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Race at Marvel and DC Comics: Sometimes They Get It Right

At ComicsAlliance, we’re believers in calling people out when they create something offensive, whether that involves tone-deaf comments from publishers about racial diversity or disconcerting disappearances of minorities. That’s just half of the equation, though. I think it’s vitally important that you support people when they do the right or good thing.

While Marvel Comics has always had a stronger track record with regards to race than DC Comics, both Marvel and DC have made some very real strides in terms of racial diversity over the past few years. It’s worth pointing out that for all of the times that editors point to green-skinned aliens as examples of racial diversity or characters are put into stories with extremely problematic undertones, they are trying. They may make missteps sometimes, but let’s take a look at the times that Marvel and DC have gotten it right with race.

The ’70s were a good time for Marvel. Early in the decade, Spider-Man was in the middle of a golden age, Jim Starlin was creating a fantastic space opera, and Conan had some of the best artists of all time on art duties. On top of that, the Heroes for Hire were quietly building up a potential that wouldn’t be truly realized until thirty years later. Luke Cage and Iron Fist were the Heroes for Hire while Misty Knight and Colleen Wing were the Daughters of the Dragon, and together, they were nestled in that intersection between kung fu movies and blaxploitation, and they managed to create the kind of magic that sticks in your minds long after the fact. Now, with the sole exception of Colleen, they’re players in the Marvel Universe and fan favorites.


LUKE CAGE: Luke Cage went from street hustler to convict to a man masquerading as a superhero to the leader of the Avengers. That’s not a bad career trajectory at all, I’d say. The person who gets most of the credit for the rejuvenation of Cage’s presence on the page is Brian Michael Bendis, an open fan of the character. Bendis used Cage in most of his work early in his Marvel career, including Alias, Daredevil, Secret War, House of M, and New Avengers. The writing was good and fandom couldn’t escape him, and as a result, he’s a major feature in several series. Cage’s rise points to one way that the treatment of race and non-white characters in comics can improve: having a creator who is a huge fan and has the ability to get stories featuring those characters made.

For my money, Jeff Parker and Kev Walker’s Thunderbolts has the best handle on Cage. He feels black without devolving into stereotypes, it’s easy to see that he’s an experienced hero, and his no-nonsense demeanor feels like a natural extension of his past in comics. Those guys are doing fantastic work, month-in, month-out. I talked elsewhere about a sequence where Parker and Walker pull out the boring old “What’s my name?” gag but get it right, and also how context makes all the difference when playing around with racial politics and language.


MISTY KNIGHT: Misty’s rise to prominence began back in 2005, with Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Khari Evans’s Daughters of the Dragon miniseries. The book was perfect in tone and read like a conscious emulation of trash cinema. Evans’s art in particular was a highlight, full of emotion and great action scenes. He draws women with sneers like you’ve never seen before.

Daughters of the Dragon led to a Heroes for Hire series, which served to further solidify Misty’s stature in the Marvel Universe. After Shadowland, Misty starred in another Heroes for Hire series, this time shepherded by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with art by Brad Walker. This series puts her smack dab in the middle of the Marvel Universe, with a rolodex that includes ninjas, spies, superheroes, and otherworldly motorcycle-riding spirits of vengeance. Later this year, she’s going to head up Villains for Hire, where she tasks villains with doing jobs that are too dangerous, or questionable, for the heroes to accomplish.

IRON FIST: There’s a trope in fiction that I dislike a lot. A white guy visits a new land and basically becomes the top dog in that land. Tarzan is probably the best example. Avatar features this trope. Even though I like the character, Iron Fist is another really good example it. Taken on its own, it’s fine, but as a trend? It’s definitely gross. It suggests that the poor little natives just need a white hero who does everything that they do, but better.

This is why the most recent Iron Fist series was so interesting. It shed light on the Iron Fists that predated (and in one case, came after) Danny Rand. It establishes Danny as not the best, but simply the most recent bearer of the Iron Fist, and then fills the history of the title with characters like Wu Ao-Shi, the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay. What’s important is that these characters are portrayed as major historical figures, rather than one-off jokes or references. The Iron Fist is a position of respect and honor throughout the centuries, and being one means that you must do great things. This subtle shift in the mythology moved Danny Rand from “best” to “one of a line.” It created a bunch of characters that would be great to read about in the future, and all of them on equal footing, storywise, with Danny Rand.

