at odds with the gods throughout her series, challenging the high-handed way they wield their power, a position that is directly linked to Thor’s own pained recognition that Gorr the God-Killer was right. And when Sam picks up the shield and is challenged and rejected by the American public, he reveals the lie at the heart of Steve Roger’s own occupation of the mantle: that the American dream, even as an ideal, is not accessible to all Americans. Fans may have hated that the original mantle-holders had to be weakened or diminished for Jane and Sam to take their place, but that was precisely the point: these stories demonstrate that mantles are not universal ideals, and therefore have to be transformed if they are to acknowledge the real differences—in experience, in access to power, and in viewpoint—that identity categories represent. Finally, while we acknowledge the danger of diversity as an empty marketing tool, we would argue that these changes, temporary though they were, have implications for the ongoing story-telling in Marvel comics, for the characters that the company promotes, for the stories that they tell, and increasingly, for the diversity of those that get to tell them. Temporary mantle passing, like team titles, provides a space for less central characters to find prominence. For example, the mantle passing in the comics is already being taken up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, Steve Rogers passes his shield on to Sam Wilson, in a move that has not provoked anywhere near the internet outrage that the comics

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announcement did five years earlier. Although Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears to be continuing on into phase four, he too is sharing the mantle. He passes the leadership of Asgard to Valkyrie, recognizing the different nature of his own heroism, and Natalie Portman will be picking up the hammer as Jane Foster/Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder. These changes suggest that, while the ANADM branding might be history, it has in fact changed the stories that can be told about these particular superheroes. Furthermore, the particular brand of story-telling in the MCU suggests that these changes can be more permanent than in the comics as iconic actors retire from the roles and leave them open for legacy characters. Just as one-off stories of Jane and Sam taking on the mantles in the past perhaps led the way for these two storylines to be made, so too do these storylines open up space for new possibilities to be imagined. While the “big names” have reverted to original mantle-holders, the universe around them is more diverse. The fact that most of the successful and ongoing “diverse” titles are aimed at younger audiences suggests that change is coming with new generations, and the repeated introduction of new characters, and “promotion” of old ones is allowing new stories to be told. While the temporary mantle-passing storylines discussed here represented creative risks that might, the MCU’s 2019 announcements suggest, herald lasting change, they also lead into one of the most controversial changes of the Alonso years: 2017’s Secret Empire was reviled by critics and fans alike. Replacing White, male characters with diverse ones was seen as an outrage by some, but as a progressive creative choice by others; however, people on both sides of the culture wars read the transformation of Captain America into an agent of fascism as a market-driven gimmick that served no one. While we agree that this choice existentially threatened the Marvel universe and the iconic hero at the center of it, we see that threat as its primary strength. Secret Empire represents the culmination of ANADM, because it directly inserts itself into contemporary politics in ways that hearken back to the very first days of Captain America; in this case, however, Spencer aligns the American icon with fascism and asks the audience to fight back. Unfortunately, the widespread rejection of the event and Marvel’s attempts to back-pedal from it speak forcefully to a public that was not ready for that story to be told, and a company that was not ready to tell it.

4 Rethinking Secret Empire: Writing and Marketing Political Comics in an Age of Rising Fascism

The first of the traditional superheroes to retake their mantles in the wake of the All-New, All-Different Marvel shake-up was Steve Rogers. In January of 2016, Marvel issued a press release announcing that, starting in the summer, there would be two Captain America titles, one for Sam Wilson and one for Steve Rogers, with Nick Spencer writing both. Spencer implied that the two books were for different audiences with different ideas about the role of politics in comics: “If you’re digging the topical, ripped-fromthe-headlines approach we’re taking in Sam’s book, we’ve got plenty more of that to come. And if you’re up for a more timeless take, with Captain America facing off against Hydra and his classic rogues gallery, Steve’s book will be just the thing for you” (qtd. in Myers). Maddy Myers, writing for The Mary Sue, laments that, while some readers might see this promised return as “harmless nostalgia,” Steve retaking the mantle makes it seem as if all the new “heroes aren’t considered the ‘real’ versions, even now.” But the return of Steve Rogers in Captain America: Steve Rogers was quite different from how it was sold in this early press release. While Jesús Saiz’s cover art for the first issue depicts a heroic-looking Steve Rogers in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, under blue skies, with Sharon Carter, Sam Wilson, and Bucky Barnes following behind him, the issue ends with Saiz’s now-infamous image of the erstwhile sentinel of liberty wearing his trademark  American colors, under storm clouds, declaring “Hail Hydra” (CA:SR #1, 32). Throughout the series, Spencer constructs a history in which Steve has always been a secret agent for Hydra, Marvel’s fictional

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fascist cult. His earlier promise that the book was aimed at those looking to tradition therefore reads as rebuke of restorative nostalgia, as one blogger gleefully explains: “It’s saying, ‘Hey, if you want to live in the modern world, here’s Sam Wilson. But if you’re one of those people “steeped” in the past, don’t worry, we’ve got Steve Rogers. But you’re kind of a racist bigot. So here’s the Nazi Captain America you deserve’” (MaNishtana). This assertion demonstrates how Marvel’s choice to make a Hydra version of Captain America, especially one that so clearly embodies contemporary American White nationalism, can be read as an extension of the diversification of Marvel’s superhero roster: both critique those who defend racial and gender hierarchies in the name of “tradition.” Steve Rogers’s exposure as a “Nazi” quickly became a subject of debate that reached far beyond comics circles. The Times of Israel proclaimed, for example, that “Captain America is a Secret Nazi and People are Going Crazy about It” (Zaltzman), an accurate depiction of the headlines, tweetstorms, and fan outrage that met the reveal in the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016).1 Many accused Marvel of using the real-world, global shift toward right-wing extremism merely as a gimmick to sell comics, and  Marvel’s equivocation about the storyline—particularly their defense that the story was not meant to be directly political, and that Hydra was not an exact parallel of the actual Nazi party2—“smacks of the discourse surrounding the use of the term ‘alt-right’ to avoid calling a spade a spade in real life” (Lady Saika). Nick Spencer further inflamed debate when he argued with fans about the ethics of punching White supremacists (he’s against it), and claimed to The Daily Beast that he was “the most hated man in America,” a fact that he juxtaposes, ironically, with “And Donald Trump is running for president!” (Leon, “Supervillian”). Spencer’s linkage of the two points—the fictional retconning of a beloved superhero and the all-too-real candidacy of a reality-TV show star for the American presidency—highlights his own liberal political leanings, and invites comparisons between the plot of the comics and the increasingly volatile landscape of American politics. The Captain America: Steve Rogers series led into the major 2017 crossover event Secret Empire, also written by Spencer and, given the hostile reaction to the revelation of HydraCap, it is not surprising that this event was highly controversial. The storyline details how the Hydra version

Articles also appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Time, the Telegraph, the Independent, and many more.

1

The Red Skull and Hydra are most definitely linked to Nazism in the early Captain America comics, both those from the 1940s, and after Cap’s “rebirth” in the 1960s. Canonically, Red Skull clearly states that Hydra is just a cover for the continuation of the Nazi agenda (Captain America (1968–1996) #148 (1972), 4). However, Jonathan Maberly later retcons Hydra to have its roots in an ancient, mystical cult in his Captain America: Hail Hydra limited series (2010– 2011), which portrays Hydra as linked to, but not entirely coincident with, the historical Nazis. Nevertheless, the iconography of the Hydra cult throughout its Marvel history, particularly its refrain of “Hail Hydra,” makes its real-world equivalent utterly clear.

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of Captain America seizes power and turns America into a Hydra state. The factors that allow him to do so all have obvious allegorical connections to current American politics: the superhero community is still divided after the debates over profiling that marked the 2016 event Civil War II; the public distrusts government organizations as a result of Pleasant Hill; fear of alien invasion has led to a barrier being built that separates Earth from the cosmos; and tensions are ongoing between humans, Inhumans, and mutants. As well, it is difficult to read a comic book story about American citizens embracing the overthrow of their government, in large part because of their respect for a charismatic leader who promises to restore a lost, glorious past, without seeing it as a direct engagement with American politics and critique of Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Nor do we think we should, as we argue that the event provides both compelling story-telling and a complex exploration of contemporary politics; however, we also argue that the marketing of the event, starting with the early press release for Captain America: Steve Rogers, undermined the story’s important depiction of what makes states vulnerable to fascism and what is necessary to resist it.3 The series delves into the question of public complicity in the rise of fascism and the fall of democracies, and the role that hero-worship plays in winning citizens’ consent for oppressive regimes. It also, through its depiction of the politics of memory in action, cautions its readership to be aware of the political consequences of appeals to restorative nostalgia, because attempts to revive an imagined and ideal past can exclude the many groups who do not fit the narrative. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of some of the story’s allegorical connections suggests that Spencer was not entirely in control of Secret Empire’s narrative of fascism and its moral hazards, and Marvel’s handling of the public controversy surrounding the event further muddied the waters. In our analysis of the event, we recognize that the current political turn is what makes the Secret Empire storyline4 relevant and necessary, but it finds a place here specifically because it also complicates Marvel’s reliance on safe liberal politics to address its old stand-by enemies of fascism and White supremacy, particularly when the story seeks to please fans on both sides of the current culture wars.

We agree with Jason Stanley that while it is difficult to generalize about fascism, some sweeping statements are useful when working to combat it. We are using his definition of fascism as “ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf” (xiv). Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them examines current global politics through the lens of this understanding of fascism. We argue that the Hydra America of Secret Empire, under the command of a distorted Captain America, intensifies and critiques these real-world politics.

3

For the purposes of this chapter, references to “the event” will include everything that takes place across all issues of the following, and using the indicated short forms for titles: Captain America: Steve Rogers (CA:SR), Captain America (2017–2018) #25, Secret Empire (SE), Secret Empire: Brave New World, Secret Empire: Omega, Secret Empire: Underground, Secret Empire: United, and Secret Empire: Uprising.

4

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Captain America, Politics, and Democracy Secret Empire exists not only in the context of contemporary American politics and Marvel’s corporate branding, but also in the long history of Captain America’s5 engagement with the American nation, which is crucial to understanding HydraCap’s6 ascendance in the event. Given the character’s extensive past and multiple authorship over the years, Captain America’s politics and moral positioning are difficult to summarize. Nevertheless, his values are crucial to understanding the Marvel universe as a whole, both because he “occupies the moral center of the universe; he is the character all others consider to be irreproachable” (Dittmer 35), and because of his inter-connectedness to the other heroes.7 As a member of the “Greatest Generation,” an idealized embodiment of the American Dream who fought against the symbol of twentieth-century evil, Nazi Germany, Captain America represents a time when American politics most closely resembled the “good vs. evil” narrative at the heart of traditional superhero conflicts. Unsurprisingly, he has always been a decidedly political figure. From his golden age heroics, both encouraging America to join the Second World War and then participating in that war, to his repeated fights against fascist, neo-fascist, and White supremacist groups and dictators from the 1960s on, Cap has long provided the American audience with an “us” against which to oppose the “them” of tyrants, righteously upholding Western ideals of “liberty, and justice— and faith!” (Captain America (1968–1996)8 #103, 20). And because the Marvel Universe works to mirror our political and social reality, Captain America’s storylines have long provided a means for creators to comment on the specific history and politics of America as a nation.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between “Steve Rogers,” the man under the cowl, and “Captain America,” the figure he embodies. For the purposes of this chapter, we will use “Steve Rogers” to refer to all those times when he is out of uniform and (generally) acting as a civilian, and “Captain America” to refer to his role/actions as the figurehead. However, we will also use “Cap” for those moments when the lines are blurred between the two. Also, “Cap” is often used by the American public in the comics themselves, suggesting a familiar and casual relationship with the figurehead “Captain America.”

5

To distinguish between them, “Steve Rogers” and “Captain America” will be used to refer to the “good” version, and “Stevil” and “HydraCap” to refer to the transformed Steve Rogers.

6

Richard Stevens, citing quantitative work by Ricardo Alberich, Joe Miro-Julia, and Francesc Rosselló, notes that “the average distance between two characters in the Marvel Universe network is 2.63. The researchers found that Captain America is the center of the network, with an average distance of 1.70 to other characters, making him the character most connected to all other characters” (Stevens 3)

7

8

Hereafter, parenthetical references to this run of Captain America will be shortened to CA.

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Cap’s dislocation from his time9 contributes to his questioning of the American Dream in a drastically different world from the one he had known. Rather than the stalwart, simplistic patriot displayed in his earlier incarnations, Cap continually reflects on the complexity of his own position in relation to transformations in society and culture, whether this means Stan Lee having him deal with the derision of a younger, counter-culture generation who sees him as old-fashioned and out-of-touch (CA #120), Roger Stern having him grapple with those who want to use him as a symbol toward their own political ends (CA #250), or Paul Jenkins having Cap defend himself to a critical press (Civil War: Front Line #11). While his temporal displacement and status as a virtuous man often support the romantic notion that America was once great, but has left its ideals behind, such as when Steve Englehart depicts him as a “touchstone with the way things [are] supposed to be” (CA #177, 5), this assumption of America’s virtuous past should not go unquestioned. As Jaheen Ahmed and Martin Lund point out in their analysis of the 2011 event, Fear Itself, “the appeals to sacrifice, community, cooperation and more important, to the ‘Greatest Generation,’ that recur throughout … are appeals to something that never truly existed, fantasies about a unity and patriotism that was never as widespread as myth would have it” (91). Importantly, creators have also used Captain America’s connection to make that very critique, such as when Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s 2003 miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black lays bare the Eugenics metaphor at the heart of the super-soldier experiment by depicting the Black soldiers on whom the super-soldier serum was initially tested (Hack 79), and highlights Steve Rogers’s unacknowledged racial privilege by creating an original, Black, Captain America, Isaiah Bradley, whose story is unknown outside his community (Dittmer 56). Likewise, the retconning of the original Captain America Comics as in-universe, war-time propaganda that simplistically, and often problematically, mis-represented the reality of 1940s America allows contemporary writers to employ a reflective nostalgic gaze, one that acknowledges the silences of official history in regard to the uglier aspects of the past.10 9 He was frozen in ice from the Second World War until he was re-discovered in Avengers (1963–1996) #4 (March 10, 1964).

For example, Ed Brubaker’s retconning of the Bucky Barnes character from the early comics highlights the reality that Captain American Comics were used “to counter the Nazi propaganda machine” (The Marvels Project #6, 15), particularly the Hitler Youth movement. In the “Winter Soldier” run in Captain America, Brubaker constructs an even darker past in which Bucky was never simply a kid sidekick, but instead a trained killer: “Bucky did the things I couldn’t. I was the icon. I wore the flag … But while I gave speeches to troops in the trenches … He was doing what he’d been trained to do … and he was highly trained” (Captain America (2004–2011) #5, 13). And in Roger Stern and Nick Dragotta’s Captain America: Forever Allies series, Bucky Barnes reflects on his own war-time series, “The Young Allies,” as a production of “the propaganda office,” one that featured a racist depiction of Young Ally Washington Jones (3): “Back then, he was called ‘a credit to his race’” (4).

10

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Captain America’s shifting and complicated relationship with the US government reflects not only various creators’ social commentary, but also shifting public opinion in regard to governing bodies. As Jason Dittmer points out, nationalist superheroes can “serve as a crucial resource for legitimating, contesting, and reworking states’ foreign policies” (3), and creators have often depicted Steve Rogers expressing concern about “Captain America” playing any role in government. Roger Stern has Cap fend off pressure to run for president by declaring, “I’m not much of a politician,” the response to which is “the people don’t want a politician … they want a leader!” (CA #250, 5). As president, Captain America would be the dreamed-of ideal, rather than the disappointing reality, of governmental power; however, this romanticized vision is the only version of a president Captain America could be, because Steve Rogers, despite his role in embodying the American ideal, is never depicted as politically knowledgeable or active; in this issue, he does not even know who his congressman is (8).11 Stern grounds all the arguments that persuade Captain America not to run for president in political reality: Steve asks his friends, “Sure, Cap has a reputation for honesty—but what does he know about foreign affairs, or energy, or inflation?” (10). In his role as Captain America, Steve Rogers embodies the ideal, but he is divorced from the reality of America as a political nation, and his status as an ideal might taint the democratic process; for example, one of the men pressuring him to run for president asks, “Who could refuse to vote for Captain America for President?” (6). Captain America’s power as an ideological symbol, linked to the ideals of America as a nation, makes voting for him not so much a choice as an obligation, an anti-democratic position that nevertheless persuades many people to follow HydraCap in 2017’s Secret Empire.12 Likewise, Steve Englehart uses Steve Rogers’s desire to be a “free man,” rather than an “institution” (CA#179, 3) to reflect the “uneasy alliance between liberalism and democracy” in American politics (Fawaz 7). Englehart’s transformation of Steve into “Nomad” perfectly embodies this stubborn, individualist streak: he quits the role of Captain America, leaving it “behind him, buried in the rubble that is politics, 1974” (#180, 2) and, rather than working within the system to challenge and transform a

This suggests that Steve did not vote.

11

Mark Waid’s “Capmania” storyline further exposes the dangers of Cap’s authority as a figurehead. Cap complains to Thor, “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t flattering … but it’s becoming a strain not letting it go to my head. I’m accustomed to being a symbol, but not a symbol of worship” (Captain America (1996–1998) #5, 8). Cap’s fear about the conflation of “worship” with leadership is well-founded: Capmania is a plot by a Skrull, who then takes Cap’s place, rejoicing, “I want Captain America to be an icon. I want people to worship him. Because then … They’ll believe anything he says … And give him anything he wants” (19). The Skrull causes riots by posing as Captain America, and ironically uses the threat of New York being infiltrated by shape-shifting Skrulls to turn the humans against one another.

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corrupt government, Steve embraces vigilantism.13 We see this rebellious trait again in one of Captain America’s most famous declarations, written by J. Michael Straczynski during Marvel’s Civil War: “When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the whole world—‘No, you move’” (Amazing Spider-Man #537, 15). While often cited as one of Cap’s most inspiring lines, his reference to “the mob” alludes to critiques of democracy as “mob rule,” and his positioning of “the press,” often seen as the defenders of democracy, as oppressors suggests an assurance in his own moral righteousness that is concerning; as one blogger points out, “The United States was not founded on a principle of individual defiance of the general will: rather, we were founded as a nation of laws, not men, of separated powers, of due process, and of representative government. Such scorn for media, politicians, and the electorate is more commonly reserved for repressive regimes” (“mikeleywhiplash”). The Civil War event bears out Cap’s wrong-headedness when Mark Millar ends it with Captain America surrendering, devastated as he comes to recognize the extent to which he has been ignoring what “the whole world” and “the press” had to tell him about the costs of his own actions on the public (Civil War #7, 21–23). Nevertheless, Cap’s initial desire to shift the world so that it accepts his truth lays a foundation for Spencer’s HydraCap and his desire to remake America in the image of Hydra. Cap’s many interactions with the American government, therefore, reveal a superheroic reluctance to act within boundaries that necessarily restrict personal freedom, a reluctance that is consistent across creators and arguably, therefore, in line with the “Marvel philosophy.” Unlike vigilante superheroes such as Daredevil and the Punisher, Captain America does often align himself with law and order, but superheroes are all vigilantes to some extent, and Captain America is no exception to this rule. When Englehart has him proclaim to Nick Fury that “We go where we want and do what we have to, to help both people and the cause of justice!” (CA #165, 3), it is as succinct a declaration of Cap’s mindset as any. Likewise Englehart has Steve retake the mantle of Captain America because, as Nomad, he “couldn’t do nearly as much for the cause of freedom” (CA #184, 5), and while the Civil War event is often read as Cap’s fight for freedom against the repressive state, it can also be read as Captain America arguing that the law should not apply to him. The ambiguity of the allegory, as Jason Dittmer points out, allows for contradictory readings:

This is made clear through the vigilante character types and superheroes he references— “adventurer,” “privateer,” “swashbuckler”—when coming up with his new costume and identity (CA #180, 10).

