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In 2019, Marvel Comics was getting ready to celebrate its 80th anniversary. It had begun as Timely Comics, and quickly came to dominate the landscape with superheroes like the Human Torch and Namor the Submariner; now, for a special graphic-novel collection, the publisher invited superstar writer Art Spiegelman to write an introduction reflecting on Marvel’s legacy. There was just one issue: They asked him to compromise his own legacy to do so.
Spiegelman is best known for his independent graphic novel Maus, which retold his father’s experience surviving the Holocaust. Yet, when he compared then-president Donald Trump to the Red Skull, the fascist supervillain leader of a Nazi organization known as Hydra, Marvel balked. Demanding that a Jewish writer revise his material for the sake of remaining apolitical felt particularly disingenuous, given that Captain America made his 1941 debut punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first issue. Over the years, Marvel writers had used superheroes to explore myriad political and social issues — sometimes explicitly, sometimes by merely existing. The success of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the Spidersona trend that followed it, attests to the positive impact diverse representation can have on audiences.
Superhero comics aren’t only political, but they’ve nearly always been political. Since Superman’s debut first made the genre mainstream, superheroes and their stories have advocated for social justice. And while some writers (and the corporations that employ them) may have lost sight of this reality, the communities these heroes represent can see when the forces that be abdicate the responsibility the heroes gladly shoulder. The essays collected below explore how superhero comics capture the lived experiences of marginalized communities — as well as how some comics have only served to stigmatize them.
Golden Age Superheroes Were Shaped By the Rise of Fascism (Art Spiegelman, The Guardian, August 2019)
In recalling the origins of the superhero genre, Spiegelman stresses that the immaturity often ascribed to comic books was as prevalent in the 1930s as it is in the present. If there’s any notable difference, it likely lies in the fact that publishers themselves were aware of this and consequently chose not to prioritize making the high-quality products we see today. (“Just give them a lot of action and don’t use too many words,” publisher Martin Goodman once told Stan Lee.) Though Superman’s debut shifted the medium by introducing an archetype that captured the hearts (and dimes) of millions of readers, the sentiment that comic books were for immature audiences endured. But the adventures of these heroes and the lives of the creators who made them tell a different tale.
Bold as it was to introduce Captain America by having him punch Hitler on the cover of his first issue in 1941, the impact of his debut is better appreciated if you understand how tolerant the U.S. was toward Nazi sympathizers until the country properly entered World War II. Just two years prior to Cap’s debut, thousands of members of the German American Bund rallied in New York to express their approval of Hitler’s antisemitic sentiments. The sales of superhero comics began to dwindle after the war, which not only suggests that consumers were aware of their political nature, but implies that publishers were willing to exploit those politics for profit.
The pioneers behind this embryonic medium based in New York were predominantly Jewish and from ethnic minority backgrounds. It wasn’t just Siegel and Shuster, but a whole generation of recent immigrants and their children – those most vulnerable to the ravages of the great depression – who were especially attuned to the rise of virulent antisemitism in Germany. They created the American Übermenschen who fought for a nation that would at least nominally welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Superman is Jewish: The Hebrew Roots of America’s Greatest Superhero (Rich Goldstein, The Daily Beast, July 2017)
Much of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay is based on the lives of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Stan Lee, and other comic-book creators.
Straight to the point, Goldstein opens his essay by making an important observation: Superman owes his stranger-in-a-strange-land origin to the Jewish heritage of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But his roots are often overshadowed by his association with American culture. Contemporary comics frequently depict Superman with American iconography, even though he’s repeatedly acted as a hero for Earth and beyond. So it’s not surprising to think that readers would try to compare him to Jesus Christ, given the important role that Christianity plays within traditional American values. Yet, hyper-fixating on Clark’s Christlike attributes serves to obfuscate the superhero’s Jewish origins.
Here was a being who had immigrated to a land that supposedly offered the prospects of a better life, and changed his name (Kal-El to Clark Kent) to do so — just as some Jewish families who immigrated to the U.S. changed their names to avoid prejudice. Goldstein posits that the antisemitic sentiments of the time would have gotten Superman’s comic cancelled before it even began, and invites the reader to question how warmly the character would have been received if his Jewish influences were more explicit. More importantly, however, his article affirms the fact that the creation of Superman — and the rise of the superhero genre — should be credited to the imaginations of Jewish creators who produced a hero that stood against the oppression they faced.
Superman is as American as apple pie, in that both have their origins in the Middle East. Apples, because they are thought to have been first domesticated in Turkey, and Superman, because of his oftentimes overlooked Jewish heritage.
