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Comics in black and white

It’s a good time to be reading comics. The industry has been revitalized thanks to an influx of interest from blockbuster movies and video games, and readers are flocking into stores. Sales have been steadily climbing, and March’s numbers for print sales show that comics are making a strong comeback. From an economic standpoint, it would seem that comics are going to be okay.

However, the big two publishers have been facing their share of problems. DC comics came under fire from for hiring Greensboro resident Orson Scott Card to write the Adventures of Superman. While Card is beloved his work on Ender’s Game, his comments against homosexuality and marriage equality prompted a backlash from the gay community. DC responded by supporting Card, and retailers and readers have begun a boycott of the comic.

This is all indicative of the larger problem in the big two comics companies, and that is the lack of diversity among writers and publishers. Marvel and DC currently employ no African- American men as writers, and only a few women. As they attempt to reach new audiences and appeal to a new generation of readers, the homogeneity of their staffs are becoming a problem. It isn’t that they aren’t producing good content, but they are missing the mark on current issues.

To me, this seems like a fairly cyclical problem. There aren’t a lot of superhero comics out there that appeal to young men of color or to girls and women. There simply aren’t that many major black superheroes in print right now — the most prominent are Cyborg and Nick Fury (who was intentionally redesigned to look like Samuel L. Jackson). One version of Spider-Man is mixed race and one Green Lantern is African-American. However, the shortness of that list should show how the superhero pantheon is decidedly monochromatic.

Part of this has to do with when these heroes were originally created. America and the comics industry were both very different. There were few black characters in comics and those that were included were, at best, racist caricatures. During World War II, the industry sold millions of comics depicting their flagship heroes fighting tastelessly depicted Japanese. However, once publishers began to include characters of color, often they were still stereotypes, with superheroes reminiscent of blaxploitation films.

Homosexuals have only just begun to be included in the comics’ universe. As the Comics Code expressly forbade depictions of homosexuality, no publisher would consider creating a gay or lesbian character. Marvel recently had a gay hero, Nova, marry, and DC rebooted the original Green Lantern as gay. Gail Simone chose to write Batgirl as a lesbian, and recently introduced a bisexual, transgendered character.

The reaction has been interesting. Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish comics in Winston-Salem, said, “Simply put: there is no reaction. Most people know someone who is gay or lesbian, so it’s not as it would have been 20 years ago. Sexual orientation is just another piece of a character’s make up the same as their race, religion, upbringing and financial standing.

“As for more people coming in because of gay characters in comics, there have been a handful of people interested in gay culture and gay history who have come in looking for various ‘milestone’ issues.”

To some, it might appear that major publishers are trying to appease readers. To others, it seems as though they are looking for publicity. Marvel’s gaymarriage event garnered a lot of attention, specifically after One Million Moms began a boycott (which only made more people take notice).

With these issues, writers are having to tread carefully to avoid offending new readers while still maintaining old ones.

When DC teased that they had decided to rewrite a character as gay, it created buzz. Forums argued about who it would be. Websites all made guesses. However, everyone ended up being disappointed. The choice to rewrite Green Lantern as gay seemed like a copout, as if DC was throwing the gay community scraps and saying, “Here you go, now be happy.”

While most people would agree that rewriting Superman or Batman, or any superhero with a longstanding mythology around them as gay would be a bit too much, deciding to resurrect an all but unused hero to parade as your gay hero is a patronizing. People were offended, and rightly so.

This is the battle that’s going on within the big publishing houses. On one hand, they know that they need to broaden their reader base as well as appeal to their loyal fans. The average comic reader right now is unsurprisingly white and male, but astonishingly old. The average reader is actually 39. The rising cost of comics (about $3 an issue), means that readers who purchase more than one title a month need to be able to afford it.

With these increased costs in print, publishers have been a lot less forgiving with unsuccessful titles. After the launch of the New 52, DC cancelled 16 titles, including Static Shock, one of the few comics with an African-American lead. While some readers cited racism as the reason for cancellation, the lead writer wrote on his  blog about the creative differences that led to lackluster reviews. The struggle to wow new readers with violence and over the top plotlines led to an over-all disappointing book.

One of the most unsettling things about the cancellation of Static Shock is the disservice done to Dwayne McDuffie, one of the most prominent African-American writers in the industry. McDuffie, who died in 2011, was most famous for starting Milestone comics, a minority-owned publishing house.

