Race + Comics: Breaking Down Uncanny Avengers’ Continued Racefail

By Arturo R. García

This month’s issue of Uncanny Avengers served as the most explicit follow-up to the much-maligned “we are all humans” speech written by Rick Remender in an apparent stab at “colorblindness.”

Instead of taking to heart the critiques directed toward him, though, Remender seemed intent to “prove his point” via a debate between two of the book’s mutant characters, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff). But don’t let the cover fool you. This may have been intended to read like a battle of wits, but Remender neglected to arm either combatant.

The sequence actually begins with a tete-a-tete between the returning Wonder Man and Sunfire, a longtime member of X-canon but never one especially called on to be a leader in the mutant population. “We’ll always be humans to you,” Wonder Man complains. “Always be something different.” Yes, that’s a white cis-male accusing a Japanese man of othering him.

“I love him to death, but Alex went in public and told Mutants to hide, to be ashamed of who they are,” Sunfire retorts. At this point, the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne) chimes in.

Now, before getting to her comments here, let’s look back to UA #7 and her business proposal for team leader Havok (Alex Summers):

Yes, that’s a white non-Mutant woman — Janet is a WASP in more ways than one — using iconography and apparel long associated with Mutants to create her own fashion line, arguing that “popular culture has a long history of helping ease people into accepting the different” — and oh yes, the money made from these sales will fund their squad. You think Cyclops will see a cut for the use of his signature ruby visor? Or Rogue for using her own green hood?

By Janet’s rationale, American Apparel should be heralded as a champion of civil rights. Now, let’s get back to her part in this new argument.

“He was asking people to judge him based on how he uses his powers, not how he got them,” Wasp argues. Well said, for someone seemingly using her abilities as a fashion designer to justify outright cultural appropriation.

“I’ll never understand why your gifts frighten people more than mine, or Reed Richards’, or Spider-Man’s,” she says next, which is supposed to be her token gesture of sympathy. But longtime Marvel readers already know the answer: Because the company wants them to. Being “hated and feared” is part of the X-Men-as-minority allegory Remender is supposedly subverting. Yet the statement is also inaccurate because Spider-Man’s been considered a menace just as often as a hero, thanks to the press machinations of former Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson.

(L-R) Psylocke, Colossus and Angel meet their new fans in San Francisco during the “Utopia” era. Image via sfgate.com

And way back in Astonishing X-Men #1, Cyclops stressed that his team’s return to wearing spandex uniforms (as opposed to the more practical apparel favored during the Grant Morrison era) was part of an effort to get the public to view them as regular old superheroes. That led to a meet-cute between the team and the Fantastic Four, as Cyclops led his crew to do more standard rescue missions, as opposed to the same old grudge matches. That, of course, didn’t last very long in that particular title. But the X-Men did have a brief stretch where they were taken in like regular superheroes: the Utopia era, when they were encamped in San Francisco. And Janet was off-world while that was going on. So she has almost literally no idea what she’s talking about.

From there we move on to the Rogue/Scarlet Witch clash, as Rogue snidely asks for her take, pointing out how Wanda, a longtime Avenger, is suddenly “such a devoted student” of X-Men founder Charles Xavier.

“How’d you have reacted if Alex asked you to hide your Romani background?” Rogue asks, which is not an altogether good question for her case. Because like Alex, Wanda always has the option of “hiding” her background.

“That theory overlooks the major differences between being born a mutant and being born into a religion,” Wanda says to begin her answer. “Religion is steeped in cultural tradition, shared ancestry, shared values, and most importantly, shared faith.”

And Wanda’s response, in turn, overlooks Mutants whose X-genes have not exclusively manifested as powers, per se. Like, say, Beak, whose “abilities” amounted to looking like a chicken. And though Nightcrawler and Beast both became known as heroes, their mutations also left them unable to “fit in” without the benefit of the Witch’s and Havok’s “I’m just a person” rhetoric. For that matter,Cyclops’ visors aren’t a fashion choice; they’re the only way he can open his eyes without blasting anything he sees.

In meta terms, Wanda’s — and Remender’s — answer ignores the existence of Mutanthood as a stand-in for race as an identification point. Which wouldn’t be so annoying if it weren’t for this:

 

“Mutants come from all races, all religions and all sexual orientations,” Wanda insists. “Having powers born into us is the only thing we inherently share.”

You have to figure Remender and artist Gabriel Acuña intended for that line to be the big “OH SNAP” moment, since they have her facing the readers. (It’s actually the second time they use this device in the issue; there’s a scene earlier where Wonder Man, having quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to justify his newfound pacifism, looks at the reader and asks, “Too preachy?”)

But the problem is, Wanda’s wrong. Mutants do have is a shared history — one that would be visible, if she or Marvel invested any time in the ones who aren’t wearing spandex for a living. The establishment of Xavier’s original School for Gifted Youngsters qualifies as a shared moment, since it was the introductory point for Homo Superior as a part of the Marvel landscape. One can also point at the destruction of Genosha as a shared moment – a concentrated genocidal attack against them.

