Editor’s note: There’s growing momentum for diverse stories and diverse storytellers to fill the pages of comics. But what will this diversity look like, and how will it come about? In this blog, Vishavjit Singh, also known as Sikh Captain America, shares his thoughts on these questions. He also explains what it’s like to be a real-life superhero and illustrator who pokes holes in what an American looks like—hero or not.
I found myself in the planetary constellation known as the New York Comic Con (NYCC) the week before last for the second time ever. It’s a bright and colorful spectacle of superheroes, characters from the comic world, humans in civilian garb, creators of imaginary universes, gamers, the gods of publishing, photographers and spies searching for the next big thing.
My first trip to NYCC four years ago opened the door to a strange reality whereupon I stepped out of a two-dimensional creation of mine, Captain America in a turban and beard fighting intolerance, into me donning the uniform for a grand social experiment. I was costume-playing a fictional character from the 1940s to poke holes in the illusionary concept of what an American is supposed to look like today.
This is precisely what landed me on one of the first panel discussions hosted by the American Library Association to kickstart the grand rendezvous of comic fans. Titled “We Need More Diversity in Comics,” I sat sandwiched between a rich diversity of talent featuring the witty Alex Simmons, the towering gentle presence of Ivan Velez and the crisp hat-donning Eric Dean Seaton. The panel also included Karen Green, a graphics novel librarian at Columbia University (one of the coolest jobs you can imagine), and our host Christian Zabreiski, founder of Urban Librarians Unite.
In front of a packed room, we pondered growing up on a comic diet lacking the rich mix of leading characters representing African Americans, Latinos, LGBT individuals, Asians, women and many more.
To borrow from the legendary Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’—maybe a little slowly. Small- to medium-sized comic publishing houses have been opening the doors to the colorful talent in our midst. Even the big overseers at DC Comics and Marvel Comics are beginning to hand the reigns of superheroic tasks to others besides white men. Steve Rogers retired to make way for Sam Wilson (formerly Falcon) as Captain America, and Jane Foster is Thor. Kamala Khan is Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim-American character to headline a Marvel comic book, and in the hot-off-the-press news, Laura Kinney is the new face of Wolverine.
This slow transition points to an important consideration: Is it enough to create a colorful cast of characters on the page with little change in the backstage hands and minds that bleed life into these imaginary souls?
Diversity is not skin deep. It is an experience seeped deep into the musculature of our bodies, capturing our journeys across oceans, lands, tragedies and triumphs. There are countless stories buried in the diversity of the American experience ready to feed new tales of superheroes and comic sagas.
That is not to take away from the powers of the generations-old pantheon of superheroes and other characters. Some of them keep metamorphosing into new tales on comic pages and the big screen. We, the denizens of planet Earth, keep consuming them.
I know firsthand the power of one of these superheroes, the ultimate American patriot Captain America. Donning the uniform of this fictional soldier has been like entering the twilight zone. Many totally confuse and misrepresent my real-life origin story, but in uniform, a hallo of respect, love and reverence is extended my way.
Walking the crowded alleyways of NYCC, I got tapped on the shoulder countless times, hailed as "Captain" by civilians and cosplayers alike to pose with me for a digital shot. Some had heard about my exploits on the streets of New York, Kansas, Mississippi and California. The most common compliment hurled my way: “You have the most original costume.” To my eyes, there were many other cosplayers whose costumes mesmerized me way beyond my own, but to many eyes, putting a turban and beard on a quintessential American superhero is a quantum leap into altered states of perception.
The world of comic fans is so ready for new tales, new superheroes in all hues. Diversity is not lacking in its revenue-generating potential. For those big wigs sitting in publishing houses set in their own old ways and formulas, the time is ripe for risk taking, innovation and tapping into the vast pool of talent waiting to be let loose into the ever-expanding galaxy of comics.
Singh is a writer and costume player as well as the first turbaned and bearded editorial cartoonist in the United States. His spark for cartooning came from a single cartoon created by Mark Fiore in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then he has been creating turbanful Sikh cartoons that can be consumed at Sikhtoons.com.