While looking for the panel from Secret Wars I wrote about a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this one.
The Monica Rambeau version of Captain Marvel (later known as Photon) has been on my mind lately because of the recent renaming/rebooting of Ms. Marvel to take on the Captain Marvel name. It seemed to make more sense to me than for Monica to have the name, because Carol Danvers’s powers are (like Marvel’s original Captain Marvel Kree-warrior Mar-Vell) Kree-based, and because she has a military pilot background, thus the rank title in her name seems appropriate). But I know some folks who objected to the name change on the grounds that Monica Rambeau, being African-American, was once again getting the shaft, forced to give up the iconic name and never really given her due, despite also having been an Avenger.
It turns out that later she was deprived of even the Photon name, by some other white heir to Mar-Vell (alien, but still white), and she takes the name Pulsar.
I really can’t say I had much of an opinion on the matter. Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel (though I vaguely remember her introduction in the 80s) never made a big impression on me, and aside from her inclusion in the bombastic Nextwave comedic series by Warren Ellis, I knew nothing of her between the her original stint as an Avenger and now. . .
But going by this panel alone, I like her – and if she was typically written this way I can see why she made an impression on those who resent the way she has repeatedly been deprived of agency regarding her name.
I love the way she demands respect from Iron Man, refusing to be called “babe” and pushing back with a sharp tongue. In the next panel, after Iron Man leaves her, she wonders why he’s been acting so differently lately – and the reason, unknown to her, is because it is James “Rhodey” Rhodes in that armor, not Tony Stark (who kept up a secret identity in those days anyway).
But here’s the thing, why is Rhodey depicted this way? Or another question, since part of Tony Stark’s persona is his millionaire playboy lifestyle, if it were Tony in there – a white man, not a black man – would Monica been written as to demand the respect she deserves as a human being and a colleague? Hell, if it were Tony Stark would he ever even be depicted as coming on to a black woman at all?
I find it telling how the trope of the mask and hidden identity in superhero comic books reinforces divisions evident in our world dominated by a white hetero-patriarchy. Rhodey’s need for armor – the strength, protection and respect it provides him – echoes the elements of a hypermasculinity that Jeffrey A. Brown notes in the appeal of comic superheroes to young male fans (see Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (2001)). Rhodey’s armor allows him to literally don the guise of a successful white man, to “pass” in the world of (mostly) white superheroes, but in this panel, even as Monica Rambeau is allowed the space to demand respect, Rhodey is still depicted as beholden to the exaggerated sexual desire associated with blackness and that threatens to give him away.