Diversity in comic books – My thoughts on Captain America and Thor

This post contains spoilers

I’m a massive advocate of diversity in comic books, it seems unrealistic that with a population so diverse that only those who are white straight and male would take up the tights, cape and spandex. I also see positivity in a group being able to relate to a character of the same race, gender or sexual preference. However I was completely in awe the recent decision Marvel have made with two of it’s most iconic characters.

As many of you may know Marvel plans to give Captain America and Thor a new look. Captain America is to be replaced by a black man, and Thor with a woman, and admitedly this has left my head in a spin.

This decision has left me with mixed feelings, while I am in favour of diversity, what of diversity for diversity sake? Is blanket diversity a sign that our society has become more progressive, or is it just a tool to sell more units by bringing in publicity?

This isn’t a new concept, Green Lantern was replaced by a black man in the 80s, as was Iron Man temporarily, and both of those characters are still around and still awesome. Superheroes (or superheroines) are replaced all the time by someone of another race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, this has been done to great effect, but equally received reactions that are negative or at best mixed.

To my mind the distinction is

a) Does the change feel natural?

b) Is the displaced character handled respectfully?

c) Is the story enriched by this character?

In order to understand diversity in comic books I’ve decided to look a little deeper, in this process I have picked 4 examples of a character being replaced by a character of a different background, I do this in order to see when diversity has been a natural progression or publicity stunt.


Ms Marvel/Kamala Khan (Marvel)

Kamala Khan is a teenage character that was introduced in 2013. She discovers that she is a descendant of the Inhumans (a race of superhumans that exist in the Marvel universe) after her ability to shape shift manifests itself. As a result she endevours to become a superhero taking the mantle of Ms Marvel who is her idol. In my opinion this is a perfect exampe of diversity done right.

What makes this the perfect example? Kamala Khan is the first Muslim superhero to have her own comic book title, however there was little fanfare or fuss. While it did hit the media I didn’t have numerous articles links in my facebook feed when it was announced (although this may be due to magnitude, Ms Marvel doesn’t have the same cultural relevance as Captain America or Thor).

What about story and character? Honestly this fits fine into the story and mythos of Ms Marvel, at this point in the comic book Carol Danvers (the original Ms Marvel) had decided she was worthy of the Captain Marvel title (although it was also a sneaky way of taking the Captain Marvel name from DC), this left a spot open for a new Ms Marvel and the character that filled it just happened to be a Pakistani-American Muslim.

Was the change natural? Yes

Is the displaced character handled respectfully? Most Definately

Is the story enriched by this character? Subjective but yes, I don’t personally read this title, but of what I have read she seems pretty cool

Pure and simple this is diversity done right.


Batgirl/Cassandra Cain (DC)

Ok so this is definitely a personal bias talking now, and I will openly admit straight away that Cass is my favourite Batgirl. However I’m not going to gush like a fanboy for this character (or call for her return, but seriously DC get on that, f***** New 52).

Personal bias aside this is another case of diversity done right, which is ironic as the batgirl issue is a feminism hot topic in comic books, at least part of a bigger gripe in general.

In 1988 in the graphic novel “The Killing Joke” Barbara Gordon (the batgirl at the time) was shot in the back in her home by the Joker and as a result was confined to a wheelchair. This has been used as a prime example of “Women in Refrigerators.”, a term coined by writer Gail Simone, named after something that occurred in the pages of ‘Green Lantern’, Kyle Raynor the Green Lantern at the time found his girlfriend Alex Dewitt killed and stuffed into a fridge. This term is used to describe the large amount of times the death of a female character was used as a plot device to motivate the male characters which they saw as disproportionate (there are many other examples of this including anyone Daredevil has had more than 3 dates with). This however is a story for another day (maybe)

The reason this particular case was done right regardless of these facts is:

a) This incident led to character development for Barbara Gordon who then proceeded to be quite possibly the most important character in the DC universe.

b) The batgirl mantle was filled 12 years after the incident that put Babz in the wheelchair, and that character just happened to be asian.

And honestly this character just kicks ass (yeah I started a sentence with a contraction, what now mofo!?!), I said I wasn’t going to gush but I just feel that way, this character has depth and can hold her own in a fight (being one of the greatest martial artists in the DC universe), but she also has flaws and is essentially a well-rounded character. A character that has been mistreated as of late (less said about One Year Later the better) and whose exsistence in the current universe is in doubt due to the New 52 reboot (that has put Barbara back into the batgirl suit, in my opinion a step backwards for the character but her series is excellently written by Gail Simone).

