Australians in Comics, A Primer

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Australian superheroes this week, along with Westerns and various other bits and bobs. For those who hoped that this would be about either (a) the tradition of homegrown Aussie superheroes (Crimson Comet and the Southern Squadron, anyone? [I didn’t say it was a PROUD tradition]) or (b) the far-flung Aussies who now make it their business to run the gaudy and captivating world of comic books. I’m talking, primarily, about those ‘mainstream’ American comics that feature Aussie characters, where they go right, and where they go wrong.  This is what I ended up with. Please note, that this list isn’t based on a particular set of researches, just my own memories and some mild internet trawling, so if I’ve missed someone, please tell me so. First commenter will win some form of valueless no-prize prize!

Before we begin, some facts/misconceptions about Australia that need to be dealt with:

  1. 89% of our population is urbanised. That’s 14% more urbanisation than in the US. We live in big, fancy cities.
  2. We have the highest rate of tertiary graduates in the OECD. We’re not, primarily “ocker”, and don’t feel compelled to correct most people about the size of their knives.
  3. 12% of the population are Asian Australians – six times the total of our aboriginal population. An Australian is twice as likely to be ethnically Chinese as they are to be aboriginal.
  4. There are a LOT of deadly animals here, but given Point 1, above, they’re pretty rarely seen in the average Aussie’s life. This means we’re not all reckless Steve Irwin wrangler types. Hell, I don’t even drink beer.

Please keep these facts in mind when we’re talking about portrayal, accuracy and representation. Without further ado: onto the bit!

1. The X-Men

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Gateway, Lifeguard, Barnacle, Red Lotus and Slipstream are all X-Men of relative standing. None have ever made the core “A-Team” (like say, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee, Wolverine), but Gateway, Lifeguard and Slipstream are all a big enough deal to make it onto Wikipedia with pictures. Brian Michael Bendis has just introduced the new X-Man Eva Bell, who seems to be running on a team with Cyclops, Emma Frost and Magneto, essential X-folk all.

Bad luck for Barnacle, whom we don’t see much of, but at least barnacles get everywhere, and there’s nothing stereotypical about an Australian hero in a hard shell. Gateway is an Australian aborigine, about which I’m a little divided – representation of a person of colour in superhero comics is always good, but representing that person of colour as a silent, non-speaking, wilderness dwelling “shaman” figure wise in ancient lore carries with it other, less positive connotations.

Like new X-Man Eva Bell, Lifeguard and Slipstream are both from Surfers Paradise, Australia (which SOUNDS like a beachside town, but is in fact a thriving suburb of a city of 600,000 people). Slipstream is a teleporting surfer, and Lifeguard, is well, the ultimate lifeguard. So you can see how their mutant powers and themes aren’t just one-note variations on their location at all. Slipstream lost his powers in M-Day, but Lifeguard’s still alive and kicking, and apparently tapped as a low-level X-Man into the future. Good for her.

Red Lotus was also a member of the X-Treme X-Men, and does fall within the 12% Asian Australian demographic I mentioned above. He unfortunately also represents that demographic by being the heir to a Triad gang with a very Sax Rohmer-y codename. Still, given so many X-Men have criminal pasts and there’s nothing inherently negative about the Lotus, maybe that’s not as bad as it could be. He did actually team up with a number of C-List X-Men and become involved in multiple stories, so that’s a proper service record.

Pyro_(St._John_Allerdyce)

In addition to the cited X-Men, no summation of the role of Aussies in the X-Universe would be complete without Pyro, a villain turned anti-hero turned hero. They may of made him American in the movies and British in the ’90s cartoon, but that’s skipping over the critical point that his profile is high enough to make it into the movies and the ’90s cartoon. That’s no small feat, unequaled by any of the heroic X-Men. Pyro is pretty much the KING of Aussie portrayals in the pure superhero world – he’s a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, fought the Avengers, caught the Legacy Virus, and CONVERTED SENATOR ROBERT KELLY INTO AN IDEAL OF PEACEFUL HUMAN/MUTANT COOPERATION BY SAVING HIS LIFE. If, like me, villainous Kelly is an archetypal part of your vision of the X-Universe, that’s a massive change to wreak. Pyro also gets a nice power, control over fire, and a name that’s linked to that power. He’s not linked to some external perspective of “Australian-ness” beyond the fact that he’s Australian.

Eva Bell looks like she’ll fall into this latter category (I’m hopeful) but it may still be too soon to tell. So far, she seems like a pretty prototypical teen, which given that it’s Bendis writing her is a good sign. She seems to be acquiring the name of “Tempus”, which relating to her time-stopping powers removes her solidly from the “regional character needs regional code name” listings.

Why so many X-Men? A lot of it has to do with the status of the X-Men as a global phenomenon. Being outside of the usual superhero milieu, they’re often portrayed without the trappings of superhero-dom – dedicated cities to protect, supercriminal nemeses, etc, etc. They can literally show up anywhere doing anything.

As the cultural parallel of the X-Men expanded to encompass a representation of the generally disenfranchised (and away from the strict civil rights movement reflection of its early years), it became important that the X-Men were both seen to be the prime exemplars of this new worldwide culture, but also that they could rely alternatively on support or criticism from unexpected quarters, no matter where they might be.

