February 24, 2007

Diversity in comics--or not

From subhuman to superhuman:  Images of First Nations peoples in comic booksEthnic images found in contemporary comics are a strange mix of cultural hybridity. They reflect a cultural patchwork of forces: syndication of the strips, assimilation of ethnic groups into society, the civil rights movement, genocide of indigenous peoples, activist cartoonists, and the demands of readers. Today, a field trip to the comic book store reveals a major transformation and contrast from earlier figures of subhuman characters to superhuman feats: ethnic characters as superheroes. Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman-all of Anglo heritage-have been joined by Black Panther (African), White Tiger (Puerto Rican), Kitty Pryde (Jewish), Banshee (Irish), Colossus (Russian), Firebird (Mexican), and more.

With the increased emphasis on complex characterization, it would be easy to think that the model of the comic book superhero has changed. But consider the case of Dani, the New Mutants' First Nations peoples' leader. Dani successfully integrates contemporary American culture with her adherence to traditional Cheyenne ways. Although the cultural choices and compromises she makes are handled with sophistication and her tribal traditions are portrayed with respect, she still wields her powerful Cheyenne chants as easily as Captain Marvel utters the magic word "Shazam!" In this instance, meaningful Cheyenne traditions are reduced to yet one more super power to be wielded by the proper hero.

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