Frederick Luis Aldama Shedding Light on Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics
By Christina Miranda
The fight for diversity in mainstream media has been going strong lately. From gender, to sexuality, to race, Latinx creatives are slowly, but surely, making their presence felt. Recent examples of this push for diversity include Diego Luna living the dream in the Star Wars universe, as well as the cast and crew of Pixar’s upcoming film, Coco, bringing Día de muertos culture to wider audiences.
In the world of comics, similar efforts are being undertaken by Frederick Luis Aldama through his latest publication, Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. Thorough and well researched, Aldama’s work analyzes over 70 years of comic book history bringing to light Latinx characters, artists, and writers, providing the much-needed attention they deserve. Rather than emphasizing the lack of Latinx presence within the comic book industry, Aldama focuses on the efforts that have been made to include them—regardless of whether those efforts were positive or negative.
Beginning with DC Comics’ introduction of the first Latinx superhero in 1940—Rodrigo Elwood Gaynor as the Whip—Aldama unpacks both the successes of Latinx inclusion through these characters and the issues that come with their design and characterization. He effectively calls attention to the manner most writers and illustrators were unable to overcome, and in many instances contributed to, the many stereotypes that have burdened Latinx communities in American popular culture. Among them, the intense urbanization of Mexican/Mexican-American characters, especially in men, and the placement of Amazonian features in South American characters, especially women. An early example includes the vilifying of El Papagayo in the 1949 Batman comic, “Ride, Bat-Hombre, Ride” #56.
Negative Latinx stereotypes, however, have not been limited to antagonists in comics. Aldama problematizes the depiction of protagonists like Paco Ramone as Vice; a former Los Lobos gang leader with the powers of vibration and break-dance moves who was introduced in 1984. Paco’s one-dimensional characterization is called out as “all stereotype: all body and no brain.” As Aldama’s detailed research points out, the heavy reliance of stereotypes was evident to Latinx artists. He notes that in response to Vibe’s creation by writer Gerry Conway and artists Chuck Patton, “George Pérez was so offended that, when asked to draw Vibe for JLA/Avengers, he couldn’t bear to draw all of him.”
Although Latinx superheroes haven’t always been fairly represented in comic books, Aldama digs deeper into its history and presents the few well-constructed characters that do exist. With more diversified superheroes there is the introduction of the term “geometrized characters” which refers to their identity being drawn out compared to one-dimensional characters. The analysis of Sunspot and La Bandera serve as examples. In 1982 for Marvel Graphic Novel, vol. 1, #4, Sunspot is created in an effective manner through illustration. Instead of using vibrant colors like most color palettes for superheroes, his creators animate his solar energy with black to emphasize his Afro-Latino identity and the social barriers that come with it. The same goes for La Bandera in the same year. Her storyline goes beyond the basic concept of a superhero written to be a vigilante, but instead uses her powers of emotion control to fight against oppressive dictatorship in South America.
There is an equal balance of criticism and praise in Aldama’s comic breakdown, which makes this book a good lesson for readers to undertake, regardless of their level of comic book interest or knowledge. In a time when Latinx culture in mainstream entertainment is constantly being debated, Aldama brings a welcomed voice to the conversation, and at the end of his deconstruction, he provides a greater number of superheroes for us to look up to.
Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics is on sale now from The University of Arizona Press.