Earlier this month, Marvel Comics announced a series of variant covers that put a superhero twist on the art of iconic rap albums like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. On its face, this was another love letter in the long relationship between hip-hop and comics; from Jean Grae to Ghostface Killah (who also goes by Tony Stark), rappers have taken on superhero identities, and Last Emperor's 1997 song "Secret Wars, Pt. 1" details a battle royale between Marvel heroes and rappers. However, it touched off a controversy about whether it's been more of a one-sided love affair—and whether mainstream comics has done enough to bring minority creators themselves into the fold.
Like virtually every other form of entertainment, the world of comic books has been increasingly grappling with issues of diversity especially over the last several years as social media and Internet platforms have amplified the voices of minority creators and critics. And in many ways, there's been a sea change. “Diversity of every sort—racial diversity, gender diversity, acknowledging minority sexualities—is experiencing an explosion of recognition and representation in comics,” says C. Spike Trotman, creator of the long-running webcomic Templar, Arizona.
But as the faces on the pages popular comic books have steadily grown more diverse, the hiring practices of publishers haven’t necessarily kept pace. While there are certainly more minority creators earning bylines than there were a decade ago, the editors and creators of mainstream comics remain overwhelmingly Caucasian—a demographic imbalance that has sparked increasingly loud discussions about what diversity really means and where it matters.
July in particular has been an interesting month to ponder that question, thanks to a series of recent events that offered a prismatic lens on the complex friction between race and representation in the field. Not only did the Marvel variants spark discussion, but this month, DC Comics announced that Milestone Media—an imprint created by black creators and focusing on black superheroes—would be returning to the larger DC Comics fold, along with most of the black artists and writers who had created it. Meanwhile, Boom! Studios released Strange Fruit, a comic made by a white creative team that dealt with racism in the American South, prompting discussions about when works by white creators are erasing the voices of the people they’re writing about.
The confluence of events has prompted strong critical responses and important discussions about the discrepancies between diversity on and off comic book page. While numerous black artists were hired to contribute art for hip-hop variant covers (among them Sanford Greene, Khary Randolph, and Damion Scott), some critics and fans noted a uncomfortable discrepancy between the initiative and the publisher’s broader demographics: While the covers seemed to be celebrating—and profiting from—an art form created largely by black Americans, there’s a significant lack of black creators working on its ongoing comic book titles.
"[Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief] Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could," wrote critic and editor David Brothers on his personal Tumblr account, pointing to Whitney Taylor's Medium essay "The Fabric of Appropriation" as a valuable explainer for how cultural appropriation differs from inspiration. "If you don’t employ black creators, and then you purport to celebrate a black art form for profit (and props on hiring a few ferociously talented black artists for the gig!), people are going to ask why that aspect of black culture is worth celebrating but black creatives aren’t worth hiring."
When questioned on Tumblr about why hip-hop variant covers were a good idea given the pronounced absence of black writers or artists at the publisher, Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort offered a response that seemed emblematic of comics' often tone-deaf approach to race: "What does one have to do with the other, really?"
While the covers seemed to be celebrating—and profiting from—an art form created largely by black Americans, there's a significant lack of black creators working its ongoing comic book titles.
Brevoort later amended his comments to add that diversity on the page and diversity of creators weren't an "either-or" situation, and that he hoped the variant covers would "create an environment that's maybe a little bit more welcoming to prospective creators." But to many onlookers, the comment seemed both damning and revealing about the disconnect underlying attitudes that inform hiring practices at mainstream publishers, and the failure of those in power to either understand the value of diverse creators or prioritize their hiring.
Diverse Storytellers Mean Honest Stories
Rather than a superficial issue of optics or quotas, other critics noted that bringing in a wider range of voices is simply a way of correcting a fundamental creative imbalance, one that permeates the largely white, male world of mainstream comics.
"Diversity is legitimacy. It's sincerity. It's truthiness, to borrow a certain expression," says Trotman. "Diverse storytellers mean diverse personal experiences being brought to the table, and more honest depictions of those experiences on the page in fiction. It's not impossible for a creator to write about an experience they've never had; that would be a silly thing to say. But Cis Hetero White Male isn't the default mode of human. Experiences influence creativity, and there need to be more than one set of experiences being reflected on the page."
