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Who Gets To Be A Superhero? Race And Identity In Comics

As part of Orion Martin's project, <em>X-Men of Color</em>, he reimagined this famous <em>X-Men</em> cover by recoloring two characters as brown. This cover comes from a storyline in which mutants are being rounded up and exterminated by the government.
Orion Martin
As part of Orion Martin's project, X-Men of Color, he reimagined this famous X-Men cover by recoloring two characters as brown. This cover comes from a storyline in which mutants are being rounded up and exterminated by the government.

The X-Men comic franchise has proven remarkably sturdy in the half-century since its launch. They've spawned dozens of animated series and four major Hollywood films with a fifth due out this summer. A big part of that is due to its central premise — a minority of superpowered humans called mutants are discriminated against by their government and fellow citizens — which has functioned as a sci-fi allegory for everything from the civil rights movement to the AIDS crisis.

"The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants," Chris Claremont, a longtime X-Men writer once said. "So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice."

In many stories, those themes are underlined and circled using language from the real world. The X-Men's leader, Charles Xavier, and Magneto, his nemesis, are on opposite sides of an ideological debate over whether they should try to integrate with humans or not. They're referred to by writers and fans explicitly as analogs to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In the second X-Men movie, a teenager revealed that he was a mutant to his parents in a scene that was framed as a kind of coming out. ("Have you ever tried...not being a mutant?" his mother asks.)

But an artist named Orion Martin noted that the X-Men comics have skirted around the depiction of the people on the receiving end of much real-life discrimination: the main lineup in the X-Men team has been mostly straight, white dudes. Martin nodded to the work of Neil Shyminsky, an academic who's written about the X-Men's complicated relationship with real-life racism:

[He] argues persuasively that playing out civil rights-related struggles with an all-white cast allows the white male audience of the comics to appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples ... "While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality."

So Martin decided to reimagine them, recoloring some famous panels so that the main characters are brown — a gimmick that changes the subtext and stakes for the X-people.

In the new re-imagining, Wolverine, known for "his snarling, predatory aggression" becomes "a stereotype of angry black men." My Code Switch teammate Matt Thompson, who didn't have a much previous knowledge of the Emma Frost character, said the contrasting images of the X-Men heroine as black and as white underscored how hypersexualized her portrayal is.

But the remixing also drew attention to the ways that metaphor doesn't work, and some of the other ways race informs comic characterizations and fandom. So we decided to pick the brains of some serious, thoughtful geeks. If you want to read the full unabridged version of our chat, you can find it here. Otherwise, here's the TL;DR synthesis of the discussion:

Race-Bending And Remixing

A theme that came up repeatedly in our conversations was just how often characters are remixed by fans all the time.

Kendra Pettis, who blogs at the popular race and pop culture site Racialicious, says that she's been "race-bending" comic characters in the fan fiction she used to write and when she cosplays. (Pettis is black.)

The similarities are <em>uncanny</em>. (See what we did there?)
/ America Chavez
America Chavez
The similarities are uncanny. (See what we did there?)

"When I was starting out in role-playing it helped me identify more with the characters I was writing," Pettis sid. "Jean Grey was easier for me to write asZoe Saldanathan asFamke Janssen. And since there weren't exactly an overwhelming amount of P.O.C. characters to play — I played no fewer than six versions of Synch — race-bending gave me more options if I was looking."

On America Chavez's fan tumblr, she posted pictures of the X-Men mainstay Emma Frost opposite Beyoncé to make the pretty irrefutable point that Beyoncé is essentially Emma Frost. (Or maybe that's backwards.)

Who Gets To Be A Superhero

While fans of color are race-bending comics all the time, there's usually an outcry when that reimagining happens in the official canon or when it happens on the big screen.

The influential comics writer John Byrne notoriously railed against casting the multiracial Jessica Alba as the traditionally blonde, blue-eyed Invisible Woman in the Fantastic Four movie:

Personal prejudice: Hispanic and Latino women with blond hair look like hookers to me, no matter how clean or "cute" they are. Somehow those skin tones that look so good with dark, dark hair just don't work for me with lighter shades. Like I said — personal prejudice.