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This story line was widely seen by critics as an analogue for debates over the USA PATRIOT Act and related Bush Administration policies that seemed to promise security in exchange for civil liberties, but this interpretation relied on the assumption that readers would identify with the anti-registration superheroes rather than with the vulnerable humans forced to scatter in terror whenever superhero and supervillain meet in their highly destructive melees. An alternative (but rarely voiced) reading would take the perspective of those unnamed members of the public and might see the anti-registration superheroes as analogues for the Bush administration, which denied the claim on it made by other branches of the U.S. government as well as international actors such as the United Nations and its member states. (12–13) While much of the criticism of Secret Empire complains that HydraCap is inconsistent with Steve Rogers’ battles on behalf of liberty and freedom, the event actually draws attention to his repeated privileging of superheroic rights over democratic laws, asking us to recognize that a disrespect for laws, especially ones that he sees as limiting his ability to do what he thinks is right, is at least as much a part of his character as is his belief in democracy.14

Was Steve Rogers Always a Nazi? Normalizing Fascism in Secret Empire Assessing Captain America’s politics leads us to the aspect of Secret Empire that most angered fans: that in making him a fascist, the event both undermines Steve Rogers and the American nation he represents, and encourages fascists by giving them a powerful new symbol. Certainly, there are those who would argue that Captain America was never particularly far from being a symbol for anti-democratic movements. For example, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence note in Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism that the “Captain America complex” implies that when confronted with genuine evil, democratic institutions and the due process of law always fail. In the face of such a threat, democracy can be saved only by someone with courage and strength enough to transcend the

Captain America’s continued involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. through his many iterations supports his characterization as someone willing to work outside the bounds of international law. Certainly, many creators position Captain America as a reluctant participant in spy games, but Ed Brubaker has him develop his own “shadow ops” initiative (Secret Avengers #1, 11), with the tag-line, “Run the mission. Don’t get seen. Save the World,” and shows him as complicit in espionage and the flouting of international law and borders.

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legal order so that the source of evil can be destroyed. Hence the superhero, who couples transcendent moral perfection with an extraordinary capability for effective acts, spends much of his time in hiding, because he cannot be an identified voice in the corrupt democratic process. (29) While Jewett and Lawrence’s focus on Captain America in his earliest incarnation does not allow for the complexity of the changing roles played by the character (Stevens 41), their description of Captain America as “employing nondemocratic means to achieve democratic ends” (Jewett and Lawrence 28) is one that captures a consistent aspect of Cap’s character, including, we argue, his incarnation as HydraCap in Secret Empire. As much as the Captain America storylines continually demonstrate why Cap should not participate in politics, their common representations of governments as corrupt, and politicians as linked with that corruption, actually serve as arguments for Cap as leader and figurehead, just not a particularly democratic one. That is, while he always fights against fascism and tyranny, he also embodies qualities linked to fascism: physical perfection, nationalism, a distrust of political systems and compromises, and an appeal to unity and strength. Jewett and Lawrence ask, Why have Americans become less involved in their civic organizations? Why do we so often feel chafed by the limits of the Constitution? Why are we so ready to empower leaders who promise to transcend constitutional limitations to “solve problems” that are actually intractable? How can one explain the decreasing patience with a democratic system that was designed to be no more than a means of finding “proximate solutions to insoluble problems”? (27) All of these questions are relevant to the character of Captain America, and—unfortunately—to Western democracies currently. If “Steve Rogers was Always a Fascist,” as one blogger proclaims (“mikelywhiplash”), and if, by association, American democracy has fascistic elements, then how is the version of Steve Rogers that is presented as HydraCap in Secret Empire any different? The title of the event recalls a 1970s storyline that was written at the height of the Watergate scandal and similarly explored the threat of fascism in post-Second World War America. The first “Secret Empire” unfolded across various titles in the Marvel universe, including Steve Englehart’s run of Captain America. During the storyline, Cap finds his reputation under attack by the “Committee to Regain America’s Principles,” a front for the Secret Empire, which is itself a Hydra-splinter aimed at taking over the American government. The group “often use[s] advertising or propaganda produced by their agents on Madison Avenue” to obtain “domination— without the people they dominate being aware of it” (CA #173, 8) and sets up a “New Defender of our Heritage,” the villainous Moonstone, to replace the

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disgraced Captain America. With their faith in their government lost, the American people are rendered vulnerable to manipulation, as seen in their willingness to question their ideals by rejecting Captain America. In the end, Steve Rogers is shaken in his own beliefs when he discovers that the leader of the Secret Empire is (implied, but not stated to be) President Nixon. Reflecting on his past and what led him to take up the mantle— specifically, a conviction of the vileness of fascism—Cap decides that his own government is not so different, and temporarily gives up the mantle (CA #176, 3, 8). Matthew J. Costello highlights this run as “the apogee of the crisis of identity” (114) he identifies as central to Marvel Comics’ movement away from the “liberal consensus” of its early anti-communist focus (93), and toward a more complex envisioning of America “as contested terrain and no longer a monolithic cultural ecology” (114). It is apt that Spencer, therefore, in a period in “which we see the collapse of the myth of consensus as both frightening and an exciting opportunity to engage the reality of a multicultural America” (241), revisits and re-works this classic storyline. Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire reiterates the themes of a republic made vulnerable by threats from within and without; but in his event, it is Captain America himself who manipulates those around him in order to successfully pull off a fascist coup. A cosmic cube, who takes the form of a child named Kobik, has rewritten Steve Rogers’s history to make him dedicated to Hydra and their vision of a more ordered world. But this version of Steve Rogers is a parallel version of the same hero, one who has been changed only by being raised with Hydra ideals rather than American ones. Al Ewing and Paco Diaz’s title page of the first U.S.Avengers tie-in to Secret Empire makes this connection between the two clear: Captain America appears in full uniform, proclaiming, “Hail Hydra,” positioned behind the title, “Meet the New Boss” (#5, 3). The conflicting signifiers of the Captain America label and uniform with the “Hail Hydra” speech bubble replicate Saiz’s shocking final page of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (32). Here, Steve Rogers and HydraCap are brought together with the allusion to the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a cynical anthem to the futility of revolution. If HydraCap is “the new boss,” he is—as the next line of the song tells us—the “same as the old boss.” Like Steve Rogers in the original “Secret Empire” story arc, HydraCap is convinced that the American government is failed and corrupt, but this version of Cap instead changes the system from within, rather than quitting in disgrace. He is an exaggerated version of Captain America, with his inherent qualities of loyalty, hard-headedness, idealism, impatience with political bureaucracy, and willingness to engage in violence for a righteous cause all intact, but bent toward explicitly anti-democratic ends, and willing to take up leadership in ways that the original Steve Rogers rejects; according to the Red Skull, he has become a more “perfect version of himself” (CA:SR #2, 20), one whose fascist, vigilante tendencies are brought to the forefront. Like Englehart’s Steve Rogers, who “makes speeches. He can’t help it; he

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thinks in principles” (CA #184, 5), Spencer’s Stevil is also given to speechmaking, and his stated principles often seem very close to those of Steve Rogers: for example, HydraCap reflects, “I hold true to what I believe, and I follow in the footsteps of those who inspired me” (CA:SR #1, 31), and he tells the similarly transformed Erik Selvig, “in my experience, nothing worthwhile ever did come easy. All you can do is trust your instincts, and do what you know to be right” (CA:SR #4, 5). HydraCap even reiterates, word for word, one of Cap’s most famous lines, telling the Red Skull, “I am loyal to nothing … except the dream” (CA:SR #15, 20).15 The major transformation Spencer makes in Steve Rogers/Captain America is therefore not in his tendency to “think in principles,” but rather in the ideology informing those principles: Stevil prizes “strength and order over everything else” (SE #1, 16) and lacks the “compassion and mercy” of original Cap (SE #0, 14). Importantly, HydraCap retains—at least in some respects—the same passionate commitment to liberty as original Cap; shown to resist indoctrination as a child (CA:SR #6, 14), he follows Hydra only once he is convinced that it is the Allied view of history and its political framework that is the real lie (CA:SR #16, 19–20). Fighting for the “true Hydra,” an ideal version of which is contrasted with the “madness” of Hitler (CA:SR #8, 13–14) and the “sickness” of the Red Skull (CA:SR #4, 31), Stevil seeks to create peace through strength, and to restore a timeline that he believes was lost due to the machinations of the Allies. The similarities between Steve Rogers and Stevil get at the heart of what many found distasteful, and even dangerous, about this event; because Stevil shares the same personality characteristics and many of the positive attributes of the original Steve Rogers, Secret Empire arguably suggests that only a slight change in viewpoint separates fascism from democracy, an argument that normalizes fascism as much as it critiques democracy. As discussed earlier, there are extra-democratic aspects at the heart of the superhero genre, and concerns about the connections between superheroes and fascism have been expressed repeatedly over the years, from a 1945 Times article “Are Comics Fascist?” to more recent explorations of that question. Chris Gaveler lists numerous articles that note the fascist elements of superheroes (102–3) and argues that these elements stem from the origins of the genre, which “was created and overwhelmingly popularized during a fascist crisis,” leading “contemporary superheroes’ violent, nationalistic, anti-democratic, totalitarian heroism” to bear “some relationship to historical fascism” (103). The result of this overlap is that readers have long embraced “fascistfighting heroes who were themselves fascist-like” (105). Therefore, when Stevil reflects, “We all make choices” that “change our trajectories” (CA:SR #8, 3), the implication that only a slight change in backstory and history can transform a liberty-loving hero into a fascist overlord is one that draws

Originally spoken in Frank Miller’s Daredevil (1964–1998) #233, 17.

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attention to legitimate concerns about the superhero character and genre. What Spencer’s storyline does is take Cap’s many admirable qualities— doggedness, idealism, strategical thinking, etc.—and employ them toward a different version of “peace through strength” (CA:SR, #4, 30), while also making this Cap openly willing to use violent means toward an end.16 The Secret Empire event also blurs the lines between good and evil by demonstrating that the American dream and the American government are themselves suspect, highlighting the corrupt, manipulative, and violent elements at work within the foundational structures of American democracy. HydraCap was created by Kobik at the end of the “Pleasant Hill” story-arc (2016). Under Maria Hill’s direction, S.H.I.E.L.D used Kobik to change the histories and identities of supervillains to make them believe they all lived peaceably in Pleasant Hill, a “prison disguised as a small town, where the realities of so-called criminals would be rewritten to make them complicit drones.” The Red Skull describes it as “An idea so depraved [S.H.I.E.L.D] could hardly say yes quick enough” (CA:SR #2, 16). The Allies may not have rewritten history, as Stevil believes,17 but S.H.I.E.L.D did, and did so while under Steve Rogers’s command, if without his knowledge or support; as one former inhabitant informs the public, “our inalienable human rights were trampled upon … they forcibly rewrote our lives and took our free will” (SE #0, 13). Importantly, Pleasant Hill is modeled, according to Maria Hill, on the “American dream,” linking the restorative nostalgia for a past America with the repression of human rights and enforced conformity. The seeds of HydraCap, then, can be found within the ruling structures of Marvel’s “good guys” and the extra-legal ends they are willing to undertake in order to maintain a peaceful and orderly society: as Maria Hill describes with her usual blasé, “enhanced interrogation, mass surveillance, regime change  … our business can get a little—icky” (CA:SR #2, 8). One could argue that Maria Hill is an exception, a problematic figure who is continually called out for her ethical lapses by other heroes in the Marvel universe.18 Nevertheless, her ability to stay at the top of the American espionage game, and her centrality to the heroes winning in the end,19 undermines the idea

Warren Ellis also depicts Steve Rogers as willing to engage in ugly acts toward positive ends, though not openly. In Secret Avengers #21, Rogers states, “I don’t believe in torture. It’s ugly, dishonourable and unreliable. So I’m going to let my colleagues do it” (5).

16

To explain the continuity that exists in the 616 comics, Hydra agents tell Stevil that Hydra won the war for the Nazis, but that the Allies used a cosmic cube to rewrite reality to the one readers know (SE #0, 4–5). HydraCap later imposes the Hydra version of history on the American public.

17

As well as the less-pure heroes: when Deadpool refers to a character as a “murder-hag” (Deadpool #35, 8), she is clearly very low on the “good guy” hierarchy.

18

Maria Hill murders Blackout, the man keeping New York and its heroes in a dome of darkness; she tells him, “They’re going to be heroes again. And that’s good. That’s what the world needs right now. But they need me to be something else” (SE #8, 29).

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that she is simply a flaw in the system. These aspects of Secret Empire reflect Spencer’s deep cynicism toward the American government in the wake of the failures of the War on Terror and the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and call into question whether or not, as Stevil himself suggests, Western democracy is really all that different from what it claims to abhor. Spencer also employs outsider viewpoints throughout Secret Empire to critique American idealism by demonstrating that, for many, the difference between the democratically elected American government and the one run by Hydra is not that apparent. For example, Starlord and Rocket Raccoon make a plea for help to other alien empires, who respond, “Hmm. Very interesting. We are all, of course, familiar with Earth and its citizens.” “VERY familiar.” … “Death to Earth! Hail – what was it again?” “HYDRA.” (SE #3, 5) While this scene is played for laughs, it does show that, for aliens, differences in Earth’s politics are meaningless. Earth here is a stand-in for American exceptionalism, with Starlord assuming that outsiders should and will care about its politics as central to their own identities, and being sadly mistaken.20 Other nations on Earth in the Marvel universe, such as Wakanda and Atlantis, also take exception to Western democracies as represented by the major superheroes. Namor, the King of Atlantis, observes wearily that “The threat of Hydra remains, and if it passes, another will rise, and another, and another. The surface world has an infinite supply of conflict and strife” (“Invaders,” 21). For Namor, Hydra is normal, at least in terms of the threat it represents to him and his people. We see similar sentiments expressed by King T’Challa when Tony Stark21 requests from him a shard of the cosmic cube so that the “true” Captain America can be restored; T’Challa refuses to give assistance: “I am telling you the same thing I told the Captain. The fragment came to us, to Wakanda. And so it belongs to us, and only us” (SE #5, 11). Notably, T’Challa treats Tony exactly as he treats HydraCap, and refers to HydraCap simply as “the Captain,” making no distinction between what are, to the reader, clearly the “good guys” and the

When he becomes Nomad in Englehart’s 1970s run, Steve Rogers is himself surprised that Namor, the Sub-Mariner, isn’t more curious about his new identity or why he left behind the mantle of Captain America. Namor makes clear that he has a very different political and philosophical outlook on these things, informed by his own culture and background: “Everything changes in this life—my costume, your president … if you dwelt in the depth, as do I, you would know that currents always shift, and you’d cease to be unduly impressed by such things” (CA #181, 8).

20

Actually an AI version of himself—it’s complicated.

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“bad guys” (11). Tony’s words—“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but ‘The Captain’? He’s a little different these days. I’m trying to help you”—are undercut by the visual of Tony himself being “a little different” in his AI form (11). Tony’s scare quotes challenge T’Challa’s view of reality, and his patronizing “I don’t know if you’ve noticed” and “I’m trying to help you” attempt to place T’Challa in a submissive position within his own nation, even as Andrea Sorrentino’s depiction of the king on his throne flanked by giant panthers emphasizes his power (11). T’Challa’s reply—“Wakanda has had many visitors over the centuries who promise help, and told us they are better than the ones who came before” (11)—instead links Tony, and by implication America, to the European nations that colonized and exploited Africa, and reminds readers of America’s past role in the slave trade and current economic imperialism. For T’Challa and Wakanda, America under Hydra is not inherently distinct from what Wakanda has come to expect from the West. The fact that T’Challa’s counter-offer—that Tony collect as many fragments as possible and surrender them to Wakanda—is not even considered, suggests that the American superheroes are still operating within a framework that assumes and supports Western dominance. Finally, the event shows that for those who are vulnerable and oppressed within American society itself, the distinction between “normal” democratic governance and Hydra rule might likewise be minimal. HydraCap is certainly manipulating viewers and refusing to acknowledge the repression of his own regime when he proclaims in his first televised interview, “What you had before was anything but equal” (CA:SR #17, 20), but he is also not wrong about the disenfranchisement of many in twenty-firstcentury America. The opening of the Captain America: Steve Rogers series begins with the story of one such person, radicalized into Hydra by his increasing disempowerment within the system. His life is paralleled with that of Steve Rogers in the 1930s, but unlike the man who would become Captain America, Robbie Dean Tomlin follows the less fantastical path of the economically marginalized: “His grades were poor and his family even poorer, so college was never an option. Instead he started stealing cars to make rent. He wasn’t good at it. He never had problems with minorities and he wasn’t political, but in jail you need someone to watch your back. So he fell in with a bad crowd of white supremacists” (CA:SR #1, 8). Robbie is eventually inspired by “hope,” but it is in a better future held out by Hydra rather than in the failed American dream: “This was his chance to be something after all” (10). Secret Empire hammers home the point that, for many, American democracy has always been rigged in favor of the powerful. As Emma Frost and Hank McCoy, mutants who have long been used as metaphors for the oppressed in American society, reflect at the end of the event, “They’ve defeated and overthrown fascist rule. They don’t seem to understand … ” “—That mutants always live under it” (Secret Empire: Omega #1, 18). By highlighting the ways in which democracy itself

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is corrupt, Secret Empire strongly critiques the extra-legal, undemocratic ways in which Western governments operate, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror. The danger of this critique is that it could suggest there really is no difference between the “false” democracy espoused by the American government and the “honest” representation of peace through strength offered by fascism and HydraCap. The event’s depiction of the extralegal, non-democratic ways in which the American government and its agencies operate could legitimately be accused of normalizing fascism by encouraging cynicism with democratic systems. Furthermore, the event itself seems to present Hydra’s fascism as simply one political ideology among many: for example, Sarah Rogers (Steve’s mother) is shown attending Hydra community meetings, rather than the socialist organizations that were far more common in 1930s, working-class and immigrant Brooklyn neighborhoods. Madame Hydra (in the guise of Elisa Sinclair) recruits Sarah by describing Hydra as “a sort of civic league” that aims to “help the community” (CA:SR 1, 30), and a later meeting includes the claim, “we were able to feed and clothe over one hundred of our most destitute neighbours this past Saturday” (CA:SR, 3, 3). Representing Hydra as akin to a community group that is secretly aiming to radicalize the population flattens the distinction between socialism and fascism, and echoes rightwing talking points about the dangers of “community organizations.” As well, Hydra controls the population, in part, by using fluoridation of the water as a cover for mind control drugs (SE #1, 19). Allusions such as this to popular conspiracy theories, particularly alongside legitimate parallels with real-world politics, reinforce fringe beliefs rather than challenging them. As Jason Stanley warns, “spreading wild conspiracy theories benefits fascist movements” because it erodes faith in democratic governments and in a free press (66). Finally, Spencer’s representation of Stevil as a brilliant tactician who continually outsmarts everyone else, combined with his own self-portrayal as a noble, selfless, and high-minded (if misguided) leader who gets things done, does much to subsume the corrupt, self-serving, and ultimately hatefilled aspects of fascism. Having the evil villain’s position be somewhat understandable—though still ultimately wrong—is a mainstay of many superhero stories. The usual iterations of this trope ask the hero, and by extension the audience, both to recognize the immorality of easy solutions (e.g., solving scarcity by getting rid of people) and to rethink their own position (maybe Wakanda and other privileged countries should not be so isolationist). In this context, the event critiques the unethical tendencies at work in any system of governance. However, given the current rise of global fascism, casting Captain America as a charismatic fascist dictator, while it makes for layered and nuanced story-telling, might be akin to suggesting that Hitler had some good ideas.

