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A Little Reaction to Rising Commentary on this Superhero Summer

A recent article from The American Prospect entitled, "Masked Identity Politics," revisited one of the most fertile areas of comic studies. The question of identity linked to superhero comics is one of the issue that drew me to superhero comics as a ways to discuss urban development and culture. It is a fine article, but of course it touches on issues I considered in the past. The assertions that U.S. superhero comics reflect deeply ingrained racial assumptions is natural critique. Close examination demonstrates how superhero operate to amplify broader cultural structures. With summer blockbuster like Thor, Green Lantern, and Captain America promising to dominate the box office, it understandable observers recognize how whiteness is linked to classic superheroes.

Since the September 11th terror attacks both major superhero comic publishers have provided stories that heighten the drama and put the spotlight on established characters. In a post-Cold War global community facing terrorist threats, heroism and villainy have added meaning, forcing superhero comics to re-focus their attention on defining heroic action.

This problem is personified by the recent resurrection of Steve Roger, aka Captain America. Killed off and resurrected by Ed Brubaker, the character represents the most patriotic aspects of the American Experience for many comic fans. Civil War, the storyline leading to Captain America's death saw him "go rogue" over a superhero resignation act passed by the U.S. government and supported by elite heroes of the Marvel Universe. As I put the finishing touches on Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men the critical anthology on superhero comic in the United States, I see more than one reference to Captain America. Not surprising the contributors point out comic writers use Captain America to express pro-American feeling, but they also recognize that Steve Rogers has been used to express discontent with its leaders. Indeed, Roger's frustration with the government, but love of the country, has led him to give up the Captain America identity and act as Nomad (1974) or the Captain (1987) since his 1941 debut.

Given the movie scheduled for release in July, Steve Rogers’ return to life and action was a foregone conclusion. Yet his return, which ushered in Marvel's Heroic Age, clearly demonstrates how the symbolic power of the white Golden Age character highlight questions of race and agency. In many ways, Captain America is the symbol of Marvel's comics’ WWII defined Golden Age. A World War II era soldier, the character signifies the moral conviction associated with the U.S. efforts against global fascism. Given this identification, his return definitively signaled the end of ethical ambiguity and strife. Yet, Rogers’ return displaced the agency and contribution of a racial minority. Luke Cage, aka Power Man, who acted as leader of the Avengers in his absence, was not killed or even ridiculed with Roger’s return, yet Steve Roger represented legitimacy by his presence. In fact, his actions upon returning was to “take the fight” to the bad guys, a move that other characters advocated but lacked the moral authority to carry out. Thus, Rogers’ presence called into question the leadership provided by anyone who is not a white male tied to values forged in an era of WWII greatness. This point is further emphasized by the fact Rogers did not take back the mantle of Captain America; instead he accepts the role of director of global security. Abandoning a secret identity he is the public face of global security while also leading a group of Secret Avengers on covert missions. His former partner, Bucky Barnes, continues in the role of Captain America he took over when Rogers was supposedly killed. Thus, the emphasis that Rogers, the Golden Age hero is the stabilizing element is made clear.

Was this the intention? No, and charges of racism obfuscate the complexity of the problem. Captain America was created in a time of repressive racial and gender standards. His appearance and those of other Golden Age characters signify national pride, moral certainty, and social stability because they are products of a historical period when women, racial, and sexual minorities were silenced in the public sphere. Cultural artifacts from a period before Americans confronted the problems of access and equity that challenged the status quo of white male control, these characters link the reader to a mythical past.

This fact highlights a more profound sociocultural functionalism. While in the past, racial exclusion was a product of ignorance, today the decision to include diverse perspectives provides cover for a commoditization of identity. As theorist Slavoj Zizek explains, the acknowledgement and visible placement of the " racial other" allows for the rationalization of racially marginalizing practice. Thus the drive show diversity by accounting for every identity serves to highlight how an overall structural resistance prevents real inclusion.

Superheroes represent cherished values and reflect long held communal beliefs, and therefore the return of the “classic” version of a character reconnects the audience to an idyllic past. Umberto Eco’s analysis of Superman trivialized the importance of Clark Kent, suggesting that Kent served as a platform for the wish fulfillment symbolized by Superman. Yet, Kent offered the grounding to link Superman to a narrative of transformation at the heart of the U.S. experience. Superman can be theorized as a neo-fascist fantasy, but the suggestion ignores the creators’ ethnicity and life experience as second-generation Americans. The Superman/Clark Kent duality is more than an impulsive assimilative tale romanticized by émigrés for the communal collective. Created in 1938, Superman acts as a cultural framework that suggested to the creators and reader alike that being an "American" is open to "aliens" committed to common ideological and culture tenets. This fact explains why the recent announcement that Superman was giving up his U.S. citizenship stirred some reaction. Indeed, the reason he gave, that the world is too connected, offers challenges the nationalistic view linked to the character for so long.

U.S. readers admire Golden Age characters because the country did not question itself in the period those characters were created. By bringing these characters back from the dead, creators circumvent the uncertainty forever linked to the agency asserted by women and minorities in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, the redemptive roles assigned to Golden Age characters highlight a link between societal stability, whiteness, and masculinity while calling into question the legitimacy of racial and gender critiques of the status quo.

The loss of ethnic diversity highlights the intersection of culture and power, but it is not the goal. The restoration of social stability, which coincides with the return of Golden Age heroes, emphasizes the culturally splintered communal present-day is not as good as the past. Ironically, the past being referenced is not real. Labor strife, gender challenges, struggle for civil rights, and calls for equity have existed throughout U.S. history. The reverential look back omits those conflicts.
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