COMMENT: NYT on Minorities in Comics

[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

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.

2 thoughts on “COMMENT: NYT on Minorities in Comics

  1. You know I once a rumour that Marv Wolfman had wanted to use Crisis of Infinite Earths to diversify the DC Universe. The logic behind it was that if you are picking and choosing which versions of each superhero would survive, you should pick versions that vary in race and gender (we weren’t quite up to speed on sexual preference in the 80s).

    I don’t know how Black Panther is being written these days, but when I did see that Storm was marrying Black Panther, I thought it was sad that they had to pull together two pre-existing African American characters rather than developing supporting characters that turned into love interests. Also, we know that superhero romance is always doomed so why place that on them.

    I thought that Green Lantern: Mosaic was a book that didn’t get enough attention from fans. The issue where Hal Jordan confronts John Stewart did a fantastic job of portraying John’s internal struggle. It’s ashame that some other writers have ignored that depth.

    Thankfully, the medium has evolved to a point that it’s no longer like reading exploitation comics.

    Honestly, I’d rather see characters integrated into regular books. I think it’s also about developing the readers. I’d rather have a flagship team like the Avengers or JLA diversified rather than an imprint created. It’s asking too much of readers financially to create another world to follow.

    I actually think that Marvel would have an easier time diversifying regardless. Even though they seem to forget it sometimes, Marvel characters are based in a more realistic world. (I do realize how ridiculous that sounds, but work with me here.) Generally speaking, their big characters are not archetypes. They’re designed for us as readers to relate to more readily. Whereas, DC’s characters are more idea oriented. Just look at the two most popular of both: Superman and Spider-man.

    Ok, I’ve gone on rambling enough. I leave you with these two thoughts. 1. Great Ten looks like veiled exoticism. 2. I was going to ask for Mystek to get developed, but then, I read the third to last paragraph in this post

  2. Thanks for posting about this. I LOVE this topic, and I’m not being facetious.

    First, let me say, “yawn”. This is hardly what I’d call a “banner year” for minority representation. 1993 – the year the Milestone line was released, not just a couple of re-vamped characters – was a banner year for minority representation. Most of the characters being touted here aren’t new, we’re still only talking about a handful of characters, and much of this is largely due in part to a company-wide marketing scheme.

    Second, a couple of their offerings seem heavy-handed. I’ll wait to reserve heavy judgment until I see the titles in action, but “lesbian socialite by night” doesn’t sound promising as regards diversity, so much as it does a chance to draw boobs with bats on them squeezed up against boobs without bats on them, if history is any indication on how female characters will be handled in comics in general. DiDio’s right: they are trying a lot of things…I say, maybe too many. No other line in the article makes this case better than the following:

    “In her latest incarnation, Batwoman is a wealthy, buxom lipstick lesbian who has a history with Renee Montoya, an ex-police detective who has a starring role in “52.” “

    So get your bucks ready, kids: this isn’t some overeweight, butch lesbian like you see in those wacky parades; this is a lipstick-wearing, big-breasted BATWOMAN lesbian that looks like every other lipstick-wearing, big-breasted woman we sell you! And did we mention it’s part of the “52” campaign?!!

    Also, using significant first issue sales of just about ANY title are misleading. Most comic fans will buy the first issue of just about anything for no other reason than their idea of investing their hard-earned money in anything is checking their collections against the last 20 pages of a “Wizard” magazine. So giving the impression that sales of the new “Blue Beetle” are a sign of acceptance and change in the consumber base is a little misleading.

    All that said, I’m curious to see how it all gets handled. The tact is the same-ol-same-ol and it only works in rare instances if at all, so they should change it a little. For example, how cool would it have been to:

    – hire Gilbert/Jaime Hernandez to write “Blue Beetle”?
    – hire Annette Winterson or E. Lynn Harris to write a couple issues of “Batwoman”?
    – hire Sherman Alexie to write an “Apache Chief” mini-series?

    Okay, that last one was a joke, but a more concentrated tact to draw in non-comics writers with cultural touchstones in their work would have now only drawn in even more widespread press, but opened up their audience base.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

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