Slurs, Caricatures and Erasure: The State of Marvel Comics’ Treatment of Indigenous Characters
With the recent beginning of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, and the ongoing success of non-white characters like Kamala Khan, Miles Morales and Sam Wilson at Marvel, the publisher is eager to present itself as a strong supporter of diversity. In fact, Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers in January and met with President Barack Obama at a White House event in March in her role as the company's director of content and character development.
Ironically, at the same time, I was considering dropping all the publisher’s books from my pull list entirely over the publisher’s current line-wide problems in the representation of indigenous people.
That kind of disparity between reputation and reality is neither isolated nor new, of course. The publisher has faced recent criticism for its lack of meaningful LGBTQ representation, its approach to its hip hop variant covers and the company’s dismissal of black critique. However, recent issues of some of Marvel’s comics forced a realization in me separate from these critiques: despite having multiple books including indigenous characters, the company does not appear concerned with presenting indigenous charactacters as people. Instead, they are often treated as objects — either narrative or literal.
The Vision, by Tom King, Gabriel H. Walta and Jordie Bellaire, has been hailed as an intelligent, moving and ambitious book that’s revitalized an often neglected Avenger. All of these things are true; it’s a smart book, and I enjoy it greatly. All the more reason I was surprised when I turned a page in The Vision #4 and saw an anti-native slur and caricature being held out toward the reader by the titular character.
The context is relatively simple: in the issue, Vision has seen his children, Vic and Viv, playing with a football emblazoned with the above logo and name, and asks where it’s from. The twins reply that it is from their school, and respond to Vision’s correction that the logo is currently different by stating that it’s old merchandise using the old logo.
The timeline of the school’s logo is relevant because the “Fighting Redskins” logo is brought back at the end of the issue, displayed in the house of a parent who is bigoted against the Vision family. The intent appears relatively clear: the use of the old logo is symbolic of someone who is socio-politically conservative and “behind-the-times.” Of course that guy has the racist stuff in his house, he’s the bad guy.
It’s also a visual pun, revisited at the end of the scene in that parents’ house, where the neighbor has just been killed by the Vision’s wife, Virginia. The image of Virginia, with her synthetic red skin, splattered in blood after a fight, is juxtaposed with the blood-specked image of the “Fighting Redskin.” Get it? It didn’t go entirely unnoticed: one reviewer called it “a fun Redskins joke.”
The problem is, it’s still a racial caricature and slur, presented as a literary device, in a Marvel Comic in 2016.
This is not the first time Marvel has invoked a slur: in 1982’s graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Kitty Pryde utters an anti-black slur as part of her rhetorical point about the treatment of mutants. 2013’s Uncanny Avengers #5 featured the character Havok talking about the “m-word” in a rhetorical mirroring of the very same slur.
Both these other uses have been thoroughly critiqued for the less-than-meaningful way they engage with the complicated racial discussions they invoke, and this is the same tradition into which The Vision #4 falls. A critically-acclaimed team used a racial slur and caricature as a joke and a rhetorical device. To the best of my knowledge, none of the team members on the book are indigenous, and it reads as such on the page: an entire race, reduced to a physical object to be either lightly condemned or splattered with blood. More than that, indigenous people are used as a literary device and joke to make a political point about a fictional class of people: androids.
In a book without any indigenous characters, this sends a message, and it’s not a message representative of the complex political discussions the book is hailed for. To me, I turned the page and had the reaction of, “Oh, native people don’t matter here.” In The Vision #4, indigenous people are used as a tool to benefit a different discussion, and that is unwelcoming. It is hard to imagine another race being used in a similar way in a Marvel comic in 2016, but here we are.
This is, unfortunately, not even the only time this year a Marvel comic has used indigenous people as objects. Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s current Doctor Strange series initially featured Michael Twoyoungmen, aka Shaman, as a supporting character in a sorcerer’s bar in the Marvel Universe’s New York City.
Disappointingly, Shaman has seldom featured in the book since. But in March’s Dr. Strange #6 he made a return appearance… as an unconscious body, the victim of the book’s villains, the Emperikul. Expositional motivation for the title character.
Taken by itself, it’s just another one of the Empirikul’s victims. He’s not even the only victim on the page. However, in the context of an indigenous character, one of very few in comics, it can take on a different reading. This is an indigenous character who was introduced as potentially important, being reduced to the value of the reader’s shock at the sight of his apparently lifeless body.
In the broader cultural context, it feeds into the history — and present — of the ways in which native people are subject to violence. Together, this reinforces the native person-as-object; Shaman doesn’t matter to the story, but his body does. He’s only useful for his apppearance as a seemingly dead body, and his daughter Talisman is only useful as someone seen despairing over the body.
Later in the issue, an eight-page backup presents the effects of the loss of magic in the Marvel Universe as a result of the actions in the main story. Two pages of the backup, by Aaron and Jorge Fornes, are about an “ugly American” couple who used magic to rule as king and queen over a tribe of tropical indigenous people, and their violent comeuppance when the magic is taken away.
On its face, like Vision #4, this appears to be in service of a politically progressive point about the ills of colonialism and a cathartic release when the colonizer is punished. However, it left me sour. None of the indigenous characters are named. None of them speak. They all look like, well, tropical native stereotypes. The white villains in the story get names, though. And a history, as thin as it can be in a two-page story. They’re treated like people, and the native people aren’t; Doctor Strange #6 is a comic that manages to treat indigenous people as objects serving the white narrative in two different ways.
