Updated: Feb 3
The Great Debate is a biweekly column examining books about comics and comic creators. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know!
Author: Jeffrey A. Brown
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication Year: 2021
Brown, Jeffrey A. Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts: Marvel, Diversity, and the 21st Century Superhero. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021.
WHAT IS IT?
In Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts Jeffrey Brown looks at Marvel Comics’ checkered past in terms of diversity and examines how the company has attempted to take corrective action in the 21st century so that it can continue to be, as Stan Lee put it, “a reflection of the world right outside our window.”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Brown begins by looking at how, in the 20th century, comic publishers established and operated under a “white male heroic hegemony” where nearly all major characters were male, Caucasian, Christian and heterosexual.
He then works through Marvel’s early attempts at introducing diverse characters before proceeding to a detailed and fascinating look at the company’s concerted effort over the last decade to introduce new and legacy characters who better reflect modern American demographics and culture. Brown frames the changes Marvel is making in a way that makes two key points: having a more diverse set of core characters is the right thing to do, and this diversity is in the long-term best interest of the company.
Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts is written with the skill of an academic, and the passion of a fan. It is well-researched and has a scholarly sheen, but it is relatively easy to read, and is a genuinely entertaining book.
Brown is unabashedly progressive in his interpretations, but he is also sympathetic to those who love the Marvel heroes of previous generations. Brown shows that the Marvel universe is big enough for characters of every stripe, and that Marvel is stronger and more likely to last the test of time as it becomes more attractive to a younger and more diverse audience.
Brown’s review of Marvel’s unfortunate Silver/Bronze age history with Asian and Black characters and cultures is excellent. He looks at characters such as Black Panther and Shang-Chi, and notes that although they were important steps forward for Marvel in terms of diversity, early attempts at Black and Asian characters were rooted in unacceptable racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Brown dedicates one chapter to Luke Cage’s evolution into a father and husband and another to the transfer of the Iron Fist to Colleen Wing in the Netflix corner of the MCU as an example of cultural repatriation. Both chapters are excellent, and Brown uses these characters as a way of showing how Marvel can take problematic characters and storylines and update or reframe them for modern times.
There is a chapter looking at Asian characters of the past and present, Latinx heroes, and one on Ms. Marvel. Amadeus Cho, America Chavez, Kamala Khan and other recent Marvel heroes are introduced to readers and then examined in terms of their story value, their symbolic value, and their economic value. In doing so, Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts makes a good case for why it is important for Marvel to expand its vision of who can be a hero even as he shows how this change also creates a fertile ground for stories.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Some readers may be put off by the fact that this is, at heart, a scholarly work. This should not be a problem for most, though, as Brown keeps jargon to a minimum. When he does engage concepts such as “marking” or “othering” he takes the time to ensure that readers who are not already invested in gender or ethnic studies are able to easily follow concepts that they are encountering for the first time.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts is a timely and effective look at how the comic industry has been changing to adapt to 21st century demographic and cultural trends. While its focus is Marvel, its ideas can be generalized as a meditation on the difficulties of navigating generations of fans in a rapidly changing culture. Whether readers are a fan of Marvel’s new direction or not, Brown does a good job of helping them understand why a trend towards a more diverse character base is wholly in keeping with the ethos that Stan and Jack built the business on fifty years ago. This is a book well worth reading and thinking about.
Who it’s for: If you are a fan of Marvel Comics, regardless of your age, gender, or ethnicity, Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts is a must-read. But even if you are not in the Merry Marvel Marching Society, the issues Brown is dealing with here are of vital importance to the future of the entire industry. His analysis and explanations are well-thought-out and presented in an entertaining and readable fashion.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more from Jeffrey A. Brown, this time with a DC spin: Batman and the Multiplicity of Identity: The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero as Cultural Nexus
For an excellent earlier work exploring race in superhero comics: Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeffrey Brown has written on comics, film and media. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green University. His previous published works have focused on masculinity, female action heroes, and Black superheroes.
HOW DO I GET IT?
You can purchase Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts using the links below. If you can, find an indie bookstore, and buy there!
The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
This book is © 2021 by Jeffrey A. Brown. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED