Afro Commentary: The Lack of Superheroes of Color

gsb_superhero-color-headerOriginally published 2014.02.24

“How do you feel about the lack of non-white Superheroes in mainstream comics?” It’s a rather pointed and polarizing question that we, the entire geek community as a whole, have not asked ourselves in a while. Yet, as we focused on afro-centric topics in celebration of Black History Month (which I applaud Geek Soul Brother doing), this question reared its ugly head even more prevalently. I became curious as to what non-white geeks thought about this, if they felt the same way I did. You would be surprised with both the answers I received and the possible conclusions I came to on how society might feel about this.

Despite that there is still work that needs to be done, no one can argue that our culture has come a long way in becoming tolerant towards all ethnicities over the last 30 years alone. This is reflected in the media we consume every day. 25 years ago, hip-hop was considered a form of degenerate music that received no respect from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Now, it holds a position as one of the main music genres. More and more television shows cast non-white actors and actresses in prominent roles in drama and comedy. Games, despite needing more diversity in leading characters, have a range of non-white characters in support roles that are memorable. Yet, comics seem to be the one geek media that has yet to have a steady stream of well-written heroes of color. There are a few reasons for this.

gsb_superhero-color-3Before we explore this topic, let’s start with some history for the uninitiated. Marvel was the first comic book company to introduce the first mainstream superhero of color with Black Panther in 1966, followed with Captain America’s long time on-and-off partner Falcon in 1969. The 70’s saw the first influx of ethnic superheroes of all backgrounds, from Luke Cage, Blade, Storm, Sunfire and more from Marvel, to John Stewart, Bumblebee, Black Lightning and others in the DC universe. However, many of these characters were relegated to being supporting characters and/or very stereotypical: The obvious example being Luke Cage. Monica Rambeau was the first superhero of color to receive top billing in a comic series as a replacement Captain Marvel in 1989.

The late 80’s and 90’s saw a second (and major) influx of characters of all ethnicities at major comic labels. Marvel introduced characters Night Thrasher (as the leader of New Warriors), Sunspot, Jubilee and others as well as Storm leading the X-men Gold team. DC had begun the Milestone imprint, which had black creators (including fan favorite Dwayne McDuffie) creating Black and Hispanic main protagonists like Static, Icon and Rocket. We were also introduced to Steel (a replacement hero to fill the void left by Superman) and Kyle Rayner (who is of Mexican and Irish decent) as Hal Jordan’s replacement to the Green Lantern Corps. It also saw Bane, a South American villain, ruin Batman by breaking his back. The creator start-up company Image released many titles with non-white character as leads (like Spawn and Shadowhawk) or as team leaders (Battalion of Stormwatch and Chapel of Youngblood). Even Valiant comics had Shadowman and Turok. Unfortunately, many of these books were eventually cancelled with the characters either killed off or forgotten. The new millennium brought a few older characters back revamped or retconned.

Now, one can say the lack of diversity in comic titles is due to the lack of diversity within the comics industry… and you would not be far from the truth at all. As we all know, the business is harder to break into than others and relies heavily on a certain amount of nepotism. To a degree, that is understandable; if there is a popular artist or writer that can help boost the sales of your book, you will want to hire them. But it is also inexcusable, because this thinking by a handful of the same people for over 35 years have left the industry to only cater to a certain reader who can afford comics. It is incestuous how the industry is filled with the same people making creative and editorial decisions, and it shows with such concepts as the yearly major crossover events. There are no new dynamics. And with the big two always cutting books due to lack of interest, the need for fresh faces in writing and art becomes less of a priority. It is a daunting task for an artist or writer to break into the industry and even more so for non-white creatives.

