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Superheroes of Color

CeKQpcMXEAAB-xu.jpg-largeOne 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

143 comments for “Superheroes of Color

  1. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    After an initial glance the first thing that popped into my head was the original run on New Mutants. Dani Moonstar (Mirage) – Native American. Xian Coy Manh (Karma) – Vietnamese. James Proudstar (Warpath) – Native American.
    Julio Rictor (Rictor) – (Mexican, also gay. As is Shatterstar).

    Then there are the tangental ones, like Bobby da Costa (Sunspot) – Brazilian. Amara Aquilla (Magma) – Raised in Brazil, lost Roman tribe). You could even make a stretch for Warlock.

    As an aside, Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’ sister. And Kitty Pryde (Sprite) and Max/Erik (Magneto) are both very vocal about being Jewish.

    That’s what Ive got right now. Ill give it another read and be back. Don’t be surprised if all mine are mutants (allegory for minorities right there!).

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Aside: The Thing (Ben Grimm) is also Jewish.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      I know its not exactly relevant, but the idea of characters who are very much altered (Grimm, Rockslide, Anoli, Beast, etc) and the way they are perceived in relation to racial discrimination has always been interesting. They may be “white males” but you wouldn’t know it to look at them, and that is consequential.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:30 pm

      And while it’s not controversial today to call Magneto white*, in ’63 it might well have been.

      *Though it’s not a simple matter.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      It’s also interesting that the Jewish Max Eisenhardt took on the alias Erik Lehnsherr, a Romani. Meaning he went from representing one Caucasian ethnicity that faces significant prejudices to posing as another Caucasian ethnicity that faces significant prejudices.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 4:08 pm

      The New Mutants are in the same boat as the 70s Xmen. The Xmen (and related titles) are intentionally written to be allegories of otherness. Racial, sexual…

      The new mutants were built, much like the xmen to be multicultural. This gets complicated by the fact that no matter what their race, the xmen are trumped by their overarching “race” of mutant.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:08 pm

      Ok. I’m done grilling and eating dinner now, so I can answer more closely:

      I already dealt with the issue of the New Mutants/Xmen as a whole being explicitly multicultural as well as single culture. There’s likely a big post racial argument there:

      “Does race/ethnicity matter at all if there is a bigger Otherness that encompasses the group?”

      This is probably easiest to see when you start adding a queer reading to X-men. It doesn’t matter that Storm is African, Thunderbird is Native American, and Kitty is Jewish and Nightcrawler is German if all anyone sees when they look at them is “mutant.” The allegorical real world argument would be “being homosexual trumps race.”

      To Matt Janosko’s point, yes, a lot of academic criticism points to Otherness as being illustrated through visual abnormality (Thing, Nightcrawler, Beast, etc…) If a character is encoded as “monstrous” then any attempt at passing is automatically moot.

      To Matt Egan’s point, yes, absolutely. And certainly worth thinking about if I were to look at changing perceptions of the Other over time. Granted, that Magneto’s jewishness wasn’t mentioned at all until 1980s and not confirmed as canon until the 2000s (after the first film decided on it). From 1981 until 2008 it was ambiguous. So he probably was pretty much read as white in 1963.

      That said, you’re right. There’s probably a really interesting paper in dissecting it in all the various incarnations in relationship to the times in which they were being published.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      I had to look up when Magneto first appeared, but didn’t think to look up when he became Jewish. So when then did he become an Auschwitz survivor?

      Still, Jewish in literature or media is odd. Characters aren’t yes or no Jewish. Like how Marlene Dietrich could play a very much explicitly straight role that gets read as gay. If Magneto was already a Holocaust survivor, then you probably have to say those reading him as white just weren’t knowledgable readers.

      (OTOH, Sophie’s Choice is an entirely different problem.)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      The first specific mention of Magneto being an Auschwitz survivor is Uncanny X-Men #150, circa 1981. He was not specifically identified as Jewish in that issue. Romany was certainly a possibility.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:59 pm

      right, He made references since 1981 to the Holocaust originally but not being Jewish. Since the character was already associated with being Romany (and his kids — er at the time — explicitly referenced as being such) it could have been either (and often it was ignored altogether)

      But to most people “in Auschwitz” means “Jewish” so that’s the way the movie went in 2000. I think Marvel explicitly canonized it in 2008 or 2009. So pretty recent.

  2. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    You’d have to have a white character who isn’t embedded in a predominantly-white culture… and those end up as White Saviors, which I guess you could say is a kind of avatar or whiteness?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      yes. And since the media is dominated by caucasian creators, that’s almost certainly how i would be read. A key example here is Iron Fist. I’d argue that he is at heart an avatar of whiteness in an Asian world. So on one note, as all “stranger in a strange land” tales, he is in effect an attempt to familiarize the default (white) subject with the Other (pseudo-Asian otherworlders) through deconstruction. But the negative of that is that he is sort of automatically read as cultural appropriation in that respect.

      What I’m really having trouble with is coming up with mainstream white hetero cis christian characters which focus on those aspects. For instance, if you take even the nominally caucasian jewish characters mentioned above (Magneto, Thing, Kitty Pryde), their jewishness is of note in that it establishes the character as Othered.

      On the other hand, Captain America is Irish Catholic and it almost NEVER comes up. On one hand, when the character is seen as the default of american subjectivity (male, white, christian, straight, cis, etc.) the aspects that make him such aren’t really worth mentioning. But also, bu focusing on the race, religion or whatever of the hero when it is the default, there is almost an implied “white power” kind of thing that happens. Sometimes this makes sense from a storyline POV if the story deal directly with racial conflict. The current Steve Rogers: Captain America series seems to be going this way, as I was getting to here: http://www.chrismaverick.com/wp/2016/05/26/on-captain-america-and-nazism-for-fun-and-profitideology-and-politics. It also happens in some rare cases where you are specifically talking about these cultural issues (Silk Spectre is decidedly polish in Watchmen) but it’s pretty rare.

  3. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    An interesting one to look at might be Psylocke, Generic Caucasian (with some slight British Avatar points) who then became an Asian Avatar.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      No. Ew. She does not represent us, she represents a weird white guy fantasy.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      True, but one can argue that is an Avatar in its own right. But yes, she is definitely an exaggerated fantasy trope.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Brief comments on my phone while charcoal is heating up for me to cook:

      Psylocke is an interesting case that I am considering.

      She certainly fits the avatar aspect because the asianess is an explicit part of the character.

