Introduction: "New Heroes"
I like the phrase "new heroes." I have heard it a lot over the past couple of years while exploring the world of comic books and their readers. It is a phrase that is almost deceivingly concise. It is a simple enough combination of words, but it alludes to a culturally important change in the way we see our world. "As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you," wrote acclaimed comic book auteur Alan Moore, "heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't what they used to be ... or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations. We demand new heroes" (1986, 3). In a world that is continually growing, continually changing, the old paradigms just don't cut it anymore.
One of the ways the world has been changing, at least in the West, is reflected in the manner in which the traditional monolith of popular culture has sought to (re)address divergent audiences. This study offers an account of one comic book company's attempt to address divergent audiences through new heroes and how the readers of these texts come to understand them through interpretive strategies and subcultural practices specific to the comic book industry and comic book fandom. Specifically, this study focuses on the African American comic books published by Milestone Media and how fans relate to the stories and the new black heroes according to six fundamentally interconnected principles and points of comparison. The interpretive strategies used by comic book fans revolve around (1) their recognition of Milestone's corporate and creative identity as the mainstream publisher of African American superhero comics; (2) their awareness of the debate between Milestone and other African American comic book creators regarding the authenticity of creating black characters in cooperation with one of the dominant (i.e., white) publishing companies; (3) their reliance on subcultural principles specific to comics fandom, such as the collecting principle, whereby the readers' recognition of specific artists and/or the potential market value of the comic book allows the fans to accumulate cultural capital within the subculture; (4) their knowledge of the superhero genre's history and of earlier attempts to create black heroes; (5) their familiarity with formalized genre conventions and Milestone's place as an innovative publisher which retains most of the "classic" elements of the superhero formula; and (6) their comparison of the Milestone books to the market-dominating comics published by other young companies which promote a popular trend of gender extremism.
For many fans the reading of a comic book is far from a passive activity. That does not necessarily mean that comic book fans are active resisters of hegemonic meaning, as several audience ethnographies have argued (most notably, Radway 1984; Jenkins 1992). Rather, for the devoted comic book fan interpretation is a complex process shaped by inter- and intratextual information shared with, and about, other fans and the creators themselves. As popular texts, the reading of comic books is interpreted according to the ideological encodings of the producers and the socially positioned, fandom-based, decodings of the audience. For readers familiar with the history and/or the conventions of comic books, the Milestone superheroes function as a focal point for interpreting revisionist notions of African American characters in comparison to more mainstream comic book ideals; and, further, they facilitate a progressive interpretation of black masculinity which incorporates intelligence with physicality. In other words, there is a sort of "contract" of meaning that exists between the two sides and positions any interpretation of textual ideology as both a personal and mutual concept. In this case, the contract is such that the producers have created black characters who fulfill a need for new heroes and operate according to certain principles of non-extremist racial politics, thus allowing the readers to interpret the texts in cooperation with the producers' intended meanings as revisionist black hero texts and personally as alternative models of masculinity, models which stress holism rather than the one-dimensional hypermasculinity found in other contemporary comic books.
Because the comic book industry is a medium very clearly dominated by some of modern popular culture's most quintessential images of heroism, it is also one of the most obvious examples of unequal representation. Since its inception more than sixty years ago the world of comic books has been populated with the same type of characters in magazine after magazine. Chief among these ever popular characters is the seemingly endless variety of Superman-like costumed crusaders. Almost without exception these archetypal do-gooders, these modern mythological heroesCaptain Marvel, Captain America, Batman, Spider-Man, Thor, etc.have been white-bread defenders of "truth, justice and the American way." Like most other forms of North American mass media in the twentieth century, comic books have more or less managed to erase all evidence of cultural diversity. For decades young readers have encountered a defining and idealized image of heroism that was explicitly honest, law abiding, chaste, excessively masculine, and above all, white. For the majority of readers these caped avengers who could fly, bend steel bars with their bare hands, and deflect bullets with their broad chests were the ultimate power fantasy played out in flashy monthly installments. Yet for comic book readers from different ethnic backgrounds there were no heroic models that they could directly identify with, no heroes they could call their own. Instead, they were required to imaginatively identify across boundaries of race since the only depiction of visible minorities in most comic books were the nameless criminals and barbarous savages that the real heroes defeated month after month. But just as the "truth" and the "justice" of the American way have begun to be questioned by voices that have previously been suppressed or marginalized, the heretofore unchallenged privilege of the white-bread comic book hero is on the decline.
