[Edited for clarity on 5/30/06]
Funny that this article in the NY Times has been referenced by others for its apparent spoiler re: Batwoman (she’s not Renee Montoya, which is all I care about) instead of its main point, the increasing diversity at the Big Two. Funny strange, not funny ha-ha, of course.
Straight (and Not) Out of the Comics
By GEORGE GENE GUSTINES
But this year will be a banner one for diversity in the $500 million comic book business. At DC Comics, an effort is under way to introduce heroes who are not cut from the usual straight white male supercloth. A mix of new concepts, dusted-off code names and existing characters, the new heroes include Blue Beetle, a Mexican teenager powered by a mystical scarab; Batwoman, a lesbian socialite by night and a crime fighter by later in the night; and the Great Ten, a government-sponsored Chinese team.
Over at Marvel Comics, Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, will soon marry Storm, the weather-controlling mutant and X-Man. Luke Cage, a strong-as-steel black street fighter who married his white girlfriend in April, plays a key role in “New Avengers,” the company’s best-selling book.
Comic books have featured minorities before, but the latest push is intended to be a sustained one, taking place in an alternate world that nevertheless reflects American society in general and comics readers in particular, in much the same way that the multicultural casts of television shows like ABC’s “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” mirror their audiences…
Credit is due in part to diversity behind the scenes. Reginald Hudlin, Black Entertainment Television’s president for entertainment, is writing the Black Panther series. Joe Quesada is editor in chief at Marvel, the first Hispanic to have that job.
“I do look at the universe with a different set of eyes,” Mr. Quesada said, “but I don’t let race enter or interfere with the story. There’s nothing worse than thinking, ‘We need three more black characters in the Marvel universe.'”
Overall, DC’s approach to diversity is subtly cast as the less organic of the two, most tellingly via Reginald Hudlin’s opinion that “very often the best writer may be the writer who best understands the culture of the character.” Other than Gail Simone, I can’t think of another prominent minority writer at DC, never mind on their editorial staff. (Core DC, not Vertigo.) Allan Heinberg will join her once Wonder Woman re-launches, but whom else is there?
Diversity is always best addressed from the top down, and Marvel definitely has the edge there, with Quesada and Axel Alonso leading the way, and the likes of Hudlin, Heinberg, Eric Jerome Dickey and Joss Whedon scripting some of their most prominent titles. Where they’re sorely lacking is female representation, though hopefully Tania Del Rio will get more work from them, and Tamora Pierce will be only the first of several other female mainstream writers they bring in.
As Judd Winick, a writer who’s been frequently criticized for injecting his own personal agendas into many of the stories he’s written for DC, put it: “After a while, it doesn’t look like a social agenda. This is the world we live in.”
There’s a great observation halfway through the article, in reference to DC’s recent trend of minority characters (some new, some old) taking over established identities from white predecessors:
“But comics devotees are notorious for buying titles out of loyalty, whether from completist compulsion or from a need to be able to complain about what they don’t like, and DC knows it.”
Ain’t that the truth? Of course, that approach hasn’t really worked out with the new Firestorm, and I’m willing to bet that half of the people who bought Blue Beetle #1 weren’t aware that his alter ego was now a young Mexican kid.
How long will it be before Ted Kord puts in a guest appearance, a la Ronnie Raymond? I’d say as soon as sales drop below 25k, which should be somewhere around the sixth issue.
All in all, both companies are taking positive steps here and should be applauded for not giving in to the conventional wisdom that comics featuring minority characters don’t sell. Hopefully they get the other, equally important half of the equation right: telling good stories. Because while the Big Event comics can survive sloppy, convoluted storytelling, comics featuring minority characters are going to have to be a little bit better than those featuring the average white guy in a mask to have a fighting chance at success.
This is the world we live in.