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BooksOctober 4, 2016

Holy Double Standards, Batman! Examining the false diversity in modern comics


Wonder Woman is the latest and biggest star of Marvel and DC’s quest to appear as diverse as possible in an attempt at drawing in readers. But as Ethan Sills discusses, their superficial efforts leave a lot to be desired.

We all know that, when it comes to comic books, no one really dies. People may get shot, blown up, stabbed or ripped in half, and for a few months at least everyone will mourn their passing and ponder this latest loss, but give it a few years and everything returns to normal, heroes slipping back into their costumes and moving on as though nothing had changed.

You’d think that when it came to diversity, things would be a little more permanent. Showcasing their new equal opportunity superheroes has definitely replaced death as comic’s go-to headline grabber. Newly announced queer Wonder Woman is probably the biggest hero to have her story updated for the 21st century, but she is far from the only one. Marvel has made global headlines multiple times in recent years for its apparent commitment to the cause, replacing Captain America and Spider-Man with black men and Thor with a woman, while the Hulk is now Asian-American and they brought back little known Native American hero Red Wolf. Before Wonder Woman, DC’s efforts had been smaller, mainly just pushing black-robot Cyborg to the front and centre and giving Batman a black Robin.

Superman and co show they aren’t racist by bringing along their one black friend

It’s become necessary for the two big companies to freshen up their line-ups. Things have barely changed in these worlds for decades, and it’s no wonder when you have Trump supporters overseeing everything. Yet with big budget blockbusters making superheroes bigger than ever, the source material has had to better represent the new, broader generation of fans being introduced to these stories for the first time.

So hooray, whether as a sign of being accepting of change or as a shameless cash grab, either way, black, female and LGBT superheroes are the most prominent they have ever been. That should be the end of the story, right?

Sadly, no. Once the hype dies down and everyone moves on with their days, things quickly revert to the status quo.

Marvel has been the most vocal about their apparent progress, but their current line-up begs to differ. Your classic vanilla Captain America is back alongside his black counterpart after barely two years, while original recipe man-Thor getting his own series again, and the Peter Parker Spider-Man still appears more frequently than minority replacement Miles Morales. The female Thor has been well received since her first appearances in early 2015, but a central part of her storyline is that wielding the mighty Mjolnir is negating the effects of the chemotherapy her human side is receiving, giving the character an in-built exit should they choose to write her out.

Riri Williams couldn’t even have her first promo image to herself
Riri Williams couldn’t even have her first promo image to herself

They simply can’t let go of the original heroes. Riri Williams, the much hyped black Iron Wo-Man taking over in October, will not only have Tony Stark hanging around but will have to share the title with former Fantastic Four villain Doctor Doom. When Bucky Barnes became Captain America in 2008, at least Steve Rogers had the decency to stay dead for a few months.

The showy façade at diversity slips further when you look at their treatment of LGBT characters. While their representation has increased, none have been given the chance to reach the same heights as the biggest heroes. Marvel have kept their LGBT heroes mostly to group titles (Iceman, America Chavez, Hulkling and Wiccan) instead of throwing them into the spotlight in the same way as the gender and race swapped heroes. Only one of their original mantles has been passed on to a LGBT hero, with the name Giant Man now worn by Raz Malthora. Haven’t heard of him? Well, in the 14 months since he was first introduced, he has only made 10 appearances in the comics, largely as a supporting character in the now cancelled Astonishing Ant-Man. Meanwhile, Lady Thor and Black Captain America have been put in as many books as possible over the past two years.

DC is just as complicated. They’ve done a bit better in LGBT stakes with the current Batwoman, Katherine Kane, a lesbian, while they continue to give married couple Apollo and Midnighter leading roles despite them not selling particularly well. However, they are fairly lacking in diverse leads: the retcon of Walter Stone/Cyborg as a founding member of the Justice League highlights how few prominent black leads they have. I’d like to be optimistic about Wonder Woman, but it is too early to tell if her sexuality will be a significant part of her story or if, similar to Harley Quinn and Deadpool, we will be told regularly that she is bisexual without the comics actually reflecting that – her sexuality was revealed in an interview opposed to in one of the three titles currently featuring her.

