The Resurrection of “Street-Level” Heroes

Batman’s perennial success is without question. Has there been a time when there hasn’t been a Batman comic in print, a television show or movie in development or showing? Bruce Wayne’s success in the cape and cowl bely his origins as a silver-spoon kid. The son of millionaires cum billionaires, their deaths allowed young Bruce to fund his psychotic war on crime and allow him to become the World’s Greatest Detective. Which brings us to what I think is Batman’s true appeal: a normal human being fighting crime with his mind and his fists. This bears out in the long history of wealthy masked crimefighters preceding the Dark Knight. When ol’ Bats takes off the cowl, however, he heads home to a mansion and a butler, his every need seemingly provided for. It is the mask, however, that has continued to inspire others to take up the mantle. As we marched into the 21st century, those inspired to fight crime have been less and less likely to be wealthy. Quite the opposite, in fact, as a more diverse roster of heroes, from a myriad of backgrounds, rose to some prominence in comics. Media powerhouses are starting to take notice. There is a rich history of untapped comic characters who are not wealthy loners or necessarily “white” or even masked. Too many of them were racist stereotypes, however, except the most recent. Still, they can provide the foundation for more interesting characters to come.

The success of Marvel’s Jessica Jones series on Netflix opened the door for all sorts of street-level shenanigans. Jones was an obscure character both by popularity and design. Created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos, the comic, Alias, featured disillusioned, former super-hero and professional cynic Jessica Jones as well as other super-characters such as Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), Scott Lang (Ant-Man), and Luke Cage. I mention them in this way because to appear in a street-level comic—no matter how cosmic your powers—is to be less the mask and more the person behind the mask. It was rare for anyone other than Jones to leap into action. I wish the comic had run longer just to feature more street-level characters such as Shang-Chi or White Tiger. Instead, after a ridiculous turn going back to costumed super-antics, Jones “cleaned up,” had a child with Cage, and became more of a supporting wife/nag character in whatever Luke Cage happened to be starring in.

One of two things tends to make street-level characters great: sidelining their super-power or not having powers at all. Focusing on the personality and motivations of these characters tends to strip them of their stereotypical origins. Luke Cage is a fine example of this. It’s no problem that he’s from Harlem—lots of people are—but the jive talkin’ blaxploitation-era version is long gone. Who else is due for some updating?

How about “Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu”? Often referred to as “Marvel’s Bruce Lee,” Shang-Chi (created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin) has a crazy history inspired by the martial arts explosion of the 1970s. As a non-powered, street-level fighter whose narrative is pockmarked with ‘yellow peril’ antics, the comic had low and high points. Marvel tried to acquire the rights for an adaptation of the television show “Kung Fu,” but ended up with Sax Rohmer’s character, “Dr. Fu Manchu” instead. Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu and trained his entire life in wushu and eventually became his father’s greatest nemesis. This led to all kinds of intrigue and conflict a-la Enter-the-Dragon and Fists-of-Fury meets 007 style. All of this winning history was ruined as Marvel toyed with the character in the twenty-first century, eventually having him join the Avengers after being exposed to cosmic radiation and developing super-powers. Stupid. Shang-Chi was most successful as a non-powered, skilled character with personal entanglements, successes and failures. The few times he’d go up against a powered character, he’d win using skill and his wits. What could be better? Shang-Chi is due an update similar to Luke Cage!