The potentially harmful racial bias of comic books was so obvious by the early 1970s that the Black-Owned Communications Alliance (BOCA) sought to capitalize on this image of unequal identification in their public service advertisement promoting the need for responsible racial representation in the media (fig. 1.1). "What's wrong with this picture?" asks the advertisement's copy in bold letters under the photograph of a young black boy striking a heroic pose in front of the bathroom mirrora towel tied around his neck for a cape, chest puffed out, fists defiantly resting on his hips. But instead of his own idealized image staring back at him, he sees the reflection of a generic, white costumed hero. "A child dreams of being the latest superhero. What could be wrong with that?" the promotional copy continues. "Plenty," is the answer, "if the child is Black and can't even imagine a hero the same color he or she is." The concern of the BOCA advertisement is clear. Children are impressionable and learn from what they see. And, the copy text goes on to argue, with the traditional white images of heroism that dominate popular culture, black children rarely get to see "Black men and women doing positive things besides playing basketball and singing songs." The BOCA advertisement is a call not only for more frequent and more diverse positive black images in the media, but also for the development and support of black-owned media production companies that would best be able to provide these much needed new heroes. On numerous occasions during the course of this study I was reminded of this advertisement, whether it was while rummaging through academic texts, talking to superhero fans, or self-indulgently reading huge piles of comic books. This advertisement, although dated, seemed to crystallize the all too common discrepancy between young comic book readers and the one-dimensional heroic types usually portrayed within those books.
In the 1970s the two major comic book publishing companies, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, both tried to create legitimate black superhero characters. Both companies failed to achieve any long-lasting success because their black characters were too closely identified with the limited stereotype commonly found in the blaxploitation films of the era. More recently, in the spring of 1993, Milestone Media, an African American-owned and controlled comic book publishing company, began to provide the world with some new heroes. Included in their monthly roster of heroes are such popular characters as Icon, a super strong and straight-laced hero in the Superman mold, and Icon's partner, Rocket, the first unwed teenage mother to don the costume of a superhero; Hardware, a genius inventor who has constructed his own high-tech armor; and Static, a wise-cracking high school nerd by day and an electricity-wielding superhero by night. Where once visible minorities were almost exclusively depicted on the comic book page as villains, indistinguishable petty criminals, screaming savages, and occasionally as comic relief sidekicks, today's characters of color are finally starting to emerge as real heroes, as new heroes, demanded by new audiences.
This study offers an examination of contemporary comic book fandom as it relates specifically to the texts published by Milestone Media and the particularly loaded and problematic representation of the black superhero. As the field of audience studies has developed in the 1980s and 1990s, in both the class-oriented British and the populist American traditions, numerous critics have increasingly emphasized the role of the audience as active interpreters in their everyday use of mass media, interpreters who can, and do, construct unique readings contingent upon their own cultural position and personal experiences. However, most of these audience studies, which I will return to in more detail later, are critically informed by where they consider the "true" meaning of the cultural texts to residewith the producers or with the consumers. Since the primary concern of this study is how the adolescent members of the comic book reading audience use mass-produced genre texts in their personal and social lives to construct an understanding of race and gender, I feel it is important to focus not solely on either the creators, the text, or the audience members, but on all three. Yes, the media can exert power and influence over the audience but only in so far as that audience might allow them to, and it is the readers who negotiate the degree of that power and the direction of that influence.
The research presented here is based primarily on such qualitative methods as participant-observation, textual analysis, and most importantly, interviews with several comic book creators, retailers and over a hundred fans. For more than four years now I have been deeply involved in the somewhat transient and loosely structured world of comic book fandom. Comics fandom is a subculture that I have known of since I first began reading comic books as a child, but I had never become unconditionally involved with it because I, like many comic book readers who remain on the periphery of fandom, often thought of it as a little too fanatical for my own tastes. As a subculture, comic fandom is an overwhelmingly male enclave (see appendixes for a detailed breakdown of the informants by age, race, and reading habits). There are female fans, but they are much less in number and usually much less demonstrative about their passion for comics. While there is a wide age range among comic book fans, I have focused here on the younger and still the most common enthusiasts: preadolescent and adolescent males. I have been reading the books and the fanzines, frequenting a variety of comic book specialty stores, attending the local and national and international comic book conventions, and cruising various computer chat lines devoted to comic books. I have experienced the anticipation that many fans savor when they rush to their local comics shop on Wednesday afternoons eager to discover what has become of their favorite heroes, who more often than not were left in the clutches of evil arch-nemeses just a month before. At more than one convention I have witnessed firsthand the awe in the eyes of young enthusiasts who have just spoken with their favorite writer or artist after standing in an autograph line for hours. I have haggled over the price of back issues I needed to purchase, and I usually lost the negotiation, except when a particularly knowledgeable twelve year old consented to be my price advisor. And I have commiserated with fans and retailers over the demise of comic book series that were abruptly cancelled due to low sales figures and the highly competitive nature of the market.
In conjunction with participant observation, I have relied heavily on interviews as a source of insight into what these fictional adventures mean to individual readers. Most of this research was conducted in and around the greater Toronto area and was supplemented by stints in New York City and Chicago. The research in Chicago proved especially fruitful because it coincided with one of the world's largest annual comic book conventions. Since my central focus involves the contribution of the producers' intended meaning in collaboration with the consumers' interpretation, I was fortunate to have been able to interview the cofounders of Milestone Media. I was amazed and grateful at the cooperation and encouragement that they and their corporate publishing partner, DC Comics, afforded me. As the creative forces behind a new publishing enterprise, the Milestone founders were quite aware of the complexity of their relationship with fans and about the intentions, political and otherwise, of their comic books. I have tried to supplement any holes in my interviews with the Milestone executives through the numerous pieces that have appeared about them in both the mainstream press and the fan-based magazines and newspapers.
