Since my return to the world of weekly comic book reading a major struggle has been what to read. I only have so much money to sink into this passion and I know how this hobby can suck you into an endless spiral of crossovers and new titles. I decided to be smart. I decided to limit myself to only five seven ten titles a month. And I certainly decided to stay away from team books. They’re crossover hubs, and chasing chapters of one story over multiple team and solo titles is exhausting and expensive. So just ten titles. No team books. Buuuuuut then I tried the trade paperback (just to sample it!) of Mark Waid, Adam Kubert, and Mahmud Asrar’s All New, All Different Avengers. Damn. Let’s just say they were more of guidelines than rules, okay?
I can’t be mad at the Avengers though! I’ve always been a Marvel fan – through and through. DC, while interesting, was (and remains) a little too dark for me. Marvel gives me the light, hope, and fun I want in my comic books. AND the Avengers films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been the largest connection I retained to the world of Marvel since I put down the comics, bags, backboards, and boxes all those years ago. I may not have been reading about these characters every week, but I was still first in line on opening night for their latest cinematic adventure! When Robert Downey Jr. first suited up in 2008 I found the same excitement and joy I loved as a kid. The films have continued to deliver and I appreciate in the films what I now look for in the comics that are on my pull list each month – characters I connect with, fun, excitement, and deeper meanings and allusions to be explored and deconstructed.
All New, All Different Avengers delivers on all of those fronts and, despite my fear of needless crossovers (I’m talking about you Standoff and the soon-to-be Civil War II), it has more than earned its place in my monthly file. In fact, All New, All Different Avengers has quickly become one of the books I most look forward to reading each month. By the end of the very first issue I was deeply invested in all the characters. I couldn’t wait to see where the story went! The comic features Iron Man/Tony Stark, Thor/Jane Foster, Captain America/Sam Wilson, Vision, Ms. Marvel/Kamala Kahn, Spider-Man/Miles Morales, and Nova/Sam Alexander as the starting lineup. With the Avengers financial backing taking a hit as Tony’s fortune has dwindled, the Avengers find themselves operating out of an abandoned hanger in New Jersey while still trying to do the superheroing the world needs. The book also serves as a perfect example of one of the largest differences I’ve noticed in comic books since my return to the genre.
You see, this Avengers isn’t a team of all white men with one woman. That’s not meant to be incendiary but it’s the truth. When the Avengers were formed in 1963 the team consisted of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant Man, and the Wasp. The 2012 film’s roster included Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk. As a kid reading comics in the nineties the majority of the members on the Avengers (and most superhero teams for that matter) were white men with one or two females. I never noticed it at the time (nor did I notice the disturbing objectification of women as male sex fantasies or the illustration of men as impossibly muscular male power fantasies – but that’s a discussion for another day). I didn’t see it, but that’s how it was.
However, it seems that age is beginning to pass. Honestly, it was one of the most exciting and refreshing things to see when I walked back into the comic store I used to frequent as a child some fifteen years later. I like that the characters in these stories are beginning to more accurately reflect our world in regard to gender, race, sexuality, and the like. What’s even more impressive is it never feels like a forced, agenda-driven attempt to inject diversity. Reading the stories I don’t see a p.c.-created half black, half Hispanic Spider-Man. Instead I find Miles Morales, an exciting and unique take on my all-time favorite character. I love that there’s someone new wearing the webs! I don’t see an “agenda.” I see a new Spider-Man. Ms. Marvel is another absolutely captivating comic. I don’t find an agenda when I read it. I open the book to find Kamala, a layered and interesting character trying to balance her family, faith, and being a superhero. What I’m trying to say is I never noticed the Avengers were so overwhelmingly white and male as a kid. That’s just how it was. Now, as an adult, I don’t notice the Avengers are so much more diverse at first glance either. That’s because the diversity isn’t the driving force of the plot. That’s just how it is. The Avengers are fighting Kang and the Chitauri like they always did…the team just happens to better reflect the world we live in. And that’s amazing!
