If you’ve read much of my other work on this website, you’re probably looking at the title and going, “What? But he’s always linking to that piece over at Jezebel about how brown kids deserve more brown superheroes!” Well, two things about that: 1) I’d probably do just as well linking you to “A Superhero That Looks Like My Son” and 2) they absolutely do, but I’m concerned that this mandate might encourage us to settle for just about any Black superhero, when that is simply not enough. We do owe it to children of color, to say nothing of LGBTQ+ youth and others, to represent their diversity in superheroes. But first, let’s deal with why it is that comics and superheroes matter so much.
The easy answer is that superheroes aren’t just fantasies; they’re deities. In our modern context, where our media at least appears to be pluralistic and decentralized, our deities come in all forms, and some of them wear capes. I say that to express that superhero stories are modern mythologies. They’re a method by which we represent the best of our culture to ourselves, and also by which we work out the issues currently facing our society. We’re prone to associate the word “myth” with things that didn’t actually happen—events strictly in the realm of fantasy. But take, for example, the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus goes on a hero’s journey, beheads Medusa, rescues Andromeda, etc., etc. Clearly a story. Many of the great mythographers of the 20th century, however, regard this myth as a representation of an actual event. From the third volume of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God:
The legend of Perseus beheading Medusa means, specifically, that “the Hellenes overran the goddess’s chief shrines” and “stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks,”…that is to say, there occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C. an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma, which has been registered in this myth.
All that to say that the myths passed on by a society are not simply the idle results of primitive beliefs or childish minds. Even if they do not encode actual events, they record perspectives, cultural norms and ideals, and desires. Thus, when we write superhero stories, we are telling tales about idealized versions of ourselves. If my little mini-lecture about occidental mythology was not convincing, take Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That film could not more blatantly be about the relationship between freedom and security, the tension between individual liberty/honor, and the modern surveillance state. Plainly, it is a 170 million dollar exploration of one our society’s most pressing issues.
Now, the we’ve established the superhero–as–modern myth, we can move on to the title of this piece: why are black superheroes dangerous? As a comic book fan of color, I’m used to cheering a little bit every time a Black, or AAPI, or Hispanic, or Middle Eastern, or other superhero of color gets their own movie, or is featured in a major comic book title. And why shouldn’t I? If representation is good, more representation should obviously be better. People of color spend so much time looking for ways to be represented or to represent themselves in a culture that is still, in many ways, more WASP-y than Janet Van Dyne.
I think that leads to desperation. We take these heroes however we can get them. Many superheroes of color are just badly done, or so ethnically on-the-nose as to be stereotypical (Sooraya Qadir is a good example of this, though I very much like her character). Their characterizations are often as hurtful to the goal of meaningful diversity as they are helpful. Take the original Luke Cage, who was essentially an overmuscled jive-talking Black mercenary and prison escapee who said things like “Where’s my money, honey?” to Dr. Doom.
Now, Luke Cage has certainly improved over the years, toward a more authentic complexity (Mighty Avengers is a decent place to check this out). I’m appreciative of that shift. It’s actually not even terrible characters that I want to engage with. For the most part, we’re mature enough to recognize overtly negative, racist characterizations of heroes of color — that’s the easy part. There are two other kinds of Black heroes that we have to watch out for.
The first of these are characters that are just “colorswapped.” While I’ve argued passionately that the comic fan community at large should accept and even celebrate when a character’s race is not the same as their typical conception, race swap is also not a guaranteed strategy for success. It’s easy to act as though putting an actor of color in a role, or coloring a character with a pencil not colored “peach”, is a victory. But that is silly on its face. For example, many fans typically think of Catwoman as white. When Eartha Kitt replaced Julie Newmar for the third season of Adam West’s Batman, she presented a rather iconic and groundbreaking portrayal, despite her being Black and the absolute silliness of Adam West’s Batman. When Halle Berry starred as Catwoman in the 2004 film, her acting was mediocre and the writing was even worse. In that situation, there was a Black actress, but no victory.
We should also consider that these “colorswapped” characters have a Blackness that is purely incidental, and that’s a mixed bag. Heimdall, from the Thor films, is played by Idris Elba. His role was important in that it revealed the true colors of many people with racist and overly simplistic notions about representations, and was good in terms of putting more African-American faces in films. But I think we’d be hard pressed to say that it was a victory for Black representation when his race/ethnicity was irrelevant to the story being told. That’s fine, as it needn’t always be relevant, but it does nothing to provide a meaningful, yet inspiring representation of brownness to those brown kids we were talking about. I’m anxious, but not hopeful, to see how relevant Johnny Storm’s race will be to his character in the upcoming Fantastic Four film.
The second set of dangerous Black heroes are what I will call the “Unattainables”. These are heroes that may be otherwise great, they may even take great pride in their racial/ethnic heritage, but by way of being virtuous, potent, and wise, etc., are difficult to come to terms with. Not that young Black girls and boys don’t identify with Storm and Black Panther, just that they may not be able to relate to being the Queen Consort and King of the hyper-advanced African nation of Wakanda (though they’ve gotten realer since the divorce). It’s also not that I’m opposed to aspirational role models for children of color. We should encourage them, because comics are about dreams, fantasies, imaginations, hopes, and mythos.
But there must also be, as much as is possible, a different characterization: one that engages both the fantasy and agency that superpowers represent, as well as a sense of normalcy — one that doesn’t require an elevated or impeccable morality. These other characterizations are valid enough, but they are dangerous in that they risk suggesting either that Black characters are best when their race is irrelevant, or only when they themselves are exceptional. This is a troubling message to send to young comic fans. I see the fight for representation in all forms of art, including comics, as one that is intimately connected with the fight against oppression and the fight for full participation in society. As Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic puts it:
Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
I don’t want to suggest that we can only choose one of these options, to the forsaking of the other. I also don’t mean to suggest that there are no comic book heroes who straddle that line well, because there are. My favorite example is Miles Morales, the Black Puerto Rican Ultimate Spider-Man, who is really a troubled thirteen year-old kid from Brooklyn, whose challenges are as much life and family as they are fighting Venom and Kangaroo. Outside of strictly African-American concerns, the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is another good example of a character not so symbolic or perfect as to be irrelevant to racial representation.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I’ve read too far into everything, but I imagine that meaningful representation requires a more nuanced touch than “more good, less bad.” I think that we can all agree on that. Fans of any Spider-Man will understand that relatability, and even in the world of comics, believability is key in constructing meaningful heroic role models. What makes the Greek gods interesting is not simply that they have power; it’s their tempers, their errors, their lusts, and their fears. Why should it be any different for modern myths, and why would it be any different when drawing heroes with a color other than “peach”?