Unstable Masks; Or, The Whiteness of the Superhero (a preview)

Editor’s Note: Today we have a special treat, a preview of Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics including an excerpt of the introduction by co-editors, Sean Guynes and Martin Lund. The anthology, which has been in the works for a few years now, includes work from 14 scholars on a wide variety of characters and time-periods (including a chapter on Captain America by yours truly based on work I started here and here). The book as a whole is a crucial interrogation of the frequently unstated whiteness that is constitutive of the superhero genre. It also has a fantastic cover by Black Kirby.


Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics is a collection of essays that aims to address what we perceive as a critical gap in conversations about whiteness, comics, and superheroes. Essays in the collection take up the whiteness of the superhero, place the often-unquestioned racial hegemony of white superheroics under the spotlight, and ask whether there is something to be redeemed in this genre and its central figure. In many ways, this book is a reverse engineering of the question of diversity in superhero comics that looks at the history of superhero comics from the 1930s to the present and asks why diversity has been so hard to come by.

Challenges to the white hegemony of the American historical narrative exist in superhero comics, if you know where and how to look for them (Captain America & Falcon #194 – Feb 1976 – art & words by Jack Kirby)

Our book and its incredible contributors place the superhero at the center of a range of conversations about the history of whiteness in America. They attend to key moments and movements in the development of the superhero genre, ranging from the relationship between white masculinity and the performance of Indianness (red face) in superhero and superhero-adjacent comics, to the phenomenon of white martial artist superheroes in the 1970s, to the use of American superhero figures in Chicanx art and on to current debates about the configuration of whiteness, racial “inferiority,” interracial relationships, and violence in comics like Captain America, Wolverine, Cloak and Dagger, DC: The New Frontier, Uncanny X-Men, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and others.

While we’d love to change the landscape of academic comics scholarship to focus more on whiteness and its ideological permutations in the medium and its genres, a key goal of our book is to start a conversation between academic discourse and readers of comics. For that reason, we hope everyone with an interest in comics and superheroes will find Unstable Masks a useful addition to the conversations they are having online, with friends, in comics shops, and wherever else the discussion of race, whiteness, comics, and superheroes leads.

To get things started, we provide below an edited excerpt from our introduction. This excerpt provides a gloss of the history of whiteness in (American) superhero comics and a survey of some of the issues raised in Unstable Masks as well as some of the major works of scholarship we draw on (many of which are probably familiar to readers of The Middle Spaces). Should the excerpt pique your interest, please consider checking out the table of contents (also reprinted at the end of the excerpt) and the book itself, which will be available in early January 2020 from The Ohio State University Press.

The Whiteness of the Superhero

Cover art by Black Kirby

Picture a superhero.

What comes immediately to mind?

Odds are you’re imagining a white man, perhaps even a specific white man with a name and origin story you’ve memorized or otherwise soaked up through your awareness of American popular culture tropes. This is only to be expected: the superhero is a white—and overwhelmingly cisgender, male, straight, and middle-class—ideological formation and has been so since its inception.

DC Comics’s Superman is widely acknowledged as the prototypical American superhero. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Jewish-American men in Cleveland, Ohio, sometime in the early-to-mid 1930s and premiering in 1938, Superman is the product of a tense era in the history of whiteness. In the early twentieth century, Jewish-Americans were feeling the simultaneous push and pull of Americanization. On the one hand, anti-Semitism in the US was at a historical fever pitch. On the other hand, Jewish-Americans of (mostly) European descent, along with other groups now considered “white ethics,” such as Italians, Greeks, and Slavs, were in the process of whitening. In early Superman comics, these tensions were dealt with in two ways, one “positive” and one “negative”: while the vaguely ethnic Superman was a paragon of New Dealer ideology and of hyper-patriotism, his stories were larded with denigration and marginalization of women and people of color. Combined, as Martin Lund has argued elsewhere, this amounted to an argument for the Americanness of Jewish-Americans and other white ethnic men. As the model for countless imitators, Superman laid the groundwork for what would become the genre and field of the superhero in which, to this day, the implicit answer to the question of who gets to be a superhero remains the white heterosexual man.

This is not to say that there are no, nor never were, superheroes of color, or female, queer, poor, or even disabled superheroes, for that matter. But it cannot be denied that, collectively, such superheroes are few and far between. As historian Mercedes Yanora points out in her contribution to Muslim Superheroes, because black superheroes are inescapably expected to live up to the hypermasculine white ideal of the superhero, they are implicitly linked to “crime and therefore incapable of representing an altruistic crime-fighting” identity, while female superheroes are in a similar double bind because “acting too much like a man or woman would effectively undermine her credibility as both a desirable woman and legitimate superhero” (116-117).

