Reportback from Comikaze Expo: The Battle for Multicultural Heroes

The new Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan — the first Muslim and Pakistani-American superhero

By Jameson Adame

“The Battle for Multicultural Heroes” was set amid immense advertisements for Disney’s new Big Hero 6 and the intense efforts of vendors to sell the newly collected trade paperback of Ms. Marvel featuring Marvel’s first Muslim woman superhero, Kamala Khan. Knowing this, it became interesting to ponder whether the battle had not already been won, and if this panel was not an effort in futility. However; the panelists arrived all the same, ready to express their grievances with the comic book industry—the lucrative superhero subset in particular—and make it known how this problem of sectarian protagonists in comic culture was still very much a problem.

Moderating the panel was Tony Kim, whose blog site Crazy4ComicCon.com acts as a hub for news about the geek community, convention culture, and promotes an increased inclusivity in the comics industry. Next were Crystal Clark, writer, editor, and general manager of GeekPiñata.com, and Tamara Brooks, the writer for MisfitsOfScifi.com.

As the panel began, Kim set the tone of the event by displaying a slide on the projector screen reassuring the audience that himself, Clark, and Brooks—none of whom identified as white—loved white people, and asserted that nothing in the ensuing discussion should be taken as an attack on any particular group of people.

With his humorous expression of goodwill done, Kim continued by telling the audience of his experience as an Asian-American growing up in Texas with few icons that he was able to personally identify with, stating that, “It was pretty hard like, it was literally like Sulu or Bruce Lee was pretty much what there was to choose from.”

Kim continued on, saying that because of this, he began to notice that A-list heroes didn’t look like him, leading him to struggle with identity issues, directly conflicting with the goal he thought comics facilitated of “finding [one’s] identity in a greater society”.

Tamara Brooks then explained that her familial experience and childhood in Pasadena had been very diverse, leaving her to wonder why the representations of people in the media she consumed were so narrow in scope.

She stated that while her own experiences brought her to expect a level of diversity from geek culture, the reality was limited. Additionally, she asked the question of “Where are all the tall women?” to the amusement of much of the audience.

Last was Crystal Clark, who explained that she was interested in every facet of geek-culture, finding herself watching, reading and playing, television, comics, and video games respectively. She identified as Chicana and found the lack of proper representation of other Latinos left her wanting. Clark explained that while Latinos appeared in many different media, they often fulfilled stereotypes, such as maids or nannies.

The panel’s focus shifted to an overview of representations of non-white characters in media and how they often fell back on stereotypes. Illustrating this, Kim switched slides to show the characters of Speedy Gonzalez—known for his sombrero and pidgin Spanish—as well as the lesser known but much vilified African-American stereotype hunter from the Bugs Bunny cartoon “All This and Rabbit Stew.”

The panelists then discussed superheroes, referencing The Super Friends in particular. Kim made note that the show’s attempt to add cultural diversity to its cast of white superheroes instead led to the creation of the characters Apache Chief, Samurai, Black Vulcan, and El Dorado. Though the gesture was well-intentioned, it instead propagated cultural stereotypes enhanced to the level of super powers.

The panel moved on to discuss the difference between well realized and ethnically insensitive characters of more recent media.  Kim contrasted the multi-dimensional character of Ponch as portrayed by Erik Estrada on CHiPs, with the aliens of the later released Star Wars Episode 1, fulfilling stereotypes of people who identify as Black, Asian, and/or Jewish.

He explained that while the former’s identity as a Latino man was incidental to his characterization as a good cop whose heart was in the right place, the latter showed a Hollywood-based reliance on such stereotypes in order to entertain a moviegoing audience. Clark and Brooks gave further support to this assertion, stating that while characters intended to play the fool are an acceptable trope, their implied identifications with minorities made such characters unacceptable.

Later, a member of the audience said that he was hired to write a Latina character and expressed his feeling that while so many positive changes had occurred in recent months with the announcements of the Black Panther film, the introduction of Kamala Khan, the reception of Miles Morales as Spiderman, and more, he hoped for the inclusion of entirely new heroes who were not tied to mantles of their (mostly) white predecessors and could instead have their own identities.

The panelists agreed, and the conversation prompted Kim to ask the other panelists about the use of stereotypes in popular culture — are they good, bad, and/or useful?

Clark stated that though some stereotypes are based in truth, it is important to present people of color in a variety of characters to avoid making assumptions.

Brooks made the distinction between making generalities as a means of connection (“so we’re all at a comic convention, which means that everyone here has probably read a comic book”) versus stereotypes which negative and reductive (“all black people are thugs”).

As a critic of modern day media in the geek-culture sphere, this panel served as a reminder that though progressive strides towards inclusivity are made every day, cultural exclusivity still needs to be addressed.  Films as recent as The Last Airbender featured a vast majority of white actors, though the original animation is populated with characters of color.

As a writer, the panel served as a how-to and how-not-to create characters and scenarios in which people of color are present. Understanding the flaws in past works can help pave the way for the innovation of old characters, and the genesis of entirely new heroes for the next generation.

***

Jameson Adame

Jameson Adame

Jameson Adame is a senior student at the University of California Riverside. He is majoring in both English and Media and Cultural Studies. He is a staff writer for the Highlander Newspaper published at UCR, and his articles may be read at highlandernews.org.

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