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Do Superheroes Reflect Society?

Superman Black Panther Do Superheroes Reflect Society?

By Rob Schmidt

Rap and hip-hop music dominates the charts. Stores and schools honor Black Awareness Month and Cinco de Mayo. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Ricky Martin are some of our biggest popular icons.

Cultural diversity is big business these days. Companies are raking in the bucks by catering to America's many constituencies. Meanwhile, revenue from comic books has plunged from $850 million in 1993 to $275 million at the end of the century. Is there a connection?

Comics used to be as white as the driven snow. Now they reflect the proverbial rainbow. But how multicultural are today's mainstream comics, really? A quick survey shows how much they have—and haven't—changed.

Interracial Love

Many improvements are glaringly obvious. In SUPERMAN, Lucy Lane has a black lover; in BATMAN, Bruce Wayne has a black financial advisor. African Americans like G.W. Bridge and Amanda Waller run government organizations. The X-Men remain comicdom's most diverse team, with heroes from around the world.

And yet...when asked to name the most significant minority characters in comics, whom do we immediately think of? On the Marvel side, Luke Cage and Shang-Chi. On the DC side, Black Lightning and the Milestone heroes. Few minority characters star in their own comics.

Even the X-Men provide more of a mixed message than one might think. The revamped '70s team—Cyclops, Phoenix, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Banshee—included seven of seven characters from a European tradition. (Despite Ororo's generic goddess beliefs, she's an American citizen with an exotic, non-African look.) Truly different characters like the Puerto Rican Cecilia Reyes and the South African Maggott can't break into the lineup.

Where are all the superheroes with multicultural perspectives? John "Green Lantern" Stewart and Victor "Cyborg" Stone used to be angry at life; now they're indistinguishable from other characters. The only Latino characters are minor, like Vibe or the Living Lightning; one has to go back to the late, lamented EL DIABLO series to find well-realized Hispanics. Asian heroes are plain-vanilla Americans with no cultural identity, like Jubilee and Jolt, or Kung-Fu/ninja/samurai cliches, like Sunfire and Katana.

Consider the work of Kurt Busiek, a popular mainstream writer. In his AVENGERS, the black hero Triathlon has expressed dissatisfaction with the all-white team. In his THUNDERBOLTS, Songbird has to deal with her lover Mach-1 in a new black body. These are analogous to real-world problems people face all the time. Yet they're notable because they've appeared only now, decades after the civil rights movement.

On the world stage, more characters seem to come from fictional countries (Latveria, Wakanda, Markovia, any place beginning with San or Santa) or imaginary lost cities (Atlantis, Attilan, Themiscyra) than from real non-Western cultures. The whole idea of inventing countries—almost always in Eastern Europe, Africa, or Latin America—shows an American mindset. These countries provide a veneer of "strangeness" to stories, but have no messy reality for us to contend with. No Somalian, Rwandan, or Bosnian complications here.

Present...with Stereotypes

Indigenous characters provide a good example of the progress and the problem. They live among us, yet come from non-Western traditions. What can they tell us about the trend in comics?

Again the record is mixed. In recent decades we've seen comics like Roy Thomas's ARAK, Tim Truman's SCOUT, and mini-series like GHOSTDANCING and MUKTUK WOLFSBREATH. Marvel especially has created strong Native superheroes: Thunderbird, Proudstar, Moonstar, Forge, Red Wolf, Shaman, Talisman.

But these heroes tend to come from a few overused warrior traditions: Cheyenne, Apache, Lakota. They're not that much different from Turok, the prototypical—and stereotypical—Indian brave. They rarely if ever express Native beliefs, visit their families or reservations, or attend ceremonies or powwows.

No one expects all Native characters to think or act alike, but these characters form a pattern. They're two-dimensional tokens who occasionally utter cliches about ancestors or spirits or honor. Like Pocahontas in the Disney movie or the Mesoamericans in DreamWorks's "The Road to El Dorado," they're the white man's concept of indigenous people.

America's minorities even have names for such superficial characters. In black cultures, they're Oreos; in Asian cultures, bananas; in Native cultures, apples. The common element is colored on the outside, white on the inside.

Similarly, one looks in vain for strong Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Buddhist characters. Or for any characters with marked religious or political beliefs. Except for Captain America, mainstream heroes routinely avoid sociopolitical issues that might provoke controversy. Despite their millions of appearances, you'd be hard-pressed to identify Clark Kent's or Peter Parker's political or religious affiliations.

So the answer to the title question, do superheroes reflect society, is yes and no. Yes, because they reflect our WASP-dominated, violence- and sex-oriented mainstream culture. No, because they don't reflect the diversity of cultural viewpoints obscured by our media's single-minded messages. We can do better.

Rob Schmidt publishes PEACE PARTY, a multicultural comic book featuring Native Americans.

Related links
Culture and Comics Need Multicultural Perspective 2000
Some thoughts on minority comics
Why Spawn isn't black

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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