The Identity and Black Superhero Masculinity in the Comic, prince Alter Ego is one of my most recent research papers. I wrote it for my Studies in African American Graphic Novel 300 class. The paper focuses on specifically the Price Alter Ego comic from 1991. This is a rare comic that JMU has in their special collections. The piece discusses the male body and the stereotype of black masculinity in relation the the comic and how Prince, the protagonist, breaks away from these stereotypes.
The Identity and Black Superhero Masculinity in the Comic, Prince Alter Ego
Throughout the years, masculinity along with the male superhero persona have been categorized as a hyper-masculine figure, purely defined by his physicality. Over time, the comic book industry has slowly diversified their comics to incorporate people of color. This representation shows that these people of color are continuously classified and represented by reoccurring stereotypes. The stereotype of powerful black masculinity has been defined by a male’s physicality much like masculinity and the male superhero. As time progressed, these black male stereotypes were broadened by comic book creators to show equal representation. The deconstruction and redefinition of the identity can be seen within the comic, Prince: Alter Ego. Instead of seeing this superhero’s hyper masculinity, Prince is depicted as being in touch with his feminine side. He dresses metro-sexual; He is romantic to women; He uses music to channel his emotions. He is the opposite of the hyper-masculinized superhero. Most black comic book superhero’s are depicted as purely physical; however, more recent comic book issues, such as Prince: Alter Ego, break away from the male stereotype and continue to push at these boundaries by creating a different type of black superhero. Blacks in comics are normally stereotyped for solely their strength thus, giving viewer’s the idea that people of color do not possess other character traits like white superhero’s. By giving Prince differing character traits, including emphasizing his feminine side, this allows for readers to take a different approach and identify with the black superhero. Moreover, the boundaries placed around male masculinity are being pushed and the black superhero is continuing to break away from repetitive stereotypes proving that people of color can also be so much more than just their skin.
Masculinity is characterized as the depiction of a male body’s physical traits. For years, viewers were lead to believe that the definition of the male body is what it means to be masculine; however, the idea of what it means to be masculine has been socially constructed in our society. The “expression of our cultural beliefs about what it means to be a man” (Brown 26) shapes how each person views masculinity and the way “masculinity is defined [is] by what it is not, namely “feminine,” and all its associated traits- hard not soft, strong not weak, reserved not emotional, active not passive” (Brown 25). As observed in a study there are two types to the male body. One is depicted as muscular, well defined, strong, and head-strong, while the other is seen as scrawny, weak, and lanky. The “existence of these two mutually exclusive body types” show that men are defined in different ways but the more “machine-like body” triumphs over the “second more flaccid, soft body” (Brown 27). The stronger male body is seen in society as the superior one thus being the only depiction and overall view of what it means to be a man. Society is continuing to “eras[e] the ordinary man underneath in favor of an even more excessively powerful and one-dimensional masculine ideal” (Brown 26). By “characterizing masculinity” as this specific type of a male body that dominates over all, we see that this “represent[s] all the conventions traditionally linked to assumptions of male superiority” (Brown 27). This characterization gives off the impression that the male body is superior to all other types of people. The “feared body, the feminine body” is then “projected onto the “body of the homosexual, the Jew, and a long list of non-Aryan” (Brown 27) individuals. Even “gay men are labeled as excessively feminine,” but they too can possess bodies that consist of masculine traits similar to the stereotypical hyper masculine man. What it means to be anything else, but the stereotypical strong masculine man, means that all others are considered to be different, which classifies them as “the despised” (Brown 27). Our society displays a “misogynistic, homophobic, and racist view of this ideology” (Brown 27) and as a result, masculinity is placed into a square, unchanging box, characterizing masculinity as men that are “armored by muscles and by emotional rigidity, and marked by a vehement desire to eradicate the softness, the emotional liquidity of the feminine other” (Brown 27). Their muscles are continuing to distinguish them as being “the superior” and “continue to symbolize masculine power as physical strength, frequently operating as a means of coding the naturalness of sexual difference” (Brown 27). It seems as though society itself is finding this male body more desirable and thus, “erasing the ordinary man underneath in favor of an even more excessively powerful and one-dimensional masculine ideal” (Brown 26). Instead of defining a man as much more, society has characterized the man as the masculine ideal. He is the representation of masculinity, made to be what people want to see, exhibiting the strong and well-represented physical traits that lead many people to believe that is what it means to be defined as “masculine.” That sole idea of being strong and man like when in fact not all men are made to be like this “socially constructed man.” Masculinity has been defined by our society through the representation of the strong man; however, the man, especially in comics, is beginning to be represent other characteristics such as their emotional and compassionate side- characteristics all similar of being classified as “feminine traits.” Male masculinity is continuing to be shaped and redefend and as time progresses it seems that “masculinity, always regarded as a natural, stable gender identity, is in the process of being deconstructed” (Brown 25).