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Marketing Fascism: The Secret Empire Backlash While critiquing fascistic elements within democratic systems is necessary, and highlighting the charismatic qualities of bad people is a mainstay of the comics genre, Captain American: Steve Rogers and the Secret Empire event arguably go too far in both aims. The outright erasure of difference between fascism and democracy shifts the Overton window—“the range of ideas outside which lie political exile or pariahdom” (Robertson)—in ways that weaken resistance to ultra-right movements in society.22 While artistic endeavors are often enhanced by complex and contradictory ideological positions that raise questions rather than provide pat answers, for many readers and commentators, the creative risks taken by Spencer’s texts were irresponsible. One scathing article criticized Marvel for shining “a light on the already far too bright nightmare of the current geopolitical climate,” arguing instead that “their brand should, by all logic, be pumping out page after page of heroes fighting the horrors outside of our windows”; instead, “Marvel chose to do the opposite” (Griffin). As a result, one fan opined, “it was impossible to even glance at this comic without reading between the lines and taking away something horrible and divisive” (“Bloodtom_1” on Schedeen “Secret Empire”). According to these critics and commenters, a storyline focused on the rise of fascism in America is too close to volatile current events, and is therefore liable to add to conflict, rather than reflect and comment upon it. But more importantly, transforming Captain America into a fascist meant that his image and associated iconography could be mobilized in ways that have real-world consequences. On Gizmodo, James Whitbrook agreed that the loss of Captain America as an icon was an ill-timed and short-sighted creative choice by Marvel: “It’s pretty messed up stuff for a figure that is moral bedrock of the Marvel universe—and at a time when the symbol Steve Rogers represents is needed desperately, the portrayal of him as a fascist figure has been an enduring source of controversy” (“Steve Rogers”). Just as Cap had fought Hitler in the 1940s and united an American public, it seemed Captain America, as an emblem of a better America and a past in which fascism was defeated, was needed again to inspire readers to fight back against the rise of fascism in their midst. Instead, as many pointed out, blurring the lines between Cap and HydraCap simply gave the alt-right and White supremacists access to a cultural touchstone. As The Guardian pointed out, “The rise of the white nationalist ‘alt-right’ in the US hasn’t helped Secret Empire’s publicity, especially as Captain America’s

Maria Hill references this concept, letting us know that Spencer is very much aware of it (SE #3).

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iconography has been co-opted by individuals who identify as members” (Shiach, “Is Marvel’s”); the article includes a widely circulated Whitesupremacist image, in which Captain America holds a Nazi flag in one hand, and his shield in the other, deflecting bullets labeled, “Islam,” “Globalism,” “Immigration,” and “Degeneracy,” among others. Shiach goes on to report that “thousands of fans have been voicing their shock and anger, complete with a dedicated hashtag: #SayNoToHYDRACap, where they complain that Marvel has ‘ruined Cap’ and had made him ‘more relatable to bigots who want to see themselves as heroes’” (“Is Marvel’s”). And as one reader complains on Abraham Reisman’s article for Vulture: Considering that we live in an age that seems almost devoid of civil discourse, in which those perceived as “other” are subject to hate speech, denied civil rights, excluded, and subject not only to violence but even murdered in cold blood and without repercussion by some among those intended to “protect” us, and that that kind of behavior goes right up to the highest levels of our government and is widely applauded, do we really need a fascist Captain America? Spencer may be a villain to many on the left, but perhaps without meaning to he’s become a hero to the alt-right. These many commentators raise the concern that Marvel, while engaging in clearly political story-telling, was not fully aware of that story’s political ramifications. While Spencer’s event in no way endorses fascism, his very public Twitter clashes with left-leaning comics readers, particularly his equivocation that punching White supremacists meant that Antifa was just as bad as were fascists, engaged in exactly the same kind of “fault on both sides” rhetoric that the Trump administration embraced. Nick Spencer’s tweet exchanges with fans could be dismissed through “death of the author” defenses of the text itself, but the fact that the marketing for the event also seemed to downplay the seriousness of the subject supports criticisms of the event as a marketing gimmick. For example, in an attempt to create publicity, Marvel announced that they would be creating the illusion that real-world America had also been taken over by Hydra. Rich Johnston reported on Bleeding Cool: Marvel is now offering comic stores the chance to be a part of the Hydra Nation with exclusive retailer Hydra Staff T-Shirts, to be worn by staff during the run of the series. They reiterated to retailers that they will be converting popular comic & entertainment news sites (apart from Bleeding Cool), Marvel apps and Marvel Unlimited—even certain brick-and-mortar comic locations into Hydra-ized versions of themselves. (“Dress Like Hydra”)

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It is not out of the ordinary for brands to market major events using these sorts of tactics, but when the rebranding is with imagery so closely associated with both Nazis and fascism in an age of rising fascism, the ploy becomes more tone deaf than cute. It is one thing to blame Hydra for a technical glitch with Marvel Unlimited.23 It is another to require people to wear fascist iconography at their place of work, and an article on The Daily Dot detailed overwhelmingly negative reactions to the campaign from comic book fans, store owners and employees (Baker-Whitelaw). Inviting comics fandom to see the event as nothing more than a fun opportunity to play make believe, rather than a serious intervention into current politics, did a huge disservice to fans and to the story itself. Finally, Marvel’s vacillations on the political topicality of the story further angered fans and commentators. While Marvel defended itself against the poor timing of the event by noting that it had been in the making since 2014, and therefore was not specifically about the election of Donald Trump, it is very clear that as the event progressed Spencer was drawing directly from and referring to topical issues in ways that are deeply important at the present time.24 Stevil’s scathing dismissal of journalism as a “so-called profession” that is “out of touch with reality” and “deeply biased” (CA:SR #17, 17) echoes the right’s and Trump’s rejection of the media as purveyors of “fake news.” In the very first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, the Red Skull preaches to disaffected Americans, telling them, “I was briefed about these brave patriots fighting the government’s illegal claims to their land … What about the criminal trespassers who make a mockery of your borders?” (CA:SR #1, 9). This is a reference both to the Bundy standoff25 and to conservative talking points about the dangers of immigration across the border with Mexico. Obvious references to current events are also allegorized, as when Captain Marvel reflects on the planetary defense shield that she championed and which HydraCap instead used to separate the most powerful heroes from Earth while Hydra took over: “We built a shield around our world to keep the dangers out—but in the end it only locked us away from everything that ever mattered” (SE #1, 8). This is a direct indictment of the role that fear-mongering, particularly about immigration, plays in American politics, as well as an obvious reference to Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and his isolationist stance in regard to international affairs. Physical barriers

As happened when one of the authors requested support with the often glitchy app.

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Executive Editor Tom Brevoort told Time magazine, “We try to write comics in 2016 that are about the world and the zeitgeist of 2016, particularly in Captain America. Nick Spencer, the writer, is very politically active. He’s a Capitol Hill head and following this election very closely. So we can talk about political issues in a metaphoric way. That’s what gives our stories weight and meat to them. Any parallels you have seen to situations real or imagined, living or dead, is probably intentional but metaphorically not literally” (qtd. in Dockterman “Editor”). 24

An armed confrontation that took place in 2014 between cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters and the federal government over grazing rights on public land.

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at borders not only support nationalism by constructing the state as physical object, but also reinforce the divisions between peoples that Jason Stanley calls the “most telling symptom of fascism” (xvi).26 Given such obvious references to current events, Marvel’s defense of the politics of the event as primarily metaphorical, and their claim that “Any parallels to the current political climate have been coincidental” (Gustines, “Captain America”), was disingenuous, and did much to undermine the power of the story itself.

Agency in an Age of Fascism: The Politics of Memory in Secret Empire This is deeply unfortunate, because both Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire do important work in terms of grappling with the current rise of fascism. While Secret Empire does display important continuities between Steve Rogers as Captain America and Stevil as Hydra Supreme, particularly in terms of the original icon’s extra-democratic aspects, its greatest strength is in its representation of what makes people embrace fascism without the intervention of a cosmic cube. Like Stevil, the heroes and the Americans who follow him behave as they do for understandable reasons, but rather than justifying their actions, the text uses their motivations to critique the role of ordinary people in the rise of fascism. Secret Empire reveals that restorative nostalgia and hero worship are at the heart of political consent, and explores the willingness of citizens to surrender democratic principles to public figures who we cast as unquestionable in their actions. The text also makes very clear that agency is still the central issue that separates democratic states, even flawed ones, from fascistic ones, and that moral responsibility and ethical choices are not wholly relative. By focusing on what makes systems and people vulnerable to fascism, and on what makes us resilient against it, Secret Empire offers a necessary critique of the role of individual citizens in allowing the spread of fascism in the current political climate. One of the primary ways in which Secret Empire preserves a distinction between fascist systems and democratic ones is through the theme of manipulation. Stevil constantly appeals to the truth of his own position— he refers to the “true Hydra” (CA:SR #4, 31) and the “castle of lies” (30) that has obscured it—but the text demonstrates continually that Stevil both lies and is lied to about the ideals he espouses. The primary deception, of course, is about himself. In pretending to be a believer in democracy while

Throughout the event, Stevil echoes Donald Trump and proponents of the alt-right, but in slippery ways. For example, Spencer places the most explicitly xenophobic alt-right rhetoric in the mouth of Red Skull (CA:SR #1, 9), who Stevil later defeats, arguing that he is “a sickness infecting Hydra” (CA:SR #4, 31).

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secretly working to bring about a Hydra world order, Stevil obscures who he really is: “Your friends will believe themselves to be your enemies, and your enemies your friends … You will have to hide your true self from everyone around you” (CA:SR 16, 19). This deception is comparable to hiding one’s “power level,” a tactic employed by fascists and White supremacists in which they “rebrand” or mask their beliefs so as to make them acceptable to the general public, while working to shift the Overton window in obscured or secretive ways.27 The image of HydraCap as a strong leader is founded in part on the falsehood that he has leveled the city of Las Vegas as a warning to those who question his strength and his resolve. In admitting “The whole thing is a lie. I didn’t order the attack. I couldn’t bring myself to” (SE #2, 19), Stevil confesses, if only to his closest ally, that he relies on others to do what he cannot. While this inability to order a terrorist attack on a city could be read as an indication of Stevil’s enduring goodness, his willingness to take credit for the attack suggests that he is prepared to sacrifice civilian lives, but wants a way to convince himself that he is not responsible. The extent to which fascism can only be normalized through obfuscation and denial of reality is also made clear in HydraCap’s first interview with the press upon taking on the position of Hydra Supreme. After ordering the public execution of Rick Jones and the destruction of Las Vegas, HydraCap sits down with Sally Floyd, the same reporter who had humiliated him during the events of Civil War by pointing out that his total lack of familiarity with social media and popular culture meant that he knew “next to nothing” about America (Civil War: Front Lines #11, 10). By choosing Floyd to interview him in his role as Hydra Supreme, Stevil presents himself as more willing to engage than his previous self. Here, the performance of meeting with the press, the Fourth Estate that is meant to hold the government accountable to the people who grant it power, actually foregrounds the manipulation at the heart of Stevil’s regime. Spencer highlights how his claims of a more righteous form of government rely on him carefully controlling information in order to preserve that illusion: Sally notes how “few interviews, press conferences, or even public statements the Hydra leadership has made since taking power” (CA:SR #17, 4). HydraCap appeals to truth throughout his televised appearance, beginning by asking to “set the record straight” (7) and claiming that people are embracing Hydra’s rule because “they are responding to the truth” (17). He then uses just enough of the truth to give force and weight to his words, describing the other superheroes as weak because “they had devoured each other to the point where they could no longer stand against [Earth’s] enemies” (7)—an accurate depiction of the state of superhero affairs in the wake of the Civil War II event—and appealing to the fact that “there was something off, something broken about

Nick Spencer noted that he had to do “ugly research” on White supremacist organizations while writing this event, so he would be familiar with both concepts (Leon, “Supervillian”).

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this society” (17). In this way, HydraCap enacts the way in which “Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual, or perhaps a political party” and “A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence” (Stanley 57). He takes enough of the truth to support his narrative, but twists it so that it no longer reflects reality, leaving his audience destabilized. Stevil is not, however, ultimately successful because the reporter—like many in her profession—is willing to risk her freedom and her life to get to the truth of the story. HydraCap has set very clear boundaries about what he will discuss; Doctor Faustus tells Sally that they want this “to be a free-wheeling, conversation, nothing off limits,” but then makes clear that “there will be no questions about Las Vegas” (CA:SR #17, 4) which is, as Sally notes, “all anyone wants to talk about” (5). As soon as Sally invokes Las Vegas—importantly, in order to counter the Hydra Supreme’s claim that America is freer, happier, and more prosperous under Hydra’s rule—the interview is over, and Sally is imprisoned. The top panel of the page that depicts her arrest shows the Hydra Symbol in red on a black screen, superimposed with the ominous words, “Please Stand By” (21). Hydra’s inherently threatening symbol, combined with the polite phrasing of a network experiencing a seeming technical difficulty, here represents the reality of life under a dictatorship: the threat of violence hidden behind the appearance of normalcy. But in order to be normalized, fascism must always hide and obscure the violence and hatred on which such organizations depend, and HydraCap’s statements throughout the interview are juxtaposed with visual story-telling by Andres Guinaldo and Ramon Bachs that reveals the falsity of his words. For example, he protests that the Hydra government does not recognize the mutant land of New Tian, warning that “any suggestion that Hydra had anything to do with their illegal occupation is a lie” (CA:SR #17, 12– 13), which is followed immediately by flashbacks to HydraCap providing both the treaty with, and map of, New Tian to Magneto in exchange for a temporary pact of non-aggression (13–14). HydraCap speaks of the “holding centers” in which the Inhumans are being housed as “models of humane and dignified treatment” (12); his claim follows scenes depicting the violence within the centers and the terror felt by those interned there, revealing his words to be base propaganda. His deceptive use of language is, in fact, linked directly to the violence itself, as we are shown the overseer of a center, Mr. Hyde, using similar language in a particularly cruel manner. As the Inhumans are marched into what is obviously a prison, with barbed wire and gun turrets, he proclaims over a video screen that links him to Steve who is also on camera: “I want to personally welcome each and every one of you. I understand you may have concerns, and I look forward to hearing them … After all, personal attention is my specialty” (9). The final words are spoken as the reader moves to Hyde’s location in an operating theatre, and

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he holds the heart of a dead Inhuman up to the camera, displaying it for all the captives to see. Hyde’s actions show that language is a tool for Hydra. The front of compassion and civility is not just a means of gaslighting and manipulation, but is central to the cruelty itself. The interview with the Hydra Supreme, therefore, does much to counter the claim that fascism is just another political orientation with a role to play in the “marketplace of ideas.” Instead, just as fascists and White nationalists use liberal discourse about free speech and acceptance of diversity to gain a platform, so too are Stevil and Hydra portrayed as employing the trappings of democracy to support tyranny. The cruelty shown to contradict the words in this interview lays bare the central lie about HydraCap: while his speeches mimic those of Captain America, and while Stevil himself might, at times, convince others and himself that he is a noble warrior for a good cause, Spencer depicts him as, in fact, a profoundly cruel and corrupt man.28 Throughout the series, it is shown that his performance of HydraCap as similar to the original Captain America is one that he struggles to maintain, as seen in his attempt to gaslight his lover, Sharon Carter. Stevil claims repeatedly that he is devoted to her, telling her upon his reveal as a Hydra agent: “No matter what I do—I love you. That will always be true” (SE #0, 28). The series depicts him attempting to win Sharon over, dining with her and inviting her to use her talents for governance to help him build the Hydra regime. He also continues to treat her as a confidante, and as someone who can give him emotional support and comfort (SE #1, 26). In so doing, he attempts to make her see their relationship as in no way changed—again, business as usual with just a slightly different moral alignment. When Sharon makes clear that she is not susceptible to his manipulation—she tells him, “You can dress this up any way that you want, but Steve … you are still a fascist” (CA:SR #19, 19)—she provokes him to reveal the pettiness of his true nature, the reality that he has attempted to “dress up.” In the wake of their confrontation, Stevil opts to have her reality changed by Doctor Faustus to make her “more cooperative” (SE #9, 26). In so doing, Stevil proves he is not trying to counter the violence of the “Great Illusion” that Hydra claims was committed by the Allies. Instead, what he wants is what all tyrants want: the power to impose his will on reality, and wipe out any challenge to it, as seen in the final issue in which he temporarily succeeds in this aim. Steve McNiven’s art shows the monuments and buildings of Washington, D.C. transforming, through the power of the Cosmic Cube, with their current state of destruction being wrapped over and replaced by Hydra’s ideal reality, remaking everything “in

He behaves similarly with Sally Floyd; ending the interview with her arrest, HydraCap claims to do so in “the interests of national security,” but his parting words to her about Twitter, harking back to her criticism of his lack of social media knowledge in Civil War, reveals that petty revenge is likely the primary motivation behind choosing her to interview him (21).

