The question has yet arisen again about why DC are taking some of their characters who have for as long as that character has been around, going from White to Black. There are some who attribute this to DC being lazy while others see it as pandering to sales. But for many of us, there are far deeper issues than simply lazy story telling when it comes to comic books and characters of different races being represented. It’s easy for anyone (especially those who are not Black) to take the case of Wally West, Johnny Storm or even the ‘new’ Power Girl and ask “Why can’t comic companies just make new characters?” When you look at hiring practices, location of stores as well as sales and demographics of readers, it’s not hard to see why some of the solutions that many think would be a simple fix is not so simple at all.
Ok, let’s start this right off the back with the most immediate solution from fandom every time a comic character changes race or sex. “Instead of changing a comic character’s race, why not just make new ones?” As I have written previously, as long as what is done with a character doesn’t affect their origin (which is why a white Black Panther will never work), who they are under the mask shouldn’t matter. There are problems that one has to face when creating new characters. First and foremost is the lack of minority and women writers within ALL comic companies when it comes to giving characters proper and relatable voices. Now, keep in mind, this does not mean comic companies should go out and drag in the first person of color and make them write a book. Let me say this again for emphasis because some will miss it. THIS DOESN’T MEAN GET THE FIRST PERSON YOU SEE AND TOSS A BOOK IN FRONT OF THEM AND SAY “YOU ARE BLACK, WRITE THIS BLACK CHARACTER.”
But real talk, there are so many talented people (of color as well) out there who can write; you have to ask why was Al Ewing writing a book with a team of characters who were mostly people of color? It didn’t help that Greg Land did the art as well. It debuted at number 7, and then fell to 29th the following month and by issue 6? The book was 72nd in terms of sales. By the time issue 13 rolled around it was 104th. It seems that if Marvel wanted to get more minorities to read that book, they didn’t do a good job. Then you have to wonder whatever happened over at DC Comics, to Mister Terrific and Dwayne McDuffie’s creation, Static Shock when it launched during the New 52’s initial release. Issue one of both came in at 74 and 80 with Batwing, a new character well ahead placing at 58th in terms of sales. Again no black writers as Scott McDaniel who is more noted for his art wrote Static Shock which lasted only 8 issues. While Mister Terrific DID have a writer of color in Eric Wallace, it was also pulled after only eight issues. Sadly enough, when it was cancelled, it outsold Saga #1 that month. Sidebar: Mr. Wallace’s wikia on DC’s page is threadbare by the way.
Just by these examples alone we see that there is a disconnect when it comes to hiring competent creative talent and giving them a book with an established character or even a new one. Another example is Ms. Marvel, who is a new character being repurposed in an old character’s identity and written very competently by a Muslim woman. According to the last sales figures from December 2014, Ms. Marvel sold 30K books vs 19K of Captain Marvel. When you look past the sales numbers, there is one number left to look at when it comes to why certain books perform better than others and why simply saying create new characters isn’t enough. In some cases, creating a minority character or giving voice to an existing one is not an end all be all. Answer this question: how many people of color (competent or no) are writing a current book among the big comic companies right now? Even as of 2013, there are more women who are writing comics (and breaking in the top 100 with those books) than there are people of color writing books for the major comic companies.
We can always lament the fact that Dwayne McDuffie isn’t here to take up the slack but remember, he had to go out and make his own company just so some of his characters, as well as other Black creators could give voice to their characters. Most of us are still holding out hope that when Milestone returns as rumored, it will be successful. Lesson here is this: When one starts to shout for comic companies to make “new minority characters instead of changing existing ones”, keep in mind it’s not that simple. It’s a matter of WHO is writing that character, if they are competent enough to bring new as well as old fans in and who ultimately buys them which brings us to the next point.
One has to remember the money that has to be spent on marketing that new character. It’s obvious that many companies will only go but so far to market new characters and if they don’t stick it’s money lost. One can only look at Miles Morales (who originally was supposed to be part Latino and it was even rumored at one time, gay) to take a note at how many subtle changes he has gone through as Marvel backed off of what was originally intended. It’s also fair to say that Marvel was willing to gamble on Miles in the Ultimates universe rather than take a big jump and do it outright in the 616. Remember the controversy that took place when Doc Ock essentially became Spider-man. Just imagine if a Black guy took over, people would have jumped off of buildings to their deaths.
