Many Faces, One Symbol

On July 6th, Marvel announced that after the conclusion of Civil War II a young woman named Riri Williams will take over for Tony Stark as Iron Man.  Fandom reacted as it always does.  There was intrigue.  There was optimism.  There was excitement.  Annnd there were the usual (tired) cries of it being a p.c.-driven agenda or proof that Marvel is out of ideas, echoed in the familiar refrain of, “I don’t mind a female/minority/etc. superhero…but why can’t they have their own identity??”  But I’d like to argue if you think Spider-Man is simply Peter Parker, you’ve missed the entire point.  Spider-Man represents so much more than Peter Parker.  Spider-Man is a symbol, an ideal.  The more people we see picking up that mantle, the more people we see embodying that symbol, the better.  This is as true for Spider-Man as it is for Iron Man or any comic book superhero.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This post has been rolling around in my head since the Riri Williams announcement, trying to take shape.  Normally I sit down to write because I’m excited about an idea, a connection, a reflection, an insight or whatever and I just sort of ride that wave.  But that wasn’t the process here.  As I saw the regular hackneyed criticisms of Riri Williams arise (criticisms, thankfully, from a minority of comic readers but a loud minority nonetheless) I knew I had to write something.  In my heart, this was something I needed to say.  However it took time to discover exactly what I wanted to say.  So I sat with those thoughts and feelings, moving as they would through my mind and heart.  After letting those thoughts circle for a few weeks, reading lots of comics, looking at more internet comment sections than I’d like, and rereading a little bit of Joseph Campbell too, this post finally came together.

The reason this felt so important for me is because these excessively negative (not to mention close-minded) comments anger me.  They anger me because both the characters they are attacking and what those characters represent are important to me.  I know there’s often little that can be done to change someone’s mind when they’ve decided to just hate something because it’s different.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This irrational hatred of a new spin on a classic character bothers me so much because I love these characters – their newest incarnations as well as (in some cases as much as (and in a few cases even more than)) the originals.  It also bothers me because I deeply respect and value what these new versions represent and the function they’re playing in our culture – both mythically and practically.  As always, we must remember that art is subjective.  I don’t expect everyone to like exactly what I like.  We, as human beings, don’t work that way and it’d be boring if we did.  However, there’s a difference between not liking (and therefore not reading) a particular character or comic and being so moved to indignation over a creative choice that you spew hate through any social forum you can find.  The former is natural and should be praised – it’s part of what makes us unique and interesting.  The latter is a needless exercise in narcissistic anger and shouldn’t be tolerated – it’s part of what seeks so desperately to hold us back and keep us apart as a people.  Yes, we have freedom of speech but we need to stop pretending that every opinion is equal or worthy of being voiced/considered.

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Author Nick Spencer presenting the inexplicable controversy surrounding Sam Wilson as Captain America / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Does it seem as though I’m overemphasizing the role of comic book characters by linking them in so direct a way to these divisive habits we’ve formed that help shape our culture?  Maybe…but I don’t think so.  On the one hand, comic books and “nerd culture” in general have grown to become a sizable part of our mainstream pop culture experience (thanks in no small part to The Big Bang Theory!).  So, these comic books and the heroes that fill their pages are around us all the time from comics to films to TV shows to t-shirts to posters to soap/shampoo to pencils and pens…the list goes on.  Given their prominence in our popular culture, superheroes are important.  We, as a culture, have embraced them on a grand scale so we need to reflect on and be aware of what these characters say about us and how they represent the world we’re living in.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

On the other hand, as I’ve written about before, comic book superheroes aren’t simply crazy, cartoony ways to fill our free time.  They’ve come to, in part, represent and play the role of the mythic heroes of old in our contemporary culture.  We lack the unifying and instructing tales that bound the ancients.  But, while we may no longer have Achilles, Odysseus, King Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, or Beowulf in our collective cultural minds, we do have Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the like.  If they connect us in that way (which they do), we need to be aware of the responsibility and importance that comes with that role.

As long as we as creatures have been recognizably human, myths have been a part of our lived experience.  Far from falsehoods we once used to explain what we now know by science, myths are actually 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.  A myth is a story we tell to explain the way things are.  In The Power Of Myth, Joseph Campbell, one of the 20th century’s foremost scholars in the fields of art, history, mythology, and culture, tells Bill Moyers that at its highest level, “The metaphor is the mask of God through which eternity is to be experienced”  (73).  There is an important distinction then to be made between what Campbell calls the folk tale and the myth.  For Campbell, “the folk tale is for entertainment.  The myth is for spiritual instruction” (Power of Myth, 71).

