Please help us! The intern has started taking over my life! First it was simple mimicry, like a parrot that repeats back certain phrases and words. It quickly morphed into dressing like me following me around wherever I went. Now, everyone is calling him by my name and completely ignoring me. It's like I no longer exist, like I'm just an echo of my former life. Please, send help now!
Well, since you asked.
This is a topic that woke comic book fans are eager to talk about. (For those who are confused, “woke” is a word used to describe a person who is constantly seeking to remain aware of the racial and social injustices around them, mostly in an effort to keep from perpetuating the cycle.) It's also a topic that has most recently ousted “Who would win in a fight” verbal spats as the most prevalent conversation at local comic book stores. The reason diversity in comics has become such a big topic recently is Marvel's VP of Sales, David Gabriel.
“What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity,” he said. “They didn't want female characters out there. That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don't know that that's really true, but that's what we saw in sales.”
To break it down, the VP of Sales is saying Marvel isn't sell as many books because they have made it a point to build diversity into their cast of heroes: Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani Muslim; Hulk is Korean; there's a Spider-Man who's mixed race; the new Iron Man, sorry, Ironheart, is a black woman; Thor is a woman; Captain America is black; and the list goes on. The theory goes that Marvel is losing money because it's focusing on more than just rich, white men. (Peter Parker is rich now, despite spending fifty years barely making enough to pay for rent and web fluid.)
When we talk about diversity in comics, there are a few things we mean. The first is obvious: characters who better reflect the diversity of the world in which we live. The second refers to diversity in the creation of the comic. Because the old adage states, “Write what you know,” it only makes sense that when the characters are mostly white men that their creators are also in that category. (While there is nothing inherently wrong with works from one subset of people, it's the different points of view that come from a vast array of life experiences and backgrounds that allows fiction to act as a gateway to another world.)
The problem with much of the diversity that Marvel—and to some extent DC—is selling is that it is not truly diverse. Yes, G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman, is writing Ms. Marvel, about a young Muslim woman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a black man, is writing Black Panther, but a lot of the new diversity in comics is coming at the expense of long-running characters, which is detrimental to the new characters and the old. Ironheart, the new Hulk, and the Goddess Thor are all heroes that have been gender-bent, race-bent, or both, but this means that fans of the old are mostly upset at the change in status quo and fans of the new characters are shortchanged as a new character is shoehorned into an existing role, even if it is altered slightly.
Yet even in that space, the best solution is to simply write good comics. Ms. Marvel continues to sell because she's a well-rounded character who's simply trying to figure out how to be a hero while also being a normal teenager with overbearing parents, and all of that is also captured through the lens of a Muslim-American. Just because she's Marvel's first Muslim hero with her solo title doesn't mean the creators use that as a crutch to lean on.
Additionally, while comic books might seem monochromatic, both in content and creators, that's mostly because the lens through which we view the comic book world is often only Marvel and DC, which misses the wider diversity found in characters and creators at smaller publishers like Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite, and Valiant. Comic book readers who find themselves hungry for a more diverse flavor of comics can often find tasty morsels within the pages of these smaller presses. For example, check out these titles and creators:
- Before he started writing Superman for DC, Gene Luen Yang made a name for himself with books like American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, and The Shadow Hero, all of which work through what it means to be Chinese and— (Chinese and American, Chinese and a Christian, Chinese and a superhero).
- Kelly Sue DeConnick is famous for two things: writing the new Captain Marvel and being half of the comic book power couple with Matt Fraction. One of her other, not-as-well-known titles is Bitch Planet, which centers around a number of women sent to an off-world prison for being non-compliant.
- Alison Bechdel writes feminist and queer comics, and does so comically. She is also the source of the Bechdel test, wherein you ask three questions about any given work of fiction (Are there two named women in it? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man?) to get even a simple baseline for works with fully realized female characters.
- Dwayne McDuffie helped create Static Shock, one of the most innovative and well-rounded minority characters to be created in the last twenty-five years. McDuffie helped found Milestone Comics, a independent imprint of DC that was once billed as the “industry's most successful minority-owned-and-operated comic company.”
Bonus Trivia: The first female superhero came on the scene in 1940, which seems both earlier than expected and later than it should have been. Jungle Comics #2 featured a story about Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. She had the privileged power of transforming into a blue-skulled creature, who still managed to maintain her flaxen locks. She sought to punish those who would threaten the jungle or those who dwelled within it. For the record, Wonder Woman was created just one year later.