D.C. and Marvel Comics have a Hispanic and Latino superhero problem

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D.C. and Marvel Comics have a Hispanic and Latino superhero problem — namely in the way they are represented

Spider-Man can swing from skyscrapers and detect trouble with his trademark Spidey-sense. Superman, the Man of Steel, hails from the planet Krypton, can fly at supersonic speeds and is planet-lifting strong.

But for Hispanic and Latino superheroes in mainstream comic book universes, their powers are usually vague at best — and their origin stories? Often filled with stereotypes, lack of nuance and misconstrued motivations, said J. Gonzo, an artist and comic book author.

This is part of why Gonzo wasn’t much surprised when he saw DC Comics’ recent covers “honoring” Hispanic Heritage Month with superheroes holding tamales, tacos and a flag with bad Spanish grammar.

At this point, expecting accurate or thoughtful portrayals from these comic book publishers, he said, is like “going to the hardware store for milk” or “to McDonald’s for a salad.”

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“It’s yet another example of a kind of whiteness that obliterates our histories and significant presence in shaping the cultural fabric of the United States,” said Frederick Luis Aldama, a humanities professor at the University of Texas and author of “Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics.”

This is especially important to address in an increasingly diverse country, with a Latino population that is one of the fastest growing groups in the U.S., said Alex Grand, the founder of Comic Book Historians. “To reflect the changing demographics of the United States, if 40 percent of the country is Caucasian, we probably shouldn’t continue to make 90 percent of the superheroes Caucasian.”

The “one step forward, two steps back” representation in mainstream American comic books is common, Aldama said, disservicing Hispanic and Latino characters, artists and readers alike. With great power comes great responsibility — and big-time publishers have repeatedly failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

Vague powers have long been common for Hispanic and Latino superheroes in mainstream comics

There’s a trend, said Gonzo, of Latino superheroes often having unclear super-abilities in DC and Marvel comics.

“I never really think of them as having a power set, so much as they can do a bunch of things,” he said. “They all have these general, like, energy powers, zapping powers, which doesn’t make me feel great about Latino superheroes.”

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America Chavez, a Marvel character introduced in 2011, for example, travels the multiverse by creating portals with ambiguously defined energy blasts. When Marvel’s Miles Morales, one of the newest and most popular alter-egos of Spider-Man, was created in 2011, he was given — unlike the Peter Parkers that preceded him — electric-venom-blasting abilities. El Dorado, a Mexican superhero who appeared in Hanna-Barbera’s “Super Friends” television show in the 1980s, had particularly vague powers, among which, Gonzo said, was a “zappy energy thing.”

The mainly white, male heroes created in the 1950s and ’60s got “all the good stuff,” Gonzo said — super genius, flight, agility, shapeshifting, etc., which became intrinsically attached to their personas — such that when newer Latino or Hispanic characters are created, or take up the mantle of an older identity, there’s a lurking sense of unoriginality.

Stereotypical settings and misunderstood motivations

Marvel’s first Hispanic superhero, introduced in 1975, was White Tiger, aka Puerto Rican Hector Ayala.

White Tiger’s introduction was significant as one of the first deeply complex Hispanic characters, Aldama said. But as his adventure as the first Latin American hero in American comics continued, he became an example of how these heroes would become “slipstreamed, not mainstreamed,” said Aldama — relegated to one-off appearances and owning only a single six-issue titular comics run (”White Tiger” 2006-2007).

Gonzo said a key throughline of almost all Hispanic, Latino and/or Chicano superheroes in American comics, which often gets misunderstood, is characters’ motivation. DC’s Batman, for example, is relentlessly driven by seeking vengeance for his parents’ murder. Marvel’s Hulk is driven solely by uncontrollable rage.

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Gonzo, who is Chicano, said that character motivations driven by an aspect of cultural heritage must be treated with respect.

“Our culture is primarily mestizos — we’re a blend of Spanish and Indigenous peoples. And so a lot of the heroes that we have don’t rely on some kind of ego-based, inherent identity.”

This is different from many popular Western archetypes. King Arthur, as the “chosen one,” pulled the sword from the stone. Thor, a god, is (mostly) the only one who can lift his hammer, because he alone is worthy. “It’s about who they are,” Gonzo said. “Not necessarily about what they do.”

According to Gonzo, the Chicano culture celebrates those who “fight and win” and take physical action — “machismo.” But the community is also one of resistance and movement, and has experienced disenfranchisement, especially in the United States.

Superheroes who represent these communities should contain this complex balance, Gonzo said, between identities as both “conquistador and conquered, victim and victimizer.” But this fine line is almost never explored among heroes in American comic books. Instead, Hispanic and Latino heroes, like all others, are celebrated for having a “kick-ass” brand of banditry or machismo that lacks internal tact or nuance.


And, in the comics world, wherein the universe of myriad characters are, by default, split into different categories — those who travel through space, those with mystical and magical abilities, and those who operate on the “street-level” (in the everyday world) — Hispanic and Latino characters, in DC and Marvel, are almost always in the latter category.

Existing in this street-level identity, Gonzo said, it’s easy to get tied up in storylines or contexts that, while representing significant aspects of the culture — family, food — are overdone, lack depth and quickly become stereotypical.

“Multi-generations all living together, slightly poorer, trying-to-make-it families. A lot of [Latino] heroes will eschew any kind of inherent identity, to then take on a role of action,” he said.

Another pattern: Latino legacy characters that were “the brown version” of an established character, Gonzo said. Morales as Spider-Man; Robbie Reyes as Marvel’s Ghost Rider; Jaime Reyes as DC’s Blue Beetle; Kyle Rayner as DC’s Green Lantern; the avatar of the White Tiger being taken up by Hector’s younger sister, Ava Ayala.

And even when back stories and origin stories are flushed out, they tend to be co-opted or erased — especially in theaters.

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Aldama mentioned El Diablo, a DC character with pyrokinetic powers who first appeared in 1970. In the comics, his origin is complex — a knotted back story of gang violence, mysticisms and Indigenous histories in the American West and Mexico. But when adapted for the 2016 “Suicide Squad” film, El Diablo was portrayed on-screen as irreconcilably angry and unable to control his powers, which led to him killing his own family — a plot point that does not appear in the comics.

According to Aldama, this erasure of character and culture is most prevalent on the big screen — a contradiction, he said, because Latinos make up most moviegoers in the United States.

“As we see with Hollywood, the more money that is involved in the production of a story, the more fear intrudes into that space,” Aldama said. “And the more constrained and straitjacketed the result is. It’s still a very deep prejudice operating at the core of those who are in chairs of power.”

The most authentic portrayals of Hispanic and Latino cultures live in independent comics

What is frustrating to both Aldama and Gonzo is that both DC and Marvel have the resources and exposure to comic book authors and artists to produce true, authentic Hispanic and Latino stories.

“Off the top of my head, I could name at least 100 to 150 Latino creatives out there that have, and continue to make, really engaging superheroes and stories,” Aldama said. “And I don’t see any of them being asked to come to the [mainstream comic book] table.”

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Instead, the independent comics scene — those titles created, self-funded or produced in small quantities — is where truer cultural stories thrive. Some qualities of these titles, Gonzo said, include issues printed in both English and Spanish and consist of creative teams that are entirely Hispanic and/or Latino: “Love and Rockets” by the Hernandez brothers, Rafael Navarro’s “Sonambulo” and “El Peso Hero” by Hector Rodriguez, among many others.

When you have Latino-written comics, the results are comic worlds with “a ground-up sensibility and ethos that is Latino” with the necessary nuances that all cultures deserve, said Gonzo.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.