WASHINGTON — For decades, comic books have been in color, but now they truly reflect all the hues of American society.
The new Captain America is black. A Superman who is suspiciously similar to President Barack Obama recently headlined a comic book. Thor is a woman, Spider-Man is part-Puerto Rican and Ms. Marvel is Muslim.
Mainstream comic book superheroes — America's modern mythology — have been redrawn from the stereotypical brown-haired, blue-eyed, white male into a world of multicolored, multireligious and multigendered crusaders to reflect a greater diversity in their audience.
Society has changed, so superheroes have to as well, said Axel Alonso, editor in chief at Marvel Comics, who in November debuted Captain America No. 1 with Samuel Wilson, the first African-American superhero taking over Captain America's red, white and blue uniform and shield.
"Roles in society aren't what they used to be. There's far more diversity," said Alonso, who has also shepherded a gay wedding in the X-Men, a gender change from male to female in Thor and the first mainstream female Muslim hero in Ms. Marvel.
The change to a black Captain America is already having an impact outside of comics.
Even before the first issue was published, unauthorized images of the black Captain America were shown at a town hall meeting in St. Louis following the funeral of Michael Brown, who was 18 and unarmed when he was killed by a white police officer. This Captain America had his hands up saying "Don't Shoot," a slogan protesters have used to highlight the number of African Americans killed by police.
"When you take an African-American man and dress him in the red white and blue of the flag, of the United States flag, . . . there's symbolism in that, that is more potent and more thought-provoking, evocative" than other kinds of changes, Alonso said.
The new diverse comic characters are far from the first: Marvel introduced the world to Samuel Wilson as the Falcon, the comic's first African-American superhero, in 1969 as a sidekick to Captain America. In 1977, DC Comics introduced Black Lightning, a schoolteacher who gains electrical powers and becomes a superhero.
And Marvel isn't the only company looking at diversity. An alternative black Superman, one who is president of the United States, is part of a team in DC Comics' "The Multiversity." DC also brags of having more comic books featuring female leads than any other company, including Batgirl, Catwoman, Batwoman and Wonder Woman, the longest-running comic book with a female hero.
"Our goal is to tell the best stories while making sure our characters are relatable and reflect DC Comics' diverse readership and fanbase," DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson said.
But not everyone is happy with the changes: A contingent of vocal Internet fans are protesting a reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four property in the movies, turning one of the quartet — Johnny Storm — from blond and blue-eyed to black.
Noah Berlasky, author of the upcoming Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, said portions of the largely white, male comic book audience don't want favored characters to change.
"Changing people's race or changing people's gender can feel more threatening or a bigger deal than changing Thor into a frog," said Berlasky, referencing a popular storyline in which the Norse god transforms into an amphibian. "Characters are always changing, but there are cultural lenses which make it seem like a bigger deal if Johnny Storm is black."
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Movies based on superheroes, like Marvel's The Avengers, and DC's Man of Steel, are driving a new audience to comic books. That surge has comic book companies looking to have characters that those fans can relate to, said Cheryl Lynn Eaton, head of the Ormes Society, which promotes black female comic creators and the inclusion of black women in the comics industry.
"The stories of Superman, the story of Batman, we're going to be telling them 40 years from now, and we've already been telling them for decades," Eaton said. "They are telling us sort of how to live life and how we relate in this world, so I think it's important for everyone, for people of different backgrounds, to have a say."
Comic books companies need to recognize the impact these characters have before they change them back to their default identities, Eaton said.
"Having Sam Wilson become Captain America and having a woman become Thor, you're stating that everyone is equal and that race, gender shouldn't not limit you, and that you're just as good as the heroes we've had. But if you pull these symbols away from them after a short period of time, you're kind of going back on what you're saying," she said.
Alonso said they haven't written an end to Wilson's time as Captain America.
"We have not discussed at this point the end of Sam's journey," he said. "That's not been the topic of discussion yet, so we don't' have a clean and easy way out. We've just got a great landscape ahead of us to tell great stories."