These past few days since the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced, I’ve watched and “liked” the incredibly insightful essays and thoughts from friends and public intellectuals and writers around the web. I marvel at how intelligent and thoughtful my friends are, how quickly they can turn outrage and sadness into action and eloquence. Meanwhile, my own social media outposts have been relatively silent. I worried at first that my friend circles would be confused by my silence, especially considering I’m a writer and I work in social justice. And so to indicate that I was aware, pissed off, and just taking time to process it all. I made the silence official, notifying my friends that I was taking a Day of Silence for Trayvon Martin.
As much as I believe it is necessary to take a moment to mourn at such a time, I also decided on this route because I needed time to understand what exactly I felt and why, and, more importantly, what my role should be in the fight against such injustices. I also decided to keep Geek Outsider silent over the past few days, and this had less to do with my processing the unfortunate news and everything to do with the fact that I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be in poor taste to write punchy blurbs about comic books and video games when such an important moment was sweeping across state lines and news sites. It felt like it’d be almost impertinent to geek out over Neverwinter when nationwide people were crying and crying out, fed up with the deaths of Black men.
So I turned off my console, temporarily pulled the shutters down on GeekOutsider, and retreated into the books of my favorite radical thinkers of generations past… where I quickly learned that silencing Geek Outsider was a mistake.
In revisiting these great thinkers what I found there was passion and talent. They espoused different ideas and different solutions, even countering each other, but what they all had in common was passion and talent. Audre Lorde was a talented poet passionate about women’s rights and giving voice to queer women and women of color in the feminist movement. James Baldwin was a talented novelist who passionately crafted stories about the experiences of Black men. Jean-Michel Basquiat broke down racist social structures and systems of power with his passion for paint. Tupac Shakur’s talent at the mic brought the “everyday struggle” of the marginalized to the ears of mainstream America.
These revolutionary intellectuals weren’t by definition activists or lawyers or politicians. They were people who had talents in arenas not necessarily respectable and often not considered impactful or meaningful work. But by immersing themselves in their crafts, these talents became deft tools in their fights against injustice. So how do our lowly geeky pursuits fit in with such a distinguished crowd? How could owning every single issue of Dazzler (ya, I really do) help in fighting injustice?
Well… despite the opinions of some, it’s art, and all art is immensely impactful. It allows us to have experiences wildly different from our own, and it changes minds. And we geeks are addicted to some of the most immersive forms of art out there. Not to mention, if there’s one thing that makes a geek a geek, it’s obsessiveness. So, imagine what outrage over issues like these could do in the hands of geeks.
So much of the Trayvon Martin tragedy was about perception. George ZimmermanperceivedTrayvon Martin as a threat, which is why this whole thing went down in the first place. Then the cops perceivedTrayvon Martin as a thug and obviously decided that meant he had to have caused trouble and deserved his fate, so Zimmerman wasn’t arrested. The media and the defense put Martin on trial searching for ways to make others perceive Martin as a drug-addled gangster instead of a 17-year-old son and brother and the unarmed victim of murder.
The perception of young Black men in America as thugs and threats is ingrained in our society, infecting individual minds and fueling this war on Black boys that has killed and violated so many of them over the decades. This perception is what needs to be rooted out, and that doesn’t necessarily happen with protests or legal amendments. That happens with experience.
Geeks aren’t off the hook when news like this hits and we’re not left out either. What geeks can do is geek out. Create if you’re a creator, or support if you’re a collector, or demand if you’re a consumer. We have to demand and support the creation of works that offer a look at the experiences of others. If it’s true that geeklandia is made up of a bunch of white dudes, then let’s get some valiant superheroes of color into the comics, let’s get some courageous lone soldiers of color into the games, let’s get dynamic leaders of color into science fiction.
Go out and buy Ultimate Comics Spider-man and root for Miles Morales, or hit up Kickstarter and support indie games with characters of color, or get your book club to read some Samuel Delany. If you need help finding these things, that’s what places like Geek Outisder are for.