Marvel’s bullpen had quite a bit more success with street-level characters than DC. I’ll also note, that more of Marvel’s creations were non-white. And appeared to be more from happenstance than by design to fuel racist stereotypes. Like the White Tiger (created by Bill Mantlo and George Pérez). The character’s origins can be traced back to the “Sons of the Tiger” (created by Dick Giordano and Gerry Conway). A martial arts trio, each of them carried one part of a jade tiger necklace: two paws and the head. On the surface, they appear as a nod to diversity, but dig just a little deeper and their origins are painfully stereotypical. Simply put: there are three characters. Lin Sun, an indeterminate Asian character who’s origins are founded entirely in martial arts; Abe Brown, a “black” character from the streets of Harlem; and Bob Diamond, a Hollywood actor. If you can’t connect the dots here, I’ll spell it out: even their names evoke racist stereotypes. Together, the amulets mystically linked them and tripled their martial arts abilities. When they broke up, the amulets were discarded to be found by Hector Ayala. Ayala is Puerto Rican for no other reason than he happens to be from PR. Also created in the 1970s, the White Tiger’s ethnic background had nothing to do with the fact he put on magic amulets and fought crime. He wasn’t named Latin Tiger and didn’t fight exclusively in Spanish Harlem or interact with only Latinx characters. Which meant Ayala needed to suffer an unfortunate demise. Towards the end of his career, Ayala discovers that he’s addicted to the amulets and eventually kicks the habit after being nearly shot to death by a villain. He puts the amulets on again after recovering and getting on the wagon for a little while. Only to be framed for murder and sent to prison. From which he tries to escape and is gunned down. Again. This time for good. The character was then resurrected in the form of Ayala’s niece, Angela Del Toro (created by Brian Michael Bendis, followed by Tamora Pierce)—my favorite version of the White Tiger. She’s a former FBI agent and full of character complexities and conflicts that make her costumed shenanigans so much more interesting. And her costume was cooler. Which, of course, meant she had to die. Murdered by The Hand and resurrected as their evil puppet, Del Toro goes on to be freed of The Hand’s evil influence—but not really—and ends up in prison. Until Ayala’s sister, Ava, inherits the amulets. So far, Ava is faring well. We’ll see how Marvel goes about destroying this latest version. Still, I think White Tiger needs an update! I believe Del Toro would’ve been best under the mantle with her private life as an ex-FBI agent and professional entanglements to keep things interesting but, unfortunately, Del Toro currently serves as an example of female writers and characters being tossed under the bus by fans and management alike.

Since we’ve just wandered through a Latinx character and focused on Marvel, let’s take a dig at one of DC’s idiotic attempts at diversity in comics: Vibe (created by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton). During one of the Justice League’s many ‘disbanded’ storylines, Francisco “Cisco” Ramone, leader of a Detroit street gang (naturally), decides to ditch that life to join the League. What? He subsequently gets the League into turf war with another gang (of course). Huh? Vibe is eventually killed (again: naturally) after he proves himself useful in one of DC’s many Crisis storylines. Because he’s the first Leaguer to die in action—well, duh—the Martian Manhunter puts his body into a cryogenic tube. Or something. Since that time, his body has been regularly resurrected to be a pain-in-the-ass and remind the Justice League how effed up their history is. I guess. Despite this utter nonsense, this character has undergone one of the best character resurrections via The Flash television show. The character himself, and the actor who portrays him (Carlos Valdes), are delightful, and a prime example of DC mining their schizophrenic, muddy history to update a racist-stereotype character for the better. Currently, Ramone’s character’s ethnic background is just that, his background. It’s not the the driving factor of his existence.

More, I say, more! Mine the jetsam and flotsam of a flawed past and scoop out the best parts of a rich and bizarre comic history! I want to know who else is out there, which other characters might be dredged out of the dustbin of stereotypes and brought up-to-date to be treated like the human beings they’re supposed to be?


Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Errick A. Nunnally served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school would be a safer—and more natural—pursuit. He strives to develop his strengths in storytelling and remains permanently distracted by art, comics, science fiction, history, and horror. Trained as a graphic designer, he has earned a black belt in Krav Maga with Muay Thai kickboxing after dark. Errick’s successes include: the novel, Blood For The Sun; a comic strip collection, Lost in Transition; and first prize in one hamburger contest. The following are short stories and their respective anthologies: Welcome to the D.I.V. (Wicked Witches); Harold At The Halfcourt (Inner Demons Out); Penny Incompatible (Eulogies IV); The Last Apology (A Dark World of Spirits and The Fey); You Call This An Apocalypse? (After The Fall); Recovery (Winter Animals: stories to benefit PROTECT.ORG); A Hundred Pearls: PROTECTORS 2  (stories to benefit PROTECT.ORG) and The Elevation of Oliver Black (Distant Dying Ember). He also has two lovely children and one beautiful wife.

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