Marvel’s Multicultural Crusade

So this is a thing that’s happening: Marvel comics is turning Iron Man from a grown-up, white, male, billionaire industrialist to a black, female, teenage college student.

Last week Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis unveiled in an interview with Time that a new character, Riri Williams, will be taking over Iron Man from the character of Tony Stark. Riri Williams is a prodigy who started at MIT at the age of fifteen. She will be the new Iron Man. Tony Stark will be off doing . . . something else.

Depending on how closely you follow comic books, this may or may not come as a surprise. Over the last several months Marvel has been turning out long-running white characters and replacing them with diversity hires at a brisk clip: Thor is now a woman; Spider-Man is half African-American and half Puerto Rican; Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager; the Hulk is a Korean kid. It’s getting kind of ridiculous.

And offensive. Because Bendis and Marvel aren’t trying to revitalize their lineup and sell comic books. On the contrary, look at the sales numbers for their diversity titles. They are . . . not great. Every single one of the Marvel diversity books is getting beaten in the rankings by dreck such as Scooby Apocalypse and the (unbelievably stupid) Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover. The diversity books are lucky to sell 50,000 copies each.

No, Marvel isn’t giving readers what they want. They’re pushing a political program. Bendis says as much to Time: “Some of the comments online… I don’t think people even realize how racist they sound. . . . All I can do is state my case for the character, and maybe they’ll realize over time that that’s not the most progressive thinking.”

Because goodness knows, you shouldn’t be able to enjoy comic books unless you’re onboard with “progressive thinking.”

One of the reasons people recoil from self-conscious diversity programs is that diversity is often presented as a zero-sum game: To celebrate one bit of identity politics it is necessarily to replace, denigrate, or subjugate, another. And that’s precisely what is happening as comic book writers swap out long-standing characters for diversity reboots rather than just coming up with all-new characters.

You can’t have a new lady superhero and the Thor you love—you can only have Lady Thor. You can’t have the Peter Parker you’ve always loved and some new hero named Miles Morales—you can only get black-Hispanic Spider-Man. And you can’t have Tony Stark’s Iron Man. You can only have the genius, 15-year-old, black MIT student Iron Girl.

If you really want to understand how political this project is, and how totally divorced it is from actual concerns about narrative story-telling and character, look at how the street only runs one way. No one ever suggests that maybe the Falcon would be more interesting if he were turned into a thirty-year-old white Army vet. And no is turning villains into minority characters. How about a Muslim Joker? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

If you want diversity in comics without the divisive, zero-sum politics, there are two ways to do it.

1) Figure out ways to revitalize dormant or underwhelming characters.

Harley Quinn was created as an afterthought for an episode of a Batman cartoon. With each passing year the character has become more interesting and higher profile, because writers decided to try to do more with her. By the time Suicide Squad hits theaters in August, she’ll probably be one of the five most beloved characters in the entire DC universe.

The character Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker’s first love interest, before Mary Jane) was killed off in 1973. Marvel resurrected her a few years ago and today she headlines not one, but two popular titles, the kind-of-fantastic Spider-Gwen and the kind-of-bizarre Gwenpool.

A good writer can make almost any character interesting. Heck, Dan Slott made She-Hulk—who was originally conceived as a brazen cash-grab, like Bat-Mite—into a great character. Marvel has done something similar with the character Luke Cage. Created in the seventies as the third-rate hero Power Man, Cage has been reinvigorated in recent years and given much greater depth, complexity, and prominence. Brian Michael Bendis knows this, because he did a lot of that work with the Luke Cage character. Which leads us to . . .

2) Create awesome new characters who happen to be diverse.

Bendis reinvigorated the Luke Cage character in the course of introducing Jessica Jones into the Marvel universe. Jessica Jones was an entirely new character—a failed superhero and junior-varsity alcoholic struggling to make ends meet as a private eye. And Jessica Jones is awesome. But she would have been much, much less awesome if she had been conceived as someone to replace Hank Pym and become the All-New Ant-Girl, because diversity.

What’s exasperating is that in recent years, comic books have been teeming with great new characters who aren’t white guys (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and weren’t brought in as a way to displace existing characters. There’s Abigail Brand, Maria Hill, Ellen Yindel, Kate Bishop, Hisako Ichiki, Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, the Runaways gang, Tara Chace, Carrie Stetko, Forever Carlyle—and those are just from the books I read. These characters are great. And they didn’t have to push anyone else off the page.

