America Divided: Does It Diminish Efforts At Diversity If Minority Heroes Have To Share A Name?
This week’s announcement of a second Captain America title, Captain America: Steve Rogers, to run alongside the current Captain America: Sam Wilson series, is the latest example of a Marvel legacy hero getting to share a name with its originator. It’s a trend that reflects two facets of Marvel’s approach to major heroes. On the one hand, the publisher almost always gives big name legacy identities to characters that provide greater diversity than their predecessors, whether it’s Cap, Spider-Man Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Wolverine, Nick Fury, Giant Man, or Ms Marvel. On the other hand, Marvel’s big name heroes almost always come back.
The new Cap comic has plenty of promise; Steve Rogers is a popular and beloved character, and the team of artist Jesus Saiz and writer Nick Spencer should deliver great stories. Spencer is also the writer on the Sam Wilson title, so it’s reassuring to know that he hasn’t passed up Sam for Steve, and that Sam will still hold on to the iconic round shield. But Marvel’s decision to make Sam Wilson the Captain America felt like a big deal. Is it still a big deal if he’s just a Captain America?
Marvel is attempting a similar balancing act with its two biggest heroes. Miles Morales is now Spider-Man in the 616 Marvel Universe; but Peter Parker is also Spider-Man, and he’s appearing in more books. Laura Kinney is Wolverine in All-New Wolverine, because the original Wolverine is dead; but a version of him is alive, and starring in Old Man Logan. It seems only a matter of time before Marvel announces a second Thor book, so that current thunder god Jane Foster can share the gig with the one-armed Odinson.
The elevation of characters like Sam Wilson, Miles Morales, Laura Kinney, and Jane Foster, is definitely a win for readers who want more diverse heroes in the books they read. New and old fans of these characters can be grateful to Marvel for giving the characters a chance to shine, and it’s great to see Marvel finally responding to audience demand in this way.
But every time one of these characters lands a marquee gig, the same fear echoes through the minds of those readers. How long will this last? When does the cis-het white guy come to take his job back? After 50 or more years of that guy, how long does someone like me get to be the one-and-only Captain America, or the one-and-only Wolverine?
The official line from Marvel when these changes are announced is always some variation on “this is the new status quo”. It’s an assurance designed in part to reassure readers and retailers that they’re ordering the right book. But when one book has “Sam Wilson” in the title and the other has “Steve Rogers,” and only one of those Captains America is the guy using that name in the Captain America movies, it begins to look like the right book is the Steve book. If the new title outperforms the Sam Wilson title, are they both going to survive the next line-wide relaunch?
Marvel would be very happy if both books were successes, of course. Publishers don’t generally set their own books up to fail, and the creators working on them are invested in their success. But giving Sam Wilson and Miles Morales such direct and daunting competition doesn’t look like a vote of total confidence.
Perhaps the folks at Marvel don’t see it, despite their best intentions, but making minority heroes share an identity with a cis-het white guy plays directly into the fears of marginalized people; that fear that we will always be pushed back to the margins, and any time we get the spotlight is only at the indulgence of the establishment. It’s their world and we’re just living in it.
I think Marvel’s instinct to promote diverse legacy heroes is a great one, if it’s part of a broader effort to introduce and promote original minority heroes as well, and to invite minority creators to give voice and provide stories for these characters. Acknowledging that Spider-Man or Captain America can be black, or that Thor or Wolverine can be women, sends an important and valuable message.
But the message gets muddled and compromised when we’re told that Spider-Man can be black so long as he’s not the only Spider-Man, or Wolverine can be a woman so long as she’s not the only Wolverine.
No experienced comic fan could seriously say they expected Sam Wilson to be Captain America forever. But they might at least have expected that he’d get to be Captain America alone.