Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Reality Check (Minorities in Comics)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. While they enjoy escaping into the fantasy world of comics, once in a while it’s important to snap back into reality. In Reality Check, the fanboys will look at a topic of interest to the comic book industry that takes place outside the pages of a book.

Greg: Welcome to the inaugural edition of Reality Check. We’re the Hard-Traveling Fanboys, and this monthly column will focus on the industry as a whole, rather than specific stories. Sometimes we’ll discuss a problem facing the medium, sometimes we’ll talk about issues caused by those in the industry and sometimes we’ll even turn the focus on fanboys like us.

Nick: The comics industry is one that’s near and dear to our hearts, but it isn’t without its share of problems. A lot of them are fairly complex issues that have no simple solution, and those are the ones we’ll highlight here.

Greg: We won’t pretend to have all the answers, and we know these aren’t issues that will go away, but we feel it’s important to have these discussions, and we welcome any and all e-mail feedback.

We’re going to come out swinging right out of the gate by talking about a topic of vital importance to millions of comic book fans. Most longtime fans know that the treatment of minorities both on the printed page and within the business has been a controversial topic for years. From the inception of the medium, minorities have often been treated with extreme prejudice. While it’s less obvious now than it was in, say, the mid-’40s, it’s still something of a shock if a modern Marvel or DC character isn’t a white heterosexual male.

Nick: It’s often been said by those who attempt to get into comics that they’re hard to relate to because none of the characters remind them of themselves. There are few women, fewer minority women, even fewer lesbians and practically no gay males. Whether it be a sexual, religious, racial or gender minority, the lack of minorities in comics has been an issue since the Civil Rights Era called attention to the problem.

In fact, Stan Lee has been quoted as saying that the Civil Rights Era was a huge influence on him creating the X-Men. Which only serves to highlight the problem since there were no persons of color in the original X-Men lineup.

Stan Lee's initial X-Men lineup.
Stan Lee’s initial X-Men lineup.

Greg: Unfortunately, at that time, Lee was likely forced to use Caucasian-looking characters to illustrate his points about tolerance. By making this group of outcasts, the creators could send a message that kids could receive without intolerant parents realizing.

Nick: Also, from a religious standpoint, think about how many Jewish creators there were during the 50s, 60s and 70s, yet there were practically no Jewish characters. When even creators can’t create characters that share their religious beliefs, what does that say about the way the industry worked back then?

Greg: It’s truly embarrassing to look back at the Japanese caricatures during the war years or the horrifically racist depictions of African-Americans in even books as revered as The Spirit.

Nick: Yes, the depiction of Ebony White has long been one of the medium’s most controversial topics. To his credit, Will Eisner in his later years finally acknowledged the problem.

And even women have been a target. I distinctly remember reading Silver Age issues of Justice League where Wonder Woman was told to clean the League’s hideout while the male members of the League went out on a mission.

Wonder Woman can only be the boss when it's cleaning time, according to Aquaman.
Wonder Woman can only be the boss when it’s cleaning time, according to Aquaman.

Greg: I remember the stereotypical depictions of homosexuals in some of the ’80s back-issue comics I read as a kid. Some of those books came out less than 25 years ago!

But the real issue, and the reason we’re discussing this, is that we’re no longer dealing (for the most part) with such blatant racism, sexism and stereotypes. Today it’s much more subtle, but can be seen whenever you walk down a comic book aisle and see far more “-man” than “-woman” or “-girl” titles, or see more blue and green people than black people.

Nick: And that’s perhaps the most troubling aspect. The world has made leaps and bounds in the last 45 years, but the DC and Marvel universes really haven’t. Are there more minority characters? Sure there are, but they’re typically characters who don’t have a large fan following or can’t support their own solo titles. Greg, why do you think thus continues to plague the industry?

Part of the problem may lie with the continued lack of minority creators. Very few women and even fewer males of color are in the comics business these days, meaning the odds of new minority characters being created are slim.

Greg: The reasons are obviously complicated. I think the first reason ties into the lack of minority creators in comics. There’s an old adage, “write what you know,” that unfortunately too many comic book writers take literally. Some people aren’t comfortable writing characters of different backgrounds or worldviews because they feel incapable of capturing their voices.

