Superman is a White Boy
by J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)
So here’s what you already know.
American superhero comics today present White male power fantasies in sequential art for meager and dwindling profits. When television production companies and feature film studios greenlight action dramas that feature mainstream superheroes, the visual narratives they offer display muscular Anglo-Saxon men upgraded with special abilities who oppose nefarious, off-kilter Eurotrash to preserve public safety. Token women and people of color bestow selfless assistance, and our protagonists foil their deranged nemeses’ dastardly plans. Roll credits. Stunt sequences that feature Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will no doubt add amazing grace under assault rifle fire in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Chris Evans’ brawny blond Captain America plays the Hero, the last best defense freedom deploys against global catastrophe.
Pretty standard, right?
And if you read comic books where men incite hope by flying unassisted with flapping scarlet capes or watch trained martial artists shoot arrows with perfect accuracy at moving targets or enjoy quirky teenage Millennials spray spiderwebs to swing through Manhattan like frenzied lost acrobats, chances are this monochrome status quo does not faze. How can it? White people are the stars and the scenery in comic books, the standard and the outlier. If comics, like all speculative fiction, imagine a recognizable tomorrow today, the American comic industry – Warner Brothers executives and DC Comics editors and Justice League of America pencillers and Wednesday single-issue comic buyers alike – continues to print and purchase stories set in a world where humanity is White and human variation is never heroic.
Race and gender minority superheroes present pale knockoffs of the White male power fantasies that transcended comic panels decades ago. What was Manhunter but a low budget Nightwing who replaced the tonfa with a glowing metal rod? Under Reginald Hudlin’s pen, Black Panther explicitly devolved into an African Captain America, known more for marrying the most famous African superhero in American comics than his own exploits. Often it’s more obvious than the Panther: Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan and Tony Stark all have protégé heroes of color whose diversity splash carbon copies their predecessors’ methods and abilities. Cassandra Cain, John Stewart and James Rhodes vary widely in popularity; in comics, ancient history trumps modern innovation. Nothing ever really changes in panel, so audiences are trained to prefer old-money discipline, test-pilot adrenaline, and Silicon Valley snark over high-melanin’s mute, brooding, and warlike.
In our world, the most famous, most powerful, most influential superhero ever devised is a straight White man. Here, meaningful diversity in superhero comics is not possible. The superhero concept is a racial construct, used primarily to derive profit from printing White male power fantasies ad nauseam for a core audience of ostracized children. Nostalgia generates revenue. Lest we forget, the 616 Universe and the New 52 write action dramas that operate under certain observable laws.
• Death is relative.
• Gravity exists, but most metahumans ignore its pull.
• Lucky genetics confer cosmos ending power.
• With great power, comes endless excuses for new and more horrible tragedy.
• Three percent body fat physiques do not require exercise.
• Strong wills, not quantum mechanics, manipulate fundamental physical laws.
And heroism, in word and deed and mind, is a White thing.
Some supportive comic media critics implore us to regard the irrepressible Whiteness Golden and Silver Age comics exult as historical happenstance, a coincidental and unimportant default imagery used by comic writers and artists to denote humanity, with no racial intention whatsoever. This logic is flawed, but seductive. When Superman and Batman and Spider-Man reflect universal archetypes, audience race and gender and class and religion and intellect and athleticism melt into a meaningless ether defined only by hope, justice, and great responsibility. The militarized identity boundaries that separate us from our fellow men decompose, and a fluid transcendence replaces musty old divisions. In essence, nerds of color can imagine themselves kissing cirrocumulus clouds amid the chilly troposphere as the iconic S-curl above their inviting warm brow collects ice crystals while dawn breaks in heavenly perfection. When Whiteness is default and race is meaningless, we can believe that all men are created equal, we can believe that all men can fly.
