It's been quite a year, huh? We're just halfway through and it already feels like it's been dragging on for an eternity. In 6 months mired in controversy from the political realm to the entertainment industry, the one that's been discussed the most for us in the comics world is diversity. By now we've all read the various articles like this, this, and this in regards to comments made by Marvel's VP of sales. All of those articles have sparked some real interesting debate and discussion about the industry but I feel like none of them really painted a clear picture of what we're talking about when we discuss diversity. So let's discuss.
For starters, what do we really mean when we say that word? Are we talking about race, gender, sexual orientation, all of the above? Are we speaking in terms of creators, characters, editorial and management? When I think about diversity, I'm thinking about diverse stories told by diverse creative teams, diversity reaching up into editorial and management, and of course diverse characters represented on the page.
So breaking that down further lets start with a top down look at the industry. Tracking down editors online can be a bit tricky by design. They're busy people who I'm sure love reaching out and talking to fans but also have to keep the trains moving on time. Both Marvel and DC have public Twitter lists for editors but those are kind of out of date. Needless to say, unless you go to a comic shop and literally go through each book and search for the editors (and I might just do that later for my own amusement) it can be tricky. So while there are diverse heads of both DC and Marvel, as well as plenty of editors of color, varying genders and sexual orientation, it's hard to say just how many. So instead lets talk about what makes diversity at this level important. For one, it's a fact that in this day and age, most jobs are gained via networking, not just skill. Basically people hire who they know, or who people close to them recommend. Having those connections is key, and it's not to say that non-white straight males don't have connections, but the fact that it took until this very year, 2017, for Marvel to hire a black female writer is a bit telling.
Editors and management are the real change makers in this equation. They are the ones who have the power to hire creative teams, launch new books, and help to promote diversity both on the page and behind the scenes. Having a more diverse editorial staff means you'll have more reach in different communities, and the ability to tell more diverse stories. For example, look at Ms. Marvel, which is written by a Muslim woman (G. Willow Wilson) and edited by a Muslim Woman (Sana Amanat) and tells wonderfully rich and fully realized stories about a teenage Muslim superhero. It's not to say that only people from a certain background can tell certain stories, but having those two working on that book really gives it an added dimension, because their stories are coming from a lived experience. Basically if you're looking to tell more authentic stories about LGBTQ, Latino, Black, Asian, (etc.) experiences, why not go to the source?
Which brings us to that source. I recently went through the latest issue of Previews (basically a phone book sized magazine that lets you know about all the comics, collectibles, etc. coming out for a certain month) and did some numbers. Here's what I came up with. *Note that this list is for single issues and original graphic novels only and also that these numbers are not 100% exact as I couldn't verify every name I found but I'd say each total is within about 4 or 5.
In July 2017 Marvel is putting out 66 books. Of those books 4 are written by people of color 9 by women. 23 of them feature art by people of color, 7 by women.
DC is putting out 54 books. 4 are written by people of color, 10 by women. 16 of the artists are people of color, 4 are women.
Dark Horse is putting out 23 books. None are written by people of color, 4 are written by women. 3 are drawn by people of color, and 3 are drawn by women (although one book is written and drawn by the same woman.)
IDW is putting out 54 books. 3 are written by people of color, 5 are written by women. 6 have art by people of color, 5 have art by women.
Image is putting out 54 books. 4 are written by people of color, 3 are written by women. 11 have art by people of color, 5 have art by women.
Boom is putting out 23 books, 2 written by people of color, 8 by women. 7 of those books have art by people of color, and 7 by women.
So that means out of the 274 books these publishers are putting out, 17 (6.2%) are written by people of color, and at least two or three of those books feature the same writer. 39 (14.2%) are written by women but only 3 of those are women of color. On the art side there are 66 (24%) books drawn by people of color and 33 (12%) are drawn by women. Those are some stark numbers right there that really show you that as much as people talk about diversity, there's still a long, long way to go.
Naturally the conversation then moves into, "well what's the magic number?" That's a bit of a catch 22 because there shouldn't be a quota for stuff like this. No one is out here saying it should be 50/50 because that's unrealistic, but if comic companies are really looking to increase diversity behind the scenes, these numbers are completely unacceptable, specifically when it comes to women of color.
When it comes to the characters themselves, there has definitely been an uptick in bringing more diversity to the page. What needs to be discussed now though is the handling of these characters. Is it enough for them to just exist? What is the responsibility of the creators and companies behind them in telling stories with these characters? There's been a lot of talk, whether it's the Mark Waid and J.G. Jones mini-series Strange Fruit, Nick Spencer's Captain America: Sam Wilson, new Marvel characters like Riri Williams or the recently retconned Ice Man.