And because comics have always seemingly been run by older white guys, there is certainly a feeling of exclusion that has been created, though I suspect it’s completely unintentional.

It’s unfortunate and strange, because comics taught me so much about acceptance as a kid. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, for instance, was so much about the message of tolerance and forgiveness, and presented characters of so many varied ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures. I wish creators would be bold like that with their character choices when developing new teams, new perspectives and new story elements.

Nick: There’s also the issue of the fanbase. Sadly, most comic fans are white males, though females and other ethnicities are starting to join the ranks in recent years.

Part of that is probably because of the success of comic book films, which have enjoyed their own Golden Age as of late. I think that’s why the time is right for a movie like Wonder Woman or Black Panther to come along. It really could do wonders for the industry.

Do you think that comic book fans intentionally shy away from minority characters? Or is it more of a subconscious thing? I’ll be honest. Of the 15 or so books I pull a month, I can’t think of any that feature women or minorities except for Green Lantern Corps, Justice League of America and Justice League.

Greg: I certainly agree the fanbase is part of the problem. There are always loud voices heard whenever a minority character is introduced, or whenever a character’s race is altered in another medium or continuity.

Controversy surrounded the debut of New 52 Alan Scott
Controversy surrounded the debut of New 52 Alan Scott

Nick: Or even a character’s sexuality. Alan Scott’s New 52 incarnation became the butt of jokes and controversy when it was revealed that he was now gay. It’s sad, but it seems as if the Internet culture where anything can be said without fear of reprisal may actually have caused the fanbase to take a step backwards.

Although, I’d say it isn’t as simple as just creating more minority characters.

Token minorities aren’t enough. I think you really have to have characters who are interesting and unique in their own right first and foremost, and have the fact that they are a minority be an aspect of their character, not their defining feature.

It’s certainly a tough balancing act.

Greg: I think for some readers, what I said of writers earlier is true. Some readers prefer to read things only from a perspective they already know and understand. And sometimes, it’s just a matter that the most iconic superheroes are, for the most part, white males.

That’s why I think it’s so important to diversify the supporting casts of these iconic characters. Sometimes, the best way to launch a character is through a strong tie-in to a major existing character.

It’s like a chicken-and-egg scenario. The publishers don’t support books headlined by African-Americans or, often, women, because they don’t sell to the level of other books. But those books often don’t get the same level of support as other titles the publisher wants to succeed.

Nick: That’s a great point. Until the big two really throw their weight behind a minority character, it’s going to be tough for any of them to succeed at the level needed to really make a difference.

Greg: Static, for instance, never enjoyed enough financial success to maintain its spot on shelves. But how many Static/Batman crossovers were there in the comics? How often did the character get to interact or play a major role in event-wide crossovers like Brightest Day or Blackest Night?

Static
Static

John Stewart is a great example. He is, arguably, the most well-known and popular black character in comics, other than Storm. Green Lantern Corps sells very well and stars a prominent black man as its lead. The reason is that people know John Stewart is important. He’s a strong character who has gotten a chance to be the lead in a flagship title for years.

Nick: One of the great accomplishments of the animated Justice League show is that it introduced the masses to John Stewart, who to many is now “their” Green Lantern.

The iconic DCAU version of John Stewart
The iconic DCAU version of John Stewart

And the great thing about John, like some other prominent examples, is that he started out largely as a blaxpoitation character. Yet, through consistent fan support and the hard work of many talented creators, he’s risen above his formative years.

Greg: Absolutely. And I vividly remember the cries of many comic book fans at the time complaining that John was being featured instead of Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner. Dwayne McDuffie’s decision, however, was vital to helping alleviate the problem. Here was a black creator given control over one of the greatest comic book properties available, and he made sure to give John a prominent role that helped shut up those fans who complained. John became one of the show’s best characters and by the end, nobody had a problem viewing him alongside Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. And DC’s commitment to Cyborg is working similarly well. They’re pushing him in video games, animated movies and comics, and I firmly believe it will work and help Victor Stone, already a great character in Teen Titans for years, get the mainstream recognition he deserves.

Nick: Another great example, albeit a recent one, is Simon Baz.

The most recent Green Lantern of Earth, Simon Baz
The most recent Green Lantern of Earth, Simon Baz

I admit that when he was first created, I was worried that he would turn out to be nothing more than a character who only existed because he was of Arab descent. However, Geoff Johns has done a fantastic job of fleshing him out and making him a fascinating character in his own right.