Until we start seeing in art and fiction representations of Black men and women in all their wonderful complexities and diversity, the rotting roots of this “thug” perception will continue to infect our society. Let the lawyers advocate and the politicians lobby for change, but we can make demands too. We can demand to see more diversity in the genres we adore, and we can create representations that change minds, and we can put our money where our racial bias is and dare to support heroes of color.
Comics and games might be considered low-brow or even silly by others, but just look at all the geeks out there and just how into it we all are (by definition really). That’s a lot of minds to change, and a lot of passionate (or obsessive, whatever) readers, writers, illustrators, consumers, gamers… and they’ve got friends and family too.
Just look at what Dwayne McDuffie achieved with Milestone Comics, or Octavia Butler with her novels. There are revolutionary thinkers and creators in geekdom too. I’m ashamed that I felt that there was no place for my geeky voice at this moment of national sadness, because to believe so wouldn’t that mean the opposite was also true? That there’s no place for stories and experiences like this in the “geeky” art forms? Obviously, not true.
This is what we love, what we grok, what we geek out on, so this is where we can best support the fight. Though, let’s go to the protests too, ya?
The Promiscuous “Captain Marvel” Title & It’s Legacy of “Cosmic Awareness”
Though her ties to the original Captain Marvel go back several decades, Carol Danvers only recently became the latest in a long legacy of superheros to take on the “Captain Marvel” moniker. She dumped her long out-dated name “Ms. Marvel” in order to fly under the banner of the respected “Captain Marvel” title in her own comic, which debuted just last year. Now in issue #11, Captain Marvel, under the creative direction of the much-admired comics writer Kelly Sue Deconnick, has taken this 70’s women’s liberation icon and given her pants, some kick-ass lady friends, and some menacing super headaches…
And these headaches literally grounded her when her doctor forbade the high-flying superheroine (and former pilot) to use her flight abilities. But this isn’t the first time that headaches have been the crime-fighter’s biggest foe.
Back in 1977, shortly after the super-strong flying wonder Ms. Marvel made her debut on the
superhero scene, the young Carol Danvers, unaware of her Ms. Marvel alter-ego, is a newbie editor at Womanmagazine. She only recently acquired the gig after losing her security position when she got caught in the crossfire of a fight between superhero Mar-Vell (aka Captain Marvel) and his foe Yon-Rogg. Since then, she’s had recurrent headaches that cause her to blackout.
We come to find out that Carol was saved by Captain Marvel when a Kree technology device blew up. He protected her from the explosion, but could not protect her from the energy radiation spewing from the device. The radiation put Carol in the hospital and transformed her into Ms. Marvel. Like Captain Marvel’s “cosmic awareness” trait (more on that below), Carol inherited a “seventh sense” that triggers the transformation into her Ms. Marvel superhero form whenever there is danger nearby. It’s this seventh sense that’s the cause of Ms. Danvers’ headaches.
This “seventh sense” sounds a lot like Spidey-sense, right? However, though Spider-man predated Ms. Marvel by a little more than a decade, this “seventh sense” is actually a inferior version of the “cosmic awareness” power that Mar-Vell himself was gifted with in his role as “protector of the universe”. He gained this ability and the role by defending the earth against a racist tyrannical empire. His “cosmic awareness” allowed him to detect any events in the universe that would affect him in any way.It’s this “cosmic awareness” that I’d argue connects the various superheroes who’ve carried the Captain Marvel banner (and the socially aware creative minds behind them) throughout Marvel history.
While Mar-Vell was able to act upon this “cosmic awareness” by will, this 1970’s version of Ms. Marvel is physically compelled to act. For her, it acts as a sort of call to duty that literally forcibly transforms Carol Danvers into Ms. Marvel and drives the superheroine to fight in the name of justice.
And that’s just what she does… er, did, before the comic was cancelled in 1979 after 23 issues. Between 1977 and 1979, Ms. Marvel fought aliens and super-powered criminals on the pages of her self-titled comic. And as one of few female-led self-titled comics, Ms.Marvelstruggled and grew with the strengthening women’s equality movement. Over the course of 23 issues, she got costume a makeover that covered up her conspicuously revealed mid-section, and then changed again, with a brand new color scheme, to liberate her from the association with Captain Marvel.
