41LT: Diversity in Superhero Comics

I have been telling people they're wrong on the internet for over 20 years. At a certain point, you find that you're repeating yourself. In the interest of saving myself some time and frustration, I will sometimes put together my thoughts on a topic here, in a recurring feature I call "For One Last Time."

And then, I don't know. I can link to it or whatnot.

Today, diversity in superhero comics.

To be clear, I'm talking about diversity of characters, not creators. Both are important, and diversity of creators is probably MORE important, what with it concerning real people and their careers and such. But that's a different argument, part of a broader discussion about hiring practices.

By contrast, diversity in superhero comics was for years and years a fairly myopic topic, focused as it is on one medium (comics) with a fairly limited reach. I mean, it's not contemporary poetry, but in the grand scheme of things, not many people read comics.

Of course, that was before superheroes took over the movies, whole TV networks, and lunchboxes. Superheroes are everywhere these days, and the question of diversity in superhero comics (and in the movies, TV, and lunchboxes they inspire) are now part of a larger conversation.

Let's start at the beginning! Superhero comics first started appearing in the late 30s with DC Comics' Superman and then later Batman, Wonder Woman, and a lot of the other characters that you know today. The Marvel characters, your Iron Mans and Spider-mens and X-Men, were created in the 60s. And though there have been a few breakout characters created since then (most notably Wolverine in the 70s and Deadpool and Harley Quinn in the 90s) most of the superheroes that are still around date back to those eras.

While racism and sexism were certainly more prevalent and more accepted in those times, I don't think it's necessary to label any of the creators of those eras as explicitly racist or sexist. You just need to look at the characters they created: mostly white dudes.

And here's the thing about superheroes and superhero comics that, thanks to the prevalence of the modern Marvel movies, probably goes without saying: They're not one off stories. They operate in shared universes that extend across all (or almost all) of a publisher's titles over the course of decades.

So when it's a story about one white dude who saves the Earth or the universe or whatever, okay, that's one story and there are a lot of white dudes in America. But when you tell many stories of many different white dudes and they're always or almost always the ones to save the Earth or the universe or whatever, it's establishing rules about how the fictional world works.

When you present a fictional world where all of the foundational heroes were white guys (and one or two token white women) that's problematic. And when you try to introduce more female heroes and more heroes of color (or with other sexual orientations, with disabilities, etc.) in a secondary position to the white guys... Well, that's still problematic.

This is something that has bothered me for years, and (full disclosure) I'm a straight white dude with no compelling claim to any minority status. It has become a more immediate concern in the past couple years as I am now a father, and I'd like to present worlds to my son that are populated by people who don't just look and act and think like him.

To be sure, this is an issue that extends well beyond superheroes and comics and the other media they've kudzued into in recent years. Children's books and cartoons and toy lines all face this issue to one degree or another. But in those later cases, they're at least not anchored to existing, decades old continuities. You at least have the option to make diversity a founding principle of your new thing.

When Marvel Comics began replicating their comics universe for film a decade ago, they were replicating a universe that was still largely stuck with a 1960s approach to diversity. The founding members of the Avengers are all white. One of them is a woman. When black members later join, they're Iron Man and Captain America's buddies and they're clearly there in a secondary, supporting role.

In an ideal world, if you were creating these characters and their universes from scratch, you would want to see a greater range of diversity in the foundational heroes, and you would want to see that diversity carry on down the line.

But we aren't talking about creating universes from scratch, so what do you do?

Well, there are three ways to handle this, and not suprisingly there are people on the internet who hate all three options. That doesn't mean that these people are classically racist or sexist (or homophobic or ableist, etc.). But they are people committed to loving something from a less diverse time who are reluctant to see the thing they love change. This may express in a way that appears bigoted, but it comes from the same place as a Trek fan complaining about the inconsistencies in Klingon make-up over the years. To a certain type of fans' mind, change = baaad.

We might think of it as effective bigotry, because the functional result is the same, but I find that calling people bigots shuts down conversation, so I prefer the term "continuity bias."

Anyway, three ways to address a lack of diversity in superhero comics and universes:

  1. New characters. This is maybe the easiest answer and also the hardest to pull off. If you accept, as I do, that most of the fans who object to diversification aren't operating from a traditional prejudice and are instead operating from what I termed "continuity bias," you'll instantly understand why this is the case.

    It is very difficult to create new hit characters of any stripe. It's hard to get (mostly white dude) comics fans to buy comics featuring new white dudes. They mostly just want to read about the characters they already like. Getting the right concept, the right creative team, the right kind of platform to launch, etc. is all lightning-in-a-bottle stuff, and even if all of that works, you still have to fight through "Okay, but why am I buying this instead of Batman?"

    Even if we pretend that no one is ever put off by seeing a character who doesn't share their gender or race or religion or sexual orientation...

    There is a certain kind of fan (the kind who argues with me on the internet about diversity in comics) who will STILL complain that this new character only exists to fulfill an agenda and is being "shoved down their throats."

  2. Elevating an existing character. One solution to addressing the lack of major diverse characters is to take an existing minority character and to elevate them in importance. DC has done this by inserting the black Teen Titan Cyborg into the Justice League as a founding member, both in the comics (after a recent continuity reset) and in the movie. You're doing a new version of the story, so it's a natural place to make such changes, but "those" fans will still complain that the new version is departing too much from the old version.

    You see a less dramatic version of this sometimes when they simply add a minority character to an existing team mid-run. Since line-ups are expected to change over time, you get slightly fewer histrionics. Continuity bias says line-up changes SHOULD happen. But what you get in these cases are all the classic affirmative action arguments. Such-and-such a character doesn't deserve to join this team. Such-and-such a character is only being added to the team as a token X.

