We Need Diverse Books (And That Means Comics Too!)
Earlier this spring, my daughter was thrilled to find Wonder Woman and Cyborg on her cereal box. I collected my thoughts on how something that seems simple, two comic book stars as advertisement, was actually a big deal. We don't often see superheroes as anything other than white men. Seeing Wonder Woman, a female superhero, and Cyborg, a black superhero, featured on the cereal box and on the free comic inside is worth talking about, and worth demanding more of. We don't have enough comic book characters, and especially superheroes, who represent all of us. It's been made even more evident recently by the buzz surrounding the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, and its subsequent blog, that diversity is lacking in publications. All of our kids need representation in books, and that means comics too!
Image: L. A. Markham
At the grocery store with my 9-year old, we scanned the aisle for cereal and she exclaimed, “this comes with a free comic!” Part of me was as delighted at the thought of a free comic as my child, but the other part, the responsible-Mom one, was saying I shouldn’t make a food choice based on product placement. (There is always an exception though, like when I had to buy cereal for the free Star Wars pen!) My ultra-picky kid actually likes Honey Nut Cheerios, and it’s one of healthier choices in the cereal aisle, so we bought them. Yay free comics!
I really didn’t need another reason to appreciate the Cheerios brand, but I now have a couple more. This morning, we opened the box of cereal, my daughter inspecting the box and finding her free comic inside. She gleefully pointed out Wonder Woman on the front and then Cyborg on the back, adding: “See? This is what he looks like for real.” She recently has become obsessed with Cartoon Network's Teen Titans Go! show and Cyborg in particular. She read her Walking on Fire comic, featuring Cyborg as the main character, while eating her breakfast. Not a bad way to start a school day; she was quite happy.
I’m not one to give out gold stars for people doing the right thing. My feeling is, you should just do that, always. Case in point, I roll my eyes whenever anyone wants to put Joss Whedon on a pedestal because he creates strong female characters. I won't be baking a “You Did A Good Thing” cookie bouquet for General Mills or DC Comics today, but I did feel this was worth sharing. As a parent, a comic book fan, and an activist, I had a lot of thoughts upon seeing the box and comic. The idea that new characters might be introduced to kids and conversations sparked between adults, all over a bowl of cereal, is exciting. It’s not going to change the world, but it is significant. Two companies came together, created a promotion and designed a box and comics for it that showed some diversity. I applaud their efforts. On the back of the box, you can cut out Cyborg’s chest emblem; on the side of the box listing “Fun Facts” about the Justice League, they note, “Did you know... Wonder Woman is one of the strongest super heroes in the DC Universe?”
Representation of people of color and women, most especially women of color, is sorely lacking in comics. Is it better today than twenty, thirty, forty years ago? Yes, of course. Do we still have far to go? Absolutely. Look to the latest debates about a Wonder Woman movie, list the number of comic book characters and superheroes that are not white, or most recently, the racist uproar made over Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm. It's necessary to point out that while some of these debates are quite upsetting, the good news is: we are having these debates. Thanks in major part to social media, we're able to collectively voice our opinions and hash out a lot of the issues surrounding sexism and racism. Whether everyone likes it or not, our country is changing, it is more diverse than ever and will continue in that direction. It is vital that comics reflect this.
The comic book industry has always been run by white men. They still have a near-monopoly on it, from publishing and marketing the books and merchandise all the way to organizing comic conventions. To a white boy (or man) reading a comic full of white, male characters, they can relate to the book and probably don't see anything wrong with it. Hopefully they don’t absorb the often over-the-top sexualization of women as they flip the pages... Thankfully there are female superheroes that I can recommend to teen girls like Kelly Sue Deconnick's Captain Marvel, but those solid story lines and female representations are far outweighed by ones which I’d never let my daughters even see a cover of (see: Starfire, Power Girl, and a list so long I don't have the room here). Even less visible are women of color in any superhero roles. If you are looking for something other than a white male or hypersexualized female superhero, you have to dig deeper through the shelves.
Change is happening. With more representation by women, people of color, and LGBT people working in the industry, attending Cons, and engaging in discussions on diversity in comics, we will continue to see more range on display at the local comic book shop. We need more characters, and especially superheroes that represent all of us. Those stories need to be told. The myth that there are no black nerds, no real geek girls, or any other non-white, non-straight, non-male geeks is finally crumbling. A simple Google search will yield sites, podcasts, and online communities dedicated to such groups (Check out my links at the end as well!). Those who were once ignored at comic book shops and discussions, are now being included. That’s not to say harassment and exclusion is not still commonplace at certain shops, conventions, and in talks about the comic book universe. There’s work that still needs to be done--putting two comic book heroes who are not white dudes on a cereal box matters.