McDuffie shook the industry by bucking trends and holding the industry accountable for how it handled black characters. After Marvel recreated the same black, skateboarding superhero, he proposed a team-up comic called Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers. McDuffie made his point, and his influence can be seen in the “Justice League” and “Static Shock” cartoons of the early 2000s. The industry is in desperate need of controversial writers who can challenge trends and combat the stereotyping that publishers continue to do.

McDuffie said, “If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character.

They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor.

We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book.

We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.”

Comics tend to stereotype, and whether intentional or not, it still is a problem. It’s evident in Latino characters like Vibe or Asian characters like Sunfire. Publishers still put them on display as their ethnic characters, as if they need to be crossed off a checklist. This is not an accusation of racism, but a simple statement that minority characters have seldom been given adequate treatment.

The problem is that the current industry is woefully lacking in people like McDuffie, who push these boundaries and change the perspective of readers. It was thanks to McDuffie’s work on the “Justice League” cartoon that Jon Stewart, the African- American Green Lantern, came to prominence. When Geoff Johns took over the comic in 2004 and resurrected Hal Jordan, Jon lost the limelight. People who grew up watching the cartoons were incredibly confused when DC released a live-action movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and those less familiar with the comics were lost, and the movie bombed in theaters. Of course, that can be blamed on many other factors (the movie was just generally bad).

As American demographics change, mainstream comics need to change in order to stay relevant. The writing room is much too monochromatic when compared to the current population. The basic issue is similar to affirmative action, but much less complicated.

Comics are a very competitive field, and with so few jobs available it is hard for anyone to break into the business, especially with a mainstream publisher. It’s no wonder that many writers end up self-publishing or posting their work online. This is equally problematic for the mainstream publishers, who are seeing old customers move to new content areas. For every new customer brought in by a movie or video game, others are already reading comics available through other outlets. Series and authors must be consistently profitable to combat the high shipping and printing costs now faced in the modern age.

This means that the risks published take come with even greater costs, and its rare to see publishers take chances, especially with unproven authors. Newer writers face more oversight from editors, and as shown with Static Shock, that isn’t always good. The disconnect between what publishers think readers want and what readers are responding the most to is growing.

The flashy ultraviolence of more modern comics has been off-putting to more mature readers, and while it does attract some, it ultimately makes the comics lose meaning and lasting appeal.

A good example is the prequel comic for DC’s Injustice game. Tie-in comics have always been a great way to get new readers into stores, and comics based on video games have been continually gaining ground in sales. However, the Injustice comic was nearly universally panned, and heralded as everything wrong with comics : a flimsy storyline to tie together pictures and give an excuse for Superman to fight Batman.

This is in a medium that is trying to gain respect and lose the “kid stuff” moniker. While books like Maus or Asterios Polyp have garnered critical acclaim and made graphic novels seem legitimate, the mainstream comic industry continues to be accused of immaturity. The problem comes when they try to make serious points about race or sexuality amid all the ridiculousness that end up being patronizing and insensitive. Any actual feeling or heart is lost in glossy pages.

And this is why the writing room needs to change, so that readers are presented with challenging and new material. Companies seem scared to take risks, which while understandable is stunting the mainstream industry and shutting down creativity. There is a dire and drastic need for new blood.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Compelling stories and characters, especially ones that are socially and culturally relevant, more often come from comics that are out of the mainstream. Few authors and artists today will challenge readers in the way the Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adams did. Their Green Lantern/Green Arrow run was one of the most politically charged comics ever produced, and the discussions of race, religion and drug use changed the industry forever. By confronting heroes with racism and heroin, they forced readers to face the pressing social issues in front of them.

Jon Stewart was a strong, black character who dealt with issues of race and racism with anger. He challenged the conservative Hal Jordan, and made him question his own prejudice. This was also in 1971, when the Civil Rights movement was still fresh, and when few black characters were treated with respect. Denny O’Neil was responsible for making powerful black superheroes acceptable, and the legacy he left for people like Dwayne McDuffie changed comics forever.

However, the legacy is being eroded by modern publishers. The DC reboot, the New 52, has been described as a whitewashing, with white, Silver Age heroes taking the forefront. The pantheon of heroes does not resemble a modern America, and people are taking notice.

Comics will eventually change, I don’t doubt. Complacency is the death of creativity, and the last thing comics need are more of the same — that, unfortunately, is what is happening.

I would like to see superhero comics in the O’Neil/Adams tradition, and I think that those stories are what comics need. I worry that comics will stagnate and die otherwise, and I’d like to see the industry thrive. Risks need to be taken. New blood needs to be brought in, but ultimately it will be for the greater good.

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