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Hydra’s image” (SE #10, 11). HydraCap’s completed vision of a new world speaks to a central theme of the politics of memory: namely, that “who defines what past events matter and how these should be interpreted … has a stronghold over how this community is imagined in the present” (Gallinat 4). Stevil justifies his worst actions with a narrative that he will make the world right in the end, but the visual narration of a remade American capital makes clear that his better world is in fact an act of violence: an erasure of identity necessary for his new order to be brought into being. The Secret Empire event, then, is certainly about the normalization of fascism, but its focus is on revealing just how much fascism relies on active forgetting in order for that normalization to take place, and, importantly, how and why people might choose to forget. The condemnation of “Pleasant Hill” and the repeated motif of memories and reality being rewritten both raise the specter of governmental manipulation of reality, but throughout we are also shown that memory and forgetting can be deliberately chosen. For example, the very beginning of the event is set in a schoolroom in which Hydra indoctrination has become the norm; a school teacher asks, “Who ran the United States super-soldier program?” Two students answer simultaneously with two different answers reflecting the conflicting histories, their postures mirroring each other in McNiven’s drawing. The teacher, her position between the two students in the panel reflecting her ability to mediate between the truths, temporarily falters before correcting the student who answered, correctly, “Abraham Erskine?”: “Er, now Jason—you know that’s not correct. That was the answer in the editions we burned, remember?” (SE #1, 3). This focus on indoctrination via the education system illustrates how in “fascist ideology the goal of general education … is to instill pride in the mythic past” (Stanley 48) and explicitly acknowledges the role played by propaganda in revising collective memory. But it also shows that it is possible to recall previous history, and to challenge the information being given, as Jason does when he repeats the history he was taught the previous year. The population has not had their memories rewritten by magic, as Stevil has; instead they are choosing to accept and propagate the new reality. But not everyone makes that choice. Hydra exerts pressures to make people accept a new political reality—either relatively soft ones, such as a teacher chiding a student to get with the program, or harsh ones, like the violence experienced by the Inhumans, Rick Jones, and those who live in Las Vegas— but the choice to remember is still there, however harrowing it might be. This is demonstrated by the comic’s depiction of a broken Tony Stark (AI), who explains, “We’re not ‘superheroes’ anymore. We’re just fugitives. Just— people who remember a little too well” (SE #1, 33). Clearly, it would be less painful to forget, and absolutely less dangerous, but the act of remembering is nevertheless presented as a moral and political act of resistance. Those who go along with a false narrative of fascism are shown to be culpable in its effects, because in Secret Empire accepting a false new reality is not always an act of cowardice or survival; for many it is a desirable

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choice. Believing in a lie can be about embracing the benefits that come with it. For example, McNiven and Matthew Wilson’s depictions of news coverage of the nascent regime include scenes of Americans embracing the new status quo: a crowd of civilians cheering an Avengers victory against a foe that included “no civilian casualties and minimal property damage” (SE #1, 18); Hydra agents standing over the bloodied bodies of criminals caught in the act; cheering stock-brokers with Doctor Faustus on hand to celebrate the “exchange hitting new heights” and “falling unemployment thanks to new stimulus spending” (18); and a ceremony to announce a “dreadnought-manufacturing facility … expected to create over 2000 jobs” (18). The ordered paneling of the page, combined with the newsfeed in the gutters to avoid disturbing the images, and colorist Wilson’s sepia tones work together to show an idealized world. McNiven’s first image includes a crowd enthusiastically performing the Hydra salute, while the following three all include villains from the Marvel Universe, now accepted into American life. The final image demonstrates that even though dreadnoughts were used to level Las Vegas, they will still be supported by a public that benefits economically. While these scenes are obviously hand-picked in the world of the comic by a no-longer free press, they are also ones which have clear parallels to our world, expressing the just fear that people, even in democratic societies, will accept less-than-just governments in order to attain a “safer” world (for everyone but political dissidents), a booming economy, and abundant jobs. What these images demonstrate is that, for many in HydraCap’s America, so long as the trappings of American life under capitalism are maintained, or even better, improved, then personal freedom and liberty are a reasonable sacrifice. This willingness to accept a surface reality that hides a horrible truth is foreshadowed early on in the event when a prisoner from Pleasant Hill, Slyde, testifies that he was happy to have his memories rewritten: “I got a new life … and I loved it … When I hear about you guys talking about how awful it was, what they did to me, all I can think is, are you kidding? This is the best thing that ever happened to me—” (CA:SR #9, 12). It is easier to accept a false version of the American dream, the event suggests, than a difficult and messy truth, especially one that suggests that the dream itself might be corrupt. Baron Zemo provides a fascinating representation of someone who chooses to embrace such a rewritten reality. As with most supervillains, Zemo has a complicated history, but as one of the main figures of Captain America’s “rogue’s gallery,” he has remained a consistent adversary, one dedicated to the fascist tenets of his father (an opponent of Captain America in his 1940s adventures29) and to avenging his death. But in Secret Empire, Stevil captures and tells Zemo stories from his own rewritten history,

This version of Baron Zemo did not appear until the 1960s, in flashbacks, so was not present in the original Captain America Comics.

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ones in which Zemo was Stevil’s childhood friend and stalwart defender. In this history, Steve’s side-kick, Bucky Barnes, kills the elder Zemo in a raid, one which Stevil failed to prevent. In the “real” Marvel universe, Zemo has always constructed himself as a victim. Stevil’s version of the past therefore provides Zemo with a history in which his sense of having been wronged is confirmed, and by Captain American himself. As with Slyde in Pleasant Hill, Zemo is offered the chance to remember a past far better than what actually transpired, one in which the Allies rewrote history and, by implication, Zemo’s “true” relationship with his father. Stevil tells him, “I know you remember him as some kind of monster, but I promise you, he wasn’t. Heinrich Zemo was a good man … and he loved you very much” (CA:SR #11, 17). Stevil acknowledges that he has no evidence to back up his claims that Zemo is his “best friend and the closest thing he has to a brother” (19), and that it is far more likely that Zemo will believe that Steve Rogers has been brainwashed or transformed by the cosmic cube (which, of course, he has). Readers know that there is nothing in their history, or in Zemo’s experience of reality, to convince Zemo that Stevil is speaking anything approaching the truth. Nevertheless, Zemo literally embraces this version of reality. Guinaldo and Bachs’ visual story-telling shows the two staring into each other’s eyes, and then Zemo pulling Stevil toward him in a fervent clasp that surprises even Stevil (whose hands are shown, startled and open against Zemo’s back) (20). In Secret Empire, Zemo’s memories have not been altered by Kobik; he has not been brainwashed or indoctrinated by propaganda. His choice is presented, quite simply, as a willingness to accept a new reality precisely because it offers him an identity and a history he prefers to the one he had before. This is made clear when he tells Blackout, another villain who had his memory rewritten in Pleasant Hill, “I myself don’t have any family left, I’m afraid, or at least that’s what I had thought until recently—when someone close to me revealed themselves to be … something else entirely” (CA:SR #13, 14). Spencer’s dialogue here reveals Zemo’s internal negotiations, in that Zemo acknowledges truthfully that he has no family, but then qualifies that he now enjoys “Something that might as well be family” (14), with the use of “something,” “might” and “as well” all revealing, if only subconsciously, that he recognizes this as a substitution for reality. But if this acknowledgment demonstrates that Zemo is only somewhat convinced by Stevil, his later words to Bucky evince a full, self-aware and complicit participation in rewriting his own memories and history: “You still don’t understand, do you? Facts, reality—these things are simply what we make them. I have decided what I believe. And if this story Steven tells is a lie— then I will make it true” (CA:SR #16, 16–17). Spencer demonstrates how, for Zemo, rewritten history can offer validation and a means to fulfill unmet needs. He can be transformed from villain to hero, in his own mind, without the actual work of redemption and reparation that such arcs generally demand. As well, the rewritten narrative that Stevil has given him offers

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an excuse for his anger, his resentment, and his violence. Stevil provides Zemo with a way to transform that does not challenge his past misdeeds or demand that he engage with and acknowledge the ugliness of his beliefs: instead, it simply tells him that he was right all along, and that the world was wrong.30 Secret Empire uses Zemo’s acceptance of Stevil’s story to demonstrate both the attraction of revising history and the wrongness of doing so; throughout the series, Spencer depicts resistance as not only possible, but morally necessary. From the scene in the classroom referenced earlier, in which a child speaks up to challenge what he is being taught, to stories focused on individuals who risk their lives to stand up for what is right, Secret Empire employs narratives of propaganda and fear as explanations for collective and individual failure to fight back, but not as excuses. We see this particularly with Odinson; like the aliens who see no difference between Hydra and other Earthling governments, Odinson confesses, “Midgard’s politics have always confounded me. I have seen kings and empires rise and fall too many times to care” (SE #5, 21). He therefore sides with Stevil, because “in all that time, no mortal has earned my trust in the manner that Steve Rogers has,” and he has promised “to save Jane Foster from the purgatory where she resides.” Most importantly, Stevil has “wielded Mjolnir” (21), demonstrating his worthiness to lead.31 Odinson’s reasons for siding with Hydra therefore go beyond personal cowardice or persuasive propaganda. Nevertheless, he also registers that something is deeply wrong: “I have seen things here … things that trouble me … the innocent being persecuted. Evil gaining. Fear taking hold” (21). The event shows him struggling with his conscience throughout, begging his former friends to forgive him for his actions (SE #6, 16) and even allowing them to escape (31). His final decision—“no more” (SE #9, 16–17)—contrasts sharply with Zemo’s acceptance, and makes very clear that, however compelling Odinson’s reasons for siding with Stevil and Hydra, he retains the agency and the responsibility to make the right choice. Spencer extends this responsibility to the superheroes who fight against Stevil, but in their case, the event’s lesson is about recognizing the role played by those in power in terms of eroding public trust, and therefore, making democracies vulnerable to fascism. Ultron/Hank Pym32 reminds his former teammates that the current Hydra coup is far from the first time that superheroes have taken it upon themselves to shape the world as they There are obvious parallels here to the desire to believe any story that supports one’s own worldview and to reject any information contradicting that worldview as “fake news.” However, the ambiguous nature of allegory could allow individual readers of the event to interpret it as a criticism of any opposing side’s belief in propaganda.

30

This is proven to be another falsehood; HydraCap is only able to lift Mjolnir because of enchantments cast by Madame Hydra.

31

It’s complicated.

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see fit, referring to “Tony’s grand plan for superhuman registration” and Wanda/Scarlet Witch’s revision of history in the House of M event: “You all have such big ideas for solving the world’s problems. Funny, then, how you just keep making everything worse” (SE #4, 21). Ultron/Pym makes clear that it is the very nature of superheroism that is at fault, because “if Rogers says ‘Assemble,’ you all can’t run into a fire fight fast enough—and if Stark says he has some big idea, half of you will happily line up behind him, no matter how terrible it is!” (25). The things that give Steve Rogers and Tony Stark their power and influence—leadership and genius, respectively—are also the things that make them dangerous. Ultron/Pym himself embodies a painful object lesson for the heroes. He was once one of them, but his own paradoxically combined arrogance and lack of confidence have made him into a monster they all fear. Staging an awkward intervention of a family dinner in which his past friends are all forced to meet, now on separate sides, Ultron/Pym sets out to “save the Avengers” (12) by showing them the truth about their past: “Do you want to know why Ultron … didn’t come after you yet again? It’s because he didn’t have to. It’s because he looked at you and your war, Tony, and you and your scheming, Steve—and he realized he wouldn’t have to destroy anything—because you were already doing it for him” (24). AI/Tony Stark responds by bringing up Hank Pym’s own infamous misdeeds—domestic violence and creating Ultron in the first place—but it is Ant-Man/Scott Lang who wins the day for the Avengers, not through an appeal to nostalgia, but instead through a recognition of the role that reparation must play in coming to terms with past misdeeds: “There’s a guy who did some stuff he regrets, but he got right back up and kept trying to do what’s right” (30). Scott’s compassion triumphs, but so too does his acknowledgment that Hank Pym “screwed up big time” (30) and is paying the price for it and, in so doing, modeling what is necessary for all of them. Ultron/Hank Pym’s parting words to AI/Tony Stark are that he needs to deal with his “baggage”: “Say hello to all your ghosts for me, Tony!” (32). Rather than engaging in restorative nostalgia and invoking the past as a romanticized dream to which they should all return, Spencer uses Ultron/Pym to caution the heroes to reflect upon everything they have buried, to “face [their] demons” (32). Past history haunts the present, rather than informing it, because those in power have continually failed to come to terms with the harms they have caused. And in the case of Captain America in particular, Spencer spells out just how much his status as Captain America and as an emblem of American idealism is responsible for the atrocities that HydraCap commits, encouraging his reader to assess their own devotion to the superhero as icon. Prior to the event, the S.H.I.E.L.D Act is passed to give the agency the power to act unilaterally in case of threats to America: Sharon Carter acknowledges that “People are right to be concerned about this S.H.I.E.L.D Act—this amount of power, this kind of authority, the chance it could be abused, it’s terrifying” (CA:SR #10, 21). Her words are a clear indictment

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of superheroism, particularly when read in conjunction with Pym/Ultron’s litany of past superheroic abuses of power and authority. That unilateral, governmental power is given to Steve Rogers (though actually Stevil) because people, both citizens and superheroes alike, see him as “someone everyone can trust, someone we all know will only do what’s absolutely necessary to keep us safe” (21) is an indictment of the desire for an idealized superhero to address the world’s problems. Ironically, of course, Stevil certainly will do what’s “absolutely necessary” to make the world “safe”— but desiring safety is not the same thing as desiring justice and embracing the responsibility to bring it about. In the end, Secret Empire models that the only way to fight the normalization of fascism is to reject restorative nostalgia and to instead actively remember in response to propagandistic attempts to rewrite history, an act that requires acknowledging and making reparations for past actions. It is significant, we argue, that Sam Wilson is presented as the one who leads the charge. As the first African-American hero, Sam has often been depicted contending with the power gaps in American democracy: for him, as for Wakanda, and Atlantis, and the mutants, addressing oppression is not new. Sam is therefore in a unique position to call out his fellow heroes; like them, he has enjoyed superheroic powers, but Spencer emphasizes how, as a Black man in America, Sam has not enjoyed the privilege of those powers to an extent that makes him blind to the responsibility that comes with them: “When things got rough, when we’d worn ourselves down—instead of fixing what was broken, taking responsibility—we decided it was easier to just hand it all over to him, let him do it for us. Didn’t turn out so well” (Captain America (2017–2018) #25, 16). It is ironic, and problematic, that Spencer has Sam embody “we” here, given that, of all the superheroes, he was the one responsible for speaking up for oppressed Black Americans and against the American government, all while being challenged for daring to wear the mantle of Captain America. But arguably he is also the one best placed to remind Americans in the Marvel Universe of how to fight back against fascism, given that his bearing of that mantle was about refusing empty idealism and acknowledging injustice even when it was impolitic to do so, as we discussed in the previous chapter. In this way, Sam Wilson embodies reflective nostalgia. Wearing the mantle of Captain America, he provides a symbol, grounded in history, around which to rally, but he appeals to the other superheroes with a call to their past heroism that is tempered by the harsh realities of the present: “Maybe it’s not what people remember first anymore. Maybe it’s not how you see yourselves—but you can still be that. Might be a little rusty at it, but you still know how” (Captain America (2017–2018) #25, 17). Sam’s words are empowering because they encourage the superheroes not to rely on privilege or on memory, but instead on earning their mantles in the present. And importantly, the action they take to “remember” themselves is to come to the

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aid of those who are oppressed—in this case, the entrapped Inhumans—and to recognize that they are fighting alongside them, and not solely for them. It is not an act of superheroic power, but an act of superheroic solidarity, one that gives them the opportunity to remember themselves: “We saw people being oppressed, hurt—and we stood with them against it. And as we did, we started to remember again—everything else we’d forgotten” (19–20). As with Zemo, the act of remembering is depicted as providing identity and purpose, but here, it is one that requires them to grapple with, rather than excuse, their past failures. And with this action, they also experience joy. Carol Danvers says, “Okay, maybe it’s just the adrenaline—and Lord knows it’s been a while, so I may not recognize what it looks like, but—this is fun, right?” Sam replies, “Yeah, Carol—this is fun” (SE #9, 34). Sam’s validation of “fun” is important. While Stevil might be loyal, hard-working, and courageous, he cannot be accused of being “fun”; as Odinson points out, Stevil differs from the “real” Steve in this (CA:SR 19, 9–11). Likewise, Secret Empire as an event was not, up to this point, particularly fun either, but it gives way to joy at the end, when Sam, Scott Lang, Bucky, and Kobik work together to bring back the original Steve Rogers, and he defeats “his worst nightmare. A warped and twisted reflection of himself and all he stood for” (SE #10, 27). Readers—like the superheroes within the text—are meant to be inspired by the victory, but we argue that the event offers a necessarily complicated form of “fun,” one that comes from being encouraged to “stand and fight” when confronted with fascism (28) in ways that might actually carry real expectations. While Spencer represents this collective act of remembering as empowering and inspiring, the event also makes clear that reparation has to come with loss and with labor. For a returned Steve Rogers, this means accepting that while he himself is not responsible for Stevil’s actions, it was his name and likeness, and the power those things conferred on him, that must be held to account. In confronting Stevil, he chastises him, “you might think I’m upset that you spent whatever influence I might have had on the world, but the truth is, that’s one of the few silver linings here. I’ve spent years telling people not to put too much trust in any one person, to not follow blindly, to question authority, now more people will understand why” (Secret Empire: Omega #1, 26). In speaking thus, Steve Rogers is arguably trying to preserve some sense of self in the wake of seeing how his persona could be used; as shown previously, upon seeing what he had become, Steve was in fact very nearly “broken” and “brought … low” (SE #9, 31). But his actions after defeating Stevil are also meant to speak to both the truth of his words and his recognition that consequences must be faced: he hands back his iconic shield to Sam Wilson with the words, “I told him this doesn’t belong to him. It doesn’t belong to me either,” then passes the hammer of Thor to Jane Foster with, “And neither does this” (SE #10, 32). It does not matter if this version of Steve Rogers is not the one the heroes have been fighting against,

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or that he has again proved his right and fitness to lead; Hydra gained power through the status his mantle held. In direct contradiction of those readers who rejected the widespread mantle-passing of ANADM, Spencer suggests that redressing the uglier aspects of superhero mantles begins with recognizing the role those mantles play in the more authoritarian aspects of the superhero genre, and passing them on to others is a means of moving forward. Finally, Spencer depicts the act of remembering as crucial to ensuring that fascism does not return to threaten the future. It is tempting to say “never again” as Captain America does upon defeating HydraCap (SE #10, 32), but the final chapter of the series demonstrates just how simplistic such a statement is. The focal point of the final page is a circular panel containing a close-up of a guard’s mouth whispering “Hail Hydra” to the imprisoned Stevil, followed by an answering close-up of Stevil’s smiling mouth, beside which appears a text box featuring the ominous words: “This is a war that never ends” (Secret Empire: Omega #1, 30). Both images stand out in red amid an otherwise muted color palate, but Andrea Sorrentino renders the images themselves in almost photorealist detail, suggesting the realworld implications of both continued fascist networks, and the need for vigilance. But the closure of the event also gestures toward the steps that must be taken to transform “never again” from an assertion of finality to “a promise” (33). Kobik herself accepts responsibility for what she has been used to do, and uses her immense power to model the proper actions going forward: “Kobik restored the history that had been corrupted and taken from us. But she left the scars and the wreckage” (SE #10, 33). Reflection is possible, the event suggests, but only with scars in place to remind everyone that losses cannot be easily overcome and reparations must be made; scars are a sign of a healing/healed wound, but they do not erase the fact that the wound was there. We see this philosophy in action in the epilogue of Secret Empire, in which neighbors who had vandalized the house of the Inhuman Brian McAllister and willingly participated in Hydra indoctrination, either because they were afraid or because they were happy to have their history rewritten, now must address their wrong-doing. Upon waking to find his neighbors cleaning the graffiti from his home, Brian tells them, “You didn’t have to do all this,” to which they reply, “Oh, yes we did, Brian. Yes, we did” (SE #10, 39). This scene can certainly be read as far too optimistic, and also problematic in suggesting, perhaps, that hate crimes can simply be painted over and forgotten. But we argue that amid the slippery nature of the event and its politics, and of the politics in the world outside our window, it is important to have both hope and suggestions for how to move forward. While Brian is depicted as perhaps unduly generous in allowing his neighbors to avoid taking blame, the teacher who spread propaganda in the first issue is the one who asserts that yes, this work must be done. This scene makes clear that reparations are not simply about giving justice to those

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who have been wronged,33 but also about those who have committed these crimes actively remembering the role they played in bringing a fascist regime about, and working to counter their past actions. “Never again” cannot be an assumption. Instead, “never again” only comes with acknowledging and repairing the hurts of history.

