WASHINGTON — Imagine being a lifelong, self-described huge fan of superheroes and comic books and then getting a chance to write a book about them. For Afro Latino writer and journalist David Betancourt, it was a dream come true — and it all started on a Zoom call.
Betancourt, a Washington Post reporter focused on comic book culture, was on a call three years ago speaking with several authors for a story he was writing, about a new "Star Wars" publishing initiative. Also on the call was Lucasfilm creative director Michael Siglain.
“I think he realized that I wasn’t just a writer covering "Star Wars," but that I was somebody who was into it, who spoke the language. After the story came out, he reached out to me and said that he had spoken to some people who were looking for someone to write an "Avengers" novel, and that I might be a good candidate for them," Betancourt told NBC News.
“It floored me because I had never written a book before," Betancourt said. "I had written a comic book, but writing a 22-page comic book and a 300-page book are completely different worlds. I remember being very excited but also thinking, 'Can I do it?' So I took it as a challenge; there was no way I was going to say no."
Betancourt is the author of the new Marvel book "The Avengers Assembled: The Origin Story of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes," which takes a deep dive into the biographies and histories of “the greatest superhero team of all time,” including fan favorites such as Vision and Black Widow. The book was published by DK Publishing.
One of the hardest things to figure out, Betancourt said, was what exactly to include in the book.
“There’s 60 years of comics materials, not even counting the movies. We had to think what era we were going to be focusing on because the (Avengers) team is constantly evolving," he said. "Marvel said it wanted an origin story and I said, then it has to be the original team and that was the original one that came out in 1963. That word ‘origin’ helped me narrow down what to focus on, so we took it back to the very beginning.”
Critics have often maligned comic books as not serious. Betancourt sees it very differently.
“I never got in trouble because I had a comic book in my hand," he said. "I’m of a generation that will never be sick of it — there are some people who can’t let it go or don’t want to let it go, and I’m in that category.”
Betancourt, who is of Puerto Rican and Black heritage, comes from a family of comic book readers; his father was the one who turned him on to them. Betancourt said his new book has been a little "surreal" for his dad because he grew up as a Marvel fan and he still reads comic books.
"He forged my love of comics, and having a parent who loves comics as much as he does was such a help growing up," he said.
Convincing his mother was another story. “I come from an era where some parents didn’t want their kids reading comics; they wanted them to read ‘real’ books. She would get mad when I would come home with comic books and would tell my dad and uncles to stop giving them to me. Clearly I’ve made a believer out of her,” Betancourt said.
Betancourt takes very seriously his role as one of just a few Afro Latino writers in the entertainment business, particularly since he saw very few of them growing up.
“I saw myself for the first time in any form of entertainment when Miles Morales came along (as Spider-Man in 2011). To have a character who was 100% who I am — one Puerto Rican parent, one African American parent — floored me ... I still feel the impact of that. It’s not something I take for granted,” Betancourt said.
“African Americans in this country have done an incredible job of making a name for themselves in so many facets of life, especially in entertainment, but when I go over to the Latin American side, in terms of what Latin American entertainment is, very rarely do I see one like myself," Betancourt said. "My Puerto Rican family is not Black, but they’re not white either, and you rarely see that represented, whether in news, entertainment, movies. So I take very seriously the fact that there’s a character that 100% encompasses who I am in terms of my original identity. It’s something that I never thought would happen."
"I’m living proof that editorial decisions like that have an impact," Betancourt said, referring to the creation of Miles Morales and the recent Blue Beetle movie, with its Latino lead.
"I am 100% someone who was impacted when Marvel decided that they needed to make superheroes reflect a little bit more the diversity of this country and the world," he said.
Betancourt considers it part of his life’s work to help diversify the world of comic books and superheroes.
“I take it as a responsibility now that I’m writing, that I do want to inspire kids, whether you’re Latino or African American, Afro Latino, biracial, I want you to be able to see yourself in me and see yourself in the world that I’m building," he said. "It’s very important, in terms of representation in these fantasy worlds. It’s something I hope to continue to be part of in the future.”
'Create your own story'
“Any type of reading, especially for young kids, is good reading. If you’re a parent and your kid is interested in superheroes and wants to read about those characters, let them read," Betancourt said. The worst that would happen is they’re going to become great readers and become very creative and that can be something they turn into later in life. I was very grateful to my dad because reading comics was something we could do together."
"I wanted to write for Marvel, but I never thought I could it in this capacity," he said. "I’m very grateful that something I care about very deeply has merged with my career; it’s very special.”
For those who want to follow a similar path, Betancourt has some pointers.
“I would say to young kids who want to do this — the master class in how to do it is at your comic book store. Get one and figure out what kind of story you like and create your own story. You never know, someone might ask you to do that. You won’t know unless you try," he said.
"When I was young I would make up my own stories; I never thought it would take me anywhere," Betancourt said. "I did it because it was fun. There is a way, if you believe in yourself enough and dive into the culture.”