For my part, I'll say there's nothing more frustrating then reading what I call diversity bingo, where a book is just throwing a bunch of different kinds of people in there, mostly for them to be seen rather than heard. Or to have them there to serve the plot of the main character and nothing else. It's also frustrating seeing so many books dabble in topical subjects, but instead of fully engaging them and saying something, they just feel tacked on. I've read way too many comics in the past year where police are pointing guns at black heroes and it's treated as either a throwaway gag or a strange non-sequitur that doesn't really do or say anything. The violence black people face at the hands of the police is very real and very emotionally draining so if you're going to reference it, there better be some follow through, because to have those encounters end with a joke is pretty insulting.
Equally frustrating is the fact that sometimes these characters just feel like DLC skins in a video game instead of actual three dimensional characters. They might look or identify a certain way, but they don't go through any recognizable challenges for the people they represent. It's not enough to just have a person of color or a female lead or a queer character, they need to engage with their culture on some level or it all rings false. Women face very different challenges then men do, women of color doubly so, and queer or trans women of color even more. And that doesn't just go for the challenges they face, but the beauty of their backgrounds as well. African-Americans have had a very well documented hard road in this country, but there's also a real beauty and pride in our culture. As hard as it can be to be black in America, there's a lot to love about it too, and these characters should reflect that.
So what are some answers to comics diversity problem? Well for one, publishers need to make a concerted effort to seek out and work with talented creators of all kinds to bring their stories to wider audience. For instance, the recently released Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore is an incredible book that more people should get a chance to read. Just a cursory online search will turn up tons of awesome webcomics by all kinds of amazing creators. Comixology, the Amazon run digital comic service, is teeming with great indie books. Publishers need to have a form of self mandated affirmative action and really take some time to look at what's out there, because I'd bet they'd be surprised at the sheer amount of untapped potential. And let's be clear about what affirmative action really means. It's not hiring for diversities sake. No one's asking for a hand out, just a seat at the table. But referencing those numbers above, there's clearly a large amount of room to grow.
When it comes to diverse characters on the page, we as creators need to really look at fleshing these characters out more. Even with the growing number of diverse characters, there's still a great need for representation. For some people, these characters are some of the few times they see themselves reflected in media, and they deserve something they can relate to. As I've said on here before, gay is not a character trait. Neither is Latino. If I ask you to tell me about your friend Brad and you say "oh, you know, he's gay" that tells me almost nothing at all about Brad. Is he lactose intolerant? Does he ride a bike to work? Where is he from? Even what kind of men Brad likes would tell me more about him than the simple fact he likes men. Take the time to craft diverse characters that feel real and lived in, that have different experiences to share and stories about their world to tell.
But when creators actually do this, like with Moon Girl and Devil Dinasour, or Nighthawk, or Silk, it's up to the publishers to get behind these books and give them a real push. Spider-Man is going to sell. So is Batman and X-Men. While it's important to continue to sell those big names and give fans stuff to look forward to, the books that need the marketing push are the ones with these new diverse characters. While a lot was made about Riri Williams when she first debuted, there hasn't been much about her from Marvel since. DC similarly is doing almost nothing to push Cyborg or Batwoman. Recently Marvel cancelled Black Panther and The Crew after just two issues, but it seems the real problem is people didn't know the book existed.
Now not all books are created equal. Some books are just bad books or are going to reach a very small market, and with hundreds of books coming out each week, it's a dog eat dog world out there. It's not enough to just keep throwing diverse characters out there if you aren't going to put the effort into marketing them. You can't blame sales on the fans if you don't make an honest effort in letting them know what's out there and why they should care about it. It also doesn't help when people's pockets are being stretched thin by $4.99 event books and the like. When readers are forced to choose between the new and the familiar/book you're telling them is so important, it's very likely they'll just drop the newer book to accommodate.
You're also doing yourself a disservice by not fully embracing the way a lot of people read comics these days. Instead of canceling a book outright, why not make it a digital only book? Why not do more original graphic novels that tell complete stories to tap into the trade market? Why not launch a line of webcomics that can help build up a character before giving them their own series? I get that at the end of the day it's a business but there are so many different ways to go about it, it can't hurt to explore all your options before going with the nuclear one.
This is extremely important in an industry where some of it's biggest icons are now 75 years old. It's not to say that having another dude writing Superman would result in the same old thing, but wouldn't it be fascinating to read a Superman comic from a woman's perspective? Or The Punisher from the viewpoint of a queer POC?
If comics is finally going to grow that healthy and steady readership it's been trying to reach for the longest time, than having a more diverse output is key. Look at the success of Get Out, a story about blackness in modern America written and directed by a black man. Look at the success of Wonder Woman, the first female lead Superhero film with a message of love and empathy, directed by a woman. Look at the success of TV shows like Atlanta, Underground, Dear White People, Broad City, Insecure, and Jane the Virgin, all by a very diverse group of creators. Hopefully comics can follow suit, because that audience is clearly out there, you just have to give them a reason to look forward to Wednesdays.