Diversifying the Superhero Canon: From Mel Casas to Renée Cox and the Department of Illegal Superheroes

by Ruben C. Cordova August 26, 2019
Mel Casas, Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash), 1973

Mel Casas, Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash), 1973, acrylic on canvas, Mel Casas Family Trust, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

Mel Casas painted Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash) in 1973 as a manifesto for ethnic diversity: in it, a Chicano boy visualizes six white male superheroes, but none of color. Humanscape 70 functions as a clarion call that is answered by works that espouse multiple forms of diversity in the Men of Steel, Women of Wonder exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA, through September 1). 

Casas’s Humanscape series was inspired by his glimpse of a drive-in screen in 1965. A talking woman on screen appeared to be “munching” on trees in the landscape in front of the drive-in. Casas responded to this experience by making more than 150 paintings that reference movie and television screens. In Humanscape 70, the screen image is black, though it has gold stars and a sloppily whitewashed center. In the margins of the painting, six of the most eminent superheroes make a dramatic entrance. Batman, Superman, and Hawkman are characters from DC Comics, while Spiderman, Thor, and Captain America are found in Marvel Comics. Thus, Casas has created a superhero summit that unites both comic book universes. 

We can assume the Chicano boy in the painting is economically disadvantaged because he is clad in a simple white muscle shirt. He doesn’t look at the superheroes that fly and swing into the painting because they already fill his head. These heroes are externalizations of harsh realities as well as childish fantasies. The boy’s thought balloon says “WOW” in letters whose colors echo those of the superheroes. But in an analytic chart Casas made of the painting and in interviews with the author, Casas explained that the child becomes the “victim of an imposed alienation,” a “being with cartoon thoughts; a three dimensional being wishing to be two-dimensional.” Casas explains that the “WOW” becomes transformed into “‘MOM’ upside down.” This epiphany initiates a flow of questions from the child that are noted in Casas’ analytic chart:

“MOM, am I a stepchild in my own country?

MOM, what is my image?

MOM, am I second best?

MOM, if I am not a hero, am I a villain?

MOM, where do I belong?”

The child wants to know why none of the heroes look like him. “It’s about comic lies, racial lies, white lies, you can go on and on,” explained the artist. Casas was also fond of contrasting his use of comic book imagery to that of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who “stuck with the comic technically, with the Ben-Day dot matrix.” By contrast, Casas says he emphasized “the message matrix.” The whitewash in the center of the painting recalls Lichtenstein’s sardonic references to Willem de Kooning’s “heroic” Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes (minus the Ben-Day dots). Casas’ analytic chart referenced Webster’s dictionary to explain the significance of his whitewash imagery: “a glossing over or concealment of faults or defects in an effort to exonerate or give the appearance of soundness.” During the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, color was effectively whitewashed off of the skin of superheroes. Casas’s analytic chart concludes: “impact not comic.”  

The Humanscape cycle reflects Casas’ profound understanding of media, including the deleterious effects of media invisibility. Casas was born in El Paso, so let us examine the relevance of the recent massacre of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart. As noted by Alex Nogales and others, mass media exclusion makes it easier for impressionable people to target Latinos because they are more likely to believe sensationalistic “news” stories or presidential declarations that decry Latino “invasions.” Carolina A. Miranda, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has essentially declared a media state of emergency: “If ever there were an urgent moment for the various culture industries — film studios, theater companies, art museums and TV production companies — to act on issues of diversity and inclusion, that moment is now… rendering an entire segment of the population invisible makes the cultural arena complicit in a marginalization that is entering increasingly dangerous territory.”

Stephen Paul Judd, Siouxperwoman and Siouxperman, both 2014

Stephen Paul Judd, Siouxperwoman and Siouxperman, both 2014, serigraph, courtesy of the artist, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

During Stephen Paul Judd’s childhood on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi, he admired Superman films, though he pictured Superman as a Native American like himself, with brown skin and braids. By substituting the homophone “Sioux” for “Su.” Judd brilliantly nativized the man and woman of steel on his faux-comic book covers. He underscored their Siouxper priority by dating them to 1491, just before Columbus reached the Americas. In “real” comic book time, DC Comics cost 15 cents from 1969 to 1971 (before Judd’s birth in 1977), which would place these comics right on the cusp of the Silver and Bronze ages (1970 is the line of demarcation). 

Fahamu Pecou, Nunna My Heros (after Barkley Hendricks’ Icon for My Man Superman) 2011

Fahamu Pecou, Nunna My Heros (after Barkley Hendricks’ Icon for My Man Superman) 2011, acrylic, gold leaf and oil stick on canvas, Nasher Museum, Duke University, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

Fahamu Pecou’s work engages with “contemporary readings and performances of Black male masculinity.” Nunna My Heros is part of Pecou’s ART HISTORY neXt series, which “questions the notions of inclusion and exclusion within the historical canon of fine art” through the use of self-portraits. Other works in the series riff on self-portraits by Norman Rockwell, Frida Kahlo, Chuck Close, and Man Ray.

