TSL Comic Book Convo: Diversity Isn’t Just a Black Thing

    Tonight ABC will air "Agent Carter", a show that represents something of a coup as far as female leads are concerned. Not since the "Bionic Woman" has there been such a buzz regarding a female action hero on the big three major television networks. Though it is being introduced with much fanfare as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are a significant number of people who cram to understand the necessity for a female lead in an action-adventure series, even though it has been done successfully in the past with such offerings as "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."  

    Unlike the aforementioned shows, Agent Carter’s connection to comic books via Marvel is clear and those who have shunned the offering without seeing a full episode are likely lifelong comic book fans. Sad to say, there are those who rail against diversity in all walks of life, even diversity in the imaginary world of comic books and science fiction. Last year Marvel Comics celebrated its 75th anniversary and several past and present editors, writers and artists took part in an eye-opening panel about the ongoing need for diversity in the industry as well as the strides that have taken place thus far. Some fans believe the increased diversity in comic books is the direct result of some inside mandate to do so.

    That, however, is not the case.

    “I don’t think there was ever an editorial mandate but you do write what you know,” said veteran writer of Daredevil Ann Nocenti.  “And for me, it was just easier to write white females. White Italian females. Some of this comes from how comfortable you are writing something that isn’t of yourself. It’s much more comfortable just writing who you are. Some of this is kind of natural. It just comes out naturally. It’s not like there’s a meeting where you say ‘Oh, now we have to have more diversity’. So, I think this all happened quite naturally.

    “It’s not just gender and race, but it’s also politics,” she continued. “I remember I did a Daredevil story once where there was this nasty military guy who kept calling this kid a faggot. And I got so many letters saying that I was homophobic and I had to write all of these letters explaining what the deal was. There’s so many things. There’s race, there’s politics, there’s gender. It’s a lot of stuff. But, I think that what’s happening now is happening quite naturally because more voices are being brought in to comics. I think it’s better than trying to force it and have writers write things they don’t know about.”

    For the past four or five years there have been grumblings from comic book fans of all colors of the racial rainbow who have frowned upon attempts by major comic book publishers to diversify either by changing the race of characters or by creating new ones altogether. However, comic industry veteran Don McGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Sabre) has long been a proponent of diversity in comic books.

    “Comic books are a great medium to tell any kind of story about any kind of character and every time they told me no, what I told them was if you’re saying your bottom line is green then why would you want to alienate all of these other who love comics?”

    “People wanted to see that but thought ultimately it would fail,” added Kurt Busiek (The Avengers, Astro City). “It was commonly accepted that comics about minorities wouldn’t sell, comics about women wouldn’t sell. It had to be about white guys. Otherwise, it wouldn’t sell. This is when comic sells were increasing every month and were selling phenomenally better than they had been 10 years before but still, if you tried to do that they won’t sell.  ‘Look at Power Man’, they said. ‘Power Man never sold very well and now it’s cancelled.’ So, if you did another one like that it wouldn’t do very well. Well, look at this series featuring the white character that didn’t sell. Does that mean you can’t do anymore white guys? Aquaman was canceled and they started another one.”

    From a comic book clout perspective, Aquaman does have more currency in the bank than Power Man aka Luke Cage, but there are many who would argue that Power Man is just cooler. While ‘cool’ and ‘clout’ aren’t necessarily pertinent to a publisher’s bottom line, diversity can be a win-win for publishers and fans alike.

    "What Don did in the '70's was pushing comics forward," said Busiek. McGregor responded, "I was just trying to tell a story.  I didn't think about it like a statement."

    “We haven’t come far enough. We’re not seeing representation of diverse characters,” added Busiek. “We’re seeing much more than we used to but we’re still not seeing enough. Back in the 70s women were only given female characters to write and Black guys could only draw the Black books. That hasn’t changed a lot. If you look around at what’s out there you’ll see that this is a problem that still exists. It’s not completely the same as the 70s but it’s an underlying problem.”

    “We needed character diversity. We needed diversity of voices. That’s why the new Ms. Marvel is a good thing. The comic book industry used to be 99 percent white male. Now it’s probably, what, 80 percent? There’s a lot more to be done.”

    “Like, in the late 80s or something we decided we didn’t like the way women were represented in comics,” said editor and colorist Marie Javins ("Iron Man: Extremis"). “We did a character and we took his girlfriend and had her break the fourth wall in the comic and have her say ‘I’m being drawn like a stereotype, I’m being drawn like a bimbo!’ She took her spaghetti strainers and she made them chest plates and she took all her stuff in her kitchen and made herself a kitchen superhero. In looking back at that I realize that, what we did did in breaking the fourth wall, all we really did was make her super bimbo.”

    “The thing for me about being a comic book fan is, while it is true that representation in comics has kind of come about quite slowly, I always felt my connectivity with Marvel characters is they were poor,” said Sana Amanant, editor and creator of the new Ms. Marvel. “I connected with the X-Men because I felt like these people were struggling with certain things that I struggled with. I felt a connection because of that.  I felt like, at the core of it, these characters are talking about diversity. Having these powers thrust upon them and kind of living with that is such an obvious metaphor for being a minority and all the struggles that you have.”

    As comic book and science fiction fans alike wait with bated breath to see the outcome, we are aware of what Agent Carter represents. As was readily mentioned several times during the panel discussion at comic con, comic books have come a long way but there’s still quite a ways to go. As a character that is directly connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the success of Agent Carter will go a long way toward the increased atmosphere of racial and gender inclusion in the comic book world and in television as well. 

    As always, we'll be watching.