The overdue and opportunistic push towards diversity in comic books
With panels such as #BlackComicsMonth and TimeOUT NY's LGBT in Comics, New York Comic Con 2015 represented an immensely diverse group of fans. NYCC also previewed Marvel's latest Captain America series, in which Sam Wilson takes up the mantle as the franchise's latest black Captain. Yet upon its launch on October 14th, Sam Wilson, Captain America #1 was met with disheartening resistance, exhibiting that minority representation within the comic book world is still a contentious issue. Hopes&Fears spoke to Steve Orlando and Marc Singer about the growing yet awkward movement toward minority representation within the industry.
One of the highlights of Comic Con was a deeper look into the highly anticipated Black Panther series helmed by a black creative team consisting of author Ta-Nahisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze. Additionally, Marvel has placed multiple female creators on their new Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur series, which will feature a preteen girl genius accompanied by a red T-Rex. And Marvel isn’t standing alone in the strive to make a more diverse world; DC Comics has talents such as Steve Orlando on the queer superhero title Midnighter, and David F. Walker, a black creator, at the head of the must-read Cyborg books.
Diversity in comic books has always been a flammable topic. "Traditionally, diversity hasn't been an easy selling point for comics; look at how readers largely ignored Milestone despite critical acclaim and positive word of mouth," Howard University media scholar Marc Singer tells Hopes&Fears. For those who don't remember, Milestone Comics was a subsidiary of DC Comics founded in 1993 by an alliance of African-American artists and writers who sought to bolster black representation in American comics. While Milestone has managed to survive a number of slumps and reboots (the company announced earlier this year that it will once again attempt to reboot), its mission flew under the radar of the average comic book reader, as Singer points out.
Black Panther (Black)
AKA T’Challa. One of the earliest regularly-occuring black heroes. First appearance: Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966)
Captain america (Black)
First appearance: Sam Wilson, Captain America #1 (October 2014)
Captain marvel (Female)
AKA Carol Danvers. First appearance: Ms. Marvel #1 (January 1977)
ghost rider (Hispanic)
AKA Roberto Reyes. First appearance: All-New Ghost Rider #1 (May 2014)
AKA Amadeus Cho. First appearance: Amazing Fantasy Vol 2 #15 (January 2006)
Hulkling (Gay, Engaged to Wiccan)
AKA Teddy Altman. First appearance: Young Avengers #1 (April 2005)
jubilee (Chinese American)
AKA Jubilation Lee. First appearance: Uncanny X-Men #244 (May 1989)
ms. marvel (Parkistani-American)
AKA Kamala Khan. First appearance: All-New Marvel Now! (March 2014)
AKA Jean-Paul Beaubier. Marvel's first openly gay hero. First appearance: X-Men #120 (April 1979)
AKA Elijah Bradley, the grandson of Isaiah Bradley, Marvel's first black Capt. America. First appearance: Young Avengers #1 (April 2005)
AKA Cindy Moon. First appearance: Amazing Spider-Man Vol 3 #4 (September 2014)
AKA Ororo Munroe. One of the earliest regularly-occuring black heroes. First appearance: Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975)
AKA Jane Foster. First appearance as Thor: Thor Vol 4 #1 (December, 2014)
Wiccan (Gay, Engaged to Hulkling)
AKA Billy Kaplan. First appearance: Young Avengers #1 (April 2005)
AKA Laura Kinney. First appearance: NYX #3 (February 2004)
AKA Miles Morales. First appearance: Ultimate Comics Fallout #4 (October 2011)
Captain Marvel (Black, female)
First appearance: Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1962)
The evolving superhero
in American pop culture
The Golden Age of Comic Books (1930s-1950s) introduced the likes of Superman, Captain America and Captain Marvel to the American psyche, imagining a universe in which the very real, very frightening conflicts at the time were envisioned as tremendous forces of good and evil. Batman symbolized justice in a world where even leaders were corrupt. Superman and Captain America protected "the Nation" against Axis powers and other threats from abroad. In other words, superheroes were meant to manifest the American "good."
Historically, Singer is absolutely correct in his assessment that diversity hasn't been much of a selling point for comics; if the majority of readers were young white American males, then why would superheroes, torch-bearers of the Platonic good, reflect anything different? But due to the ever-growing popularity of comic book adaptations in Hollywood—superhero movies have been steadily dominating the box office for the last decade—comic books have seen a boost in readership like never before. In 2014, comic book sales hit a 20-year high, bringing in almost $1 billion in cross-media sales.
This expanding comic book readership demands more than white cis males as the spandexed champions of the world, Singer says, as "the landscape of popular culture (and of American society as a whole) has changed enough that diversity can be a selling point today, particularly for the audiences the comics industry is trying to attract." And in some respects, the industry has reacted accordingly. In 2011, Marvel introduced Miles Morales as the first non-white Spider-Man, and just this past summer DC launched Midnighter, the first ongoing series to feature a gay superhero.
"I think multiple representations of a community or minority are vitally important," Virgil writer Steve Orlando tells Hopes&Fears, speaking of diversity in comics in general. "Comics are a place where everyone can have their own hero myth, their own personal folklore. And it's about the imperative of fiction in general, to constantly push forward and explore new areas." Virgil, a "queersploitation" story about LGBTQ community's battle for basic human rights in Jamaica, was picked up by Image Comics this past summer. Image has featured a plethora of diverse characters, as seen in fan favorites Saga and The Wicked+The Divine.
