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Column: Reboots, Diversity and the New Comics Landscape

The Longbox Theory

Sam Wilson as Captain America

Sam Wilson as Captain America

Hulk is an Asian-American kid, Spiderman is a black and has a hispanic last name, and Thor is a woman, so’s Iron Man. And Doom? Uh, did I forget to mention that Captain America is black—again—sort of, but then he wasn’t Cap any more and the original Cap came back but he’s a Hydra agent, which sort of makes him a Nazi?”

It’s a dizzying mess that requires sorting out.

And unlike many who simply decided it was all complete garbage, either a politically correct cash grab or SJW snowflake faux outrage, without reading a word of it or giving any of it a chance, I tried to go into it with as open a mind as I could muster.

I noted with ironic detachment how DC was lauded for going back to the classic approach (repeating their pattern of a relaunch immediately following a relaunch that was perceived to have gone poorly. “Crisis? Zero hour!” New Coke? Classic Coke!) even though this meant their primary roster of characters remained (other than Wonder Woman) predominantly white, male and straight.

However, Marvel didn’t go the “what’s old is new again” route.

I want to believe it was all well-intentioned and in the service of strong, compelling stories, and possibly a conscious recognition of the fact that comics should reflect their audience—or as much of said audience as possible.

If these characters are the modern American mythology, following on from the tradition and history of a previous era’s folk heroes (John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed etc.), then they have arisen in much the same manner as those classic tales and served a similar purpose to all those which have come before—they reflect “us,” our society and whatever it is (and needs) in that particular moment.

When so many young Jewish men felt they had to remain silent about their rage regarding not only the anti-semitism so many gentiles had no problem openly and hostilely expressing, but the apathy their fellow American citizens had towards events in Europe (where their people were being systematically exterminated), some turned to the world of comics to channel their anger into stories. Myths. Escapism and wish fulfillment… and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw even though Japan hadn’t yet bombed Pearl Harbor, the US hadn’t entered the war and many, many people here didn’t feel America even should.

Steve Rogers wasn’t punching Hitler, Captain AMERICA was. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were. It was the ultimate “F You” to all those anti-semites home and abroad and a reflection of the America they wanted to believe in and make real. More on this later.

And that’s pretty much what every hero myth and cycle has (at least in part) been about, whether found in a Homeric epic poem or in the latest issue of a Marvel comic: Here is who we are—the best and the worst of us, good versus evil. It’s the “we” part that so many seem to have an issue with.

Who are “we” in today’s America?

Are “we” the ones marching in a BLM protest or the ones wondering what all the fuss is about?

Are “we” the ones stressing out about who might be in the next stall in that public restroom or the ones who are too busy trying to hover over that seat because “you never know when this place was last cleaned,” to even care who might be hovering in the next stall over?

I have a little confession: My favorite classic Marvel character is Thor.

I don’t even know why that might be, though I suspect it’s due in part to what Kirby achieved in his amazing run on the book—the worlds, costumes, and stories he spun out of thin air—it always seemed so wide-angle, 70MM Cinemascope, EPIC.

Perhaps it was the character’s unshakeable nobility: He was always proud, but never vain or haughty. But he didn’t look like me—or rather, I don’t look like him.

And over the years, as I’ve met and connected with other fans of the character (as one does, you find each other, you know), I’ve been struck by how overwhelmingly beloved Thor is/was among minority kids like me. Growing up black or brown, we all gravitated to the blond, long-haired hippy-looking white dude with the weird pseudo-Shakespearean speech pattern.

He didn’t have to look like one of us to be “ours.”

Some sociologist might say it was a subconscious need or desire to assimilate with white american society and culture. However, I can vouch for myself as well as a multitude of others; we’re proud to be uniquely who we are (ethnically, racially, nationally, etc.).

We just love Thor.

So when they made him a woman—or rather, give his powers, name and identity to a woman—I confess I was a bit miffed. “It’s his NAME! He can’t stop being ‘Thor’ even IF he IS unworthy, hammer-less and out of the job!”

But I’m the father of a strong, proud, independent young woman I’ve raised to know she can be or do anything she dreams of with her life and talents. A young woman who, many years ago as a little tyke, chose to dress up as Robin two Halloweens in a row, years before she’d seen or even heard of Carrie Kelley. Who was I to tell her, or a million girls like her, they couldn’t be Thor?

Putting my unsettling (and surprising) newfound hypocrisy in check, I realized I should give Jason Aaron a chance: Read the books with that open mind I casually mentioned above (not so easy when it’s one of your favorites, is it?) and see what method there might be to his madness—or more importantly, what point he was making.
I took that approach to all the books and stories.

I confess to feeling a certain satisfaction when Miles Morales quietly, but emphatically, stated he is Spider-man. Yes, Peter Parker is Spider-man—but it’s a projection of who he wants to be versus who people see when they look at him without his mask; he wears the Spidey mask so he can take off the awkward Peter mask he walks around in all day. So many minority kids can relate to that; so why not Miles as Spiderman?

