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The Perils of Being Woke: 'America' is not for everyone, which is sadly ironic

Comic Books

The Perils of Being Woke: ‘America’ is not for everyone, which is sadly ironic

It’s not who America is that’s the problem, it’s how she’s written.

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In recent years, Marvel Comics has put forward a serious commitment toward diversity in its publications, especially in the introduction of a more ethnically diverse lineup of legacy characters like Kamala Khan and Miles Morales. These new characters are the company’s way of reaching out to certain demographics that have historically gone underrepresented by the largest publisher in the comics world, which would be a commendable endeavor if it didn’t often feel more like a commercially mandated effort than a genuine attempt at inclusivity. Naturally this has led to a pretty contentious nerd community, with some embracing these characters as important pieces of representation for people who have never had a hero who looks like them, while others decry the publisher diverting its attention from familiar faces for these new heroes with the same super identity. Though Kamala and Miles have managed to break through due to the strength of their solo series and place in the larger 616 universe, few characters in this newest crop of non-binary, mutli-ethnic personalities are quite as contentious as America Chavez.

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The Perils of Being Woke: 'America' is not for everyone, which is sadly ironic

Her, the woman subtly dressed in America gear and loudly proclaiming her own name.

First introduced as part of the short lived Vengeance series, but really fleshed out as part of Kieron Gillen’s 2013 run on Young Avengers, America (Miss America if you’re nasty) is a Latina powerhouse who has super strength and invulnerability, can fly, and can create cross dimensional star portals with her punches and kicks. She’s also a lesbian alien from an alternate dimension dubbed the Utopian Parallel who manages to be both the product of two loving mothers (who sacrificed themselves to save the universe and give America the requisite ‘Mommy issues‘ that all superheroes seem to have) and a biracial woman, seemingly claiming half a dozen nationalities in the third issue of the five collected in this trade. Indeed, America seems to be the very personification (as far as a fictional character can be, I suppose) of Marvel’s diversity efforts. She’s a non-binary woman of color in a field predominantly centered around straight white men of power — and I think that is an important thing to have in this world. Representation is incredibly powerful, especially in a highly visual medium like comic books. As such I support the character of America and her continued importance in the Marvel Universe as leader of the latest incarnation of The Ultimates. Personally, I think Monica Rambeau should be leader, but I won’t make that fuss here.

The point being, I really like America Chavez conceptually…I just think her solo series is sort of ‘meh.’

America Vol 1

Sorry, Ame, but it’s true.

Now for personal context, I am of Puerto Rican descent but very pale-skinned and, thus, experience all the privilege that comes with being a straight white cisgendered male. I recognize 100% that despite a shared connection to the endemic Puerto Rican culture of the Bronx, I don’t really fit the demographic that America’s background is meant to empower. I further accept that series scribe Gabby Rivera brings a unique perspective to the character whose age demographic and lifestyle are at least somewhat foreign to me. I think it’s excellent that a queer latin woman is the pen behind this series, as it allows for a level of insight into a community that not just any writer can claim. I just feel that the series, much like the creation of the character, feels a bit too all over the place and incoherent to tell stories that feel consequential and fully formed. It feels like Rivera is expecting to be cancelled after every issue so she tries to cram everything she can think of in each chapter, then end on a cliffhanger to encourage readers to come back for the next outing.

It’s probably because of that concern, then, that it seems like the author wants to make sure every issue is more ‘woke’ than the last. I’m fairly far left on the political spectrum (100% supportive of gay rights; voted for Hillary, Obama, Kerry and Nader in reverse order; an ally in the advancement for women’s rights; marched in a few Black Lives Matter rallies, etc.) and even I had to roll my eyes at some of the things said and done in this book. It works in spurts: like the fact that America is an extra-dimensional alien with two moms that still somehow claims like 10 nationalities is progressive and interesting, but combine that with the fact all characters in the book are either gay or not in a relationship, little witticisms like “holy menstruation” are peppered throughout the series, the constant ostentatious use of non-binary pronouns and spelling, and the “gay best friend” cliche’ that is Prodigy (a character I actually like) among others, and the book feels more like an agenda than a proper story.

America vol 1

Not helping that feeling? This apparent cameo appearance by Gabby Rivera on the very first page of the very first issue.

The premise of this arc sees America enroll in Sotomayor University, a unique sort of super person college for people without the proper genetic makeup to enroll at Xavier’s School for the Gifted. Naturally, hijinks ensue — and America is at the center of it, whether that be an attack from prep-school cyborgs or a time-hopping class assignment that never gets resolved. The school (named after real life Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, in the kind of nod toward the real world that always feels out of place in Marvel books) is home to a colorful and diverse cast of characters — including the biggest stumbling block to my acceptance of America‘s supporting cast — the Leelumultipass Phi Theta Betas. This seemingly all-Latina sorority is far and away the most obnoxious element of this book, and it’s only partly due to the sole semblance of character development for the entire squad being their leader, Xandria’s changing hair styles.

