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Strides and backslides: How to tackle diversity in comics

Our four panelists ask: How far has it come? What still needs to be done?

Character and creator diversity has been a major issue within the comic-book industry since its creation, but it’s become an especially prevalent topic in recent years as creators and fans from all races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations become more vocal about equal representation. For Comics Week 2014, The A.V. Club has invited three comic-book professionals to discuss the strides and backslides of diversity in the industry: Janelle Asselin (comics journalist and former DC editor), Karl Bollers (writer of Watson & Holmes and former Marvel editor), and G. Willow Wilson (award-winning novelist and writer of Ms. Marvel).

Oliver Sava: There’s no question about it: Straight white men dominate comic books, both on and off the page. They write and illustrate the majority of titles, and those books tend to star straight white male protagonists, especially in the superhero genre. The environment hasn’t changed much over the past century, but the Internet has made it possible for creators and fans to have their voices heard, and those voices demand better representation for people who don’t fit the traditional mold.

Gail Simone’s “Women In Refrigerators website in the late ’90s was a major advocate for better comic-book depictions of female characters, who are regularly used as tools to motivate male characters with their suffering. “Not every woman in comics has been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her,” the website states before naming 111 female characters that have been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, etc. “But given the following list… it’s hard to think up exceptions.”

Green Lantern's infamous refrigerator scene

The discrepancy between the treatment of male and female characters was taken even further by fan John Bartol, whose piece on “Dead Men Defrosting” for Simone’s site showed that male heroes are more likely to triumphantly return to their status quo after enduring the same hardships female characters don’t recover from. The major example used is Batman recovering from a broken spine while Batgirl never regained the use of her legs after being shot (that is, until the New 52 came along). After that, it didn’t take long for others to notice that second-string heroes and supporting characters—often minorities—were also being “fridged” while the main heroes continued to defrost.

Simone’s work on “Women In Refrigerators” helped her transition to writing comics, and she’s penned some of DC’s most multi-dimensional female characters over the past decade, specifically in her runs on Birds Of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl. But Simone is an exception rather than the standard. Looking at DC’s superhero titles for July, there are four female writers (Gail Simone, Amanda Conner, Ann Nocenti, and Christy Marx) and two female artists (Nicola Scott, Emanuela Lupacchino), and the numbers are even worse at Marvel, which has three female writers (Kelly Sue Deconnick, G. Willow Wilson, and Jen Van Meter) and one female artist (Joanna Estep). Marvel has more series spotlighting female characters, but creator representation is still lacking.

Meanwhile, the number of male writers and artists, most of whom are straight and white, is well over 100 at both of the “Big Two” publishers. The numbers are a little more balanced at smaller publishers like Boom and Image, but they’re still nowhere near equal. Janelle, your ongoing “Hire This Woman” feature at Comics Alliance has tried to change that by spotlighting a huge array of female writers, artists, colorists, and letterers deserving of wider recognition. What would you say the major challenges are for female creators trying to break into the comics industry? And what are some of the steps comics companies and fans can take to create a more welcoming environment?

The cover of Heroic: A Womanthology

Janelle Asselin: Well, unfortunately for all comics creators, breaking into comics is incredibly difficult no matter your gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But for women in particular we’re fighting against institutional and societal sexism that a lot of people don’t even notice. Comics editors often hire people they know or people just like them, and since many comics editors are straight white men, that means they hire straight white men. Most of them probably don’t even realize they’re doing it! When you add on top of that the fact that women are often raised to not rock the boat and to feel unprepared or unqualified for jobs, then you have editors not looking for women and women not talking to editors, especially at the higher profile companies.

