Call For Comments: Black (Superhero) History Month

From Mav: For better or for worse, one of my most popular articles I ever wrote on my personal blog was a post explaining my reasoning for being AGAINST Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, being named Captain America back in 2014. I was actually somewhat hesitant to write it, because I knew, even back then that it would be taken the wrong way by some people. A lot of people were excited about the prospect of a black Captain America. And I knew that by saying that I DIDN’T want it, on some level I would be lumped in with the people who were saying “but Captain America is white… stupid SJWs ruining everything! Just another part of Marvel’s liberal agenda trying to inject politics into our comic books!” But that was never my point. My point was that I didn’t really care about having a black Captain America (that I knew would be temporary) if that meant sacrificing a black Falcon!

I ended up writing a whole presentation about this that I presented at an academic conference last year. Obviously, it is not the case that the character of Sam Wilson went away. My problem was that from the second that he was “promoted to Captain America” two things were obvious. First, the promotion would be temporary. While in the world of the comics, “being Captain America” can be seen as a job that several characters have had, in the real world Captain America is Steve Rogers and the character will always return to such for marketing and merchandising reasons. Especially in today’s world where more than being Steve Rogers… Captain America is Chris Evans. But also the idea of promoting Sam to the role of Cap didn’t just mean adding a black Captain America; it meant acknowledging that for the forty-five years prior to that, the black Sam Wilson was somehow LESS THAN the white Steve Rogers.

I never saw him like that. To me, Falcon was never Cap’s sidekick. He was his partner. Falcon had been my as a kid. In fact, he was probably the favorite character of most little black kids in the 1970s because he was the only black superhero with a Mego action figure. He was my favorite, because at the time when I was picking favorites, he was the only option marketed to me. So, maybe problematically capitalistic. But what do you want? I was five. But over time I grew to sort of appreciate the manner in which he was a unique and complete superhero of his own right, in addition to — and in fact in spite of — his partnership with Cap. And I felt like the “promotion ruined it.” And frankly, the way the storyline eventually concluded after 4 years… I felt like it was even worse than I was fearing when it started.

The thing that to me made Falcon unique was that as a black superhero he was conceptually generic. This points to another blog that I wrote about superheroes of color sometime later. I theorized that there are three common possibilities for the identities of ethnic superheroes. Most commonly they are either an avatar specifically defined by race identity often (especially with black characters) having a distinct reference to race in the name (Black Panther, Black Racer, Black Lightning, Katana, Josiah X) or they are specific substitutes (typically either legacy characters or sidekicks) for predefined white identities (John Stewart, Kamala Khan, Monica Rambeau, Miles Morales, Jason Rusch, Jim Rhodes). Falcon was a rare early example of a generic hero who happened to be black. The characterization dealt with his blackness, but only as a natural progression of the narrative arc. Representation was therefore organic.

His transformation into Captain America however, did not do this. Where Sam Wilson the Falcon was a black superhero, Sam Wilson Captain America was a Black™ superhero. Rather than representation, his blackness became a commodity. Superhero comics have always had a social justice agenda — a large part of my dissertation even deals with that idea specifically. However in commoditizing the character’s blackness — in selling him as the black Captain America — I felt like I was being expected to like the character not for the narrative, but for the representation. It was never about whether or not the Sam Wilson Cap was good. He was the idea of blackness for sale. Not only was Sam’s blackness for sale, but in effect it implies that in order to prove my own blackness I needed to support the PRODUCT that was Sam’s. Thus, my blackness becomes a commodity as well. And … it’s not.

I’ve had a similar problem with other characters. And sometimes I’m willing to deal with it more than other times. I bought and read every issue of the recent America Chavez comic. I wanted to support the idea of a queer, female, non-white superhero. I wanted to encourage Marvel to make more. But honestly… the book kind of sucked. I did not enjoy it. I constantly felt as though the art, character and plot development were secondary to “hey look… She’s Latina and lesbian! See her there… being brown and speaking Spanish and kissing girls! See! See!! SEE!!!!” I wanted to like it… I wanted to like it very very very much. I didn’t. It annoyed me. It wasn’t that the comic was male gazey. In fact, I felt like it very much attempted to not go there. The problem was that they didn’t replace that aspect with much of anything else of substance. A year after it’s cancellation, I can’t even remember the plot anymore. I am much more excited following the character in the far better written West Coast Avengers revival.

That said, I do think there is some value in the commodification of diversity. Because regardless of the reasoning, it’s still a move to try to be diverse. And even if I didn’t care for the America comic, it’s still a thing that is (or well, was) out there… being different… for someone who did like it and wants it. And similarly having Black Panther, Shuri, Moon Girl, Iron Heart, Luke Cage and Black Lightning comics out there is definitely a good thing. At the end of the day the Black Panther movie last year was put out to make money. That was its main goal. But in doing so, it still did important work. So that’s what I want to talk about on this episode. What is the place of ethnic diversity in modern superhero comics? What is its history? What is its purpose? What are some of your favorites? How can it be better? Give us your thoughts.

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