Not So New, Not So Different: On Red Wolf and Indigenous Representation in the New Marvel
Yesterday Marvel Comics released the first teaser image for All New, All Different Marvel, the post-Secret Wars relaunch for the Marvel Universe. Editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and senior VP of sales and marketing David Gabriel hit the media to publicize it, Alonso telling USA Today that the new lineup of characters and creators will show “diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity.” The image itself highlights a lot of the company’s recent efforts in diversity, with characters like Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Captain America Sam Wilson, and Spider-Gwen getting visible spotlights. The image also included an unexpected appearance by the Native American superhero Red Wolf.
Red Wolf seems to fit one of All New, All Different Marvel’s goals of bringing back “forgotten” characters. ‘Red Wolf’ is a title given to a series of four characters, usually Cheyenne, with mystical wolf powers from the god Owayodata and a wolf companion named Lobo, none of whom have ever been particularly important. You may remember them from being the Rawhide Kid’s sidekick, or from a quick appearance in the recent Scarlet Spider series you didn’t read. On face value, rejuvenating Red Wolf is a fantastic idea, an opportunity to do something that I stated the need for the last time I talked about indigenous superheroes: increase the presence of North America’s first peoples in the medium.
If the first thing I’d learned about this news was, “Marvel’s bringing back Red Wolf in an important way,” I’d have been thrilled. That’s exactly what I want. There’s a problem, though: that’s not how I first learned about it. I saw the promo image first. And in the promo image, Red Wolf is dressed like the most problematic stereotype you have ever seen of an aboriginal person. He’s holding a bow and arrow. He’s wearing buckskin breeches. He’s wearing a loincloth on top of the buckskin breeches. He has a bone necklace and a warpaint. He’s not wearing a shirt. The only thing missing from the Injun Stereotype Bingo Card is a feather in his hair. It’s hard to make this more suspect-looking.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Red Wolf recently. When the Secret Wars tie-in Secret Wars: 1872 was announced, amidst all the images of 19th century Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in dapper suits, was an image, on then-series artist Doc Shaner’s Tumblr and a tweet by Alonso, of Red Wolf more or less as he appears on the All New, All Different Marvel teaser image. Oh, and there’s a feather in his hair in these pictures, so… uh… bingo, I guess.
The representation was iffy enough in the context of 1872. It’s easy to defend the antiquated dress by saying, hey, it’s the 19th century, so olde-tyme-y dress is appropriate. There are a couple of problems with that.
First, it takes the dangerous position that in the late 19th century, aboriginal people pretty much only dressed in breeches, loincloths and a startling lack of upper body wear. Of course, this isn’t true; not only did aboriginal people wear a wide variety of clothes, including, yes, shirts and coats (I’d like to see present-day Red Wolf William Talltrees brave his home Montana winters without it), but since contact with European settlers, many aboriginal people had begun dressing in European-style dress, a number that only increased as the two (to oversimplify it) groups co-existed, intermingled, and came together to form the distinct aboriginal people, the Métis.
By 1872, in fact, the Métis had led an uprising in their native Canada, resulting in the creation of the province of Manitoba. A year after Marvel’s series, in 1873, Métis leader Louis Riel was elected to Canada’s Parliament. Some of the most significant political actions of a people and a nation occurred in this time, all while wearing shirts. So Red Wolf’s 1872 dress is potentially anachronistic, even by the standards of history.
Red Wolf’s 1872 dress is even more troubling when compared to the other stars of the book itself. Bruce, Steve and the other characters get to wear suits and, a few small period details aside, don’t look that far removed from the present day. They look, for lack of a better term, civilized. Compared to that, having the aboriginal character dressed in warpaint and a loincloth sends one key message: he’s “savage.”
That word has consistently plagued aboriginal people for centuries, and been used to justify any number of crimes and cruelties against us. It’s patently obvious Marvel isn’t trying to invoke that, but they are invoking it.
If that dress is problematic in the setting of 1872, imagine how bad it looks in a modern-day Marvel universe. If a lot of aboriginal people didn’t dress like that in the late nineteenth century, it’s safe to say that we don’t now, either. We’re a modern people. And standing in the same field as Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel and the other characters, one thing Red Wolf certainly doesn’t look is modern. He looks out of place, and he makes me feel out of place.
So why does this imagery persist, even when it’s clearly inappropriate, even when one would think that a moment of sober second thought would advise against its use?
American-Canadian aboriginal author and scholar Thomas King makes an argument about that in his award-winning 2012 nonfiction book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. In the book, King talks about three broad distinctions of aboriginal people: Legal Indians (those who have legal status and the right to a formal relationship with the government), Live Indians (aboriginal people as we are now, in all our complexities and multitudes) and Dead Indians.
Now, the term Dead Indian doesn’t only invoke all the actually, physically not-living-anymore aboriginal people. King uses it to mean the image of aboriginal people as we were, and as we are usually remembered: feathers, warpaint, buckskin and all. Dead Indians, King argues, are easier than Live Indians. They don’t change. There’s a convenient iconography. It’s a fantastic symbol — if you ignore the part where it reinforces ideas of “civilized” and “savage,” and interferes with efforts to view aboriginal people as we actually exist in society now. Dead Indians, King argues, are just plain easier, which is why they persist long after it ever being appropriate. They’re clipart.
Red Wolf looks even more out of place on that promo image when you compare him to who he’s standing next to. Sam Wilson is Captain America, full stop. Miles and Gwen are their spider-personas. Thor is simply Thor. Immediately to the left of Red Wolf is Ms Marvel, the poster child for the modern, diverse Marvel Comics. She looks strong and powerful, and while her costume is a nod to her Muslim American upbringing, it’s definitely from a modern context. You can look at Kamala and see how her background is reflected in her costume, but it’s not the primary visual identifier. She looks like a superhero. More importantly, she looks like someone I could meet. Red Wolf looks like a Dead Indian.
Of course, this is just a promotional image. We don’t know how Red Wolf will be included in All New, All Different Marvel or, for that matter, how he’ll be included in Secret Wars: 1872. We don’t know what books he’ll be in, who the creative team will be, or who he will be.
My point is, this could end up being something smart and progressive, potentially even from an aboriginal creator. This could be exactly what I asked for.
But it doesn’t look like it. This is just a promotional image, but it’s the image that Marvel decided to sell their diversity with. It’s the image they decided to present of an aboriginal person in 2015. It’s an Injun.
Axel Alonso is right, that image of Red Wolf “resembles the Marvel Universe that 60 years of readers have come to love.” The problem is, that’s not necessarily a good thing.