Breaking stereotypes: The remaking of a superhero

And, undeniably, this is what superheroes were designed to be for the longest time—saving damsels in distress, saving the town and its people and hard and tough inside out with a painful story to tell. But the narrative has changed today.

By Reya Mehrotra

Recently, a picture of Superman kissing a man of colour went viral. Soon, it was announced that the new Superman, Jon Kent, is bisexual, and the world of superheroes was never the same again—definitely a far cry from the popular muscular, saviour, fighting villains, epitome of masculinity, the ‘ubermensch’ image. When German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went on to define the ‘ubermensch’ in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he quite defined what a superhero is like—“a goal for humanity to set for itself” or “the ideal superior man of the future who could rise above conventional Christian morality to create and impose his own values”.

And, undeniably, this is what superheroes were designed to be for the longest time—saving damsels in distress, saving the town and its people and hard and tough inside out with a painful story to tell. But the narrative has changed today.

During a recent dialogue at Greenlitfest, a literature festival that holds dialogues, discussions and other artistic endeavours around the environment, on ‘Spies, Superheroes and Satire: A New Wave of Eco-Comics’ in October this year, Mwelwa Musonko, Zambian satirist, graphic novelist and founder of Zambian Indie comic book label Foresight Comics; Rohan Chakravarty, cartoonist famed for the Green Humour series, which are cartoons and illustrations on wild animals, wildlife, environment and nature conservation; and writer and sketcher Sejal Mehta talked about the impact of eco-comics and the awareness they bring along for children learning about climate change. Apparently, the genre is a new rage among young children keen on knowing the impact of climate change. Chakravarty believes that there’s demand for this genre and writers like him are finding good opportunities through news columns, social media and networking. In his works, he stirs conversations through cartoons of animals and they usually have a message for the environment. For instance, a mongoose is a detective. On his choice of protagonists, he says, “I was over political cartoons. Wildlife really helped the cause of my art when I started telling stories through animals.”

Amar Chitra Katha, famed for historical and mythological stories, and which faced flak for its racial and gender biases recently, has become more inclusive and sensitive in tone. Its recent titles like Valiant Women—Defenders of the Nation and Women Path Breakers—Stories of Success & Strength talk about strong women who have been the harbingers of change, like Sarojini Naidu, India’s first woman meteorologist Anna Mani and Anandibai Joshi, first female doctor, and more. Amar Chitra Katha’s executive editor Reena Puri says it was a “consciously taken decision to include subjects that are relevant to the current generation of children, like gender equality, casteism and racism and colour prejudice”.

Realising the need to adapt to changing times, Indian children’s comic Tinkle, too, saw its characters metamorphosing. Shambu is no longer a shikari, but a conservationist who now shoots animals with his camera and helps nab poachers. Suppandi is no longer a ‘servant’ but a simpleton who loves to try his hand at different professions and careers.

Kuriakose Saju Vaisian, editor-in-chief of Tinkle Comics, says, “We have had boys who love ballet and dolls, and girls who love video games and karate, challenging the perspective of ‘gender-appropriate’ activities. A few stories we did last year looked at single parents running a household, from holding a job to shopping for groceries and cooking for the kids. When it comes to disabilities, we try to normalise handicaps as much as possible.” Some of their prominent titles include Thrillers: Ballet Bewilderment, a story about a boy who likes ballet; Malpua Mishap, a father cooking meal for family; Not Again!, a story featuring a boy with a prosthetic arm; and Wheel’s Up!, a kid in a wheelchair who takes down pizza thieves.

This is not the first time that comics and storybooks are conveying the message of equality and breaking stereotypes. Nor is this is the first time that superheroes are being portrayed as realistic, fallible humans. Earlier this year, the trailer of Marvel Studios’ Loki revealed that Loki’s sex was ‘fluid’, as shown in his file. The blink-and-miss revelation came during the Pride Month in June. Marvel Comics’ The Fearless Defenders, which debuted in 2013, has its character Valkyrie as bisexual; The Incredible Hulk series shows romance between Korg, a Kronian warrior made of rocks, and Hiroim; World of Wakanda sees a lesbian romance between Ayo and Aneka. Recently, in Amazon Prime Video’s rendition of Cinderella, the godmother emerged in a whole new genderless avatar as Billy Porter stepped into her shoes.

These moves are being made by prominent production houses after they were long criticised for conforming to stereotypes. However, not just in the recent past, but as early as in the 1970s, a streak of inclusivity made its mark in the Marvel and DC universe. In 1979, Northstar was introduced as the first openly gay character and by 1992, his identity was strongly established as gay. Later, Harley Quinn, Batwoman Kate Kane, Robin, Poison Ivy, X-Men’s Iceman, too, have come out as queer.

Children’s story books have taken the message in a much bigger way. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid is a storybook about an orphan kid, Amir; A Friend Like Simon is a storybook that introduces children to autism; The Invisible Boy makes children realise how acts of kindness can make differently-abled children feel included. Ammu and the Sparrows by Vinitha R, published by Pratham books, delves on the loneliness that a young boy faces as he waits and longs to reunite with his parents. Similarly, children’s author Sudha Murthy’s book Grandparents’ Bag of Stories was a fictional account of real-life pandemic situations when people were stuck and few came forward to help others. These are just a few examples.

In fact, teenagers and schoolchildren like Greta Thunberg leading a global movement makes one realise that children of this century are far more advanced and exposed to challenges than children were till about a decade or two ago. With this, children’s authors are making conscious choices of being sensitive while writing and talking about issues that matter. Simran Kaur, assistant editor, Puffin, Penguin Random House India, shares that books published by Puffin/Duckbill have been conversation starters, whether it’s on body positivity for young kids who might find themselves being bullied, like I Hate My Curly Hair by Divya Anand, or Mirror, Mirror by Andaleeb Wajid for an older audience or Unfair by Rasil Ahuja.

Why such stories today with a strong message are important for a child’s development is a question that writers must keep in mind while writing. Jane De Suza, author of Flyaway Boy published by Puffin Books, in which the boy doesn’t fit into the formula of the perfect little child and disappears when forced into stereotypes, shares that books speak to a reader’s subconscious and have the power to create youngsters who question stereotypes and look at the real people behind them.

Messages aplenty?

On one hand, diverse characters of different sexual orientations and real-life situations normalise story books and comics, but on the other, one argues, is it too much to take and will too many messages being pushed down young children’s throats make it all boring and preachy? Till about a decade or two ago, comics and story books were read with important life lessons at times and mostly for the simple pleasure of reading a good story.

Debasmita Dasgupta, creator of graphic novel Nadya, disagrees with the fact that children will feel burdened by such messages. “When I create a story, I am my first audience. If I don’t like to be taught or burdened with messages, I feel my readers (in this case children) will feel the same,” she says.

How the readers perceive the messages is the writer’s job. Preeti Vyas, president and CEO of Amar Chitra Katha, believes it’s the art of storytelling. “Most story books we read as children for ‘simple pleasure’ had a message or thought hidden among the words. That, in fact, is the power of good storytelling—the ability to communicate and share important messages and lessons in a simple, non-intimidating manner. It is the craft of good writing to make every story stand on its own feet, be engaging and entertaining in its plot and delivery.”

Karthika Gopalakrishnan, head of reading at Neev Academy, a Bengaluru-headquartered children’s academic institute, seconds Preeti: “The true gift of a writer and the power of a great children’s book lies in the trust that is established when a young reader is able to assimilate a difficult topic, without it having to be spelt out.”

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