Conclusion: Superheroes in an Age of Fascism? Part of the problem with an event like Secret Empire, however, is that the central themes of the storyline—that actions have repercussions, that powers should never be absolute and heroes should not be above criticism, and that “never again” requires active remembering—go against the very nature of comic-book story-telling. Those who were disappointed with the event’s closure rightly complained that Marvel had just “hit a giant reset button” (Schedeen, “Secret Empire”), had failed to “unpack the psychological and emotional impact the story’s had on its characters” (Whitbrook and PulliamMoore), and, in the end, had “never actually wanted to address the systemic and troubling nature of the ways fascism and totalitarianism worms its way into democracy, it just wanted to play with the symbology” (Shiach, “Controversial”). Such critiques are fair, and highlight just how unsuited the superhero genre is, in many ways, to the story Spencer et al. wanted to tell. Regardless of what world-ending events they participate in and what regrettable actions they take, superheroes always come back to fight another day and participate in another adventure and, therefore, often do not fully model ongoing repercussions, both personal and political. Marvel superhero comics do “play” with real-world politics, and have always done so, but the fact that they must do so within an imaginative world in which those politics might not have lasting and damaging effects perhaps makes their close parallels with in-progress, real-world issues irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. As well, Captain America is not only a symbol, but also a lucrative copyrighted property, both in the comics and in the movies. As such, any tarnishing of his brand is one that threatens Marvel’s bottom line; it is therefore not surprising that the company went into damage control before the event was even over, spoiling the conclusion with a New York Times article, “Captain America: Fighting Evil Again” (Gustines). For a company that markets in superheroes, critiquing and deconstructing the superhero character is not a creative choice that we, as readers, can expect to have In perhaps the most cynical part of the epilogue, Brian, whose ability to vomit up anything he has a picture of was instrumental in the victory, signs away his right to sue the government for his suffering during unlawful incarceration (SE #10, 35).

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lasting and widespread effects. Even within the event itself, the hagiography of the “good” Steve trapped in the cosmic cube clearly preserves the ideal superhero as a challenge to the dark doppelgänger that Stevil represents. At the end of Secret Empire #2, Sorrentino draws the original Steve Rogers lit from behind with a figurative halo, the perspective forcing the viewer to literally look up to him. Although he is just the memory of the original Steve Rogers, his desire to “get home” authorizes him as the true Steve, wishing to complete his hero’s journey (30). In the end, his return both allows an uncomplicated reiteration of good vs. evil, erasing much of the blurring of lines that Stevil represented, and makes “Captain America” available as a brand for the franchise going forward. In other words, in a story about the politics of memory, Marvel Comics could be accused of engaging in a political act of forgetting, both in universe and without. In universe, the “real” Steve is absolved of responsibility extremely quickly: his “I’m so sorry—this wasn’t—” is completed for him by Tony Stark: “We know it wasn’t. It’s good to have you back, Cap” (SE #10, 32). Cap’s apology is not completed, or rather it is completed for him in a way that shuts down any need for explication of what “this wasn’t.” Cap is simply “back,” no questions asked, no apologies needed. And if his in-universe self is redeemed quickly, his right to the untainted mantle of Captain America was just as quickly reasserted in our world. Although Steve Rogers passes on the shield to Sam Wilson in the conclusion of the event, a point that is reiterated in the last panel of the series when a child is shown asking for his Captain America figure, with the reveal that it is of Sam Wilson (SE #10, 39), this mantle passing does not continue beyond Secret Empire. Instead, Sam Wilson passes the shield back in the Generations series, and Mark Waid and Chris Samnee produced an almost aggressive example of restorative nostalgia with their Captain America run during Marvel’s Legacy period (2017–2018). After a disastrous 2017, it seemed as though Marvel Comics was pushing the reset button on the entire event, treating Spencer’s exploration of fascism as just one of the many missteps the company experienced that year, best left behind and forgotten.34 And yet, if the nature of comics means hitting the re-set button very quickly, it is also true that the long-running nature of the Marvel universe allows the repercussions of events to play out over years, even decades. In addition, if corporate ownership means abandoning controversial storylines to please some fans, it also means that a divided fanbase can lead the corporation back to that story to please others. Mark Waid’s series might have been an exercise in making Captain America great again, but Ta Nehisi Coates’s run on Captain America, which began in 2018, engages directly with the fallout of Secret Empire and shows that political change of the

The Hollywood Reporter provided an excellent overview of Marvel’s many troubles in 2017 (McMillan, “2017”).

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scope shown in the event cannot be easily set aside. Similarly, Marvel giving Spencer the reins of Amazing Spider-Man, arguably Marvel Comics’ flagship series,35 suggests that the editorial administration did not consider the event a mistake. Both series are part of a brand-wide campaign labeled Fresh Start launched in the summer of 2018. In our conclusion, we will examine the beginning of this latest Marvel campaign, which includes the return of traditional mantles not only to Steve Rogers, but also to Thor Odinson, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and Logan, to ascertain just how the company might be negotiating politics now that Axel Alonzo has been replaced by C.B. Cebulski as editor-in-chief.

This title occupied four of the top ten sales spots for all single-issue comics (not just Marvel) in 2018 (McMillan, “Top Selling”).

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Conclusion: Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start: Selling (and Selling Out) Progressive Politics

Our chapters have charted a course thus far through Marvel’s history of branding itself according to liberal, sometimes progressive, politics, and how this policy has played out under the editorship of Axel Alonso leading up to and during the All-New, All-Different Marvel campaign that has proved to be such a source of controversy. But ANADM was only one of four Marvel campaigns during the period of 2015–2018. If the Secret Wars event was meant to reset the Marvel universe and shake up old stories with new characters and creators, then the succession of ANADM (2015–2017) with the concurrent Marvel Now 2.0 (2016–2017) and Marvel Legacy (2017–2018), followed by Fresh Start (2018–) seemed to indicate a company desperately seeking a framework it could live with. Numerous events and launches of campaigns are nothing new in the world of superhero comics, but this continual re-branding in such a short period of time seemed to confirm that “it’s been a weird time for Marvel Comics lately,” and that “a fresh start that is truly fresh is just the thing the publisher needs to settle what’s turned out to be a tumultuous few years” (Whitbrook, “Brief”). We want to close our examination of politics, comics culture wars, and the Marvel Comics universe with a look at Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start and what these launches might tell us about how the company tried  to navigate the Comicsgate controversy and its fallout. In the

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fall of 2017, Marvel seemed to back away from both the far-reaching changes  of  ANADM and the overt political commentary of Secret Empire, and to give in to more reactionary demands for a return to the good old days of comics with the brand-wide relaunch, Marvel Legacy. James Whitbook saw the “the nostalgia-trading announcement of Marvel Legacy” as an explicit attempt to deal with both “a tempestuous reader reaction to Secret Empire, as well as a growing discontent with some fans at modern Marvel no longer showcasing the classic heroes that made it a hit” (“Brief”). This seeming return to tradition also coincided with major changes behind the scenes at Marvel. On November 7, Brian Michael Bendis, creator of Miles Morales, Jessica Jones, and Riri Williams, and major writer for Marvel for much of the twenty-first century, announced that he was leaving Marvel for DC. The news was followed ten days later by the announcement that Axel Alonso was being replaced as editorin-chief by C.B. Cebulski. The shift in leadership was seen by some as an attempt to update Marvel after a  disastrous 2017. Not surprisingly, this new leadership lead to yet another relaunch; the Legacy branding, it turned out, would last only six months, and was immediately followed by Fresh Start in April of 2018. While Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start have different people in control, use different marketing techniques, and have names pointing in seemingly opposite directions, we read the two brandings as a single transition out of the Alonso years at Marvel and the twin vehicles by which Marvel attempted to placate both sides of its own polarized fanbase. The returns of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Thor Odinson, Bruce Banner, and Logan to their traditional mantles seem designed to bring back readers who felt alienated by the changes to the superhero roster under ANADM, while the continued promotion of a more diverse pool of heroes is clearly aimed at retaining new readers attracted by those changes. This strategy serves opposing sides in the Comicsgate clash, offering ample evidence for each to declare victory. However, it also offers opportunity for each side to complain that Marvel has caved to pressure from their opponents. What this attempt to serve all audiences does not offer, therefore, is a clear narrative of Marvel Comics and its politics nearing the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Instead, Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start perhaps best represent the pitfalls of the current trend of corporate woke branding. While Marvel’s creators continue to do vital and interesting work on many of the comics storylines, the overall messaging of these launches is that Marvel Comics currently wants to appear progressive, but not political. Arguably, such a message is in line with the corporate art that Marvel has produced since the 1960s, but if Comicsgate has taught us anything, it is that such a strategy is no longer a safe middle ground; instead it leads to complaints about the aesthetic and the cultural relevance of the comics from both sides of the current political divide.

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Marvel Legacy: A Big Tent for Divided Fans, or an Exercise in Restorative Nostalgia? The marketing of the Marvel Legacy relaunch began in April 2017, just as Secret Empire was starting. On April 17, Graeme McMillan, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, responded to a teaser put out by the company prior to that year’s C2E2 convention in Chicago: a simple title card of the Marvel logo, the word “Legacy,” and the date “Fall 2017.” While there might seem to be little to parse in these four words, the word Legacy—as the title of both a one-shot comic and a larger line—is a loaded signifier within the comics genre; as McMillan notes, “In comic book terms, it often refers to a new character taking on a costume and superhero identity from an older character” (“Tease”). This would seem to point explicitly to the state of Marvel comics at the time of the teaser’s release, since so many of the core mantles were then held by legacy characters such as Sam Wilson and Jane Foster. This is especially significant as the teaser arrived just two weeks after the widespread reporting on David Gabriel’s suggestion that “too much diversity” was a factor in weak sales of the ANADM lineup. McMillan, however, goes on to speculate that the teaser could, in fact, point to the other meaning of “legacy,” which is an appeal to the past, and could “mean a restoration of the classic incarnations of characters” (“Tease”). These two opposing readings highlight the ambiguity of the name, one that allowed all members of the editorial team, in touting the re-branding, to point to the past and to the future simultaneously. For example, Axel Alonso emphasizes the coexistence of both the old and the new mantle holders: “Marvel Legacy will decide once and for all if the Marvel Universe is big enough for Miles and Peter, Riri and Tony, Thor and Jane Foster, Laura and, dare I say, Logan? Spoiler alert: It is” (Weiss). His words appeal to the “big tent” idea of culture: that there is a place for us all, regardless of politics, and that what divides us is less than what binds us together. Chief content officer Joe Quesada likewise appeals to old and new, claiming that “The Marvel Legacy initiative is … a signifier of a new era for Marvel Comics,” and at the same time, “a loving look at the heart of Marvel as we embrace our roots” (McMillan, “Retro”). And Tom Brevoort, who had earlier celebrated “ruining childhoods” with ANADM, here strikes a far more conciliatory tone in his dual appeal to fans of different characters: “Whether you’re a fan of the core characters or all of the amazing faces we’ve introduced over the past couple of years, whether you’ve been there every Wednesday or you drifted away from Marvel at some point in the past, Marvel Legacy is your easy-access gateway to the future, a shot glass of the Power Cosmic!” (Weiss). This collective voice of the powers-that-be at Marvel markedly differs from the more overtly political, diversity-driven marketing that characterized their ANADM and Secret Empire campaigns.

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Their simultaneous focus on the best of the past and a bold move into the future hails both new readers and long-time fans, appealing to a shared love of the Marvel universe and its characters to convince them all that their needs can be met without either group losing out or feeling unworthy. Despite gestures toward a big tent, Marvel Legacy landed within a cultural context that clearly read this relaunch as the corrective David Gabriel’s then recent comments seemed to call for. The comments on Jesse Schedeen’s coverage for IGN, for example, highlight just how polarized comic fans continued to be, regardless of inclusivity gestures from Marvel’s higher ups. For some fans, Legacy was a cause for celebration: “ThorAxe7” proclaims, “It’s great that Marvel has finally come to it’s [sic] senses and is bringing back the characters such as real Thor and Tony Stark back. Hopefully this will put an end to the forced PC nonsense,” and “samuel. vilar7” likewise asserts, “If Marvel does this they’ll go a long way to bring me back as a reader … Looks like they listened to all the backlash about forced diversity and the Cap bullcrap and decided to go back to Legacy. If that’s the case I’ll check out Marvel’s Rebirth once it comes out” (both on Schedeen, “Legacy”). The claims that Marvel has “come to its senses” and that the company “listened to all the backlash” demonstrate that, for these fans, Comicsgate succeeded in forcing Marvel to re-evaluate its politics, or, at the very least, to stop foregrounding politics in comics in ways they didn’t like.1 But other fans were just as quick to assert that if Marvel Legacy meant leaving diversity behind, they were not willing to go along for the ride: “RaisingBlack” proclaims, “I welcome old characters coming back, but I want to read new stories with people I actually identify with. I am done reading about white guys from the 50s. I am done with sausage party comic stores,” a point with which “NerWrax15” seems to agree: “I’m a ok with the older heroes returning. But when the diehards want the newer heroes to also go away and disappear, I get a twitch in my neck” (both on Schedeen, “Legacy”). Critics likewise were suspicious that Marvel Legacy represented a capitulation to the Comicsgate crowd. For example, James Whitbrook dismisses the relaunch: “it’s hard to see what further impact it could have beyond a message that Marvel wanted to return to its glory days” (“Brief”). Oliver Sava is just as skeptical in the A.V. Club’s review, observing that “It’s hard for Marvel to be a reflection of the world outside its pages when it still entrusts most of its books to white male creators, and that doesn’t seem likely to change as it regresses back to an era that was even less inclusive.” If Marvel Legacy was meant to bring together readers with opposing viewpoints on old and new characters, these comments

The labeling of Legacy as “Marvel Rebirth” also works to align the re-launch with DC, which, as we discussed in the Introduction, was often constructed by anti-diversity fans as the non-PC alternative to Marvel during Comicsgate.

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suggested that the problems dividing them were far more intractable than a reboot focused on tradition could solve. On its surface, the overall force of Marvel Legacy certainly seems to be one of restorative, rather than reflective, nostalgia. A main feature of the campaign, for example, was “legacy numbering” on long-running series, which addressed (arguably pedantic) fan complaints about endless new number one issues by returning the numbering for issues in the campaign to the cumulative total of all issues in the main title for that character, no matter how many restarts there had been in the intervening years; this renumbering gives the illusion of a single continuity from the 1960s and a connection to that heyday. The campaign also evoked the 1970s by temporarily bringing back the Marvel Value Stamp, a clip-and-save program, and announcing the return of F.O.O.M. (“Friends Of Ol’ Marvel”), a “fanzine” published by Marvel from 1973 to 1978. David Gabriel explains the reasoning behind these promotions harkening back half a century: From the initial call out to “Make Mine Marvel,” it seemed a perfect fit to reach back into some of the nostalgic items that helped propel Marvel to the forefront of the comics industry as far back as the 60s and recreate some of those things for a modern day. We knew there would be some fans who remembered some of these items fondly and some who would be discovering them for the first time. But the key behind everything we did was to use the past to entice all readers in the present! (qtd. in Beard) Arguably, this deliberate and explicit focus on a specific era in the past when Marvel regularly evoked discourse and imagery from the civil rights movement as a way of engaging a college student audience allows Marvel to present the return to the characters of that era as a continuation of the liberal politics of their current line, rather than a capitulation to regressive fans. Nevertheless, the aggressive pastiche of the Marvel Legacy marketing seems more about turning back the clock to avoid the problems of the present than about reiterating a commitment to progressive politics. Drawing attention to the history of characters with legacy numbering also unfortunately highlighted the significantly lesser status of Black and female characters throughout the company’s history. Of the heroes whose titles have not been in print continuously since the 1960s, White male characters tend to have had more issues: for example, Marvel Legacy saw numbering for the Punisher, who first appeared in 1974, beginning with #218; Moon Knight, who first appeared in 1975, begins at #188; and Deadpool, who first appeared in 1991, begins at #287. By comparison, Luke Cage, whose first appearance was 1972, and Black Panther, who debuted in 1966, both begin their numbering at #166. The Falcon’s solo series tellingly beings at #1. Even the most popular female characters fare no better under Marvel Legacy, with She-Hulk, who debuted in 1980, starting her numbering at #159; Carol Danvers’ (first appearance 1968) numbering of #125 seems to date

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back to the first Ms. Marvel, rather than the Captain Marvel series starring Mar-Vell. Rather than highlighting the long history of diverse characters created by Marvel, the “legacy” numbering arguably instead demonstrates the historical lack of investment by the company in the promotion of those characters. If ANADM heralded a change in the superhero lineup based on diversity, Marvel Legacy saw an explicit return to the status quo as many traditional heroes returned to their place of prominence over the course of the campaign, and many legacy characters returned to their former identities, or assumed a new one. Sam Wilson became the Falcon once again; Laura Kinney returned to her codename X-23; Jane Foster returned to her civilian identity to fight her cancer before taking up the role of Valkyrie after “The War of the Realms”; and Amadeus Cho became Brawn. Some of the younger heroes, especially those who had always existed alongside their counterparts, maintained their identities. Since Carol Danvers continues as Captain Marvel, Kamala Khan can continue as Ms. Marvel; Miles Morales, after considering taking up his own code name, continues as a Spider-man; and Ironheart—who had never taken the Iron Man name—set out on her own without the AI version of Tony Stark riding shotgun. Despite the continuation of most of the legacy characters either in solo series or in team titles, there was an overarching feeling that, as Whitbrook puts it, “Legacy’s, err, legacy so far is one of nostalgia rather than anything truly major” (“Brief”). This nostalgia is perhaps best seen in Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s run on Captain America (2017–2018). As we discussed in the previous chapter, the rejection of HydraCap was widespread and spanned the political spectrum, and the Captain America of Marvel Legacy offers relentless nostalgia as the means of winning fans back. The series depicts Steve Rogers touring Middle America, getting in touch with his public in the wake of his doppelgänger’s transformation of America into a fascist state. The first issue is set in a small town in Nebraska, where Steve Rogers had, ten years previously, saved a group of school children from terrorists and taught them that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak (#695, 6, 8). The town has since been renamed Captain America in his honor, and, somewhat astonishingly, the recent in-universe events have not put a damper on the “10th Annual Captain America Celebration” they hold on July 4th (11). Instead, the townsfolk present their Cap as the hero of the events in Secret Empire who beat “the hell outta some Hydra criminal pretending to be him” (15). The residents of Captain America encourage Steve Rogers, and by implication the comics readers, to see Cap as an uncomplicated hero who has been unfairly judged guilty of the crimes of his usurper, and the absolute absence, even nonchalant dismissal of Captain America’s recent past as a Nazi dictator, offers a strange model of forgetting as the way to move forward. Waid’s frankly-bizarre story is supported by Chris Samnee’s heroic illustrations, which associate Cap with the best of the nation he represents, and color artist Matthew Wilson’s muted palate, which evokes

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Norman Rockwell paintings. Every issue ends with a “What Does Captain America Mean to You?” featuring top names from the Marvel creative roster reflecting on Cap’s enduring importance as a hero. Taken together, the many elements that make up this first issue are clearly aimed at erasing the nuanced political questioning of the event it follows, providing a mea culpa to fans for sullying Cap’s good name. But if the marketing for Marvel Legacy and the storyline for its Captain America promised nostalgia as a welcome retreat from a conflicted and divided present, the intense focus on the past did allow some room for reflection, as seen in the arguably parodic extreme of nostalgia offered by Jason Aaron in the Marvel Legacy one-shot that forms an introduction to the line. In the promotional article put out by Marvel, Aaron reiterates the ideals and talking points of the editorial team: “This book is very much about that legacy so we see how that legacy stretches back to the distant past and we follow those characters who carry on that legacy in the present and we set the stage for those characters and that legacy will go in the continuing stories to come” (qtd. in Weiss). His continual repetition of “legacy,” whether deliberately or not, here renders the word almost meaningless, capturing its emptiness as a branding tool. Furthermore, the comic itself opens with a three-panel page showing not the civil rights era or even Captain America punching Hitler in the Second World War, but instead primitive humans attempting unsuccessfully to lift Mjolnir in a setting identified as “One million years ago. Earth. The stone age” (3). The story depicts the original Avengers—Odin, and earlier versions of Black Panther, Ghost Rider (who rides a mammoth), Starbrand, the Phoenix Force, Agamotto as the Sorcerer Supreme, and Fan Fei as Iron Fist—battling a Celestial. By placing the origins of the Avengers so far in the past, the comic deliberately upsets the primacy of the 1960s Avengers team, and suggests that the legacy characters who will hand their mantles back over the next few months have as much claim to the titles as do their immediate predecessors. The primacy of the 1960s Avengers is further unsettled during a brief, sepia-toned scene at Avengers mansion,2 in which Jarvis contemplates a statue of the original Avengers with a mysterious female addition (28). The scene then changes to a more vibrantly colored sequence in which Riri Williams, Sam Wilson, and Jane Foster team up to fight frost giants, and Riri asks, “So does this mean that we’re, like … the Avengers now? Because the three of us together, I don’t know … it feels kind of Avengery. Right?” (29). The heroic stone statue evokes both the solidity and—with its mysterious addition—the malleability of the past; the quick juxtaposition asks readers to make connections between this past and the present, but ironically the legacy characters with their action, messiness, and self-questioning are more

The credits list the artists for the issue as Esad Ribić with Steve McNiven, with additional art by thirteen other Marvel artists. Matthew Wilson is the color artist.

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like the squabbling characters from the 1960s comics than are the stone replicas. The transition between the two is marked by a voiceover stating that “Change is never easy” over the statue of the 1960s Avengers (28), continuing “Even in a world that’s always changing” over Jane, Sam, and Riri (29). While the words seem to point to some fans’ resistance to legacy characters, the inclusion of a founding Avenger that no fan will recognize asks readers to examine their own memories and understandings of the past, to consider whether their icons are what they think they are, and to be more open to change, even when it might evoke cognitive dissonance. This tension between past and present continues in the Avengers titles in Marvel Legacy, in which a distinct return to the status quo reveals the underlying tensions created by imposing a false remembrance of the past onto a complicated and conflictual present. During this period, the Avengers storyline is made up of two arcs. First came the “Worlds Collide” crossover (#672–4) in which the Avengers, led by Sam Wilson as the Falcon, collaborate with the young and diverse team of the Champions (#13-15), suggesting that old and new can learn to work together against a common foe, both in universe, and as teams with different implied audiences and fandoms. Despite the different ages of the team members, and the conflicted histories some of the characters have—the Champions formed when Kamala Khan, Miles Morales, and Sam Alexander became disillusioned with and split from the Avengers after the events of Civil War II (Champions #1)—the heroes learn to work together for the greater good, thus encouraging readers to see the Marvel universe and Marvel fandom as unified rather than in conflict with itself. Continuing this theme, the “No Surrender” storyline (#675– 90) brings together many of the different Avengers teams—West Coast Avengers, Occupy Avengers, U.S.Avengers, etc.—to emphasize that, despite the multiplicity of the Marvel universe, anyone who is, or ever has been, an Avenger is a member of the same team. But while Waid’s story on “Worlds Collide” promotes the positive aspects of Marvel Legacy by depicting a coming together of the generations, Waid’s work with co-writers Al Ewing and Jim Zub and artist Pepe Larraz on “No Surrender” complicates the notion of nostalgia. The story introduces the “original” character of Valerie Vector aka Voyager, who appeared in the statue Jarvis was contemplating in Marvel Legacy. Her story is recapped with editorial references to Avengers (1963–1996) #1, #16, and #58. Larraz’s reproductions of early Avengers artwork, which David Curiel renders in faded and low resolution colors, in contrast to the vibrancy of the contemporary artwork that surrounds them, seem designed to cater to nostalgia for the lost past of the early iterations of the team (Avengers (2016–2018) #676, 5–7). But the character is actually a new one for the Marvel universe, and the issues helpfully referenced by “Tom” contain no mention of the character. Her apparent run for the first seventy issues of the Avengers is a complete fabrication, and the memories of the heroes who were there have been altered. Her appearance in a rebranding designed to

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evoke nostalgia for this specific period encourages readers to question that nostalgia, and Mark Brooks’s cover art for Avengers #676 goes so far as to implicate readers in the deception. The center of the image is taken up with a reproduction of Avengers (1963–1996) #1, altered to include Voyager. The margins show not only the information for this issue, but also realist drawing of long boxes in the background and hands coming out from the lower left and right edges of the page to grip issue #1, just as the current reader is holding issue #676. The serious comic collector who prizes issues from the past is thus brought into the comic itself, but as a flawed reader whose memory of the past is as susceptible to alteration as are the memories of the heroes within the comics pages. Marvel Legacy thus traces the tensions not just between opposing groups of readers as to the direction Marvel comics should take, but also between the marketing—which arguably signaled a full retreat from the more ambitious and progressive aspects of ANADM—and comics produced by creative teams who instead continued to deploy Marvel’s long history as a means of reckoning with the more complicated meaning of “legacy,” particularly visible in the marked contrast between Mark Waid’s different approaches to nostalgia in his work on Captain America and Avengers during the period. But such explorations were hampered by the cycle of Marvel reinvention; as a campaign, Legacy has no clear legacy of its own, as many of the storylines started under its banner continued with Fresh Start, and in some cases, overlapped in ways that make distinguishing between the two campaigns, or weighing their individual significance, exceedingly difficult.

Fresh Start: Embracing Divided Audiences as the New Normal If Legacy failed to convince fans, both old and new, that Marvel was on track, then what was needed was clearly a “Fresh Start.” This campaign was, in part, a result of C.B. Cebulski wanting to separate himself from his predecessor, and at first glance, Fresh Start actually shares much with ANADM. For example, Cebulski appeared as the face of Marvel in a video launching the new lineup, which proudly declares, “New series. New creative teams. New directions. New beginnings” (“Marvel Comics 2018”). The lineup did in fact feature many long-running creative teams changing titles, with Jason Aaron taking over Avengers, Nick Spencer replacing Dan Slott on Amazing Spider Man, and Ta-Nehisi Coates adding Captain America to his writing slate. It also removed many of the nostalgic trappings of “Legacy.” Most titles began with new number one issues, which Queseda points to as a “perfect opportunity” for picking up a comic “if you haven’t read a comic before” or “if you are an old, lapsed fan and you want to come back” (“Marvel Comics 2018”). Fans and critics alike,

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however, were becoming weary of and cynical about Marvel’s relaunches. A Guardian article points to this being “Marvel’s seventh or eighth fresh start since 2012” and suggests that the move “cement[s] the company’s reputation as the serial monogamist of the comic book industry” (Barnett). Likewise, Graeme McMillan, writing for the Hollywood Reporter sums up: “For those who have been paying attention to Marvel’s comic book output over the past few years, this is just the latest incarnation of a now annual promise of a new status quo” and notes that the promotional video seems “very similar to those advertising the last six relaunches” (Fresh Start). He sees the similarities as an indication that the promised changes will be cosmetic rather than far-reaching: “It’s the latest sign that the company wants to put a very bad 2017 behind it, but without actually demonstrating that it’s done much to change just yet” and notes that “Despite the promise of ‘new talent,’ the first two announced relaunches from Fresh Start feature existing Marvel creators” (Fresh Start). The announcement of the new editor-in-chief was initially seen as promising by those who saw the idea of a Fresh Start as something that looked forward, rather than the regression suggested by Marvel Legacy, especially since Cebulski had commissioned the initial run of Vaughn and Alphona’s Runaways, a diverse young team. However, concerns about whether or not “new talent” would mean diversification behind the scenes were further cemented when it was uncovered that Cebulski had previously passed himself off as a Japanese comics creator named Akira Yoshida while he was an editor at Marvel (Johnston “Cebulski”). While Cebulski choosing to pass as a diversity hire in his past was not a clear indication of what his approach to progressive story-telling would be during his reign as editorin-chief, it at least suggested a lack of understanding of how truly diverse hires were necessary for better, more diverse story-telling and character development. For those who worried that Fresh Start was not only a move away from the marketing missteps of 2017, but also a further move away from the changes that breathed new life into the universe, the campaign was seen as particularly mistimed given the release of Black Panther in the MCU, a movie that had great critical and box office success. Barnett argues that “If Marvel is indeed pandering to a more conservative readership that has grumbled incessantly about the proliferation of black, LGBT and female characters in recent years, then—given the phenomenal box office success of Black Panther this last week—there’s something decidedly rotten in the state of Fresh Start.” And Anthony Karcz, writing for Book Riot, worries about a loss of diverse fan favorite titles like America, Iceman, and Unstoppable Wasp. Even Amadeus Cho is getting booted for the “I’m not dead yet, I’m feeling better, I think I’ll go for a walk” Bruce Banner in Hulk. I’m sure Marvel will cite “readership numbers” as their ultimate excuse for straightening and lightening the Marvel comic universe, but it’s a lost

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opportunity to capture new waves of fans. There’s a reason people are excited about movies like Black Panther and it’s because, except for a few instances, our fiction doesn’t reflect our reality. If Marvel caters only to a myopic group of intolerant readers, they’ll see their numbers continue to dwindle. These critics reflect the idea that Fresh Start could mean exactly the same thing as Marvel Legacy—simply a return or reset to the status quo prior to ANADM. However, Fresh Start is more about the company seeking a balance between offerings for “traditional” fans and appeals to the diversity offered by ANADM. The Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Francis Yu run on Captain America, which began on July 4, 2018, offers the sharpest contrast between Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start. While the publication date evokes the same nationalist ideology as the festival date in Waid’s first issue of Captain America under Marvel Legacy, and Alex Ross’s heroic covers seem to promise a return to a glorious past, Coates’s story presents a more nuanced and critical version of nationalism. This run ignores everything that happened in the Waid run, and depicts an America openly dealing with the after-effects of HydraCap’s fascist government, one which was supported by many in the population.3 Where the people of Waid’s Captain America see Steve Rogers as a heroic ideal, Coates’s post-Hydra American government—itself a morally ambiguous entity—views him with suspicion. A voiceover in the early pages encourages readers to distrust both “the official story” (#1, 2) and “the story the papers tell,” in which “the people rose up and destroyed Hydra” (8). The initial ambiguity of whether the speaker is Steve Rogers or his antagonist Nuke suggests a difficulty in distinguishing heroic patriotism from terrorist jingoism, a theme continued when Steve notes that Nuke bears “the same flag as me” as part of his iconography (21). The story thus continues the themes of Secret Empire, acknowledging that “Hydra using [Captain America’s] face” (25) must have consequences, and cannot be easily overcome. While the differences between the Waid/Samnee and Coates/Yu runs might make it seem that Marvel is (over)reacting to conflicting backlashes, repeatedly resetting in order to appease angry readers on both sides, this isn’t the case here. Coates was actually announced as a future writer for the title before Waid, and knowing that such a political writer was coming along in the near future put the entire Waid run in brackets, making it into an interlude that had no effect on the ongoing story. Before either run began, Rich Johnston on Bleeding Cool noted that Waid and Samnee “have the reputation of

The disjunction between the two series and the impression that the Coates/Yu run erases the Waid/Samnee run are borne out by Marvel’s decision to include Captain America #25 (2017) featuring Sam and Steve dealing with the fallout of Secret Empire as the first issue of both the (2017–2018) and the (2018–) runs of Captain America on Marvel Unlimited.

3

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being a golden team” and asked whether them “working their magic, with Coates to follow” could be “the creative equivalent of a kale and seaweed smoothie?” (“Waid”) flushing HydraCap out of the system. While this idea has some merit, and could well have been the editorial plan, we would argue that the actual execution of the two runs by the creative teams was too disjointed for the titles to work in tandem, and suggests the limitations of having different runs aimed at different audiences. A more effective use of continuity comes when Jason Aaron takes over the Avengers during Fresh Start and picks up the questioning of nostalgia for the original team that he introduced in the Marvel Legacy one-shot, and that Waid et al. examined in the “No Surrender” storyline. Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness’s first issue on the flagship team title recreates the plot of Avengers (1963–1996) #1, with Loki producing a threat that forces the heroes to come together. After a prologue in which the prehistoric Avengers from the one-shot prepare to battle the First Celestial Host, we turn to the present. Thor Odinson, Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers are in a bar, raising a toast “to the good old days. To the Avengers” (#1, 9), and then reflecting on the passing of their mantles. Tony sums up: “We make quite the trio. Hydra Cap, Coma Tony and the Unworthy Thor. Clearly it’s been a bumpy ride for all three of us lately. But we’re here now, aren’t we? Good as new. Ish” (11). The team itself questions whether they should reform, voicing the arguments fans on both sides have made. Tony echoes the advocates for the new roster of heroes, noting that he “could give you twenty names off the top of my head, Steve. People who could take what we built and make something completely new and exciting from it” (11). Steve provides the mouthpiece for those who want the original heroes to return, arguing that “Sometimes what’s old is new again” (11) and appealing to tradition: “I’m talking lean. With us at the core. Like it was in the beginning” (12).4 By having the heroes act out the ongoing debate about the role of legacy characters, Aaron signals to readers that the company is aware of the arguments on both sides, and recognizes the problems with the return to previous mantle holders, even as they are producing just such a return. Thor’s tiebreaking appeal to the personal needs of the heroes themselves—“We … need this. Now more than ever. We three need one another. We cannot run from that, my brothers. We must embrace it” (12)—makes him the mouthpiece of Marvel Comics within the story, apologizing to the fans who side with Tony, but appealing to the emotion and nostalgia of all fans. The ambivalence about reforming around the classic team continues in the second issue, which begins with a monologue from Loki: “And there they  go. Just like old times. The big three, together again. The crowd

Technically, Steve was not an original Avenger. He was still frozen in the arctic when Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant Man, and the Wasp united to battle Loki, and did not join the team until Issue #4.

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goes wild. Adventure awaits! Excitement abounds! Excelsior!” (#2, 3). He undercuts this evocation of the Stan Lee era—“Pardon me as I stifle a yawn”—then continues his monologue: But we must give this ailing reality of ours the time-honoured medicine it so desperately needs, mustn’t we? And for some of us, that means reverting to roles that we were shackled with long ago. So be it. I’ve made magic with far less. It didn’t even take much prodding, did it? Dangle a carrot in front of these three super-tools and they start falling all over themselves to get assembled. (3) In presenting the return of the “big three” Avengers as a cure to the “ailing reality” of the Marvel universe, Aaron, through Loki, metafictionally references the backlash and falling sales the corporation has faced, and suggests that the demand for the original mantle holders has become a “shackle” that the storytellers cannot escape. Loki’s own ambiguous persona further complicates the import of his speech. While those who enjoyed the new mantle-holders could read his criticism as that of a trickster speaking truth to power with impunity, those who welcome the return of the original heroes can read it as coming from the God of Lies, and therefore not to be taken seriously. Aaron’s version of the full Avengers team further counterbalances the conservatism that the mantle-reversion might signify. Aside from the “big three,” the team is far more diverse than in its early years; it includes Black Panther, who was the first non-White Avenger, and is unanimously elected chair despite the disapproval of the American government, along with Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider, Jennifer Walters/SheHulk, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. While Loki points out that the balance of the team is itself a return to an established formula in which “the usual sort of super suspects” help to promote “a few surprises in the mix” (#2, 4), this formula is one designed to appeal to the greatest number of readers, including ones with divergent or even opposed interests. It is also one that permeates the entire Fresh Start lineup, in which Cebulski et al. return to the status quo with the flagship characters, while allowing more major changes to take place outside the core titles. One example of this attempt at balance occurs, ironically, with the final end of the ANADM campaign. As Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness’s run on the Avengers was beginning, All-New Wolverine, the final explicitly ANADM title, was ending. But rather than presenting the end as a loss, the final arc of the series looks to the future of the Marvel universe, and sees it as female. The world Tom Taylor and Ramon Rosanas present in the “Old Woman Laura” arc (#33–5) is a “not so far future” (#33, 3) that is utopic: “We did it. We fought against greed and hate and fear. And we actually made the world a better place. The heroes won” (#33, 12). The sole holdout is Doctor Doom, and the arc follows Laura Kinney’s attempt to infiltrate Latveria and “kill the last threat to the world” (#34, 5). She is aided in her quest by

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numerous female superheroes. The mission team includes Laura, now queen of Madripoor; Gabby, who has succeeded her as Wolverine; Maria Hill, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs; Carol Danvers; Kate Bishop; and Nadia van Dyne. The team also receives help from American president Kamala Khan. The women work together to achieve their goal, and do so in a way that eschews moral ambiguity for true heroism and valor. In saving Latveria, Laura and her posse also save heroes who have been imprisoned by Doom, and assumed to be dead, including legacy heroes such as Miles Morales/ Spider Man and Danielle Cage/Captain America5 (#35, 13). The inclusion of these legacies, without introduction, suggests that contemporary readers are expected to recognize them in their mantles, and accept them as they would the “originals.” Although the ANADM phase of mantle passing has ended, the series assures readers that it will come again, and that the world will inexorably move toward social justice and inclusion. Whether or not this will prove to be the case in Marvel comics is questionable given Marvel’s history, but ending the final remaining ANADM series on this note reassures readers who enjoyed those stories that Marvel has not abandoned them. This promise of future diversity is more than just a way of placating disgruntled fans who might see the Marvel Legacy and Fresh Start changes as reactionary. The comics lineups for Marvel Legacy included She-Hulk, a Falcon solo series, the return of the Runaways, and continuations of Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Champions, and Black Panther. Fresh Start added a new incarnation of the West Coast Avengers, led by Kate Bishop, and solo titles for Ironheart and Shuri. Previously cancelled series The Unstoppable Wasp returned and another X-23 series allowed Laura Kinney’s story to continue. Limited series included Iceman and Killmonger. In addition to these print titles, Marvel catered to audiences who consume online or in trades by publishing Digital Originals, which come out digitally two issues at a time for a six issue arc, and are then published as a trade. Titles include Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Cloak and Dagger, and Daughters of the Dagger. Furthermore, where Fresh Start really does seem to be a Fresh Start is in the creative teams behind the stories, and not just in the shifting of marquis writers into different marquis titles, as the initial promotional video emphasized. Marvel’s superheroes have generally been more diverse than the people who write and draw their stories. Franzia Fanon notes the problematic ways in which the comic company has marketed diversity as a product throughout its history: Diversity is “celebrated,” “consumed,” and “embraced” when it adds “spice and colour” without disturbing institutional power. For Marvel,

While Danielle Cage, the daughter of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, is a child in the Marvel 616 universe, in several futures she takes on the mantle of Captain America.

