Diversity in comics, it has become a topic of conversation and heated debates in recent years. Some see it as a move in the right direction for the comic book industry while others see it as a misstep that will turn away long time fans. I stand with the former rather than the latter, though I do agree that diversifying the medium at times seems forced and could be handled in a better from a story perspective.
Marvel being founded in 1939 and DC before it in 1934 had primarily an all white roster of super heroes and support cast. That remained for many years until the late 60’s and early 70’s when we were introduced to Black Panther and the Falcon at Marvel and Black Lighting at DC. That was a full thirty years before a Black character put on a mask to serve the greater good at either publisher. The same goes for any and all minorities as well; Asian, Hispanic/Latinos, Middle Eastern, etc. Even with the introduction of Black Panther and Black Lighting, super heroes with non-white background were far and in between.
We fast forward a few decades to the 2000’s, the Civil Rights movement happened thirty years ago, we have had huge leaps in women’s rights and slow but steady progress with Gay rights. Yet with all that progression, when we look at the comic book genre it seems like they’re still behind in the times. The flagship titles for Marvel were X-Men, Avengers and Spider-Man; none with a single minority besides maybe Storm from the X-Men. Flagship titles for DC were Justice League, Batman and Superman. All not having a single minority, including supporting characters. Both companies weren’t mirroring the unique potluck of cultures and ethnicities we have in our country but still mirroring other aspects of it (Society) like our politics, pop culture and overseas conflicts.
Now as more people spoke out about needing diversity in comics among other mediums, Marvel and DC took note. In my opinion, Marvel embracing it more then the other. Marvel slowly started to introduce characters from different nationalities, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion for the past ten to fifteen years. Not to say that diverse characters weren’t in comics already but Marvel was pushing them to headline their flagship titles. One of the two Spider-Man titles stared a half Black/half Puerto Rican teenager who is Miles Morales, the protagonist in Thor was now a woman which is Jane Foster, Captain America is a Black man from Harlem named Sam Wilson, Ms. Marvel is a Muslim American by the name of Kamala Khan, The Hulk is an Asian America named Amadeus Cho and the list goes on and on.
DC hasn’t push diversity as much as Marvel in recent years but they have still made progress. In the last few years they have introduced two additions to the Green Lantern Corps, one Simon Baez a Lebanese American Muslim who was initially framed for a terrorist attack and Jessica Cruz being Latin American and the first female Green Lantern from Earth. They also have Cassandra Cain which is the current Batwoman who is also an open member of the LGBT and is co-staring in Detective Comics along Batman. Detective Comics being one of DC’s flagship titles.
With the recent steps towards diversity in comics, it doesn’t come without it’s share of backlash and problems. Many have claimed that DC and especially Marvel are just diversifying their super hero community as a publicity stunt and pandering to minorities. Some say that the publishers are messing up the the current super heroes in exchange to make way for the new ones, they would prefer instead to introduce new characters with their own super hero identity. Now while I hear those arguments, I adamantly disagree with them.
To argue that comic book publisher’s attempt at diversity is just a publicity stunt is absurd. Publicity stunts are done to make initial shock and be talked about for five minutes. Marvel and DC’s push for diversity has been a slow build that they have been working at for years. They have invested time and effort into these characters’s story arc, titles and development. Miles Morales who is a perfect example of Marvel’s commitment to new characters that are minorities. Miles was introduced in 2011 as the new Spider-Man for the ultimate universe with stellar writers and artists attached to the title for the entire run. He was once deemed as a stunt as well and yet six years in and he’s now in the main Marvel continuity, a member of the Avengers and the newly formed Champions.
The reason behind the recent diversity stems from pandering? I think not. Diversity is a natural evolution of the medium. Studies have shown that the main consumer of comics are white males in the 30’s and 40’s. It just makes sense to borden consumer base. Since DC and Marvel’s initiative sales have gone up for both companies across the board with new buyers of all ages and backgrounds. Some would counter that it could be caused by the boom in super hero movies driving sales but that’s been proven false. Since the MCU, there hasn’t been a jump in sales, movie goers don’t walk into comic book stores after watching The Avengers on the big screen. Women are buying more comics then ever, young adults and minorities have been driving up the sales as well. The top Marvel comics constant of a female Thor, a Muslim American and half Black/half Puerto Rican Spider-Man. People want to see super heroes that look like them, that they can relate to.
