What Color Is Your Superhero?

By Adam Serwer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Friday was a Holy Day in superhero comic book Geek Nation. The much-hyped release of Watchmen, the movie adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel, got mixed reviews, but that did not diminish the high level of interest among comic book devotees.

But more interesting than the movie itself is the changing face of the new American comic book fanatic. The perennial image of the nerdy white suburban kid locked away in the basement with his boxes of comic books is no longer operative, because as America browns, the comic book audience is browning with it.

Ethnic diversity is worming its way into the panels of superhero comic books and into the legions of people who love them; the midnight lines for Watchmen were more diverse than they would have been 20 years ago. In Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the title character escapes into comic books, science fiction and role-playing games to cope with the miseries of his life. This further alienates the already shy, awkward and overweight Oscar from his peers in their Dominican-American neighborhood in New Jersey, because he can't share his geeky sensibilities with anyone.

But judging by the "diversity" of superheroes, storm troopers and anime Samurai who descended on midtown Manhattan for the New York Comic Con at the Jacob K. Javits Center last month, if Oscar had been born a decade later, he wouldn't have been so lonely. Issues of Spider-Man featuring nerd in chief Obama's smiling grill, now in its fourth printing, are hawked to the greedy crowd of geeks looking for the best comics swag. The throng of comics fans clad in homemade tributes to their favorite characters now includes heroes of color such as Mr. Terrific, Static Shock and Black Panther.

"Black urban youth have always identified [with superheroes], partly because the audience is downtrodden, and partly because [superheroes] always live in cities," says Jonathan Gray, who teaches a class on graphic novels at John Jay University. "The cops are hassling Spider-Man. Well, the cops harass me. Spider-Man rides the C Train, I ride the C train. . . . This is sort of a native audience."

Gray, a tall, slender man with long dreadlocks and a speckle of gray in his goatee, was attending a panel set up by Black Entertainment Television to promote its new prime-time animated series inspired by Marvel Comics' "Black Panther." A Stan Lee creation whose first appearance in 1966 predates Huey's party, Black Panther is the mainstream comics world's first black superhero and a sometime member of The Avengers.

Aiming to capitalize on the changing demographics of comic book fans, the affable former chief executive of BET, Reggie Hudlin, has been penning "Black Panther" as a side gig, bringing a racial sensibility to Marvel Comics that is helping to attract a more diverse audience.

"There's these other people who don't come into the comic book store, who come into it now because of Black Panther," boasts Hudlin.

And when it comes to race in comics, the big questions are not as other-worldly as one might think. Even at Comic Con, post-racialism rears its nagging, pleading head. One middle-aged man tells Hudlin how much he liked Black Panther as a kid, "because he wasn't just another black guy," and asks whether this will be the version of Black Panther who ends up on the show, suggesting that superheroes are the ultimate post-racial figures. "You know, when you put on a mask, you don't have skin color, you're just a hero like everybody else."

Hudlin lets the man down gently. "The character did not turn on his ethnicity," he says diplomatically, "but he was an African king. That's about as poignant a statement as you can make."

At Comic Con, the most poignant statement a fan can make is to dress up like his or her favorite comic book character, explains Mike, 29, who converted an expensive leather jacket into Mr. Terrific's sleek black leather uniform. The makeup on his face is formed into the black "T" that the super-intelligent Mr. Terrific uses to control his nanotech devices.

Mike, who traveled to New York from Maryland, says that the audience has changed in the nine years he has been attending comic book conventions. "I've seen more ethnic groups coming to the cons and dressing up. Even if they're not ethnic characters, they're still trying to put their own spin on it." Still, Mike says, comic book writers aren't giving black heroes enough play.

"I'm thinking, maybe now that we have a black president, we might actually have some black characters who are relevant."

It's possible. "Watchmen," for all its acclaim as a graphic novel, lacks any significant black characters. But during the Black Panther panel, one audience member addressed Marvel executive editor Axel Alonso, the company's first executive editor of Mexican descent, and said, "Two words: black avengers."

"You had me at 'black,' " Alonso replied with a laugh.

Adam Serwer is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.

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