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Diversity in Comics: Altruism, Agenda and The Real Justice League

diversity comics

Welcome, comic cretins, to another politically pulverizing adventure of tantalizing taboo and espionage. Today we spy on the ever controversial realm of internet rhetoric versus rationale and reason.

Yes, it’s time for ComixCentral and myself to put our skin in the diversity game. No need to freak. Waivers have been signed, man-boy parents have been called, and the exceptionally sensitive among our internet friends have been given a pair of imaginary ear muffs to keep them company. The only one that may die from the emotional backlash is moi. Seeing as I’m the one putting these words together, this sort of thing is expected. As a minority myself (Cerebral Palsy), I’ll do my best not to use the label as a flagship. It exists for your basic knowledge and understanding of my perspective. Anything more is an overblown tragedy. With that in mind, maybe we can all learn something a step above the DARE program in the 90’s. Now THAT was a tragedy.

All joking aside, comics became a respected medium because of the issues tackled within their pages. Much like the heroes themselves, the stories gained traction because the creators took the bravery of their creations seriously. Initially, the giants were brave enough to take the audience seriously. I may have fallin in love with these stories when I was young, but I never “felt” young while learning about the characters.

I have to give the old school credit where credit is due.

When I was introduced to Xavier’s X-Men in the early 90’s, their outcast heroics provided me with my earliest understanding of genuine servitude in the face of tyranny. I learned to stand with people who don’t hold values of acceptance as self-evident truths, despite sitting in a chair. Professor X helped with that, but a message buried under mature storytelling (especially for a 9 year old) proved even more revealing. The personal nature of each hero and the “normal” relationships they struggled to maintain gave me both courage and camaraderie to fly among my fellow nerd birds. There’s no question that comics have always provided early education when it comes to moral philosophy, so what happened? Well, more recently, David Gabriel happened. Sort of.

X-Men – Marvel Comics

If you’re engrossed in the mainstream comic world, you may have heard David Gabriel’s controversial statement regarding Marvel’s slump in sales.

It’s important to note that I’m paraphrasing here, but he essentially said he HEARD people didn’t want diversity in comics and that retailers felt it was hurting sales all together. I also need to emphasize the context of the statement. Gabriel was speaking at a major retail summit in response to a few retailers who made a blanket comment covering diversity in comics. I read various accounts and interpretations, and while David’s statements were foolish, ill-timed, and seemed to mildly reflect an ancient doctrine of Marvel’s business side, it seems the retailers themselves deserve more of a beatdown than the Marvel VP. In this scenario he seems to play the role of accidental village idiot more than anything else. There’s no doubt that David Gabriel and the retailers both deserve a serious talking to, but I’d like to look at everything more broadly before sending a few sinners to the lion’s den. Fair warning. We’re headed out of the lion’s den and into a castle of controversy.

I don’t know the retailers themselves, and I wasn’t there in the moment of madness. However, while it’s clear there may be ignorance on the surface, there’s a deeper message here. It seems to me the retailers were pointing out diversity for the sake of diversity as an issue. That’s a pie slice I actually agree with. Bring on the hate mail. Let me start by sharing what I love, and what those retailers, it seems, totally missed or forgot about. The new Black Panther comic was Marvel’s best seller for 2016. Why shouldn’t it be? Ta-Nehisi Coates is a freakin’ genius. I mean literally. Not only is he a respected political and social commentator, but he also received the widely coveted and well-deserved MacArthur genius grant. The story is as multifaceted as the mind of its writer and yet again proves that the world of comics is much more than ink on a page. There are elements of Star Wars philosophy, mob mentality, family drama, technological warfare, ancient civil discord, haunting visions of the past, and, of course, badass martial arts mayhem. I’m honestly not smart enough to keep it all together.

Black Panther – Marvel Comics

There are lots of other mainstream examples that counter the absent minded sales rep thought process. The lovely Jane Foster sliding into Thor’s spot in Marvel’s Mighty Thor doesn’t seem to ruin anyone’s day. Cindy Moon is an Asian American heroine shining a light of brilliance in the land of everyone’s favorite web crawler. DC is joining the game with Captain America in the form of Sam Wilson. His government-screw-up backstory would be a cruel give away, but I encourage you to check it out. DC also hired Gene Luen Yang to work on Superman in late 2015. While I haven’t read his take on the ever popular cape wearing Kryptonian, Gene, too, earned the MacArthur fellowship. Therefore, I expect it to be nothing less than genius, or at least something way above my pay grade. Additionally, the new Ms. Marvel, who happens to be Pakistani-American Muslim, was to be the most important comic of 2014 as designated by Marvel themselves. The writer, Sana Amanat, serves as a Young Leaders Committee board member at Seeds of Peace, not to mention volume one of this heroine tale took home the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2015. I don’t know Sana personally, but I have a feeling she has her own valuable take on diversity in comics.

At this point you may be asking yourself where the issues lie.

As I hinted before, there are a couple missteps happening here. As a writer, I recognize the power of words; so when I hear someone in the comic world saying things like, “What does hiring a diverse staff have anything to do with writing diverse comics?” I start to wonder what planet they’re from. Especially if the whispers come from a really big camp.

