On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Diversity In Superhero Comics: Dinosaurs Will Die!
Posted on March 18, 2015
March 18, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
There’s a debate going on in comics. Well, actually, it’s mostly going on in and around mainstream superhero comics, but given how much that particular genre and the publishing behemoths that peddle most of it (Marvel and DC, obvs) dominate the industry, it often feels like these discussions encompass the entire thing. Anyway, there’s a debate going on in superhero comics, but what is it about, I hear you ask?
Mostly, it’s a debate about diversity and representation. You see, one of the (many) problems with superhero comics is that they’re very conservative. I mean this in the broader sense, not the political sense, although that is coming later. The biggest characters in superhero comics are, with rare exception, really fucking old. DC’s ‘big three’ iconic characters (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) all debuted between 1938 and 1941. Marvel’s major names (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-men, Spider-man, Hulk) debuted in the early 1960s. The Avengers even resurrected (well, thawed) Captain America, who was debuted in 1941.
Some white dudes, and a teeny woman face!
Basically, you’ve got a colossal publishing business where most of the big, guaranteed money makers (Wonder Woman doesn’t always shift comics, but she shifts a TON of branded merchandise) were created when the Western world was even more racist, sexist, and homophobic than it is right now. Which is why superhero comics, and the media based on superhero comics, is dominated by stories about hetero white men. Add to that a core readership with a heavy leaning toward nostalgia, and you wind up with a landscape that hasn’t been particularly good at keeping up with the times.
None of this is to say that the medium has not had dissenting voices. The X-men have been, since 1963, a huge allegory for the horrors of oppression and intolerance, slap bang in the middle of the Marvel universe. This didn’t stop parts of their fanbase spitting the dummy about a decade ago when it was revealed that an alternate universe version of burly X-men farmboy Colossus liked dudes. There was a similar whinge from some when a longstanding fictional homosexual gentleman (not to mention Canadian), Northstar, got married to another fictional bloke. You have to wonder quite what these fans were getting from the X-men since half a century of stories about understanding and tolerance went flying over their heads.
Superhero comics also has a long tradition of women creators, LGBTQI creators, and creators of colour bringing new ideas and characters to the table when they were able, as well as white male creators trying to make their work, and the characters they worked on better represent the world around them. There are deeper discussions to be had about how progressive and effective the latter may or may not be, but we don’t have room for that today.
The late, great Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon.
This tradition, with the advent of blogging and more recently social media hubs like Twitter and Tumblr, has found strong fan communities who are determined to call for better representation of women, LGBTQI people, people of colour, and more, both on the pages of their monthly comics, and in the creators behind them.
Now, for a good long while, this stuff was met with scepticism from the industry, and also fans. “A comic about [character who isn’t a hetero white dude] won’t sell. People want stories about [hetero white dude]. You can see it every month in the sales figures.” There were all kinds of logical fallacies here, not least the fact, as discussed earlier, that the established hetero white dude characters had a 50 year head start on the top of the damn pile. Hetero white dude privilege works in much the same way on the comics page as it does in reality, only on a way shorter timeline.
However, we now live in a world where a talking racoon and a tree are now two of the biggest names in superhero comics and superhero comics-based media. Add to that the fact that both Marvel and DC are now in the business of building toward huge tentpole superhero team-up movies, and the creepy Stepford Wives uniformity of character attributes superhero comics readers have grown accustomed to looks fucking weird to people outside our cosy little bubble. People notice when they can’t find Black Widow toys and costumes for their kids, and they tell the world about it.
Couple that with the huge amounts of positive press, and overwhelmingly positive fan response (both in terms of sales and epic online fan communities) to new characters like the teen muslim hero now using the Ms Marvel name, or characters with high profile progressive revamps like Batwoman and Captain Marvel, and it’s clear that the industry is experiencing a sea change. A big part of this change, is more practical costumes for a lot of female characters. Less incongruous nudity, means less questions about how the most people women on earth find time to keep their bikini lines under tight control.
