Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics

Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics

“In 1996, several new Latinos were born—and reborn,” Frederick Luis Aldama writes in the first chapter of Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. “DC’s Chuck Dixon (writer) and Robert Campanella (artist) give the Green Lantern a Latino makeover with Kyle Rayner’s backstory, which includes his estranged Mexican father, Gabriel Vasquez.” This development is one of many that Aldama covers in his book, a critical text about the scope and quality of Latinx representation throughout the genre’s history. But Kyle Rayner had a special resonance for me.

Reading these comics as they came out (Green Lantern and Dixon’s Green Arrow run, with which it often crossed over), I felt a kinship with Rayner—an aspirational one, anyway. Like Peter Parker, he was witty, creative, and devoted to the cause of justice despite having lots of other stuff to do. Unlike Peter Parker, Rayner had debuted not long after I first became a comics reader. The timing encouraged an extra level of investment—the pleasure of getting in on the ground floor.

With the introduction of Rayner’s Latinx-Irish heritage, I did not feel a shock of recognition or the thrill of being seen, despite it resembling my own (Central American and Irish). I hadn’t yet reached an understanding of myself that permitted this sort of reaction. But representation has other effects. In my case, these comics rang a quiet note of validation, one that would eventually harmonize with notes from other sources. Or, to use another metaphor: with the Rayner reveal came the discreet sense of a pathway opening up, one I could explore if I chose to, within the comfortable bounds of a genre that had already excited my imagination countless times.

In my youth, I identified more easily with the Irish branch of my family tree than with the Latinx branch. Later, I’d come to recognize my discomfort with the latter as a subtle form of internalized racism. I don’t mean to suggest that a Chuck Dixon comic gave me a more complete sense of self—more to suggest that positive representation can lead readers toward the conditions that make this mindset possible.

Countless other Latinx readers have felt the superhero genre’s failures of representation more acutely than I did. Where I was resistant or oblivious, this coalition of readers has been well aware of being so underserved. I can’t say whether that makes them more or less likely to overlook the shortcomings of Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. The book has a valuable mission; it also undermines its own credibility many times.

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In the first of its three major sections, Latinx Superheroes attempts a comprehensive historical survey of Latinx crime-fighters within the superhero genre. Beginning with The Whip (Flash Comics #1, 1940) and Anthony “Big Words” Rodriguez (Star-Spangled Comics #7, 1942), the book identifies tropes creators have lapsed into—across decades—in depicting Latinx heroes. Superhero comics have frequently portrayed Latinx characters as hot tempered and/or hypersexual. They’ve also often positioned Latinx characters as local-hero community crime-fighter types, possessed of skills and integrity but rarely present on the big stage of superheroics. (The text suggests that even this local-hero treatment improves upon depictions of early Latinx heroes like The Whip and El Gaucho [Detective Comics #215, 1955], who were light-skinned, moneyed elites, using their gifts to help a browner and more dependent populace.)

The care with which authors and artists create Latinx superheroes has improved over the years, though as Aldama notes, the genre’s problems of representation are not solely a thing of the past. Later in the section, he assesses some obvious offenders as well as works with sound critical reputations. One passage examines how DC writers such as Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka have portrayed the character Renée Montoya, asking whether the storyline in which Montoya takes the mantle of the Question (52, 2006-2007) subordinates Montoya’s Latinx heritage to other characteristics. The book also offers a critique of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s acclaimed X-Statix series (2002-2004) and its stereotypical depiction of Latinx lothario El Guapo (though the text repeatedly identifies the comic by the wrong name, “X-Static”).

Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics also discusses relative high points in the genre—and emphatically. Bill Mantlo and George Pérez’s White Tiger (Deadly Hands of King Fu #19, 1975) is “a masterful creation of a fully realized Latino superhero,” and “the solid, triangular stance shown in the first panel above emphasizes this firm rootedness [in the character’s Latinidad]”—perhaps an over-determined reading of Pérez’s skillful but not radical depiction of White Tiger. Meanwhile, Jaime Reyes’s transformation into the Blue Beetle (2006) “makes new our perception, thought, and feeling about the day-to-day existence of living in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.”

In light of such historically poor representations of Latinx peoples, moments in which creators rise to the occasion do have a more energizing effect than the usual offerings of Marvel and DC. The context of Latinx Superheroes is one of serial missed opportunities, which makes it exciting whenever a creator sticks the landing. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if, in its descriptions of these achievements, the book had set the absence of racism as a bar for excellence.

