The Cliffs of Insanity: Equality

Welcome back to another installment climbing the Cliffs of Insanity. This week’s column is a musing on equality, mostly in comics, but also flavored with some old time comic memories.

The cover to Black Lightning Year One, a terrific updating of the character. Unfortunately, he's been largely ignored since.
The cover to Black Lightning Year One, a terrific updating of the character. Unfortunately, he’s been largely ignored since.

While I’ve been a champion of more and better female representation in the comics industry, on the page and as creators, the big two companies also have another glaring inequality, and that’s with minority representation.

It’s certainly not an issue unique to comics, as it pointed out in the trailer for the upcoming Brave New Souls: Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers of the 21st Century, but mainstream superhero comics seem particularly stuck in cultural sensibilities of years back.

I’ve spoken previously to Brave New Soul’s producer/director Brandon Easton and writer Geoffrey Thorne about their comics work and the problems that minority characters face in the direct comic market.

It’s similar to the problems with marketing female-featured or female-led books: the direct market is insular and tends to appeal to long-time fans who aren’t female and aren’t minorities. Even if that is changing—and it’s difficult to find solid demographics on the mainstream comic audience—it’s still the perception that they won’t sell, and thus less of these books are even published.

A nasty catch-22.

Then, also, the companies can seem blind to problematic decisions involving race. Just this year, DC Comics was going to kill off John Stewart, arguably the most well-known Green Lantern, an order that caused the newly announced GL writer, Josh Fialkov, to quit before even his first issue appeared.

I’m guessing that DC’s reasoning was that they have many Green Lanterns, that there’s now another Green Lantern of color (Baz), and that John was expendable because Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner are more popular among regular comic readers. But it’s short-sighted because John is well-loved from the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. He’s an icon, one of the very few widely known African-American superheroes—and that DC can’t figure out how to leverage him is a failure in marketing, not a failure in the character.

Why, by comparison, was the animated Justice League more diverse?

Much of the credit goes to Dwayne McDuffie.

Static Shock on DVD
Static Shock on DVD, image Warner Home Video

McDuffie was the creator of the Static Shock animated series, and a writer and producer of the Justice League series. He co-founded the minority owned-and-operated comic company, Milestone, and was a three time Eisner Award nominee. Those who don’t know his comic work probably have seen Ben 10: Alien Force.

McDuffie was one of the most prominent advocates for better representation of not just African-Americans in comics but for minority representation in general, though certainly not the only one.

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His untimely death in 2011 was a tragedy for his family and a loss for the public, not just in the great stories left untold but because the comic world needed and still needs voices like his.

There have been a few hopeful signs of late.

Marvel, of course, deserves credit for the diverse X-Men characters. They also launched an all-female X-Men comic just last month, featuring Storm prominently. This issue hit #1 on the sales chart for the week, a promising sign. Marvel also has Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man in the Ultimate Universe. Moreover, Brian M. Bendis’ writing on Luke Cage, Power-Man, has moved that character to a prominent place in the Marvel Universe.

DC’s Katana comic is another on the positive side, though low sales may cancel it soon. The same applies to Batwing. Before the reboot that reset its universe, there were a slew of characters that weren’t all white bread: Cassandra Cain, the new Batgirl, Ryan Choi, the new Atom, and Renee Montoya, the new Question. Unfortunately, Cassandra and Ryan seem permanently MIA and Montoya is definitely not the Question any longer.

Why not more? The problems are two-fold. The first is that most of the iconic characters were created decades ago when few would think of creating a non-white or female or LGBT lead superhero. The second is that new characters, no matter what ethnicity or gender, don’t sell well in the very rigid direct market. Direct market readers want the familiar. (And they tend to be nostalgic about it. See below, as I’m not immune to this.) To use the above example, Cassandra Cain was replaced by the more well-known Barbara Gordon. Montoya gave way to a re-imagining of original Vic Sage’s identity of the Question. And the Atom? Apparently, she’s now a woman, which is good, but even before then, Choi was unceremoniously killed.

I wish, especially as I’m writing this on the Fourth of July, that I could think of one Native American hero that the general public would know. I can think of Forge and Warpath of the X-men, and Dawnstar from the Legion of Super-Heroes but no others instantly come to mind. I do love Aym Geronimo, though she’s an independent creation and, as much as I would wish otherwise, her reach is a bit limited.

There have been some successes. Cyborg is prominent in the new 52 Justice League. Batwoman (Kate Kane), a lesbian, has proved that re-imagining a character can work. She was introduced slowly, over several years, and then took over Detective Comics for a year before getting her own title. Luke Cage’s use also proves a single writer advocate (Bendis) can make a huge difference in a character’s prominence.

But there’s still a long way to go—why is Jefferson Pierce and his family so infrequently used lately at DC?—and simply saying “well, these don’t sell,” isn’t a good answer.

Comics are aspirational, as I’ve said before, and it’s important that people of all colors, genders, and sexual preferences are represented as heroes.

One very positive sign outside comics: Agents of S.H.I.E,L.D. is coming Tuesdays this fall (WOOT!!!) and it has a nicely diverse cast that hopefully will filter into the comics if the show is a hit.

And speaking of heroes, there’s a fascinating backlash against the smashy last third going on in the critiques of Man of Steel

CRITIC HULK IS AWFULLY COHERENT

Though I prefer Hulk in small doses, especially Drunk Hulk on Twitter, Film Crit Hulk has a lengthy takedown of Man of Steel, including the major plot turning points involving Pa Kent and Superman becoming a hero. (Warning: way too much all caps there, Hulk.)

Mostly, after writing my review of the ten things I loved and hated about the movie, I desperately wished for one moment like the barrel of monkeys rescue in Iron Man 3. It was everything I love about action sequences in superhero movies.

Instead, I got lots of punches into building. Do better with the Man of Steel sequel, Warner Bros. Big spectacle fights are fine but heroism among spectacle is even better.

I found this in my small remaining stash of oversize comics. The edit cut off the price tag but in case you’re wondering what it cost back then, it was $2.50. And, yes, I did buy it new.I wanted to believe a man could fly and, for a moment, the movie carried that belief.

photo by Corrina Lawson

 

 

Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.