It was a fair enough association after all, since she became Ms. Marvel when her genetic makeup fused with that of Captain Marvel’s when, while he protected her from the explosion, both were exposed to Kree technology radiation, endowing her with Captain Marvel’s Kree powers. So, you know, he didn’t exactly give her a rib, but a DNA fuse is kinda a couple steps up from that. Kinda funny a feminist superhero was all but birthed by a man, a super man.
Nonetheless, it was obvious what the creators and Marvel were trying to do with this character. Hell, her first transformation occurred while she was cooking dinner, quite literally taking her out of the kitchen and into the fight… again, literally.
Discussions about the character’s role in the feminist movement peppered the letters section of the comic, Carol Danvers as editor of Woman magazine stood up to a misogynist J. Jonah Jameson (of The Daily Bugle), and she pounded on a number of bad guys who scoffed at her being woman.
In issue #3, Ms. Marvel visits the scene of her origin and is flooded with memories that help her realize that she is also Carol Danvers. The two personalities unify, realizing they have always been one and the same. This easily represents the 1970’s woman’s realization of her personal empowerment.
Carol Danvers blacks out in her kitchen
…and becomes Ms. Marvel!
After her comic was cancelled in 1979, Ms. Marvel continued to play an important role in other Marvel comics, mixin’ it up with the Avengers and the X-men, including a stint as S.H.I.E.L.D Director in the Ultimate universe, before she got a self-titled relaunch from 2006-2010.
And now, detecting the cosmic shifts in the universe that have led to the empowerment of a new generation of women and comics fans, Ms. Marvel has traded in her swimsuit costume for pants (and even a turtleneck at that!), ditched the “Ms.”, and has taken up the mantel as Captain Marvel, her third chance at a self-titled comic.
However… This isn’t the first time a woman has flown under the banner of Captain Marvel, nor the first time a female Captain Marvel has gotten her own comic. In fact, after the original Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell himself) passed away from cancer in 1982, and while Ms. Marvel was still sporting her black bathing suit, MonicaRambeau, formerly a lieutenant in the New Orleans harbor patrol, emerged on the scene kicking ass and taking names so hard that the media started calling her CaptainMarvel, before she even had time to come up with a name for herself.She reluctantly accepted the name with encouragement from fellow superheroes who felt that she was worthy of Mar-Vell’s legacy.
As Captain Marvel (only the second superhero at this point to take the name), Monica fought alongside the Avengers, and eventually she was elected the Chairwoman and leader of the Avengers. With the ability to transform herself into any form of energy and project that energy to inflict physical damage, Monica Rambeau is extremely powerful, but her powers are also physically taxing. Eventually she loses her powers and returns to New Orleans with her family.
And this is where we meet her when she debuts as the first Black superheroine to lead her own self-titled comic in Captain Marvel Vol. 2 #1, written by Dwayne McDuffie of
Milestone comics fame. Monica may not have had Captain Marvel’s cosmic awareness or even Ms. Marvel’s seventh sense, but Dwayne McDuffie saw an opportunity in writing her. This new Captain Marvelwas only supposed to be a one-shot issue, but actually got 2 issues, and McDuffie took full advantage of every single page, putting race and gender issues center-stage throughout the character’s stories, even including quotes by famous Black women, like Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde. You’d have to be cosmically blind to miss it.
In the treatment of the character in the Avengers, gender was sometimes brought up, but rarely race. In the issue where Rambeau accepts leadership of the Avengers, we get a dose of gender discrimination is a flashback with her former boss. We get a dose of racial issues too, but not via. Rambeau, rather She-Hulk is turned down from leasing an apartment because she is green!
However, with McDuffie at the helm, race became front-and-center. The first issue was much much subtler than the second, which was published 5 years later, but issue #1 still had more Black and brown characters sharing the page than we ever saw in an Avengers comic in the 80’s & 90’s.
In issue #2, however… McDuffie really went to town. The cover itself is more radical, featuring in big bold type the title of the issue “Free Your Mind” and a No-Hate symbol is stashed under the Marvel icon. The story features Monica intervening when a white supremacist hate-group on a college campus starts violently assaulting students of color.