It’s important to look at not just the words themselves, but also their source.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Here’s my stamp on the whole thing– the problem is diversity for the sake of diversity.

I have been trying to figure out the best way to tell my own story without coming across as a lazy afterschool special. Unless the story comes first, I refuse to release any graphic novel with my name on it. If the message takes precedent, then the writers are missing the point. Diversity itself is never the cause of an issue. The problem comes in when people use it as a marketing tool instead of an opportunity for great expansive storytelling. When diversity is just thrown in, it sounds more like a social justice league than a crusader worth his/her/its weight in ink. You’ve basically got the comic book version of our dreaded DARE program.   

The giants are still relying on loyalty and safety instead of risky adventure. Before the loyalists out there eat me, they should know I’m not saying the mainstream market isn’t diverse. For reference, use the power of levitation until your eyes find the paragraph three indentations above. It’s just that, once again, the indie world is way ahead of the game. I’m not just saying that because of the website this article sits on. See for yourself.

Indie comics and the internet literally opened up the floodgates for diverse creativity in the small market because people realized THERE ARE NO GATES in the small market.

A lot of respected gurus who speak for and even work for the mainstream are actually telling people to skip the major publishers altogether because indie comics know the power of the d train. We figured it out long before everyone else. Sure, thanks to social media, there’s a flood of more voices in general. That doesn’t compare to the value of minorities getting more of a voice than ever before. I’m willing to bet that Gene Yang and Greg Pak would back me up in the matter. There are thousands of marginalized masterminds to pick from in our arena, and they’re ready to play.


I also want to point out that controversy is a good thing, and that it strikes up very valuable conversation.

Just ask the creators of Strange Fruit. It’s a comic from Boom Studios about a superpowered alien who shows up on earth as a man of color during a darker age of the American South. While it’s yet another take on a familiar divide, it also raised questions about Caucasian creators voicing a story they will never fully understand. I commend the author’s boldness, but even more so, I commend his response to criticism. When Mark Waid came under critical fire via J. A. Michelline for his attempt, he received it with grace. It was aptly pointed out that while he meant well, it was another Black story being told through a white lens. A simple solution would be to hire creators of color on staff in order to reflect a more responsible tone of genius. Although we long to “get it,” it’s easier to accept the fact that we never quite will. Besides, if we’re speaking independently, it’s not our story to tell. The key to good storytelling is telling the truth, after all.    

In conclusion, we’re not talking about a David Gabriel problem, a Marvel problem, a DC problem, or even a comic problem.

We’re talking about a perspective problem. The truth is, there are village idiots in every industry. There’s always gonna be a schmuck who says women don’t know comics, and there’s always gonna be people like Sana Amanat who shoot laser beams of written genius at their head. There’s always gonna be some idiot who thinks Chuck Norris could crush Bruce Lee. There are people who believe individuals with disabilities only belong in affliction stories, and I’m happy to run them over with my wheelchair until they die. I’d probably get away with it anyway because no one would expect that Forrest Gump did it with a pipe in the dining room. One of the greatest advantages to being a minority are the stories themselves. It’s why we came to America in the first place. Bring us your tired, your hungry, your kickass creativity. We need your take on things for the sake of art and humanity as a whole.

The best thing we can do is forgive the mainstream giants for being slow and keep being ourselves. It’s not about a message. It’s not about complaining. It’s not about altruism. It’s not even about saving the world overnight. It’s talking about and recognizing that we have a world that’s worth saving in the first place. Legally, we can’t just kill stupid people. That’s not justice. We have to drown them out by being undeniably good. Stop plastering new faces onto old stories, and tell the world at the top of your lungs what pieces of humanity we’re missing. We don’t own big buildings, and we don’t have a legacy. We don’t have the luxury of laziness and stupid crossover stories. I can’t take another Civil War, real or fiction for that matter.

Let me end things by again pointing out my own hypocrisy.

Complaining does nothing. There’s a difference between angry internet ranting and constructive conversation. We’re talking, and that’s a beautiful thing.

But how do we win the game? We win by ACTUALLY BUYING COMICS.

You can’t just talk about the indie stories you love. You’ve got to purchase them. We are dealing with an industry here, and money talks. Numbers matter. You can champion someone or something with words until you’re blue in the face, but until you give away the green you’re just another voice in the crowd. We must have the courage to LISTEN to the people around us. I’ve done the best I can to keep assumption out of the equation while still telling my side of things with a sense of passion and purpose. I am still human, though. I’m not Dr. Strange or Superman. I can’t be everywhere. Now is a better time than any to come together on this topic. A lot of people forget that Jewish immigrants who needed a voice were the architects of Superman. It’s not about altruism, and it’s not about agenda. It all comes down to trust and (yes I’m saying this over and over again) good storytelling! Placing blame on an industry doesn’t change an industry, but there’s nothing wrong with shining the bat signal on a business-driven Gotham that’s shifting a bit too slowly for my speed. Honest hardship drawn from experience makes heroes worth fighting for. That’s where real change happens. That’s how we get liberty and justice… for all.


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