Superhero Social Justice

Kevin O’Keeffe relays the big news out of the comic book world:

Continuing the trend of diversifying their lineup of heroes, Marvel announced on last [week’s] episode of The Colbert Report that the next Captain America will be Sam Wilson – currently known as The Falcon. … It’s the second big change for Marvel’s Avengers this week. On Tuesday, the women of The View announced that the next Thor would be a woman. Like with Thor, the new Captain America isn’t an off-shoot series – this is the primary Captain America, and the first black Captain America to officially hold the title.

Freddie sighs at those he believes are confusing symbolic firsts for real progress:

The glee with which these changes have been met, contrasted with the bleak state of structural change and economic justice, will tell you pretty much all you need to know about a certain strain of contemporary American liberalism. We’re mere weeks away from a Supreme Court decision where an alliance of religious crazies and corporatists was able to remove a legal provision requiring employers to pay for emergency contraception, but don’t worry, ladies! You too can now be portrayed as a heavily-sanitized version of a minor god from a long-dead pantheon. Black Americans continue to lag national averages in a vast number of metrics that depict quality of life, and in some of them have actually lost ground, but never fear. The guy portrayed punching people while wearing red white and blue spandex will now be black.

Lighten up, Freddie. Progress comes in all forms, big and small. And it’s often the small cultural changes, added together, that have the most lasting impact. Ta-Nehisi put it best, in a post written four years ago, reacting to the news that Captain America was headed to the big screen:

One thing that makes me sad–I wish they’d been ballsy and made Captain America black. … The subtle power of a black Captain America–in the age of a black president–really could be awesome.

Also awesome:

So far, the Hollywood version of Captain America hasn’t made the same move as Marvel, but here’s hoping. Meanwhile, Danny Fingeroth explains the business logic behind these sort of decisions:

[T]he challenge for comics is how to retain the existing audience and also grow new readers. How do you keep the attention of someone who has read thousands of stories and also take advantage of the visibility and familiarity that the movies and TV shows have brought to the characters? (Interestingly, in recent years, more girls and women have started reading superhero comics again, perhaps lured to the comics by the popular movies and TV series.) One of the answers is to make seemingly radical changes in a character, such as having Thor become a female (or to have a black man become Captain America). The Internet buzz indicates that as many fans are outraged by the gender switch as there are those who are intrigued.

But Liz Watson remarks that “slightly unconventional decision—from casting Heath Ledger as the Joker to putting pants on Wonder Woman—is met with a level of feverish debate normally reserved for schisms within the Catholic Church”:

The equivalence between comic books and scripture is telling of how seriously canon is taken by these fans. To violate the status quo is akin to sacrilege.

The irony is that a format characterized by the boundless scope of imagination is ultimately extremely conservative when it comes to risks with character or story. Major developments like deaths or marriages are almost always undone, via fantastic contrivances ranging from deals with the devil to time-travel. Characters are de-powered, murdered, raped, aged up and down, and yo-yoed between universes with an alarming lack of fanfare. It’s the same problem suffered by long-running soap operas, where catastrophes are regularly smoothed over or forgotten in order to keep the premise going. At least on soap operas, actors leave over contract disputes or pass away. In comics, the stories can go on indefinitely. As such, the limitless nature of comic book fantasy is used, by and large, to keep limits in place.

Related Dish here on the recent move to introduce the first black woman as a major character to the Star Wars franchise. Update from a reader:

Great to see Marvel Comics finally catch up with the times, and finally catching up with DC Comics. However, like most things in the comic world, don’t expect this to be new normal. Don’t expect that Sam Wilson will be Captain America for 30 years, unlike DC’s Jon Stewart, an African American who’s been a Green Lantern for over 3 decades. Hell, for readers of a certain age group, Jon Stewart is the REAL Green Lantern due to having a prominent role in the acclaimed Justice League animated series. Or let’s not forget that Wonder Woman has been a pillar of DC’s “Trinity” (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) for over 6 decades, and has been headlining her own comic book for over 70 years.

There’s no doubt that the comic book industry (and its fandom) has a long way to go. Misogyny is still rampant, and there still exists an undercurrent of racism. But I think the current hagiography regarding Marvel does a disservice to the industry as a whole. Comic books have been at forefront of social issues from the very first Action Comics, when Superman was a crusading populist who was willing to kill slum lords, through Green Arrow having to deal with teen a sidekick who was a heroin addict (Green Lantern vol. 2, #85, August 1971, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”), to an openly gay Golden Age superhero (Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern from the ’40s).  Did you also know that one of Green Arrow’s other sidekicks was HIV-positive? Google Mia Dearden.

If I’ve learned anything from my decades of reading comics, it’s that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Steve Rogers will be Captain America again, Thor will be male again, and we’ll wait another 5 years for some great barrier that was broken earlier to be broken again.