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Review of Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics

By Jason DeHart

Guynes, Sean and Martin Lund. Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics, Ohio State Press, 2020.

I first note my positionality as a white cisgender male scholar who centers comic books and other visual texts in work with students in early years of development. I have also used comics with students working at the university level who work with young children and adolescents. I have engaged in instruction, focused on comics and the roles of superheroes, and have been taken aback by the vast number of white, able-bodied, and cis-male characters. Within the published pantheon, there is not enough representation from members of minoritized communities, nor are there are enough representations of central heroic characters to recognize the full range of heroism across intersections of identity. Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics, edited by Sean Guynes and Martin Lund, examines characters and storylines throughout comics history to consider examples of such representation critically. Contributors to the volume suggest that additional critique is needed even when some characters seemingly stem from intersections of identity.

As Frederick Luis Aldama notes in the book’s foreword, presentations of whiteness are ubiquitous across media, including comics, and “The comic book (or other media text) will only work if creators willfully attend to the complexity of the building blocks of reality” (p. xiv). Aldama expands on this notion by suggesting that examining the world and the ways that words and images depict it “can unmask ideologies of whiteness as well as all categories that seek to fix gender, sexuality, and ethnicity” (p. xiv). This text arrives when educators, school systems, and districts face challenges in teaching books that center characters from minoritized communities who have experienced systemic oppression for centuries. Additionally, the editors situate this conversation in political time and space in their introduction, demonstrating the timeliness and even overdue nature of this conversation. The editors frame the collection with a beginning chapter that focuses on a popular and ubiquitous character, Captain America, and probe the (re)presentation of characters who are minoritized as the Marvel storyline develops. From there, Guynes and Lund include additional chapters that examine characters who are growing or are already popular, adding a critical lens even to purportedly inclusive narratives. Points of consideration reach back to work published in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as more recent publications.

Helpfully, the voices assembled in the volume speak to several characters who represent identities outside of whiteness, including black, Cheyenne, and Japanese. They include Sam Wilson/Captain America, Black Lightning, Cloak and Dagger, and Black Panther, among a brief list of others. I will note again that the brevity of this list does not reflect a limitation of the book but rather a limitation in the comics marketplace. Contributor Esther de Dauw later writes, “Superhero comics are often accused of failing to engage with race in meaningful ways, partly because there are so few superheroes of color” (p. 128). Authors in the collection denounce how people of color often occupy secondary positions in storylines that continue to instill notions of conformity within a dominant cultural perspective. For instance, editor Martin Lund explores the messages presented in X-Men comics, written during the Johnson administration and the McCarthy era. Lund notes that, while attempting to be inclusive, elements of the storyline remain problematic. These problems include the marginalization of characters who represent non-white experiences and the presence of messages of conformity, even within narratives that share a message of inclusivity.

Helpfully, recent work centers on narratives that expand on a range of experiences, and Unstable Masks explores the representation of minoritized communities in comics. The progress forward in providing more and more narratives exists alongside the present reality that books are being banned based on the identities represented in their pages and the ongoing system of oppression that still functions and spreads. A critical perspective on how characters are portrayed and respond to one another is necessary, and the authors in this volume speak to that perspective. The comics examined exist within a sociocultural conversation within hegemonic influences. As one example, contributor Osvaldo Oyola unpacks the Sam Wilson/Captain America story to argue that a longitudinal understanding of race has “always defined Captain America” (p. 20). Oyola points to the character of Isaiah Bradley as a black character who is effectively marginalized in the narrative, reifying the centrality of Steve Rogers as Captain America. 

This analysis draws attention to the critical awareness/necessary examination of not simply noting the characters of color in comic narratives. The author encourages moving beyond the surface-level inclusion of heroes to examine the degree to which they are rounded, heroic characters who operate in the story as central and empowered. Oyola then examines the Sam Wilson/John Walker dynamic presented in the book series. The author notes, in particular, how the Wilson/Walker narrative fails to capture a response of agency on the part of “black and brown people” (p. 28), moving Wilson into a responsive position and relegating him to a secondary status in the narrative. Walker enters the story as a potential replacement for Captain America when Steve Rogers leaves the heroic role. Still, he does so in a way that does not draw on the affordances of the character in positive ways. In similar notes of analysis, Eric Berlatsky and Sika Dagbovie-Mullins examine the use of primitive imagery and problematic tribal notions in stories featuring Black Panther and the character’s initial function in the storyline as a villain or criminal before becoming more heroic. Berlatsky and Dagbovie-Mullins locate these criminality trends in the Black Lightning storylines, noting how narratives that portend to center minoritized experiences in positive/courageous ways may reify stereotypes. Yvonne Chireau later explores the use of primitivisms, including “cultural appropriation, racial disguise, impersonation, and other acts of imitation of indigenous people by non-Natives” (p. 198) that exist within comics that feature Native American characters and historical North American settings. 

Contributors not only point to the short list of heroes of color but consider the list as even more abbreviated by remarking the heroes’ roles as secondary and sometimes even criminalized counterparts to White characters—often presented in more favorable and essential ways. This critical perspective remains necessary in a continuing conversation for educators like myself who wish to highlight authentic texts and voices in classroom spaces. While some commentators might want to rush to the conclusion that society is so much improved, Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics presents a more holistic narrative. There is still much work to be done, and a comparatively scant number of positive, fully-realized presentations of characters of color exist. This commentary can be further explored and applied to characters representing LGBTQ+ and disabled people. The book is worth considering and useful for literature scholars and scholars in literacy and cultural studies fields to make use of as they continue work related to representation in comics and media.

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