The Broad, Inclusive Canvas of Comics

Hollywood adaptations don't come close to the transgressive diversity of the genre.

I took a five-hour train ride this weekend and spent most of that time on a Matt Fraction binge. Fraction writes comics—big, beautiful awesome comics—including Uncanny X-Men, Hawkeye, The Immortal Ironfist, and many more of his own creation. I mostly confined myself to Fraction's run on The Invincible Ironman, specifically the Dark Reign arc wherein our hero, Tony Stark, attempts to erase whole swaths of his brain. Stark knows too much—specifically, he has in his brain a database of secret information on virtually every superhero on the planet. His enemies, with the help of the American government, are determined to extract that info, along with the secrets that power Iron Man's armor. And so Stark spends several issues trying to wipe his brain, the way one might format a disk.

The best part about all of this isn't watching Stark alternate running from enemies with deleting his mind, though that's pretty cool. It isn't the diminishing renditions of Iron Man armor he conceives, finishing with the old original model that looks like it was assembled from oil barrels and kitchen appliances. No, the best part of this adventure is Pepper Potts, Stark's assistant, his sometimes-love interest, and the eventual head of Stark Enterprises. Better people than me can expand on Potts' traditional role in the Iron Man comics, but in Fraction's rendition she has great texture and range. There's a scene where she has to rescue two other high-powered agents—Maria Hill and Black Widow—and for several panes the three discuss what it means that Hill and Widow are being rescued by Stark's "secretary."

There's more, but really you should just read the book. After finishing, I started thinking about the last casting news in the world of Marvel—Alexandra Shipp as Storm—and the fact that Hollywood can't bring itself around to cast someone who looks like the Kenyan woman Storm actually is. This isn't a matter of fanboy accuracy, but white supremacy. In another world, where Lupita Nyong'o's dark is unexceptional, where her speech on beauty isn't needed, this discussion wouldn't be necessary. In this world, the one where we can accept Nina Simone's music but not her face, it matters.

One reason why I still enjoy books, including comic books, is that there's still more room for a transgressive diversity. If Greg Pak wants to create an Amadeus Cho, he doesn't have to worry about whether America is ready for a Korean-American protagonist. Or rather, he doesn't have to put millions of dollars behind it. I don't know what that means to a young, Asian-American comic books fan. But when I was eight, the fact that Storm could exist—as she was, and in a way that I knew the rest of society did not accept—meant something. Outside of hip-hop, it was in comics that I most often found the aesthetics and wisdom of my world reflected. Monica Rambeau was my first Captain Marvel. James Rhodes was the first Iron Man I knew.

I don't think we should go overboard. Fraction's work with Potts aside, comics have their own issues—like, really big, awful gender issues. But one reason I'm always cautious about the assumption that everything is improved by turning it into a movie is that the range of possibility necessarily shrinks. I'd frankly be shocked if we ever see a Storm, in all her fullness and glory, in a film.