Increasingly Diverse Representation in Marvel Superheroes - Hero Week


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of mikequozl.

In the past, the reigning idea of a typical comic book fan is pretty much one note: generally white, generally male, and generally straight. However, as with most generalizations, these are not entirely correct.

Fans of comic books can be male, female, transgender, gay, straight, queer, and every nationality from any country around the world. But, if you look at the pages of comic books–especially who is featured front and center–you wouldn’t know that the readership is much more diverse than the characters on the page.

Late last year, Marvel ruffled a few feathers when they announced the moniker of Ms. Marvel (a title first held by the blonde-haired white woman, Carol Danvers) would be passed on to a new hero: Kamala Khan, a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager.

Though Kamala isn’t the first Muslim character to be a comic book superhero–DC comics introduced Simon Baz, a Muslim Lebanese American man who became Green Lantern in 2012–she is another step in the right direction toward diverse representation for Marvel.

Marvel also broke ground in 2011 when they announced a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager would take over as Spider-Man. Marvel’s editor in chief, Axel Alonso, showed confidence in his new hero, Miles Morales, for a new generation of readers.

“What you have is a Spider-Man for the 21st century who’s reflective of our culture and diversity,” Alonso said. “We think that readers will fall in love with Miles Morales the same way they fell in love with Peter Parker.”

In terms of other representation, Marvel featured a wedding ceremony on the cover of issue #51 of it’s “Astonishing X-Men” series in 2012, between two male characters: Northstar and his partner, Kyle. Alonso said they were inspired by the legalization of gay marriage in New York State and how that would affect Northstar, “the first openly gay character in comics.”

More recently, though, Marvel is making headlines by diversifying its big three heroes: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America–names most people probably recognize from the company’s film studio, Marvel Studios, and their blockbuster franchise.

In the comics and on screen, the three heroes have been portrayed, predominantly, by straight, white men. However, Marvel announced in July that a new run of comics focusing on Thor would feature the hero as a woman.

For those wondering how that may be possible, Marvel editor Wil Moss explained that the mantle of Thor is decided by his hammer, Mjolnir. The inscription on Mjolnir reads: whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worth, shall possess the power of Thor. But, just because the inscription says “he” doesn’t mean a woman cannot wield the hammer.

Jason Aaron, who will write the new Thor series, was quick to point out that the new hero will still retain the title.

“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,” Aaron said.

Aaron also wanted to make it clear that having a woman take up the mantle of Thor is not a public relations stunt, nor is it something he or those at Marvel are taking lightly.

“It’s not like we sat around and threw a dart on the wall to change the gender of a character,” Aaron said. “This was my idea. This wasn’t Marvel coming to me. This isn’t me throwing away what I’ve been doing.”

Following on the heels of the new Thor, Marvel also announced a new character would be taking over the moniker of Captain America, previously held by Steve Rogers. Now, Sam Wilson, who some may know as Falcon (either in the comic books or Marvel Studio’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), will pick up the red, white, and blue shield.

When the news was announced, series writer Rick Remender said the shift in Captain America is change he’s been working toward for two years in the comics.

“This is the fireworks factory we’re arriving at, and now everything’s going to blow up and be very pretty and exciting to look at. It leads into an evolution of Steve Rogers’ character that I had very early when I was given the job,” Remender said. “I think that it’s important with these stories to do things that are natural and make sense and have an inherent logic to the universe, but are also constantly shifting and exciting, keeping the drama high. In order to do that it really comes down to creating new dynamics.”

With all these changes to the Marvel superheroes, there has been pushback from comic book fans—mostly from the straight, white male readers. However, as Sana Amanat, a Marvel editor, pointed out on Twitter, it’s not about those readers.

“Hate on the new Thor, Cap or Ms. Marvel all you want–the idea behind them is so much bigger than just YOU. It’s about #representation.”

Additionally, Brian Michael Bendis, the writer behind Miles Morales, said that the best stories and comic series are the ones that push the envelope, that do something new and previously unseen in the work of comics.

Plus, all the yelling might be falling on deaf ears.

“I will tell you, almost across the board for comic creators, if you yell in their face they’re just going to do it more. That is not the way to stop them from doing whatever they’re doing with Emma Frost,” Bendis said. “Do not yell at me. I’ll do it more, I’ll lean into it. And I won’t even realize I’m doing it.”

By the numbers, Marvel’s push for diversity has so far been successful. The first issue of Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel run received a sixth printing. For the non comic-savvy, Marvel prints a certain number of copies of each issue, and depending on demand, will print more copies in a second printing, and so on. That means there is enough of a demand for the first issue of Ms. Marvel that the company printed it a sixth time.

The new Thor, the new Ms. Marvel, and the new Captain America are here to stay. Though they may not represent the stereotypical comic book reader, they offer a more realistic reflection of those who buy and read comics.

The fans may not accept that yet, but it seems Marvel–all the way from the top editors down to the writers and artists–have realized this fact: diversity may not necessarily sell comics, but it does tell the best stories.