By Caitlin Rosberg
It would be difficult to argue that representation in entertainment has not become an increasingly hot-button topic in the last few years; despite the general reticence of the largest comic book publishers to adapt and change as reader demands do, they haven’t been left out of those conversations.
A casual glance at the shelves in your average local comic shop will reveal that while most covers are still dominated by white, musclebound men in tights, there have been some significant changes in the past five years in particular, as the industry’s profile changes and attention becomes heavier than it has been in the years since the Comics Code Authority held sway over what could and could not be published.
Thor is a woman now, Captain America is a black man, Catwoman and Constantine are canonically not-straight, and particularly if you look past the confines of DC and Marvel you’ll see a swath of characters and stories featuring ethnicities, orientations, nationalities, disabilities, and identities that have rarely–if ever– been featured before. It’s difficult to argue this is a bad thing, as audiences jump at the chance to read about characters they can identify with and that reflect their own lives.
As the industry writ large begins to change, it’s worth investigating the direction of this change and its implications. An increase in representation is clearly a good thing. But long-term fans have begun to wonder if this sudden boom is going to do more harm than good. This is particularly true for those who are members of the groups suddenly finding themselves with more on-page representation than they’ve had before.
Let’s take a moment to admit that seeing more underrepresented minorities on shelves doesn’t mean that things are suddenly fixed, that there’s no more ground yet to be won.
Out of the top ten selling comic books for October 2015 as reported by Diamond Distribution, only two don’t focus on white men and one of those is Chewbacca.
Even books that do heavily feature women and people of color have covers and titles that train the focus of potential readers on the white male cast members: Batman and Robin Eternal, Star Wars: Shattered Empire, and Guardians of the Galaxy just to name a few.
Only six of the top 50 selling titles for that month star and are overtly advertised as being about women. Only two are about humans who aren’t white, both of them black men; on the other hand, if you include Superman there are eight books about aliens and other non-humans in that same list.
Let that sink in for a moment. There are four times as many comic books about aliens as there are about people of color in the top 50 selling comic books for that month.
Even as the diversity on the page increases overall, problems crop up frequently to undermine the improvement. One of the chief challenges facing creators working on more representative books is editorial interference. DC’s Batwoman was cancelled in 2013 when the creative team of J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackmen quit after fighting with editors over if the titular main character would be allowed to marry her partner or not. Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso has been quoted as saying that their Hercules, once canonically bisexual and in one book in love with a version of Wolverine, is now straight. He also told readers to “not label” Angela and her trans girlfriend Sera, from Marvel’s Asgard, in what appeared to be an attempt to deny (or at least provide plausible deniability for) their romance, despite canonical evidence from the writers and artists that they are a couple.
In this climate, it’s no wonder that readers attach themselves to the slightest hint of something new and different, squinting sideways through rose-colored glasses to find themselves in the characters they love, despite what appears to be the best efforts of editors to deliberately erase them from the pages.
Marvel and DC, along with publishers like Dynamite and Dark Horse, are in a bit of a sticky situation, when it comes to increasing representation. Legacy characters with the most well recognized names provide most of their sales; most of these characters are the intellectual property of the publisher themselves, and editorial staff makes decisions about what creative teams can and cannot do. While some publishers are obviously embracing change and pushing their well-known characters into new directions to attract more readers, there’s a lot of fear that even minor changes to classic characters will draw the ire of the core readership, thus endangering the already thin profit margins the industry is famous for.
DC has kept their efforts at diversity in two relatively distinct tracks: classic, well-established characters sometimes have a new piece of information revealed, as in the case of Selina Kyle’s bisexuality, or confirmed, as in the case of John Constantine’s bisexuality. Bruce Wayne is currently enjoying a chance at civilian life, including a functional romance, for the first time in decades and Vic “Cyborg” Stone is openly talking about the intersectionality of his identity as a black man with disabilities. These characters have not changed in terms of their most identifiable features, but the stories their creative teams are working on have allowed them to branch in new directions and represent more identities in the process.