The male superhero persona is represented as both the hyper masculine man and the undesirable normal human. The male superhero equally represents both types and sides of the male body by being depicted as having two sets of characteristics, the strong stereotypical masculine side and the scrawny intelligent geek. Although the superhero, shows both sides, his hyper-masculinized side is seen by viewer’s as more desirable. It is more exciting than the average human and thus this duality is what makes the superhero character so compelling. The idea of the secret identity is what leads viewers to continue investing their time in the story. These “illustrations of hyper masculinity and male duality [is] premised on the fear of the unmasculine Other” (Brown 31) and “while the superhero body represents in vividly graphic detail the muscularity, the confidence, the power that personifies the ideal of phallic masculinity, the alter ego- the identity that must be kept a secret- depicts the softness, the powerlessness, the insecurity associated with the feminized man” (Brown 31). The superhero’s in the comics tend to hide their normal other side, thus striving to be the desired hyper masculine hero that saves the world. Many comic books display this “variation on the wimp/warrior theme of duality” (Brown 32) in a different ways yet the majority of these hero’s do not reside in their normal, nerdy state throughout the comic. It is clear that creator’s of these superhero’s have “split masculinity into two distinct camps, stressing the super-hero side as the ideal to be aspired to” but “comic book masculinity is ultimately premised on the inclusion of the devalued side” (Brown 32) as well. These hero’s are not limited to the box that male masculinity has been placed in because of social construction, but rather they display traits that are both desired and undesired by society. This reveals that these superhero’s are in conflict with their own identity and self. It is through this secret identity that “provides a perfect narrative means for exploring these real-life split identities” (Singer 114). These superhero’s not only represent different identities and “male bodies” but they also “symbolize societal attitudes regarding good and evil, right and wrong, altruism and greed, justice and fair play” (Nama 252). They are divided and categorized based on their representation and their identity. This “characterized division between their private selves and their public, costumed identities” (Singer 112) prove that the superhero is not just a sole set of qualities like the hyper masculine man but rather much more. They display qualities from desirable and undesirable construction to make their story compelling. The way these superhero stories are presented to the viewer “suggests ways stories and characters can be turned around to allow a realistic representation of trans realities, in all their range and diversity, to appear routinely within the many realms of the superhero” (Scott 123). There is a primary division between “their private selves and their public, costumed identities” (Singer 112) and this theory of the superhero identity is not only “limited to race, but also considers other distinctions such as sexuality and gender” (Singer 114).
Further, the function of race within these superhero comics continues to add to the idea of the identity. Through “this representation of the super- hero as a mask which splits and scars the psyche,” makes these superhero stories to “become [the] perfect vehicles for exploring minority-group identity” (Singer 116). As the superhero story was created and continued to be recreated, the “interrogations of super- hero representation have expanded to consider whether creator and audience demo- graphics are representative” (Scott 122). It seemed that the colored man was not equally represented or introduced to comics until much later in time. The black male superhero eventually became integrated into comic books and became superhero’s much like the previous white superhero’s that came before them. The black male superhero was at first “subjected to the burden of racial stereotypes that place him in the symbolic space of being too hard, too physical, too bodily” (Brown 28). This black hyper masculinity was because of cultural development and the way blacks were seen within society. The “definitions of masculinity imply power, control, and authority” that are placed on white men, including white superhero’s, “have been historically denied to black men since slavery” (Brown 28). The identity of the black man has been “shaped by history” and the “history of the black male paradox-emasculated, but at the same time feared- is grounded in a long tradition of subjugation and resistance” (Brown 28). Society has continued to depict the white man by his physicality and sexuality because of the past. They classify these black characters by their “strength and sexual prowess” and “unintelligent and animalistic” with a “pure body and little mind” (Brown 30). It seems that “society presents a cultural ideal of masculinity that black men are expected to measure up to, at the same time that society denies a great many blacks access to legitimate means for achieving that ideal” (Brown 28). Overtime, the black superhero has been able to break away from these stereotypes and be represented as much more than just by physicality. They have broken away from these “negative notions about one’s racial identity” (Nama 254) to be visually depicted to represent other traits from the undesirable male body. This sets them apart to become who they want to be. By allowing these black male superhero’s to break away from their stereotypes to form their own identity, creators are showing diversity not only in race but in sexuality. In turn, this allows for multiple types of people to identify with the male black superhero.