Greg: Baz is one close to my heart. I had several Muslim friends growing up, and they never really had cool Hollywood-approved character with which they could identify. I think, and hope, Simon can be that character for those who have shied away from comics. My friends were normal American kids who enjoyed the same things I did. They just happened to be of a different religion and background. Baz really encompasses that, which is why I feel he’s an important character.

Unfortunately, one look at the comments section of many news sites will still show those who think he shouldn’t exist. Many still use the term “gimmick” to describe him, even though his actual story has been anything but.

Nick: Also, look at Luke Cage. The guy was one of the worst examples of stereotyping in comics, yet over the last 20 years, has grown leaps and bounds as a character. They converted him from a joke into an example of a flawed, yet morally strong black character who would do anything to protect his neighborhood. They also used he and Jessica Jones as one of the most notable examples of a mixed-race relationship.

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones
Luke Cage and Jessica Jones

And Luke really shows that any character, no matter how ridiculous their debut years are, can be redeemed.

Greg: There are millions of women who read comics. There are millions of people of color who read and love comics. It’s incredibly important that this medium represents the same diversity that the outside world has. The X-Men franchise has always done a wonderful job with that. Green Lantern has shown a tremendous diversity, and I’m particularly excited about the rumored debut of the first Earth-born female Lantern.

Heck, I was excited to see Laurence Fishburne cast as Perry White in Man of Steel. Perry’s a character whose race has no bearing, so why not throw in a little diversity?

Nick: Remember the rumor that Will Smith was in the running for Captain America and the hubbub it caused? The same thing happened recently with the rumor that Michael B Jordan might be cast as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot.

Greg: The Ultimate version of Nick Fury, played so well on the big screen by Samuel L. Jackson, has now arguably usurped the original white version of the character in most comics fans’ mind.

One example of a character's race change working out for the best
One example of a character’s race change working out for the best

Nick: Yes, so much so that they’ve even replaced Nick Fury in the mainstream universe with Nick Fury, Jr., a character who just happens to look exactly like the Ultimate version of the character.

Greg: So we’ve established that these characters do strike a chord with fans when they get the support and push from the companies. What is keeping characters like Carol Danvers in Marvel or Blue Beetle in DC from climbing the sales charts? Do the companies just need to support these characters more, as I suggested earlier?

Nick: I think that’s it. There really needs to be a compelling reason for minorities to walk into a comic book shop and buy something they know is seen as important. That’s why I mentioned Wonder Woman and Black Panther feature films earlier. Films like that could be key in expanding the fanbase and proving that minority characters can not only sell, but be among the top sellers.

Also, just tell great stories. If a great story is written, a lot of comic book fans will check it out if the word of mouth is positive enough, no matter who the featured character is.

Greg: I agree. One of the reasons I actually advocate creating as many minority characters as possible is that it’s the best hope for grabbing young people and getting more minority creators in the industry. We need more Dwayne McDuffies in the industry.

A talented man gone too soon.
A talented man gone too soon.

Nick: Or writers like Gail Simone. She’s a great example of a writer who is so incredibly talented that she’s been embraced my the majority of the fan community, and the fact that she’s a woman is pretty much irrelevant. That’s what I’m truly hoping for, to reach a point where this topic is a moot point because of all the great minority characters and creators.

The extremely talented Gail Simone.
The extremely talented Gail Simone.

Greg: That’s a great point, and what this column is ultimately about. We don’t necessarily even agree about the right ways to solve the problem, but simply ignoring it won’t make it go away. Simone is one of the great creators who genuinely tries to diversify her comics, and I think that’s the way of the future. It has to be if comics have a future, because the fan community can’t go on excluding voices that differ from their own.

My dream is to one day walk into a comic shop that is filled with people as diverse as those who filled theaters last year to see the Avengers. Comic books are amazing, and every kid should get the same chance I got to experience them.

Nick: Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Greg: And with that, we wrap up this month’s Reality Check. Join us next month when we begin a discussion about creator rights.

Nick: Oh, and don’t forget to check out the new Countdown two weeks from today, where we countdown our five favorite minority characters in comics.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.