Welcome to Part Two of our race and gender roundtable, where we talk about creators and authenticity, consumer threat levels, and the future of diversity in comics.
You can catch up on Part One of the roundtable here.
This is a two-parter, so feel free to answer one part at a time or both simultaneously – whichever’s easier.
How important is the issue of authenticity? Does a comic about a black female protagonist (for example) suffer if the creators, writers and/or artists are neither black nor female?
At the same time, various non-white and non-male comics creators have written and drawn white and/or male characters – e.g. Jae Lee drawing Superman, the men in Gail Simone’s Secret Six – yet the authenticity question doesn’t come up in these instances. Is this related to the idea of the straight white male as the “default” state of being, or are there other factors at work?
Jamie: 1) Yes, a comic with diverse ethnicity and/or nonwhite women suffers if the creative team is neither black nor female, but only if they’re not willing to do the legwork. And that, to my mind, is the big problem. It’s so easy to google or go to the library to learn more about different points of view, and how to present them non-problematically, but nobody wants to bother.
2) Nope, that’s pretty much all there is to it: cis white male is considered to be The Default, so everybody should know and be able to write him. And that’s weird, because Stan Lee himself has noticed how many female viewers of multiple races are showing up at the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
Arturo: Again, I think Jamie put it well in regards to Part 1. As for Part 2, not only are white cis-heteromales the default character, but they’re the default target demographic–and let’s not forget, the vast majority of creators hired and recruited.
Tali: I agree with Jamie on both parts. 1. Only if they do the research and present the characters in a way that isn’t an issue will the comic not suffer. It’s laziness on their part for not putting in the effort. 2. And yes the white cis-heteromales are the default. It’s a tradition and some don’t want to break it.
Mai: White/cis/hetero dudes assume that other people have no trouble writing or reading themselves in white/cis/hetero dude characters, and yet so many of them seem to think it’s just impossible to imagine themselves as, say, a straight black woman, or a gay Asian man.
I do think writing characters from a different demographic than yourself, especially ones who live with kinds of oppression you don’t, is going to be an uphill battle no matter what you do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Jamie, your mention of Stan Lee brings up another interesting point. The vast majority of the original creators of comics as we know them were Jewish, so contemporary comics started out as a minority-created medium. How did we get from that to where we are now?
Jamie: Assimilation. Jewish was considered a minority before WWII, but these days it’s just another variation on “white.” They look like cis white hetero guys so can easily step into the paradigm and look like they fit all along.
Following on from that, I think we can all agree that there’s a dearth of non-straight-white-male creators in comics, at least in big-name companies. What can companies do to redress this balance, and what can consumers do to support that? And what can creators in those non-straight-white-male demographics do in the meantime?
Arturo: Top Cow’s new Talent Hunt strikes me as a good attempt to at least get more diverse voices into the creative pipeline. The great Hannibal Tabu, for instance, was one of the winners. And best-case scenario, it’s at least getting people’s work out there.
Another thing companies can do is promote their characters of color to their actual communities. Like, if Marvel had done a push for Miles Morales on the Latino networks, that might have attracted not just new readers from a demographic with rising financial clout, but it could have led more artists and writers to start thinking about Marvel–and by extension, comics–as a potential outlet.
From some stories I’ve heard at panels, creators of color and white creators who want to enrich their companies’ universes are already facing an uphill battle, since they’re pitching to a management structure that both caters to xenophobic elements and regards those of us who actually support more diverse character line-ups as “haters.” So I think it behooves us as fans and people who cover these issues to keep speaking up, on top of supporting works giving characters of color equity when we can.
Jamie: Oh, that is a toughie. Because the companies, even if they care or want to address the imbalance, also have to worry about the “concerned” groups who think that by including LGBTQ characters, the comics therefore “expose their children to filth.” They’re always going to do what they think affects the bottom line of keeping the profits rolling in. And with cis white people being freaked out about not being the majority in the US anymore, that reaction is only going to keep getting worse. When Miles Morales was introduced, people were actually commenting, “White children won’t have any heroes left to look up to anymore!”
DC’s “talent search” in which they wanted artists to draw Harley Quinn naked in a bathtub with toasters, humorously attempting suicide, does not help at all. But what did help was that that went viral on social media. DC tried to whistle past the graveyard until they couldn’t anymore, and then they had to apologize. They haven’t really apologized about Batwoman yet, that I know of. So social media isn’t quite the juggernaut we hope for yet.