House of X / Power of X Moves Mutants Forward (Stephanie Williams, SYFY, January 2020)
Even those largely unfamiliar with superhero comics are likely aware of the X-Men. But before the blockbuster sales and long-running film franchise, the beloved mutants came to prominence thanks to the efforts of Len Wein, who created characters like Storm and Wolverine, and Chris Claremont, who confronted them with dilemmas that blurred the traditional lines of good and evil. At the heart of the franchise’s moral ambiguity is the ideological schism between the X-Men founder Charles Xavier (Professor X), who seeks to protect mutants and mankind despite the latter’s extreme prejudices against the former, and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), who prioritizes the well-being of mutants above all else. The duo has often been compared to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X for the characters’ respective beliefs, but since the X-Men were created any significant strides toward the dreams of either camp have been brief — if they existed at all.
That changed in 2019 with the debut of House of X / Powers of X. Spearheaded by creators Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, and R.B. Silva, HOXPOX offered mutants a way forward that appeased both Xavier’s accomodationism and Lensherr’s hardline approach: separation. The first issue lays out a broad-based mutant-led effort to create a culture detached from mankind. As Williams notes in her review, part of the appeal of the comic’s premise lies in the fact that mutants finally “get out of their own way”; recognizing how paralyzed they’ve been, they acknowledge that the only way to advance is to de-center the desires of the community that so despised them. Three years after their new culture’s founding, the mutants still face opponents bent on their destruction. The difference now is that extinction no longer lurks in every defeat. On the contrary, every victory against those who seek to destroy them asserts that they, and the marginalized communities they’ve been thought to represent, owe nothing to their oppressors when it comes to their survival.
The safety and future for all mutants becomes the only goal, and there is no trying to continue to convince humans they are worthy of occupying the same space. It’s proven time and time again to be lethal to incorporate humans into their plans. The focus is now Krakoa and making sure it remains a place where mutants can truly be free — all mutants, not just the ones who adhere to a specific ideology. There are still mutants who lose their lives in order to secure the future of Krakoa, but at least it’s for the greater good and not for selfish men.
‘House of M’ and the Vilification of Mental Illness (Lia Williamson, AIPT Comics, August 2021)
While Wanda Maximoff’s popularity has certainly been bolstered by her appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her character has a deep history within the Marvel comics. Introduced in the first issues of X-Men, Wanda (Scarlet Witch) was originally a villain operating with her brother Pietro (Quicksilver) as a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Over the decades, however, her allegiances changed, and she became a prominent member of the Avengers. Like most other characters, she’s gone through her fair share of ups and downs over the course of the past few decades, but none quite compare to the hardships she faced during the 2005 event House of M.
Most Marvel comics fans recall the event as the time when Wanda experiences a mental breakdown and loses control of her reality-changing powers. The consequences for these episodes are dire: She’s manipulated into creating an alternate reality where mutants aren’t hated, and subsequently depowers nearly all mutants when that reality is compromised. While all superhero parties involved were aware of Wanda’s poor mental state and how she was manipulated, since the comic’s release she has shouldered most of the blame for the tragedy. By dissecting the story, Williamson opens a dialogue regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in comics — and concludes that, much like Professor X and Magneto’s ideological conflict, there is rarely an effort made to properly address the issues. House of M failed Wanda on multiple levels: narratively, because it suggested that for all the crises the world’s mightiest heroes faced, they were helpless to support one of their own; and conceptually, because it places the onus of the fallout on a character who was robbed of her agency.
House of M is a low point for Wanda and how comics deal with the topic of mental illness overall, vilifying a woman’s mental breakdown by having her virtually wipe out a species (one she also belonged to in 2005, mind you) and kill several of her own teammates. The story strips her of her own agency while making her the sole bad guy left to pick up the pieces years later. It’s a story that says the mentally ill are dangerous, that we’re capable of horrible things and maybe we should be “put down” before those things can happen.
On Queer Superhero A-Listers and a Lack of Visibility (Madeleine Chan, AIPT Comics, June 2022)
One of the most notable examples of comic book media to emerge in the pandemic has been the Cerebro podcast. Hosted by literary agent Connor Goldsmith, each episode welcomes a guest to talk about the many characters of the X-Men franchise. These discussions often entail a discussion of the queer subtext at work throughout the characters’ histories (since explicit queerness was traditionally taboo in mainstream comics). In the past decade, one of the benefits of the increased push for diverse representation in comics has been increased visibility for queer characters. As Chan notes in this piece, both major and minor characters have been confirmed as queer either by their creators or within their comics — which raises the question of why there’s been so little effort to do the same for the major characters in their film and television incarnations.
But our world is no utopia, and so Chan’s essay raises the issue of how exactly queer characters are being portrayed in their respective comics. They note the cancellation of Al Ewing’s Guardians of the Galaxy run, which is interesting not only because it marked the second cancellation of a series in which Star-Lord was queer, but because the Guardians’ handling in the comics has been heavily impacted by their portrayal in their movies. With this essay, Chan has exposed yet another display of disingenuity in regard to Marvel and DC’s handling of marginalized characters. Their halfhearted approach to depicting queer characters suggests that their priority is to avoid upsetting intolerant audiences.
