Marvel Comics Is Calling Black Minds To Breathe New Life Into Its Heroes
There’s a shift happening in the Marvel Universe. Last month (Nov. 28), Marvel released issue No. 1 of a new run of Ironheart, a comic about a teenage black girl named Riri Williams who uses her engineering genius to create a suit modeled after the Iron Man body armor and gets the endorsement from Tony Stark himself. But this new series isn’t written by a known comic book author; it’s penned by Eve Ewing (photographed above, left), a sociologist at University of Chicago and an Afrofuturist poet, essayist and visual artist. But just months earlier, instead of fictional superheroes, Ewing released a book that's as real as it gets—Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side.
The hire continues Marvel’s recent focus on its minority heroes, and the creative teams behind their stories. In an increase to have more talent that fits the characters they want to explore, Marvel Comics has added writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (photographed above, right), Roxane Gay, Geoffrey Thorne, Evan Narcisse, Bryan Hill, Nnedi Okorafor, David Walker and Ewing to pen the adventures of various comic characters all over the Marvel Comics landscape. The recent influx of black writers is helping turn the tide from white writers always handling the stories of black heroes, and combating what has been a lack of color in the pool of mainstream comics.
The demand gradually grew for characters and creators of color to be featured more prominently than was previously allowed. An increased focus on a wider array of characters and creators with diverse voices were needed to give a better picture to Marvel's motto, “The world outside your window.” Throughout the years, Marvel has had projects aimed at primarily black fan bases that have been met with both praise and criticism. In 2015 during the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” publishing initiative, former Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso announced that they would release “hip-hop themed” covers for their new wave of No. 1’s. “This variant program is an opportunity to show not only my love for hip-hop culture, but also the love of so many in Marvel’s freelance community,” Alonso said at the time in a statement. “Hip-hop inspires a lot of us. It is the musical score for a lot of our lives. This comes from a place of love.” The statement sounded great, but it came across as hollow since Marvel wasn’t enlisting black talent aside from those covers at the time.
“I didn’t consider it as much a nod to black fans since rap albums are as popular and mainstream as it gets. It does seem like an acknowledgment of hip-hop fans’ well-cataloged historical love of comic books on the surface, but it made sense from a business standpoint to potentially sell more units,” said comic expert Dart Adams. Still, Adams isn’t impressed by the new run of people of color. “Nothing makes up for Marvel not seeking out or turning over the reins over to black/Latino/Asian creators and women over the years or being late to do it now.”
Former comic blogger David Brothers spoke at length about the Marvel hip-hop covers in a 2015 post on his blog. “Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could,” Brothers wrote. “Storm is the highest profile black character in comics. But she’s mostly been written by white men, and a very small fraternity of black men, throughout the decades. … Shouldn’t a black lady get a chance at bat?”
David Walker, a past Marvel writer, spoke to VIBE via email about the specific conundrum facing black characters and the audience. “The reality is that people of color and women make up an incredible percentage of the people who are fans of comics and the ancillary markets fed by comics. We're talking more than half of the audience is women and people of color. And yet those numbers are not reflected in the talent creating the content, or the content itself. Publishers are trying to tap into black talent because it has proven in other media that it can make money.”
Since then, Marvel has recognized some of its faults and aimed to correct them. Not only have characters like Black Panther and Luke Cage become more prominent in the public eye, but other figures like The Falcon, Nighthawk, Ironheart, Patriot (Rayshaun Lucas), Moon Girl, Miles Morales, Shuri and the Dora Milaje in the comics have had small rebirths and continuations of their own with multiple titles and creators of color expanding on their stories. Comics are a medium that allows for the realism and fantastical to intersect and to be explored. Nighthawk, written by David Walker, drawn by Ramon Villalobos and colored by Tamara Bonvillain, starred the pair of Raymond and Tilda as the lethal protectors of Chicago and in six issues battled corrupt crime, white supremacy, and spoke on the well-being of a city that continues to face the various injustices he fought in the pages of the six-issue series. Nighthawk was a series that put real-world topics under the lens that other series rarely explore. That’s one of the liberties of taking a character not widely known or shelved and allowing a creator to let loose with them.
