From Black Panther to Luke Cage, the Comics Reading Group – held at YSJ in the last week of Black History Month – discussed the history and ideas about black characters in Marvel Comics. The initial presentation was an account of the history of black characters in marvel comics as well as some interesting readings of memos and letters specifically about diversity within marvel. While the group talked the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed; the room was full of fans which kept it from seeming like too much of an academic event. Discussion flowed easily after the riveting ice breaker – what superpower would you have? – And led into everyone’s feelings, fears, and even some furies concerning the subject.
It was refreshing to see that everyone had an opinion, as opposed to the awkward silences usually found amongst a group of strangers put on the spot. No matter what experiences of comic books or what racial background people had everyone was talking freely, sharing thoughts and ideas with relative ease. Because of this easiness a great many interesting points came up about the history of comic books and diversity.
Though comic books may not always be considered the highest forms of literature amongst academics, the general populace finds them riveting and (possibly due to the Hollywood obsession with the Marvel Cinematic Universe) inescapable. And it is through the comics and films that Black Panther has come into the public eye and won his popularity. However, this wasn’t always the case.
The history of black characters in any form has been a long and complicated one and it was no different for Marvel Comics. Black Panther first appeared in The Fantastic Four, introduced not as a hero, but as an ambiguous character who could be made into a villain if he was not received well by the fans. Though Black Panther wasn’t the first black super hero to get his own series; Luke Cage of Jessica Jones fame was the lucky first, unfortunately this representation was no better. The jive-talking detective was often seen badgering people for his payment after saving them, and eventually lost popularity before returning with the promise of “no more jive talk.”
Diversity in these comics didn’t just fail black men however, it failed women of all races quite drastically too. And much like the representation of black characters, the way women are depicted is still very much a work in progress. Titles such as Night Nurse and My Love painted women in submissive, sexualised roles that haven’t changed all that drastically considering recent controversy over Black Widow toys being left out of Avengers sales, and Wonder Woman’s poor depiction in Batman vs Superman.
There have been massive strides made in both racial and gender equality in comics however, as the reading group did start to discuss towards the end of the session. Black Panther has swept back into the lime light with a new comic series (written by a black artist!!) and even his own film, with the weight of his entire culture on his shoulders as the King of Wakanda. Whilst Jessica Jones portrays women as strong, confident, in spite of abusive relationships, whilst showing an interracial relationship between her and Luke Cage (who thankfully no longer takes payment for his super hero services).
Overall the reading group was a wonderful success. Conversation flowed from comics, to film, to history, to the Black Lives Matter movement, and back to comics again. The event was an excellent example of how Black History Month is still relevant and how far we have come as a society, but also how much further we still have to go. The one small issue was the event was that everyone wanted to keep talking, and took to Twitter to continue talking! Hopefully these discussions can be revisited in future events just like this one.