Thursday, June 25, 2009

Peter David, Self-Identity and Hispanic Superheroes

So, there's a very lengthy interview with Peter David up at Comic Book Resources right now.* I am not terribly fond of Mr. David's current titles but that's more of a "personal taste" thing than a criticism (save his rather joyless She-Hulk run, but that's a blog post for another time). His stylistic tics kind of grate on me a bit but he's still a talented comic book veteran with plotting skills to spare.

More importantly, he is also the man who wrote the very first comic book I ever read - Spectacular Spider-Man #106:

I immediately identified with Peter Parker. We were both brown-haired, brown-eyed nerds who made bad jokes. I didn't understand a lot of the other stuff going on in the book (Starfox, for instance, puzzled the crap out of me) but I wanted to learn more about this cool guy with spider powers (which, of course, I was not and wanted to become). The funny thing was that one obvious difference between Peter Parker and I was never apparent to me until I got older.

Peter Parker was completely Caucasian while I was Mexican.

As a kid, I never thought about stuff like race. I was lucky enough to grow up with loving parents in Colorado, near Federal Boulevard, where Hispanic people often outnumbered non-Hispanics. It wasn't until I got much older and traveled in America, that I was even aware of encountering racism.

While I still generally don't make a big deal about it (stupid joke posts aside), I am Hispanic. Half-Mexican, a quarter Irish, a quarter English and just a touch Native American. The end result of my Mexican heritage being that I identify as such. While my skin tone waxes and wanes with the Sun, I'm generally light enough that most people can't place my heritage but still brown enough that I've gotten dirty looks in small towns and from small-minded people. I also later learned that, if I simplify my ethnicity to Irish-Mexican (as I often do, as that's how my Mother and Father identified, respectively), I even have my very own insulting ethnic joke, which I'm not going to repeat here.

Since nobody made a big deal about my race growing up, the lack of Hispanic superheroes didn't become an issue for me until I noticed people trying to give them to me. Richter from X-Force and the Living Lightning on West Coast Avengers appeared in my Marvel titles when I was just hitting my teen years.

Julio Esteban Richter was a mutant whose abilities allowed him to control seismic waves. He was a Mexican who watched his gunrunner father get killed at a young age. He usually ran around being angry and shouting things like "Madre De Dios!". He also tended to look like a back-up singer for Menudo.

In fairness, it was the '90s.

Living Lightning, a.k.a. Miguel Santos, was another Hispanic character whose Dad was killed while doing something ethically unsound. He was from East L.A. instead of Mexico and looked like this. In researching what happened to his ne'er-do-well Dad, he accidentally got the power to turn into living electricity. He showed up in 1990 in The West Coast Avengers, a team based in California. He also occasionally shouted "Madre De Dios!" and the like. A lot of the time, you couldn't tell his race because he was flying around as bright, yellow lightning.

Finally, the other character I took notice of was Angelo Espinoza - Skin. Skin was a mutant in the teen mutant book Generation X. His origin - well, I'll just quote the good folks at the Marvel Database here:

"Angelo Espinoza was born in the barrio in South Central Los Angeles. He became a gang member. His powers triggered during a drive-by shooting."

Yeah. Moving on . . . he was noticeably not brown, but gray, due to his mutant power being an excess of gray, strechable skin that he could manipulate. It also made him look strange and slightly deformed. Not nearly as cool a power as making Earthquakes or Lightning. He was, however, like Living Lightning, Catholic - just like I was growing up.

He was, surprisingly, my favorite Hispanic character growing up.**

While he still occasionally lapsed into "Madre De Dios!" territory, he was smart, cagey and good at holding his ground with what he had. He was also occasionally a smart-ass and occasionally full of self-loathing. In many ways, he reminded young, teenage me of myself or the me I was, rather than the me I wished I could be. That guy came a little later.

Back to my childhood and early teens - I still didn't completely identify with any of these Hispanic characters, even Skin (who was so uncomfortable in his own skin). I wasn't quite old enough to understand what "tokenism" meant but they all seemed a little too forced. Too many "Madre De Dios!"es and not enough normal moments. With the Hispanic race card being brought up in so many comics, I began to think about it. There was no singularly Hispanic character in superhero comics I read that I identified with . . . but amazingly enough, there were two Irish-Mexican superheroes I identified with to a great extent.

One was, I found out much later, Kyle Rayner, DC's newest, greenest Green Lantern.

