Marvel Announces Hip-Hop Variants for October, Still Does Not Care About Black People

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Yesterday, Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso announced that, for the month of October, Marvel will release variant covers paying homage to hip hop. These covers were designed  to reflect the “ongoing dialogue” between Marvel and hip hop, and to “spotlight the seamless relationship between those two forces.”

How nice, right? Seamless relationship! Ongoing dialogue! Hip hop! Marvel! Yes!

Spider-Man/Deadpool #1 artwork by Dave Johnson (Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full)

Actually, no.

What Marvel Comics is doing is called cultural appropriation. Whit Taylor just did a nice comic for The Response on where the line between cultural inspiration ends and appropriation begins, but for those who have heard the term used but didn’t quite understand what it meant, Marvel is about to lay it out for you beautifully.

You might argue that Axel and Marvel are just paying respect to all those hip hop artists who loved their comics: Ghostface Killah’s sample of dialogue from the Iron Man Theme on Supreme Clientele, the references to superheroes in hip hop, the artists who have even named themselves after characters. This is clearly an attempt to show their love, their respect for hip hop!

I say again: actually, no.

Understand that hip hop culture is a culture that was born, bred, and still lives largely in blackness. Yes, there are white people who listen to and perform hip hop. And yes, there are black people who don’t. Still, the context of its origins and its role as an outlet for speaking about racial oppression cannot be ignored. To talk about hip hop culture is also to talk about a subset of blackness.

Invincible Iron Man #1 artwork by Brian Stelfreeze (50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’)

So I say “no” because Marvel Comics uses black culture and people as decorations, window dressings. They are objects that are to be used when convenient but rarely respected or valued in their own right. I mean, come on: with the right hand, you’ve got the EiC announcing hip hop variants in October, and then with the left, the company announces at SDCC that the new Blade book is going to done by white guys. Again.

And it’s not just the Blade book. Marvel’s All-New, All-Different, Basically All-White, And All-Men, Because It’s Largely Bullshit initiative includes: one black creator. One! And kids, it gets so much deeper. Even when Marvel throws black men the occasional bone, what many people don’t realize is that Marvel has not, in their 75 years of making comics, ever hired a black female writer. Ever.

(I’m not going to play like DC is that much better on that score, but DC is not on trial here because DC is not releasing hip hop variants. And actually DC is employing at least one black person to write comics, with confirmed plans to re-launch Milestone Comics as Earth-M so maybe just chill for five seconds before you try to derail this into a DC versus Marvel conversation. You probably do not want to go there at this point in time.)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 artwork by Phil Noto (Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf)

This is all to say that hip hop, that blackness is absolutely fine as a means to sell Marvel’s comics, but that is by and large as far as black people get–and definitely as far as I, a black woman, am going to get. They can use our likenesses and styles on the covers, but the hell if they seem to want us in their board meetings, on their editorial staff, or making their comics. And this is why Tom Breevort’s assertion that these things are unrelated is wrong. (Please read David Brothers’ response here.)

Because in the face of these variants, in the face of this very one-sided dialogue, in the face of this horrendously imbalanced relationship, one thing is crystalline:

My “swag” is welcome.

My voice is not.

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About Author

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.

19 Comments

  1. I gotta disagree with this piece. Nothing about those covers screams appropriation. It’s a homage plain and simple. I applaud Marvel’s efforts to push diversity in books cause honestly a majority of readers pay attention to that way more than whether there was a black writer or editor in chief. When I pick up Mighty Avengers, I’m happy to see a team of black heroes come together to kick ass. Yes the company has ways to go to hire black writers and the push for that should still come but to say they don’t care about black people is very much not true.

    • Claire Napier on

      Nobody’s forcing you to disagree out loud, though. The covers are being published, so clearly your opinion is the dominant one. Why voice it here?

  2. I like you, I had a weird taste in my mouth the moment I first saw news of these variants, but I couldn’t quite describe what it was. You deftly described the problem I couldn’t quite point to, it’s window dressing. It feels insincere because it is.

  3. Interesting discussion going on amongst minority readers and POC. The consensus is that this is a kind of appropriation, and that it is not okay. Outside of these communities and their conversations one wonders whether these concerns matter, whether black voices matter, whether the perspectives of black people in these issues make any difference. I don’t think they do, and as an African American female reader I find that frustrating.

  4. I’m writing here because I still don’t actually understand what’s wrong with cultural appropriation – for context

    I’m a British, of Indian heritage. This country’s favourite food is a version of Indian food designed for Western palates mostly sold by Bangladeshi immigrants because India has better name recognition that Bangladesh.
    Now this may sound like a bad thing to you, but the actual results of that fusion is a new style of food that’s actually quite nice. And not only that, but the person who came up with the name of the Dish “Chicken Balti” obviously just ripped of a local KFC as it translates directly as Chicken Bucket – and never fails to make me laugh.
    Furthermore, over the years, actual Indians have also opened up Indian restaurants and you can now get a range of cuisine from South Indian to Punjabi to that original Anglo-Indo-Bangledeshi-cuisine. The culture of Britain is enriched by that, I’m not certainly not oppressed by it. Particularly as people always like things that are ‘more authentic’ and even I can boil rice, add peas and pass it off as that by serving it with plain yoghurt.

    How about a newer example – yoga. The British raj tried to ban yoga in India, but nowadays it’s *the* exercise craze sweeping the nation. Do you know who benefits from that? It’s people like my mum who enjoys her yoga classes just as much as the non-Indians in it, not only that Indian trained yoga teachers tend to be more sought after than English trained ones, again, no one is being hurt here. And it’s Indians benefiting. Not only Indians born in England either; the best Indian restaurants employ chefs from India, the most sought after yoga teachers were taught in India, so actual hard cash is flowing from the UK to India because of cultural appropriation.

