The Responsibility of Comic Creators to Address Diversity Needs: Minorities, LGBTQ, Religion and the X-Men Gold Controversy

Posted on April 23, 2017

A friend of mine recently posed the question:  What responsibility, if any, do comic book creators or companies have to going along with or challenge societal issues? In other words, should comics be involved in the issues of the day, including those of race, sexuality, religion or politics? Or is a comic’s only function to tell a good and entertaining story.

To answer this question, I think it is important to look at early comic books and how they functioned.  In the early days the comic books reflected who was writing them.  The creators of Superman were geeky white guys.  One theory is they hoped to gain popularity from their super creation.  However, Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, lost his father at the age of 17 during an armed robbery.  His father was shot and killed.  So it is no wonder he created a bulletproof superhero.

Unfortunately, because many early creators were white, male, cartoonists, the early superhero lineup rarely included black, Asian, or Latino heroes.  They also rarely included women.  If the comic did include women, they were delegated to the roll of sidekick (Kitten in AC comics) or “damsel in distress”(Lois Lane).  There are some exceptions to that rule, and most would look to Wonder Woman as a prime example of strong early leading lady in the comic industry.   But most early comics, woman were lesser characters that were partners to male characters, or the captives of villains that male heroes needed to save.

Some sidekicks eventually stood out and gained their own series.  As they gained notoriety, these women gained depth and purpose within their story lines.  Black Canary is one such character that broke out of a sidekick only roll. She has gone thru some changes since the beginning but she has held the test of time and was never just a partner once she became a comic main stay.  Hawkgirl, although just a sidekick, was just as tough as her partner Hawkman.  Sheena was a survivor of the Jungle.  Black Widow became an early mainstay of the Avengers universe (only after she was rescued by Hawkeye) and then eventually joined Shield and the Avengers roster.  One of the founding members of the Avengers was the Wasp(Janet Vandyne), wife of Ant Man/Giant Man/Hank Pym.  But these women characters still had to earn that right of passage after enduring countless issues of being a sidekick, loyal wife, or “damsel in distress”.  Aside from Wonder woman, these characters were rarely created for their own story to be told.  They were accessory to a male driven story line.

It is clear by the early 1960’s the comic book creators were aware of gender-driven societal changes. Adding women to the superhero rosters was a reactionary move by the comic industry to helped keep complaints to a minimum while also reaching out a small hand to potential female readers. By the end of the 1960’s, the demographic of comic subscribers also shifted.  Comics had to change with it.

One of my favorite stories about the comic industry is that of The Falcon.  Marvel was receiving complaints that there were no black characters.  The roster was VERY white;  Captain America, Hawkeye, Giant Man, Wasp, Black Widow, Thor;  even their Green hero The Incredible Hulk, had a white man as his origin.  Iron Man’s identity was still unknown, but if a reader saw him as a white guy then you had an all white cast.  Captain America addresses this in Avengers comics.  In the comic, there are protests going on about equality.  The panels show people demanding racial equality within the Avengers.  The Falcon is a direct result of these complaints (both real and paneled).  Cap and Falcon teamed up and became an amazing duo, even close friends.  What is cool about this story is that it came out during the peak of Jim Crow.  Blacks and whites were not working together across the country at the time of the comic’s release.  So although Marvel’s creation of The Falcon was reactionary to criticism, their lack of segregation was an unspoken challenge to society.  If Cap and Falcon could work together, so could America.

This led to a little more diversity over the next few years;  Black Panther came along, Black Goliath, Rage, and a few others.  These were all the result of the changing times, the change in attitudes and the change in readers.

But Marvel was not alone in their shifting attitude towards minorities.  DC also moved to diversity. Their big group has always been The Justice League.  They were also mostly white early on: Aquaman, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and then Martian Manhunter. Of course Manhunter is green- and an alien- so he really didn’t count, but he also did not address the lack of real minority representation.  Technically Superman should not have counted either but since his skin is white he is clearly NOT a minority.  So what did DC comics do when confronted with the same issues that Marvel faced?  They created the Justice League international (JLI).  They pull Martian Manhunter from the normal Justice League lineup and they added another (white) Green Lantern (Guy Gardner) as well as the first Latino characters, Fire and Ice (Brazilian women who had powers just like they sound). They also added Rocket Red, a (white) Russian and they added Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, both white guys.  They were trying.  Sort of.  By this time there was a new GL on the Justice League roster, an ex-marine John Stewart who happened to be black but this was really just a small compromise.   It still takes a while for the JLA to add more diversity.  They responded much slower than Marvel did at the time.  Eventually they added Vibe (latino),  then Cyborg (black), Vixen (black/female) and a few others.  DC comics has arguably had a harder time diversifying than Marvel. DC has done well even without the changes.  They have had several characters who represent the LGBTQ community, like Detective Montoya, a lesbian character, who later becomes the Question as well as the current Batwoman.  They have had a few homosexual men as well, including Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern.  These character’s stories are not driven by their sexuality.  It is just an aspect of who they are.  Just like real people, their sexuality isn’t the only driving force.  DC has done well properly representing the LGBTQ community, but there is always room for more improvement.