Obviously it’s a little different when we’re talking about graphic novels or indie comics. It’s something I saw all the time at DC. I tell this story a lot, but I only had one woman cold-email me in three years. She was super talented, and I hired her. This was in contrast to emails from men every day in such volume and of such varying skill levels that I could never have hired them all. So when you’re an editor and you have no time to look for new creators and you’re getting bombarded by emails from men, it’s easy to think, “Well there are just no women trying to break into comics!” I wanted to do Hire This Woman to prove that wrong and moreover to prove there are a lot of women not waiting around to “break in.” They’re just making comics however they want. And the part I really like (if I do say so myself) is that it’s not just that it’s diverse because it’s women, but that many of the women being featured are people of color and/or LGBTQ folks. So it’s a double-whammy of attempting to diversify what people think of when they think of comics creators.

An excerpt from "Say Something" by Kate Leth

As far as what comics companies and fans can do to create a more welcoming environment, to start, I think the more women companies hire, the easier it becomes for women to think they might have a place in comics, which in turn increases the amount of women looking for jobs in the industry. The best way to retain women in comics is to not be assholes to female creators and fans. There are a lot of great people in comics, but there are also a lot of misogynistic trolls who go out of their way both online and in person to create a hostile environment for women in comics. The more creators, publishers, fans, and journalists who stand up and say, “This is not how you treat other people. Stop acting like this,” the better our industry will be. Our conventions need to be safe places for everyone in the industry, obviously, which to start includes clear and enforced harassment policies. Plus it’s pretty important to treat women and everyone else like human beings and equals.

Karl, your book Watson & Holmes is nominated for an Eisner this year and features African-American versions of well-known characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. The subject of race-bending is one often brought up in comics—should people cosplay characters of a different race, should characters’ races be changed in the comics or movies. What’s your experience been like with the reaction to the book in regards to race? Do you think changing an existing character’s race has more or less of an effect on diversity in comics than creating new non-white characters?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Karl Bollers: First of all, I’d like to thank Brandon Perlow, Paul J. Mendoza, and Justin Gabrie for inviting the uber-talented Rick Leonardi along with yours truly to help launch such a refreshing and offbeat take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. It’s funny, because my expectation of what the reaction would be in regards to changing the race of the characters was different from what the actual experience was. Initially I thought audiences, black and white, would be put off by our using a pre-established Caucasian/European template in the creation of new, African-American characters. But this was hardly the case.

Race-bending is hardly the norm in mainstream (superhero) comics. Instead, a minority character will take up the mantle previously held by a Caucasian male. Some examples I can cite off the top of my head are Ultimate Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Green Lantern (John Stewart), Blue Beetle (Jaime Mendoza), the Question (Renee Montoya), and War Machine (James Rhodes, who started out as the replacement Iron Man when Tony Stark’s alcoholism prevented him from carrying out his heroic duties). However, to my knowledge, the first instance where a previously white character was reimagined as black was Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Nick Fury (his likeness based on actor Samuel L. Jackson—who went on to play the character in the Marvel Studios films). Then there’s Watson and Holmes, the creative brainchildren of New Paradigm Studios’ publisher Brandon Perlow and his collaborator Paul J. Mendoza, neither of whom happen to be men of color, incidentally.

Baker Street #1 cover

However, this wasn’t the first time Sherlock Holmes had been reimagined. The characters have remained perennial in their popularity since Arthur Conan Doyle created them in the Victorian era, and that popularity has seen several incarnations that deviated from the established playbook. The example that springs to mind, aside from our recent take, is the 10-issue Baker Street series, published by Caliber Comics, featuring a female, punk version of Sherlock in an alternate reality, solving a Jack The Ripper-like rash of crimes in late 20th-century London. My observation has been that Sherlock Holmes fans, who are a diverse group, comprised of men and women of all ethnicities (as opposed to the white male comic-book audience), are more receptive of these varying deviations and, as a matter of fact, seem to embrace them. In other words, they can’t get enough of that thing they love even if it doesn’t look the same every single time.

As far as race-bending in comics, outside of Ultimate Nick Fury and Watson And Holmes, I don’t really think it’s occurring, so the point becomes almost moot. If anything, the film and television industries have been the proving ground for the race-bending of characters more so than comics. The earliest was probably Eartha Kitt as Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV show. If the Internet existed back then, perhaps there would have been an uproar. The new millennium has seen race-bending become a staple of Hollywood as evidenced by the late Michael Clarke Duncan playing the heavy (no pun intended) as the Kingpin of crime in 2003’s Daredevil and 2004’s Catwoman with Halle Berry. Since then, several supporting characters from the comic book pages have been reimagined as minorities for the big and small screen alike: The Fantastic Four’s Alicia Masters, Thor’s Heimdall, Superman’s Perry White and The Flash’s Iris West.

Eartha Kitt as Catwoman

However, the recent casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot has drawn the most vehement ire from fans with regard to race-bending. Storm, created in 1962, has always been depicted as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian male. This is the first time a flagship hero has switched races and perhaps purists think this could mean all bets are off as far as future casting is concerned or perhaps the beginnings of the erasure of white culture. On web sites ranging from Newsarama to Comic Book Resources to the John Byrne Forum, there have been outcries accusing Hollywood of pandering, political correctness, and trying to inflate box office returns by appealing to the widest audience possible. And perhaps this is all true. After all, the global audience paying top dollar to see these movies no longer resembles the one these characters were initially intended to appeal to.

The most common argument I seen thrown out there (and one that annoys me personally) is when the commenters veer into the realm of snark, asking how the masses would react if a black comic character (Black Panther, Storm, Luke Cage, etc.) was played by a white actor. I find these posts to be ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst. The whole point of casting minorities in these roles is to not only level the playing field, but to show a world that is more reflective of the one in which we live today, not the 1940s or 1960s when the characters were created. To have an African king such as T’Challa be portrayed by a white actor not only does the opposite, but would come off as being deliberately obtuse. At the same time, the argument is made that if we want minorities to have a seat at the table, why not then create new roles?

B.J. Britt as Agent Triplett

The problem is this hasn’t been happening. See the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series on ABC as a shining example. None of the principal characters on that show had pre-existing comic book versions, yet they were all portrayed by Caucasian actors with the exception of one Asian female. [Chloe Bennet, who plays Skye on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., is also half-Chinese. —ed.]

To Disney/Marvel’s credit, they have since added the character of Tripp, who is African-American. If roles had been created for minorities all along, perhaps race-bending wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. The problem is that when this subject is discussed, especially on the Internet, the real issue is never really addressed because, well frankly, it just doesn’t sound as sexy as setting the Snark-o-meter to 11.

There are really two important things to question here: 1) Are we going to create new, diverse characters? 2) Is race-bending the right solution to not doing so?

There is actually no right or wrong answer. Many of the folks I see online complaining about the changing of characters’ races come off to me as the same people who complain about reverse racism, affirmative action, and who lament there is no White History Month. The bottom line is that Hollywood hasn’t really been creating much in the way of original content featuring anybody much less ethnically and racially diverse characters. Instead, it’s taking old, established properties—anything with market equity—and rebooting and repurposing them in order to maximize their profit potential. And the way they do this is to cast minorities in some of the roles in order to appeal to the widest possible audience.

It’s really about the bottom line. It has more to do with how well they can sell the product and less about social policy. And whether fans and/or purists want to realize it or not, these characters don’t belong to us. Any of us. They are owned by these companies who can choose to use them in any manner they see fit. My advice is if you see black Sherlock Holmes and you don’t like black Sherlock Holmes, vote with your wallet and simply don’t buy it.

An excerpt from Watson & Holmes #1

Willow, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing the new Ms. Marvel, who is Muslim and the star of her own series, in a medium dominated by white male heroes where even established white female characters have a difficult time selling? As you write her adventures, do you have a particular approach that could lead to opening the doors and popularizing more diverse female heroes in the mainstream comic medium?

