I began reading comic books around the age of 7 or 8, and began to seriously collect them when I was old enough to get a job. Some of the earliest comics I had were Marvel’s Avengers. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was (and still is) the tagline. Captain America, Thor, Wasp, Hercules, Sub-Mariner, She-Hulk, Black Knight-they were awesome. But there was someone else I really liked reading about. Someone who I appreciated for different reasons-Monica Rambeau-Captain Marvel at the time. She was special to me because she was unique among the Avengers: she was black. Like me.
Looking back at Roger Stern’s treatment of Monica, I can’t recall a single instance where her race came up. She was just a black, female super hero who was a member of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Not only that, she was also one of Earth’s most powerful heroes, able to transform herself into any form of electromagnetic energy, fly at the speed of light, and emit all forms of electromagnetic energy*. Throughout Roger Stern’s run on Avengers, he depicted Monica as a woman thirsty for knowledge (after becoming a member, she sat for extended periods of time learning about the history of the Avengers, as well as all of the people they’d fought), one who had a strong bond with her family (she periodically visited her parents, who eventually learned her secret identity), one with irrational prejudices (she distrusted the Sub-Mariner for a while after he joined the team despite having no reason to and even in the face of Captain America supporting him), one who was not afraid to break up a fight between two superhumanly powerful lunkheads-in her human form (she injected herself between the Sub-Mariner and Hercules when the two were having a quarrel and simply blasted them apart), one who felt fear and despair (she was trapped in another dimension during the siege on Avengers Mansion and she worried that she might never return home), and one who experienced self-doubt (when offered the chairwoman position of the Avengers, she wasn’t sure she was capable, despite having the endorsement of several team members). Stern wrote Monica as a rounded character and what he did was at once revolutionary…and yet it wasn’t.
It was revolutionary because at the time (this was the mid 1980’s), very few black people-let alone black women-were prominently and regularly featured in comic books-let alone flagship titles (there was Storm in the Uncanny X-Men, Cyborg in the New Teen Titans, and Vixen in the Justice League of America). But that’s not all he did. No, Stern did something quite a bit more significant. He went and made Monica Rambeau the leader of the Avengers! At one point in the 1980’s two of comics’ biggest superhero teams-the Uncanny X-Men and the Avengers-were led by black women! Some might argue that this isn’t a big deal, but people who do so need to take off those white bias blinders, bc comics are just a reflection of the tendency in society to value white people in general and white men specifically over all other people. So when a black person in general, and a black woman specifically, is put in a position of power, it is notable because it whittles away at that white, male bias that exists everywhere.
On the other hand, it wasn’t revolutionary from the sense that black women (like black people in general) ought to be treated as every bit as normal, nuanced, and accomplished as everyone else. Not “…as normal, nuanced, and accomplished as white people”. White people should not be (though they often are) treated as the barometer by which People of Color are judged. We all should be able to stand or fall on our own merits, regardless of our race/ethnicity. But that’s not how our culture is. Again-white bias is a very real thing and it permeates society on all levels. So from a non-revolutionary perspective, Roger Stern treated Monica Rambeau as just another character in the Avengers. That’s where I dearly wish race relations could get to in the real world-the point where it’s not notable that a black woman (or man) becomes a prominent politician or POTUS. Race shouldn’t be notable, but it is because of the long history of bias in favor of white people in society.
Monica was important to me as a kid because she was a black super hero prominently featured alongside the likes of Captain America and Thor. And she was just as capably written as they were. White people have long had countless heroes (and villains) representing them. African-Americans didn’t have that many black heroes in comics representing them, which is why many black people appreciated seeing black superheroes in comics when they were growing up:
“Seeing black super heroes made me say, ‘I knew it! There has to be Black, Asian, Latino and other heroes from all races,” says Darryl McDaniels, best known as D.M.C. of legendary hip hop group Run-D.M.C. “It showed at the time that black people were not just pimps, pushers, and in street gangs! It showed we were good too!”
“[These characters] meant a lot; they meant everything,” says DJ and rapper Pete Rock. “After seeing black super heroes like Luke Cage or Black Panther, it felt like we were a part of something. Mostly when you look at comic books you see the heroes and villains are white. Seeing the black ones felt like some sort of a unification. That’s what attracted me to Marvel.”
That feeling of seeing oneself reflected in entertainment is not something limited to African-Americans. It is something felt by people from traditionally marginalized or oppressed groups, like women, Hispanics, lesbians, bisexual people, trans people, gay people and Asians. When comic book creators embrace efforts at diversity by presenting new characters devoid of stereotypes, their efforts are often very much appreciated by readers looking to see themselves represented in comics. And I think Marvel is going to hear from a lot of people who are happy that they’ve created a new gay, Asian character in the pages of the recent Ant-Man Annual. From Bleeding Cool:
A new superhero who is gay and Asian? Even now, I can hear the cries and whines and moans of regressive comics fans complaining about “PC” (seriously, click the Bleeding Cool link and you’ll see a comment from one of them) and their tears give me strength! Let them complain. They’re just angry that comics aren’t being made with them as the sole focus any more. It’s not like the creation of a gay, Asian character is going to erase Spider-Man. It won’t take away all the Captain America comics featuring white guy Steve Rogers in the role. They’re not going to suddenly find all their Tony Stark-as-Iron Man comics disintegrate, only to be replaced by James Rhodes-as-Iron Man. They’re still going to have a metric shit-ton of characters who are white, heterosexual, cisgender men. It’s just that the superhero clubhouse is opening up to people who have long been excluded. Just as I enjoyed seeing a black woman in the Avengers, just as Pete Rock appreciated seeing Luke Cage and the Black Panther in their own comics, I think that other gay people and Asian people and gay Asian people will appreciate Marvel creating Raz Malhotra, the all-new Giant-Man. I know I do.
*I credit her character and Roger Stern’s writing with leading me to learn about electromagnetic radiation. As a teenager, I never had much interest in science, so that was pretty significant for me.