Comic books, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the search for diversity

2021-12-22 06:33:14 By : Ms. Mandy TJRFID

When Jorge Santos first saw "Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," he felt “it was a kind of an outlier” in Marvel movies, but he hopes it soon won’t be. Pop culture, as illustrated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is making strides toward diversity, both representational and narrative, but there is still a ways to go, according to Santos and other local experts who have watched the trend.

Santos, who is associate professor of English at The College of the Holy Cross, was interviewed by last month for his impressions of the new publication, "Marvel’s Voices: Comunidades." He teaches classes in American Cultural Studies and societal issues as reflected in comics and graphic narrative. The first issue of the "Comunidades"series was published on Dec. 8 and the series will turn the spotlight on Latinx heroes and creators from the Marvel Universe. 

"Shang Chi" is not one of Marvel’s first attempts at diversification, but earlier comics featuring LatinX and Muslim characters, said Santos, were based on stereotypes and poor writing. “I find them to be well intentioned but that’s not enough.” But the MCU offers a chance to “readapt and redefine them — it’s a Marvel tradition.” That impulse to try again is what’s important to him, and he thinks Marvel can build something out of those old ideas, if they stay committed to them. 

The first 10 minutes of "Shang-Chi" are in Mandarin with English subtitles, differentiating itself through the use of a non-English language as a vehicle for the plot, and not just casually peppered in for flavor. “It was a refreshing change,” said Santos, “usually, they [the characters] use English, but you know they’re not speaking it in the story." If that were the case, he reasons, why not just have the characters speak the language they’re supposed to?

Growing up as he did in a mixed language home with Spanish and English, he said it was great to watch an early scene showing an Asian immigrant family switching between Chinese and English at home. “'Shang-Chi' does a great job of using a different, more nuanced experience, of a different kind of life to texture the story consistently without having to stop everything and make it very clear that these people are not like white people. All that texture makes worlds thought out and lived in — makes it feel fuller.”

It’s been said that comics books are a true American art form. Often considered quintessential Americana, the impulse to see one's self reflected in the art form seems natural.  

Santos spent his childhood with cousins in the barrios of Houston and Galveston, fascinated by super heroes. “But, as Salvadoreans, we had no characters to see ourselves in, so naturally, we gravitated to the ones that anyone could imagine themselves as. So many of our favorites – 'Transformers,' 'Ninja Turtles,' 'The Power Rangers' – either had no racial identity or at least one that was easy to ignore. Basically, anyone could be a turtle, or an Autobot or a Decepticon or the Red Ranger.”

Sorana Gatej of That’s Entertainment, the comic book/card game/tabletop gaming mecca in Worcester, was clear that comics always reflect current times — more so than novels. For them, as a store in a pop culture community, Marvel moving toward diversity and inclusion of all minorities has been very positive. “Comics touch on what’s happening now and encompass political, social and all aspects of life that are relevant, and people will identify with that,” she said. Television shows, according to her, are the only ones that can match that level of commentary because “there’s something for everybody in comics.” 

The trend toward diversity has been relatively rapid and more so now than even in the past year, said Gatej. “Folks are feeling comfortable enough to ask about certain sections or books without feeling judged or marginalized. It’s nice to see that they can come here and feel comfortable — it’s a good feeling at the end of the day.” After all, comics and graphic novels with diverse characters is expanding the readership community and “we can talk about how Batman or how Superman’s son is now gay.” 

Commenting on why the trend to diversify in comics and MCU has accelerated, Santos summed it up when he said

“Necessity is the mother of invention," Santos said regarding the trend to diversify. "The biggest complaint about the MCU, outside of representation, is that their movies are so formulaic, so they had to do something.”

Diversity is one option to address that can lead to substantial changes in characters and structure that can shake up the formula. Representational diversity with a different kind of character and narrative diversity with different kinds of stories built on different societies can both be employed — and one can often lead to the other.  By way of examples, making a movie set in China or a movie set in a secret African nation can make for new story lines about other walks of life, and both movies led from representational diversity to narrative diversity.  Adding diversity to pop culture normalizes "otherness" and reflects the diversity in society better.  

