1966 was a landmark year in the history of the American comic book; it saw the introduction of the first regular black superhero to the roll-call of hip Pop Art icons. It’s worth bearing in mind that The Black Panther debuted in the pages of Marvel’s ‘The Fantastic Four’ several months before the formation of the actual Black Panther militant civil rights group, so there can be no accusations of cashing-in on the part of the character’s creators, legendary double act Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Further additions to the ‘ethnic minority’ league of superheroes came in the early 1970s, with the likes of The Falcon and Luke Cage, Power Man; the latter was a blatant attempt to capitalise on Hollywood’s ‘Blaxploitation’ era, though as a 70s child randomly picking up imported US Marvel comics, the skin colour of said superheroes wasn’t an issue; all that mattered to me then was whether or not the stories and (especially) the artwork were worth shelling out 6p for.
A lot has changed in forty years. Ever since the Marvel Corporation was purchased by the Disney Corporation, Marvel is not so much seen by the general public as a comic book business than as the source material for an ongoing motion picture franchise. The need to appeal to the movie industry’s imposed diversity agenda has seen Marvel’s line-up undergo the kind of severe PC surgery in recent months that smacks of pure tokenism rather than a natural reflection of the changing American idea of what constitutes a ‘hero’.
Not so long ago, Spider-Man’s secret identity was redesigned as that of a mixed-race adolescent; Ms Marvel – one of Marvel’s second division characters – was remodelled as a Pakistani immigrant for no reason other than a presumed need to tick a few politically-correct boxes; Norse God Thor received a sex-change during the same period, as did Iron Man, when millionaire playboy-cum-scientist Tony Stark made way for (in the words of Bonnie Greer) an African-American woman. The comic branch of Marvel seems to have bowed to external pressures and thrust the ‘ethnic’ members of its universe into the limelight whilst its movies continue to boast a largely white cast appealing to a largely white audience. No wonder its sales have plummeted.
In 2014, 9 out of 10 of the best-selling comic book titles were produced by Marvel; last year, following the aforementioned revamps, it could only claim 3 out of 10. Between 2015 and the beginning of this year, Marvel launched a ridiculous 104 new titles, with a quarter of them being resounding flops. It would appear the department upon which the entire Marvel industry was built is currently being run by right-on headless chickens responding to a perceived need for a narrow definition of diversity, without any real clue as to what it is that makes the superhero genre work. Even a Senior Marvel Executive, David Gabriel, has admitted as much, though was predictably forced to retract his honest observation when it received the usual howling accusations of racism.
From its 1930s beginnings, the superhero as a character was a square-jawed strongman clad in the skin-tight costume then more commonly associated with circus entertainers. He was a one-dimensional figure without any trace of an internal life because he had one simple function that didn’t require much in the way of existential analysis – to fight crime. All the superheroes that sprang from what comic book historians refer to as ‘The Golden Age’ – Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel et al – adhered to this successful formula. Wonder Woman was a novel deviation from the norm, but what essentially made her different was her sex; other than that, she was cut from the same cloth as her male counterparts.
It was only when Marvel rebranded itself as a major challenger to the dominance of DC via the launch of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961 that the superhero acquired a level of realism he had never previously possessed. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together their crime-fighting team with unique human failings at a point when the superhero medium was emerging from a lull in which it had been superseded by romance, crime and horror genres. The latter had sparked a moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic akin to the ‘Video Nasty’ scare of the early 80s; the violence in comics was also linked to juvenile delinquency, leading to the introduction of the censorious Comics Code Authority. Superheroes suddenly seemed a safe option again.
Marvel’s revolutionary redrawing of the boundaries of the genre included giving the bespectacled target of high-school bullies the ability to climb walls and spin webs. Poor Peter Parker always lost the girls to the jocks – probably like the majority of the Marvel readers – and this relatable factor was crucial; who could relate to Bruce Wayne, after all? But Parker’s new identity as Spider-Man came at a price; initially a TV star showing off his superpowers, he declines to intervene in a robbery, only for the criminal in question to then kill his uncle. This twist, which saddles Parker with intense guilt, provokes him into fighting crime thereafter. There had never been that kind of mature storytelling in superhero comics before.
Marvel’s phenomenal success in the 60s – and its extensive college-age readership – gave DC a kick up the arse, leading them to exploit the latent dark side of Bat Man and making him a far more interesting character in the process. The introduction of The Black Panther was a natural progression; Marvel were already reflecting the culture of the times, so a black superhero was an inevitable development rather than the knee-jerk response to a demand for diversity. By comparison, the recent rush to cobble together a line-up of PC-friendly superheroes feels like the decision of a focus group, characters created by committee; and the readership know this, which is why they’ve rejected them. Once again, the few are dictating their agenda to the many, and the end result is a disaster.
© The Editor