The Case for a “Mexican Superman”

New Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, the first Pakistani-American superhero

Ms. Marvel—Kamala Khan—the first Pakistani-American superhero

(Note: This post was originally drafted – and left unpublished – back in 2013, prior to the recent uptick in representation of marginalized populations in popular media. Still, I think the case remains relevant, and the post has been revised to reflect the evolution of my own thinking over the past 6 years.)

It’s been said many times, yet I feel it cannot be overstated, that speculative fiction more broadly and comic books specifically, need to evolve to be more inclusive of people of color, women, queer folks and other marginalized groups. I don’t mean token representation either. I mean they need to feature, on their front pages and in their leading roles, characters who are not cut from the straight white male mold. These characters should have their own books, be given the same time and attention as a Superman or a Batman.

Speaking of these iconic characters, why couldn’t we have, say, a black Batman or a Mexican Superman?

Cue fanboy rage:

“What are you on about? Superman is from Krypton! He can’t be Mexican!”

Of course I know that, and so the point of this article is to invite you into a thought experiment about what really changes when we break superheroes out of the straight white male mold.

Race & Ethnicity

The obvious reason for more diversity and inclusion in comics is to allow marginalized people to better identify with the characters. For white fans, whether they are willing to accept it or not, the white default actually makes characters less interesting. A bold claim, I know, but bear with me. Superheroes, I think, are more interesting for being more human, for having trauma, hardship, and conflict. To the great extent that white folks – particularly cisgendered heterosexual men – have privilege and power, it further insulates them against the kinds of scenarios that give birth to heroes.

Superman couldn’t actually be from Mexico, but it might make sense for him to have a brown affectation. He gets his power from the sun, right? Well, a “Mexican” Superman would also have more melanin in his skin, better enabling him to absorb energy from the sun.

Also, would Superman stand by and watch as immigrants, particularly Mexicans, were discriminated against, treated as something less than human – “illegals” – while he is an immigrant. He would have to stand with them. But maybe they would be suspicious of his help because all too often there have been white people entering a situation under the pretext of “helping” only to exploit or cause further harm. Superman, even though he’s an immigrant, is able to adopt whiteness. Being anything else makes him more interesting and believable. Also, if he’s the “All-American” hero, he could be a symbol of America as a “nation of immigrants”.

Mexican Superman! (Not Really…)

Mexican Superman!
(Okay, so it’s actually a Superman clone from the animated film Superman: Doomsday, voiced by Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, but hey, it’s as close as we’ve ever gotten.)

And how about Batman? His whole trajectory as a troubled anti-hero began – and is sustained by – the murder of his parents. But when you really look at his background story, it’s not that feasible. The Waynes were wealthy people. Why in the world would they be walking through a dark alley at night after a show? Isn’t it far more likely that they would’ve had a car waiting for them out front? And that, for their wealth, they would’ve been more careful, more suspicious, and frankly, smarter, to not go through a potentially dangerous area with their child? So it just doesn’t make any SENSE that Batman should come from a wealthy family.

Batman, in his bid to punish the sort of criminals who killed his parents, becomes an extension of the police – though he operates outside the law. A black Batman might be conflicted as he witnesses the abuses of the same institutions he represents – namely the police, given the excess of brutality cases and outright murders of black people. Or he might have to reflect more broadly on the connection between the Prison Industrial Complex and the New Jim Crow. Maybe on the one hand he’d want to punish criminals, but on the other he’d know intimately the sort of life conditions that drive a person to crime.

Batman is a smart fellow. Why was he ever preoccupied with small-time criminals, rather than the greater cause? Wouldn’t he also target corporate criminals like Monsanto, who in real life take on the role of nasty super villains destroying the environment? Or creating the sort of wealth disparities that leads a guy like Joe Chill – the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents – to want to steal from the wealthy in the first place. Was he hungry? Desperate? Mentally ill? Either way, in a world closer to real life, Chill would be a symptom of a larger problem. Wouldn’t black Batman want to take on the bigger crooks who siphon drugs into the country, their CIA co-conspirators, and the like?

Batwing, an alternative Batman from DC Comics

Meanwhile, Spider-Man is an example of how class makes a hero more interesting. It is the fact that he is an “everyman”, a regular guy, that makes him so endearing. While it wouldn’t provoke the same outcry as the Afro-Latinx Spider-Man Miles Morales, I would like to think that fans would take issue with any retcon of Spiderman that made him some rich kid from West Chester instead of a middle class kid from Brooklyn. Part of Spider-Man’s story is that he’s broke, and has to work at the Bugle just to make ends meet, to help his Aunt May after the death of Uncle Ben. How many children of color, due to economic disparities along racial lines, or the disproportionate numbers of fathers (or uncles) killed or imprisoned are facing a similar situation. It strengthens Spider-Man’s character development further if the writers opt to incorporate true-to-life struggles.

