In recent years, the U.S. comics industry has generated increased critical, scholarly, and popular attention. The sheer strength, volume, and range of the comics produced, as well as the enthusiasm of fan culture, renders the industry a powerful ideology-producing tool. Although other publishers have experienced growth since the industry was conceived post-WWII, Marvel and DC Comics still comprise more than half the industry. What’s more, their success continues to grow as a result of the development of more accessible retail outlets for the medium: the Internet and cinema. In “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” Douglas Kellner explores how media—including radio, television, film, popular music, the Internet, and social networking sites—provide a cohesive text from which we “forge our very identities” (7). In many ways, he claims, the media shapes our “view of the world,” our “deepest values” (7), and even our morality. It is important, therefore, to consider whose perspective gets left out of—and often misrepresented by—the dominant narratives circulating mass media. So, what are the social and political implications of the conglomeration of Marvel and DC?
To begin with, alternative media voices are left out of the equation and unable to question “fundamental social arrangements under the which the media owners are doing quite well” (37), as David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Stefania Milan point out in “The Economics of the Media Industry.” This, in turn, supports Western imperialism, further marginalizing a myriad of other cultural narratives. One response to this lack of diversity in the media environment—and specifically in the world of comics—is the growth of the African superhero universe. One prominent South African illustrator, Loyiso Mkize, says that he was first inspired by American superheroes, as American comics were the most widely available during his childhood. Mkize told Buzzfeed News, “Growing up, comic books had a huge interest for me. It wasn’t just the visuals—but the strong superheroes. I wanted to emulate them.” However, the template he was provided with was conspicuously lacking characters with whom he could identify. He continues, “I was thinking, where are the heros that look like me, speak like me, and share the same environment as me? I realized that we don’t have it—it came as a big shock.” Thus, the comic Kwezi was born.
Mkize describes Kwezi, which means “star” in Xhosa and Zulu, as a “coming of age story about finding ones heritage.” The graphic narrative follows a confident, young boy as he embraces his superpowers in the context of the bustling, fictional metropolis “Gold City.” Perhaps the most significant aspect of the comic is its inclusion of “street” slang and popular culture references, which situates the story in a familiar setting for young South African readers. It is also significant that Kwezi (the hero) is fashionable, donning a contemporary haircut, and modern, using Twitter and other forms of social media as an activist.
Ultimately, the recent rise in scholarly interest regarding graphic narratives has produced a catalytic effect with regard to the emergence of non-conventional, non-Western narratives. Over the last ten years, comic books have undergone a substantial change in terms of the type of content available and in their critical reception. That “said,” there is still a lot of progress to be made. U.S. comic culture does not just overlook and effectively erases narratives that fall outside the non-Anglophone world—the narratives of marginalized communities within the United States are absent as well, forcing women, LGBTQIA+ people, and people of color into weak, stereotyped roles. Of course, visibility is a complicated affair. “If representational visibility equals power,” claims Jay Clarkson in “The Limitations of the Discourse of Norms: Gay Visibility and Degrees of Transgression,” then “almost naked white women should be running Western Culture” (392). It is the hope of illustrators like Loyiso Mkize to depict the popular reality in his portrayal South African culture, and by doing so, achieve visibility in a way that benefits his culture and community.