Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Comics Diversity: This Topic Makes Me Thor

Diversity has become a dirty word in certain parts of the internet. Those places are often populated with assholes, but they're loud, and they're vocal, and they make sure we hear them.

I wanted to talk about comic book diversity because I find diversity very interesting and something that we should all be striving towards as best we can in this broken, twisted up system we have to work with.


There's a certain samey-sameyness to video games that has been well documented at this point. Recently Ubisoft got into a shitload of trouble when they had the audacity to say that females were too hard to render. Now, I read one tweet from an animator that said that it does take extra work to create a separate model for females as they are built different, would move somewhat differently, and you know? Fine. Okay. But if developers can spend millions of dollars making sure the environments, water, fires, winds, and stubble on some dude's asshole looks realistic...why can't they toss that little bit of extra work toward females as well?

I don't want to talk about video games, though. I want to focus in on comics, which have had their own series of struggles besides the lack of diveristy (see: escher girls and the hawkeye initiative).

When you think of superheroes, the first several that come to mind are dudes. White dudes usually. Almost certainly straight. And sure, you can come up with a few women off of the top of your head, but one could easily follow those female names with, "Okay, and how many have their own consistent solo title?" The answer would be: not many.

Which is why Marvel is particularly interesting. They've been killing it lately with the diversity. They announced that the Thor that we all know has lost the ability to wield his hammer, and a new Thor--a woman--will take over. There are of course interesting things to consider: "Thor" is the name of the character...so...it is considered a title now? Like "Darth" in Star Wars? Because we've been told that make no mistake she is Thor.


And we also have a new Captain America: Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon.

People often get their undies in a chaffing, sweaty bunch whenever their superheroes start getting fiddled with. They see a black Captain America and start stammering and screaming "PC Police" at the top of their lungs until they pass out. But for little black boys and girls, seeing a black Captain America is going to mean the world to them. Since most of the heroes that are "cool" and get the most attention are white...this is huge.

Sam isn't the first black person to take over Caps role, and history hints that he won't be permanently Cap, but it is still significant.


Honestly...I wish he would be. I wish that this new Thor were permanent, and they were to actually significantly shake up their roster. Not for token diversity. Not to make some point. But because there are two problems with this approach. Those same people flipping their shit because Sam is now Captain America often suggest that people just make more black super heroes. Which...fair enough. But you know what? Those heroes don't have the built in audience. Those heroes don't have a legacy. People don't buy those heroes like they do Captain America.

As Chuck Wendig says:
"But you also have to realize that new characters regardless of gender / sexual preference / skin color / nationality / etc. have a hard time reaching new readers right out of the gate. They run the risk of being marginalized heroes. One of the great things about taking iconic pre-existing characters and flipping them around is that it says, hey, these top-shelf characters aren’t just restricted to one segment of the population (i.e. the Straight White Dude contingent)."
Storm is only just now getting a solo series (as far as I know). And she's been around for nearly 40 years. But she's always been a part of a team. The X-Men title has only recently rolled its roster around to feature an all female team. You don't see books lead by women or minorities stick around for nearly as long as you see Spider-Man--who had several other series featuring him besides Amazing Spider-Man, which made it to issue 700(!!!) before rolling back over to a number one issue.

But, Chuck also cautions: [Only adding diversity by creating new heroes] runs the risk of sounding like, “Yeah, sure, you can have your super-ladies and whatever, just keep them over there. Go play in your own sandbox. This one is ours.”

Making one of the main, powerhouse heroes at Marvel or DC black or a woman or gay or Islamic or transgender is a friggin' game changer, y'all.

But there's another problem to Marvel's diversity initiative: eventually the status quo will be restored.

Superman has died a few times. The first time it was a big deal, but no one really cares anymore. With alternate realities and deus ex machinas out the wazoo, it's only a matter of time before the characters come back. Johnny Storm has done it once, Jean Gray has basically become Kenny from South Park, and Captain America has died once before, too. But they always come back.

Occasionally, super heroes find themselves unable to fight, and they get someone close to them to carry on their name. The thing is: these heroes eventually come back: see Captain America's 800 different versions of this story as an example. Almost never are permanent changes made to a super hero. Little costume changes, maybe, but almost never is the original super hero killed off.

Sometimes the replacement spins off into their own persona--like War Machine--but the original hero almost always come back.

Captain Marvel was able to make the switch from the male alien Mar-Vell to the semi-human female Carol Danvers because Captain Marvel wasn't a huge name. He didn't have the legacy that Thor or Batman or Superman does. The Shield (the proto-Captain America) is able to have a gender-flipped reboot because its a small-time super hero comic.

(c) Archie Comics Publications, Inc.
And that's a problem. Because as admirable as making Captain America black is, it doesn't matter quite as much when we reestablish that straight, white dude is the default setting by hitting the reset button after a year or two.

So...I honestly hope these changes are permanent, even if they won't be. Because if Cap is permanently black, if Thor is permanently a woman, then boys and girls of all races and creeds are going to see that and be reminded that they DO matter, that comics ARE for them as well. And I think that will lead to more PoC and female writers, which both Marvel and DC desperately need.

A photo of Vishavjit Singh (Credit: Fiona Aboud)
This is a complicated issue, with lots of implications, but its worth the struggle. Because its the right thing to do.

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For a more critical look at Marvel's decisions, I urge you to check out this excellent post on Nerds of Color (link from N.K. Jemisin's Twitter).