"Mighty Avengers," and the Importance of "Chameleons"

Accomplishments that leave a significant impact take time, talent and cunning.

It wasn't long ago that the first issue of Marvel's "Mighty Avengers" series made its debut. The team's lineup included Luke Cage, a Black superhero to be seen starring in his own upcoming Marvel Television/Netflix live-action series.

I bought the book, hopeful that it would be better than I expected. My hope was in vain. The first issue didn't meet my standards, and I didn't buy any issues after that for a while.

It's like the 20-page test in Hollywood concerning screenplays. If you can't nail me in the first 20 pages, there's no reason to think it's going to get better.

That's what the first issue of a comic book is, a test, to see if it has what it takes to separate a consumer from his or her money for the long run, which means you bring it hard up front. Give me your best, reel me in, and then take me on a ride to build to a crescendo ending with me sitting back and thinking, "That's what comic books are supposed to be."

Fun. Intelligent. Exciting.


Ultimately, I thought the book would have come out the gate much better if it had been written by a person of color, man or woman, since the cast of "Mighty Avengers" was primarily comprised of men and women of color, but it wasn't.

And so I left "Mighty Avengers" behind to immerse myself in the four-color pages of other comic books.

Five months later, in part as preparation to write one of the columns in my first series "The Color Barrier," I decided to purchase "Mighty Avengers" #6. I was surprised to see that the book had evolved considerably since the first issue. More sophisticated character interplay, different kinds of storytelling techniques on parallel tracks and the various characters being portrayed as formidable in smart ways. The new artist seemed to have a more naturalistic style that complemented the story well. Finally, The Falcon, a Black character made globally known by the success of the Marvel Studios film "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", was added to the cast.


A few months later, I was in Boston with my fiancee on a weekend vacation, and I stepped into a comic book store and out of curiosity looked at issues #8 and #9 of "Mighty Avengers," and I teetered on the edge about buying them. I didn't, but the book had me teetering.

The book finally nailed me when, during Marvel's company-wide cosmic murder mystery storyline "Original Sin," the writer revealed a secret history going back to the much-beloved, respected and emulated '70s period in Black and American history.

Additionally, the "Mighty Avengers" title is going to be relaunched as "Captain America and the Mighty Avengers," starring the new Captain America -- the superhero formerly known as The Falcon. Yep, that same Black superhero everyone has now heard of is the new Captain America and leading a group of Avengers who are primarily heroes of color.

That was when I had the "a-ha" moment.

Marvel Comics had succeeded in getting people to buy a comic book with a cast of characters of color by making it seem devoid of agenda, and maybe it was.


Speaking from my experiences in the corporate world, I've learned that a number of companies producing material for mass consumption do not like agendas, and they certainly do not like agendas from people of color concerning diversity.

They don't want to ruffle feathers, or rattle that cage, or take on that crusade and lose the portion of their audience not interesting in hearing about issues concerning "those people."

How, then, can a person execute a mission that may ruffle feathers... without ruffling feathers?


A friend of mine, a Professor at a well-known university in New York City, told me a story recently about a highly-respected and sometimes controversial Black television anchor who, in the wee hours of the night, fired off a Tweet or series of Tweets about President Barack Obama. How Obama was playing the long hand with his decisions and maneuvers, within a governmental and political structure designed to prevent people like him from executing a master plan, realizing an agenda. How most people maligning him had no understanding of the pit of vipers he deals with, and by publicly attacking him at every turn, those attackers were undermining him in his mission. The mission he dare not speak of publicly. The one he takes on, with sacrifice.

My friend saw the Tweet and it blew him off his legs, but when he tried to find the Tweet some hours later, it was nowhere to be found. Apparently, said anchor deleted the Tweet, reconsidering the statement... or the public broadcast of it.

In the final column of my first series "The Color Barrier," I broke down the community of color in the comic book industry (fans, consumers, and employees) into four categories: the Complainers, the Apathetic, the Fighters and the Navigators.

I neglected to mention the Fifth Category: the Chameleons.

Those individuals within the system, working to effect change by adapting to their environment, doing things for the cause of diversity under the guise of "business as usual" so as to not bring unwanted attention to themselves... to not be seen as one of "those people" but one of "the company people."

The chameleons may have it the toughest in some ways, playing the long hand on the low, to the degree where they sometimes seem like they don't care, like the only time they engage diversity is when it seems like an opportunity for good PR.

But we need those chameleons right where they are, in the mix, helping the cause while remaining incognito, and we may not see the real impact of their efforts until years later.

And then we'll all have the "a-ha" moment, where we see the superstructure of that person's past actions, what he or she had been doing all along at that comic book company, or that film studio, or that book publisher, or that television network, and so on.

So while taking on The Mission, to develop one's ability to its highest potential, and use it in service of helping to realize the equal creative and business playing field all people from diverse groups deserve... if you happen to figure out the identity of one of the Chameleons, if you see the angles of their actions and how it will have impact in the long run...

...don't expose them.

Before you think someone is doing too little or just giving lip service, look at all of their actions in a package, and consider the possibility that he or she is accomplishing a great deal over a period of time.

There are more Avengers out there than you think.

Joseph Phillip Illidge is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series "Thief of Thieves" by "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, and videogame developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, videogames, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.

Joseph has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at Digital Book World's forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel "Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books," and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

His latest project is "The Ren," a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. "The Ren" will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

["The Mission" banner designed by Gavin Motnyk.]

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