Is a black Captain America progressive enough to be worth celebrating?

Falcon as CapWithin the past week, Marvel has announced that in a reshuffling of its Avengers comic-book lineup, Thor will now be a lady and Captain America will now be a black guy. Progressive geeks celebrated the news, saying Marvel was leading the way for more diversity in storytelling.

Thing is, I’m not wholly buying it. Now, I’m not not saying it’s a bad thing either. Both moves have already gotten people talking about gender and race equality in superhero storytelling. And, hey, maybe some fun, well-told stories will come out of the character swaps. But the fact is Marvel could still be doing better, mostly because I think “here’s a great new black super hero that everyone enjoys reading about” would be a far greater and more impressive sign of progress than “hey Captain America is going to be a black guy for a couple of months.”

Marvel Falcon #1The black guy in question is Sam Wilson, also known as the Falcon. He has been one of Captain America’s sidekicks dating back to the late 1960s and recently had his profile increased tenfold by appearing in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where he was winningly played by Anthony Mackie. Sam has only gotten his own series once — a tiny, four-issue miniseries published in 1983-84. Since then, the closest he’s come is in a team-up book called Captain America and the Falcon that ran 14 issues in 2004-05.

Wouldn’t it be creatively more interesting and daring if, rather than giving Sam the Captain America moniker — a moniker typically associated with a white man that will almost certainly be returned to Steve Rogers within a year, Marvel launched an ongoing Falcon solo title? Wouldn’t it be awesome if that title was written by a scalding-hot comic scribe (say, Matt Fraction) or, better yet, a black writer who could bring their own life experiences to the title? (You could do the same by hiring a female writer to write new lady Thor, but that’s not happening. Jason Aaron has been announced as the writer.)

Now, there are two big reasons Marvel could have chosen the path they have. The more cynical one is that giving a black man the Captain America mantle gets the mainstream press much more interested than if Marvel just announces the launch of a Falcon solo series, which only comic readers and comic-news websites will care about. The more optimistic reason is that Marvel is genuinely interested in enacting a cultural change and know this is the quicker, easier way to go about it. After all, a Captain America title is always going to sell better than a Falcon title, no matter who is wearing the red, white and blue suit inside its pages. And successfully launching a brand new hero in an industry dominated for decades by the same handful of characters is no doubt an incredibly difficult challenge. So if Marvel wants to get a complex black hero in front of as many eyes as possible, making him Captain America — if even for a short while — is the better way to do it. And Marvel has some experience in this, as they made a black Hispanic kid named Miles Morales their “Ultimate universe” version of Spider-Man for a while, and he has evolved into a fan-favorite character who has even crossed over into the Marvel universe proper.

So, again, this is why I’m not declaring that allowing a black man to serve as Captain America or letting a woman stand in for Thor are terrible decisions. (And if you think they are, you’re likely a racist, a sexist or perhaps an idiot.) And yet I still feel like Marvel managing to publish a well-read, critically-acclaimed Falcon stand-alone title — or creating a brand new black or female superhero who gets readers talking and is able to survive among the heavy-hitter titles — would be a more noble effort and worthy of even greater celebration. It wouldn’t feel like a stunt, and it wouldn’t be forgotten about a few years down the road like this will be when Captain America is a blond white guy again. Yes, it would be more difficult. But true progress always is.

This post was inspired by a Facebook conversation I started on my wall this morning. Thanks to Tim Kelly, Blake Cover and everyone who participated in that conversation for inspiring me and getting me really thinking about this stuff.