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non-whiteness primarily exists at the fictional level. Characters and coloring obscure the white hands that draw them and the white minds that think them. Diversity, for Marvel, is not achieved by the inclusion of staff and artists of color, as it might in another industry. Comics diversity is not fostering underrepresented creative voices, but a tailoring at the level of product. When artists and writers of color are brought in for those characters, it is an externality, not the aim. Diversity is a mandate that flows from the bottom line through to the institution’s internal machinations. Consuming the Other is just good business. While it is true that corporations embrace diversity for financial rather than ethical reasons, consumer pressure that noted the shallowness of ANADM arguably pushed Marvel to hire and promote more diverse creators, with the highest profile of these writing assignments represented by Coates taking over Captain America. Hiring a Black man to write a White one could be read as Marvel redressing its long history of doing the opposite; furthermore, having Coates take on the title also signaled the necessity of having a non-White American interpret and co-create a figure so essential to both the American dream and its associated nightmares. In addition, Saladin Ahmed assumed writing duties for both Magnificent Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales: Spider-Man once Wilson and Bendis decamped for DC. But Marvel also promoted new writers from outside comics in order to increase the gender and racial diversity of their talent. Rodney Barnes, best known for writing the television shows Boondocks (2005–2014) and Everybody Hates Chris (2005–2009), was given charge of Sam Wilson in Falcon. They also brought in award-winning literary writers: Nigerian-American science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor penned Shuri’s first solo title and fantasy writer Seanan McGuire6 was recruited to write Spider-Gwen’s new title, Ghost Spider. The success of Coates, who was previously best known as a political writer, on Black Panther might have encouraged the unlikely choice of poet and sociologist Eve Ewing to write Ironheart. The high profile and acknowledged excellence of all these writers show that Marvel has come a long way from the days when they hired the wives of their male writers to write the “female” titles. At the same time, with the exception of Captain America, none of these titles are central to Marvel’s lineup. The decision to put these high-profile names on—in most cases—the first solo title of a character could be seen as trying to give that character as high a profile as possible, but it could also be seen as giving those writers a particularly difficult task, making the idea that “diversity doesn’t sell” a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of Marvel’s flagship titles have held that status for half a century, and it is very rare for another character or title to gain prominence for any length of time.

6

She also writes science fiction as Mira Grant.

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Progressive, but Not Political: The Limits of Corporate Social Justice Marvel may recognize that its future lies in more diverse story-tellers and audiences, but it remains hampered by a divided fandom, and by a desire for a safe way through political issues at the present time. Currently, fans of the changes that came with ANADM see the handing back of the mantles to the original holders as a capitulation to toxic fandom. Others see the continued promotion of “diverse” characters, the movement of their storylines into the MCU, and the increase in female and non-White creators, as the continuation of “SJW Marvel” and a sign that the corporation has not yet learned the lesson that diversity doesn’t sell. Comicsgate itself seems to have petered out largely due to infighting within its own community, but the cottage industry it helped create in online spaces such as YouTube continues the production of videos that spur perpetual outrage about Marvel’s supposed leftist agenda. Certainly, the MCU, while not the focus of this book, demonstrates that Disney/Marvel has embraced “woke branding” and the diversity that characterized ANADM. While Marvel Comics might be in retreat from Alonso’s reign, the films are embracing the changes he brought to Marvel, with Disney announcements at ComicCon 2018 heralded as a “commitment to showing diversity” (qtd. in Smith). Even if we read this move cynically as a financially motivated decision on the part of Disney, it still points to the ways that Comicsgate was always a losing battle: one of the most powerful corporations of the world is betting on a future marked by progressive politics and diverse creators and audiences. And while many of us celebrate the fact that the ANADM comics that were such a source of controversy will form the backbone of this large and successful film franchise going forward, yet both Disney and Marvel Comics continue to demonstrate that its support of progressive politics is shallow at best. Such is, after all, the nature of their particular brand of corporate art. However, we believe that Marvel’s brand of shallow progressivism is increasingly unmarketable. Reactionary fans will read “woke” window dressing as a capitulation to cultural Marxism that is hell-bent on destroying Western culture as we know it, and will automatically oppose it. On the other side, those who are committed to progressive politics find themselves continually disappointed in Marvel Comics. Two recent controversies highlight just how much Marvel Comics is out of step with today’s political reality. Art Spiegelman, whose Maus helped to legitimize the comics genre, claims that Marvel censored the introduction he penned for Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949: “he reports that a Folio Society editor told him that ‘Marvel Comics (evidently the co-publisher of the book) is trying to now stay “apolitical,” and is not allowing its publications to take a political stance’” (Trent). Spiegelman had connected Red Skull to Donald Trump,

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whom he called “the Orange Skull” and linked to the rise of “International Fascism”; he also indicted Marvel Entertainment chair, Ike Perlmutter, for donating to Trump’s re-election campaign (Flood). Mark Waid faced similar censorship for his far-less-damning essay in Marvel #1000. His original essay, though it did not name names or place blame as clearly as did Spiegelman’s, nevertheless called for meaningful social action: America’s systems are flawed, but they’re our only mechanism with which to remedy inequality on a meaningful scale. Yes, it’s hard and bloody work. But history has shown us that we can, bit by bit, right that system when enough of us get angry. When enough of us take to the streets and force those in power to listen. When enough of us call for revolution and say, “Injustice will not stand.” (qtd. in McMillan, “Removes”) Although this essay appeared in a July preview of Marvel #1000, in the official release it was “replaced by a less critical piece, also credited to Waid, that is more directly tied to Captain America, and notably less critical of the United States, talking about the way in which Captain America’s mask is worn as a reminder that Captain America is representative of an ideal, not a person” (McMillan, “Removes”). Both these instances of censorship suggest that while Marvel might want to appear progressive, it is simultaneously positioning itself as “apolitical,” a stance that it perhaps hopes will allow it to negotiate difficult terrain without taking a clear side, much as it did during the Vietnam war. But what worked for the company in the late 1970s will not work now. Through ANADM, creators recognized that they could fit the tenor of the current time by hearkening back to the late 1960s, when tolerance was preached from Stan’s Soap Box, a commitment to the civil rights movement could be marked through stories of Black superheroes negotiating their own second-class status in relation to their White counterparts, and difficult stories had fans debating politics in the letter columns. Stories like the first “Secret Empire” entailed risks for the creators who produced them, and for the company that published them. But they are also stories that are now recognized as some of the best produced within the Marvel universe. If Marvel Comics produces pandering stories with empty diversity, it will only lead to updated but empty “femme force” follies. Likewise, pretending there isn’t a war going on is not the way forward. If it truly wants to mirror our world, Marvel Comics has to abandon an apolitical stance, and “progressive” storylines that are more neo-liberal than they are liberal. We want to be clear: we do not think that corporations should be the voices of social justice, as they are particularly unsuited for this work, committed as they are to the socioeconomic status quo and the benefits it affords them. Nor are we appealing to Marvel to better reflect its soul, because it doesn’t have one: its “soul” is a product of its corporate art, which is a product of its corporate strategy. We do assert that it is crucial for Marvel,

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in the interests of producing good, corporate-branded art, to get out of their creators’ way and allow them to take the risks that Marvel’s own-stated goal of “reflecting the world outside our windows” entails. For example, Secret Empire had many detractors, but it also had many supporters—or, at the very least, readers and critics who were willing to see where the story would lead. Where that event failed for many was in its ending, which was seen as “cheap” (Glass), and “lazy,” a “disappointment of the highest order” (Whitbrook and Pulliam-Moore). Some assumed that the failure of the event was due, at least in part, to interference from higher ups: “I guess the sad thing is that they pulled their punches … I have to ask why? It’s clearly coming from editorial” (“The_Monkey_King” on Whitbrook and PulliamMoore). We have no real evidence of that, of course, although the choice to spoil the ending in the New York Times certainly indicates a company engaged in damage control, and it is not a great stretch to imagine that this would extend to exerting influence over the story itself, with Spiegelman’s and Waid’s recent experiences further supporting this supposition. We hope that Marvel can begin to recognize that pulling punches and walking back from creative risks is not currently on brand for a company that wishes to appear progressive, nor is it likely to produce art that will earn the company acclaim for years to come. What the company should be pursuing is giving their creators as much freedom as possible to do what they have always done: push the medium forward by challenging existing tropes and addressing topical issues. Marvel needs to remember that using superhero comics to reflect our own world might make for controversial stories, but these are the stories this company is best suited to tell.

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INDEX

Aaron Davis (Prowler) 56 n.2, 66, 68, 70–3 Aaron, Jason 15, 24, 25, 43, 68, 91, 97, 97 n.6, 99–109, 121, 163, 165, 168, 169 Acuña, Daniel 15, 91 Ahmed, Jaheen 127 Ahmed, Saladin 171 Alaniz, José 106, 108 Aldama, Frederick Luis 69, 73, 74 n.21, 87 All-New, All-Different Marvel (ANADM) 4, 4 n.5, 15–17, 19, 69, 87, 89–97, 92 n.2, 113, 118, 122, 123, 152, 157–9, 162, 165, 167, 169–73 All-New Captain America 91 All-New Ghost Rider 94 All-New Wolverine 92 n.2, 94, 169 All-New X-Men 95 Alonso, Axel 1, 3, 9, 13, 16, 17, 19, 22, 37, 57–9, 59 n.7, 63, 92, 94, 122, 157–9, 172 Alphona, Adrian 15, 55, 57, 76, 80–3, 166 Amadeus Cho (Hulk/Brawn). see Hulk, The (mantle) Amanat, Sana 62, 64, 65, 76, 77, 80 Amazing Fantasy 65–6 Amazing Spider-Man, The 58, 60 n.9, 79 n.29, 129, 155 America Chavez 13, 95 Andrade, Filipe 61, 62 Anka, Kris 78 Antos, Heather 7, 8 Architects 23–4 Arjana, Sophia Rose 84–5, 85 n.33 Avatar 28 n.9 Avengers Annual 47 Avengers: Endgame 104 n.10, 121

Bachs, Ramon 143, 147 backlash 1, 2, 4, 16, 24, 38, 56, 60, 92, 93, 95, 96, 138–41, 160, 167, 169 Bacon-Smith, Camille 44 n.24, 44 n.25 Baker, Kyle 50, 127 Batgirl of Burnside 9 Bay, Morten 8 Beat, The 3 Beck, Glenn 61, 61 n.11, 62 n.14 Bellaire, Jordie 62 Bendis, Brian Michael 11, 15, 24, 55, 57, 58, 60, 63, 63 n.15, 66–9, 71, 72, 96, 158, 171 Bennett, Joe 120 Bernardin, Marc 58 bigotry 28, 34 Big Two (Marvel and DC) 19, 21 Black Lives Matter movement 117 blackness 50, 87, 98 Black Panther (character) 31, 135–6, 161, 163, 169 Black Panther (comic) 96, 170–1 Black Panther (film) 166–7 Black superheroes 19, 87, 98, 113, 173 Bleeding Cool 3, 61 n.10, 139, 167 Blumberg, Arnold T. 66 Bobby Morse. see Mockingbird (character) Booker, Charlie 4 n.3 Book Riot 166 Boondocks 171 Boym, Svetlana 50, 97 Brant, Betty 68 Brathwaite, Dougie 110 Brevoort, Tom 95, 97, 140 n.24, 159 Brubaker, Ed 24, 49, 127 n.10, 130 n.14 Bruce Banner. see Hulk, The (mantle)

194

INDEX

Brunner, Frank 45 n.26 Bucky Barnes 26, 121, 123, 127 n.10, 147, 151 Buscema, Sal 41, 42 Busse, Kristina 96 Byrne, John 40–1 Cain, Chelsea 4–7, 5 n.6, 24 n.7, 103 n.9 cancer 104–7, 162 Captain America (mantle) 3, 26, 173 Bucky Barnes 121 “Commie Smasher” (William Burnside) 43, 121 Danielle Cage 170, 170 n.5 HydraCap 15, 90, 94, 119, 122, 123–6, 130, 132–53, 162 (see also Stevil) Isaiah Bradley 50, 127 Sam Wilson 1, 15, 69, 90, 91, 92 n.2, 95, 109–22, 123, 150–1 (see also Falcon (mantle); Sam Wilson (character)) Steve Rogers 1, 15, 26, 27, 33, 33 n.12, 35, 36 n.15, 41–3, 48–50, 76, 79 n.29, 80, 97, 109–14, 119, 122, 123, 126–30, 130 n.14, 131–2, 134 n.16, 135 n.20, 138, 141, 142, 151–5, 162–3, 167 (see also Steve Rogers (character)) Captain America (1968–96) 28, 35, 41–3, 48–9, 109, 126, 129, 131–2 Captain America (2017–2018) 150, 162–3, 165, 167, 167 n.3 Captain America (2018) 154, 165, 167 167 n.3, 171 Captain America and the Falcon 109 Captain America Comics 26, 124 n.2, 146 n.29 Captain America: Forever Allies 127 n.10 Captain America: Sam Wilson 13, 15, 91, 92, 97, 113–20, 123 Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty 110, 114 Captain America: Steve Rogers 123–5, 132–4, 136–44, 146–7, 149, 151 Captain Marvel (mantle)

Carol Danvers 50–3, 61, 76, 78, 80, 89, 89 n.1, 140, 162, 169 (see also Carol Danvers; Ms. Marvel (mantle)) Mar-Vell 51, 89 n.1, 107 n.13, 162 Monica Rambeau 35 Captain Marvel (comic) 32, 50, 61–2, 64 Captain Marvel (film) 2, 52 n.30 Character in film 104 n.10 Carol Danvers 40, 46, 46 n.28, 47, 48, 50–3, 61, 77–8, 79 n.29, 81–4, 85 n.33, 89 n.1, 121, 151, 161–2, 169, 17. see also Captain Marvel (mantle); Ms. Marvel (mantle) Cat, The 32, 32 n.11 Cebulski, C. B. 155, 158, 165, 166, 169 Champions 55, 76, 76 n.26, 164, 170 Christensen, Jerome 22, 22 n.6 Civil War 28, 125, 127, 129, 142, 144 n.28, 164 Claremont, Chris 23, 47, 48 Coates, Ta-Nehisi 96, 165, 167, 167 n.3, 168, 171 Cocca, Carolyn 18, 98 Colan, Gene 91, 109 Comics Code 20, 20 n.4, 46 Comicsgate 2–3, 3 n.2, 4, 6, 9, 12–14, 16–17, 18 n.1, 53, 87, 90, 93, 157–8, 160, 160 n.1, 172 Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) 42 n.20, 131 Conway, Gene 31 corporate art 13–14, 16, 19–25, 29, 38–54, 93, 158, 172–3 corporate authorship 14, 19–25, 53 corporate social justice 172–4 corporate strategy 22, 24, 25–36, 38, 94, 173 Costello, Matthew J. 27–9, 33, 35, 37, 132 Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams 75 cross-identify 18, 98 cultural difference 67, 69, 81, 82 Daily Beast, The 124 Daily Dot, The 140 Daredevil 4 n.5, 41, 129, 133 n.15

INDEX

195

Dauterman, Russell 15, 43, 91, 101, 102, 106–9 David, Peter 58 DC comics 9, 9 n.10, 19, 21, 25, 26, 27 n.8, 30, 40 n.18, 43, 58, 158, 160 n.1, 171 Deadpool 4 n.5, 134 n.18, 161 DeConnick, Kelly Sue 33, 50–2, 61, 62 Del Arroz, Jon 14 Diaz, Paco 132 disability 77, 104, 106, 108 Disney 22 n.6, 36–7, 39, 56, 93, 172 Ditko, Steve 31, 66 Dittmer, Jason 126–30 diversity 2, 3, 6, 7, 9–19, 23–5, 29, 31, 32, 35, 37, 38, 53–66, 69, 78, 86–7, 90–3, 94 n.3, 96, 103, 108, 118, 119, 121, 144, 159, 160, 162, 166, 167, 170–3 Dixon, Chuck 9 Dockterman, Eliana 90, 92–4, 140 n.24 Doctor Doom 92, 121, 169 Doctor Strange 4 n.5, 45 n.26 Don Blake/Thor Odinson. see Thor (mantle) Dragotta, Nick 127 n.10

fascism 15, 16, 22 n.5, 49, 122, 125, 125 n.3, 153–5, 173 backlash 138–41 and HydraCap 119, 124, 126, 126 n.6, 128–40, 142–6, 144 n.28, 149, 152, 162, 167, 168 Nazis and 124, 124 n.2, 126, 127 n.10, 130–7, 139, 140 politics of memory 141–53 in Secret Empire 130–7 Fawaz, Ramzi 27 n.8, 29, 37, 39, 41–3, 45, 109, 128 Fear Itself 127 Feige, Kevin 22 female superheroes 51, 52, 84, 92, 98, 99, 101–3, 170 Fiske, John 21, 39, 40, 44 n.25 Fite, Linda 32 F.O.O.M. (“Friends Of Ol’ Marvel”) 161 Fraction, Matt 24 Fresh Start (2018) 16, 92 n.2, 155, 157, 158, 165–71 Friedrich, Gary 113 Fu, Albert S. 97 Funky Flashman 40 n.18