The surge of black writers that Marvel is grabbing to headline seasoned and newer characters of color is an upward trend that’s worth commenting on and a good sign of change for the company.
“It’s a long time coming. I wish it would’ve happened sooner and I hope all of these titles succeed,” Adams said. “I also hope that these well-regarded writers and creators like myself from the music journalism world who have been immersed in comic book culture get an opportunity or a look as well.” David Brothers said he likes the surge, “but I want black and other non-white writers to be entrenched in the industry, rather than being something that's sprinkled around here and there as needed. It's important for non-white creators to add their voices to the stories of non-white characters who've been bereft of their perspective for decades. It's also important for the marquee white characters to have input from non-white voices. With this in mind, I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates on Captain America with Leinil Yu is arguably a bigger step forward than Brian Stelfreeze and Coates on Black Panther.
“What's most important with this surge is that it doesn't become a surge at all. It needs to become an accepted part of a landscape,” Brothers continues. “Six non-white writers working at Marvel right now is a good thing, but what are the numbers gonna be like next year? The year after that? How long before we get a black writer on a long run like Dan Slott on Spider-Man? That would feel like true progress to me, rather than a step on a path that could end at any moment.”
Writers like Rodney Barnes and Bryan Hill are recent additions to Marvel tasked with creating black characters. Barnes wrote the recently-created Rayshaun Lucas, who would become the new Patriot during the Secret Empire storyline. Hill wrote Afro-Latino youngster Miles Morales as Spider-Man, co-created by Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2011 to take over the mantle after the highly-publicized "Death of Peter Parker" storyline. Morales is the lead protagonist in the new hit film Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse, which webbed $35 million at the box office in its opening weekend.
"Superheroes are our modern myths. If we're going to have a healthy society, those myths have to be about all of us." – Saladin Ahmed
"Miles, is sort of the modern version of the Marvel ideal, which is a superhero that's an ordinary person confronted with hard choices and isn't a perfect, God-like figure but is just a regular person trying to do right," said Saladin Ahmed, who is taking over writing duties for the character in Miles Morales: Spider-Man, in a call with VIBE. "Back in the day that was Peter Parker but we're in a different era now. America looks different than it looked in 1962 and the things kids are dealing with is so different. ... He's black, he's also Puerto Rican, he's from Brooklyn, he's a little hipper maybe than Peter was. I think there's a reason a whole generation of fans is latching onto him."
“With superheroes in particular, they're really our modern myths," he continued. "The myths and the stories that a society tells, a culture tells, that tells you who can be a hero or villainized–and if we’re going to have anything like a healthy society that looks like all of us, then those myths have to be about all of us. The heroes in those myths have to look like and have names like all of us. There’s a separate question which is, creators. I don’t think the solution to a long, long lack of diversity is to have on-screen or on the page diversity but still have the same group of folks telling the story. I think it goes hand-in-hand.”
Rodney Barnes said his time on the Falcon series was a “tough task for a couple of reasons. It was my first time writing a comic so my rookie shortcomings were glaring, but it was an honor as well because the character did have the aforementioned legacy. It was truly an honor. It was a challenge. I’d always wanted to take Falcon out of the Steve Rogers space and place him in a world that demanded more from him emotionally. In some ways it worked and in others not so much. But it was an invaluable lesson.”
