“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?
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.
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.