Diversity: A Comic Book Conundrum

Diversity remains a difficult topic for comic books to navigate.

Captain America: Image provided by Marvel

In the abstract, your average comic fan would express support for increased diversity in the comic book world. Both in terms of characters in books and in the ranks of creators who make them. That makes sense. The days when the comic book audience primarily consisted of young white dudes have long since passed.

The industry has done a good job in recruiting talent from around the world and achieving some meaningful racial/ethnic diversity among creators. The industry has been slower to incorporate female and LGBT creators, but those ranks have seen some meaningful improvement over the past couple years.

For a visual medium like comic books, the place where diversity can be most visible is in what’s on the page. Many comic book companies, including Marvel and DC, have put a lot of recent effort into expanding the array of characters found on the shelves each week. The effort and attention are laudable. But don’t forget that Marvel isn’t that far removed from a period where it didn’t publish a single title starring a solo female lead. DC has launched numerous New 52 titles featuring diverse characters. Many of them failed fairly quickly.

So while fans, in the abstract, support diversity, they’re not necessarily matching those sentiments with their purchases. A significant part of that is the reality of the modern comic book business. Launching new or less familiar characters in a title is a long shot for publishers. They’ll take a risk, but absent some kind of branding or ongoing tie-in to a higher profile franchise, new titles often fail quickly. And while in the past, companies might have been inclined to give an underperforming new title some breathing room to find its footing, in recent days new titles that didn’t deliver immediately often disappear within a year or less.

Thor: Image provided by Marvel

Given that reality, it’s no surprise that companies (DC and Marvel, mostly) attempt to increase diversity by subbing out a well-known core character for a period of time with a diverse replacement hero. It’s not a new tactic. DC and Marvel have been doing it since at least the mid-80s, when John Stewart took over as Green Lantern and James Rhodes stepped in as Iron Man.

Last fall, Marvel generated massive publicity and strong sales by sidelining Steve Rogers and having his African-American friend Sam Wilson (long-time Marvel hero The Falcon) become the new Captain America. That occurred almost simultaneously with the traditional Thor (the Odinson) losing the right to his hammer and being supplanted by a new female Thor. Mainstream news outlets touted the changes, usually praising the moves. Many fans were interested. But some fans were not happy.

If you spend any time in comment sections of comic book web sites, you’ll see complaints about such moves being “diversity for the sake of diversity.” As though trying to expand the tent was somehow not a worthy goal of its own. Or that the story of a replacement hero isn’t a classic comic book plot that can play out in many interesting, creative ways.

It reveals just how seriously some fans take their characters. They’re happy to welcome diversity into their comic book worlds. But when it affects traditional characters, all bets are off. Of all the potential things wrong with the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, the racial switch for the Human Torch seemed like the least of the film’s issues. But that facet has comprised a lot of the early negative buzz. And just last week, an April Fool’s prank that indicated that Miles Morales, the half-Hispanic/half-African American Spider-Man from the alternate Ultimate line would supplant Peter Parker after Secret Wars sparked shock.

Nova: Image provided by Marvel

In some regard, it’s understandable that fans would resist losing a character they love. But the “why can’t they just create a new character” refrain falls short. The answer is that new characters rarely pop successfully. So it’s not difficult to understand that a company will leverage an existing popular property to establish a diverse character at a higher level of visibility. That will hopefully translate when the company eventually transitions the replacement hero into his or her own title (possibly with a new identity).

It’s a strategy that works. Even after Hal Jordan resumed his Green Lantern role, John Stewart remained visible as a second Green Lantern. John most recently toplined a Green Lantern Corps series. And after Tony Stark went back to being Iron Man, Rhodey eventually got his own War Machine identity and keeps starring in short-lived solo series.

It’s highly unlikely that Steve Rogers or the Odinson will be permanently supplanted. Marvel is using Sam Wilson’s stint as Cap to transform him into an A-list character in his own right. Eventually, he’ll go back to being The Falcon, but with a much higher profile that could sustain a monthly series. And the female Thor will eventually hand the hammer back to the Odinson, but will be poised for her own adventures as a related character. If nothing else, Marvel and DC have demonstrated that multiple versions of a character can successfully co-exist. Marvel will be demonstrating that again post-Secret Wars, when Miles Morales does join the main Marvel Universe, but in addition to Peter Parker, not in place of him.

Marvel has actually had more success in achieving diversity with less iconic characters. Over the past couple of years, teen versions of Nova and Ms. Marvel (both of whom will join an Avengers team post-Secret Wars) have been among Marvel’s most successful new series launches.

Nova has focused on Sam Alexander, a half-Mexican Arizona teenager who discovered that his missing father had once been a member of the intergalactic Nova Corps. When his father’s helmet came into Sam’s possession, he became the new Nova. Fans might have been more accepting of the new Nova since the concept had been dormant for a couple years. Original Nova Rich Ryder had been apparently killed at the climax of a big space event, so there wasn’t a sense that Rich was dispatched in favor of Sam. Sam’s creation carried more of a feeling of Marvel taking a different approach to a dormant franchise. One that created diversity, but also a vibrant new character who took the story in a different direction. Plus the fact that, given the nature of Nova, if/when Marvel decides to bring Rich back, there’s no reason he and Sam can’t exist side-by-side.

Ms. Marvel: Image provided by Marvel

The success of Ms. Marvel was an even bigger surprise. Many fans were skeptical when Marvel announced that the new Ms. Marvel was Pakistani-American Muslim teenager Kamala Khan of Jersey City. But Kamala turned out to be very relatable and the series has done a great job of translating the specifics of Kamala’s story into something universal. But another factor in favor of fans embracing the new Ms. Marvel was that the role was open because the previous Ms. Marvel went through her own transition that promoted diversity within the Marvel Universe. Carol Danvers got “promoted” into the long-vacant role of Captain Marvel. Carol wasn’t sidelined; arguably, her new heroic persona made her even more prominent and opened up the field for Marvel to take a chance on a new Ms. Marvel like Kamala.

Diversity and replacement heroes aren’t going anywhere. Given the success of Thor and Captain America over the past few months, expect the trend to continue. Old favorite characters will always make a comeback. But in the meantime, their franchises can be used to widen the tent.

Ultimately, the more diversity that the comic book industry supports and attracts, on the page and behind the scenes, can only make the industry stronger.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 6, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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