In the new ‘52’ which rebooted the DC Universe back in 2011, we saw a new lineup and we saw some new diversity.  Two new Green Lanterns emerged, one is a Muslim Man named Simon Baz who was in prison when recruited and Jessica Cruz, a shy agoraphobic Latina woman.  They are forced to share a lantern to power their rings so they had to learn to work together.  The current Rebirth series shows these two as well as ‘Kid Flash’ who, like the current TV show, is black and was historically a white kid. There are some good changes and some great ways that DC comics has been improving diversity within their line up, but everything they have been doing is fairly uncontroversial.   They are making the changes needed to keep current with changing demographics and that is all.

 

Marvel comics has stepped up their game in a significantly different way though, and it has created a lot of controversy.  In 2012, one of the X-Men, Northstar,  married his boyfriend  in issue 51 of Astonishing X-Men.  At this point in time, Gay Marriage was still illegal in most of the United States, and the Federal appellate courts were hearing multiple cases about Gay Marriage that all had the potential to end up in the Supreme Court. The homosexual union in the X-Men comic really got the discussion of diversity started again.  But Marvel didn’t care if including gay marriage made fans angry.  They knew these groups needed representation too, and they also knew the LGBTQ community buys comics, too.

Now, Marvel has diversified by gender and race, too.  The current ‘Thor’ is a woman, granted access to Mjolnir after Thor lost his access to it in Original Sin.  The new Captain America is Sam Wilson, The Falcon.  The woman who is now Ms.  Marvel (Not to be confused with Captain Marvel) is a Muslim kid named Kamala Khan and the new ‘Iron Man’ is a young black girl named Riri Williams, a super genius that Tony Stark hand-picked to take over for him.  In the Ultimate Marvel universe the death of Peter Parker spawned a new Spider-Man named Miles Morales, a mixed Latino kid with great responsibility.   There is a new ‘Ms America’ named America Chavez, a Latina lesbian, that can flip between dimensions and is part of at least three teams in the Marvel Universe.  Marvel created an all Female force comic called ‘A-Force’ that took She-Hulk, Crystal from the Inhumans, Captain Marvel and a few others defending the world against all kinds of threats.  The list of female Marvel characters goes on and on, most with their own books like Hawkeye (Kate Bishop) or Stature (the daughter of Scott Lang who happens to be a Giant Woman).   But the creation of many of these newly diversified characters has also created controversy.  Many fans think diverse characters deserve their own new character creation.  Some fans want to see a Muslim playing a character created for a Muslim to play, rather than picking up the mantle of a formerly white character.

And in general, I would agree.  I think it is important to for the cultures and values of these minority groups to be represented, and I am sure minority authors and creators can think of relevant cultural traditions and beliefs that would lead the creation of superheroes.  But I also love how Marvel has integrated Kamala Khan’s home life and culture into the new Ms. Marvel books.  I think it is important for culture to be represented, and as long as Marvel keeps doing this well and honestly, I know the diversity will continue to grow across new titles.

Our tolerance and understanding for others in the outside world makes the comic writing community follow suit and make comics that reflect these changes in society.  But comics also are now bringing the change when society is very divided about these changes. Turn on the news any day and it seems half the country wants to limit minority rights and the other half wants to expand them.

Currently there are lots of comics with homosexual characters like DC’s Midnighter and Apollo from the Authority but there are lesser known characters from other comic book companies like Image, Dark Horse and many others.  There are transsexual writers and artists making their own books and talking about their issues thru the comic book art form.  As a community and a culture, the comic book industry has grown and changed to meet the needs of its customers and the world around us but the question remains: do these comic book creators and companies have a responsibility to keep up with the way that society grows and changes?  And more importantly, is it responsibly to be the voice of that change when the country is so split on these issues?

As an avid reader and someone who is tired of rampant racism and hate I am all for the changes that comic book companies are making today, advancing the art form and keeping up with what society wants.  Social change isn’t easy and it’s made more difficult by hate groups but when change is everywhere around you, when you see change in magazines, advertising and even in comic books, the change can really gain momentum, it ceases to be just change and becomes what we see as the “new normal”.  When The Falcon was created, a black super hero was new and novel; but now many comics have black characters headlining their own books, and (most) fans don’t bat an eye at it.  It is the new normal.  So although there is controversy over the inclusion of homosexuals and Muslims, this too (I hope) will become a new normal.

But sometimes a comic artist takes things too far when challenging or drawing attention to social change.  This is what happened in the X-Men Gold.

In X-Men Gold, the artist used his platform to create image based symbolic protest against a new political leader in his home country.  Comics have been used to draw attention to issues through protest in the past, but this was received very differently.  The artist used images to bring attention to passages in the Quran, and to label mutants with (what could be perceived as) anti-Semitic symbolism.  Marvel decided that this particular artists actions went too far in the spirit of protest.

So, although comics have in the past address social change, and even pushed for those changes in some instances, the parent companies do not want to be the voice of change in a way that alienates  any part of its fan base.   That is a hard line to walk.  But the walk is worth it if it means more diversity, more people buying comics, and more people feeling represented in mainstream entertainment.

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