For logical reasons the Milestone audience was much more difficult to pin down than were the Milestone creators. I am now well aware of why Janice Radway (1988) has referred to ethnographic studies of media reception as the problems of dispersed audiences and nomadic subjects. There is no single central event where comic book fans can be observed. The most likely places to find comic book readers is at comics specialty stores and at conventions. But even with these identifiable locations there is no guarantee that you will come across the same subjects more than once. Moreover, conventions are typically loud and energetic environments, and while this can provide a wealth of observational material it also proved very distracting for fans. It is not easy to get a ten-year-old boy to answer a question about why he prefers one character over another when a model dressed in a skimpy Vampirella costume is walking by. Initially I attempted to organize relatively structured interviews with comic book fans through connections I had established at local specialty stores. That strategy turned out to be entirely unsuccessful. It was next to impossible to arrange meetings, I was frequently stood up, or when the meetings did occur there was often an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the subject of comic books, an enthusiasm which I had previously seen the subjects display in abundance in the stores or at conventions. Ultimately, most of my ethnographic research was conducted "on the hoof," as it were, talking with comic book readers anywhere I could get them to talk to mein the stores, at the conventions, in shopping malls, and even while standing in line at the movies. On occasion this proved to be more than just a little frustrating because it limited my opportunities to revisit some particularly insightful informants. Eventually many of the people I interviewed became very familiar faces, popping up at the same stores at the same time each week, or frequenting every comic book convention in the area. Of these familiar faces, a core group of twenty-five spirited comic book fans from different parts of the city became particularly important informantsalways willing to help illuminate my understanding of their readings, to clarify my mistakes of interpretation, to provide background information about characters, story lines, and creators, and even to offer their market expertise on several occasions when I needed to buy hard-to-find comic books.
Rather than a formal interview, which all too often implies an unequal relationship in favor of the interviewer, who controls the subject, the tempo, and the very language used, I consider my interactions with the readers to be more akin to conversations. In this case conversations were much more effective because the age difference between myself and the majority of the subjects, 84 percent of whom were between five and nineteen years old (see appendix A for an exact breakdown of informants by age), proved even more distancing in a formal setting. I wanted to avoid the fans' perception that I was an authority with some sort of judgmental agenda. Instead of trying to "get at" certain perceptions that I was developing through direct questions, I found conversing about a shared interest to be much more conducive in a collaborative sense. Here I have taken a cue from Lindlof and Grodin (1990), who discussed the practical advantages of the collaborative, unstructured style of interviewing as especially effective when faced with the difficulties of studying a dispersed audience and a system of media use (e.g., reading) that can not be observed directly. Moreover, conversation based on affiliation seemed to encourage the readers' enthusiasm because it is the way fans speak with each other, a way that, as previous audience researchers have often pointed out, is very similar to gossip.
Where possible I have tried to include the age of the informant, and where relative I have included mention of their ethnicity (see appendix B for an exact breakdown of informants by race). Although this study is concerned primarily with the development and the reading of black superheroes, I did not want to restrict myself solely to black comic book readers. Instead, I think it is important to consider how readers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds respond to, and make use of, these new heroes as they are incorporated into their understanding of cultural concepts such as race and gender. It would have been too transparent to write about these new black superheroes as a one-dimensional gesture against the status quo, or as a hegemonic means of colonizing images of black anger and/or masculinity. It is much more interesting to look at how these new heroes rework existing paradigms by including African American identities within the conventional narratives and iconography of the superhero formula, and to consider how these new heroes reflect audience members' interpretive practices by keying on their subcultural knowledge of the medium and the genre and how the texts facilitate an alternative reading of black masculinity. I want to emphasize that this study is an exploration of young male readers from a diversity of cultural backgrounds and how they read symbolically loaded texts across, and along, racial lines rather than just a look at how the comics speak directly to black audience members.
As a point of clarification, I should explain my use of the terms "African American" and "black" throughout this study. While I realize that there are very real political contingencies inherent in the use of particular names for visible minorities within the current social climate of contemporary America (see, for example, Baugh 1991), a thorough examination of these contingencies is beyond the scope of this study. I do not, however, use the terms interchangeably. "Black" is used as a general term of reference, and "African American" as a specific term of reference. In other words, because much of this study was conducted in a Canadian context, the phrase "African American" was effectively inaccurate as many of the informants who identified themselves as black were from non-African or non-American slave-descendant cultural and historical backgrounds (e.g., those with a Caribbean heritage resisted the label of African American if I accidentally used the phrase in conversation). Even the phrase "African Canadian" rested uncomfortably with many of the fans whom I spoke with because they felt it portrayed them as merely in the shadow of African Americans. Thus I use the term "black" more liberally here than a study solely about race might because it is a term that can transcend certain cultural boundaries which the fans deemed relatively unimportant to their understanding of the texts. When I do use the phrase "African American" it is because I am specifically referring to a person or a character who is clearly identifiable as such.