      Which is to say: I’m not necessarily talking about positive representatives. I’m talking about the race being inherent in the makeup (even if it is problematic). To take another Asian example: Mandarin. He’s filled to the brim with negative 1960s Asian stereotypes, but the character doesn’t work as written if he’s not. If Psylocke had been transformed from a British body to an Irish one it wouldn’t have been the same story.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:49 pm

      Or in other words: Red Skull counts too.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      Psylocke is Marvel’s Rachael Dolezal.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Good comparison. But race is still part of the story specifically with Dolezal. That’s what I’m interested in with “avatars” (perhaps I chose the label poorly)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:55 pm

      In the books with Psylocke I’ve read (which is a small percentage of the whole, admittedly) her race was so seldom mentioned that I didn’t even know that she was supposed to be Japanese until I read it in Wikipedia. I just thought she was a white girl with an olive complexion and long, straight dark hair.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      Keith: Psylocke’s race is WAY complicated. Basically she’s a british caucasian that was body switched with a japanese woman. This decision was made by a Japanese creator (Jim Lee) and thus supposedly “OK” but a lot of asian people (for instance Tim) have found it extremely problematic over the years. And its not really surprising… on top of the actual in story explanation of “we stuck her in a machine that made her asian” (Hence tim’s Dolezal comment) on top of that she is the essence of fetishistic character. She’s an exotic sex symbol bad girl with a sword and very little clothing, made more so by the implied orientalism that gets even worse since it is inauthentic…. so yeah… all kinds of complicated.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      Yeah, I know. I read up on it later out of curiosity, but I still felt it was worth mentioning how little emphasis they actually put on her race in most of the comics. I take the fact that the character in the comic never had to deal with any sort of racist bullshit as being further evidence of her being idealized rather than a real character.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:46 pm

      I’m not sure about her facing any racism per se (see all the comments about the overriding Otherness), but being suddenly Japanese (and issues associated with the body swap) are definitely used as major plot points in several comics. Few as a percentage, but certainly it was a significant character arc encountered on more than one occasion.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:33 pm

      (Also she’s not Japanese).

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:37 pm

      Tim: are you saying she isn’t because you reject her or are you saying that she was supposed to have body swapped into some other ethnicity?

      IIRC, she was swapped into Kwannon’s body and Kwannon was supposed to be a Japanese woman. She later ended up working with Mandarin, who is obviously Chinese, but she was supposed to be Japanese. At least, that’s how I remember it…. was there more or are you saying she’s not Japanese because she’s British?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:38 pm

      I’m saying that she’s not Japanese. Any more than me being zapped into a black body would make me black. I’m saying that “being Japanese/being Black” isn’t a decoration.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      Or are you saying that she’s not Japanese because the body swap was actually faked and the real Psylocke is in a cocoon under the ocean?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      I’m saying that Jim Lee fucked up.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      ok… different issue. You’re making an argument as opposed to addressing the narrative.

      Which is fine… but i needed you to be clear so that I could follow your point

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      Glad I could clarify.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:17 pm

      Ok. So Psylocke is one of those characters where you could probably write a whole dissertation on the nature of race as it pertains to that storyline in specific and her fetishized portrayal in general.

      I’m inclined to fall on your side as a matter of course. Obviously we don’t have body swaps in real life but we do swap people’s environments all the time. If a British white baby is adopted by Japanese parents and raised in Tokyo, speaking only Japanese with little or no access to her birth heritage most of us would still probably consider her white even though culturally shed certainly be more Japanese than British.

      Obviously Psylocke is the exact opposite of that. Something that mostly doesn’t happen in real life. But there is a whole line of philosophical thought experiments that go into how much of your body is you. Which is to say if you get a heart transplant from a Black man do you start being part black? Most of us would say no. But then what happens when you also get his lungs? His liver? Limbs? Etc. is the brain the important part? Again this doesn’t really happen in real life but it’s something that people write papers on and it’s an interesting thought experiment. How much of you has to be replaced before you stop being you? In Psylockes case, 100% of her cells are replaced. So is she her? It’s one of those things that science fiction allows us to consider which is why there’s a whole discipline based around it.

      Not an academic article but a fun video that is well researched and deals with the concepts in relation to C3PO is here. Worth a watch. https://youtu.be/sz-w4WqqaSE

      What makes her interesting (and why I said I didn’t want to limit it to positive interpretations) is that she forces us to think about the different ways in which various humans interpret their conception of race and ethnicity.

      Of course I’m kind of inclined to be on your side here. If we assume some sort of “essential Betsy” is in her brain somewhere then she can never become anything other than a Caucasian Brit anymore than Michael Jackson could cease being black regardless of vitiligo.

      But I can also understand the view of “her body is Asian and so other individuals she encounters will treat her as such” which is an equally valid interpretation of race probably. And Steve is right, certainly there have been stories that addressed this (and her uncomfortability with this). But Keithnis also right, I think most xmen comics in recent years ignore it altogether because of the obvious problematic issues it brings up and their first responsibility is to bottom line sales.

      But to look at another character, someone below (can’t tell who cuz I’m typing on my phone and would have to leave this comment to check) brought up Spawn. As Al Simmons he was a black man reborn into a white body. So what is he really?

      Another interesting example is Black Lightning. When DC first approached Tony Isabella to write the character their initial pitch was for a character named “Black Bomber” a racist white dude in his secret identity who would turn into a black man while his powers were active. Isabella said “uh, fuck no! That’s offensive in every possible level” and altered the pitch to be Black Lightning.

      The point is, any of these characters whole not being representative of actual minorities depict the cultural attitudes towards them in the eras in which they were written.

      That said, while I’m not Jim Lee (obviously) I’m betting the actual reason behind the shift was more something like “wow, I am popular enough that Marvel will let me do whatever I want” and 25 year old Korean American Jim Lee happened to think half naked Japanese ninja chicks were hotter than white British chicks in full pink chain mail armor.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:23 pm

      Black Bomber, are you shitting me?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:25 pm

      nope. That totally happened.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:25 pm

      Well, I mean I guess it DIDN’T happen, thanks to Tony Isabella… but it was totally supposed to happen.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:35 pm

      Jumping Jesus on a Pogostick!

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:45 pm

      This is interesting in how it mirrors recent comments on q feminism board about MtoF transgender identities….

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      Don’t get it twisted. I believe and support my trans friends. I don’t accept “transracialism” though. Hard limit.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      Not a comment or judgement, just struck me as interesting How the two threads were similar. esp the body swap comments.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Which is why it is an important conversation to have and consider. For all the heat Dolezal took, she totally had a legitimate (if poorly stated) point.

      I think Tim’s usage of the phrase “hard limit” is a good one. But it sort of calls attention to the fact that it’s YOUR limit. You chose it. The interesting thing about transgenderism is that when you really boil it down. “Gender” doesn’t exist. It’s entirely a social construct. “Sex” sort of exists… But it’s a complicated mess of medical and genetic mumbo jumbo that we tend to boil down into a social construct. So transgenderism ends up being, essentially, a psychological disconnect with the hegemonic ally enforced construction of gender.