This portion can be relatively short because most of us can easily identify this. Who is reading and buying comics? According to an article by Five Thirty Eight, it’s almost impossible to count because that data isn’t publicly available. You can sit back and say “are you serious?” Yes, that is the answer and one should ask why that data isn’t out there. Then, take the time and ask who you see most in comic shops. If an estimated 79% of the creatorship of comic books are white, that says a lot of who is also buying. Or does it? What IS interesting is that last year a study came out stating that nearly 50% of comic fans are women, but what the study didn’t show was what titles they buy nor did it take into account how much was spent towards their particular titles or if they preferred monthly books or graphic novels. One still would be hard pressed to find any data as to how many people of varying minorities buy comics. Then again, let’s look at the beginning of this passage. There is no public data about which demographic buys what books. So in my opinion, it’s very hard for anyone to make the argument that making new characters of color is the problem solver when it’s difficult to tell who supports any character.
This can be a very tricky subject as again the data to judge it by is not available. But let’s call truth for what it is. Comic books in their physical form are not as accessible as they were 30+ years ago. Before brick and mortar stores (local comic shops) became the norm, many of us were relegated to making our purchases from spinner racks in whatever store we ran across.
Depending on where you lived it either worked or it did not. Living where I did in Baltimore City I had access to at least 4 stores within a 2 mile walking distance as well as Geppi’s comic stand at the Inner Harbor. Since that time, many of those places have long since closed and even at one time when book stores like Barnes and Noble had racks, those too are going away. So we are left with our local shops. While I applaud anyone who takes a chance to open a store to sell comics and make a living by doing so, real talk, a lot of these places are not easily accessible for most people.
Also, if you want to cater to a minority group, you would be hard pressed to find a comic shop in a neighborhood with a high minority population. Before you cast judgement we aren’t saying ‘in the ‘hood’ either as many of the areas near where I live are affluent enough that a successful comic shop could thrive, so please cast that thought out. I live not too far from FedEx Field in MD. There are nearly a dozen of small shopping centers and 2 large mall areas within a 10 mile radius of my home. However, you have a store like Fantom Comics which is in the heart of downtown DC, Big Planet Comics also in downtown DC as well as in College Park, Alliance Comics in Silver Spring and Third Eye comics in Annapolis. All of them driving wise on a good day would take me 20 to 40 minutes to drive to. Only 2 of them are Metro accessible and would take 45 minutes to an hour to access.
So I have to ask the question, if the comic industry wanted more minority support of their characters, why are there so few shops in neighborhoods to cater to us? If anyone is reading this has a different outtake on that, please e mail me as I am willing to hear that this is not a nationwide thing. But, I have traveled to stores from Philadelphia to as far south as Richmond and I have yet to run across any stores in minority rich neighborhood. It’s even harder when I talk to friends at work, who would love to get their kids comics but when they hear that the nearest shop is 20 minutes away opposite from where they live, you can’t convince them to make that trip unless they are a fan themselves.
In conclusion, there is no easy fix to the problems of diversifying characters in comics. Comics by themselves do not print money and character popularity lives and dies by the people working on them at that time. Only by the industry trying to tie in everything with cartoons, toys, and movies will most people regardless of their background get some exposure to comic books. Granted, there are some that will say that Marvel may be doing a better job in catering to the needs of the general public when it comes to trying to get a diverse readership.
However by much estimation, there is a huge failure by many comic companies when it comes to having that same diversity among their staff. There is also a failure for many storefronts to be in places where people have access but, in some cases, can you blame them? Not to mention, this does not mean that 1) Black people are poor and 2) Black people live in the ghetto but we all should be stymied by the fact that many places that have a majority of middle class to upper middle class Black neighborhoods don’t have a local comic shop to go to.
Thus people wonder why, when new characters are created or old characters change race, they fail. There are many ways that the comic industry can fix some of these problems, the question is, do they want to. We still have the choice of voting with our dollars but if you don’t like what you are seeing, maybe it’s time to get out of the hobby. If you don’t like reading a Black character taking over Wally West, don’t buy it. If you don’t like Sam Wilson as Captain America, don’t buy it. If you don’t like a woman as Thor or Ms. Marvel and Green Lantern as a Muslim, don’t buy it. But if these are changes are made, in many cases that pandering is to get EVERYONE in to read, not just you. You don’t make money unless you make changes, whether they are significant or not.