Marvel and DC both have had recent showings of queer, non-white heroines. DC saw the television debut of Thunder/Anissa Pierce on the CW’s BLACK LIGHTNING. Marvel made history with the solo debut of America Chavez.  Despite their initial buzz, however, these characters have had different receptions from fans. Thunder has received mostly praise, while America Chavez received a more mixed response from fans. There are many factors that led to these reactions, ranging from perception to writing. One rule of writing shows a major reason. That rule is “show, don’t tell.”

This rule states that writers need their characters to demonstrate their characteristics, instead of simply stating them to the reader. Thunder and America both saw different interpretations of this rule. The choices affected not only their characters but how each one portrayed their relationships. As a result, readers got two very different examples of how queer relationships work.

Editor’s Note: This article will only examine AMERICA #1 and the first two episodes of BLACK LIGHTING season 1, as they were the debuts of these characters.

AMERICA #1 Review: America’s Got You

Thunder

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Courtesy of DC Entertainment

BLACK LIGHTNING began Thunder’s development quickly. Her debut in the show was her father picking her up from jail after taking part in a protest against gangs. On the way home, she angrily states how (her hometown) Freeland is suffering and that going to the protest “wasn’t a choice.” The argument shows a sense of social responsibility, morals, and fearlessness. These are important traits, and while we don’t see them shown in the protest, seeing the aftermath is another way to show Thunder’s character.

Some exposition (telling) exists in the episode. The dialogue tells us she is a teacher and med student. However, because it comes after that initial “show” of her leaving jail, it feels true. Anissa’s earlier words show she cares about Freeland, so being a teacher and going into a field that helps people, in general, makes perfect sense for her. The writing remembers her recklessness nature too. She tries to stop a kidnapping. The kidnappers grab her too.

Thunder Strikes

Anissa’s actions demonstrate her personality, which helps us form an attachment to her. Her courage when she stands up to the kidnappers is a quality we would all like to show. When Anissa starts to develop powers, she sees them as a chance to do good (once she gets control). It’s what we all would want ourselves to do if we got powers. It also works to make her seem more like a real person. She demonstrates a sense of morality again and again. We as viewers like Anissa, either because we see something in Anissa we relate to, or because we appreciate her moral ground. That attachment becomes even more crucial when we learn about Anissa’s sexuality in the second episode.

Obviously, not all viewers watching BLACK LIGHTING are LGBTQ+. At the same time, we’ve seen her as a real person and can relate to and/or admire her for her actions. This gives the viewer more reason to understand her relationship. The reveal has Anissa and her girlfriend in bed, talking about meeting Anissa’s parents. It’s a very normal discussion for a couple, and it makes them seem even more relatable.

It also fits with the “show” approach to Anissa. She realizes that for her relationship to be healthy, she has to demonstrate commitment. At the same time, it shows us more depth into a healthy homosexual relationship; just like a more traditional relationship, it requires discussion, openness, and effort to make it work. By making the viewers care about Anissa as a person, and presenting normalcy in a homosexual relationship, the writers achieve two things. They show a positive homosexual character in a universal way, and they avoid making her sexuality her primary characteristic. Anissa’s actions show her character, which allows the audience to accept her.

America Chavez

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Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

While America Chavez had existed in other Marvel books, her solo debut had an immediate historical impact as she was the first solo story about a Queer Latinx superhero. However, Marvel’s promotion hampered the “show don’t tell” aspect. Articles on the series’ debut used terms like “Marvel’s New Queer Latina Superhero Series” to describe the series. It’s safe to say that most of the readers went into AMERICA #1 knowing the character’s status instead of being introduced to it. The writers continued the trend in the AMERICA run.

AMERICA #1 begins with a page of characters describing America with words like “hope” and “the future.” But, the action proving these descriptions isn’t there. The issue tells the reader what the character is like. It prevents them from seeing it organically. America debuts in a fight, where she saves the life of a child. This is a good start, but it stalls when America pauses to remember her dead mothers.

A hero being distracted by grief isn’t new, but for a first issue, it makes America look distracted and self-absorbed (especially when she offers no apologies when a teammate is injured as a result of her pause). America’s actions fail to match what the reader has been told; she’s focused on the past and does nothing to inspire hope in the reader.

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America Falls

This dissidence continues as we move into America’s relationship. Like Anissa, the relationship highlights the approach used, but with less positive results. Anissa and her girlfriend show strains concerning Anissa’s parents. Yet, the couple still discussed them rationally and on good terms. When America meets up with her girlfriend, however, her girlfriend suggests changing their plans for both of them going to college. She brings up a fair point that college is America’s goal, not hers. America gets angry, refuses to discuss anything, and leaves.

This emphasizes the “tell” approach because it gives the impression America is controlling. It’s a strong example of the “tell” approach for authors; “telling” indicates poor writing, and America shows poor relationship skills while looking selfish and controlling. It destroys Miles Morales’ (who is presented as a “real hero” in the intro) description of America as his “sis from another miss.”

America acts terribly, so why would Miles consider her someone to admire?

That makes the reader dislike the character, but it also harms the portrayal of a homosexual relationship. Anissa and her girlfriend’s portrayal indicated a healthy homosexual relationship works the same way as a traditional one. Yet, in AMERICA, it appears that normal queer relationships have abusive elements and are dominated by a single person. Situations such as this can damage the perception of queer relationships.

The reader knows what the writers want them to think about America. Due to America’s actions in life and her relationship, the story fails to promote that. Consequently, the reader feels less involved in the character. The writing fails to let a queer character gain respect. Readers are told to admire a person that seems self-absorbed and controlling based on the writing and her relationship.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Matters

In conclusion, Marvel and DC both deserve credit for promoting gay heroines so prominently. Those heroes need strong writing to work though. Marvel came up short, but there are many examples that they can learn from (if they can fix Iron Fist, anything’s possible!). BLACK LIGHTNING itself is a great example of how Marvel can choose to write America (or a similar character) in the future.

We need to have more queer characters, and America has plenty of potential to succeed, so long as Marvel learns from the lessons BLACK LIGHTING shows. What viewers have learned is “show, don’t tell” is important to any medium. We would rather be shown a healthy homosexual relationship, as opposed to one telling us how it should be.

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