Diversity in Comics

A new year. A new start. A new chance to make a change. Long-time readers of this site may know that we at ComicsAlliance are proud cheerleaders for a more representative industry. We like political correctness. We like feminism. We like diversity. We want the industry at large -- and the superhero publishers in particular -- to embrace these things.

To that end, we have a few suggestions for how superhero publishers might change in 2014. Some of you may look at this list and say it's too ambitious, or that we're asking for too much. We say this list is a good start. These are our ten resolutions for the industry.

  • More Women of Color


    When the new Ms Marvel book from G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona debuts in February it will be the only book from Marvel or DC headlined by a woman of color -- thanks to the recent cancellation of DC's Katana. Across all of Marvel and DC at the moment, there are about as many non-white female superheroes total as there are white guys in Avengers teams, and that's shocking.

    You may wonder why we're specifically mentioning women of color when we obviously want more women and more people of color in our comics. Doesn't that cover it? It doesn't, because these are both marginalized groups. When we talk about people of color the default tends to be men, and when we talk about women the default tends to be white. It takes more effort to improve visibility and representation for anyone at the intersection of two marginal groups. We want more women of color.

    Resolution: There are about 18 straight white dudes in the Avengers when you look across all the Avengers titles. By the end of 2014, we want to be able to say there are at least twice that many female heroes of color starring in Marvel and DC superhero titles.

  • No More Local Specialties


    Asked about character diversity at Marvel, editor-in-chief Axel Alonso used to bring up the Zapata brothers, a pair of Mexican hitmen in luchador masks who have only made a handful of appearances. It wasn't the strongest citation; the only thing worse than a paucity of Latin characters is having to cite ones that are stereotypes.

    Alonso doesn't mention the Zapata bros as much anymore, perhaps because there are Latino and South American characters in Avengers, Avengers AI, Mighty Avengers, Secret Avengers and Uncanny X-Men (and, formerly, Avengers Arena and Young Avengers). Most of those characters are superheroes who happen to be Latino, and that's as it should be.

    The era when every other non-white character was voodoo-themed, or kung-fu themed, or native mysticism-themed, or jungle-themed, or jungle cat-themed, or jungle god-themed, is behind us. It produced some good characters, some great characters, but it's time to move on. Characters can and should embrace their identities and their heritage, but they shouldn't be defined by it. There's only one Captain America in the Avengers; his teammates aren't Pilgrim Man, Applepie, and Founding Father.

    Resolution: One national hero per nation. All existing national heroes get grandfathered in. All the other heroes get to choose their identity from a full canvas of options.

  • Put The LGBT In The JLA


    Avengers editor Tom Brevoort was recently asked on Tumblr, "if we can expect any gay members on the Avengers?" His response: "Who says you don’t already?" And the answer is, anyone can say we don't if Marvel hasn't presented it.

    In 50 years, the main Avengers teams have never had a serving member who was known to be LGBT. (Moondragon, Living Lightning, Hercules and Valkyrie were all established as LGBT after leaving the team.) The JLA fairs a little better with two LGBT members, Icemaiden and Tasmanian Devil, plus Obsidian, who came out after his time on the team, but none of them yet exist in the new continuity. If current member Catwoman is bisexual, as some have speculated, that's also not a fact in the new continuity.

    We take Tom Brevoort's remarks to mean that there are imminent plans to establish a serving Avenger as LGBT, and we're excited to see it. We hope the JLA follows suit.

    Resolution: At least one LGBT member in the JLA, at least one LGBT member in the Avengers by the end of 2014.

  • Sexy Costume Equality


    Zatanna has to wear fishnets because she's dressed like a stage magician. Emma Frost has to flash flesh because it empowers her. Power Girl needs her boob window because it's iconic. Psylocke wears totally appropriate ninja clothes, like Elektra. Wonder Woman's bare legs allow unrestricted movement. Poison Ivy doesn't wear clothes. Starfire is an alien. Angela... uh... came direct from an old Todd McFarlane comic! Whatever the female character, it seems like there is always some completely crucial in-universe reason why they must dress like they're going to a Halloween party at a sorority house. It's ridiculous.

