Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Comics are causing quite a stir these days. DC Comics recently recalled a cover because it caused controversy, to the point where threats were made over Internet channels. Not against the writers, editors, or the artist. Against people who opined that the cover was in bad taste. Days later, the conservative news website Breitbart published an article about Marvel Comics’ decision to replace Thor, one of their oldest characters, with a woman. The headline for the article, which claimed the remake was “a screw-you to so-called nerdbros from the achingly progressive staff of today’s comic book establishment,” proclaimed that this ”is what happens when progressive hand-wringing and misandry ruin a cherished art-form.” This tone has become the standard among an increasingly vocal and visible fringe element of comics fandom and conservative pundits over the last couple of years.
I work with comic books for a living. I apply scholarly methods to my reading, filter them through theoretical frameworks, and try to tease out the unspoken, but sometimes blatant social and cultural messages they send. I got my PhD on a dissertation that analyzes configurations of identity in American mainstream comics by Jewish American writers, because I wanted to see if and how their minority identity influenced the way they told stories to the majority culture. I am now studying representations of New York City in American comics and graphic novels, because I believe this can show us how popular culture articulates who is believed to belong on the streets of the most famous city in the world, and by extension in Western culture. A colleague and I will soon unveil our plan to put together a collection of essays by different scholars writing on the topic of Muslim superheroes, because we want to see what comics can tell us about how Muslims’ place in America is being negotiated in a popular forum.
I do not write this to brag. I write this, and I do this every day, because I believe, strongly, that comics can tell us about how belonging and exclusion are constructed in America. For decades, American mainstream comics have had their finger on America’s pulse, and that has by and large meant that they have told stories that are largely conservative in nature. This makes sense; comics is still primarily a mass medium that needs mass appeal to secure mass sales. Thus, for most of the post-9/11 decade, for example, the major superhero publishers told dark stories that helped perpetuate a culture of fear and mistrust. That was what they believed would sell. Recently, the content of those stories has inarguably begun to change, if slowly. And there is no doubt that part of this change is motivated by progressive inclinations.
Miles Morales, the son of a Hispanic mother and African American father, took on the mantle of Spider-Man after the WASPish Peter Parker was killed in Ultimate Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis, Morales’ creator, has explicitly said that this happened because he wanted a more realistic representation of New York, which meant a more diverse one. G. Willow Wilson and Jason Aaron, creators of Kamala Khan, a Muslimah from New Jersey and the female Thor, respectively, have discussed their creations in terms of both diversity and creativity.
But neither motivation would matter in the end, if what the Breitbart article mentioned above were correct. If it were true that these changes were made “for cack-handed, tone-deaf ideological reasons that simply aren’t resonating with most readers,” there would be no Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man, no Ms. Marvel, no Thor starring a hammer-wielding woman. Marvel has tried to diversify its universe before, but has either resorted to stereotype or pulled the plug due to a lack of results. But that is not the case this time. Although Marvel has not done any consumer research, they have seen changing demographics at conventions and in other areas of reader-interaction. These new characters are a response to that reality. And the readership has returned that investment: all three books are top-selling hits, according to Marvel publisher Dan Buckley. As ever, the market dictates.
The current backlash might not be about any particular character. At least not the ferocity of it. Although each instance is of course likely to be upsetting detractors for a variety of reasons, related to anything from fannish conservatism to racism and misogyny, what might be truly distressing is the aggregate. As opposed to earlier attempts to create fictional universes that are diverse, to tell stories in which the heroes are not mostly muscle-bound white men, it looks like it might stick this time. And that can be terrifying, because it is a sign that white male privilege might slowly be eroding, and the pushback against long near-unquestioned representational conventions a confirmation that those holding on to them might be on the wrong side of history.
I can’t even begin to imagine what the response would be if Marvel took notice of the apparently increasing popularity of socialism among American youth and created a red superhero.