Race in DC’s Middle Grade and Young Adult Comics

Cropped covers left to right: Cabot and McGee’s Black Canary: Ignite, Nijkamp and Preitano’s The Oracle Code, Lê and Tong’s Green Lantern: Legacy, and Kuhn and Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl

Over the last two years, DC Comics has released more than a dozen titles geared towards children and teenagers, many of which are written by women and feature, as leading characters, girls. However, although a number of these books have people of color on their creative teams, whether as writers or artists, most feature white protagonists.

Covers left to right: Cabot and McGee’s Black Canary: Ignite, Nijkamp and Preitano’s The Oracle Code, Lê and Tong’s Green Lantern: Legacy, and Kuhn and Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl

Characters like Dinah Lance (Black Canary) and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle), who first appeared in 1947 and 1967/1989, headline titles like Black Canary: Ignite (2019) and The Oracle Code (2020) by YA novelists Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) and Marieke Nijkamp (This Is Where It Ends) and comics artists Cara McGee (Dodge City) and Manuel Preitano (Destiny, NY).

In Cabot and McGee’s Ignite, Dinah is reimagined as a middle school student who is just coming into powers inherited from her mother and eager to follow her father’s footsteps as a police officer. She’s in a band with friends Kat Van Dorn and Vee Ramirez (Vee’s last name isn’t used within the sequential art and does not appear until an information page in the back of the book). In contrast to Dinah, who is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and her parents, the ethnically ambiguous Kat and likely Latina Vee could both be people of color, appearing at times nearly identical in skin tone with dark eyes and, respectively, purple and pink hair. These characters and unnamed background characters of color (including a girl in a hijab, which I’ll circle back to) are meant to make a book about a white character more “diverse,” but their presence, although well-intentioned, affirms their marginalization. Beyond their names, if they have them (and if they are used), and the way they look, the reader learns very little about these characters. This story is not about them.

Panel from Meg Cabot and Cara McGee’s Black Canary: Ignite depicting left to right Kat Van Dorn, Dinah Lance, and Vee Ramirez
Panel from Meg Cabot and Cara McGee’s Black Canary: Ignite depicting left to right Kat Van Dorn, Dinah Lance, and Vee Ramirez

And the stories in Lauren Myracle and Isaac Goodhart’s Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale and Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo’s Teen Titans: Raven, both published in 2019, are not about girls of color like Briar Rose (not the Disney princess) or Maxine “Max” Navarro. Moreover, the limited color palettes of Under the Moon and Raven and Danielle Paige and Stephen Byrne’s Mera: Tidebreaker, which has a similar style, do a disservice to their characters of color. Whereas whiteness is either emphasized or unaffected in the artwork of each book, non-white skin tones in Raven and Tidebreaker are made apparent through, respectively, grays (sometimes browns) and greens. These stories are not about the characters of color; they are about Selina Kyle, Rachel “Raven” Roth, and Princess Mera. In the DC canon, these women — not girls — are often peripheral to men, whether Bruce Wayne (Batman), the majority male membership of the Teen Titans, or Arthur Curry (Aquaman), but in these middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) books, they are centered. So, too, are their gender and racial identities centered. These comics are about white girls.

Likewise, Nijkamp and Preitano’s The Oracle Code is about Barbara “Babs” Gordon, and it reimagines her Oracle origin story. After being in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time,” a teenaged Barbara is checked into the Arkham Center for Independence (ACI), a residential rehabilitation clinic. There, she meets Yeong and Issy. Yeong is Asian and Issy is Black, and both, like Barbara, are disabled. Yeong, Issy, and background characters like the unnamed Black and hijabi (not an ethnic or racial identity but a religious one with racial[ized] connotations) counselors who work with ACI residents, like the characters of color in Ignite, are meant to make the book more diverse, but, again, they are not the focus of the story. Yeong and Issy advance Barbara’s narrative. By centering white girls, girls of color like them are marginalized.

Panels from Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano’s The Oracle Code depicting Issy and Yeong above Barbara Gordon
Panels from Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano’s The Oracle Code depicting Issy and Yeong above Barbara Gordon

More recent MG/YA publications, both published in 2020, Green Lantern: Legacy by writer Minh Lê and artist Andie Tong and Shadow of the Batgirl by writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux, feature characters of color. Like Cabot and Nijkamp, Shadow’s writer, Kuhn (Heroine Complex), is a YA novelist. Like Cassandra “Cass” Cain, Shadow’s protagonist, she’s a mixed-race (Kuhn uses “biracial” to describe herself and Cass in her intro) Asian American. In the comic, Kuhn and Goux give Cass Cain an origin story suitable for an all ages audience.