While there is very limited visibility — Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman in The Batman was played as bisexual and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool could be interpreted as pansexual — they still weren’t seen as queer by the larger public. And the queer hints in Wonder Woman 1984 were only supposed to be just that, and the odds for Star-Lord to be visible as queer in his upcoming MCU movies is low for multiple reasons. It seems DC and Marvel don’t want to risk disrupting the ubiquitously popular mainstream image of these characters to not deter their straight, cisgender male audience. Translations to the screen would be more likely if their queerness was more prominent in the source material.
Monica Rambeau Was WandaVision‘s Real Hero, and the Show Did Her Dirty (Charles Pulliam-Moore, Gizmodo, March 2021)
Many heroes have taken up the mantle of Captain Marvel in the Marvel universe. In the 2019 film about the character, we were introduced to two of them: Carol Danvers, who became closely associated with the role since she took it on in 2012, and Monica Rambeau. If the movie was the extent of your exposure to either character, you might assume that Monica wouldn’t follow in Carol’s footsteps when it came to being a superhero. And you’d have good reason not to, because Monica was actually Carol’s predecessor. Introduced as the second Captain Marvel in the same year the original died, she quickly rose to prominence as an Avenger, even becoming the team leader during Roger Stern’s tenure on the book. However, she was sidelined soon after losing her powers and relinquishing her title to a newer character that was made to have stronger ties to the original Captain Marvel.
Since then, there have been various periods in the comics when Monica struggled to stay afloat appearance-wise. The past decade has seen a renewed effort to return her to the spotlight in titles like Ultimates, Damage Control, and her upcoming solo series. Unfortunately, her appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far have failed to capture her might in more ways than one. In this piece, Pulliam-Moore delves into the issues with Monica’s portrayal in her second MCU appearance, 2021’s WandaVision. It’s bad enough that Monica has been reduced to playing second fiddle as often as she has, but it’s much more problematic that she’s been portrayed in a way that suggests her heroic nature is heavily influenced by her white peers.
While it’s very nice to think that one would choose to be the bigger person after being possessed and attacked by a witch, this characterization for Monica given everything else that happens to her in the series felt like an unnecessary misstep that cast an unignorable shadow over the series as a whole. By not sticking its landing, all of WandaVision’s subtle sleights against Monica lose their ability to work as dynamic texture to the story and more like a reminder of how the show missed a choice opportunity to point out how Black sitcoms were huge for a hot second before disappearing almost entirely from network television.
‘Into the Spider-Verse’ and the Importance of a Biracial Spider-Man (Richard Newby, The Hollywood Reporter, December 2018)
When Stan Lee was asked why Spider-Man (Peter Parker) was one of his favorite characters, he responded that a key factor was Spider-Man’s relatability. “He’s the one who’s most like me,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “he’s got a lot of problems, and he does things wrong and I can relate to that.” This sentiment is likely one that resonated with fans: Spider-Man became one of Marvel’s most popular characters shortly after his 1962 debut. Readers could see themselves in Peter Parker’s everyday struggles when he wasn’t wearing his mask. However, for legions of nonwhite readers, that relatability was only partial — at least until Miles Morales came along in 2011 to embody Lee’s vision for the rest of the world.
For a time, Miles lived in his predecessor’s shadow. Fans knew that he was created in an offshoot universe that allowed creators to be more flexible with Marvel’s iconic heroes. But he rose out of that shadow with the help of his unique powers and distinct background. Standing as his own hero when he was folded into the canonized main comics, Miles’ existence embodies the importance of diverse representation in comic books. Like Captain America’s debut long before him, Miles’ success shows that for all the scrutiny a character may be subject to because of prejudice, there will always be an audience for characters whose identities are treated respectfully on the comic book scene.
Miles Morales’ journey to becoming Spider-Man isn’t a straight line. It’s the strands of being black, Latino, a son, a nephew, an honors student, a graffiti artist, a hip-hop fan, all woven together to create the web that is the wide demographic of Spider-Man — a union of many of the best parts of humanity. There’s a shot in the movie of Miles Morales starring up at a glass display case containing Spider-Man’s uniform. It’s a brief moment without dialogue, but it resonates as one of the film’s most powerful moments because it represents Miles so well, and the tremendous legacy of carrying more than one identity. For all the kids of color who dream of being superheroes, and all the adults of color still grappling with power and responsibility, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse leaves us with a clear message: We could always be Spider-Man with the mask on, but now, and perhaps more important, we can be Spider-Man with the mask off as well.
Joshua N. Miller is a cultural critic who aims to dissect prevalent social issues through his analysis of comics, film, television, and video games. His writing is available at his website joshuanaimiller.com and he has content forthcoming in Mangoprism.