It bears mentioning here that Aldama’s book does not examine the politics of the superhero as a concept or determine whether a coherent politics emerges from a century’s worth of accumulated superhero stories. (If the superhero represents a will to power, or is inherently reactive, would even the most inclusive stories reinforce a problematic logic?) Rather, the book seems to assume that 1) superheroes are not ideologically fraught in and of themselves, and 2) competent representation in a competently rendered work provides baseline conditions for empowerment. Based on my own experience, I’m inclined to agree with the latter. I could only offer a modest case in favor of the Green Lantern storyline of my youth, but it was nevertheless a trail marker on the path to fuller self-acceptance.

Even so, some explicit articulation of the politics of the genre would have benefited Latinx Superheroes. Without first addressing the possibility of the superhero as a reactionary figure, it leaves open the question of whether gains made within the genre are gains in the right direction. And without this—a stronger argument that superheroes are good (politically sound), and thus inclusive but true-to-convention superhero storytelling is also good—a reader may still be tempted to second-guess the book’s conclusions about certain specific examples. Latinx Superheroes sometimes offers endorsements of scenes that appear (via the book’s own sample images) gaudy, clichéd, artistically conservative, or some combination of the three.

The book also features passages that could mislead a reader, either through poor construction or outright errors. For instance, what follows is the text’s entry on the Engineer:

In May 1999, Warren Ellis (writer) and Bryan Hitch (artist) introduce to the DC universe one of the most complex and interesting Latina superheroes: Dr. Angela “Angie” Spica. She’s one of the founding members of superhero team The Authority (Authority #1). They anchor her firmly in an urban environment and with working-class roots. [...] While Ellis and Hitch slip a little into cliché when they invest her with a stereotypical hothead temperament, especially as associated with desire (she tries to kill her lover, Captain Atom, when she spots him with another woman), their forceful identification of Angie as a Latina deeply committed to her family and her own education tilt the balance back.

It is not mere nerd pedantry to point out that Aldama doesn’t mention Spica’s alter ego by name, or that The Authority of 1999 did not introduce Spica to the DC universe; rather, the Engineer and other WildStorm characters came under the ownership of DC at this time but belonged to their own fictional domain. Similarly, Spica’s dalliance with Captain Atom took place several years after Ellis and Hitch moved on from The Authority, as did the Authority’s entry into the DC universe. The result of the text’s handling of this information is a vague and incomplete introduction to the character.

Many times within the book’s first section, Latinx Superheroes delivers a description of a character that doesn’t clearly differentiate between the character’s introduction and the character’s publication history thereafter. Readers may lack confirmation of whether Marvel or DC continued to feature a superhero beyond their introductory issue. With certain figures (e.g. DC’s Vibe and El Diablo), the book does follow a character across multiple decades and iterations. With others, including the Engineer, Aldama fails to clarify how many interpretations a character spans.

With still other characters, Latinx Superheroes summarizes a character’s publication history but allows errors along the way. Revisiting El Gaucho via his appearances in Grant Morrison’s Batman run, the book includes an image of the character, but its caption misidentifies him as villain El Papagayo. Another image caption correctly identifies Gaucho (drawn by a different artist but wearing the same costume) three pages later. Similarly, the book includes a line from Marvel Now! Nova as one of its introductory quotes, but then misidentifies Nova as one of “DC’s New 52 reboots.” Later, the text describes Marvel’s most recent Ghost Rider, the Latinx Robbie Reyes, as “not an incarnation of Johnny Blazes [sic],” mischaracterizing a previous Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze, as the spirit of vengeance itself rather than one of its hosts.

In isolation, none of these errors delivers a meaningful blow to the book’s credibility. But they appear frequently enough to leave readers on shaky footing. How many mistakes might a reader encounter that they aren’t able to vet firsthand? How many inaccuracies should a supportive reader overlook? A work of this kind should persuade readers that it’s trustworthy, not depend on an abundance of trust.

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The second major section of Latinx Superheroes devotes more attention to formal analysis of comics and to the takeaways of the book’s historical survey. Aldama favors an understanding of comics-making as narrative and visual geometrizing, that is, “the skillful and willful visualizing” of a work’s different components. In some passages, more familiar terms like “plotting” or “cartooning” would also serve, but Aldama’s usage is more than academic opaqueness for its own sake. With the sort of building-block construction that geometrizing implies—an awareness of comics-making as dependent on some essential elements, including literal geometric shapes—Aldama’s term of choice foregrounds the intentionality necessary to bring a comic into being.