She is initially recruited to protect a young Black man who is organizing a multiracial group of students to set up a patrol and fight back to keep minority students safe. Things of course just aren’t that simple, since the hate group’s managed to nab some alien tech that puts the hurt on pretty hard. So Rambeau has to go all energy storm on them. She even gets the chance to make an inspired self-love speech and quote Audre Lorde.
After her two-issue spotlight, and now that she’s got her powers back, Rambeau continues fighting crime and super badguys as a reservist for the Avengers. She doesn’t get to keep the name, however.
It turns out Mar-Vell had a son, Genis-Vell, and now that he’s come of age and folk started calling him Captain Marvel in honor of his father, Monica concedes the name to him and goes by Photon instead.
Sadly that doesn’t last too long either, when Genis-Vell forgets that Monica is calling herself Photon and adopts the name himself. She confronts him, but concedes again and decides to go by Pulsar. How terribly ironic. Monica is intimately familiar with Audre Lorde’s work enough to quote her. I wonder if she’s ever read Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name… Just sayin’. These days the superheroine is mostly known as just Monica…
Genis-Vell‘s stint as Captain Marvel is marked by the intergalactic superheroics of his father’ s legacy. Until his cosmic awareness kicks in, drives him insane because it’s too much to handle, and he destroys the universe. Apparently awareness is just too much for some folk. He’s able to restore the universe, but there are some slight differences, including that he now has a sister that didn’t exist before, Phyla-Vell.
Phyla-Vell makes her claim on the Captain Marvel title and wears it well for awhile, really rather aggressively protecting the universe. Where Monica Rambeau’s stint as Captain Marvel granted some commentary on race issues, Phyla-Vell becomes the token lesbian to take the title. Her sexual orientation is hinted at for a while until she finally asks Moondragon out on date. Eventually she ditches the name and goes on to become first Qausar and eventually Martyr, fighting alongside the Gaurdians of the Galaxy.
After Phyla-Vell gives up the name, a Skrull create a sleeper agent Khn’nr is created using Mar-Vell’s DNA, in order to spy on the Kree. However, the Skrull kinda botch the job and Khn’nr’s personality is wiped out leaving only the valiant Mar-Vell’s personality. So Khn’nr actually genuinely believes he is Captain Marvel, and he’s already been genetically altered to look the part so… Confusion ensues; he has some serious identity crises. He does all the good guy save-the-world stuff that Captain Marvel would’ve done, and before he bites it, he passes the title on to Noh-Varr.
Aside from Monica Rambeau, Noh-Varris the only one who isn’t in some way genetically connected to the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, so he lacks the “cosmic awareness” that the others had (or struggled with).
This is why he’s unable to sense that Norman Osborn isn’t the good guy, so he naively joins Osborn’s Dark Avengers team as the new Captain Marvel. Eventually he figures it all out and turns to the goodguys with a brand new name and costume, becoming Protector, and freeing up the Captain Marvel moniker for Ms. Marvel to finally, after all these years, take her turn at the name.
So far she’s done justice to the legacy. Her “seventh sense” doesn’t play a huge role in this new Captain Marvel series, but as one of the still few leading ladies with self-titled comic (where she gets to wear clothes!), Captain Marvel continues to keep an ear to the pulse of the world, and representing today’s more diverse comics readers, a good chunk of whom are women, of which at least most are badass, snarky, and, if they could, would totally punch a dinosaur in the face in typical superhero fashion…
Shazam punching a dinosaur!
Superman punches a dinosaur
Captain Marvel punches a dinosaur
Hawkeye arrows a dinosaur
Funny enough, real reason there have been so many Captain Marvels is so that Marvel can hold on to the trademark. Fair enough, but seriously could poor Monica could get a name for keepsies…?
A couple of Thursdays ago, I picked up about Shadow Cabinet #0, which is basically a massive Milestone Universe cast party, with all of the major characters warring against each other to save Dakota. I already reviewed the comic here and introduced a couple of our heroes – Static, Icon, Rocket, and Hardware. Let’s meet some more of them… how about some of the ladies?!