We should avoid surprise when the darker nation’s comic fans applaud cross-racial casting of traditionally White male superhero roles, when rampant blerds dream of Lupita Nyong’o as their favorite midnight mutant, when nerds of color petition for an Asian American Iron Fist amid popular Netflix’s new-age straight-to-video. Social inclusion’s desperate yearning drips from each example; these are conformist cries, conservative activism from patient racial integrationists whose most fervent plea is to wake up one beautiful Wednesday morning replete with azure skies above singing bluejays and freshly-cut neighborhood lawns, step out of queen-sized Sleep Number luxuriousness, speed through a hot shower and foamy shave, wolf down egg whites and orange Tropicana, and drive toward cubicle drudgery after wet kisses for the patient wife and strong hugs for the babbling infant, stopping only to bound into the local comic book shop’s hermetically sealed cacophony to purchase a Superman for All Seasons remake that casts a muscular John Cho as the all-American demigod. Norman Rockwell would be proud.
Wherever bright spandex and ebony Kevlar meet Olympian pectorals and Crossfit abdominals, nerds of color beg for more race and gender inclusion, in the panel, on the screen, behind the mask. I do not consider these pleas ethical. Action Comics no. 1, printed in June, 1938, gave birth to the modern superhero, and features the iconic cover where an unnamed figure wearing a tight blue leotard, matching red briefs and boots, and a flowing scarlet cape, lifts a passenger car above his head and smashes the vehicle on a nearby rock as White male witnesses in business suits scurry in abject terror. Shock and awe. One man crouched on the ground closest to the action curls inward with deference, transfixed by the reality bending scene but physiologically conscious of his role. Regard the primal majesty Superman’s impossible strength commanded among regular men from genesis. Geoff Johns recasts this Superman superiority complex in the New 52 Justice League reboot, where Batman and Green Lantern chase Parademons to Metropolis, and face the unstoppable martial force that is the Superman, angry. The most powerful weapon in the universe means nothing to the most powerful man in the universe, and shattered green constructs litter downtown Metropolis while Batman and Green Lantern pinball from Superman’s relentless onslaught. Against Superman, all humans are beta males, cowering along the cave shadows, waiting for the alpha’s rage to subside, praying calm on the apex predator.
Now imagine Superman Black. Imagine June 1938, where Superman Black smashes Henry Ford’s engineering prowess on large rocks while White businessmen run for their lives. Imagine the New 52 when Superman Black lacerates token opposition from Gotham’s urban legend and the Green Lantern Corps’ most fearless space cop, without regard for property damage or city prohibitions against street brawls. Superman Black, with hands that could squeeze diamonds from bituminous coal and eyes that can incinerate humans with errant glances, later dates a Grecian warrior goddess to emerge as popular culture’s most famous power couple, KimYe with extraterrestrial blood, mythological muscle, and tighter clothes. The point? An African American Superman, with kinky, close-cropped black hair, thick, half-reddened lips, high cheekbones, and wide nostrils all bathed in dark Lindt chocolate, resists White supremacist logic, negates Black inferiority mythology, and threatens the established order. Superman’s disconcerting physicality, tempered by his omnipresent cheerfulness calmed and invited White comic readers to imagine themselves as gaudy Caucasian perfection, the Anglo-Saxon ideal. Static in panel, without speech bubbles or thought balloons, Superman Black warps the absurdly developed skeletal striated muscle and eternal hopefulness fans rejoice into a clear and present danger to the American experiment, an unholy figure derived from Tea Party paranoia, Barack Obama’s calculation and Terry Crews’ musculature. Public Enemy’s prescience abounds – were Superman Black introduced on the game-changing Action Comics’ cover, White America would have yet another reason to fear a Black planet.
It would be easy and incorrect to regard superhero comic media as irrepressibly racist and sexist; though the comics have routinely reproduced racial stereotypes and misogynistic narratives to sell books, superhero comic media does not require hostility toward human difference. What is clear is that the superhero concept requires Whiteness to operate. Only in White male power fantasies can people blessed with skin privilege and bodies carved from living marble wield heat vision or super speed or unbreakable claws against indigent criminals from broken homes who lack high school educations. In these White male power fantasies, industrial titans blessed with technological genius or generational wealth remake themselves with advanced titanium armor or expert ninjutsu into quasi-deputized law enforcement officials whose crimes against public order never meet social sanction. Only in White male power fantasies would women display abundant porcelain cleavage or don starry microskirts to fight crime. When nerds of color insist on visible diversity to inoculate modern readers from comic industry prejudice, they fundamentally misunderstand what superheroes are, what Superman is.