A rumor that Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan might be cast as the Human Torch set many fans' teeth on edge. ("Now is not the time," awriter at the siteComic Book Movie said, arguing that a black Human Torch would "confuse a lot of people.")

"It's the natural result when the industry spends decades prioritizing white male characters — you have white male fans getting twitchy over this sort of casting while accepting white-washing or all-white stories," said Arturo Garcia, the managing editor of Racialicious. (He referenced the novelist Junot Diaz's famous quip that many geeks "will read a book that's one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and [white people] think we're taking over.")

The result is a sense that some demographics in fandom are seen as less authentic and less valuable consumers of geek culture. Paul Dini, one of the architects of DC Comics' wildly successful animated superhero franchises of the last two decades, told Kevin Smith that their recent series, Young Justice, was cancelled not because it didn't have enough viewers, but because too many of those viewers weregirls.

Garcia referenced the novelist Junot Diaz's famous quip that geeks 'will read a book that's one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and [white people] think we're taking over.'

There was a belief among network executives that girls didn't buy as many toys as boys, Dini said. "It's like, 'We don't want the girls because the girls won't buy toys.' ... Boys buy the little spinny tops, they buy the action figures, girls buy princesses, we're not selling princesses.'"

Those calculations about what the audience looks like and should look like almost certainly influence the kind of stories that get told in comics, and which characters get to star in those stories.

"A lot of this has to do with the category of person publishers and filmmakers think of as being familiar [with and] identifying with the characters," Pettis said. "What's the nerd stereotype? The guy who looks like Kevin Smith, or the [brown] girl who's been loyal to the same comic shop for years? There's a worry, subconscious or not, that if white males have no one to identify with that the readership vanishes. No amount of trend-bucking — take Miles Morales, for example — is going to change that."

Minority Themes Can Make Characters Richer

While there are lots of brown superpeople in the fictional universes that these heroes inhabit, they're usually tertiary characters. But their identies open a range of thematic possibilities.

"In the comics, Ra's al Ghul certainly seems shaped by his cultural and ethnic background, but the multifaceted nature of his personality prevents him from being reduced to an easy stereotype," Kanayama said, referring to the Middle Eastern supervillain who has been one of Batman's oldest foes. "He's a father, a leader, a conflicted nemesis/mentor figure, a man who's lived through centuries and seen empires rise and fall."

But Liam Neeson was cast to play him in the blockbuster Batman Begins movie. "All of that could theoretically have been brought out in the movies, and if it had, the studio could have cast a Middle Eastern actor in a role with nuanced, intricate characterization," Kanayama said.

As my Code Switch colleague Matt Thompson noted not long ago, characters of color often bring unintended but fascinating resonances to their stories. He cited George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which came to be seen as subversive critique of 1960s-style American racism:

After Ben — the film's black protagonist, played by Duane Jones — rescues the hapless Barbra from the rampaging horde of zombies, he finds himself trapped on a lot with a group of white folks whose behavior ranges from unhelpful to malevolent. Barbra quickly becomes paralyzed by shock, Tom and Judy get themselves blown up, Karen turns into a zombie and starts munching on folks and then Harry locks Ben out of the house before trying to shoot him. Finally Ben escapes, only to be shot by a white sheriff's deputy. Given the backdrop of 1968, it's hard not to read the movie as a commentary on the trials facing blacks at the time. (Romero has said that the night they finished editing the movie, he heard the news of Martin Luther King's assassination.)

There are ways in which mutants of color complicate the mutant-as-minority metaphor, too. There's a moment in the most recent X-Men movie in which Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender, is making his pitch to a group of young mutants, and he makes a fairly on-the-nose allusion to real-life racial discrimination. Almost all the mutants of color and the mutants who are not otherwise obviously human decide to roll with him. The white kids who looked "normal" teamed with Xavier. It was hard to miss the subtext: the people who can't simply "pass" were going to find it harder to be accepted, and so assimilation was a much harder sell. That's a lot of heavy stuff to cram into a scene featuring people in ridiculous leather outfits who can move things with their minds.

