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.