      Ethnicity and Race work exactly the same way. That is to say that Race (as we commonly see it) is a simplification of a bunch of complicated genetic classifications and Ethnicity is cultural construct we drop on top of it. They don’t “Exist” either in any real sense, other than in the means in which we sort of allow them to.

      So when Tim says that he doesn’t accept transracialism that sort of specifically underscores Brenadine’s point. It is a judgement that he made within his own construction of how race works (well, really it’s his personal construction of the disconnect between race vs. ethnicity… since I’m getting technical here, I should probably work with the real terms instead of the common ones… but I’m trying to not be TOO complex).

      So take my fictional British white girl adopted by Japanese parents. I’ll call her Susan by birth and say she was renamed Suzu by her Tokyo parents. Suzu grows up speaking no English. She knows nothing about british TV or history or politics or culture in any way shape or form. She is a Japanese citizen. She is 100% Japanese in all ways except genetics. Certainly it is problematic to really consider her British… in a sense, it’s accurate… but not really. One could probably argue that she is Japanese but not Asian and Caucasian but not British. But we’re starting to get really weird. That said, we DO actually tend to acknowledge the birth race of adopted children. When white parents in this country adopt kids from ethiopia or korea they tend to still say “my son is black” or “my daughter is asian” so there’s something to it…. but if those kids are raised in an entirely white environment with access to no one else of their birth culture they’re not really black or asian in the same way. In fact, I’d say that I’m probably more black than that kid and Tim is probably more asian than that kid. BUT, Tim and I are both also American. No matter what pride we might have in our ethnicities, the American culture is primary… so in a sense, Suzu is probably way more Japanese than I am ethiopian or he is Korean.

      So why it matters is that it’s just sort of what the world is willing to accept. Honestly, acceptance for transgenderism is a REALLY new (and very tenuous) thing that was fought for for quite a while and certainly isn’t universal. Transracialism on the other hand isn’t there. The response to attempts to achieve it tend to be mired in fears of cultural appropriation. But in reality, in a global socioeconomic sphere, cultural drift will probably make the races disappear before transracialism really matters. It’s just far easier to breed away the distinctions between races (Tim tends to associate with being Asian, but even he is technically biracial) than it is with gender. Transgenderism similarly is harder for society to accept than homosexuality. Somehow bisexuality is harder to accept than homosexuality. Even with the majority of Americans coming around on homosexual marriage, most still draw a “Hard Limit” on polyamory… including most homosexuals… as if to say “my marriage doesn’t devalue yours at all. A marriage can be defined as two people and not a man and woman. But NOT THREE! NEVER THREE! OH MY GOD NO!!!”

      To look at science fiction again here, this is the world presented in Star Trek. Technically (and quite intentionally on Roddenberry’s part) the bridge was very intentionally multicultural, but he was trying to present the idea that the races didn’t matter because everyone’s race (except Spock) was human (and even Spock was biracial). I think that’s where the X-men are trying to go with their multi-race makeup. Claremont put together a team with an American, an African, a Canadian, a German, a Russian, and an Irishman (and a Native American and a Japanese but they were quickly killed/left) so as to show that their mutantness trumped the specifics of the race. It’s an attempt to visualize a post-racial world. I think Psylocke is TRYING to be this too… it just maybe doesn’t work that well… but a lot of that is just because the society at large isn’t there yet.

      Yay!!!! Cultural studies is useful!!!

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 9:35 pm

      Do you think that Lee was really that forward thinking? (I don’t)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      Honestly, No… not at all. Like I said before I think his decision making process went like this “Asian chicks are hotter than white chicks and I’m in charge. Bathing suits are hotter than armor and I’m in charge. Swords rule! Boom!”

      I do think that some of the writers AFTER him were explicitly trying to do that.

      But also, authorial intent never really matters for critical reading. It works both ways. Lee certainly wasn’t TRYING to offend you, but it doesn’t matter what he wanted. So it doesn’t matter whether he was trying to make a post racial statement either… only if it can be read as such. (I mean, think about it.. he’s as much a product of his environment as anyone else. So he doesn’t have to be totally conscious of the ramifications of his work)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 9:42 pm

      (Yeah, like you said: he was a typical 25 year old dude in a particularly bro-y time in mainstream comics).

  4. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Also I’m highly amused by the need to correct “white” to “Caucasian” for Nightcrawler 🙂

  5. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Depends on what you find interesting, prof. For instance, I find Amadeus Cho to be interesting. He inhabits: Substitutes (as the Hulk), Avatars (Archetypal Smartest Guy) and Generic (Anyone can and has been the Hulk).

    Blindside is a pretty interesting new character, he also inhabits Avatars (he’s an undocumented Asian) and Generic (he’s super smart and invented his own invisibility suit).

    Lastly, Silk is a Substitute (one of the Spiderfolk) , Maybe not an avatar and Generic.

    But both characters got their debut in 2015. Take that for what you will as far as what that means.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:25 pm

      so I wouldn’t consider Cho a generic. I’d consider Banner a Generic. The difference is Cho (pre-Hulk) was an asian stereotype and therefore an Avatar (as you said) who transitioned to a Substitute upon becoming the Hulk. At least in the context I am thinking, you can’t be both a Generic and a Substitute. The entire point of a “Generic” is that you DON’T embody the other two types.

      I’m not super familiar with Blindside. Maybe I should read up?

      Silk, I agree with you, she’s totally a substitute. They’ve been doing a lot to make her stand on her own but at essence she was designed to be “another spiderwoman” and therefore a spiderman substitute.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:55 pm

      Blindside is a new character in Daredevil’s book. He’s sort of a Robin figure.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:06 pm

      OH!! Hah… so funny enough I read Daredevil… or rather I buy it. But I’m behind on reading it because I got so busy with stuff…. so i’ve got at least the last 6 issues or so in a stack over there that I’ve yet to read… maybe even 12?

  6. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    For white avatars, maybe members of Alpha Flight? A lot of them are white but clearly meant to represent a specific national or cultural identity. (There are some Soviet/Russian characters too, but a lot of them shade into substitutes, since they are clearly meant to be the “Red Curtain version of such-and-such hero.”)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      I cant tell if Omega Red is a substitute for Wolverine or distinctly Russian and “unique”.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      Shaman was Native American. While appearing caucasian and not acting much differently, Snowbird was an Inuit goddess.(Cultural appropriation), everyone else as white as ‘encriched’ flour

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      Yeah… The original alpha flight characters had a similar structural makeup to the xmen (which I talked about in a comment above)

      Makes sense as John Byrne generated them in the same time period (and title)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 4:12 pm

      Yeah, I wasn’t thinking of Shaman and Snow Bird. More Northstar, Aurora, and Puck. Very stereotypically French-Canadian or Canadian… But definitely white.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:32 pm

      Ah. Ok, I see what you’re saying. But do you think their whiteness was inherent to the story?

