Just found this awesome essay over on NPR's Code Switch blog about comics and race. As someone who isn't into comics and never was, but loves the canon of superheroes as presented on film (seriously, seeing Marvel films with my Dad is our thing) it was really cool to see an examination of the various characters' canon with more background for context. For example, mutants as marginalized people is pretty obvious, but Xavier and Magneto as MLK and Malcolm X respectively, never even occurred to me.
There's a moment in the most recent X-Men movie in which Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender, is making his pitch to a group of young mutants, and he makes a fairly on-the-nose allusion to real-life racial discrimination. Almost all the mutants of color and the mutants who are not otherwise obviously human decide to roll with him. The white kids who looked "normal" teamed with Xavier. It was hard to miss the subtext: the people who can't simply "pass" were going to find it harder to be accepted, and so assimilation was going to be the most difficult for them. That's a lot of heavy stuff to cram into a scene featuring people in ridiculous leather outfits who can move things with their minds.
Consider my mind blown.
There's also mention of an artist who recolours comics in order to juxtapose their stories with their race. (Here you can find his work and essay about the series. Definitely worth the read) This portion of the NPR essay also stood out to me:
But an artist named Orion Martin noted that the X-Men comics have skirted around the depiction of the people on the receiving end of much real-life discrimination: the main lineup in the X-Men team has been mostly straight, white dudes. Martin nodded to the work of Neil Shyminsky, an academic who's written about the X-Men's complicated relationship with real-life racism:
[He] argues persuasively that playing out civil rights-related struggles with an all-white cast allows the white male audience of the comics to appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples ... "While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality."
So Martin decided to reimagine them, recoloring some famous panels so that the main characters are brown — a gimmick that changes the subtext and stakes for the X-people.
What I love about this artist's project is that it really throws the themes of X-Men into stark contrast with our reality, and our history of bigotry and prejudice. The very dialogue takes on deeper meaning when the mutants are re-drawn as some shade of brown.
Promoters of the X-Men have spent years trying to convince audiences that these white characters are tapping into the struggle of black Americans. Strange as the substitution of white men for black activists may seem, it's not unique. Fantasy universes often comment on social issues through the veil of imaginary prejudices (I think it's interesting that the same characteristics that make Wolverine a white male icon are also regressive stereotypes of black men.) My goal is that by looking at these images people will question whether an invented minority is really the best way to understand our country's history and practice of race-based violence.
Later, the author of the NPR piece also goes into why race-bending isn't a big deal, and points out that there are very few characters for whom their race is essential to their origin story. He cites Batman and Ironman as old-money types whose backstory might be more unlikely were they not white, but not impossible.
I know there are bigger comics nerds than me among us, so I'd love to hear your input. I guess by some (read: asshole) standards, I don't really love superheroes because I've only seen the movies and read a few Spiderman comics when I was a kid, but I love this stuff and it's really cool to me to talk about how the politics within those fictional universes reflects on the politics of our universe that created them.
ETA: Also this...