Ms. Marvel #1 cover

G. Willow Wilson: These are all great questions. Despite the pushback we’ve seen to the introduction of new female, LGBT, or racially diverse characters—which Janelle and Karl have spoken to quite eloquently—I think we are at a point in comic book history where there is unprecedented openness to diversity. And we have the fans to thank for that. We’ve talked a lot about top-down inclusivity from the publishing side, but really, this conversation is being driven by fans. This all goes back to that brave young mom in the Batgirl costume who got up in a crowded hall at SDCC and asked why there weren’t any women sitting on the DC Comics panel. She was booed and belittled. But she started a firestorm. This conversation did not exist when I started out as a 19-year-old intern for one of the very first digital comic-book companies.

I have frankly been blown away by the amount of fan support the new Ms. Marvel has gotten. When Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker of Marvel called me up and said, “We want to create a new teenage Muslim superheroine from scratch and put her on her own book,” my first thought was, “Are they nuts? Did I hear correctly?” I would never in a million years have pitched that book myself, because I value my sanity. There was a time when I couldn’t put pen to paper without being accused of stealth jihad or perpetuating the Muslim socialist Illuminati attack on America or whatever. This just seemed like the trifecta of death: new character (doesn’t sell!), female (doesn’t sell!) and Muslim (hire an intern to open all the hate mail!).

Excerpt from All-New Marvel Now Point One #1

Since we had nothing to lose, we were able to tell exactly the story we wanted to tell. Series editor Sana Amanat, artist Adrian Alphona, and I were all in mind-synch about Kamala and the world she inhabits. We wanted her to be quirky and real and flawed and relatable. None of us were interested in doing some kind of model minority series in which all the world’s problems are swept under the rug. But neither did we want to do a solemn retrospective on racism and intolerance that would make people feel like they were being punished every time they picked up the book. We wanted to tell the kind of story we wanted to read. We wanted all the humor and tenderness and awkwardness of real life. I cannot overstate how important Adrian’s contribution to this has been—most of the sight gags and visual puns in the series are his. And I cannot imagine this book being what it is with an editor other than Sana. We put it all out there and then held our breath.

Ms. Marvel #6 cover

And it worked. Fans fell in love with Kamala, and I fell in love with her fans. We never had to justify her existence the way I was afraid we would have to. All of a sudden, she was on The Colbert Report and I was getting calls from CNN. Issue #1 of Ms. Marvel has just gone into its sixth printing. Sixth. This is math-changing. Some of it is generational—when I do speaking gigs and chat with young adult readers, their outlook is far more globalist and pragmatic than that of my peers when we were that age. They are willing to see themselves in unexpected characters, unexpected scenarios. They have that innate flexibility.

So yes, I do hope the success of Ms. Marvel will open doors for other characters and other creators. Readers are clearly ready. There are new stories waiting to be told. We are really at a tipping point—I think of Ms. Marvel as a kind of ‘proof of concept.’ It can work. It can sell. So why not do more?

All-New Captain America #1 cover

OS: I really do feel like we’re starting to see more. In just the past few weeks, we’ve seen some significant strides at Marvel and DC to improve and expand representation in their titles. For their latest Now! initiative, Avengers Now!, Marvel is significantly changing Captain America and Thor, making the African-American Samuel “Falcon” Wilson the new Sentinel Of Liberty and debuting Thor, Goddess Of Thunder. In the wake of the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a higher profile for Sam Wilson, it’s a smart business move to put the character in the comics spotlight, and Marvel’s announcement has gained a lot of publicity from outside media outlets.

I always like when a comics announcement gains significant traction in the mainstream news, because it just helps improve the visibility of the medium, and the stories that have really taken off have largely dealt with significant strides for minority characters like Ms. Marvel and Sam Wilson, the All-New Captain America. Making Thor a female is a big enough move that Disney feels like it should be announced on The View, and while it may not the best avenue to reach the comics community, it’s more important that the news reach the people that aren’t in the target audience.

Thor #1 cover

This is the kind of publicity that translates into sales, especially with the convenience of digital comics, and Marvel’s aggressive media campaign has helped get the word out and made books like Ms. Marvel a possibility. While representation of minority characters is improving, we’re still not seeing much diversity in the creative teams of these titles. Every new Avengers Now! title has a male writer/artist team attached. Except for Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, the writers and artists on Marvel’s solo female superhero titles (Black Widow, Elektra, She-Hulk, Storm) are all male, and while that’s not to say that these aren’t the right people for the job, I wouldn’t mind seeing a female perspective applied to these female characters.

In terms of bringing on more female creators, the DC news of the last few weeks has been solid, particularly for fans of Gotham-related titles. Becky Cloonan (one of the many female creators nominated for an Eisner Award this year) will be co-writing the new all-ages series Gotham Academy, which features two female leads. Brendan Fletcher is co-writing, and he’ll also be co-writing Batgirl, a book that is getting a dramatic makeover following the departure of writer Gail Simone.

One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Batgirl run is the costume redesign by co-writer and cover artist Cameron Stewart, who gives Barbara Gordon a stylish, functional costume that is full of personality and begging to be cosplayed. Artist Babs Tarr and colorist Jordie Bellaire will be bringing Stewart and Fletcher’s story to life, and it’s refreshing to see DC taking a chance on Tarr, an industry newcomer, by teaming her with one of the industry’s best colorists. Stewart and Fletcher have also promised increased visibility of LGBT characters in Batgirl (which currently includes a transsexual female character), making this new run sound like the type of inclusive superhero title that shouldn’t be a rarity in the industry.

Cameron Stewart's Batgirl redesign

I have less optimistic expectations for the new Wonder Woman team, which pairs artist David Finch with his wife, Meredith Finch, as writer. It’s very possible that Meredith Finch has an incredible Wonder Woman story lined up, but this is a very big project for someone that doesn’t have any experience writing for Big Two superheroes, and pre-release interviews haven’t inspired much confidence. Janelle, you wrote an excellent Comics Alliance piece about David Finch’s reluctance to refer to Wonder Woman as a feminist, breaking down the character’s history as a feminist icon. If you were asked to choose a new Wonder Woman team of female creators, who would you pick? For all the panelists: Who are some of the minority creators that readers and editors should be seeking out?

JA: Oh, that’s tough! I mean, I think the delightful thing is that there are any number of women working in comics today who could do a brilliant job. For writing there’s Kelly Sue DeConnick, G. Willow Wilson, Kathryn Immonen, Jen Van Meter, Colleen Coover, Marguerite Bennett, who have all worked at Marvel and/or DC and established themselves. It’s understandable that DC might want someone with a little name recognition. But honestly I’d really like to see Marvel and DC try to pull creators from a new pool of talent, which they are clearly now willing to do given the hiring of people like Meredith Finch and Babs Tarr who haven’t worked at Marvel or DC before. How awesome would it be to see someone like Kate Leth or Mairghread Scott write Wonder Woman? Lucy Knisley, Hope Larson, or Becky Cloonan would all be great for either writing or art or both.

Ming Doyle's Wonder Woman redesign

Other artists that would be amazing include Ming Doyle, Erica Henderson, Steph Buscema, Elsa Charretier, Fiona Staples, Janet Lee, Amy Reeder, Meghan Hetrick, Jamie Kinosian… I could keep going. All of those women would bring different things to the table and offer something pretty tonally different to both the previous run with Azzarello and Chiang and the new run with the Finches. The sad thing is that I can come up with this list in all of 10 minutes and suggest women who would create an interesting, feminist, unique version of Wonder Woman. But too often we don’t see companies making that effort or they purposefully don’t want to encourage that kind of comic. I’d like to see the new Batgirl team and style as evidence that DC does care, but we still have a ways to go. Karl, what book in particular from Marvel or DC do you think would benefit from a more diverse creative team and why?

