Ever since Clark Kent first donned a pair of oversized glasses and, somewhat improbably, hid his Superman persona from Lois Lane, questions of identity have been a staple of the comic-book genre. And it is near-gospel that a hero’s alter ego is the polar opposite of his or her costumed personality. Beneath the mask, Spider-Man is Peter Parker, a nerdy, pimply-faced teenager. The Incredible Hulk metamorphoses from wilting scientist Bruce Banner into a raging green behemoth. By day, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind, workaholic attorney. So perhaps it should not be surprising that Marvel Comics–creators of Spidey, The Hulk and Daredevil, among others–is taking the theme of identity in new, contemporary directions.
And yet it is surprising. In three new, seemingly unrelated comic-book series, Marvel has begun an exploration of racial, religious and sexual identity that is unique in the mainstream comic-book industry. In a new series titled Truth: Red, White & Black, writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker offer a revisionist account of the origins of Captain America–the star-spangled hero who first fought the Nazis in World War II–in which the original hero is recast as a black GI. In Remembrance of Things Past, Fantastic Four No. 56 (Vol. 3), writer Karl Kesel and artist Stuart Immonen reveal that the orange, craggy hero known as “The Thing” is Jewish. And in Slap Leather, a series by writer Ron Zimmerman and artist John Severin, the Rawhide Kid, a gun-toting cowboy in the Old West, is openly gay. This reinvention of the identities of three major characters in a formerly homogenous corner of the literary (yes, literary) universe deserves a closer look.
Truth, Remembrance and Slap Leather have all caused a minor firestorm in comic-book land, with fans clogging Internet chatrooms, listservs and conventions with commentary, positive and negative, and the kind of excruciatingly detailed dissection of plot lines that keeps comic collectors up at night. (One Fantastic Four fan wrote in to say that The Thing can’t be Jewish because in an issue from the 1970s the hero celebrated Christmas.)
But why all the hubbub over these story lines? Mature and controversial themes are hardly new to comic books. Since the late 1960s, “underground” comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers have dealt with drugs, sex, race and other prickly topics. And in the recent past, a few major characters have even flirted with ethnic transformation. “The Invincible Iron Man” had a brief incarnation as a black man (though “The Invincible” was quietly dropped from his title), and Superman himself briefly had a forgettable black alter ego known as Steel (committed to celluloid in an even more forgettable film of the same name starring Shaquille O’Neal). In those cases, though, readers recognized the ethnic story lines for what they were, temporary deviations from the characters’ signature histories and identities. Superman would forever be Clark Kent, the mild-mannered (white, Anglo-Saxon and straight) visitor from the planet Krypton. Iron Man would remain Tony Stark, the billionaire (white, Anglo-Saxon and straight) industrialist and playboy.
But the new story lines represent something different, especially for the comics faithful. They are changing forever the core personal histories and identities of major, beloved characters. More profoundly, they are revealing that the characters were never what readers assumed them to be. In the comic-book world, that kind of change can’t be undone. Twenty years after the current series come to an end, experienced collectors at comic-book conventions will be sagely explaining to their wide-eyed protégés that “actually, the first Captain America was black.”