In Artificer, a new, recurring column, the INDY's managing arts and culture editor seeks acute angles on broad issues in the performing arts, books, and beyond.
In 1990, at the height of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze, Marvel Comics launched a mercilessly demographic-researched series starring a young superhero team called the New Warriors, and it was pretty bad. It tried to be, in the sense of the era's youth-marketing speak. From Michael Jackson's Bad to arcade smash Bad Dudes, everything good was bad then.
Champions, in which Durham recently had an interesting walk-on role, is like a 2017 version of New Warriors, meaning the kids are into hashtags, social justice, and intersectionality instead of sarcasm, ninja weapons, and Rollerblades. Perhaps needless to say, it's the better book. It's also the purest expression of Marvel's recent hard turn toward racial diversity and progressive politics, portraying issues it had long metaphorically circled with new frankness.
Like anything a company Marvel's size does, this is marketing driven, but it's refreshing anyway. It also creates a perverse nostalgia for crappier comics in which loutish callowness was considered kid stuff, while adults were expected to be morally responsible. Champions, an operatized but true reflection of our times, persuasively postulates that those roles have reversed. It makes you feel good about the new generation and awful about the mess we've handed them.
The Champions rose last year from the ashes of Marvel's second Civil War, a sequel to the Civil War that the Captain America: Civil War movie was more or less based on. (Remember how confusing superhero continuity used to be? It's so much worse now.) Basically, several of whatever comes after millennials, understandably fed up with their geriatric counterparts' internecine violence and infrastructure damage, quit the Avengers and band together in search of ways other than punching and blasting to treat societal ills like human trafficking and systemic racism.
Well, maybe a little punching and blasting, just for a treat. But less, and for serious causes.
The Champions even have a member in common with the New Warriors, the cosmic-helmeted Nova, who looked about my age in 1990, and still does. But, in another notable difference, he and a younger, time-traveling version of the X-Men's Cyclops (it's complicated, don't worry about it) are the only white boys. The team also features Ms. Marvel (Pakistani-American shapeshifter Kamala Khan); a Spider-Man of color (Miles Morales, the best new Marvel character in decades); a Korean-American Hulk (Amadeus Cho); and a post-racial red android called Viv.
In Champions #6, they're all enjoying a game of paintball at "Howling Commandos Paintball," a retro reference that seems designed to infuriate the wizened hoarders whose muscle-bound, cigar-chomping heroes these texting teens put out to pasture. Meanwhile, an evil corporation in the whitest place on Earth, Minnesota, is field testing its own teen team to take down the Champions. They're called the Freelancers. As a former full-time freelancer, I don't appreciate their characterization as amoral mercenaries, though as an editor, I sometimes do. (Freelancers! I'm playing!) We see them quashing a living-wage protest in Durham, which is of course famous for its Big Box Store and its wide, unmarked thoroughfares. This one panel immediately raises at least five questions.
1. "Big Box Store." Could someone not have googled up Major the Bull, drawn Kevin Costner in a Durm shirt, something? (And dig that crazy wainscoting!)
2. Is sending a fire guy and a water guy to bust up a protest really sadistic or surprisingly considerate? I'd say it depends on whether the water guy is there solely to soak people or if he's also putting out the fire guy's fires. We'll never know, because in the next panel, the Freelancers are just tearing the hell out of a campground in Los Angeles for no discernible reason.
3. This isn't Durham's first appearance in comics. There was that time the Carolina Theatre met The Walking Dead in an NC Comicon promotion, and that time the Hulk put on a Bulls uniform. Have any other local places appeared in comics?
4. Wait, a campground? In Los Angeles? Why is that even?
5. In all seriousness, it's easy to see why Champions would nab Durham's name, if not exactly its likeness, for its purposes. The city is shorthand for "diverse " (like Minnesota is for "white") and "social turbulence," at a time when Triangle citizens are turning out to defy Trump in the tens of thousands and Triangle workers have joined a global battle for a living wage. The series is essentially a brightly colored polemic for progressive coalition-building through social media; it suggests that power resides not in opposed individuals—the superhero status quo—but in agreeing multitudes.
Marvel hasn't always portrayed these charged issues with nuance; there have been whiffs of exploitative faddishness as writers try to figure out the material. But one forgives a bit of ham-handedness to see the real-world struggles of people of all races, religions, and genders reflected in comics, while the Avengers flounce off on their latest battle across space-time, the stakes so huge and abstract as to be meaningless.
Even if Champions is the result of Marvel's perennial trend-chasing, it draws a richer, healthier picture of our culture than what I grew up with. But the problem with trends is that they pass. Google "Marvel Comics social justice" for a predictable, depressing primer on how poorly the right, especially where it crosses over with old-school collectors, has received Marvel's younger, more politicized line. And see how gleefully reactionary forces have greeted recent interviews by Marvel brass that hint at a return to a more "classic" status quo, which is to say whiter, more male, and more politically neutral.
But stopping protests in comics won't stop them in Durham, and making comics white again won't do the same to America. It will only alienate the legions of new, young American fans—fans more alert to inequality and heterogeneity than their parents—who have fallen in love with Marvel as Marvel has noticed them. If the company capitulates to conservatives, remember, it's only publishing whatever we'll buy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free-Speech Bubble."