Despite being a Marvel superfan, Santos used to joke with his students that if Marvel put out another movie where the hero has to fight the dark version of themselves at the end, he was going to stop watching. It seems he wasn’t the only one feeling that way, as Marvel addressed that by bringing in new creators and directors — indie directors and those associated with other types of movies. As a result, both "Shang-Chi" and "The Eternals," as well as other movies in the “MCU Phase 2” era, are narratively structured very differently. Knowing for sure that LatinX creators are at the table is important to Santos because otherwise, he said, he is “always on alert that diversity is only brochure material.”

Ordering comics for That’s Entertainment, Pete Beaudoin has a slightly different take — that the pursuit of diversity should be done carefully. While he admits there has certainly been an attempt to show people of various backgrounds with different levels of success, he feels that readers often feel their favorite characters were sidelined, seemingly for the sake of diversity.

A number of characters such as Captain America, Thor, Hulk and others who starred in the movies, were replaced either with female or non-white versions in the comics, all roughly at the same time.

“Readership struggled and it wasn’t because of bad writing or art, but just the change in characters,” said Beaudoin. A successful change in character can only be judged in terms of sales, he said, a retailer at heart. 

“People would so much rather see a new character,” said Beaudoin, though he admits that creating a new character is daunting in any franchise, be it movies or comic books. “That’s why so many movies are remakes and the equivalent in comics is a replacement or spin-off character.” Of the latter two, a spin-off is often better received because it can co-exist with an older beloved character and “nobody gets offended, but with a replacement, all of a sudden, a beloved character is sidelined and replaced with a riff on them.” 

Beaudoin suggested that people who are into science fiction and pop culture tend to be more obsessed with continuity, the most loved and hated word in comics. They feel that you “can’t make Spider-Man multi-ethnic because he’s been white since 1962,” but loved the Miles Morales character in "Spider-Man." This might explain the backlash against the consideration of Donny Glover, a Black man, as Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man" movies, a role that eventually went to Andrew Garfield.

However, even a massive fan backlash over a rumor casting a Black actor as Spider-Man can help make progress toward diversity. Santos said that the controversy was the inspiration for the Black Miles Morales character, who takes on the role of Spider-Man alongside Peter Parker.

An explanation for the resistance to change among fans, said Beaudoin, is the fact that the average comic reader is not 15 years old but 35 or 40 years old. Santos agreed that “fan bases are loyal, committed and tend to be — especially in the '80s and '90s — largely white males.” So the average reader has a long history with comics and people stick with what is familiar. They view comics as their safe space — where they had agency, especially due to the culture Marvel promoted (Stan Lee’s fan letters, taking suggestions) which fostered a feeling of ownership among the fans, especially when comics were passed on to other writers who were themselves fans. Santos suggested that, to them, it felt like their space was invaded by political correctness and the popularization of these characters may have frustrated the old school fans.

Marvel may keep an ear to the ground after a rumor and notice if something angers a big part of their fan base but they do go ahead sometimes. An example is Iceman from the "X-Men" comics who had been around since 1962 but about 10 years ago, Marvel had him come out as gay, which probably alienated some readers but now it’s accepted. 

While it’s great that Marvel is planning to showcase LatinX voices, they have not always succeeded with the inclusion of people of color in the past. Minorities in general may have some political connotations, such as when Black Panther refers to Black oppression. Santos was open about his frustration, as a fan, that the MCU films have a tendency to either depoliticize these characters or to reduce any troubling politics to one character then kill that character off. So much of the social and political commentary that defines these characters is edited because Marvel may want to limit the politics from taking center stage. 

For example, Killmonger from "Black Panther," who is critical of the West and invested in overthrowing the colonizing powers, met his end in the movie. “All the critical commentary on the West got put in the villain and then they killed him off — it shows the fear of being political.” He also pointed out that the "Civil War" comic storyline was essentially about the Patriot Act, but the movies made the conflict more personal. While it was still about Iron Man versus Captain America, the 9/11 allegory and politics were toned down. 

Gatej reflected on how the diverse representation of narratives and characters is a reflection of visitors to the Worcester store of That’s Entertainment, referencing the Pride month display that the store set up — gay, lesbian, feminist themes are more common in graphic novels and comics. “It brought more folks to our store — allowed folks to feel more comfortable and included here and now we have had an LGBTQ section for little over a year, that we had to expand on because there was an interest.”

She says that the themes run across all platforms, including manga, graphic novels and comics. “Literally, every type of person under the sun can find a theme, and I love that our store is so diverse that we can all get together and talk about pop culture and geek out.”