Diversity In Comics: We’ve Come A Long Way, But We’re Not There Yet

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.

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12 thoughts on “Diversity In Comics: We’ve Come A Long Way, But We’re Not There Yet

  1. I agree with Stan “The Man” Lee here. I find it disrespectful the way Marvel is changing Thor and Captain America just to add diversity when they could easily make new characters. In the last decade we’ve had original non-straight-white-men such as Ms Marvel, Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes who is Mexican), Batwoman, and Miles Morales. Sexuality is a little different then gender or race as you can’t come out of the closet as black or a woman (if were not talking about trans here) so I’m a little more lenient on that (I honestly didn’t care about Allan Scott/Green Lantern or Ice Man and actually do like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy as a couple) but for the most part, I feel like creation new characters is mulch better than disrespecting established characters.

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    1. I don’t see any difference between what’s happening with Steve Rogers and Thor than any of the other examples you gave; Miles Morales replaced Peter Parker as the Ultimate Spider-Man, Jamie Reyes took over the Blue Beetle name from Ted Kord. Same goes for Kamala Khan adopting the Ms Marvel name from Carol Danvers.

      That being said, I think unlike the above characters, eventually at least the Odinson will return as Thor, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t see Steve Rogers regain his powers somehow.

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      1. Huge differences:

        Thor: unnecessarily turned into a girl because “diversity”!

        Cap: unnecessarily turned Black because “diversity”

        Ult. Spider-man: The ultimate universe was made specifically so writers don’t have to worry about continuity as much and play around with the characters. So replacing the Ultimate Peter Parker with Miles was a fun way to ad diversity without disrespectfully getting rid of 616 Peter Parker (then again, the things Pete is currently going through is pretty sad).

        BB: The “Blue Beetle” has been around since the late 1930s with the original Blue Beetle being Dan Garret owned by FOX comics. some time down the line (don’t know the exact dates), FOX Comics went out of business and Charleston bought the Blue Beetle and gave the mantle to a then original character: Ted Korde. Later on, Charleston comics went out of business and Blue Beetle was given to DC. Ted stayed Blue Beetle for a bit but DC decided to put their mark on the character by creating an original character: Jaime Reyes. Even then, if you read Jaime’s original run there was a lot of call backs to the past Blue Beetles and they respected the Blue Beetle legacy, The fact that Jaime is Mexican-American is pretty cool, adds diversity, and doesn’t just shove the mantle onto him.

        Ms Marvel: Based on what I can tell (I actually haven’t read Ms Marvel yet) Kamala Khan has very little to do with Carol Danvers. Carol was was Kamala’s idol so when she became a superhero she simply took the name since Carol wasn’t using it at the moment. Her powers and backstory has nothing to do with Carol and the only thing the two has in common is the name. IMO, Kamala Khan is not only a strong female superhero, but an original one.

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        1. Sam Wilson isn’t the first to replace Cap, though. There was Bucky and John Walker before him. There’s precedent in the Captain America mantle being passed on, and eventually it’ll probably end back at Steve Rogers – Comics are cyclical and it’s usually a matter of time before the status-quo is restored.

          Odinson is still around; and while the passing of his name may rankle, the last 8 issues of the new Thor comic have been absolutely fantastic.

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          1. I guess, and its true that comics rarely permanently change a characters status-quo (ie Gordan wont be Batman forever and Superman’s ID will probably be a secret again) but I feel like that would make things just as annoying. Why change a character for diversity when it wont last long instead of creating original characters that will be like that forever (or until they decide to mess with them too -_- )

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          2. Yeah; for now it’s a start in supporting diversity, and it gets Sam Wilson some more exposure. And at the end of the day, if the stories being told are of a high quality, then the only winners are the fans.

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  2. I’ll be impressed when some actual original heroes of ethnicity are created. I find the recent trend of changing existing character’s more offensive honestly. No time or effort, sometimes skin changes for no reason at all other than to say they now have a black man on the team (yes I am referring to F4) How is making cheap and lazy changes to pre-established white character’s less racist? Why are all the new character’s just replacement’s and second stringer’s? Why are no original character’s being created? Why can’t they take time, putting in actual effort so it’s not about appearing PC but actually story serving, instead of here’s the new Thor, and she’s female? I find all this more damaging to the comics image than it was before this whole forced PC debacle. The idea new original black character’s don’t sell is just a false stigma that comic’s need to lose. The 90s were a long time ago now, long before this whole comics are racist and need more diversity argument was a thing, and yet Spawn was the highest selling, an African American character was outselling Spidey, thus proving with some actual effort things might change for the better, but until they stop this new trend things are only going to get worse I’m afraid. Now fans are labelled racist by the idiot public when they dare speak their mind, just for wanting true depictions of characters they are fans of? I just don’t get it? Yes diversity is a good thing for comics and we should be working hard to make this more genuine, forced diversity, in my opinion is a bad thing.

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    1. Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding, but it sounds like you’re saying that so long as the changes serve the story – and are done well – then I agree completely. When we speak out about poor choices for diversity’s sake, then those who do so criticizing the choices made that compromise the story do tend to get unfairly labelled.

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      1. yes exactly my point, I just think colour doesn’t play a huge part to me, if the story is written well and the art is nice, i’ll buy and read it, doesn’t matter what skin colour the character is. I just think the character changes lately appear forced and only there to showcase the skin colour, which seems to be undermining the message. Yeah if it feels organic to the story and not glaringly obvious the only reason for the change is skin colour then I have no issue. This trend of ethnic character replacements just seems a step in the wrong direction to me. I understand the “already established fanbase” argument, but i actually find it kind of offensive that the only time a new, important African American, or any race for that matter, is introduced, it’s as a white character’s replacement. What’s the message there? A black character won’t sell unless there are white character connections? I don’t know? It’s a strange issue, and I like the kind of discussion it creates, it’s an issue that splits fans and there are no real definitive answers, I suppose only time will tell if the trend has a positive or negative effect. I did enjoy reading the article because it is a trend that’s bothered me for some time and worth discussing, keep up the good work 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you! I understand completely what you’re saying – I hope that in fifteen years we look back to this time in comics and we can see how it was used to springboard stories using original (or pre-existing characters like the Falcon and Luke Cage to name two) African American characters to prominence.

          Time’ll tell, though, I guess.

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  3. Great article! I have no problem with comics swapping out Gender, Race or Sexuality with any of their characters. Comics are ever evolving and adding nuance, so whats the big deal? If anything it makes a series feel “fresh”. I love the new Thor, old Thor was something I never would read cause it felt way to “I am man, i beat thing with hammers” for me. The new Thor is much more of a interesting and nuanced character. Also, for people complaining about the changes to classic characters (esp. in terms of race), citing “You have to stay true to the comic creators vision”, you have have to realize that many of these characters were created in the 40s-60s, an era in American history that was much less diverse than it is now. In that era it would have been unthinkable to have a black captain America, or even a Female Thor. Let alone have a gay individual be a hero. In current times it’s completely acceptable, so why not add more diversity? After all these creations were reflections of their society, and society (like comics) is changing.

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  4. Pingback: The Comic-Verse – Super-Sized Three Week Edition: Awesome Art & The Top 45 Featured Links (06/25/15-07/15/15) | The Speech Bubble

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