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Bryan Hill echoes some of the same sentiments about his recently released Miles Morales Annual. “For my Miles story, I used my own experience as a scholarship kid growing up, being poor around a bunch of (usually well-intentioned) kids that had a lot of family money. The imposter syndrome of it all. Those things wound up in the story, for sure. In that case, I think my experience added to the narrative, but I'm always looking for ways to put myself into the work. When I write Bruce Wayne for DC Comics, I draw on the grief and anger I felt after I lost my father as a kid. I'm always looking for ways in that stem from my life experience, but I want to be an example that writers of color can approach anything, any character and craft an effective story. I want to shatter those assumptions of interest and ability that are rooted solely in concepts of racial identity. If a white writer has a great story for Adonis Creed, then I want to see that story and if a black writer has a great take on Superman, well I want to see that story, too.”
With the recent additions of Coates, Gay, Okorafor and Dr. Ewing, black characters are getting their stories told not by traditional comic writers, but academics and authors. In 2015, word of Ta-Nehisi Coates being the writer of Black Panther caused a stir given his background as an author of black issues. He’s a superfan of Marvel Comics in general and his background delivered a long-term story that dived into the politics of Wakanda changing the nation forever, and T’Challa and Shuri’s roles as people. It also expanded Black Panther’s corner of the Marvel Universe into a full-blown section that allowed for Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda, Nnedi Okorafor’s Wakanda Forever trilogy installment, Coates and Yona Harvey’s Black Panther and The Crew and a slew of digital books all relating back to Black Panther. While the film appearance in Captain America: Civil War and his solo film may have pushed Black Panther into a household name in pop culture, the comics are going through a continued renaissance.
With World of Wakanda, Gay (a professor and New York Times best-selling essayist and novelist) and Harvey (a poet and an assistant professor at University of Pittsburgh) were the first black women to write for Marvel. It was a series that continued the story of two lovers, Ayo and Aneka, who were doubting their mission as members of Black Panther's Dora Milaje team of women guards and striking out on their own to find themselves. It was something different for the Marvel Universe: a series about black queer women that provided a love story while positioning them as more than background characters.
On the same hand, there’s a point surrounding who Marvel has enlisted to write black characters and stories. Writers like Coates, Gay, Ewing and Okorafor aren't known for writing comics but for their works on Afrofuturism, identity, black issues and politics. The approach has some longtime readers excited for the opportunity of new blood.
“It’s important to get writers that can handle certain subject matter, nuance and provide believable character arcs for a wide array of stories that traditional comic book creators have blind spots about,” Adams said. “These shortcomings are why we’ve critiqued certain titles and the handling of certain storylines.”
Brothers believes that enlisting these writers, despite them not having comic writing backgrounds, isn't as off-the-wall as it seems.
“Why wouldn't they [write comics]? Smarty-art types like rap music and superhero movies like anyone else, and comics can be a startlingly immediate way to connect with an audience,” he surmised. “It's a storytelling form like anything else, and big thinkers aren't new to the genre. If anything, they bring a perspective that we should always welcome, because the more meat there is on the bones of comics, the better everything is overall.”
Bryan thinks it's important that “writers be able to write whatever characters they want to write and can write well. “What's important to me is being an example that a person of color, a writer of color, isn't someone you only call when you have a character of color. That's limiting in another way, the expectation of perspective, of ability. Are there specific experiences I can invest into a black character from my own life? Sometimes, I see opportunities to bleed a little bit into a character.”
“I think it’s a great thing,” Barnes said. "Writers from different perspectives bring nuance and specificity to the stories they tell. The music may sound different to the untrained ear but that doesn’t diminish its quality.”
“I think there's definitely a conversation to be had about how those people were recruited. Relatively unknown white guys get on all the time, but when it comes to non-white folks, it's generally a group of people with outside buzz who get on at the big publishers," Barnes said. "The question of why that is, and what we can do about it, is an absolutely vital conversation to have. It's the only way people will understand how to move forward from here, rather than regurgitating the same process we're stuck in now, where there are a—for lack of a better phrase—Talented Tenth who get a shot, while everyone who's been grinding away at comics for years remains in the indies. It's a nuanced conversation to have, but I think it'd be a valuable one.”
In the meantime, readers will still have a dose of color to enjoy in their comics—and that's a welcome change to the game.