      That is to say that do you think the story works if they aren’t white? Like, I consider Black Panther a total avatar. If he’s not African, the story doesn’t work at all. Would Puck have been any different if he had just happened to have been hispanic?

      I kinda wonder. At least with Northstar and Aurora, I vaguely remember that there were distinctive story arcs in the original Alpha Flight run about being Quebec separatists and therefore the French Canadian-ness would certainly matter. I haven’t read those in a long time and I wasn’t a huge Alpha Flight fan back then, so I might be misremembering. Have you read them all? I think Wayne Wise might have been a big fan too.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:34 pm

      Sadly, the run available on Marvel Unlimited is pretty, er, limited. So, no. But do you think the character’s origin has to be plot-relevant to be an avatar? Or is it sufficient that they be, well, stereotypes?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      I think it’s sufficient for them to be stereotypes. I guess in my head what makes them an Avatar is “does the race of the character play specifically an intrinsically into the character/story?”

      So in Black Panther’s case, it certainly is relevant because the whole character is “I’m the African Superhero.” I’d say the same is true of Luke Cage… being black isn’t part of his origin, but his character is very specifically urban and black. A white character in 1972 wouldn’t have worked in that story.

      But then we can look at Falcon. A white character in 1969 could have just as easily fit into the storyline of “Captain America’s new partner” and had exactly that origin. There were elements that marked him as black other than the colorist using brown. He was a social worker and sometimes lectured Cap on life amongst the urban environment of the hood, but his blackness just informed the story. It wasn’t the story. I think Cyborg fits here too (as per other threads here). But the story COULD have worked with other races, including white in a way that Panther or Cage couldn’t.

  7. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    As you know I am not a big comic book reader, so I freely admit I may have missed major plots. But from my exposure to it in comics (not cartoon which I haven’t seen), Cyborg of the Teen Titans has always been pretty generic.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:37 pm

      hmmm… now see that’s an interesting one. I think at essence the character could have been generic. There’s nothing particularly “black” about being a cyborg. But a lot of his storylines have focused on his race, especially back in the era of Titans where he was introduced.

      But I’m torn. It’s not like Luke Cage… a story about a black man… Hero for Hire was “what would a superhero be like if he were black.” It was more “hey, here’s an interesting guy and sometimes since he’s black stuff comes up because that’s what the world is like.”

      In a sense, I’d probably say he IS generic and that is just good writing on Marv Wolfman’s part. (Here’s another one where I call on Wayne since he’s the biggest fan of 1980s Titans in the world).

      So I guess… i *THINK* I agree with you?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      Wohoo! (I guess)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:57 pm

      I think Cyborg, in that original run, probably fits what you’re looking for.

  8. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    I think of Amanda Waller as a generic government antagonist… But I haven’t actually read that much material with her in it.

  9. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Are all the Deathloks black? I wonder if a reverse-substitute might have snuck in there…

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:22 pm

      Deathlok has traditionally been black, he’s often portrayed as part dead, so sometimes his skin is greenish.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Another good one. Deathlok is probably a perfect example of a black Generic. Well, you know, except for the part where as Tim points out he’s more dead than anything else.

  10. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Armor (Marvel Comics) is pretty darn generic. Occasionally some artists will give a samurai style to her armor, but it is usually pretty darn bland and just looks like a blob / space suit. Surprisingly, given how late she was developed in the comic book cycle, she isn’t a Substitute either.

  11. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Dr. Fate is the most obvious white Avatar to come to mind.

  12. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Here’s a tricky one. Is Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman a Substitute or a Generic or an Avatar? I can see the argument for Catwoman being an Avatar, but based on that argument Batman should be an Avatar, too (and we are saying he is a Generic).

    So that leaves Generic or Substitute. If I understand how the TV series worked, she was simply recast as a different actress, not changed to a different character. Based on that, she is the “original” Catwoman, which argues for Generic.

    Honestly, I just don’t know.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Substitute, right? The original is from the 1940s and is white?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:44 pm

      Except that isn’t how he is defining Substitute. He is defining it as a new hero / villain that is replacing / sharing time with an original white hero / villain. Eartha Kitt was just a casting choice (after the original casting choice, Julie Newmar, was no longer available). The character was never replaced.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      Okay, I can see that… though I could also argue that since Batman 66 is out of continuity with the comics they are inherently different characters.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      Hmmm…. So I was thinking of comics and not really the other media but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

      I’d actually think of her as Generic. In my mind Substitute is “Jim Rhodes replaces the white guy as Iron Man” but in Eartha Kitt’s case she was the same Selina Kyle as Julie Newmar and just no one noticed that she was black now. So, since Newmar, Kitt and Lee Meriweather are the exact same character regardless of race, that’s almost my perfect definition of Generic (except that they aren’t comics).

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:56 pm

      I’m convinced she’s not a Substitute. I forgot she wasn’t the first TV Catwoman.

  13. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    Oh, back in the white avatars: what about Gambit? He’s ridiculously Cajun. But, you know, he’s another of Claremont’s…

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      yep. So I think what we’re basically seeing is that Claremont was going out of his way to include Avatars in Xmen (for the reasons I said earlier)

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:59 pm

      I’m surprised there’s not a Marvel Superheroes RPG character sheet generator that lets you roll dice to assign Claremont-esque “ethnic/cultural quirk.”

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      Dude!!! Now I want to play MSHRPG and add that!

  14. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I was about to suggest Static until I realized that he is the Substitute of an Avatar.

  15. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Here is an interesting set: Fire and Ice from DC.

    Ice is a white Avatar. Fire is seemingly a POC Generic, but due to her partnership with Ice, I think she becomes an Avatar.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:55 pm

      See, I’d say they’re both Avatars…. Fire is so stereotypically Brazillain that it becomes a joke.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 5:58 pm

      I was focusing more on the powers and I didn’t think that fire powers were specifically Brazilian. But based on the fact that both Magma and Sunspot are Brazilian, maybe I should reconsider that assumption.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      Oh no… I’m not just talking about the powers. I’m far more interested in the characterization.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      “Serving awesome meats skewered on a sword” is of course the most traditional Brazilian super power.

  16. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    While he is a substitute the 3rd blue beetle is a great character. Not only a completely different version of the hero. His entire support structure is new not just implanted into the existing group

  17. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Rocket Racer. I think he is a black Generic. His identity seems to be entirely built around tinkering and “skating”, which while that makes him something of a teenager Avatar, doesn’t make him a black Avatar.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      so that’s a weird one. Read with 2016 eyes… sure, you’re right.