Although Marvel Comics declined to comment for this article, a representative pointed to numerous positive responses by black hip-hop artists to the covers. In an interview with Comic Book Resources yesterday, Alonso dismissed much of the criticism outright, citing positiveresponses by hip-hop artists paid tribute to by the covers, and dismissing critics as rabble-rousers.
"Some of the 'conversation' in the comics internet community seems to have been ill-informed and far from constructive," said Alonso. "A small but very loud contingent are high-fiving each other while making huge assumptions about our intentions, spreading misinformation about the diversity of the artists involved in this project and across our entire line, and handing out snap judgments like they just learned the term 'cultural appropriation' and are dying to put it in an essay. And the personal attacks—some implying or outright stating that I'm a racist. Hey, I'm a first-generation Mexican-American."
It's interesting to contrast Alonso and Marvel's response to that from the publisher and creative team behind Strange Fruit, another comic that recently took some heat over racial appropriation. Published by Boom! Studios, Strange Fruit, deals with the racism in the American South, by way of a super powered alien who arrives in Mississippi in the year 1927 looking like a black man. Although the book was clearly a passion project for the two white creators, writer Mark Waid and co-writer/artist J.G. Jones, the book struck a sour note for some critics and readers.
The most pointed examination of the comic came from critic J.A. Micheline, who analyzed Strange Fruit in twoessays. Although she praised the art, she not only identified her representational issues with its content, but contextualized it within the long and frustrating history of black experiences being filtered predominantly through white lenses.
"This comic never should have been made," wrote Micheline. "Not because there were missteps, not because Waid and Jones didn't mean well, and not because white people should never write about black people at all. This comic should never have been made because there is too long a history of white people writing stories about racism and blackness, too long a history of white people shaping these tales to their own purposes, too long a history of white people writing about what they genuinely cannot understand. And above all, too long of a history of white people, particularly men, being able to do this."
Instead, she said, they should have made the inclusion of black voices a priority, perhaps by adding a black writer or artist to the team. It echoed the same criticisms leveled at Marvel: If the culture and experiences of minorities are considered so valuable and worthy of inclusion, why aren't minority creators similarly valued—and similarly included?
Responding By Listening
When faced with these sorts of criticisms, the responses from publishers and creators tend to be a jumble of righteous indignation about good intentions or creative freedom, vague lip-service to the importance of diversity, or outright dismissal—as with Marvel above. But Waid's response after the fact was unusually receptive.
"We're in a social media era where there are so many people who didn't have a voice for a long, long time, and suddenly they have a voice," Waid told Comic Book Resources. "And they're eager to use it, and that is awesome... What I say about this is not what's important. What's important is what other people who don't have the privilege that I have want to say. That's what's important, and I have to listen. And I would be lying to you if I said it's easy, but I'm willing to try."
When asked for comment, Waid added that while he "listened to and engaged with a lot of people of color during the making of this book" and hopes readers will give it the benefit of the doubt over the rest of its four-issue run. He added that the critical response "has made me that much more sensitive about how I'm handling similar issues of race in my upcoming Avengers run from Marvel, which comprises a strongly multicultural team of heroes. Some very insightful things have been said about unconscious cultural appropriation in response to Strange Fruit, and while I feel I've had a long career being mindful of the phenomenon, I can probably never be mindful enough."
Representatives at Boom! voiced similar sentiments about the importance of listening to feedback, and integrating those lesson into their future endeavors. "Neither Boom!, nor the creators, are taking this lightly," said editor-in-chief Matt Gagnon. "Our team has been actively listening and we will work on implementing the feedback into future projects. ... As an industry, we've made nice strides in the last couple years in increasing the representation of female characters and queer characters, as an example, but we can always try harder. As a company, we're working hard to play a part in that change, and despite how difficult it may be, we're willing to work for that change."
What Does Trying Look Like?