This morning, I thought about the kids, some who maybe saw a family looking like theirs in a commercial recently, and others who might be opening up their cereal boxes to find a book with a character who looks like them. That is important. That is something to celebrate. That is something to demand more of. Yes, there are a sprinkling of superheroes who are people of color, women, intersections of both, and others who don’t fit the white, hetero, male character mold we’ve seen for generations. That mold is slowly being broken, yet the creators still need incentive (Might I suggest a She-Hulk SMASH?) so that it isn't the only one they use when writing new comics or re-imagining old ones. Here's the thing: diversity is good for everyone. Not just for kids who aren't white, it's good for all kids. It's important for adults as well, regardless of our race or culture, our backgrounds, identities, or lives. We exist in a diverse world, not just based on the populations growing in this country but in our accessibility to the world outside of America. We engage with folks from many cultures--comics should as well, and in a respectful manner. Stories and films with diverse characters benefit kids in homogenous communities too. They can see and, in a way, get to know people who don't look like them, folks who they otherwise wouldn't come in contact with. Fans should be able to see themselves in the comics they read, and equally as important, see a spectrum of people and personalities.
Change, and sometimes diversity, scares people. I understand the comfort that stems from a bond people feel with a comic book character. Often, we feel a history and kinship with our favorite superhero (for me, it's Wonder Woman). An argument I've encountered is that once a comic book hero has been written as white, we cannot alter that. Somehow, readers and moviegoers will be so confused, so dumbfounded, so distraught over their beloved superhero suddenly being depicted as other than white, that it will bankrupt the entire industry. Thankfully, plenty of people don’t agree with this. We finally are having stories written anew, and the world hasn’t fallen apart. Until last year, my daughter only ever knew Spider-Man as Peter Parker, and as white. Then she borrowed a copy of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis. She wasn’t confused that Miles Morales was Black and Latino, actually, she discovered her favorite Spider-Man. We picked up Ms. Marvel #1 by G. Willow Wilson last month. Kamala Khan, the all-new Ms. Marvel, is Pakistani American and Muslim. My daughters and I, not sharing Pakistani culture or Muslim religion with Kamala, were all able to relate to her character (And not just because she too is a Jersey girl!). Strange, huh? The fact is, we loved it. We've been counting the days until the next issue, and we’re not the only ones. These characters, their stories, and their representations are not only important on the do-the-right-thing level, but these are successful from a business standpoint as well. Make more of them!
I want the comic book industry to be innovative and continue creating characters that will thrill kids and adults alike. The benefits one gains from having superheroes in their life are numerous, and should be accessible to all. There is actually a new documentary, Legends of the Knight, being made on the topic of comic book heroes empowering people. People are inspired by superheroes. Some psychologists even utilize comics with their clients. Comic books can transform a kid from a non-reader to a confident one. From getting lost in a storyline to collecting superhero memorabilia, dressing up on Halloween as your favorite character to seeing those faces on the big-screen, a love of comic books is something that often stays with many of us into adulthood. It's been incredible to see my children become passionate about their own favorites. Seeing a superhero who looks like them, fighting the bad guys and saving the world, is something every kid should be able to experience.
The words "mighty" and "dynamic" are found often in comics. Perhaps that's because they, along with their superheroes, are just that. Comics are influential. They can reflect our country’s current state of affairs. They can introduce and tackle political and social issues to younger generations. People from all backgrounds should be able to see themselves reflected in these powerful stories. Obviously, any of us can open up a Batman book and be Batman, or any other superhero. There are no rules against that. But how nice would it be to see a black Wonder Woman (Followed by, ahem, Gina Torres in that role!) or an Asian Superman? Why not? Why shouldn't we all want broader representation in our superheroes, and in all characters in comic books? There are no limits to what abilities they can have, or what they can look like. The opportunity to represent women, people of color, and the LGBT community is vast. The old bios and tropes have been used and relied on for too long. Which is why, back to my breakfast, seeing Cyborg and Wonder Woman on a cereal box is important. I say to all the comic book creators and publishers, and to the companies who partner with them, we want to see more of this. As fans, let's use our voices and our dollars to influence the comic book industry and keep this momentum going.
For more pictures and suggestions on how to diversify your comic book library and awareness, please visit my original post.