Deport Wolverine? Bay Area Artist's Poster Campaign Uses Superheroes to Advocate for Immigrant Rights

Neil Rivas's "Illegal Superheroes" series at SOMArts (
(Courtesy SOMArts)

Would Americans be so staunchly split on the issue of immigration if the outcome could cost them Optimus Prime, Superman, Wolverine, and Wonder Woman? Bay Area artist Neil Rivas’s newest project calls attention to that set of exceptional U.S. residents who have long acted as guardians of our nation, but who could be threatened with deportation due to the country’s increasingly invasive immigration policies. In his satirical poster campaign to bring alien and foreign comic book superheroes to justice, Rivas points out that not all of the United States's greats are natural born, so their fates, and ours, could be in danger.

Each of Rivas's posters purports to be from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but is easily identifiable as a parody, containing a colorful graphic representation of a superhero, in the distinct style of their respective original comics, with a harsh admonition below that reads, “Super heroes who enter this country without proper authorization are breaking the law, plain and simple. These ‘illegal super heroes’ are subject to deportation at any time. Their very presence is in direct violation of federal law.”

The tongue-in-cheek poster encourages viewers to call a hotline, which connects them to customized recordings providing a brief background on the undocumented crime fighter and offering a chance to report them. These texts are perhaps the most ingeniuous part of the project, diving pretty deeply into the lore of heroes like Nightcrawler, Black Widow, and the Thundercats, to tell us exactly what their legal status vis a vis U.S. immigration law would be. (Did you know that Wolverine was a Canadian with possible Japanese dual citizenship?)

“Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, was born on Cybertron and has entered the U.S. illegally while saving the world from the Decepticons, while fighting alongside G.I. Joe and Cobra in a 1986 Marvel series, and alongside Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man in a 2008 crossover,” the hotline tells the caller of the cartoon robot truck.

The Superman hotline message is particularly adamant about Clark Kent's immigrant status. “Superman, perhaps the most notorious of all illegal super heroes, is known to have entered the U.S. countless times illegally since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (1938),” Rivas's message explains. “He was born on the planet Krypton and has resided illegally in Smallville and Metropolis.”

Rivas resides in San Francisco, where he is currently an MFA candidate at the California College of the Arts. His artwork merges activism with pop culture influences to create poignant aesthetic commentary on social issues. Similar concerns and approaches inform his other series. His large-scale cardboard cutouts of photographs taken during the 2007 May Day March in Los Angeles “Phantom Sightings in MacArthur Park,” and his collaboration with Alexander Hernandez in the photo essay “Searching for Queertopia,” have garnered the artist attention and serve as case studies for activists fighting for immigration reform. (This is not the first time comic book lore has become a cypher for issues about immigration: Brooklyn-based photographer Dulce Pinzón explored a similar immigrants-as-superheroes analogy in her 2007 series "Superheroes," which disguised undocumented immigrant workers as comic book characters while they went about their jobs.)

While the topic of the U.S.’s increasingly harsh laws is a hot one, “Illegal Superheroes” is a less in-your-face endeavor than some of Rivas’s past projects, taking on the tone of a guerilla street art campaign. But by implicating our childhood heroes in the immigration debate, he gives the project's implicit political stance as much force as Thor's hammer.

To see posters from "Illegal Superheroes," along with transcriptions of the texts explaining their "illegal" status, click on the slide show