But what, exactly, does it mean for both creators and publishers to try harder? While some fans voiced concerns that this line of critique might silence creators or stultify their creativity, Micheline suggested that much as imbibers of alcoholic beverages are advised to drink responsibly, comic book creators and publishers should strive harder to create responsibly.
"No one can stop you from creating what you want to create, but we can ask you to do so conscientiously," she wrote. "In the case of these hip-hop variants, Marvel was not being conscientious of their approach to blackness—specifically, not being conscientious of the fact that they are happy to use the products of black culture to sell their comics but not let black people have a part in the creative process. ... It is my request that white creators, executives, human resources officials, PR staff, editors, and readers alike think about these blind spots, to consider that racism might not be what they thought it is—especially in the face of the realization that their knowledge of race relations and racism in general has largely been drawn from other white people, rather than those affected."
Gene Luen Yang, the creator of the award-winning graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints—who also spoke at last year's National Book Festival about the challenges of writing outside of your experience—offered similar advice about how the industry at large can strive for awareness.
"I would never tell a white writer not to write an Asian American character, but when you are venturing outside your own experience, you ought to do it with humility and hesitancy," says Yang, who is also currently writing Superman. "You need to gather the right resources. So for a comic book writer, that might mean adding someone to your team who knows more about the experience you're writing about. It might mean co-writing with somebody, or hiring a freelance editor who has the experiences you need. It means research, and talking to people who insiders of the culture you're talking about."
Yang says that publishers have their own set of questions they need to consider in order to approach race responsibly. "They really have to ask carefully, is this the right person to take on this project? Is this the right team for telling this particular story?"
But the most oft-cited solution to the broader concerns of diversity is also the simplest and most obvious: Hire a more diverse set of voices from the get-go. Both Trotman and Yang note that diverse creators aren't hard to find, thanks in large part to the flourishing small press and webcomics scenes where there are no gatekeepers or bars to entry.
"The alternative and independent comics scene is leaps and bounds ahead of the big publishers, as usual, and that's where the real action is happening," agrees Trotman. "The diversity in perspective and storytelling in the small press scene is incredible. Right now, I honestly suggest anyone looking for comics by black creators skip the mainstream entirely and investigate webcomics. It's as easy as browsing a Tumblr tag."
Despite the criticisms, Greg Pak, the writer of Action Comics—as well as a creator-owned title about an Asian-American gunslinger—notes that diversity is making its way into the mainstream as well.
"I love that DC's hired both me and Gene Yang to write Superman books," said Pak. "A lot of people smarter than me have written a lot about the fact that Jewish creators brought Superman to life and invested his story with their specific experiences. It's a thrill to see DC embrace the idea that other children of immigrants might similarly find exciting ways to relate to the character. Diversity isn't just a catchphrase—it's actually just the way we all live our lives. Letting the stories and creative teams reflect that just makes sense as a way to nurture good, honest storytelling for everybody."
Rather than seeing diversity initiatives as a matter of altruism or avoiding controversy, the most transformational approach advocated by critics and creators alike is the one that views it both as a form of honesty and as a valuable creative investment. "It's not just the responsibility of the publishers to reach out to these people," says Yang. "I just think it's good business."
Darowski, Joseph J., Ed. The Ages of the Avengers: Essays on the Earth's Mightiest Heroes in Changing Times. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014.
Comic books, especially those of the superhero genre, are now culturally relevant enough to draw the interest of the mainstream (non-nerd) public. They supply considerable content for a host of wildly popular series of philosophical essays ambitiously written for both academic and general readers. These "pop culture and philosophy" franchises abound, to which McFarland & Company has contributed several volumes, all edited by Mr. Darowski: The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times; The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times; The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times. If these collections of essays were necessary, The Ages of the Avengers was perhaps even more so, as the Avengers are the prime franchise in the Marvel universe. That this volume's existence was inevitable does not, unfortunately, ensure its quality. After all, that which is necessary is not necessarily that which is good.