      Read with 1977 eyes, roller skating was totally a stereotypical black activity. Not that white people COULDN’T skate. But it was a stereotype that black people did.

      As another example Tootie on the Facts of Life wore roller skates in every scene of the first season and then they eliminated that aspect of the character because people found it kind of racist.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:13 pm

      Night Thrasher would fit into the ‘black skateboarder’ subclass as well.

  18. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Do you use the Substitute tag when the new character is of the same race as the original? (E.g., the umpteen Robins…). DC in particular seems to “pass the mantle” of a character fairly frequently…

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Oh, I certainly would. I just didn’t focus on it.

      I think it’s even more obvious with female characters who are WAY often Substitutes. Supergirl. Hawk Girl. Carol Danvers (twice, both as Ms Marvel and now as Captain Marvel).

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:26 pm

      So the follow-up: because Substitute is one of your “categories of character that can have race” — do you think that ultimately, with enough general race-independent Substitution, it will stop being significant? (So we would stop saying “well, he’s just the black Captain America” even if he’s a version of Captain America and he’s black.). And if that’s a possibility, are we close to it or far away?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 10:54 pm

      Soft yes… but with lots of caveats that effectively make it a no.

      So, if we had a world where a character name is truly independent of the ethnicity under the mask then fine… I don’t really think of John Stewart as “the black green lantern” anymore. There was a time where I certainly did. But Green Lantern isn’t a character anymore. They’ve successfully turned it into a job. If I want to refer to Hal Jordan specifically I say Hal Jordan because Green Lantern isn’t specific enough. Neither is Guy Gardner or Simon Baz.

      That doesn’t work right now for Captain America. No matter what any of his fans might say, Sam Wilson is “the black Captain America” and if I don’t specify, the assumption will always be that “Cap” or “Captain America” means Steve Rogers. “Spider-man” means Peter Parker because if I meant Miles Morales, I would have said so.

      So, as you might recall, my specific problem with Sam Wilson as Captain America is that he basically “graduated” to being Substitute Cap implying that his Generic identity as Falcon was never really on par with Cap. It necessary lessens the previous legacy of the character under his own name.

      It bothered me far less having, say the New 52 Wally West just being a black guy (which was just pseudo-undone in the most hilarious and yet oddly awesome way). Miles Morales also bothers me less because he was a new character and had no legacy to compromise.

      That said, I don’t really think substitution is the answer. Substitution necessarily starts the new character out as a conceptual lesser version of the original. It’s certainly POSSIBLE to surpass it, but that becomes the struggle. Far more progress would come by organically having more generic characters that were naturally on equal terms to the white generics. But this is hard because in the current state of the industry it’s really hard to create new characters inside of the Big Two. That’s why I think you see more serious treatment of the issues in the creator owned properties.

  19. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    Before I make some suggestions, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to be intentionally obscure. I’ve switched to pretty much only reading downloadable comics and only buying downloadable comics that I can get without DRM. So that rules out both Marvel and DC, so I’ve been reading a lot of other stuff. I’m not trying to pull an indier-than-thou kind of thing. It’s just what I’ve been reading recently.

    So, I tend to think of Archer of Archer & Armstrong as being a white Avatar. He seems specifically representative of white, Christian America. Similarly, in The Boys I would definitely say that The Homelander is a white Avatar. He’s the uber-patriotic blond-haired, blue-eyed American hero. He represents the smarmy, self-assured privilege of white Americans.

    The X-O Manowar reboot is really interesting because the main character is white, but highly tied to his ethnic identity, which is Visigoth. I would put him more on the Avatar side than the Generic side, but he’s somewhere on that continuum.

    Toyo Harada from Harbringer strikes me as an Asian generic. He is specifically described as Japanese, but his race never really comes into anything at all.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:32 pm

      “I am even dustier, dustier than thou!” https://frinkiac.com/gif/S09E13/642958/646795/

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:34 pm

      Oh, I wouldn’t think you were being intentionally obscure.

      I do think i becomes a little easier once you reach outside of the big two. A couple of reasons for this, I expect. One is creator owned aspect. The other is that they’re not limited by 50-80 years of continuity hamstringing them in the same way. Being inside of the DC shared universe gives a lot of advantages… but it also means that you’re sort of forced to adopt some cultural aspects based on 1938 views with your 2016 stories.

  20. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Captain Britain as a white avatar? Only really interesting as an example of his country. I don’t know if they’ve done anything with him in awhile.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      that’s leads to an interesting question. I’m not sure. So nationality is certainly important to the character, but I don’t know if race is. The same thing would be true of Captain America. Nationality obviously matters in both cases, and the character was created as white because the default assumption is that Americans/Brits are white. But there are non-white Brits and Americans.

      So certainly an avatar of nationality, and perhaps an avatar of race in that it points explicitly to the cultural assumptions being worked with in the character… i.e., white == normal.

  21. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    There are actually a surprising number of Polynesian characters, both in Marvel and DC, although most of them are villains/antagonists. Just for a few examples:

    DC’s King Shark (retconned as a metahuman in the Arrowverse) was established as a Polynesian named Nanaue, son of the god of sharks — and Marvel’s Kiwi Black, a mutant of the Neyaphem, is a Maori.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      i wasn’t seriously saying there are absolutely none. I was saying (in my joking way) that there is a lack of them. I also said I could count middle eastern heroes on one finger and that’s also not true. There are at least two, Kamala Khan and Simon Baz starring in pretty well selling books… both as Substitutes for white characters.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 7:13 pm

      I understood the hyperbole — and you are right, there is a dearth of Polynesian characters. But even so, I (with my far less encyclopedic knowledge of comics, compared to yours) could, at least, come up with some examples. So it’s not like they are completely out of the picture.

      What bothers me more is the way that non-Western characters (for lack of a better term — meaning characters not from the USA or Europe) tend to be caricaturish:

      African (not African-American) characters are often clad in “primitive” clothes, as if they were still aborigines — even when they have backstories that place them as modern people. Japanese characters always default to kimonos or ō-yoroi armour. Et cetera. These are deeply racist tropes, straight out of the 19th century.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 11:03 pm

      Oh, yeah…. that is certainly a thing with Avatar characters and the more foreign to Westernism the more likely it seems they are to adopt traditional garb.

      There’s a chapter on it in this book: http://amzn.to/28PgxSw that I reviewed recently. I think there are some cultural positives to it, but there’s also a lot of… well… stereotyping there.