Miles Morales Spider-Man

Miles accepts the role

Rick Remender wrote it, but I saw the hands of Jack Kirby and Steve Englehart in Sam Wilson donning the Red, White and Blue and taking up the shield just as the issue of race and that conversation we keep wringing our collective hands over but never seem to get around to having, was finally pushing its way into the collective mainstream news consciousness.

Marvel had already tried the Isaiah Bradley storyline, but this felt different somehow. Sam stepping out of the sidekick role and asserting his right to represent America. The trolls were out in force. The reviews were between “meh.” and “I hate it.” The sales weren’t good.

DC was doing the (IMHO) safe thing and moving books. But it was growing on me. I was quietly defending it, asking people to give it a chance.

Then Cap said, “Hail Hydra.” and I was angry. Couldn’t help it. Yes, it’s a story. Yes I understand there’s a larger picture. Yes, perhaps it’s a metaphor for all the people going around claiming to be true Americans, draping themselves in the flag, a la cap, but spouting vitriol that has nothing to do with the values, vision and dream we’re meant to be striving for as a nation, falling short so often, but ostensibly still fighting for.

I understand all that. But it was still a bit tone-deaf.  Rationalizing that Hydra isn’t “actually” the Nazis is a cop out. To choose to run this story so close to Kirby’s centennial, so soon after the character’s 75th anniversary, seemed crass somehow; a snide, snarky comment on that famous cover I mentioned above (“Cap punching Hitler? In my story Cap is a Nazi!”).
I believe writer Nick Spencer has a real story to tell—that it may be an important and powerful one and that my discomfort might be part of what he wants us as readers to feel. I defend his right to tell it, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the whys and wherefores of how he came up with it and subsequently executed it.

But in some way, no matter how good his intentions or what happens in the end, it sure came across as a slap in the face of the original creators and the genesis of the character.
And while I was still working out how I felt about all of the above, Sam Wilson had stopped being Cap. Now he has once again taken up the mantle… only to be dropping it once again at the end of the Secret Empire miniseries, according to hints about how the story will end.

Tone deaf?

He’s Cap! He’s Falcon! He’s Cap! He’s not any longer! The vacillation on the part of the character seems to reflect uncertainty of some sort on the part of the creators: What does Sam stand for? What are you trying to say (through him) to and about us? And what might you be unconsciously saying without realizing it? There’s a miasma of possible interpretations of this storyline that speak to unintentional racism on the writer’s part—a benign ignorance of how it may come across to a sector of his audience.

I applaud Marvel trying. I want them to strive to challenge the status quo as well as challenge their audience to question what they see in the books as well as the world around them. It takes bravery. There’s no shame in reach exceeding grasp—it’s how the greatest things are achieved.

I suspect they may cave in on some of their more ambitious plans in the face of falling sales and critical and fan backlash, though I wonder how many people criticizing them have actually read any of these books. News regarding Marvel “Legacy” seems to indicate a desire to have their cake and eat it too: Classic iterations will perhaps be sharing space with their new versions.

But even though it pissed off so many people, I liked that there was a little more color in the roster… In the end though, the color that matters most is green (and I’m not referring to the Hulk, unfortunately).

It even trumps true blue.

Read: Longbox Theory 8-10-2017


  1. Ian Miller

    August 18, 2017 at 12:39 am

    Apart from the fact that I’m dimetrically opposed to the political undercurrents in this piece, I would strongly challenge your assertion that Marvel was full of diversity while DC was just straight white males. You nod to Wonder Woman, but ignore Batwoman, Huntress, Ravager, the Birds of Prey, Robin, Duke Thomas, Gotham Girl, Cassandra Cain, New Super-Man, Superwoman, Supergirl, the two new Green Lanterns, Cyborg, Aqualad, Harley Quinn, and Blue Beetle.

    Impressionistic feel-good assertions don’t get the conversation going, they just obfuscate.

    • Carlos Soca

      August 18, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      I think you’ve missed the point to a certain extent.
      While DC may experiment with their supporting cast, they have maintained certain homogeneous traits among the central/starring players.
      What Marvel attempted to do had a potentially greater impact because it involved the core characters. Batman didn’t suddenly become black, a woman, or Jewish. What would the reaction have been if he had? It’s a question I think is worth pondering–neither a “feel-good assertion” (whatever that might be– pablum, perhaps?) nor an attempt at obfuscation (once again, I wonder what you mean to imply by that, since I’m unaware of any “truth” or “fact” I am misrepresenting or hiding).
      As for the characters you mention: Have you stopped to wonder why, after all the hoopla around Batwoman first coming out, then proposing (twice!) to her partner, DC refused to allow the character to marry? The publisher’s interference was intrusive enough to lead to the creators’ decision to leave the very successful book.
      Perhaps there’s nothing to it.
      You don’t have to agree–I respect your proclamation of diametric opposition to the (so-called) political undercurrents–I only ask that think about these things if you’re willing to do so.
      It’s quite all right if you aren’t.
      Thanks for the comment.

