Superheroes and their adjacent mythologies form, and have continued to exist within, an increasingly pervasive field of influence since their ideological conception in the late 1930s.
Of those conceived, Superman has unequivocally become the most iconic and widely recognised and is affectionately described in a post by Joey Esposito of IGN, in a celebration of the hero’s birthday as:
‘[T]he hero of heroes; the incorruptible ideal by which we, as the human race, should strive to be. He’s the icon that other superheroes look up to. He’s long since permeated the stories he stars in and has become an instantly recognisable symbol across the globe regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexuality. He’s a reminder that no matter how dire things look, no matter how dark and pessimistic things will get – and they will – there’s always something greater to strive towards. That there’s hope for tomorrow, and that we’re all strong enough to make it happen’.
– Joey Esposito, IGN, 18.4.13
Assuming that the opinions of a senior editor at one of the most widely renowned tech and gaming platforms, IGN, speak loosely to those of his target audience (gamers of all ages and comic book fans centred primarily in North America), it becomes apparent that vast numbers of us understand Superman, or rather, the idea of Superman, as being analogous with power, truth and potentially ‘hope’. Esposito regards the hero as an entity that ‘the human race…should strive to be’ or emulate.
However, this emphatic adoration and admiration of classic superhero mythologies and the ideas and values they represent becomes problematic under a number of circumstances.
Removing one’s self from the often oppressive stream of American political discourse has become a difficult task in our modern digital era, and not-so-subtle elements of political narrative, forever present in all art forms, are now, thankfully, open to reasoning and critique in new ways that had been formerly unavailable to people outside of the established academic or critical framework.
Fortunately; and with the advent of modern attempts to appeal to wider Afro-optimistic audiences, the most notable being the upcoming Black Panther movie from Marvel Studios scheduled for release in 2018, the air, though still repugnant in places, is clear enough that we can discuss the issue of representation in comics more openly.
To preface this, I’d like to quickly assert that if you are thinking that representation in comic books isn’t relevant, important or worth discussing, you’d be wrong. Stories of “superhuman” feats and miracles are as old as religion itself and humanity has always used myths and legends to inspire courage, fear, unity and of course servitude. This discussion can easily become one centred around religion or any other form of mass-storytelling and comics have often been used as tools political commentary and even propaganda, as we will discuss. Furthermore, mythologies help us define ourselves as a society and, of course, vary from culture to culture. That aside, comic books have gripped the hearts, minds and imaginations of children since the 1930’s and, following the release of Iron Man in 2008, dominated the global box office to the tune of over $10.5 billion US for the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) alone according to Nasdaq. While the influence of Hollywood has always been understood globally, the importance of representation, in my opinion, has only recently come to light.
When discussing superheroes, in this case Superman, who I and I’m sure many others would describe as a staunch and seemingly ‘incorruptible’ symbol of republican Americanism, it is important to look closely at what is and isn’t necessarily being said. Primarily, the paragon of justice and liberty is depicted working for and with the American government, on a number of occasions (I am referring in this instance to Superman’s role in the film Batman: The Dark Night Returns by Jay Oliva in which Superman is reduced to a mere soldier by the cartoon personification of US President Ronald Reagan) which rather flatters the moral compass of the United States Government to say the least.
In this animated feature, Superman is shown intervening in a conflict with Russia at the behest of the aforementioned President Reagan, who subsequently enlists his help in an effort to stop Batman from pursuing his role as an envoy of justice in Gotham, his actions condemned for being both uncontrollable and unsanctioned, due to his own general badassery.
Batman’s own social-political issues and implications will have wait for another article, suffice to say that the hypocrisy of a billionaire ‘hero’ hospitalising petty crooks who probably can’t get enough to eat isn’t lost on me. Rather than dressing up as a bat a harassing the destitute, Bruce Wayne should probably look into funding social housing or something… but I digress, and in this instance Superman clearly represents a contemporary nuclear weapon in all but name, being that he is a powerhouse without equal (and we are dealing specifically with real-world conflict here, albeit abstracted from reality and reconstructed in the world of superheroes).