Again, I think it’s awesome to have a diverse array of women for readers to relate to — especially ones who want to be senators, engineers and biologists — I just don’t think there’s any substance there. Outside of them being a B-girl crew that loves The Fifth Element, what do we learn about these characters? I’ve read through the book twice and I couldn’t tell you any of the other women’s names or what their motivations were. In the third issue they actually travel across dimensions to help America fight an extra-dimensional energy being…so like, maybe they have powers too? I dunno, that whole sequence is really ill defined. If regular people are capable of punching out these energy beings, why do you need a heavy hitter like America? If it was too much of a threat for America to handle on her own, why bring her college classmates along to help? She literally leads a team that includes Monica Rambeau, Carol Danvers, and the Blue Marvel. Why are Xandria and the fly girls coming to save the day when America has the Avengers on speed dial? But I digress…

America Vol 1

Yeah, the dancers from Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video are a much better choice than Spectrum or Captain Marvel.

The other blemish on her extended cast has got to be the Chavez Guerillas, a group of America super fans that go rogue when she ghosts them on Twitter…I mean Beam, the latest attempt by Marvel to create a Facebook-like omnipresent social media platform (this one goes to different realities!). So, enraged at being ignored by their hero, the group’s leader, Imani, “kidnaps” America’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Lisa, to get her attention…oh and also re-defeat the aforementioned energy being that has been plaguing the Guerillas’ planet. You may have noticed I threw the word kidnap in quotes back there, that’s because this was all a plot by Lisa and Imani to get America’s attention. I know they imply America’s been distant and hard to reach, but why would she want to talk to either of these women? First off, Imani claims that America “owes” the guerillas her leadership. Why? Because she fought the energy monster in the past? Why not lead off with “hey energy monster returned, bring your super friends and not some random teenagers with lofty career goals.” Later, we’re supposed to sympathize with this character when she takes an energy blast for her girlfriend, Zu, but it’s hard to do that when her motivations all come off as entitled and childish. Worse yet is Lisa, who instigated a split with America in the opening chapter, then had this whole faux-kidnapping scheme put into place just to get her attention. She says that America had been ducking her calls and social media outreach for a few weeks, but like…Take the hint. You dumped her. America wants to move on, and faking your own kidnaping just to talk to your superhero ex is something a crazy person does. When that ordeal is all said and done, however, America just embraces both of these women who played seriously messed up mind games with her. Like, that’s not cool. If this happened to you, you’d view your ex as a lunatic and your fan-club president for what she is: an obsessed stalker who puts her desires ahead of her own physical safety. At the risk of mansplaining…America, honey, stay away from these women, that shit is not healthy.

America Vol 1

Yes, Imani. She saved you and went home. That’s how this all works. She doesn’t owe you anything.

Speaking of unhealthy relationships and confounding plot developments, let’s jump to America‘s next mini-arc with her childhood crush/former boxing partner, Magdalena. The two have been apart for a few years, but America gets a few messages (I guess? Rivera doesn’t really show us or go into it, we just sort of start in the middle of the story) and an invite to Mag’s upcoming fight, so America and her bestie, Kate Bishop, hit the road to meet up with this former flame. The story sort of falls apart here in a series of poorly conceived ideas, half-baked scripting and just lazy writing altogether. For one, how does Kate, who has at best seen an online photo of Magdalena, manage to recognize her in head-to-toe motorcycle gear from her rear-view mirror? While it appears her pursuers fired on Mag’s bike, is that enough for America to straight up destroy the pursuing helicopter and Kate to shoot several of the pursuing bikers? I mean, they turned out to be robots, but even Kate seems surprised about that. So these are heroes that are down to straight-up kill the bad guys? At one point Mags appears to be brandishing a gun but she never does anything with it. That may be on penciller Ramon Villalobos, but it’s there. America’s skin is flame- and bulletproof, yet a syringe is able to go through her shirt and into what appears to be her spine with almost no leverage? A mysterious older latina woman with literally the exact same powers as her suddenly shows up, and America never for a second thinks that there may be some kind of connection to her past? The entire point of the first three issues was her discovering more about her ancestry. This is a microcosm of the real issues with this book: Each chapter feels like a series of things that happen without any real logic behind them featuring characters made willfully ignorant so that their actions make contextual sense at the expense of the narrative. It’s just…not good writing.

America Vol 1

You mean this old woman who looks sort of like me, has my exact same powers and tattoos, and keeps saying we’re connected may be a family member? Get right out of town.