    To give credit where it's due, Marvel has done a great job of late putting some of its more egregiously under-dressed heroines in better (and more character-appropriate) costumes, and that includes Psylocke, Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch. That's laudable. We want to see more of that. Much, much more.

    But we're not anti-sexy here at Comics Alliance. On the contrary; we're very sexy. So we have a proposal.

    Resolution: For every male character with a revealingly sexy costume or a scene of gratuitous disrobement, there can be one female character in a similar costume or circumstance. Right now the only male character in a sexy costume is Namor, so you get half...

    Wait, no, he put on pants and a vest. Right now there's no-one.

    So, good luck, comics.

  • Same Love


    Romance is part of the soap of superhero comics. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy keeps secrets from girl, girl gets abducted by super villain, boy angsts over terrible life choices, something something, kissing?

    But it's almost always boy-meets-girl. When it's two guys, they seem to fall in love somewhere in the gutters. (In the comics sense, not the puritanical sense, nor the Oscar Wilde sense.) Gay characters step off the gay boat in pre-set pairs, and we never see any courtship.

    There are two recent exceptions to this that we can think of. Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer were allowed to fall in love in Batwoman (but not allowed to marry). Annabelle Riggs almost had a troubled romance in Fearless Defenders before it was canceled. We never saw Wiccan fall in love with Hulkling. We never saw Northstar fall in love with Kyle. We never even saw Rictor fall in love with Shatterstar, despite the fact that it happened in X-Force right under our noses!

    Resolution: No more motorcycle-and-sidecar gay couples. Let's see some single LGBT heroes fall in love. Prodigy. Starling. Julie Power. Bunker. Ben Deeds. Show, don't tell.

  • Girls Allowed


    The accepted wisdom is that superheroes aren't for girls. Game designer Anjin Anhut recently wrote a piece explaining why marketers fear the female geek. The summary version: Marketers often get strong returns when they exclude women from their audience and create the impression that men are superior to women. In comics that manifests as male leads and male stories; hyper-sexualized female characters; women as plot devices. The strategy was effective for generations.

    Things change. The focus on adolescent male interests helped push superhero comics into a shrinking ghetto; recent efforts to diversify by publishers like Image, Marvel and Dark Horse have seen the genre audience grow. The greater media landscape is diversifying. Audiences are more sophisticated. People understand that stereotypes are damaging, and that positioning women as inferior is poisonous to our culture and our society.

    We think comics publishers can continue to grow their audiences by abandoning old stereotypes and pursuing a more original course. It requires a change in attitude that might be summed up like this: Superheroes are for girls.

    Resolution: A modest goal would be to say that at least 50% of superhero product should neither alienate women, nor marginalize them, nor rob them of their agency, nor reduce them to sex objects.

    Let's set a more ambitious goal. At least 50% superhero comics should appeal to women directly. It should feature female heroes and female-led storylines. Let's see where we are in a year.

  • Remember The "T" in LGBT

    Lord Fanny, 'The Invisibles'
    Lord Fanny, 'The Invisibles'

    We need to see transgender superheroes in the Marvel and DC universes. We don't mean mutant shapeshifters, gender-ambiguous aliens or magical tricksters. We mean a person assigned the wrong gender at birth; perhaps someone who is transitioning to their correct gender or has already transitioned. And we don't mean a supporting cast member. We mean a hero.

    Young people struggling with gender identity need heroes, just as lesbian, gay and bisexual people need heroes, just as people of all races need heroes. Superhero comics were so slow, so shamefully slow, to accept that LGBT people belong in general audience comics. That has changed at a rapid pace, but the T in LGBT is still in the margins.

    Other forms of narrative media haven't been great on this issue, but we're seeing gradual change, supported by the greater visibility achieved by transgender people like Laverne Cox, Lana Wachowski, Chaz Bono, and Janet Mock. Let this be one time that comics actually lead change rather than trailing a decade behind.

