Outrage Deferred: On The Lack Of Black Writers In The Comic Book Industry
This is the first week of Black History Month, a four-week celebration and remembrance of the significant events and people of the African diaspora. For many, myself included, it’s a month to reflect on where we’ve been, as a people and as a nation, and to contemplate exactly where it is we’re going. In terms of the comic book industry, an obvious interest and passion of mine, there is one glaring and sobering fact that needs our attention: There is currently not a single black writer working on a monthly series for either of the two biggest comic book publishers in the United States, and precious few working for any of the others.
And yet, this fact has hardly been discussed recently, in the way some other diversity issues are. So what happened, exactly? Why is it that we no longer seem to care about this as much as we once did? Where has our outrage gone?
It may be best to begin this discussion with a look at recent moves by DC and Marvel to revitalize and modernize their brands. First, DC’s New 52. It’s been well documented by now, on this site and others: When the New 52 initiative launched, there was only one woman assigned as a writer on any of the books. Gail Simone was writing Batgirl and co-writing Fury of Firestorm. The outrage from fans was immediate, and understandably so given the initiative’s stated goals. What wasn’t nearly as discussed, however, was the lack of black writers. Eric Wallace was tapped to write Mister Terrific, and he stood as the lone black writer attached to the New 52. Marc Bernardin was later hired to take over on Static Shock starting with issue #7, but due to low sales both Static Shock and Wallace’s Mister Terrific were canceled with issue #8. Bernardin only ever wrote two issues. No black writer has been hired by DC since.
Moving over to Marvel, the Marvel NOW! initiative has received plenty of attention and much acclaim. But much like DC’s New 52 relaunch, there is a noticeable absence of diversity: there are currently no black writers attached to any of the books out now, or any upcoming books that have been announced. The argument from many will be that Marvel’s idea was to take the popular writers they already had and put them on new or relaunched books while also modernizing their brand. That’s certainly true, but there’s a problem with that. The idea of saying, “Well, we only have white people in these new positions because they’re the ones with experience/they’re already here” is, in a sense, exactly why Affirmative Action exists: to right an imbalance. For the record, I am not arguing that comic publishers need affirmative action policies in place when hiring new writers. I’m simply attempting to point out the fallacy of the “They’re just using the writers they already have” argument. If the publisher had established black writers on their roster prior to the launch of Marvel NOW, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But they did not, and here we are.
That’s two major initiatives over the past 18 months from the two biggest comic publishers in this country meant to update their brands in an attempt to better reflect the world we currently live in. Yet somehow, from the angle of a black writer trying to break into comics, this current era in the industry looks quite a bit like the one we were supposed to be leaving behind. For what it’s worth, publishers like Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Valiant, etc. are currently not faring much better, which is also a concern. Marvel and DC often hire writers after they’ve had some commercial or critical success at smaller publishers. If these publishers aren’t hiring black writers either, it could certainly be argued that it lowers the chances of Marvel and DC doing so.
In the past when black writers have been given an opportunity at a major comics publisher, their window often closed significantly faster than those of whites. A black writer taken off a book, for whatever reason, was not likely to get another assignment as quickly as other writers might. Perhaps the quintessential example is that of the late Dwayne McDuffie. A comics and animation industry veteran of more than 20 years before he left us much too soon, it’s been said that McDuffie was never offered an open-ended run on a monthly comic book until his Justice League of America stint in 2007. If that’s true, that seems remarkable given the number of writers of far less experience (and, frankly, talent) who had come and gone in the industry during the same period in which McDuffie operated, and have been offered multiple chances to write monthly series with no defined end in sight.
And yet, as I mentioned above, the focus on bringing more black writers into the industry has been largely ignored, both by publishers and, it needs to be said, by the comic book press. For all the attention the lack of female writers at DC received, there was very little in regards to the dearth of black writers. Further, it is nearly impossible to find anyone directly addressing the complete absence of black women from a major publisher’s writing credits. Keeping track of such statistics is difficult and it may not be possible to ascertain exact numbers. With the information we do have, the numbers are bleak. As near as I can tell, throughout DC Comics’ more than 75-year history, the publisher has only ever hired two black women writers on monthly titles: Felicia Henderson on Teen Titans and Angela Robinson on The Web, both in 2009. That should be put in some perspective: If those numbers are accurate, it would mean that DC has more white women writing monthly books for them right now than they’ve had black women in the same role in more than three quarters of a century. That said, they are potentially doing better than their principal competition: Try as I might, I cannot find a single black woman who has ever written a monthly ongoing comic for Marvel in the publisher’s history.
Looking at all of that, a question has to be asked: If at the start of the New 52 there were 10 female writers assigned to books but every last one of them were white, would there have been the same level of frustration from fans? If the answer is no, and I suspect it would be, we have a serious problem on our hands. It works both ways, of course: the vast majority of black writers who have worked in the industry are men, and that represents an imbalance that desperately needs to be addressed going forward.
So where is our collective outrage about our current situation? Why isn’t any of this being discussed more? There are certainly many reasons behind that, some of which go well beyond the comic industry and reflect America’s current climate and the changing (and perhaps diminishing) discourse on race, but the biggest factor may simply be a lack of voices. In the past Dwayne McDuffie was arguably the most recognizable and vocal figure on the topic of black creators in comics. One of the biggest factors in the slowly growing discussion of the dearth of female writers in the industry has been the many passionate, intelligent voices — working both as comics professionals and in the comics media — who have demanded these issues be brought to the table. And while progress has been painfully slow, the very fact that we now have that discussion in a meaningful fashion is significant. In short, the women at the forefront of this discussion, by making their voices heard, have improved the industry. But since the untimely passing of McDuffie, there has been a very obvious void in terms of recognizable and established figures speaking out on behalf of black creators. McDuffie was a poised, intelligent, and highly respected figure in comics, with decades of experience, and I honestly don’t know who could step in and fill that void. Due to years of black writers having so much difficulty breaking into the field, the answer is, quite possibly, no one.
Of course the comic industry certainly owns no sort of exclusivity when it comes to the lack of opportunity or attention afforded black writers in entertainment. But you know what? Maybe this will be the year we see significant change. Maybe comics, an industry that can be so woefully, maddeningly behind the times, can actually be out in front of something for once. Characters like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are some of the most recognizable and endearing this country has ever produced, and to continually have their stories told by members of the same increasingly shrinking demographic borders on irresponsible.
It is incumbent upon all of us — publishers, editors, fans, and members of the comic industry media — to keep this conversation going. We owe it everyone — from Jackie Ormes to Dwayne McDuffie — who has come before us and tried to show us a better way. But maybe most of all, we owe it to ourselves. We deserve better than this.
It’s early in 2013, meaning there is still ample opportunity to end up closing this year on a much better note than we did 2012. Given the industry’s history and present, it is long overdue.