Race/Related: What Does a Superhero Look Like?

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They used to be almost uniformly white. Not anymore.
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Sunday, April 16, 2017

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In a spread from Justice League of America no. 233, the Puerto Rican hero Vibe shows off his dance moves. In
In a spread from Justice League of America no. 233, the Puerto Rican hero Vibe shows off his dance moves. In “Gang War,” Vibe gets the team involved in a confrontation between neighborhood tough guys. DC Entertainment
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Trying to find someone who looked like me in the world of superheroes is not something I thought about growing up in the ’70s. My parents are from Ecuador, but I was born in the United States and always thought of myself as American (no preceding modifier and hyphen needed), and what could be more American than the fight for truth and justice?
It was not until I started writing in 2002 about the comic book industry for The Times that I really started thinking about diverse representation. By 2006, more concerted efforts were underway for comic book heroes to be more reflective of the real world and its increasingly diverse readership.
My entry into the world of comics was “Super Friends” (1973-86), which united DC Comics heroes in animated form. They had colorful costumes, but their skin tones were almost uniformly white. The first hero who stood out to me as “other” was Green Lantern, though his darker hue was more like a deep tan.
Four diverse heroes were added to Super Friends in 1978. The intent was well meaning then, even if it seems especially ham-handed now: Apache Chief (Native American), Samurai (Japanese), El Dorado (Mexican) and Black Vulcan (one guess). The show rarely depicted their civilian lives, so viewers never learned much about them.
The world of comic books, though, was more lacking. The first Latino hero I met was Vibe, a Justice Leaguer who premiered in 1984. Out of costume he was Paco Ramone, a Puerto Rican break dancer. His first page has cringeworthy dialogue: He says “fresh,” “chill” and “wack,” and uses “chu” (instead of you) a lot, but a few pages later, we learn that this is largely posturing. Among his large, close-knit family, he drops his accent and pretense.
Later that year I met Yolanda Montez, who would become Wildcat II. She was of Mexican descent and added some diversity to her team, Infinity Inc. Yolanda came with an odd tick: Her thoughts and speech were often expressed in Spanish and English. This helped readers who were not bilingual, but made me wonder: Why is she always repeating herself — and in two languages?
Recently in an article about America Chavez, a Marvel hero who is Latina and lesbian, I read 10 lessons about comics and diversity by David F. Walker, who is working on a new Luke Cage series for Marvel. One resonated with me: “If you don’t think representation is crucial in comics, you’ve never been under represented or marginalized.”
Several of Mr. Walker’s lessons deal with supporting comics with diverse representation. It seems obvious, but it is not: People need to buy these books (not download them illegally) for them to survive. “The comic industry responds to how money is spent or not spent,” he writes. “Nothing else matters.” It would help these characters from being the scapegoat for lagging sales, which is how a small number of retailers recently saw a sales slump at Marvel.
The Black Panther series, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, sold more than 300,000 copies of its debut issue. Issue no. 11 sold just over 35,000, but interest in the series was strong enough to warrant a couple of spin-offs, one of which began last week.
My go-to source for superheroes are comics, but we live in an era when many of these champions are on television and film. Robbie Reyes, the latest version of Marvel’s Ghost Rider, is Latino and debuted in 2014. The character joined the fourth season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” last year. Wild Dog, a hockey-mask-wearing vigilante named Jack Wheeler who was introduced by DC in 1987, is on “Arrow,” where he’s become Rene Ramirez. Then there is the utter delight that Wolverine’s daughter in this year’s “Logan” is of Mexican descent. Even Archie Comics is part of the fiesta — Veronica Lodge is half Latina in “Riverdale.”
That brings me back to Vibe, who has done well for himself, considering that he was murdered in 1986. He was resurrected in comics and, in 2012, he fought androids and break-danced in one of the animated shorts of DC Nation. Two years later he became a key part of “The Flash,” which is reaching an average of 2.87 million viewers a week.
For the next generation of superheroes fans, representation will be easier to find. Nothing wack about that.
George Gene Gustines
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Laura Serejo Genes
Reflection on a Flag
After we featured an American flag made of hair in last week’s newsletter, we learned of another flag of interest, above. The artist who created it, Laura Serejo Genes, explains:
The U.S. Code has an entire section concerning the treatment of the flag. Section 8J (4 U.S.C. § 8(j)): “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”
My interest in the Mexico-U.S. border stemmed from the thought that there are an infinite number of ways to cross illegally, but only 48 legal checkpoints. I set off to visit all of them.
In August 2015, the Mexican-American painter Mauricio Cortes and I set off on a research trip along the entirety of the border, east to west, documenting the conditions there. I returned to the studio with a spool of fencing wire a mile long. From this spool I began to make coils, cut them into rings, and weave the rings into a textile in the form of the United States flag.
The resulting piece is about 6 feet by 3.5 feet, and weighs just under 50 pounds. It is displayed on the floor and made to be interacted with, draped over and bunched. The phenomena of chain mail, with its liquid-metal qualities, relies on synergy between touch, sight and sound. The tones of red, white and blue are achieved by incorporating three distinct styles of chain-mail weaves, which can be loosely categorized as European, Japanese and Persian.
These ancient groupings delineate spheres of competing influence that continue to define international politics. This chain-mail flag is my personal meditation on both the weight and malleability of the American mission.
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April Ryan, second from left, during a briefing at the White House.
April Ryan, second from left, during a briefing at the White House. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Connect with us.
Join us on Facebook at 9 p.m. Eastern on Wednesdays. In our latest live chat, April Ryan, who covers the White House for American Urban Radio, spoke with our reporters Rachel Swarns and John Eligon about race in the Trump era and what it’s like to be one of the few black journalists covering the current administration. [Watch]
On Tuesday, readers asked the artist Tasha Dougé questions about her U.S. flag made out of hair. [Watch]
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Around the Web
Here are some of the stories that we’re talking about, beyond The Times.
For 18 years, I thought she was stealing my identity. Until I found her. [Read]
Brazil’s New Problem With Blackness [Read]
The Critique of Racial Liberalism [Read]
To My Darling Etta Mae [Listen]
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In The Times
The Times publishes many stories that touch on race. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss, chosen by Race/Related editors.

Native American Treasures Head to the Met, This Time as American Art


Almost 100 Native American works from the collection of Charles and Valerie Diker, one of the best in private hands, are promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What Is the Future of Identity?


We asked The New York Times audience on Facebook, “What is the future of identity?” Their answers were illustrated by Franziska Barczyk.

Books of The Times

‘Locking Up Our Own,’ What Led to Mass Incarceration of Black Men


James Forman Jr. examines how people, acting with the best intentions, could create a problem even more devastating than the one they were trying to solve.

Art Review

In ‘Black Power!,’ Art’s Political Punch and Populist Reach


An exhibition at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem chronicles the history of a dynamic movement.

On Campus

Why I Chose a Historically Black College


There is something powerful about attending an institution that was built for you.

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