Very good article about diversity in comic books over at the DC Women Kicking Ass site. Comics do tend to have a problem in representing anyone who isn’t an adult white male; speaking charitably, I think this is often a hangover from the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, eras when the medium was at the height of its popularity but working in a social context that’s not exactly remembered for its commitment to diversity (Superman was created in 1938, the same year that the House Committee on Un-American Activities kicked off; Silver Age icon Barry Allen first appeared in 1956, in which the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended). The big comic characters tend to be white men, and the inherent nostalgia of comic fans keeps it that way, not because of racism, just because people like Hal Jordan.
This doesn’t help, of course, and that conservative attitude towards the casts of comic books takes on a darker edge when someone dares introduce a new character to take on the mantle of a fallen hero, using the opportunity to make the fictitious universes more representative. The new character often fails to catch on and is killed off as a token sacrifice during a big event; the original character returns in a blaze of publicity and we’re back to square one.
(That said, back when I frequented comic message boards, I saw a fair few posts complaining about ‘political correctness’ which had worrying undertones.)
(Which is strange when you consider that Superman was once used to take down the Ku Klux Klan.)
This tends to be more visible when it comes to racial diversity, but it’s not like women get the best deal – writer Gail Simone (one of the best, but most under-rated, writers in comics today) created a website called ‘Women in Refrigerators’, dealing with how often the wives and girlfriends of heroes became victims of violence in order to drive the actions of a male character. In a medium increasingly driven by shock tactics, this is an ongoing issue – witness the fury of Atop the Fourth Wall when a little girl is murdered simply to grim-n-grittyize her father.
All of this assumes that the lack of diversity is an unintended consequence of an industry that’s become insular and cliquish, but as the article points out, there’s a lack of care and will in the industry to effectively tackle the issue, to the extent that the whole thing becomes a sin of omission. That means the medium hits a wall, facing a declining readership ironically at the same time that suprrhero movies are making millions. The article quotes the belief of some readers that, as the majority of comic readers are white males, the majority of characters should be too. But this is a chicken-and-egg situation based, frankly, on a stupid premise: how dumb is it to limit your market to such a ridiculous extent?
There are no easy answers, and that’s partly because the industry doesn’t seem too concerned about looking for them. That’s a shame and doesn’t bode well for the future of the medium. It would be a shame to see comics disappear because of this inward-looking apathy, but it takes a leap of faith on behalf of fandom to support a more representative comic industry. We get the comic books we deserve; in those terms we deserve a vibrant future, and a fossilised past no longer.