- All New, All Different? A History of Race and the American Superhero by Allan W. Austin and Patrick L. Hamilton
As a history text that seeks to periodize the approach to representing race in American superhero comics (and other media) so as to consider how they “produce attitudes” (14) around race, Allan W. Austin and Patrick L. Hamilton’s All New, All Different? A History of Race and the American Superhero is an ambitious project. It uses the breadth of its 373 pages to tackle myriad examples and put them in conversation with the notion of “racial progress.” I appreciate their examination of obscure tales—like Batman and Robin’s 1954 trip into the past to investigate the Native American origins of the Batcave, or Barry and Iris Allen’s 1968 visit to Japan in the pages of The Flash—to accompany the overmined examples every comics scholar writing surveys of the genre seem required to tackle (i.e., Denny O’Neil’s and Neal Adams’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow). Additionally, rather than focus on one locus of racial identity, the book does its best to examine examples of Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native identities in superhero comics and how they “can teach us an awful lot about how we have thought as well as have been encouraged to think about race and multiculturalism since the mid-twentieth century” (3).
This breadth makes All New, All Different an invaluable resource for textual examples of the handling of race in American superhero comics and for considering the kinds of [End Page 363] characters and stories featuring racial minorities that were common to the different eras it covers. In each chapter, Austin and Hamilton demonstrate how the promised racial progress of the genre is deferred and beset with new obstacles as retrograde notions are recycled and re-presented in new guises. The contradictions in this changing-same of superhero comics makes for a fascinating perspective on that history. In their first chapter, Austin and Hamilton explore both the weaponizing of Japanese caricature and stereotype in support of the war effort from 1941 to 1946 and the paranoia that was prominent even in those stories that attempted to be sympathetic to Japanese-Americans. The book makes clear that the nonwhite sidekicks of that era further the hypocrisy of claims of racial justice used to prop up anti-Nazi sentiment during the war, considering domestic attitudes towards nonwhites (especially Black folks) that continued into the postwar period.
In the second chapter the authors describe this period (1945–1965) as reflecting an ambivalence to racial reform, where editorial attempts to remain free of the fraught politics of the era still often took the form of “reified depictions of racialized characters . . . regularly homogenized as ignorant, backward . . . exotic backdrops for the various [white] heroes’ adventures” (51). Austin and Hamilton point out that even when efforts were made to depict superheroes as resisting discrimination and promoting “racial and religious tolerance”—as in Superman comics—these were limited to one-page PSA-type stories that were always distinct from the regular comic book adventures themselves, demonstrating “the clear limits of [DC’s] activism” (74). Alternately, transmedial depictions of Superman of the time (for example), like the radio and later television adaptations, managed to be much more explicit in promoting tolerance (as in the infamous 1946 “Clan of the Fiery Cross” episode of the Adventures of Superman radio serial), casting comics as the more conservative medium.
On the Atlas/Marvel side of things, the authors point out how “white-colored” valorous Asian characters (like Jimmy Woo) began to appear alongside the still all-too-common “standard unearthly yellow” coloring of villainous characters, like the unfortunately named “Yellow Claw” (77). The third chapter moves into the 1960s and 1970s, when more superhero comic book stories explicitly “dramatized racial issues”; the books also reduced racism to individual virtue, and were often based on “the same limited and contradictory liberal understanding that pervaded postwar American society” in pursuit of...