Part of the problem is that while Marvel and DC want to seem hip, modern, woke, all that jazz necessary to bring in new readers, they still have the core audiences who stuck with these heroes before Christian Bale and RDJ stepped into the roles. These are fans who want what they know, and aren’t going to let anyone tell them otherwise, and the companies are pandering to them as much as trying to lure in more liberal readers.

Thor and Captain America are dating now, just not in the way Tumblr would’ve liked
Thor and Captain America are dating now, just not in the way Tumblr would’ve liked

Yet while these fans are supportive of white, male Thor and Captain America now, they didn’t seem that interested in them a few years ago. When Marvel first announced a ‘mysterious woman’ and Sam Wilson would become Thor and Captain America back in July 2014, the titles of the traditional heroes placed only 74th and 88th respectively. Clearly they were no one’s first choices back then, so why rush to bring them back?

Trying to make sense of the editorial decisions is as confusing as keeping track of some characters 50 year-plus histories. The Neil Gaiman-created Angela was Marvel’s only LGBT lead this past year before her series was recently cancelled. However, the final issue of Queen of Hel placed 18 and 24 spots above Patsy Walker: Hellcat and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur respectively on the charts, both of which will still be series come November despite sales not really improving. So why do some poorly selling but critically acclaimed series get to stay when others get the chop? Can they only have so many diverse titles in print at one time? If they were committed to diversity, you’d think they’d have put Angela front and centre as example of how modern they are – I mean, she generally only wears a metal space bikini, and we know how much comics love their bare-skinned women.

Angela meets the female hero requirement of Lots of Skin
Angela meets the female hero requirement of Lots of Skin

The big question is whether there’s actually any hope for comics as a genre. When you look at it, elements of conservatism and peddling to straight male interests run throughout the eighty-year history of Marvel and DC. Comics are essentially stories of spandex-clad Adonises generally doing the ‘right thing’: saving the day, rescuing civilians, defending the world (though mostly New York) from ‘bad guys’, whoever that may be.

Batman and Iron Man are both wealthy billionaires who take it upon themselves to fight crime. Iron Man was even created to make hippies cheer for someone they hated. Captain America’s very existence is that of American propaganda. The ‘seminal’ Joker storyline is one where he shoots and rapes Batgirl. And don’t even get started on women: remember, it was a comic book that coined the phrase ‘fridging’. While female heroes are well developed now, many, such as She-Hulk and Spider-Woman, were created solely to maintain copyrights, and traditionally female superheroes have shown significantly more skin compared to their male counterparts, a trend that is only now being reversed.

Sure, there is a general liberalisation of plots in recent times to address issues such as feminism and government intrusion, but when you have an eighty-year history of being a tad right of centre, are a few books enough to change that? Without a real commitment to change and showcasing their diverse heroes with no strings attached, all the metaphoric plotlines in the world aren’t going to solve anything.

Comics do little to really represent the 21st century, and trying to keep what worked last century simply doesn’t cut it anymore. As the godfather of comics, Alan Moore, put it recently, “this century needs, deserves, its own culture. It deserves artists that are actually going to attempt to say things that are relevant to the times we are actually living in.” And it takes more than constant headlines to achieve that.

Wonder Woman is the latest example of how far comics have come in terms of representation, and while these recent developments are a hopeful sign, it’s not quite enough. Marvel and DC may superficially reboot everything every few years, but if they want to earn the right to label their brands with ‘All New, All Different’ and ‘Rebirth’, they might want to try committing to their bold changes for more than a few months. They may be afraid of making permanent changes, but it might just be the thing to keep them relevant.

Keep going!