Superman is a White boy. Superheroes are White people. Superhero morality exacts the Melian Dialogue’s ‘might makes right’ overwhelming force realpolitik with every onomatopoetic Biff! Bam! Pow! gut punch and karate chop combo. Shuttle diplomacy or natural resource husbandry rarely bring metal-faced technological sorcerers to heel in superhero comics; superheroes often save planet Earth through fantastic violence judiciously applied. I submit that the superheroic reflex to subdue evil with violence directly descends from Thucydides and Alexander, from Richard the Lionheart and Dwight Eisenhower. Superheroic morality requires Western Civilization’s literary canon and political history to justify its callous disregard toward collateral damage. To be clear, superheroes routinely consider innocent noncombatants’ lives (if not their property) when they confront cosmic despots or sociopathic steroid abusers, but comics document the never-ending battle in colorful tomes largely sold after Nagasaki and My Lai, after the time when total ignorance of American military supremacy was vogue. When Wally West as the Flash pulls a hysterical single mother out of her overturned silver 2001 Honda Civic and carries her to safety from Apokoliptian cannons at breakneck speed, comic fans favorably regard his heroism; any dialogue from the frazzled thirty-something file clerk will remind readers how grateful she is to escape otherworldly horror with her life. Superhero comics don’t care about the destruction of this woman’s sole transport; when the gas tank explodes behind the Flash’s blurred strobe, this woman loses her credit cards, her driver’s license, her insurance documents, her six-year-old daughter’s vanilla birthday cake with its beloved artificially flavored strawberry icing. The comics don’t recognize the heroism of this brave woman’s seven-month struggle to rebuild her finances and maintain her identity following Darkseid’s incursion; all we know is for that poor woman, the Flash saved the day. He’s a superhero. Isn’t she grateful?
Let’s be clear: to identify necessary Whiteness in the superhero concept is no indictment. Whiteness is no more a curse than Blackness. Whiteness is not inherently evil, White people are not naturally oppressive. There exists no genetic propensity for group violence in the human genome. None. The point here is that the superhero concept’s racial identity actually matters. For comic creators past and present, Whiteness is not a human default, it is a political choice. Steve Rogers flag-waving jingoism and Bruce Wayne’s aristocratic paternalism can be applied to race and gender and sexual minority superheroes, of course. But telling Captain America’s story or Batman’s tragedy requires some conscious position on and understanding of Whiteness, its sociological and economic impacts especially. Racebent comic properties and cross-racially cast superhero roles don’t interrogate why White identity matters; out of tawdry racial tribalism these superficial ideas ignore character history to allow people of color the high honor of low pantomime. Black Panther and Mr. Terrific and all the race and gender minority superheroes owned by Disney and Warner Brothers suffer from abysmal popularity when compared to A-list White male superheroes. This is neither accident nor racism. This is Xerox. Carbon copies can’t hope for pure truth.
Bottom line: even one’s favorite race or gender minority superhero operates within a paradigm defined by Western perspectives on violence and ideal beauty, in an industry dependent on White male consumer support. Miles Morales needs White fanboys far more than his excited blerd following to place Ultimate Spider-Man in the black. Yet without Brian Michael Bendis’ notable support, Morales risks navigating comic milk cartons like Judd Winick’s Grace Choi. The superhero concept is a racial construct designed to appeal to Whiteness; racial integrationist fanboy praise for female Robins or Black Spider-Men only ensures minority patronage for Establishment FUBU. The Establishment can produce some amazing comic literature (especially with Alan Moore’s pen and Neil Gaiman’s keyboard) but the industry has yet to deliver non-White racial authenticity within the superhero concept. It can’t. Only a one-dimensional, unconsidered, infantile race and gender politics supports racebending and cross-racial casting as panacea for White male cultural hegemony in comic media. An Asian American Iron Fist would not challenge Wu-Tang mysticism or Chinese martial arts stereotypes; this popular petition makes clear that some nerds of color are more concerned with being seen than with being seen as human.
Race is not seasoning, gender is not spice. The melting pot should cost us something.