Not all of America’s extended cast is irredeemable, however, as there are a handful who stand out for the right reasons. First off, her interactions with Peggy Carter and Storm in the past are good points. I never really thought about about it, but it makes sense that a woman who went through a pretty serious leather phase would have a safe word, though ‘Thunderclap’ is a little on the nose, Storm. Prodigy, whose growth from his days in the Young X-Men has been a fairly unique journey in its own right, is back and a fun addition to the cast, even if he operates as a sort of “mission control” for America — her own personal Q, if you will. The James Bond Q, not the Star Tr…you know what, never mind. Anyway, he’s someone from her past that makes some sense as college classmate, (though I’m fairly certain he retains the mental intelligence of Beast, Xavier and several other genius-level X-Men, so I’m not sure what further education could do for him), and a good throwback to her time in the Young Avengers. There’s a fun cameo from Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, as well, and I’ve already touched on Kate Bishop, who continues to be one of my favorite characters in Marvel today…even if she is from Jersey.

Most of all, I want to call attention to America’s abuela in Madrimar. She looks cool, and will make for an interesting mentor for her granddaughter in the future. It’s a good thing I like her look too, because storyline wise, she’s a mess. It turns out all of the events of this arc were in some way pushed into place by this aging super-powered luchadora as a means of helping our hero develop her powers and emotional maturity. At least that’s the first supposition, as it later comes out that all of the machinations that set the story in motion were the result of the evil Midas corporation run by the villainess Exterminatrix. Not sure why Madrimar would claim responsibility if Midas was behind the cyborgs, the energy being and the fighting ring that pitted Mags against America, but here we are. That ring is also a mess, because Madrimar and America manage to defeat an entire room of mindless ones and supervillains by doing some kind of power stomp that does….something? I dunno. Once again, nothing is shown or explained. The danger is just there one minute and then gone the next. It’s just…wait, this was supposed to be the positive section of this review.

America Vol 1.

I’m going to look past the “Ride and Survive” line and just enjoy the genuine friendship between these two.

Let’s talk art, as that is certainly the strongest aspect of this trade. Issue 1-3 were drawn by Joe Quinones with help from Ming Doyle and Stacey Lee, and they provide the series with a signature look from the onset. The bubbly pencils are a good fit for the lighthearted tone that the series is going for, even if the character design is sometimes a little TOO cartoony — Imani’s America hairdo is a little on the nose, but that’s sort of a trend in this book. The real winner there, however, is the inking by Joe and Paolo Rivera (as well as the aforementioned pencilers). The light and fluffy colors harken back to the bubblegum pop feel of the 2013 Young Avengers series that first introduced most of us to America. It’s a nice visual callback that served as a great reintroduction to the character on her first solo journey. Issues 4-6 see pencil duties shift to Ramon Villalobos to what I would consider less success. His artwork is mostly fine and palatable at the basic level, but I find it very reminiscent of Frank Quitely’s run on New X-Men so many years ago. The slightly irregular figures and overly diligent linework tends to age the characters a bit, which isn’t ideal when your book focusses on a group of teenagers and 20-somethings. Both teams do struggle with action, unfortunately, as their sequences jump all over the place, and spend little if any time letting any emotions or action sequences resonate or develop. Sometimes, the abrupt transition from one scene to the next actually raises a lot of confusion about what it is that actually happened, which…is another problem with the book. Man, maybe I didn’t like this thing after all…

The Perils of Being Woke: 'America' is not for everyone, which is sadly ironic

Like, what is this face? What is up with her teeth? What are these lines in her lips?

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Ultimately, this is a book where the writing has failed the character. I think a solo series for America is a great idea, and I loved her in Young Avengers. I just feel like this book fails to develop her or create much interest in her. Even the cool developments (the emergence of her grandmother and….uh….) are so poorly thought out and haphazardly handled that they don’t really grow into something readers can really sink their teeth into. Yes, there are moments where the book’s desire to be progressive were a bit much, but the real issue with this series is just the flimsy plotting and lack of meaningful character development. America, and her fans, deserve better.

The Perils of Being Woke: 'America' is not for everyone, which is sadly ironic
America Vol. 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez
Is it good?
Though its aspirations are admirable, America fails to deliver on a grand scale. The writing just doesn't live up to the character's potential, and feels like it's more obsessed with being "woke" than telling an interesting story. I like the idea of having a queer woman of color writing this title, I just think Gabby Rivera may be the wrong person for the job.
The Good
The art in the introductory arc is a good fit for the story and established a great atmosphere for the book.
Some of the extended cast are great additions to the book, creating interesting wrinkles in the tapestry that is America Chavez.
The Bad
Rivera struggles with telling a complete story, leaving a lot of threads ill resolved and barely defined.
The art fails to finish the thoughts that Rivera leaves open, leading to half-told stories that are light on important details.

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