Searching for Higher Ground: A Reflection On Race In Comics

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One word. Many feelings.

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In modern comics, race is an interesting phenomenon. In the mainstream geek consciousness, where mythologies are built on ideas like the fight for justice and equality and the never-ending battle of good versus evil, it’s strange that in many respects we, the geeks, are at odds with ourselves. Ideals and morals versus the preservation of canon and everything that was seem to be constantly at odds.  Juxtaposed with the constant social anxiety and current spiral this country seems to be in regarding race, there don’t seem to be any clear answers.

I write this after driving through the South for a family vacation — which for a mixed family presents its own set of anxieties. Given the issues regarding the confederate flag, at-will race-shifting and church bombings, my desire to road trip to give the kids a chance to see the country, my country, their country, might have seemed slightly risky. Yet there is always a higher purpose. More on that later…

The major comic book companies are handling the issue of race in the same politically correct and socially sensitive way you’d expect from companies owned by mega multimedia conglomerates would: broadened appeal means broadened profits.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the byproduct of the money grab ultimately results in an attempt to represent a different points of view in a meaningful way. However, the debate continues to rage on.


Both Marvel and DC are in the throes of resetting their respective lines. Race and diversity are at the center of many of the new books being offered both on the page and behind the scenes:

For DC, the creative teams are very diverse from women to Black to gay. New and fresh points of view will help begin to shape the new DC You (a marketing line which screams, “Hey, we see you … all of you!”). Interesting also are the characters stepping up to take the spotlight. The recently launched Midnighter (Orlando and ACO) puts the titular gay anti-hero in a new spotlight. We Are Robin (Bermejo, Haynes and Randolph) showcases a unique cast and mashes up the concept of “boy” wonder with team. Cyborg, a character with sentimental appeal for me, launches soon with a “star” in Vic Stone who deserves a true shot as a solo standout.

RELATED: Cyborg #1 Review

Clearly, there are many more. In addition to the diversification of the supporting casts of multiple books (Earth 2, Flash, Batgirl, Teen Titans etc.) the message of the new DC is less about shock and awe like New 52 was, but new faces and a socially aware direction.

The All New, All Different Marvel is upping the ante in their post-Secret Wars line by widening the appeal of core concepts and establishing franchises, in addition to a multi-racial and multi-gender approach. As evidence, there are 11 female-led books(!), and at least seven books where the lead character is non-Caucasian.

Some potential highlights: Miles Morales takes his place among the big boys as he is firmly established as part of the Marvel Universe. His appeal and ultimate (no pun) survival is a testament to the strength of the character. Ms. Marvel has quickly become another character who stands out not because of her race, but because how well the character captures the awkwardness of the teenage years and having superpowers.  Sam Wilson’s run as Captain America continues, as it appears the goal is to break him out of the long shadow of Steve Rogers. This book has the potential to be a critical book for Marvel’s line if the goal is to cement Sam in the mantle of Cap and give him confidence as the bearer of the flagged shield.

Ultimates is another book I find intriguing. Al Ewing’s run on Captain America and the Mighty Avengers was uneven and hindered by crossover madness, which didn’t really allow the book to flourish. Ultimates could rectify this with an incredible cast and potentially fantastic visuals (Rocafort) to go along with Ewing’s ability to build strong characters. The book needs to have a clear voice that separates it from the dismissive ambivalence of being referred to as the “Black Avengers.” They can be so much more.

Just having a Black face wasn’t enough then and certainly isn’t now.

Perhaps that is the point. Black fans, Hispanic fans and Asian fans have the same hopes that white comic fans have: that artists and writers will give them great books to enjoy. Multiracial fans have the added desire of seeing faces that properly represent them. I’m in the midst of reconnecting with the Bronze Age (1970-1985), and in many of those books, Marvel and DC were in the early stages of trying to represent Black faces. Power Man, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Mal Duncan, Bumblebee, Storm, Blade, Vic Stone, Monica Rambeau, Vixen and John Stewart are characters that have endured, although they didn’t always do a great job of representing the Black voice. Whether it’s Luke Cage screaming, “Sweet Christmas!” or the generally exploitative feel of some of the adventures, or hell, putting ‘Black’ in front of the character’s name, just having a Black face wasn’t enough then and certainly isn’t now.

Comics are an outlet like any other medium. It is imperative that this form of media entertain, inform and inspire. Heroes (and villains, for that matter) should come in all shapes and sizes and have relatable experiences and motivations the the reader can connect with in a deeper way. Otherwise, it’s just fluff. Mindless entertainment certainly has its place, but it shouldn’t be everything we see. For every Jackass or Real Housewives there has to be a Wire or Breaking Bad. Comics are no different.

Next: Relevance and the Return of Milestone