Once in awhile, one can forget that comics as a medium are dominated in part by white dudes. It has been that way since the pulps of the early 20th century and even with the myriad of changes since then, it will remain that way for awhile. Most of the time that’s a tension one can ignore, it’s not that comics lacks for well-meaning people who want to write good stories, and that does lead to stories that bring excitement and joy to all. But sometimes, good intent can be marred by bad execution, as well as a lack of understanding. While we all on some level write stories from outside our frame of reference, it’s worth remembering that it’s best to exercise understanding. When that gets broken, it can lead to poor storytelling. Unfortunately, the most recent issue of Uncanny X-Men fell into that trap.
The issue in question featured the death of long-time X-Man Wolfsbane with her being beaten to death in a fashion reminiscent of “trans panic” attacks by cis-gendered men, complete with her being called a “trap”. While Matt Rosenberg did apologize for the issue’s triggering material, that’s not quite enough. The X-Men using bigotry and the experiences of marginalized groups for stories isn’t new, it’s practically one of their defining features as characters. However, that doesn’t mean that all routes are automatically open to mining. There must be some measure of sensitivity involved in how you approach things that happen to real-life people. Otherwise, you get scenes like Kitty Pryde dropping the N-bomb as a comparison to a fictional slur.
That said, this isn’t even the only time Rosenberg’s run has hosted problematic choices. Even within the current run, this is the third female X-Man in as many months who has been killed off. The very first issue of Rosenberg’s solo run has Loa die off-screen, and Blindfold who died after a suicide attempt. While the latter has been explained by Rosenberg as being based off a personal experience, that doesn’t change the quick and dirty nature of the former. As well as the overall problem with relying on character deaths for drama: if you keep going to that well, people are naturally going to draw patterns, and not necessarily positive ones.
This issue isn’t exclusive to Marvel; we’ve written in the past about DC’s shenanigans on this site such as Adam Glass’s current Teen Titans run and its treatment of Robin. One recent example (among a litany of others) is Heroes in Crisis. Debates about the execution aside, one of the book’s framing devices is various video interviews of heroes who’ve decided to pay a visit to the crisis center Sanctuary. This is in and of itself an innocuous idea that helps establish who has gone there and for what reasons. One issue has a brief segue focusing on Batgirl demonstrating her bullet wound at the hands of the Joker, which promptly goes in a very awkward direction with Clay Mann’s art objectifying her body at the same time it’s showing a horrific wound. The current design of Batgirl’s costume doesn’t help in that regard, but it’s still a specific choice that opts for sexiness, at the cost of an attempt at emotional introspection.
What’s common between why this repeatedly happens is that it’s symptomatic of a lack of diversity on both the creative end and on the editorial end. When one side writes something that may be harmful, it’s on editorial to be able to catch it or mitigate the effects. But if there’s no one on either end of the equation to recognize problematic content like this, that’s a failure. This isn’t to say that nobody should be allowed to write outside of their own wheelhouse, but there needs to be more investment on the part of writers and editors in being conscious of what they’re writing. While good intentions are nice, they need to be married with the idea of presentation.
Some of the best comics coming out of both DC and Marvel recently have been very self-aware of dealing with heavier topics while still maintaining a respectful tone. Immortal Hulk, Deathstroke, Unstoppable Wasp, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, and Runaways have all dealt with a variety of issues ranging from racism, to sexual identity, to mental health, to treatment of illegal immigrants, body issues, and more. All by a wide variety of writers and artists of varying gender, ethnic, and religious identities. Part of the reason why people are so strident on diversity is because the more voices you have, the more likely you are to produce work that distinguishes itself, as well as ensure that there’s someone to catch errors in judgement. A comics industry that continually falls into the pattern of hiring a preferred set of voices will fall victim to the same mistakes we’ve seen recently. So, here’s hoping that this at least serves as something of a teachable moment.