How Central Is Race To Characters' Stories

Martin's project meant to explore the implications of race-bending some of the Marvel Universe. So what, if anything, might that fundamentally change about those characters and their stories? Are there white comic characters for whom whiteness might be so central to their stories that they're impervious to race-bending?

Kanayama thought it would be tough to pull off with the comic world's many billionaires — your Batmans and your Iron Mans — because their old-money wealth and privilege might not neatly map onto characters of color.

"The only way I could imagine [Batman] being a person of color would be to remove the element of the Wayne millions and billions and to cast him as a hyper-intelligent, hyper-diligent guy who'd made his way up the socio-economic ladder by himself," she said. "It could work, but it would certainly suck a lot of the power out of almost anything that happens in Wayne Manor - its significance in his stories doesn't come from the fact that that's where Batman lives, but from his family's and ancestors' histories that come with the manor."

But Arturo Garcia, Racialicious' managing editor, didn't think it would be too big a stretch to conjure up a brown Batman. "Set the story in San Diego and you can easily create a [Batman]-like character who's the scion of a rich Tijuana family, learned English as a child, and went to a nice prep school," he said.

Not All Marginalization Is The Same

Some high-profile storylines in the X-Men universe have underlined just how strained the mutant-as-minority metaphor can be. One recurring theme is the requirement that mutants register with the government. But many fans point out that the government does have a security interest in monitoring citizens who can level city blocks by accident. People of color or LGBTQ folks — whose identities are mined for narrative effect in these stories — hardly pose the same societal threat.

In another storyline, a high-profile mutant named Havok — a white guy with blond hair and blue eyes — gives a speech in which he tells the assembled that he doesn't want to be labeled a "mutant." (He refers to it in the comics as the "M word.") He wants to be seen simply as a person. For many readers,it was an assertion that seemed frustratingly tone-deaf:

Even if "mutant" were a slur beyond reclamation, Havok presents no alternative language. The movement away from the terms "negro" and "colored" to identifiers like "African-American" wasn't about rejecting labels. It was about rejecting the labels forced upon you and choosing your own. But when a reporter asks Havok what he wants to be called, he says, "How about Alex?"

The speech leaves us to believe that Havok doesn't want there to be any word that describes his minority identity. He's not saying that he's not just a mutant, but that "mutant" is not among the things he wants to admit to being.

That's not a message of inclusion. That's a message of assimilation. That's a message of erasure.

The comic-hero-as-social-outcast is a cliché at this point. But it allows readers to feel empathy for the main characters. (Because really: who hasn't felt like an outcast at some point?) After Orion Martin explained his artwork, a commenter named Cole Dawson highlighted the ways the mutant metaphor leaves a lot of be desired.

I think the X-Men actually work best as a metaphor for adolescence, in a lot of ways...

The thing is, children really do face oppression in certain ways, so it's not completely ridiculous to link minority status to adolescent status, or adolescent sub-cultures. However, adolescent sub-cultures often glom on to signifiers of other oppressed groups (minorities, the poor) in ways which are fairly unfortunate. And the X-Men have that problem as well.

This is why those explicit Martin Luther King allusions from X-Men writers come with so much baggage. The experiences of different minority or oppressed groups are not neat metaphors for each other. They may resonate with each other but they can't substitute for each other.

The same phenomenon plays out in real-life. People often compare today's civil rights movements with the black civil rights movement, and while there may be similarities and echoes, there are just as many substantial differences. We can look for patterns without drawing equivalences.

If you've read this far, you may as well go and read our whole conversation. And again, we'd like to thank Arturo Garcia, Kendra Pettis, Kelly Kanayama and Alan Yu for talking with us.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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