On the other hand, books like We Are Robin and Gotham Academy feature an entirely new cast of characters with bodies and motivations and skin tones as diverse as you’d hope from something created in 2015. DC has not advertised these changes nearly as well as Marvel has their own, but in the long term I suspect this more stable approach to change will win out.
Marvel staff has been trying out a hybrid strategy. Many characters have shed their famous titles and watched them be taken up by an underrepresented minority, which is great.
However, because of the industry’s habit of retconning everything to a comfortable blandness, eventually those minorities won’t have those titles anymore. Steve Rogers will be Captain America again one day, and Thor won’t always be a woman.
Even more importantly, some of these shake ups have actually had the effect of erasing an even more underrepresented minority, as is the case with the Captain Marvel book. I’ve enumerated my problems with Marvel’s over-reliance on Carol Danvers elsewhere, but the chief issue with her recasting is that it nearly eradicated Monica Rambeau from the collective memory of her readership.
Advancing a woman to a higher visibility is a good thing, unless it effectively erases the existence of a woman of color.
It seems that every example of the increasing amount of representation in comic books and the media based on them is fraught with this feeling of “great, but…” I’m a huge proponent of having more female villains, particularly those who are nuanced and have diverse motivations, so I was excited when I learned that Gail Simone was bringing the Ventriloquist, one of my favorite Batman villains of all time, back to life, this time as a woman. But I was saddened, then angered, to discover that while Arnold Wesker was portrayed as a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder whose illness is seen as something potentially treatable, Shauna Belzer is a young woman with telekinetic powers and her villainy is not the result of a mental illness but instead her childhood abuse. Casting people with mental illness as villains certainly isn’t unproblematic, but at least Wesker was discussed as separate from Scarface, understood to be struggling with his disease. Belzer is instead put in the horrific position of being the example of what happens when children are abused. It doesn’t help that she’s usually drawn as gaunt and unkempt, but still sexualized by sheer fact of wearing what appears to be a nightie all the time.
Another prime example of “great, but…” is the forced outing of Bobby Drake, one of the original X-Men, as gay. Leave aside for a moment the incredibly problematic nature of Jean Grey’s powers and her penchant for invading the private thoughts of others. Regardless of how it happened, it is inappropriate and damaging for anyone to force someone they call a friend out of the closet, robbing them of the opportunity to come to terms with their sexuality on their own. Even worse, the story involved time travel, leaving us with two Bobbys that had to confront their own identity independently and as a duo, including decades of past romances with women.
The Wicked + The Divine is another great illustration of the bittersweet nature of the industry’s changing attitudes. Several of the large cast of characters are people of color or LGBTQ+ or both, but from the get-go it’s know that they’re going to die in a few short years as a core feature to the plot. Pretty much everyone’s tired of burying the gays and to quote David F. Walker, “Why’s the brotha gotta die?”, but The Wicked + The Divine leans heavily on both tropes, and queer codes the character Lucifer without any real introspection. Perhaps more importantly, many of the characters feel uncomfortably similar to characters that the creative team has used before in other series, as if there was a “how to write an acceptably diverse comic” list somewhere that they’ve been checking off, instead of writing truly diverse characters.
It’s difficult to celebrate a diversity that has an intentional, plot-required expiration date.
In the past several years, we’ve seen countless examples of this “great, but” improvement play out: Sam Wilson becomes Captain America only to be painted into a racist corner by his creative team; there’s been an increase in LGBTQ+ characters across the board but almost all are conventionally attractive and white; trans characters are being featured in both adventures and romance while effortlessly passing as cis; more characters with disabilities have appeared in comics but only in the background behind main characters. It’s even worse in the TV shows and movies that comic books have given birth to, but that’s an entirely different box of trouble, with another industry meddling in the process.