      • Ian Miller

        August 18, 2017 at 1:31 pm

        Oh, I got your point: Marvel is going the right direction, and the fans aren’t ready, too mired in their privilege.

        I reject it utterly. Not only are fans not mired in privilege, Marvel has clearly gone in the wrong direction. Marvel’s actions had less impact because they destroyed their own audience, lessening the number of people willing to read what they had to say. Furthermore, what you’re saying has a real undercurrent of double standards. While white people are expected to read and empathize with people who are different from them, non-white people are expected to only read and empathize with people who are exactly the same as them. I would, as a case study, also raise the point about Asian people: as a half Asian comic book lover who has exactly zero people who represent my own experience and perspective at Marvel or DC – you could try to bring up Kenan Kong – nope, I was born and raised in the northern Midwest, so a Chinese Superman is as alien as a New Yorker – or Cindy Moon – nope, wasn’t raised in lab. But then again, I’m not a girl with a supervillain father, but Stephanie Brown is my favorite character in all comics. My parents are thankfully alive and well, so why do I love Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker. I wasn’t raised without speech to become an assassin, so why do I love Cassandra Cain?

        Should people write only about white straight men? Absolutely not. But they aren’t only writing about them, and claiming they are is a lie. Furthermore, it antagonizes people who love diverse characters but also love classic ones.

        I know exactly why DC refused to allow the character to marry: because none of their characters were allowed to marry at the time. The man who took over the book after the original creative team left over the marriage issue was Marc Andreyko, an openly gay writer, who has publicly said that DC has never, ever pushed back at any gay themes he’s put into his comics. Can you name for me one character who had a marriage at the time at DC? It was clear that while a terrible PR move on DC’s part, it was in no way one opposing gay marriage. Furthermore, just a year or so later, Batgirl spent a whole issue on the gay wedding of a transgender supporting character and her wife.

        Lastly: stories featuring diverse character that are bad stories do nothing for diversity. If your primary response to a story is “It’s bad/good because the race/sexuality of the characters is X”, your response is foolish. Your first response should be, “This story is good/bad because it is well/poorly done, and expands/contracts the moral understanding of the reader.”

        • Carlos Soca

          August 18, 2017 at 2:56 pm

          You’re still missing my point, and unfortunately– though clearly passionate– it would seem you didn’t read my piece very closely. I too have a favorite character who looks nothing like me. What of it? It isn’t that pushing limits makes for a good story per se, nor does including diversity automatically render greater quality. It’s a matter of taste and opinion, but I disagree with your assertion that Marvel’s direction and stories were poor. There was merit as well as quality in the majority of the line. That said, it wasn’t always great– what could be. I never mentioned white privilege, nor any other privilege for that matter– and I clearly expressed my own poor reaction to some of the choices writers and editors made along the way. My point was that a disheartening amount of the criticism came from people who had never read any of the books. If you read them and thought they were poor that’s fine– but many, many people were rejecting them out of hand, invoking racist tropes and canards throughout message boards and in forums, conversations in stores and at conventions often swung around to marvel taking a PC, SJW stance and shoving it down readers’ throats– again, I’m referring to people who hadn’t even read the books.
          It is often the case that assumptions lead to misunderstandings and that what should be civil discourse breaks down. There were many (perhaps erroneous) assumptions made by (non)readers. They said ugly things. Their statements are revelatory… though what they reveal is vast, diverse and profound. It bears mentioning and discussing. That’s why I wrote what I wrote.

          • Ian Miller

            August 18, 2017 at 3:37 pm

            1) You’re completely ignoring the question I took time to answer for you about Batwoman because it doesn’t fit into your “Marvel loves diversity, DC doesn’t care” narrative.

            2) You yourself said that some of Marvel’s most prominent stories featuring diverse characters were poor – Sam Wilson as Captain America – which, by the way, I think is a fantastic idea (akin to Dick Grayson taking on the Batman mantle) – had a really terrible introduction as an “inverted” version of himself, and his story has vacillated as you say. For every Thor, there’s a Hellcat, for every All-New Wolverine (which I am quite enjoying), there’s a Wasp or Silk. While I appreciate that you’re trying to be nuanced (though your nuance tends to fall smack in the middle of the solidly leftist comic readers I meet constantly – liking the color and sexuality of the new replacements, but disliking Hydra Cap), your exhortation to “try these replacement heroes” would be bolstered by more explanation of why their stories are good, rather than just saying they are. Your defense of Thor: because girls can be heros. Who is saying girls can’t be heroes? How is that a defense of the quality of the story? And you don’t touch the problem of massive event fatigue and fan backlash over both Secret Empire and Civil War II, which disrupted many series with incredibly unpopular plotlines and ideas.

            3) You are correct, you don’t mention “white privilege” – but what else do you mean when you say DC is playing it safe, and being rewarded by the fans? What is that safety, other than white privilege? You don’t have to use the words (which are an immediate clue to even the relatively uninitiated) to make the assumptions clear.

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