Was the change natural? She was introduced during ‘No Mans Land’ one of my favourite Batman storylines of all time, what does that tell you?

Is the displaced character handled respectfully? It could be said that she was right up until 2011 when she was put back in the Batgirl suit.

Is the story enriched by this character? In my opinion yes, and she needs to come back.


Miles Morales/Ultimate Spiderman (Ultimate Marvel)

This is an interesting case. The ultimate Marvel line is set in a universe separate from the main Marvel universe, this being the case it seems to be the place to kill off characters that can’t be killed off in the main universe. This list includes; Daredevil, Cyclops, Wolverine, Hank Pym, Kingpin, Punisher, and so on. Unlike the main universe in this universe, if you are dead YOU STAY DEAD, this is useful as it means that writers can experiment with things that otherwise could not be done in the main universe. In this case Peter Parker is killed in a fight against several of his rouges gallery (after being shot as a result of the event that was going on at the time) and replaced by Miles Morales, a black hispanic teenager.

This case is interesting as it could be told with several running narratives, firstly it could be said that writers were planning on killing the character in the first place and when it came time to replace the character his replacement just happened to be black. The other is that Ultimate Marvel decided that they should replace a major superhero who was white with a person who was black in an effort to empower black youths (or pull in more ‘urban’ readers) or maybe this was in general a publicity stunt to bring in more readers.

This is similar to what is happening with Captain America, and at the same time isn’t. While this is a major character replaced by a black character, this is in a universe made to experiment with concepts like that which gives the impact less of a punch, Ultimate Spiderman doesn’t even have the same cultural relevance as mainstream universe Spiderman, let alone Captain America a character who’s first issue involved him punching Hitler! A character that has exemplified the best traits of the USA for 60 years.

It would perhaps mean more if anyone actually read Ultimate Spiderman (although I did read the death of Peter Parker storyline, as well as the aftermath, it was immensely touching.)

Was the change natural? Considering this is the universe in which things like this happen, I’d say yes.

Is the displaced character handled respectfully? He had an incredibly epic and emotional death, Peter Parker received the send off he deserved

Is the story enriched by this character? I’m sure someone who reads this can tell me….. somewhere


 

Kate Kane/Batwoman and Alan Scott/Green Lantern (DC)

I put these together as they serve as perfect contrast. These are both examples of DC making an established character gay. (No I haven’t put them together to devalue any plight the LBGT community may have, I put them together to serve as contrast)

Kate Kane represents a gay character in the comic books done right, and in a beautifully ironic way.

The Batwoman character was first introduced in the 1950s in response to the book “Seduction of the Innocent” by Fredric Wertham that stated that Batman and Robin were gay, in response DC added in female characters to refute this. Back then female characters were love interests, damsels in distress or Wonderwoman, Batwoman (Kathy Kane) and Batgirl (Betty Kane) amounted to characters that were love interests and damsels in distress in costume. This character was eventually killed off (sort of).

In 2006 the Batwoman character was re-introduced as a new character Kate Kane (no relation to Kathy Kane) who is a lesbian. In 2009 her origin was revealed, Kate Kane was a cadet in the military that was outed as gay during the time of don’t ask don’t tell. However being a lesbian does not define her as a character, she’s a character that empowers through normality, she fights crime, defeats bad guys, she interacts with her supporting cast and has relationships, those relationships just happen to be with a woman.

Was the change natural? She replaced a character last seen in the 70s, I’d say so.

Is the displaced character handled respectfully? Not originally (being a female comic book character from the 50s who wasn’t Wonderwoman or Black Canary), her “death” in the 70s was also a little ungraceful, especially as evidence indicates that she was killed off as a fan had the gall to ask if she would return. Certain writing choices by Grant Morrison in 2011 improved the situation greatly (she is also currently alive and active as an assassin in the New 52)

Is the story enriched by this character? Definately

Alan Scott on the other hand……

As you might gather I dislike the new 52. For those not in the know the new 52 was a reboot done by DC in 2011. This was a result of the event Flashpoint that rewrote history and created a new universe. I’m not going to go to in-depth but as a result certain characters were moved into another universe and some not brought back at all (Wally West, Donna Troy, Jade (Alan Scott’s daughter), RENEE MONTOYA!) In all of these changes DC also revealed that they would make an existing character gay. This character was Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern.

