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New Captain America and Thor: Diversity or Cheap Gimmick?
Do we need the change?
By Tim Janson
July 22, 2014
Diversity or Cheap Gimmick?
© Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics announced it would be making radical changes to two of its oldest and most popular characters. Thor will now be a female character and Captain America will now be an African American as Sam Wilson, the former Falcon, takes up the shield. Response from comic book fans, particularly longtime comic fans has been swift and predictable…they don’t like it! The once mighty “House of Ideas” seems to have crumbled into a morass devoid of even the most basic level of creativity and storytelling. Perhaps Reed Richards can devise a formula to turn Stan Lee 40 years old again.
These moves are little more than marketing ploys thinly disguised as Marvel adding diversity to their universe. It’s interesting that the two characters being changed are both blonde hair, blue-eyed, white male characters. If you’re Johnny Storm or Johnny Blaze you are officially on the endangered species list. But do comics really lack diversity? Quite often, the comic book industry has been ahead of other forms of media in terms of gender, race, and ethnic diversity. Wonder Woman has been a paragon of female strength, beauty, and virtue since her creation in 1941. When superheroes declined in popularity after World War II, DC Comics canceled nearly all of their superhero titles. The only ones to survive the purge were those titles featuring Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Her status as a feminist icon was cemented in 1968 when she gave up her powers but continued to fight crime as Diana Prince. From its earliest days Marvel Comics had a number of female heroes and villains such as Sue Storm, Jean Grey, The Enchantress, The Scarlet Witch, Viper, and The Black Widow.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the world’s first mainstream black superhero The Black Panther in 1966. Rather than create a stereotype character born out of the strife of the 1960s Civil Rights movement they instead developed a character who was the ruler of the African nation of Wakanda and a genius level physicist.
When I was a young comic book fan in the 1970s, first issues of new titles were not nearly as common as they are today. When one hit the spinner racks we snapped them up, confident someday that they would be worth thousands. I grabbed Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in 1972 with this thought in mind. Cage was a character who was heavily influenced by the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, notably “Shaft” which had been a major hit just a year earlier. This was a street level hero for the times; gritty, tough, no nonsense, from the streets of Harlem. While Cage has never been one of Marvel’s top level characters, he has endured for over 40 years and will be getting his own series on Netflix as part of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
No greater display of Marvel’s ethnic and racial diversity can be found than in 1975 with the debut of The New X-Men. This revamped team would feature characters from Africa, Germany, Russia, Japan, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. It was a veritable United Nations of a super team.
At times the attempts to bring diversity in comics have been notably clumsy. In 1970, Lois Lane #106 featured a story called “I am Curious (Black)!” in which Superman puts Lois into a machine that turns her into a black woman for 24 hours. This effort of a white woman to see life through the eyes of a black woman was written by Robert Kanigher, a then 55 year-old white man. But while the story was mere novelty it was at least an honest try.
Better yet was the short but historical run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow by writer Denny O’ Neil and artist Neal Adams beginning in 1970. The run would cover issues such as racism, class inequality, religion, pollution and, most notably, drug abuse as Speedy becomes addicted to heroin. Marvel Comics offered their own take on the problem of drug abuse in 1971 in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #96 – 98 when Harry Osborne became addicted to drugs. Marvel ran these issues without the Comics Code Authority's approval or seal even though they knew it meant many retailers would not carry those issues.
Marvel and DC took risks back in the 1970s with these titles. Turning Thor into a woman isn’t a risk. Its silly nonsense designed to make news to the general public who doesn’t read or care about comics. Writers from E Online and the Daily Beast are gushing over the moves even though they couldn’t tell you the difference between Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Marvelman.
If I am a woman or African American, I might even be somewhat insulted by these changes. The message I take out of this is that Chief LACK of Creative officer Joe Quesada and his stable of writers couldn’t come up with an idea for a new and original female or African American hero that would draw flies to an outhouse, so they are giving us hand-me-down heroes. Today’s comic book stories can fit into one of three categories…Kill or change a character, Destroy the Universe in a crossover event, or reboot your entire universe. What’s worse is that he has sold them a bill of goods which will expire soon. I expect the original Captain America and Thor to be back before May 1, 2015. That is the date that Avengers” Age of Ultron will hit theaters.
Now, you might argue, wait a minute…other worthy people have held Thor’s hammer before in accordance with the hammer’s enchantment that, "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." Eric Masterson, Beta Ray Bill, even Captain America, ironically enough, have held the hammer. But here is the rub. By holding Thor’s hammer they had the power of Thor, they were NOT Thor. Jason Aaron, the writer of this new version of Thor and clearly unfamiliar with the over fifty years of continuity, stated quite emphatically, "this is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is Thor. This is the Thor of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before." Yes, because it’s NOT Thor.
And you have to laugh at the hypocrisy of the situation. As Marvel’s films have made billions of dollars at the box office there has been an outcry amongst fans and comic professionals because some of the co-creators of the characters, notably Jack Kirby’s estate, are not seeing profits from the films. Yet you hear no such outcry over these fundamental changes to their creations because, “Marvel owns them, they can do what they want with them.” Huh? What? Yes and what they want to do is create artificial interest in the characters, primarily to unwary comic rookies, to sell more copies and make a bigger profit. Yes. That’s what they do. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...Coming soon Dorothy Gale is a 48 year-old bartender named Chuck.
The concern isn’t about changes but how the changes are being sold. By trumpeting these alterations in the national media, who are blithely unaware of the fundamental rules of comics, these are being portrayed as permanent. Here is your new Captain America, Sam Wilson! Heris your new Thor, He’s a Woman! If Marvel is serious about these changes then let Thor be a woman in the next film. The choking sound you hear is that of Disney executives hacking up lunch. Superman didn’t stay dead; Azrael didn’t remain as Batman; and Captain America didn’t stay dead…again. Pushing these as actual changes when they are nothing but a marketing stunt only cheapens the moves and insults both women and African Americans. Marvel and DC have many outstanding female and minority characters. Perhaps they should find writers and editors capable of writing a good story without the need for a silly gimmick.
We comic book fans are a curious lot. We are protective of our heroes. We have enjoyed good natured taunts from our friends for years because we are “comic nerds.” Now that superheroes have become so popular on film and TV we are having the last laugh and yet also uncomfortable that the moron who works in shipping now says he loves The Hulk. The great thing about comic books is the characters never have to get old. We needed a new James Bond and Superman in the movies. We don’t need a new Captain America or Thor in the comics.
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