When a longtime comic book reader confronts his feelings of race and gender in comics, he sees how the industry and its superfans are not who he thought they were.
I’ve been reading comic books since I was in seventh grade. My buddy and I would go to our neighborhood comic book shop and peruse the long boxes for hours. It was a special place where we could be ourselves and geek out on our favorite superheroes.
Back then, reading comics was something teenage boys like me didn’t advertise because it was embarrassing, especially when it came to navigating the treacherous waters of teenage dating. Though Tim Burton’s Batman had just hit theaters, the world of superheroes when I was 13 was still considered part of a nerdy subculture stereotyped by awkward, reclusive boys; a far cry from the Marvel-centric movie industry of today.
My comics collection consisted mostly of Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America; all white, all male. In retrospect, I can see why I read these comics. I related to them. In Batman, I found the same anger Bruce Wayne had over the loss of his parents in myself. In my case, I didn’t lose my parents to a random act of violence. Rather, my mother was an alcoholic, my father wasn’t around and my best friend died in a car wreck when I was 10. I had plenty to be angry about.
Peter Parker was someone I loved reading about because he was someone who had flaws. He seemed to always be at the wrong place at the wrong time, was never respected, and forever tried to get the girl. Like Peter, I lived with my aunt and had terribly low self-confidence.
Then there’s good ole Captain America. Long before Chris Evans perfectly embodied Marvel’s star-spangled hero, I looked up to Cap because he’s the kind of man I wanted to be because he was heroic and confident with an unwavering set of virtues.
Subconsciously, I related to these Marvel characters because they were white and so am I. It never occurred to me then that there were whole other segments of the comic-book-reading audience who found it hard to relate to these and other characters. Whether it was because of their skin color or gender, I took it for granted. And honestly, I feel a bit guilty for it.
But according to Karama Horne, otherwise known as theblerdgurl, my guilt isn’t about the comics I chose to read growing up. At the time, it was simply my perspective. The shame comes from—as she told one of her white, male friends in a similar conversation a few weeks back—that just now, I’m realizing how a lot of other marginalized voices felt.
She didn’t read comic books when she was a kid, but she definitely came from a geeky family. While she and her brothers watched Anime cartoons, her mother was a fan of Bollywood movies and Korean dramas while her father loved Star Trek.
Though her brothers often read comic books, it wasn’t until she saw a friend’s copy of “The Amazing Spider-Man Annual No. 16” in high school that Horne became interested. That’s because on the cover, silhouetted in red, was Monica Rambeau, one of six characters to take on the Captain Marvel mantle, long before Carol Danvers, the character Brie Larson plays in the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What enticed Horne so much about Rambeau was that she was one of the few female African-American characters she had seen in comics.
As we talked on the phone, Horne reflected about being one of the few black families in her suburban New Jersey neighborhood. She talked about how seeing the shows her parents and brothers watched affected her.
Recalled Horne. “The thing I did notice about Uhura and Storm and everybody else was, I noticed there was only one black female X-Men member, and only one black woman on the bridge of Star Trek, and only one black female Avenger at the time, which was Monica Rambeau. That resonated with me, but not in the way that you think. It didn’t make me angry. I could relate to it because I was the only one wherever I went, too.”
When Horne started her blog years ago, it wasn’t to yell at people, she says. And it wasn’t to tell people they sucked and to remind people of how much misogyny and discrimination is in comics, which, Horne points out, there is. But it was to showcase the little-known black characters in comics that never received the recognition they deserved.
Which makes me think about my own comic-book reading habits. After a years-long hiatus, I began buying comics again in my early 30s. Though I wouldn’t consider myself an avid reader, I do buy the occasional issue or trade paperback. And I love going to used book stores to try to find old issues from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Now that I’m in my 40s and am the father of two boys, I buy comics, not just for the nostalgia of it, but as a way to introduce my boys to something I grew up loving. But I also have a deeper appreciation for the history of comics, and how the industry started, which was off the backs of European Jewish immigrants who came to America looking for illustrious journalism, illustration and publishing jobs. But these men were discriminated against because they were weren’t from this country and they were Jewish.
Instead of the jobs they were qualified for, they were forced to take jobs writing and illustrating comic books, a new and very frowned-upon industry in the late ‘30s. Of course, these men, like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Stan Lee, are now heroes in their own right and have created some of the world’s most recognized superheroes. And because I’m of European Jewish descent, I take pride in that. Because at one time, those Jewish men were the marginalized voices of their day.
But as always, there are other voices that need recognition.
With Marvel’s latest cinematic effort, Captain Marvel, getting its fair share of white male backlash, I wanted to get some different perspectives on why this seems to be happening more often when it comes to different aspects of geek fandom. This brings us to the Captain Marvel movie and the hate it’s receiving from some men in the comic-book community.
For a view on the Captain Marvel phenomenon and why there is this strain of white men who so abhorrently oppose it, I reached out to pop culture journalist, comic-book and TV writer Marc Bernardin. As the current co-host of Fatman Beyond with Kevin Smith, diversity in comics is a topic he talks about a lot.
“I, as a middle-aged black man, am used to culture that wasn’t crafted specifically for me,” he says to me over Facebook Messenger. “I’m used to having to identify with characters that don’t look like me. I’m fine with sympathizing and empathizing with ‘the other.’ Most white dudes have never had to do that. And most have almost never been faced with having to see themselves in a character of another gender. Fandom is defined by its relationship with people who are not fans. It requires a sort of ‘us vs them’ mentality. And the problem that comes when fandom becomes mainstream, is that fans will find someone or something to be against. In this case — in too many cases — it’s women.”
Bernardin’s got a great point.
I’ll tell you something I’m not proud of. For years, I struggled with a deep-down feeling of resentment I’ve held against women. It’s a condition that consumed me when I was younger. Though it was never as hate-filled as some of the men who’ve been open about their feelings on Captain Marvel and Brie Larson online, I possessed a feeling of jealousy and powerlessness toward women. And it had everything to do with the many rejections I received from girls growing up as I navigated my way through the world of teenage and young adult dating. It all stemmed from my lack of self-confidence around women and the power I felt they held over me.
And if I’m being completely honest, it’s something I still struggle with at times, even though I’m happily married to an absolutely wonderful and beautiful woman.
That’s tough for me to admit. But that’s why I’m writing this column, right?
During my phone call with Horne, she told me that someone asked her why we are still talking about the “Black Panther” movie when it came out more than a year ago. Can’t we talk about something else? “Well, if “Black Panther” wasn’t the only movie like it, we could,” she responded.
Good point. Same goes for Captain Marvel.
We live in a world now where it’s more important than ever to be able to see life through different perspectives. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I plan to see Carol Danvers on the big screen with my family. It’s important that my sons see a powerful woman superhero, to know that it’s not just white males who can save the world. It’ll do me some good, too.
If you want to chat with me about the project or have an interesting story, hit me up on Twitter @chachimoss
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