For better or for worse, there has been an increased effort to diversify the comic book realms of Marvel Comics and DC Comics over the past five years.
Superheroes, many of whom have spent decades being household names, have been reinterpreted and transformed in ways that many have celebrated, while others have criticized. In essence, many of our favorite heroes have been changed from being ethnically Caucasian to becoming ethnically African American.
On the surface this doesn’t appear to be a big deal. Historically, there has been a dearth of black superheroes at major comic book companies since their advent, and it is only recently that black characters have been written with any kind of depth at all at either of the major publishers. It has only been within the last 25 years that an African-American-owned comic book publishing company has even made inroads into the game with Milestone Comics, creator of such characters as Icon and Static Shock. Older comic book fans can recall the hackneyed manner in which both black superheroes and villains were created back in the day and the condescending manner in which they were named.
Black Vulcan, Black Lightning, Black Manta, black this and black that … and we know we weren’t alone in our surprise that Black Widow was a red-headed Russian spy upon her debut in Tales of Suspense No. 52 in 1964. Today we find ourselves in the midst of renewed efforts to change the overall complexion of comic book superheroes.
But African-American comic book fans are just like any other comic book fans in that we feel it is a mortal sin to alter or change a character unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so. We’re also aware that race is often used as a way to boost sales and attract interest to titles and characters that have become stale, or to take advantage of a racially charged atmosphere in the general society in order to sell comic books.
For example, in the comic book Lois Lane: Superman’s Girl Friend in 1970, writers at DC Comics came up with the kooky idea that Lane would gain access to a race machine and turn herself into a black woman because she was “curious.” The civil rights era was still in effect: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two years prior, the Black Panther Party was still very active and the Voting Rights Act had been passed in 1965.
Race and racial tensions were everywhere, and while this appeared to be an attempt at using art as a conduit toward greater racial understanding, the lack of black writers or artists involved in the creative process of the title in question showed that it was ultimately little more than lip service at best, and sensationalism at worst. Though the ’70s would prove to be a jumping-off point for increased diversity in comic books, those first steps were clumsy.
Today, more than 40 years later, America finds itself at another racial crossroads as the promises made in generations past have only been partially kept. The illustrated idea of an increasing distrust of the federal government and the direction our country is going in was found in the pages of the critically acclaimed Civil Wars series from Marvel Comics.
As has often been the case in the past, this is an example of art and life intersecting in the pages of comic books. We’ve been down this road before, with the formerly white, cigar-chomping Nick Fury painted black in the Marvel Universe and in film, too. Also, the second Captain Marvel was a black woman named Monica Rambeau before Carol Danvers donned the name and uniform in 2012. Prior to that, Danvers was called Ms. Marvel.
With the recent recoloring of several very popular, and formerly white, characters at Marvel and DC, these publishers are bringing new energy to several of their signature characters. Captain America’s garb and guise have been passed on to his longtime friend and former sidekick, Falcon, because Steve Rogers is rapidly aging as a result of the removal of the vaunted supersoldier serum. That new day of superhero-dom began in All-New Captain America No. 1.
Is there any coincidence that this revelation was made a day after it was announced that the guise and power of Thor Odinson would be taken up by a woman? Probably not. Sensationalism or growth in art? One cannot be certain.
Read more at the Shadow League.