Marvel Comics' reputation as a publishing juggernaut (no pun intended) in regards to comic books goes without saying. Although they've wavered at times, the company has managed to maintain its position as one of the top tier producers of quality comic books for the past 50 years. Their catalog of heroes, villains, anti-heroes & villains, cosmic gods and everyone in-between are among the most well known anywhere. And within the last decade or so, they've begun to etch themselves into pop culture itself with their explosive expansion onto television and into film. Most kids of the last several generations have grown up with Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk and many many more. We know their histories, their struggles, their powers, their likes and dislikes almost as if they were real people. But after almost half a century, that didn't seem to be enough. This past year, Marvel began something that they'd never done before on this scale: they were going to unmake their universe. Rival publisher DC Comics has done this repeatedly over the years with their "Crisis" crossovers, in which an inter-reality threat ends up rewriting much of the current continuity, allowing them to reinterpret their characters in a myriad of different ways. Marvel initiated something similar with their new "Secret Wars" event, which was created to effectively merge the mainstream Earth-616 continuity with the Ultimate continuity (which was destroyed earlier this year). What came out the other end is an "All-New, All-Different Marvel", which sees the status quo completely turned on its ear. New teams, new adventures, and new creative talent to tell them. More specifically, this new branding seems to be placing a greater emphasis on the company's ethnic and female characters, of which there have always been plenty but they've never been at the forefront of the proceedings.....until now.
Last year, Marvel made waves when they announced that two dominant, male aesthetically Aryan-looking (blond haired, blue eyed, musclebound) male characters would be passing on their respective mantles and powers on to almost their polar opposites. Those two were Captain America and The Mighty Thor, who would be replaced in their roles by Sam Wilson (an African-America male) and Jane Foster (the former Thor's love interest). In the case of Wilson, the change can be seen as reflective of that of the US Presidency; a traditionally white male figurehead for the nation now a person of color. While Sam Wilson has actually taken on the role of Captain America before (albeit briefly) this is the first time that the change was made more permanent, with the storyline reasoning being that Steve Roger's super soldier serum was burnt out of his system, reducing him to an elderly man and unable to continue in his capacity as Captain America. Wilson seemed the only worthy successor to the role after the lukewarm reception by comparison that Rogers' other best friend, James "Bucky" Barnes, received when he assumed the role following Rogers' temporary death at the hands of the Red Skull and Crossbones.
Jane Foster becoming Thor is much more polarizing since not only are the title and powers passing to another person (which has happened in the past as well) but into a person of the opposite gender! Thor is the mythological god of thunder, he's all muscle and mead-drunken bravado and noble male power fantasies. He beats the bad guys and saves the maiden. As previously stated, Thor has previously been tied to other characters (having them share a single body, transforming back and forth) but Thor was always Thor in some way. With this change, Thor himself would still exist but completely independent of his mystical hammer Mjolnir, which came to help define the character; now in the hands of a woman. And not just that, but a woman whose initial characterization was a typical damsel in distress, and who is now stricken with terminal cancer which is exacerbated by her use of the Thor powers. This puts a ton of weight and responsibility on her shoulders and collectively presents a damaged woman of insurmountable strength stepping into the role of a broken man...a king....a god!
Both of these changes were seen initially as Marvel's attempts to be more politically correct and to appease those who were calling for more diversity in comics.They were expected to be short, headlining changes that would be reverted once they'd accomplished their purpose. Yet, here we are, a whole year later and the changes have not even shown any signs of being reverted back.
Another one of Marvel's premier heroes getting an overhaul is the Incredible Hulk, traditionally the alter ego of milquetoast Caucasian scientist Bruce Banner, who became a demigod of strength and power when enraged or in mortal danger. Originally, his unofficial sidekick was the young Rick Jones who would end up sharing roles and powers with a number of other heroes including being bonded to Captain Marvel and becoming a sort of Hulk himself called A-Bomb (after the Abomination, whom he resembled). Over the last decade or so though, Jones' place has slowly been overtaken by Amadeus Cho, a Korean-American teenager who functions as a human "hypercomputer", effectively making him one of the smartest people on the entire planet. After being saved by the Hulk from agents of a rival genius mastermind, Cho found himself embroiled in the world of superheroes, eventually forming a friendship with the literal demigod Hercules, assisting the "Hulk family", and becoming a "freelancer of all things science" and joining the Illuminati; a covert think-tank team that operate in secret, collaborating on information and strategy and acting on it. Earlier this year it was revealed that a new Hulk would be a part of Marvel's re-branding but that it would not be Bruce Banner. Many fans suspected it would be Cho, which Marvel officially confirmed just last week. With writer Greg Pak and artist Frank Cho (who themselves created Amadeus Cho) coming onboard, this series holds the distinction of being the company's first Korean-American-centric, Korean-American created title. Which makes most sense seeing as how the character's race will not be front focused, it is part of who he is and would be an odd choice to have anyone else write and draw it since the co-creators of the character are themselves the same ethnicity. Marvel could have easily made Rick Jones the Hulk again (where is Jones anyway?) or focused on his son Skaar, or had another Caucasian character become a Hulk or Hulk-like character (i.e. General Thunderbolt Ross or Doc Samson). As with Jane Foster and Sam Wilson, Cho was not only the perfect choice, he also allows a different dynamic to be shown against a traditionally White, male character.