Still, diversification in the industry meets pushback. As part of the massive Sony email leaks for instance, it was revealed that the studio made a licensing agreement that Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man must always appear as a straight Caucasian male in the film franchise. Even the industry resists introducing new characters from diverse backgrounds, Singer says, because "fans have shown time and time again that they want to read about familiar names and franchises." So rather than breaking open the universes to include new stories featuring minority characters, DC and Marvel will rewrite new faces into old characters—Amadeus Cho as a Korean Hulk, for instance, or Laura Kinney as a female Wolverine. "When a new character like Kamala Khan does take off, she's generally using the name and identity of an older character like Ms. Marvel," Singer notes, "which is to say, an unused piece of IP that the company wants to dust off and put back in circulation."
Evolution or marketing ploy?
A burning question that readers now find themselves asking is if the current spike in diversity is a newfound cognizance or an opportunistic ploy to gain a stronger readership. It comes from a genuine place of skepticism; while there is more diversity in the graphic narrative universe than ever before, it doesn’t reflect diversity in the bullpen of the writers, illustrators and inkers that make the stories come to life.
While the cry for real world reflections of sexuality, ethnicity, gender and race has been an increasing desire amongst fans, the creators still remain largely white, straight men. In 2014, Bleeding Cool reported that a measly 5.6% of comic creators were women. 6.8% are Asian, 11.5% Hispanic, and an incredibly sad 1.5% are black. For instance, when Marvel announced the revival of Blade, an African American—and now female—character, the company was immediately lambasted for hiring an all white, male creative team consisting of Tim Seeley and Logan Faerber to work on the African American heroine's storyline. Strange Fruit, a miniseries about racism in 1927's Confederate South, also drew a maelstrom of backlash when its creators Mark Waid and J.G. Jones (two white men) labeled it as a “passion project on their views of racism." This comic should never have been made because there is too long a history of white people writing stories about racism and blackness, too long a history of white people writing about what they genuinely cannot understand," comic critic J.A. Micheline said of the series.
More recently, DC Comics faced an outcry when it launched its DC You campaign, an attempt by the publisher to "shine a spotlight" on examples of diversity within the DC Universe. “DC You means that there’s a story for every kind of DC Comics fan," Amit Desai, DC's president of marketing and global franchise management, said in the campaign's press release.
What DC You inadvertently displayed was a lack of diversity both on the page and behind the scenes. In a scathing response to DC You's marketing strategy, Janelle Asselin of ComicsAlliance pointed out that the numbers don't reflect the message of diversity that DC was trying to send. In fact, she wrote, just two months after the campaign was launched, July saw the lowest number of women represented in solicitation credits. "Obviously, more women does not automatically equal diversity, but one would hope that a company that has created a campaign all about ‘the fans' and 'stories for everyone' would actually hire people who are representative of different groups," Asseline wrote.
Instead of highlighting truly diverse characters and creators, DC You focused on franchises such as Bizzaro Superman and Batman Beyond, two very traditional titles that center around safe characters that can easily make a profit. Missing from the campaign were prominent examples such as Babs Tarr, the rising artist behind Batgirl, as well as the characer Dr. Fate, the alter ego of Egyptian American med-student Khalid Ben-Hassin. The most outstanding diverse characters included were Cyborg, the half-robotic, half-African American Justice League alum, and the aforementioned Midnighter.
Apollo (Gay, Married to Midnighter)
Among the first openly gay heroes in print. First appearance: Stormwatch Vol 2 #4 (February 1998)
AKA Cassandra Cain. First appearance: Batman #567 (July 1999)
(Gay, in a realtionship with Starman)
AKA Hugh Dawkins. First appearance: Super Friends #7 (October 1977)
AKA Katherine Kane. First appearance as gay: 52 #2 (June 2006)
Black Canary (Female)
A sidekick now headling the solo Black Canary series, started June 2015.
A sidekick now headlining the solo Cyborg series, started July 2015.
Dr. Light (Female, Asian-American)
AKA Kimiyo Hioshi. First appearance: Crisis on Infinite Earths #4 (July 1985)
Green Lantern (Gay in Alternet Universe Earth 2)
AKA Alan Scott. First appearance: Earth 2 #1 (July 2012)
Midnighter (Gay, Married to Apollo)
Among the first openly gay heroes in print. First appearance: Stormwatch Vol 2 #4 (February 1998)
AKA Holly Robinson. First appearance: Batman #404 (February 1987)
Starman (Gay, in a relationship with Tasmanian Devil)
AKA Mikaal Thomas. First appearance: 1st Issue Special #12 (March 1976)
AKA Calvin Ellis. Based on a mix of President Obama and boxer Muhammed Ali. First appearance: Final Crisis #7 (March 2009)
A step in the right direction
Despite public skepticism, Singer and Orlando say that the industry is wholeheartedly making strides in the right direction. "There will be a certain number of comics that tell the same formulaic stories with the same formulaic characters," Singer says, "except those characters will be women, people of color, or LGBT instead of the same square-jawed white guys from fifty years ago."
Orlando agrees, but holds out hope that plotlines will become more inclusive as well. "My hope is that eventually diversity will become the norm, so we don't have to label books as such. And that will happen through better representations, which lead to acceptance as audiences get to know characters who are more well-rounded, fuller people, instead of surface level depictions." Orlando says. "By spreading more and more narratives into fiction, we're bringing to life the community's many faces, and deepening richness and diversity within the way the community is depicted."
Editor: Gabriella Garcia