The comic book industry has been making great strides when it comes to introducing more cultural, and ethnic, diversity in the last decade. Superheroes are no longer just straight white men with the odd woman around, but depending on who you talk to about diversity in comics, you could easily be mistaken for thinking that there really isn’t any. There is diversity, but not as much as perhaps there should be.
Beginning with Luke Cage, the Black Panther, and Shang Chi in the 60’s and 70’s, Marvel Comics did begin to slowly introduce ethnically diverse characters to their roster, but in a medium traditionally dominated by straight white superheroes, diversification had been a comparatively slow process. Not because publishers were against diversifying their lines (although that may have been a part of it for some) but because the publishers wanted to make money, and because the existing popular characters they had were primarily white, and it was those that were selling the comics. In roads have been made over the years, however, with the previously mentioned characters, and also characters such as Marvel’s Northstar, who famously came out in a 1992 story, finally married his long term boyfriend a few years ago; and the hugely popular Kamala Khan, the current Ms Marvel, is a Muslim American teenager.
Stan Lee has been quoted as saying in an interview with Newsarama about the casting of a white Peter Parker as the latest on screen Spider-Man; “I just see no reason to change that which has already been established when it’s so easy to add new characters. I say create new characters the way you want to,” he also added “it has nothing to do with being anti-gay, or anti-black, or anti-Latino, or anything like that. Latino characters should stay Latino. The Black Panther should certainly not be Swiss. I just see no reason to change that which has already been established when it’s so easy to add new characters. I say create new characters the way you want to. Hell, I’ll do it myself.” While he certainly has a point, it can be difficult to launch a new superhero into the public consciousness, but by casting a person of colour into a previously white character it can be an immediate show of support.
The same is also true for replacing existing characters in story for various reasons; most recently Steve Rogers retired as Captain America and so The Falcon stepped up to the plate. Thor Odinson became unworthy of his hammer, and then gave his name (Thor) over to the woman who was worthy. Likewise for reinventing existing characters; when DC rebooted their universe with the New 52, the Green Lantern Alan Scott was a gay man.
Progress is being made, but we’re not quite there yet.
Just in the last month there have been some controversies; during a recent Batgirl story objections were raised over the portrayal of a male character impersonating the lead character (however in the collected edition, the creators revised their original script).
More recently, Image Comics has long been championing diversity and inclusion for all with many of the comics they publish. Up until, that is, Airboy #2 came out this week. Whether it was the creators’ intent to show the cultural differences between the modern day and the Golden Age (from which Airboy both literally and figuratively comes from), and how far we’ve come as a society from the 1940’s in accepting transgender individuals, (or not – I may be giving too much credit here to a misguided depiction of support for the LGBTQ community) the message that many have received loud and clear from Airboy #2 isn’t one of support and acceptance, and as such, it isn’t resonating very well – if at all.
As an industry this is obviously not the message we want to give.
Regardless of the intentions behind that scene in Airboy #2, this kind of portrayal of transgender individuals not only harms the progress the industry has made in the past, and continues to make, but it can also potentially harm real life individuals. Admirably, the writer of the comic recognized the outcry and responded.
Comics have come a long way when it comes to inclusion and acceptance for all, but we, as an industry and as a community, still have a long we to go. We need to ensure that comics are inclusive to everybody, and when they’re not then we should follow the examples that the very comics we love have shown us so many times, and speak out in favour of those who are being treated unfairly.
It was Stan Lee who said “with great power, there must also come great responsibility,” and we’ve all got the power to speak up when we see something that isn’t right.
Also posted on Graphic Policy.