Pecou’s painting is a response to Barkley Hendricks’ Icon for My Man Superman, whose subtitle (Superman never saved any Black people) is a quote from the Black Panther Bobby Seale. As noted in the catalogue, the artist explains that given the “oppression, poverty, violence and other traumas” in the black community, “Superman’s nonappearance is glaring.” So by replacing Superman’s “S” with an “F”, Pecou is essentially saying “Fuck you” to the Superman-as-savior myth. He knows that a black man has to be his own Superman. 

Michael Ray Charles with You Need a And you Know It (Forever Free), 1994

Michael Ray Charles with You Need a And you Know It (Forever Free), 1994, acrylic latex, oil wash, and copper penny on paper, collection of Barbara Karp Shuster, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

In this extraordinarily complex work, Michael Ray Charles combines elements from racist advertising signs, Mickey Mouse, and Superman. In the process, he exposes: the long, sordid history of using racist images of black people to sell products in the U.S.; the racist roots of Mickey Mouse; and the racially exclusionary character of Superman. These advertising images served white supremacist attitudes because they mocked blacks and aggressively asserted their inferiority while marketing diverse commercial products. They simultaneously aggravated and reinforced negative attitudes towards blacks. 

For examples and analysis, see the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. The artificially weathered-look of Charles’ painting mimics a vintage racist advertising sign. These signs are now highly collectible. The slogans “you need a” and “and you know it” tout an imaginary, illusory, impossible product noted in the subtitle: “Forever Free.” The face of Charles’ figure is based on a racist stereotype known as a pickaninny: it is very similar to those used for many decades to advertise products. 

Topsy Brand Citrus Fruit Label, c. 1920s

Topsy Brand Citrus Fruit Label, c. 1920s

A pickaninny image is that of a dark child, characterized by a huge mouth with big red lips (usually smiling and colored bright red like a clown’s lips), bulging eyes, and messy hair (or in this case, so meticulously groomed that it looks abstract). But unlike traditional pickaninny images, the face of Charles’ figure looks more like a young adult than a child. Its gender is also ambiguous. 

For a history of the development of black stereotypes and their relation to minstrel shows, vaudeville and blackface, see: “History of Blackface.”  While the “S” logo and, at least to some extent, the star-patterned red cape in Charles’ painting can be linked to Superman, the loose-fitting red shorts, the big yellow baby boots, and white gloves are attributes of Mickey Mouse (Superman always wears tighter red shorts). Charles’ utilization of Mickey Mouse imagery references the Disney character’s roots in minstrel shows, in which white performers wore blackface and created demeaning depictions of Black people. (Black performers initially had to wear blackface and perform the same kind of debased stereotypes). In 1994, Charles created another weathered image of a stereotypic black child with red shorts and white gloves that was falsely claimed on social media to have been the basis for Mickey Mouse. It was the subject of a debunking Snopes article. Rebecca S. Cohen’s thoughtful 1997 review in the Austin Chronicle identifies the artist’s motivation: “Charles says that negative images about African-Americans are hiding throughout American culture, just below the surface, on TV sitcoms and cartoons of every vintage and in advertising and sports. He didn’t invent them, he is not single-handedly perpetuating them.”

Cohen summarizes Charles’ views on combating these images: “…you have to open up old stereotypes and lay them out, superimpose them on top of today’s world, in order to understand them, to have any chance at all of truly making them go away.” That accounts for his superimposition of a pickaninny, Mickey, and Superman in this painting. It was part of a series that deployed similar elements, and was not made with a preconceived program. Nonetheless, one can tease out a potential narrative: a person who cannot shake the pickaninny stereotype is trying to transform into Superman, but can only muster a shirt and a not-altogether-appropriate cape (it has stars, similar to Wonder Woman’s original dress). This character’s arms and legs are black, like those of Mickey Mouse. But this blackness — at least on the upper body — is some kind of garment. While taking it off, this person almost seems to be peeling back his/her own skin. The shoes and gloves are of course attributes of the Disney character. The failure to convincingly impersonate Superman exposes Mickey’s connection to minstrelry and to racist imagery: there is a connection between this pickaninny face and Mickey Mouse’s face, just as surely as there is a connection between their shared black skin, white gloves, red shorts, and yellow shoes. This painting can also be viewed as an indictment of Superman. He cannot be seen at all in the hood. Is this an impoverished child (or young adult) who cannot afford an adequate Superman costume? More likely, he or she cannot convincingly assume Superman’s heroic white persona specifically because American history — as well as all of the images that have circulated in popular culture for hundreds of years — keep getting in the way. We can consider these representations as a prison-house of images that compounds Fredric Jameson’s prison-house of language. This subject’s black skin is real and not real at the same time: he/she can peel off the black, skin-like garment, but a real black skin lies beneath all the clothing (the pickaninny head is proof of that). He/she tries to assume Superman’s mantle, but gets stuck with Mickey’s yellow shoes, his big shorts, and his white gloves (the latter were needed to conceal the white skin of the black impersonators because cork would have rubbed off of their hands). Charles recalls that when he was a child, none of the comics he read had a superhero who looked like him. This painting is the child of those experiences. Remember also that the “real” Superman only helps those who live on the other side of the tracks. 