Edelman Earned Brand Study (2018) 38 editors 7–9, 14, 23, 24, 29, 30, 40, 41, 42 n.20, 45, 45 n.26, 46–8, 57, 60, 62–5, 77, 80, 90, 92, 140 n.24, 155, 158, 166, 172 Elektra 35 Ellis, Warren 134 n.16 Englehart, Steve 42, 45 n.26, 127–9, 131, 132, 135 n.20 Everybody Hates Chris 171 everyman 65–75, 118 Ewing, Al 132, 164

Gabriel, David 9–13, 15, 56, 90, 94, 96, 103, 118, 159–61 Gamergate 1, 2, 4 n.3, 10 n.11, 11, 11 n.12, 12, 91 García, Enrique 20 n.3, 24 Gaveler, Chris 22 n.5, 49, 133 Gen Z 11, 38, 78 Gerber, Steve 36–7 Gibbons, Sarah 80, 86 Glover, Donald 56 n.2, 58 Glut, Don 98, 99 Golden, Michael 47 Grace, Sina 24 Gray, Jonathan 40 Guardian, The 1, 3, 124 n.1, 138, 166 Guinaldo, Andres 143, 147 Gustines, George Gene 59, 59 n.7, 62, 77, 141, 153

fan criticism 2, 4 n.3, 5 n.6, 6, 46 n.28, 60, 68, 76, 85, 99, 130, 139, 144 n.28 fan-tagonism 44 Falcon (mantle) Joaquín Torres 115, 116 Sam Wilson 31, 32, 36 n.15, 90, 91, 109, 113, 161, 164, 170, 171 Fantastic Four 39, 45, 75 n.23

Haddad, Maya 68, 70 “Hail Hydra” 123–5, 124 n.2, 129, 132, 152

196

INDEX

Hal Jordan 7, 9 Harley Quinn and Her Gang of Harleys 9 Hemsworth, Chris 122 Hepburn, Scott 61 Hickman, Johnathan 3 n.2, 24 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 70 n.18 Hitler, Adolf 26, 133, 137, 138, 163 Hoberg, Rick 98 “Holla@Kamala” 64, 76 Hollywood Reporter, The 13 n.13, 154 n.34, 159, 166 Howe, Sean 7, 23–5, 29–37, 35 n.14, 40–2, 45 n.26, 47, 64 Hulk, The (mantle) 1, 30, 31, 32, 33, 62, 89, 168 Amadeus Cho 1, 13, 91, 92, 95, 162, 166 Bruce Banner 90, 94, 95, 96, 155, 158, 166 HydraCap. see Captian America (mantle)

Jean Grey 35 Jenkins, Henry 44–5, 44 n.24 Jenkins, Paul 127 Jennifer Walters 118. see also She-Hulk Jewett, Robert 130, 131 Joaquín Torres. see Falcon (mantle) Johnson, Derek 38 n.17, 40, 44 Johnston, Rich 61 n.10, 139, 166, 167 Jones, Joelle 4, 6

Iceman (character) 10, 95, 166 Iceman 24, 170 Immonen, Stuart 91, 111 Indiegogo 3 n.2, 18, 18 n.1 intellectual property (IP) 24, 31, 40 intersectionality 61 n.11, 74–86 Into the Spider-Verse 56, 68 n.17 io9 3, 11, 58 Ironheart (character) 13, 89, 91, 95, 158, 159, 162–4 Ironheart 163, 171 Iron Man 3, 11, 27, 35, 41, 80, 89, 94, 162, 168 n.4 Antonio Stark 72 James Rhodes 35 Tony Stark 4, 27, 89, 94, 95, 135–6, 145, 149, 154, 155, 158, 160, 162, 168 Isaiah Bradley. see Captain America (mantle)

Landis, Winona 64, 77, 80, 85–7 Larraz, Pepe 164 Larsen, Brie 2 Last Jedi, The 2, 8 Laura Kinney. see Wolverine (mantle); X-23 (character) Lawrence, John Shelton 130, 131 Lee, Stan 7, 22–6, 27 n.8, 29–34, 29 n.10, 39, 40 n.18, 41, 45, 45 n.26, 64, 65, 91, 95, 97, 97 n.6, 104, 105, 109, 112, 120, 127, 169 Leonardi, Rick 58 letter columns 14, 23, 39, 45, 90, 173 liberal conservatism 27, 28 liberalism 19, 27, 29, 34, 37, 128 Lieber, Larry 91, 104 Life of Captain Marvel, The 51 Lizardi, Ryan 91, 93, 120, 121 LoC Magazine 46, 46 n.27 Logan. see Wolverine (mantle) Loki 102, 105, 108, 168, 168 n.4, 169 Luke Cage (character) 17, 32, 161, 170 n.5 Luke Cage 170 Lund, Martin 127 Lynskey, Dorian 25, 35

James Rhodes (War Machine). see Iron Man Jancelewicz, Chris 3 Jane Foster 54, 91, 98–9, 104–9, 148, 162. see also Thor (mantle)

Khan, Kamala 15, 17, 54, 55–7, 59–65, 74–87, 89–95, 121, 162, 164, 170. see also Ms. Marvel (mantle) Kanayama, Kelly 90, 93, 96, 116 Karcz, Anthony 166 Kass, Douglas 35–6 Kermode, Mark 4 n.3 Khoja-Moolji, Shenila S. 80, 84 n.32, 87 Kickstarter 3 n.2, 18 Kirby, Jack 23, 25, 29, 31, 39, 40 n.18, 91, 99, 104, 105

INDEX

McCloud, Scott 60 McDuffie, Dwayne 18 McGuinness, Ed 168, 169 McKelvie, Jamie 78 McMillan, Graeme 13 n.13, 154 n.34, 155 n.35, 159, 166, 173 McNiven, Steve 144–6, 163 n.2 Magnificent Ms. Marvel, The 170, 171 mantle 15, 56, 67, 89 n.1, 90–105, 107–23, 129, 132, 135 n.20, 150, 152, 154, 155, 158, 159, 163, 168–70, 170 n.5, 172 mantle passing 15, 90–8, 100, 103, 111, 120–2, 152, 154, 170 Mantlo, Bill 23 Mari-Ell 51, 52 marketing 3, 9, 13–16, 18, 22, 25, 34–8, 38 n.17, 39, 46, 56, 57, 59, 80, 86, 90–8, 108, 119, 121, 125, 138–41, 158, 159, 161, 163, 165, 166 Marvel #1000 173 Marvel Cinematic Universe 3, 37 n.16, 121 Mar-Vell. see Captain Marvel (mantle) Marvel Legacy (2017) 16, 92 n.2, 157–68, 170 Marvel method 31 Marvel Now 2.0 92 n.2, 157 Marvel philosophy 16, 29, 31, 34, 57, 114, 129 Marvel Prime 92 Marvel Rebirth 160 n.1 Marvel Rising 56 Mary Sue, The 10, 51, 52, 79 n.29, 123 mass culture 18, 21, 30, 35, 36, 38, 39, 44, 53, 54, 93 MCU 3, 22, 52, 56, 94, 122, 166, 172 media conglomerates 36–8 Meyer, Richard 11, 18 n.1 Mighty Thor, The 13, 15, 91–3, 97, 97 n.6, 100, 102, 104–8 Miles Morales. see Spider-Man milkshake crew 7–9 Millennial 38, 74–86 Mjolnir (magic hammer) 90, 91, 94, 99–102, 107, 108, 148 n.31, 163 Mockingbird (character) 4, 6, 94 Mockingbird 4–7, 13, 94

197

Monica Rambeau. see Captain Marvel (mantle) Montes, Brian 68 Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur 5 n.7, 170 Moore, Alan 19–21, 36, 40, 43, 44 Morales, Robert 50, 127 Ms. Marvel (mantle) Carol Danvers 46–8, 51, 162 (see also Carol Danvers; Captain Marvel (mantle)) Kamala Khan 1, 55, 56, 62, 62 n.12, 64, 65, 74–87, 89 n.1, 90, 95, 162 (see also Kamalal Khan) Ms. Marvel (comic) (1977–79) 28, 46 n.28 (2014–2015) 13, 15, 55–6, 59 n.8, 61, 62, 64, 65, 74–87, 90 Muslim superheroes 64, 81, 84, 86 Myers, Maddy 123 Nagle, Angela 2, 4 n.3, 8 Nama, Adilifu 18, 19, 27 n.8, 68, 70, 87, 110, 114, 117 Nazis and fascism 124, 124 n.2, 126, 127 n.10, 130–7, 139, 140 New York Times 55, 58, 62, 64, 153, 174 Niccolini, Alyssa D. 80, 84 n.32, 87 Niemczyk, Kate 4 Nixon, Richard 14, 28, 41, 42, 42 n.20, 132 nostalgia 16, 43, 49, 50, 52, 53, 91, 95, 97, 123–5, 134, 141, 149, 150, 154, 158–65, 168 Nova (Sam Alexander) 94, 95, 164 Obama, Barack 36 n.15, 57–8, 61, 70, 112 Odin 99, 101–2, 104, 107–8, 163 Odinson. see Thor (mantle) online outrage 9–12 Orange Skull. see Trump, Donald Original Sin 100, 101 Pacheco, Carlos 111 Pak, Gregory 96 Peppard, Anna F. 32 n.11, 46 n.28, 51, 101

198

INDEX

Perlmutter, Ike 37 n.16, 173 Peter Parker. see Spider-Man Pichelli, Sara 15, 55, 59, 60, 61 n.11, 66, 69, 71, 72 Pleasant Hill 134, 145–7 policing 14, 22, 24, 26, 35, 82, 85–7, 116, 128, 130, 157 political correctness 2, 9, 10, 14 political marketing 14, 18, 36–8 politics 2–9, 4 n.5, 11–17, 22–38, 40, 41, 45, 48–53, 56, 58, 61, 63, 77, 83, 87, 90, 91, 95–7, 109, 115–19, 119 n.16, 119 n.18, 122–6, 125 n.3, 128, 130, 131, 135, 137, 140–55, 157–61, 172, 173 popular culture 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 10 n.11, 11, 13, 18, 20, 21, 38–53, 61, 65, 69, 76, 84, 85, 98, 142 Priego, Ernesto 80 Quesada, Joe 23, 24, 159 Quinones, Joe 13 race conflict 3, 9, 15, 28, 44, 57, 58, 60, 64, 68, 72, 77, 82 n.31, 91, 98, 109–20 racism 13, 28 n.9, 34, 50, 58 n.6, 69, 75, 82 n.31, 86, 116, 118 Rage 115–18, 120 Ramirez, Luis 72–3 Ramos, Humberto 76 n.26 reactionary 2, 38, 43, 117, 158, 170, 172 Reddit 2, 118 Red Skull 112, 113 n.15, 124 n.2, 132–4, 140, 141 n.26, 172 reflective nostalgia 50, 52, 97, 150, 161 Reisman, Abraham 31, 139 Remender, Rick 91, 111–14 Renaud, Paul 116 restorative nostalgia 50, 52, 53, 97, 124, 125, 134, 141, 149, 150, 154, 159–65 Ribić, Esad 163 n.2 Rick Jones 142, 145 Ringo, John 10 n.11 Rios, Emma 33 Rios, Francisco 82 n.31 Riri Williams. see Ironheart (character)

Rivera, Gabby 13 Rivoche, Paul 9 Robison, Chris 97 n.6 Roman, Zak 91, 93, 120, 121 Rosanas, Ramon 169 Rosenberg, Rachelle 4, 6 Runaways, The 57, 170 Ryan, Jennifer 50 Sacks, Jason 32, 42, 42 n.20 Sam Alexander. see Nova (Sam Alexander) Samnee, Chris 74, 154, 162, 167, 167 n.3 Sam Wilson 15, 40, 54, 56, 91, 92 n.2, 95, 96, 97, 109–24, 119 n.18, 150–1, 154, 159, 162, 163, 164, 167 n.3, 171 (see also Captain America (mantle); Falcon (mantle)) Sandvoss, Cornel 43, 44 Sarkeesian, Anita 4 n.3 Schedeen, Jesse 10, 56, 138, 153, 160 Secret Empire 13, 15, 41, 43, 92, 119, 122, 124, 125, 125 n.3, 125 n.4, 126, 128, 130–54, 158, 159, 162, 167, 167 n.3, 173, 174 Secret Wars 35 n.14, 55, 55 n.1, 60 n.9, 92, 92 n.2, 121, 157 Serrano, Elliott Ruben 63–4 Seuling, Phil 32 She-Hulk 118, 161, 169, 170 She-Ra: Princess of Power 2 S.H.I.E.L.D 4, 33 n.12, 74 n.21, 79 n.29, 96, 102, 114, 115, 130 n.14, 134, 149 Shooter, Jim 41, 46–8 Sibley, Joshua 11 Simpsons, The 76, 76 n.24 SJW Marvel 3 n.2, 7, 7 n.8, 9–11, 11 n.12, 12, 38, 172 Soapbox (Lee) 14, 23, 29–31, 33, 34, 48, 64, 95, 173 social justice 3, 6, 7, 9–11, 13, 18, 35, 37, 116, 170, 173 Sommers, Christina Hoff 2 Sorrentino, Andrea 136, 152, 154 Soy, Dexter 50 Spencer, Nick 15, 91, 96, 97, 112–20, 119 n.16, 119 n.18, 122–5, 129,

INDEX

132–5, 137–40, 138 n.22, 140 n.24, 141 n.26, 142, 142 n.27, 144, 147–55, 165 Spider-Man 3, 26, 27, 30, 33, 55, 57–61, 63, 65–74, 89, 162 Miles Morales 1, 15, 24, 54–63, 65–75, 74 n.21, 74 n.22, 77, 87, 89, 89 n.1, 90, 91, 93–6, 121, 158, 159, 162, 164, 170, 171 Peter Parker 26, 27, 57–60, 59 n.7, 60 n.9, 61 n.10, 63, 64, 66–9, 71, 74 n.21, 75, 79 n.29, 89 n.1, 121 Spider-Man 68–9 Spider-Men 55 Spider-Man/Deadpool 4 n.5 Spider-Man: Homecoming 56 Spiegelman, Art 172–4 Stanfill, Mel 77 Stanley, Jason 125 n.3, 137, 141, 143, 145 Star Trek: The Original Series 28 n.9 Steinberg, Flo 7 Steiner, Chelsea 51, 52 Stern, Roger 48–9, 127, 127 n.10, 128 Stevens, J. Richard 126 n.7 Steve Rogers 15, 26, 41, 43, 49, 50, 54, 90–1, 94, 96, 97, 109–15, 119–21, 123–55, 158, 162, 167, 168 (see also Captain America (mantle); Stevil) Stevil 126 n.6, 133–5, 140–8, 150–4 (see also Captain America (mantle); Steve Rogers) Stohl, Margaret 51 Straczynski, J. Michael 129 Strickland, Carol A. 46–8 Superman 20–1 Tarnishment 42 n.22 Taylor, Tom 169 T’Challa, King. see Black Panther (character) Thielman, Sam 1 Thor (mantle) 1, 11, 25, 31, 43, 89, 91, 97, 97 n.6, 98–110, 121–2, 128 n.12, 151, 168 Beta Ray Bill 120–1

199

Don Blake/Thor Odinson 91, 94, 97, 99, 100–9, 120–1, 148, 155, 158–60, 168 Jane Foster 15, 24, 43, 54, 56, 69, 90, 91, 92 n.2, 93, 95, 97–109, 119, 121, 122, 151, 159, 162, 163–4 as Thordis 98–9, 110 Ultimate Thor 121 Volstag (War Thor) 121 Thor (comic) 28, 91, 93, 97, 99–104 Thor: God of Thunder 99, 101, 105 Thor: Love and Thunder 122 Thor Ragnorok 101 Thors 121 Time magazine 36, 90, 92, 133 Times of Israel 124 Tony Stark. see Iron Man Totally Awesome Hulk, The 92, 95, 96 toy-box approach 40 transgenerational marketing 38 n.17 Trimpe, Herb 32 Trump, Donald 9, 15, 37 n.16, 124, 125, 139, 140, 141 n.26, 172, 173 Truth: Red, White, and Black 50, 127 Tucker, Reed 9 n.10 TV Tropes 42 n.21 Twitter 2, 3 n.2, 5, 5 n.6, 7, 64, 76 n.25, 115, 139, 144 n.28 Ultimate Comics Spider-Man 13, 15, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 63 n.15, 66, 70, 71, 74–5, 86 Ultimate Fallout: Spider-Man No More 59 Ultimate Universe 55, 55 n.1, 57, 72, 74 n.22 Ultron/Hank Pym 148–50 Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, The 5 n.7, 7 n.8, 76 n.25, 170 Unbelievable Gwenpool, The 76 n.25 Unstoppable Wasp, The 12, 166, 170 Unworthy Thor, The 100, 121, 168 U.S.Avengers 132, 164 Van Scriver, Ethan 12 Vaughan, Brian K. 57 Vietnam war 33, 34, 173 Vulture 31, 139

200

INDEX

Wacker, Steve 62 Waid, Mark 11, 76 n.26, 96, 110, 114, 128 n.12, 154, 162, 164, 165, 167, 167 n.3, 168, 173, 174 Wakanda 135–7, 150 Walker, David F. 17 Wandtke, Terrence R. 120 Wanner, Kevin 57 n.5, 80, 81, 86 Warner Brothers 36, 86 War of the Realms 100, 162 Wertham, Fredric 20 n.4 What If? series 42, 43, 98, 99 Whitbrook, James 100, 138, 153, 157, 160, 162, 174 Wilson, G. Willow 15, 55, 78, 81, 86, 94 Wilson, Matthew 78, 107, 146, 162, 163 n.2 woke 3, 10, 10 n.11, 12, 17, 18, 38, 53, 93, 158, 172 Wolverine (mantle) 3, 79, 89, 94, 170 Gabby 170

Laura Kinney 94, 159, 162, 169–70 Logan 78–9, 89, 94, 155, 158, 159 Worlds Collide 164 Wyatt, Jacob 79 X-23 (character) 92, 94, 162, 170 (see also Wolverine (mantle)) X-23 92, 94, 170 X-Men 3, 3 n.2, 23, 28, 77, 83, 89, 94, 95 Yockey, Matt 26, 27 n.8, 29 n.10, 30, 33, 45 YouTube 2, 2 n.1, 4 n.3, 7 n.8, 10 n.11, 11, 12, 69, 172 Yu, Leinil Francis 167, 167 n.3 Zamudio, Margaret M. 82 n.31 Zemo 146–8, 146 n.29, 151 Zub, Jim 164