I don’t wanna talk about race in comics, unless it’s about Superman vs The Flash.
Christopher J. Priest, 2002
Straight off the bat, I need to level with you, Dear Reader – I ‘m white. White as photocopy paper. White as Tippex. Any whiter and you could grind me up like magnesium powder and take photos with me (but not of me – I’m too white for contrast). So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to tackle the subject of Persons Of Colour (POC) in the comic book industry. In what expanded universe incarnation am I qualified for this gig? I usually don’t know whether a particular artist is male or female (or alive or dead for that matter), let alone the colour of their skin. Honestly, how many of you do know the ethnicity of Brian K.Vaughan? (Is he from Landfall or Wreath?)
Comic book folk – creators and readers – are supposed to be cool. We are society’s thinkers and dreamers; intellectuals with our eyes set firmly on the far horizon of what could be, with little interest for petty distinctions of race (unless perhaps we’re winkling out a Skrull agent). We even invent new colours for people to be (Mystique – blue. The Hulk – green).
Q: So why should ethnicity in comics even be an issue?
A: It shouldn’t be…But it is.
Being cool (and lazy), my first plan with this article was to google a few names and make a nice celebratory list of top characters and creators that happened to be from ethnic backgrounds beyond the Caucasus mountains. Luke Cage – check! Billy Graham – check! But here’s where my problems started. Reading the profiles of some of the industry’s top creators, I quickly realised that, behind the multi-coloured utopian cover, lay a murky reality of corporate paranoia, institutional racism and, worst of all for comics, lack of imagination.
Take Christopher Priest, the guy from the opening quote. Priest, known formerly as Jim Owsley, was the first African-American writer in comics, as well as the first African-American editor. While he always wanted his reputation to be more about the work (and it is a spectacular body of work) rather than to be thought of as the Jackie Robinson of comics, the grim reality is that he has been almost completely erased from Marvel‘s history – relegated to the occasional footnote. Priest remembers his tenure as editor at Marvel Comics with a mixture of fondness (Stan Lee, Larry Hama) and frustration (tactfully unnamed others). He describes how certain elements within a supposedly liberal and progressive industry seemed to feel that, while one non-white face in the office was okay, an African-American editor-in-chief, or worse, a significant and increasing number of POC executives in the chain of promotion posed a threat to their livelihood. A threat they dealt with by pretending their racial anxiety was really merely a personal antipathy. Priest explains,
I am frequently an a-hole. There’s no doubt about that. But pretending I wasn’t there is sophomoric and stupid and, well, insulting not only to me but to African-American fans and pros who are trying to see some part of themselves in your history books. Much as we’d like to pretend the industry is colour blind, it never has been. Excising the significant firsts for our community – especially on some personal bias towards a guy who stepped on your toe twenty years ago – is amazingly stupid and immature.
Now, I don’t know Priest, and whether he is or ever was an “a-hole” is, frankly, irrelevant to his legacy (By most accounts Evelyn Waugh was a total belend, but that doesn’t make his novels any less brilliant). What I do know from having re-read his work on Black Panther is that he is a sublime storyteller, wit and master of the form – a combative and controversial voice deserving of our attention. He spends his time on the far margins of the comics world now – a great loss to both industry and reader.
Sadly, while industry integration has improved over the years, driven largely by the demographic shifts within the comics readership, the situation is still a long way from perfect. One of the reasons for this is that minority characters tend to be consciously created with minority readership in mind. As another founder member of Milestone Media, Dwayne McDuffie recounts:
If you do a black character, or a female or an asian character, then they aren’t just that character, they represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor.
This strikes me as way too much of a burden for even the mightiest POC superhero. Nothing kills the fun of fantasy like the sense that the protagonist has been thought up by a think-tank to appeal to a particular demographic. In fact, the annals of comic book history are littered with the fallen bodies of “ethnic” superheroes that simply didn’t resonate with readers and, thus, simply didn’t sell. Anyone remember Tyroc, protector of racially segregated island of Marzan? No, because he sucked. Black or white, nobody wanted to be that guy. He dressed in Elvis’ swimwear and had the power of, well, yelling really loudly and being a racist. That was DCs first attempt at a black superhero. He appeared in 1976 – two years after I was born. Seriously.