      Sort of like, “All asians know karate”

  22. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    So Dmitri Schoeman remains immune to my blog comment syncing program. And since there was a really interesting conversation about both Superman and Static and the Milestone characters, I need to put an additional comment here linking back to the thread so I can find it on my blog later: https://www.facebook.com/chrismaverick/posts/10154362373796654?comment_id=10154362469601654&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R%22%7D

  23. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    You probably haven’t read much of Astro City, but I’d look at Jack In The Box. Issues 35 and 36 of the current series have a nice two-parter highlighting 3 generations of the character.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      So Astro City falls into the category of creator owned with less history (which i addressed in an earlier comment) and it also is a direct genre deconstruction, so it’s certainly trying to comment on real world issues directly.

      I actually haven’t read all of it. But I am familiar with it. That said, which of my three classifications are you arguing he (well, they) represent?

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 2:32 am

      In-universe, I’d say the first Jack falls under the category of generic. A toy designer discovers that some of his designs are being used to aid criminals, so he decides to put a stop to it, putting together his own suit of tricks. The later Jacks are substitutes. In a meta context, though, he’s a bit of Iron Man, a bit of Spider-Man, and a bit Batman, making him more of a substitute.

  24. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Oh, and what about Spawn? I stopped reading around issue 25, but I think Al Simmons was black, but his new incarnation was white when he wasn’t covered in capes and chains and skulls.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      interesting case and I talked about it in the long response about Psylocke above (the Steve Shaffer thread). Probably a whole (different) paper in there.

  25. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    I gave up on the X-men in the early 90s, but would Bishop be generic?

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:50 pm

      I *think* so… at least certainly originally.

      Some incarnations have written him as far more stereotypically black than others. Which, obviously, is sort of a limitation of my classifications when you look at a continuum of multi-authored texts.

  26. avatar
    June 20, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Curious how you’d classify Frozone from The Incredibles. I know it’s not a comic “book” so maybe not germane, but still.

    • avatar
      June 20, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      I’d say he’s mostly generic. There’s the obvious pun from his name, but that’s more or less incidental… just like the fact that he’s more or less an iceman analogue.

      by the way, it bears mentioning that these aren’t like established classifications or anything. I just made them up as I was thinking through the issues for the purposes of being able to talk intelligently about it in this post.

  27. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 12:58 am

    Ant (Image comics) comes to mind as possibly generic. Little girl with a spray can that turns her into an ant-themed superhero. Could have been any ethnicity.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_(comics)

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 8:23 am

      Yeah, that would work. This goes back to my theory that it’s easier for creator owned properties.

  28. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 2:47 am

    The Thunderbolts’ Jolt was a generic Asian American character. Some electric powers, but not directly linked to anyone else with similar abilities.

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 8:32 am

      That I would probably qualify as a substitute… even though it’s theoretically the same character. But now I’m wondering… earlier, in response to Michael Higgins, I said Eartha Kitt wasn’t a substitute… but somehow this feels like it is…

      So now I’m not sure… where do reboots fit in?

  29. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Marvel’s Irish characters, Banshee, Siryn, Black Tom, and Shamrock, are all pretty Avatarish in the ways they represent Irish history and culture. Of course, that makes some sense considering the racialized history of Irishness.

  30. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 7:24 am

    I think that Karima Shapander/Omega Sentinel from X-Men could count as generic.

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

      At least in the way I was using the terms you can’t really be both generic and a replacement. He’s essentially a substitute, I’d say.

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 8:29 am

      He’s kind of like Sam Wilson though, where he was his own character who became a substitute. But he wasn’t originally an avatar either, at least, not in my interpretation.

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 8:35 am

      ah. Ok, I see what you’re saying. I don’t read invincible, so I’ll take your word for it. Judging purely on the image you linked to I was seeing him as a pure substitute, since basically he looks like Invincible, but black…. but obviously I don’t know hat came before it.

  31. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 9:11 am

    I may have missed it in previous comments:
    can other media (movies and tv) make the determination in classification for you, a la Johnny Storm?

    • avatar
      June 21, 2016 at 9:32 am

      So we discussed that a bit under Michael Higgins and Michael Strauss’s conversation about Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman. I’m somewhat torn. In Kitt’s case specifically I thought of it as simply generic. Selina Kyle goes from being white (Julie Newmar) to black (Kitt) and the narrative proceeds as though nothing happened. It’s the same character and her change in skin tone might as well be a different haircut. There’s also no acknowledgement when she goes back t being white (Lee Meriwether). So I called that generic.

      On the other hand, when DC comics rebooted to be the new 52, Wally West explicitly went from being a white man to a black man. That felt more like a substitution, but not quite. It’s sense been retconned to them being two different people, so it’s totally a substitution, but there are other examples like this… In the rebooted continuity Alan Scott is gay. In the rebooted squadron supreme continuity whizzer went from being a white man to a black man.

      So if we move to other media then yeah, you have Fant4stic’s Johnny Storm, as well as the tv versions of Wally and Iris West on Flash. You also have Jeri Hogarth on Jessica Jones (who changed gender) and apparently the Ancient One in Doc Strange changing both gender and race.

      I’m not sure what to do with those. When I look at them altogether they feel more like substitutions than generics. But that feels a little off too. Reboots might be a different issue altogether? I’m not sure.

  32. avatar
    June 21, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Mav, I recommend you take a look at Thom’s play True Believers at some point as well, as it has some really cool takes on comic book culture: http://www.thomdunn.info/true-believers/

  33. avatar
    June 23, 2016 at 7:25 am

    For those who didn’t see it, I made a follow up post to this here: http://www.chrismaverick.com/wp/2016/06/22/superheroes-of-colors-addendum/

  34. avatar
    June 25, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    More notes to myself that other people might be interested in because it vaguely relates to this topic.

    So I’m currently reading a collection of essays called The Blacker The Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art which you can find at http://amzn.to/28UjqDO.

    In Chapter 9, Blair Davis is doing a semiotic analysis of the visuals inherent in the design of Black Superheroes. A few things of note in regard to this post. First he chooses for analysis: Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Storm, Vixen and Cyborg because:

    —–

    “This examination centers in particular around black characters that were created as “original” superheroes, rather than characters that were created to serve as replacement versions of preexisting white heroes. Examples of the latter include John Stewart, who was initially a substitute for the Green Lantern, and Jason Rusch, who became Firestorm after the death of the previous incarnation, Ronald Raymond. 1 DC often refers to such replacements as “legacy characters,” whereby the originals give way to newer and often younger versions of the same character; these replacements are often short-lived, however, and the pattern of original characters returning to glory after a period of absence has become a well-entrenched one in modern comics.” (Loc. 4205-4211).