Tali: Companies need to accept that the demographic is changing. They need to understand that the folks that buy their books, watch their animated programs, purchase their expensive merchandise and head to the theaters to watch their films, are not just white straight males. They need to get with the program or else they’ll fall behind. They need to be leaders and not followers and stop being afraid of the racist, misogynist, homophobic groups. They need to change the culture in their workplaces that hinders diversity. They need to really start hiring minorities who are qualified to write, draw, etc — there’s a lot of them out there!
We consumers need to speak out and with our voices, keyboards, and money and let the companies what we want and what we won’t stand for. We need to spread the word about the awesome creators in communities.
Mai: Jumping off from what Arturo and Jamie are saying, I think it’s very important for consumers to speak up, both to make noise about what we like, and let these companies know that we are part of the audience, and the retrogressive whiners don’t represent all of us. That said, the onus is on the companies to reach out, and if they don’t…
Speaking of racism, misogyny, and homophobia: is there a different “threat level” for majority readers when they’re confronted with a non-straight-white-male creator (Dwayne McDuffie, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Lea Hernandez) vs. a non-straight-white-male character (Miles Morales)? What about non-straight-white-male creators working on non-straight-white-male characters – e.g., Reginald Hudlin on Black Panther, or Marjorie Liu on the various team members of Astonishing X-Men? Tali, feel free to share any firsthand experiences or anecdotes from the creator’s side of things.
Mai: As far as creators go, I think straight, white cis women (and gay, white, cis men) are generally considered pretty safe, though not as safe as straight, white, cis men. Straight, black, cis men are scary, and everyone else just falls below the radar. Obviously it depends on the individual reader, but that’s my gut reaction based on how much pushback different creators get from troglodytes on the internet.
Arturo: I’d suggest that the “threat level” is about the same, depending on the individual reader’s prejudices. But the difference is, an actual person can (hopefully) be able to erode that through their work. One of the best moments I’ve ever witnessed at SDCC was a young white woman expressing her gratitude to McDuffie for his work on Ben 10. She was in full cosplay and just so much a fan of the man, that I can’t help but hope that kind of acceptance rubs off on her in her general worldview and that she can feel free to be as supportive of other non-white creators. McDuffie’s role in the development of the DCAU is also rightly recognized. I think DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel has the potential to be as much of a game-changer, especially given Marvel’s investment in Carol Danvers.
Tali: I’m a newbie creator and I haven’t had much experience with this (I may in the future), but I think some folks are more accepting of anything white and if it’s not white they get up in arms (especially if it’s black). Hopefully, though, things will get better.
Jamie: I’m in agreement with Arturo. I’ve seen people who are white cosplay as characters of color. But I also see, every day on Tumblr, heaps of hate piled on characters of diverse ethnicity who are getting love and making great accomplishments in the universe of the show. Like for example, Abbie on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is getting a lot of hate because people fear her getting romantically involved with white Ichabod. And Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gave us Centipede and all of his life problems to explain why Mike Peterson was so upset, but it was pretty much a light sugaring over the old Angry Black Man trope.
Tali, your point raises another question: are there certain minorities or minority combinations that readers find more threatening than others? Would white readers (for instance) be more upset by a black protagonist than an Asian one?
Tali: Unfortunately, some would. Some folks are more accepting of other minorities (and these groups are also treated badly) than they are of black people. The darker your skin the more likely you’re at the bottom of the totem pole and you’re hated for it. And that’s all over the world. I mean look at how people responded to seeing Rue on the big screen from The Hunger Games despite that in the books she’s described as being black.
Jamie: In the current climate? Yes. As little as 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been this bad. In the 90s, we had Steel wearing Superman’s “S” (Shaq even got a movie–a terrible movie–out of it) and there wasn’t nearly the beating of the chest and the outpouring of tears as there was over Miles Morales as Ultimate Spider-Man. In fact, Doc Ock as the 616 Spider-Man didn’t get nearly as much histrionic reaction as Miles did. It’s the climate. White people are not feeling like “equality” is happening. They feel like “US LOSING OUR POSITION ON TOP OF THE HEAP” is happening, and that’s generating a lot of vitriol and hostility. So black protagonists would be seen as a takedown.
Mai: Racial bigotry in the US is very polarized around white/black lines. That doesn’t mean other non-white groups don’t experience racial oppression, but there is a hierarchy and black people are at the bottom of it. On the flip side, Asians are often seen as a “safe” minority thanks to the model minority stereotype, so yes, I think an Asian protagonist might be better received by many readers. On the other hand, there’s a perception among bigots that Asian Americans are “forever foreigners” in ways that black Americans usually aren’t (“where are you from?” etc) and thus impossible to relate with, so it depends a lot on context.