Renée Cox, Chillin’ with Liberty, 1998

Renée Cox, Chillin’ with Liberty, 1998, Cibachrome print, courtesy of the artist, photograph Long Gallery

Renée Cox’s Chillin’ with Liberty is the antithesis of a stereotypic image. It represents the acme of black beauty, black power, and black artistic agency. Cox had that all-too-familiar, people-of-color epiphany-of-superhero-exclusion moment while shopping at Toys “R” Us. “There are no black superheroes here,” she lamented. As a corrective, in 1998 Cox created a photographic series utilizing her own image as a black super-heroine named Rajé. During the course of her research, Cox had discovered a short-lived black super-heroine named Nubia, who was presented as the twin sister of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman, in her creation myth, was created by Zeus, so we can assume that Nubia sprang from his head (or whatever) at the same instant. Rajé is the imagined granddaughter of Nubia, and she possesses the combined powers of Nubia (ability to turn people to stone, travel to magical realms, great strength, the power of healing) and Wonder Woman (flight, empathy, eternal youth,  instantaneous understanding of language and ability to communicate). Obviously, the male inventors of comic books defined masculinity by strength and speed (and sometimes anger), whereas femininity was characterized more by forms of intelligence and communication: empathy, understanding, a gift for language and healing.  

Rajé, who wears Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets, sits atop the statue officially known as Liberty Enlightening the World. Though better known as the Statue of Liberty and popularly associated with immigration, it was initially conceived by Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye in 1865 as a monument to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the U.S. The statue was inaugurated in 1886, six years before Ellis Island was opened.

An 1870 model by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi has Liberty holding broken chains with her left hand. More chains and a broken shackle were meant to be at her feet. Due to opposition from U.S. funders, the chain-in-hand was replaced by the book of law (broken chains remain at the statue’s feet, though they are only visible by helicopter). A copy of the early model and a detail of the chains at the foot of the present statue are illustrated in an LA Progressive article. Though the U.S. Parks Service had long suppressed the anti-slavery origins of the statue, this history is now accurately portrayed in the new museum that opened at the site in May of 2019. 

Liberty’s head (from chin to cranium) measures more then 17 feet, so Rajé is an Amazonian presence, far larger than an average woman. Like Liberty, she too, is a colossus for freedom and liberty. Unlike Wonder Woman, who primarily saves other whites, Rajé combats all forms of oppression, including racial oppression. The colors of Rajé’s uniform are also unique. They are Pan African colors, based on the Jamaican flag. Gold stands for sunlight and wealth; black for strength and creativity; and green for hope and agriculture. In another photograph titled Eruption, Rajé stands before an erupting volcano and breaks chains with her bare hands. Thus chains that were forged in fire are burst against a backdrop of fire. In another work called Liberation of Lady J and UB (not in the SAMA exhibition), Rajé frees Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their servile, stereotypic roles. She has miraculously restored them to a youthful state. Buff and scantily clad in order to enjoy their new lives to the fullest, Lady J and UB stride out of their product-box prisons with Futurist-style multiple images that suggest motion. Whereas many artists critique stereotypes, Cox is determined to shatter them.  

After heavy doses of gods, goddesses, and unabashed sex symbols, the Wonder Waitress vignettes (1978) serve as the ultimate palate cleanser by providing a taste of quotidian life. Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin performed a 7-day conceptual waitress piece, which was photographed by Maria Karras. They battled rude patrons, thwarted their boss’s machinations, and engendered professional sisterhood. These non-glamorized images of working-class pride and everyday valor and heroism hearken back to Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter (1943), which is also in the exhibition. 

Rich Simmons, Chrome Reflections, 2016, and Between the Capes, 2014, both mixed media

Rich Simmons, Chrome Reflections, 2016, and Between the Capes, 2014, both mixed media and courtesy of Oliver Cole Gallery-Miami, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

In Rich Simmons’ Between the Capes, Superman and Batman are locked in a super-smooch. Since they have so much in common, theirs promises to be an enduring union. Superman and Batman have similar goals and professional interests, their jobs require highly closeted existences, and they both have a taste for justice and for boldly colored work clothes. 

