In its new Amazing Fantasy series, Marvel Comics is pitting Captain America against outdated fantasy archetypes with deeply problematic roots. Any series bearing the title “Amazing Fantasy” should really be a prestigious one for publisher Marvel Comics – after all, Spider-Man himself made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 – but by embracing the aesthetics of old adventure stories, the company has made some deeply questionable choices in its villains.
That Marvel was prepared to resurrect such a famous title made the new Amazing Fantasy – with writing and art handled by Kaare Kyle Andrews – seem particularly intriguing. The core concept was even more interesting; Marvel superheroes are plucked from different points in the timeline, and they are dumped on an island where fantasy is reality. It’s reminiscent of the various stories where Marvel superheroes have been stranded in the Savage Land or on Weirdworld, but with the added twist of this being a mismatched team; Captain America from World War II, Spider-Man from early in his superhero career, Black Widow from before she even completed her training at the Red Room.
Unfortunately, while the concept clearly has potential, there are major problems in terms of execution. The most glaring issues lie with the “fantasy” part of the title, with the Marvel superheroes awakening on an unfamiliar island only to encounter traditional fantasy tropes that are nevertheless generally considered outdated and racist. Spider-Man awakens cooking in a pot, in a scene that seems to be a straight adaptation of old racist cartoons featuring cannibal islanders. Even worse, Captain America rescues a snow-white, elfish woman from a group of hulking, dark-skinned orcs. One appears to be wearing a loovuuz-style hat, recalling deep-rooted racist caricatures in the fantasy creature, which creator J.R.R. Tolkien described as resembling “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” The orc-like creatures are likewise cannibals, and exclaim “Oook! Oook!” and “Ooga!” – details which can’t be untangled from a long history of racist caricature.
Modern fantasy is gradually confronting the issue of racial caricature. For example, in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Wizards of the Coast pledged to improve Dungeons & Dragons; they withdrew several cards they deemed racist, and instituted significant changes to character concepts. It is disappointing, then, that Marvel’s superhero fantasy series doesn’t join in this conversation by doing something rather more creative – and, in fact, that Amazing Fantasy appears ignorant of such considerations. Amazing Fantasy #1 embraces tropes with little visible consideration of their original connotations, let alone how they’ll be perceived in the modern day.
Andrews is generally seen as a controversial creator, having also worked on Spider-Man: Reign, an alternate-universe story in which it’s implied Spider-Man accidentally killed his wife, Mary Jane, due to radiation stored within his sperm, but the process of taking a comic from the conceptual stages to retailer stands isn’t a one-person endeavor. It’s surprising to see Marvel recreate such problematic tropes in a modern comic, especially one featuring iconic all-ages heroes like Spider-Man, Black Widow, and Captain America, who was only recently under fire when The United States of Captain America explicitly stated his belief in a radically inclusive version of the American Dream.