Diversity in Comics: Voting With Your Dollars

Diversity in comics, both on the page and amongst those creating them, has been at the forefront of comics journalism for the past several years. Highly visible, successful comics that feature diverse subjects and creators have provided hopeful signs of change. Image’s Saga features a woman of color as co-lead, and was co-created by artist Fiona Staples. Ms. Marvel accomplished many milestones by being the first Pakistani-American Muslim female led superhero title and is written by a Muslim woman, G. Willow Wilson.

But without fail, every few months a new story emerges that reminds us of the progress yet to be made. Whether that means realizing just how few women and people of color are currently being employed by the largest comic publishers or seeing another female led title get canceled (RIP Elektra, She-Hulk), progress is just that: diversity under-construction. DC, it should be acknowledged, is doing slightly better than Marvel on hiring more women recently, though both companies have few minorities, especially when it comes to black creators. The only endless debate between “the Big Two” that is worth paying attention to these days isn’t about film release dates or the largest market share; it’s who has the most diverse content and staff. 

Marvel has made a strong push in the last year to release more female-led solo titles, and to a lesser extent, feature more people of color; but many titles have struggled to maintain sales strong enough to support ongoing status. She-Hulk, Elektra, and Iron Patriot have all been canceled / announced as ending in the past year due to low sales. A campaign by Storm fans aims to keep that title from also being canceled, a move motivated by its comparatively low sales. Despite its active and vocal fanbase in the Carol Corps, Captain Marvel continues its downward trend even with a recent relaunch to bring in new readers. Many speculate this title is being kept around after the announcement of a Captain Marvel movie, but Black Widow being in numerous Marvel film properties didn’t stop Marvel’s last attempt at an ongoing series from getting cancelled (that run, by writer Marjorie M. Liu and artist Daniel Acuna, is excellent by the way). There are two more female led titles coming to Marvel soon; Squirrel Girl has launched this month, with a Spider-Gwen title to follow in February. But fans, jaded by the numerous cancellations, may feel wary of investing in what may ultimately end up being mini series. 

While Marvel’s recent tactic seems to be “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” DC has invested most of their energies in maintaining their proven popular female characters, including Batgirl, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman. These characters have  maintained ongoing titles for the last several years, but few newer entries have lasted. Like Marvel, DC responds accordingly to low sales numbers regardless of past popularity, as evidenced by the recent cancellation of Batwoman. The once fan favorite has seen a huge drop in sales following an unsteady run of new creative teams. Voodoo, a title featuring a black female lead, and one of the original Nu52 books, was also one of the first to be canceled. Gail Simone’s recent title The Movement featured a very diverse cast but only lasted a year. Gotham Academy is the newest release from DC to feature women, and it achieved moderate sales in its October debut just shy of 50,000 copies (anything less than 30,000 is considered not healthy by Big Two standards). Harley Quinn continues to be a top seller for DC with veteran creators Jimmy  Palmiotti and Amanda Conner at the helm.

Twenty-three out of the roughly forty ongoing titles I subscribe to monthly focus primarily on female leads or ensembles. When looking at the number of comics I read that feature minorities, only about nine feature people of color (the number falls to a pitifully low three without counting ensemble cast characters).

It’s a lot easier to talk about diversity amongst fictional characters, but it gets a little dicier when it comes to diversity amongst creators. For one thing, I can’t say with certainty that I know the ethnicity of the creators behind the titles I buy. There are several creators who I follow closely, such as Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and Matt Fraction. Looking down my list of ongoing monthly books, I don’t think there is a single title written or drawn by a person of color. Go diversity?

When I see a new title featuring a female character or creator, I’m like, “I should check this out.” A new title like Bitch Planet pings all of my interests: female POC characters, unabashedly feminist themes, with Kelly Sue Deconnick as writer. Sign me up! But if it’s not something I thoroughly enjoy after two or three issues, I probably won’t keep picking it up. I believe everyone should support the content they’d like to see more of. But buying a book that doesn’t meet your personal needs for quality and taste still gives a stamp of approval to the content, despite its particular shortcomings. You can begrudgingly support it in hopes of getting better portrayals in the future, but that disclaimer won’t make its way to publishers.

