Representation in media is a fraught subject; the practices of whitewashing and white characters overshadowing minority ones still persist. Comics are no different than film or television in this regard. Marvel and DC have struggled to include more diverse characters after starting with primarily white heroes like Captain America and Superman. Recently, Marvel has found enormous success with characters like Miles Morales and Kamala Khan becoming mainstays, and DC’s New 52 relaunch of JUSTICE LEAGUE saw African-American hero Cyborg become a founding member.

With the announcement of Marvel Legacy shifting the focus towards the older heroes, fans have started to fear for the future of Marvel’s newer, diverse characters. Yet, there was actually another, even earlier time when both Marvel and DC increased diversity in their books, and since then, both Marvel and DC have proved they can create diverse characters that audiences love. Within a five-year time frame, two classic superhero teams emerged as models of diversity: Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Teen Titans. With this early history of diversification as an indication, fans might not need to fear the future of diversity in comics.

THE X-MEN

Fans know the X-Men as mutant champions, fighting against prejudice, racism, and hatred. Those elements were always inherent within the mutant metaphor, especially in the beginning. The X-Men debuted in 1963, widely considered the defining year of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech that year. President Kennedy began petitioning for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (outlawing discrimination due to race, religion, sex, or national origin). The idea of “civil rights” likely shaped the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They didn’t create an African-American super team, but they did create a race of people (mutants) as a metaphor to show people dealing with intolerance. Their X-Men stood for mutant equality while trying to improve the world around them. There was one problem with the team though.

READ: Diversity isn’t the only problem in comics; here is a list of five issues within the comic industry!

x-men
Try to guess what it is…

The team fighting against racism and prejudice…was made of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) teenagers. There was merit in showing whites that understood the need for equality in an era when many white people were fighting against it. With violence against African-Americans growing though, an all white super-team fighting against prejudice seemed hypocritical. There wasn’t any actual diversity on the team, just five generally middle-class white people. Less human-looking mutants usually functioned as the X-Men’s enemies (such as Blob and Toad). The message of equality was lost as the X-Men fought against people they should’ve been fighting for. The original series lagged in sales and ended after sixty-six issues. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum then relaunched the team in 1975.

x-men
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

UNCANNY X-MEN

This new X-Team left behind most of the original members (save team leader Cyclops) and introduced new characters from across the globe. These included Nightcrawler (German), Sunfire (Japanese), Storm (Kenyan), Wolverine (Canadian), Colossus (Russian), Banshee (Irish), and Thunderbird (Apache Indigenous America). The new team felt like the culmination of the original’s goals — a diverse group that showed the power of coming together. Under the hand of X-Men legend Chris Claremont, these X-Men exemplified the message of diversity while becoming Marvel’s top-selling book. Classic stories emerged in this time frame — “Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Days of Future Past,” and “The Trial of Magneto.”

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TEEN TITANS

The original Teen Titans had smaller goals than the X-Men. They were the sidekicks of heroes Batman (Robin), Flash (Kid Flash), Aquaman (Aqualad), Wonder Woman (Wonder Girl), and Green Arrow (Speedy). Their focus was proving that teens could be capable and competent superheroes. Yet, this painted them as junior heroes. Their adventures largely focused on campy, Golden Age supervillains (though they did occasionally deal with inner city racism and Vietnam protests). The Teen Titans also shared one other problem with the original X-Men…

titans
It’s right on the tip of my tongue…

The series ended in 1973. Marv Wolfman and George Perez created an epic relaunch of the book in the 1980s. Wolfman hated the original run of the TEEN TITANS. He wanted to portray them as more independent heroes. He and Perez accomplished that and also added new characters.

THE NEW TEEN TITANS

titans
Image courtesy of DC Comics.

THE NEW TEEN TITANS  introduced a diverse group of misfits — Starfire (alien), Raven (otherworldly half-demon), Beast Boy (green-skinned former child star), and Cyborg (African-American machine-man). Wolfman’s approach made the team more adult, with everyone having unique personal issues. This propelled the book into new popularity. Classic titles emerged, like “The Judas Contract” and “The Terror of Trigon.”

READ: What issues should TEEN TITANS look at in today’s world? Find out what we think here!

Diverse Ideals

The original X-Men were pretty white people who fought ugly ones while promoting equality. The hypocrisy undercut their mission in the era of Civil Rights. It didn’t help that their mutations were all easy to disguise. Angel wore a harness to hide his wings, while Cyclops wore sunglasses to contain his optic blasts. Jean Grey had no visible mutation, and Iceman could turn his snowman form on and off. Beast complained about prejudice in the ’60s but he only had large hands and feet. The new team of X-Men worked by displaying prejudice properly. Nightcrawler’s first appearance featured him being chased by a mob with pitchforks and torches. Storm is inducted into the X-Men as a black immigrant woman in America, facing other forms of prejudice beyond her mutant status. These draw a far more poignant parallel than just having big feet or sunglasses.

X-Men
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Furthermore, new members like Storm and Colossus brought unseen racial and cultural elements. Storm came from Africa and was unique among the X-Men. She was the first black female heroine for Marvel and was often depicted as unaware of Western culture. Colossus came from Russia and stood as a heroic Soviet in the America of the Cold War. They showed readers new viewpoints that the older comics never even attempted. At the time, Russia was the “enemy” and Africa a “land of savages.” UNCANNY X-MEN made it a point to show the world from other perspectives so the reader could understand them better.

Misfits in Crisis

THE NEW TEEN TITANS wasn’t nationally diverse like UNCANNY X-MEN. The team evolved by adding characters from different backgrounds. Starfire and Raven weren’t human, but the “immigrant” label could be applied. Both struggled with learning new customs like Storm and Colossus. Starfire had a propensity for nudity, while Raven had both a need for her own culture and a desire to expand beyond it. Cyborg functioned as a bridge between sci-fi and the human struggle for acceptance. His body was a machine, but he was still a man struggling for purpose. His enhanced body made his former athletic dreams a joke (since now he had an unfair advantage). The writers made Cyborg’s race secondary to the problems of his machine-body. Readers saw Cyborg as a man struggling with a handicap. He was a person, not a skin color.

Titans
Image courtesy of DC Comics.

This diversity of personalities made THE NEW TEEN TITANS great. The aforementioned characters struggled to find a place in the world for themselves. Their teammates did the same. Kid Flash constantly weighed the costs of being a hero against wanting normalcy. Beast Boy used humor to hide his insecurities. Robin struggled to emerge from Batman’s shadow. Wonder Girl tried to have a relationship while still being a hero. All of these characters struggled to fit into a world they didn’t feel like they belonged in. What made THE NEW TEEN TITANS so diverse is that it showed multiple viewpoints from different kinds of misfits. It connected with so many because now, unlike previous iterations, there was always a Titan different fans could relate to. It grabbed readers from across the spectrum, not because of diverse cultures, but because of diverse personalities.

READ: Robin keeps establishing his own identity in NIGHTWING: THE NEW ORDER!

Final Thoughts

UNCANNY X-MEN and THE NEW TEEN TITANS created unique and diverse teams from the ashes of forgotten ones. The books weren’t perfect, however. X-MEN lost Sunfire and Thunderbird early on, and Cyborg functioned as TITAN’s only true minority character. Yet, both books created a new sense of diversity in comics, and Marvel and DC should look to these books as they work to create the future. Fans should look to them as reminders that, sometimes, companies can create the right thing.

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