Given the state of affairs you’ve all outlined–very accurately, I think–will we ever see another publishing phenomenon like Milestone, i.e. a mainstream or mainstream-company-owned comics imprint where minority creators can write freely about minority characters? Or is this now the territory of independent comics?
Arturo: Since we’re in a time where comics are seemingly positioned first and foremost as IP repositories for TV and movie franchises–again, catering to a white cis-heteromale demo–I think that day is done. It’s going to take an outside player or an independent collaborative to make that kind of universe live again.
Which, by the way, opens up a huge weakness for anybody willing to exploit it. If, say, Univision decided to create its own comics imprint and threw its promotional machine behind it, watch out. You could argue that the same scenario could play out once Robert Rodríguez’s El Rey network gets off the ground — more so, in fact, since Rodriguez’s fanbase also draws from the white bro population. Would you bet against a Machete comic book?
Jamie: I’d love to see it happen again, but even when it wasn’t Milestone, those creator-owned sub-companies don’t seem to hold up. Epic. Milestone. Marvel Now. Vertigo is the only one that seems to have staying power. It would take backing from some big gun names to have a shot. Spike Lee. Eddie Murphy, or Arsenio Hall. Or as much as I hate to say it, Tyler Perry (whose works tend to embody negative stereotypes about PoC). And this is in a time when George Lucas had a hard time getting Red Tails greenlighted because it was an all-black-heroes film.
Arturo: If you ever want to shut a Star Wars fan up, ask them why they didn’t go see Red Tails when Lucas called it his Episode VII.
Mai: I agree with Arturo. If it happens again, the push is going to come from outside comics, not within.
Tali: What everyone said. They told us to make our own, so we’re making our own and eventually we’re gonna take that money you all been making too!
Vertigo has undergone some serious shakeups recently, though, with the departure of Karen Berger, the end of Hellblazer (and John Constantine’s transition to the main DCU), etc. I do wonder whether a series like Scalped, which deals with issues of stereotyping, subverts national/racial myth, and features Native American protagonists almost exclusively, would be possible at Vertigo now.
Jamie: Hope it’s not called “Scalped.” That myth was a white construct to prove how “savage” the natives were.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of comics’ attitudes toward–and portrayals of–race and gender?
Arturo: It’s really still in the balance, from what I can see. Now more than ever, comics companies and creators can’t deny that there are fanbases out there who aren’t in the white de-brographic and want to see more characters who aren’t white bros. How much longer can they afford to not open up their offerings to reflect that? As I mentioned earlier, all it would take right now is one well-connected outside player to undermine the industry both financially and critically.
Jamie: I try to stay hopeful, but honestly, we’re only about 30-40 years from when the creators of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes did not include black people because in their vision of the future, the black people were gone, having chosen to leave and live together on an island. We’re living in a time now where all the multiple white ethnicities get their own month, and Black History Month as if there’s only one type of black people. We have a Filipino X-Man codenamed “Goldballs”, an African one codenamed “Oya” and a Latino one codenamed “Hijack”. And these codenames are treated as if they’re clever and edgy rather than racist and carrying really negative messages that propagate stereotypes.
It might take a good long time for us to progress enough to get real diversity and not “look, a minority, a marginalized group, happy now?!”
Then again, we live in an age where Pacific Rim, with a PoC female protagonist and a PoC mentor, is the highest grossing original sci-fi film of 2013. We live in an age where Legend of Korra, for all that it still has work to do to be less problematic, is a popular show on Nickelodeon. And Sleepy Hollow with its female protagonist is also being well received. So for all the looming shadows, there’s hope.
Tali: I hope that things will get better, that folks will understand not to put groups of people in a box or look at them with a narrow tunnel vision. I hope that we’ll see more diversity that involves great storytelling with no stereotypical BS. That fans of all different colors, genders, and sexual backgrounds will be represented in the comics, films, merchandise, and TV shows that they watch and buy. And that companies will hire minorities (example: Marvel hasn’t had a black woman writer ever and DC has had about two in their history) and change the culture of their bullpens/workplaces.
Mai: I try to be hopeful, and to keep track of well-written mainstream titles featuring diverse characters (thanks for pushing me towards Fearless Defenders, Jamie!) — but there is a reason most of the comics landing in my Comixology cart and Amazon wishlist recently have been indie titles, and that I’m watching more superhero cartoons than I’m reading superhero comics.
And with that, our first (but by no means last) roundtable on race and gender draws to a close. Many thanks to Mai, Jamie, Arturo, and Tali for taking part!