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What Avengers NOW Means for Marvel and Diversity

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you’re probably aware that the folks at the House of Ideas have taken two huge steps in diversifying their roster of heroes. The publisher who famously put a black/Latino teen in the (Ultimate) Spider-Man tights and recast Ms. Marvel as a Pakistani American has taken to national TV to announce its latest foray in ensuring that superheroes actually look like the America they represent.

So faithful watchers of the daytime talker The View were treated to the announcement of a female Thor, and fans of the late night Colbert Report got tipped to Sam Wilson replacing Steve Rogers as Captain America. We might have our own thoughts on these developments later. In the meantime, our friend at ComicsAlliance Andrew Wheeler touches on a lot of things that came to mind for me.

First of all, while Marvel is — rightly — receiving praise for its decision to diversify its most famous heroes, the fact that having a superhero who isn’t white or male needs a highly publicized announcement in the first place is a little disheartening. As Andrew writes at ComicsAlliance:

These changes suggest an agenda. I’d call it a progressive agenda, but it’s not. Putting women and people of color in key positions isn’t progressive, it’s just evidence that superhero comics are slowly catching up to the present day. It just happens that there’s a strong regressive agenda in our culture that’s resistant to that kind of change.

The other thing about making such high profile race- and gender-swaps is the realization that such changes are rarely permanent. It’s already been pointed out that — despite the mainstream media attention — a female Thor and a black Captain America are actually not new ideas.

And if history is any indication, there’s a high likelihood that Mjölnir and Cap’s Shield will eventually be wielded by blonde white dudes again.

Every substitute hero in an iconic role carries an expiry date. At a certain point, Thor will be a man again. At a certain point, Captain America will be white again. In the short term these characters send the welcome message that women and people of color can be the equal of the white dudes that dominate superhero fiction.

And in the long term, they suggest that they can’t be, because in the long term they don’t get to be. Female Thor and black Captain America are great inspirations as long as they’re around, but when they inevitably leave and the primacy of white men reasserts itself, the after-taste will be bitter.

A black or female hero in a temporary role will never be as powerful a symbol as a black or female hero with their own indelible, permanent identity.

Really, you should just head over to ComicsAlliance and read Andrew’s whole piece. And while I may seem a little skeptical about the permanence of these changes, at least Marvel is willing to make these changes in its mainline continuity (since Ultimate Spider-Man has been criticized for being an “alternate universe”). Also, I hope the extra attention means these books sell well enough to convince retailers that readers will actually buy comics that feature women and people of color.

Now if we could only convince the publishers to let women and people of color actually create those same comics….

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