Iron Butterfly (aka Kahina Eskandari)
A corporate translator by day, by night Kahina Eskandari becomes Iron Butterfly, the field commander of Dakota’s illustrious crime fighting crew the Shadow Cabinet. She can manipulate and control metal, down to its molecular structure, moving or reshaping it and even able to sense its particular properties. Donning iron armor in battle, complete with two massive iron wings, Iron Butterfly can fly by levitating herself in her metal armor. She’s also a mean swordsman and tactical genius. We first meet her in Hardware #11 (1993) when she appears and offers Hardware membership in the Shadow Cabinet. Her origins are slightly murky, but we do know that she’s Palestinian (one of few Palestinian superheroes in comics!) and possibly grew up in Iran. Her entire family was murdered when she was a child. Vowing revenge, she took up with the Shadow Cabinet and came around to the vision of global justice preached by Dharma, the Cabinet’s omniscient leader. She later fell in love with Dharma.
Iota (aka Isadora Wellington-Smythe)
Iota is awesome. She’s a supergenius Australian physicist and inventor, who, after an accident in her lab, gained the ability to alter her own physical size and the size of any nearby object at will. She can shrink herself and nearby objects down to microscopic size. Her husband was supposedly killed in this accident, but it was later discovered that he was sent to an alternate dimension where he became corrupted and installed himself as a despot. However, Iota isn’t all goody-goody herself, she has something of a kleptomania problem, stealing and collection various items like helicopters, jets, and military vehicles, which she shrinks down to size. She definitely doesn’t need to steal, because she’s super loaded, but she prides herself on her thieving. She carries many of these shrunken stolen items in battle, so that she can restore them to full-size and wield them as weapons or use them to rescue herself or others. Not all of her weapons are stolen, many of them are her own invention. She usually rocks a jetpack too (unclear whether she stole it or not). She first appeared in Blood Syndicate #10 (1994).
Donner (aka Gerri Brauer)
Donner has superhuman strength and is invulnerable to most physical attacks. Born Gerri Brauer, the German granddaughter of a Nazi geneticist, her superpowers may be due to some early tampering by her grandfather. When she was young, she was involved in Neo-Nazi gangs, but later saw the error of this and dedicated her life to justice, joining the Shadow Cabinet, where she fought alongside her now girlfriend Blitzen (aka Valerie Kameya). When the Shadow Cabinet’s leader Dharma tried to imprison the Cabinet’s members, she broke them out and formed a new group called Heroes. She first appeared in Icon #9 (1994) when she fights alongside Blitzen and Icon to defeat the villain Holocaust who had tried to recruit Icon’s sidekick Rocket to join the villainous Star Chamber group.
Blitzen (aka Valerie Kameya)
We don’t know much about Blitzen, but we do know that she was once a scientist named Valerie Kameya, and she developed a serum that endowed her with superhuman speed. The serum allows her to not only move but also to think supremely fast, making her a force to reckon with in battle. After joining the Shadow Cabinet she fell in love with Donner and the two became one of the first open lesbian couples in comics. She’s known for being brutally honest and like her girlfriend, she has a past of not-so-heroic deeds. She first appeared in Icon #9 (1994) alongside Donner. She also joined Donner in forming the new group Heroes.
Comicazi has a great selection of older comics. It’s the only place I’ve found in Boston with a size-able collection of Milestone back issues. Every few Wednesdays, after I buy my new issues, I take a comb through some of the racks of long boxes full of old singles.
Last week I nabbed a copy of Shadow Cabinet #0 by Dwayne McDuffie, the pioneering comic lover and creator of Milestone Comics, and Robert L. Washington III.
This 1994 issue begins the “Shadow War” story arc and stars all of the major Milestone characters – villains, superheroes and sidekicks – even introducing a new character Xombi, whose title comic came out around the same time.
If you’re new to the Milestone Universe, Shadow Cabinet#0,might be an overwhelming introduction. That said McDuffie and Washington do a pretty remarkable job working with such a large cast, briefly showcasing the powers, quirks, and personalities of each without too much sacrifice to the story’s action. They gave themselves 48 pages to do it, which gave them a little space to maintain the story arc and flesh out the characters as much as possible in brief bursts of stylized dialogue in between punches.