    —–

    Second, he has an interesting analysis of the depiction of negro hair as a marker of blackness, first dealing with Cage’s use of the tiara in concert with it and then talking about Black Lightning’s famous “Afro wig”:

    —–

    “Even though they are simply lines drawn on paper, we still recognize Luke Cage and Jefferson Pierce as black men, since the sum of these lines clearly conveys their ethnicity. In Black Lightning’s case, his Afro is a distinct signifier of his ethnicity, albeit one chosen for the purposes of disguise. For those readers unaware of the fact that this Afro is part of a removable mask, however, his hair style would appear to be a natural one, until such time as he is seen removing it. Given the relative lack of realism found in comic book art, the reader is therefore unable to discern that Black Lightning is wearing a wig (unlike in film and television, where astute viewers might be able to recognize the wig for what it is, given that many use synthetic hair, are poorly constructed, etc.). A comic book wig, on the other hand, will largely appear indistinguishable from real hair precisely because we are not seeing real hair but rather an iconic hand-drawn representation of human hair, one that need only give the impression of being hair rather than re-create it in completely authentic detail.

    As such, when Black Lightning removes his mask and wig, the hair that he sheds appears virtually identical to the hair that is revealed to be underneath, given that it is typically drawn in the same way; the hairstyles themselves may be different (Afro versus shorter cut), but the actual hair itself appears identical given that relatively few lines are required to draw it. On a visual level, Black Lightning’s Afro therefore appears to be a sort of second skin; it is ultimately artificial in nature but attains a certain naturalness in the way that it is depicted given how the comic book medium encodes reality through images that are composed of degrees of abstraction. Connected to the mask as the Afro is, it consequently appears somewhat similar to a severed or scalped head upon removal— an image that unwittingly becomes more unnerving given how individual panels of the 1970s series often seem to show Pierce holding it aloft like a kind of trophy, deliberately showing it to the reader in order to clearly demonstrate the very nature of the disguise itself.” (Loc. 4311-4330).

    —–

    (continued)

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      And then follows up to criticize the cutting of Storm’s hair (which necessitates the removal of her signature headdress) as a removal of her African identity:

      —–

      “Storm (whose real name is Ororo Iqadi Munroe) has gone through many different changes in costume and hairstyle throughout her history. Her first appearance finds her initially portrayed not as a superhero, however, but as a kind of deity. Her debut in 1975 sees her living as a self-proclaimed goddess in Kenya, using her power of weather control to aid the drought-induced suffering of the local villagers, whom she repeatedly refers to as “my children.” She stands before a large stone portal atop a hillside as the locals cry, “Ororo, great goddess of the storm . . . come ease us of our burden!” (Giant Size X-Men #1 [Summer 1975]: 7). She wears only a skirt and a headdress, and her long white hair covers her breasts— her seminude body is in keeping with those of the villagers who pray before her. An apparent part of her culture, such nudity therefore becomes naturalized within the context of the scene, with only her headdress setting her apart from the others.

      In this way, the headdress becomes a focal point, a symbol of her role as a religious figure in this community, becoming imbued with ceremonial power. As an American superhero using powers that were initially honed in Africa through religious ritual and at the behest of humbled villagers, Storm’s initial displays of such power while in battle therefore take on this religious context since she is using abilities typically meant to aid her flock of worshippers. Her headdress therefore serves as the only connection between her role as goddess and her new role as superhero— which requires a costume to cover the nudity that was permissible in her former cultural context. Yet rather than embrace this new role and look, Storm was often portrayed in the 1970s as feeling more comfortable in her Kenyan attire. “Gods, this feels marvelous!” she says as she strips her costume off entirely, her long hair once again covering her breasts and midsection. “We X-men have been fighting so hard, for so long . . . I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to relax.” Later, as the team swims and sunbathes, a bikini-clad Ororo comments on Western traditions concerning beach attire. “The sun feels so good, it reminds me of home. Gods, I wish I didn’t have to wear these absurd scraps of cloth . . . it is only for the Professor’s sake that I endure this land’s strange taboos” (Uncanny X-Men #109 [February 1977]: 3, 13).

      As such, Storm becomes an ethnic fish out of water, whose comments on the strangeness of American clothing customs undoubtedly serve to make the nudity and tribal attire from her life in Kenya appear themselves unusual and questionable to many readers in turn. In any case, it is clear that Storm does not feel that her costume reflects her true identity; rather, it is only a trapping that she endures in order to fulfill her role on the team. It is not surprising, then, that she underwent a kind of visual identity crisis in the 1980s, with her initial costume and hairstyle eventually replaced by a leather punk outfit and Mohawk hairdo. The headdress that had served as her only visual link to the past and her African culture was now gone, a relic of her former self; the Mohawk literally does not provide enough hair to support such a headpiece, just as there is apparently no room for African cultural identity within this punk wardrobe. X-Men artist Paul Smith recently admitted that Storm’s punk look was “a bad joke gone too far”: “I knew that they were going to cut the hair, so as a joke I put a Mr. T mohawk on her. . . . But once you get into the whole leather and stud thing it was a bad joke that got way out of hand” (Marvel Spotlight: Uncanny X-Men 500Issues Celebration, June 2008, 20).

      In other words, this new redesign did not reflect Storm’s true character or her cultural heritage, which is why it seemed so absurd and was abandoned before long. In recent years, Storm has been returned to Africa through her marriage to T’Challa, a character who goes by the moniker Black Panther and is king of the fictional African nation Wakanda. In her new role as an African queen, Storm has been returned to her initial elevated status in her homeland, only this time as royalty rather than as a goddess. Her character design reflects this change, as she now often wears luxurious dresses and other such garments befitting an African queen rather than always wearing her superhero costume. She now also regularly wears her original headpiece again, a symbol of the fact that modern creators have returned the character to her cultural roots, whereby her identity is constructed through ethnic pride rather than by way of her flagrant otherness in American society.” (Loc. 4369-4402).

      —–

      The Storm one I find particularly interesting. A lot of comic fans seem to prefer mohawk Storm under the theory that in doing so she presents an alternate vision of femininity not necessarily designed as performance for the male gaze (I’d argue that it is just as much a gendered performance given its specific construction to match a certain look of the 80s punk aesthetic in which it appeared, but whatever). It’s interesting that Blair reads it (and her more comparatively more conservative clothing choices) as a specific an erasure of the black identity that she was conceived with.

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      I’m not sure I’d say “black identity” in that last sentence. I’d more say “Kenyan identity” or “African identity”. It seems to me like they switched from writing her as a black African to a black American at a certain point. Blair isn’t explicitly saying that, but seems like he’s more talking about her more specific ethnic situation rather than her blackness.

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      And then I’d also like to tell a short anecdote about black hair and comic books since it feels on topic and I like to tell anecdotes. When I was in high school I became a huge fan of Milestone Media. They totally blew me away. I loved their books and bought all of them. My friend Owen Troy found out that Denys Cowen from Milestone was going to be giving a talk at Chapel Hill about race in comics. It was sponsored by their comic book club, but was open to anyone, so Me, Owen, and my brother Brian went to go see it. It was a neat lecture full of good information about the history of race and comic books. (For example, it was how I learned that the 1942 Our Gang comic book series which was based on the Our Gang/Little Rascals films written by Walt Kelly of Pogo fame, was one of the very first comics to feature black and white characters regularly interacting together as equals.)

