The X-Men’s Dissipating Storm

The X-Men’s Dissipating Storm

In 1975, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced us to Ororo Munroe, aka Storm. An amalgamation of a shapeshifting character called Black Cat and a weather controller named Typhoon, the creative team tweaked some of the details and gave us the mutant we know today. Holding on to her Black Cat origins, she had cat-like

In 1975, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced us to Ororo Munroe, aka Storm. An amalgamation of a shapeshifting character called Black Cat and a weather controller named Typhoon, the creative team tweaked some of the details and gave us the mutant we know today. Holding on to her Black Cat origins, she had cat-like eyes and distinctive eyebrows. Her eyes became blue and her hair a long, flowing white. Her skin was a deep shade of brown.

In 1976, Chris Claremont solidified Storm’s origin: she is the daughter of an African American photojournalist and a Kenyan princess.

Fast forward to today where the latest appearance of Storm features a woman unrecognizable from her origin. In a dusk-lit panel in the first issue of Marauders #1, a woman that we’re supposed to believe is Storm appears with skin this pale:

A pale Storm in profile talks to Kate Pryde

Marauders #1, art by Matteo Lolli, colours by Federico Blee (Marvel Comics, October 2019)

The contrast is striking. Skin colour is part of a person’s identity. It doesn’t matter that Storm is not a real person. There are more than enough real people who identify with her to find this depiction hurtful in so many ways. Ignorance is not an excuse for whitewashing skin tones. Moreover, technology has provided all sorts of tools to improve how dark skin is depicted in comics. There is no reason for a colourist not to understand how to colour dark skin in this day and age. The topic has been raised by many artists who have offered their insight and advice to help people learn and do better. Here, Ron Wimberly shares his experiences with the subtle racism of shifting skin tones. Here, Nilah Magruder discusses the key to understanding that dark skin reflects light, and offers techniques to appropriately render it. Yet washed out dark skin still appears in comics today.

Colourism has affected Storm’s live-action screen appearances as well. Halle Berry became Storm in the X-Men movie of 2000. Decades later, her younger version was played by Alexandra Shipp, who came under fire as a continued example of Hollywood’s refusal to acknowledge that darker-skinned actresses exist and can play far more roles than they are pigeon-holed into. Both Berry and Shipp are clearly Black women, but neither actress adequately reflects the character’s Kenyan roots. Berry at least attempted an African accent in the 2000 film but moved on from that in subsequent outings as Storm.

With recasting the X-Men on the table now that they belong to Disney, fans and actors are hoping to see someone on screen that not only acts the role of a mutant worshipped as an African goddess but also looks more the part.

Storm’s appearance on the pages of Marauders #1 falls significantly short of this hope, but I’m not putting the blame all on the colourist’s back. On top of the whitewashed complexion, there is nothing about the image presented that tells me the person in this panel is an African American woman. And all of this artwork got by an editor.

With her origin as a half-Kenyan woman and half-Black American woman, her facial features ought to be clearly defined:

“Compared with white women, the following measurements were found to be significantly different (P<.003) in African American women: special head height was shorter; forehead height II was longer; nose length was shorter; lower face height was longer; height of the calva was shorter; forehead height I was longer, and ear length was shorter. In addition, most horizontal measures were wider, ie, eye-fissure width, nasal width, mouth width, and facial width. The nose and ear have greater angles of inclination. Of the 9 neoclassical canons, the orbital proportion was found to include the most proportional subjects (30.6%), followed by the nasoaural proportion (13.0%) and the nasofacial proportion (9.3%). Subcategorization based on nasal dorsal height yielded the most significantly different measures.”

Add the original design from her creators, the distinctive elements of Storm’s features are basically baked into the character, yet her fluctuating appearance shows that this simply isn’t an important factor to Marvel. The “Storm” that was allowed to be published in Marauders #1 looks more like a “30% chance of rain,” to use a friend’s apt description. Her skin colour is washed out in several more panels, and, though her facial structure in many forward or three-quarter-facing shots leans a bit more towards the typical wider African American features, bone structure is generically Caucasian. In the above profile, only her white hair differentiates her from the other women in the book, both of whom are white.

Lion Forge editor Desiree Rodriguez cites fluctuating appearances as one of the reasons why a character resource bible is so important to her as she helps coordinate the publisher’s Catalyst Prime Universe. Rodriguez’s character resources reference more than just the basics of hair and eye colour or costume design. Her descriptions extend to body and face shape, with detailed colour palettes for skin tone. Her goal is to ensure consistency across the characters no matter who is drawing and colouring them. The consistency acknowledges that cultural diversity and identity is not just a superficial thing that varies from page to page, issue to issue. It also helps avoid the same face syndrome that plagues so much of comics art.

In her early appearances, Storm’s character design features remained largely consistent, if not necessarily her African American features. Artists had no problem maintaining her blue cat eyes and, of course, her shock of white hair, and colourists like Glynis Oliver ensured that Storm’s skin colour remained a rich (if varied) brown well into the ‘90s. Each of the artists who regularly drew the X-Men titles had their own unique style. Storm’s appearance morphed accordingly.

