With the release of Marvel and DC movies, superheroes have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. Since the reintroduction of comics into mainstream pop culture, the superhero genre has been subject to all the usual questions of diversity. (Notably, it wasn’t until 2018 that Marvel finally introduced its first film to star a non-white superhero.)
Comics giant Marvel attempted to address this issue, with new, diverse characters taking on the names of iconic heroes. After Carol Danvers took on the moniker Captain Marvel, a Pakistani American teen becomes the new Ms. Marvel. When Bruce Banner lies dying from radiation poisoning, a Korean American named Amadeus Cho turns into the next Hulk.
However, all this progress seemed doomed to come to a grinding halt. Marvel had been accused of pandering in their creation of these new superheroes. In a 2017 interview with ICv2, Marvel sales executive David Gabriel said, “What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They did not want female characters out there. That is what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I do not know that that is really true, but that's what we saw in sales.”
“We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked,” Gabriel said
Gabriel’s statements sparked much backlash, and it seems, two years after the interview, that Marvel has reversed its stance. As part of a storyline event, Marvel released a series called The New Agents of Atlas. The comics star an unlikely team of Asian and Asian American heroes who team up across several Asian metropolises to save the world.
Agents of Atlas demonstrates what representation can be: Their identity is an important part of their character, but is not the only thing that defines them and often presents subtly. The team challenges the myth of the monolithic Asian and combats the oft-cited criticism that casting a person of color is merely a cosmetic choice. Their individual ethnic identities can be essential to their character. In the case of White Fox, her name isn’t just a colorful moniker: she is a kumiho, a magical nine-tailed fox straight out of Korean mythology. Meanwhile, Shang Chi and Crescent are masters in martial arts from their respective countries. And Luna Snow is a double threat, working as both a K-pop singer and a superhero.
As a Chinese American, I was thrilled to finally be able to see parts of myself and my friends, especially in the smallest things. From mentions of lack of fluency in the “mother tongue” to popular dishes, the comics serve up an authentic depiction of Asian and Asian American culture. One great example is when the team goes into hiding, all they have to eat is spam. They eagerly make good use of it, making spam fried rice, spamsilog, and spam musubi – dishes that are popular in the Philippines and Hawaii.
After New Agents of Atlas, Marvel brought the heroes back in a five-part series Agents of Atlas. Now, we’re nearly at the close of that series. (Issue #4 was released on November 13.) So, what’s next?
I’m hoping that Marvel will make Agents of Atlas a permanent part of their lineup. It’d be a good opportunity to explore the new characters it’s created, like Wave, its first Filipina hero. And these two series have already successfully brought niche characters – like White Fox, who was created for Marvel’s foray into webtoons, Korean webcomics – into the main Marvel universe.
Most importantly, Agents of Atlas has proven that a win for representation can be a win for Marvel, too.