Taking Heart in the Diversity of Comics
The last couple years have been an illuminating one in regards to the state of race as it exists in the American psyche. More than ever, race has been an unavoidable conversation not just in daily life, but in the media we consume as well. The role media plays in how we approach the world is underrated and misunderstood, what we see on TV and read in books can shape our intellectual approach to life subconsciously. Hence why now more than ever, it’s refreshing to see the various mediums we consume respond in kind. In comics however, that’s a two-pronged approach. It requires both having diverse characters, and having creators who represent that diversity in 2015.
Comics by and large have done a poor job of reflecting what the world really looks like. Creators are typically and have been for years white men, which isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault so much as it is a reflection of who the power structure favors. The resistance towards minority characters and creations has long been a part of comics as well, bear in mind comics is the same industry where a famed creator such as Dwayne McDuffie felt enough disenchantment with the one-trick pony use of black characters in comics that he pitched Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers to prove that point.
DC and Marvel by and large have both been resistant figures and driving force in the changes within comics. Lately, that pendulum has thankfully been attempting to swing towards the latter. Comics by virtue of the fact they have to sell often have to make safe creative choices with all factors involved in order to turn a simple profit. In fairness to the bean counters, risky choices aren’t in the best interest of that ultimate goal, but as a form of art it creates stagnant and boring art. Which is why it’s refreshing to see that DC and Marvel both attempt to make a concerted choice at both hiring talented minority creators, and to make an attempt at bringing out characters who reflect what the world actually look like. While one could cynically point out that both publishers are attempting to coast upon the controversy current events have made, and that changes such as the new Thor; Ghost Rider; or Captain America will be reversed. While all of those accusations may very well be true, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that these stories exist at all. As was said earlier, media we consume can shift how we approach life.
Moreover, people old and young alike of different shades, different religions, and different creeds are starved for quality stories that look just like us. For example, young Middle Eastern men and women more often than not have to live with being largely represented as terrorists in comics going back to the 80’s in the John Ostrander/Kim Yale/Luke McDonnell Suicide Squad run with the introduction of the Jihad supervillain team, or even in recent media like 24. The ubiquity of that kind of portrayal is what makes a comic like Ms. Marvel that normalizes being a brown teenager in America, that you’re not different; you just are what you are. That sort of quality extends to the current mustache-less run on Batman at the moment. The recent issue by Scott Snyder, Brian Azzarallo, and Jock spotlighted an early adventure of Batman which dealt with not just what Batman fights, but what he could do to inspire others. It inverted what’s normally one of the uncomfortable potential endpoints of his mission: that he’s a rich orphan taking out his rage and frustration on the poor and mentally ill, and turning it into a story about the divide between police and policed, the rich and the poor, and how we including Batman can extend a helping hand to the downtrodden and the hopeless.
While it is important to have stories that reflect and express those hopes and wishes of a diverse world, having people who reflect that world as stated before is a key element. Both DC and Marvel have made stumbling blocks in the past, however credit where it’s due they’ve definitely done more in the recent past. The recent runs on Ultimate Spider-Man, All-New Ghost Rider and Ms. Marvel featuring Miles Morales, Robbie Reyes, and Kamala Khan respectively were an important first step in that attempt to create a more diverse Marvel. Bringing in creators such as Ta-Nehsi Coates and veteran Brian Stelfreeze for the new Black Panther book, along with Greg Pak and Frank Cho for Totally Awesome Hulk are possibly even bigger in that. Diversity only means so much when the people writing these books aren’t also reflective of that wider world that’s out there.
DC also hasn’t been shabby with the new DC YOU initiative which has produced some favorite comics the last few months between the current Batman, Action Comics, Cyborg, and We Are Robin. All could have missed the mark on in theory, but all well executed with style. Greg Pak and Lee Bermajo in particular have told some fantastic stories about people who exist on the lower end of the social ladder, and what people can do to affect that positively. The key thing that distinguishes all of those books is that they’re in some form telling stories about America as it is now, not the one that exists. While “social justice” is often used as a negative buzzword against telling relevant stories, that’s not been the case in most forms of American fiction. You can tell a fantastic story that has heart, and also has a point. That comics should exist separate from the real world is laughable at best and idiotic at worst. As a form of art and literature, they’ve always existed hand in hand with the march of history that they should lead the charge towards a better and brighter future is a step up from enabling the worst aspects of our national psyche. The Big Two have a long way to go, but they’re certainly catching up.