Darowski intends this collection of essays to "explore the ways in which the comic book series has remained relevant while publishing stories across five decades" (2). Judging from the titles of his other collections for the same publisher, this is a cookie-cutter objective across various superhero comics franchises. Cultural relevance is important, but not in itself: items of cultural significance must be relevant to someone. "This narrative elasticity has allowed the title to remain relevant to readers even as the societal backdrop against which it is produced has changed dramatically" (2). We are given no indication that these "readers" are a loyal group (has readership risen and dipped over the years?; and if so, which years?) or even who they are (demographics of Avengers readers over the years). "Readers" is the aggregate of individual readers, a dynamic group of interested parties who slip in and out of interest. Although comic books are artistic products, they are products nonetheless. More likely than not, the primary reason for many of the thematic and tonal changes in the Avengers narrative was "relevance" in the crudest sense: volumes sold. It would have been helpful for the intended aim of this series to analyze readership numbers "across five decades." Stan Lee and most of his roster of talent lived and worked in New York, and their typically liberal values were written into their work. Some times, they were probably too progressive for many readers; at other times, for certain readers, the Avengers narrative was too conservative. Did Marvel's Avengers challenge, and in turn influence, the moral and political values of its readership? Or were the writers cautiously reactionary, remaining culturally relevant a half-step behind the pulse of the nation?
The failure to pursue these questions leaves the reader to presume Darowski and the volume's authors are content to prove the cultural relevance of the Avengers as mirrors of the concerns and sentiments of the nation across the decades. (Again, we can only assume the Avengers readership reflects the values of the public at large.) But half a century is a considerable amount of time, during which the United States went through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, women's rights, neoliberalism, and globalization. And in arguing for the relevance of the Avengers throughout, The Ages of the Avengers reads more like a survey of a turbulent period in America's history than an analytical assessment of a comic book series. The range of topics covered is simply too broad for a book of this length: the Cuban missile crisis; the Vietnam War; the Cold War; the Death of God movement; Weberian rationalization; Reaganism; the geopolitics of (post-Cold War) superpowerism; race relations; social media; freakology; 9-11; dystopia. It is an odd collection of essays, as some topics are examined in multiple essays while most are given short shrift. Yet, measured by the series' modest objective, this volume is a success, as each of the fifteen essays displays the cultural relevance of the Avengers. And by this, we mean a minimal standard of relevance: the Avengers' reflexive relation to the political and moral issues of the day, spanning roughly five decades.
All of the essays meet this minimal requirement, but a few stand out, for good and bad reasons. Let us start with the bad. Dyfrig Jones's "Islamic Invaders: Secret Invasion and the Post-9/11 World of Marvel" interprets the Secret Invasion event, an Avengers mini-series. Jones's argument is a stretch: the Skrulls, an aggressive alien race of shape-shifters that invades Earth, represent Islamic fundamentalism.
Where Marvel Comics has sought to criticize Christian Fundamentalism in the past, it has done so using recognizably American figures … Secret Invasion is distinct in that it seeks to place a similar discussion within the context of an inter-species war. What we witness is not a fight between two factions within the same religion or culture, but rather the invasion of the (American) Earth by religious fundamentalists that belong to a different civilization. (172)
Jones's essay is problematic on three points: (1) the presumed equivalence of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and the Skrulls is debatable; (2) humans (earthlings) are to be read as (American) Christians; (3) Marvel is wrong in betraying its consistently liberal values during this event. Jones' division between humanity and the Other is too facile and convenient: humans are all American and Christian, while Skrulls are apparently all Muslim-ish (close enough!) and terrorists. I would venture to guess that many readers of this event simply viewed the Skrulls as evil aliens; some progressive readers may have even refrained from viewing the Skrulls as evil (they are simply pursuing their self-interest). Secret Invasion was published from June 2008 to January 2009. Granted, the mostly American reading audience was deeply affected, psychologically and politically, by 9-11. But it is a stretch to claim Marvel used the Skrulls as an allegory of Islamic fundamentalism, cynically capitalizing on the public's pervasive fear. More problematic, however, is the author's implication that criticism of Christian fundamentalism is acceptable while that of Islamic fundamentalism is unacceptable. If the only reason for this position is that the former is an immanent critique while the latter is off-base, it would be consistent with our culture's de facto relativism: a culture is equipped to critique itself, but no culture is capable of assessing another. In other words, an American Christian fundamentalist critique of Islamic fundamentalism is epistemologically impossible. Interestingly, the author does not group the two fundamentalisms—Christian and Islamic; American and Skrull—together. Would that not make more sense than to group Americans, Christians, Christian fundamentalists, and all humans together, against the monolith of Islamic fundamentalists, all Muslims, and all Skrulls? (In the story, not all Skrulls endorse the invasion.) Rather, the author advances a political point by way of a forced reading of the text. Jones reveals his personal politics when he chastises Marvel for abandoning its traditional "center-left" values in favor of Secret Invasion&rquo;s post-9/11 politics of fear (167, 169). Jones apparently has no problem with Marvel's usual liberal values. But perhaps comic book publishers have no moral obligation to champion certain values, or any values at that.
