Sunday, April 25, 2010

Whitewash

In summer 2009, Marvel teased an upcoming Captain America storyline. They released secretive ads and hinted at something major, something that even the mainstream media might care about. It ended up being rather anticlimactic. The story was Reborn, featuring the resurrection of Steve Rogers (the original Cap), something everyone had expected to happen sooner than later.

This detail might be lost to time, but before the real story was revealed, there was a rumor that Captain America's mantle would be picked back up by Isaiah Bradley
, a black soldier enhanced by the same Super Soldier Serum as Rogers (detailed in the 2003 miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black). I, for one, hoped this would be the case. What better time than during the administration of the first black president for America's most patriotic hero be black as well?

It didn't happen, of course. Blond-haired blue-eyed Rogers came back. And
Isiaiah Bradley remains on the sidelines, as does the idea of a mainstream superhero whose skin isn't white. It's a huge blind spot in comics that should have been rectified years ago.

"But wait," you say. What about Cap's partner, the Falcon? What about Luke Cage and War Machine and Storm and Blade and Black Panther and Living Lightning and Shaman and Patriot (Isaiah Bradley's grandson)? But how many of them would you consider A-listers? None, though Cage and War Machine have the best current potential. How many have their own book? Only one by my current count, Black Panther.

Why is this?

Back in September 2009, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort made the following statement: "Because we're an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males ... whenever your leads are white American males, you've got a better chance of reaching more people overall."

On the surface this sounds perfectly logical, but underneath it's rather insidious. Brevoort is basically saying, "We're victims of the system being the way it is. There's nothing we can do about it." What if the American Colonists had held that attitude back in the late 1700's? "Because Britain is more established and powerful than us, we might as well accept that." If they hadn't decided to revolt, there'd be no Captain America at all. Or what if we take it even farther:
What if country clubs were to say: "Whites are the only ones who want to come here, so they're the only ones we'll ask to join." Oh wait, that actually happens? Is Brevoort okay with his logic applied in that way?

Furthermore, Brevoort's statement assumes that white comic book readers have made a conscious choice not to follow characters of color. He's insinuating that we white readers have such a narrow focus of interest and experience that if our heroes aren't white we won't be interested. There's no way to support this claim because it's never really been tested. Marvel hasn't exactly made a concerted effort to put out books with heroes of color. If they keep following the logic of fear, they never will.

And there's no excuse for that. It's a win-win. White readers would certainly benefit from reading about more non-white heroes, and more people of color might become fans if comic books were the one medium where they were actually reflected accurately and positively on a regular basis (it's not happening in TV or movies or video games, that's for sure). Expanding and diversifying your audience? Perish the thought.

For me, the worst part of all of this is that many fans celebrated Brevoort's comment for "refusing to be PC (politically correct)." Do you know what being anti-PC basically means these days? It means,
"I want to be able to say and do racist (and sexist and classist and homophobic) things without being made to feel bad for it." I don't think Brevoort was coming from that place, but he wasn't far away.

The bottom line is this: We need more people of color writing and drawing comic books, starring in comic books, and reading comic books, not more white editors telling us why these things aren't happening. And we need a damn black Captain America.

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