There are two things at the root of all of the issues facing the industry right now, two changes that could shift the course of the trend before it picks up too much momentum to be adjusted. The first is a question of quality and has been hidden by the increasing character diversity across the board; it’s difficult to tell when most comics feature just the last name of their creators on the cover, but while there have been some changes to hiring practices, the vast majority of writers, artists, and editors are still white, cis, heterosexual men. Kate Leth’s forthcoming Hellcat title is the first ongoing series at Marvel about a female character with a female creative team. Marvel also got a lot of flak this year for doing variant covers based on hip hop albums without having any black writers on their staff, or even acknowledging that they were not the first to have done the remixed covers.
The issues are not limited to the Big Two: though Image is often touted as having a more diverse roster of stories and characters, they largely hire the same creators that work at Marvel and DC, particularly when it comes to writers. Even BOOM!, the publisher behind innovative books like Lumberjanes, has been taken to task for Strange Fruit, a book about black people facing racism with an all-white creative team.
There aren’t any major comics publishers who have women making up more than a quarter of their credited creators, and the numbers for people of color and LGBTQ+ creators are even worse, to say nothing of the abysmal record publishers having hiring people with disabilities.
While more diverse characters appear on pages, the expected corresponding increase in hiring diverse creators is coming at a much slower pace, resulting in books that are at best, inauthentic and at worst, stereotypical to the point of being offensive. But because it’s impossible to tell a creator’s identity as easily as you can a character’s, this gets forgotten quickly and glossed over even faster.
Resolving the first issue and hiring more women, more people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ creators would immediately solve the second issue that keep comic books from being truly representative. Not only would they provide authentic stories, but they would also just create more stories overall, addressing the second problem of quantity. When minority readers are looking for representation, they have to search harder and settle for what’s available; it also means that what’s available is forced to represent a much wider swath of readers.
Wonder Woman does not represent every female reader, Vic Stone cannot represent every black reader, Matt Murdock cannot represent every reader with a disability, and Bobby Drake cannot represent every gay reader.
Though I personally was upset and disappointed at the way X-Men Bobby’s story played out, others identified with his experiences, found solace in his journey. Oliver Sava, a friend and colleague at The A.V. Club, is one of those people, and has written eloquently about how important that issue is to him. This is the crux of the struggle: no one book can be all things to all readers. I feel similarly about ODY-C and The Wicked + The Divine as I do about the way Bobby getting outed, even though each book increases the number of LGBTQ+ characters in comics, in some ways I’d rather they didn’t.
On the other hand, I love the new Constantine: The Hellblazer book, in part because knowing there is at least one bisexual person on the creative team makes me more confident the story is an authentic one. I only have the luxury of liking the latter and disliking the former because they are very different books being published about characters that happen to be LGBTQ+.
With so few titles about truly diverse characters being published, and fewer still of them being written or drawn by people with lived experiences similar to those characters, a lot of readers have to settle for something that’s close enough to them to get the job done, even if it grates.
That’s where the industry has the most substantial room for growth. Just as there is Batman and Superman, Spider-Man and Wolverine, people who aren’t straight white guys deserve to have a plethora of characters to chose from, a glut of stories to identify with. There is not enough diversity within diverse comics for everyone to feel like they can find themselves represented. Change has arrived, and change is continuing, which is great. But there are still miles and miles of progress to be made.
Having specific comics designated as “for” a particular minority group isn’t much better than saying comics aren’t “for” them at all; having a laughably small quantity of comics starring underrepresented minorities isn’t much better than having no diverse characters at all. Readers deserve better, and we’re demanding better. Part of that is realizing that what we’ve got now is an improvement, but it still isn’t good enough.
Caitlin Rosberg is a writing, knitting, tea drinking, baking machine with all the requisite robotic enhancements. She is obsessed with her dog and b-list comic book characters named Jim. A regular at Ladies’ Night at Graham Cracker Comics in the Loop, she’s also an editor and counter-of-beans for the Ladies’ Night Anthology, as well as a contributor to the A.V. Club’s Comics Panel. She likes talking and writing about the importance of safe spaces in nerd culture, how to start your own ladies’ night, independent publishing, and diversity in comic books. Ask her about Rhodey. Find her on Twitter @crosberg.