By Eden Graham
Abstract: This article discusses whether comic book publishers are doing enough to promote their current diverse comic book characters, as well as creating new diverse characters. It will discuss the biggest comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, and explore their efforts to diversify their comic books. It will also discuss independent comic book publishers and their role in producing diverse content for readers and how they have become the driving force behind diversity in comic books. It will show the reasons why independent publishers feel alienated from the bigger comic book publishers and explore what can be done to combat this, as well as the uncertain future for diverse characters in comic books.
Keywords: comic books, superheroes, diversity, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, Marvel, DC, BAME, publishing.
Over the years, comic book publishers have been trying to diversify their range of characters, whether that’s by introducing new diverse characters or diversifying the ones that already exist. Marvel in particular has added a new range of diverse characters to their comics, including a Pakistani-American Ms Marvel and an Afro-Latino Spiderman. However, some would argue that not enough is being done to make diverse characters mainstream in the comic book world – alienating readers and hiding diverse characters from the limelight.
Indie comic book publishers are arguably doing more to promote diverse characters and titles than the mainstream publishers. Black Mask Studios, a comic book publisher founded in 2012 by Matteo Pizzolo, Steve Niles and Brett Gurewitz has a portfolio which includes a whole range of diverse comics, full of diverse characters (Callwood, 2018). Comics published by them feature stories of ‘what if only black people had superpowers?’ and their comic Kim & Kim features queer and transgender representation (Black Mask Studios). So why aren’t mainstream comic book publishers producing the same content?
Marvel vs DC
Marvel Comics and DC Entertainment are without a doubt the most mainstream comic book publishers in the industry. Marvel has the biggest retail and unit market share at 38.24% and 40.40% in 2018, meanwhile DC has 30.04% and 33.82%, ranking in second just behind Marvel (Diamond Comic Distributors, 2018). Even though both of these comic book publishers dominate the industry, the ‘diversity problem’ that they both face is a worrying issue.
Marvel has slowly been adding diverse characters into their comics over the past few years. New additions to their line-up included a female Thor, a black female Iron Man and recently Iceman – member of the X-Men – came out as gay. However, for all their efforts to add diverse characters or diversify the ones that already exists, it seems they aren’t doing enough to get these characters into the mainstream spotlight. In 2017, Marvel had a rough year in terms of comic book sales, at the end of the year they cancelled quite a few comic book series which contained characters representing people of colour and the LGBTQ community, including Luke Cage, Gwenpool, Generation X, She-Hulk and Iceman (McMillan, 2017). This was partly due to a comment made by Senior Vice President of sales David Gabriel, stating that “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.” (Griepp, 2017). This caused a backlash from fans who claimed that the reason for low comic book sales wasn’t about diversity but was due to a lack of creativity in their stories and high prices.
It is apparent that Marvel has a problem in the form of ‘legacy heroes’ – these are characters who have taken on the responsibilities of big heroes within the Marvel universe. Marvel’s idea of tackling their diversity issue was to get diverse characters to take on the mantle of well-known superheroes. This saw Riri Williams take on the mantle of Ironheart in homage to Ironman, Amadeus Cho became the next Incredible Hulk and Laura Kinney became the all-new Wolverine (Bacon, 2018). However, these legacy heroes didn’t take off as well as Marvel hoped they would – following the success of the Ms Marvel series, this legacy hero formula kept cropping up more regularly. G. Willow Wilson (2018), comic book writer for Ms Marvel stated that “…launching a legacy character by killing off or humiliating the original character sets the legacy character up for failure. Who wants a legacy if the legacy is shitty?”.
On the other hand, DC is doing slightly better than Marvel at promoting their diverse characters. Most notably their female characters are arguably more well-known, especially the likes of Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. Also, it’s interesting to note that DC hasn’t received as much backlash as Marvel for having a ‘diversity problem’. DC has always been rather vocal with their ambitions to add more diverse characters into their comics. Just last year they announced a ‘diversity pledge’ and stated “…it is essential that our content and creative partners reflect the diversity of our society and the world around us. Together with other production companies, networks, guilds, unions, talent agencies and others in the industry, we all must ensure there is greater inclusion of women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities and other underrepresented groups in greater numbers both in front of and behind the camera.” (Arrant, 2018) While this statement is focusing on DC’s media platforms, the statement reflects the attitudes of the company as a whole – including their comic book division.