In brief he was invented in the 1940s. His origin is that he found a magic green ring that gave him powers. The book stopped selling well so the Green Lantern comic was revamped and a new set Green Lanterns who get their powers from super powerful aliens emerged (aliens who are total dicks). Alan Scott stuck around first in another universe (Earth two, not to be mistaken for Earth 2) until the universes were merged in Crisis On Infinite Earths (because science). Since then DC has liked the method of essentially shaking the echi sketch whenever things are going downhill or they want a change made. Most recently with Flashpoint (because time travel). As a result of Flashpoint he is currently on Earth Two again, and gay.

I think the reason this annoyed me came down to general annoyance with changes made with the New 52 (they changed it so it sucks), I liked the old universe and am disappointed by some of the changes. The reboot led to the removal of the characters Jade and Obsidian and his being gay seems to make it less likely that they will make a return. I accept that this comes down to preference and at some points I may be irrational for singling this particular case out.

This would be fine, IF THIS WAS ACTUALLY ALAN SCOTT! Yes folks this is an example when a character is replaced by themselves. This is DC saying, in order for a character to be gay the universe has to be changed by a crisis. Alan Scott who has existed since the 1940s is not gay, a person who happens to be called Alan Scott and finds a Green Ring like a similar hero from the old universe. This is not revealing that an existing hero is gay, this is removing a character completely and putting a different character who is gay in his place, and may I add to great fanfare, this was an exercise in which DC declared to the world LOOK AT US, LOOK HOW PROGRESSIVE WE ARE, WE AREN’T FUDDY DUDDY SUITS WHO ARE STUCK IN THE OLD WAYS, LOOK AT IT, LOOK AT IT! While their actions turn out to the contrary.

Was the change natural? Questionable.

Is the displaced character handled respectfully? Where did I put my whiskey?

Is the story enriched by this character? I don’t read it, potentially there is always a chance that a new character can enrich a story if handled by a competent writer.


 

Image_44192071.jpg5 Things To Know About Sam Wilson, The New Captain America image

So where does that leave us with Captain America and Thor?

Like I said, my feelings are mixed.

In regards to Captain America, his mantle has a legacy, many characters have been given the name Captain America (including a black man), this being said Steve Rogers is always brought back in the end (even from the dead). The thing that irks me about this change is the way that Rogers is being dispatched, he has the serum that makes him a super soldier sucked out of him, he is aging and will most likely die of old age essentially making it so he can never come back (although I’m sure Marvel will probably find a way anyway).

Of what I have read Sam Wilson is a pretty good character but I couldn’t cite examples. If the writing is competent I look forward to seeing how he is handled in the title in the future.

With Thor I have to admit, I’ve never really cared enough about Thor, he’s always seemed overpowered, I’m hoping that this change will give his character some new layers and his attempts to get his power back could potentially be a great story (If they go in that direction).

Of the new female character? I know little about Angela Thor’s sister, honestly the blank slate excites me.

So In my opinion for Captain America

Will the change be natural? It makes sense that a villian would defeat Steve Rogers by taking the source of his power, it’s been done for other characters, with no one else who could take the mantle, Sam Wilson makes alot of sense.

Will the displaced character be handled respectfully? Depends on the writer, I think bringing him back would be a mistake unless handled very delicately (and pays heed to the disaster that was Death Of Superman)

Can the story be enriched by this character? With a competent writer, unsure if Sam Wilson as a character can carry the story by himself (but I haven’t read enough of him to properly judge)

With Thor?

Was the change natural? Characters lose their powers all the time, for example

-Storm (Marvel)

-Superman (Dc)

-Ms Marvel (Marvel)

-Several Million Mutants (Marvel)(including Jubilee and for a short time Magneto)

-Hal Jordan/Green Lantern (DC) (several times)

-Daredevil (Marvel)

-Thor (Marvel)

Characters lose their powers, characters regain their powers, and in this case he does something that deems him unworthy of his power, if I knew the act I would know why he was unworthy.

Will the displaced character be handled respectfully? Same as the previous question, if the act is heinous enough. There is potential for some great stories to be told about the now depowered Thor.

Can the story be enriched by this character? With the potential of some great stories for the depowered Thor I would say definately, with the new Thor I will have to see the character in action before I can make a judgement.

So despite my reservations and the fact that cynicism leads me to think that this is a publicity ploy to get onto the mainstream news, my final verdict is that this can potentially be a good thing. Despite my reservations over the way Steve Rogers was dispatched nothing in comic books is permanent and if Marvel want to bring him back they will FIND A WAY, that goes double for Thor.

So is this the right move? On this I’m not so sure. But I’m fairly sure that’s a discussion for another time (maybe).

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