I read Marvel’s original Civil War series at the suggestion of a friend. When the series had its highs, they were very high–but its lows were equally as low. I remember reading, and this was before I really started to read comics hyper-critically, but I remember reading Bill Foster’s death and doing the obligatory sucking of teeth at the black character’s death in service of the plot. If you’re black or brown, and nerdy, then seeing characters that resemble you die first in stories that you love is old hat. This trope is so established that I’m surprised black characters aren’t introduced to new stories with an automatic Crying Jordan face. Black and brown comic readers learn very quickly that their heroes’ service on the page isn’t to the public, but to the needs of the white characters that surround them, via the white writers that pen the stories and the white corporations that publish them.
I have to admit, though, that I didn’t have much connection to Bill Foster. I am the dreaded Millennial, and Bill’s heroic exploits as Black Goliath were well off my radar. He was just another token black character in a long, long line of token black characters in comics. None of his achievements really mattered to me (or, it seems, to those responsible for telling his stories), nor did any of his heroic feats. And when he died, he, like many other black characters in comics, served as a safe, neutral slate to which many other characters could–and did–project their politics, his gigantic dead body a complete mockery of the ways that black bodies are politicized off the page.
Because I am a masochist, I began reading Marvel’s 2016 rehash of Civil War. In a lot of ways, this book mirrors its predecessor. The main title has great art, and we are told by the people in charge of marketing that there are significant stakes involved for all of these characters, and this the reverberations of this story will be felt throughout various universes. Civil War II also repeats a fairly significant plot device, this time by making the death of James “Rhodey” Rhodes the main reason for all of the subsequent hero smackdowns.
Lots of people have analyzed the story surrounding Rhodey’s death, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I don’t see anything new or compelling about this development. I would have been very surprised to see She-Hulk’s death be the catalyst for the super-ideology battles to come, but of course, it takes the black character’s death to kick everything off. Rhodey didn’t even get the decency of going out with a bang and a curse on his lips. He dies silently, his submission to the needs of the white characters complete, total, and of ultimate nobility.
Comic books, especially those in the mainstream, have long been hostile to characters of color. This hostility can and does manifest in overt ways, like the repeated killing off, de-powering, and universe-shifting of black and brown characters. But the hostility can be subversive as well, such as refusing to grant black and brown characters diverse enough power-sets to compete with the titans in their field, to using the same stereotypical character development templates for every character of color ever, to the iron refusal to take chances on new stories featuring heroes of color. And we, as comic book fans of color, have seen all of this hostility, have seen this hostility derailed and defended by creators, and have even internalized it ourselves, making excuses for corporations who should know that the talent in writing and editorial should reflect the same variety of identity as the world outside of the company. But we all know that lip service is easier than actually rectifying systemic wrongs.
Black and brown comic book fans and readers have long since learned how to deal with death. We know that it is important not to internalize our own self-worth, or take any narrative cues from the ways that black characters are treated in comic books, especially those written by writers who work for companies whose main goal is to appeal to an imaginary universal fan base out of fear of some earth-shaking backlash. Despite that, we know that it hurts to continually see the characters that we love–or just the characters that we share affinity with–disrespected on the page time and time again. We have to deal with these deaths by making our voices and displeasure heard. Don’t silence yourself, or your displeasure at lazy, childish storytelling in comics. Speak out against it either with your words or with your dollars, because your voice is important. Your anger is powerful. Show these companies that they can’t get away with depicting our heroes as useless sidekicks, as palette swaps, or sacrifices for the white characters. The lives of superheroes of color matter just as much as those of white superheroes.