When any character that deviates from the implicit white heterosexual male norm is announced as the star of a forthcoming comic, especially one published by Marvel and DC, they are typically hailed as representatives of that entire demographic. On the flipside, when—almost invariably—they are cancelled on account of poor sales (or company reboots), or when their usefulness to the company’s public image wears off and they are unceremoniously faded into the background, the demographic loses that tokenistic representation. As a result, characters of color are often assimilated into the genre through submersion into the superhero “Melting Pot” of publishers’ large superhero teams and vast IP catalogs.

Long-running solo titles starring a non-white superhero—such as Black Lightning (1977–1978, 1995–1996), Black Panther (1977–1979, 1988, 1998–2003, 2005–2008, 2009–2010, 2016–present), or the title characters of any Milestone Media comic (1993–1997)—are rare, and still rarer are those superheroes of color who have appeared regularly for decades. In most cases, however, the latter are sidekicks (Captain America’s Falcon), members of a large superhero team (Storm, Sunfire, and Moonstar of the X-Men, Cyborg of the Teen Titans, Katana of the Outsiders), or new iterations of old characters (John Stewart, Simon Baz, and Jessica Cruz as Green Lanterns, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, Ryan Choi as Atom, Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle). Furthermore in virtually every instance, they are written by white men. All of this has had the effect, over so many decades, of emphasizing that the superhero is, de facto, white. All else is an exception.

The racially coded complaints of a Fox News stand-in regarding how Sam Wilson performs the role of Captain America (from Captain America: Sam Wilson #12. [October 2016] – words by Nick Spencer, art by: Daniel Acuña).

When we speak of the “whiteness of the superhero” we are making a rhetorical claim similar to the one made by literary and cultural theorist andré m. carrington in his book Speculative Blackness about “the Whiteness of speculative fiction” (vs. “the speculative fiction of Blackness”). Our claim that whiteness and the superhero are inextricably linked is not, as we have said, to deny the possibility and, indeed, the historical reality of the cultural figure’s usage by people of color to create reflections of themselves in superhero comics. It is, rather, to recognize the historical imbrication of the superhero with the multiple discourses of whiteness circulating throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the US.

Like the other genres constituting what science-fiction scholar John Rieder calls the “mass cultural genre system”—the sum of the relations between the uses of different genres by culture workers and media consumers within the material, economic, and political formations of late-stage capitalism—the superhero genre has historically been bound up with the logic of mass-market appeal that sees the majority of its audience as racially unmarked, and therefore white. In other words, superhero comics creators overwhelmingly, even if not consciously, assume white faces, bodies, and experiences to be the universal standards of American life.

When we speak of the whiteness of the superhero and of superhero comics, we follow carrington in referring simultaneously to the “overrepresentation of White people among the ranks of” the genre’s creators (writers, artists, and editors) and the “overrepresentation of White people’s experiences within” superhero comics (16). Moreover, just as carrington gestures to the “speculative fiction of blackness,” reversing the semantic poles of the “whiteness of speculative fiction” and arguing compellingly that discourses of race and of blackness in particular operate much in the same way as the genre he discusses, so do we argue that superhero comics assay whiteness as a superheroic power itself, as one of the constituent elements of identity and power that constitute the historical, narrative, material, and political dimensions of superhero comics and its generic extensions across other media via the mediating cultural figure of the superhero.

DC Comics’ Tomahawk as comics superhero (Tomahawk #68 [June 1960] – art by Dick Dillin).

Historically, whiteness has only proved stable where its ability for social control is concerned. But the look of whiteness, of what and who counts as white, and of how whiteness makes its social, political, and even economic meanings known—these aspects of whiteness are far from static. In a word, they are unstable. The title of our book riffs on Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, taking literally Fanon’s conception of whiteness as a mask to be worn, an identity non-white people must perform in order to succeed in a white-dominated society. We equate it with the masks that are overwhelmingly associated with the sartorial design of the American comic book superhero, the mask that by and large abets the superhero’s maintenance of the status quo (even if they are a vigilante).

But the mask of whiteness, Fanon was aware, is unstable. Its very presence is a violence; a history of oppression roils beneath its surface. The mask changes and mutates to suit prevailing social niceties and market demands, yes, but it still pinches and squeezes in places: it hasn’t always fit right on the ethnic white superhero; it fits uncomfortably on those deemed racially, sexually, or ably unfit to wear it; and sometimes it refuses to fit at all, accidentally, sometimes even apologetically, revealing its true colors, the shifting hue and undulating face of its racial-power ideology.

Combined, the chapters in Unstable Masks offer a challenge to the saying—most commonly articulated in Spider-Man comics, but common to many other figures as well—that with great power comes great responsibility, a claim that does not, and cannot, mean anything substantive so long as the superhero genre rests on (frequently unspoken) white supremacy and white privilege. On the page, superheroes may be larger than life, but in reality, they are often all too closely tied to the foundations of inequality and oppression in American life. Unlike in a superhero comic, then, the challenge offered here cannot be resolved neatly by the final page and it is not an undertaking that can be resolved by unilateral action; abolishing whiteness is a long-term project that can only be completed by ordinary people coming together to unmask those who claim to be their betters.

Superman confronts the Mixtec (from Felicia Rice, Enrique Chagoya, and Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s Codex Espangliensis).


Table of Contents

Foreword

Frederick Luis Aldama, “Unmasking Whiteness: Re-Spacing the Speculative in Superhero Comics.”

Introduction

Sean Guynes and Martin Lund, “Not to Interpret, but to Abolish: Whiteness Studies and American Superhero Comics.”

Part I: Outlining Superheroic Whiteness

Osvaldo Oyola, “Marked for Failure: Whiteness, Innocence, and Power in Defining Captain America”

Eric Berlatsky and Sika Dagbovie-Mullins, “The Whiteness of the Whale and the Darkness of the Dinosaur: The Africanist Presence in Superhero Comics from Black Lightning to Moon Girl.”

Jeremy Carnes, “’The Original Enchantment’: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and Representational Logics in The New Mutants.”

Olivia Hicks, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Racial Politics of Cloak and Dagger.”

Shamika Ann Mitchell, “Worlds Collide: Whiteness, Integration, Diversity, and Identity in the DC/Milestone Crossover.”

José Alaniz, “Whiteness and Superheroes in the Comix/Codices of Enrique Chagoya.”

Wolverine dressed as a samurai (Wolverine vol. 2, #3 [Jan 1989] – cover by John Buscema & Al Williamson)

Part II: Reaching toward Whiteness

Esther De Dauw, “Seeing White: Normalization and Domesticity in Vision’s Cyborg Identity.”

Martin Lund, “’Beware the Fanatic!’: Jewishness, Whiteness, and Civil Rights in X-Men (1963-1973).”

Neil Shyminsky, “Mutation, Racialization, Decimation: The X-Men as White Men.”

Sean Guynes, “White Plasticity and Black Possibility in Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.”

Part III: Whiteness by a Different Color

Yvonne Chireau, “White or Indian? Whiteness and Becoming the White Indian Comics Superhero.”

Matthew Pustz, “’A True Son of K’un-Lun’: The Awkward Racial Politics of White Martial Artist Superheroes in the 1970s.”

Eric Sobel, “The Whitest There Is at What I Do: Japanese Identity and the Unmarked Hero in Wolverine (1982).”

Jeffrey A. Brown, “The Dark Knight: Whiteness, Appropriation, Colonization, and Batman in the New 52 Era.”

Afterword

Noah Berlatsky, “Empowerment for Some; Or, Tentacle Sex for All.”

Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics will be available in early January 2020 from The Ohio State University Press.


Sean Guynes is a cultural historian, critic, and writer who lives in Ann Arbor, MI. He is co-author of the forthcoming book Whiteness (MIT Press), co-editor of the Encapsulations: Critical Comics Studies book series for University of Nebraska Press, two journal special issues, and several books—including Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics (Ohio State University Press, 2020)—and editor of SFRA Review. His shorter writing has appeared in public and academic venues, including Los Angeles Review of Books, American Quarterly, World Literature Today, Utopian Studies, American Book Review, PopMatters, and Strange Horizons.

Martin Lund is a comics scholar who specializes in studying the intersections of religions and comics, comics and identity, and comics and urban life. Recent and forthcoming publications includes Re-Constructing the Man of Steel: Superman 1938–1941, Jewish American History, and the Invention of the Jewish–Comics Connection (Palgrave 2016), Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation (Harvard University Press/ILEX Foundation; co-edited with A. David Lewis), and Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero (forthcoming from Ohio State University Press). He is currently a senior lecturer in the history of religions at Malmö University in Sweden and desperately hoping to carve out some research time.

One thought on “Unstable Masks; Or, The Whiteness of the Superhero (a preview)

  1. Pingback: Unstable Masks; Or, The Whiteness of the Superhero (a preview) – Geeking Out about It

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