Wanda herself was at the center of another tragic shared moment: the depowering of nearly the entire Mutant population at the end of the House of M miniseries, which led to the world’s remaining 198 Mutants to be forced  to live at the site of Xavier’s school, Reservation-style. This is why the arrival of Hope Summers and then of the five “Lights” were such a big deal to the community. Somewhere, there’s bound to be a Mutant whose quality of life is still endangered, physically or emotionally, because of what Wanda did. But we don’t read about those stories anymore.

It’s one thing for Wanda to “move on” from her role in that horror, even as she condemns Wolverine for being part of a death squad in Uncanny X-Force. But for Remender to position her as the “reasonable one” in this scene is either ironic or misguided, especially considering how Rogue is drawn as being near-irrational in her anger:

Earlier in the scene, Wanda asks Rogue not to “extrapolate” from Alex’s remarks in UA #5. Well, let’s look at what he said again:

For Alex to use his government-friendly platform to issue platitudes on what qualifies as “divisive” is marginalizing in and of itself. (And, again, note the emphasis on the religious allegory instead of race.) But as we discussed last time, the line, “We are all humans, of one tribe” is John Grisham-style faux-profundity, as has been pointed out over and over and over again. Protip for Remender: if Stephen Colbert says it in character, it’s not a good look for your would-be protagonists.

Making things worse for Remender’s book is the fact that one has to read another book, Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men, for  a proper counter-argument, albeit one that also comes from a white character:

Kitty Pryde shares her story with the rest of the younger X-Men in “All New X-Men” #11.

Here, Kitty Pryde is allowed to detail the intersection of both her religion and her Mutanthood: “I am Jewish. I am a Mutant,” she tells the time-displaced group of younger X-Men. “And I want people to know who and what I am. I tell people because, hey, if we’re going to have a problem with it … I’d like to know.” And all while acknowledging her ability to pass, to boot.

Bendis has a history of at least giving POC characters some space: Besides his introduction of Black Latino Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man and his years of work with Luke Cage and his own multiracial family, he also penned Takio, which explicitly dealt with a multiracial adoptee family. And time has begun to show that maybe he should have been handed the UA assignment. Because for a series supposedly revolving around the forging of Mutant/Human unity, the skewed narrative stemming from Havok’s misguided speech has become an unwelcome distraction that leaves none of its heroes looking very sympathetic. This isn’t the next phase of Xavier’s dream. It’s turning into a sad parody of it.

 

  • gwhiz007

    I put down Uncanny Avengers after issue one and felt quite good about it. Wanda carping about how annoying it was to be judged as someone responsible for M-Day was so bizarre and arrogant I couldn’t handle it. Fast forward to the M-word speech and now this and I’m convinced this is the worst written understanding of minority issues in a comic book (or any) form Ive ever seen.

  • eleusinian

    If only Janet van Dyne’s cultural appropriation fashion show was meant as a biting satire! It would be hilariously, *completely* in character for Jan, WASPiest of Wasps. How unfortunate that it seems like Remender believes she’s in the right.

  • Andre

    While this article has its merits, e.g. I agree that Wanda’s involvement in M-Day was dropped way too easily and that Rogue has more reasons to be in the right than Wanda, I think the basic flaw of Marvel’s mutants is not adressed and it is that they cannot really stand in for real world religions and such. Not even homosexuals. True you are, usually, born a mutant, and you are usually oppressed and in danger because of it. But, not every mutant of this or that Marvel universe was born (see Lady Deathstrike in the Ultimate Marvel) and while that is relatively rare, on the contrary not all of them have been oppressed because of it, the most notable examples are Selene and Apocalypse. And while you can say that these few are not the norm and that there were thousands or millions of mutants who did experience said things, I must tell you that those usually don’t matter. They are on average faceless extras and will be forgotten as quickly as they appeared. What counts are those mutants that can be seen regularly or at least from time to time. What they say and do, what they experience and how they look has the most impact.

    Also their approach, similar to Kitty’s speech, is simplistic in my eyes. Kitty states herself to be Jewish also, but the question is how Jewish is she and would her opinions actually have been in line with said Rabbi? What branch of Judaism does she belong to? Is she a reform Jew? A secular Jew? Does she fall for the myth of the Jewish Race?
    Fundamental Judaism is inherently patriarchal, xenophobic and homophobic and that is a fact. And considered with whom Kitty is friends with and what her own opinions are I doubt that many Jews throughout history would have welcomed her. I wonder what said Rabbi would have said, had he met Wiccan or North Star, would he have been friendly knowing their sexual orientations? Maybe, but chances are good that he would not have been. So such comparisons always leave a bad taste in my mouth, respectively they sometimes make my temper rise.

