There's no question the world of superhero comics is more diverse than it was 20 years ago, but the effort hasn't been without struggle.
And despite the best effort of creators and publishers, the most popular characters continue to be a slate of white men.
The best example of the phenomenon is the upcoming Avengers film, where Black Widow will be the one white female Avenger in a team dominated by white male heroes like Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk and Captain America.
But it's not just an Avengers problem. "If you look at all DC's major characters, the big seven of the Justice League, they’re all white men with the exception of Wonder Woman, who’s a white gal," said Judd Winick, who writes for DC Comics. "We don’t really have many people of color who are considered a major character."
Both Marvel and DC have recently attempted to focus upon diversity -- highlighted in particular by a 2006 New York Times article announcing the introduction of DC's lesbian character Batwoman and promoting the marriage of Marvel's African-American heroes Storm and Black Panther.
But when publishers announced they were making efforts to introduce diversity, the reaction from fans wasn't exactly positive.
"I was stunned when the Times article came out with the reaction of a lot of people on the web. They were saying, 'oh, so they have to teach us how to be proper people or not be racist,'" Winick said. "How do you get that from that story? How do you possibly get something you should be offended by or you know, be defensive about because a comic publisher is trying to diversify its universe? They’re not trying to teach you lessons. They’re just trying to reflect the world that we live in in a greater way, that’s all."
Four years after the announcement in the Times, even DC execs admit its an ongoing process. "As with every effort, it's moving well, but in some cases maybe not well enough," said DC co-publisher Dan DiDio told Newsarama earlier this month. "But then, what we've always said is that we don't want to push this in. We want to do something that feels organic to grow the DC Universe, so that it feels natural and the fans come on board if it's part of the overarching story — not a 'program.'"
Nostalgia vs. ChangeDC's 2010 replacement of Caucasian Aqualad with a new African-American character in 2010 was hailed by most fans, which does represent a step forward from reactions seen in the past when new, ethnically-diverse heroes replaced former characters that were white.
"I think what you see from fans sometimes is that people want exactly what they fell in love with over and over again," said Greg Rucka, who's written comics for both Marvel and DC. "They want the same thing except different. But that should have nothing to do with introducing a character’s color, or introducing sexual diversity or religious diversity. That simply has to do with the idea that, 'that’s not my fill-in-the-blank character from 1972.'"Rucka pointed to the 2003 Marvel comic series Truth, which introduced the fact that an African-American Captain America existed before the current white hero. "I know when Marvel did Truth they received vitriolic hate mail," Rucka said. "But that's not just people disliking change. That's just people who are bigots, when you come down to it. That wasn’t just an issue with messing with a character."
Other times, fans that are sticklers for continuity get upset about story changes that introduce diversity. Winick experienced anger from fans when he introduced the idea that Green Lantern character Kyle Rayner was half-Hispanic, and fans justified their outrage by claiming there was a change made in continuity.
"It had been shown before, in a dream sequence, that Kyle's father was a general, and the coloring on the comic made it appear that he was white," Winick said. "But they never really clearly defined it as being reality, because it had been this dream, this flashback. And they never said he was a white guy."So I always thought Kyle looked Hispanic, the way he was drawn, so I put a mention into this one story that Kyle's father was Mexican, which makes him a person of color," Winick said. "Well, the Speedy Gonzales jokes that followed on the web really made me throw-up. I was really stunned how people... how much they latched onto that aspect of the story so much, saying I'd done something so abominable by making him a mixed race. Like you're changing the character in a fundamental way." But these kinds of changes do seem to be more successful over time. For example, some fans resented the change when the former Blue Beetle, who was white, was killed in 2005, only to be replaced later by a younger, Hispanic Blue Beetle. Yet DC execs point toward that character as a success today, because he has been incorporated into mainstream cartoons and other media. "Fans have embraced the new Blue Beetle, who has been around for more than five years," DiDio said.
The process of introducing more strong, admirable female heroes is also hindered by the fact that superheroes get... well... punched, because there's apparently a sense that they should be treated differently in violent stories.