And yet, we mustn’t despair. There are some notably super-fly exceptions among the pantheon of POC heroes.
For example, Black Panther rules…literally! If ever there was a superhero who carries the expectations of an entire race it’s T’Challa, king of Wakanda. Yet as a superhero he succeeds where Tyroc fails. First appearing in episode 52 of Fantastic Four in 1966 (before the political movement that shares his name), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby provided the Black Panther with the most brilliant ace up his spandex sleeve. T’Challa’s tiny Central African country is richer in minerals, more progressive in culture and more technologically advanced than any of the colonial powers (the USA included) that surround it. It’s a fabulous idea that means, while the Black Panther has plenty of emotional baggage (the death of his father T’Chaka, the constant infighting of his staff) a sense of disenfranchisement owing to racism is not one of them. It’s glorious wish-fulfilment. Writer Reginald Hudlin summarises the appeal of Black Panther.
(The Reader) should have fun. If you read a comic and get pumped, have a laugh, feel inspired and get hit in the feels, that’s a total entertainment experience.
King T’Challa is a statesman, scientist and warrior, with the foresight and resources to always stay ahead of his enemies. Oh yes, and his country has never been conquered and his costume rocks, and his bodyguards are two hot babes. He is, as Hudlin puts it, “a badass”. Now, I’m so white that my favourite spice is parsley but I long to be the Black Panther. To me this is the key to his success. People wish they were the Black Panther just as they wish they were Superman or Wolverine. He’s Ice Cube‘s favourite character.
By that yardstick, there are relatively few POC comic book heroes that fulfil the wish-fulfilment criteria. Luke Cage and Falcon perhaps – though to a lesser degree (apologies to fans. This is just my opinion and, as such, subject to capricious and frequent change).
In the movies, Marvel Studios needs to address the issue and soon. Think of all the great African-American character actors who have played embarrassingly subsidiary roles in the franchise – Don Cheadle, Terence Howard, Halle Berry, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, the list goes on. Isn’t it about time one of these guys was given centre stage? Chadwick Boseman deserves to be given some serious screen time. Also, somebody in the studio needs to buy back the rights to Blade…and bust Wesley Snipes out of tax jail.
Which leads me to another question. If there has been such a dearth of good POC superheroes, what superheroes were POC readers into during their formative years and why?
Well, at least three of the comics creators I read cited Spider-Man as their personal childhood hero. He’s caucasian to be sure, but he’s also an inner city kid trying to do what’s best in a difficult situation. I guess identification with a superhero is a lot more than race. The cool thing about Superman is that he isn’t really your average white guy. He’s actually an alien of unfathomable power and moral goodness who just happens to look like an average (well, really buff) white guy. I always assumed he was Jewish.
Ultimately, what’s to be done to ensure that ethnic diversity in comics becomes the rule rather than the exception?
The first step comes from the fans. Vote with your choices. Insist upon and buy more diverse comics. Jerry Craft, Creator of Mama’s Boys and The Offenders illustrates.
I think one of the biggest (problems) is what we call “Highlander Syndrome”, where “there can be only one”. A newspaper can have three talking dog strips or three talking cat strips, but the “Black Strips”…a lot of syndicates will say “we’ve got ours, we don’t need others. We’ve got Curtis”.
The second step is for those companies who make and produce superhero comics to ask themselves whether a particular character or the person who writes or draws that character has to be a caucasian, or a heterosexual or a male. If the answer is “no”, then why not look around and see who might be out there. There’s no need for affirmative action, just try and avoid negative inaction when it comes to seeking out the most talented and creative people for the job.
I realise, in saying this, I’m promoting competition for whiter-than-an-albino-rabbit’s-white-bits writers like myself. But honestly, if the playing field isn’t level, the game’s not worth winning. Reading comics has taught us that much.
What’s your take on POC and comics? Who are your favourite POC characters and creators? What should we be reading next and why? Send us your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments below!