In the comic Prince: Alter Ego, Prince is depicted as a fully developed well defined black male superhero. The title of the comic is a reference to his alternative personality. This is displayed in his character which consists of being the powerful, male dominated man that is in touch with his other side. He is defying the original view of male masculinity by displaying traits of the undesired “male body.” This classification adds to his diversity and allows others to identify with him. Although he is a person of color, he is defying the usual stereotypes by dressing metro-sexual. He displays his metro sexuality by wearing a tight leather jacket along with gloves. These tight clothes and gloves are normally viewed as articles of clothing females wear; however, Prince is still depicted as a masculine figure because of the color. He dresses in all black, dark colors, to show he is still a male figure. It is clear that Prince is in touch with his feminine side when later in the comic he woos his Muse. He is seen drawing her figure on a sketch pad in the park. This creative activity, that mainly only women are seen doing in society, reinforces the idea that Prince’s masculinity does not need to be depicted solely through his muscles and strength like previous comic book superhero’s. His romantic gestures can be seen in the way he displays affection to her by loving her as if she is the only person he sees and the way he cares for her. The background of these panels also depicts Prince and his Muse in nature. This represents fertility and romance thus further adding to his romantic persona. In addition, His Muse is characterized as a white woman, thus showing that black and white relationships have become normal in today’s society. This further adds to the idea that blacks are equal to whites and that their skin color on the outside does not affect who they are internally. Last, Prince’s superpower consists of the making of music. Music is an element that allows people to feel emotionally. Prince is further conveying his emotions by touching people internally with the music he produces. This conveys to the viewer the power of the note, the power of a song, can allow people to feel emotion. It isn’t until Prince’s enemy, Gemini appears on stage that the viewer sees the differences between these two characters. Prince does not display duality because he represents his qualities through his actions. This includes what he wears, the way he woos women, and how he creates music. He does not strive to conceal his identity to be the hyper-masculine superhero that strives to be the version of himself that is most desired. The other male self is not displayed in Prince but rather in his enemy, Gemini. Gemini is depicted as the villain that uses music to convey hatred and sadness to the audience. He is depicted wearing a black leather vest with the sleeves cut off to show his muscles. He holds a red guitar and has long, wavy hair. It seems that Gemini is depicted in a feminine way but also displays characteristics of a male by the way he dresses and the way his muscles on his body are defined. Gemini also proves that not all men are the same. In one of the panels, Gemini is seen slapping Prince’s Muse. Gemini displays a coldhearted, uncaring personality where as Prince treats woman with care and respect. Gemini along with Prince represent the overall arching theme that good and the evil reside within the world. In addition, the way both characters are represented show that male masculinity can be depicted in multiple ways. This represents the duel persona except these traits are personified in a separate character instead of within Prince himself.
Ultimately, Prince: Alter Ego defies the stereotype of the black superhero by being in touch with his feminine side by dressing metro-sexual, using music to channel his emotions, and displaying his feelings through the power of music. The idea that masculinity is depicted as purely strong physicality has been socially constructed within society. Masculinity can be represented within different ways as seen within this Prince comic. The idea of duality in the male superhero is also redefined. Prince continues to be himself throughout the entirety of the comic and does not change into any secret or hidden identity. He continues to break away from the stereotype of the black superhero by becoming much more than just his appearance and physicality. Not only does Prince defy previous black superhero social constructions with his diversity but he creates his own identity without hiding his “other side” from the viewer. In turn, this allows multiple people, not only people of color, but both men and woman to identify with him. He represents both racial and sexual issues by proving that he can be what he wants to be without society forcing him to be who they believe he should be and thus Prince breaks away from these repetitive, constructed stereotypes to create his own identity and to be his own self.
Brown, Jeffrey A. “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero.” African American Review. Vol. 33. No. 1. Spring99, pp. 25-42. EBSCO host, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=1877536&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Kirkpatrick, Ellen and Suzanne Scott. “Representation and Diversity in Comics Studies.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 55, no. 1, Fall2015, pp. 120-124. EBSCO host, doi:10. 1353/cj.2015.0064
McDuffle, Dwayne. Prince “Alter Ego.” Piranha Music and DC Comics. 1991.
Nama, Adilifu. “Color Them Black.” The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield et al., University Press of Mississippi, 2013, pp. 252–268. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hvr5.28.
Singer, Marc. “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2002, pp. 107–119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903369.