Rucka said it's a problem he's encountered first hand. "I’ve been accused by a known creator of being sexist because I was mean to Elektra," the writer said of his experience writing the female Marvel assassin. "I had a story where Elektra got beaten up pretty badly, and the reaction was I was sexist for doing that.
"What I've always believed is that your heroes are defined by their adversity, right?" Rucka said. "So their ability to take a punch, their ability to be broken down and then come back from it, is the nature of those stories. Why would you softball a character just because of their gender, you know?"
"A lot of our readers want to put our characters up on a pedestal," Winick said. "And for women, that means they shouldn't be harmed in certain ways. I mean, they're protective of male characters too, but you really see the reaction come out when it's women."
It may also have to do with the aging of many readers of mainstream superhero comics, who have an ideal about how comic characters should be treated that is based upon older comics, Rucka said. "I do think that people are over protective," Rucka said. "I think that this is a reactionary industry in a lot of ways, and as we lose younger and younger readers, we end up with older and older readers. And older and older readers want the comics that they were reading when they were 12, and they freak out because you’ve changed it."
Homosexuality in Comics
Another element of diversity that has been recently introduced into mainstream superhero comics is homosexuality. As Newsarama reported yesterday, even the Justice League of America has a gay male superhero whose boyfriend is also a crimefighter.
Yet there does seem to be an odd disparity among gay crimefighters, because lesbian heroes outnumber gay men."I hate to generalize in terms of gender," said Allan Heinberg, who created two gay male teens for the Marvel superhero team Young Avengers, "but my experience in the mainstream media has been that general audiences are more comfortable with violence than they are with sexuality — and more comfortable with lesbian sexuality than with gay male sexuality."
"Are our readers more comfortable with lesbian characters rather than gay male characters? Absolutely," Winick said, admitting that he has introduced more female gay characters than males. "I don't know why audiences are more comfortable with that, but it’s probably, you know, the most obvious reason imaginable — that our heterosexual male readers don't really mind lesbians. Our readers, who are mostly male, are more comfortable with that, for almost ridiculous reasons."
"I think we have a mostly male consumer base," Rucka said. "I think that there’s still a strong undercurrent of people who are threatened by gay men. Lesbians are more palatable, because lesbians are an easier fantasy for gay or straight men to deal with. But yeah, I don’t think there’s much question about that. I think the evidence fares it out. We may have an outrage when female homosexual characters are introduced, but that’s nothing compared to the outrage when two men are seen kissing on a comic book page. That’s an audience result. That’s a reaction to what they're seeing and, I think, a discomfort in it."
James Robinson, who was the writer that recently added a gay male superhero to the Justice League, said readers may be uncomfortable with gay male heroes, but he pointed toward how it only represents what exists in the real world. "I know that whether or not they're allowed to talk about it, you have brave gay soldiers in every army in the world, serving their country. You have gay policemen. One of my best friends in San Francisco is a gay policeman. Gay firemen," he said. "Every walk of life where people are putting their lives on the line, there's gays doing it as well as straights. So why not superheroes too?"
A Different Kind of Diversity
But then again, all the talk about diversity in comics does point toward the fact that superhero universes are, technically, really diverse, since they include aliens and supernatural beings of all shapes and colors. In some ways, science fiction and comic books were diverse before most other forms of entertainment.
"People from different dimensions, people from alternate realities, people from different worlds, people of all different colors, sizes, shapes, aliens, demons, monsters, purple skin, blue skin, green skin... you know, all types of people in all different ways," Winick said. "So what is the big damn deal that we include a few people of color here and there, a few gay people here and there to this gigantic universe?"
Check back soon on Newsarama as we continue our look at Hot-Button Topics in the comic book industry by looking at whether stories with real-world, social relevance belong in superhero comics.
[editor's note: a reference to homosexuality being a "sexual preference" has been omitted from this article. The author did not intend the phrase as a literal definition of the term and Newsarama apologizes to anyone it offended.]Previous Hot Button 2011 installments:
- Part One: REACHING NEW READERS
- Part Two: The DIGITAL FUTURE(?)
- Part Three: JAMES ROBINSON on DC's GAY JUSTICE LEAGUERS