Superheroes: All shapes and all colors
Superheroes often get a lot of flak for being ignorant of sexual and racial acceptance, but the fact is that groups of historically discriminated- against people have actually gotten a pretty fair shake in comics.
In 1941, National Publications (today known as DC Comics) published “All-Star Comics” #8, debuting Wonder Woman. While she wasn’t technically the first female superhero (that distinction belonging to an all-but-forgotten joke character), she was certainly the most popular and progressive. Her first issue cover featured her swinging her lasso, leading male soldiers into battle. Now, this assertiveness she displayed was a result of her creator having fem-dom fetishes, but the characterization stuck, along with a stigma of being sexualized in certain contexts.
Speaking of classic heroes, the year before had introduced Dick Grayson, better known as the first “Robin.” 50 years later, the character would discover his Romani (Gypsy) heritage. The character would later take the alias “Nightwing” and headline his own series.
While the western comic Lobo introduced the first black protagonist, the next step for minority superheroes came in the form of 1966’s Black Panther (first appearance: “Fantastic Four” #52), Marvel Comics’ African king of the fictional country of Wakanda. He was followed over the next six years by the African- American heroes Falcon (due to make an appearance in the next “Captain America” movie), and Luke Cage. DC Comics was a little late to the party, with Green Lantern John Stewart appearing in 1972 and Black Lightning in 1977. Ironically, Spider-Man/Daredevil villain, Kingpin, was originally supposed to be black, but it was deemed racist. Nearly 40 years later, Kingpin was portrayed by noted black actor Michael Clarke Duncan.
Perhaps the most relevant was Luke Cage, a street-level enforcer in Harlem who worked as a “Hero for Hire.” The context, New York in the 1970s, was relatively daring at the time (even if one issue did feature Cage asking Dr. Doom “Where’s my money, honey?”) and the character eventually came to the forefront of the Marvel Universe, with help from writer Brian Michael Bendis and football star/Old Spice spokesman, Isaiah Mustafa. On the other hand, John Stewart was featured in the “Justice League” animated series, giving that character a massive boost in popularity.
In 1975, “Giant-Sized X-Men” came out, introducing fan-favorite Storm, as well as the Native American Thunderbird (who was immediately killed and replaced with his brother, Warpath). The blue-skinned German, Nightcrawler, and Colossus, Russian of steel, first joined the X-Men in the same issue.
The 80s saw an expanded role for Canadian X-Man Northstar, who would come out as gay in 1992. One of the creators of “Watchmen” also viewed main character Rorschach as asexual. The decade closed out with the revelation of Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl) as Oracle, a paraplegic information broker to the heroic community.
The publication of “Watchmen” and several stories by Frank Miller caused the comic industry to delve into the divisive “Dark Age,” compounded by a collapse in the collector’s market. Despite this, the 1990s saw a surge in independent companies, the most prominent being Image (makers of “The Walking Dead”) and Milestone. Milestone made extensive use of minority characters of all backgrounds, including Static (Shock), Icon, and the Shadow Cabinet, while Image had their flagship character, Spawn.
The new millennium has brought on a Renaissance for characters of all preferences and colors, from the deaf, Hispanic ninja, Echo, to the Muslim X-Man Dust (who has had a positive reception, despite her unfortunate code name and sand-controlling powers), to Xorn, a living black hole from China, all of which are properties of Marvel.
DC was no slouch, either. Between 2004 and 2011, DC used characters of color to fill the shoes of established heroes. The Atom became Hong Konger Dr. Ryan Choi, African-American Jason Rusch merged with the Firestorm matrix, and Mexican-American Jamie Reyes from El Paso, Texas took on the mantle of Blue Beetle. The company also bumped up Cyborg into the Justice League, premiere superteam of the empire that built Batman and Superman.
However, the biggest news by far has been about Simon Baz, Alan Scott, and Miles Morales. Simon Baz took on the focus of the “Green Lantern” title, becoming the first Muslim to bear the responsibility. Alan Scott is likewise a Green Lantern, albeit one in an alternate universe. The editorial decision to make Scott gay (going against 70 years of established backstory) was controversial, but the plot was relatively well-received. Comic Book Resources called it “an epic opening arc.”
Then, there’s Miles Morales. The 13-year old halfblack/ half-Hispanic character was announced in 2011 to be replacing an alternate universe (they come up a lot) Peter Parker as Spider- Man. The decision sparked waves of outrage and acclaim, with many mainstream outlets not understanding that it was only a part of Marvel’s “Ultimate” line of comics. There was ironically no such uproar when the “real” Spider-Man was replaced by a supervillain, in 2013. Despite this, Miles Morales has proved so popular that Marvel plans on “importing” the character into the main Marvel Universe pretty soon.
Since their inception, superheroes have been about helping the little guy. Batman fought corruption, and the Superman radio show even took on the Ku Klux Klan (and won). Is it any wonder why the characters would appeal to minorities? When America’s modern mythology was kickstarted by two Jewish immigrants, in the middle of the Great Depression, just months before Kristellnacht, it’s hard to argue that the idea of overcoming adversity isn’t atomically bonded to the genre of flying men and Amazonian women.