T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther holds the distinction of being the first Black superhero in mainstream American comics, debuting several years before other early African-American superheroes such as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Luke Cage, and DC Comics' Black Lightning and the Green Lantern John Stewart. The character is also deeply entrenched in African culture, being the king of the fictional country of Wakanda and possessing the intelligence and commanding the power equal to that (and even superior to some) of his White counterparts. He's not only a superhero, he's a ruler of a nation, which gave young Black children a shining inspiration in the world of comics. The character has noticeably mostly been written by White males, which given the emphasis on African culture has been commented on by many in the industry. In their increasing goal to widen the appeal and audience of their titles, Marvel has announced that will be bringing on celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates to pen the storyline for the new Black Panther monthly series. Coates is a a National Correspondent for The Atlantic as well as a 2014 George Polk award for commentary recipient and a 2015 National Book Award for Non-Fiction nominee for his books dealing with the Black experience in America today. Coates is a self-admitted Marvel "superfan" and has said his run on Panther will have echoes of the themes in his books. The year-long storyline will be titled "A Nation Under Our Feet", which sees Black Panther dealing with an uprising instigated by a new terrorist group called The People in his home country of Wakanda. Having a powerful Black voice behind a powerful Black character is sure to lend an air of authenticity to the book, but also (like Pak and Cho on the new Hulk series) it lets the stories be told by those who have a clearer relation and/or understanding of it to begin with and brings not just character diversity but creator diversity as well.
Marvel famously or infamously (depending on how you look at it) killed off the character of Wolverine last year. Like other legacy characters, it was only a matter of time before his mantle was passed on to someone else, his son Daken (who has taken on the identity before) being the most likely candidate. However, Marvel threw a curve-ball by announcing that his female clone (Laura Kinney, a.k.a. X-23) would be donning the mask as the "All-New Wolverine". A female Wolverine isn't exactly brand new as a similar character existed in Marvel's alternate future M2 universe; Wild Thing, who was the daughter of Wolverine and the assassin Elektra greatly resembled Laura. But as with Jane Foster becoming Thor, this change takes an established male power fantasy and embodies it in a tortured but strong female (X-23 was bred to be living weapon then was forced into prostitution upon her escape from her handlers).
In a surprise move, Marvel announced the relaunch of one of their lesser known properties: "Red Wolf". The mantle has been held by different Native American heroes, all with mystical powers and a trusted wolf companion named Lobo. Originally created back when such characters were more of a gimmick, this new iteration of the character is being taken just as seriously as his superhero contemporaries. Like most ethnic groups, Native Americans are largely misrepresented and appropriated in American culture. A series such as this would definitely appeal to people of Native descent, as well as putting a modern and sensible slant on an established, if lesser known, title.
The biggest punch of the bunch, however has to be Marvel's "A-Force", which features their first all-female team of Avengers co-led by She -Hulk and the Inhuman Crystal, as well as featuring a host of heroines from all over the Marvel U including: Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman, Squirrel Girl, Jean Grey, Dazzler, Storm, Emma Frost and Scarlet Witch. Two of the three creators of the book are female, maintaining that authentic voice of previously mentioned titles, and it has been lauded for taking what could have been an easily forgettable, gimicky premise (women only superhero team) and does something worthwhile with it. It paints these women as people, not just eye candy or incapable female counterparts to male heroes. More importantly, there's no extremely strong making a point of "But why an all-female Avengers team?" seeing as how nobody ever asks that question when an all-male team is formed, which is exactly part of the point.
In this new geopolitical climate of tolerance, acceptance and the continuing struggle for true equality for all religions, races, sexual orientations and creeds; Marvel Comics has their pulse on the issue and is effectively having their books reflect that change in the world view. Some may see these as nothing more than long-con gimmicks that will be reverted back to their individual staus quo once the novelty has worn thin. They seem intent on proving the exact opposite, with these changes having real, relevant causes and effects to the shared universe as a whole. Regardless of your belief in the impetus behind the changes, they are serving as a very bold and needed step forward that will carry the company into many more hands and expand the scope to be of and for the world with all the simultaneous diversity and collectiveness present throughout.