Carol Danvers is her old Ms Marvel garb (art by Terry Dodson)
Carol Danvers in her Jamie McKelvie-designed Captain Marvel suit (art by Terry Dodson)
These moves have been tremendously successful. Clearly, there is an audience for an array of new and interesting titles based around characters with backgrounds and identities comics have not traditionally represented well. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but things are moving in the right direction, and faster than they have for a long time.
Which is where the backlash comes in. Some readers, and indeed some creators, have made it known that they are unhappy with the way the wind is blowing. Somehow, they have gazed out upon the vast array of comics available, most of which are still about straight white dudes, zeroed in on the relative few that are not, and declared “This shall not stand!”
The objections are many, and they are almost uniformly ridiculous. Here are just a few of the mainstays.
“Comics are entertainment. Why do you want them to be political?”
This one is almost always levelled against comics with LGBTQI characters. It’s telling that the cishet hegemony is so powerful that some people interpret the very existence of LGBTQI characters in their entertainment as some sort of political assault.
The Young Avengers won’t stand for your shit. Bye Felicia!
“I don’t want my kids reading comics about gay people.”
This one plays into some well-worn (and spectacularly baseless) fears that gay, lesbian, and bisexual (although they never seem to mention them – bi invisibility at work!) are a bad influence, or even a threat to their kids. They want to keep sexuality out of comics, unless it’s heterosexuality, in which case they want to read literally decades of stories about Peter Parker’s love life. And Wolverine’s. And Daredevil’s. Sexy, sexy, Daredevil.
“Why do they have to make Spider-man black?”
This one pertains specifically to Miles Morales, the mixed race Spider-man of the Ultimate universe. The white Spider-man in the main Marvel continuity is still there, moaning about things and waiting for his seemingly immortal ailing aunt to die, or whatever he does, except in an alternate universe there’s this kid who is also a Spider-man doing cool Spider-man type stuff. Let me stress that again, nobody got rid of the white Spider-man, they just created a new character, and made comics about him too.
It’s also noteworthy that this question always describes Miles as black, never Hispanic, and never mixed race. Not that I’d expect nuance on the topic of ethnic identity from people who get upset by the creation of fictional teenagers.
The only one who should be angry at Miles are those pigeons.
“Why is there all this focus on women having practical costumes? This doesn’t happen to the men!”
By ‘practical’, we are usually talking about covered legs, not fighting in high heels, and breasts covered. Fairly basic stuff for anyone going out to save lives and fight villains, you’d hope.
Batgirl’s new Cameron Stewart-designed costume. Sharp.
The whole idea that this doesn’t apply to the men is bunk too. Admittedly, I am extremely well-versed in Batman lore (it took everything in me not to type ’The Bat-man’), but I could give you a run down of the practical features of his cowl, cape, boots, chest panel, and any number of other hyper practical elements to his costume. That’s without getting anywhere near the utility belt.
Basically, these guys are whinging because a handful of comics have less cheesecake in them now.
As you can probably tell, the whole thing is bloody exhausting, and I say that as a broadly-hetero white dude just watching from the sidelines. The whole thing reminds me a lot of the conversations around sexism and lack of diversity in the punk and hardcore scenes: A relatively small and powerless grouping within the larger group use what platform they have to raise their voices about how underrepresented and disrespected they feel, and are hit with a wave of nonsense from the overwhelmingly cishet white male folks around them, usually about how they’re somehow spoiling the party for asking for respect and a level playing field.
This backlash against calls for more diversity and equality of representation and opportunity are not the herald of a fresh wave of conservatism in superhero comics. Rather, they are a chorus of death rattles for an entitled boys club that have spent too bloody long getting their own way, and are spitting the dummy because other kids want to play with their precious toys.
Bollocks to ‘em. The future of comics belongs to everyone. Learn to share, or fuck off.