How racial representation in comics matters

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The importance of racial representation in comics is something that, regretfully, does not receive too much attention, especially with the rising popularity of minority superheroes on television and in films. I’ll begin with saluting the icebreaker of diversity — Marvel.

Black Panther’s appearance in 1966 was revolutionary, debuting as the first major black superhero in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. T’Challa is king of the wealthy and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda, home to the rare metal vibranium, which prompted T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, to isolate Wakanda. This particular aspect of the mythology can be seen as an allegory for the exploitation of Africa by imperialistic Europeans.

The Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, grew up in Harlem and became disillusioned in his worldview after seeing racism’s effects on himself and his family. He eventually found his way to an assignment with Captain America and became his trusted partner.

Luke Cage, who debuted in 1972 during the height of the “Blaxploitation” era, gained super strength and impenetrable skin after being experimented on while in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. He later became a Hero for Hire due to his jaded past, and eventually married and had a child with fellow Hero for Hire Jessica Jones, a revolutionary interracial relationship. Luke Cage’s Netflix series comes at a perfect time: the fact that Cage wears a hoodie without being a “thug” speaks to the essence of Black Lives Matter.

On the other side of the comic spectrum, DC introduced its first major black superhero, the Green Lantern John Stewart, in 1972. Initially appearing as a successful architect and Marine veteran, Stewart became very popular with readers, and is often depicted as a key leader of the Green Lantern Corps. Many consider him their favorite Green Lantern due to his presence on the successful 1990s Justice League cartoon series and his teaching of the Corps to not be prejudiced.

While Marvel has always been known for groundbreaking racial diversity in its comics lineup, DC has also been highlighting its own racial diversity in recent years. The current Green Lanterns of Earth in Hal Jordan’s absence are Simon Baz, a Lebanese Muslim, and the Latina Jessica Cruz. Jaime Reyes, also Latino, jointly shares the identity of Blue Beetle with Ted Kord. Ryan Choi, a teaching assistant from Hong Kong, currently holds the identity of the Atom while Professor Roy Palmer, his boss, is stuck in the microverse. Amanda Waller, leader of the Suicide Squad, rose from the disadvantages of being a black woman in the South, though by dubious methods, to become a feared figure throughout the world. The wealth of racial representation in both DC and Marvel is very important in the modern era for promoting inclusivity, often with the reimagining of key characters.

Marvel has, in the last few years, redone its entire lineup of the core Avengers, with Sam Wilson becoming Captain America, the African-American teenager Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man, Jane Foster becoming Thor and Amadeus Cho becoming Hulk. Marvel recently announced that Tony Stark would pass the mantle of Iron Man to a new black heroine, Riri Williams, aka Ironheart, who reverseengineered an Iron Man suit while in college at age 15. DC, as part of Rebirth, has introduced a Chinese Superman, Kenan Kong, as the hero of its New Superman series.

The major comic publishers are clearly taking notes on the fact that comics can and should attract all audiences due to their historic accessibility and characterizations of heroes who fight for justice for all peoples. Greater racial representation helps with this by allowing readers to identify more with heroes of their own ethnicities, which can inspire all the more people to find their own strength and believe in their own capabilities, instead of being forced to relate to characters who do not live their realities.