The biggest and fairest argument (Even if I don’t agree and see its massive flaws) is that it ruins the current super hero status quo in favor of being replaced by new characters. I think that complaint, for the most part, holds no basis. Let’s take the Thor title for example; the main character of that title, which was Thor Odinson has been replace by Jane Foster (His on again, off again girlfriend) as the title’s protagonist. People were up in arms, saying how preposterous it was for Thor to now be a woman. People were angry to be angry. Thor was still Thor, a man. Jane Foster, a woman, was bestowed with powers of an Asgardian and took on the mantle of Thor. Thor Odinson wasn’t dead or gone from any major books, he actually got a new book called “The Unworthy Thor” and is going by the name Odinson. The Thor you know and love is still there for you to enjoy.
In the case of Sam Wilson, Marvel announced in late 2014 that he would be the new Captain America. Again, people were in full rage mode. “How could Captain America be Black? Captain America is white”. Actually, Steve Rogers is white; Captain America is a mantle that could be taken up by anyone no matter race, religion, creed or sexual orientation. Now if you would want to get technical though, the first Captain America was a Black man from Harlem named Isaiah Bradley but I digress. There have been multiple individuals to take up the mantle of Captain America, the most recent before Sam Wilson was Bucky Barnes. Bucky was Captain America’s (Steve Rogers) side kick back in WW II. He had shown up in the preset day and took up the mantle when Steve Rogers was assassinated. When that happened no one was in the streets in protest, even if Bucky was a Russian assassin that murdered dozens of political figures for decades and was now the face of our country. Why is that? Because he was white and it apparently made sense. Sam Wilson was Steve Rogers’s partner for years and a veteran Avenger, it makes sense for him to have the mantle of Captain America passed on to him by Steve Rogers himself because he represents what Captain America stands for as a symbol.
Now however, I do think Marvel and DC have made taken some missteps when trying to diversify their brand. When you introduce a new character, pass on mantles or shack up the status quo, it should feel organic and natural. I don’t think it has been the case in multiple instances. In 2015 Iceman from the X-Men comics came out as being gay by way of his younger self from the past that was stuck in the present admitted (Comics, I know). That’s all fine, the issue was that when asked about the Iceman from the present, he was straight which doesn’t make any sense. The same person at two different times of their lives can’t have different sexual orientations. When the writer did that he promoted the notion that sexual orientation is a choice rather then something you’re born with. The whole situation was poorly handled and later rectified when they had the present day Iceman admit to being gay all along.
Another instance was on DC’s behalf that I found was a poorly executed attempt at diversity. In 2014 DC introduced us to a new Wally West, being that the DC universe was reconfigured in Flash Point (Again, comics) some characters hand’t shown up in publication, one of those said characters being Wally. When he came to the scene it was meet with some backlash. The Wally that emerged wasn’t the Wally we all knew, the new Wally was a Black teenager. Now, personally the fact that he’s Black wasn’t an issue to me (Though it might have been to some), my issue was that in introducing that specific Wally you essential erased the Wally we all knew for decades out of existence. The new Wally wasn’t taken up a mantle he replaced a preexisting character that had decades of stories, relationships and effects to the DC universe. That was all done away with and rewritten with the introduction of the new Wally. Thankfully, the original interpretation of Wally West, having been the starring character in the Flash titles for many years, was still missed by DC’s fans, and so the company decided to bring the original Wally back into continuity in late 2016. Now both Wallys reside in the DC universe and all is right with the world.
Regardless of any missteps, diversifying the comic book landscape is a admirable cause and one that we should applauded and welcomed. Comic books are an art and art imitates life, so it makes sense for the heroes to finally look like the rest of us. A reader should be able to pick up a comic book and see themselves when they look at the cover. There is no evil agenda being pushed, the only thing that is being pursued is realism, inclusion, equality and authenticity.
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