    Also this be “proud to be a mutant” is in my eyes not as good as it might sound. Saying that there is nothing wrong with you is easy when you have the cool powers and looks. But what if your mutation causes you to age backwards before you can even walk, forcing your parents to see you die? What if it turns you into a puddle of goo? What if you are a living skeleton? A giant dragon? Covered in fur like Nightcrawler or as was originally the case with Rogue unable too touch someone without risking to kill them and absorb their memories and personality traits? Layla Miller has the mutant power to resurrect someone from the dead, however at the cost of their souls. Nezhno Abidemi’s powers cause massive strain on his body and leads to seizures and will ultimately kill him one day. Would you really say to these people “this is what you are” and “there is nothing wrong with you?” If yes I personally think you should get your priorities straight.

    Also one topic Marvel never really addressed with the mutants: A society that can do so much needs to have extremely strong moral codes or otherwise they will destroy themselves. And so far the Marvel mutants and the fast majority of its superbeings are incredibly lacking in that regard.

  • Kat

    First off, I want to tell the whole Racialicious crew how much I love this blog’s commentary on race/gender in comic books. I was an avid reader (and collector…totally geeky, I know) as a teenager, but once newer writers started taking liberties with the characters that I felt were not their right (not just on issues of race and gender but their fundamental personalities, their histories, even their names), I stopped reading newer series. The fact that X-Men — one of my favorite series — has devolved into this makes me so angry and betrayed. Of course, X-Men was not exactly a beacon of racial inclusion (most of the ‘starring’ POC were hyper-sexualized women, and even Storm was drawn in such a way in the earlier back-and-white comics that readers could not tell she was African). Maybe my teenage self was too naive to see what was problematic in the 90s/early 2000s, but the fact that I could relate to Rogue, a white extroverted Southerner, is sort of emblematic of how inclusive I felt the franchise was. And even though race wasn’t explicitly dealt with, and there were definitely some problematic portrayals, I loved the strong female characters of Storm, Tante Mattie, Moonstar, Psylocke (although I have always thought it a shame that writers never explored the issue is that she is opposite of passing — someone who was born and raised white in a Japanese body). By contrast, some of the wording in the above examples make me wonder if Remender is consciously trying to defend white (cis male) entitlement. And while I found Kitty’s speech encouraging, I almost feel that X-Men falls back on using anti-semitism when it can’t deal with other ethnic issues — as if the white Jewish other is the only “other” they feel somewhat comfortable dealing with. It is extremely ironic that Wasp cites popular culture as being the driving force of change, because I find that often it is often what legitimizes racist (and misogynist) stereotyping and marginalization.

  • aboynamedart

    On the contrary — that’s exactly what has allowed it to resonate with many communities, thus fueling the critical response toward Remender’s work. And some characters, like Storm, Northstar, and Rictor and Shatterstar, to name a few, also provide explicitly-stated points of identification for many readers.

  • Keith Creech

    On a side note, you should do an article about Captain Marvel and how once again she has been de-powered to a degree in the tradition of the Women In Refrigerators trope.

  • aboynamedart

    I think the idea had merit at the time the franchise debuted, in much the same way Star Trek sometimes used allegories to explore racism. But while Trek has, overall, been more open about those discussions, the X-books, as we’ve discussed in the past, have gotten more self-referential while pretending to stand for Something Bigger — usually whenever the creative teams want cheap gloss for being allies.

  • happyappa

    ““We’ll always be humans to you,” Wonder Man complains. “Always be
    something different.” Yes, that’s a white cis-male accusing a Japanese
    man of othering him.”

    I hate these stories where white characters face out-there weird circumstances where in some alternate reality pocs aren’t the oppressed ones, and they are othering the whites. See Anti- (white)vampire racism.

    • aboynamedart

      What’s most galling is the positioning of Wonder Man as being “in the right” throughout the issue. And using MLK’s words to do so? Ugh.

      • happyappa

        Definitely and it happens too often where white people just love quoting MLK whenever pocs call them out on their bs. Not only is it taken out of context, “Don’t judge me by the color of my skin…” is somehow interpreted as “Not all whites are racist” or “Don’t call me cracker if you want equality”
        And in the context of the comic, it’s like civil/human rights only apply to these mostly white mutants. And MLK Jr.? Oh gee who cares, it’s the X-Men that are oppressed. gag

  • http://themiddlespaces.wordpress.com/ Osvaldo Oyola

    Got
    rid of my issues of Uncanny Avengers because of their convoluted
    poorly-plotted deep immersion in poorly-explained continuity, but I
    kinda wish I had kept up with it as an example of continued sorry
    attempts to rib the X-franchise of its race/queer subtext, since I write about that kind of stuff so much – but looks like Arturo is getting the job done.

    • aboynamedart

      Thanks very much. I appreciate it!

  • 7thangel

    not feeling either issue. kitty’s use of ‘nigger’ to Stevie as a way to make it seem like ‘mutie’ was just as bad, when the entire x-series has mostly ignored race (save a few superficial panels, here and there), while devastating minority representation, and her other speechifying from on high from a future x-universe series is still fresh in my mind.

    marvel, the x-office, and the current crop of writers can have several seats.