This isn’t really about ethnicity so much as experience. For every superhero that subscribes to the white “default”, it makes him or her that much less complex, and that much less interesting. At a time before the institution of whiteness became so firmly entrenched, say when the Irish were still being discriminated against, or the Italians, Superman might’ve taken up their mantle, too, as a fellow immigrant. But in 2013, the Irish and Italians have been dissolved into whiteness.

Miles Morales, the first Black and Latinx Spider-Man

Gender & Sexuality

What about a female Superman? It would be interesting in how it subverts ideas about gender and power. I know there is already a Superwoman and a Supergirl, but both were created as afterthoughts to the white male Superman, a response, an echo. So for the purposes of the post’s thought experiment, I will keep on using the term “female Superman”, so as not to confuse the issue.

A female Superman wouldn’t sit around complacent while lawmakers passed legislation to control women’s bodies. She wouldn’t turn a blind eye – or worse, participate in the slut-shaming of a young girl who’s been raped. No, I’m pretty sure a female Superman would relate to that the experience of women more intimately, and dare a male legislator to tell her what she can and can’t do with her own body.

Superman being female also opens up the potential for some seriously complex story lines. What if she were to get pregnant? Would she still be able to fend off nuclear warheads on a collision course for New York, or would she be more concerned with the life inside of her? Especially considering that Krypton is gone, and that she – and therefore her child – are the inheritors of its legacy. Sure the male Superman can – and has in some versions – have a child with a human woman, but just doesn’t have the same potential for inner conflict and personability.

For now, let’s go back to the issue of child rearing. Imagine female Superman and Lois Lane, years into their relationship, discussing the issue of having a child. They might argue over who would be the one to bear the child. Lois might argue that she should be the one, because Superman too often puts her body into harm’s way. But Superman might counter with a point about inheritance. Krypton is gone, and with it, all of her people. But if she were to bear the child, to give birth to a biological Kryptonian, then the legacy could continue.

This might be further compounded by the conflict around lawmakers trying to control women’s bodies. Certainly the governments and other power mongers around the world would have a vested interest in another Kryptonian coming into being. If there was any one female body they would want to control, it would be hers – and the child inside of it, for its potential as a weapon, or another axis of power. Maybe a few months into the pregnancy, Superman is having second thoughts, maybe realizing that Lois was right, and that her existence as the world’s foremost superhero puts her in too dangerous a position. Maybe, being with child, she would see the things differently, with even more concern, and decide that she doesn’t even want to bring a child into such a dangerous world.

Imagine all the scurrying on the part of the lawmakers, arguing that the female Superman doesn’t have the “right” to terminate her pregnancy – not just for ideas about the “sanctity of life”, but because of all the potential for power that would be lost. It wouldn’t just be ideological, but political. And what would female Superman do as these petty little men scrambled to pass a “law” that says that she did not have sovereignty over her body? She might take issue with it, and in any case, I’d like to see them try and enforce that law.

But maybe female Superman would, in spite of her feelings about continuing Krypton’s legacy, realize that it would be too dangerous to bring her biological child into the world. For how it would upset the power dynamics, and maybe for how it would change the debate over women’s reproductive rights. Maybe Superman would realize it was not even her place, as a child of Krypton, to meddle in such affairs. Here someone could argue that Superman shouldn’t have to be female to care about women’s issues. That it would be more radical if the male Superman were to champion women’s rights. I welcome that rebuttal.

If Superman is a woman, someone might suggest “Lois Lane” – or whatever love interest – would have to be a man. Louis Lane? But why can’t the female Superman also be queer? For that matter, if we’re talking about a “female Superman”, we also need to parse sex and gender. A transgender Superman might have been assigned female at birth, only to later come into their identity as a (Super)man. The inverse also presents some fascinating possibilities.

Superman has a dual identity as both the legendary hero and mild mannered reporter Clark Kent. If Superman, the hero, is more true to who the character really is, then Clark Kent is the disguise. He has to continuously move through the world wearing a persona, a body, that does not reflect who he is on the inside.

What is the real life analogue for Superman’s dilemma? The lives of the many Trans* people throughout the world. What if our female Superman was born biologically male, and due to reigning social pressures has to conform to the dull, inauthentic male persona of Clark Kent? Only as Superman would she finally be able to take off the Kent costume and present herself as she truly is, both as a woman, and as a Kryptonian. Imagine the conversation with Ma and Pa Kent, who while perfectly able to grasp the idea of an alien adopted son with superpowers from another planet, just can’t, for their “traditional” sensibilities, wrap their minds around Clark’s gender identity conflict.

Onward and Upward

While these are all fun and provocative thought experiments, I’m not actually calling for a Mexican TransSuperman, or a black female Batman. But maybe this could be food for thought in the creation of new heroes.

I don’t think that the reason that we have so many straight cis white male superheroes is because the writers simply don’t want to represent people of color or women or queer folks. I think it’s because people mostly write what they know, and what they don’t know, they make up. So more than anything, perhaps this article is yet another call for diversity within the comics industry. Women and people of color know their own experiences, and could infuse new heroes – or new incarnations of the old – with more color, more complexity, more nuance.