Image from Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl depicting Jacqueline Fujikawa Yoneyama, Cassandra “Cass” Cain, and Barbara Gordon
Image from Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl depicting Jacqueline Fujikawa Yoneyama, Cassandra “Cass” Cain, and Barbara Gordon

And it’s a great story. Kuhn and Goux introduce Jacqueline Fujikawa Yoneyama, an older, Asian American woman, as a mentor for Cass alongside a young (but older than Cass) Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl. Together, these women, with Cass’s mixed-race love interest, help Cass become Batgirl. While this ensemble is diverse, it is not diverse for the sake of supporting a white protagonist. Neither is the cast of Green Lantern: Legacy.

In Legacy, Vietnamese American teen Tai Pham inherits a Green Lantern ring from his grandmother, Kim Tran. Lê (who, like Tai, is Vietnamese American) and Tong change Green Lantern canon, making Tran a mentor to John Stewart, who, while remaining the first Black Green Lantern, would otherwise be the first Green Lantern of color. It also makes Tran the first human woman to become a Green Lantern instead of Jessica Cruz. While centering newly created immigrant and first generation Asian American characters, sometimes at the expense of existing characters of color, Legacy fails to address the Orientalist origins of the Green Lantern narrative, despite using Alan Scott’s costume as an Easter egg. Scott’s first appearance, in 1940’s All-American Comics #16, traces the origins of the green lantern from which the hero takes his name back to China, where the meteorite used to make the lamp-turned-lantern lands near a village populated by characters whose bodies are colored in the same yellow as Scott’s hair. This, however, would be a lot to expect a MG title to take on, and it is not, for me, the Achilles heel of Legacy.

That’s Hamid. In Tai’s immediate circle of friends are Serena and Tommy. Together, they represent three major racial groups in the United States: Asian, Black, and white. Hamid isn’t quite any of these things. He’s Muslim, which, again, is not an ethnic or racial identity. The reader knows that Hamid is Muslim because his name is Arabic, his skin is a shade of brown, and his mom wears a hijab when Tai, Serena, and Tommy visit him at home. In one page at the end of the book, Legacy engages in two tropes that are not uncommon in comics: “mom wears the hijab in the family” and “mom wears the hijab in the home.”

Page from Minh Lê and Andie Tong’s Green Lantern Legacy depicting Hamid’s family at the kitchen table, together responding to knocking on the door, and his mom opening the door.
Page from Minh Lê and Andie Tong’s Green Lantern Legacy depicting Hamid’s family at the kitchen table, together responding to knocking on the door, and his mom opening the door.

“Mom wears the hijab in the family” describes the instances in which a character’s mother (or sister, other relative, or close friend) wears a hijab in order to signal to the reader that the (often, but not always, male) character in question is Muslim. This trope also occurs in Green Lantern comics featuring Simon Baz and in Marvel’s Ms. Marvel. “Mom wears the hijab in the home” describes the instances in which a character’s mother wears a hijab while at home. Typically, a hijab is worn outside of the home when in the company of strangers, not within the home unless there are unrelated male guests present. While it would not be unusual for Hamid’s mother to put on her hijab to answer the door, it is unlikely that one would find her already wearing it when unexpected guests knock on the door. These tropes along with the unnamed hijabis in Black Canary: Ignite and The Oracle Code demonstrate that, while considerable progress has been made in including characters of color in MG and YA comics, there is still progress to be made in representing characters of color and other marginalized identities, even when stories are centered on them.

And the stories that center on white girls should still introduce supporting characters of color, but these characters — especially the girls of color — should be given names and interests and lives that are distinct from those of their white friends. It isn’t enough to put characters of color in these comics, which are meant to bring in girls as readers, if they’re more plot device than person. It isn’t enough to treat the stories of white girls as if they have some universal appeal. Representation demands specificity. Shadow of the Batgirl and Green Lantern: Legacy benefit from the ways in which their creators identify with their protagonists. And so do their readers.

2 thoughts on “Race in DC’s Middle Grade and Young Adult Comics

  1. The dry academic language was a turn off. This article was more just a count rather than analysis until it got to discussing Green Lantern Legacy.

    I consider these books AUs, so I’m surprised when they include canon DC characters. I wish there was more discussion of representation in these books.

    1. Thanks for reading! The majority of DC’s MG and YA titles feature pre-existing characters, including but not limited to: Dinah Lance, Barbara Gordon, Rachel Roth, Selina Kyle, Princess Mera, Cass Cain (all of whom I at least mention in this article), Diana Prince (I wrote about Tempest Tossed elsewhere if you’d like more analysis), Bruce Wayne, Harley Quinn, Zatanna Zatara, Dick Grayson, and Lois Lane. The books that introduce new characters, like Green Lantern: Legacy, are in the minority. These comics are DC books with DC characters.

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