With Arms Wide Open, or, Ms. Marvel, John Stewart and Neal Adams

An old, old comic book.

An old, old comic book.

For the last several weeks Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast has featured a three-part interview with veteran comic book artist Neal Adams, perhaps best known for his time on Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. The interview is truly fascinating, and worth a listen even for those who aren’t fans of comic books or Batman.

But me? I’m a young buck. I started reading comics with the New 52 and Marvel Now. How relevant can a guy who’s been drawing comics for forty something years be to my refined, modern comic book sensibilities?

The most. The most relevant.

In episode 53 of Fat Man on batman Adams discusses his creation of John Stewart, the third Green Lantern of Earth and a black American. Of the previous Green Lanterns, Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner, Adams noted how skeptical he had been that twice an Oan power ring found its way to Earth and twice it decided that the being most capable of overcoming great fear on the entire planet was a cocky white guy.

Adams was met with apprehension in 1971, when he created John Stewart, but he fought and now Stewart is still ring-slinging 43 years later. But while that apprehension may have died down a degree in the past decades, it clearly still exists to some extent.

Superman is only black when he’s from Earth 23. Spider-Man is only black in the Ultimate universe. And we clearly aren’t getting a black Lex Luthor.

But those are established characters with established identities. Arguments can certainly be made for their racial homogenization. Well founded, worthwhile arguments. Really, really enlightened arguments.  You know, like all the detractors that spoke up when Donald Glover was a rumored contender for Spider-Man.

The one and only OG Fury.

The one and only OG Fury.

After all, that kind of thing never works. Superman’s always been white and Nick Fury’s always been black.

But established characters aside, it’s near impossible for a new character to break into comics. Superman and Batman are both 75 years old now. They’re known entities. You can pick up any piece of material about the Man of Steel of the Dark Knight and have a pretty solid understanding of what’s going down. How does a new character compete with that? Particularly one that doesn’t align with the white male aesthetic the comic book industry continues to perpetuate?

The answer is the pretty much don’t. The ongoing Static Shock series was one of the first cancellations in the New 52. Cyborg is the only member of the primary Justice League without a solo series. Simon Baz, the Muslim-American Green Lantern introduced by Geoff Johns, who is badass as hell, has all but disappeared. Never mind the fact that more than half the women in comics have costumes that could be repurposed by a stripper with zero effort or alteration needed.

There’s an inherent whiteness and an inherent adolescence and an inherent masculinity to mainstream comics that Neal Adams’ John Stewart story highlights.

They’re inherencies that had me very worried for the All-New Marvel Now series Ms. Marvel, which debuted last week.

RING ATTACK

RING ATTACK

Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, is a 16-year old girl, a practicing Muslim and the daughter or Pakistani immigrants. You know, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent.

Much has been made of the new Ms. Marvel’s ethnic and religious identity to include no small amount of press. Shortly before the books release several Marvel writers took to Twitter defending the book from detractors whose primary complaint seemed to be “I am not a girl, I am not a Muslim, why would I read a comic about someone who is nothing like me?”

Leaving aside the fact that the run-of-the-mill comic book reader is nothing like any superhero because, you know, super powers and the fact that claiming to have nothing in common with anyone who lives in the same time and place as you is willfully obtuse, I offer my counterargument:

Why wouldn’t you read a book about someone entirely different from you?

The power of literature is its ability to expose us to new ideas and perspectives. I will never be a Nazi experiment fusing a man, a dolphin and a Great White shark. But when I read Peter Benchley’s White Shark, I get some insight into what that romp might be like. The same could be said for Ms. Marvel, which in its first issue alone lent me perspective not only on the tightrope act of balancing cultural identities, but also on just straight up being a 16-year old girl.

There’s a scene in Ms. Marvel #1 in which Kamala’s father refuses to allow her to go to a party, stating that it’s not her he doesn’t trust but the world around her. I’ve expressed that exact sentiment before, but Ms. Marvel made me eat my own words, putting me on the receiving end. I gained perspective. What I don’t trust is my problem, not the problem of those around me.

Whoops.

GRAPH PAPER ATTACK

GRAPH PAPER ATTACK

One issue in and I’ve gained some perspective. But hey, that’s literature.

Needless to say, had Ms. Marvel not been a well written book all of this would be moot. Praising a subpar product because it features a member of a minority group feels like some sort of perverse, PC tokenism. But the writing (G. Willow Wilson) and art (Sara Pichelli) in Ms. Marvel #1 are on point. Tying the book into the Inhumanity event was perfect and Kamala’s choice in transformation, upon discovering she is a shape-shifter, is a smart, scathing indictment of comic book and geek culture.

It’s good stuff.