At times though things do get a bit jumbled and you wonder how any of them manage to talk so much in the melee of electromagnetic pulses, rain of razor-sharp steel, and stomping elephant-rhino morphs. In short, if you’re new to Dakota and the Milestone Universe and you dive into this issue, it’ll feel exactly like meeting your boyfriend’s very large Italian family… at Christmas… while the room is spinning because you had too much wine.
But let’s use this as a chance to meet a few of the faces of the Milestone Universe anyway…
Hardware (aka Curtis Metcalf) first appeared in 1993 in Hardware #1, which was among the first Milestone comics to be published. Curtis was a genius child whose talents and the interests of a rich patron helped him to ascend from his working class roots to a brilliant inventor making lots of money for his patron and now boss Edwin Alva Sr. After he is denied the respect he’s earned for his inventions, and Alva tells him he’s just “a cog in the machine. My machine”, Curtis starts looking into Alva’s business for a little leverage only to find that Alva was a serious criminal. When the legit ways of going about turning in Alva don’t work, Curtis takes justice into his own hands and turns his genius towards himself to create Hardware. Hardware is trained in martial arts, but his main “superpower” is his own genius and the crime-fighting inventions that come out of it, including flight weapons, armor, and sometimes just smart strategy for taking down the bad guy.
Icon (aka Arnus, aka Augustus Freeman III) is from an alien planet called Terminus. He crashed landed in his vessel in the American South in 1839, and his ship reformed his appearance to look like the first human who encountered it, which was a Black slave woman named Miriam, so he became a young Black man and took on the name Augustus Freeman. In the late 20th century, we meet him again as Augustus Freeman III, having assumed the identity of his own son. He is a rich corporate lawyer living in Dakota City. When he encounters a young woman who is part of a gang of youth robbing his mansion, one of the young women Raquel Ervin witnesses him using his alien powers. Raquel is a young aspiring writer from Paris Island, the poorest section of Dakota, and she confronts Augustus for being a privileged and powerful Black man and not using those powers to help the poor and marginalized in Dakota. Augustus is thus inspired to become Icon and he takes the young Raquelunder his wing as a side-kick Rocket, gifting her with a belt that gave her the power to manipulate kinetic energy. Rocket fights crime by his side, but rebellious by nature, she never stops challenging him, especially his conservative politics and values. She later becomes pregnant by her boyfriend and gives birth to Amistad Augustus Ervin, becoming one of the few teen mothers in comics. She continues to fight crime and be a badass mom at the same time. Icon and Rocket first appeared in 1993 in Icon #1 by Dwayne McDuffie and M.D. Bright, which was one of the first Milestone comics.
Static (aka Virgil Hawkins) was a fifteen-year-old self-professed geek when his life changed after the events of the Big Bang in Dakota left him with various electromagnetic powers. Most lost their lives in the events of the Big Bang, which was marked by the release of what police believed was tear gas they were using to break up a confrontation of the city’s gangs, but was actually an experimental mutagen nick-named “Quantum Juice”. When the agency that orchestrated the event tried to capture Virgil for experiments, he fought back, discovering his abilities and becoming Static. Static continues fighting crime in Dakota while coping with all the typical teenage stresses and messes, but he does it all with his own geeky flare and punchy witticisms. He later befriends Rocket and other heroes in the Milestone universe. Static has been the most successful of Milestone’s creations, appearing numerously in the DC universe, getting a (now cancelled) reboot in DC’s New 52, and also appearing in his own animated television series Static Shock.
Founded in 1993, MilestoneMedia was a beacon in the comics industry, where there were few Black characters and fewer popular or non-stereotyped ones.The glory only lasted 3 years though, with the company becoming defunct in 1996.
Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle were among the founders along with Dwayne McDuffie (rest in peace), and they continue Milestone’s legacy in their work. Several of the Milestone characters have survived the imprint, however, and occasionally appear in the DC universe in small roles.
As you’ll see, these folk are kiiinda super awesome-mazing, and we should all campaign for their hardcore revival. Towards that end, I’ll keep shouting ’em out here at GeekOutsider, and we’ll meet up with more of them next week!