It’s hard to be a black nerd at a comic book convention.
Even among all the bright lights and C-list sci-fi stars and homemade costumes, you stand out. Especially among the homemade costumes. If you choose to cosplay as a black nerd, you find yourself with limited options. You can pick from among the small list of characters who actually match your race. Pretty much every black guy running around the convention floor is dressed like the Samuel L. Jackson-based Nick Fury. Or you can branch out and cross racial lines, wearing the costume as best as you can, knowing deep down that to portray the character as accurately as some of the others running around the hall rented out for the weekend is impossible.
But the impossible just got a little more possible: Marvel released an announcement late Wednesday night that someone new would be taking over as that most patriotic of heroes, Captain America. The iconic shield is being passed from Steve Rogers, the white man who has played the part almost constantly since World War II, on to a black man: Sam Wilson, better known as the Falcon in Marvel’s pages.
That’s right everyone: my president’s black. Now Cap is, too.
The shift, explained in the storyline as being due to Rogers’ body no longer being able to handle the strain of being Captain America, makes sense from a canonical point of view. There’s a long history of teamwork between Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers, as anyone who saw this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier witnessed. But Wilson has always been stuck playing second fiddle. Not anymore, as Rick Remender, the writer behind the redesign explained in the blog post Marvel posted to announce the changes:
“Historically, Falcon would often act as air support, flying Steve into the battle. Why not merge the two? He pops the wings, and as he flies, he keeps the shield latched onto his back. He dives down onto the scene, hurls the shield, wings retract, and rolls into a kick or jump, catches the shield on the way back. He doesn’t have the super soldier serum, but he has the added zing-zang-zoom of flight.”
Though the change is being hyped as a big, precedent-breaking move, Wilson isn’t actually the first African-American Captain America in the Marvel universe. In January 2003, Marvel published the mini-series Truth: Red, White, and Black, which “revealed” that after the super-serum formula that made Steve Rogers into Captain America was lost, the U.S. government rounded up a group of 300 black men from Mississippi and experimented on them. Of that number, Isiah Bradley was the only survivor; he was sent on covert missions, but his legend was only passed down to the black community and ignored in the wider world.
What makes the Wilson-as-Captain America announcement all the more interesting is that it comes right on the heels of Marvel declaring that, starting soon, the main character in Thor will be a woman. Not that there will be a “Lady Thor” or She-Thor spin-off. But the character Thor, Norse God of Thunder, played by Chris Hemsworth in the movie franchise, will be a woman. As Marvel editor Wil Moss put it in the announcement, “The inscription on Thor’s hammer reads ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if HE be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.’ Well it’s time to update that inscription.”
Disclaimer: I really cannot overstate my love for Marvel comics. I want to be so excited about this news, and I am. Historically, Marvel has been more ahead of the curve on diversity than any other major comics publisher. The Fantastic Four always had The Invisible Woman (originally deemed the Invisible Girl) as a full-blown member of the pack, a character who started as a love interest and evolved into a powerful protagonist in her own right. Marvel is also responsible for T’Challa, the Black Panther, who could have been an offensive stereotype but instead is basically the African continent’s answer to Batman and the ruler of a prosperous (fictional) country. And when Storm was introduced to The Uncanny X-Men in 1979, there was absolutely nobody like her in comic books: a black woman from Kenya who had a main role in the ensemble story that Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum used to relaunch the then-nearly forgotten series. Sure, there have been disappointments (I’m looking at you, yellow-silk-shirt-wearing Luke Cage), the trend at Marvel has been one that is admirable overall.
Still, comic book fans shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. These changes — a female Thor, a black Captain America — are fantastic, and long overdue. But they probably won’t survive the year.
Permanency is hard to come by in the comic book world, where death is shrugged off easily. B-list characters like the Avengers’ Hawkeye and the X-Men’s Colossus just can’t stay buried. Superman famously died in the 1990s, but the afterlife just didn’t take. In this field, things just have a way of backsliding towards the norm. As Graeme McMillan over at Wired pointed out, even the creators behind the changes have hinted that they’ll be temporary. Once it’s time to make another Thor or Captain America movie, McMillan argues, it will be back to the way things were to better tie-in the franchises. “And that undercuts the message of diversity and inclusion that Marvel is promoting with these announcements,” he writes. “While Marvel is paying lip service to the idea that women or African-Americans are the equal of its traditional white male leads, the publisher takes their agency away at almost every turn.”
And as much as those among the nerd crowd love the comic books and defend their integrity, the real money for Marvel these days is in the movies. According to Box Office Mojo, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has so far made the company $2,626,019,400. So until we see Anthony Mackie on the silver screen taking over playing Captain America from Chris Evans or finally get the Black Panther movie that’s been promised for so long, it will be hard to argue that these changes really represent the a shift in the core principles of the industry.
So the question is, what is that lip service worth? Should symbolic gestures be enough for us?
When I heard Marvel’s twin announcements, I felt something it’s rare for a black comics nerd to feel: I felt like I belonged. Call it pandering to demographics if you like, but as one of the demographics being targeted here, I have to say that it feels good to have an A-list character that looks at least a little like me. I can only imagine the feeling that a black kid looking through the new titles on the shelves at his local comic book store will have when he pauses on the rack holding Captain America and seeing a black face looking back at him. Or the girl who feels out of place page through the same store seeing a woman wielding Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. Increased character diversity is something that should be applauded, in my view, if for no other reason than to build towards the future, one where even more of these characters see the same success that the original Captain America has had over the years.
No matter how long it lasts, I’m happy that for now the new Captain America will be there to inspire a new generation of people of color to hopefully not just create new characters that look more like them, but one day run the whole shebang over at Marvel headquarters.