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Why We Need Minority Heroes in Superhero Comics

When I read science fiction, or fantasy, or superhero comics, I want an ideal. People mistake this for escapism, but it’s not true; I don’t want to be whisked away from reality, I want to see a roadmap to the kind of future I want to imagine. Whether it involves ice trolls and death knights or wormholes and supernovas, what I love about this stuff — hell, what I love about fiction in general – is its ability to guide people through the transmission of ideas. All stories are propaganda, and everything has an agenda. The key is to think it through.

My ethnic background is nothing remarkable. I’m a white mutt, 1/4 Turkish but with some French and maybe some Scottish and I don’t even know what the hell else thrown in. I was born in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. It’s literally outside my doorstep — not a huge black population admittedly, but if I go a mile in any direction I’ll run across street signs in Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, and whatever else. I’m proud to live in a city like this, where people keep their own culture — carry on their own traditions — while participating in a shared society. Everyone’s got their baggage, good and bad, but at the end of the day Toronto’s one of the safest cities in North America, and if you send your kid to public school here you can guarantee a United Colors of Benetton ad will be at every party s/he holds. I love this town.

Here’s the thing: I love this stuff — comics — and I want to share it with everybody. I realize tastes aren’t universal, but when really good stories are held back from finding a mass, multicultural audience by the whitebread nature of the protagonists, it’s depressing. You can’t just change race of major icons, sure, but the world around them should still reflect the world we live in, because otherwise it’s alienating. I don’t want to read, and enjoy, comics that alienate other people for unnecessary reasons — it’s depressing, and it kills my enjoyment, too.

I don’t want to read comics about superheroes — or about the future — or even about an imaginary, heroic alternate fantasy world where that’s the case, particularly since it goes against everything I find so appealing about the genre. It’s not that I need my heroes to be perfect. I just want the world they live in, and the people they are, to represent the reality outside my window, and the reality I’ve experienced throughout my life.

Growing up in Auburn, Alabama in the ’90s, there was a total black/white social divide, sure, but it’s not like black people didn’t exist. That’s what it feels like sometimes, reading superhero comics — if you’re in the Marvel Universe, for example, you’re considerably more likely to find a mutant (of which there are 198) in any kind of starring role than a black guy or gal. And yeah, mutants are inherently superpowered, but it’s still a pretty jarring discrepancy.

Awesome nightmare-dystopian-future-archetype storylines aside, superheroes are an inherently utopian concept, dating back to Superman’s first incarnation as a liberal firebrand. It’s 2010, and they should still be that way. It’s been 72 years since Superman since first pledged his allegiance to the American Way, and what that stands for hasn’t changed since the Siegel/Shuster dream; he’s a champion of America, its ultimate immigrant, defending the world’s most successful refugee camp from horrors abroad, both overseas and overstars. Immigrants come from elsewhere. Immigrants are different. Difference should be celebrated in stories about honorable men and women with special gifts who stand apart with nobility.

I know my appreciation/worship of this guy is overdone, but look at Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis.” Yeah, Superman and Batman save the day, but so do a hip-hop-inspired black Fifth World escape artist, a hard-as-steel Chinese UFC superstar from an alternate dimension, a super-dimensional story god who lives on Earth as a black dude with a bad mohawk working at McDonald’s and a group of Japanese teenage hero otaku with excess money, benevolence and naivete to spare. It’s a story that conceivably feels like HUMANITY is at stake — not the First World, not Washington DC, not Whiteytown Picket Fence, USA, but the entire mosaic and tapestry of human culture, art, evolution and civilization, from Timbuktu to MIT.

This is the kind of thing I want to read about. This is the kind of thing I want my hypothetical children to read about. I think superheroes are supposed to show us a better way than how we’re living, and certainly not a world that looks even less diverse than the one we have. Because if this isn’t what superhero stories are about, within ten years people will think the entire concept of superheroes is even more antiquated than they do today, and a genre that was once prescient will become a footnote in history.

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