Following Esposito’s rhetoric, the idea that we should all ‘strive’ to emulate Superman in this context essentially implies that we should, regardless of our own power or circumstance, follow orders given by the President of the United States (or any head of state for that matter) without question, even if he is asking us to kill a close friend. The metaphor becomes all the more disturbing, as it is unravelled.
In terms of race and representation, Superman’s army of heroes: The Justice League, is a diversity nightmare. I grew up loving the one prominent black hero present John Stewart (one of earth’s four Green Lanterns) who was the ‘first black superhero to appear in DC comics’ according to Wikipedia. My affinity for this particular hero, I didn’t fully understand at first, of course, clarity has increased with maturity and understanding, the idea of a strong black superhero is tantalising and exciting to me even now. However, my affection for this character was marred when I began to read the modern New 52 Green Lantern comic books to find that his role was not only minimal but he was very much a support character to the fan-favourite Hal Jordan. Jordan, much like Superman, is a paragon of neoliberal republican Americanism. Both he, (Jordan) and his father were pilots in the US air force and Hal is given his powers for overcoming great fear (manifest in piloting his jet following his father’s untimely death). The assault on my idolisation of John Stewart was profound, and my dissatisfaction grew as I studied the character. Stewart is essentially characterised as having the utmost respect for Jordan, believing in him to a fault. Their relationship is almost reminiscent of the kind of blind, unquestioning love that slaves were encouraged to show to their masters during the colonial era. The kind of love that was mandatory. Brutally beaten into generations of black men and women.
Given that one person, with only a fleeting interest in comic books and their internal lore, can be this moved by a relationship, clearly constructed with an unspoken, perhaps subconscious effort to normalise subjugation, how do these appropriations of black men in comic books affect more die-hard fans and the general population? This is particularly relevant today when the entire history of superheroes is being crystallised into a big-budget cinematic continuum for global consumption.
The issue is a real one. Remember the hero is the ideal. If the summit of black success and achievement is only to stand in the shadow of a white man, black children may lose the inspiration to aspire to more, defeat is expected and excellence is withheld. I wanted to look up at a black hero who could crush Superman like an ant and laugh, that would be empowering.
Superheroes stand, now more than ever, as collective mythologies that characterise our drive towards excellence and our dreams of becoming more than just people. This should be maintained equally and fairly. I believe that it would be a great injustice (no pun intended) if black superheroes are not given meaningful, self-sufficient, powerful and independent roles in contemporary comic books and on the big screen in the future, written by black writers who know what they’re talking about and who they are addressing intimately. Black children should be able to read and see heroes that look like them and stand for their own cultural beliefs and narratives. The existing, approved heroes are not as ‘just’ as they are portrayed to be when approaching from a wider cultural lens, and black heroes should reflect the dreams, ambitions, struggles and sensibilities of black people, not simply adorn or support their white counterparts. These changes would be empowering to the black community and would inspire many more people to read and identify with comic books. Win-win. Furthermore, we as black people should strive to create our own comic universes with rich stories, characters and mythologies.
Marvel has recently committed to a new ‘diverse’ range of heroes, however, the attempt feels disingenuous to me and I’d like to be the first to say that “blacking up” existing characters is only a superficial act of appeasement, the stories will never be ‘black’ or ‘diverse’ just because Iron Man becomes a black woman ‘Iron Heart’ (the title alone screams of tone-deaf maintenance of both African-American female stereotypes and the comic book status quo, but another article for that too), or Captain Marvel becomes the Pakistani woman Ms Marvel. These are both hollow and actively regressive in my opinion, violent to the notion of creating independently, self-sufficient, stand-alone, new characters written by and for the communities Marvel and other publishers suddenly seem so keen to pander the pennies out of.
To close this little think piece I’d like to ask if it really is all ‘just fiction’ and none of it matters, ask yourself why there are no black heroes stronger than Superman and what would it mean to have one or ten who were? Feel unsettled? Welcome to the world of reading comics, consuming media or enjoying literature as a black person, always in the shadow of a person who not only isn’t you but was once an active oppressor. Finding no remorse, nor any decisive attempts to balance the all too obvious inconsistencies in any way that mattered, or affected the established status-quo. The meta-narrative survives even without conspiracy or malicious intent, implicitly present regardless. Even in fiction, you are told that you can never be stronger…but you can, and you are.