The problem with Riri Williams and Iron Man isn’t diversity or racism. It’s the zero-sum nature of Marvel’s identity politics.



29 responses to “Marvel’s Multicultural Crusade

  1. I think this is spot-on but for one detail: Peter Parker has not been sidelined in favor of Miles Morales. Unless I’m mistaken, they are both currently Spider-Man.

  2. One of the reasons Iron Man was so interesting is because he cut against the PC vibe of his time. Stan Lee has talked about how he created Iron Man, making him everything the ascendant counter culture despised. Not only was he a rich white guy, he was a war profiteer during the Vietnam War.

    Don’t get me wrong. art ought to have a moral dimension. Iron Man came to reconsider some of his own actions. But these issues never could have been explored if Lee hadn’t strayed from the fold.

    So the idea that “progressive” = moral is a very strange one. Bendis isn’t the only pop culture figure I’ve seen try that sleight of hand. Could you imagine someone trying to pass off “conservative” the same way? I guess I could, though I wouldn’t call it strange. More like boring.

  3. Apparently someone’s not been reading the comics. Peter Parker’s still out there. So’s Thor. And I’ve found myself reading these comics now because of the diversity. I like legacy heroes – the torch being passed on from one person to another over time. So, Tony Stark’s handing off to a black girl? Is she interesting? Yes? Good. I’ve noticed Cho’s Hulk is very different from the old one, and I’m liking that as well.

    I like diversity. I like progressive thinking. Comics are supposed to make you think. That’s what makes a good comic. Shaking up the status quo is good, and adding characters that people other than white folk can identify with is good, too.

    1. “Shaking up the status quo is good, and adding characters that people other than white folk can identify with is good, too.”

      what an idiot. you don’t make things progressive by eroding other people’s identity. plus you use the derogative ‘status quo’ as if the existence of long established characters in any way prevents the establishment of new characters.

      1. Actually, they do. Brand recognition is a big thing. If people have limited income and want to choose between someone they recognize, and someone they don’t, more often than not they’re going to go for the name they recognize.

        And, mind you, with the new characters coming out, a number of the old characters are still there. We have Falcon as Captain America, but Steve Rogers is around. We have Miles Morales as Spider-Man, but we’ve still got Peter Parker. We have Cho as the Hulk, and until the most recent comic, we still had Bruce Banner.

        It’s interesting to see how the appearance of these characters shakes up the setting, and how they have to adapt to the burden of carrying on with a name that’s been used by a well-known hero. It makes the comics deeper, and worth reading more.

        And yeah. Status quo is, as you say, derogative. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

        1. Feel-good iconoclasm has nothing forward about it. Now don’t give senseless platitudes of going backward.

          1. Well, considering the shift in population, comics are better served representing the diversity you see in real life. People want characters they can identify with, and putting them into iconic roles is perhaps the best way to do it.
            And yeah, to me, it does feel like moving backwards. Society is progressing – would you prefer ‘left behind’?

          2. Perfectly fair. 🙂 Though, most things in the world are subjective when it comes to society. Objective requires scientific experimentation and peer review.

          3. It’s kind of insulting to say that people can only identify with characters with the same skin color as them, though, isn’t it? I knew a few high school kids who could identify with white Peter Parker, for example, even if they happened to be African-American. This kind of thinking implies that people are defined by the color of their skin, and there is nothing else about them that matters.

            And when you change an established character to take advantage of name recognition, you risk turning off the people who enjoyed that character in the past. It’s kind of like walking into your favorite restaurant and discovering that they completely changed the menu overnight. Maybe the new food is delicious, but it feels like a bait and switch. You could easily achieve the same result by introducing new characters in books with established audiences and let them find their own fanbase before giving them their own books. Or even letting them step into the shoes of the main hero. I don’t read comics anymore, but I can see Sam Wilson stepping into the uniform of Captain America, for example, because the Falcon is a longtime friend and ally of Cap’s.

          4. Did I say ‘only’? I’m sure I didn’t say only.
            However, I do know that people prefer someone they feels represents them. Women want more female characters in video games and comics. Black people would like to see more black people represented. Gay people would like to see more gay characters.

            I was playing a game called Nightfall. Ostensibly, it’s a fantasy version of Africa. You play the game, pretty much every character there is black. So, I made a black character for the game, because, you know, Africa. You see other people who make characters for it, nearly all of them are white. Because people make characters that represent them.

            As for the comics, yeah, name recognition can cause some dissonance, but here’s the thing: Miles Morales? Bitten by a spider from the same project that made Spider-Man. Female Thor? Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Jane Foster. There’s some connective tissue here. It’s not just out of the blue.