Latinx Superheroes also offers a compelling consideration of the formal elements of a comic book, the processes by which readers engage with them, and the social benefits of the latter:

[I]t is the wonderfully generative capacity of this co-creating potential in comic book readers that not only allows readers and audiences to imagine movement and three dimensions in the static, two-dimensional in-print comic-book story-world spaces, but allows them to feel and think about identities and experiences distant from their own. [...] The authors and artists select in and out details (writing and visuals) that at once hit our perception system and guide our imaginations to thrill in their filling in of gaps; our emotions and thoughts fill in and complete drawn figures, gestures, dialogue, and character interaction [...] DC and Marvel creators make visual and verbal blueprints that ask readers to exercise their causal, counterfactual, and probabilistic mechanisms to not only re-create social and physical maps of their respective storyworlds, but also to imagine new possible ways of existing in the real world.

This is no small thing—a reminder that the formal systems of comics have a direct link to successful representation, and that critiques of representation within comics storytelling engage by their very nature with the comics form.

Despite the quality of Aldama’s insights here, the second section of Latinx Superheroes also includes some head-scratching moments. Midway through the chapter, Aldama states that, in the geometrizing of contemporary superhero comics, “Latino artists are arguably the true innovators. They are our modern-day Renaissance creators.” The text then provides a list of Latinx creators (including colorists and inkers) and their respective projects. But once the section begins a more thoroughgoing visual analysis of some superhero books with Latinx leads, the focus lands mainly on white creators’ depictions of these characters. This includes an enthusiastic consideration of two covers by David Finch, among the most ham-fisted of contemporary superhero artists. Non-Latinx creators’ thoughtful visualizations of Latinx characters may serve as useful references for other non-Latinx storytellers and allies. Even so, in a section that could have unpacked a superhero scene by Paolo Rivera or Rafael Grampá, it is bizarre to see where the text turns its attentions instead.

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In its third major section, Latinx Superheroes examines depictions of Latinx crime-fighters throughout film and television. Here too, a reader finds both sharp insights and avoidable missteps. Aldama outlines a galling pattern of Lantix erasure throughout film superhero franchises. He notes for instance that despite the X-Men films’ particular emphasis on the marginalized, director Bryan Singer

erases Latinos from his film’s landscape, either by not representing them in his urban settings or by willfully not including those few Latino X-Men that populate the original comic book. In the first X-Men there are no Latinos, not even as janitors. In X-Men 2 (2003) we do glimpse [...] a Latino janitor.

The section also laments the absence of Latinx figures from the New Mexico of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), despite New Mexico being majority Latinx, as well as the dated, anachronistic northern Mexico glimpsed in Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider (2007). Aldama’s critiques in this chapter are among the book’s most pointed, and, if film executives were to take note, contain some of the book’s clearest criteria for corrective works: stories that are up to date in their geography and reflective of contemporary demographics.

Unfortunately, the errors in this section are among the book’s most blatant. Describing the Black and Latinx Spider-Man Miles Morales—as seen in episodes of the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series—Aldama refers to “African American actor Danny Glover” as the person voicing Miles, rather than Donald Glover, who did the vocal duties. Criticizing the casting of a white actor as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, citing the comic-book Bane’s Latinx heritage, Aldama mentions “Tom Harding” instead of Tom Hardy, who filled the role. In the book’s strangest error, Baretta appears in a list of television cartoons.

Again, no single error overturns a book’s credibility, but they do have a corrosive cumulative effect. For each inaccuracy I noticed, I wondered how many I had taken as fact. (And whatever else is true, it’s reasonable to expect a critic of contemporary pop culture to know who Donald Glover is.) The epilogue to Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics reminds readers that in choosing “to distill and reconstruct a reality that includes Latinos/as,” some comics “do a good job, and others a sloppy job.” The same is true of comics scholarship. While Latinx Superheroes features a commendable breadth of coverage, it also features numerous mistakes and misleading constructions.

The modest rise in representation of twenty years ago had a lasting effect on me—a hint of encouragement in an unexpected place. Although the superhero genre has grown more inclusive since then, these stories still fail to reflect the demographics of the real United States. The genre’s gains and shortcomings deserve the depth of consideration that Latinx Superheroes aims to provide. I had wanted to the book to stir, surprise, provoke—to approach its subject with a kind of rigor that might set it apart. Now I hope we’ll see more works of its kind, and that scholars don’t take Latinx Superheroes as the last word on the subject.