January 28, 2015
by Andy Waterfield

On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.

Mainstream comics, like most of popular culture in the anglophone world, cater predominantly to affluent heterosexual, cisgender, white people. The affluent part is easy to justify, at least from a business perspective. Media companies (public service broadcasters notwithstanding) are businesses, after all, not charities, so why wouldn’t they aim their content at people with plenty of disposable income? The heteronormative and white-centric bent is harder to square, and I would argue impossible, without acknowledging the strong bias within dominant cultural narratives to consider heterosexuality, cisgender, and whiteness a kind of default position, where all variance from that position is some kind of peculiar outlier, as opposed to the product of natural variation across our species.

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CIS-HET WHITE PEOPLE!

There’s a lot of other stuff we could spend time unpacking regarding cultural and structural biases, and the way they intersect to reduce visibility for minorities in and around the media, but I’m grossly under-qualified to guide readers through those debates, so I shan’t insult you all by trying. Suffice to say that popular fiction throws up cis-het, white folks as protagonists and viewpoint characters with alarming frequency, and comics, historically and contemporaneously, are unfortunately no exception.

While there are exceptions, there’s still a whole lot of work to be done, and unfortunately comics is lagging behind television and music in spectacular fashion, given our reputation (deserved or otherwise) as something of an outsider artform.

The same ropey arguments seem to pop up too:

‘A comic focusing on [underserved minority X] won’t sell because [underserved minority X] don’t buy comics in sufficient numbers to justify the costs.’

In much the same way that the audiences at punk shows are often unduly cishet white male affairs, in large part because they usually serve as an echo chamber for cishet white male experiences and concerns, I’d wager that a huge part of minority under-representation in mainstream comics readership is down to their lack of representation within the pages of mainstream comics.

The issue of under-representation is especially malignant when we consider how much of the comics market is dominated by stories of heroes overcoming extraordinary challenges to save themselves and others. Precisely what message are we sending to impressionable young minds when the vast majority of the premier heroes of both the biggest producers of superhero comics are white blokes? As a white bloke myself, I don’t have to look very far for a hero that looks like me, that shares many of my experiences, and whose secret identity is viewed by their world in much the same way I am viewed in mine.

However, the history of mainstream comics, as white, male, and absurdly heteronormative as it is, is also littered with awesome minority characters who are protagonists in their particular titles, not mere supporting cast. How, you ask? Because they’re in team/ensemble books, and the reasons for that, and the benefits of it, are what we’ll be exploring this week.

The benefits of team books are manifold. If a team-book with a bunch of minority characters in the line-up fails to sell, it’s a lot tougher for editors and industry commenters to blame those low sales on some facet or other of the book’s co-protagonists. Also, you can have a range of diverse characters with the different experiences and perspectives that entails, and that can help drive conflict and drama in the story.

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WOMEN AND MINORITIES!

Also, because team books are often where publishers put their characters when they feel they aren’t popular enough to sustain a solo book, the marketing men aren’t watching so closely. A character like Batman, because he’s plastered across lunch boxes and blockbuster movies, cannot really be permanently changed by his travails in the comics; not in the long term anyway; the corporate powers simply will not allow it. They stand to lose too much by, as they see it, diminishing their brand. This isn’t the case for a character like Grace Choi, the bisexual Amazon brawler from Judd Winick’s excellent Outsiders run.

Although all these factors allow minority characters to thrive, and find new audiences through inclusion in team books, it would be grotesque to suggest that that could ever be enough. Comics, and indeed media as a whole, needs to actively make large-scale and robust efforts to provide us with stories more representative of our world, and that means representative of the full range of human diversity and experience. This must also include increased representation within the industry, as the executive, editorial, and creative levels.

Until that day comes, here are a few recommendations of great team books that buck the 70 year trend of chisel-jawed white dudes whose knackers, if they twitch at all, only twitch for women:

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Outsiders by Judd Winick and Tom Raney

Outsiders

Judd Winick’s run on Outsiders was utterly superb from a pure storytelling perspective, and it also had a single father in Arsenal, a now-adopted orphan in Nightwing, a same-sex couple (one of whom was bisexual) in Grace and Thunder, and a love story between an android and a guy who can transform himself at the atomic level with Indigo and Shift. Oh, and Jade was there too.

Winick’s run also did away with the reactive nonsense that proliferates in superhero fiction. His team didn’t wait for something to happen then spend a few pages kicking the shit out of a mentally ill bloke with a funny costume. They went after tyrannical despots, child traffickers, and other real world threats. They also fought a monkey with a beret and the brain in a jar he’s in a homosexual relationship with, but they were being super dastardly, and what’s queer representation worth if you don’t get queer villains with it?

It’s tough to track down in print collections, but the whole glorious lot is available digitally from Comixology.

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Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphoma

Runaways

Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways was the breakout hit of the early 2000s. The story of a group of kids bound together by a common trauma, now on the run from both the authorities and one of the world’s most powerful crime syndicates, helped cement Vaughan as the most universally revered comics writer of his generation. The art was consistently gorgeous too. It also featured characters of various ethnicities, class backgrounds, body shapes, sexualities, and later in the run, gender identities. It remains an absolute standout, and a firm fan favourite for all the best reasons.

Oh, and it had a psychic dinosaur. You can’t argue with that. Marvel is pretty good at keeping the whole lot in print, in gorgeous collected editions, but if you can’t track it down, or you prefer a life bereft of bookshelves, it’s also available digitally.

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Young Avengers by Alan Heinberg and Jim Cheung

Young Avengers

Young Avengers is exactly what it sounds like, a bunch of younger characters with ties to adult Avengers (and not always the ties you’d think), banding together to try and make their world a better place. Originally created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, its beating heart is the romance between Hulkling and Wiccan. Their love has even been known to soften my own stony heart, but if you tell anyone, I’ll kill you in your sleep.

The original run lasted just 12 issues, but was eventually followed by the epic Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade, as the team set off to find Wiccan and Speed’s super-spoilery mother. Stuff gets rad, and my two favourite Marvel villains ever pop up. I’ve said too much!

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Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

More recently, the title was revived once again, this time by the relentless, awesome creative team/gestalt cartoonist that is Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. In their much more thematically driven run, they examine the nature of adolescence itself, and gave a generation of readers strong feels that sent comics tumblr into a monthly frenzy of joy and anguish.

The whole lot of Young Avengers runs are pretty easy to track down physically, or indeed digitally, and I honestly can’t recommend them enough.

I can’t stress enough how much comics needs to improve its representation of women and minorities, but the best way to send a strong message to the industry is to support the titles that feature women and/or minority characters in prominent roles. The major publishers may be pretty small-c conservative, but they’re not in the habit of turning down money. If they see a market for something, they’ll make more of it.

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Ms. Marvel fights injustice in our world too.

Oh, and read Ms. Marvel too, although it’s not a team book. It’s about a teenage girl called Kamala Khan, who happens to be a Muslim, and it’s written by G. Willow Wilson, who happens to be a Muslim herself. She’s also the inspiration behind a direct action campaign to deface islamophobic bus ads in San Francisco.

What better evidence is there that minority heroes have a real world impact? People are amazing.

Have a great week everyone, and enjoy your comics.

Andy Waterfield is a 28 year old humanoid whose principle loves are comics and punk, in that order. The world at large thinks he is too old for both. The world at large can take a long walk off a short pier. Follow his idiotic ramblings on Tumblr or on Twitter.

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