His heritage wasn't really mentioned until much later into his career (turned out his Dad was a shady, Hispanic CIA Agent) and I just ended up being pleasantly surprised to find I had something in common with him. You know, other than the fact he was goofy, always learning and a bit googly-eyed around beautiful women. I saw way too much of myself in him to begin with so the race thing was just a pleasant surprise.

The second Irish-Mexican hero I loved, on the other hand, was "out" and proud. His heritage was right there in his name - Miguel O'Hara. KICK. ASS.

Just as he had reached me back when I was a kid, Peter David created another hero I loved who climbed up and over walls - Spider-Man 2099.

Miguel O'Hara was not from East L. A. or Mexico. He was born in a future New York City. Miguel O'Hara was a brilliant geneticist, a smart-ass and a cynic. He became Spider-Man 2099 when his plan to escape his evil Corporate Giant-type employers got sabotaged. His mother was Mexican, like my Mother was Mexican and his Father was Irish, like my Father was Irish. He was smart and while he did know Spanish, that didn't mean he had to scream "Madre De Dios!" every five minutes (he did yell "Shock!" a lot but that's a complaint of a different color).

I loved the hell out of this character and praised God for Peter David. He got me into comics and kept me in them, giving me a character I could identify with on a very personal level (and let's not even get into my rabid love of his Star Trek novels. Seriously, let's not. I don't want to completely embarrass myself here). If it weren't for Peter David, I would have never followed his work into the DCU and found all the excellent stories to be had there. Say what you like about Mr. David but he got me into comics and kept me there when I started to waver.

But the best part had nothing to do with Peter David. As I grew older, I noticed Hispanic characters evolving and appearing more organically in superhero comic books, ones not written by Peter David. Officer Renee Montoya began as a background character on Batman: The Animated Series and now? Now, after a few years of different writers gradually integrating her into Gotham City in the comics and telling her story, she's being written by the always fantastic Greg Rucka as The Question. How cool is that?

Nowadays, I'm happy to say that Hispanic teens growing up have some pretty great superhero role models. Outside of The Question, we've also got at least two great Hispanic teen heroes.

Victor Mancha, in Runaways is a half-Mexican, half-robot teen living in Malibu. He's more than a little nerdy, responsible and uptight but also calm and collected. Plus, wicked cool magnetic/electric powers. He also briefly dated Nico Minoru, the team's leader. And hey, sidebar - Nico is also a Japanese-American. She's dated Alex Wilder, an African-American, and Victor without anyone so much as saying "Boo" about it (at least to my knowledge). The fact that interracial dating is such a casual thing in this series is just one of the many, many reasons why I love Runaways and it's creator, Brian K. Vaughan. On a personal note, my first serious HS girlfriend was Korean, so I also find Victor's storylines accurate and encouraging for teens on a very personal level.

More notably, we have Jaime Reyes, the new Blue Beetle.

He is also a good, responsible young man but unlike Victor, he has a large, loving Mexican family (with a living, non-evil Father and everything) and lives in El Paso, Texas. Not only does he not lapse into Spanish for no reason, he actually got his own entire issue where he and his family spoke entirely in Spanish during their family reunion. Because they are all of Hispanic descent and living in Texas! Speaking as a guy who goes to his own Hispanic family's reunions, it tickled me to finally see Spanish being spoken in a comic in a way that was finally something other than a random signifier to say "Hey! I'm MEXICAN!". Incidentally, Jaime's best friends are of multiple ethnicities and he happens to be dating a teen sorceress named Traci 13 who happens to part-Asian. "Madre De Dios!" indeed.

Even if we still get to see him in Teen Titans and his own back-up series for him in Booster Gold, I miss his ongoing series like the dickens.

I don't often think about race in superhero comic books anymore, to be honest. I'm happy to say it fades into the background for me so long as it doesn't jar me out of the story by being offensive or off-key in some way. I had to stop and think about this topic to even realize that two of the characters in my favorite book currently on the stands, Secret Six, are Latin American (one Brazilian and the other from a fictional South American Island) - one of them being the team leader (and, incidentally, a lesbian).

I know there's still racism in comics, intentional or no, and I don't mean to diminish anyone who feels angry or nervous about how race is (or is not) progressing or being portrayed in today's superhero books. Still, I feel optimistic. Two African-American women are currently writing mainstream superhero comic books. Speaking purely for myself, I feel like we've come a long way in comic books and nobody is resting on their laurels. This progression feels natural, feels organic.