gsb_superhero-color-1You also have to admit there is a certain disconnect when it comes to writing characters of color. Any writer is guilty of this at one time or another. I love what Geoff Johns has done with the Green Lantern franchise over the last nine years, and it will be sad to see him leave the books. However, I can feel a certain disconnect with the newly introduced Green Lantern of sector 2814, Simon Baz. As a person, I like how he is written, but when connecting him with the fact he is of Arab decent and Muslim, there’s an unintentional disconnect with the subject matter. He was also responsible for pushing Kyle Rayner aside in favor of resurrecting Hal Jordan as the main Green Lantern. The same can also be said of how Luke Cage has been written over the last 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, he is far better than the blaxsploitation version of the 70’s and 80’s; but now he is more of an amalgamation of various Samuel L. Jackson characters, even if he has mellowed out since being a father. He is written more like how a white person sees a strong black man. I believe this is more due to the lack of understanding than blatant racism.

gsb_superhero-color-2The third part playing an issue here is the audience. DC and Marvels main audience has always been predominately white and male. And as characters became more established, this same audience was comfortable with the stagnant decisions the editorial staff at the big two made. This may also include some unintended racism. I didn’t want to believe this fact at first; that even in 2013 there should be some secular view of your general and prospective audiences. It took a video interview of the late Dwayne McDuffie on his challenges writing JLA to change that belief. His statements proved two things to me: 1) People don’t like change when they are used to something for so long, and 2) people fear drastic changes to the point of getting angry. McDuffies experience is proof enough of this. His words are a stark reminder of how far we really need to go in order to be a truly integrated society.

As a white man who was brought up to judge a person on their actions and the content of their character, and not on their “race”, gender or sexual orientation, it has certainly bothered me because it is not a reflection of our society today. Yes, the X-Men still fight prejudice and the Green Lantern Corps is vastly diverse of different beings, but in comics there are not a lot of non-white characters people can look up to. It nags me, because you are recreating what I like to call the Barbie effect (a catchier name of the Clark Doll study performed by Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1939, and again in 1954 for Brown vs. the Board of Education) in the young audiences where they either feel it’s not okay to be any ethnicity other than white, or they risk losing part of their cultural identification. And outside of the conscious effort by DC creating the Milestone imprint, there has not been an interest to creating a superhero of color who was written very well or appropriately. Hell, there hasn’t been any interest in developing original characters that were made to last in the last 20 years period. The industry is so worried about building up readership, yet they do not diversify or write stories that would draw a non-white audience. They instead embolden the base audience and just survive on what little profits that can be made.

Yet in our current society, has the lack of superheroes of color become a moot point? I posed the question I asked myself at the beginning to a few of my fellow geeks who are not white, and received a blank stare in the process. I asked one, who is Chinese, and his response was that it never really bothered him; The X-Men handled racial issues and the team had Sunfire and Storm on the roster. Also, he noted artists like Jim Lee and Jae Lee as the industry’s leading artists. It didn’t really matter to another, who is a Black man. A third, who is Chilean, didn’t really care as to the ethnic makeup of the mainstream comics. Is it something the geek community doesn’t deem too important since other avenues are more diverse already? I began to feel that this line of questioning was now considered over reaching.

Or perhaps we are already experiencing the Barbie effect, yet we are unconscious of it. The last person I posed this question to, a man of both Puerto Rican and Italian descent, reciprocated the same thoughts I had on the matter. That the severe lack of superheroes of color is disturbing, even to the point of being unforgivable. We then began talking about not just the missing ethnic diversity in the industry, but of women as well. That the attempt to fill slots on creative teams for books with women and non-whites is more about the illusion to the public that the company is diverse than allowing people of all walks of life to tell a story. I was glad to know that I wasn’t just experiencing the phenomena in the comics industry, and that there were people who did care about this.

So now I turn this question to you, my fellow geeks. How do you feel about the lack of superheroes of color in mainstream comics? Is the topic something that white readers don’t pay enough attention to? Is it a topic that has been overlooked by the non-white geeks? I feel it’s important to have this discussion since it does not only affect our community as geeks, but our whole culture as well. The more we discuss such issues, the more things eventually change.

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