    It’s not only these two examples, saris, henna tattoos, bindis and more – Indian culture is flooding Britain these days. Indian is “cool” and spreading. My parent’s generation were made fun of because of funny food, strange traditions and silly clothes. My peers were mostly indifferent to it as I was growing up, my nieces’* generation are going to have their culture embraced all thanks to cultural appropriation by the British of Indian culture. And thank god for that.

    Now to bring this back onto the topic of these comics – I know next to nothing about hip-hop, but I love comics. I’ve sort-of heard of it, maybe even a name or two, but not really paid attention. Until now hip-hop, like golf, has been something that I know exists, but not cared much for. The release of these covers, however, has brought it square to my attention – I’ve found out about a bunch of musicians I’d never herd of and I might just dig a bit deeper to see if I like the genre. If I become a hip-hop fan, you can thank Marvel’s cultural assimilation of it.

    *I don’t yet have children.

    • J. A. Micheline on

      The issue is that Marvel is using a piece of culture from a community as a tool to sell their work but at the same time has demonstrated a lack of commitment in terms of involving that community in their comics. Blackness is being used as a means to an end, rather than being valued or respected.

      • I could argue that same point about how Indian culture is often just used as a fashion accessory here in Britain. But why would I when the end result is more acceptance of Indian culture in the mainstream and a better life for the next generation?
        Likewise, in my opinion, covers like these just demonstrate acceptance of Black culture into the mainstream and bring it to a wider audience. Surely that’s a good thing, not a bad one if your goal is to normalise it.
        Is there something I’m missing here? I mean, you say Marvel don’t value it, but they obviously value it commercially at the very least or they wouldn’t be putting out the covers – they are, after all, in comics to make money. It’s not as if it’s a creator owned comic made for the love of the art.

        • J. A. Micheline on

          It doesn’t demonstrate acceptance of Black culture into the mainstream, though. That’s the point. It’s only accepted when it is convenient or beneficial to the mainstream. Marvel wants to sell their variants, profiting off of the perceived “cool” of hip-hop. But at the same time, they’ve shown no commitment to involving actual black people on their creative teams, in editorial, etc. They’re using us, is what I’m saying.

          • I was going to write a long answer about commercialisation of culture, consumerism and globalisation meaning that being ‘used’ and being ‘accepted’ are essentially the same in today’s world, but I think I’ll just settle for agreeing to disagree.

        • It seems your notion is that by Marvel excepting the culture they automatically except the the people. This in NOT true. Not just for Hip Hop culture but to look back on a lot of American culture of music, in general, you’ll see that what was once considered black is now popular culture. The “popular” culture is marketed in white face and mainly or totally excludes PoC. This is what Marvel and mainstream media is doing to Hip-Hop. They are taking it from it’s cultural roots and planting it as a fad without acknowledgement of it’s origins.

          • Not entirely, my point is that accepting the culture helps the mainstream accept the people. Sure, initially there’s reluctance to accept the people but that gets broken down over time and with hard work. So whilst there was mass racism against my grandparent’s generation, today Indians in the UK are better educated than the white population, more likely to go to a top university, and account for 12% of all doctors in the UK whilst only being 2.3% of the population (source: http://www.demos.co.uk/press_releases/integration-hub ). In short, we went and proved the racists wrong; part of this was by encouraging the spread of our culture throughout society *by anyone* rather than complain about people trying to do the right thing. Now it permeates to such a degree that Indian presenters are all over TV, I can buy ingredients for Indian food at any major supermarket (though it’s still cheaper at the local ethnic food shop), and Indian kids don’t think there’s a limit for them. The only public field in which the Indian community hasn’t had a presence is Sport (bar cricket). But hey, give it time.

  5. What is your take on Black Mask Studios doing the same with upcoming covers for their “Young Terrorists” title?

    • J. A. Micheline on

      I don’t know enough about Black Mask’s hiring practices to comment, but maybe you’ll get my perspective if I give my take on what would have happened if DC had decided to do this. My guess? Absolutely nothing. DC has just launched Earth-M, which is going to involve a LOT of black creators; they’ve demonstrated a commitment to bringing black voices to the table just with that announcement. I think a hip hop variant announcement from them would’ve been seen a lot differently as a result. The context of the choice is huge.

  6. I don’t see that as appropriation as much as it being sorta fan work. Obviously the artist are using whatever their favorite hip hop CD covers over just “turning super hero characters into black stereotypes”. Unless they all just googled “black hip hop covers ”

    These are actually kinda charming.

    I sorta wonder what you think or what you will think about black superhero parody comic Trill League, has characters like Black Mayne (modeled after Batman) and Wondaneisha (modeled after Wonder Woman) and satires news, black issues, and stereotypes almost in the same manner as boondocks. And you know what, it’s funny, it’s really funny.

  7. It is a weird thing to love an aspect, or aspects, of Black culture and to be White. It often feels like a walking in a minefield you didn’t exactly make . . .but you have stock in the company that made the mines and get dividend checks every day, so you know you deserve to have to deal with the mines. Besides, it’s pretty dumb to complain when Black people are getting grenades tossed at them every few minutes.

    That said . . .even I can see this is appropriation. The covers made my stomach hurt. 🙁

    I hope you keep writing articles like this, J.A. Micheline. You make me think. Thank you.