To quote an excerpt from an interview with John Rogers, the creator of the new Blue Beetle***:

"The job of a writer or artist is to reflect the world around you.
That's not an agenda," says Rogers, who gets frustrated by claims that
the comic exists only to fill some imagined quota. "Racism is
believing that other people of different backgrounds can't speak to you."

"My fondest wish," Rogers adds, "is that, 10, 15 years from now, a
Hispanic kid is going to take over writing 'Blue Beetle' -- or start
writing his own comics -- because he feels that the medium is
accessible to him."

I've read superhero comics all my adult life and I'm starting to really feel like we're getting beyond "tokenism" - this is just comic books reflecting real life. Multiculturalism is here and it's never going to go away. America is such a melting pot that even comic books can't hide their heads in the sand anymore if they want to reflect the real world.

And you know what?

Gracias a Dios por eso.

* There's also a much more humorous interview with Adam Warren to promote Empowered Vol. 5 up at CBR as well.

** Just as a brief aside - only two of these characters are still around.

Richter is now an occasionally suicidal and bisexual supporting player, coincidentally in Peter David's currently ongoing X-Factor series.

Living Lightning appeared briefly in the jokey Great Lakes Avengers mini-series to reveal he was gay and then scamper off. He currently has no current series of his own.

Skin? Skin got crucified on the X-Men's front lawn and died. His corpse was then used to illustrate that people were still so racist that they wouldn't bury mutants with humans. Jubilee and Husk got his corpse cremated and took it with them, which, um, yay?

Yeah. Blame Chuck Austen for that one.

Also, I remain unsure as to why so many modern-day Hispanic comic book characters are also gay. Go fig.

And also the excellent TV series Leverage - great show, go take a look.


jose said...

I started buying comics seriously in the early 80's and back then all I had was the White Tiger. Like you, he had a cool factor for me, because like myself he was a Puerto Rican from NY. Then they had to start equating his amulet powers to drug use, and they depowered him and more or less forgot about him. It bummed me out because there weren't any characters that I could relate to on that level. To add insult to injury years later Bendis brought him back then had him shot dead. In the 80's the JLA had a character named Vibe (Paco Ramone), who had the same powers as Rictor. According to Wikipedia, DC has managed to kill the character around three times!

Peter said...

The new Hawkgirl - Kendra Saunders - is hispanic as well.

Vanja said...

I'm not sure how familiar you are with "Love and rockets", but the authors, Hernandez brothers, are of Mexican descent, and it plays a large, and very well integrated role, in their comics. It may seem a bit like underground comics, but it's really not, just a very refreshing, intelligent alternative to the superheroes.

K. D. Bryan said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Jose - Believe it or not, I had no idea Vibe even existed for a long time. I was a stalwart Marvel reader as a kid and only branched out to DC in my teens. While I did grow to love the Giffen JLI and JLU via random back issue bin diving, I had no idea about Vibe or the "Detroit JLA" for years. Still, three times? Jesus! That's really a bit excessive, even by comic book standards.

I didn't know much about White Tiger either, prior to his appearances in Daredevil. Even so, I feel your pain. It's always rough when people take one of your favorite characters growing up and give them a "gritty" handicap and/or death. I'm also bit sad about how the woman who took up the White Tiger mantle is currently "dead". Her mini-series was a pretty decent read, if memory serves, and I felt like she could be a character with a strong future.

Peter - I did not know that! Thanks for telling me that. While I've seen her in Simone's Birds of Prey and Dwayne McDuffie's JLA, I honestly wasn't able to tell she was Hispanic from the artwork.

Vanja - My stepfather's favorite comic book in the whole world is Love and Rockets. I've enjoyed what I've read of it - it really is a nice change of pace and the Hernandez Bros are extremely talented. I would have mentioned them but I was mostly just rambling about my experiences with superhero comics as a kid. Thanks for mentioning them, though, as they're definitely worth people's time. :)

wallruss said...

Great post, informative and well researched. As a teacher of a mostly Latino and Hispanic population I have often commented on the lack of Superheroes representing them. Because I am African-American I actually started a blog about Black Superheroes for a similar reason. Keep up the good work. I'll be watching.

Anonymous said...

Marvel also had Bonita Juarez aka Firebird/La Espirita, at one time.

(Thanks for the interesting read, BTW. I've been away from comics for a while, so most of the other characters you've described are new to me.)

-- cleome

Unknown said...

Aye! Madre de Dios that was good.