A couple of full disclosures before we start. I’m white, as are the other members of the Geek Tragedy Podcast roundtable. NPC Comics, however, which produces the podcast, is a black-owned business, with a black EIC, and a talent pool that is fantastically diverse.
io9 ran a story today on whether comics are institutionally racist. I’d like to share my own thoughts on the subject.
When I was an undergrad, I took a Black Literature course. It sucked. I hated it. But not because I didn’t find some great literature written by some great authors in it. For example, I found Charles Chestnutt, Booker T. Washington, and especially Zora Neale Hurston captivating. But mixed in with the good was a lot of bad. I came to realize that the problem with this course was that it wasn’t selecting authors based on how good they were, but on how black they were. Thus, some of the authors whose works were selected for inclusion in the course were good writers, and some were bad or even awful.
I came away with the impression that it really would be better if we just made a more conscious effort to include the best black authors in general American Literature courses. Having a course that features black authors that are there just for the sake of being black doesn’t make for pleasant reading experiences.
And so, I think, it is with comics.
It is important to remember that most of the really big, popular characters in comics were developed in a very different world. Superman dates to the 1930s, Batman and Wonder Woman to the early 1940s, Spider-Man and The Hulk to the early 1960s, and so on. To steal a line from a funny web video, “It was a different time, you understand”. There was not yet a lot of what one might call “diversity consciousness” out there yet.
But then in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, that consciousness did develop. And quite suddenly.
And so, it appears to me, comics publishers looked at each other and said something to the effect of: “Quick! We have to put a couple black guys in our comics!”
And so they did. And what you ended up with was black characters that were not well-crafted, that did not have compelling personalities or back stories, and didn’t get the attention from the writers that they deserved.In other words, black characters that were there for the sake of being black.
Even their names told that story: their real purpose in life – to be conspicuously black – was not exactly a well-hidden secret.
And they sucked.
And people noticed, and the characters, for the most part, never really caught on.
All of which means that comics, and comic readers, are not necessarily racist. They just want from black characters the same things they want from any other character – a compelling personality, an interesting back story, and good storylines. John Stewart as Green Lantern, for example, or Al Simmons as Spawn, have been popular with fans for a long time, and continue to be, because they have all of those things.
Don’t give your audience black characters that are tacked on as an afterthought. Just create interesting characters involved in interesting stories, and make a more conscious effort to make some of them more diverse.
If you do, they’ll catch on. But don’t keep giving us Captain Planet-style diversity for diversity’s sake and expect it to go anywhere.
And yet, it must be said that this still does nothing for diversity amongst the biggest-name superheroes. Green Lantern is an exception – it’s expected that the ring will be passed from person to person. But you can’t really have a Spider-Man that’s not Peter Parker, and you can’t just go and make Peter Parker black (or Latino, or Asian, or anything else, for that matter). Same with Bruce Wayne, or Clark Kent, or Logan, or almost all of the most popular characters. They and their basic look were established long ago, and there’s basically very little you can do about that now. So yes, over time, some great black characters can be added to the comics universe. And should be. But it’s still likely to be lookin’ mighty white in the world of comics for a long time to come.