Significant character design changes came with Paul Smith’s introduction of Punk Storm in Uncanny X-Men #173 (1983). Rumoured to be designed based on Grace Jones, like John Romita Jr’s original design for Dazzler, Punk Storm presented a whole new look and attitude for the character, but if true, the Grace Jones influence was limited only to her new fashion sense. Her features continued to be far less African American than they should be.

In her renderings over the decades, Storm sometimes gets thicker lips, but that seems to be a general stylistic choice regarding what is considered sexy for female characters. The idea of her having a wider nose seems to be unheard of (though in fairness, tiny button or non-existent noses for all women in comics is a thing because why would breathing be important to a woman?) Her physical traits are typically depicted in favour of the ideals of white beauty. Artists rarely intentionally drew her to reflect a Black woman in appearance, but readers could at least rely on colourists to assure us that this character is, indeed, Black.

Jim Lee’s entrance into the regular X-Men artist ring signified an industry shift where the artist became more prominent than the writer. Certainly, Chris Claremont had something to do with the success of X-Men #1 in 1991, but it’s Lee’s art that sticks in everyone’s mind, thanks to it being plastered on five iconic covers and shipped in droves. What did this mean for Storm?

Like many of the artists before him, Lee’s characters’ facial features were unique to him and they all, including Storm, looked Caucasian. But he also drew her with less dramatic, unslanted eyes that mostly lost her cat-like irises altogether. This removal of her original, memorable traits became the norm when he passed the character on to other artists. Storm often continued to lose those slanted, cat-like eyes and evolved into a usually iris-less character with white hair and dark brown skin. Outside of her costume and the lightning at her fingertips, these were her only defining physical traits.

We’re now in a post-Black Panther world where Hollywood has discovered that movies starring Black people of all shades don’t have to be about the ‘hood, slavery, or racism in general, but can still make significant box office bank. Comic books, which aren’t bound by inconveniences like casting real human beings in roles, still haven’t grasped the concept of allowing Black characters like Storm to consistently have Black features. The lack of actual, distinctive African American facial features in Storm’s regularly drawn appearances makes it stand out when an artist actually does make her look as she should.

A series of Storms in her various costumes

Some artists even go so far as to add braids or kink to Storm’s hair to strengthen her identity as an African American character. However, most of these more racially accurate depictions of the character are one-offs⁠—special covers or short-lived solo series.

Bringing us back to her current appearances, I’ve been disappointed to find an even more disheartening trend with the character. The inconsistency in her character design over the years can be chalked up to artists’ unique style and refusal to grow beyond. Her fluctuating skin tone is the result of ignorance and negligence. But, in Storm’s recent outings that I’ve read, I find myself frustrated by the writing of her character as well.

Storm was once a character who commanded attention both in appearance and in demeanor, but in her recent depictions, her role has been as much washed out as her appearance, leaving her little to do in each panel, if she appears at all. In X-Men: Red, she’s introduced first as an enemy to the freshly resurrected Jean Grey. Despite being long-time best friends, and Storm being a long-time, significant leader of the X-Men, the series reduced her to being a minion under someone else’s control, and her subsequent speaking roles involve tossing out a line or two to back up Jean’s statements.

Her initial absence from the new House of X/Powers of X series is glaring and, when she finally appears, it is as a prop, reduced to the usefulness of her extraordinary mutant powers. As Jonathan Hickman’s new X-universe unfolds, we find Storm sitting on the Quiet Council speaking her mind around the table as all the other leaders, but little more. In the new X-Men #1, she plays an exhausted second fiddle to Cyclops in a story that leads to her role in Marauders #1, where she plays support to Captain Kate Pryde. Her words in these last two issues speak of her desire to be among the people, helping them find their way home to Krakoa. There is potential for this to mean something, but of late, writers and artists seem to be pushing her further and further into the background.

This is an extremely disappointing turn for a character who has had truly impactful story arcs since her creation, both with and outside of the team. In the iconic X-Men: Lifedeath, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith explore how Storm comes to terms with being stripped of her powers and dealing with the man who was responsible for it. She has proven herself as a leader of the X-Men despite the loss of her powers. She has overcome her greatest fear in order to save the X-Men time and again. She has wielded Mjolnir and fought battles across galaxies. She has challenged numerous villainous men who seek to dominate her and discover that she is indomitable, only giving herself to those she determines to be worthy of her. She has exuded confidence, power, empathy, reason, and strength throughout her career as an X-Man and has played pivotal roles in so many of the X-Men’s greatest stories.

Storm is a character that has shaped me from the moment I discovered her, and it breaks my heart to see her seemingly fall to the wayside. Hickman has given me high hopes for what the X-Men can be once more, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m afraid that Storm herself will become as washed out as her features and her skin.

A goddess like Storm deserves so much better.

Wendy Browne

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