    Resolution: Let's start with one major trans hero at each major publisher. It's that simple.

  • Filibuster The Majority


    Let's bring Scarlet Witch back to life and have her say, "No more straight white men". We can keep all the ones we already have, but at this point straight white men are so over-represented in superhero comics that we literally do not need any more. Not one. Not a single, solitary one.

    This is going to bruise some people's feelings. "You're oppressing us," they'll say, "You're fractionally diminishing the extent to which we are culturally dominant!" That's not what oppression looks like, but how would they know when they've only ever seen it from the other side?

    Straight, white and male is the default assumption of an industry that has always been dominated by straight white men. It's a lazy habit that comic creators need to break, so let's go cold turkey.

    Resolution: No new straight white male characters in superhero comics in 2014. (And no more time-displaced versions of old ones either.)

  • Leading Ladies


    All right, this one isn't really up to the comics industry, but it needs to be repeated; let's get a solo female hero on the big screen. Marvel, Sony and Fox have already announced their Marvel movie plans for 2014 and 2015. DC's next big movie is 2015's Batman/Superman project, with special guest star Wonder Woman. The earliest we're likely to see either a Marvel or DC solo female hero on the screen is 2016. That's ten years after the first Iron Man movie.

    If a female solo movie is going to happen in 2016, it has to be announced in 2014. As much as we'd like to see a third Thor movie, as keen as we are to see a Namor movie, we can wait on them both if Marvel can promise a Captain Marvel movie. Give us Katee Sackhoff as Cap and we'll deal with another year without Hemsworth as Thor.

    And DC? Just make a goddamn Wonder Woman movie already. Sweet Hera, what the hell, guys? Marvel doesn't have a female hero equivalent to Wonder Woman, but I'm willing to bet if DC gave Marvel the rights they'd have made two Wonder Woman pictures by now.

    We're pleased to see Jessica Jones and Peggy Carter on the small screen, but heroes belong on the big screen as well.

    Resolution: Wonder Woman. Captain Marvel. Coming Summer 2016.

  • Diversify The Talent Pool

    Photo by Anna Goellner
    Photo by Anna Goellner

    These resolutions aren't ordered by importance, but if superhero publishers only make one pledge in 2014, this one matters most; we need more minority creators in the industry. More editors, more pencillers, inkers, colorists and cover artists, and, perhaps most importantly, more writers. If the people making comics are as diverse as their potential audience, the comics they make are more likely to reflect and appeal to that audience.

    We've singled out writers for a couple of reasons. First, the industry is heavily focused on writer-led projects. Second, the lack of minorities among writers is especially noticeable. To the best of our knowledge the only non-white writers currently working on any Marvel or DC books are Greg Pak, Francis Manapul and Felipe Smith (and two of those are on books not being published yet). There are no black writers at either company. The only openly LGBT writers that we know of are Marc Andreyko and James Tynion IV (who recently wrote about his bisexuality for the first time).

    The publishers can claim eight superhero titles written by women (Captain Marvel, Avengers Assemble, Ms Marvel, Batgirl, The Movement, Catwoman, Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn), and that's only two more than Charles Soule is writing on his own. We don't mean to suggest that Soule should write any fewer books -- he's impressively prolific -- but that all the women in the industry might be offered many more books. Kathryn Immonen and Marjorie Liu have no mainstream titles at present.

    It takes a pro-active effort to convince people from marginalized groups that they're welcome in any industry where their presence isn't well established. That's hard to understand if you're part of the majority and are used to seeing people like you in the business. People in the majority tend to assume that any effort to extend an invitation to minorities - any action that affirms their welcome - is unfair. In fact it's a fair and equitable corrective to decades of institutional affirmation towards the majority.

    In simpler terms; any publisher who says "we're just looking for the best talent" without making an active effort to court minority talent is really only looking for the best straight white male talent, because they're the people who know the industry has a place for them.

    Resolution: DC and Marvel need to change the way they think about talent and start actively courting minority creators. They need to show that everyone is welcome by actually welcoming these people in.

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