The best essay in this collection is Giacomo Matteo Miniussi's "The Korvac Saga: Exiles from Reason and Fragments of a Contemporary Mythology" (translated by Laurie Schwartz). It is a meditation on the nature and ethics of superheroism from the dawn of Cold War geopolitics to the age of globalization. Korvac is a godlike cosmic power embodied in human agency who gives up his life for the universe. The Avengers, too, have a god in Thor. At the end of the tale, even Thor is humbled by Korvac. Brilliantly, Miniussi argues that it is not Korvac's supreme power but his compassionate humanity that shames Thor and the Avengers. More accurately, we should say Korvac's inhuman compassion. After all, humans have the audacity to give to compassion and decency the name "humanity," when, in fact, I believe it is the lack of these qualities in our interactions with one another that characterizes our history of suffering. In my assessment, the Korvac tale is noteworthy because it challenges the Avengers, and their fans, to examine their individual and collective reasons for being.
What is suggested here is a purpose for the struggle that goes beyond the level of political-social status … but aims at a superior level, at a betterment of the conditions of life for every single individual which this society—of technology and of consumeris—has perverted into injustice and chaos. (59)
Gone forever are the political Manichaeism and moral simplicity of the Silver Age. The Avengers narrative reflects this national period of introspection, as superheroes are increasingly presented as deeply flawed beings. Even Earth's mightiest team of superheroes is revealed to be the instrument of another geopolitical interest.
This is the critique, but also the political message that Korvac brings to mankind. Here, he takes a stand against his adversaries, the Avengers, who, as the defenders and perpetrators of not just one bourgeois status quo, but also of an oppressive and class-structured society, "slew first the dream, then … the hope." (61-62)
Dreams are replaceable but without hope there are no dreams. The Avengers are the best of us, representing and defending our cherished values. But what happens when they are on the wrong side of the good? In the end, the Avengers are powerless against a cosmic threat, but Korvac saves the universe by dying of his own accord. The Avengers are to learn from this lesson, putting aside their partial interests for cosmopolitan duty. It is a clear call for a universal ethical outlook, one that is fitting for our time.
Despite its unambitious purpose, but due to the strength of a few exceptional essays, The Ages of the Avengers is a modest contribution to the growing list of books written by academics intended for a certain segment of the general public: thoughtful consumers of pop culture who want to intellectually legitimize their geeky passions. In all honesty, these series are written by one group of nerds (scholars who may or may not actually like comics) for another group of nerds (comic book readers who may or may not like scholarship). Sometimes, it is an awkward scheme, as I am afraid is the case here. I doubt this book appeals to the typical consumer of American superhero comic books. I imagine that if the average Avengers reader made it through these essays, she might think some people are trying too hard. In this case, the editor and authors of The Ages of the Avengers present interesting arguments for a non-existent problem. There is no reason, as far as this writer is concerned, to make a case for the cultural relevance of arguably the most popular franchise of the most popular comic book publisher. The enduring popularity of the Avengers title proves its relevance. As for why it remains relevant, there is not much value, for scholars and fans alike, to run out fifteen essays to point out the obvious fact that a successful pop culture item is relevant because it somehow relates to the issues of the day. This is a shame since a few of the essays could make considerable contributions to comics scholarship if published in a more serious and focused volume. If only the bar were set a bit higher for this volume and The Ages of series as a whole.