Without direct dialog between consumers, retailers, and publishers about why you are buying a book, your purchase does send one message: more of this. Problematic depictions of women and minorities might be better than nothing, but they’re not a long term solution to improving diversity, especially if readers continue to support titles about women and minorities made primarily by white men — and gratefully. Unlike other media such as films or books where the content is a one off product, the serial nature of comics requires dedicated, long term sales to prove viability in the market. I don’t have the kind of cash to throw around on books for which I have lukewarm feelings, and frankly I want better. 

I’m not a part of the Carol Corp. I don’t read Lumberjanes. I dropped Elektra and Black Widow after three issues each. Does that mean I don’t want more female characters? Of course not, and my pull list suggests otherwise. Women who read comics are not a monolith of taste, and there is no book out there that can attribute its success or failure entirely to whether women liked it or not. Women like lots of things, and that’s about the only broadly held truth that creators, publishers, and fans should accept and demand in content.

Buying more books by and about women is relatively easy these days, but supporting emerging minority creators requires more legwork on the part of consumers and retailers, and that is one area I have failed. I doubt any creator wants you buying their book just because they are a minority, woman, trans, queer, etc. But when the largest publishers hire outside of their overwhelmingly white, straight, male stable of creators, that is (at the moment) very important and worthy of support. When it comes to giving those books and creators a chance, being ignorant of the identity of creators beyond gender is a get-out-of-jail-free card for many readers. “I read what I like! It doesn’t matter who is making it! I sure wish there were more non-white non-male creators!” Knowing the majority of titles you read are made by white dudes makes it hard to say that last part.

The quiet victories of big publishers hiring more diverse creators do not come with press releases. Readers and retailers need to pay attention and know minority creators before (and so) they gain wider recognition. That’s where the legwork comes into play, and lucky for readers, there are a few people in the comics community making it easier than ever to discover underrepresented voices. Creator MariNaomi recently discussed such efforts with WWAC’s own Editor-in-chief Megan Purdy. MariNaomi has spearheaded the creation of two databases, the Cartoonists of Color Database and the LGBTQ Cartoonist Database. You can easily spend days scrolling through these listings, exploring websites and becoming more familiar with a group of creators that might not be on your radar. The Ormes Society, named after the first African American female cartoonist Jackie Ormes, is dedicated to promoting black female creators. Queer-girl centric website Autostraddle may cover a wide range of topics, but they frequently highlight queer and trans women comic creators (their recent list of creators to support during the Holigay Season was fantastic). 

Finding creators to support directly via crowdfunding and Patreon is the most effective way to ensure that more minority voices are heard in comics. Projects that might otherwise be a hard sell to a mainstream publisher can go directly to their audience for support. This is so commonplace nowadays that it is easy to lose appreciation for its effect: crowdfunding is a massive benefit to the diversification of the comics community in both content and creators. Smut Peddler, an anthology that features a diverse group of creators and sexually explicit content, only exists because its creators were able to bypass jittery publishers entirely through crowdfunding. There was no need to question whether enough brick and mortar stores would feel comfortable carrying Smut Peddler, because it found its audience before going to print. Erika Moen continues to make Oh Joy, Sex Toy with help from generous Patreon contributors. Want to support a comic anthology created by and about North American indigenous people? Here’s a Kickstarter for you. Tired of another Sherlock Holmes adaptation featuring white men? Try Watson & Holmes instead. The beauty of supporting creators directly is that there is no clearer message you can send as a consumer. You want the thing? You pay for the thing. No publisher is guessing why. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the above outlined examples of comics created by minority and queer creators, feature topics and characters that are themselves underrepresented. I want to see more of the other in comics; more books with challenging topics and rarely told stories on the shelves of comic stores. Finding these books isn’t a challenge for the people seeking them out. But I want it to be easy for anyone who walks into a comic shop to pick up a book, not knowing who is making it, and find themselves on the other side of a new perspective. Stories informed by the experiences of minorities, women, and LGBTQ creators are definitely out there, but it is more work than it should be to find them in mainstream comic retail outlets. Changing that means committing to awareness of who is making the books you read and finding more shelves from which to choose. Whether you read fiction for escape or enlightenment, stories about and by those from a different background than you will no doubt satisfy your desire for discovery. I’ll spend money on those comics any day.

Megan Byrd

Megan Byrd

Megan is a Chicago based professional photographer by day and a comic book blogger by nights and weekends at comicbookcandy.com. As a former comic book retail employee, Megan writes about the industry with an insider perspective. Megan still moderates a monthly Ladies’ Night event at Graham Crackers Comics in downtown Chicago, and is editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Night Anthology.