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

It may seem like we are asking too much of our comic book superheroes to place them in the mythic category.  But while they certainly have folk tale elements, they serve the purpose of myth as well.  In both The Power Of Myth as well as The Mythic Dimension, Campbell outlines four major cultural functions of myths.  The latter two specifically correspond to our experience of superheroes.  The sociological function supports and validates a certain social order (polygamy, monogamy, whatever) resulting in great variety in the various cultural myths.  Obviously we see our societal norms reflected and challenged in our comic book stories.  Then the pedagogical function teaches us how to live a human life under any circumstances.  And, in their best moments, comic books strive to teach us how to live a fully human life (for example, with lessons of responsibility and worthiness).  Most important of all (to use Campbell’s own words once again), myths show us that, “at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation.  The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come.  At the darkest moment comes the light” (Power of Myth, 46).  Understanding this is important and, I’d argue, essential to transform our life, our society, and our world into something brighter.  While the themes of mythology are timeless – it’s all the same stories – how it’s presented is often unique to each people/culture.  So, as our culture and our global awareness becomes more diverse and inclusive, so too must our superheroes.  Our myths need to reflect our culture.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The overwhelmingly white/male nature of the superheroes who filled the comic books I read as a child, by their nature, can’t accurately reflect our current culture.  As a result, fewer and fewer people can truly connect to those stories as intimately as they should be allowed to.  However, the more people who can see themselves in the myths, the more people who can easily share in the instruction and guidance they represent, the more effective the myths become and the wider ranger their message has.  So, multiple Spider-Men, Iron Men, or Captain Americas just help a larger group of people connect to the values those characters represent in a personal way.

Taking this a step further, Campbell tells us, “There is a basic mythological motif that originally all was one, and then there was separation–heaven and earth, male and female, and so forth” (Power of Myth, 62).  If myths illustrate how we were once one and are now separate, the idea of having many different people actively be one hero can help to symbolically represent this primal unity.  As one character, one mask, grows to represent more and more of us, then we can experience unity on yet another level.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Drawing from Campbell’s classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces we learn 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).  The hero ventures off the beaten path, high up the mountain, to attain the sacred knowledge that humanity has forgotten/never known.  They then either live in the sacred or return to share what they have with humanity.  As of all of this should make clear, the more diverse heroes we have taking up the mantle of an iconic superhero the better they can fulfill that mythic function in our society.  Everyone deserves to, and needs to, connect to those sorts of stories.

Yet, when it comes to Marvel’s growing diversity, again and again I read some version of the sentence – “It’s just diversity for the sake of diversity.”  This is always offered as a criticism…as though intentionally trying to be as diverse as possible is a bad thing??  It isn’t!  Yes, Marvel has been making a very obvious and very intentional move to diversify their characters (and, at an admittedly slower pace, the creative talent behind those characters).  And here’s the thing – Marvel SHOULD be striving to create more diverse characters because diversity is important!  There’s no need to apologize for it or try and hide it or pretend it’s anything other than what it is.  Yes, they’ve taken many of their flagship characters and given them alter egos with a variety of new backgrounds.  I say keep it up!

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

First, the integrity of these new characters is strong.  While Miles Morales may be wearing a Spider-Man costume and going by the name “Spider-Man” when he’s doing his superheroing, he’s certainly not a cliché gimmick or carbon copy of Peter Parker in minority packaging.  Regardless of the same name/power set, Miles’ story/character is completely unique and every bit as engaging as Peter Parker, albeit in his own way.  I’m happy to say I’ve read every comic with Miles Morales as Spider-Man (a special “thank you!” to Mom and Dad for making birthday presents of some of those complete collection volumes to help fill in the gaps) and I love him!  There is no superhero who’s closer to my hear than the original Spider-Man.  So it means a lot to me when I say Miles is more than worthy of wearing the webs.  His existence makes the world of Spider-Man so much more exciting!  In fact, last week’s Spider-Man #8 was the most exciting comic I took home from the comic shop.  That’s saying something when a new issue of Spider-Man/Deadpool was also released!