It’s somewhat notable that the X-Men don’t choose their destinies. Even for Marvel heroes, there tends to be much less “and now, I shall become a SUPERHERO” speechifying in their makeup.

The trend in American comics tends to be for the base unit of the superhero to be American, with other countries having nationally themed superhero representatives of that country rather than just having their own superheroes. There’s an element of branding about international heroes that the X-Men simply don’t need. They get everywhere.

2. Captain Boomerang

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Aside from the X-Men, this is, to my mind, the big one. The portrayal of Australians in American superhero comics that supersedes all others. Why? Well, his name is CAPTAIN BOOMERANG so he’s got an almost necessarily Australian pedigree, but he also dates from smack in the middle of the Silver Age, when most ethnicities in comics were summarised by the moustache given to the character and some reductive form of declamation. That being said, John Ostrander did some significant work towards authenticity (he famously got all his slang right, but was told by an Aussie friend that, whilst accurate, it shouldn’t be used in every single sentence) and “Digger” is allowed both some degree of nuance (menace, joke, coward, opportunist and conflicted about all of the above) and a wider cultural context in which to be interpreted (the Suicide Squad actually visit Australia, where, despite a little bit of grating Crocodile Dundee-ism, we come off pretty well. Part of that Crocodile Dundeeism becomes excusable when you find out that Ostrander went to the trouble of adding in the note that Digger is from Korumburra, which makes his “country bumpkin” demeanour a little more explicable. Notable also is the fact that he’s only half-Australian – I can’t decide if that’s a plus or a minus.

3. Boomerang

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He’s an Australian Major League Baseball Player, which is pretty out there, but does show a certain degree of cultural diversity. Like Captain Boomerang, he has specialised Boomerangs, but unlike Digger, he’s a pretty competent and fierce opponent. Whilst less high profile than his Captain counterpart, Boomerang still remains a notable Marvel figure, with a slew of appearances including right up to last month’s Superior Spider-Man. He (haha) plays in the big leagues, even if they don’t entirely respect him. Aside from gaining the name “Outback” in the Fifty States Initiative, he’s a pretty solid representative of Alice Springs and there aren’t a lot of reasons for complaint. Except for the whole ruthless super-villain thing.

4. Dark Ranger

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I’m pretty fond of Dark Ranger II. An aboriginal tattoo artist by day and urban crimefighter by Melbourne night is a pretty good mix (the city notoriously has had some notable gangland wars and killings, but is also wealthy, sophisticated, etc). Grant Morrison went to the trouble to do some research for Batman Incorporated, so his principal adventure features Batman Park (named after significant historical figure John Batman who also lends his name to a wide variety of Australian places and things to weird effect for the comics fan) and depicts fairly accurately big parts of the city. Dark Ranger I (aka The Ranger) we know little about, beyond that he seems to skew less towards the joke end of the Club of Heroes.

5. Colleen Franklin

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Nick Spencer did a phenomenal job with another (half-)Australian, Colleen Franklin, the control figure from his short lived revival of the Thunder Agents. The portrayal was so naturalistic and removed from stereotype that I didn’t notice she was Australian until I did, at which point it became obvious that she had been so all along. So, many marks in your favour, Nick.

6. Mammoth

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Mammoth is pretty much one-note, but at least mammoths aren’t notably Australian and he hasn’t ended up with a marsupial codename or some such. He also gets some motivation out of his relationship with his sister, which makes him more than a one note Aussie gimmick.

7. Astro City

[NOT PICTURED]

Kurt Busiek did well with introducing a team of Aussie superheroes who fought off the Enelsians in Astro City. I asked Kurt the other day if we were going to see them again, and I got a somewhat coy “Anything’s possible.” There were, IIRC, four of them: Barrier, Bullroarer, Kookaburra and the Colonial. If Barrier isn’t a reference to the Great Barrier Reef, then it might rank up there with Pyro and Gateway as a name that any comic book character might be proud to bear, and Astro City gets extra points for giving almost ALL characters from regions other than Astro City a “locally themed” nickname, and providing a reason for doing so: most heroes live in Astro City and otherwise really are regional specialties. Besides, Astro City lovingly lampoons as much as it homages comics history as a whole, which means that we see a lot of less fortunate tropes with the edges gently sanded away and explained.

8. Tasmanian Devil

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Tasmanian Devil I’ve notably left underrepresented as I don’t know him terribly well. I understand he’s a vanguard for LGBTQ representation in superhero comics and a well-respected character to boot. So, all in all, that’s pretty good, even if he’s always going to share associations with the Warner Bros. cartoon.

How does that break down? Well, of the 17 characters listed here, 7 are X-Men. Three are villains, two of those villains with a special theme surrounding boomerangs. Four of them (let’s be generous to Barrier) have non-parochial super-IDs.

I think we’ve come off pretty well, representation-wise, but its by no means the best effort. I can’t complain, because we’ve done better than everyone except the British and the Canadians, and as the prominent native-English speaking, shared historical nations with America, the home of superhero comics. People are starting to sit up and take notice.

I’m not going to nitpick things about Australia, like the proper title of the Australian Federal Police or the fact (and this is important for almost anywhere else in the world) that we drive on the other side of the road to America, but I do think its worth considering Australia in more than a second-hand context as we turn up in more and more comics. Thankfully, we have a pretty thriving comics community, so the easiest thing to do to consider integration would be to ask someone.

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