Marvel Comics beat the news-cycle rush of the San Diego Comic Con International by announcing two major character changes last week: Thor will be a woman and Captain America will be black.
The news didn’t quite trump the last week’s other big comic-related news, the death of an adult Archie Andrews, but it came close.
Thor, whose godlike powers in the Marvel Universe are contained within the hammer Mjolnir, will apparently lose his worthiness to lift the mystical weapon. Then, it will be a woman — possibly his sister, if the scuttle I hear at my local comic shop, where gossip flows more freely than at a hair salon, is correct — who will inherit the mantle.
Steve Rogers, the current Captain America, who has been sojourning on another plane of existence where he has aged faster than normal, is now too old to continue an active superhero lifestyle. (I feel his pain.) The role of Captain America will pass to Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, Cap’s longtime partner and friend, who is African-American.
The announcements were enough to shatter the psyches of misogynistic and racist fanboys, respectively, if Internet feedback is any indication. The easiest way to gauge America’s progress or lack of progress in the rights of women and minorities is to check what people will say anonymously online.
I think the character changes are positive ones, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they lend themselves to good stories. When dealing with characters who have been in existence for decades — and, yes, I know that the mythological Thor has been around for centuries, but we’re talking about the Marvel version here — it’s sometimes difficult to find ways to keep readers excited. Both a female Thor and a black Captain America have stirred up interest, and that’s seldom bad.
Secondly, the changes reflect sensitivity to a racial diversity that didn’t exist in the 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, or in the 1960s, when the Marvel Universe was born. In both eras, movie and comic characters were predominantly WASP males. Stan Lee, the writer of most of Marvel’s books in the ’60s, broke racial barriers by introducing the Black Panther in the pages of “The Fantastic Four,” but it was years before the character had his own book.
If the Marvel pantheon were being assembled today, Lee and primary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would have introduced a much more diverse cast. The Invisible Girl would have been the Invisible Woman and would have been much more visual. The Avengers would have better reflected the colors and creeds of America.
And now they do. However.
The rubber-band nature of serial comics means that, eventually, characters snap back into place. In other words, Marvel will likely restore the status quo at some point in the future: the original Thor will again be worthy to hold the hammer and Steve Rogers will find a way to reverse his aging and resume the role of Captain America. I have no insider information, just decades of experience as a comics reader who recognizes that change is not the goal of continuing characters. Rather, the illusion of change is.
If that’s what is happening here, then many readers who for the first time are seeing themselves reflected in their favorite heroes are in for a disappointment. They may even feel betrayed.
Marvel’s twin goals appear to be to get new mileage out of old concepts and diversify its line. I hope the company can find a way to do both. If it plans to leave a female Thor and a black Captain America in place indefinitely, good. I hope The Powers That Be also allow creators the opportunity to create strong original characters, ones that need not piggyback on past concepts but that can stand on their own as worthy heroes and heroines of different colors, beliefs and nationalities.
But if the plan is to eventually remake Thor as a man and Captain America as a caucasian, the company is opening itself up to the wrong kind of headlines.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published July 24, 2014, in The Alliance Review.