POWER MAN: Fred Van Lente and Mahmud Asrar wrote an incredible introduction for Victor Alvarez, the all-new, half-black, half-Dominican Power Man. I’ve read comics with black characters before, but I’ve rarely ever read a superhero comic that got that the character was genuinely black, rather than just colored black, so well.

The verisimilitude in Power Man’s introduction was off the charts. There were little bits of culture sprinkled throughout. Not in your face, “Here I am listening to ODD FUTURE on my IPOD NANO while walking around THE HOOD” culture, either. Subtle things, like how a mother refers to her son, or the social minefield that is having an opinion about a black man marrying a white woman.

I was incredibly impressed by this comic, and the work that Van Lente and Asrar put into it. It’s not 100% correct, because nothing ever is, but they still managed to knock it all the way out of the park. I picked this book up and saw a reflection of a life I know, which is all too rare in cape comics.

2. THE OLD GUARD

CYBORG: Cyborg’s had a long run. He was created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez in 1980, and a major factor in their New Teen Titans. Seeing as the Wolfman/Pérez New Teen Titans was essentially DC’s counterpart to Uncanny X-Men, in terms of sales and approach, and one of the best-loved runs from that company, it’s fair to assume that a whole lot of people have pretty fond memories of the guy. Decades later, Cyborg had a great turn on the Teen Titans cartoon that introduced him to an entirely new generation, myself included.

Now, Cyborg is finally being welcomed into the big leagues of the DC Universe. There are plenty of reasons why he’s making the leap into the Justice League and being a major player instead of a supporting cast member. His history in the DC Universe is a clear benefit in terms of in-continuity experience, and he’s been around long enough to build up plenty of brand name recognition. More cynically, he’s the highest profile black character at DC who 1) isn’t a legacy character, 2) was never a sidekick to another better hero, and 3) doesn’t feature the word “Black” in his name. There are no uncomfortable caveats when it comes to Cyborg, and I’m looking forward to Geoff Johns and Jim Lee throwing the spotlight on him come August’s Justice League #1. Johns has proven that it’s unbelievably simple to make Cyborg an essential and intelligent hero in Flashpoint. Now it’s just a matter of following through.

BLACK PANTHER: It’s obvious to me that Marvel really, really wants Black Panther to work. Other than a gap of a year and a half (which featured a seven-issue Panther-related series called The Crew) between late 2003 and early 2005 and other, smaller gaps between relaunches, we’ve almost always had a Black Panther comic on the stands since 1998. What’s more, the runs have been almost entirely driven by a single voice. Christopher Priest, Reggie Hudlin, and now, David Liss have told political, pop, and pulpy tales featuring the character, with a wide array of talented artists. Marvel is clearly looking for an audience for the character, and they’re down to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks.

The latest take has pulled the African king away from his crown and country after a national catastrophe. Instead, he’s rebuilding his reputation on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as the Most Dangerous Man Alive, and before that, the Man Without Fear. This approach is half back-to-basics and half stranger in a strange land, but having Francesco Francavilla and Jefte Palo as the regular series artists hasn’t hurt the series at all. Black Panther has never, ever looked better than when those guys draw him. Their styles are distinct, but taken together, perfectly suited for the character.

SPIDER-MAN: Ever since I was a kid, Spider-Man was my favorite hero. Amazing Spider-Man #316 (a Michelinie/McFarlane joint) was my gateway drug into comics and I devoured everything I could find. As a concept, as a character, as a costume, as a gimmick, and as rendered by John Romita Sr, John Romita Jr, Todd McFarlane, Humberto Ramos, Chris Bachalo, and dozens of others, Spider-Man is the perfect superhero. Sorry, Superman. Sorry, Batman. Spider-Man is the truth.

For me, on a deeply personal level, Miles Morales becoming the new Spider-Man is an extremely cool development. This isn’t a situation where a hero is temporarily dead (Captain America, Batman, Superman) or where the new hero is a knock-off of the real deal (John Stewart, Steel). No, this is the character that is the ultimate expression of Stan Lee’s approach to comics scripting, the character that is Marvel Comics more than anyone else, and he’s going to be Miles Morales, a teenager out of New York City. No takebacks, no caveats. When you pick up Ultimate Spider-Man, which has been by far the most consistently entertaining Spider-Man comic since the ’80s, Morales is in the costume.

To make a long story longer, Curt Franklin and Chris Haley’s Let’s Be Friends Again got it absolutely right in their strip on the subject.

