Why We Need to Change the Way We Talk About Superheroes

Comics Features Iron Man
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Why We Need to Change the Way We Talk About Superheroes

Chuck Dixon wants you to “leave Superman alone, leave Spider-Man alone.” The ‘90s Batman and Punisher writer said “[superhero comics publishers have] changed gender, changed the nationality, changed the racial makeup or killed or crippled every single hero at some point” in an interview on the paleoconservative site, Breitbart. If the recent industry headlines are any indication, his observation isn’t wholly inaccurate: Marvel turned Thor into a woman, Iron Man into a black teenager and introduced an Afro-Latin Spider-Man. These headlines, among many others, read as if Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Thor Odinson have somehow been transformed through a magical or scientific metamorphosis: their names, histories and identities transposed into the body of a non-white, non-heterosexual non-male. These headlines, however, are misleading and often contradicted by their text.

A young half-black, half-Puerto Rican boy named Miles Morales fights crime as Spider-Man after (an alternate-universe) Peter Parker passes away, and Riri Williams, a young black girl, stands ready to take on the role of Iron Man after constructing her own mechanical exoskeleton at MIT. But Peter Parker is still a heterosexual white man from Queens, NY. Tony Stark is still a cisgender caucasian dude with more money than god. So why have the editors at Glamour, Time and even this very website managed to, at least linguistically, synch their description of these events in a similar manner as Dixon? Superheroes are both the mask and the person under the mask, which can complicate the way they’re discussed, but may also reveal our dynamic relationship to iconography.

The Power and Problems of Icons

Debuting in Tales of Suspense #39, Iron Man has remained a mainstay of Marvel comics, and superhero comics in general, since 1963. And in the 53 years since the metal man’s debut, the role of Iron Man has been predominantly occupied by Tony Stark. This character has also starred in three internationally successful films bearing the Iron Man name, as well as numerous eponymous cartoon serials and feature films, video games and even novelizations. Tony Stark and the role of Iron Man are so indistinguishable that Wu-Tang Clan veteran Ghostface Killah raps under the moniker Tony Stark and titled his debut solo album Ironman. Through this long-term identity coupling, the character of Tony Stark and the persona/mantle/role/icon of Iron Man have become inseparable. The same is true for other characters, which is why CBS News reported Damian Wayne’s death as “Batman’s side-kick Robin to be killed off in next DC Comics issue,” or, conversely, how Amazing Spider-Man #700 can be described by Wired as “Spider-Man dies, and supervillain Doc Ock […] become[s] the new Spider-Man.” Every character who has worn the metaphorical domino mask shares the mantle simultaneously. Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Spider-Man don’t even have their own Wikipedia entries; they are all contained within the article of their superhero moniker.

If there is one thing that director Christopher Nolan demonstrated in Batman Begins, it’s that he understands the need for superheroes to be bigger than themselves. Not morally or mythically, but practically. The man has limits; the symbol can become legendary. The superhero cannot function as a person. It has to be stripped down to pure iconography, to a symbol qua symbol, a sign that refers only to itself. This process, which I have described at length before, though lamentable, is part and parcel of superhero success. The superhero—from Wonder Woman to the Incredible Hulk—can be communicated as a literal symbol, an identifying insignia (Green Lantern’s battery, the Flash’s lightning bolt, Wonder Woman’s crossing “W’s”). The effect has its pros and its cons. Simplified to such a degree, a super-heroic role can be gleaned and understood by just about anyone; its accessibility gives just about everyone some sort of relationship with it, negative or positive. Whether in passing or in full, you have either read the comic, or you’ve seen the movie, or the cartoon, or the billboard, or the baseball cap, or the bed spread, or the Happy Meal toy.

As a result, this interchangeable quality of character and role can translate into an inordinate amount of press. Introduced in 2006, Damian Wayne featured prominently in only two core Batman titles, and by the time he was killed in 2013, he was only minorly merchandised to the world at large. At that juncture he hadn’t appeared in any cartoons or films, and his name would have been unfamiliar to all but the modest portion of people who regularly read monthly Batman comics, and were doing so at that time. Everyone, however, knows who Robin is. So, because every Robin (the person behind the mask) is Robin (the icon), the death of Damian Wayne becomes the death of Robin, and the event took on greater significance than it otherwise might have.

On the other hand, this perspective of the super-heroic icon and the way it’s discussed leads to incendiary headlines like “Female Thor is What Happens When Progressive Hand-Wringing And Misandry Ruin A Cherished Art-Form.” Now, superheroes are not responsible for hard-right conservative pundits, but the wording “Female Thor,” which is true yet misleading, does come out of the substitution for a job title, not the gender-swapping transformation of an individual. That misleading wording is abused—often—and leads to idlings such as, You may have heard that Marvel turned Thor into a woman… Yes, you may have heard that, because that is what numerous headlines connote, if not denote. The line is true, in that gossip exists, and so it is true whether or not the gossip it relays is true.

Writing Wrongs

These and many other examples are not always the result of conscious attempts to mislead. Rather, they reveal a relationship that many readers have with superheroes, evincing that the superhero apparatus is working. Editors, looking for succinct yet communicative wording, make these common choices to capitalize on this relationship. It also happens to be good for Search Engine Optimization.

These common choices are not as harmless as they may seem. One phrase that may be technically true becomes colloquially untrue, and the inverse is possible as well. That imprecision opens a space for mental gymnastics, for half-truths, for outright lies. For everyone predisposed to think of diversifying these mantles as, like Chuck Dixon does, “vandalizing” the heroes, a community likely to read just the headline can be duped into thinking like Dixon does. Lazily falling into a state of ignorance precipitates the same tired arguments that Dixon and his ilk make, entrenching the attitudes and reading habits that reduce the staying power of some of these new standard bearers to practically nil.

“Excelsior” (adj.): Ever Upward

One solution to this problem is to deconstruct, or reconstruct, the superhero—not the genre, per se, but the various myths that make up the genre. But the more viable option is to understand the hyperbole of these headlines and pay attention to our choice in verbiage—to avoid misunderstandings, or to fully capitalize on it. A more attentive eye towards syntax and semantics helps curb miscommunications, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. It more than likely won’t halt the more determined provocateurs looking for something to get fired up about, but, hopefully, anyone skimming through headlines won’t be tricked into thinking—even for a moment—that Tony Stark awoke one morning to find that he had been transformed into or violently replaced by a 15-year-old black girl.