Meet the new Thor and Captain America Editor in chief Axel Alonzo poses at Marvel Comics in New York (AP photos)
Meet the new Thor and Captain America
Lexile

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 have been redrawn from the stereotypical brown-haired, blue-eyed white male into a world of crusaders to reflect a greater diversity in their audience.

Society has changed, so superheroes have to as well, said Axel Alonso. He is editor in chief at Marvel Comics, which in November debuted Captain America No. 1 with Samuel Wilson. He is 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. He 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 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. The Falcon was 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 Wonder Woman, the longest-running comic book with a female hero.

But not everyone is happy with the changes. A contingent of Internet fans is protesting a reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four property in the movies, which turns 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. He was 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."

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. She is 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 likely 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."

Critical thinking challenge: What is motivating comic book publishers to redraw their superheroes?

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