By Steve Morris
There’s a Black wrestler in WWE called Naomi who is considered to be one of the most talented performers in the business today. She’s energetic, she dances her way to the ring, and she pings around the ring like a livewire; jumping off the corner posts, effortlessly falling into the splits to avoid attacks, and routinely corkscrewing her body in incredible and dynamic ways. She’s also a veteran of the industry at this point, which is no easy matter when historically male wrestlers are valued for their talent and female wrestlers were valued for their looks. Every three or four years, WWE would drop half their female performers to bring in new, less experienced, but younger women. Naomi has stood her ground through all of that.
And two or three times a year, Black twitter “discovers” Naomi. A clip of a recent performance will get shared across social media and spread quickly – no surprise, she’s hugely charismatic, a vibrant performer, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. But in addition to all of that, she’s also a Black female wrestler in an industry which is thought of as being old-minded, “traditional”, prejudicial. When Naomi trends on Twitter it’s not just her talent which shines through: it’s a realisation from viewers that wait, this is an industry which has something to offer me?
Just like with Naomi, it felt like the arrival of Monica Rambeau in WandaVision caught the attention of a thousand new sets of eyes. Played by Teyonah Parris on the TV show, the character was an early highlight of the show, and again caught an audience who haven’t been given a huge number of reasons to invest in superheroes. Although the series finale badly misjudged what it wanted to do with the character (how many times will readers have to see an African-American hero deflect police bullets?) Monica Rambeau has broken out of the TV series and become a name which people know outside of comic books.
For both Monica Rambeau in fiction and for Naomi as a real-life performer, it seems that they have become trapped in the perception of what makes them successful. Naomi doesn’t get the chance to have storylines in the WWE very often, and is usually put front and centre in order to be a “Black” character, even as the old white men who run that company have no idea what that actually means. Similarly, for years and years, Monica Rambeau has been treated as an afterthought within Marvel Comics itself, in stark contrast to the immediate audience she clearly attracted when she was brought to a different medium.
Monica’s most well-known comics run at this point is in NextWave, a comedy series by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen which made fun of the “kick splode” aspect of superhero comics. It was a proudly mindless comic, with no intention of character development, sensible plotting, or grounded realism. It was very very silly, and became a major hit for Marvel in the process. Any characters brought into the series were filed down to a singular joke, with Monica’s role being “the sensible one”. She led the team, and constantly talked about her time in the Avengers – the joke basically being that she had once been a big deal, but was now slumming it with a bunch of wasters and wishing herself back to those glory days.
Well, that’s sort of what the joke was. But in-between “jokes” about the Avengers all hitting on her and Captain America telling her to go make him some dinner, there are also some really odd asides made about Monica. Her mother is said to have gone to Hell where she is “used as a bucket by giant weasels”; whilst the first flashback of the series shows Monica herself murder a dog (thankfully shown off-panel).
Taken as part of NextWave itself, which is bizarre throughout, both moments can be shrugged off because the next panel is showing something just as ridiculous or extreme: but taken out of context, they come across as really particular points of attack. Marvel wouldn’t have ever allowed Carol Danvers to be used this way. Again: NextWave isn’t meant to be taken out of context, but as a joyless comics critic I’m allowed to do what I want.
The idea of NextWave is that Ellis wanted some no-name characters he could make fun of without it really affecting the wider Marvel Universe, and whilst that’s a decent concept, it does show Marvel’s view of Monica if she was one of the characters they suggested he use. Every member of the team in NextWave got a fresh burst of popularity for being in the series, with most of them retaining the jokey personality and being sent off to appear in various other comics as comic relief. Monica was the one character who didn’t spend the next few years coasting off the newfound popularity: by contrast, several comics have gone far out of their way to try and steer her away from NextWave. Captain America & The Mighty Avengers, in particular, did a lot to try and change the context of NextWave to make Monica viable and herself again.
And that’s because there is so much worth rescuing about Monica Rambeau; Captain Marvel. You can see that through the character’s appearance in the Marvel Universe, where she’s been immediately promoted into a co-headline role for a future movie called “The Marvels”, where she’ll appear alongside Kamala Khan and Carol Danvers. While the comics saw another silver-age hero they could make fun of without anyone caring, the realisation of the character as an actual person (which is what you get in live-action) gave Marvel an immediate license to print lots of money.
The thing is, NextWave didn’t play into the character’s MCU appearance whatsoever – it can’t be argued that she was brought to the screen because NextWave made her popular. Her popularity is because of the actress playing her; and her appearance is because she has “Marvel” in her codename at a time when Carol Danvers has become the MCU’s new figurehead. In fact, it’s arguable that anything from comics found its way into the superstar new version which people are seeing on their screens. In the same way that Marvel’s editors looked through their back catalogue and thought “oh yeah, Monica, she’ll do for NextWave“, so Marvel Studios looked at her comics history and thought “nah, we’re good”.
So with this revitalised idea of the character, and a new audience who can find her for the first time, this represents the first chance in several years for Monica to be presented to readers as her own hero, rather than as the figure we’ve seen in NextWave. Just like with Boom Boom, the character is now offered the chance to be reinvented as the hero readers want to see, rather than the jokey role she played a decade ago and never completely escaped.
Will Marvel make anything of that? Well, we’ve not seen them try and capitalise on WandaVision with any one-shots, graphic novels, or YA stories featuring Monica so far, so it doesn’t seem like. On the other hand… Naomi once got to win the WWE title at Wrestlemania, the biggest event in the sport – so by those same standards, all Monica probably needs is that one perfect confluence of events to become a headline act for Marvel.
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colourist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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