KB: X-Men. X-Men. All day X-Men. And, in the wake of Marvel’s Inhumanity event, I’ll toss in the Inhumans, too. Having to live with and be reminded of prejudice and racism on a near-constant basis, minority creators are well-suited to tackle the themes of being feared and hated inherent to the various mutant and Inhuman characters. Furthermore, they can bring fresh perspectives to issues that the standard go-to creators may never hope to glean. Having written several X-Men characters in the past I’ve drawn upon my own experiences with racism—feeling outcast—and channeled that into mutant characters such as Emma Frost, Wolverine, Cable, and Northstar (who also happens to be gay).

Muties #3 cover

I know what it’s like to not be wanted someplace: As the first black family on the block, growing up, vandals spray-painted “Go Back To Africa” on the wooden fence in our yard accompanied by the word “nigger.” I was shot in the head with a BB gun walking home from school with my older sister when I was 6. And this was back when these types of (mis)behaviors weren’t classified as “hate crimes.” But my family stuck it out and stayed. I didn’t necessarily realize the fear aspect just then. Didn’t realize the people there saw us as a threat to their comfortable existence. That we were heralds of things to come. I have a Jewish friend who confessed to me in high school that, even though I was more than welcome in his home, his father thought the civil rights movement was the worst thing to ever happen in this country. That’s why when I hear some people talking about the “good old days,” I can’t help but cringe a bit.

Yes, characters that have themselves experienced that feeling of being “other” is a no-brainer when it comes to assigning minority creators, but there is a flip side to that as well. What if some if these very talented creators, some mentioned by Janelle—Kate Leth, Mairghread Scott, Lucy Knisley, Hope Larson—were joined by the likes of Alverne Ball, Regine Sawyer, Jason Reeves, Kevin Grevioux, Erika Alexander, Brandon Easton, and Vince White (among others) to chronicle stories featuring white, male characters? It’s beyond easy to assign women to work on female characters, blacks to work on black characters, etc. But what new perspectives could titles like Avengers, Hulk, and Spider-Man benefit from when told by different voices than the ones who have been shepherding them for 50-plus years? Shouldn’t characters and creators be encouraged to move outside of their comfort zones? Will we ever find out?

Something revolutionary happened in the 1980s: Marvel Comics saw women and minorities begin writing for them. Louise Simonson on X-Factor, Ann Nocenti on Daredevil, James Owsley on Spider-Man, and (the late) Dwayne McDuffie on an obscure miniseries called Damage Control. Two women and two African-American men. What did these creators have in common besides not being whom you’d typically expect to land these assignments? Well, they were all Marvel editors for one. They managed to break into the field, establish themselves as viable with regard to their craft and were rewarded for their merit. Merit is still a very important part of this discussion. I’m not talking quotas or diversity for diversity’s sake, just pointing out that diverse talent is out there and opportunities should be afforded to them. A more diverse editorial office would lead to more diverse points of view. Editors should seek out diverse talent the way they sought out that valuable comic to fill that gap in their comic book collection.

GWW: Karl has pointed out something very important: This isn’t simply about putting minority writers on minority books. We don’t want to create a literary ghetto in which black writers are only allowed to write black characters and women writers are put on “girl books.” This is about bringing more people into the broader conversation. There’s no reason a gay writer can’t write a straight Superman or a woman can’t write a classic Thor book that die-hard fanboys would love. There is a certain danger in thinking about diversity in its own little box, as something that is somehow separate from “normal” comic books and comics creators.

I am beyond thrilled at the success of Ms. Marvel, but it’s meant that a lot of the phone calls I get these days begin with “We have a Muslim character we’d like you to take a crack at.” Which is great, but, you know, I do other stuff too. Ninety percent of the comic books I’ve written in the past had little or nothing to do with Islam. Of the two books I’ve written that got Eisner noms—Air and Mystic—one was about a white girl, a talking snake, and Amelia Earhart, and the other was about two orphans on an alien planet who go to magic school. There is a huge range of stories waiting to be told by an equally incredible range of people. Differences of experience and identity are bridges that can be crossed. The end goal is greater empathy and a more articulate reflection of human experience. That is something that everyone—everyone—will benefit from.