Indie comics to the rescue
When looking for a better range of representation within the comic book industry, independent, or ‘indie’, comics are usually the place to go. Many of these comic book publishers were created due to there not being enough diverse representation within mainstream comic-book publishers, many of them feeling disassociated from the bigger companies. These independent publishers are producing content “…free from large-scale market concerns and petulant fan reactions to creative decisions, are doing a fantastic job at giving readers access to stories that appeal to more than just one group of people” (Wiggins, 2015). The independents include Black Mask Studios, YouNeek Studios, Rosarium Publishing, Iron Circus Comics and Emet Comics. Nearly all of them provide a clear message on their ‘about’ page of inclusivity and making sure their supporters feel included and welcome – “Rosarium Publishing is a fledgling publisher specialising in speculative fiction, comics and a touch of crime fiction – all with a multicultural flare. We simply believe that talent does not inherently have a race, religion, or region; there is no talent solely found in X or Y chromosome; talent is everywhere, and we will comb the four corners of this globe to find it.” (Rosarium Publishing, 2013).
While indie comics may provide more diverse comic book characters, there are a number of challenges for them in getting their work to the right readership. There are a few approaches for indie publishers to take when distributing their comics, which includes getting them distributed by one of the biggest distributors – Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. Or they can choose to sell online and provide stock in bookstores and libraries, this is the approach taken by founder of Iron Circus Comics, C. Spike Trotman, who has been using mostly kickstarter campaigns, a crowdfunding platform, to fund the comics they produce. Trotman also likes the freedom that independent publishing can bring, stating “there was no one sitting behind a desk looking at your work going, ‘But can I sell this to a 35-year-old white man?’” (Riesman, 2018). However, the other approach can be fairly difficult as bigger distributors need to be assured that your comics will sell, founder of Emet Comics, Maytal Gilboa, came across this issue when trying to convince Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. to distribute her comics. Gilboa stated “I think that’s why we’ve been able to build a company relatively quickly, and be relatively successful: because of how clear our brand and our messaging is.” (Riesman, 2018) And so, managing to build-up a strong fan base and providing a clear mission statement, Diamond agreed to start distributing her comics last year. It’s clear to see that while independent comics do offer a better range of diverse characters, they face a range of challenges when trying to get their content to the right audiences.
What needs to be done?
It’s clear that in order for there to be more diversity, bigger comic book publishers such as Marvel and DC need to start diversifying their creative workforce in order to generate more diverse content. Marvel has made a few changes that reflect how diversity can be good for business and provide fans with the representation that they need – the hiring of writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat to create Ms Marvel was a turning point for the company as it showed comic book publishers that diverse talent can create diverse work and it appeals to fans.
Diverse comic book characters also need to be brought into mainstream media more often to help promote their comic book sales or those diverse comics that have done well e.g. Ms Marvel needs to be placed onto other platforms to help their popularity grow. This has been effectively accomplished with the film Black Panther being released last year, helping Marvel drive their comic book sales of the character as well as audiences seeking other comic books containing African superheroes – comics like Kwezi, “the story focuses on an uber-confident teenager whose relationship with his ancestors grows stronger as his powers increase.” (Willis, 2018) Also, inclusive comics that have done well are seeing other platforms take on their characters such as film and television. Marvel Rising, an animated television show produced by Marvel, stars an all-diverse set of characters: Ms Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Quake, Patriot, America Chavez and Inferno and places them on a mainstream platform.
Marvel’s latest book release is championing the women of Marvel comics – Powers of a Girl, featuring “65 women who punched the sky and changed the universe” (Dinh, 2019) The front cover features women of all different ethnicities and race, showing off their diverse range of female characters. A twitter campaign has even been started from author of the book, Lorraine Cink, who is asking people who purchased the book to take a picture with their favourite character and share it with the hashtag #PowersOfAGirl. The book has even reached number 1 on Amazon’s best sellers in superhero fiction for young adults. Other books are also cropping up with the same image and message; DK have released Marvel Fearless and Fantastic! Female Superheroes Save The World, which hasn’t been as popular as Powers of a Girl but still delivers strong representation for female superheroes. The release of these all-women of Marvel comics books coincides with the film release of Captain Marvel on 8th March 2019 – the first female Marvel superhero to get her own film. A whole range of Captain Marvel inspired books have been released by Disney Books to tie-in with the film’s release.
To conclude, the bigger comic book publishers e.g. Marvel and DC need to start accepting more diverse writers, artists and creators into their workforce in order to produce more diverse content. They also need to bring more diverse characters into the mainstream spotlight so they become easily accessible to everyone, the success of the film Black Panther shows just how easily this can be done. There has also been progression in the representation of female comic book characters lately with the number of books being released showcasing female characters, and this will hopefully continue past the release of the Captain Marvel film.
Independent comic book publishers will continue to grow in popularity with those who are seeking more diverse content, crowdfunding campaigns have enabled audiences to fund projects they truly want to read, and creators are willing to produce. Independent comic book publishers also need to be recognised by the bigger comic book publishers instead of seeing them as the competition. Collaborative comics produced between bigger comic book publishers and the independents could be a way of getting more diverse content noticed.
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