For as long as I can remember, one description of comics has prevailed: comic books are adolescent white boy power fantasies. If you look at the majority of the offerings, it would be kind of difficult to dispute this. Go to any comic shop and you will see a crowd of covers presenting overly muscled white men and impossibly voluptuous white women competently combating some evil, some threat that is just as anatomically disproportionate as the hero/ines are.
Comics, at first glance, are filtered through a firmly and profoundly white and male point of view. But this is a cursory view. If you dig, research, or explore beyond the DC/Marvel axis, this notion begins to lose its stickiness.
Amongst the white POVs are wonderful titles by women:
People of color:
And a host of other folks not typically associated with comic creation. As with most entertainment industries, those in power get to tell their stories. But we also read these stories through our lenses and if you aren’t white and male, it can be very disheartening to read stories that don’t resemble one iota of your experience — but this isn’t always the case.
One of the best comic book artists in the history of the form, Phil Jimenez, provides a wonderful view of how reading comics through our personal lenses can deepen our relationships with the material. He comments that all comics are “inherently gay or inherently queer.”
This got me going off on one of my tangents.
If we can read comics through our personal lenses for greater depth, clarity, and connection with the material — what if there was such a thing as real superheroes (not including Phoenix Jones and his compatriots)?
How would our lenses affect superheroing?
First off, I’m pretty sure that superheroes wouldn’t be majority white. I also doubt that the majority of them would be rich and heterosexual. As it stands, comic and film origin stories are about middle class to rich white men going through transformative events that influence them to marshal their resources to combat, avenge, or make amends:
- Rich white boy from legacy money loses his parents to street crime. Becomes nocturnal vigilante and metes out justice on the mean streets of the city that robbed him of his folks.
- Rich white boy from legacy money loses his parents to a corrupt system. Becomes nocturnal vigilante and metes out justice to folks in his same income bracket to atone for their mistakes.
- Rich white boy from legacy money is injured by his own weapons. Makes a better weapon to combat the folks who use his weapons. Privatizes peace in the process.
Then you have the sand-in-the-face weaklings who become more than:
- Skinny white boy volunteers for experiment. Becomes war hero. Lost to the ice, is defrosted, and becomes a superhero — a shining beacon of heroic excellence.
- Skinny and smart white boy is bit by a radioactive spider. Indirectly allows his uncle to be murdered. Becomes a superhero because with great power comes great responsibility.
- Skinny and smart white boy is struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals. Fights crime on two fronts.
Granted, I am being borderline hypocritical by sticking to Marvel and DC, but I believe you understand the landscape.
But if superheroes were real, I think that their origins would be more along the following examples:
- Queer kid is kicked out of their house for being queer. While homeless, they meet other homeless youth and form a family of choice. After witnessing one too many horrors done to their family of choice — and to other street kids — they don a makeshift costume and protect their folks and folks in similar situations.
- Girl of color is being racially bullied. She defends herself, but is reprimanded for making a big deal out of nothing. She is gaslighted to the point she almost commits suicide. But instead of taking her own life, she enacts vengeance on those who have bullied her and others. She recruits other folks who have been bullied and they form a loose confederation.
- Poor kid is fed up with seeing pawnshops pay pennies on the dollar for broken dreams, stolen property and fractured histories. Inspired by the comic books his drug addled brother sold, he crafts a costume and makes it his mission to shut down pawnshops. He then turns his attention to the drug dealers and stick-up kids who fuel the local pawn economy.
- A youth in an experimental adolescent mental health/juvenile justice facility is forced to be a part of a trial for a new psychotropic drug. The drug, while not combating the hyperactivity it was designed to, enhances the youth’s focus and adrenaline production. They become a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, a bit more aggressive and willing to defend themselves. They escape the draconian facility, helping others to escape as well. Before they are caught and imprisoned, they have freed a dozen or so youth from similar facilities.
I know. I know. Comic books are meant to be fantasy and to ground them in reality is to take away the very things that make them great. I disagree. What I want to see in comics are stories filtered through different lenses. I want to read books where there is an accurate reflection of global hue and culture. Whiteness and maleness should not be the default through which we read comics.
Like I stated earlier, there are all types of folks doing all kinds of wonderful things in comics. We all should be supporting the quality product. But the majority is still Seinfeld x Friends + Sex and the City + Costumed Vigilantism.
This gets me wondering…
Would rich and wealthy white men and women actually want to give up their freedom and privilege to become costumed vigilantes when the likelihood of them being caught is somewhere over 80%? Or is white privilege and a white centered world the very thing that would spur them to superheroics?
Treat this post as the thought experiment it is.
What is your take?