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Is Replacing Established Characters with People of Color Good for Diversity?

Last week, I wrote an article about Marvel Comics’ attempts to change their long-established iconic superheroes with younger, “legacy” versions. Marvel created a buzz-storm yesterday with their latest legacy update – making Riri Williams the new main character for Invincible Iron Man. Whether she will be called Iron Man, Iron Woman, War Machine or some other moniker, Riri Williams will be the central hero of the series when it relaunches in Fall 2016. This change upset many who feel like Marvel is being too politically correct. My concerns, however, are actually the opposite. Is Marvel really doing a service to diversity by having their new heroes from under-represented demographics be second versions of established white characters?

 

Invincible Iron Man #1 - diverse characters

 

While there will be some who cry “P.C.” at any move towards inclusivity, most comic fans seem to want their comics to more closely mirror their world in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and beliefs. So on one level, the addition of characters like Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, Amadeus Cho and Riri Williams are good additions. Now there are superheroes to whom young black, Asian and female readers can relate. These are positive steps. Marvel certainly still needs to represent the wider world in their creative staff. The new characters seem to be a step in the right direction, though.

 

At the same time, Marvel is making these changes in a way that ties these heroes to already established white characters. In addition to these young heroes, they have made a black Captain America (Sam Wilson) and a female Thor (Jane Foster) from existing secondary characters. In all of these cases, the characters get the name recognition of an iconic Marvel character known around the world. All of these new versions of the heroes are also in some way in their shadow. The original white character may have been the mentor, or perhaps in fans’ eyes, the original was the “real” version. Is Marvel undercutting interest in these under-represented heroes due to their intrinsic ties to their white precursors? It also puts some fans who want diverse characters while also liking the classic versions of Marvel superheroes in a tough spot.

 

Spider-Men #1 - diverse characters

 

The alternative is to create entirely-original characters. Storm, Black Panther and Luke Cage are some of the best Marvel characters. They are also more interesting than if they had been second versions of established superheroes. These characters get to form their own identity and associations rather than inheriting those of a previous version. As Falcon, Sam Wilson was a great character. His new role as Captain America overshadows that somewhat. Marvel is taking a safe road here and using the name/brand of popular characters to shield their push to diversify. With the possible exception of Ms. Marvel, in their recent expansion Marvel Comics has used their most popular characters as templates and attention-placeholders rather than risk building people of color heroes from the ground up. They may also be inadvertently limiting their new versions.

 

It would be unfair to Marvel, however, to claim this is all they are doing. They have added more female and minority characters throughout their universe beyond the major legacy heroes. I sympathize with Marvel because they must sell comics. So they need attention, buzz and even controversy to get people excited about the series starring these new versions of their characters. These big hero identity transformations make news. On the flip side, Marvel recently announced a series with the entirely-new black superhero named Mosaic. This was not major news beyond comic book sites, though. It’s also almost guaranteed to sell fewer copies than Riri in Invincible Iron Man. Ultimately, Marvel needs to make money to continue making comics. So it’s possible that Marvel is trying to take a shortcut to diversity while it also being true that they are being sound in their business plan.

 

Ms. Marvel #3 - diverse characters

 

The other major problem with the legacy characters (which I mentioned in last week’s article) is that Marvel will most likely bring back the original. We don’t know if Tony Stark will die in Civil War II. Even if he does, it will be temporary. Stark will be back and chances are that he will likely become Iron Man again. This has happened recently with Steve Rogers. It even happened before with Stark when James Rhodes took over for Tony for a while as Iron Man. So does the female or p.o.c. version of the hero become second fiddle when the original iconic version returns? They don’t have to, but there could be an unfortunate side effect of marginalizing the newer hero and when that iconic version is white, there is a racial component to that as well.

 

I realize Marvel Comics is in something of a “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” situation here. I think they are trying to be progressive and modern. They are also moving cautiously because they need to remain a profitable company. Additionally, I don’t claim to have a perfect answer. Marvel could add a bunch of entirely original and awesome heroes from under-represented groups, and those immediately become hits. Well, that would obviously be the best possible scenario. That is probably unlikely, though, given the struggles companies have selling comics these days, especially with new properties. Likewise, Marvel’s updates on Thor, Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel have been popular so far. Still, I think Marvel’s approach is not really ideal. It may eventually lead to some difficult decisions on how to juggle all of the versions of characters while balancing the wants of old and new readers.

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