Not only do I find this trend in comics refreshing, I’d argue it’s necessary. I couldn’t understand this as a child, but as an adult (and a theology teacher with a BA in Religious Studies and a MA in Religious Education) I’ve come to see that superheroes perform an ancient function in our society. They aren’t just the stars of colorful stories in equally colorful costumes. They play the roles that the heroes of myth did in ancient culture. We no longer have the communal stories of Theseus, Perseus, Heracles, and Odysseus to guide us. We need models to show us what human beings are capable of. We need models to face the trials, to travel to the mountain of the gods and return with a sacred knowledge we’ve forgotten. We need larger than life figures to show us the dangers of our hubris, the price of our sins, and to guide us into the light. While we don’t have Theseus, Perseus, Heracles, or Odysseus regularly in our cultural consciousness anymore we do have Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, Superman, Captain Marvel, and Iron Man.
We must remember, myths are not just fake stories that were once used to explain things we now understand by science. Rather, myths are stories that express deep human truths. They are stories used to explore and underscore what we believe, what we struggle with, how we find our place in the universe, and how we relate to the world around us. They teach us how to grow and help us to live in a fulfilling way. Heroes are often used in myths to show both our highest potential (what we aspire to) as well as our common failings (what we must be wary of). Today in the best of comics, superheroes help play that role, otherwise vacant, in our cultural consciousness. And it is impossible for superheroes to do that job if they don’t reflect us. How can the myths teach us if we can’t connect to them? We are a beautiful, diverse, and complicated species. The more of that diversity and complexity found inside our comic books the better they can serve us in their mythic role.
When I read the comment sections of articles that deal with this growing diversity in comic books or the letters pages of those very comics opinions are divided. Many are excited, as I am. But there are those who regularly complain that they “don’t want p.c. bullshit” in their comics or argue “why can’t you make a new superhero who is a minority instead of changing an existing one?” There are also some who argue it’s somehow racist to have a black man stand as Captain America when “he was always white.” Ignoring how that mindset illustrates a complete misunderstanding of what racism is and how it operates, comments like those, even before I returned to the world of comic collecting, frustrated me. A few were even lamentably ignorant enough to make me consider venturing into the fruitless task of debating someone on the comment thread of an article on the Internet. Don’t worry, I refrained. As we all know, it’s a fool’s errand that can only end with banging your head against a wall.
Here’s the thing. Comic book superheroes are an idea. And they are fictional. Their job is to entertain us and, when they are at their best, teach and guide us in the way mythic heroes always have. Diversity doesn’t hurt that, it helps. I’ve read dozens of articles discussing how the customers at comic shops have grown and diversified over the past decade as this model of storytelling has grown. We all want heroes we can connect with in as many ways as possible. And we all deserve that too! In addition to helping a growing reader base connect to a character, I think more than one character representing a hero helps to better teach us. “Captain America” isn’t just Steve Rogers. Captain America’s an idea. As such, Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Sam Wilson can all wield the shield and honestly embody that idea. This is true of all superheroes. Yes, Peter Parker was the first Spider-Man. And yes he will always be Spider-Man. But Spider-Man has also been Ben Reilly, Hobbie Brown, Dr. Octopus, May “Mayday” Parker, Gwen Stacy, Miguel O’Hara, Max Bourne, Pavitr Prabhakar, Kaine, and (of course) Miles Morales.
You see, a superhero is more than the person in the costume. They’re an idea, an idea we are all meant to aspire too. And if all of those people can follow in Spidey’s footsteps than maybe we all can too. And maybe that’s part of the lesson these modern myths are teaching us. The All New, All Different Avengers are regularly doing as a team what all those various Spider-Men and Spider-Women have been doing for years – allowing a larger portion of the population to connect with and enjoy (and hopefully be guided by) these mythic forces of our culture. The more people who read the stories, the more people who can be affected by what’s in them. Mark Waid, Adam Kubert, and Mahmud Asrar have given us a team worthy of capturing our national attention. The Avengers now represent us, as a people and as a culture, better than they ever have before. It’s an exciting time to be a comic book reader!
In the wake of such an exciting comic book, I broke my rules early on. In breaking those rules, I found a brilliant example of what I’ve always loved about comic books and a new book I can’t imagine putting down. I’ve already went back and reread the series. Yes I caved and fell into the team world of All New, All Different Avengers. But I don’t regret it at all (and I successfully kept myself from buying all the other “Standoff” issues!). This is a great comic book. I can’t remember, even as a kid at the height of his comic buying, ever being so engaged and excited by the Avengers. All the diversity issues aside, All New, All Different Avengers is A LOT of fun and that’s exactly what an Avengers comic should be.