The two instances discussed so far are both examples of times when Marvel has recently used indigenous people as relative one-off occurrences, but Marvel does actually currently publish two series with native characters as part of the regular cast. Unfortunately, neither does particularly better in the realm of indigenous representation even as each does better in other areas of underrepresented demographics.
Extraordinary X-Men, written by Jeff Lemire and featuring art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Ibanez, and others, features a team of X-Men led by Storm operating out of the demonic realm of Limbo as a refuge from the Terrigen Mists ravaging Marvel’s mutant population. When the book was announced, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso advertised the team’s inclusion of Forge, a Cheyenne X-Man. And, in fact, Forge plays a key role in the initial premise of the book, using his background in the spiritual realm and his genius with technology to create the team’s base of operations in Limbo. Encouraging, right?
Unfortunately, things have gone downhill from there. Like Shaman, Forge is rarely featured in the book’s action. Additionally, he’s not listed as a team member in the book’s recap page, and his one major accomplishment — setting up the base in Limbo — is credited to Storm instead. It is definitely discouraging to be sold a book partly on the basis of its indigenous representation and then see that representation actively minimized, especially in a genre and at a company with so little indigenous representation.
More discouraging than that, however, is the actual physical representation of Forge in the comics. In previous iterations, he has been generally presented as visually identifiable as indigenous, with brown skin:
In Extraordinary X-Men, however, Forge’s visual presentation, and his coloring especially, can vary wildly. In fact, reading an issue of the book, a friend had to point out Forge to me because he had been colored by Edgar Delgado and Sotocolor as appearing visually white:
And by Victor Ibanez and Jay David Ramos as being… yellow?
None of this is to say that indigenous people can’t be either of those colours; I myself am closer to somewhere in between the Delgado/Sotocolor and Ramos skintone. In a world with a wider range of indigenous characters across media, I would wholeheartedly both welcome and encourage this kind of variation in indigenous skintone.
This isn’t that world, however. It’s one character. And with a character with a racially-coded skintone established over decades in comics, the inconsistency reads, at minimum, as sloppy editing by Mark Paniccia, Daniel Ketchum, and Christina Harrington. At worst, it reads as literal whitewashing, a removal of the character’s indigenous racial identity in a book that is already minimizing his contributions and involvement.
After all this, there is a book at Marvel — or was, given its cancellation with May’s sixth issue — with an unambiguous indigenous lead. Red Wolf, by Nathan Edmondson, Dalibor Talajic, and indigenous “consultant” Jeffrey Veregge, features the titular character ripped from his time period in 1872 to present day New Mexico, where he helps a local police force fight crime. Truthfully, as Marvel’s first native-led solo series in 40 years, Red Wolf deserves its own in-depth analysis, and I intend to get to that in due course now that the series has concluded. This will only be an abridged discussion.
The politics of the book’s representation of its lead are complex, but the character has not been without controversy since his announcement, and has been defended by Alonso and executive editor Tom Brevoort. I wrote previously about the first issue of his first miniseries, 1872, and the present series presented some of the same issues.
In Red Wolf, the lead character is a Cheyenne man from an “Old West” time who is brought to the present day. As a result, he’s isolated from anyone he has a relationship with and, indeed, is the only native person in the series. Being a man out of time, he is consistently presented as being out of place in the book’s setting, and as he is the only native character, the book ends up defining native people largely as historical ephemera and not living and vibrant people in the present day.
Yes, Marvel’s most important indigenous representation in arguably its entire history is defined by the idea that there’s only one of him and he doesn’t belong, and his goal is to get back to the past. The goal of Red Wolf is for the lead character is to be dead in the present day.
And yes, there are slurs. Red Wolf #1 features a blistering 10 anti-native slurs over the span of its 20 pages. Issues #4 and #5 each toss another in there. And like The Vision #4, this sends a message: that native people don’t really belong here. Seeing a native person called a redskin or an injun doesn’t just tell me the villains are bad guys: it tells me I’m not particularly valued or welcome.
Individually, with the exception of Red Wolf, these aren’t necessarily damning instances, and that's reinforced to me by the fact that I read The Vision #4 a month after its release and nobody — other than the reviewer who thought a slur was a funny joke — had really taken issue with the comic. Friends apologized to me for not noticing it, but what can you do? It’s just another little instance.
Unfortunately, all those little instances add up. Out of four instances of native representation in a Marvel comic series in 2016 so far, none were positive. None were written or drawn by a native person. What does that add up to? Nothing encouraging. It tells me that the push for diversity that gets Sana Amanat on national television and a meeting with the President hasn’t reached indigenous people yet.
All this would be even less frustrating if I wasn’t enjoying some of these comics otherwise. Before the fourth issue, I called The Vision one of Marvel’s best series, and one of my favorites. I’m a fan of Jason Aaron's and Jeff Lemire’s work, and I don’t want to assume ill will of either, considering that Aaron’s series Scalped was one of the most salient comic depictions of native people in a long time (and is being developed as a TV series), and Lemire created the indigenous character of Equinox in DC’s Justice League United. I love Veregge’s covers. It’s easy to say all of these people mean well.
But what is that worth? I still don’t have meaningful indigenous representation at Marvel. All I have is a pile of new issues of The Vision and Doctor Strange that I can’t bring myself to do more than idly flip through, and the sinking feeling that I’ve been burned again.