      But he was also promoting Milestone at the time, so he had a big stack of Hardware #1 to give out to anyone who wanted them. Now Hardware was at least six issues in at the time, so I’d had #1 for a while. But I asked if I could grab some to try to spread the word and he told me to take as many as I wanted, so I grabbed about a half dozen to try (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to convert other people to Milestone fans. I gave one to my friend, Ayana, who is black. She gave it a look and flipping through she said, “Wow. They have real hair. I’ve never seen a comic where black people have real hair before.”

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      so this is another one where I basically just excerpted a couple things from a much longer article.

      so in one sense, yes, specifically the longer hair (well, really the nudity and headdress, since Storm’s hair was never particularly negro-esque) was more a marker of specifically African-identity rather than just general blackness.

      But it wasn’t just Storm. Blair actually talks a bunch about the portrayal of hair and its marker as a symbolic of blackness. Specifically the usage of hair with both Black Lightning and Cage (which is why I excerpted them too) and their trademark afros which later become shaved heads in their modern incarnations.

  35. avatar
    June 25, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Runaways has some interesting play on characters whose parentage made them seem totally prone to be Avatars but then they defiantly are generics.

    • avatar
      June 25, 2016 at 9:30 pm

      I would probably not count them as avatars in the way that I mean. They’re not really replacements in that their parents aren’t established characters. They are part of the construction of the characters’ origins.

      So for instance, Superman technically has the same powers as Jor-El or any other Kryptoniain. But I wouldn’t consider Superman to be a substitute because Jor-El only exists in as much as he is a part of the Superman story as a whole.

      Supergirl on the other hand is entirely a Superman substitute because she exists as an extension of a predefined character.

  36. avatar
    June 25, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    it depends on perspective. So in the microcosm of Milestone, I think Keith and Owen certainly have points. And in fact, the way Owen stated it is probably a very good way of putting it “a universe where black Generics were the norm.”

    However, in reality we can’t just look at it as a microcosm. Even in the era where Milestone was being published as its own imprint, the reader (and the creators) would certainly be aware of the state of the industry they were embedded in.

    So could the stories be told without the element of race. Yes. and in fact, Icon for instance, has been. We call that story Superman. The entire point of Icon is to view the mythos of Superman through the lens of race. What would have happened if Superman would have been raised as a black slave? He’d be Icon. So in the microcosm Milestone, he’s a Generic, but viewed in the larger cultural context he’s a Substitute being used as an Avatar.

    The reason the distinction matters is what Keith sort of gets to in the second half of his comment. “White characters get to be generics more easily because we tend to think of white as the default race or even as a non-race.”

    Not exactly. White people tend to think of white as a default because… well, they’re white. Since the comic book industry (and Western culture in general) has been controlled by whites, for so long, it gets encoded that way even amongst minorities. This creates a disconnect. Minorities tend to see white as the default and then see themselves as Othered outside of it in the same way as whites see them because the culture imposes itself that way. That’s called cultural hegemony. The dominant culture writes the narrative by which the subcultures must construct themselves.

    Because of this, the construction of blackness that comics tend to present is built within that framework. Race is typically depicted through the lens with which the dominant race sees it. So white becomes the default and Others become a depiction of the ways in which that race is seen as deviant from the default.

    As an example, Luke Cage was never really “black” in the 70s. He was created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr. So he was a white man’s idea of wha blackness looked like. A lot of people argue that this is bad… with all underclasses… people say we need to have black characters written by african americans, japanese by asians, women by females, queers by LBGTs, etc. I’m not there, personally. I fall on the side of cultural studies the believes that the whole point of literature is examination and experimentation. The point of studying literature is to get a snapshot of HOW the culture was constructed at the moment in which the artifact was published.

    I’ve got this current little crusade going where I feel like EVERYONE should read Tarzan. It should be canonized. Nobody actually reads Tarzan because we just feel like we know the story. Also… it’s not really very good. But we don’t know the story. The Tarzan story we know is based on the 1932 film, not the 1914 novel. Massive liberties were taken. The original book i s HELLA FUCKING RACIST! Like SOOOOOOO RACIST!!!! Amazingly racist!!!! I think everyone should read Tarzan specifically because it’s racist. Tarzan is at its heart an analysis of the state of early modern colonialism and the growing white fear of black post slavery agency. It also deals very heavily with fear of modernism and women’s liberation through industrialization. it is an attempt to establish the natural genetic superiority of the white man over Othered forces that may threaten him. It’s AMAZING. It makes a wonderful statement on Burroughs’s observation of early modern race relations through the allegory of apes as Others. And in it, the actual human black is constructed not only as savage, but in many ways inferior to the ape. It’s kind of awesome once you get past how incredibly offensive it is.

    Obviously Cage was never THAT offensive. However, if you read early Hero for Hire, it’s not only dated by today’s standards, but it presents a construction of black masculinity that was never real. It was Goodwin’s idea of what a progressive contemporary black masculinity looked like. Luke Cage was the idea of a 20something black man in the mind of a 45 year old white man.

    So black characters beyond Cage, whether written by blacks, whites or anyone else, are typically constructed within that cultural context. They are responses to the hegemony in which they exist and therefore are generally all avatars to some extent, particularly for the reason Keith mentioned “If you’re writing black characters for a black audience, you have to acknowledge race and racism because to not do so is automatically going to feel phony.” But the extent to which race is acknowledged and how becomes very variable. A character can certainly be essentially generic except for when race is organically an issue (See the discussion that Wayne Wise and I had about Cyborg earlier).

    But I’d say the Milestone wasn’t that. It was created as a direct response to the hegemonic construction of black characters in mainstream comics. It was owned by black creators writing (originally) all black comics. The very fact that black representation within the Milestone Universe is SO heavily outside of the percentage of what it rightly should be in the US is in itself a racial statement.

    I will agree that the strength of the writing is that it ws much less heavy handed than what was occurring in the mainstream. But I don’t think that makes it non-racially motivated. It just makes it good writing. Basically McDuffie was able to present a more realistic vision of blackness than Goodwin was. The subtlety of it is impressive. If you, as a white man, see Static or Icon as inherently generic rather than avatarish, while a black reader sees it as realistically a avatarish, that is an accomplishment.

    For more on the academic deconstruction of Milestone in specific and black characters in general to a lesser extent i totally recommend Jeffrey A Brown’s book “Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans” http://amzn.to/28VKqiv it’s on my list of things that I’ll be rereading in the near future for this project. But it’s excellent.

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