    2. “I like progressive thinking.

      Diseases are progressive.

      BTW, have you ever had an original thought in your life?

      1. I design games. So, yes, definitely.
        Know what else is progressive? Science, education, engineering.

        1. How can such a superior being such as yourself even stand to breath the same unrarified air as the rest of us mere humans?

          So far, all you’ve done is repeat things you’ve heard from others.

          It seems to me that scientists and engineers need pretty much the opposite mindset than that of political progressives. Science and engineering learn as much from failure as they do from success. Progressives never admit failure.

          “You didn’t build that!” – Progressives want to take credit for others’ successes but they don’t want to own the failures.

          1. Sometimes I have to wonder – especially as I learn more about the history of North America, and what was lost. (Tonight, I discovered that the native Americans had democracy and equality before the Europeans came, and in fact, the Law of Great Peace was quite possibly an inspiration for the Constitution – that this was lost saddens me).

            And yeah, I learn from what I hear around me, and what I study. Because that’s what people do – they don’t live in an vacuum, they learn, they study, and then they internalize. By the by, I never said I’m a political progressive, I said I’m a progressive.

            “Progressivism is a philosophy based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition.”

            This requires, of course, mistakes to be made, to be learned from, and then used to move further ahead. So yeah, admitting mistakes is a part of the process.

            And ‘you didn’t build that’ was true. The entire thrust of that point was that no one individual ‘built’ the infrastructure needed for society to function. It involved groups, across the social strata, and money, including government funding, to get to the point where society is today. Someone may start a company, but it requires people to work there, it requires the roads to be built for people to get there to work, it requires the laws to allow the company to function. No one individual is solely responsible for anything that’s been done.

          2. Government doesn’t have any money except for what it extracts from the taxpayers. So, yeah not only did private businesses mostly build the infrastructure, they paid for all of it.

          3. You’re ignoring the citizens, who aren’t ‘private businesses’, or don’t they count?

          4. Unless they are a business or work for one, no they don’t produce anything so they don’t count.

  4. Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel but she’s the same, the title of Ms. Marvel went to the other girl. I’ll admit I don’t recall what happened with the male Captain Marvel.

    I agree that I’d rather see new characters than simply passing the torch or some odd circumstance coming about that allows for someone of a different race/gender/sexual identity taking over. It hasn’t all been bad but sometimes you want new instead of used.

    I’ll admit if they changed out Harley I’d be pissed, you can’t just hand over the title that was built around her character to someone else. There’s more to it than simply the name.

    1. white women are more privileged than women of color in the oppression olympics, so it’s possible it might happen.

      1. To Harley? They wouldn’t dare, not with how even more popular she’s becoming thanks to Suicide Squad. Plus it would be utterly stupid to, that name is more than just a title that’s a twisted and tragic character that you can’t just swap out with someone else. Joker tried and she escaped Arkham just to beat the sh*t out of him for it. There would have to be some serious OOC or twist writing to allow for something like that to happen.

        But one of my big grips with this change is that each black woman look the same (ugh I hate this part, before anyone call me racist I’m black), they all look like Misty Knight, can they design a woman who doesn’t have an afro? We can do other things with our hair other than an afro, afro puffs, and locs.

        Though giving the limited styles the other women go through I guess we’re lucky for those few.

  5. It’s called virtual signaling: “the expression or promotion of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker.”

    Perhaps the most salient feature when applied to minorities and diversity is that behavior is so out of touch with the reality that it serves no useful purpose. Virtual signalers have no interest in the realities of those groups. Their only interest lies in promoting themselves within their own, typically priviledged group.

    For instance, the average black teenage girl is not and will never be like this Riri Williams, “a prodigy who started at MIT at the age of fifteen.”

    Far better to feature an ordinary black teen girl with the good sense not to have anything to do with any male her age who is unlikely to be a good husband/father/provider. Get that teen girl thinking that way and you’ll do her and the group to which she belongs a heck of a lot more good.

    And that deficiency drives home the point that virtue signalers rarely give a rip about real virtue. It’s all about themselves and their egos. Even that zero-sum game is intended to enrage and thus make the signaler look virtuous.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride, adapted from a bestselling 1870s novel about a teen girl, possesing no superpowers, who takes on the Ku Klux Klan.

  6. I’m okay with the new direction for Iron Man as a teenage girl if they call her Iron Maiden.

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