    In some cases, that is literally true. Think about the Super Friends cartoons of the early 80s that introduced original characters to the team who were black, Native American, Japanese, and Hispanic. (Note the pattern?) Most of these characters had names and powers that bordered on offensive stereotype, but at least folks were trying.

    And if you set aside the story and just say "here are some characters that my child is going to be introduced to on a weekday afternoon" at least they're showing them a world where people who aren't white can still be heroes.

    I guess it comes down to this, though: If you see minority characters that seem like stereotypes, and your solution is "stop introducing minority characters" and not "let's make the minority characters less stereotypical" you are part of the problem.

  3. Replacing Characters. I thought about breaking this out into two different categories, but we're already running long. But this is either "a new guy is Iron Man now, and surprise he's black!" or "we're bringing this character to the movies, and this time he's Asian!"

    Sadly, this can also go the other way. And now I have whitesplained whitewashing to you. (But only because I'm trying to be comprehensive.)

    A popular argument is "You object when minority characters are cast white, but you are okay with casting white characters as minorities. You are a hypocrite!" I am a hypocrite, for other reasons, but not here. The goal is to improve diversity where it is lacking. If there were no white characters in any of these stories, it would be a different discussion. It is not.

    So we understand why the continuity biased object to genderbending or racebending characters. (And I have to say, that as a redhead who has never seen a live action Jimmy Olsen who's a ginger, I can at least imagine their pain.) And it's not hard to imagine why they dislike simply replacing existing characters.

    It's fairly common practice to have fill-in/replacement heroes. Somebody else becomes Superman or Batman or Iron Man or Captain America or Spider-Man for a particular story or extended storyline. Back in the 50s and 60s, these tended to be one-off stories, but starting in the 80s the swaps tended to last longer and that trend has continued.

    Usually these stories end up with the replacement character getting spun-off into a new title with a new name, but they're still pretty transparently knock-off versions of the original. So one temporary Captain America became U.S. Agent. The original alternate Iron Man is now better known as War Machine. Sometimes they try to run the characters concurrently (as when both Batman and the original Robin wore the Batman costume for a while), but ultimately the original always comes back.

    And fans seem to be broadly okay with this. Replacement heroes are generally good for sales, because just like with line-up changes, short-term shake-ups are part of the status quo that continuity biased fans are conditioned to expect.

    But if the replacement hero is a woman instead of a man, or a minority, or worse both (!) then suddenly there's the familiar griping of "this character doesn't deserve to take over this mantle!" or "this character is only being introduced to fill a quota!" or "why are they forcing this PC character down my throat!" (Again with the throats! Always with the throats!)

    One recent success in launching a new minority replacement character was Ms. Marvel, a teenage Muslim character. It helped that the old Ms. Marvel had already vacated her old codename for a new one that no one was using (the long dead Captain Marvel) and that the two Ms. Marvels had radically different powers and settings. There was no chance that fans were going to read the new Ms. Marvel as a cheap knockoff of the older character because they weren't that similar.

    And, of course, it didn't hurt that the book had a dynamite creative team. Lightning struck. Hurrah. But that's one character.

    And though Marvel subsequently had relative success with a number of other female and minority replacement heroes (including a female Thor and a black Captain America), we are now seeing the retrenchment where those characters are shuffled off to make way for the originals.

And a lot of times, people will argue with one of the above approaches by pretending they would accept another.

"Don't replace Captain America with a black man. Just focus on taking your existing black characters and doing more with them."

"I'm tired of them trying to make Cyborg a thing. They shouldn't have inserted him into Justice League and given him his own title. If you want a big new black character you need to create one."

"Why are all the new characters minorities? Stop trying to shove them down our throats! Our precious, narrow throats!"

At a certain point, people need to accept that they have a bias that is, at the very best, the functional equivalent of sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. And they need to consider whether a desire to see their diverse reality reflected in fiction might be more important than their desire to see the same stuff from their childhood repeated forever.

Or, well, technically they don't NEED to accept that. "Wrongness" will always be an option. Particularly here on the internet.

Personally, I'd like to see an all-of-the-above approach. Elevate the existing characters. Trade on the existing characters/teams as much as you can. And create new characters whenever possible. Because you have to fail a lot creatively for each success, even when your fanbase is 100% rooting for your success.

Final thought: I have heard one argument specifically against racebending in film that at least gives me pause. Not surprisingly, it comes from one of my non-White friends. It goes like this: "It seems stupid to make Black Panther white because a lot of his identity is bound up in being an African king. If he's not a black man, you've substantially changed that character to the point that he's not the same character anymore. It's a stupid thing to do. What well-meaning white liberals don't understand is that just like being black is a fundamental characteristic of a character like Black Panther, being white is a fundamental characteristic of these other characters. The fact that you think a white character is essentially of 'no race' is an expression of your privilege and is actually a type of racism."

I think (I *think*) ultimately I don't buy that argument. Mostly because I think that most of the time you COULD take a minority character and recast them as white without it ruining the character. The reason not to do it is because you're making something less diverse.

The Doctor Strange movie is an interesting use case. A big deal was made about turning the Ancient One (an old Asian man in the comics) into a white woman. That's already a mixed bag. (Less Asian characters. More female characters.) But add to that that they made Baron Mordo (a white man in the comics) black, and kept Wong (an Asian man in the comics) Asian. And what does that add up to?

Heck if I know. Progress, I guess? Sort of?

I think the ultimate lesson here is: It's a difficult thing to do, and many of the options will come across as ham-fisted. So don't complain that it's ham-fisted. Just be glad that it's happening, and disappointed when there are set backs.