Rich Simmons, detail of Chrome Reflections

Rich Simmons, detail of Chrome Reflections, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

In Simmons’ Chrome Reflections, stereoscopic tears flow beneath stereoscopic reflections of Batman and Superman’s super-smooch. The museum label suggests that the woman in the piece, who resembles Lois Lane, could be jealous or homophobic. The “real” Lois Lane, of course, was hot for Superman. But she scarcely acknowledged that Clark Kent existed, just because he wore big glasses and boring clothes. So it’s ironic that her big glasses reflect the kiss that drives her to tears. This article has its origin in a gallery talk I gave at SAMA, where a museum visitor suggested a third reading: that the woman is crying tears of joy for Superman and Batman. That is now my favorite interpretation. Simmons’ point is that superheroes are super, regardless of their sexual orientation. He also offers this insight in the catalogue: “Superheroes can inspire us to break free from the shadows and become the hero we are all capable of being.”

One corner of the exhibition highlights immigration issues. It featured two of Dulce Pinzón’s marvelous photographs of immigrants performing low-paid work: a laundress dressed as Wonder Woman and a delivery boy dressed as Superman. In addition to providing essential services, these superheroes also send money to their families in Mexico. 

Enrique Chagoya, Crossing 1 (detail), 1994

Enrique Chagoya, Crossing 1 (detail), 1994, acrylic and water based oil on handmade amate paper, collection of Julia L. Lanigan, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

I have already written about Enrique Chagoya’s “Reverse Anthropology” painting in which Aztec Invaders (who arrived by spaceship) face off against a Pilgrim/Clark Kent/Superman, but I neglected to note that the dripping paint on Superman’s shield evokes blood. 

Superman Impersonator in front of installation of 24 “wanted posters” in the Illegal Superheroes Series 1 (2012) by The Department of Illegal Superheroes (ICE DISH)

Superman Impersonator in front of installation of 24 “wanted posters” in the Illegal Superheroes Series 1 (2012) by The Department of Illegal Superheroes (ICE DISH), photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

The Department of Illegal Superheroes delivered a powerful visual shock with its installation of wanted posters. According to its website, ICE DISH is “the largest investigative agency in the U.S. charged with administering the apprehension and removal of illegal superheroes.” It was created because “the country’s current immigration policy must be applied to all, including superheroes.” Apparently, none of the known superheroes have their papers in order, and all must be brought to justice. 

Seal of The Department of Illegal Superheroes

Seal of The Department of Illegal Superheroes, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

To return to the issue of visibility noted at the beginning of this article, Carolina A. Miranda notes that in a recent survey of 2,000 solo exhibitions at 30 museums, only 5.5% were given to Latin American or Latino artists.

Mel Casas, Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash), (detail of Thor and Chicano boy with thought bubble)

Mel Casas, Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash), (detail of Thor and Chicano boy with thought bubble), photograph by Ruben C. Cordova


Men of Steel, Women of Wonder‘ was curated by Alejo Benedetti of Crystal Bridges (the show’s first venue). After it closes at SAMA on September 1, it travels to the Addison Gallery in Andover, MA. 


Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. Some of the Mel Casas quotes published here appeared in his book chapter “Getting the Big Picture: Political Themes in the Humanscapes of Mel Casas, 1968–1977,” in Víctor A. Sorell and Scott L. Baugh, eds., Born of Resistance: Cara a Cara Encounters with Chicana/o Visual Culture (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015). As offerings for San Antonio’s Tricentennial in 2018, Cordova curated The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth (Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center) and American History Does Not Begin with the White Man: Indigenous Themes in the Work of Mel Casas (Bihl Haus). Cordova’s next exhibition is a revisionist account of Day of the Dead (Oct. 24-Jan. 19 at Centro de Artes in San Antonio), which will feature more than 100 works by more than 50 artists, including Mel Casas, Enrique Chagoya, and more than one altered superhero.   

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Ruben C Cordova August 31, 2019 - 02:51

Boris Johnson, current UK Prime Minister and Brexiteer-in-chief, wrote this in the Telegraph in 2002: “‘It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies,’ he wrote, referring to African people as having ‘watermelon smiles.'” It is part of the compendium of sexist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, and racist quotes by Johnson that Adam Bienkov compiled in the Business Insider titled “Boris Johnson called gay men ‘tank-topped bumboys’ and black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles'” (Jul. 23, 2019). It points to the importance and relevance of artists in the Men of Steel, Women of Wonder exhibition. It also made me wonder if Enrique Chagoya had done a picture of Johnson yet.


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