XOMBI: I’ve been a believer in Milestone since I was a kid. Issues were few and far between as a kid, but I fell in love anyway. I missed out on Xombi, or at least don’t remember reading it as a kid. I caught up with Xombi when I was grown, and thought that it was a pretty clever little series with a great lead character. David Kim, a normal man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, was easy to identify with, and it was nice to discover his new and creepy world at the same time he discovered it.

Series co-creator John Rozum returned to his character this year, and this time around, Frazer Irving was on art chores. And man, this series? Totally the best thing to come out of DC Comics in years. Rozum picked up right where he left off, but with a dozen more years of experience enhancing his craft. Irving is incredible, as usual, with some of the moodiest and most interesting color work you’ll see in mainstream comics. This series only got six issues, but they’re six great ones. I’m thankful that DC took a chance on the series, but even more thankful that Rozum and Irving did great work on Xombi.


3. THE NEW CLASS

AQUALAD: Jackson Hyde, the new Aqualad, caught a lot of heat when he was first introduced. Legions of fans of the previous Aqualad materialized out of nowhere (seriously, who knew?) to batter the very idea of the character and the death of the original. Others looked at a statement by Geoff Johns regarding the character’s affinity, or lack thereof, for water as falling in line with tired old racial stereotypes.

Once the comic came out, though, things got a lot more interesting. The son of Black Manta, Jackson was raised by normal humans in New Mexico who urged him to stay away from bodies of water and the rain to keep his powers a secret. He’s a hydrokinetic and can breathe and see underwater. In other words, he can make swords, guns, or whatever he wants out of water. It’s very versatile, and doesn’t require him to be in the ocean 24/7.

He was a fairly major figure in DC’s Brightest Day, and hopefully he’ll stick around in the New 52. He’s got a cool design, particularly the glowing blue energy signature, and I like that his foster family is there to stick up for him. I can think of precious few black families in comics – -maybe just Robbie Robertson’s family over in Spider-Man? — and it’ll be nice to see them stick around. He’s starring in Warner Bros.’s new Young Justice cartoon, too, with a slightly different design, so hopefully some kids latch onto the guy, too.

SPIDER-GIRL: Anya Corazon, created by Fiona Avery and Mark Brooks back in 2004, has had a long history over the course of the past seven years. She began life as Araña, a mystically-powered superhero who was only thematically related to Spider-Man. She worked for a secret organization, fought another organization, and juggled her secret life with her social life. Pretty basic stuff, and really just okay in execution.

Strangely, Anya’s adventures took off after she lost her powers. Paul Tobin and Clayton Henry established her as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Girl in an eight-issue series that concluded earlier this year. They hooked her up with a new black costume, shook her up status quo, showed just how capable she was even as a baseline human, and actually turned me into a believer. Anya is sticking around, and is due to headline Spider-Island: The Amazing Spider-Girl, a miniseries that launches this month.

DAKEN & DAMIAN WAYNE: Sometimes, new characters are created without a big deal being made of their ethnicity. Both Batman and Wolverine have sons of mixed heritage. Daken, son of Wolverine and sometime Dark Wolverine, is half-Japanese and half-white, thanks to his Canadian father and Japanese mother. Damian Wayne is the son of Bruce Wayne, a white American of indeterminate origin, and Talia al Ghul, whose mother was of Chinese and Arab descent. Her father, of course, is R’as al Ghul, an Arab supervillain. Both Damian and Daken are defined by their actions first and their skin color second.

Both characters, though introduced fairly recently, have proven to be pretty endearing. Daken’s easy-going style of constant mind-gaming, manipulation, and outright murder is absurdly charming, and Damian’s struggle to fit into his upbringing inside his father’s blueprint adds a new wrinkle into the Bat-mythos.

Superhero comics are stuck between a rock and a hard place these days. They’re stuck in a world where new characters don’t catch on because the Direct Market audience wants characters they know, and a new audience isn’t interested, at least in part, because there are precious few good characters that look like them. Even ones as well-realized as Jeff Parker’s Agents of Atlas or Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s Runaways have trouble catching on the DM, which is kind of sad. It’s hard for anything but the same old, same old to gain any traction. For all of the attention-grabbing gaffes that both DC and Marvel have fallen prey to in recent years, it’s important to realize that they are trying to do better. Marvel has poured dollar after dollar into building Black Panther up into a marquee character, for example, and DC is clearly more than willing to exploit their system of legacy characters for the sake of broadening their universe. While every effort may not be the best, I’d argue that these are clear proof that every once and a while, Marvel and DC do get it right.

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