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I’ve already written extensively about how I think Jane Foster’s Thor is the greatest version of Thor I’ve ever encountered.  I’ve also written about the love, respect, and passion I have for Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel and how important her character is, not just to the Marvel Universe but to our world.  I’ll add that I’ve started reading Sam Wilson: Captain America, going back to the beginning of Sam picking up the shield.  I would say that, second only to Ms. Marvel, this is the most important comic being published right now.  Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to the political themes running through that book, Sam Wilson is tackling some very important issues we need to be thinking about.  I’ve also (in preparation for this piece) just met Amadeus Cho’s incarnation of the Hulk!  In reading the first four issues of the series I can say I was blown away by how much fun the book was.  It’s not clever for me to say (in fact, I may regret writing this lame pun later) but  the book is totally awesome.  And Riri Williams as Iron Man is just one more reason I can’t wait to see Civil War II come to a close.  I’m pretty excited to see where this will go!

So, all these characters – their back stories, their relationships, their connections/role in the Marvel Universe – are engaging and exciting.  There’s nothing, to my mind, that we can or should criticize about their taking up the title of an iconic hero.  (Plus, it’s not like the original hero is ever gone for good…if we’re lucky they return to their mantle and we can have multiple versions of the hero at once!)  All these new imaginings of these iconic heroes bring something new!  They all add to the name without detracting or cheapening it at all.  If these characters do all of that, how can intentionally making exciting new characters diverse be a bad thing?

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

For all the needless anger and ranting they allow, surprisingly enough, the other side of the letter page/internet comment section shows us exactly why this is intentional move to diversify is important.  For all the angry and ignorant comments I read, I’ve also come across ones that fill me with warmth and some, honestly, even bring tears to my eyes.  Again and again I read moving testimonies from people of varying races and sexual orientations saying how they can finally connect with a certain hero or heroes in a way they never could before because they feel a sense of representation.  It’s important to them to see their life reflected in the costumed heroes who permeate our culture.  Who is anyone to say that’s wrong?  Obviously this sort of connection is important…and it’s special too.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As a kid, I loved Spider-Man.  I had his comics, toys, t-shirts, watched his movies and cartoons, and more often than not I’d pretend to be Spidey when we’d play superheroes.  Also, I saw many of the moral/ethical lessons my family was teaching me modeled and reinforced in Spider-Man and the journey of Peter Parker.  He meant so much to me…and he still does!  If Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy help more people experience that with the same intensity and passion I’ve always gotten from Peter Parker wearing the webs…how can that be wrong??  To answer my own question, it can’t be wrong.  In fact, I’ll go a step farther – to assert it is wrong or somehow cheapening the character is itself problematic.  Everyone deserves to see themselves in a hero like Spider-Man.  I say the more  genders and races picking up these iconic mantels the better.  Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ms. Marvel – these are all ESTABLISHED heroes and those names carry a cultural weight.  There’s an importance in being able to connect to the legend, myth, and morals of those established heroes that doesn’t exist in the same way if you were to simply create some random new character like the…I don’t know…the Dynamic Energy Being.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

So yes, Riri Williams will become Iron Man.  Miles Morales has been Spider-Man for five years.  And Thor’s now a woman.  To speak boldly and plainly, if someone is still deeply troubled by this then maybe it’s time for them to step to the side and quietly enjoy the decades of back issues that exist.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / and don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly agin’ / Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand / For the time’s they are a changin’.”  I’m not saying this to be mean or snarky or intentionally confrontational but, to be blunt, a growing diversity in our established heroes is as necessary as it is important.  For too long our dominate historical narrative has been seen through the eyes of white male Europeans.  But thankfully, that era is closing.  Our comic book heroes better reflecting the reality of our world only helps that.  Yes, I will always love Peter Parker and Tony Stark.  But right now we need heroes like Miles Morales, Riri Williams, Jane Foster, Kamala Khan, Amadeus Cho, and Sam Wilson.

The mask/identity of a particular superhero means something.  The more diverse the particular hero becomes, the more people who can intimately connect to what they represent.  This connection allows these powerful and (at times) seemingly omnipresent cultural myths to speak to all of us and challenge all of us to reach for the heights our superheroes strive for in their stories.  Everyone deserves the chance to see their life experience reflected in their superheroes.  And everyone needs to the challenge of our superheroes to make our world better and brighter.  Diverse characters assuming the mantle of an iconic hero, once exclusively white and male, brings all of us closer to a more divine, loving, and inclusive world.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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