And despite the aforementioned defensive tweets that would imply otherwise, I couldn’t actually find any Ms. Marvel haters on the internet. Even when I Googled “Ms. Marvel haters.” Which leads me to believe that the problem with diversity in comics has nothing to do with comic book readers, but the comic book publishers. Perhaps terrified of any loss in sales that could come with any change in the tried-and-true superhero tropes of old it’s the comic book publishers who’ve kept instances of diversity few and far between.

Neal Adams’ story of the creation of John Stewart ends with his recounting a generation of fans offering a resounding “who?” upon learning the Green Lantern live-action movie would feature the origin of Hal Jordan, rather than the most prominent Green Lantern of my childhood, John Stewart.

DC may have expressed apprehension at the prospect of a black Green Lantern (not to be confused with a green Black Lantern) but the fans didn’t. Forty three years later the comic book industry is clearly still apprehensive about men who aren’t white and women who wear clothing, but as the fans have proven with John Stewart before and Kamala Khan now, they are not.

I couldn’t get Ms. Marvel at my regular comic shop. It sold out the afternoon it hit shelves. When I finally did find it in a different store I managed to grab the last issue available. The book is already scheduled for a second printing and hit #1 on Marvel’s digital sales charts.

With success like that coupled with the fact that Ms. Marvel #1 is a legitimately good comic book, it’s only a matter of time before the comic book industry figures out what Neal Adams and the rest of us have known all along: if three Green Lantern rings come to Earth, they are not going to land on three white male fingers.

For more Pony Tricks coverage of Ms. Marvel #1, check out Episode 11 of the Pony Tricks Comic Cast.

For more on gender diversity in entertainment:

More Like Womb Raider

Deep Blue Sea and Feminism

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2 thoughts on “With Arms Wide Open, or, Ms. Marvel, John Stewart and Neal Adams

  1. Well written piece. I disagree though. When I was growing up, I didn’t care what race the superhero was. I only cared if the story was good. Black Panther is black, so what. Is he a good character to follow. He was. I liked him. Brother Vodoo, I didn’t get into as much. Maybe because I was starting to fade with comicbooks a little. But certainly not because he was black. John Stewert? Good story, I liked it. Turns out he was a cocky brother, not much different from the cocky white guys. Why’s that not mentioned. Probably to be PC. The new mutants, plenty of different races in that. Didn’t care one lick. Liked the stories and the Sienkiewicz art. This whole idea that there is so white thing in superhero comics seems silly to me. As a kid, I never even considered it. Today, maybe I would, because, even as kids we are more attuned to everything, but even there I’m not sure. If Peter Parker had been black, I would have still loved Spider-man. If Doctor Strange had been a Muslim, it still would have been the same character to me. Now as a story paradigm, using the differences in race to tell a story a out that race, and how in a different society the norms of that culture might clash with the culture they are in, well that’s an interesting storyline, and could be very informative. But beyond that who cares? If Aquaman was Mexican, would that really matter? To me, making the Kingpin BLACK in the Daredevil movie was racist. Here is a big evil guy, scary…let’s make him black! Dumb on every level. It didn’t improve the story. It didn’t inform the character. It did nothing, but add to a stereotype. The story is king. Always. Who populates is almost incidental. If you were blind your whole life, you wouldn’t even have any idea what we are talking about. And that’s probably a good thing.

    • Thanks for reading, Spark. All excellent points. When I’m writing posts like this or my Race in Games posts in the back of my head I know there’s a strong possibility I’m reading too much into it, but I stand by them.

      I absolutely agree that story comes first. However, when an entire industry by and large seems content with white-washing its cast of characters I think they simultaneously limit the kinds of stories they can tell.

      You don’t get the story of Simon Baz, the fifth Green Lantern who receives his power ring while being interrogated in Gitmo, by using exclusively white characters.

      Likewise, I think Ms. Marvel represents a book taking a similar path and telling a story that is enriched because of the diversity of its characters.

      Making a character black for the sake of making a character black seems like little more than an empty PC gesture and I’m certainly not advocating the media start creating more diverse characters just so they can check off a box. But I think that when a writer commits to creating a character from a background beyond the well-beaten path of white dudes in capes, it opens up narratives that aren’t otherwise possible.

      I’m a white male, so I’ve never had to deal with any semblance of a lack of representation in media. But when I read an interview on ScreenCrave with Djimon Hounsou where he talks about taking a role in Guardians of the Galaxy because “I have a four-year old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes. One day he looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’ That was sort of a shock. This is why I am excited to be a part of the Marvel Universe, so I could be hopefully provide [sic] that diversity in the role of the superhero,” I can’t help but wonder about the effects of white-washing entertainment.

      All this is to say, the story absolutely is king. I just want to read stories I haven’t read a hundred times over in various iterations and I want to read stories that lend me a perspective I don’t have already in my everyday life.

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