One of the nice things about my academic research being focused on comic books is that it’s a lot easier to have random people respond to my thoughts (or spark them) than it would be if I were into something like medieval lit or something. When I asked people to give me ideas on gender and comics in the past this was actually pretty invaluable.
Now I’m thinking about something else. Superheroes and race. What I’ve been looking at is sort of a taxonomy of non-white superheroes (or villains), particularly from the big two (Marvel/DC) but not necessarily limited to it. So there are a few things I’ve noticed about racial classification in superhero comics:
- Race means black. Every once in a while race means hispanic. Other races are more or less incidental. That is to say Asian characters are more or less an afterthought… Native American characters can probably be counted on two hands… Indian characters on one hand, Middle Eastern on a finger, and what the fuck is a Polynesian?
- Comic characters have three distinct relationships to race/ethnicity/religion: Substitutes, Avatars and Generic.
It’s the second issue that I’m interested in exploring right now. The vast majority of white heroes are Generic. That is to say Batman is “Batman,” His race and ethnicity never really come into play. There are exceptions to this; Magneto is explicitly a Jewish European in many stories (and therefore an Avatar of Jewishness). But, for the most part most characters are sort of generically white and it doesn’t come up beyond that.
Other races/ethnicities seem (at least to the extent that I have been able to work it out in my head over the course of the day) to be of one of the other two racial types. Either they are a Avatar specifically defined by race 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 for predefined white identities (John Stewart, Kamala Khan, Monica Rambeau, Miles Morales, Jason Rusch, Jim Rhodes). Some Avatars are not immediately obvious. Storm in some sense feels like a Generic character, but like all of the X-men from that era she is heavily tied to racial identity, as that was the point of the team… by the same token I’d say Nightcrawler and Colossus, were both heavily focused on being Avatars as well despite being white (well, caucasian). And of course, a character can float from one category to another (Sam Wilson was certainly envisioned as an Avatar as the Falcon but is now a substitute as Captain America).
So what I’m looking for are prime examples of characters that are interesting within that classification. Can you name white characters that are avatars (substitutes are plentiful)? Can you name characters of other races that are generic or who serve as interesting examples of avatars or substitutes? This one is particularly tricky… I’ve got 100 years of comic book history floating around in my head and coming up with non-white generic characters is actually pretty damn hard.